Entering the Kingdom as Children

July 18, 2016

by Kent Hughes

Who can enter the Kingdom of God? All throughout the gospels, Jesus is constantly flipping the expectations of those who hear him. One occasion is particularly striking: in Luke 18:15–17, we read that many parents were bringing their children to Jesus so that he might touch and bless them. Upon seeing the crowds bringing their children to Jesus, the disciples begin to rebuke them, but Jesus stops them. It’s in the midst of rebuking them, Jesus teaches us all how we are able to enter the Kingdom of God. We enter the kingdom by being as a child and by receiving as a child.

Being as a Child

Jesus asserted the matter of being like a child in his response to his disciples’ protest: “But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God'” (v. 16). He did not say that the kingdom belongs to the children he was holding, but to “such [as these]”—those who are like the little ones.

What is the quality of being of children, and especially those characterized as “infants” in the opening line of this passage? What is the ontological distinctive of a newborn? Helplessness! Jesus has in mind here the objective state that every child who has ever lived (regardless of race, culture, or background) has experienced—namely, helpless dependence. A newborn, naked, with flailing hands and  feet lifted toward the sky, is a hear-wrenching profile of helplessness. And unlike any other creature, its helplessness extends for years. No child would survive its early years without the help of others.

Eduard Schweizer, Professor of New Testament at the University of Zurich, wrote:

But this is the reason they are blessed—just because they [the little children] have nothing to show for themselves. They cannot count on any achievements of their own—their hands are empty like those of a beggar. Jesus enlarges the promise to include everyone. With an authority such as only God can claim, he promises the Kingdom to those whose faith resembles the empty hand of a beggar. Such faith is possible because they have no achievements of their own—their hands are empty like those of a beggar. Jesus enlarges the promise to include everyone. With an authority such as only God can claim, he promises the Kingdom to those whose faith resembles the empty hand of a beggar. Such faith is possible because they have no achievements of their own nor any conceptions of God which can intrude between them and God.

Every child born into the world is absolutely, completely, totally, actually helpless. And so it is with every child who is born into the kingdom of God. Children of the kingdom enter it helpless. If Billy Graham enters the kingdom, it will not be because he has personally preached to more people than any man in history. It will not be because he has remained impeccable in his finances when so many have failed. It will not be because he has been a faithful husband. It will not be because, despite his fame, he has remained a humble, self-effacing, kind man. When Billy Graham enters the kingdom, it will be because he came to Christ as a helpless child. It will be because of God’s undeserved kindness toward Billy’s helplessness.

If you would enter the kingdom, this is the only way you can come.

Receiving as a Child

Jesus’ teaching reached its climax in an authoritative declaration that moved from the requirement of being like a child to receiving as a child: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall  not enter it” (v. 17) . What are the elements of such childlike receiving?

Kingdom entrance first depends on our coming to God in total helpless dependence.

First, unmitigated trust. We see such trust in a baby who stands on his father’s hand high over his dad’s head—and smiles proudly. This may sometimes be misplaced trust, but it is nevertheless complete and sincere. Children trust others for everything—their food, their lodging, the arms of others who bear them about. Regarding trust in God, the child’s ability to believe has never been wounded by wicked suggestion or burdened with superstition or persevered by falsehoods. These little ones are the opposite of the skeptical theologians whom Christ battled (cf. 5:21; 20:2). Those who receive the kingdom like a little child have the saving element of faith. They have belief plus trust. They believe in Jesus, but it is more than a mind-belief—they trust Jesus for everything to do with salvation and life.

Second, untutored humility. Children do not engage in the various forms of pride of adulthood. Unlike the Pharisees, little children are not proud of their virtues—”God, I think you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (18:11, 12). A child does not battle self-righteousness in coming to Christ—”Lord, I have been constant in my attendance for years. I have sat at the Lord’s Table for half a century. I give a lot of money to missions.” Self-righteousness is impossible in a child!

Further, a little child is free from the pride of knowledge. He has no learning, no degrees to pile up before the cross. Intellectual conceit is impossible. Children are teachable too. They receive the gospel without proposing amendments to it. They hold no “Jesus seminars”!  Because children have not developed the pride of adulthood, they readily repent. Little ones will readily cry over a wrong done. Their unseared consciences have left their powerful moral instruments intact—and they are utterly miserable over their sins. Untutored humility leaves a young soul open to receiving the greatest of gifts.

Third, untarnished receptivity. Children know how to receive a gift—they simply take it. At their first birthday, they are not sure what a gift is. As two-year-olds, if they have siblings, they understand well enough. And by the time they are three, they are really into receptivity! The wrapping paper flies! As David Goodling explains: “A little child takes its food, its parents’ love and protection, because they are given, without beginning to think of whether it deserves them or whether it is important enough to merit such attention. So must we all receive God’s kingdom and enter into it (see 18:17).

Fourth, unabashed love. Children easily return love for loving gifts. Enthusiastic hugs and kisses and multiple “Thanks” are showered on the giver. And spiritually, “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Unabashed love is the province of those who receive the kingdom as little children.

We Must Grow Down

A newborn is the apex of creation. But truth does not allow us to remain there. And those who have lived the proverbial “three score and ten years” are also the crown of God’s creation. The universe is mortal, and we will always outlive her. Each of us has an eternal soul that can live forever and conform to the likeness of Christ.

We each have the potential of being an eternal son or daughter so graced that if we were to meet our future selves, we might want to fall  before the them. On the other hand, we also have the possibility of becoming a person of such spiritual disfigurement that we would flee if we met ourselves. Our eternal potential depends upon whether we enter the kingdom or not. And kingdom entrance first depends on our coming to God as a child—in total helpless dependence.

Not what these hands have done
can save this guilty soul;
Not what this toiling flesh has borne
Can make my spirit whole. Thy work alone, O Christ,
to me can pardon speak; Thy power alone, O Son of God,
Can this sore bondage break.  —Horatius Bonar, 1861

We must not think a child cannot come to God until he is like a man, but a man cannot come until he is like a child. We must grow down until we become like a child.

Jesus’ words are true, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3), and “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

This piece is adapted from R. Kent Hughes, Luke: That You May Know the Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 633–636. Used with permission of the publisher.

Read More On faith, gospels, Jesus, Kingdom of God

Kent Hughes

Dr. Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of practical theology at WTS.

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