Jesus startled His disciples with the statement that "anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it" (Luke 18:17).* "How can a man be born when he is old?" (John 3:4) questioned Nicodemus when Jesus told him the same truth.
Did Jesus really mean that no adults will make it to heaven? Why are children so special? What unique characteristic of children must adults possess if they are to receive eternal life? Some adults will be in heaven. Enoch and Elijah were both translated as mature adults. What child like qualities did they enjoy?
Some might say that trust, faith, and innocence are the virtues of little children. However, all these characteristics can also be possessed by adults. There must be something else that children have that adults lack.
The story following the blessing of the little children supplies the clue. The rich young ruler must have been just as surprised as the disciples were by Jesus' statement. This may have been what prompted his query: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Luke 18:18). We know Jesus' reply: "Keep the commandments." The rich young ruler believed that he had kept all the commandments, but Jesus' words about receiving the kingdom "like a little child" bothered him.
He desperately wanted eternal life, but this idea about being a little child confounded him. In answer to his further question, Jesus told him to go and sell all that he had and then come and follow Him. If he did that, he would no longer be self-sufficient. Now instead of de pending on his wealth, he would have to depend on Jesus.
Dependence is the unique characteristic of a little child. Give an adult survival training and a pack of provisions. Put him alone in the middle of a wilderness at zero degrees, and he will probably survive. Take a 3-year-old child, give him the same training and the same pack of provisions. Put him alone in a wilderness at the same temperature, and he will not likely survive for even a day.
An adult is self-sufficient; a child is totally dependent upon another individual for survival. That is the unique characteristic of a little child, and that is what Jesus meant when He said that unless we become like little children we will never make it to heaven. The rich young ruler went away sorrowing because he was unwilling to become dependent.
Dependency is the essence of righteousness by faith. We use big words like justification, propitiation, expiation, soteriology, and election to describe salvation. Jesus used little words like nets, coins, sheep, faith, children. We pride ourselves on our self-sufficiency. "I can do it myself," we say. That is why it is so hard for us to accept what Jesus says about becoming dependent like a little child dependent on His blood, His life, His grace.
We prefer to depend on credit cards, mortgages, pills, psychologists, recognition, political savvy, devotional books, cassette tapes, or even the church. There is very little left to ask God for. If we are short of money, we borrow, if we have an emotional problem, we take Valium or participate in a series of sessions with our friendly counselor; if we have a spiritual need, we can resort to overwork to deaden our sense of emptiness. We don't really need God. Yet the essence of salvation is still dependency.
Jesus showed us the way by coming to earth as a dependent baby some 2,000 years ago. He gave up His divine powers, His self-sufficiency, to become dependent on a woman named Mary. We seldom pause to think what it was like for Jesus to give up the adoration of the heavenly hosts for the mockery of the earthly rabble. He surrendered His omniscience for the tutelage of a peasant woman. In place of omnipotence He substituted "Of myself I can do nothing." His omnipresence gave way to the presence of the Holy Spirit. Finally on Calvary He became dependent on death— man's greatest enemy. What Christ gave up is far beyond the feeble consciousness of man.
What do we give up to come to Christ? "A sin-polluted heart, for Jesus to purify, to cleanse by His own blood, and to save by His matchless love. And yet men think it hard to give up all!" (Steps to Christ, p. 46).
Just as Jesus could not save man with out first becoming a dependent child, so man cannot be saved until he becomes like a child, dependent on the child we celebrate this Christmas time. —J. David Newman
* All texts in this editorial are from the New International Version.