Following Jesus in Humility
Topic: Discipleship Passage: Matthew 18:1–18:4
President Abraham Lincoln was known during the Civil War to attend a church not far from the White House on Wednesday nights. The preacher, Dr. Gurley, allowed the president to sit in the pastor’s study with the door open to the chancel so he could listen to the sermon without having to interact with the crowd.
One Wednesday evening after the service as Lincoln and a friend walked back to the White House, the friend asked Lincoln what he thought of the sermon.
Lincoln responded, “it was brilliantly conceived, biblical, relevant, and well presented.”
“So,” the friend said, “you thought it was a great sermon?”
Lincoln replied, “No, it failed. It failed because Dr. Gurley did not ask us to do something great.”
I think most people at some point in their lives know what it is to dream of doing something great with their lives. We want our lives to count for something, we want our lives to make a difference. The Christian man or woman wants their life to used by God to make an eternal difference – to do something great for the kingdom of God. The question is: what is great in the eyes of God? How does God measure greatness?
By chapter 18 of the gospel of Matthew it’s beginning to dawn on the disciples that when they chose to follow Jesus they signed on to something greater than they could ever have imagined and there is an excitement stirring in their hearts. They have seen Jesus perform many amazing miracles: healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons with authority. They have seen him calm the storm with a word and walk on water and pay taxes with a coin from a fish’s mouth. They know now that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he is the Messiah, the One who is to sit on David’s throne and usher in the kingdom of God and rule forever. And they are a part of it! In fact Jesus chose them to be his apostles and friends. Jesus has called them to be a part of something great, and in their hearts stirs a longing and desire to do something great – to be great.
And so they come to Jesus with a really good question – who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Now we see from the other gospels that their motives are selfishly ambitious – they are arguing with each other over who among them is the greatest. But it’s still a good question: what is great in the eyes of God? How does God measure greatness?
Jesus surprises them by calling a young child into their midst and says if you want to be great you need to turn around from the direction you are going in and humble yourself like this child. This is how God measures greatness: become like a child. Humble yourselves. Humility is at the core of being a disciple. It is essential if we are to enter heaven, and it is essential to being great as defined by God. But before we unpack this we need to ask this question:
What’s so humble about a child?
In what way is a child humble? Some have taught from this that children have exceptionally humble spirits that we are to imitate. The only problem with that is that, as every parent knows, it’s simply not true. Kids just aren’t all that humble.
ILL: When I was young I loved to go visit my uncle Mike. Uncle Mike was only two years older than me, so we grew up together as really great friends and loved playing together. But when Grandma brought out a treat of any kind, she needed to be very careful to measure out the portions equally, if she poured us a glass of milk, she needed to take care that there wasn’t a little more in Mike’s glass than mine, cause I was watching carefully, and if she gave Mike a little more than me, I would cry that she loved Mike more than me! I know, I was a brat.
But what parent hasn’t heard the “it’s mine, I want that, give it to me, you can’t have it” selfishness that kids can display at incredibly young ages? Some kids might be more humble than others, but observation tells us that humility doesn’t really come any more naturally to a child than it does to you or me.
So the question remains…what’s so humble about a child? What does Jesus mean when he says we need to humble ourselves like a little child? The point is a simple one, although not as obvious in today’s culture as it was to the disciples: a child in that day was looked on as having no importance in the Jewish society, they had no prominence or status in society.
As one commentary puts it: True greatness is to be found in being little, true importance in being unimpressive.
It’s not their character Jesus is pointing to, it’s their status. True greatness isn’t found by promoting ourselves, but by lowering ourselves for the sake of the kingdom.
With that in mind, let’s consider the two statements Jesus makes:
I. Humility is necessary to enter the gates of the kingdom of God (vs 3)
"Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:3 (ESV)
Jesus is rebuking the disciples for arguing among themselves about was the greatest. Jesus tells them, seeking your own glory and prominence is going in the wrong direction. In fact, unless you turn from that direction and humble yourself like children (no status, no prominence) you won’t even get in heaven, much less be considered great in heaven.
Jesus is the gate into heaven – no one enters heaven except through him. Humility doesn’t save us, only Jesus can save us. But humility is essential to position us to receive Christ as our Lord and Savior. Sin has a twofold effect in our hearts: first it corrupts us morally and spiritually so that we are filthy in our minds and wicked in our hearts. And then it deceives us so that we don’t think we’re all that bad. So religion comes along and says, you’re just the kind of person God is looking for. If you could just get your act together – be nicer, give more to the poor, go to church more, read your Bible (or whatever religious book) more, God would love to have you on His side!
The gospel, rightly understood, humbles us absolutely, because the cross reveals how sinful we are and how helpless we are and how unworthy we are. If we do not see that we are utterly sinful and totally unworthy, we have not come to Christ in a saving way and the gates of heaven will be forever shut. We were living under the wrath of God and we were absolutely helpless to do anything about it. Jesus alone can save us – that is the gospel – Jesus alone can save us. We can add nothing except our sin. We bring no status, no prominence, nothing to impress God with – we are absolutely unworthy. So we need to humble ourselves of all self-reliance, all self-effort, all ideas of being a pretty good person, all defensiveness about how sinful we really are, and simply and humbly confess our need to be saved and call upon Jesus to save us. To believe that Jesus needed to die on the cross to save me from my sin isn’t flattering, it’s humbling. If you are unwilling to humble yourself and admit your foul wretchedness and need for Jesus, you will never enter the gates of heaven.
