Rev. Slopsema is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as a little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
From the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke we learn that while on the way to Capernaum Jesus’ disciples had been reasoning among themselves which of them should be greater in the kingdom of heaven. Having arrived in Capernaum Jesus asked them what they had been disputing about. Embarrassed and somewhat hesitatingly the disciplines informed Jesus.
Matthew in his account does not give us this background information but merely focuses in on the question of the disciples. Which of them would be greater (not greatest, as the KJV has it) in the kingdom?
Much to the surprise of the disciples, Jesus placed a little child before them. Jesus informed them that unless they become as little children they would not even enter into the kingdom. Jesus proceeded to inform them that the more they became as little children, the greater they would become in the kingdom. In that context Jesus also called the disciples to conversion. For they certainly had not been like little children in their dispute.
Well do we consider this instruction of our Lord.
The dispute concerning who would be greater in the kingdom revealed a fatal flaw in the thinking of the disciples, a flaw which Jesus graciously corrects.
The error of the disciples is also prevalent today in the church.
We do well then to hear the instruction of Jesus that we must become as little children.
In response to the disciples’ question, Jesus called a little child to Himself and set the child in the midst of the disciples.
We do not know who this child was. According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus and His disciples were in someone’s home. Most likely this child belonged to this home.
Nor do we know the age of this child. We are simply told that it was a little child. On the one hand, he was little enough that Jesus could take him into His arms before placing him before the disciples. This we learn from Mark’s gospel. On the other hand, he was old enough to come to Jesus when called.
Jesus indicated that His disciples must become as little children. Jesus meant that there are certain natural characteristics of a child that must characterize the disciples spiritually.
There are several things that especially characterize little children. Children, for example, are trusting. They are also very frank Jesus, however, would focus our attention on the fact that little children are humble. This is evident from the fact that after Jesus called His disciples to become as little children, He added, “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as a little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Humility is the opposite of pride. Whereas pride is to have an inflated opinion of self, humility is to have a moderate or low opinion of self.
Little children are characterized by such humility. Older children (teenagers) and adults often get caught up in an exaggerated estimation of their own importance. They have an elevated opinion of themselves. This is not true, however, of a little child. He hardly even has a concept of self.
This natural humility of a little child also shows itself in his behavior. A little child does not seek his own honor or boast of his own greatness as adults and older children often do. A little child does not consider himself to be too important to associate with others whom the world may judge to be below him. If allowed, the son of a king will gladly play with the son of a slave. Nor does a little child consider certain tasks too demeaning or beneath him. With joy and zeal he will take on the lowliest of tasks.
This childlike humility must also characterize us.
The idea is not that as we mature we must somehow retain the natural humility we had as little children. Jesus is not interested here in humility on a natural level. The meaning is rather that we must have and exhibit a higher spiritual humility, a humility rooted in faith, a humility however that is mirrored by the natural humility of a little child.
Let us consider this higher, spiritual humility of faith.
Faith brings us the knowledge of our sins and misery. Faith also brings us to the knowledge of salvation in Jesus Christ.
The fruit of this faith is deep humility. One who possesses and lives by faith sees himself as he really is. Of himself he is corrupt and depraved, guilty before God, worthy of eternal damnation. Of himself he is nothing and can do nothing worthwhile. In things that really matter, i.e., in things spiritual and eternal, he is by nature no better than anyone else. True, as a believer saved by grace in Jesus Christ, he is a new creature. In the power of Jesus Christ he is able to accomplish many mighty works. Nevertheless, any good quality and work worthy of praise does not arise out of him but is given to him of God. The awareness of these basic spiritual realities of life destroys all pride and makes the believer very humble.
This humility of faith shows itself in that the believer seeks not his own honor but the honor and glory of God. He boasts not of himself but of God and the work of the cross. He does not consider himself too important to associate with the lowliest of mankind. One may have riches, position, and honor in the eyes of men. But if he has the humility of faith, he will gladly visit the hovel of the poor for the sake of the poor man’s salvation. No task in the kingdom is below the dignity of one who possesses the humility of faith. Following the example of Jesus, he will even wash the feet of others.
Except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as a little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus speaks here of the kingdom of heaven.
