CHANGE AND BECOME LIKE LITTLE CHILDREN
Key Verse 18:3
“And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
It seems that out of nowhere, Jesus’ disciples wanted to know “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Why ask such an odd question! Was it because Jesus had told Peter that he was giving him the keys of the kingdom of heaven? (16:19) Or because he rebuked the disciples for their lack of faith at their inability to cast the demon out of the boy in the previous chapter? No one knows what might have triggered this question. But surely they had been thinking about it. Maybe the real question on their minds was this: “’Where does each of us fit in the pecking order of disciples?’ ‘Is Andrew greater than Peter because Andrew fished Peter’ or ‘Is Peter greater than Andrew because Peter was usually Jesus’ first choice?” These may seem like silly questions. But questions like these have always been on the hearts of Jesus’ people in every generation. Not necessarily ranking oneself as compared with another disciple, but questions like: “What’s my worth in Christ” or “Can I really be a great man or woman in Christ” or “What chance do I have of standing out when I seem to be spiritually dull”? These questions and more may seem important at some time, but the truth is they aren’t really worth the time or effort to answer them. Why? Mainly because of the Biblical truth which states that in the kingdom of God everyone is great and the greatest!
But Jesus did not tell this to his disciples in this lesson. Why? Because of their understanding of the meaning of “great”! It was still based on the worldly standard. They understood what greatness is from an entirely worldly perspective. So Jesus needed to teach them something very important first! He needed to teach them how God himself understands the meaning of “great” to be. And God understands and defines it so much differently than the world does. To be great in God or in the kingdom of heaven is different than being great in the world. Jesus knew that if his disciples could give up their worldly idea of “what is great” or “who is great”, and learn God’s understanding of it, then all these questions would no longer be on their minds and hearts any more! In other words, they no longer would need to ask “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of God”. First of all, they would become fully secure in Christ. In other words, they would know they are great enough and that would be good enough for them. And second, they would be able to serve their God given mission without hindrance. In other words, the world standard would no longer be able to sway them towards worldly ambition and competition and they would be able to give themselves fully to the work of God in their lives. In this chapter it’s important for us to see how Jesus helped his disciples see what God considers to be great, and solve our own problem.
Look at verse 1. “At that time,” refer to the enormous event of the transfiguration. It was an event unequalled in all of history. No matter how much Jesus taught his disciples about his necessary death and resurrection, they were not listening, and certainly not understanding either. They thought that there must be some hidden symbolism behind all his talk of death; that it was impossible for the Son of God to die. They hoped that the kingdom of God would soon come on earth. They also hoped that when that happened, God would also appoint each of them as a high ranking official of his kingdom. It’s not difficult to understand then why the disciples were obsessed with the idea of “greatness”. They wanted to receive honor and recognition for all their sacrifices in following Jesus. So they asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Even though their question mentions the glorious kingdom of heaven, we know that their hearts only envisioned no more than a glorified earthly kingdom. So, they wanted to know how Jesus was going to rank them in this new kingdom. They may have to accept Peter as their prime minister. But Matthew didn’t know if Philip would be higher up in the cabinet or lower than himself. They still needed a lot of spiritual education to understand what the heavenly kingdom is all about! And it’s certainly not about power nor authority nor success. At least greatness has nothing to do with that!
Read verses 2 and 3. “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’” Most probably Jesus disciples had no clue as to what Jesus was saying. Nor did they understand what exactly did children and greatness in the kingdom of heaven have to do with one another. But Jesus’ answer is very simple. Jesus was teaching them an important lesson in Christianity. Jesus wanted them to know that before they began to think about who is “great or greater” in heaven, there was something very important to consider first. Jesus wanted to teach them that God has set a standard for entering heaven. And a person must first make every effort to meet God’s qualifications to enter heaven. Therefore, there is something far more important to consider first before thinking about who is great and who is greater. You must first make it into heaven. And after you meet God’s qualifications to enter heaven, then you can think about who’s great or who’s greater. Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What did Jesus mean by this? Consider the character of children. Children are mostly innocent; they are pure and simple; they are trusting, mostly of their parents. But the most distinctive characteristic of children is that children are humble. We are not talking about the humility of obedience, but the humility of learning. There is no doubt that children have an appetite to learn. And with this appetite comes questions. They have no shame to reveal their ignorance of things. They are humble enough to say I don’t know. They are not always busy teaching others but are rather busy learning something new. It is a simple but wonderful characteristic of children. It’s their door to knowledge, to maturity, and to the hearts of others. It is certainly the doorway to the heart of God and the key to the heavenly kingdom. Those who presume to know everything stink with pride, and their pride alienates them from others, especially from God who cannot stand proud people but always welcomes the humble. (1.Pet.5:5) In other words, those who want to learn something new about Jesus and from Jesus are really humble people. To the eyes of God their Father, they are like irresistible children who always find their way into their Father God’s heart.
