To answer this question, we have to move beyond cliches about those who “accept Jesus into their hearts.” Such cliches too often conceal an important truth that Jesus exposed.
Let’s get right to the point
Only the humble will be in heaven. I’m not sure how one could read the teaching of Jesus and reach any other conclusion. Heaven will be filled with humble people, with the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3). The proud of heart will be excluded. The broken and contrite, God will not despise.
This should make people who strive to be religious very nervous. It should also warn those who are working their way “up” the structured ranks of orthodox Christianity to pause (as the apostle Paul did) over a ledger of gains and losses in Christ (Philippians 3:3-9).
How often did Jesus emphasize this truth?
Immersed in the expected ways of human culture, Jesus’ first disciples relentlessly focused on position, place and power. But let’s not be too hard on these fellows because we all feel a pull toward self-justification. Have you ever been guilty of trying to use God’s kingdom as an opportunity for personal kingdom building? There’s a reason why Jesus had to say, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1).
How many examples did Jesus use to teach that only the humble find favor with God? He used the poor, servants, sinners, children, the last, the least, the lost, the outcasts, the despised, etc… And how many contrasts did Jesus use to strengthen this truth?
What heaven rejects
The religious Pharisees provided the primary example of all that heaven rejects. In Matthew 23, Jesus called them blind guides, blind fools, blind men, hypocrites, blind Pharisee, gnat-straining, camel-swallowing, whitewashed tombs, snakes, and a brood of vipers. Could he have been any clearer?
These religious leaders “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (23:13). Jesus said, “You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. ….You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (23:14-15).
Jesus praised the Father for hiding things from the wise and learned and revealing truth to little children. Then he invited all the weary and burdened to come to him (Matthew 11:25-30). Jesus told scathing stories about those who were “confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9-14). He repeatedly exposed self-justifying religious arrogance in man-pleasing, honor-seeking people. Heaven is shut to them. They shut themselves out.
Does this make you nervous?
It’s far too easy (and perhaps less disturbing) to attach our hearts to clichés. Many of us want to say, “Only those who accept Jesus as Savior go to heaven.” Or, “Only those who believe in the gospel go to heaven.”
These are not necessarily wrong statements, but they possibly conceal what Jesus revealed. We could say, “Only the humble accept Jesus and believe the gospel. But is this making salvation and eternity in heaven a human work? What about God’s salvation being a gift and not by works? (see: Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). Here too we must be careful because Jesus did not separate matters as sharply as we often do.
Matthew 18: A case in point
The disciples asked Jesus about greatness in the kingdom. This resulted in one of Jesus’ entrance sayings. “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 18:2). It will do no good to separate kingdom and salvation as if you could have salvation without entering the kingdom.
This is similar to what Jesus said at the beginning of His sermon on the mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). In Matthew 5:20, 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.” (cf. other entrance sayings: Matthew 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. Do not read positional righteousness in Christ back into this verse. It would have never entered the minds of the original audience. What Jesus meant by His demand for “exceeding righteousness” becomes more clear in Matthew 6:1- ““Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” Don’t prostitute the sacred to promote yourself. Heavens inhabitants resist image management and ego building. Ouch! Does that reach into our hearts? No wonder we prefer cliches!
The mindset of the kingdom elevates being seen by the father in secret as cherished over recognition and honor from people.
Humility does not come naturally
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.”
Becoming childlike is not a reference to being “innocent as a child” or having the “simple faith of a child.” Jesus is dealing with status seeking. Children were a cultural example of non-status and mostly exhibited unconcern for status.
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).
Interestingly, 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.
Socio-economic and Spiritual
In the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Luke, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20). In Matthews account, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Luke used socio-economic categories; Matthew used spiritual categories. Is there a relationship? Do riches push people away from God? Does wealth lead to a self-sufficient pride?
“Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5).
“God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (I Corinthians 1:27-29).
What a great place heaven will be!
Heaven is open to the poor in spirit and closed to the proud in spirit. God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. Yet humility seems so out of reach. The moment you think you’ve attained it, you’ve lost it. And, to make matters worse, it’s possible to be so humble that you’re proud of it. The Puritans wisely suggested that even in our repentance there is likely something to repent about — perhaps how proud we are for being repentant! Is the starting point of true repentance found in repenting of our repentance. Sound confusing? To repentant people it doesn’t.
What about the gospel?
“Unless people sense their guilt and helplessness to save themselves…, the wonder and availability of God’s grace will not move them” (D. A. Carson). Should we say that humility begins when you know it’s out of reach? Can one ever know he has reached a state of humility? Would this really matter to humble people? Our cry must remain: “God be merciful to me the sinner.”
When Martin Luther dedicated his life to be lived as a monk and offered his first communion he was overwhelmed with a sense of his own sinfulness in view of the greatness of God and the sacrifice of Christ.
When he came to the words, “We offer unto Thee, the living, the true, the eternal God,” he was suddenly filled with terror. “Who am I that I should lift my eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty?” he thought. “The angels surround Him. At His nod the earth trembles. And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that’? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal, and true God.”
