A message on Matthew 18:1-4 given to MOPS in Papillion, Nebraska.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he 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.
Last summer, I was hanging out at my parents’ neighbors’ house in Omaha. I was with my neighbors’ son, AJ. At the time, AJ was maybe 6 months old. As I was holding AJ, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus words when he said in Luke 18, “Let the little children come to me. Do not hinder them.” As Drew, AJ’s dad and I were playing around with AJ, I noticed his utter dependence on his father and for a few moments, even me. During the day, AJ’s mom or dad feeds him, clothes him, cleans him, and puts him to bed. When AJ cries, he cries knowing his mommy or daddy is coming to help him. When AJ laughs, he knows he is laughing because his mommy or daddy is with him. He is utterly dependent on other people to keep him alive. Without his mom or dad, or me in those few minutes, AJ would be incapable of living. And I think, for the most part, AJ is okay with that, I think. As all of these thoughts were racing around my brain, Drew said, “A child is a perfect example of how we are to be with God. It’s so perfect. God wants us to be like children, James.” I looked at him and said, “That’s right.”
What is a baby like? A baby is dependent and trusting. A baby has faith that it will be fed, clothed, and provided for each and every day. A baby puts its hope and confidence in someone else other than itself. Every single moment of his day, a baby is wholly leaning on someone else to provide the life-giving elements he needs to keep breathing. In a word, a baby is humble because he looks to something outside of himself for what he needs to survive. And in our passage today, Jesus calls us to turn from our proud ways and become like children, like AJ. Jesus uses children as the example and goal for us to strive for in our Christian journey. But the truth is that everyone struggles with the fact that we need to kill our pride and humbly submit to God so that we can grow in faith in and dependence upon Christ. What will cause us to overcome the pride, selfishness, vanity, and arrogance that keep us from turning and becoming like children, so that we might experience the abundant life that only Jesus offers?
Because God says that without humility we will never see the kingdom of heaven, we must seek his mercy and grace in order that we might begin to kill our pride and humble ourselves under his mighty hand. In fact, I would argue that our pride is the source of all our sin. After all, it was the first sin committed by Satan and it was the sin that Adam and Eve fell into when the serpent lured them with the temptation to “Be like God.” C.S. Lewis, the great British apologist said, “Pride is the complete anti-God state of mind.” Pride is the giant lake of sins and all of our other little pithy sins are merely streams which are fed by the lake of pride that’s in our lives. This pride can only be squelched by Jesus’ power.
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? the disciples asked Jesus. These disciples knew that they were a special group, even though they came from humble beginnings. They were fishermen, tax collectors, blue-collar workers…and great sinners. Yet, they were with the Son of God 24/7. They saw Jesus do miracles and preach authoritative sermons. And they were closer to him than anyone else. They knew that everyone could not have the same greatness in the kingdom and therefore, because they spent more time with the King than anyone else, they must be the most deserving, the most qualified, and the most talented. In a word, they must be the greatest.
If we look to Mark 9:33-37, a similar account to the one here in Matthew, Mark gives us an insight that Matthew does not. Mark writes, “Jesus asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way.’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” They were ashamed to even asked Jesus, because they knew how proud, selfish, arrogant, and vain it was to even argue about the subject. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Whose name is most famous? Jesus’ name is the only name that should be known in the kingdom of heaven. For John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Pride is something that God hates because it is a reservoir for our other sins. Why do we lie, cheat, steal, lust, greed, complain, or say inappropriate things? Because we are proud! Over the past year or so, and even more this week, I’ve been learning this about myself. My motivation for sin is tied directly to my pride. I want to make much of me. I want to feel good, look good, sound good, and let everyone I know how great I am. I was asked a question last week: “If you could commit any sin and get away with it, what sin would it be?” My answer: I would make sure I was always given the credit for everything I did well. I want to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is something I war against everyday in my soul. And in some fashion or another, everyone here today wars against it as well. If the disciples who spent countless hours with Jesus and heard more sermons than we could ever hope to hear struggled with wanting to be great, then how much more will we struggle in our Christian journey toward humility.
