Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven
The disciples of Jesus were very competitive. Many sought to be the greatest. One mother would ask the Lord to place her sons, one on each side of him in heaven (Matthew 20:21). The answer was a surprise to them all. They had to be like a little child.
Tradition tells us that the small child that Jesus picked out of the crowd and blessed was Ignatius, who would later be one of the great early Christian Fathers and martyrs of the Church. Ignatius would grow up to be a disciple of the apostle John, and later become bishop of Antioch. Roman Catholics believe him to be one of the successors of Peter as Pope of the Christian Church. He sought his entire life to emulate Christ. He wrote several letters to the Christians, encouraging them to be faithful in their testimonies. Several of these were written as he traveled in chains to Rome, where he was slain by lions in the Coliseum.
Such is the testimony of a small child that continues in the testimony of Christ his entire life. He eagerly seeks to emulate his Master, and to encourage others to do the same. He is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, but will preach it in the face of death. When things get difficult, he does not seek a way out, but seeks the way up to God.
And as the disciples of Christ learn to be child-like, they also become as little ones, worthy of the special blessings and considerations of the Savior.
If thy hand offend thee
As a continuation of the discussion on the little ones above, the Lord warns us not to offend. It is better for us to remove the thing that offends the child of God, than to allow it to remain. Offenses often drive people away from Christ, and it is a matter for which the Lord will some day ask us how we treated those around us. So important is it to refrain from offending that the Lord stated it would be better to pluck out the offending eye or cut off the offending arm (both important body parts that we can live without), than to drive ourselves and those around us to hell.
In discussing the lost sheep that we must go out to find, we learn that we must not only avoid offending, but also seek out those who have been offended in the past and recover them.
The early Church Historian Eusebius of Caesarea gives an account concerning the apostle John that had been passed down to his day. In his travels to establish churches, John found a wonderful youth who converted to the gospel and eagerly followed the teachings of the apostle. As John prepared to leave to other cities, he directed the bishop of the city to care for the youth. The bishop accepted his charge.
“8. But the presbyter taking home the youth committed to him, reared, kept, cherished, and finally baptized him. After this he relaxed his stricter care and watchfulness, with the idea that in putting upon him the seal of the Lord he had given him a perfect protection.
“9. But some youths of his own age, idle and dissolute, and accustomed to evil practices, corrupted him when he was thus prematurely freed from restraint. At first they enticed him by costly entertainments; then, when they went forth at night for robbery, they took him with them, and finally they demanded that he should unite with them in some greater crime.
“10. He gradually became accustomed to such practices, and on account of the positiveness of his character, leaving the right path, and taking the bit in his teeth like a hard-mouthed and powerful horse, he rushed the more violently down into the depths.
“11. And finally despairing of salvation in God, he no longer meditated what was insignificant, but having committed some great crime, since he was now lost once for all, he expected to suffer a like fate with the rest. Taking them, therefore, and forming a band of robbers, he became a bold bandit-chief, the most violent, most bloody, most cruel of them all” (Eusebius, book 3, chapter 23).
Here, due to neglect and then sin, the young man became offended. The bishop assumed he only had to do some quick preparations and then baptize the boy, and then everything else would work out just fine. Instead, the child went from being among the faithful to being one of the most feared crime bosses in the area. He led a gang of youth in the worst of crimes, thinking there was no longer any salvation for him and that no one cared about him anymore.
After making rounds throughout the area, the aged apostle John finally returned to the town. Upon meeting with the bishop, John’s first words were:
“12...'Come, O bishop, restore us the deposit which both I and Christ committed to you, the church, over which you preside, being witness.'
“13. But the bishop was at first confounded, thinking that he was falsely charged in regard to money which he had not received, and he could neither believe the accusation respecting what he had not, nor could he disbelieve John. But when he said, 'I demand the young man and the soul of the brother,' the old man, groaning deeply and at the same time bursting into tears, said, 'He is dead.' 'How and what kind of death?' 'He is dead to God,' he said; 'for he turned wicked and abandoned, and at last a robber. And now, instead of the church, he haunts the mountain with a band like himself.'
“14. But the Apostle rent his clothes, and beating his head with great lamentation, he said, 'A fine guard I left for a brother's soul! But let a horse be brought me, and let some one show me the way.' He rode away from the church just as he was, and coming to the place, he was taken prisoner by the robbers' outpost.
“15. He, however, neither fled nor made entreaty, but cried out, 'For this did I come; lead me to your captain.'
“16. The latter, meanwhile, was waiting, armed as he was. But when he recognized John approaching, he turned in shame to flee.
“17. But John, forgetting his age, pursued him with all his might, crying out, 'Why, my son, do you flee from me, your own father, unarmed, aged? Pity me, my son; fear not; you have still hope of life. I will give account to Christ for you. If need be, I will willingly endure your death as the Lord suffered death for us. For you will I give up my life. Stand, believe; Christ has sent me.'
“18. And he, when he heard, first stopped and looked down; then he threw away his arms, and then trembled and wept bitterly. And when the old man approached, he embraced him, making confession with lamentations as he was able, baptizing himself a second time with tears, and concealing only his right hand.
“19. But John, pledging himself, and assuring him on oath that he would find forgiveness with the Saviour, besought him, fell upon his knees, kissed his right hand itself as if now purified by repentance, and led him back to the church. And making intercession for him with copious prayers, and struggling together with him in continual fastings, and subduing his mind by various utterances, he did not depart, as they say, until he had restored him to the church, furnishing a great example of true repentance and a great proof of regeneration, a trophy of a visible resurrection” (Ibid).
Who among us would, at any age, ride into harm’s way and pursue the lost until we brought them back? Or would we be as this bishop, chocking it up to bad fortune, and counting the child forever lost? Even with his many violent crimes, John was able to promise the child forgiveness, peace, and joy in the atonement of Christ.