The Expository Files.

Character, Not Competition

Matthew 18:1-5


Jesus used a number of teaching methods. He made use of stories or parables; He would sometimes raise a question to provoke thought; and some of His teaching was in response to questions people asked. Also, the Lord made use of object lessons and sometimes the object was a person; in this case, a child.

"At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, 'Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' 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. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 'Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me'." (Matt. 18:1-5).

When I read their question I see something we call competition. I understand, these disciples were not fully enlightened at this time and that their view of the kingdom was probably influenced by carnal, political thinking. But I see something here that we call competition. This is confirmed by two other references:

In Mark chapter 9 he tells about an occasion on the way to Capernaum, where the disciples were fussing among themselves about "who would be the greatest," (Mrk. 9:34). In Matt. 20 the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus and said: "Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom." Apparently there was a worldly spirit of competition between these men, in their earlier days. {There is certainly post-Pentecost evidence that these men conquered this spirit; though they were still tempted, see Gal. 2:11-16}.

I wonder if we shouldn't think about this. Is there an ill-advised spirit of competition in our culture and even in religion that we need to be alert to? I believe there is. We see, sometimes, an ugly kind of childish competition between churches and religions; a party mentality - where one group attempts to defeat and humiliate another group, and feel proud of their defeat of the other side.

Among preachers, most readers have witnessed some very senseless, adolescent and ungodly battles - where competition was the issue not truth. It should be said, sometimes the non-preaching brethren contribute to this nonsense, by exalting men, playing favorites and choosing sides. Wasn't this a big part of the problem in Corinth? Of course it was. It is childish; it is worldly, and it is a great hindrance to the work we were all called to do.

And this kind of repulsive rivalry and competition has torn some local churches apart - not over matters of principle, but matters of carnal envy and strife. It is a problem in our culture; it happens in religion, and sometimes brethren calculate, plan and manipulate in a vain effort to exalt themselves above others. "Who is greatest in the brotherhood?" "Who is greatest in the local church? "And all of this has led some to offer the cynical reply: "Who cares!"

This kind of thing is tiresome, unprofitable, childish and productive of no positive good at all. We need to guard against it! And when we begin to get caught up in subtle plans and methods where men scheme for pre-eminence, we need to remember who we are and quit it.

Immature contests of personal and party rivalry is sinful, but at this point in their journey with the Lord, they were asking, "Who is the greatest?"

In reply to this ill-advised question - the lord "called a little child to him," and "set him in the midst of them." Jesus had a great regard for children and great concern for their welfare. You may remember the very touching story reported by Mark, in Mark chapter ten (to be cited below).

The story is told about a business meeting that was being conducted in a local church. There were no elders so there were business meetings every month to make decisions and plan the work. These men got together and one brother had decided IT WAS TOO MUCH TROUBLE TO HAVE BIBLE CLASSES FOR CHILDREN. He took up this issue and argued at some length about what a waste of time it was to deal with these pesky children. He finished his little speech and sat down . . after a few moments of silence, a brother got up and read this . . . in Mark 10:13-16 . . .

"Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, 'Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.' And He took them up in His arms, put His hands on them, and blessed them."

They kept their Bible classes. Jesus had a great affection for children and He blessed them. On this occasion - in Matt. 18 - The disciples are wanting to know, "Who then is the greatest," and "Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them."

He 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."

Jesus and His kingdom IS NOT ABOUT the ranking of men from greatest to least; His kingdom is not like the governments and political administrations of men - - where power, money and numbers enjoy more influence than character and virtue. No! This King and this Kingdom is about changing your life and serving the Lord "unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

The disciples had their mind of competition instead of conversion and in that regard, they were unenlightened, carnal and immature.

This King, Jesus, and this Kingdom is about changing your life, not out-doing your brother! This language is strong, direct and demanding: "unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

And I think it was intended for us to notice THE NECESSITY OF CONVERSION IS ILLUSTRATED BY CHILDLIKE HUMILITY; infantile humility! Babies are dependent; they are teachable and innocent; very open about their needs, and they are not generally clamoring to out-do other babies and attain loved. They want to live and learn. These are kingdom qualities!

In order to be in the Lord's kingdom I have to change! I must give up that competitive drive to be better than others; I must come face to face with my dependence, be open about my spiritual needs, and be willing to listen and learn and be governed by the King, Jesus!

I must be converted: From pride to humility . . from worldly ambition to spiritual ambition . . from godlessness to godliness. I MUST BE CONVERTED; Jesus said, you must be born again!

