It is one of the marks of the truth of the Bible narrative that it never seeks to gloss over the weaknesses of men. The fact that it reveals the depths of depravity to which human nature can sink has been one of its characteristics on which the agnostic and the atheist have seized in order to bolster up their unbelief. Yet, in fact, those who look at the record without prejudice, and against the background of their own experience of what human nature is capable of, must see in its plain, unvarnished account an evidence of its veracity. Even the weaknesses of men and women who might have been expected to be different are plainly revealed. They are pointed out, they are corrected, they are reviewed, but they are never exaggerated, they are never dwelt upon. Never is the impression given that because of weakness alone, even repeated weakness, has God cast them off as unsuitable vessels for the working out of His mercy.
Again and again this comes out in the gospel records. Jesus called twelve men to be his especial companions in the hard road which he had to tread, and yet how weak they were, how lacking in understanding; how often they were more concerned with their own position, their own desires and their own needs, rather than with the welfare of their Master. Especially they were prone to quarrel amongst themselves as to who should be the greatest. They were very much inclined to allow petty jealousy and rivalry to destroy that harmony which should have prevailed amongst them. It was understandable; it was inevitable.
Here were twelve men in close daily contact, living a hard, unnatural life, all anxiously seeking to please their Master, all seeking for his approval. They had, as Peter said, forsaken all to follow him and unless their service to him proved to be acceptable they were lost indeed. Naturally they were anxious, and inevitably, under such circumstances stresses and strains developed amongst them as they do in the body of believers today. Several times those tensions were revealed in a quarrelling amongst themselves as to who should be the greatest. On each occasion Christ rebuked them and showed them very clearly the principles of submission and mutual service which should govern the relations between his followers in contrast to the pride, the ambition and the self-seeking which characterise worldly communities.
He also taught them by more practical means, and it is upon this that we wish to reflect by way of exhortation. So shall we look first at that chapter from the gospel record according to Matthew which we read together yesterday, and the first verse:
“At the same time the disciples came unto Jesus saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” Matt.18.1
Now the circumstances in which these words were spoken are brought out more clearly and in more detail in the other gospel records. Jesus and his disciples had just arrived at Capernaum from Galilee , and on the road the disciples had been disputing amongst themselves as to who should be the greatest. Jesus had discerned their thoughts and when they sat down in the house in Capernaum he asked them: “What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?” Mark tells us, “But they held their peace; for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest.”
Jesus left them in no doubt as to his mind on this subject. “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” However, it would seem that throughout the subsequent conversation the question about which the disciples had been arguing was still very much in their talk and they asked Jesus, therefore, for an authoritative answer. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus answered’ the question by emphasising the principles which he had already express by an illustration, a practical object-lesson, so we read in verse 2 of the 18th chapter of Matthew:
“And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not into the kingdom of heaven.”
Now Luke in his record says that Jesus put the child by his side, thus giving the child in the midst of the disciples a position of honour by his side, emphasising the principle which he was trying to convey to them. Before we examine just what Jesus meant by these words, with a view to applying them to ourselves, let us look at a very similar incident recorded in Matthew 19, verse 13:
“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on the in, and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said; suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me; for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence”.
Why the disciples wished to turn them away we are not told. It is generally supposed that it was in order to spare Jesus. Yet their action caused Jesus considerable displeasure. Matthew and Luke record only a comparatively mild rebuke, but Mark says that “when Jesus saw it, he was much displease.” The Revised Version reads “when Jesus saw it, he was moved much indignation.”
What it was in the disciples attitude which gave rise to such indignation on the part of their Master we do not know; a viciousness perhaps, a certain pride of position – they were the disciples, the followers of Jesus, who were these to push their children forward? A despising, perhaps, of those who in their simplicity desired their young children to see and feel the touch of Jesus. We do not know what was in their minds. Certainly they showed by their action how far they still were from an appreciation of the mind and the feelings of their Master.
Bro Roberts in his own inimitable way comments on this incident in Nazareth Revisited:
“There is reason he wrote to be glad of the record of this incident. It helps to check the tendency to sternness which some aspects of the truth, by themselves, would generate. It helps to preserve the spirit of loving sympathy which is at the root of the gospel; it makes a place for the young and the helpless in the hearts of all who take after Jesus.”
Whatever the particular thought of the Disciples was at this time Jesus took the opportunity to emphasise that lesson which he had taught them before.
Now if we turn over for a moment to the gospel record of Mark we shall find how beautifully he records the whole incident. Mark 10 verse 13:
“And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them, But when Jesus saw it , he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; far of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. And he took them up in his arms, put his hands, upon them, and blessed them.”
