For to Such Belongs the Kingdom
A common theme in Matthew is the kingdom of heaven. Kingdom, not in the sense of realm. But kingdom in the sense of rule. The outworking of Jesus’ heavenly rule appears in his people on earth.
But when that rule appears, it’s often counter-intuitive. It’s upside-down from the way we assume life is supposed to work. Not the rich and confident, but the “poor in spirit” get in.[i] Not the movers and shakers, but the meek inherit the earth.[ii] Not the righteous, but sinners are called.[iii] Not by taking lives, but by sacrificing your own the victory comes.[iv] To save your life, you must lose it.[v] Greatness means becoming a servant. First means becoming a slave.[vi] For many, the Advent season begins today, a time that recalls this upside-down nature of Jesus’ kingdom. God the Son came first not with royal fanfare. Instead, he lies in a manger. The Creator becomes the child.
In today’s passage, Jesus will again emphasize how his kingdom is upside-down from the way we often think. The weak and helpless get the kingdom while the rich and powerful walk away. Many who are first will be last, and the last first. Even disciples need reminders about this. Let’s read it together. Verse 13…
13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away. 16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
The Humility of the Kingdom
Our passage begins with the humility of the kingdom. Some children were brought to Jesus. The ESV calls them “little children.” The same account in Luke 18:15 mentions babies/infants—the lowest, the neediest, the weak and helpless. People want Jesus to “lay his hands on them and pray.” In Scripture, when someone lays their hands on another for prayer, it visualizes setting them apart for a special blessing—whether that’s for healing or receiving the Spirit or commissioning. The people want Jesus to set these children apart for a special blessing.
The disciples, however, are bothered by this. Now, earlier in 18:1-5, The disciples had asked Jesus, “Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, Jesus put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.”
His point? The kingdom is not about who ranks the highest. It’s about taking the path of lowliness like we see in this child. It’s about choosing a path that says, “I’m not the strong one. I’m helpless. I’m needy. I’m wholly reliant on Jesus like a child.” Yet here the disciples push children away. How quickly they have forgotten.
Still, Jesus patiently teaches them. In verse 14 Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Same language appears earlier in 18:5—“whoever receives one such child,” meaning, the one who became like a child. So also here: “to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is for those like these children.
When Mark tells the same story, he records Jesus adding this in 10:15: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”[vii] The kingdom belongs to those who humble themselves and become like children. It’s for those who come like helpless babes to rest in the arms of Jesus. Mark 10:16 says that Jesus took them in his arms when he laid hands on them to pray.
What a beautiful picture of our Lord—gentle, lowly in heart. He’s not above spending time with children. By taking them in his arms and blessing them, he displays the sort of mission he’s on. He comes for the lowly ones in society. He comes for those who weren’t viewed as powerful and important. He comes for the weak, the helpless.
How do you view yourself in relation to Jesus? Have you come to him like a child? Do you recognize how needy you truly are for his blessing? When you see those who are weak, helpless, needy, does your heart go out to them? Or do you push them away? Jesus welcomes the lowest into his arms. We must remember this and follow our Savior in welcoming the lowest. The kingdom belongs to all who see their need and come to Jesus like children. The last are made first in his kingdom (cf. Matt 19:30). It’s upside down from the way we often think.
The Demand of the Kingdom
That point becomes even clearer with Jesus’ next encounter. But it’s here we also find the demand of the kingdom. Sometimes it’s by way of contrast that we see things more clearly. Friday morning, I snapped a picture of a tree in our backyard. The leaves were bright yellow. But they didn’t stand out as much in the photo until I adjusted the contrast. Their brightness then stood out. The same happens when we contrast these needy children with a confident young man. Matthew’s broader purpose reveals how the kingdom really is upside-down to the way we often think.
In verse 16, a man approaches Jesus. But notice, the disciples don’t stop him from coming. They stop the children, the helpless ones. But they don’t stop this guy. Why might that be? Well, if we looked at him through worldly eyes, how would others have seen a man like this? After all, he’s in his prime. Verses 20 tells us that he’s young—though we know from Luke 18:18 he’s old enough to be a ruler. He’s also wealthy, verse 22 says. He’s religious, moral. Sounds like a good Bible-belt guy. Viewing things from the world’s perspective, he seems like a perfect fit.
