What does it mean to “receive the kingdom of God as a child” (Luke 18:17)?
…δέξηται τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ ὡς παιδίον…
There are actually three possibilities here (see Green, 651 n 131 for details):
- to receive the kingdom as a child receives the kingdom
- to receive the kingdom as if one were a child
- to receive the kingdom as one receives a child
1 and 2 above are virtually synonymous. They both have the same effect: the phrase relates to how a person receives the kingdom of God (which I take to mean the person of Jesus and the teaching of the gospel) in a childlike way. This interpretation is by far the most common (see Bock, Morris, Nolland).
However, the 3. above has a difference to it – and, following Green, I suggest that it makes much better sense of both immediate and wider contexts.
In this third interpretation the meaning is not receiving the kingdom in a childlike way (i.e. humility, faith etc.) but receiving the kingdom in the same was as you receive children.
This fits with the immediate context: the disciples have just stopped the children coming to Jesus, but Jesus permits them to come and he welcomes them. So in v17, Jesus draws a parallel with what he has just done and what the disciples should do.
This interpretation also fits the wider context. Back in 9:48, Jesus has said a very similar thing:
“Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” (Luk 9:48 ESV)
Again here the focus is on how a disciple receives/welcomes children.
The meaning of Jesus’ words in 18:17 then are to do with the disciples humility against the present social climate. To associate with children was not a popular thing in 1st century Judaism. Luke has previously dealt, at great length, the contrast between social standing and gospel humility (see ch14).
So here, Jesus is telling his disciples (or whoever else is listening) that being part of the kingdom means forsaking public reputation and showing love and hospitality to those who need it. This, again, fits with the immediate context. Jesus is teaching about the necessity for humility in salvation (18:9, 14, 23-27).
At a push, one could argue that the interpretation of the ὡς here doesn’t affect the main point – the key is still humility. But the difference between the more popular and traditional interpretation and that which I have suggested above is:
- the nature of the humility – not innocent childlike humility – but deliberate gracious humility; and
- the way Jesus’ main point (v17) and the context (vv15-16) fit together.