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Fall 1988 · Vol. 17 No. 2 · pp. 18–25 

Kids of the Kingdom: A Study of Matthew 18:1-5 and Its Context

Paulette Taylor-Wingender

Jesus calls people to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). Indeed, he calls them to convert and become like children. So adults need to be converted to enter the kingdom. But what about children? Children are like children already! Do they need to be converted? Are they not automatically in the kingdom? Matthew 19:14 says children are already possessors of the kingdom. What then is their relationship to Jesus? What should be their relationship to the church?

It is strange to think children need to be converted. . .

I propose that Matthew 18:1-5, by using the paradigm of childlikeness to illustrate the “entrance requirement” for the kingdom, challenges the validity of certain methods used for “child evangelism” today. It also encourages us to recognize that children are by virtue of their inherent childlikeness already recipients of the kingdom. Furthermore, this view calls on the church to recognize children who are being nurtured in the faith as growing participants in the life of the church and appropriate recipients of the communion celebration shared in the church. {19}


Almost all interpreters of this section of Matthew’s Gospel have considered Matthew 18:1-35 as a literary unit. There are significant reasons for doing so. Everyone agrees that 18:1 is the start of a unit. And interpreters are just as certain that 18:35 ends it. Matthew 19:1 signals that a speech has ended (“When Jesus had finished saying these things”). Moreover, it signals a change of location (“he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea”), a change of audience (“some Pharisees came”) and a change of form (from discourse to controversy). Clearly 18:1-35 constitutes a complete unit of teaching by Jesus to his disciples.

But, as I want to show, this does not prevent Matthew from using this complete unit (18:1-35) as part of a larger teaching unit (18:1—19:15) in which his readers are instructed about “childlikeness and the kingdom.”

Despite the shifts at 19:1, there is a continuing literary structure. The section opens (18:1-5) and closes (19:13-15) with references to children as model recipients of the kingdom. And between these two stand five units that are parallel in form. Each one portrays a responsible party and a vulnerable party. Each of the vulnerable parties is presented as valuable and worth restoring/protecting. Each of the responsible parties is called to humility and diligence in restoring those who might not seem worth saving, but on whom Jesus places special value.

Jesus himself is portrayed as the one who both restores and protects the weak and vulnerable and also as the one who makes himself weak and vulnerable “like the child.” (Note how both the child, and then later Jesus are, “in the midst” of the disciples [18:2,20; the phrase is identical in Greek] and see below) The structure of the unit could be represented like this:

The Child Model (18:2-5)

  1. Do not cause offence (18:6-9)

    Responsible Party: Anyone causing another to sin.
    Vulnerable Party: The “Little Ones”

  2. Go after the lost sheep (18:11-14)

    Responsible Party: The owner of the sheep
    Vulnerable Party: The sheep that wandered away {20}

  3. Restore the brother/sister who sins (18:15-20)

    Responsible Party: The believer in a position to restore
    Vulnerable Party: The believer needing to be restored

  4. Forgive from the heart (18:21-35)

    Responsible Party: Servant #1 (who should have shown mercy)
    Vulnerable Party: Servant #2 (who begged for mercy)

  5. Do not divorce (19:1-12)

    Responsible Party: the husband divorcing
    Vulnerable Party: the wife being divorced

The Child Model (19:13-15)

Note that 18:10 is a transitional verse. It takes the paradigm of the “little ones” and shows that just as it can be applied to the first section (18:6-9) so also it can be applied to the four sections that follow (18:11-14; 15-20; 21-35; and 19:1-12). This transitional verse itself has two parties:

The Responsible Party: “you” (those addressed)
The Vulnerable Party: the “little ones”

Matthew shows the greatness of the “little ones” by showing how far the responsible parties are required to go to preserve/restore them. They are to seek, restore, forgive and protect them. The vulnerability and the humility of children constitute their greatness. Those who become like children deserve the same protection and care Jesus calls his followers to extend to children.