But not so fast. This man is confused about true goodness. In verse 16 he asks, “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus says, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There’s only one who is good.” He’s getting the man to rethink goodness. This man must be careful lest he think that by his own doing he can obtain the goodness God requires. If anyone is to assess their eternal state rightly, it must begin with a vision of God’s goodness. Only God is good in an absolute sense; and before him, who can really measure up…besides Jesus? Is that at the heart of this man’s question?
The man is also confident in his law-keeping. Jesus draws this out as he next rehearses the law. Verse 17, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Striking, isn’t it? He doesn’t say, “Believe in me.” He says, “Keep the commandments.” He’s going somewhere with this. Jesus isn’t teaching salvation by works. He’s alluding to several places in the Law that promise life to those who keep the commandments.[viii] Only problem—nobody can when enslaved to sin. This man thinks he can.
“Which ones?” he asks. Jesus starts listing them, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother…” That’s five of the ten commandments in Exodus 20. Jesus finishes with, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” from Leviticus 19:18.
Romans 13:9-10 tells us that all the commandments “are summed up in this one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is fulfilling the law.” Jesus is getting this man to consider something deeper than the mere letter of the law. Do you think you’re good by not murdering people, not sleeping around? Or is your heart set on fulfilling the law in neighbor love? Amazingly, the young man says, “All these I have kept.”
But as Jesus continues, the man’s incompatible allegiances prove otherwise. In verse 20, he wants to know what he still lacks. So, Jesus responds: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man hears this, he walks away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. He obeys the outward stipulations of the law. But when it comes to parting with his riches, suddenly we discern his heart.
His allegiance isn’t to God; it’s to money. This man illustrates what Jesus said in 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” This man is confident in his law-keeping. But Jesus uncovers that he can’t even keep the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” His wealth is his god. His possessions enslave him. Even when God is telling him to part with it, he walks away. Also, notice what Jesus wants him to do with the money: give to the poor. Meaning, love your neighbor. But he can’t. He’s too enslaved to his riches.
Did you also notice the man has no assurance of eternal life? “What good must I do to have eternal life?” “What do I still lack?” When you’re confused about true goodness, when you’re confident in your own law-keeping, when you have an allegiance that’s incompatible with allegiance to God—you will always lack assurance of eternal life. Your soul will never find rest when those things are true of you.
Do you lack assurance of eternal life? Are you trusting in some good you can do to solve that? You’re not able. Your own goodness will never measure up. “All these I have kept,” the man says. Yet no assurance. Assurance of eternal life comes from only one place—a relationship with Jesus who came to fulfill the Law.
In verse 21, that’s what Jesus is calling this man to. “If you would be perfect [i.e., whole, complete], go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The point is what Jesus himself embodies. He embodies the fulfillment of the Law. 5:17, “I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them.” The Law was pointing to Jesus and the life he would bring to his followers in the kingdom. Jesus is calling this man to give up his earthly treasures that he might gain the greater treasure of Jesus himself.
Jesus is the only man who’s wholly good. Jesus is God in the flesh, Immanuel. Jesus came to fulfill the Law in every way that we have failed. The rest of Matthew’s Gospel tells us how he gave his life on the cross to forgive our sins and establish a new covenant (Matt 26:28). In that new covenant, when we place our trust in him, not only does God forgive our sins, but he also gives us Christ’s righteousness. And now, hidden in Christ’s righteousness, we have all the assurance of eternal life with God. Our confidence rests no longer in on our good deeds, but in all the good that Christ is.
