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?