About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, â€œWho is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?â€
Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, â€œI tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 18:1-4
What does Jesus mean when He says we are to â€œbecome as little childrenâ€? Jesus has been misunderstood as promoting a naive or simplistic â€œchildlike faithâ€. And if thatâ€™s true, arenâ€™t all these Bible studies, sermons, and discipleship a waste of time? While weâ€™re at it, if naiveness is so important, why waste time reading devotionals?
However, I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s quite what Jesus had in mind. The Bible often encourages us to increase in wisdom and understanding; for example: â€œBlessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understandingâ€ (Proverbs 3:13, TNIV) Paul tells us that in Jesus we may find â€œall the treasures of wisdom and knowledgeâ€ (Colossians 2:3) So if Jesus didnâ€™t we should â€œbecome as little childrenâ€ in the sense of naivete or simplicity, what did He really mean?
Reading a verse in context will usually clarify its meaning. Jesusâ€™ admonition to â€œbecome as little childrenâ€in verse 3 relates, in context, to entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Then He says: â€œTherefore, anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.â€ (v4)
Jesus is not speaking about childlike faith, He is speaking about our attitudes towards entering the Kingdom. Jesus clarifies that we become â€œchildlikeâ€ by being humble. A child in the first century had lower social status than his or her parents; thus they were ascribed a certain sort of humility. Jesus is admonishing us to become humble â€¦ not naive.
Why is humility important? Jesus urges us to be humble (ex. Luke 14:11) because â€œTrue humility and fear of the LORD lead to riches, honor, and long lifeâ€ (Proverbs 22:4) Humility is the opposite of pride, but it certainly doesnâ€™t mean feeling bad about yourself! Instead, being humble means recognizing our own strengths and failures, submitting to God alone, and treating others with respect and dignity â€¦ even as better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3).
This, I think, is what Jesus had in mind by becoming like â€œlittle childrenâ€. Even as we increase in knowledge and wisdom, we still must recognize our limits, and like a child trusting and following their father, so too must we try to remain humble as we follow our Father in Heaven.