EXCEPTional Bible Verses, Part 4

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Convert, Don’t Revert!

Matthew 18:3

 

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

In the religious sense, what does it mean when somebody “converts”?  These days, “religious conversion” carries with it a very negative connotation.  According to TV dramas, a “religious conversion” is almost always a bad thing.  A normal American kid converts to radical Islam grows a beard, and straps a bomb to this chest.  Or worse, he converts to Christianity and becomes a racist, sexist, fascist, bigot, homophobe.  Rarely is Christian conversion ever portrayed as a good thing for the one who experienced the conversion.  The convert is portrayed as an extremist; he is a loner who has left his family behind; he wears cammo overalls and moose head ball cap, drives an old pick up painted green with a gun rack in the cab and the Confederate Battle Flag on the rear window.

While “religious conversions” are mocked and converts derided in our society today, Jesus thought it was of the utmost importance for sinners to be converted.  The word itself is so misunderstood, which doesn’t help matters, either.  The word “convert” does not mean “turn over a new leaf” or “make a New Year’s resolution” to do such-and-such a thing.  It’s actually a compound Latin word:

  • vert, meaning “to turn”, con, meaning “together”

Put together, “convert” means “to turn together.”  Nobody converts to Christ by themselves; they convert with Another.  There is a verse in Acts 3 that illustrates this perfectly:

And as soon as God had brought his servant to life again, he sent him first of all to you men of Israel, to bless you by turning you back from your sins.   (Acts 3:26  TLB)

This is what a real conversion is:  Jesus, with your consent, affecting a change in your life.  People don’t convert themselves; you don’t convert by joining a religion; a pastor doesn’t convert you; you don’t take “conversion” classes.  You allow Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to grab hold of the reigns of your life, take control of it, turn it around, and get you moving in the right direction.

1.  The setting

In order to fully understand and appreciate the power of our EXCEPTional verse, we need to look at it in context.  The incident is so important it is actually found in all three Synoptics (Mark 9, Luke 9) and Jesus’ main teaching point is humility.  Mark provides the setting:

And so they arrived at Capernaum. When they were settled in the house where they were to stay, he asked them, “What were you discussing out on the road?”  (Mark 9:33  TLB)

Jesus had been spending considerable time out of the limelight, teaching His disciples privately about matters related to the coming Kingdom.  Thinking the Kingdom’s coming was just around the corner, some of them were excited about their possible positions within that Kingdom—they were, in effect, no better than worldly politicians, vying with Jesus for the best position.

About that time the disciples came to Jesus to ask which of them would be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven!  (Matthew 18:1  TLB)

This shows just how worldly-minded these hand-picked followers of Jesus really were.  Just a few verses before the disciples asked Jesus about the best available positions in the Kingdom, He told them this:

One day while they were still in Galilee, Jesus told them, “I am going to be betrayed into the power of those who will kill me, and on the third day afterwards I will be brought back to life again.” And the disciples’ hearts were filled with sorrow and dread.  (Matthew 17:22, 23  TLB)

Sure, their “hearts were filled with sorrow and dread” for about five minutes!  But then they wanted to know, not more about what Jesus had just told them about His death and resurrection, but about what was going to happen to them!  How quickly their sorrow turned to a quest for exaltation.  But these were the very men Jesus had picked and was soon going to die for.  This is a great picture of God’s amazing, redeeming grace!  It also shows how God’s mind works.

Notice among yourselves, dear brothers, that few of you who follow Christ have big names or power or wealth.  Instead, God has deliberately chosen to use ideas the world considers foolish and of little worth in order to shame those people considered by the world as wise and great.  (1 Corinthians 1:26, 27  TLB)

2.  Illustration of humility

Jesus called a small child over to him and set the little fellow down among them…  (Matthew 18:2  TLB)

This is a wonderful little verse that shows us something of the personality of Jesus.  Children were not afraid to come Him and Jesus knew the perfect illustration when He saw it! Our Lord had just mentioned “the Kingdom,” and now He is about to use this small child to prove a point.