If you have never done that, I urge you not to wait another day to confess your sin to God, turn from that sin, and ask Jesus to forgive and wash you clean. The Bible gives this promise: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved. Humble yourself and admit your need for Jesus to save you. Do it today.
II. Humility is the measure of greatness in the kingdom of God (vs. 4)
Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 18:4
Jesus turns our understanding of greatness on its head – it’s exactly opposite of what we think it is. Greatness isn’t found in pursuing prominence or status or fame or fortune or any of the things this world strives for and thinks so important. Greatness is found in humility. When we lower ourselves, when we do not strive for position or prominence, when we think little of ourselves, we are great in the eyes of God.
The reason humility is so prized is because pride is so poisonous. Jonathan Edwards called pride “the worst viper that is in the heart”. The disciples were bitten because they are fighting among themselves for first place, a spirit so poisonous Jesus says, unless they repent they will never see heaven.
Pride is toxic. CJ Mahaney calls it our greatest enemy. John Stott writes that pride is more than the first of the seven deadly sins, it is itself the essence of all sin.
The Bible tells us that sin and rebellion against God first entered creation through Lucifer’s prideful desire to be lifted up to God’s throne. Pride was the first sin that gave birth to all sin. When the serpent tempted Eve, he tempted her with the promise that she would be like God if she ate of the fruit. Pride.
ILL: I am no fisherman. In fact, the fish are never safer than when I am standing by water with a fishing pole in my hand. But I do know this: to be a successful fisherman you need to know what bait or lure is best fitted for the fishing conditions. There are many different kinds of bait and lures that attract different kinds of fish and even the same fish may be biting on different bait or lures on different days.
Pride uses a lot of different kinds of lures to hook our hearts. What attracts you may be different than what attracts someone else. But we all bite at something.
• Functionally infallible. None of us would admit to thinking we’re infallible – always right. But pride can blind us to think we are functionally infallible. You are functionally infallible if you admit that you can be wrong conceptually, but never admit to being wrong in an actual conflict or argument. No one can remember the last time you said, “hey, I was wrong. Please forgive me.” If that doesn’t happen (and happen fairly frequently) than you are functionally infallible and pride has blinded you to think, “I’d admit I was wrong if I was. I’m just not!” You need to humble yourself.
• Reputation: Another lure of pride is caring too much about what people think of us. Last week Mark Sellers mentioned how politicians shift their opinions based on the latest polls. We can all do that: we can change the shape of our opinions to fit whoever is in the room because we care more about our reputation than we do the truth and our convictions. Pride can also fuel the person who wants to be known as a renegade – someone who doesn’t care what others think, someone who purposely says controversial or offensive things to get a rise from others. Friends might think you’re pretty great, but God doesn’t. Humility means to be just who you are: no pretense, no putting up an image. To grow in humility means growing in being real before God and men.
• False humility: Pride can even hook our hearts with the desire to be known as humble, rather than the desire to be truly humble.
At the end of my time at Pastor’s College, they always give out a few awards to guys in the class that set themselves apart. I found myself wanting an award, and when the last award was announced – it was the person voted by the class as the most humble – I wanted to get that award. It’s a great example of what pride does: it drives us to seek the award, not the reality. Why it’s can vain glory – empty glory. Like holding an Olympic Gold Medal without ever having competed in the Olympics. Pretty empty.
Pride offers a greatness that is empty and phony and not great at all in the eyes of God. Jesus doesn’t rebuke the disciples for wanting to be great, he rebukes them for pursuing greatness by promoting themselves rather than humbling themselves. If we want to be great, we need to humble ourselves. True greatness isn’t found by promoting ourselves, but by lowering ourselves for the sake of the kingdom.
The call to humble ourselves
Humbling ourselves mean actively lowering ourselves, stripping away our sense of status, and embracing an inferior position. Purposely making ourselves smaller so that Christ can be bigger. That’s what Jesus did – though he was equal with God, he “made himself nothing” becoming a man and taking the form of a servant, and then he humbled himself to the point of death on the cross. Because he humbled himself God highly exalted him.
Means admitting when we are wrong and asking forgiveness. It means serving others and not caring if we get the credit. It means being who we are not who we think people want us to be. It means caring more for Christ’s reputation than our own. It’s hard to humble ourselves – it takes grace. But it also positions us to receive grace. Peter writes that God gives grace to the humble. That’s the best thing we can ever get – grace from the hand of the God of the universe. Nothing is better than receiving grace from God. On the other hand he writes that God opposes the proud – and nothing is worse than being opposed by the God of the universe. Nothing will ever go right if God opposes you. We don’t want God opposing us, we want God giving grace to us. Humbling ourselves is key.
Jesus calls us to pursue true greatness – he isn’t saying we should aim to live useless, pointless lives. He is simply redefining greatness. It isn’t being afraid to do great things, it’s being afraid to think of ourselves as doing great things. As one Christian put it, "Great men never know that they are great, and small men never know that they are small."
I think the best way we can end this message is to take a few minutes in the presence of the Lord and ask Him to reveal pockets of pride in our hearts and ask for grace to humble ourselves. If the Lord convicts you that there’s someone you need to go to and humble yourself before – be obedient. Remember, God gives grace to the humble.