Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Matthew 18:1-6, 10

1At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

5“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

10“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.

It is not uncommon to hear the passage above quoted in a teaching or sermon concerning children. We are to have faith like children and receive children gladly and if we cause a child to sin we have done a most heinous thing. However, the possibility occurred to me after hearing a recent sermon quoting this passage that only v2 speaks of a literal child. I am wondering if I am correct in my exegesis.

Using the child in v2 as an illustration, Jesus says we are to be like children (v3) in our faith and whoever does so will be among the greatest in Heaven (v4). It seems uncontested that Jesus is referring to those who believe, regardless of age, should have a faith like a child.

It is in v5 where my question begins. I have heard it taught more than once that the antecedent of “one such child” is a literal child and that if we receive a child into our company we receive Jesus. I wonder, though, if the “child” we are to receive is not a literal child but a spiritual one. In other words, if we do not shun those who are spiritually immature but accept them into our fold, we are doing as Jesus does.

Likewise in v6, the “little one” we are to not make stumble is, again, not a literal child but a spiritual one. If we take someone who is young in their faith and cause them to stray from it early on or to fall back into a sinful lifestyle, we have done a grave thing in the eyes of Christ.

Finally, v10 is also often taught concerning children and their guardian angels. But if vv5 and 6 refer to spiritual children, wouldn’t v10 as well? In that regard, the first half of v10 parallels v5. It also suggests that at least the spiritually young have angels interceding on their behalf if not all of us.

If I am correct in my understanding of this passage, Jesus may never have intended a literal understanding of child/little one in vv5, 6, and 10. Does this seem feasible or am I reading too much into the text?

share|improve this question
In the passage you quoted, the words "child," "children," "these little ones," and the like are translated from παιδιον and can refer to a small or young child, or (non-literally) to an immature and childlike believer (cp. Strong's #G3813). – Pat Ferguson Aug 30 '13 at 18:16
Right. And my point is that I often hear this taught as if Jesus meant children, but I am not sure He intended it to be taken that way. I think the context indicates a "new" Christian. – Mark Anthony Songer Aug 30 '13 at 18:48

In Matthew Jesus has five well-structured, long discourses. Ch18 is one of them. Each of these discourses revolves around one central theme, and deals with a single subject, and often examines different aspects of parts of the subject. Jesus' sermon on the mount (ch5-7) deals with different aspects of true discipleship. Mt 10 deals with the theory and practice of the disciples' mission to evangelize. Mt 13 is all about the kingdom of God. And Mt 23-24 is about being a disciple during the foretold destruction of Jerusalem and related events. Similarly, we would expect Mt 18 to have a single red thread.

In v3-4, Jesus three times compares disciples to little children. He says that they have to become like little children (v3) and humble themselves as little children (v4). When he says in v5 that those who receive little children receive Him, the reader understands that he is talking about disciples. This is not surprising, as Matthew has already mentioned this idea: Mt 10:40, He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. (read v40-42 for the whole context). See also Mt 23:40, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. Note that Jesus is not just talking about immature Christians: all Christians have to be like little children to enter the Kingdom. Children represent all Christians, not just the immature ones.

In order not to make this too long, as is my tendency, I'll propose a structure without defending it and let you compare it to the text and judge for yourself:

v3-4........Disciples defined as "children"
v5...........The blessing of doing good to a disciple
v6-14......A warning against causing a disciple to sin
v15-20.....How to deal with a sinning disciple if he will not repent
v21-25.....How to deal with a sinning disciple if he asks for forgiveness

I would really, really like to spend another five pages defending this structure, but then you be less inclined to actually read it.

In summary, both the language of the passage, the structure of the chapter, and the themes of the book of Matthew, strongly favor taking "children" as "disciples" in ch18. This does not mean that Jesus has no compassion for children: it simply means you need to go elsewhere to find verses addressing directly His compassion for children.

share|improve this answer
+1 and I think your answers are just the right length :) – Jack Douglas Nov 21 '13 at 17:20

Mark: here, in part, is how one of my commentaries reads--

In any case what Jesus did in setting a child forward as an example for adults to follow was shocking in His day. People of the ancient Near East regarded children as inferior to adults..... Children were to look to adults as examples to follow. Now Jesus turned the tables and urged His disciples to follow the example of a child. (Constable, Expository Notes, 2012)

Considering the WHO and WHERE of Matt. 18:1-6, 10, the child Jesus put in their midst might have been a child of Peter. So, Jesus was most likely talking about small and young children.

Could Jesus have been alluding to babes in Christ? Surely but, from the context, we don't know that. One can only speculate.

Have you examined any other commentaries?

share|improve this answer
I agree the child was probably Peter's based on the final few verses of Ch 17. And I can see how Jesus may have been speaking of literal children, especially in light of Matt 19:13-15. However, that passage makes me wonder why the disciples would need such a harsh admonishment as they get in Judea in Ch 19 if they had been so thoroughly taught otherwise in Capernaum. The commentaries it's all over the place. M. Henry and J. Gill side with new Christians, A. Clarke and others go with literal children. I don't know why I felt so convicted this past weekend that it dealt with new Christians. – Mark Anthony Songer Aug 30 '13 at 22:17

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.