1. Exposition

In what way does the kingdom belong to the children?

Matthew 19:14 (ESV)

14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

In short

Jesus’ saying that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children

  1. is a reference to all those who are humble, like little children;

  2. is an affirmation of marriage; or

  3. is a reference to anyone who asks for a blessing and prayer.

The first thing to notice is that Jesus does not say that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children, but that it belongs to such as these. In other words, there is a set of people to whom the kingdom belongs, and the children are members of that set. So what set of people does Jesus have in mind? Is he pointing to the set of all children, or the set of people who share the characteristics of these children? Most likely Jesus has in mind the set of people who share the characteristics of these children. We can deduce this because if we look back to Matthew 18:1–4, the disciples ask who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus replies by explaining that unless one becomes like a child, he cannot enter the kingdom. His point is that those who are lowly and humble belong to the kingdom. Thus, when we reach Matthew 19:14, he affirms the position he explained in Matthew 18:1–4. He blesses the children because the kingdom belongs to those who are lowly and humble, like these children.

Some think that when he blesses the children, he affirms the traditional view of marriage. The argument is that we need to understand the children being blessed in light of Matthew 19:3–12, where the Pharisees and disciples ask about marriage. Jesus explains that marriage is ordained by God, and celibacy is only for a select few. Then, by blessing the children, he affirms that the traditional view of marriage, which results in children, is to be blessed.

The problem with this view is that, while Jesus might implicitly affirm marriage when he blessed the children, his real point is that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who have the characteristics of children. Thus, while Matthew 19:3–12 may be connected with Matthew 19:13–15, it is more intuitive to understand 19:13–15 in light of 18:1–4 where Jesus refers to becoming like a child and entering the kingdom.

Others think that Jesus is not highlighting the character of children, but the fact that when people ask Jesus for a blessing, they receive it. The problem with this view is that while the children do receive a blessing, they do not ask for it. Rather, the adults ask for a blessing on behalf of the children. And the reason Jesus obliges is not because the adults ask, but because, as Jesus already made clear in Matthew 18:1–4, the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

When Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these, he is saying that the kingdom of heaven belongs to all those who are humble and lowly.

Interpretation 1:
The kingdom belongs to all those who are humble, like little children.

Summary:

The people want Jesus to bless their children, and Jesus is glad to oblige. Children were of low social status, and not concerned with their position in society. Jesus explains that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are humble and lowly, whether children or adults.

Children represent an attitude of humbleness and dependence. As adults, we can be conceited, or think highly of ourselves, but we do well to model our attitudes after that of children. That is because to those who are humble and lowly belongs the kingdom of heaven.

Advocates:

  • Donald Carson

  • Ulrich Luz

  • Leon Morris

  • John Nolland

Minor differences:

Our authors agree that there is a connection between Matthew 19:14 and Matthew 18:1–4. The notion is that in Matthew 18:1–4, Jesus explains that those who humble themselves like children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:14 reinforces this because when children are brought to Jesus for a blessing, he affirms that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. In other words, as Jesus explained already (Matthew 18:1–4), the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are lowly and humble.

There is a minor difference between our authors. Ulrich Luz, Donald Carson, and John Nolland see it that Jesus’ point is to say that the kingdom of heaven belongs to all who are like the little children1,2,3 Leon Morris agrees that Jesus is making this point, but thinks he is also specifically reminding the disciples that children are important.4

Arguments

Interpretation 2:
Jesus’ saying that the kingdom belongs to children is an affirmation of marriage.

Summary:

The disciples find Jesus’ teachings on marriage restrictive, so it might be better not to marry (Matthew 19:10). Jesus explains that celibacy is a special calling that only applies to certain people. He then implicitly supports God’s design of traditional marriage by affirming the value of children. Children are the result of marriage, and they are part of the kingdom.

Advocates:

  • David Turner

Arguments

Interpretation 3:
The kingdom of heaven is for anyone who asks for a blessing and prayer.

Summary:

When children are brought to Jesus for a blessing, the disciples rebuke them. Jesus corrects the disciples’ attitude toward children by explaining that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. His point is that the kingdom of heaven belongs to anyone who asks for a blessing and intercessory prayer from Jesus.

Advocates:

  • Jakob van Bruggen

Arguments