By Pastor Glenn Pease
A Sunday School teacher was giving her class an overview of the New Testament. She was saying that the children of Israel carried all their possessions out of Egypt, and the children of Israel carried the tabernacle in the wilderness, and the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea, and the children of Israel built a temple. One little girl raised her hand and the teacher paused and asked if she had a question. "Yes," she said, "Didn't the parents ever do anything in the Old Testament?"
We know, of course, that the children of Israel were not children but adults, just as the children of God in the New Testament are adults. All adults are children from God's perspective, and they are even called new born babes when they are newly born into the kingdom and immature in the faith. If God is our heavenly Father, then it follows that we are his children. But this aspect of being children is not enough for Jesus. He demands that we actually take on the positive character of a child before we can enter the kingdom of heaven.
The surprising thing is that Jesus is saying this to his own disciples. These are his hand picked men, and they seem to feel justified in their feelings of pride. Not everybody gets chosen by the Messiah to be a close disciple. Like most everyone who gets selected for a noble position, they got a swelled head. They spend a lot of their time arguing about who was the greatest. After all, when the Messiah sets up his kingdom we will be in key positions in the new government. Who will be the greatest was a logical question in preparation for their role in the new kingdom.
The problem was that everyone wanted to be the vice president. James and John even got their mother to try and help them get the right and left hand chairs next to Jesus. This power grab failed, as did all of the maneuvering among the Apostles for position. Jesus refused to conform to the world and its power politics. When they came to Jesus asking him to solve their dilemma, Jesus shocked them. This had to be one of their most embarrassing moments, for Jesus did not select anyone of them, but instead, he called a little child and said to them that they must become like little children or they could never enter the kingdom. What a slam to their male egos. They are seeking status, and Jesus does not vote for any of them, but rather for some unknown kid who doesn't even know the score.
They were asking Jesus, who of us is the greatest in the kingdom? Jesus responds by telling them that their question is premature. They have to get into the kingdom before they start worrying about status in the kingdom. Jesus was saying, "You guys won't even qualify to be the least in the kingdom unless you change your proud spirit and become like this little child." Jesus pulled the rug out from under them and cut them down to size in a hurry. They were being childish, and Jesus said to grow up and become childlike, and then you can all be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Notice that Jesus refuses to have a system like that of the world where there has to be levels of greatness. In the military you have the private, the sergeant, the captain, and the general, and the general is the greatest. In the civilian world you have the manager, the vice president, and the president, and the president is the greatest. The world system is based on the pyramid where somebody always rises to the peak and is the greatest. The disciples were conditioned to think this way, for it is a universal practice. But Jesus says it is not so in his kingdom. In verse 4 he says, "Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." The top is not limited to one person, but any number of people can be the greatest. If 100 million Christians become truly childlike, then all of them are greatest in his kingdom. There is total equality, and every child of God has an equal opportunity to rise to the top. All other kingdoms have limited room at the top, but his kingdom has endless room at the top.
The disciples were locked into the world view that says you have to compete with others for the top spot. They were just doing what men have always done. They were comparing their gifts, skills, and leadership abilities with each other, and trying to put a higher value on their own in order to rise above the rest. This is the world's way of determining greatness. Jesus says, forget it, for the kingdom of heaven does not operate on that value system. It is not a kingdom of competition where you rise to greatness by being better than everyone else. It is a kingdom where just the opposite is the case. You do not try to be better than everyone else, but you, like a child, humble yourself and cooperate with everyone else knowing that you are all dependent on each other. Those who cooperate for the good of the whole are the greatest, and not those who in pride forsake the body for their own glory.
Pride like that of the disciples says, I am self-sufficient and superior to others. I don't need them, they need me. I should be the greatest. Childlike humility says, I need my brothers and sisters in Christ. I am sunk without the body, and I depend on others for encouragement and motivation. I am just one part of the body, and I need the whole body to be at my best. This dependent and cooperative spirit is what Jesus says makes a believer the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. If you get 12 men with this spirit, you have a powerful tool by which you can change the world for good. If you have 12 men like they are here, asking who is the greatest, you will be fortunate if you accomplish anything that will not be soon undermined by their competitive and contentious spirit.
Show me a group of people where competition for status is prominent, and I'll show you the kingdom of man. Show me a group where cooperation for the good of the whole in God's will is prominent, and I'll show you the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is where God's will reigns, and the fulfillment of his purpose and plan is the primary agenda.
It is possible for a Christian, or a church, to not enter the kingdom of heaven. The disciples at this point were not in the kingdom. They were not childlike, but were full of a competitive spirit to win status over each other. They were not under the reign of God, but under the reign of their own ego. Self was king, and where any other power but God is the motivating power of your life, you are no longer under the Lordship of Christ, and you are not in the kingdom of heaven. You are in the world and of the world, and that is where the disciples were. They were saved children of God, but they were not in the kingdom of heaven. They were each building their own kingdom for their own self-exaltation.