So, to urge his disciples to fight pride, he tells them, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The first thing that Jesus says is needed to enter the kingdom is to turn. You need to repent of sin. Matthew Henry, in his commentary, put it like this: “Jesus says, ‘You must be converted, you must be of another mind, and in another frame and temper, must have other thoughts, both of yourselves and of the kingdom of heaven, before you be fit for a place in it. The pride, ambition, and affection of honor and dominion, which appear in you, must be repented of, mortified, and reformed.” We need to turn from our sin-the pride that leads us away from coming to Jesus.
The second thing that Jesus says is needed to enter the kingdom is to become like a child. Once we become Christians, we are converted once for all by the blood of Jesus. But after that event, there are many mini-conversions that occur in a process called sanctification. Sanctification is a becoming like a child. This is Christian perseverance. Without perseverance, you will not enter the kingdom. If you never become like a child, you can very well ask yourself, “Was I ever born again in the first place?”
Being great in the kingdom does not mean you hold a certain position or title. Being great in the kingdom means you are a humble, prayerful, repentant sinner who understands your need for grace and mercy. Being great in heaven means saying with Paul, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I might gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his suffering, becoming like him in his death.” And when we know Jesus, the question will not be who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The questions should be: How great is our Savior who has brought me, an undeserving selfish sinner, into his great kingdom? O, that God would have grace on us to bring us to our faces and worship him. May we be humble people who become like children-small, insignificant, helpless children. And would we see our need for a Great Father who is mighty to save and greater than we could ever fathom.
That is all well and good, that we know Jesus says, “Become like children.” But what does it mean to become like children? Does it mean that we whine and cry when we don’t get food or clothes? Does it mean that we simply play all day and shirk our responsibilities? Jesus gives us the answer in verse 4. He says, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” In Mark 9:35 Jesus puts it this. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” To become like a child means to be humble. To be like a child means that we are people who put ourselves last. What does it mean to be humble? I think of words like dependency, need, faith, trust, hope, confidence in someone else.
Think of a child. What is true of child? A child is utterly dependent on his parents. A baby cannot feed, clothe, clean, change, or help himself in any way. That is what God wants from us. I want to run through some passages that might help motivate and stir us on toward humility and help us understand what Jesus means when he says in order to be great we must become like children. I have three points here, though I could mention dozens. Let the truth of these run deep into your heart so that you might have a head and heart connection.
Christians who are great in the kingdom fight pride in order to humble themselves.
Matthew 23:12, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
1 Peter 5:5-6, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”
James 4:6, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
If you want to be great in the kingdom, then you need to be humble. God gives grace to the humble. The Bible says he “opposes the proud.” In my own life I think about this and I tremble. So many times when I think about the future and what God would have for me in ministry and I think, “Oh, my name on the bulletin. My name on the book cover. My name on the internet.” Jesus says, “Whoever exalts himself, will be humbled.” This is not a good humbling. This is a divine punishment like it says in 1 Peter. Humble yourself! Or else you will see the God’s hand of mighty power on your backside. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
Christians who are great in the kingdom understand and hate their pride.
Luke 18:10-14, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
How often have we prayed like this-even unknowingly! How often do we thank God that we found Jesus and we repented, without recognizing our total depravity and not praising God’s grace?
Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist pastor in London, shows us how much we are depraved, though we may know, understand, and repent of our pride:
The Christian will tell you that he weeps over his very tears; he feels that there is filth even in the best of desires; that he has to pray to God to forgive his prayers, for there is sin in the midst of his supplications, and that he has to sprinkle even his best offerings with the atoning blood, for he never else can bring an offering without spot or blemish. You shall appeal to the brightest saint, to the man whose presence in the midst of society is like the presence of an angel, and he will tell you that he is still ashamed of himself. “Ah!” he will say, “you may praise me, but I cannot praise myself, you speak well of me, you applaud me, but if you knew my heart you would see abundant reason to think of me as a poor sinner saved by grace, who hath nothing whereof to glory, and must bow his head and confess his iniquities in the sight of God.”