Many view the kingdom of heaven only as a future reality, something that will be established at the end of the world. Fact is, the kingdom has existed for centuries. It was established at the coronation of Jesus, when He ascended into heaven and was seated at God’s right hand. True, the kingdom is not yet complete. Its completion awaits the return of Christ and the renewal of all things. Hence, though the kingdom has already come, we await its final completion.
As its name suggests, the kingdom of heaven is not earthly but heavenly and spiritual in nature.
It is not a kingdom found here on the earth that rivals the other nations of the world. It is a kingdom that is found in heaven.
Of special concern to us are the riches of the kingdom. Its riches do not consist of silver and gold but of the -blessings of salvation earned at the cross of Jesus Christ. These fabulous riches are to be had and enjoyed by all who in Jesus Christ truly belong to the kingdom.
The childlike humility of faith is extremely important with respect to this kingdom.
First, a childlike humility is necessary to enter into the kingdom. Except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
We must not imagine that one enters the kingdom only at death, when his soul is taken by God into heaven. Fact is, those who have not entered the kingdom before death lose their soul in hell.
We enter the kingdom already in this life. We do so by faith. For faith clings to Jesus Christ to obtain the perfect righteousness of the cross. This righteousness consists of the blotting out of all our sin, a standing before God without sin. This righteousness is the only way into the kingdom. Those who are righteous in Jesus Christ daily enter into the kingdom in a very spiritual way to enjoy its pleasures and riches.
For that reason Jesus speaks of the necessity of a childlike humility to enter in the kingdom. For a childlike humility is the necessary fruit of faith and thus the proof of faith.
Many claim to have faith but have not humility. This lack of a child-like humility shows that either their claim to faith is false or they are not walking in their faith. Neither are they able to enter into the kingdom to enjoy its riches, so long as they walk in pride.
Only those who have the childlike humility of faith have a place in the kingdom. They enter into the kingdom daily to enjoy its riches and salvation. They also enter into the kingdom at death in a way that is beyond our ability to comprehend.
In addition to this, Jesus teaches that the greater one is in childlike humility, the greater he is in the kingdom. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as a little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
The world counts greatness by how many others one can dominate, control, and influence. The more one can impose his will on others, the greater he is in the eyes of the world.
God’s standard of greatness is completely different. God counts truly great those who serve others. The more we are willing to serve others the greater we are in God’s estimation. This Jesus makes clear in Matthew 20:25-30, where He points to Himself as the supreme example of greatness, in that He came not to be served but to serve others by giving His life a ransom for sin.
This greatness is found only in the humble. The proud have no concern to serve others. The proud are self-seeking and self-serving. Only those who possess the childlike humility of faith are concerned to serve others. They delight to serve the Lord their God in the name of Jesus Christ. They also serve their neighbor, doing good to all men but especially to those of the household of faith. In this service, no one is too lowly for their love, no task below their dignity.
These are truly great in the kingdom.
And they shall receive a great reward in heaven.
Except ye be converted . . . .
The argument of the disciples about which of them would be greater in the kingdom had not arisen out of humility but pride. The disciples still had a somewhat earthly conception of the kingdom. They envisioned Jesus restoring Israel to her former days of glory under David and Solomon. In this kingdom they all sought positions of power, riches, influence, and honor. In their argument about which of them would be greater in the kingdom each was striving for a higher position. This arose not out of the humility of faith that seeks to serve others but out of the pride of unbelief that is self-serving.
Hence, Jesus called the disciples to conversion. They must turn from the pride of unbelief to the childlike humility of faith. No, the disciples were not unbelievers. Yet, neither were they living their faith. The unbelief of their sinful nature had been dominating their thoughts and perspective. Jesus therefore called them to conversion. They must turn from the pride of unbelief to the childlike humility of faith that they might not only enter into the kingdom but be truly great in the kingdom.
The same applies to us.
How easily we get caught up in the pride of unbelief, so that we become self-serving, striving for a false greatness.
Let us turn from all such folly to manifest the childlike humility of faith.
Then we will daily enter into the kingdom to enjoy its riches and pleasures.
Then, too, we will be truly great in the kingdom!