What name does God use most often to describe His people? The Bible identifies the people of God by many names. But more frequently than anything else we are called “children;” “children of promise, children of the day, children of the light, beloved children, dear children, and children of God.”
As believers we can rejoice in the wonderful truth that, through Christ, we have become God’s own children, adopted through grace. We bear the image of God’s family and are joint heirs with Jesus Christ of everything God possesses. We enjoy God’s love, care, protection, power, and other resources in abundance for all eternity.
But there is another side to our being children, and in Scripture believers are also referred to as children in the sense that we are incomplete, weak, dependent, undeveloped, unskilled, vulnerable, and immature.
Matthew 18 focuses on those immature, unperfected, childlike qualities that believers demonstrate as they mutually develop into conformity to the fullness of the stature of Jesus Christ.
Jesus teaches on the specific theme of the childlikeness of the believer, speaking directly to the reality that we are spiritual children with all the weaknesses that childhood implies. It is also essential to see that the chapter teaches the church, as a group of spiritually unperfected children how to get along with each other.
The context for the sermon is indicated by the phrase at that time, which refers to a period the disciples came to Jesus, possibly at Peter’s house in Capernaum.
The Lord’s teaching was prompted by the disciples themselves, who asked Him a very selfish question that betrayed their sinful ambitions. We learn from Mark and Luke that the question, Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? resulted from an argument the Twelve had been having among themselves “as to which of them might be the greatest” (Luke 9:46; cf. Mark 9:34). Although Jesus omnisciently knew what had happened, He asked, “What were you discussing on the way?” The disciples were so ashamed of their attitude and conversation that “they kept silent” (Mark 9:33-34).
Their embarrassed silence shows they knew that what they had been doing was inconsistent with what their Master had been teaching on humility. But the fact that they nevertheless were arguing about their relative ranks in the kingdom shows they were making little effort to apply what they had been taught. They were as proud, self-seeking, self-sufficient, and ambitious as ever. In light of what they had been discussing and the way they phrased the question to Jesus, it is obvious they expected Him to name one of them as the greatest.
Leonard Bernstein, the late conductor of the New York Philharmonic orchestra, was once asked to name the most difficult instrument to play. Without hesitation, he replied, “The second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm—that’s a problem. And if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony.”
This is the failure of the Disciples. Just as they had heard but not really accepted what Jesus had been teaching about humility they also had heard but not really accepted what He had been teaching about the kingdom. They obviously still expected Jesus soon to set up an earthly kingdom, and each of them was hoping to have a high rank in that dominion. They were especially competitive about being number one.
Earlier that same day (see 17:22-23) that Jesus had told them (for the third time) about His impending suffering and death. Although they did not fully understand what He was saying to them (Mark 9:32), they should have sensed its gravity And even though they were afraid to ask Jesus what He meant, it would seem they would have been discussing that issue rather than which of them was to be the greatest.
The Disciples demonstrated no concept of humility, very little compassion, and certainly no willingness to take up their own crosses and follow Christ. (Matt. 10:38-39; 16:24-26).
Several months after this lesson in Capernaum, their selfish ambition was still very much evident. Probably at her sons’ instigation, the mother of James and John asked Jesus, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left” (Matt. 20:20-21). The other disciples were indignant at the two brothers, but their indignation was not righteous but envious (v. 24).
It must have been especially painful to Jesus that, just as on the occasion recorded in chapter 18, this self-seeking request came immediately after He had predicted His suffering and death (20:19). There is no indication of sympathy, consolation, or grief concerning what their Lord was about to endure on their behalf and on the behalf of His elect. And on the night before He died, while He was eating the Last Supper with them, they were still arguing about their own greatness (Luke 22:24).
Like all of us, the disciples needed repeated lessons in humility, and here Jesus used a child as His illustration.
In verse two: calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them
The word used for child “Paidion” identifies a very young child, sometimes even an infant. This particular child was perhaps a toddler, just old enough to run to Jesus when He called him to Himself. Because the group was likely in Peter’s house, the child may have belonged to Peter’s family and already been well known to Jesus. In any case, the child readily responded and allowed himself to be taken up into Jesus’ arms (Mark 9:36). Jesus loved children and they loved Him, and as He sat before the disciples holding this small child in His arms, He had a beautiful setting in which to teach them profound lessons about the childlikeness of believers. In taking the child up into his arms, Jesus put Himself on the same level as the child and the other adults around him.
