THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME.
The race to be first. The desire to be remembered. The pursuit of legendary standing. It is the quest for immortality. If your name is not forgotten, you are still alive.
A couple of months ago I watched for the first time the movie The Fault in Our Stars. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I loved it. Augustus Waters says that his biggest fear is oblivion – He intends to live an extraordinary life; to be remembered.
To a degree, that sentiment resonates with each of us. We want to be great, and be remembered for greatness.
It even resonated with the disciples. The disciples each wanted to be the greatest of all time.
One day they come to Jesus and ask Him a question: “Jesus, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ We know that one of the desires of each of the disciples was to be remarkable, sometimes fighting over which of them was the most remarkable and would even get to sit next to Jesus in glory.
So, if Jesus can tell them which of the Old Testaments greats was the greatest – they could simply emulate that person and then, even if they don’t quite reach over the person, they could at least come second.
And Jesus had some pretty awesome people to choose from. Who’s the greatest, Jesus? Was it Noah? He stood alone as righteous in a whole world of sinners. Was it Abraham? He was a friend of God! Was it Moses? He led God’s people out of Egypt and gave them the Law. Was it David? He was a man after God’s own heart! Was it Elijah – the most prolific of the prophets?
If Jesus will give them the Model of Spiritual Greatness – they could copy the model and achieve greatness.
But instead of choosing any of these, Jesus did something astonishing. He called over a little child and had him stand in front of them all. Imagine the child, called by Jesus, shrinking timidly in front of this circle of men, with blushing face and downcast eyes, as he reacts to the attention drawn towards him.
Jesus says to them all, “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.”
Jesus sets before them a child – there’s your model – there’s your example to follow.
I’ll be honest with you – this passage speaks to me deeply. One of my life-guides is Matthew 25:21 “Well done, good and faithful servant.” That’s all I want to hear when I die. I know worldly wealth and earthly fame will fade; I know that there’s no point in storing up treasures for myself here. I want my life to be spent in such a way that it earns an eternal reward and the pleasure of my Rewarder.
So yes, I want to be GREAT in the kingdom of heaven. That’s all I want.
Look at the contemporary examples we have, just from the past hundred years: Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, C.S. Lewis, Gladys Aylward, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Corie Ten-Boom, N.T. Wright, Jim Eliot, and the list goes on and on and on. GREAT men and women who sacrificed their time, their wealth, their comforts, sometimes their very lives to make known God’s love to others. I think they deserve the greatest rewards in heaven.
Which of these, Jesus, would you tell me to imitate in order to be great in Your kingdom?
Jesus’ response to the disciples knocks me flat. And Jesus sighs, laughs softly and calls a little child to stand between me and Him. “Be like him…” Jesus says softly.
This is the passage we are going to be looking at tonight. Let’s read together from Matthew 18:1-14.
1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. 6But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! 8If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. 10See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. [11The Son of Man came to save what was lost.] 12What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.
“Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This is a pretty powerful statement from Jesus. Notice what He’s saying. 1) You’re heading in the wrong direction and need to change – the Greek word actually means turn quite around or reverse. Instead of looking for famous people to copy, you need to become like a little child. And 2) Jesus is saying that unless that change happens, you won’t even enter the kingdom, never mind be great in the kingdom. In fact, Jesus uses strong language in the Greek: ou mh, which actually means ‘no way, never’ are you entering into the kingdom with that attitude.
So, this is a pretty powerful statement. You can’t even get into heaven without a childlike character.
What is it about children that we need to have in order to be pleasing to God?
Because unlike the commentators on this verse which seem to have a perspective of children that they are innocent little cherubs whose greatest flaw is being so cute you just wanna die; I know kids – I’ve been a children’s pastor for 10 years.
I’ve seen children grab from others, talk back to teachers, get mad at each other, lie to protect themselves or to get their way, steal an extra muffin when they’ve been told they can only have one.
Yet, there are other qualities that well-loved children have that as adults we can tend to lose and think ourselves better for it.
Let’s look at some of those qualities. A child approaches his father:
I grew up calling everyone ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’. To be in a group of adults was a fearful honour and I’d keep my mouth shut unless spoken to.
