I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
While Jesus is otherwise occupied, the disciples try to establish rank and file among themselves. Based on angelic hierarchy, they assume there must be a pecking order for us. Having no direct knowledge of one, they turn to Jesus, asking, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18.1) Their motives are transparent, giving Jesus an excellent teaching opportunity. He sees a young boy and calls him over. “Unless you drop this adult obsession with status and become like little children, you won’t get into Heaven,” he says in verse 3. Then He adds three insights in verses 4 through 6: (1) “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom to heaven.” (2) “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” And (3) “Whoever causes a ‘little one’”—meaning a humble believer—“to sin would be better off hanging a large millstone around his/her neck and drowning in the sea.”
Wow. Paying heed to their competitive drives bought the disciples more responsibility than they anticipated—which is always the case when we try to force-fit Christ’s unnatural lifestyle into our natural mindset. First, Jesus pulls them up short, reminding them no one is any better than anyone else in His kingdom. Everyone is equal. Second, He scolds them for forgetting a lesson He’d taught them repeatedly. For example, Mark 9.35 reads: “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’” If they truly believed that, their question about greatness in Heaven never would have surfaced. Third, He charges them to welcome everyone in His name. And finally, rejecting anyone from following Him—suggesting he/she is ineligible for His forgiveness—is worse than murder. It’s suicide. Ask Jesus a silly question and you get some very serious answers.
We’re No Angels
Angelic hierarchy exists much like professional job titles; it’s assignment of duty based on rank. Roles and responsibilities are also assigned in the Body of Christ. Paul teaches in Ephesians 4.11: “It was he [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, and some to be pastors and teachers.” But whatever functions we perform in Christian service, these jobs come without status. Several verses above his breakdown of Church leadership, Paul sets this context: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (v3-6) Bigger responsibilities don’t confer greater authority or infer higher favor. We’re no angels. We’re children. Jesus tells us we must play well together.
A few years ago, I spent a most joyous, instructive afternoon with the daughter of two very dear friends. This was my first visit to Jim and Eric’s new home on the West Coast and Savannah, then seven or eight, showed me around. The tour ended with looks at her books and artwork and so on. Then she said, “OK, here’s what we’re going to do. First, we’re going to hang out in the tree house Daddy built for me. And then you’re going to give me a makeover.” I jumped to explain I didn’t know anything about make-up and fashion. “Of course, you don’t,” she said. “That’s why I’m going to teach you.” She welcomed me and led me through the afternoon as her equal. In her eyes, I was like her other friends, despite being much older than they. The only requirement for entering her world was humbling myself to remain open to her guidance. And while the adults visited with one another, the purity of what I was privileged to share with Savannah took precedence. We were so engrossed with one another, their “sophisticated” conversation paled by comparison. (We never got around to the makeover, by the way.) That’s what Jesus is talking about here: the willingness to welcome and lead others, to humbly follow and open ourselves to new knowledge and experience—the power we gain by staying forever young.
When children organize games, they assign parts and attach significance to each according to what’s best for all. They don’t place lasting authority in momentary role-play because they know their engagement is temporary. Playtime will end and they’ll return home to parents who nurture them and hold them accountable for how they play with others. The bully who insists on running things, the know-it-all who won’t play if he/she can’t make the rules, the brute who creates conflict, and the tattletale who constantly threatens trouble become problem children. Kids who want to enrich their play-life eventually distance themselves from these sorts, leaving the adults to manage them. There’s a lot they can teach us.
There is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. The God I serve, Who surrounds and lives in me is the same God you serve, Who surrounds and Who lives in you. He makes us equal by nurturing and holding us accountable for our conduct with one another. Those who insist they run things, make the rules, create conflict, and threaten punishment are problem children. They’re too old for their britches. Letting God handle them is how we protect our happiness and creativity. It keeps us pure and secures our place in Christ. According to 2 Corinthians 5.17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” It’s essential we realize newness never ends when we follow Jesus. Every day is a fresh adventure—a pure, unspoiled opportunity to grow. That’s why Jesus teaches us to think and behave as innocent children. Life in Christ keeps us forever young.
There is no rank and status among believers. We’re all children and Jesus teaches we must play well together.
(Tomorrow: Blessings in Disguise)