1. Exposition

What aspect of childlikeness is required for entry into the kingdom?

Matthew 18:3–4 (ESV)

3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

In short

What aspect of childlikeness is required to enter the kingdom of God?

  1. Jesus calls the disciples to accept a position of low status, like children.

  2. Jesus calls the disciples to display humility as children display it naturally.

  3. When Jesus calls the child he comes, and the disciples should mimic this behaviour.

To understand Jesus’ point, we need to remember the low social status of children, especially in the ancient world. Since children are still developing, they cannot care for themselves or make sound decisions, so they are totally dependent on adults. In the ancient world, the term used for child was the same term used to refer to slaves. That’s because a child’s inability to fight, lead, or make a living meant that a child had a low social status. Thus, when Jesus places a child in the midst of the disciples and says they must be like a child to enter the kingdom of God, he means that they must accept their low status. Like children, the disciples could not make themselves great but had to accept the fact that they depend on the mercy of the Father.

Some authors think that the childlikeness that Jesus has in mind is the fact that children are naturally humble. The idea is that as children grow into adults, they lose their humbleness and begin to think that they are more important than they really are. Jesus calls us to willfully reject our self-important attitude and become again like humble children.

A problem with this view is that children do not seem to be naturally humble. In fact, children are often self-absorbed and mistake themselves to be the centre of attention. Of course, there is truth in the fact that a child’s self-importance is not always intentional and that children are not concerned over social status.

Other author authors think that Jesus has in mind the behaviour of the particular child he uses for his example. Specifically, they have in mind the fact that when Jesus called the child into their midst, the child came. In the same way, in order to enter the kingdom, one must respond to Jesus’ call.

The problem with this view is that it does not take into account the larger context. The disciples ask, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? and Jesus responds by saying that they must be like a child to enter. In other words, the disciples have self-importance and social status in mind. Thus, it is more likely that Jesus uses a child not because children respond when called but because children are not concerned with social status.

The childlikeness that is required for entry into the kingdom is to accept one’s low status as one who is completely dependent on the mercy of the Father.

Interpretation 1:
Jesus calls the disciples to accept a position of low status, like children.

Summary:

In the ancient world, children were not considered particularly useful and had a low status in society. They could not fight or earn money, and because they had no rights they were at the mercy of adults. When the disciples ask, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus says only those who are like a child will enter. In other words, only those who are willing to depend on the mercy of the Father and accept their low position will enter the kingdom.

We have sinned against God and yet God forgives us through his son Jesus Christ. That God allows us to enter the kingdom through Jesus Christ is a sign of his mercy in the face of our arrogance and sin. God’s mercy should motivate us to humble ourselves before God, and accept that aside from his mercy, we would forever remain outside the kingdom. In other words, we have no grounds for boasting, except to boast in the Lord.       

Advocates:

  • Ulrich Luz

  • Leon Morris

  • David Turner

Minor differences:

Our authors agree that when Jesus says one must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, he has in mind the low social status of children in the ancient world. There are some minor differences between our authors. For David Turner, the low social status of children in the ancient world means that children are at the mercy of adults. Similarly, those who enter the kingdom ought to accept that they are at the mercy of the Father.1

Ulrich Luz agrees that Jesus has the lowliness of children in mind but says lowliness is to reverse completely one’s previous standard of thought and action and to orient one’s life to a different order and to new standards.2 On the face of it, Luz’s definition of lowliness sounds more like a definition of repentance.

Arguments

Interpretation 2:
Jesus calls the disciples to display humility as children display it naturally.

Summary:

While children are not innocent because they sin, they are naturally humble. So, when the disciples ask who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says that only those who are humble, as children are naturally humble, will enter the kingdom.

Advocates:

  • Donald Carson

  • John Nolland

Arguments

Interpretation 3:
When Jesus calls the child he comes, and the disciples should mimic this behaviour.

Summary:

The disciples want to know who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God. Jesus answers their question by calling a child into their midst, and explaining that unless they become like a child, they will not enter the kingdom. Jesus’ point is that when Jesus called, the child obeyed. So only those who obey Jesus’ call will enter the kingdom.

Advocate:

  • Jakob van Bruggen

Arguments