One day, Jesus’s disciples came to him with a question: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1). The parallel passage in Luke 9:46–48 reveals that the disciples had been debating about which of them would be the greatest. It’s as if each one of the men is asking, “Will it be me? Am I the one who is up for promotion?” How would you handle this group of overly ambitious trainee ministers? Jesus responded to their self-indulgent question with a countercultural answer: become like children and welcome them.
For Jesus, welcoming children into the church didn’t start with having a multistory jungle gym in the front lobby or a designated family entrance. It didn’t even start with having good signage or smiling and greeting kids by name. For the Savior, welcoming children began with taking the posture of a child. As the disciples stood and debated who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus called over a child—perhaps even one of the disciples’ children—and stood him in their midst. Then he said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
Countercultural Call to Humility
In Jesus’s day, the Jewish people would have agreed with our own culture that family relationships are vitally important. The Old Testament describes children as a heritage and reward from the Lord (Ps. 127:3). Children played a central role in God’s promises to his people (Gen. 3:15; 12:2; 15:5). On the other hand, the Jewish people did not romanticize children. There were no Gerber ads, Baby Gap stores, or baby-of-the-month calendars in first-century Palestine. Instead, Jewish literature of the time—including the Old Testament—realistically describes youth and children as immature and foolish, in need of consistent discipline and correction.
For Jesus, welcoming children into the church didn’t start with having a multistory jungle gym in the front lobby. It began with taking the posture of a child.
What you never find in Jewish literature, as Judith Gundry writes, “are children put forward as models for adults, and in a Greco-Roman setting [the occupying culture at the time], comparison with children was highly insulting.” So, when Jesus answered his apprentices by telling them they must become like kids to enter his kingdom, it would have certainly shocked them.
Maturity and wisdom come with age. Why go backward? Here is the Savior’s answer: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Matt. 18:4–5). Jesus requires his disciples to take a childlike posture because of children’s lowly and humble status. “The child is held up as an ideal,” writes D. A. Carson, “not of innocence, purity, or faith, but of humility and unconcern for social status.” Jesus wants his disciples to be childlike because young kids don’t pretend to have it all together. They poop and cry and get into things. Jesus wanted his team of disciples to see they were just as needy, and he wants us to see it as well.
Putting Down Regard for Status
When I was a kid, I fell and knocked out my two front teeth. Now they’re porcelain caps. One Saturday night more recently, I jarred one of the caps loose. To make matters worse, I’d been asked to lead a children’s lesson during the church service the next morning. As I taught, one of the boys kept pointing and saying, “Mr. Jared, you’ve got a loose tooth!” He was right. And before the lesson was done, my front tooth fell out! Humbling moments like that one reveal I’m as big of a mess as the kids I’m leading. Truthfully, we need this perspective right from the start.
Jesus wants his disciples to be childlike because young kids don’t pretend to have it all together.
Like Jesus’s first followers, Christian disciples today have a tendency to think we’re the important ones! We’ve read gospel-centered books, we’ve learned discipleship skills, and we often have some level of status within a Christian community. You don’t have to have thousands of Instagram followers to feel like you’ve made it. You don’t need to win an award to think highly of yourself at the expense of others. But it’s this tendency to fall into entitlement and pride that Jesus targets with his command to embrace the humility of a child. Jesus tells those who desire to be great that they must put down their regard for status altogether.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes about how even those who understand the command to be humble can drift toward self-regard:
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him, it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
The prescription for those who think they are great is admitting their pride and then stooping to serve those who are lowly—in particular, says Jesus, “the little ones” (Matt. 18:10). That’s what it looks like to have a life seasoned by the gospel. After all, Jesus embraced humility by stooping to serve his disciples (John 13:1–17; Phil. 2:1–11)—by stooping to serve us. Now we’re called to love, serve, and welcome lowly ones just as he first loved us (1 John 4:19).