“Verily, I say unto you. Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Matt. 18.3.
The Lord Jesus is pronouncing one of those great fundamental truths. A fundamental truth of worldwide
significance, of significance for all time.
The Lord is speaking to his disciples about a particular situation in which they were completely wrong, they were wrong in their hearts and wrong in their attitudes, wrong in
their words and wrong in their conception of Him, and wrong in their conception of His Kingdom. And in that sense there
was only one thing that would change the situation, and that was conversion. This sentence then becomes of universal significance because there is only one thing that changes a
man’s situation as before God, and that is conversion. And
conversion is the line which God draws through the whole of
human race, between men and women the world over. We are either converted or unconverted. If we are converted we are saved – and saved for eternity. If we live and die unconverted we are lost and we are lost for ever.
Now you see the importance of this word “Except”.
“EXCEPT ye be converted and become as little children, ye
shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” It is a very strong negative that follows. The Lord is saying “Now if you persist and go on for the rest of your life with this wrong attitude, then you will not enter My kingdom.”
I do not have to enquire how long you have been attending church or chapel. I do not have to ask how long your family history goes back as orthodox Christians. The great question is not your background, your family tradition; it is not a question of where you go to church or chapel – the great question is, ARE YOU CONVERTED? At the great judgment day God is not going to say, “are you an Anglican; are you a Methodist; are you a Baptist,” and so on. But one question which will be asked is, “ARE YOU CONVERTED?” – “ARE YOU CONVERTED?”
Here were men who had the greatest privileges that it is possible for men to have on this earth. They lived with Jesus, they talked with Jesus, they saw His miracles, they heard His sermons, they were under His special care, and He says to them, “Except ye be converted” – think of it! Disciples as close as they could be to the Lord Jesus Christ – “EXCEPT ye be converted”.
This wonderful declaration of Jesus is also very close to a terrible warning, that if you are not in the kingdom of heaven before you die then the future is found at the end of verse 8:
you will be “cast into everlasting fire”, or at the end of verse 9: you will be “cast into hell fire”. Now, they are not my words, they are the words of Jesus, a Man who spoke as never man did speak, a Man who came as God into this world, and “God is love”, and the God who is love spoke of everlasting fire and of hell fire. It is not only a question of not entering into the kingdom of heaven – there is also the question of where you will enter, and you will enter into everlasting fire or hell if you are not converted.
There are at least four things which will be the plainest evidence of real conversion and they are four characteristic features of a child.
1. A child looks up to its father
A child will always look up to the face of its father. This child that Jesus gathered with his arm and set in the middle of the disciples, was looking up into the face of Jesus Christ. It is characteristic of a child to look up to one who is greater than he is, or older than he is, and it is an infallible and characteristic feature of converted people, that they are always looking up to God the Father. That means that they feel truly in their hearts so very, very low that they have got to
look up. Whenever God makes Himself known in a person’s life, that person has got to look up to God. I do not mean physically, I mean in the heart spiritually. There is a deep sense within a converted person that he is brought right down as low as he can be and God is so high. God is so great, so good, so holy. And what is expressed in that looking up? Children look up to adults with a trusting attitude, and that is the way in which a converted person looks up to God. He feels that he can trust this God because He is God. He may have a host of other questions, but that is one thing he deeply knows, he can look up with that confidence to God because God is God, because He is so great,
If you have never been brought into a right relationship with God there are going to be most desperate consequences. The rest of your spiritual and religious life is going to be ruined because you are not converted unless the attitude of your heart to God is the attitude of this little child. That is why the Lord was so emphatic to these disciples. Privileged men that they were, they had to learn this utterly basic lesson. There they were looking at each other and arguing about who was going to be the greatest. Their great concern was to be the greatest and when a person thinks that, they are looking down on all around them. They are usurping the place of God. Now God and God alone has the right to look down, no one else has. You and I can look each other in he face, but God looks down, and you usurp the place of God if you begin to look down. That is why you need to be converted and become as this little child, then you will begin to look up, and you will begin to realise how utterly low and weak and helpless you are. That is the beginning of a real relationship with God.
