In Matthew 19.13-15 we see that Jesus welcomes little children to come to Him:
Then the little children were brought to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them and pray for them; and the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”And after He had placed His hands on them, He went on from there.…
In Mt. 19 these are literal children whom Jesus accepted and blessed. However, in this post, I look at children of a different sort: metaphorical. Earlier to this instance of Jesus blessing literal children, the occasion arose to teach adult disciples about what type of person is viewed by Jesus as being the most spiritually accomplished (or greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven). Mt. 18.1-5, Mk. 9.33-37, and Lk. 9.46-48 are the relative sections.
One aspect of the promised New Covenant that all of the accounts emphasize: New Birth. Most all Christians are familiar with John 3.3 where Jesus tells Nicodemus: unless one is born again, they cannot see the Kingdom of God. While this statement is unique to John, the same concept appears in The Synoptic Gospels in the account about becoming like little children where additional concepts of ministry are also taught.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, had him stand among them, and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me. (NET)
Then they came to Capernaum. After Jesus was inside the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. After he sat down, he called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (NET)
Now an argument started among the disciples as to which of them might be the greatest. But when Jesus discerned their innermost thoughts, he took a child, had him stand by his side, and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me, for the one who is least among you all is the one who is great.” (NET)
Harmonizing the Synoptic Accounts
Comparing these discrete writings by different authors and at relatively different times there is no real disunity in the message. On the surface, however, the occasion for the teaching may at first seem problematic. If we think of the probable flow of the narratives, the solution is apparent.
- The disciples argue “who is the greatest”
- Jesus discerned their thoughts
- Jesus asked: “what were you discussing on the way?”
- The disciples asked: “who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?”
Children in Malice
The Corinthian church were confused about spiritual gifts and Paul spent three chapters (1Cor. 12-14) detailing aspects of various gifts to correct the chaos in this church. It is notable that these Corinthians knew the New Life in Christ featured some aspect of child-likeness. Paul gives the scope of childlike innocence by defining exactly what areas they should focus in 1 Cor. 14.20:
Dear brothers and sisters, don’t be childish in your understanding of these things. Be innocent as babies when it comes to evil, but be mature in understanding matters of this kind. (NLT)
Serving by God’s Ability
The first Epistle of Peter gives many practical exhortations after the teaching sections which lay the groundwork. Peter urges his readers to not rely upon themselves and their natural abilities in the area of church life and general ministry:
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 pet. 4.10-11 NIV)
Notice that “gift” implies an unlearned and non-native ability. Peter wants the churches to glorify God by allowing Him to work among and through them. This is not by serving with natural wisdom or practiced techniques, instead, by God’s Spirit who indwells them.
Returning to the texts about “being the greatest” and ministry in the Synoptics, Jesus says the same thing which Peter obviously learned in part from this teaching. A disciple (an adult) needs to become childlike and dependent upon God and not rely on their own devices and native ability to serve spiritually. Further, Jesus says that when a disciple depends on God that those who accept the disciple’s message receive Him (since He is empowering and with the disciple).
This teaching of Jesus enabling ministry culminates in the last words recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28.18-20 NIV)