AS A LITTLE CHILD
At once we notice how emphatic the words of Jesus were. “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”“…Shall in no wise enter therein” recorded Luke. Equally emphatic were those words of Jesus which we read earlier: “except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
How important it is, therefore, that we understand just what Jesus meant by this teaching, and having understood, that we apply this principle in our own lives. It is not a question of being as little children if we can and if we are naturally so disposed; it is a question of being as little children otherwise we shall not enter the kingdom of God.
What then did Jesus mean, “become as little children”? First, it is clear that it is not a quality which is natural to us. We need to be converted, Jesus said, be turned, be changed if we are to become as little, children. Now the average man would consider it an insult to be told that he was of a childlike disposition. Yet that is the disposition which God desires to see in us, which He must find in us if we are to be worthy of entering the Kingdom of God. It is essential for us to be converted, to change our minds and become as little children. It will surely be helpful then if for a few minutes we reflect upon just what it means to become as little children, for of such, said Jesus, “is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Jesus defined more clearly what he meant when he said; “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Humility is not a quality which we normally associate with a child. Certainly a child does not consciously show humility in the way in which an adult might, and yet there is humility in a child, an involuntary one, a natural humility, from which we, as adults, can learn. What do we understand by humility in a child? How is it manifested? What makes him humble?
Well, a child is surely humble because he is helpless, dependent and ignorant. He needs to be protected, supported, taught and guided, and generally the young child will recognise this and is pleased to accept support and protection, willing to be taught and guided. Of course, he will rebel from time to time, but with wise, firm handling, the child is not slow to recognise his weak and dependent state, to accept the love, the care, the guidance of his parents, and to find the contentment which such subjection to them must bring, and he is pleased to grow in knowledge and understanding.
But as the young child passes from childhood to adolescence, so he seeks to assert his independence. He begins to resent being taught; he would like to think that he needed no guidance. Then he has to learn what true humility means, and as he moves into adulthood he has to re-learn some of those childlike qualities which he once thought were so unbecoming. Spiritually, the majority of men and women never progress beyond adolescence. They remain proud, rebellious, wilfully resentful of being taught. They are too big and self important for religion and God. Jesus says, in effect, ‘what you must do is to retrace your steps, turn and become as little children, recognise your helplessness, your dependence, your ignorance, not now in natural things, perhaps, but certainly in spiritual things.’
A child has very little sense of his own value or importance or dignity. He is just what he is, accepted for what he is. He needs love, affection and encouragement. But he has no false pride, no proud seeking after position. And so Jesus said it should be with his followers. Greatness amongst his followers depends not on self-assertiveness, but upon humility. Not on lordship, but upon service. Not on teaching, but upon learning. An outstanding characteristic of a child is his willingness to learn and the ease with which he learns. A young child, having no preformed ideas, no false pride in his own knowledge, is ever ready to accept new thoughts, new ideas, to learn new words and develop new actions. His mind receives impressions very readily and he is continuing developing and changing according to those impressions. It is part of the natural humbleness of a child that he should be always learning and developing. No false pride, we say, prevents the entrance of knowledge and growth and understanding. A child’s mind takes on the impress of his surroundings and closest associates. This of course could be dangerous in the wrong environment and with the wrong associates, a point not without its bearing upon, our position as children in our spiritual life. But the wise parent will ensure that as far as possible the child is only in contact with people and things that will cause him to develop in the right direction.
The application of these childlike qualities in our spiritual life is at once obvious. Man in spiritual things is like the child in natural things helpless, dependent and ignorant. The majority will not recognise this and so they remain in that condition. Only a few, recognising their true situation, become as little children before God. Now our presence to remember Christ this morning is an evidence that at one time at least we had this childlike disposition. Appreciating our weakness and our need, we were prepared to be taught of God, to learn from the Word of God and to submit to God’s commandments. But now the question must arise at this time, have we preserved this same attitude towards God and His Word? Like the child, we should be continually learning, ever developing, forsaking old ways, learning new and better ways, learning to walk in ways more and more acceptable to our God, no matter how old we might be in years, or how young.
PRIDE AND HARDNESS OF HEART
There are two insurmountable barriers to such development, pride and hardness of heart. But of we are truly children in the way in which Christ exhorts us to be, neither of these unfruitful characteristics will be found in us. If we are meekly responsive, truly pliable, never too proud or too set in our ways, then we shall develop and change our ways of life and character to whatever extent the Word of God requires of us. There is tremendous emphasis in the Scriptures, on the need to in this manner respond to divine teaching and guidance. The true children of God are those who are willing to respond to the instruction of their Father.