The essence of the first lesson is in verse three, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn from your sins and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
That is an absolute and far-reaching requirement of ultimate importance. Entrance into Christ’s kingdom demands childlikeness.
The “Kingdom of Heaven,” a phrase Matthew uses 32 times, is synonymous with the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of Heaven emphasizes the sphere and character of His rule, and kingdom of God emphatically pointing to the ruler Himself. God rules His kingdom with heavenly principles and heavenly blessings and in heavenly power, majesty, and glory. Entering the kingdom means coming under the sovereign rule of God.
Jesus is talking directly about entering God’s kingdom by faith, through salvation that will result in eternal glory. The phrase “enter the kingdom of heaven” is used three times in the book of Matthew (see also 7:21; 19:23-24) and in each case refers to personal salvation. It is the same experience as entering into life (18:8) and entering into the joy of the Lord (25:21).
The fact that a person must enter the kingdom assumes he is born outside of it under the rule of Satan and that he is not naturally a heavenly citizen under the rule of God. The purpose of the gospel is to show men how they may enter the kingdom and become its citizens:
Colossians 1:13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,
The purpose of Christ’s ministry and the ministries of John the Baptist and the apostles was to call people to the kingdom. That is still the supreme task of the church.
The first component presented for entering the kingdom is repentance.
The message of John the Baptist was:
Matthew 3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
It was with that identical message that the Lord began His own ministry (4:17). The initial call for ending the kingdom was a call for people to recognize and repent of their sin, which involves genuine desire to turn away from it.
A second component of the faith that grants entrance to the kingdom is the recognition of spiritual bankruptcy. Beatitudes begin with a call to humility, expressed there as poverty of spirit (Matt. 5:3).
Matthew 5:3-8 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
The Greek word “poor in spirit” refers to a beggar who has absolutely no resources of his own. Because the repentant and bankrupt person is deeply aware of his sin, he mourns over it (v. 4); because he has no righteousness of his own, he hungers and thirsts for God’s righteousness (v. 6); and because he cannot himself cleanse his sin, he longs for the purity of heart (v. 8) that only God can provide.
The person who genuinely wants to enter God’s kingdom sees himself as utterly unworthy and undeserving. His awareness of his sin brings guilt and frustration over his inadequacy to remove it. He knows that he cannot himself cleanse his sin and that he has nothing to offer God that could merit forgiveness for it.
As Jesus took the young child in His arms and held him up before the disciples, the Lord gathered up all those elements of salvation explaining the beginning of verse three:
Matthew 18:3 “Truly, I say to you, unless you repent and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus explained. A little child is simple, dependent, helpless, unaffected, unpretentious, unambitious. Children are not sinless or naturally unselfish, and they display their fallen nature from the earliest age. But they are nevertheless naive and unassuming, trusting of others and without ambition for grandeur and greatness.
Children trust their parents to take care of them. They do not lie awake wondering where the next meal is coming from. They are anxiety free and confident that everything they need will be provided.
The conclusion is then in verse four:
Matthew 18:4 “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Who is this message for? The first word of verse four tells us: Whoever.
The nature of humility pictured with a child shows the end to the desire for power, status, self-sufficiency, rights and control.
A little child makes no claims of worthiness or greatness. He knows he cannot meet his own needs and has no resources to stay alive. That is the kind of humble submissiveness that results in greatness in God’s eyes and in His kingdom.
The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who is humble, unaffected, genuinely sincere, undemanding, not self-centered, receptive to whatever God offers, and eagerly obedient to whatever He commands.
The disciples had become so preoccupied with the organization of Jesus’ earthly kingdom that they had lost sight of its divine purpose. Instead of seeking a place of service, they sought positions of advantage. It is easy to lose our eternal perspective and compete for promotions or status. It is difficult, but healthy, to identify with “children” weak and dependent upon Jesus.
In what ways are you making progress with childlikeness?
Message Audio/Video and Outline: https://upwards.church/watch-now/leander-campus-videos
Watch Messages: YouTube-Upwards Church
Scripture references are from the English Standard Version
Life Application Study Bible, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 1579-1580.
Humble Yourself In Childlikeness, Servanthood, And Brokenhearted Boldness Matthew Kratz
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