The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven
18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Isn’t what I just read to you in our text nothing short of amazing? Of all the role models Jesus had at his disposal to demonstrate to people what he expected of them, he picked little children. He pointed to these little ankle biters, these precocious rug rats as the supreme example of faith. And in the process he bypassed the religious leaders, as well as honest wage earners, devoted mothers, and compassionate physicians. Instead of those likely and worthy candidates, the role model that Jesus chose for those who were to be a part of his kingdom was barely out of diapers and may very well have had chocolate on his cheeks or gum in his hair.
Now why was that? Why did Jesus choose children to serve as his #1 role models of faith? Well, some people might say because children are so sweet. Of course anyone who gives that answer should be forced to spend an entire weekend with a 2-year-old, or better yet, several of them. While children do have a sweet side, that sweet little Dr. Jekyll can rapidly morph into a tenacious, tantrum-throwing Mr. Hyde as fast as you can say one word: Bedtime. Ok, 2 words: Bedtime or bath time.
Others might say that Jesus chose little children as the role models for his kingdom because they play so well together. Recently I had the opportunity to observe two young girls playing together, or maybe I should say attempting to play together, and I got to tell you, it sure made me a believer in the biblical doctrine of original sin, which means that even little children have a sinful, stubborn, selfish nature which is so deeply ingrained in them that you don’t have to teach them how to sin. They just come by it naturally. As I watched these 2 girls in action, it was nothing short of amazing. Whatever one would say, the other would say the exact opposite. Whatever one wanted to do, the other one wanted to do something else. Whatever one was playing with, the other one would want to play with it.
So again we ask, Why? Why did Jesus point to little children as the chief role models for his kingdom? And I believe the answer to that question is because even though they may not always model ideal behavior or a spirit of unselfishness, they do typically model something else a lot better than we adults do. They model trust.
I’d like to invite you to try a very simple experiment sometime. Take a handful of dollar bills and go stand in front of Wal-Mart. Then shout out to the passing shoppers, “Free $1 bills! Come and get yours!” And see what happens. What are the people going to do? Well, you’re definitely going to get some stares. You’re going to get some people looking the other way and ignoring you while others shake their heads in disgust and look at you like you’re some crazy person who needs to be committed to a psych ward. Somebody might even call the store manager or the police. And while you may have some people approach you, I can almost guarantee they’re going to do so with questions, like “Ok, what’s the catch? What’s going to happen to me if I take the money?” Don’t you agree that if you were to do this little experiment you would have more doubters than takers?
Now let’s try the same experiment, only with a different audience. Go into a kindergarten classroom, stand in front of the kids, and say, “Free $1 bills! Who wants one?” Prepare yourself for a stampede of 5-year-olds because they’re coming at you with wide eyes and open hands. Kids will scramble and crawl over one another to receive a gift.
Adults, on the other hand, have a hard time doing that, don’t they? Earn the dollar, sure. Negotiate for it, yes. Even borrow the dollar on the premise of paying it back, absolutely. But receive the dollar as a free gift? No way. Because we know that nothing in life comes free. We know the fine print needs to be read. We know that what’s too good to be true usually is, right? So we’re cautious – sometimes overly cautious.
And as we look at John 3:16, the passage that we’ve been studying this year in a sermon series that I have entitled “The Gospel in a Nutshell,” we come across one word that stirs similar reservations. And that is the word “believe.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
“Believe” just sounds too simple. “Work” has a better ring to it. “Whoever does lots of good works will be saved.” Or how about the word “satisfies”? “Whoever satisfies God will be saved.” But “believe”? Why, anyone can believe! Even a child can believe. And that is precisely Jesus’ point. And to nail this point down for us, Jesus recounts a curious story that I read to you before as our Old Testament reading, a story of snakes, Israelites, and a bronze serpent, a story that Jesus alludes to in John 3.
In the 2 verses preceding John 3:16 look what Jesus says: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” That is a most unusual comparison when you think about it. What in the world is Jesus talking about here? What does a snake have to do with our Savior?
To answer those questions, we need to go back to this story that is found in Numbers 21 where we find the Israelites in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land of Canaan. And they are doing what they do best. They are grumbling. They are complaining. After nearly 4 decades of experiencing God’s miraculous provision and care, they’re saying to Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Same verse, 70th time! They’ve had all they can stand of wilderness living. And in this particular instance God has had all he can stand of their incessant groaning. So in v.6 we read: “Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.”
