Like Little Children
What would you ask if you had a Q&A session with Jesus? Would you ask about a passage you don’t understand or some doctrinal quandary? Perhaps your question would be personal: “Why was this allowed to happen?” The disciples, when given the tremendous opportunity to pick Jesus’ brain, had a self-serving inquiry: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” (Matthew 18:1). The question was asked looking for a name—it could be paraphrased “Which one of us do you like best?” It was a question full of the petty squabbling and grappling for power that often pollutes spiritual pursuits. Yet Jesus turns their question in an unforgettable way: “And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2-4).
This was a pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry. The question was an opportunity to put forward the face of a true disciple of Jesus. He could have patted Peter on the shoulder and said, “Here’s my right hand man. Be like Peter!” James and John, power grabbers extraordinaire, were there and eager for commendation. Yet the poster child for Jesus’ teaching was a child—an anonymous, unimportant child! Then Jesus points the finger at us: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2). With urgency we must ask: How can we be like little children?
1) In humility
The disciples were elbowing and jockeying for the top spots in Jesus’ kingdom. Yet greatness in the kingdom of heaven is not ascribed to the best politician, the most ambitious, or the one with the highest opinion of himself. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). “Turn” here means to reverse, and is often used in the gospels of people physical turning around. The message is that in their current state of ruthless ambition and desire for glory they would not even get into the kingdom of heaven! This is shockingly sharp.
“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). The lesson of the young one in their midst is humility. He was in the crowd to see Jesus rather than to see what favors he could get out of Jesus. Little children do not harbor ambitions of defeating those around them, unless such thoughts are planted there. They are content with their lot. They are teachable and do not think they know too much to learn from others. They are cooperative rather than competitive. Comparison is for parents; children have little time for considering their place in the world.
David wrote of the humility of a child: “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Psalm 131:1-2). Here the heart of a child is distilled: aware of its limitations, calm, and secure. Disciples must turn from being ambitious self-seekers wanting to make a splash and be noticed. We need the spirit of little children that sees the wonder of just being a part of God’s kingdom rather than desiring to be the greatest in it.
2) In innocence
Jesus continues with the parable of the little child: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mathew 18:5-6). “Little ones who believe in me” does not mean Christians who are actually little children, but turns the discussion to those who are young in the faith. They are like little children because they are clean slates, pure and untainted by sin. He warns of a terrible fate for those who would introduce sin to such or encourage them to sin. Jesus wants us to have the innocence and purity of little children, who have no intention to do wrong.
Paul wrote, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20). Certainly not every aspect of being childlike is attractive; we need maturity in reasoning about spiritual matters. However, “be infants in evil” means that innocence in motive should be maintained. We should never want to sin! Cruel motives, sinister plots, and hard feelings simply don’t exist in the heart of little children! There is no scheming and no agendas among young people, but only a transparent sincerity. As we grow in Christ, do we remain childlike in our innocence?
3) In trusting faith
On another occasion Mark records similar words of Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). The “kingdom of God” refers not to the church, but to the rule of God in the hearts of men. So how would we receive God’s authority as a little child? Children have a trusting faith in their parents that is born out of helplessness and deep need. A baby does not question his mother about the contents of his milk. Though young children may be curious about the reasoning behind the instruction of their parents, it is undergirded by a trust and faith that is remarkable.
God longs for us to have hearts that trust Him implicitly—without explanation and without qualification. We accept His reign because He knows what is best, and we rest in quiet peace in His arms. In part the trust comes from the fact that we are the child in the relationship—we are weak, frail, and dependent. In part it comes from the fact that our Father knows and wants what is “for our good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24). Yet without all the facts, without all our questions answered, and without absolute certainty, we trust God and willingly submit to His reign in trusting faith like little children.
There is a world of application in these verses. We should see the foolishness of seeking power within a local church. Little children are too humble to be deeply offended, hold long grudges, or insist on their opinions when confronted. We treat little children with kindness because we know that if they did wrong they did not intend it. What would it mean if we were that optimistic about our brethren? Little children are so innocent that they often expose contradictions in our logic and common practice. Do our hearts need to be recalibrated to reflect such single-minded passion for applying God’s word? Grown-ups are eager to explain away difficult concepts or hang up on tricky questions. Can we trust God like a little child?
The world has little value for these traits in adults, but Jesus encapsulated the heart He wanted by pointing at a little child. “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). Are we like little children?