After the transfiguration, on their way back to Capernaum from Caesarea Philippi, the twelve disciples argued over rank. They “discussed with one another which of them was the greatest” (Mark 9:34); they wanted to know, “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1).
Apparently, they conducted the argument on the road quietly and out of the Master’s earshot. Nevertheless, He knew what words had been exchanged. He knew “what they were thinking in their heart” (Luke 9:47).
Not long afterward, they arrived at Peter’s house. He and his wife probably had several children. The Master called one of the children to His side. He took the child up in His arms and stood him before the disciples. He declared, “Amen, I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
Unless we “are converted and become like children,” we will not enter the Messianic Era. This saying is similar to the central thesis of the Sermon on the Mount: “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The saying is also similar to two passages from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus saw some infants at the breast. He said to his disciples, “These infants at the breast are like those who enter into the kingdom.” They said to him, “Shall we then enter the kingdom as infants?” (Gospel of Thomas)
I have said that whoever among you becomes a child will recognize the kingdom and will become greater than John. (Gospel of Thomas)
What does it mean to be “converted” and become like children? In this context, it does not mean to convert from one religion to another; it means to change from one state of mind to another. In this context, repentance from sin is not in view as much as turning from a haughty attitude and adopting a lowly social station. In jockeying for position and greatness, the disciples have demonstrated the wrong attitude. That type of self-aggrandizement, selfish ambition, and haughty egotism has no place among those truly seeking to enter the kingdom. One who desires to see the Messianic Era should not consider himself among the great and worthy; he should consider himself lowly as a child among adults.
The disciples are to become like a child in terms of self-evaluation of their own status. To be like a child has little or nothing to do with any character traits supposedly typical of children. Instead, the child represents the lowest rung of the social ladder. A child is dependent upon others and under the authority and care of others. A child does not think of himself as a peer to the adults around him and therefore equally worthy of prestige and honor as his parents. He naturally considers himself lower than, dependent upon, and subordinate to the adult world around him. The child has not yet achieved independence or the right to self-determination. To “become like a child” means to forgo the egoic sense of self, honor, dignity, and prestige one might assume he or she deserves. To become like a child means taking the lowest place, to be a “little one.”
A true disciple adopts an attitude of self-denial, replacing his own sense of self-importance with a humble posture of subordination. The Master explains, “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). In other words, the one who truly considers others as more important than himself is the one who will find himself first in the kingdom.