Jesus said the kingdom of God belongs to those who are like children, but Paul stated that grown-ups must put away childish things. So in what ways are believers to be like children? In what ways are we not?
When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11, NLT)
When Paul makes this statement, he is using the Greek word nepios, which was most often used for the youngest, most defenseless children. Paul uses it throughout his Epistles to compare people who do not grow in spiritual understanding or discernment to infants.
Nepios is often used in Scripture to denote someone whose ability to reason remains simple and unsophisticated, like an infant. For example, Jesus uses this word in Matthew 11 to show how God has chosen to bring himself glory and confound those who think themselves wise by having “hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to [nepios] ” (v. 25). God chooses those who are like helpless infants so there’s no question in whom glory resides—only God himself.
Paul’s teaching reflects that we are not expected to remain simple and stagnant in our faith. Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to make sure we would continue to mature out of our spiritual infancy.
Toddlers and Adolescents of Jesus
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. (Matthew 18:1-4)
Like nepios, the word Jesus uses here—paidion—is associated with young children, but often without the connotation of complete helplessness. While it could refer to infants, it seems to denote toddlers and young children.
In Matthew 19:14 and Luke 18:16, Jesus uses paidion while saying that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like children. Many believe these verses mean we are to have childlike faith, but they aren’t comparing the faith of children to the faith of believers—they’re comparing the dependence of children to that of believers. This becomes clearer when contrasted with Matthew 5:3—another verse discussing to whom heaven belongs—“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Who are the poor in spirit? They are those who recognize their lowly state before God. In all three verses, the kingdom belongs to those who humble themselves. Matthew 18 gives a more straightforward example that is not the state of your faith being discussed, but the state of your humility.
The humility of a child is that of dependence and low stature. They may not be as helpless as infants, but they are far from self-sufficient. We are to acknowledge our dependence and low stature before God and come to him as children—humbly, in love and gratitude.
However, we are not to remain like children in thought:
But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” (Matthew 11:16-17)
The paidion in Matthew 11 reject both John the Baptist and Jesus as from God because neither man acted as expected. “This generation’s” reason failed them, because it was the reason of a young child.
During his ministry, Jesus often had to correct or rebuke his disciples when his actions did not line up with their child-like reasoning. The Spirit living in us does the same, driving us on to greater spiritual maturity.
Teachable, Discerning Children
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 John 3:1)
Teknion is yet another Greek word meaning child. However, teknion has an affection not intrinsically present in the others, as it can also mean darling. It stands apart from previous examples in that it also can mean disciples.
At the Last Supper (John 13), Jesus first uses this term to speak to his followers as beloved, teachable children before instructing them on how to live for him.
Paul, John, and several other New Testament writers use teknion similarly, implying that their audience has matured to be more discerning and teachable. They can now use their experience of Christ and the power of the Spirit to stand firm and to live for God.
Yet they, and most of us, are still children. They are not yet to the goal: to stand before Jesus as fully mature disciples.
Mature in Faith before Christ
[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:28)
Paul shares with us the goal of our progress and the reason for much of his teaching: Jesus does not intend for us to remain spiritual youths forever.
Christ died and was raised to conquer sin and death, so that we would be reborn as full children of God. While those who believe will always be his children, we won’t always be immature in faith or spirit. This does not mean that we’ll be perfect or sinless in this life, but that we would be developed by the Spirit into habitually humble, teachable disciples of Jesus. The Spirit of God is making us like Jesus, leading us in greater maturity, so that we’ll be presented to him at the end of days as fully-grown spiritual adults for his glory.
- Use these truths to motivate your growth. Just as we disdain adults who think and act as children in the world, so we should disdain our refusal to grow in Christ.
- Don’t lose heart when you aren’t growing as quickly as you’d like. We are at war with sin, and it can slow our progress, but it cannot keep us from our maturity, for someday we will see Jesus.
- Ask God for help. He has given us his Word, for our teaching and edification. He’s given us prayer, so we may come to him with our frustrations, fears, and failings. He has given us membership in his body through our local church. These tools help us through the difficult process of “growing up” into Christ.
- Trust him. If Jesus has called you to be his, he will not fail to be by your side in all things. We may fall, we may fail, but he never fails. God will hold you up, he will mature you. Jesus has called you, and “he who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).