As an introduction to Matthew discipleship discourse, Jesus’s disciples ask about rank or honor in the kingdom of God: Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? It is possible the disciples ask this question after Peter’s confession. If he was elevated to the leader of the disciples and then James and John went with him to witness the transfiguration, then the other might wonder how they rank.
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 to stand in the middle of the group. The answer is not about rank in the kingdom, if the true disciple does not become like a child, they will not even get into the Kingdom of Heaven!
He tells the disciples the must change the way they are thinking and become 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 moment they are acting like the rest of the word. That must change, Jesus says, if they expect to enter the kingdom.
The disciples must 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 (ie. this does not mean “become short” or “become uneducated” to enter the Kingdom). Cultural and social context will help us understand what Jesus has in mind. Imagine taking a snotty little kid with a Kool-Aid mustache, who believes a monster lives in his bedroom closet and likes playing in mud puddles-take that kid and use him as a model of the ideal disciple. The audience would have been shocked, not even noticing a child was present in the first place.
This is a remarkable way to illustrate a virtue in the ancient world! A Greco-Roman ethical writer typically used 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 the Kingdom of Heaven. It is simply inappropriate to worry about rank and status in the kingdom of God. 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.
Children were far less important in most ancient cultures than in the modern world As Luz observes, that “the words παῖς and παιδίον can also mean ‘slave’ says a great deal about the legal standing of children, who were subject to the unlimited authority of their fathers” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 428). Even in Jewish culture children where certainly loved, a child had a low status socially. One did not stop and talk to a child or consider the opinions of a child particularly valuable. This is perhaps why Jesus talking with the rabbis when he was twelve is an important story, he was worthy of respect even as a child.
It is likely Jesus is already interacting with children in a socially shameful way. Jesus can call to a child to stand among the disciples indicates the child was nearby, perhaps even listening to Jesus teach. Like his association with tax-collectors and other sinners, Jesus was crossing over a social boundary which a typical rabbi might avoid (or simply never consider as important).
Jesus says the true disciple will become humble (ταπεινόω) like a child (v. 4). This view of children is found elsewhere in the Gospels. Jesus takes the time to bless children in (Matt 19:14) and in John 3:3 he says one cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless they are “born again,” which may be a similar idea to this “become like a child.”
It is critically important to understand humility in the context of the Greco-Roman world. The word does not mean “low self-esteem” or self-abasement. Jesus himself is the model of humility (Matthew 20:28, Philippians 2:5-11), yet he can claim to be the Son of Man, Messiah, Son of God, the one who will return to the Father, etc.
Is the child humble because they are vulnerable? (Wilkins, Matthew, 612) If that aspect of a child in the ancient world is the focus of the metaphor, then it may point to the vulnerability of the early church. Like children in the Roman world, they are constant mortal danger with few real protectors. The early church was defenseless and powerless in the Greco-Roman world.
How does one “become like a child?”
9 thoughts on “Come as a Child – Matthew 18:1-4”
Thank you. This is a very insightful piece. I had never thought about the teaching that way. This will be very helpful to others too.
I think that one becomes more like a child of God when they are willing to submit to authority, when they have unwavering faith that they will be provided for, and by obeying God even when they don’t necessarily want too. I think that it’s interesting that even though children were considered one of the lowest members of society that in the Jewish culture children were still “viewed as gifts from God” and even girls were seen in a “favorable” light (Strauss, 191). However, it does make sense that children of all cultures were expected to obey their parents like slaves did even though socially they would eventually rise to be above slaves. It makes me think about the parable of the wedding feast in Luke 14 when Jesus says “do not sit in the place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him” and become shamed, but to instead “sit in the lowest place” in order that “you will be honored” when you are exalted by the host and not yourself (Luke 14:8, 10, ESV). God is pleased when we are humble and I think that we are supposed to consider ourselves “the lowest [statuses] in society” as people who are able and willing to serve everyone and as people who are willing to submit to God’s authority (Phillip Long). We need to realize that what matters is our obedience, our faith, and our trust in God. As children of God, we are not the ones in control and we need to be willing to submit to God, be humble, and serve others.
