How So Like Children?

by Stephen Rhoda

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 18:3

As Scripture interprets Scripture, Matthew 18:3 must be heard as teaching us about the nature of true faith.  Not that this verse uses the word “faith,” but entering the kingdom of heaven is certainly a reference to salvation and God’s Word is clear that sinners are saved by faith.  So Matthew 18:3 is teaching us that we must become like little children in order to have saving faith.

But how so like children?  The question is important to answer rightly because Matthew 18:3 has been detrimentally misinterpreted in our day.  When Jesus called His disciples to become like little children, He was referring specifically to the humility of children and not to being simple and uneducated.  Regrettably it’s the latter interpretation that some have used to support their preferred version of the Christian faith which jettisons doctrine, diminishes Bible study to “sharing,” and puts an ultimate premium on sheer emotional experience.

In order to understand rightly what Jesus was teaching, we need to include the verses before and the verse after this statement from Jesus.  In verse 1, we are given the context of this teaching.  “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’”  Notice that they weren’t asking, “Who is the smartest in the kingdom of heaven?” thus prompting the call from Jesus to be uneducated like a child.  The context is a moment of overt pride and self-exaltation based on their relationship to Christ as His disciples.  So to call His disciples to humility — not to childish ignorance — Jesus called a child to Him, stood the young lady or young man before them, and said, “Unless you turn and become like children…”

Then, in verse 4, Jesus interprets His own statement clearly and without any ambiguity about His meaning.  “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Simply put, the call to become like children is the call to humility, not simple-mindedness.

But even more, it’s exactly the humility of children that often makes them aggressively curious and delightfully teachable.  Children are like sponges, wanting to absorb everything around them.  So when the church jettisons doctrine, for adults as well as children, we leave adults in spiritual immaturity and we neglect to disciple our children exactly at the time when they are most teachable.

In order to read Matthew 18:3 as an excuse not to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word, one has to pull these words of Jesus out of their immediate context, and even more, out of the context of the entire Bible.  From the first day, our relationship with our Creator has been one requiring knowledge.

In the garden of Eden, the evil one called into question the knowledge of God, tempting Adam and Eve to set aside the command of God and to pursue the sheer experience of eating forbidden fruit.

As God took Israel to be His people, He gave them His Law, instructing Moses to write it down for the people and calling them to learn and teach it to their children.  Deuteronomy 6 says- “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”  And in the same chapter, Israel was warned that when they entered the promise land and received the blessing of God, they must “take care lest you forget the LORD.”

And so, when Israel later sinned, it was because they indeed had forgotten the knowledge of God.  Psalm 106:13 says- “But soon they forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel.”  And verse 21 says- “They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt…”

Then, consider the Gospels, which record the historical events of Christ’s coming and the fulfillment of His ministry.  Simply in Jesus’ use of the institution of discipleship, we hear the call to hear, study, know and remember the Word of God.  A disciple of Christ is a student of Christ and of His Word!

Finally, in the writings of the Apostles, over and over again we hear the call to grow in the knowledge of God through His Word.  The book of Romans is, granted, a book requiring careful study, indeed a lifetime of diligent reading and reflection, but that in itself is the evidence that to be a Christian is to be a student of the Word of God.  And in Romans 12:2, after eleven chapters of careful doctrinal instruction, the Apostle Paul calls his readers to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  But in our own day, throngs of church-goers are seeking Sunday after Sunday to be transformed by the renewal of their hearts, amid worship services providing little biblical teaching and doctrinal preaching.

Another clear call to grow in knowledge is found in Colossians 1:9-10, which again ties together doctrine and practice.  Paul first makes it clear how he prays for the church, “asking that you be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”  Secondly, Paul calls the Colossians to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Finally, in this terribly non-exhaustive listing, is 1 Peter 2:2, which makes it clear that it wasn’t just a matter Paul being more intellectually orientated.  The Apostle Peter quotes the Prophet Isaiah to say of God’s Word- “The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.”  He then makes it clear that “this word is the good news that was preached to you,” and in the end, he calls upon his readers, “like newborn infants, to long for the pure spiritual milk.”

Regrettably, therefore, it’s a lack of knowledge that leads even further to a lack of knowledge.  It’s God’s Word that calls us to study and know and remember the Word of God, but it’s an existing ignorance of God’s Word that starts the downward spiral of immaturity in the church.

Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  But far from being a call for adults to prefer recess over the classroom, here is the call to humility, teachability, and a diligent study of God’s Word.  In the end, doctrine is not optional, and theology cannot be left to certain types of Christians who care about it.  Christianity is the result of divinely revealed content through divinely inspired Scriptures.  Faith requires knowledge and the growth of faith necessitates a growing knowledge and understanding of God’s Word.