“The church is a provisional, struggling foretaste of the kingdom of God, a place where we struggle to view one another not as competitors, but instead as brothers and sisters all 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.
Cannibalism – 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.
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 who is the greatest was answered with a powerful “entrance sayings” 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 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. What Jesus meant by this exceeding righteousness becomes clear in Matthew 6:1 – 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”. Jesus is exposing status seeking and children were both a cultural example of non-status and usually exhibited unconcern for status.
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?
Remember – Jesus makes humility and unconcern for social status not only the psychological structure of the kingdom, but also as a basis for entrance into it. And it will do no good to separate kingdom and salvation as if you could have salvation without entering the kingdom. Although kingdom had a future dimension, 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
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
“…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.” (from Robert Roberts)