That good news is what sets us free from any allegiance that competes with an allegiance to God. That good news is what motivates our generosity. The kingdom ethic doesn’t revolve around all you haven’t done against your neighbor. Because of the generosity God shows us in Christ, the heart overflows with generosity toward our neighbor—like selling what you have and giving to the poor. That’s how a relationship with Jesus transforms you. Since he’s the greatest Treasure, your stuff no longer enslaves you. You have all you need in him, and so you follow him in everything he asks of
However, this man walks away from such a relationship with Jesus. He walks away from the greater Treasure. For the disciples, it wasn’t the helpless children but the young, rich, and religious man who was the prime candidate for Jesus’ kingdom. But upside-down to their thinking, they watch Jesus bless the helpless and weak, and watch the rich and confident walk away.
So, Jesus turns this moment into another lesson for the disciples. Verse 23, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Some will try to soften that by talking about a smaller city gate that was harder but not impossible for camels to squeeze through. It’s all baloney. There’s no evidence for that. Jesus’ point is to stress the impossibility.
That’s why the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” and Jesus says, “With man this is impossible.” Nobody can save themselves—it’s impossible with man. “But with God all things are possible.” If anyone is saved, it’s by God’s initiative, God’s doing. Man is incapable of saving himself. God must change the heart, so that it’s able to turn away from something like the love of money and follow Jesus instead. What this man needs is a heart like a child, a heart that recognizes its helpless state and knows that the only way into the kingdom is into Jesus’ arms.
What about you? Are you leaning on your own merit, your own success, your own morality to win God’s favor, to keep God’s smile? The kingdom is a matter of trust and dependence on Jesus’ merit, not your merit. Rest yourself in him. Ask God for such a heart that depends not on self but on Jesus—all things are possible with God.
It’s also helpful to note that Jesus offers the kingdom both to the helpless and to the rich young man—Mark 10:21 even adds that Jesus loved the man. The point of these sections (taken together) isn’t to say love the child-like needy ones and ignore the rich and powerful. But it does emphasize the human tendency for us to be more accepting of the rich and powerful than of those whom society sees as lesser. Such partiality is not welcome in his kingdom—that’s what he’s showing the disciples. The kingdom is upside-down from what we often think. That must inform the way we treat others.
But something else about this encounter—it alerts us to the dangers of wealth. On its own, wealth isn’t bad. It’s a gift from the Lord. It can be used for good, like supporting a family, meeting needs, building a city, blessing someone. At the same time, Jesus warns, “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” That should sober us wealthy Americans.
William Lane says, “How easy it [is] to become so attached to wealth that even an earnest man forgets what is infinitely more important…The peculiar danger confronting the rich…lies in the false sense of security which wealth creates and in the temptation to trust in material resources and personal power when what is demanded by the Law and the gospel is a whole-hearted reliance upon God.”[ix] The Puritan Thomas Manton said, “There is not a vice which more effectually contracts and deadens the feelings, which more completely makes a man’s affections center in himself and excludes all others from partaking in them, than the desire of accumulating possessions.”
How are you viewing your possessions? Are there possessions that have such a hold on you, that it keeps you from obeying Jesus or serving others? When you assess your possessions, how are they serving the kingdom of heaven? How are they being used to love your neighbor? How do you use your home? What do you spend your time dreaming about? Remember the rich young man. He did a lot of good, but only as cover for his false god. How you relate to your possessions reveals what g/God you worship.
The far better path is to lay up treasures in heaven. That’s what Jesus calls this man to. That’s what Jesus calls all of us to back in 6:19-21. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth,” he said, “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Take all that you own and put it in service of Jesus’ kingdom—starting at home with your family (1 Tim 5:8), then working out to the church (Gal 6:10), and then to the world. Those decisions will cost you everything. It will mean giving up things you would’ve wanted but can no longer have. But every sacrifice for his kingdom will prove, in the end, to be no sacrifice at all.
The Reward of the Kingdom
That brings us to the final part of our passage: the reward of the kingdom. Jesus called the rich young man to sell everything, give to the poor, and come follow him. The man walks away. Peter, on the other hand—he represents the disciples and says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” In other words, “We didn’t respond like the rich man. We gave it all up.” “What then will we have?”
