The Simplicity Series #5

Setting the Boundaries of the Gospel Message

 “Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and
said ‘Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children,
you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.’” Mat 18:2–3
By this one statement, Jesus refutes forever many of today’s misconceptions about the way of salvation. Most children simply could not comprehend the convoluted and inconsistent presentations of the Gospel we hear today. This proclamation is so fundamental, both to our understanding of the Gospel message and as a foundation for all theological thought, that I will break it down to its very essence. Every word and phrase is unconditional and non-negotiable if we are to be faithful to God’s Word and the Spirit of Christ.
An Absolute Truth from the Ultimate Authority
Whenever Jesus says, “Assuredly [or, “truly, truly”] I say to you,” He is speaking as the Author of the Word of God (see Mat 5:18, 20, 22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). As the second member of the Godhead, His authority is absolute and unquestioned.
Whenever this formula is used to introduce a truth, it is to be given our utmost attention and submission. Jesus is about to define the limitations and boundary lines of the Gospel message. Whenever lines are drawn—whether in theology or on a playing field—they set the scope and limitations of the game. Within the lines of play, there exists both the maximum scope of the game and its irreducible minimum. All play outside the lines is “out of bounds,” and is rejected. All play within the lines is subject to the rules of the game.
The boundary Jesus sets here is both in picture and in word. Jesus called “a little child” for them to observe while He was speaking. The diminutive is used for a small child, possibly three to six years old. He, then, in one statement disqualifies Gospel presentations beyond the mental capacity of that child as “out of bounds.” As Randolph O. Yeager says, in The Renaissance New Testament, “As the disciples gather around Jesus and the child, they were about to hear one of the most cogent and trenchant statements about salvation that Jesus would ever utter” (Vol. 2, pg. 608).
The Unconditional Condition
With the small child standing in their midst, Jesus makes two proclamations: one regarding entrance into eternal life, the other having to do with eternal inheritance. The disciples had assumed they possessed the first (some undoubtedly did, while others did not), and therefore were asking how to be assured of the second. The problem is not that they desired to “lay up … treasures in heaven” (Mat 6:20) but, rather, that they wanted to be “greatest” (see Mat 18:1).
The word translated “converted” in our English Bibles would better be rendered “turn around.” Jesus is demanding a reversal of the disciples’ “me-first” mentality. The little child, in his dependence and simplicity, did not need this “turning” as he was already where they should be. For an adult to come to faith is an act of returning to the child-like attitude of hearing and believing what he is told. Without this simple faith of a child, no one will ever enter—much less be great in—the Kingdom of Heaven.
The gift of eternal life cannot be earned or deserved; no merit can claim a right to enter the eternal Kingdom. A small child knows he is ignorant, helpless, vulnerable, and dependent. Yet, the child naturally possesses the capability to love; it is interesting to see the qualities Paul cites in 1Co 13:4–8, as they relate to child-like simplicity. A child knows he can do nothing, but gladly receives love, protection, provision, shelter, food, care—all of which come to him, not because he deserves them but, rather, because he needs them and cannot provide for himself.
Infinite Eternal Loss
The phrase “by no means” is an emphatic double negative in the Greek language meaning “never, ever.” Apart from the simple faith and dependence of a child, there will be no entrance whatsoever into the Kingdom of Christ. A child cannot help but understand this; sophisticated adults, proud of their abilities and accomplishments, find it difficult to swallow.
For a child, it is easy to understand that God loves them, because they know they need His love. It makes perfect sense that Jesus died for us, because we could never pay the enormous penalty of our own sin. To children, it is their desperate need—and never their merit—that claims the right for the helpless to be delivered.
That eternal life is a free gift—only to be received—is the only way it could possibly be gained. Again, this goes back to a previous post on fathers. There is a natural expectation by children that they should be loved, protected, and provided for. The heavenly Father has done all of this for us in sending the Lord Jesus Christ into the world to reflect His love, care, and provision. It is, in the mind of a child, the most natural thing in the world to trust the One who loves us.
The Downward Path to the Upward Call
Having laid down the requirement for entering the Kingdom, Jesus now addresses their original question about gaining greatness in that kingdom. The child is still the object lesson. As said earlier, the child does not need to “turn around,” for he is already there. He does not need to “humble himself,” for he is the very definition of true humility. The purity of a child’s humility is that they never think of themselves as “humble.”
In the world of a small child, he or she is the most helpless, most needy, least worthy. The beauty of the child is that they know they have nothing—everything must be provided for them. “Humility,” in the sense Jesus uses it here, means to become “less than the least” (see Eph 3:8). A small child would not even consider himself in the running for the “greatest.” And that is precisely what makes them truly great. Self-forgetfulness makes it easy to be overwhelmed by the greatness of Jesus Christ. Jesus is saying to the disciples that if they want to “go higher” in the Kingdom, they will have to learn the downward path of true humility.
Everything Jesus says to the disciples here is but a summary of what He had taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). The qualities enshrined in the Beatitudes (Mat 5:1–12) are nothing less than those exhibited by small children.
The only two options for the human soul are humility or arrogance (1Pe 5:5). While arrogance is conscious of its (assumed) power, humility is painfully conscious of its need. Arrogance, therefore, looks to self, but humility seeks a Savior. This is why faith is the only hope of the humble. Since “the just shall live by faith” (Hab 2:4; Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38), Jesus states that both entrance into eternal life and greatness in His Kingdom, come only through the simplicity and humility of the child, who never thinks of being great, but only of being grateful.

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