This structure accounts for the entire section except one verse, and that is the first verse. It presents the question which the entire section is designed to answer. Matthew 18:2-19:15 answers the question of the disciples, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” It is clear that they assumed they themselves were undoubtedly in the kingdom. What they wanted to know was which of them was greatest.

Jesus responds by using children both to answer their question, and to help them re-evaluate their assumption. It is those who humble themselves (18:4) who are great. Moreover it is only those who have converted to childlikeness who are in {21} the kingdom at all (18:3 and 19:14).

The disciples’ question is enough to cast doubt on their qualification for either entrance or greatness. The disciples’ question is answered in the two segments which bracket this whole teaching unit. The answers are interpreted and applied in the intervening material.


There are many details in Matthew 18:1—19:15 which help to highlight and expand on the central message just summarized. The few comments given here will be limited to the first five verses. Matthew 18:1 begins with the phrase “in that hour.” Coming as it does at the very beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, it surely is more than a passing time reference. It suggests the hour of eschatological fulfillment. At the very dawn of the new age the disciples vie for positions of honor in the kingdom. How unaware they are that the kingdom will come by the Son of Man humbling himself and making himself vulnerable—like a child!—as he begins his journey to the place of martyrdom.

Matthew 18:2 uses the word “child” for the first time in this section. The term does not refer exclusively either to infants (suggesting a very brief time of initial innocence) nor exclusively to older children (suggesting these children might already have been “converted”). It is any child. Jewish children became full participants in the covenant around age 12 or 13 (it was different in different eras). They were “children” (paidia) until that age. Whereas Judaism held children outside the covenant until their thirteenth year, Jesus declares that children are already recipients of the kingdom (19:14).

Matthew 18:3 uses two words which may be interpreted several ways: they either mean “convert and become” or else “become again.” Modern insistence that children need to be converted sounds rather strange in the light of this verse which suggests that the goal is to become like children and that conversion is defined as becoming like children.

Matthew 18:4 calls on adults to assume the posture of the child. The child was by the very fact of his/her childlikeness in a position of helplessness and vulnerability (in the first century far more so than in our day.) For adults to take up this posture is to give up self-sufficiency and trust wholly in God {22} and his people, the very humility which the disciples are obviously lacking (18:1). Such helplessness is well illustrated in the five sections which apply the child model to relationships in the community of believers (see outline of text).

Matthew 18:5 is perhaps the most radical statement in this text. Whereas Jesus might well have used himself as the model of greatness in humility (as he does in Mark 10:41-45), he chose to use the child instead. Jesus then plays two roles in this text. First, he is a model for the disciples as one who welcomes children. Then he is himself modelled by the child who is welcomed, since in welcoming the child they welcome him. By extension Jesus functions in the roles of both the responsible party and the vulnerable party. If the disciples want to behave responsibly in the Christian community they are to model themselves after Jesus who is the good shepherd (18:12ff.), who restores erring people (18:15ff.), who forgives from the heart (18:21ff.), and who upholds God’s original creation intention (19:1ff.). At the same time, when the disciples seek lost sheep, restore and forgive sinning fellow believers, and protect the vulnerable in the Christian community, they are doing it to and for Jesus.

Beginning with Matthew 18:6, the text applies what has just been said about “child models” to relationships in the community of believers. It is those who refuse to value and welcome children as Jesus does, and who do not humble themselves to be like children, who will respond in all the wrong ways to the “little ones” (the weak Christians) in the community of believers. They will scandalize and offend (18:6-9); they will concern themselves with the ninety nine safe sheep and not invest loving concern for the lost one (18:12-14); they will be judgmental towards (or more likely ignore) the erring Christian brother/sister (18:15-20); they will forgive grudgingly and with limits (18:21) rather than generously and from the heart (18:27, 35); they will concern themselves with rules and rights rather than mercy and the original creation intention of God (19:1-12). And they will rebuke those who imagine Jesus gladly welcomes children! (19:13-15). {23}


Concerning Child Conversion:

This text suggests there is something very wrong about child evangelism methods which insist that children need to be converted. It is strange to think that children need to be converted to become like children when they are children already!