At that time, the disciples were young and flexible and immature, like new wine in new wineskins. But they were obsessed with the idea of greatness. For this reason many conflicts arose among them. The brothers, James and John for example, may have not liked it that Peter was so close to Jesus, even though all three of them were close friends. The relationship between Philip and Andrew may not have been all that different. They all looked at each other from time to time with a competitive heart. If one of them succeeded in something, instead of being happy for them, they struggled to outdo them. They thought about how they might better their own positions. Surely they were far from being humble. For this reason, Jesus warned his disciples that they should change. Jesus wanted them to change their attitude from that of worldly ambition to that of childlike innocence. Jesus wanted them to change in their way of thinking and become spiritual men and men with a humble heart. What kind of humility did Jesus expect of them? He expected of them the kind of humility willing to sacrifice itself for the good of others. He expected them to deny themselves anything if only it might build up others. A humble man is more concerned with the will of God than with his own dreams and hopes. A humble man is more concerned with giving glory to God rather than with getting glory for himself. Jesus wanted his disciples to be innocent like children when it came to matters of worldly greatness or glory.
Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is such a serious teaching! It is a matter of life or death. It is a matter of entering the heavenly kingdom or of remaining bound by this world’s false standards. We know that to enter heaven one must be born again by personally confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior. No one can enter heaven without this critical confession of faith which must come from the heart. Moreover, it must come from a child like heart. A child-like heart is a heart that trusts God’s forgiveness, and his sacrifice that frees the soul from sin. No one has ever confessed this kind of faith without first trusting God. It meant that they must be willing to trust God with their lives and their future. They must be ready to trust God with their salvation. As such they must also trust God with matters of greatness. According to Jesus, everyone who enters the heavenly kingdom with a child-like faith is enormously great. There is no one greater than the person who humbles himself before God to accept his forgiveness and his salvation and ultimately to also accept his calling and mission from God. And for the person who enters heaven through his or her child-like faith, there is no such concern as to who is great or greater in heaven. According to Jesus, heaven is not a place of politics nor of spiritual ranking. It is a place of trusting children whose main concern is to love their father and be loved in return by him. Jesus said: “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus also taught his disciples another standard of greatness. Read verse 5. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” Jesus taught us another quality of greatness in the eyes of God. For the most part, children are helpless. So Jesus again teaches us that being great in the eyes of God has nothing to do with rank. And it has everything to do with servantship! It has everything to do with helping the helpless and welcoming them in the name of the Lord. Yet this is not easy. It may even be impossible at times. Why? Because most people aren’t thankful for what’s done for them in the name of Jesus. Most of those who are served forget how they had been served and turn a scornful eye on those who served them. Even the helpless become proud despising those who taught them how to walk. After helping the helpless, only few remember the grace of God and remain thankful. Sill, our Lord Jesus called his disciples and us to welcome the helpless and weak and needy and to serve them with all our hearts. It’s not easy! But Jesus did not call us to an easy mission. He called us to welcome them. The disciples thought that greatness is to be honored and respected. But that is not the kind of worldly greatness Jesus called us to. He called us to welcome them without second thought. And after we have done our duty, even when we are not appreciated nor recognized for what we have done, to go on and do more for the glory of God. It is an honor and a kind of greatness which only God recognizes, and every one of us must be happy to pursue.
Look at verses 6-9. According to Jesus, there are two kinds of people. There are those of good influence and those of bad influence. And Jesus has a warning for those with bad influence! Read verse 7. “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!” Jesus tells us that this world holds many things that cause Christians to sin! Therefore, the influence that we have on each other as well as the influence we have on those outside he church is very important. This world is full of sinful things, and full of stumbling blocks, and there is nothing we can do to stop it! But there is something we can do. In the midst of all these sinful things, we can influence each other and others in a good way! How? Through the influence of faith and of the life of faith and a committed life to the Lord and his gospel. There seems to be many so called Christians in the world. But their lives tell otherwise! They live a double life before God, living one way in the church and then enjoying the pleasures of life in the world. What kind of influence do you think these people give on each other! What kind of influence do you think they give to non Christians who observe them! How about those who worship in the church and then give in to temptation with others outside of the church! These are the things that cause people to sin that Jesus is talking about. But as for those who love the Lord, their lives of faith, their commitment to the Lord, their singular devoted life to the Lord, such things influence others in a good way. A man or woman in Christ is careful to live a life worthy of the gospel so that those who observe their lives receive grace and are encouraged to follow Christ.
