Introduction. Read Matthew 18 1-10.

This passage is important because it clarifies the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. It reinforces what Jesus taught in the Beatitudes.

(1) A misconception.

The disciples were still thinking in terms of Jesus establishing and ruling over an earthly kingdom. If, as they expected, Jesus, great David's greater son, became king of greater Israel, there would important positions to fill.

According to Mark the disciples argued about who would fill these positions as they journeyed back to Capernaum from Gentile territory to the north. Eventually they ask Jesus, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" The meaning must be: "Which of us will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Sadly, the twelve disciples had become infected with the spirit of rivalry and earthly ambition.

The spirit of rivalry infects all aspects of modern life - politics, sport, entertainment, teaching, medicine, celebrity and so on. It should have no place in the Church but of course it does. This is particularly true of denominations with a hierarchy of offices like the Church of England and Church of Rome. However, it is also evident in associations or federations of independent churches. Some preachers are rated more highly than others. It gratifies the ego to be highly regarded and invited to conduct special services. It is deflating to be of no reputation. I speak from experience!

(2) Entry qualifications.

Jesus surprised his disciples when he said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

What is it about a little child that is a prerequisite for entering the kingdom? The child:

  • Knows that it needs assistance: help to feed, help to dress, help to walk, help to get up. Today I went to see my great niece, Lydia, who in spite of being able to walk fell over frequently and stretched out her arms to be put back on her feet again.

  • Knows whom to turn to and whom to trust. Lydia turned to her mother and grandmother for help.

  • Accepts help. Two-year-old Lydia had no thought of earning help. She accepted help with absolutely no thought of paying for it. She relied on grace.

There is no entry into the Kingdom without this attitude. We must:

  • Start with, "God, be merciful to me a sinner." - an acknowledgement of our need - a cry to God for help.

  • Trust Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. When the Philippian jailer cried out to Paul in prison, "What must I do to be saved?" the answer was unequivocal, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."

  • Appreciate that salvation and entry into Christ's Kingdom is not something we can earn but something to humbly accept. It is God's free gift to sinners who believe on his Son.

(3) The marks of greatness.

Jesus said, "Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." The childlike qualities that mark out the true saint are:

  • Simplicity. The young child is, on the whole, without guile. There is no pretence about a child. It has not yet learned to be devious, deceitful or pretentious. The Christian saint is, like Nathanael, without guile - unlike Ananias and Sapphira. Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement whom Ananias and his wife aspired to emulate, did not pretend to be what he was not.

  • Spontaneity. When a child is happy they show it. Recently I stood behind a little girl and her mother in Waitrose. As I waited to have my loaf sliced I was greatly diverted by the small, blond girl dancing on the spot - twirling, leaping, sashaying. Her mother just stood there stolidly - unimpressed by her daughter's antics. A few days later I watched young Isaac play cricket with his mother in his grandfather's garden. Isaac's strokes were unorthodox but there was no questioning his immense enjoyment.

    Sometimes a child will run to its father and mother, throw their arms around their parent, and say, "I love you." I was moved by this news item in the Daily Telegraph on Nov 1st 2008. It was about six-year-old Elke Wisbey who was born brain damaged and is unable to walk or talk. She has been equipped with a 17,000 machine that uses lasers to track her eye movements. When her eyes settle on an icon on the Smartbox, a pre-programmed voice speaks the word or phrase for her. The first time she sat with her mother Glynnis she focused on the icon, a heart, that said, 'I love you'. She repeated the words over and over again! Her mother at first thought that there was something wrong with the machine but then she realised the intent of her little, handicapped girl. Elke had waited so long, and wanted so much, to tell her mother that she loved her. She seized the first opportunity she had of doing so.

    There is nothing calculating about a little child's spontaneous expression of love such as when they reach out for a cuddle or a kiss. In Mark's gospel Jesus takes the little child in his arms. I like to think that the child spontaneously reached out to be taken up by Jesus.

    The Christian saint will express his love spontaneously in prayer, song and conversation. Sometimes he or she will succumb to unpremeditated joyfulness. It is no use possessing what a lady of my boyhood used to call deep down joy. In her case it was so deep down that it remained permanently hidden from view!

