BECOME AS LITTLE CHILDREN
SERMON PRESENTED ON 12-27-14
It is instructive that Jesus taught that we must receive the Kingdom as little children in order to enter it. Jesus equates being humble as a child with being great in the Kingdom
Matthew 18:1-4: 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.
The time Matthew is writing about is when Jesus and His disciples were traveling to Capernaum and the disciples were arguing among themselves as to who was or would be the greatest in the kingdom. The parallel account of this event is found in Mark 9. That Matthew and Mark are both reporting on the same event is evident from what events are recorded in both Matthew and Mark just prior to Jesus dealing with His disciple’s discussion about who is the greatest.
Mark 9:33-35: They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."
These two passages of Scripture tell us something very important about being in the kingdom which other Scripture equates with having eternal life. Humility is a key to eternal life in the kingdom. Jesus indicates that it is humility that must be present in ones life to enter the kingdom. In the Greek, the phrase translated in Matthew 18 as “will never enter the kingdom” is very emphatic. It is called a double negative and means "absolutely not, under no conditions, it is impossible." Jesus is saying it is impossible to enter the kingdom unless you become like little children. He then elaborates on this by identifying the attribute of humility as a dynamic of becoming like little children. Such emphasis on humility as a dynamic of entering the kingdom should get our attention.
A foundational dynamic associated with being a Christian is to cultivate and express the discipline of humility. This dynamic is one that even the close disciples of Jesus had a difficult time comprehending. As we see recorded in Matthew and Mark, the disciples of Jesus were expressing an attitude quite different from what Jesus was teaching. Jesus made it very clear to them that if anyone wants to be first he must be last and a servant of all. In saying this, Jesus appears to be defining for us what it means to be humble. Jesus appears to be defining humility as a willingness to give of oneself to meet the needs of others first and foremost above all else.
Shortly before the crucifixion, Matthew records that the mother of James and John came to Jesus and asked that James and John be granted the right to sit to the right and the left of Jesus in His kingdom. James and John were apparently in agreement with this request as it is recorded they appeared with their mother before Christ to make this request. In other words, they were asking to be given positions of greatness in the Kingdom. When the other disciples heard about this they were incensed. How did Jesus respond to this?
Matthew 20:24-28: When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 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."
While Jesus doesn’t use the word humility in speaking to His disciples, He is responding in the same manner He is seen as doing in Matthew 18 and Mark 9. He is showing that greatness is achieved through serving others and to serve others is to meet their needs. We humans had the need to be rescued from eternal death. Jesus met that need by going to the cross.
Christ told His disciples that unless they changed and became humble like little children, they would not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Why did Jesus use the humility of a child as an example of what it takes to be in the kingdom? Aren’t children selfish, self-centered, self seeking little bundles of human nature? Where do we see humility in a child? In what sense was Christ telling us to humble ourselves as little children?
The Greek word translated humble in Matthew 18 is tapinoo. This word and its cognates have the basic meaning of being of low position, lowly, poor, unassuming and undistinguished. While this word can be used to identify ones behavior and general approach to life, it can also be used to reflect ones social status.
In Jewish society, a child was viewed as a servant to their parents. A child was to totally submit to his parents and adults in general. A child was basically viewed as being at the same social level as a slave. We can see how the social status of a child was viewed by a statement Paul made to the Galatians where he uses the inferior status of a child to demonstrated the inferior status of being under the Old Covenant as opposed to the New Covenant.
Galatians 4:1-2: What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.
Paul sees a child as no better than a slave until the time appointed when he comes into all that is promised to be his inheritance. In Matthew 18, it appears Christ is alluding to the social status of a child and saying that just as a child is literally of a humble social status in that he is a servant to his parents, so must His disciples be servants and have as their primary focus the meeting of the needs of others. If they do this they will inherit the kingdom and if they don’t do this they will not inherit the kingdom.
The social insignificance of a child was the very opposite of the disciples’ interest in power and greatness. A child occupied a very humble place in Jewish society. Christ used the example of a child’s humble place to demonstrate to the disciples where their true focus should be as Kingdom citizens. There focus was not to be on power, authority and being seen as great, but on service to their master, Christ Jesus, and by extension to each other and mankind in general.
Jesus’ answer, therefore, is an antidote to their glory seeking, a solution to their self-exaltation. A male child had no position in the Jewish society of the first century until he reached a certain age when he was considered to have become a man. Likewise, unless the disciples forsook their position grabbing and settled for being humble servants, they would not enter the Kingdom. They would not reach that level of maturity necessary to become a Kingdom citizen. They would not receive their inheritance.
Jesus was teaching that the status of a disciple was like that of a dependent child who by nature of being a child was to be subservient to their parent. Christ wasn’t addressing the human nature of children. He was using the lowly status of children to demonstrate to His disciples how they should consider themselves in relationship to others.