Just picture this rather chaotic scene. Slithering vipers appear out of nowhere and begin to sink their poisonous fangs into the complaining Israelites, causing many of them to die. Those who survive plead with Moses to plead to God for mercy. So Moses does. And God responds. “Make a snake,” God says to Moses, “and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”
Now this story brings up all kinds of interesting questions, like “Why a snake?” “Why a snake on a pole?” “Why a snake made of bronze?” “Why just a look at that snake for healing?” So let’s try to answer those questions.
Let’s deal first of all with the snake. Throughout Scripture the snake always represents who? The devil. All the way back to the Garden of Eden and all the way forward to the final book of the Bible, Revelation, Satan is depicted as an evil, menacing, conniving, slithering serpent whose one-sentence job description is to turn God’s children away from God. He wants to inject his poison of self-centeredness and godlessness into God’s people. And the result of that is death – physical, spiritual, and eternal death.
Which brings up a very good question: If the serpent is a symbol of Satan or evil, then why did gazing upon this glistening creature of bronze hanging on a pole bring healing to the snake-bitten Israelites? Well, Jesus answers that question for us by telling us in John 3 that that serpent on the pole actually symbolized or pointed ahead to what he would one day do on the cross for us. Or to put it another way, Moses’ serpent foreshadowed Calvary’s Christ. Now just stay with me here because I know what some of you are thinking. How could a serpent, which is the very picture or embodiment of evil, symbolize Jesus? The answer to that question is really very simple. If the snake was the equivalent of sin, we need to remember that on the cross Jesus was the same. Listen to these words of Paul in 2 Cor. 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” On the cross Jesus became the very embodiment, the very personification of sin from his Father’s perspective. So the serpent of bronze hanging on a pole symbolized our sin-soaked, sin-saturated Savior hanging on a cross.
But why bronze? Why was the serpent in the wilderness made of this particular material? Well, a study of bronze in the Bible reveals that it was a picture of God’s judgment. The altar on which sacrifices were offered in the temple at Jerusalem to appease God’s judgment was made of bronze. When God warned the Israelites of his impending judgment if they continued to disobey him, he described that judgment this way: “The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron.” Meaning that his judgment would fall on them in the form of a lack of rain, a severe drought. In the book of Revelation when Jesus is described by John as coming in judgment, we’re told that “His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace.”
So the pieces are coming together. The bronze symbolizes judgment. The snake symbolizes sin. Bronze covers the snake on the pole just like God’s judgment covered the sin-bearing Christ on the cross. And just as the snake-bit Israelites looked to that bronze serpent for healing, so also sinners who look to the crucified Christ find the same. Jesus said in John 3:16 that everyone who believes in him shall not what? Shall not perish, but have eternal life.
Now we’d expect a more complicated cure for our sin, wouldn’t we? Something that would require some effort on our part, some work, some acts of service or sacrifice. And though the Christian life does involve those things, they are done as I’ve said so many times in the past, not in order to be saved but because we already are saved. And we’re saved not by looking to ourselves, but rather by looking to Christ. We’re saved not by believing that we can somehow earn or merit our salvation by what we do, but by believing, by receiving, by trusting like a little child what Christ has done for us.
And though believing sometimes comes hard to some of us, I want you to know that you demonstrate belief, or trust, many times throughout the day. You believe the chair will support you, so what do you do? You sit in it. You believe water will hydrate you and quench your thirst, so what do you do? You drink it. You believe the brakes on your car will stop you, so what do you do? You apply them when you approach a red light. One of the best definitions of faith that I’ve ever heard goes like this: “To believe is to trust in a power you cannot see to do a work you cannot do.” (Repeat) That is exactly what Jesus invites you to do, to trust in him, a power you cannot see, to do a work, namely, the great work of salvation, that you cannot do.
I pray that if you haven’t done that yet, you will do it now. That you won’t look to yourself or to some other snake-bit sinner like Moses or Mohammed or Buddha or some other spiritual leader to fix you because none of them can. None of them can save you. Only Jesus can do that. So have the faith of a little child, my friends. Rush to the front of the classroom when the offer is made and take hold not of a dollar bill, as those kindergarten children would do that we talked about earlier, but take hold of something far more precious and far more valuable. Take hold of the free gift of salvation that is offered to anyone and everyone who will receive it with a trusting heart. And as you do so, know for certain that your salvation is then secure. For it rests in the very capable and dependable nail-pierced hands of the One who would rather take the bite and poison of the serpent for you than bear the thought of spending forever without you. Amen.