It’s hard to know Peter’s heart. Is he being smug? Is he saying, “Look at us, Jesus! We’re not like that guy!” Maybe. Or is there some level of self-pity? “We’ve sacrificed so much for you. What are we getting out of the deal?” Again, maybe. Or is this just an honest question, an expressed need for comfort in their obedience? It’s hard to know. Regardless, Jesus’ answer addresses all those dispositions.
If there was need for comfort, Jesus’ promise should comfort their hearts. He first says, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” When you leave everything and follow Jesus, you look insignificant to the world. You don’t win popularity contests. But in the end, God promises the Twelve final vindication. They will rule with him.
Some places in the New Testament speak of all Christians ruling with Jesus in the new world—1 Corinthians 6:2; Revelation 2:26. But this promise seems unique to the Twelve: “you who have followed me” in contrast to the “everyone” of verse 29. These Twelve disciples represent the true Israel who will stand in judgment over the false Israel. Where and how that plays out in history is less clear from this passage alone; and I don’t think I’ve got a handle on it yet to say more than that.
The next promise he broadens to all disciples: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” Family members might disown you for following Jesus—but you will gain hundreds more in the kingdom. Or maybe following Jesus means you sacrifice lands, houses, possessions. You sell them to meet the needs of others, or you lose them because a government hates your Christianity. Jesus promises that everyone who gives up these things for his name’s sake will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” That’s their comfort.
If there was any self-pity in their question, Jesus answers that too. When you compare what the disciples give up in this world to what they gain in the kingdom, there’s no comparison. R. T. France writes, “The life of heaven is far more than enough to compensate for any earthly loss.” Some missionaries—after years of hardship and toil—have returned and said, “I’ve never made a sacrifice.” They can say that because of Jesus’ promise right here. The sacrifice was an investment in the kingdom that yields a hundredfold more of everything you gave up. There’s no room for “Woe is me! Look at all I gave up.” Jesus’ reward is a hundredfold guaranteed return on your investment. The focus of the kingdom isn’t what you’re giving up, but what you gain in Christ.
Then lastly, if there was any smug attitude behind their question, surely the larger picture addresses that. The rich young man wanted eternal life, but he forfeited it to keep his earthly possessions. The disciples leave behind earthly possessions and gain the promise of eternal life. So, the one on top who thought he had everything—he ended with nothing. And the ones who gave up everything to go low with Jesus—they ended up with everything. It’s upside-down from the way our culture teaches us to think. Our culture wants you to focus on what you can gain here and now—“Climb to the top now.” Jesus says give up your possessions now to gain something greater later.
So, if there was a smug attitude, surely Peter could step back and see that such an attitude has no place in the kingdom. That’s what Matthew wants us to see anyway. Those who think they’re something end up with nothing. Those who know they’re nothing without Jesus end up with everything in the kingdom.
Then, if there was still any doubt in Peter’s mind, Jesus addresses it again head on in verse 30: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” In other words, “Yes, these promises will be true of you and those who follow me. But check your attitude, Peter. The good things you’re doing for me—don’t let those replace me. Don’t let those things puff you up and make you think that you’re superior.” Many who are first will be last, and the last first. Peter needs to remember the children from earlier.
That’s what we need to remember too. Yes, we need assurance that our sacrifices are not in vain—and they’re not, Jesus will make good on your investment a hundredfold. We also need our self-pity checked and see all that we gain in Christ is far more than what we ever give up. But we also need to remember the upside-down nature of Jesus’ kingdom. He came for the weak and helpless. We must keep coming to him like weak and dependent children. Not by our own status, merit, and accomplishments. Not by our own success, power, or possessions. We enter the kingdom on the merits of Jesus alone and all that he is.
[i] Matt 5:3.
[ii] Matt 5:5.
[iii] Matt 9:13.
[iv] Matt 10:16.
[v] Matt 16:25.
[vi] Matt 20:26.
[vii] Also Luke 18:17.
[viii] E.g., Lev 18:5; Deut 30:15ff; Ezek 33:15.
[ix] William Lane, Mark, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 369.
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