Who are “these little ones” in Matthew 18:14?

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:10-14 ESV)

One of the criticisms of predestination is the claim that does not will that any human being should be sent to hell. A passage sometimes used to support this objection is the story of the shepherd and the lost sheep in Matthew 18, and specifically verse 14. The argument is that the parable and it’s conclusion are a statement about how God wills  that all would come to Himself.

I don’t think it is; it is neither what Jesus was saying or what the author was here trying to relate.

Who the children are from the text.

We start at verse 2 of chapter 18. Jesus had called a child to himself (v.2) to tell the disciples that unless you become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

In verses 5-9 Jesus deals with the seriousness of causing sin to happen, again using a single child—probably he same from verse 2 (“one such child”)—but then moves to using a plural phrase, “these little ones” in verse 6. From here we are safe to deduce that there is more than one child present.

After a few phrases about not causing sin, Jesus returns to the statement in verse 10 about “these little ones”. There is nothing to indicate here or elsewhere that “these little ones” are now a different subject; verse 9 simple finishes the illustration which began in verse 6, so we should see verse 10 as a continuation in a series of illustrations oriented. around the children which began in verse two.

That series is thus:

  1. become like a child, humble yourself like a child (vv. 2-4)
  2. whoever receives a child (or one like a child) receives Jesus, but whoever causes one to stumble is unworthy (vv. 5-9)
  3. parable of the lost sheep / the value of a child (vv. 10-14)

The third illustration-parable is wrapped with two statements about “these little ones”:

  1. See that you do not despise one of these little ones. (v. 10)
  2. it is not the will of my Father … that one of these little ones should perish (v. 14)

It is plain to see from the text that “these little ones” refers primarily to those children who were with Jesus as he was telling the parable, although we do not need to say it refers to them exclusively.

The children/sheep do not represent all men.

The conjunction so at the beginning of verse 14 indicates that the story in verses 12-13 is intended as a metaphor. Jesus tells a story, and then states a truth that is demonstrated by the story.

In the metaphor, “these little ones” are represented by the sheep that goes astray, and from that we can draw a few observations:

  1. The sheep are already in the flock.
  2. A sheep that was in the flock has gone astray from the flock.
  3. The shepherd rejoices over the sheep that he finds, more than the other sheep.

By postulating that “these little ones” of verse 14 means to “all men”, it is suggested that

  1. What God wills won’t necessarily happen. Though God willed for all men to be saved as per verse 14, not all are saved. If “these little ones” represents all men then the Shepherd wouldn’t lose any—salvation would be universal. This is unreasonable from the preceding parable, which demonstrates that the Shepherd will leave the ninety-nine to save the one, such that he again has his one hundred sheep.
  2. Humility and innocence aren’t the point. In verse two Jesus tarted talking about children, using them to demonstrate how believers ought to act—with humility. To extend “these little ones” and the one hundred sheep to represent the whole world obliterates the illustration, though; all men are not humble.
  3. God rejoices more over all men being saved than all the others who don’t need saving. If “these little ones” means all men, the illustration kind of implodes. Who are the other sheep?

These three suggestions show that it is unreasonable to sustain that “these little ones” refer to all men. Furthermore, no part of the flock can represent all of humanity, since if the hundred sheep represent all men, the illustration still doesn’t make much sense; the shepherd is returning the sheep to the hundred. Does he return a believer to unbelievers?

The sheep are the church.

I would say it is better to read “these little ones” without shedding the context of the parable, and embrace the layers together. That is, the children are the sheep, but they are neither all children in the world nor all sheep in the world—Jesus uses a definite number as an example, where he could have easily said all the sheep-children in the world. We should keep the context of verses 1 & 2 in mind until the author indicates that we’re moving on—which happens with the change of subject in verse 15.

With that in mind, we’re left thinking simply enough that “these little ones” in verse 14 are the ones immediately at hand.

The warning-lesson in the first part of this chapter is to not seek to be first, but rather to become like children in our faith. If we must apply “these little ones” in a wider context, we need first to look at the illustration Jesus began in verse 2, where we see that “these little ones” represent those who have first converted, then “become as children”, and only then do they inherit the kingdom.

Does that mean we act as children? No. But we do look to God as our Father-Shepherd, not worrying about our position amongst our brethren, but humbling ourselves (Mat. 18:4 ESV).

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