79. Little Children Come to Jesus (Luke 18:15-17)

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Gospel Parallels §188

James J. Tissot, 'Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, 'Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

"15  People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16  But Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17  I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.'" (Luke 18:15-17, NIV)

What is it about the children coming to Jesus that touches us deeply? Perhaps because we have heard countless times as a child about little children coming to him. Perhaps it is part of our sense of security when we feel like little children before him. But now that we are adults, we need to see this passage from an adult standpoint. What does Jesus mean to teach his disciples from this incident?

In Luke, at least, the incident of little children coming to Jesus is squarely in the context of humility.761 The immediately preceding passage is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which Jesus concludes with the words: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (18:14b). Here's what follows:

Bringing Babies to the Master (Luke 18:15a)

"People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them." (18:15a)

Presumably, parents wanted Jesus to touch the babies in an act of blessing. The word translated "touch" is Greek haptō, "to make close contact, 'touch,' frequently of touching as a means of conveying a blessing," though in our passage the word may also convey the idea of "to hold."762 A number of times Jesus touches to bless and to heal.763 In Matthew's account we read, "Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them" (Matthew 19:13a).

As a pastor I have had the privilege of taking many little children in my arms at infant dedications, placing my hands on them, praying for them, and speaking a blessing over them. It is a precious and beautiful time. No wonder the parents during Jesus' outdoor teaching wanted this blessing for their own children.

In this incident they were little children. The word translated "babies" is Greek brephos, "a very small child, baby, infant."764 In the parallel passages (Matthew 19:13 and Mark 10:13) and verse 16 of our passage, another word for "child" is used: Greek paidion, "a child, normally below the age of puberty, child," used of boys and girls.765 Paidion is a diminutive of pais, the general word for child. In Classical Greek, Hippocrates used paidion of a child up to 7 years old, while pais described a child from 7 to 14 years of age.766

The background of the story may be the practice of bringing children to the elders or scribes for a prayer of blessing upon them on the evening of the Day of Atonement.767

Rebuked by the Disciples (Luke 18:15b)

"People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them." (18:15)

You can imagine the setting. Parents are bringing babies, and letting their toddlers run up to Jesus, and Jesus would, with great joy, scoop them up and pray for them. When Jesus did this once, other parents saw it and came down toward the front. They wanted this for their children, too, for their children were often with them in the audience.

But the disciples would have none of it. Jesus was about important business -- teaching and healing. They couldn't allow this work to be interrupted by mere children constantly running up. They began to stop the little children, and tell off the parents in no uncertain terms. The word translated "rebuked" is Greek epitimaō, "to express strong disapproval of someone, rebuke, reprove, censure," also "speak seriously, warn" in order to prevent an action or bring one to an end.768

The View of Children in Jesus' Day

This question of how children are viewed in Jesus' culture is important if we are to interpret this passage correctly. The disciples rebuked the parents because children were viewed as unimportant in Palestine in Jesus' day. The previous incident in Luke that involved children is a good example:

"An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child (paidion) and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all -- he is the greatest." (Luke 9:46-48)

A careful study by Albrecht Oepke demonstrates that the principle of the innocence of children is alien to the Old Testament. True, children were not held responsible for sin even up to nine years of age, but the concept of the evil impulse is there from conception or birth. In Scripture, not until the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 14:20) does the idea of children's innocence even appear. And in Paul and other epistles, a much more common theme is that of the immaturity and inferiority of the child (1 Corinthians 3:1; 13:11; 14:20; Galatians 4:1, 3; Ephesians 4:14; Hebrews 5:13; 1 Peter 2:1-2), following the view of "foolishness" bound up in the heart of a child (Proverbs 22:15; 29:15).

While children were prized by parents -- male children especially -- in society they were largely ignored as unimportant. They aren't considered worthy of much adult attention outside their families.

Don't Hinder the Children (Luke 18:16a)

"But Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.'" (18:16)

I can imagine the scene. Red-faced disciples have arrogantly told off the parents and instructed them to control their children in the presence of such an important teacher as Jesus. And then Jesus rebukes the rebukers and calls the children back to him -- "Come here, children...." -- while the frustrated disciples stand powerless to stop it. They are supposed to do crowd control and Jesus is keeping them from doing their job. What are they to do?

The little children run past the disciples, over to Jesus' lap -- he usually sits when he teaches -- and snuggle up close to him, while Jesus lays his hands on them and prays for them. Soon all the children in the entire crowd have run up to Jesus and are crowding around him, waiting for his touch and a prayer. How beautiful!

Jesus' command to the disciples is clear: Let them come (positively) and don't hinder them (negatively). The word translated "let" (NIV) or "suffer" (KJV) is Greek aphiemi, "allow, let, permit, leave."769 The word translated "hinder" (NIV) or "forbid" (KJV) is Greek kōlyō, "to keep something from happening, hinder, prevent, forbid."770

The Kingdom Belongs to Such as These (Luke 18:16b)

But why does Jesus let them come on this occasion? It doesn't seem like this is his normal practice. It seems like Jesus wants to use this occasion to make a point, to teach his disciples an important lesson about the Kingdom of God.

