Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
In this passage Jesus deals with an issue which will rear its ugly head on several occasions as he relates to his disciples. After he had predicted his death and resurrection, the disciples came to him and asked him, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" This question will again be asked in a different form when the mother of James and John asks Jesus if her two sons can sit at his right and left hands when he comes in his kingdom (Matthew chpt. 20). In Mark, the two disciples make the request themselves. The same problem rears its head in Luke's account of the events of the Last Supper, as Jesus was telling them of his impending death and the disciples again debate "who is the greatest" (Luke 22:24ff). In that case, Jesus tells the disciples in no uncertain terms they are not to lord it over each other, "He who would be first must serve the others." Sinners all, the disciples, too, want to be in charge, to control, to lord it over, to be known as head-and-shoulders above the common people. Jesus consistently insists it will not be that way.
Here in this passage he states things in a way that oftentimes does not translate fully into our English language. Jesus says "unless you turn." This language in the scripture is used often and clearly means a change of course. Most commentators will argue scriptural turning implies a radical change, a 180 degree alteration in one's values and perspectives. Where the disciples are interested in ruling, being served, and being raised up and honored, Jesus is telling them to serve, be the low man on the totem pole, and ultimately win others by sacrificial action for the neighbor's benefit, not by power, reputation or prestige.
Jesus is so insistent on this humbling of oneself that he tells the disciples to become like children. A child in Biblical times was not the center of attention they have become in our affluent, healthcare conscious culture. Children often died. They were seen as somewhat expendable and probably replaceable, because child mortality was so high. Children were often in the background. They did not push themselves forward. Their station in life was humble. Children are dependent. Without the care of parents and the community, they are ever at risk. Children are also trusting -- they often cannot imagine the evil that others may do to them. This makes them vulnerable to those who would take advantage of them in myriads of ways.
This childlike humility, dependence, and trust is what Jesus expects the disciples to exhibit in their relationship to God, and finally also to each other. He expects the disciples to "turn" from their striving for power, prestige, and position.
Jesus ends this rebuke to the disciples with one of the sternest warnings he issued to his disciples, "Unless ... you will never see the kingdom of heaven." If anything, the Greek in this passage is even stronger. Jesus employs a double negative, which should probably be translated as "you will never ever enter the kingdom of heaven." It would seem that if there is anything which could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, it would be this -- the failure to turn from our desire to lead, to rule, to be recognized, to be honored for anything other than faith in Jesus and total dependence on him for all good things. In short, we have here another very good reason to remember Whose we are ... and live as His child.
Remember Whose you are,