A child of God, or a church, or a whole community can become so enamored of self and their own kingdom that they cease to be a part of the kingdom of heaven. They are like the churches in the book of Revelation where Jesus threatens to remove their candlestick, for they no longer represent the kingdom of heaven. All of this explains a lot about the negatives in the history of the church, and why Christian people often fail to represent the Christ who saved them.
The solution to the disciples problem, and the solution to the vast majority of the problems in the Christian life all revolve around a little child, and how we relate to children, and how we represent the childlike spirit. The profound teaching of Jesus falls into two simple categories. 1. The example of the child to us, and, 2. The example of adults to the child. We only have time to examine the first one now.
I. THE EXAMPLE OF THE CHILD TO ADULTS.
The first thing we need to do is clarify the issue. Jesus is not saying children are sinless, unfallen angels who never fight or show self-centered pride and greed. The child is not our example in everything anymore than a serpent or dove just because Jesus said to be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. Paul said when he became a man he put away childish things. Jesus is not holding up immaturity as a virtue. In fact, he rebuked the Pharisees for being so childish. John the Baptist came and didn't eat or drink. They criticized him for being too conservative. Jesus came eating and drinking, and they criticized him for being too liberal. Jesus said they were like children who didn't want to play funeral or wedding. They just didn't want to play along with any game where they did not make the rules. Jesus said they were like spoiled brats, and so he knew the depravity of children. He was not blind to the demonic potential of the little angels.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record these words of Jesus, that the kingdom of God must be received like a little child to enter it, and all three have the words of Jesus, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." There is no escaping the fact that Jesus made the child a primary example to the adults, and to miss this example is to miss the way into the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus demonstrated his teaching here. He says that we must be humble like the child. It is the same Greek word that Paul uses in Phil. 2:8 where he says of Jesus, "...he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross." The result was God exalted him and gave him a name above every name. Jesus became the greatest servant in the fulfilling of God's plan of salvation, and the result is his is the greatest name in the kingdom of God. He did this by becoming like a child, and not grasping at equality with the Father. It was not by striving to build a following of his own as Satan tempted him to do. But he, like a child, gave up all personal ambition, and to please the Father he surrendered and said, "Not my will but thine be done."
The childlike spirit that Jesus holds up as our example, and which he followed himself, is the humble spirit of surrender to a greater power. We know children are part of the fallen world, and they can very early get rebellious, but the fact is, a child at its best is a person of faith and cooperation. They will put their life in your hands and take leaps of faith in obedience to your word. Children will leap off places that would seriously injure or even kill them, and fall into your arms simply because they trust you to catch them. They know how to be dependent, for they know their weaknesses and limitations. This humble spirit makes them fun and cooperative, and, therefore, useful for achieving goals. That is the kind of adult that pleases God, for he can use this childlike spirit to get his will done in the world. That is why Jesus uses this same word in Matt. 23:12 where he says, "For whosoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whosoever humbles himself will be exalted."
When we follow the example of the child we are climbing the kingdom ladder to greatness. The disciples were not, at this point, following the child's example, but that of the Pharisees instead. The Pharisees had set the pattern in the culture of Judaism, and Jesus had to destroy that pattern before he could get his disciples on a new path. Judaism had become totally perverted to be like all other man made systems. It was all a matter of humanism and self-righteousness. Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple to illustrate the contrast between their value system and his own. Luke 18:9 tells us that Jesus told this parable because of the Pharisees self-righteousness, and the fact that they looked down on everybody else. We are the greatest was their theme song. A child does not do this until it is corrupted by adult pride and prejudice. Children of all classes and races can play together and have no problems until they are poisoned by adults. Jesus says there will be hell to pay because of what adults do to warp the minds of children.
Jesus told of the proud Pharisee who thanked God he was not as other men. He was better, and, therefore, he had a wall between himself and others. He was too good for them and was superior, and so he did not have a spirit of cooperation. The tax collector, on the other hand, did not feel better than others. He felt like a sinner and the least worthy of men, and he cried out for God to be merciful to him. Jesus ended the parable by using this same word, "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Judaism went astray and ceased to represent the kingdom of God because adult pride took over and they lost the spirit of childlikeness. As soon as a person or group ceases to be childlike, they no longer represent the kingdom of God. You can be a Christian, or Christian organization, but you do not represent the kingdom if adult pride dominates you rather than childlike humility.
The whole chapter of James 4 stresses this. The Christians were in adult pride trying to get their own way, and conflict was dominant. They were following the world's value system, and in pride they were competing to get ahead of each other, and be greater than each other. The whole chapter is the Christian version of keeping up with the Joneses. What is the solution to this folly of Christians? James, who is the brother of Jesus, uses the same word as his divine brother in 4:10 and says, "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up." In verse 6 he says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." It is possible, says James, to be a child of God so enamored of the world's system of greatness that you end up as an opponent of God fighting the principles of his kingdom.
