The New Testament is surprising precisely because it is the Word of a surprising God. Who would have imagined the promised Messiah would enter Jerusalem in humble triumph only to be shamefully crucified a few days later? What’s more, who would have hoped that in Him the certainty of death would be surprisingly upended by the promise of resurrection? Would even the most astute reader have expected a murderous Jewish zealot to become the church’s most significant theologian and counted among the apostles? God’s mercy is utterly surprising.

Perhaps one of the most surprising teachings of Jesus is His call that we be transformed not into an increasingly self-sufficient adulthood, but instead into childlikeness. He says this is not a recommendation but rather a requirement for “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). This startling call leads us to ask a Nicodemus-like question, “How am I to become like a child after I have grown old?” Perhaps the question is better asked with honest simplicity: in what way are we to be changed and become like children?

The New Testament epistles (most significantly Paul’s and the author of Hebrews) employ childlikeness to describe the Christian life, although they use it differently than Jesus. While Jesus speaks of childlikeness as the goal of transformation, Paul and the author of Hebrews often use it as a descriptor of immaturity to be outgrown. For example, in 1 Corinthians Paul admonishes his audience claiming he could not speak to them as those wise in spiritual matters but rather their quarreling and jealousy is evidence that they are “infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). In Hebrews, the author uses infancy to describe his audience’s immaturity as they are dull of understanding and lacking in skill in the “word of righteousness” (Hebrews 5:11-14). In Ephesians, Paul describes children as those who are tossed about by human cunning and calls his audience to grow into mature adulthood (Ephesians 4:9-16).

If Jesus is calling us to become like children, yet the apostles admonish certain expressions akin to childlikeness, what could Jesus possibly mean? The immediate context of this teaching proves helpful. Both Luke and Mark place Jesus’ encounter with children and call to become like them directly before the question of the rich man. In both Gospels, a man described as rich in Mark and a ruler in Luke asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” After the man guarantees that he has maintained every commandment since his youth, Jesus calls him to sell everything he owns and follow Him (Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-25). The man “went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22). This is undoubtedly another hard saying of Jesus with many important implications, however, the crowd’s response (“Then who can be saved?”) uncovers Jesus’ perspective on riches: that great possessions are a way to deny our neediness for salvation, to depend on our righteousness and sufficiency (Mark 10:26). Jesus does not rebuke this question but concedes it, He acknowledges the impossibility of human beings securing their salvation but proclaims the surprising mercy of God: “for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).

This is where childlikeness begins to take shape. Jesus calls His followers to become like children in their knowledge of need and inability to meet it themselves. The rich ruler can be seen as a model of sinful “adulthood,” one that attempts to secure its own needs through possessions and claims “righteousness” in its own sight while remaining blind to its need. The call of Jesus is instead to become like children who know they have been cast upon God from birth (Psalm 22:10), who pray to their Father in heaven for daily bread (Matthew 6:11), and who profess their great neediness has been met only by the God for whom all things are possible (Mark 10:27).

In this way, growth as a Christian is not maturing past our need for Jesus but rather maturing into greater recognition of our need for Him. From Him, we learn to live like “a weaned child with its mother” (Psalm 131:2) who rests in His surprising mercy which delivers us from our bodies of sin through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:24-25). As children of this God, we learn to pray the prayer of ultimate childlike dependence:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-15)