The gospel wasn't given - just to be a free ticket into a good place; it was given to cleanse us of sin by his blood and change our lives, from the inside out! When I obey the gospel, I'm not just saying, "I was wrong about the church," I'M SAYING: "I was wrong about how I was living my life . . I was wrong in my behavior . . I was wrong in my attitudes, ambitions and associations . . I was lost!"

Character, Not Competition!
What Jesus said next highlights one of the surest marks of true conversion I call this: Pure, Innocent Willingness To Serve! Verses 4 & 5 . . .

"Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me."

Humility, as we often see in babies; that's what's great! Not your status over others but your humility; your meekness and submission to the King! Your purity of motive and intention, that's where true greatness is. Character, not Competition! This is about pure, innocent willingness to serve!

Consider - babies do not come into the world knowing everything about the world; they do not enter into life on earth encumbered by some of the perspectives and attitudes we have; we seem to do a good job teaching them these things as soon as possible, but babies do not come into the world with these ideas. Babies do not come into the world with any arrogance or selfish ambition. They do not naturally have a false and exaggerated pride that covets pre-eminence. They are content to be fed, to be loved and cared for. The extremes of human ambition and temperament do not drive them to seek glory and honor and aggrandizement.

Humility, as we often see in babies - - that's the Lord's definition of greatness; and it is absolutely essential in order to be converted and stay converted!

Constant Connection
We should say this: This childlike humility; this PURE, INNOCENT, WILLINGNESS TO SERVE must be a permanent, constant part of our character throughout our lives as the Lord's people. This humility; this pure, innocent, willingness to serve not only brings us into the presence of deity . . It keeps us in that fellowship. This infantile humility is the basis of our constant connection to the Lord.

This humility is not to be understood as self-hatred! The humbling of self is not A bitter hatred of yourself; not a tendency to say and think ugly and depreciating things about yourself! Biblical humility does not mean - we should confess sins we've not committed. Biblical humility does not involve constant self-criticism . . or exaggerated confessions of your lowliness . . or an advertised low estimate of your self.

Biblical humility always goes hand-in-hand with the truth; the truth about who we are! Our real status - having a clear concept of our real status - that's the basis of humility. And this must be a constant attitude!

When I let God's word tell me about myself, and I accept that truth, about who I am - that's the basis of this humility. And God's Word tells me my real status has nothing to do with my reputation, my wealth, my position or rank; my genius, my success or my looks! I am a creature made in the image of God; but I've sinned; Christ died for me, so I can be saved and be a child of God!

Those simple facts form the basis of true humility which produces in my character, this thing I've called, pure, innocent, willingness to serve! This disposition I must have - to be converted, and to stay converted; this pure, innocent, willingness to serve. And this is based on my acknowledge of my real status: I am a creature, made in the image of God; but I've sinned; Christ died for me so I can be saved and be a child of God!

If I scheme and maneuver and calculate how I can promote myself --
I do not have this humility!

If my daily thought and occupation is to outdo others, and avoid that unambitious simplicity we see in Christ --
I do not have this disposition.

If I tend to look out for myself, and cannot see the needs of others...
If I want to chart my own course for me, regardless of God's will --
I do not have this pure, innocent willingness to serve that should be constant within me!

If I am anxious to claim my freedom and independence...
If I expect everybody to serve me, attend to me and acknowledge my talent and greatness --
this childlike virtue is not in my character.

If I'm always comparing myself to others, seeking the praise of men and dreaming about my greatness --
I am unlike the innocent child in Jesus' arms!

Paul said, "Put on therefore, as the elect of God . . humbleness of mind, meekness," (Col. 3:12). Simon Peter said, "All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility," (1 Pet. 5:5). The prophet Micah spoke of those things the Lord requires - and he said, "To do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with thy God," (Mic. 6:8). James reminds us, "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble," (Jas. 4:6). Solomon reminds us - that "By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honour and life," (Prov. 22:4).

And the perfect illustration of humility - Paul wrote about, in Philippians chapter two (Phil. 2:5-11).

"Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

How patient Jesus was in teaching His men the meaning of humble service. By a simple act, Jesus taught them and He teaches us, that this pure, innocent willingness to serve IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL TO BE CONVERTED, AND STAY CONVERTED.

Because of the Lord's work for us, and His word to us, we should want to cleanse ourselves in His blood, of all self-pride, arrogance and empty ambition. The glamour of some high position, the appeal of human applause, and the drive of worldly competition should have no place in our hearts. Jesus said, "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted," (Lk. 14:11 and Lk. 18:14). We humble ourselves when we come to Him, in obedience to the gospel. We must live as Christians by that same constant disposition, that pure, innocent willingness to serve Him. He says, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 4.11; November 1997