We have only to look over some of the Psalms to see that. David was an outstanding example ofone who desired from, the bottom of his heart to receive and to respond to divine instruction, whether that instruction was given by Word or by the circumstance in which he was placed. Look first at Psalm 25 and
“Shew me thy ways O Lord; teach me thy paths. Lead me in thy truth, and teach me; for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day”
“Good and upright is the Lord: therefore will He teach sinners in the way. The meek will He guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way.”
“What man is he that feareth the Lord? him shall he teach in the way that he shall choose.”
Notice the emphasis: “him shall he teach in the way that he shall choose.”
Then in Psalm27.11:
“Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies.”
“I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye.”
And now the exhortation of the Psalmist:
“Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee.”
Be not like them; be like the child and accept the teaching and the guidance. “Humble yourselves as little children” said Jesus, be willing to learn, be humble and learn.
Then in Psalm 34 verse 11 David, having himself learned the fear of God, seeks to instruct others saying:
“Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord, What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good?”
Surely we all desire that. Well, this is the way we can for David says:
“Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
Throughout the Psalms we find again and again the emphasis on the correct attitude of mind, and heart, which are summed up in the words of David:
“Teach me thy way, O Lord. I will walk in thy truth”
Whether we are taught by the Word directly, indirectly by the Word, ministered to us by faithful brethren, or whether we are taught by the circumstances of our lives, whether they be joyful or sad, it is for us to respond as little children.
Yet how often we behave otherwise, being unresponsive and even rebellious perhaps. How often we allow our own ideas and reasoning to influence us more than those of God through His Word. How often we refuse to put aside obvious weaknesses and wrong ways. The council of Jesus when he said: “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of God” are serious words. Let us do our best to take them to heart.
We know how we feel as adults about a child – whether our own or another’s – who is wilful and rebellious. Such a child is a continual source of grief and anxiety. It is not a pleasant character. So let us then learn the lesson and apply it to ourselves.
We could pursue this idea of being childlike in other directions. For example, a child learns because he responds quickly to his environment. As we indicated earlier, put the child in the wrong environment and he will learn wrong ways even more quickly, than he will learn good ways in a good environment. This has an obvious application to our own spiritual life.
However, there is a sense in which we are not to be as children in spiritual things. The apostle Paul wrote:
“Brethren, be not children in understanding; howbeit, in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.”
There is a sense in which, as Paul exhorted those of Ephesus, we should grow up, henceforth being no more children. But this is another subject and in no way goes against what has already been considered. However, in the sense and context that Paul writes:
We must develop in the Truth.
We must grow in knowledge.
We must grow in understanding.
We must grow in wisdom and in strength.
In short we must grow ever nearer to the example set for us by the Lord Jesus Christ. But we shall only grow in a way acceptable to God if we preserve throughout our lives that childlike disposition which is willing and able to learn and develop in the right way.
We cannot resist quoting once again the words of Bro. Roberts. Of Christ’s followers he writes:
Christ would, not have them abdicate their reason; on the contrary, he would have them ‘wise as serpents’. He would not have them ignorant of truth and fact; on the contrary, he would have them ‘filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another.’ At the same time, with this knowledge, he would have love to dwell.
With this discernment and skill he would have the simplicity and faith that can trust implicitly, and with the firmness and boldness of confident knowledge he would have them combine that humility of self-estimate which is according to self-powerlessness, that reverence for greatness and worth which is the noblest attitude of created beings, and that docility or faith and obedience which is, the highest result of enlightened reason. There is no type of manhood so beautiful as that in which these qualities combine. A childlike, strong man is the ideal of humanity. Christ himself was the highest example of this, and he seeks to generate his own image in all who believe in him.
It was fitting, therefore, that Christ should seize the incident of children being brought for blessing to rebuke the harshness of the disciples, and to exhibit the children as the type of the men and women who will at last find acceptance with him.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me” said Jesus, “for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” Here truly, in the one we remember this morning, was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, and yet he could, say, “Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart.”
Jesus learned and as it is written, “He increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” He learned from his Father, from the Word of his Father. He learned by his experiences. His mind and his disposition were such as to respond to the training which he received. He learned God’s will by the study of His Word, and he learned to obey by the things he suffered. The apostle John wrote:
“He that saith he abideth in him, himself also ought to walk even as he walked.”
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, counted it not a thing to be grasped to be on an equality with God, but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a slave, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
This was the result of Christ’s childlike submission to the will of his Father, the result, but not the end. As the apostle continues:
“Therefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.”
And so the promise to us is likewise:
“Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of God.”
May we each learn to be so humble, so contrite, so willing to tremble at God’s Word, that we, like our Master, may be exalted in due time.
(Bro E. J. Toms, 1965)