Jesus used four main settings to contrast human notions of greatness with the norms of His kingdom.
1. The cultural attitude toward children
“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.”
2. 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.”
3. 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.”
4. The pursuit of honor among 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.
Humility doesn’t 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 engage in the act of self-humbling: “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4).
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 immune from prideful desires and actions. Jesus pointed to the lack of status granted to children in the culture as the sign of greatness. The disciples must humble themselves (a word more about the action of lowering oneself). They must take the place of non-status or servanthood.
Jesus made humility and unconcern for social status more than a psychological structure of the kingdom. It must be the pursuit of those who wish to enter the kingdom. 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 kingdom of God are used synonymously in the N.T.).
Jesus simply emphasized 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. This is the disposition of the redeemed.
A community quality
Notice that Jesus based humility on some understanding of equality – “You have one Master, one Father, one teacher and you are all brothers.” How should the Church be shaped by this truth? “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28).
Application for 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).