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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
 www.oaklawnurc.org/
 
Title:Kingdom Life for Humble Christians
Text:Matthew 17:24-18:9 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ
 
Added:2023-09-27
Updated:2023-09-27
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Thy Loving-kindness, Lord, Is Good and Free
Not What My Hands Have Done             
Lead On, O King Eternal
At the Name of Jesus
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


“Kingdom Life for Humble Christians”
Matthew 17:24-18:9
 
Young children are known for arguing about who is the greatest. Who has the best toys? Whose dad is the strongest? Who can run fastest? Children seem to naturally argue about these things, each one saying that they are the best. But would you expect that of grown men? Especially the disciples of Jesus? Wouldn’t you expect that they would be mature, focused on Christ as the greatest one of all? 
 
Considering that they were disciples of the greatest person in the entire world, it is somewhat surprising that the disciples should consider their own greatness in the light of the glory of Christ. But they did, and several reasons are offered as to why they argued about who was the greatest.
 
One reason is that they, along with virtually all the people of that day, expected that Jesus was going to set up a political kingdom here on earth. It was expected that He would establish Israel as the greatest nation in the world. He would rule from a glorious throne in Jerusalem, with all of them as rulers with Him. They would subdue the Romans and all other nations and be the most powerful political force in the world.
 
That was the mindset of the people of that day, and that mindset was ingrained in the disciples.  We see that even after Jesus had been crucified and was raised from death. Just before ascending into heaven, the disciples asked Jesus, in Acts 1:6, Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
 
It seemed to them the time was perfect for establishing this political kingdom that they looked forward to. However, God’s kingdom is not a political kingdom. Luke 17:20 explains it this way: “Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” But the disciples didn’t realize that until after Pentecost. At this point, they were seeking a political kingdom and argued among themselves as to who should get the top spot in the new regime.
 
Another reason why they argued among themselves, in the view of many, is that Peter had emerged as the chief spokesperson. Did you notice in Matthew 17:24 who the collectors of the temple tax came to? They approached Peter. They recognized him as the leader among the disciples. A few commentators point out that the other disciples may have been jealous. Why should Peter be the spokesperson? He had his share of failures, sins, and shortcomings, so why shouldn’t one of them be the greatest leader?
 
Being the leader – being great – was so important to them that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, influenced their mother – so it seems from Matthew 20:20 – to ask Jesus to have one son on His right and one of His left in glory. In Matthew 20 we read that “The mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
 
   “What is it you want?” he asked.
 
     She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” (Matt. 20:20, 21)
 
But it wasn’t just James and John who wanted the highest spot. All of the disciples, it appears, were fixated on being great.
 
A third reason – and the main reason – why they were preoccupied with who was the greatest is because pride runs through our veins. True, godly humility is not something we are born with. True, godly humility comes from God’s sanctifying Spirit as we see the greatness and glory of God, and then our sinfulness, weakness, and fragility in the light of His eternal greatness.
 
Someone has rightly pointed out: “Great men never know that they are great, but small men never know that they are small.” The disciples would become great men. Ephesians 2:20 describes them as being, along with Christ, the foundation of the New Testament church. But at this point, they were not acting like great men, but like small men who didn’t realize how small they were. 
 
In Mark’s treatment of this passage, he describes how Jesus asked the disciples, “What were you arguing about on the road?” And Mark adds: But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” After the disciples, somewhat embarrassed, acknowledged that they were arguing about who among them was the greatest, they asked the question of Jesus, there in Matthew 18:1, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 
 
The Necessity of True Humility
 
The answer Jesus gives them stresses, first, our need for true humility in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
 
In order to enter the kingdom we need to lay aside our proud self-righteousness and humbly trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. So many people have a misplaced trust. For many it is trust in self-righteousness. For others it is trust in their association with religion, their baptismal certificate, or membership in the church. For still others it is a comparison game. After all, compared to notorious sinners, mass murderers, and other criminals, we look pretty good, don’t we?
 
But none of our efforts or comparisons can make us right with God and grant us entrance into His kingdom. Horatius Bonar summed up our situation with clarity in the familiar hymn:
 
Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.
 
Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.
Thy love to me, O God, not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest, And set my spirit free.
 
Humble Trust
 
As Jesus shaped His disciples, and as He shapes and sanctifies us, He often teaches us by using simple object lessons. In this passage, He focused on the humility of a little child as a child recognizes their dependency on others to provide for them. It can be summed up as “humble trust”.
  
I have a grandson who loves to tell me how everything he has is better than mine. He has been known to say things like: “Pops, my bike is better than yours, it has a special gear that makes it go really, really fast, way faster than your bike!” 
 
Young children have that inborn pride on the one hand, but on the other hand, there is also a recognition of dependence on others. There is that humble trust that their parents will provide. The same child who believes his bike is faster than any other also has a humble trust that his parents will provide him with food, shelter, and clothes. That is why children come to their parents seeking things. They realize their utter dependence. Jesus used the illustration of a child to teach us that the only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is to have utter dependence on our Lord and no dependence on our self-righteousness.
 
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the physician who became a well-known preacher in England, wrote: “I sometimes think that the very essence of the whole Christian position and the secret of a successful spiritual life is just to realize two things: I must have complete, absolute confidence in God and no confidence in myself.”
 
The Warning of the Millstone
 
A second truth that Jesus teaches in this passage is the importance of not leading others astray. In verses 5 to 7 he says, “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” When Jesus speaks of a child here, He is not referring just to a little child, such as the one described in verse 2. He is speaking about a child of God; He is speaking about any believer of any age.
 
The warning that Jesus gives is a powerful warning. A millstone was used to grind grain. Two stones would be used simultaneously. Wheat would be placed on a base stone, and then a top stone would crush and grind the grain. The stones were so heavy that often oxen or mules would be used to pull the top stone over the bottom one in a circular pattern. When that method was used, the grain was fed into the upper stone through a hole in the center of the top stone.
 
The people in the first century would understand the severity of the illustration Jesus used. Jesus is saying that it would be better for someone to have that top millstone hung around his neck and be thrown into the depth of the sea, than to burn in hell, which will be the punishment for those who cause God’s children to sin, if they do not repent of their sin.
 
Decades ago I worked with someone who prided himself on being “a ladies man.”  He was married and had young children, but he was always looking for more women. With him it was a conquest, a game, another notch on his belt. And he would say, “I try for the Christians. They are the most challenging; they are the ones I really want.”  
 
That was his life. It wasn’t with his family or his employment; it was the pursuit of women. And his goal was Christians; if he could cause a Christian girl to fall, he thought very highly of himself. If I had known my Bible better back then, I would have warned him that It would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!”
 
But it’s not just unbelievers who cause other Christians to sin. We who are believers must guard our conduct so that we don’t cause a brother or sister in Christ to sin. Scripture describes how David’s sin with Bathsheba caused “the enemies of God to show utter contempt” (2 Sam. 12:14, NIV) because David had “utterly scorned the Lord” (2 Sam 12:14, ESV). In Romans 2, Paul made the same charge of the religious leaders of his day. Because of their hypocrisy the name of the Lord was blasphemed (Rom. 2:24). We can so easily, sometimes without realizing it perhaps, lead others astray, by what we say, or do, or even the way we dress. 
 
On another occasion, when David realized his sin, he prayed a prayer of repentance that should be a part of our prayers. In Psalm 69:5-6 he prayed:
 
You know my folly, O God;
    my guilt is not hidden from you.
May those who hope in you
    not be disgraced because of me,
    O Lord, the Lord Almighty;
may those who seek you
    not be put to shame because of me,
    O God of Israel.
 
Self-Control
 
A third element in this passage is our need for self-control. In verses 8 and 9 Jesus says, “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.”
 
Jesus frequently emphasized the reality of hell. To Jesus, hell is so serious that it would be better to gouge out your right eye, that is, your best eye, and cut off your right hand, which for most of us is the strongest and most dexterous hand, than to go to hell.
                                                                           
However, this isn’t a literal command. It is hyperbole; that is, it is emphasis to make a point. But unfortunately, the point about the terror of hell is seldom made, even in the church today. Yet Jesus spoke about hell frequently, more frequently than anyone else in the Bible. Why? Because, in love, He warns us of the consequences of not guarding our eyes, our thoughts, our actions, and our words. He realizes that hell is necessary for us to think about as a deterrent from sin.
 
