Christians think, feel, and act different from the world. Now, by the world, I mean – of course – the world system. The parts of this world that are what they are because they are not submitted to God and in love with all He is for us in Christ. The world that John describes in 1 John 2:15-17. This should not surprise us, for this world “lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19) and this “evil one” has “blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who its the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). Christians, by contrast, are those who have seen the “glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6), who “have been rescued from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13), who have been made “new creatures” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), and are different from the world. Thus, to be in the kingdom requires nothing less conversion – to become as a child.
Now, the shocking reality is that even those who follow Jesus can be blind to the world’s influence on their thinking and on their heart. Some may even discover they have never been delivered from the world, even though they are steeped in religious commitment. In either case, we need to be jolted by Jesus every now and then to revaluate the state of our heart and come into line with the spiritual realities of God’s kingdom. Jesus did just that with His disciples in Matthew 18:1-4.
The disciples came to Jesus with a question: “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Sounds like a reasonable theological inquiry on the surface. The problem is: that’s not why they asked. Mark and Luke tell us they weren’t asking a theological question, but a highly personal one; not simply about greatness, but which one of them was the greatest (Lk. 9:46). That’s a problem. In one sense we can sympathize, Jesus Himself had made some incredible distinctions in chs. 16-17 – calling Peter the leader and giving Peter, James, and John a glimpse of His glory and the glory of the coming kingdom. In another sense we are humbled by the response of Jesus who challenges their (our) pride and confronts them (us) with the mark of kingdom life.
A wrong motive for greatness. The pursuit of kingdom greatness is good when God’s glory and our enjoyment of Him is the end. However, that wasn’t the case with these disciples and too often with us. Their question was self-centered; their pursuit was for personal glory. This is shocking. Thus, the very things that should have lead them to be overwhelmed at Christ’s glory (Matt. 16:16-18; 17:1-5, 19-23), caused them to be enamored with their own. This is also piercing. How often has God’s blessing to you been a means of pride rather than humility? A means to turn attention to thoughts of your greatness rather than His great grace? Pride is insidious and can even hide behind a religious mask and acts of service (1 Cor. 13:1-3; Matt. 23:5-7). It gets worse. They felt totally comfortable having this discussion as long as Jesus didn’t know, but He did. So, He asked: “What were you discussing on the way?” (Mk. 9:33). Busted. What do you say? Nothing, so “They kept silent” (Mk. 9:34). Their best move yet. Let us learn from them: there is no such thing as a private thought, hidden motive, or secret act (Heb. 4:13). God is always watching our hearts and the pursuit of holiness and humility must begin there.
A wrong concept of greatness. The kingdom of God operates on spiritual principles in direct opposition to the kingdom of this world. Our fallen hearts and fallen culture have a natural bent to see greatness in terms of how far we are above others (even if the honor of our superior humility), how much status can be achieved. Its not that way in God’s kingdom. In His kingdom His greatness is the only thing on display (Ps. 104:1; 145:3) and obedient service is the way to lift Him up. “Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matt. 20:27). Jesus displayed this perfectly (Matt. 20:28; Phil. 2:5-8), but sadly it would take them a while to get it (Matt. 20:25-28; Lk. 22:24-26). What kind of greatness do you really seek in your heart?
A piercing reply from Jesus. Silence reigned among the disciples, their proud hearts now exposed for all to see. The time is just right for Jesus to crush them, but He doesn’t. He is a shepherd and a merciful Savior. Instead, He uses the opportunity to teach them, calling a child to Himself, taking him into His arms (Mk. 9:36), He sets him in “the midst of them” (Matt. 18:2). Then comes the stinger: “Unless you are converted (lit. turned) and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Striking. Basically, He says, ‘Forget about greatness in the kingdom, just make sure your in it!’ He boils it down to the most essential thing and wakes them up to the possibility of missing His salvation. How many people have missed the kingdom and are now perishing because they missed the main thing – conversion and becoming like children (cf. Matt. 5:21; 7:21-23).
It is quite amazing how far a person can go in religious life and never be converted and know God’s saving grace. The Pharisees are the example par excellence. They had much religious faith and commitment – faith in God, Scripture, resurrection; faith to live a moral life, have religious conviction, evangelize, teach others, go to synagogue, sing hymns, memorize Scripture, and forsake many things of the this world – but they were unconverted. The natural (unconverted) human heart is capable of a great deal of religious commitment and sentiment without ever truly experiencing the life of God. They had a significant religious life, but they did not have a childlike faith, they had never become “like children.”
Becoming Like Children. Jesus is not pointing to the child’s childishness (11:16; 1 Cor. 13:11), nor his innocence, but his weakness and natural sense of dependence on others. This is a picture of a converted heart (cf. John 3:3-5). It is the heart of one “poor in spirit,” who “mourns” over sin, who “hungers and thirst after righteousness,” who sees in themselves no spiritual strength, no spiritual resources, no “I’ll do my part and God will do His” attitude. One who recognizes their spiritual poverty and needs God to do everything: in need of His grace (goodness to those who deserve wrath). The publican is a good example (Lk. 18:13). The rich young ruler is a tragic example of how close one can come and yet fall short (Lk. 18:18-23). To become like children is to be completely emptied of trust in your own resources and completely trusting Christ for everything.
Submission to the Father’s will is really an ultimate test of this kind of humility. Jesus was the greatest example (Phil. 2:5-8). His whole life was lived in loving submission to the will of the Father (John 14:31), even in the most difficult of circumstances (Lk. 22:42). His children who have His life, the life of the Spirit, in them – who have been humbled by the recognition of helplessness – are those who yield to Him in trust and obedience (Matt. 16:24-25). Of course, it is not perfect submission – which is why we trust in His perfect submission and righteousness credited to us (2 Cor. 5:21) – but it is a real submission to His will evident in our lives (John 14:15; 1 John 2:3-5). To trust Him as a child.
Greatness in the Kingdom. The humble submission that marks entrance into the kingdom, is the same humble, trusting, loving, and serving submission that marks greatness in the kingdom (18:4). It marks genuine spiritual life. The paradox is that there are levels of greatness in the kingdom, but they are gained by those who most seek not their own glory, but the glory of Christ and the service of others. That’s how it is in the kingdom: the way up is the way down (Matt. 20:27). And the glory of God and love of Christ is at the center of it all (Phil. 1:21). A beautiful Dutch poem gives words (hopefully) to the desire of our hearts:
Make me, O Lord, a child again / So tender, frail, and small,
In self possessing nothing, and / In thee possessing all.
O Savior, make me small once more / That downward I may grow
And in this heart of mine restore / The faith of long ago
With thee may I be crucified / No longer I that lives
O Savior, crush my sinful pride / By grace which pardon gives
Make me, O Lord, a child again / Obedient to thy call
In self possessing nothing, and / in thee possessing all