The Need for Humility
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:1-4
In Matthew 18, we are not confronted with a playful Jesus who is interested in amusing his disciples with fun and games. In this scene we see his disciples who, despite all their time with Christ, still lacked any clear notion of what the Kingdom of Heaven might actually be. Despite all the preaching, miracles, parables, transfiguration, and foretelling of death and resurrection, they still appear to think the Kingdom will be temporal and earthly, and they want to know which one of them will be the greatest in it. This thought leads them to undertake an unbecoming contest showing us that they were not interested in the sufferings of Christ - which he spoke of far more often - but were instead interested only in his glory, and the glory they might have because of it. But we see stark similarities between their thinking and the thoughts of our present day. These disciples were selfish and concerned for their own station and had concern for their own ambitions, rather than the glory of Christ and his gospel. Glory was all that mattered to them, not suffering. Our culture is very much the same. However, in the midst of this hot exchange, in walks Jesus with a little child, who would be the answer to their inquiry.
Becoming Like a Child
Jesus sets the child in their midst and says “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The lesson drawn from this is fascinating. Here we’re told that we must become like children, but some qualification must be made so we can grasp what Jesus is instructing us to do. In many places within scripture we are encouraged to not be like children. For example, we are warned about being foolish in our thinking like children (1 Cor 14:2), and that we mustn’t be capricious (Eph 4:14) or playful like children (Matt 11:16). So these warnings make us inquire more deeply. Well, thankfully we’re not left to wonder, Jesus continues and says, “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” showing that the quality of the child that he commands we emulate is humility. While humility is the goal, when considered in regards to a child, it takes on an entirely different form.
Often, when we’re told to be humble or meek we find it difficult to embrace this, partly because we don’t have many concrete examples. Of course we have Christ as the supreme example (Phil 2:1-11) but even he saw fit that we would be given another in children. So when we look at children, what are we supposed to see? Children are helplessly dependent and this in turn forces their humility. They are small in stature and low in status and in this way we are to imitate them. Children do not desire authority, or regard outward distinctions, are free from malice, and are teachable, and willingly depend upon their parents. The child then becomes a vivid picture of how the disciples of Christ ought to carry themselves.
The Call for Humility
For many, the call to live in humility is loaded with skeptical doubt. It's like getting a letter to refinance your mortgage from some obscure bank at an unbelievably low rate with a picture of a bank president with a face tattoo. You’re going throw that letter in the trash. But this skepticism is not unfounded. For many, being humble has meant becoming a doormat, or effeminate, or putting up with abuse. So we can’t brush people off who have a difficult time with this as if they’re off the reservation.
Jesus makes clear that unless we become like children we will not enter the kingdom, and this is a startling warning, but this isn’t the only place this is given. Elsewhere, we see that God opposes the proud (James 4:6) and that with pride comes disgrace (Prov 11:2), but that the humble receive God’s grace (1Pet 5:5) and that the humble are adorned with salvation (Ps 149:4). So, because of the severity of understanding humility correctly, Christ labored to show not only the necessity of dependence upon him but also the protection that he grants to those who do exactly that.
As God’s children, he promises us that everything we suffer in the pathway of obedience prepares for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Cor 4:17), but more so those who cause any of his children to stumble will be rewarded with a punishment worse than having a millstone tied around the neck and drowned while the water pressure makes their body implode (Matt 18:6). In other words, God does not take lightly those who would abuse his children as they become more and more dependent upon him.
There is vulnerability in becoming children. Children are inherently vulnerable. But like loving parents, God is eager to take his children under his wing and care for them and with his endless resources and compassion. More than that, he intends to make us like his firstborn Son, our elder brother, Jesus Christ. So, if we desire to be great in God’s kingdom, let us humble ourselves, sit at his feet, and become like children.
Nick Muyres is a Navy veteran and lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and children. He is a graduate of Liberty University and is a Certified Biblical Counseling with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. Nick also writes for reformconfess.com