I want to begin today with a pop quiz. Do you remember pop quizzes in school? The teacher would start the class by asking you to take a quiz. It was rarely a fun time. But nevertheless, let’s take a pop quiz.
Here is your quiz question. I want you to choose a number between 0 and 10, where 0 means “I know I will not” and 10 means “I know I will.” You can choose 0, 10, or any number in between those as a measure of your confidence. Here is the question, “If I died right now, my level of confidence that I would be in heaven is?” Got the question? Now choose the number that reflects the level of confidence you have for your answer. Choose any number from 0 to 10, where 0 means “I know I will not” and 10 means “I know I will.” Got your number?
Pop quizzes did not get any better as we got older. Here is the thing about this pop quiz. Even though there are eleven numbers we could choose from as an answer: 0,1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10. There are actually only two answers to this question. There is 10, meaning, “If I die right now, I will be in heaven” and every other number that says, “If I die right now, I am not entirely sure I will be in heaven.” Every other number other than the number 10 expresses some doubt about our salvation and destiny. Friends, Jesus did not come that we might doubt less about our salvation and destiny. Jesus came that we would know. The gospel writers were not inspired by the Holy Spirit to tell us the good news that we might doubt less about our salvation and destiny. The gospel writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit that we would know. The Apostle John summed it up this way, “13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). We want to know that we are saved and that our eternal destiny with God is assured. We want to live every day with the answer 10 resounding in our minds, “I know my Savior, He knows me, and that He will never leave me nor forsake me! And I know my place is with Him.”
John said, “13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). When we read John’s words again, we come to realize that knowing we have eternal life is dependent upon our belief in the name of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Knowing is dependent upon believing. So, perhaps, when we take that pop quiz and answer any number other than 10, we are really thinking about the depth of our belief in Jesus as the Son of God. When we choose 8 or 9 as our answer to the pop quiz perhaps what we are saying is “I am almost certain that Jesus is the Son of God, but I have a couple of things I am not sure about.” Again, Jesus coming was not to have us almost belief. When it comes to Jesus, we either believe or we do not.
So perhaps we could look today at the formation of beliefs as Jesus asked us to do. To that end, I would like us to turn our attention to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 18. Jesus’ disciples came to Jesus with a question, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1b). This is one of the things that I love about the Bible, particularly the gospels. The Gospels, written by the apostles directly or their protégés, exude honesty because they do not cast the apostles as heroes who always got things right. Most of the time, the gospels show the apostles as rather dense and missed the point. The opening question to Matthew 18 is one of those examples where it seems the apostles masterfully missed the point. “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” gives rise to the idea of a hierarchy in which someone was going to be more powerful, a person of greater authority, than another person. The apostles, familiar with the hierarch of power with kings, emperors, and religious orders were looking for assurance of their princely status.
It is a wonder that Jesus never seemed to get tired of answering these types of questions. Instead of being weary, Jesus tried to find another way of explaining the ways of the kingdom. This time, Matthew said, “2 He [Jesus] called a little child to him and placed the child among them [the disciples]” (Matthew 18:2). This makes for an interesting picture. You had 12 grown men sitting together with a young child seated among them all waiting for Jesus to answer the question, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1b).
Jesus then had this to say, “3 “Truly I tell you (my disciples), unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Jesus’ words must have fallen hard on his disciples because Jesus said two important things.
First, unless his disciples changed then they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. The disciples’ question, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1b), presumed that they were already in the kingdom of heaven. All they were looking for was how high up in the power structure of the kingdom they would be sitting. Jesus’ words said, “Think again. You are not even in the kingdom of heaven. Why are you asking about who is the greatest?” Jesus’ words must have taken away the breath of each disciple. “What, we must change to be part of the kingdom? We thought we were already in the kingdom?” This is disturbing news. It is as though to the pop quiz question, “If I died right now, my level of confidence that I would be in my place in heaven is?” Jesus said to his disciples, “Your answer should be 0.”
Now that Jesus had the disciples undivided attention, Jesus’ words told them the second important thing. “You must become like the little child seated among you to come into the kingdom of God.” If you want to answer 10 to the pop quiz question, ‘If I died right now, my level of confidence that I would be in my place in heaven is?’ then become childlike.
Jesus then continued, “4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). To become great in the kingdom, Jesus said, first become humble as a child. What was the lowly position of this child? Little children, like the one seated with the disciples, did not have and still today do not have any earthly authority. Little children are never described as great or powerful because they are not. Little children have an innocence about them. They are trusting. They are simple in their ways and lack dark motives. Little children are honest. They are full of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. They look for joy in all circumstances and, this is important, little children believe fully and completely in those who love them.