And that is the set up to our EXCEPTional Bible verse:

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 18:3  KJV)

Some scholars think this was Peter’s son, since they were probably close to Peter’s house.  Regardless of who he was, this boy was key in Jesus’ teaching on the kind of humility a believer needs if he wants to live in the kingdom.  Remember, this teaching comes right on the heals of the disciples wondering which one of them was going to get the plumb position in the coming Kingdom.  In answer, Jesus is going to set these guys straight.

This verse is teaching conversion, not reversion.  In other words, Jesus is definitely NOT teaching that one has to revert back to their childhood; to forget a lifetime of learning or experience.  Jesus is not teaching that you have to become like a child in the sense of mental innocence or a surrender of intellectual acuity.  Jesus is not looking for immature, juvenile followers who are unable to think or reason for themselves.   In fact, this verse on becoming like a child is linked to another verse found in John’s Gospel:

Jesus replied, “With all the earnestness I possess I tell you this: Unless you are born again, you can never get into the Kingdom of God.”   (John 3:3  TLB)

What Jesus is getting at here is the new life:  unless one has experienced the new birth and living a new life, entrance into the Kingdom is impossible.  That’s why the word convert is so important and must be understood.  It is Jesus who does the converting; He enables the convert to change his course; to change his mind; to change his life’s direction.  And in a sense, that is like becoming like a child starting his life.  When you are converted; when you experience the new birth, regardless of your chronological age, your achievements in life, or any other factors, you are basically given a “do over!”  God gives you a second chance to get it right with the help of His Holy Spirit.  

It takes humility to accept this because nobody likes to be told they’ve been wrong their whole life; that they aren’t good enough; that they need a Savior.  It takes humility to let go of the steering wheel of your life and let Jesus take over.  It takes a special kind of humility to let go of your dreams and ambitions so that you can serve the Lord unfettered.  But this is what Jesus demands; this is what is wrapped up in the word convert.  No wonder people—Christians included—don’t like that word!

3.  Convert and enter

Once a person has converted, they are able to enter into the Kingdom.  This turning from self to God; from your old life to your new life, is essentially a turning from worldly ambitions, like wanting the best position in the Kingdom, to spiritual ones.  This has to be done with the help of God because no human being is able to do it on his own. 

Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God.  (Jeremiah 31:18b  KJV)

Only when that happens can a person enter the Kingdom.  The disciples, whom Jesus was teaching, needed to hear this; they needed to start thinking straight.  They, the very men Jesus picked to carry on His ministry, needed to convert—they needed to radically change their attitudes and way of thinking.

Finally, Jesus actually answers the burning question of the disciples’:

Therefore anyone who humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

This verse is packed with meaning.  Christian greatness has nothing to do with ability, but everything to do with  humility.  Being a successful Christian has less to do with achievement and more to do with simply being humble.  It’s not an impressive performance that gets God’s nod of approval, it’s demonstrations of true humility.  This is not the normal way of thinking, is it?  But our way of thinking is not God’s way of thinking.  And that’s why we must convert!

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.   (Isaiah 55:8  NIV)

Isaiah is right; God’s thoughts are NOT your thoughts, until you convert.  Christ’s way of life; His way of doing things is the complete opposite to the way of the world, but it needs to be the way of your world.

This is why a conversion is essential.  Jesus needs His followers to let go of their past and embrace their new future.  He wants them to look forward and open their minds to His way of thinking and doing things.  This requires a conversion.

Is it any wonder so many people wondered about Jesus’ sanity?  His teachings were truly revolutionary in His day, and guess what?  They are revolutionary today!  How strange it sounds: to become great, you must become little.  This runs completely contrary to way and thinking of the world.  And it’s the opposite to Satan’s way of thinking too!

For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.   (Genesis 3:5  NKJV)

The ambition of Satan is the ambition of the world:  to be like God.  But the ambition of true believers is to “become like a child.”  Satan thought the way to happiness was in becoming great; our Lord said the way to happiness—and greatness—is by become little.   Who was right?  As one Bible scholar has noted, “In striving to become God, Lucifer became the Devil.”  This was not the case with Jesus, though:

Jesus Christ, who, though he was God, did not demand and cling to his rights as God, but laid aside his mighty power and glory, taking the disguise of a slave and becoming like men.  And he humbled himself even further, going so far as actually to die a criminal’s death on a cross.

Yet it was because of this that God raised him up to the heights of heaven and gave him a name which is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5b—11  TLB)

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