If you were Jesus, who would you put forward as the quintessential example of the kingdom of God? Jesus had some choices at hand. How about brash, self-confident Peter? Jesus didn’t point to him. How about well-known followers like Nicodemus or James and John? Again, there were serious problems with all of them and Jesus didn’t point to them. So who do you put forward and say, Everyone, when it comes to my kingdom, this is what I am talking about?
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1 ESV) Here is a glimpse into what is normal in the kingdom of man, arguments about who is greater or better or more important. While this looks like naked ambition, it is actually far worse. Notice the context. In Matthew 17:22 Jesus predicts his own impending death. You would think this would tamp down the selfish talk among the disciples. It didn’t. That same chapter begins with Jesus’ transfiguration as Peter, James, and John are given the incredible privilege of seeing the Shekinah glory of Jesus. You would think that glory show might bring soberness to the disciples. It didn’t.
Further, notice in verse 1 that none of the disciples had the maturity to see their obsession with their own greatness as unseemly and inappropriate. They come to Jesus collectively. They had all been talking. Arguing. Debating. They say, let’s ask Jesus who of us will be the greatest. None of them had the maturity to say, perhaps this isn’t an appropriate question. Does this strike anyone as really petty? “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” It’s a question that infers, I think I am. Jesus, Jesus on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?
“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 18:2-4)
Jesus says, you want to understand status in the kingdom of God? Bring me a child. You there, could you come over here please? And a little boy comes. The word for child allows for a really young child. This could have been a toddler. Very small. You can see the disciples smirking, can’t you? What is Jesus up to this time? A small child in their midst could hardly be seen among the full-grown men.
I want you to see that Jesus doesn’t begin with their actual question; instead he addresses their massive and erroneous assumption. What was it? That they were in the kingdom in the first place. Behind the question of which of them was the greatest was their basic notion that they, the disciples of Jesus, would be there at all. We know one who wasn’t. Judas Iscariot. But what about the others? Does being in Jesus’ inner circle guarantee salvation and entrance into the kingdom of God? To that Jesus says, no. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“Truly.” The KJV uses Verily. Jesus used this to emphasize. We might say, “hear me when I say” or “Listen up.” “Truly, I say to you.” Who is he talking to? His own disciples. This is really important given what he says. “Unless you turn.” The Greek word means to change direction or change your ways. Change from what? Their obsession with personal status that stands behind the question of who is the greatest? You keep up this selfish motivation, and you won’t be in the kingdom. What’s it look like?
What better example of status-free concern than a child? Particularly in the first-century Jewish culture that didn’t have Babies “R” Us, Children’s museums, or Chuck E. Cheese. There was no catering to children like there is today. Children were valued within family but held no status in the broader culture. They were at the bottom. The disciples agreed. You may recall a different time when parents were bringing children for Jesus to bless and the disciples told the parents to leave and take their kids with them. They thought children were beneath Jesus and he had much more important matters to attend to. Jesus sharply rebuked them.
Here is the thing about children. While they have no office with their name on it, no fancy car to drive, no education degrees behind their name, no money, no ability to meet their own needs, children are completely content with non-status. They don’t care. This is what Jesus is highlighting about children and the kingdom. A child’s lack of self-awareness and status in the world is a basic requirement for anyone to enter the kingdom of God. There’s another word for it—humility.
This kingdom of God is the kingdom of GOD; it is not the kingdom of man or a new context for man to achieve status and glory for himself. It is the kingdom of God and the fundamental requirement to enter it is a selflessness best exemplified in a child.
You may not be a citizen of the kingdom of God but all of us have been a child. Do you remember before the days of mean girl adolescents and playing king of the mountain? Back before you cared about your place in the world and all you cared about was your place in mom and dad’s heart? Do you remember? Do you catch glimpses of it in children or in your children? Does it echo in your mind a time, a great time, when your day wasn’t about advancing yourself in any way and you didn’t worry about food on the table?
I regularly ask Kiralee in the morning, “Baby, what you are going to do today?” Her answer is always the same, “Play!” It sounds so foreign. What about your to-do list? What about preparing for preschool by reading key books? What about strategic thinking about getting into kindergarten? What about world events and worrying about what Iran is up to? What about the latest political dustup? What are you going to do today to advance yourself in this world? “Play!”
My daughter is completely free of self-concern about her own status in the world or how she compares to other girls her age. Not a thought of it.
To get into the kingdom of God, every one of us must turn from viewing the purpose of life as the advancement of our own fame or status in this world. That’s the kingdom of man not the kingdom of God. If we don’t do that, we’re not in.
Don’t try and theologize what Jesus says away. Well, he was overemphasizing it to make a point or he was talking in general terms. No. He was talking to Peter, James, John, Andrew, Thomas, and all the other handpicked disciples and saying to them, being a part of my inner circle doesn’t mean you are in my kingdom and the fact that you would argue about who is the greatest tells me that you don’t understand the first thing about getting into the kingdom much less greatness in the kingdom. He basically says in our language, you aren’t saved. None of you. Not yet.
Peter had to go through his catastrophe and all the disciples had to see their failure as they ran away from him at Gethsemane. They had to change. They had to realize they are not great men Jesus chose, but sinners Jesus chose to use. Nothing more.
How about you, dear friend? Is your life one big selfie? When you look in the mirror, what do you see? How about the mirror of your week? What was the basic impulse of your heart? My kingdom or God’s? My glory or God’s? The advancement of me or seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness? If you look at your life and the consistent story is you being about you, Jesus’ words should haunt you: “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Verse 3)
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
©2017 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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