2. A child turns to look at Jesus
A person who is truly converted is completely turned round. This is the test of conversion. Do you look up to God and do you follow Jesus Christ? If these disciples had had their souls full of the wonder of the person who was their leader and Master, they would not have been arguing about who was to be greatest in the kingdom. It was because they were thinking about themselves. They were utterly pre-occupied with “ME”. Now, as long as you go on in religion utterly pre-occupied with yourself, you are not converted. There must be a complete change, you must not be looking onward at yourself, you must be looking outward at Jesus Christ. It is an ancient and precious declaration of the gospel in Isaiah’s prophecy, “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the
ends of the earth, for I am God and there is none else”. Now conversion is looking away from everything else to Jesus Christ as the Son of God and looking at Him in the way in which a little child looks at one who is older and who has authority. Jesus called a little child, and what did that little child do? It came, it came because Jesus called and Jesus set him in the midst of them. That little child was altogether at the disposal of Jesus Christ. There is the second great test. A true conversion is an inward change of the whole attitude of our heart and mind to Jesus Christ. True conversion is when we are brought to that point that we look entirely away from ourselves – and away from everyone else as well – and we look entirely and wholly to Jesus. And we look to Jesus with the kind of submissive obedience that this child showed when Jesus called, “He called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them”. What a vivid picture it was. The little child did not say to Jesus, “No, I won’t” or “No, I daren’t”. Or “No, I can’t”. So it was not a case of saying, “I won’t” or “I daren’t” or “I can’t”. The little child came. So, real conversion is closely, intimately related to that divine calling when God calls the sinner. The converted person follows a Master, follows Jesus.
Each of these men to whom Jesus was speaking had known the power of the Saviour’s call. They had been fishermen, tax collectors – whatever their ordinary occupation had been, and Jesus had come and He had just said to them, “Follow Me”. They left their nets and followed Him. Matthew left his tax collecting and followed the Master. ‘Follow Me”. Now a converted man knows the power and authority of the word of Jesus Christ and there with simple-hearted trustfulness the child obeys Christ. That is conversion.
3. A child believes its teacher
A person who is converted is like a little child because that little child is teachable. No one can know how great the grief of the Saviour’s heart when He saw, in the life of His disciples, this complete misunderstanding of His teaching, this complete misunderstanding of His mission and of His Kingdom. “Jesus”, we read in Luke 9 verse 47, “perceiving the thought of their heart”, perceives the thought of your heart now. What grief the thoughts of our hearts have given to the Saviour, what sorrow many of us must have burdened the Saviour with because of the thoughts of our hearts. Well, He perceived the thoughts of their hearts. He perceived that they were arguing amongst themselves about a question
which should have been already settled so far as they were concerned. It was a question that should never have been raised amongst the disciples – the question who was greatest, when One Who was so great was amongst them. So utterly wretched and pathetic, isn’t it, that they should be arguing who was the greatest when Jesus Christ was with them. He calls a little child, and one of the lessons He was teaching was that those who are converted are teachable and they learn.
We have considered the converted man’s attitude to God the Father, we have had the converted man’s attitude to God the Son – now we have the converted man’s attitude to God the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Spirit of the living God works secretly and mysteriously, not drawing attention to Himself, but pointing to Christ. But one of the things these disciples so desperately needed was the teaching of the Spirit to point them to Christ so that they would have no time to be looking at each other. Remember, when Peter was restored after the resurrection, after his terrible fall, he was restored to the Saviour’s presence and to a Saviour’s love and forgiveness, and he was restored with a Saviour’s commission to feed the lambs, and to feed the sheep. It is so very sad that Peter turned to John and he said, “Lord, what shall this man do?” “What is that to thee”, says the Lord, “follow thou me”.
This is the teaching, then. A converted man taught by the Spirit of the living God is teachable, and he is saying, “Lord, teach me; guide me”. He wants to know. The people who are hardest to teach are the people who think they know. A man converted is so broken away from his own pride that he is just saying “Lord, teach me, explain to me, show me, help me to understand”. If these disciples had come to Jesus and said “Lord, we don’t understand about the kingdom, do explain to us about this kingdom”. What a difference! But no, there they were all on their own, arguing amongst themselves, reasoning. One of the great dangers is to sink into a situation where you simply argue about points of theology, or points of Christian practice, and so on, and all the time you have lost sight of Jesus Christ.
