One look at a smiling child and you get a sense of joy, innocence, and trust. In so many ways, their minds and hearts haven’t had time to become hardened by the world. Jesus used children as an object lesson to teach us spiritual truths. Mostly on, salvation, simplicity, & humility. Let’s dive in and see his meaning behind “unless you become like a child.”
And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”Matthew 18:3-5 (NIV)
Background and Context
We have to take a look at the beginning of Matthew 18 to understand why Jesus used a child as an example to the disciples. Verse 1 says, “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (NIV) The disciples were arguing among themselves who would be the greatest and took it to Jesus to settle the matter.
I imagine that they probably didn’t think Jesus would choose one of them, but maybe he would tell them how to become the greatest or give them a prophetic type answer that they would all try to decipher. However, what they did not ever expect was for Jesus to tell them “unless you become like a child” and then have to figure out that meaning.
You see, in those days, children were regarded more as property, slaves really, than proper members of the family. They were expected to observe and obey. R.T. France says in his commentary, “A child was a person of no importance in Jewish society, subject to the authority of his elders, not taken seriously except as a responsibility, one to be looked after, not one to be looked up to.” He goes on to explain that Jesus’ example would have been radical and his point clear, “true greatness is found in being little, true importance in being unimpressive.” (France)
A Lesson on Humility
Kids love to learn knew things, explore their surroundings, and to ask why or how. Their whole attitude cries, “Teach me!” They need to know what everything means, to touch, and to experience for themselves. In complete humility, they are open to what parents, teachers, and other grown-ups are wanting to pour into them.
This is what Jesus is meaning when he says “change and become like little children” and “take the lowly position of this child.” When we humble ourselves before God, we cry out with King David in Psalm 119:33-34 (NIV): “Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart.”
Our whole heart attitude and posture are that of: I am the child and God is the Father. I am the student and God is the teacher. We realize that we don’t have it figured out. We need Him, His Word, and His wisdom.
Just like a child, we are open to correction for mistakes because we are learning to do things His way. Also, we are eager to learn what else we can do to know Him better and please Him because He is so good to us.
Finally, we know our place. We don’t try to be above God or on equal footing with Him. Just like a child knows their parent is the final authority, we accept that God is ours. Our whole position should align with John the Baptist when he says, “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30 NIV)
A Lesson on Simplicity
A child-like faith is simple. They have a large capacity to love and their trust is usually without limit. I remember my kids always saying their Daddy was the biggest and strongest man alive. They felt the same about their God. They often would say things like, “Jesus is bigger than the whole world and He can do anything!!”
Simplicity is easy to understand. When Jesus says, “unless you become like a child”, He is meaning that we don’t make things complicated. We don’t add extra layers on to salvation or faith. We just accept like a child that our Father loved us, He wanted a relationship with us, and He sent Jesus to die for us. It’s a simple trust that keeps our eyes focused on His daily grace and provision.
Heaven then becomes a reality because we look forward to being with our Father. We think on Him often and how great it will be to be in eternity. With a simple, child-like faith, we can hold on to this truth, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1-4 NIV)
A Lesson on Salvation
Jesus said, “unless you CHANGE and become like little children, you will NEVER enter the kingdom of heaven.” Change is translated in many versions as converted. We know that this is referring to a heart transformation that is only done through salvation by faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. The meaning is that we humble ourselves like the lowly place of a child and admit that we NEED salvation and we need Jesus to take over our lives.
G. Campbell Morgan notes, “The essential fact in the transformation Christ works is that He changes the great ones into little children.” So, we are not on the hook to change ourselves into “little children” but Christ does it for us as we allow Him to sanctify us. We must become less in our own eyes and that of the world in order to be more in the eyes of our Savior. Because, He humbled Himself to step down from heaven and come in the form of a lowly infant and ultimately to die a sinners death on our behalf. (See Phil. 2 devotional)
What Other Bible Verses Say on “Becoming Like a Little Child”
- He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child 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.” Mark 9:36-37 (NIV)
- People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. Mark 10:13-16 (NIV)
- But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:14 (NIV)
- Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— 1 Peter 2:2 (NIV)
Heavenly Father, I want to become like a little child. I want to be lowly and simple. I want to be grateful for salvation. Help me to humbly admit my wrongs and humbly admit my need for you. I want to not be great in my own eyes but great to you because of my child-like faith and trusting nature. Teach me to become like a little child. Amen.
7 thoughts on “Unless You Become Like a Child Meaning”
This was really good! It gave me a new perspective on becoming like a child. For most of human history, children haven’t been too highly regarded. Jesus comes and flips the script, as usual. Thanks for the encouragement!
So true. I love how Jesus casts aside social norms and shows us a better way. God’s word is so perfect and humbling. Thanks for reading and for the encouragement.
I love the explanations you gave here! I hadn’t heard before how children were viewed in ancient Jewish culture, but that gives even more meaning to Jesus’ words. Thanks for sharing!
Absolutely. Jesus was so great about giving practical examples that blow our minds. Praying for humility and faith like a child.
Very interesting perspective on “become like a child”. I like to think that in addition to the “sheep” metaphor, it reflects closeness to God. A closeness the deceases as we get programmed by our culture to conform to the ways of man. Our challenge is to find a way to become like children again and return to our close relationship with God.
Thank you for giving me a history lesson on how children were treated in ancient times, I knew pagans treated their children as property or slaves, but I didn’t know jewish people did the same, it seems odd that being God’s chosen, they would see their children like the pagans.
Thanks for reading. Unfortunately, worshipping false idols isn’t the only thing that God’s people had picked up from the nations around them. A people who were suppose to be set apart looked much like the pagan nations that God warned them about. It’s a good thing for us to ponder as believers today, how can we be sure that as God’s chosen that we are living different from the world according to the commands of Christ?