But the text also suggests there is something very wrong with the idea that children must be educated towards an adult understanding of their sinfulness so that they can revert to childlikeness again. This text calls into question the need for conversion altogether, as applied to children.

Conversion is appropriate for adults; that is, if they have lost the dependency, humility and vulnerability which were theirs as children. If children are not nurtured and reach the age of independence, or have been nurtured but rebel and reject their status in the kingdom, they would then need to be led towards a conversion experience. When adults exercise self-sufficiency and pride (as the disciples in fact were doing [18:1]!) they must convert and become like children again.

Children who are nurtured in the understanding that they are kingdom citizens and who learn to carry their childlikeness into their adult lives do not need to experience conversion. They remain “kids of the kingdom” even as adults! They are neither sinless nor innocent. . .neither are adults who have been converted. But they are not condemned, and they are citizens of the kingdom.

And so, child evangelism is vital, but not as an effort to convert children (how paradoxical!). Child evangelism is precisely the sharing of the “good news” with children. The good news is that Jesus accepts them and they are model citizens of the kingdom. It is vital that children learn about their status in Christ and his kingdom before they renounce it or walk away from it.

Concerning the Role of Children In the Church:

If Jesus places such a high priority on welcoming children, it is hard to imagine how one can keep them at arm’s length in the church. This suggests some important implications for the ordinances/sacraments which are administered and shared in the church. {24}

To baptize infants is to treat baptism as something too far removed from its biblical meaning. But to insist that children be “converted” first is to contradict the meaning of this text. It seems best to administer baptism to adults who convert and become like children, and to “children” at the stage in their Christian nurture when they cease to be automatically members of the kingdom by virtue of their inherent childlikeness. Thus children would not be baptized until they reach an age of independence. When they reach an age where they might well choose to repudiate their position in the kingdom by going their own way, they would be asked to affirm their choice to remain in the faith in which they have been nurtured. Accompanying such a confession, baptism seems appropriate for them. When baptism is seen as more than a sign of conversion (by seeing it as fundamentally a sign of one’s conscious dependence upon God), then the rite is appropriate for children who have never needed to convert, but who have now reached adulthood and owned the faith in which they have been nurtured.

Child dedication is practiced in many churches. However, it seems appropriate that on the occasion of a child’s birth we do something more than, and perhaps other than, merely encourage parents to dedicate the child to God. The child is already God’s child. Child dedication is an appropriate time for the entire church to focus on what God has done (versus what the parents want to do) in creating a new life and including another child in his kingdom. It is a time for the community to celebrate God’s redemptive activity which permits the welcoming of the child into the kingdom and the church. Parents should dedicate themselves to training the child in the way of the Lord, but they should also commit themselves to learning from the child as it models humility and participation in God’s kingdom.

What a wonderful opportunity such a “child dedication” would be for a child to experience in the welcome of the community the even more significant welcome of Jesus! The event could take place when the child is old enough to recognize it as a welcome into the church family (perhaps as early as age 3). Participation in the life of the church would follow for the child as the child grows and is able to take on responsibilities appropriate to its age.

Communion, unlike baptism, is to be shared regularly. {25} Like the Jewish Passover, which is its predecessor, it is a time of both celebration and instruction. It seems appropriate for children to share this sacrament and through it both celebrate and learn about the basis for their inclusion in the kingdom and the church.

Since Jesus used the child as the model of greatness, the church should also value children and learn humility and dependence from them. Children should be encouraged to discover, develop and strengthen their ministry gifts within the church. But even before they can make conscious contributions, they are to be valued as models of kingdom greatness, indeed models of Jesus himself.

Paulette Taylor-Wingender teaches at the Institut Biblique Laval, St. Laurent, Quebec.

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