Jesus again taught his disciples true greatness in God’s sight. Read verse 10. “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Jesus teaches us not to look down on young Christians! It is our sinful habit to look for others’ weaknesses and then when we have found those weaknesses and mistakes and failings to also despise them. It gives us a sense of superiority over others. When we despise others’ weaknesses and mistakes, we reveal that we are really unspiritual and mostly indifferent to their sufferings. A Christian who looks down on others because of their weaknesses shows that he or she doesn’t care about their painful problems. How easy it is to look down on another Christian struggling to grow, falling and getting up many times. Everyone needs time to grow. While growing, everyone stumbles and falls. To the immature Christian, when others stumble it is a perfect opportunity to look down on them and in that way to appear great! But that’s not really greatness. It’s heartlessness and immaturity and even foolishness. Jesus however teaches real greatness. He teaches the heart of God— the heart of the shepherd. Here’s what the shepherd does when he sees the failing of the weak sheep.
Verses 12-14 tell the famous parable of the lost sheep. There was a shepherd who owned 100 sheep, and one wandered away. Should he not leave the 99 on the hills and look for the one that wandered off? In a realistic and practical business way, no, he shouldn’t! If he abandons 99 sheep in order to find one lost sheep, he is considered an irrational business man. But Jesus says otherwise! He says that if he does go out after that lost one, he is considered “great”. Jesus doesn’t want us to be practical, realistic when it comes to one helpless and weak sheep. He doesn’t want us to look down on one trouble-ridden sheep and count him off as a business-loss or a tax deduction! Instead he wants us to have a shepherd heart like God who leaves the 99 behind to recover the one. In that way God himself is great! In the world the more selfish one is— the greater he may become. But to God, real greatness is measured by sacrifice! And true Greatness is to love one person in Jesus— to love them in spite of all their weaknesses and failings— and to be ready to leave everything behind in order to satisfy the shepherd heart of God for him. Now that’s true greatness!
When we look at verses 15-20, it’s certainly about God’s love expressed in his forgiveness of sin. There are so many who don’t know God’s forgiveness for them, and therefore they don’t know God’s love for them either. If you don’t know God’s forgiveness in your life, it’s hard to know how much God really loves you! As a result these people give in to a vengeful and unforgiving spirit in their own lives. They do not easily forgive, and expect others to beg for their forgiveness. But that’s not the way of greatness at all. They are pathetic Christians with a small heart. Jesus taught us the way of true greatness in everything, especially in the way of forgiveness. Actually it’s through forgiving others. Look at verse 15. “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” Small-minded and small-hearted people often wait for an apology from an offending person. Because of this, even Christian homes are broken because of these small-minded people who have no concept of God’s love and forgiveness. But to be great in God’s eyes, Jesus wants us to do our best to make peace with one who has sinned against us. How great is the man or woman who has learned to forgive others their sins against them. That person bears the heart of God. The greatest man who ever lived is Jesus because he shed his blood on the cross to forgive all of our offenses and sins against him.
Peter understood that Jesus was teaching about forgiveness. Hot-headed Peter was surprised when Jesus said that true greatness is in forgiveness. So he came to Jesus and asked a question with a touch of rebellion in it. Look at verse 21. “Lord,” he said, “how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Peter thought that to forgive his brother seven times is ridiculous and generous and heroic since forgiving even one time is near impossible. In the world, and to the worldly eyes, “forgiving” others sounds ridiculous, when we feel that we ought to get even instead. We feel as if forgiving others is a sign of weakness. It is certainly considered “not so great.” But look what Jesus taught us: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (22) Why did Jesus give this incredible number to his disciples? It meant that our duty as Christians is to forgive others’ sins against us unconditionally. These are the marks of true greatness. Greatness in the kingdom of God is so different from what it is here on earth where it is corrupted by the worldly standards of greed and ambition and competition and a hunger for success. True greatness in God is to have a humble heart like a little child, to learn from Christ and from his servants and to grow in humility, to welcome those who are weak and in need of God’s love; greatness is to give up the 99 in search of the one; to never despise him or her for their weaknesses, to never look down on them, but to shelter them and shepherd them until they mature and are able to walk with Christ; greatness is forgive and forgive and forgive without end, so that the very heart of the forgiving God dwells in us among us and so that those who come from the outside can see the feel the love of God. Greatness is to live such lives as to influence one another in a good way, in the right way, in the way of faith and of all the good things that Christ passes down to us in his teachings, so that we might fight the sin that is rampant in our world. Let’s pray that we may learn what true greatness is and embrace it as his children.