Who was this child looking at when He set him in the midst? I have a conviction in my own heart that that little child was looking at Jesus, who had set him in the midst. But whatever that little child was doing, one thing is certain. The Holy Spirit working in your heart will fix your eyes upon Jesus. “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, Ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever,
therefore, shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven”.
4. A child loves other children
Consider now the converted man’s attitude to other people, particularly other converted people. What is your attitude? Do you think that your religion has raised you up above everybody else? Do you think that your knowledge of God, and your knowledge of Christian doctrine, and your knowledge of Christian practice has somehow elevated you? Then you are not converted! You have got the wrong religion! It is a common criticism of Christianity, that Christians think that they are so much better than everybody else. Now, if ever there was a fallacy about Christianity, that is one, and a principal one. If your religion has elevated you above other people, so that you look down on them, you need to be converted. You can look at men and women with compassion, you can look at the lost souls wandering around a city with deep grief, but if you have Christ in your heart you don’t look down on them.
True religion gives you a different attitude to those around you, and this different attitude was very necessary amongst the disciples. The Lord well knew there were going to be leaders in His church, these were the apostles. He very well knew that the New Testament church was to be built upon his foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone. But He also knew that those who were appointed to be apostles as the great foundation of the church, were going to be men of greatly humbled, broken spirits. And one of the ways in which they were going to be humbled and broken was this, that they were going to have the same treatment as Jesus had. They were going to be despised and rejected of men. They were not going to be, (that is, so far as they felt it,) leaders of a wonderful worldwide movement, and so feel wonderfully elevated above everybody else. They were going to be preachers and teachers of a meek and lowly Jesus, a Saviour who was despised and crucified. They were going to be calling men and women to follow One who was meek and lowly, and had once ridden upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass. Yes, this was the Master, and these are His followers. “Except ye be converted”. So that as you look at other disciples, at other believers, you will think them better than yourself. You will submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God. That’s conversion. It does not mean that you submit yourselves to every crazy, weird notion that some
people have developed. It means that in the fear of God you see that other person as one whom God has blessed, and you admire the work of God in that person; you see the work of Christ in that person, and you see yourself as lower, as less than the least.
Consider the words of John the Baptist concerning the Saviour, “He must increase, but I must decrease”. Have you noticed that that is very, very rare in the world? They speak of the “rat race” nowadays. What is the “rat race”? The “rat race” is everybody trying to trample on somebody else’s head to get to the top. What is Christianity? Surely, it is something utterly different to that! “To me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given” says the apostle. Now that is Christianity.
5. Are you converted?
I ask the question again “Are you converted?” Ask the question of yourselves. “Am I a converted person?” Are you, perhaps for the first time in your life, so utterly reduced, so broken, so low, that you look up to God and in your need you say “God be merciful to me a sinner”. And you look to Jesus Christ alone as the only hope of your soul, and there, in humility before God, you say, “Lord, teach me. Lord, teach me”. And you look around to those people that you once despised as being those strange, religious types, and you look up at them and you say “These are the men and women who God has blessed”.
The word “conversion” is a passive word – “Except ye be converted”. It is God by His Spirit who converts, but it is you in your hearts who turn. And what does Jesus say? “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child”. You humble yourself. It is not a great work. That little child was just a little child; a little child who was not pretending to be a grown-up. That little child was just itself, and there the Lord is saying “Now, you be yourself in that humble, broken way in your heart”. Just you tell the Lord exactly what you are, and what you need. You humble yourself as that little child, just in humble submission and in humble obedience. This is turning. God by His gracious Spirit affecting the soul, and the soul responding to the gracious Spirit’s work, and you turn to God. The Thessalonians turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. Now it was God’s work, that they turned. It was to God they turned from the idols they left behind. “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”.
Notes of a sermon preached at Rehoboth Chapel, Coventry, on 25 January 1981.