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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?

  • 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
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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.

  • +1 and I think your answers are just the right length :) – Jack Douglas Nov 21 '13 at 17:20
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It is relevant that in the next chapter, Matthew 19:14:

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

As in Matthew, the Marcian parallel has this passage followed immediately by the narrative of the rich young ruler. In the Marcian parallel, Jesus says:

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!..."

It is also of interest that Papias, who learned from the Apostle John, is known to have said:

[The early Christians] called those who practised a godly guilelessness, children...

(Source: New Advent)

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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?

  • 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
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"Little ones" - actually "little ones who believe in Me" - refers to those who have become has little children themselves and have humbled themselves in their faith (Matthew 18:3-4).

The phrase little ones also occurs in Mark (9:42) and Luke (17:2). In Luke's Gospel, the context is not in the Lord's receiving a child, but rather in the context of the parable of Lazarus.

The earliest exegesis of this passage by a Church Father seems to be that of Clement of Rome sometime in the latter first century, where he relates deceiving the "little ones" to a schism that was occurring at the time in the Church at Corinth:

Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ?Why do we divide and tear to pieces the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that we are members one of another? [Romans 12:5] Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how He said, Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. Your schism has subverted [the faith of] many, has discouraged many, has given rise to doubt in many, and has caused grief to us all. And still your sedition continueth.

1 Clement 46:5-9

This interpretation - that of little ones as humble believers whom schismatics and heretics are warned against deceiving - is also reflected in the commentaries of Chrysostom, Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great; in Athanasius writings against the Arians; as well as in the later summary Byzantine commentaries of Theophylact.

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Jesus says suffer the children to come unto me,for such is the Kingdom of Heaven. I don't think he meant grown people. I think he meant exactly children but that all believers when they are saved have that innocence because the Holy Sprit dwells in them.

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I dwelled on this, and may have a more logical answer?

Jesus clearly mentions the word "children" in Matthew 19:13, I don't believe the word "little ones" was a reference to literal children.

I think it is a polite reference to level of faith, and spiritual maturity. He deemed his followers as 'little ones' meaning those who hadn't fully matured in the Faith. Also referenced in Matthew 10:42.

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I have to read up to verse 14 where it says "It is not the will of [God] that one of these little ones should perish." That word perish means to be eternally separated from God. To be damned. Now if little ones refer to new believers or weak in the faith, how is it that they can still perish? Isn't there eternal security for all who believe in Jesus? So the interpretation that this refers to baby Christians is correct if you believe salvation can be lost. My stand is that little ones and little children being referred to in this passage are literal children and Jesus is telling us to be like them.

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Apparently, growth in the Kingdom is reverse, adults are supposed to become like children, sheep like lambs.

It is only when they become children will they be given the Kingdom of God:

Matthew 18

1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, 3and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4“Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5“And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; 6but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Luke 12

32Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.

We see believers become like children, in the sense that children trust others, once they prove themselves reliable, unlike adults, who never trust.

Numbers 14

22“Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, 23shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it. 24“But My servant Caleb, because he has had a different spirit and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land which he entered, and his descendants shall take possession of it.

All Bible references from the NASB.

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The question is asked who are the little ones spoken on in Mathew. Some have said it's literal kids while others have said no! it's born again Christians or immature Christians. It's got to be born again Christians not little kids as some say.(https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Matthew-18-6/ “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” ) For one, the next statement in order as it's read, says ("Those that believe in me".)As noted in parethesis those that believe in me is the subject of what he was refering to.

Little kids, while they might have some beforehand knowledge of God they don't nor, won't know enough to believe or not to believe until they can at least read for themselves.

The milestone that it also goes on to say that is to be put around someone's neck for offending these little ones/Born again, does not mean the literal little kid he used as an example.

Now, I knew even beforehand something of God, at 4 and 5 years of age but did not know much about him or enough to truly believe. Meaning for some reason I had the knowledge of sin and possible eternal life even before really going to church at all. How? I have no idea, but science has found the God gene so maybe that's how.

But my point is I knew this and tried to live sinlessly up until my friend talked me into lying. Once I did this something snapped I felt it literally, and think I lost my eternal life at that point just like Adam and Eve did in Eden. My friend played Eve even though he was a male.

Point is children/kids do not know enough to believe in God even if they have some pre-knowledge they don't know until they can read. So to say he was talking about literal kids is false and makes God a respecter of persons, which scripture clearly states as in Romans 2:11. Saying he being Jesus meant literal kids are saying he's a respecter of persons and holds kids above anyone else, and that just isn't so.

  • Full Mathew 18. – user25761 Sep 11 at 8:01
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