Did Jesus really mean we must be like little children?
In modern times, one of the most often misquoted and least understood passages of scripture has to do with Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:3. Here Jesus states that unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. So, what does this mean? This scripture has been contorted into many different meanings which do not resemble the actual meaning or intent of the complete text. It has often been said that it means that we should have a sort of childish “blind” acceptance to the point of being willing to accept and believe even a lie as it were, such as children often do from their earthly parents. Some have even used the example of childish beliefs in fairy tales like Santa Claus as the equivalent of a spiritual “childlike faith”.
However, this false imagery could not be farther from the truth. Jesus is not comparing a form of childish gullibility and ignorance as the example we should follow in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. That would stand in direct contradiction to other scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 13:11 , 2 Timothy 2:15 , Proverbs 1:5 , Hebrews 5:12 and others that point us towards a deeper, theologically sound faith, leaving childish things behind. So, is “childlike” acceptance and trust; gullibility and ignorance, really an accurate understanding of the text?
It is well said that context is everything and in this particular text; Jesus is responding to a question from the disciples asking: “who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
So, when we read Matthew 18 beginning in verse one, we find that Jesus is responding to this primary question. Jesus delivers the full meaning in his direct response in the very next verse (Vs. 4) which, He continues to expound throughout the rest of chapter 18:
“Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven”
The context is, those with Humility – as that of a child – are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, the full and accurate context is understood as meaning that we must change and become as humble as a child; not as gullible as a child.
Pride is the barrier to the kingdom and is even revealed in the disciples original question wanting to know who is the ‘greatest’. It’s not that children believe everything you tell them; it’s that they are humble. Children are the perfect illustration here. Adults are masters over them in authority by nature, in every way. Adults provide for all necessities of the child and the child has learned from birth to be completely dependent in all things including the love, care, training, authority and discipline of adults. In this picture, if we are to enter the kingdom, we must have the humility of a child and therefore, look to our Heavenly Father for His love, care, training, authority and discipline. We must also humbly treat our neighbor as fellow brothers and sisters and children of our Heavenly Father.
So, this is not a call for a childlike gullibility and blind acceptance to receive everything at face value. No, by contrast; this is a call to humility.
“Exchanging humility for gullibility, is to walk in the very footprints of the disciples on their way to ask Jesus ‘who is the greatest in the kingdom?’. ”
It is ironic that while Jesus elevated the children to the heights of the kingdom by virtue of their humility and yet one can completely overlook this singular focus on humility and condescend to children as a caricature of gullibility and blind acceptance as the example of how we must be in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. The irony could not be richer.
In fact, the imagery of children with all of their humility being elevated to the height of the kingdom stands in stark contrast to an image of a gullible and blindly trusting child.
Exchanging humility for gullibility, is to walk in the very footprints of the disciples on their way to ask Jesus “who is the greatest in the kingdom?” The irony is that this is a near complete inversion of Jesus’ teaching and yet it is so widely repeated today that people are commonly heard referring to the need for a “childlike faith” which is synonymous with blind acceptance, as if that were a virtuous thing.
If one has in any doubt that Jesus is talking about the pride of status and position, a few verses later He addresses conflict resolution and forgiveness; both of which require humility as the primary virtue to forebear any offensive wounds to our delicate ego’s and pride.
Jesus carries the point even further by saying that if anyone “offend one of these little children who believe in me” that it were better if “a millstone were hanged about his neck” and drowned in the sea. Jesus is talking about little children and likewise, the symbolism includes spiritual children. While one must not pridefully despise or offend one who is a child, one must also love and endure the spiritual children who like we all did, once drank spiritual milk.
We must always be forgiving and always esteem others more highly than we view ourselves if we are to have any place in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus said: “And whoever shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.” Matthew 18:5.
We all are children of God and therefore, when we receive others as the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, we receive Jesus. The humility of Jesus receives the worst offenses with sacrificial love. So we should do the same and love others as fellow children of the King.