I think it is interesting to compare the status of children during the Second Temple Period, within Jewish culture, and the United States as of the year 2020. Knowing that children were less important in ancient times than they are today (Philip Long), gives me a new understanding of the text in Matthew chapter 18. Before learning this, every time that I ever hear the phrase or metaphor of becoming like that of a child, I hear the same connotation – acting innocent and becoming obedient. While these are important values to embody, there is one of a higher importance – humility. Because the children were as slaves during ancient times, they had to humble themselves to authority as it was their way of life. The passage discussing the humility of children says, “…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 18:3b-4, ESV). Submitting the authority can be such a difficult task for Christians and non-Christians to do. This text in Matthew is a strong suggestion to become like children so that you may enter the kingdom of heaven. Submitting to God’s authority comes with accepting grace and surrendering all sins to Christ, accepting His ultimate gift of salvation. Understanding the status of children during the time that Matthew was written, allows readers to better understand the passage as well as the metaphor of becoming like children. Because we are God’s children, we need to humble ourselves and submit to His ultimate authority even though it may seem to inconvenience us.
I think the idea that we need to “become like a child” is accurate to our walk with Christ as well as the way we should live our lives. We should be willing to submit to authority over us, most importantly Gods authority, we should have unlimited faith and trust in God and His plan for our lives, and we should be willing to serve no matter the circumstances or the outcome. I also think that even though children were not considered very valuable or important back in Bible times, and even now in current times and countries, we are considered valuable to God. He created each of us individually and special and allows us to enter the kingdom of Heaven. In Matthew 19:14 says “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (NKJV). This demonstrates that no matter how society viewed children, Jesus loved them and wanted everyone to be like the children in their faith and daily life. If Jesus was treated with respect and dignity at such a young age with the rabbis, then we too can do what God has commanded and have a heart like a child. A heart that is willing to serve no matter who is watching, a heart that is willing to do something for God even though they know something bad may happen to them, and a heart that willing to trust in Gods plan, like a child with a parent, even though the future is uncertain.
As the blog post points out, the assumption of the “takes the lowly position of a child” statement made by Jesus is that children are younger, naïve, innocent, and just lowlier in statues. In modern American culture though, the lives of most adults revolve around the daily workings of a child. Children are a high value and are treated as such, for the most part. Strauss points out that children were highly favored in Jewish culture but viewed as much lower on the social totem pole (150). The way children acted reflected on the honor of the whole family. I do not think Jesus is saying to act like a child but to humble oneself like a child (v. 4). When we’re saved we don’t immediately become spiritual adults. In fact, some may never reach spiritual maturity even as they become older. Following in verse 6, Jesus warns others to not cause these little ones to stumble. This is pointing towards the idea of discipleship, that there are “older” ones willing to guide the other ones, not causing them to stumble.
Humility is not anything new to Jesus’ ministry. He himself humbled himself even to the point of death, and his ministry reflects that. He ate with sinners, he preached against riches and pride, and he talks of humble children. One who wishes to become a leader in the church with power and control are not true leaders. “Leadership in the church is achieved …service and self-sacrifice” (Strauss, 447).
I think that there is an important distinction which must be made between acting like a child and “becoming like a child.” Jesus calls us to become like children or slaves, which requires serving those around us, keeping our ego in check, submitting to God and God-ordained authority, maintaining innocence and a sense of wonder, being generous with our resources, and not seeking power, fame, and wealth.
On the contrary, acting like a child would not be something advantageous to the Kingdom. Acting like a child as a result of misinterpreting this text would include refusing to learn about evil (forced ignorance of demons, Satan, Hell, sin, etc.), refusing to discuss apologetics (and often citing this text as a reason to “just have faith” instead of also learning scientific and philosophical arguments for God’s existence), and believing that nothing you do good or bad on this earth matters because “Jesus will just save you anyway” since you repeated a prayer when you were 5 years old at a weekend Bible camp.
