At the beginning of this discourse, the disciples ask Jesus a question about rank or honor, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of God?” In Mark, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, Matthew they simply ask Jesus about who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. In Matthew 16:18-19 Jesus told Peter he has the “keys to the kingdom” and in Matthew 19:28 Jesus promises the disciples they will sit on twelve thrones and judge the nations with the Kingdom finally comes. The twelve disciples have higher rank than those who are disciples and are not sitting on a throne, James and John want a higher rank than the others (Matthew 20:20-28).
Can someone be “the greatest” in the Kingdom of Heaven? In another context James and John request to sit next to Jesus in the kingdom, indicating their desire to be the greatest. In Matthew 8:11 “many will come from the east and west” and will sit at places of honor “at the feast,” implying there may be places of honor in the Kingdom. Jesus himself said John the Baptist was “least in the kingdom,” which could imply for the disciples a form of honor and prestige similar to a literal kingdom.
In the context of the ancient world, honor and shame were extremely important social values. A poor Galilean fisherman would be extremely low on the social ladder in the Roman Empire, so low that they may as well not exist. It is only natural for the disciples to ask about who the greatest in the Kingdom might be.
Jesus does not answer the question directly, but invites a child so stand in the middle of the group. He says the true disciple will become like a child. He tells the disciples the must change and be like a child.
The verb Matthew uses (στρέφω) has the sense of changing direction or turning around. This is not a repentance word, the disciples do not need to repent of their sins and accept Jesus as savior. They are already insiders and followers of Jesus. But at this particular moment they are acting like the rest of the word. That must change, Jesus says, if they expect to enter into the kingdom.
The disciples are to change their direction and become “like the child.” There is something about a child which is a model of proper discipleship
Jesus has something about a child in mind, but not everything about children. For example, Jesus does not mean “become short” or “become uneducated” in order to enter the Kingdom of God. Cultural and social context will help us understand what Jesus has in mind.
This is a remarkable way to illustrate a virtue. A Greco-Roman ethical writer typically use the model of a great political leader or famous philosopher as a model of virtue (Keener, Matthew, 447). Jesus instead turns to a child as the ideal disciple who enters into the Kingdom of Heaven. A quick survey of books published by evangelicals will show we too point to ideal adults who have somehow modeled spiritual discipline. No one is going to publish How to be Like Jesus if it is written by a 6 year old kid.
Yet this is exactly how Jesus described the ideal disciple: be like a child. Unfortunately, pastors and teachers (and writers of worship music) often focus on innocence or wild-eyed wonder as the focus of this metaphor. The fact that children are open to new ideas or accept the gospel easily is often preached as Jesus’s point here. But children believe many foolish things which are not real at all (Santa Claus or the tooth fairy).
But Jesus is not saying, “Be a naïve child who can be manipulated into believing anything.” What part of “be like a child” is Jesus highlighting in this metaphor? I would suggest Jesus is using a child as a metaphor for the true disciple because the child was the lowest possible member of an ancient society. Jesus does not demand his disciples accept what their teachers tell them without question like a little child, but rather they must be as humble as a child and become the servant of all.