  • Susceptibility. A little child is impressionable. It will copy its father, mother or grandparents. I love the story of little Lucy in one of James Herriot's books. James, a Yorkshire vet, often had some mucky jobs to do - like cleansing a cow after it had given birth or performing a rectal examination. The best he could hope for from most farmers with which to clean up was a hard fragment of soap, a bucket of cold water and an old sack. But things were different on George Birrel's farm. There, accompanied by four year old Lucy, Grandma Birrel provided a bucket of steaming water, a cake of lavender toilet soap and a newly laundered towel of pristine whiteness. When James Herriot read of the death of Grandma Birrel in the local paper he was sad. No more towels of pristine whiteness! So when he next visited Birrel's farm expectations were low. However, when he had finished his work, who should stagger into the barn with half a bucket of warm water, soap and a clean towel under her arm than little Lucy. She said, "Gran said I had to look after you. She told me what to do."

    The great saint is susceptible to good influences; the example of a godly Christian brother or sister. I got into the habit of visiting the old and infirm because that is what my mother used to do as the Baptist pastor's wife in the small village church of Brockley.

    I can imagine young Timothy modelling himself on the great apostle Paul. But, however godly a fellow Christian, there is no better example to follow than Jesus himself.

  • Suggestibility. Most little children want to learn. It is amazing what they do learn at a tender age - their native tongue for example. I can just about recall being very keen to read and being able to read before I started primary school.

    A child nearly always accepts the authority of the teacher. None of my pupils challenged my right to teach them Geography; none questioned my Geographical knowledge.

    A certain amount of humility is needed in order to be teachable. It was a humbling experience for me at the age of 60 to undertake a course in website design.

    If we want to make progress in the Christian faith and acquire a sound understanding of the New Testament we have to be teachable. If we think we know it all, we shall not explore any views differing from our own. We need to be constantly learning from God's word in order to mature in the Faith.

(4) Our attitude to childlike Christians.

And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. v5. See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my father in heaven. v10.

These passages teach that:

  • We should welcome childlike Christians into the church. We should be glad of their presence because in welcoming them we welcome Jesus.

    There is a tendency for the church to embrace eagerly those that are talented, gifted and charming. They are thought to have so much to contribute. However, they may lack the childlike qualities that Jesus values: simple trust, spontaneous joyfulness and an enthusiasm to learn. Sadly, several of those valued by the Church of England, to the extent that they are made Bishops, lack the endearing characteristics beloved by Christ.

  • Mature Christians should beware of leading the babes in Christ astray. Unfortunately the very qualities possessed by those young in the Faith make them vulnerable to manipulation and misdirection.

    In his epistles to the Corinthians and Galatians Paul opposes legalistic Christians from Jerusalem who want to persuade Gentile converts to Christ to be circumcised. The 'super apostles' - so named by Paul, wanted to create in the churches the apostle founded a following for themselves.

    Christians like this have always existed in the church. They want to usurp the leadership of Jesus and create disciples for themselves.

    Immature, impressionable, childlike Christians are readily ensnared unless they are properly pastored by those who put the interests of Jesus before everything else. We should never forget that new converts are converts to CHRIST - not to a denomination, a set of doctrines or some way out whacky view of the Second Coming.

(5) The penalty for leading Christians astray.

"But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." v6.

We probably think that no fate could be worse than to have a great weight hung around our neck and to be cast into the depths of the ocean. But, that is only death in this life. There is worse: we could be cast into the eternal fire - the fire of Gehenna. This is a picture of the ultimate destruction of all those who do not serve Christ's interests; who question his teaching; who misrepresent his will and by so doing lead the innocents astray.

(6) The worst of all losses.

It is very grim to lose a foot, a hand or an eye and to be handicapped for life. It is not something we would willingly choose. But, there is much worse loss. If we encourage others to sin we could lose all life forever in the eternal, ultimate, destructive fire of Gehenna.

Gehenna was the valley of Hinnon - a valley below the hill on which Jerusalem stood. It was the Jerusalem rubbish dump, a kind of huge incinerator. Rubbish burned there continually. A pall of smoke hung over it and flames flickered about it. Gehenna was the place into which everything useless and unclean was thrown and destroyed.

The lesson Jesus is teaching is this: God will utterly destroy human trash, human waste and human rubbish. As William Barclay put it: The man who is useless, the man who is an evil influence on others, the man who cannot justify the simple fact of his existence, is in danger of the punishment of God.

I would say that God finally rids himself of men and women who are beyond redemption, who reject Jesus, God's Son and the salvation he offers to repentant sinners, who are the enemies of Christ and show it by leading his little ones astray. Oh BEWARE of being one such!