This is poverty of spirit! It’s a person’s attitude toward himself before God as he recognizes his spiritually bankrupt condition. It’s an awareness that he has no claim before God beyond a cry for mercy. I believe it was Llyod-Jones who said of the poor in spirit that he is truly amazed that God and man would think of him and treat him as well as they do. Contrast that with the attitude of entitlement that permeates affluent cultures. Then compare it with the attitude of those welcomed into the kingdom (Matthew 25:34-40).
This attitude is observed in Isaiah when he encountered the Holy God, high and lifted up—and responded in personal devastation, “Woe is me for I am undone…” Upon receiving a fuller understanding of the holy character of God, Job cowered back and said, “I have heard of you with the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you, therefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Peter said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).
Prior to his conversion, Augustine wrote, “I grew more wretched as Thou didst grow nearer”? The apostle stated it clearly: “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). There is only one answer: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).
What are the consequences of the absence of poverty of spirit among those who profess to be the people of God? What happens when we try to domesticate God? What happens when we try to recast God into a more manageable deity who fits our schedules, who doesn’t ask us to step out of our comfort zone, but must remain always available to comfort and bless us?
Have we lost our sense of awe at the terror of the holiness of our great and awesome God? Has this loss been behind our sense of liberty to cut moral corners, to trivialize our sins, to demand our rights—to question God’s Word and authority—to write off guilt as a feeling God would not inflict on us?
“There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18).
“God-fearing people have a dreadful love for God, and awe-filled love that knows God is not mocked, that we reap whatever we sow, that God is not to be fooled with, scorned, or ignored but trusted, loved and obeyed. Everything wise and righteous is built on this unshakable foundation. Fear and love must go together. God-fearing people know that God’s first project in the world is not to make us happy and that we will gain happiness only after we have renounced our right to it. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35) (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to be)
On October 18th, 1740, David Brainerd (missionary to the American Indians) wrote the following in his journal: “In my morning devotions my soul was exceedingly melted, and bitterly mourned over my exceeding sinfulness and vileness” (John Stott, p. 42).
The godly man Ezra fell on his knees and spread his hands out to the Lord God and prayed, “O my God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens” (Ezra 9).
Need more evidence?
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). “For this is what the high and lofty One says, He who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit’” (Isaiah 57:15).
“This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?’ declares the LORD. “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:1-2)
“You save the humble but bring low those whose eyes are haughty” (Psalm 18:27). “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them His way” (Psalm 25:9). “The Lord sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground” (Psalm 147:6). “For the Lord takes delight in His people; He crowns the humble with salvation” (Psalm 149:4). “He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3:34). “The humble will rejoice in the Lord; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 29:19).
What did the Lord Jesus say?
“…the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” “This man went home justified before God.” Why? Because God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. And we must remind ourselves that it is “by grace that you are saved—it is not of yourselves, not of works lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
When the prodigal son came home, he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). This is poverty of spirit! It’s the conviction that comes before conversion. Such an attitude of brokenness, unworthiness and humility should continuously characterize God’s people. It’s the attitude of the meek person who, having recognized his poverty of spirit, is “amazed that God and men can think of him as well as they do and treat him as well as they do” (M. Lloyd-Jones).
Consider Jesus’ words in- “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17:10).
Jesus gave the example in towel-girding, basin-carrying, foot-washing love (John 13).
What will Jesus say to His servants at the end?
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:34-36).
How will His servants respond? Will they say, “Yes, Lord, we did that and more. We were wondering if anyone noticed all that we did for you?” No. They respond with the attitude of the redeemed:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” (Matthew 25:37-39).
This is the attitude of the inhabitants of heaven.
This person is amazed that God would use him! And from this attitude, serving others flows freely and joyfully.
Wait a minute: Don’t we always struggle with sinful pride?
Yes! I am not suggesting that this side of heaven God’s people are not tempted to be proud and self-serving. God continues to break us to remake us into the image of His humble Son. This is why reminders like Philippians 2:3-11 were given. In fact, based on the logic behind forbidding an elder in the Church from being “a recent convert” lest he “become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil” (I Timothy 3:6), one could argue that growth in humility is part of growth in Christian maturity. Evidently one should be less vulnerable to conceit if not a “recent convert.” Does this imply growth in humility?
Yet, as Jesus taught, there should be a notable difference between the poor in spirit and the Pharisees (cf. Luke 18:9-14).
“God, help us all to turn to You with broken and contrite hearts. Enable us to repent even of our repentance when we are subtly proud of ourselves for being repentant. Help us to serve You and one another in humility. Forgive us for the arrogance and selfishness that too often characterize our lives. Help us to be more like Jesus, the One Who loved us and gave Himself for us. Help us to never think that we have or are anything before you apart from what we have and our identity in the Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior.”
Reflect on Jesus words
“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me” (John 12:24-26).
See also: Exploring true humility