Some of the disciples’ thought that because they were specially chosen by Jesus, they must be important people in the Kingdom of Heaven and so they were going about trying to organize themselves into a hierarchy - a sort of spiritual pecking order –that would define their importance in the Kingdom of God
If we were to bring it down to one common problem, it was that they were wanting to know who the greatest was rather than discover what it was that would make someone to be considered great in the Kingdom. That is, they were thinking in terms of how others saw them rather than thinking of how they might be better servants of God.
What Jesus was saying about true greatness was that we need not be concerned with how great we appear in people’s eyes but how great we appear in God’s eyes. The commissioning of the twelve was not an appointment, which placed them into positions of unparalleled power and authority over the people. Christ appointed them to serve the people and to meet their needs.
It is apparent that at least some of the twelve thought of themselves as higher than those around them - that God had already set them apart as being great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus tells them that if it is position they are concerned about they should be seeking a position that reflects a willingness to serve others and not attaining to some status where they can be looked upon as being great. The disciples had been so concerned with comparing themselves with each other that they had forgotten to assess themselves soberly in the light of the Kingdom requirements. Jesus’ words must have come as somewhat of a shock seeing as He tells them that they’re in need of repentance and that this attitude they have excludes them from even entering the Kingdom let alone having status
By using the inferior social status of a child to demonstrate what ones attitude should be relative to entering the kingdom. Jesus turns the social norms of His day, and ours as well, on their head. Social status, power, authority should not be the goal. While one may attain to a high social status and attain to having power and authority, unless such attainment is used to serve the needs of others, it is of little value.
This is basically what is wrong with the governments of this world and always has been. Government leaders are often more concerned with status than in doing all they can to serve the needs of those being governed.
Unfortunately the attainment of wealth, social status, power and authority often leads to pride. Whether expressed explicitly or implicitly those who have attained to greatness often feel they are better than others. This is contrary to what the Scriptures teach.
James 4:6: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."
1 Peter 5:5: Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."
It is apparent the Disciples of Christ did not understand the importance of humility and apparently did not learn of its importance even after what Christ told them as recorded in Matthew 18, Mark 9 and Matthew 20. They still hadn’t come to see the importance of humility when Christ was about to die for their sins and the sins of the world. Let’s look at what happened during the meal that they had with Jesus the night before the crucifixion.
Luke 22:24-26: Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.
Now what Luke records about the disciple disputing about who is the greatest appears in Luke to have taken place during the final meal Jesus had with His disciples the night before the crucifixion. The context for Luke’s comments about a dispute over who will be the greatest is the Passover meal before the betrayal.
So what do we have here? First we have Mark, in chapter 9 of his gospel, recording a dispute that arose among the disciples as to who is the greatest. This event is seen as taking place many days and possibly weeks before the final meal before the crucifixion. Matthew records the incident involving James and John seeking to sit on the right and left of Christ in His kingdom as taking place several days before the crucifixion.
Now just hours before the crucifixion we have the disciples again arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus again responds to them by explaining that to be great is to be a servant. Then Jesus takes it a step further.
John 13:4-5: So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
Verses 12-11: When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me `Teacher' and `Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
The disciples had been disputing among themselves as to who is the greatest. Jesus told them "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves." He then goes on to say a servant is not greater than his master which is to say a servant does not have the power and authority the master has. Now we know Jesus was master over His disciples. Jesus had power and authority over His disciples just as Kings have power and authority over their subjects.
But what did Jesus do. He washed their feet. Washing someone’s feet was the job of a servant. In washing their feet, Jesus was saying to his disciples that even though he was their master and had power and authority over them, he was there to serve them. He was there to meet their needs. He is telling them they are not to be like the typical leader who in their exercise of power and authority would never think to stoop so low as wash someone’s feet.
I can’t help but think that the washing of the disciple’s feet was a response to the disciples continuing inability to grasp what it meant to be a disciple of Christ. First they were arguing about who is the greatest some weeks before the crucifixion as recorded in Mark. Then we have James and John asking to be seated on the left and right of Christ in His kingdom. Then we have the disciples again arguing about greatness at the final Passover meal. I think Jesus had seen enough and decided to physically demonstrate to them what it means for a leader to be a servant.
Now that we see what humility is, let’s take a brief look at what it is not. Some think that humility is associated with being in poverty, being passive, unassertive, sheepish, self-denigrating, and wallowing in self-contempt. Humility is none of these things. Humility has to do with our attitude toward God and toward each other. It has to do with how we think about each other and behave toward each other. It has to do with how willing we are to be subject to one another in serving one another and above all be willing to be subject to and serve God.
