I am convinced one of the most misunderstood Bible passages is where Jesus tells his disciples, “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” (Matthew 18:3-4) Why would Jesus say we need to enter the kingdom of heaven as children?
I’ve heard many explanations about how children are obedient and respectful, and so we should be the same way towards God. At the risk of sounding like a terrible parent, this simply isn’t how I’d describe my parenting experience. Being a father is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Sometimes it’s downright painful. Kids have a way of knowing they’re not in control but they keep grasping for authority.
Don’t we do that same thing to God? We know we aren’t in control, but we grab every opportunity whenever a window cracks open to exert our authority and try to grab control over life. Like the child who wants a suitable explanation for every decision, we keep asking God, “Why? Why? Why?” And if his answers are unacceptable (or if he simply says, “Because I said so.”) then we stomp our feet and look for someone else to tell us what we want to hear.
We don’t enter the kingdom of heaven as children because we have become so gentle and obedient. We enter as children because of our Heavenly Father. To boil it down is this: Christians have been adopted as children of God. This is why Jesus said you must be like a child to enter the kingdom.
When the disciples tried to keep the children from coming to Jesus, I am convinced that Jesus was urging his disciples to remember their status as disciples had nothing to do with their own importance. The disciples believed they were more important than those kids. But Jesus rebuked them and set them straight. Only those who are children of God will enter the Kingdom of God. It depends on their relationship with the Father, not because of their own value.
Remember, in the ancient world, children had barely any status – their value and importance came from their daddy. The good news of the gospel is this, “But to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Those who lay down their status and declare their only entrance into heaven comes from Jesus Christ their Savior (remember, the end of Mt. 17 emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God)… those are the people who will be given entrance. Salvation isn’t a result of works, it is a gift of grace because you have been adopted as a child of God (Eph 2:8-10).
So next time you hear someone talking about how Jesus wants us to be gentle and cuddly little kids, you can smile to yourself and say, “Yes, we should be that too. But we aren’t. In fact, lots of times we’re pretty disrespectful children. Praise be to God that he’s a gracious Father!”