“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 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. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-4).
Was it just curiosity that motivated the disciples to ask about greatness in the kingdom? Or, was there a more invidious motive? How could they shamelessly ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
A little later, two of the disciples maneuvered for positions of prominence in the kingdom. And they actually tried to use their mom to leverage influence with Jesus. How did the other disciples feel about the maneuvers of James and John? “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.” (Matthew 20:24). We can be fairly confident that their indignation was based more on jealousy than humility. They didn’t want to be outdone by these two!
The desire to be recognized and valued is natural to human beings. In fact, as parents, it’s our responsibility to let our children know that they are valued and significant. We should raise our children to know that they are treasured for who they are. But there are dangers in this project. Somewhere along the way, pursuing significance and recognition easily becomes a damaging and dangerous ambition. And this is especially the case when it involves competitive pride.
Those who need to excel over others to think well of themselves— who seek value at the expense of others —who try to climb to honor by using others —-who construct their glory upon the shoulders of weakness found in others— who engage in the “dangerous business of building self-assessments on watching to see how they’re doing in comparison with others” (Robert Roberts, Spiritual Emotions)
Those who live this way are (in some profound way) degrading themselves and cutting themselves off from both God and people. There is something in humility which, strangely enough, exalts the heart, and something in pride which debases it.
“A lack of humility destroys a person’s spiritual life; it subverts his spiritual relationships, the deepest and most important relationships of his life. Pride cuts a person off from fellowship with others. It isolates him and, however little he may recognize the fact, degrades him. He who exalts himself will be humbled.” (Roberts).
Lessons in greatness by contrast:
Jesus repeatedly taught lessons on true greatness. He used three main settings to contrast normal human pursuits of greatness with the norms of his kingdom.
1. The authority structures among those in power:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
2. The expected places of honor in the culture:
“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
3. The pursuit of honor among the religious leaders:
“Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Look around and see how things are done. Everywhere you look people are maneuvering for places of honor, recognition and power. But Jesus demands a radical difference. He said, “Do not be like this.” His followers are called to a revolutionary approach to greatness. Times, places and circumstances may change but the human heart remains the same. These contrasts are timeless in application.
Equality and Humility
Notice that Jesus based humility on some understanding of equality: “You have one Master, one Father, one teacher and you are all brothers”
Application to the Church
“The church is a provisional, struggling foretaste of the kingdom of God, a little group of persons who have been touched by the vision of the kingdom included in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We struggle to view one another not as competitors, but instead as brothers and sisters all equally beloved of the Father, all equally and graciously bestowed with membership in his family.” (Spiritual Emotions, Robert Roberts)
A powerful obstacle:
“God has created us for fellowship with one another, and we have chosen instead to forsake it for something unsatisfying and despicable. Despite our parents’ love, not one of us is humble, not one is innocent of the crime of spiritual cannibalism” (Roberts).
This illustration relates to the tendency to use other people (eat them) to nourish one’s own ego or build ones own importance or advantage. This is what the disciples were doing when the were jockeying for positions of honor. People use the expression: “It’s a dog eat dog world out there.” Be careful about entering into fellowship with a person like this. You might end up in his pot.
On another occasion, Jesus asked his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the road?” “But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” (Mark 9:33-34). This was their ongoing issue!
An entrance saying
In Matthew 18, their question about greatness in the kingdom resulted in another “entrance saying” from Jesus.- “And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.'” (Matthew 18:2)
This is similar to what Jesus said at the beginning of the sermon on the mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3)
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shocked his audience with another entrance saying, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20; cf. other entrance sayings in 7:21; 18:8,9; 19:17, 24; 25:21,23). The rest of the sermon on the mount is a commentary on Matthew 5:20. What Jesus meant by this exceeding righteousness becomes clear in Matthew 6:1 – “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Forsake image-management and ego-building!
In the psychological structure of the kingdom: Being seen by the father in secret is cherished over recognition and honor from people.
Humility does not come naturally:
But none of this is natural to us. That’s why Jesus said, “Unless you CHANGE and BECOME like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” We must be committed to self humbling: verse 4- “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Like this child:
Becoming childlike is not a reference to being “innocent as a child” or having the “simple faith of a child.” Anyone who has raised children knows they are not free from prideful desires and actions. But Jesus is using the lack of status granted to children in the culture as his point. The disciples must humble themselves (a word more about the action of lowering oneself). They must take the place of non-status or servanthood.