When I left high school, people started to introduce themselves to me by their first name, even people decades my senior, and I started to realise that I was being accepted into a new group – the world of adults. If I can call them by their first name, I am equal with them.
Then I met an older man who introduced himself to me by his first name, and so I started calling him by his first name. When I found out later he’d prefer I call him ‘Sir’, my response was displeasing to God. ‘If that’s what he wants, I won’t call him anything, I just won’t talk to him again.’
It’s a silly example, perhaps, but compare this child who enters the presence of adults with respect and awe, to this adult who enters the presence of adults with an expectation of respect and awe from them.
This is how we sometimes approach God. “God, aren’t you impressed that I’m here? I’ve done pretty well this past week, and here I am at Church. What are you going to do for me?”
A child wouldn’t dare to speak to his parents like that. Yet we often approach God with irreverence, pride, selfish ambition. But God delights in a humble spirit.
Think of the Pharisee who stood at the temple and prayed, ‘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.’
Jesus says in this passage, “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Do you approach God and God’s people with an expectation to serve and honour, or an expectation to be served and to be honoured?
That attitude keeps us from God’s presence and from the joy of fellowship.
Well-loved children have a joy about them.
I have a dear friend. In his college days he had a delightful spark about him. His eyes would light up and he’d dive head-first into a patch of long, soft grass just because it looked like fun. He’d race friends down ramps on wheelie-chairs. There was a joy of life about him, and we’d have great adventures together.
But then we got jobs and health insurance. We had to pay for our own holidays. We started to invest in our futures. We got involved in Church ministries and began to lead people. We got married.
The sense of our responsibilities has turned us into sober young adults. We call ourselves ‘mature’, but it’s been years since we’ve experienced pure joy and there’s no expectation of ever experiencing it again. How can we? One slip, and we’ll mess up our reputations, we could lead people down the wrong path, we could put our families in jeopardy. Just wait – kids are coming and we’ll become even more careful!
But children don’t have those worries. They don’t worry about providing food for another, even providing food for themselves. They don’t worry about investments, they only care about the sun being out today to play for longer. Their health is their parent’s concern; their school fees are in their parent’s to-do list.
We learnt last week that our provision is God our Father’s concern. I am His responsibility. Then why do I fear tomorrow, why do I worry about next year? All that’s left for me is JOY.
IF we trust God’s promise of provision, THEN we can sail joyfully through the biggest storms.
God wants us to live in a JOYFUL recognition of His promise to take care of us – not to worry about a single bond-payment, a single job-application, a single health-niggle. He’ll take care of us; we can just rest secure and be JOYFUL.
That takes us to the next point of expectancy. Children are expectant of their parents. They don’t hope in vain for their parents to keep their promises. They know that every night, their parents will be giving them dinner. They know that if their Dad promises to be at their award ceremony – he’ll be there!
But sometimes – sometimes that doesn’t happen.
After experiencing the unreliableness of our parents and other authority figures, we can start to lose expectancy about God our Father. But God wants us to approach Him with expectancy. That shows faith in the character and the ability of God. “God, you said this, now do it!” Not with an arrogant, demanding attitude; but with a deep expectancy that He will do what He said because we TRUST HIM.
“God, You promised that if I follow You, You’ll take care of my needs. God, I won’t let you go until I sense that I have it. You promised it to me, and I’m going to keep at You until You fulfil Your promise!”
Do you come to God with a sense of expectancy, and a willingness to wrestle with God over His promises?
Trust is another character that children have that God wants us to imitate. I visited a friend a few years ago and his 5-year old daughter, who barely knew me, jumped from the 5th step into my arms. She had complete trust in a stranger that if she jumped, she’d be caught.
Do we trust God anywhere near this much – trust that if we jump to Him, He’ll catch us? Trust that if we depend on Him, He’ll provide?
Trust doesn’t require full knowledge of the how’s and when’s and why’s and what’s…how’s this going to work, when’s this going to happen, why should I do this, what’s going to happen afterward?
Trust simply says, “God, if you say it, it’s good enough for me.”
So those are some characteristics of children, and some characteristics of those who would be childlike.
How hard it is to become like a child!
Think about that for some time.
