Like a Little Child

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 18:1-4

When is the last time you were converted? The Christian life begins with conversion – turning to Christ in repentance and faith. But when it comes to being converted, once is not enough.


When is the last time you were converted? The Christian life begins with conversion – turning to Christ in repentance and faith. But when it comes to being converted, once is not enough.

I was once in a group meeting where I was asked to share my Christian testimony. My response began like this: “Ever since I can remember I have believed in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I really don’t remember the first time I was converted and turned to Christ in faith, but the last time was about a week ago.” You see, our greatest need as human beings is to be converted – and to be converted repeatedly. That’s what Jesus was getting at when he gave his disciples an object lesson that involved a little child.

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

Who’s the Greatest?

So once again the disciples are hung up on the idea of greatness. “Who’s the greatest in the kingdom?” they asked Jesus. At least, that was the surface question. What each of them really wondered was, “What about me? Where do I fit in? Can’t I be number one?” Their question had everything to do with personal ambition, pride, ego. Perhaps they were hoping that Jesus would designate one of them as his successor, as leader of the group, and then the rest of them could work out a pecking order among themselves for the time when he was no longer with them. Trust me, there’s just as much ambition at work inside the church as outside; it’s just that it’s played out on a much smaller stage.

In replying to the disciples, Jesus did something unconventional. He stopped, scooped up a passing toddler, and plunked the child right down in the middle of the group. Then Jesus said to them, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom” (v. 3). Never enter the kingdom – did you hear him? Never mind who’s the greatest. Jesus says; if you are not converted – that’s another word for “turn” – you won’t even get into the kingdom.

I think a lot of people make a basic mistake when they think about conversion. They see it as some sort of huge, dramatic, once-in-a-lifetime event. Your first turning to Christ in faith can be memorable, of course; but it can also be so gradual that pinpointing the date is like trying to tell the exact moment when daylight begins; or it can happen so early in life that you really can’t remember a time when you didn’t believe.

But the sort of conversion Jesus is talking about here is a turning that has to happen over and over. And it isn’t just for unbelievers; Christians need to be converted too. It isn’t a one-time experience; because as often as we find ourselves caught up in the world’s way of thinking or acting, we need to be converted all over again. Whenever we lose sight of Jesus, we need to turn back toward him. That’s what conversion really is.

Become Like Children

But Jesus is even more specific. “Unless you turn and become like children” you won’t be saved. What did he mean by this? What sort of conversion was Jesus calling for? How must we become like little children in order to be saved?

I don’t think Jesus meant that in order to enter the kingdom we have to strive to develop some of the characteristics of a child. He is not suggesting that the way into heaven is by trying to imitate a child’s subjective qualities, things like innocence or purity, or by learning to trust God with a child’s simple faith. I know that what he says here is often interpreted along those lines, but I think that’s wrong. Jesus isn’t trying to romanticize the nature of children. After all, children are just as fallen and sinful as adults are.

Children do not get into heaven because they are innocent. The fact is, they’re not! Children are sweet, and trusting, and beautiful, and wonderful, and kind. Yeah? They are also stubborn, self-centered, cruel, ill-tempered, exasperating, and willful. Just ask any parent! In short, they’re exactly like us, only smaller and less sophisticated. Christ’s point was not that people had to imitate some of the supposed traits of a child in order to be saved. His point was that they had to be willing to become what the child in itself was.

The key thing in his lesson is to recognize what a child’s position in the biblical world was, not its subjective qualities. Jesus gives us a clue in verse 4: “whoever humbles himself like this child is greatest in the kingdom.” The conversion he’s talking about involves self-humbling. His key reason for drawing attention to a child had to do not so much with the child’s attitude or actions as with its status. You see, we view children as indescribably precious and important. They’re the center of our families. We organize our schedules around them, we cater to their interests and needs, we sacrifice for their education and advancement, we invest ourselves in their happiness.

But in the ancient world children were viewed somewhat differently. It’s not that parents didn’t love them, but there was much less of a romantic notion about them. Children in themselves were without power, and therefore without significance in Jesus’ time. A child, especially a little child whose very survival to maturity was always in doubt, was almost a non-entity. It had no status whatsoever.

So to become child-like in Jesus’ terms means to accept that humble position, that non-status, that helplessness. You know, small children only have whatever they have been given. They don’t have the strength to take things, to provide for themselves. They don’t have the ability to earn their own way. And we have to recognize that this is exactly the position we are in with respect to salvation.

To enter the kingdom, we must humble ourselves and adopt the position of a child. If you want to have salvation, you have to receive it the way a baby receives everything, not as a result of your own efforts, but simply as a gift. “To receive the kingdom as a little child is to allow oneself to be given it,” writes one scholar. You can’t enter the kingdom as a learned professor, proud of your knowledge and wisdom. “Now my theology avails me nothing,” said the great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck in his last illness; “it is only my faith that can save me.”

You can’t enter the kingdom as a faithful church member, presenting your years of service as a kind of admission ticket. You can’t enter the kingdom as a leader, trusting in your power and position. You can’t enter it as a rich man, in the habit of buying whatever you want for yourself. You can only enter it as a humble child, utterly dependent upon Jesus.

Salvation is a gift. It’s only given to those who acknowledge their need and their undeserving. Have you ever noticed how much children love receiving gifts? When little kids hit the tree on Christmas morning, there’s no reluctance at all. They delight in presents, the more the merrier. As we grow up, we tend to lose that excitement. Except in the most superficial sense, we don’t really want to receive gifts at all. We don’t want to be given anything; we want to earn it instead. We hate having to feel indebted to anyone. We prefer our independence, building up our wealth and status and position through performance and achievement. You can earn a name for yourself in the world that way, but you can never get to heaven.

Christ reaches out to bless us, as he reached out for that little child. His heart goes out to us. He will pour his grace into our lives. But we can only receive it with empty hands. If we go on clutching our stuff and status and shreds of self-righteousness, then the love of Christ will find no room in our lives.

The Bible says that God looks with favor upon the lowly; but the proud he sends empty away. As long as you go on thinking you are Somebody Special, you remain outside the kingdom. You can only get in if you are willing to become a nobody, like the rest of us. It’s another of those kingdom paradoxes: the greatest is the least, and the least is the greatest; the last are first, and the first last. Jesus’ very first Beatitude points the way: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

So the type of conversion each of us needs is one where we turn from self-promotion to self-abnegation. We need to empty ourselves of ego (the all-consuming capital “I”), and fill ourselves with God – with his life, his love, his agenda.

And that kind of conversion is not a once-for-all proposition. It’s a life-long process that needs to happen over and over and over. That’s one reason, among many, why we so need the church. We need to be faithfully and regularly part of the people of God because we need to hear the word of God calling us to turn. As we learn from the example of the disciples (and as I know from my own heart), it’s possible to be close to Jesus and yet be dominated by a sinful mind far different from his. Our sinful nature doesn’t just go away when we make a profession of faith in Christ. Because of that, what we need to do today and every day until we actually get to heaven is to “turn and become like little children.”