Jesus’ teaching of having a child-like lifestyle and faith is not Jesus encouraging living a life of blind ignorance, but rather it is more in line with his Beatitudes from the sermon on the mount. Blessed are those who become like children because – much like the poor in spirit – they “nonetheless trust in God and put their hope for justice and the kingdom of God in God” (McKnight 40). Those who become like children become humble and meek, and therefore they fight not with swords, but with nonviolent resistance that “creates a calm, countercultural community of love, justice, and peace” (McKnight 42).
Jesus asks us to humble ourselves, and not to become ignorant. He asks us to become meek, but not weak. He asks us to resist, but not fight. And most importantly, he asks us to trust in God, and not in ourselves.
Jesus’ encounter with the children could be easily overlooked if we were to look at the story from our cultures perspective. Understanding that the Greeks and even Jews did not view their children in the way that we do is a vey important aspect to this part of Jesus’ ministry. In our culture we generally shower our children with affection and sometimes even spoil them. Punishing children is very controversial and children are highly valued. We have an understanding that it is important to listen to children and nurture them, but we do not find it moral for children to work which is vastly different than the narrative for children in Jesus’ day (Strauss, pg.124, 2007). If we were to view Jesus’ action toward children through our own culture we would miss the complete meaning and the importance of what it meant for Jesus to act that way toward children. In fact the message might be the opposite of what was originally intended. While in Jesus’ day to become like a child would mean to be lowly as was discussed in this blog post, in our culture to become like a child might make us more significant. Where the reference to children may have been offensive it would be endearing to us, and the intent that children are servants and we should serve God would be lost on us as we keep children from working until they are 14 with child labor laws. I am not saying that the way we view children is better or worse than the Jews and Greeks did when Jesus was around, but I am simply reminded of the importance of understanding how our perception of Biblical events needs to be challenged and checked through understanding the original culture and social norms that Jesus acted within.
I might recall a time where I asked my mom if she thought I was her slave when she asked me to do chores. I find it interesting the honor versus shame mentality and how children would fit into this. Treating their children right may have not brought honor, but it did keep them from looking shameful. Children did have a low social status still, children were seen to not have a valuable opinion. This is where again Jesus did not follow the social norms of the time. He pointed children out and talked to them. In this Jesus talked about them and described them as humble, He blessed them, and referred to our need to be born again to enter the Kingdom of God. This is interesting to see because Jesus did not brush them off like they were nothing or in the way. Jesus saw the value in them and who they would become someday. The difference with Children is their ability to have imagination and faith in bigger things. Adults can easily get focused on the negatives and doubt because something does not fully make sense. Children, however, see the good things in life and are more resilient when things go wrong or difficult. They also have big imaginations that help them understand what they cannot see and believe despite. Children are amazing and inspiration in the way they believe and love God.
Matthew 18:1-5 says, “at that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 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” (ESV). So, the question you asked Dr. Long, was how do we become like a child? Well, it is safe to say that all of us have been children and all of us have met children–children have complete trusts in their parents. When we are unable to provide for ourselves, we have the complete trust in our parents that they will provide for us. When we need a shoulder to cry on, a diaper changed or food on the table, as long as we have our parents, we know that it will be provided for us and to us. Another example on how to be like a child is that children are “teachable.” Children know that they are young and they are growing and so they look to people to teach them and they embrace that. Jesus wants us to have complete trust in Him and he wants us to be teachable and to grow–just like a child. Children are pure and they are unbothered by concerns of the world that they are unable to control and children see the best in people and they have good intentions, so Jesus wants us to be like a child because they show (without meaning to or realizing it) that is the way we are supposed to be as Christians. Trusting of the Lord and that He will provide, allow God to teach us and grow us, and to stay pure in the world and have good intentions for everyone and everything.