To choose humility – that is, honouring others over self; to choose joy – that is, to live in the reality of God’s promises to you; to choose expectancy – that is, to be intentional in our quiet times, to be intentional in our Church gatherings, to choose to expect God to speak and to move; and to choose trust – that is, not needing to have all the answers, but choosing to live in such a way that shows that if God says it, that’s good enough for you, you’ll obey.
How hard it is to become like a child! But all can do it. And all must do it.
I read a testimony this past week on this verse. An old man said,
“I am 76 and all my life I’ve been spiritually minded but unable to believe that God exists. Mankind seems to have made a great hash-up of their beliefs and ideas of what God is. This thought came into my mind” To believe in God is childish “. Astoundingly this verse in the bible came straight into my thoughts “be as little children to know me”.
I understood for the first time what that meant.
A light bulb moment that has changed my life.”
It is difficult to become like a child, but that’s the model Jesus sets before us if we want to be GREAT in God’s eyes.
The beauty in tonight’s passage is also found in God’s response to a childlike character: God sets HIMSELF up to protect these little ones.
6But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!
I was listening to a teacher this past week speak about how their 5-year old students were coming to class showing off some very adult dance moves. Another young person shared about watching a father sitting next to his little child as she pretended to smoke with a spent cigarette.
Some parents laugh and find it funny when their 6-year old can string swearwords into one long sentence. They record and put on YouTube videos of their toddlers imitating sexy dance moves from TV. They sit and watch with their children shows like Game of Thrones. And they don’t realise that they are leading and supporting and applauding one of God’s children as they walk down the path to destruction.
God sees that.
Many people view God as a placid, gentle, meek, benevolent Being – which makes it hard for them to see God as the Bible also describes Him: VIOLENTLY opposed to wickedness.
But love, yes godly love, requires violence, ferocity, fierceness – and the greater the love, the deeper the wrath when love and innocence is hurt.
Imagine a father who is very generous and very loving. He has one child, a beautiful daughter. Imagine that one day the father receives the terrible news that his darling 5-year old daughter has been found, raped and murdered and cast in the city dump.
Imagine that father arrives at the police station to identify her little body, and as he walks out of the back offices into the reception area, the doors open up and the suspect, handcuffed, is being brought in.
I already told you that this father is very loving and generous. But would you expect that father to go up to the suspect, shake his hand and express sympathy for his having been caught? No! You would see him fly across the room, and ten police officers would need to hold him back from tearing into that man with all the rage and sorrow in his heart. Witness the violence, the fierceness of love offended.
Now God is a witness when one of His little ones – those who trust in Him; have a humility before Him, a joy around Him, an expectancy of Him, a trust in Him – God is a witness when one of these little ones are led astray, led into sin.
While the offender lives, grace is extended to him; but should they die without the protection of Jesus’ blood, can you imagine how the offended Father will deal with the offender? There is no-one who can stand then between the offender and God’s wrath. He will pour out His wrath in full, spending every drop of anger on the one who led His little one to sin.
Jesus says it would even be better to be chained to the heaviest object and cast into the depths of the sea. Rather to lose your hands and feet than to lead God’s child into sin.
God so values innocence and humility that should someone cause harm to such a one, God will rise up to thoroughly harm the offender.
Two applications from tonight’s passage:
First: If you are a Christian here tonight, take a look at your heart. Did you start out well, and backslidden? Did you have a fire in your heart for the Lord when you first learnt of His offer of grace, but that fire has cooled down lately? Have you become prideful as you have grown in your Bible knowledge or your spiritual practices? Have you become dull in your Christian walk? When last did you feel God calling you to trust Him and do something that scares you?
Friends, Jesus sets a little child between you and Him. “Be like him…” Jesus says softly. That’s your model. Not me; not pastor William; not Ravi Zacharias or John Piper or Paul Washer. You and I need to GROW DOWNWARDS in humility.
Second: If you are not a Christian here tonight, I want you to know that Jesus cares about you. He doesn’t hate you. He isn’t looking for ways to punish you, or trip you up. In fact, He knows you’re lost, and He’s searching for you. Call out to Him, and He’ll rescue you. He’ll put you across His shoulders like a shepherd does with a lost sheep, and He’ll carry you home. Don’t try find your own way back; you can’t. Cry out to Jesus, and He’ll rescue you from the trouble you’re in.