In Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 18:1-11) Jesus commends the “natural” humility of little children who believe in Him. Indeed by the Spirit they can and do believe in Him, for Jesus warns (v. 6), “…whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” The Greek word for such little Christians is literally “tiny ones” (micron), and Jesus identifies these tiny ones as model believers. The importance of little children in the Kingdom was a topic of Jesus on more than one occasion (Reflected in Luke’s Gospel: Luke 9:46-48; 17:1,2; 18:15-17). In Luke 18:15 the little children are identified as babies who were brought to receive the Savior’s blessed touch.
Bear in mind that among the common folk there were no diapers for their little ones. Such children, who nursed at their mother’s breasts until they were several years old, were not only extremely dependent and devoid of accomplishments, but these chafed-bottom babies were, to some degree, repulsive with the smell of excrement and urine. How could these be the great ones in Christ’s kingdom? Yet Jesus declared (v. 4), “Whoever humbles himself like this child (“little child”) is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Little children were great in Christ’s kingdom precisely because they were by their “natural” status nobodies. They could make no claim to greatness both because they were not great and because they were incapable of voicing such a claim. They were, to a degree, naturally humble. Though in need of salvation, yet they were something like Jesus, who humbled himself, becoming a “nobody” to the point of death on the cross for non-humble humanity.
From such an understanding alone we find the appropriateness of baptizing infants. Baptism is totally God’s work upon us; human beings contribute nothing. A little one clearly contributes nothing to his/her baptism. Anyone being baptized who thinks he has contributed something to this work of God is sadly mistaken, for such a person has not humbled himself like an “empty” child.
Baptism of little children may even be set forth by Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel as He declares (v. 5), “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” Note the parallel in Acts 2:38 where Peter responds to the contrite Jews, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” These penitent Jews were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, a wording that echoes Christ in Matthew 18. Having been baptized in Christ’s name, a child is so thoroughly connected to the crucified and risen Christ that anyone receiving such a child receives Jesus! Observe also that relative to Acts 2:38 the next verse explains how the promised Holy Spirit, given in baptism, “…is for you and for your children.” Yes, Baptism is appropriately—in some ways especially—for the little ones.
When an adult “repents” before being baptized it is an acknowledgement of his emptiness in relation to his salvation. Repentance becomes a confession of one’s “nothingness” in relation to God; it becomes a confession of child-like helplessness; it becomes a confession of true humility—which by its very nature is something that cannot be boasted about. With such a child-like humility an adult would be ready to be baptized. No wonder Jesus said that we must turn and become like children (v.2b).