And the Award Goes to...
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, "Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
2 And He called a child to Himself and set him before them,
3 and said, "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
4 "Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 "And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me;"
The disciples had a tendency to ask questions about who was greatest or held the highest rank quite frequently. Jesus later gave a more succinct answer, which He demonstrated here: "So the last shall be first, and the first last." It is those who humble themselves before the Lord and are willing to forego worldly status who are most honored in God's kingdom - not those who are concerned with rank, like the disciples were doing here. They had the 100% wrong focus (status, instead of Christ and His will), so Jesus humbled them with a vivid image: He took a human of the absolute lowest station in Jewish society at the time (a child), and told them to emulate him.
What does it mean to be like a child? It's all about humility. A well-behaved child will view himself and his wishes as not on the same plain as those of his parents and elders, and he will strive to please his parents. In the same way, we are to submit wholly to God's will, seek to please Him with all of our hearts, and submit to those around us out of love. Humble is a verb, not just an adjective - it's a choice we make, not a trait we're born with.
So, in verse 5, Jesus isn't only talking about literal children; He's talking about other believers, even (perhaps especially) those believers who are of lowly station by worldly standards. James 2:1-12 deals with this issue in a powerful way, as the letter's original recipients were showing favoritism toward richer Christians and not welcoming poor Christians. We can please God by humbling ourselves spiritually, and one way of doing this is to humble ourselves to help and associate with those who are humble in the worldly sense.
6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
7 "Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to the man through whom the stumbling block comes!
8 "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire.
9 "If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell.
10 "See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven."
Normally when Christians talk about temptation, it is stated or implied that the source of the temptation is the demonic realm. But this passage focuses on the two other sources of temptation we know to exist: the world (made up of other people) and our own flesh. Also bear in mind that here again, "child" doesn't mean just a literal child, but any believer.
When we stumble another believer - through what we say to them (such as prompting them to anger against another), how we dress, how we act around them (such as consuming alcohol if we know they're a recovering alcoholic), etc. - it is a very, very serious issue. That fact shouldn't be glossed over. But at the same time, I don't think those verses (6-7) are actually a warning against believers' behavior (although there are other passages such as Romans 14 that deal with that issue). Instead, these verses take the form of a curse against the world (similar to Matthew 11:20-24), and we also know that a believer tripping up another believer certainly does not incur eternal damnation. So, the take-away from these verses for us believers is that the causing others to stumble is serious...but don't let the verses freak you out, either. :-)
It's also important to note that one of the reasons we humans fear humbling ourselves so much is that we think it will make us vulnerable - but in verses 6-7 and 10, it is abundantly clear that Jesus is very protective of us and has specific measures in place to protect us. We need not fear surrendering to God.
Moving on to verses 8-9, note that they are not advocating for salvation through works - we do not "earn" salvation by living holy lives. Trying to live as God wants us to as a response to His love is the evidence of genuine faith and repentance, yes, but it is an inherent reaction to the means (Christ's forgiveness), not the means themselves of obtaining forgiveness. However, if we continue to allow sin to rule our lives and make no effort to break free of that and replace them with Christ as the Lord of our lives, that sin can very easily become our new god - and, as a consequence, we can fall away from the faith. (Please note that struggling with sin and living in sin are two separate concepts.) That is the warning here: We need to treat the sin in our lives seriously, and be active in turning our lives over to Christ.
Now, random body parts do not actually cause us to sin. If they did, yes, it would certainly be worth it to sever them from our bodies to draw us closer to Christ, but Jesus was telling a sort of mini-parable here. The hand, foot, and eye mentioned are whatever it is in your life that is a source of temptation to sin. This could be a TV show, song, book, relationship, lifestyle, habit, hobby, etc. And whatever it is, we need to make the conscious decision that Christ is more important than that, and give it up for Him.
Finally, in verse 10, Jesus pulled his points together by reiterating that we need to love those who the world sees as lowly. The word despise means to consider as worthless - but we know that everyone has worth to God. Therefore, one of the body parts we need to sever is our sense of worldly rank or social status.
11 ["For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.]
12 "What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying?
13 "If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray.
14 "So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish."
Diving into this parable, let's clear something up right away: The shepherd abandoning the ninety-nine doesn't mean anything, it's just a part of the story - God never abandons us. It's just a storytelling devise to portray just how much He values us. We need to value the lowly because He values the lowly - and, from the standpoint of His Holiness, we are the lowly! And yet, He is willing to put effort into drawing us to repentance, and He forgives us no matter how many times we stray (evidenced by how He rejoices when one returns to Him).
Now, this passage also brings up the issue of "once saved, always saved." If you've read this blog for any amount of time, you know that my stance is that, yes, it is possible to lose your salvation (by willingly living in sin and stopping making any effort to have a genuine relationship with God). See Hebrews 10:26-31 and Romans 11:17-24. That pops up with this passage because the shepherd desires all the runaway sheep to return to Him, but only "finds" some of them (i.e. only some return to Him). But the wonderful news is this: "It is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish." This powerful statement is echoed in 2 Peter 3:9, and we know that absolutely nothing besides our own decision to run can rip us from the arms of God. And if we run, but then come back to Him, He still loves us with all His heart.
Questions for You
Have there been times in your life when you have, or have not, extended God's love to someone who is of lowly station by the world's standards?
What "body parts" (entertainment, relationships, activities, etc.) have you severed from your life for Christ?
Has there been a time in your life when you abandoned your faith, only to return?
Anything else you'd like to add about today's passages, or questions you'd like to ask?
Giving Credit Where It's Due
Images 1 & 2: Courtesy of Sweet Publishing. Used by permission.
Image 3: Suffolk Sheep Posing, by Jacquie Wingate. Wikipedia. Used by permission.