Humility is a thing of the heart. Christ wasn’t passive, unassertive or sheepish. He told the religious leaders of his day exactly what he thought of them and he didn’t mince any words. He made a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the temple. He even came down hard on his disciples at times when they failed to get the point of what he was teaching them. Yet Christ pictured himself as humble in heart. He was humble in heart because of his willingness to serve the needs of others. Christ was the ultimate example of humility in this respect. Apostle Paul points this out to the Philippians.
Philippians 2:3-5: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.
The bottom line of this whole issue of humility is that we need to hold each other in high esteem and not look at ourselves as better than someone else. We need to be willing to treat each other with the utmost respect and honor and serve each other with a willing heart. Humility also means understanding our need for the grace of God.
Luke 18:9-14: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: `God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' "But 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.' “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
The Pharisee in the parable sees the world as the good guys and the bad guys, the righteous and the unrighteous. Rather than focusing on the blessings of God and thanking God for the opportunity to serve Him, he instead begins to self-congratulate himself as being in a class of the righteous. His prayer is all about drawing attention to himself. He reminds God that he is not like other people but that he is rather exceptional. He certainly is not like this despicable tax collector.
The scene is even more ludicrous in the Greek which says quite literally, "The Pharisee stood and was thus praying to himself." He is so content, so self-satisfied, so thoroughly trusting of himself that he has become his own God. He is, quite literally, praying to himself.
Now let’s look at the tax collector. Tax collectors were viewed as despised collaborators with the Romans. They were seen as dishonest and extorting from their own people. Tax collectors were allowed to raise the price of the Roman tax and pocket the excess for themselves.
But notice the tax collector's prayer. He stands apart from the crowd, knowing he is despised. He bows his head and beats his breast. This was a gesture that was commonly practiced by women in the Middle East and only practiced by men in deep anguish. He knows he is a sinner and prays to God accordingly. "God be merciful to me a sinner."
The tax collector demonstrates true humility. Humility enables us to come into God's presence and be who we really are, trusting only in God's mercy and grace. It allows us to announce what God already knows, that we have blown it yet once again and we need God’s grace. New Testament scholar Marion Soards has made some observations in response to Christ’s parable involving the tax collector and the Pharisee. He writes the following:
“When you and I name our sin and claim it for what it is, it brings us without pretense before God for redemption and reconciliation and both take place. But you and I live in a world where we try to explain our sin away psychologically, sociologically, or situationally, all in an attempt to bring ourselves before God without sin. We try to stand before God as an equal, or, if not an equal, then as a specimen of the best among us, more often than not, at the expense of those around us. The tragic results are multiple. First, like the Pharisee, we become self-righteous and place our trust in ourselves rather than God. Along the way, we inevitably end up comparing ourselves to others, which quickly leads to demeaning others through criticism, the stuff of which contempt is made.
Whatever failure we might acknowledge, we do try to explain away either by psychological or sociological rationalization or by comparison with others we deem to be worse. All of that was going on with the Pharisee. But most tragic of all, we miss what the Pharisee missed--the experience of God's grace in our lives--redemption and reconciliation.”
The story is told of the lifelong Christian who died and, upon arrival at the Pearly Gates, encountered St. Peter who said to him: "Listen, this is how it works. You need 100 points to get into heaven. You tell me about your life; I will give you a certain number of points for each incident, depending on how good it was, and when you reach 100 points, you're in."
"Okay," says the man with a certain relish. "I was married to the same woman for sixty years and never cheated on her, not even in my heart."
"Wonderful," says Peter, "three points." "Only three points? Well, OK. I attended church all of my life, rarely missed a Sunday, tithed, was a Deacon, Trustee and Elder, and taught Sunday school--even Junior High Confirmation Class!" "Terrific," says Peter, "one point."
"Only one point?" Okay, remember that meal for seniors that I not only helped begin, but continued to work at until my dying day?" "Excellent," says Peter, "one point." "Well, what about the homeless ministry I started and supported, not only with my money and by serving meals, but by actually staying over all night about once a month?" "Fantastic," says Peter, "two more points." "Two points? That's only seven points. At this rate, I'll never make it, save by the grace and mercy of God." "Bingo," says Peter, "100 points, come on in!"
Humility before God is accepting the grace and mercy of God. The Pharisee stood before God in arrogance and pride, trusting in his work and demeaning others by comparison. The tax collector stood before God in humility--knowing and declaring who he was before God, calling on God to be who God is, a merciful and gracious redeemer who is always ready and willing to forgive and forget and reconcile us to Himself.
As we have seen, humility is a required dynamic of behavior in order for us to enter the kingdom and have a relationship with God. Paul wrote to the Colossians to clothe themselves with humility. Let us all strive to do the same.