Peter says the same thing to Christian pastors and leaders in I Pet. 5. If they lord it over the flock in pride, and seek only gain for their own ego, they are building their kingdom and not the kingdom of God. Peter urges them to clothe themselves with humility, and serve one another. He writes, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time." Peter uses the same word that Jesus used of the child.
There are more examples of this word, but we have seen enough to make it clear. The major problem of the Christian life is that of pride and self-centered goals. Competition and the world's way have corrupted the Christian mind. The disciples were infected, and every Christian since has had to fight this infection that can make them ineffective for the kingdom of God. The only cure is child likeness. If we cannot get this antidote into our system, we will not be in the kingdom, nor represent the kingdom, even though we are a part of it.
Have you ever known of a one or two year old to hold a grudge? They can be hurt and have their toys broken, and even have a good fight and cry, but they are quickly reconciled, and the issue is forgotten. They do not keep a record of it for future revenge. I can remember even as a teenager getting very angry with my friends, but not letting it last too long, for I missed them. We would quickly make up, and our point of conflict would be forgotten. It is easier for the childlike mind to be an agent of agape love-the greatest virtue man is capable of possessing. Listen to Paul in the great love chapter. In I Cor. 13:5 he writes of agape love, "It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs." This is an anti-adult value system. Only a childlike person can be a channel of this kind of love. It goes against the grain of adult pride.
If you examine the problems of Christians in relationships, you will discover that the vast majority of them are caused by acting like adults, and the cure for the vast majority is to listen to the great physician who prescribes a heavy dose of child likeness. That was the only cure for the 12, and it is the only cure for the rest of us. If we persist in adult behavior, we will remain a part of the problem. If we pursue the childlike spirit, we will become a part of the solution, for we will, by this means, enter the kingdom of heaven, and the more people do this, the more the kingdom of heaven reigns on earth.
What is the world's problem? Sin, of course, but another way of saying it according to Jesus, and the whole New Testament, is, too many adults and not enough children. Too many chiefs and not enough Indians is the familiar way of saying it, but Jesus said adult pride leads this world to be a place where sin dominates. That is why he booted Satan out of heaven. He refused to have heaven contaminated with self-pride. The unfallen angels are often pictured as childlike cherubs, and this does have biblical authority, for the cherub represents the idea that the kingdom of heaven is inhabited by those who are childlike.
The angels are childlike, for they are not competitive, but very cooperative. They have no desire to build their own kingdom, but are fully submissive and obedient to God. They enjoy his presence in glory, and their lives of service. You will notice in verse 10 that Jesus links the little ones and the angels. They have a lot in common, and anyone who looks down on a child as if they are superior is ignorant of God's value system. The child is not inferior to the adult. On the contrary, they have angels in the very presence of God. They have representation before the face of the creator and ruler of the universe. Adults have their vast system of diplomats in the capitals of this world, but Jesus says children have ambassadors in the capital of the universe, and they have a 24 hour a day open line to the presence of God.
The whole point of Jesus is, don't let your adult pride lead you astray and think you are somehow better than a child. The only way you can even catch up and be even with a child is to change and become like a child, and get rid of much of your adult conditioning which is world oriented and self-centered. Angels and children are the favorite beings of Jesus. Therefore, the only way adults can become among the truly great in the kingdom of God is to become angelic and childlike, which are really the same thing, for they possess the same spirit that is so pleasing to God.
A man who was honored as his city's leading citizen was asked to tell his life story. He said, "Friends and neighbors, when I first came to this city 30 years ago I walked in on a muddy dirt road with all of my belongings wrapped in a red bandanna tied to a stick. Today I am the chairman of the board of the bank. I own hotels, apartment buildings, office buildings, and three companies with branches in 49 cities. Yes, friends, the city has been very good to me." After the banquet a youngster approached the great man and asked, "Sir, could you tell me what you had in that red bandanna when you walked into town 30 years ago?" The man said, "I think, son, it was about half of million dollars in cash and nine hundred thousand in government bonds."
It is easy to be great with that kind of a start, and with those assets. But we seldom realize that all of us have just such a start and rich resources for greatness in what we already possess-child likeness. We have all been there. Not everyone gets to middle age, and not everyone knows what it is to be old, but everyone who lives any time at all has been a child. We once possessed the key to greatness in the kingdom of God. It is lost as we mature and take on the characteristics of an adult world, which conforms to the value system established by pride and competition. But Jesus says we all have the capacity to change and go back to that spirit of the child. By going back we can become the kind of adults that God is proud to call his children.