Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
When the disciples questioned Jesus about greatness in the kingdom of heaven, the Greek wording indicates they were not asking who is the greatest but who is the greater. When posed this way we begin to realize the Apostles already considered themselves great, but they were wondering, as they did on other occasions, what is the rank of greatness among the Apostles; who are the greater and who are the lesser Apostles? Perhaps their question was generated by the fact that Jesus would Himself set apart particularly three Apostles (Peter, James, John) for certain tasks (e.g. Mat 17:1). Jesus now must teach them, as He would on other occasions, that in God’s kingdom their question is completely wrong-headed.
So Jesus calls a child to himself and places this little one in front of these “noble” Apostles. Then Jesus makes the astounding and absolute statement, Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (18:3).
Though all are conceived and born in sin, yet little children have a blessed emptiness when it comes to relationships. They have no life-experience to get in the way of their faith. The littlest ones cannot even yet think in terms of words. They have not yet had building blocks such as pride, envy, vying actions, jealousy, anger and hatred laid upon the foundation of their sinful flesh. It is apparent the Apostles had some of these diabolical building blocks. A child thus is not concerned about how great he is, for he has not yet begun to compare himself with others. In this respect, in comparison with adults, children are “empty”. That which is empty can have something put in it; the container which is full can have nothing added to it. Because we yet have the sinful flesh, adults are “naturally” full of themselves. How appropriate it is to baptize babies, for though they have sin, yet they do not have apparent sins associated with relationships! Upon baptism their guardian angels, unlike the guardian angels of conniving adults, are not embarrassed to face the heavenly Father (v 10).
Appropriately Jesus describes a key characteristic pertaining to being like a child in God’s kingdom: humility. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (v 4). We must “turn and become like children,” Jesus said, and to be like children is to be humble. Jesus informs us that we must “turn”. Turn to what? We must turn to Jesus, the truly humble One.
Sadly no one, not even children, are able to thus turn to Jesus. For Jesus avows, No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him (Jn 6:44,65). Thankfully through the Word the omnipotent Holy Spirit turns us to faith in Jesus, and when we are thus turned, in Christ we become as the humble child, forgiven of all our sinful, proud desires, made empty containers readied to be filled.
Turned to trust in Jesus we realize that He was God’s holy child who humbled and emptied himself to the point of death on the cross (Phil 2:5ff), rising then for our justification. As we realize the emptiness of all our efforts in relation to God, the Spirit not only endows us with faith in Christ and His purging blood, but the Spirit pours His gifts into our emptied hearts; gifts such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Indeed the Holy Spirit makes us not merely like children, in Christ He makes us to be born-anew babies in the kingdom of God.