The God Who Sends and Saves
Matthew 18:1-4, 12-14
Dr. Jim Denison, Senior Pastor
Vacation Bible School begins Monday; here’s a sense of what our teachers are up against. A boy named Tim was in the garden filling in a hole when his neighbor peered over the fence and asked politely, “What are you doing there, Tim?” “My goldfish died,” said Tim tearfully, without looking up, “and I’ve just buried him.” The neighbor observed, “That’s an awfully big hole for a goldfish, isn’t it?” Tim patted down the last heap of earth, then replied, “That’s because he’s inside your stupid cat.”
Despite the challenges they present, God believes in children. So much, in fact, that he became one. And that he tells us to do the same. Here’s why your eternity depends on it.
The perennial question
“Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” our text begins. After the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples are now convinced that their Master is indeed the Messiah, the King of heaven come to earth. Now they want to know how they can get in line to share in his power and glory. Think of a presidential candidate who becomes the front-runner and finds himself with all sorts of new friends. “At that time” is literally, “in that hour,” relating to his time in Capernaum, most probably at Peter’s home.
The disciples’ debate has been going on for a while. Mark tells us, “On the way they had argued about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34). Their argument would continue from here to the cross: “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom'” (Matthew 20:20-21). The disciples want to be “great” in the coming Kingdom of God, as do the rest of us.
Their very human question reminds me of something John Claypool said in his Yale lecture series: “People used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was shrewd enough to fashion my answer according to what I thought they wanted to hear. For some it was a policeman, for others a fireman or a preacher. However, in my own heart of hearts, I had my own private fantasy that I never dared to share with anyone. Do you know what it was? I am telling you the gospel truth: I wanted to be president of the world!” (The Preaching Event 64, emphasis his). Most of us want the same.
New Testament scholar William Barclay comments: “In life it is all a question of what a man is aiming at; if he is aiming at the fulfillment of personal ambition, the acquisition of personal power, the enjoyment of personal prestige, the exaltation of self, he is aiming at precisely the opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven; for to be a citizen of the Kingdom means the complete forgetting of self, the obliteration of self, the spending of self in a life which aims at service and not at power. So long as a man considers his own self as the most important thing in the world, his back is turned to the Kingdom; if he wants ever to reach the Kingdom, he must turn round and face in the opposite direction” (Mt 2:175).
The shocking answer
So Jesus “called a little child and had him stand among them.”
They are staying in Capernaum, probably at Peter’s home. Perhaps this is his child. Or, according to early tradition, this child grew up to become Ignatius of Antioch, a great theologian, preacher, and martyr.
Whoever he was, there is no question what he was. In their day a child was a possession, not a person. He had no legal rights, protections, or standing. He lived at the very bottom of the social ladder. To “change and become like little children” was counter-cultural in the extreme. This is like telling a four-star general to become a draft dodger, or a Supreme Court justice to become a prison inmate, a person with no legal standing whatever.
But Jesus was insistent: “I tell you the truth” (v. 3a). In fact, if they don’t “change and become like little children,” then they “will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” By contrast, “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Remember that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, the twelve who would lead the Church to reach the world, the apostles who would be foundational to the Christian movement across all time. But even they must “change” and become “like little children.”
Not because children are faultless and perfect–any parent can tell you stories about the early age at which their children discovered disobedience and selfishness. My parents spent as much time in my elementary school principal’s office as I did in the classroom.
Rather, we are to become “little children” for one reason, in one word: dependence. Children do not try to find employment and support themselves. In danger they instinctively run to their parents. They know that their lives, safety, and future are dependent on their parents.
In the same way, those who try to save themselves are lost. Those who think that Christians are good people who believe in God, that God helps those who help themselves, who believe that they are moral enough for the Lord and his heaven–they are the deceived and the lost. They “will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
But those who depend on God, who yield every day to his Spirit and word, who live as children trusting their Father, they are “greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 4). Dependence is the key to spiritual and eternal success, for God always gives the best to those who leave the choice with him.