Jesus starts His ministry teaching on humility. As time passes He begins to talk about His coming betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. As He begins to talk about why He really came to earth and what it is He is really wanting to accomplish, the Scripture says something amazing: It says that the Disciples didn’t understand what He was talking about; they didn’t get it (see for example Matthew 16:21,22).
Why didn’t they get it? Because they weren’t thinking about what they needed; they were thinking about what they wanted. When you only hear what you want to hear, you will never hear what you need to hear. They wanted to hear that they would be delivered from Rome. What they needed to hear was that Jesus came to forgive them of their sin and die in their place—but they didn’t hear any of it. They missed it completely.
The Disciples are absolutely convinced that Jesus is going to drive those nasty Romans out of there and when that happens (because they’re his closest friends), they are going to be something and get something.
In Matthew 18:1–4 Jesus decides to teach them a lesson on greatness and I’m convinced what He teaches is not close to what they were expecting. The Disciples ask Jesus, “How do we become great?” I’m sure they expect Him to say something like, “You’ve got to promote yourself and establish yourself. You need to become somebody. You need to work hard, have people respect and maybe fear you so when you speak, they listen up. And, be sure to get thousands of Facebook friends.”
Instead, Jesus tells them what they need to hear. He calls a little child over and says, “If you want to be great, the first thing you need to do is become converted.” Jesus isn’t just talking about salvation. The Greek word used here means “a twisting, a changing, a changing of direction.” Jesus is speaking to their carnal, prideful, materialistic, authoritative desire and motivation of being great. He is saying, “You’ve got to untwist and change that mindset.” He wants them to change their opinions about what greatness looks like.
Secondly, Jesus says, “You’re going to have to become childlike. Not childish, but childlike.” He’s telling them that if they want to be great in the kingdom of God, they need to come to Him as a little child—completely trust, submit and obey Him.
Then he tells them that they need, again looking at the little child, to humble themselves. The Disciples didn’t understand that true greatness comes by co-operating with God. God wants to humble us and in that process, we humble ourselves.
Professor and author Frederick D. Bruner wrote, “The world honors the person who seeks and attains greatness. This is the well-known Olympic ideal. But Jesus throws this ideal into question and overcomes culture’s piety of achievement. Jesus is not asking us to adopt infantile innocence but he is asking us to begin a heroic new obedience: to learn and turn from greatness toward service. . .for Jesus [using a child as an example] was exactly right.”
We should not expect Jesus to tell us what we want to hear. He tells us what we need to hear.
Do you want to be “great” in the kingdom of God? Change your thinking—untwist your thoughts from what matters in the world to what matters to God. Change your heart—be more childlike (dependent, submissive, obedient to God. Humble yourself—as an act of your own will.