A troubling thought:
This forceful warning from Jesus raises a troubling consideration: Did their prideful pursuit of greatness call into question the salvation experience of Jesus’ early followers?
Jesus is establishing humility and unconcern for social status not only as the psychological structure of the kingdom but as a pursuit of those who wish to enter it. And it will do no good to separate kingdom and salvation as if you could have salvation without entering the kingdom. Although kingdom probably had a future focus to it, it also had present implications. (entering life, the kingdom of heaven and God are all used synonymously in the NT.). It could be argued that Jesus is simply emphasizing the attitude of truly redeemed people (cf. Isaiah 66:1-2). “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5).
Although he probably had in mind the consummated kingdom, Jesus used the present tense: “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”–not “will be” one day but “is.” This implies a continuity of disposition between now and a time to come. The disposition of the redeemed.
Additional thoughts about the Kingdom:
At the coming of Christ, the kingdom has drawn near. Jesus is born a king (Matt. 2:2) and for this cause He came into the world (Jn. 18:37). Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was near (Matt. 4:17) and preached the gospel of the kingdom (Matt. 4:23; Mk. 1:14, 38; Lk. 4:43). Jesus also rebuked the Pharisees for shutting up the kingdom against men and not entering themselves (Matt. 23:13).
Jesus spoke of the kingdom as something past- Lk. 13:28; present- Matt. 5:3, 10; 11:12; 12:28; 19:23; Lk. 17:21; and future- Matt. 6:10; 21:43; 25:31-34; Acts 1:6-8. The phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” are equally interchangeable. Both are used in Matt. 19:23-24, compare also Matt. 19:23 w/ Mk. 10:23. Entering life and entering the kingdom are also used interchangeably (Mk. 9:45, 47; Matt. 25:31-34, 46).
The spatial realm of the kingdom is treated as secondary and derivative to a personal relation to the King and his rule.
Certain blessings of the kingdom are experienced in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). At salvation believers experience deliverance from the domain of darkness and are transferred into the kingdom of God’s Son (Col. 1:13; cf. Jn. 3:3-5; Acts 26:18). This transfer involved experience of blessings related to the kingdom in the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:14; cf. Lk. 1:71, 77).
Expedients of Humility (thoughts from Robert Roberts)
Humility is not itself an emotion, like joy or gratitude or contrition. A person could be a wonderful exemplar of humility without ever feeling humble; in fact, one who frequently feels humble is probably not very humble. But humility is an emotion-disposition—primarily a negative one, a disposition not to feel the emotions associated with caring a lot about one’s status.
It is the ability to have my self-comfort quite apart from any question about my place in the social pecking order (whether the criterion is accomplishments, education, beauty, money, power, fame, or position); it is the absence of a spiritually cannibalistic appetite. Humility is cannibal-anorexia, as we might say. It is thus a self-confidence, one that runs far deeper than the tenuous self-confidence of the person who believes in himself because others look up to him.
If this is humility, two things follow. First…our inclination to succumb to invidious comparisons is so great, and the means of making these comparisons are so ready-to-hand, that a necessary part of our defense against spiritual cannibalism will be an equally clear conceptualization of our neighbor as our equal. And second, we need some basis of self-acceptance other than our success in competition with others. We cannot escape the need to believe ourselves valuable, nor would we want to lose that capacity if we could. To believe ourselves worthless is a terrible and unchristian thing; and not to care that we are worthless is perhaps more woeful still.
Christianity offers to satisfy both these conditions, and this is a psychological recommendation for it.
…Christianity is eminently well qualified to engender the evenhanded, deep self-confidence that I am calling “humility.” For it challenges us to see every person as a brother or sister whom God so loved that he humbled himself to equality with the lowest human being, and to death on a cross, to reconcile with himself. The equality in terms of which a Christian is equipped to see every other person is not that of inalienable rights… It is that we are all equally the objects of God’s great love, all equally children (or potential children) of his household, members of his kingdom.
This vision not only levels every distinction by which egos seek a glory that really demeans them. When it becomes entrenched in one’s outlook, the vision is also the ultimate ground of self-confidence. The message is that God loves me for myself—not for anything I have achieved, not for my beauty or intelligence or righteousness or for any other qualification, but simply in the way that a good mother loves the fruit of her womb. If I can get that into my head, or better, into my heart, then I won’t be grasping desperately for self-esteem at the expense of others, and cutting myself off from my proper destiny, which is spiritual fellowship with them.