And this is an important life lesson. If a child does not believe they are loved, they stop loving themselves. And a person who does not love themselves is in danger because they are hopeless. Jesus came to love us and give us hope.
So, Jesus’ answer to his disciples was unexpected. Jesus said to enter the kingdom of heaven you must become childlike by believing fully and completely in the one who loves them, Jesus the Christ. And in believing in Jesus and welcoming him, the disciples would therefore also believe in the one who sent Jesus, God. Believe as a child and be humble as a child who has no pretense of authority, and you will know that you will be found in the kingdom of heaven.
And so God’s Word says we must be childlike to be in the kingdom and be able to give an answer of 10 out of 10 to the pop quiz question, “If I died right now, my level of confidence that I would be in my place in heaven is?” But we learn later in the New Testament letter from the Apostle Paul that we must put away our childish thinking? Was Paul in conflict with Jesus? Is there a difference between childlike belief and childish thinking? If so, what was Paul’s point?
Paul talked about childishness in addressing spiritual gifts in a letter to the church at Corinth. Paul said that as children of God, as the church, people would receive spiritual gifts to strengthen the body of Christ, the church. Paul said some people were gifted to be apostles, prophets, teachers, givers of miracles, gifted healers, helpers, counselors, and others who could speak in different kinds of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28). These were the gifts that the people in the Corinth church desired the most because with them came not just great works but recognition. The childlike behaviors necessary to enter the kingdom had become childish and petty behaviors over who had the greatest gifts. The believers in the church at Corinth had been trying to one up each other with their spiritual gifts as a way of elevating themselves within the church itself.
It is interesting that the disciples wanted recognition of greatness in the kingdom and Jesus said you must first become childlike. Now, in maturing in the faith and in their beliefs within the kingdom, people were still looking for ways to be seen as greater than one another with the use of their gifts. We somehow, for some reason, want to be recognized as better than someone else.
Paul sought to correct this desire for superior standing of gifts within the church itself. Paul said, “1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Paul was saying that for the believer, the one who had become a child to enter the kingdom, and now was maturing in the faith, love must be the underpinning motivation for everything they do especially in using spiritual gifts whatever they may be.
And from that posture of love in life and in the use of spiritual gifts, Paul wrote that such a motivation of love is essential because love is an expression of humility for “4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
Paul’s words about love so often read at weddings are not so much about marital relationships as they are about the motivations for serving one another and not being childish in the use of our spiritual gifts for others. For Paul said he came to this understanding of love because he had matured in the faith. “11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” Paul was putting away the childishness that we can display and took on the maturity of an adult believer.
Paul was excited to be a childlike believer in Jesus who had matured enough to put away the petty nature of childishness. Paul was excited that he knew with certainty that he would be in heaven one day. Yet Paul understood that as wonderful as that knowledge was of being in Christ now, it would not compare to the overwhelming joy of being with Jesus later. Paul said to the Corinthians, “9 For we know in part [now] and we prophesy in part [which teach about what is to come], 10 but when completeness comes [when in Jesus’ presence], what is in part disappears… 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully [the glory of knowing Christ completely], even as I am fully known [by Christ]” (1 Corinthians 13:9 and 12). As wonderful as we might imagine it will be to with Christ and to have Christ live through us in love, to be in Jesus’ personal presence, Paul said, will be far more glorious than whatever we have imagined.
What then can we take from these words of Jesus and his apostles John and Paul? I think there are two things that we can draw for ourselves. First, we need not doubt our salvation. We should be 10 out of 10 in knowing that believers go to heaven. Jesus came to be known and reveal a loving God to us. And so, to carry around that sense of absolute certainty that if we have given our life to Christ, it means we became childlike and accepted Jesus because he is utterly trustworthy and loving toward us. We want to remember that to be in Christ, to be in the kingdom of heaven, we must have been born again.
Secondly, we should come to realize that if greatness is a thing in that kingdom, then that greatness will not be found in childishly seeking greatness. Instead, greatness will be given to us because we sought to be humble and that humbleness is best expressed through love. If there is greatness for us, then it will be given because God is love and God saw that we used the gift of our life and our spiritual gifts motivated by a love that is humble because love is patient, kind, not easily angered, that rejoices in the truth, protecting, giving hope, and never failing.
Let us all then be childlike and know Jesus loves us and let us put away childish things and love as an expression of our humility before God. Amen and Amen.