Chapter 18:1-6 (ESV) - At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but 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.”
Question to consider: What did Jesus mean that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven?
The time for the Passover was coming upon them, and Jesus and the twelve gathered in Capernaum with a caravan of disciples in order to travel south to Jerusalem to celebrate. The twelve believed that this was the Passover in which Jesus would officially declare the start of His kingdom. They weren’t wrong in this belief, but they weren’t yet able to understand the nature of this kingdom or how it would be established. Thus, they were greatly distressed by Jesus’ talk of being handed over to the religious leaders to be beaten and killed and raised from the dead. Rather than asking Jesus to elaborate on this, they thought it was better to decide who among them would be the greatest in this kingdom.
How confusing it must have been for Jesus to respond by calling over a young child and saying the greatest would have to become like an infant or toddler. The Greek word used for “child” here is paidion, which refers to a young child from birth to seven years of age. I’d argue for the child to be on the younger side of this definition because the idea behind this analogy was one of humble dependence, and the younger the child, the more dependent they are for their care. The greatest in the kingdom of God was the one who entirely depended on God to be able to enter. At this point the disciples were more concerned with who was more loyal or powerful or worthy of the kingdom. Of course Christ Himself was the greatest in this kingdom because He depended upon the Father for everything.
The part where people begin to try to push the older side of paidion is in Jesus’ statement about receiving them in His name or causing one of them to sin. We tend to view sin here as acting in some way that corrupts the innocence of a child when the idea is more like putting a stumbling block in their path of faith. We have to remember that Jesus’ primary adversary so far in Matthew’s gospel account has been the Pharisees who acted as sons of the devil and produced self-righteous disciples who believed they earned their place in the kingdom.
Especially in American Evangelicalism, we are taught that faith is equated with an ability for an individual to intellectually grasp their need for salvation and articulate this need to the congregation in order to be declared a citizen of the kingdom. Baptism is then relegated to the ceremony in which someone makes this declaration public.
Of course people can come to faith when they are older, but I would argue that scripture portrays baptism as more than a civil ceremony. It is the promise of God to forgive our sins and mark us as members of the covenant established in Christ’s blood. Even if you believe someone should be able to articulate their faith before entering this covenant, I would argue that baptism should be the immediate response. To not receive this paidion of faith is to put a stumbling block in front of him. It would be like a seed sprouting from the ground that is denied water.
Dear heavenly father, may we be completely dependent on You for our salvation and do nothing to hinder someone from receiving this wonderful gift. Amen.