"But Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.'" (18:16)

The phrase "such as these" (NIV) or "of such" (KJV) translates the Greek correlative adjective toioytos, pertaining to being like some person or thing mentioned in a context, "of such a kind, such as this, like such."771

Notice, Jesus doesn't say that the Kingdom belongs to little children or that they are already in the Kingdom. He says that those who inherit or possess the kingdom will be "like" these children.

What characteristic of children is Jesus pointing to as an essential characteristic of disciples? Several possibilities have been mentioned:

  1. Innocence. But Judaism didn't emphasize a child's innocence, but rather a child's immaturity and foolishness.
  2. Openness, trust, and receptivity. Surely the children come running to Jesus with complete openness and trust, and this is an essential characteristic of disciples. But nothing in the context of the passage seems to point to this interpretation.
  3. Humility. In the context, (1) the publican coming humbly before God, and (2) the disciples' consideration of children as unimportant, seem in the foreground. To Jesus, the children's humble station itself is symbolic of the humility required to approach God.

Entering the Kingdom as a Little Child (Luke 18:17)

Infants can do nothing to merit the Kingdom, yet they are a metaphor of receiving the Kingdom.

"I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (18:17)

The word translated "receive" is Greek dechomai, which in this context means, "to indicate approval or conviction by accepting, be receptive of, be open to, approve, accept."772

How do the little children come to Jesus? Freely, openly, humbly. They come to God with no posturing of worthiness, like the Pharisee in the preceding parable (18:11-12). Rather, they come because Jesus calls them to him. They come in simple faith, like the tax collector (18:13).

Lack of pretension, openness, humility -- these are the qualities of children that Jesus seems to be holding up as necessary for entrance to the Kingdom.

Lessons for Disciples

What are we to learn from this incident?

  1. We are to respect children and welcome them. Having a nursery, Sunday school and children's church are not important primarily because they attract young families to churches that are desperately feeling the need for new blood in the church. A ministry to children is important in and of itself, since children are spiritual beings and can learn from an early age the truths of the Gospel. Jesus blessing the children shows his own respect for the spiritual life of children. We can do no less.773
  2. We must come to Jesus with lack of pretension. Humility and a recognition of God's grace and mercy allowing us to approach are appropriate. We can only enter the kingdom when we come depending upon Jesus and not ourselves.

This is good news! Have you felt that Jesus wouldn't welcome you because of something you might have done in the past or because of your lack of religious observance? Coming to Jesus has nothing to do with your worthiness and everything to do with his willingness to forgive, cleanse, and transform you.

What is this passage saying? If little children can run to Jesus' arms, why not you? Why not now? Hear Jesus calling you to come? Come now. 


Father, I have lots of religious history and so do my forebears. But all that baggage can be an obstacle to me, keeping me from approaching you openly, humbly, gladly. I shed before you all my pretensions to importance. When I see how Jesus welcomes the children, I can see that you love me greatly. And I love you, too. In Jesus' name, I give you thanks and I come. Amen.

Key Verse

 "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." (Luke 18:16b)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

Though this passage is often used in connection with infant baptism and dedication of children, it really doesn't teach anything about baptism. Therefore, let's refrain in our discussion from arguing about the proper age for baptism. Thank you.

  1. What is the point of the parable that precedes the incident of Jesus and the Little Children? Why is that important to the interpretation of this passage? (18:9-14)
  2. Why would parents want to bring their babies and little children to Jesus? (18:15a)
  3. Why did the disciples rebuke the parents? What was the disciples' view of the children's importance? How did they see their actions as serving Jesus' interests? (18:15b)
  4. Why did Jesus interrupt his teaching to call all the children in the crowd to him at this point? In what sense is this a "teachable moment"? (18:16)
  5. What point is Jesus making by inviting the children to come freely? How does Jesus follow up on his action?
  6. Children have lots of endearing (and not so endearing) characteristics. Which characteristics of children is Jesus pointing to in this context that he wants would-be disciples to emulate?
  7. In what way does Jesus' teaching here offer hope to us who read it today?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[761] In both Matthew 19:13-15 and Mark 10:13-16 this incident follows Jesus' teaching on divorce.

[762] Haptō, BDAG 126.

[763] Mark 10:13; Matthew 8:3, 15; 9:29; 17:7; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 5:23; 7:33; 8:22; Luke 5:13; 22:51.

[764] Brephos, BDAG 183-184.

[765] Paidion, BDAG 749-750.

[766] Hippocrates, De Hebdomadibus, 5; cited in Albrecht Oepke, pais, ktl., TDNT 5:636-654.

[767] Marshall, Luke, p. 682, cites Soph. 18:5; Strack and Billerback 2:138; Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (London, 1960), p. 49.

[768] Epitimaō, BDAG 384.

[769] Aphiemi, BDAG 156-157.

[770] Kōlyō, BDAG 580.

[771] Toioytos, BDAG 1009-1010.

[772] Dechomai, BDAG 221.

[773] This passage and its parallels are commonly used as a support for infant baptism. See G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1962), pp. 320-329; and Jeremias, Infant Baptism. But nothing about their context in the Gospels remotely relates these passages to baptism.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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