Christians who are great in the kingdom long for the nourishment of God’s word.
1 Peter 2:2, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation.”
If we want to be great in the kingdom, then we must not simply know the word of God. It must truly saturate our souls. We must long for it. Psalm 42:1-2 says, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirst for God, for the living God.” Psalm 63:1 says, “O God, you are my God. Earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” May we be people who pant for the milk that God gives like a newborn baby longs for milk from his mother. May we be people who faint when God seems far and feast when he is near. When you long for the pure spiritual milk of the word, you are longing for the powerful, loving, awesome God who wrote the word.
The words “grow up to salvation” in this verse does not mean “get saved.” We know that we are saved by grace through faith. People never get credit in the Bible for salvation. This is talking about sanctification again. To “grow up” in Christianity really means you make less of yourself and become like a child. Peter says, “Like newborn infants.” Jesus said, “Become like children. We will never be fully dependent on Christ throughout our lives-that would mean perfection-but, by God’s grace and the power of the Spirit, we can grow up to salvation by knowing the Word, letting it transform our lives, and humbly submitting, serving, and following our Savior.
To become like a child means that you are clothing yourself with humility. You put God first. You hold others in higher esteem than yourself. You are a servant. When you pray, you mean it with all your heart when you say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Children are humble. They know they can’t do anything on their own-though they try so often. And when they are fallen, hurt, bleeding, crying. Where do they go? They go to Mommy. They go to Daddy. And they turn from their foolish ways and they humble themselves. Being great in the kingdom means that you are wholly dependent on your Heavenly Father as a child is wholly dependent on his earthly parents.
Think back to our introduction. We love babies, don’t we? We love them, I think, because they are so helpless. They are weak and feeble. They need us. When I was holding AJ and he was playing with my nose and ears and smiling and squirming, he needed me. In those few moments, I was his world. How much more does God smile and stretch out his arm of compassion when we are totally immersed, satisfied, and joyful in him? How much more is God glorified in us when we, his helpless, sinful, hungry, and thirsty children cry out to him and say, “You are enough, you satisfy me. I want to lose myself in you?” When we depend on Christ like AJ depends on his parents, we will see the glory of God and will let the worries of the world and the temptations that are connected to our pride be squelched. Perhaps, if we humbled ourselves, we would even sense a tender whisper from our heavenly Father, “Sleep well tonight, sinner. I love you and I am in control. Be satisfied with me.” So, our simple application is by the power of the Spirit, kill pride and humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God. Romans 8:12-13 says, “So then, brothers, we are debtors not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The deeds of the body are anything that you produce that is not of God. Pride, arrogance, greed, envy, lust. We need to hate those things. We need to kill them.
How does this happen? I think it would be a travesty if I told you this morning that you need to “Be more humble,” lest you leave here and think there is something inside which could help manufacture a change in your attitudes, your behaviors, and your thoughts. There is nothing good in me that could stir up the desire to give God glory and make myself nothing. And that goes the same for all of you. So, if you are a Christian this morning, from a posture of faith-which is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen-may we run to God and trust that he will give us grace that will compel us to holiness. May we run to God and trust that he has already defeated the hold of pride in our lives. Though we will never achieve perfection on this earth, may we strive to be like Jesus, trusting that grace will carry us to the end and will one day bring us to completion. And today, if you don’t know Jesus as your Treasure, would you hear the promise that he makes for you today: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” If you don’t know Jesus, you can enter into a covenant relationship with him by his grace through faith, apart from anything you’ve done, good or bad. So I urge you to consider Jesus if you don’t yet.
A hymn written by Joseph Hart in 1759 called “Come Ye Sinners” is such a beautiful call for us to lay down our pride and come to Jesus.
Lo! The Incarnate God, ascended;
Pleads the merit of His blood.
Venture on Him; venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude.
None but Jesus, none but Jesus
Can do helpless sinners good.
O, none but Jesus, none but Jesus can do helpless babies good! Become like a child, Christian. Be humble and helpless before the Lord. Now is the time, for if you tarry until you are grown, you will never come at all.