I have a nephew in his thirties.  I remember years ago when he was a toddler, my wife and I were visiting his parents. We were sitting around the kitchen table talking. He was sitting under the table, I’m not sure why. To him, at that age, it was probably a secure little playhouse. A television set was on, but the sound was way down low. Now this nephew knew very few words. But all of a sudden I heard that little voice saying, “Hot! Hot! Hot!”  We all looked down. He had one hand up near his face in fear and the other hand was pointing toward the TV. We shifted our gaze, and there on the TV screen was a blazing fire.
 
At that age, he knew fire was painful. He knew what hot was and he wanted no part of it. It is for our good that our Lord gives us stern warnings. When we don’t take those warnings to heart, we show that we are fools who are in danger of entering the eternal fire of hell. 
___
 
As we close this passage which begins Matthew 18, I want to look back to the conclusion of Mathew 17, because the two passages are connected. Verse 1 begins by saying, At that time…”  It was right after the collectors of two drachma tax had come to Peter to ask, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
 
The temple tax wasn’t the tax to the Roman Government. Later, in Matthew 22:21, Jesus makes His famous statement on civil tax, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God’s.” But the two-drachma tax wasn’t a civil tax; it was a religious one. It was used to fund the costs of operating the temple. As spelled out in Exodus 30:11-16 everyone counted in a census who was twenty or older, had to pay the tax. 
 
But now, when Peter came into the house, Jesus explained how He, as the Son of God, was exempt from the temple tax (17:26). After all, the temple and the sacrifices there pointed directly to Christ, even though the teachers of the law and the Pharisees failed to see that. But even though Jesus was exempt He paid it so that others would not stumble. Jesus, by paying that temple tax, was making sure that He would not cause someone to stumble. 
 
It is an example of the concept that Paul would later write about to the Corinthians. He told them how he considered all meat clean, but some Christians in Corinth believed that meat which had been sacrificed to idols should not be eaten.  In 1 Corinthians 8:13 he writes: “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”
 
Through the payment of the temple tax by Jesus, even though He was exempt, we see that His walk and His talk matched perfectly, which must always be the goal of your life and mine. We fail to reach the perfection that Jesus had, but that must nevertheless be what we strive for: a walk that matches our talk and actions that harmonize with the faith in Christ which we profess.
 
But we cannot begin to do that, and we cannot enter God’s kingdom, unless we are radically changed. Jesus said to the disciples in verse 3, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” A metamorphosis must take place. Or, in the terminology of John 3:3, we must be born again. It is only by God’s grace through the gift of saving faith in Christ that we escape from hell and are assured of heaven.
 
In the words of Titus 3:4-7, “…When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
 
Only when, by God’s grace and regenerating Spirit, we turn from our sinful, proud self-righteousness and lean entirely on Christ with childlike faith are we saved and enter God’s kingdom. Only then are we like the little child that Jesus used as an example in Matthew 18.
 
May that describe you and me, that by God’s grace we have been born from above and are children of God, members of His eternal kingdom! Amen.
 
 
sermon outline:
 
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest
in the kingdom of heaven?” – Matthew 18:1
 
               “Kingdom Life for Humble Christians”
                                  Matthew 17:24-18:9
 
I.  Jesus answered the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of
     heaven?” (1), by teaching:
     1) Our need for true humility in order to enter His kingdom (3-4)
 
 
 
 
     2) The importance of not leading others astray (5-7)
 
 
 
 
     3) Our need for self-control (8-9)
 
 
 
 
II. Applications:
    1) Jesus, as the Son of God, was exempt from the temple tax (17:26),
         yet He paid it so that others would not stumble (17:27). His walk and
         His talk matched perfectly, which must be our goal
 
 
 
 
 
    2) To enter His kingdom, we must be radically changed (18:3) as
         God turns us from our sinful pride so that we trust in Him alone
         for salvation (John 3:3; Titus 3:3-7)
 
 
 
 

 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. Ted Gray

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