Jesus told his disciples, “Verily, I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become like little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The Greek word Jesus used that is translated converted in this verse, strepho (stref’-o) is typically translated as turn or turned. Strepho means “to turn quite around or reverse” (4762). At the time when Jesus spoke these words, there was a little child standing in the midst of his twelve apostles and they were discussing who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. What Jesus likely meant by becoming like little children was the reversal of his disciples spiritual development. He wanted them to start from the beginning and learn all over again what they knew about God.
Jesus said emphatically, “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). The word humble had a specific connotation to God’s people because of their history as slaves in Egypt. The Greek word Jesus used, tapeinoo (tap-i-no’-o) is used figuratively to express humiliation and it suggests that he wanted his disciples to be willing to humiliate themselves in order to please God. Mark’s record of this conversation indicated a responsibility on the part of Jesus’ disciples to keep themselves from leading others into sin by way of their bad behavior (arguing about who was the greatest Mark 9:34). Jesus said, “And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believeth in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea” (Mark 9:42). This may have been a picture of the typical burial of a worthless servant.
Jesus’ lesson about true discipleship was an extension of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in which he warned against anger, adultery, and divorce. Jesus was intentionally reminding his disciples that the slightest infraction of the law was considered to be enough to bring judgment against an individual. Jesus said about the sin of adultery, “That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:28-29). Jesus’ repetition of this illustration (Matthew 18:9) of the drastic measures that needed to be taken in order to avoid sin in his lesson about true discipleship was no doubt meant to jolt his disciples back into reality and make them aware of the fact that their status in God’s kingdom was not based on spiritual accomplishments. Conversion, “turning back again to Him from whom sin has separated us” (7725) is a lifelong process that ultimately brings us to the conclusion that our only purpose as members of God’s kingdom while we are alive on earth is to preach the gospel to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 9:16).