“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”Matthew 18:3 ESV
What is it about children? No, I mean, why children? Just, why? I mean, have you seen any little children lately? Maybe the children back in the day were much more holy than the little gangs of hooligans we see hovering around the nearest available free WiFi hotspot these days. Come to think of it, that would make sense, actually, considering how our parents and grandparents constantly and relentlessly begin stories by saying, “back in the days of my childhood…”, and then follow it up with some declaration of intense and utter holiness. It would only make sense that if you go back far enough, the kids of those days would be sweet sinless saints, as compared to some of the sour soulless sons (and daughters) of the evil dark forces of the world we see today, floating around like tiny little death eaters (movie reference, sorry parents). I could name names, but, like, I don’t want to be, you know, murdered in my sleep or something. Ah, but of course, not me! And not you, dear reader, and definitely not your kids. Your kids are just, precious. Just wonderful. You must be so proud! Even so, be that as it may, all the same, prior exclusions notwithstanding, hitherto and forthwith, I would have expected Christ to say something more along the lines of “unless you become like me, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven”. That just makes a lot more sense, don’t you think?
Or was that too impossible a requirement? I mean, it isn’t like the rest of the demands of the New Testament are particularly easy to fulfill, and “what is impossible with man is possible with God”, right? Obviously, there’s more to it that we do not see yet. We must simply go and ask Him to explain, like the disciples themselves did so often. A lot of the New Testament texts instruct us to become Christ-like – to conform to the image of Christ, and the only other time Jesus told us to imitate someone is here, speaking of little children. I wondered what differentiation Christ saw in the little children that prompted these words to His disciples. Let’s explore the context here.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”Matthew 18:1 ESV
Alright. Having somewhat of an idea about the character of the disciples at this point in time, this is less likely to be a question of great theological depth, and more likely to be stemming from internal disputes among the disciples about their own positions in the coming kingdom. There is a similar incident reported by Luke in his gospel, which at least confirms that this kind of a dispute did exist among the disciples.
An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.Luke 9:46 ESV
So, they already knew that Christ would be greater than them in the kingdom, but they wanted to know who would be His second in command. Ah, there we have some scope for scintillating debate! They wanted to know who would be the greatest among all the subjects of the kingdom. Pause for a second here, and just chew on this for a moment… This is the grip that pride has on humanity – the extent of its reach and the magnitude of its strength is absolutely terrifying. Christ, the Messiah, who gave up His heavenly abode and lowered himself to be born in a manger, who lived a life that was not one of great riches or wealth or power or prestige, who selected followers from among the lower classes of the society, disciples who would be with Him day after day, listening to His words of absolute truth and watching his life of absolute humility – how sobering is it that these followers would be caught up in arguments about who among them would be the greatest?
Christ’s response and instruction, considering this situation, is so much more sobering. He calls a small child to his side and says to His disciples, “Unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God”. Note carefully, now, that He does not say, “you will never be great in the kingdom”, but “you will never enter the kingdom”. He renders their whole argument moot, by turning it into a question of whether they would even get to SEE the kingdom of God. But wait, there’s more. He actually says, “Unless you TURN and become like children…”. That’s like saying, “Considering the way you’re living right now, you’re not even going to get to enter heaven”. How’s that for blessed assurance? One can safely assume that the disciples were well and truly ‘freaked out’ by this point. (I’m picturing a scene of absolute silence and tension – Thomas with his mouth hanging half open in visible confusion, John with his eyes half closed staring up and down at the child in question, sizing him up, Peter grinning obliviously as though certain that Christ was referring only to the other eleven, Bartholomew frozen in place with his sandal raised up in his hand with which he was shooing away the pesky kids, and the child on Christ’s lap suddenly feeling an urge to go to the loo on account of all the attention – but that’s just me, you can picture something else if you so desire) Jesus now draws out the characteristic of the child that He is referring to:
“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”Matthew 18:4 ESV
This idea of becoming ‘like a child’ is a common topic in Christian sermons today. Preachers choose from a variety of characteristics that we can attribute to children. Things like blind faith, sincerity, “teach-ability”, dependence, and more. Humility is not always highlighted. Maybe that’s because children nowadays don’t strike us as being particularly humble? They always seem to be boasting about something or the other, always talking back to their parents, always disobedient and stubborn. But there may be something we’re not seeing here. You’d have to put yourself in a little child’s shoes, which is easier said than done, incidentally. Their viewpoint is not the same as that of an adult, or even that of a bigger kid, and it would seem that that reality is an inextricable part of their very nature. Let me explain. Little kids have always been ‘looking up’, literally. They have never been on the other side of that. They have never been in control; not of what they’re allowed to do, or where they get to go, or what they get to eat. Perhaps that is less true of kids today; I am assuming that the average eight-year-old in Christ’s neighbourhood did not own a mobile phone or get takeout whenever they demanded it of their parents. The little kids KNOW that they aren’t as strong, as tall, as knowledgeable, or as capable as the grown-ups around them. What this means is that their humility is not ‘put on’ in any sense of it. A child has no doubt in the FACT that he is lesser than his father, and therein lies the big difference.
Often, our humility is, at least to some extent, fake. Not that that is altogether wrong, but it can very easily be. There are, perhaps, scenarios in life where we must submit to the authority of another who may display a ‘lesser’ (in whatever way) knowledge, skill, understanding or maturity than ourselves. The question is whether or not we put on a fake humility in scenarios where we believe ourselves superior or more important, with the sole intent of appearing humble. Why is that the question? Because, in a lot of ways, it is the intent that reflects the disposition of your heart. Because it is true, strange as it may be, that for some of us, being perceived as humble is the thing we take pride in.
The humility like that of the child that Christ points to, hinges on a genuine recognition or understanding of our own insufficiency, which, in that context, is made most evident in the presence of God’s eternal sovereignty. This cannot be manufactured. It is simple, matter-of-fact truth, that is only revealed with a greater view of God’s holiness, and of our pitiful condition in light of His holiness. Thus, our understanding of God is an inextricable part of our humility – it is the very source of it – and our humility is thus a part of our salvation, and we come to the conclusion that, to see God one day in His kingdom, we must become truly humble, and to be truly humble, we must see more of God. This is not a contradiction, or some sort of circular logic. It is the beauty of the symmetry in the truth of God’s word. For God has already revealed Himself to us in His word. We have already caught sight of him, and the process has begun in us. The more glimpses we catch of Him there, the more we will humbly submit, in faith, to His sovereignty, and we will eagerly yearn, like a child screams for ice cream, to see Him face to face.
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”Romans 1:17 ESV
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”John 3:3 ESV