This statement by Jesus has been misinterpreted due to mistranslations. Let's look at two popular versions:
“Whoever accepts one of these children on my behalf accepts me – and whoever will accept me doesn’t accept me – but Him who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)
New King James Version:
“Whoever receives one of these little children in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but Him who sent me."New International Version:
“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”Other versions make similar translations. These are very difficult to understand. What is Jesus talking about? Why would he use a child? Let's take a closer look at these translations to better understand the meaning of Jesus' statement.
Is it 'Welcomes' or 'receives'?
In the context of the situation, both of these translations of the Greek word δέχομαι (dechomai) are odd. What does "welcomes" mean anyway? Is it like - 'hey, welcome to my house'? Or is it like 'you are welcome' - as if they just thanked us for something?
The same goes for "receives." Is Jesus talking about people taking the children somewhere? As one might receive someone into their home or otherwise take them away?
Neither would relate to a practical situation. Jesus is discussing something taking place on a passive basis. He is not speaking of people taking the children away or into their home.
According to Thayer's lexicon, the word δέχομαι (dechomai) can mean "receive" but also to "embrace" and "sustain, bear, endure, to take upon oneself."
In the context of the situation, we can understand that "receive" or "welcome" don't work within the context of the situation. Neither does "embrace."
That leaves, "sustain, bear, endure, to take upon oneself." What do these mean on a practical basis? This is accepting someone. To bear or endure or take upon oneself means to thoroughly accept someone. It means to bring someone into your life, which is basically accepting them.
Jesus is speaking of acceptance. Accepting the child, and accepting Jesus.
What is the context?
Here is the context of the situation - from the text preceding this statement:
Then he picked up a child and set him in the middle of them – and after taking him in his arms, he said to them: (Mark 9:36)Thus we know that Jesus is utilizing a child to teach them something. The child was at the house he came to stay at when he traveled to Capernaum. While it may well be that it was a child of one of his followers, this is not known from the text.
But Jesus states, in Greek, ἓν τῶν τοιούτων παιδίων - which literally means "one of such children." Therefore, Jesus is using the child as an example. It is not this specific child. But the child represents a larger population of possible children.
The word "child" here is translated from the Greek word, παιδίον (paidion), which means, according to the lexicon, not only "infants, children, little ones" - but also, when used metaphorically, "like children" in "affectionate address."
These uses are discussing the more subtle term of "child" - which relates to in a spiritual context, someone who is innocent, humble and dependent. Someone who is child-like.
What is a child like?
Children are innocent. But they are also dependent upon their parents and take direction from role models. And they are naive. They are somewhat innocent of worldly issues. They haven't gotten things wired yet, so they are wide-eyed, one might say. Thus, when someone sees anyone who is like this - humble and ready to accept what is being taught - they might call such a person "child-like."
Thus Jesus is not speaking specifically of those who are in children's bodies. He is speaking in general of those who are humble and ready to accept Jesus' teachings of love for God.
There are basically two kinds of people in the physical world, residing within physical bodies:
1) Those who are proud of themselves and their so-called knowledge; who see themselves as great and almighty, and think they know it all. Such a person cannot be taught anything because they already think they know everything.
2) Those who accept their fallibility and are willing to learn. They accept that others may know more than they do. Such a person can be considered "child-like" because they are willing to learn from someone else.
Is Jesus teaching his disciples to teach?
Jesus is speaking to his close disciples within a house in Capernaum. He is speaking to them about taking on the task that he has taken on - teaching people to come to know and love the Supreme Being.
Such a task consists of accepting those who seek the truth. Of enduring them. Of sustaining them. Of taking others upon oneself. This is the process of loving and guiding someone.
Such is the task of one who is representing the Supreme Being. Jesus was representing God - and thus he accepted those who were searching. He took them upon himself. He guided them.
But Jesus also wanted his followers - those who adhered to his teachings and established their own loving service relationships with the Supreme Being - to follow in his footsteps and also embrace and take others upon themselves by teaching and guiding those who are child-like.
Of course, this may also be applied to the word "accepts" - because by guiding someone, one is automatically accepting that person as a student.
Jesus brought the child out before them because he wanted to them to understand who his followers should focus their energies upon: Not those who thought they already know everything. But those who were humble and searching for answers, and thus ready to learn and take guidance.
This was also portrayed by Jesus when he said:
"Don’t give what is Holy to the dogs, and don’t toss pearls before swine – or they will trample them under their feet and then turn and tear you to pieces." (Matthew 7:6)So who are the 'dogs' and 'pigs' - or 'swine' - here? They are those who we described above - those who think they know it all. These are the people who will criticize and even persecute those who are trying to pass on the teachings of love for God.
Why do such teachings insult them so? Because essentially, they do not love anyone but themselves. And they do not want to serve anyone but themselves. In fact, they want others to serve them. They want to be the big guy - the big teacher or the leader. They don't want to honor God. They want to be honored. This also makes them envious of anyone who is receiving honor. And for this reason, they cannot accept someone who is in the position of teacher as knowing more than they do.
Is this why Jesus was persecuted?
Yes. Jesus was persecuted because of envy.
Just consider this verse, referring to Pilate's reflection upon those temple leaders who were pleading Pilate for Jesus' crucifixion:
Because he knew that they had him arrested because of their enviousness. (Matt. 27:18 NKJV)Those who thought they knew it all were envious of Jesus, because Jesus was a true leader and teacher. They were the 'dogs' and 'pigs' Jesus was referring to, and indeed, they did to Jesus just as he suggested they would do above.
'In my name' or 'on my behalf'?
The next part of Jesus' statement above relates to "on my behalf" or "in my name." While the latter is not necessarily incorrect - the term ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί refers literally to "on my account." This could also be "in my name." But the point is that Jesus is not speaking specifically of his name here.
More specifically, "on my account" relates to serving the person. Jesus is speaking of his followers serving him - "on his behalf" - by taking on the responsibility of accepting and guiding those who are ready to receive that guidance.
How do we accept 'Him who sent me'?
Next, Jesus talks about his followers accepting him. Who is Jesus referring to as "Him" here?
Jesus is speaking of the Supreme Being. Jesus says:
"whoever will accept me doesn’t accept me – but Him who sent me.”
This indicates a clear message that Jesus wants to communicate to his followers:
That Jesus' teachings are coming from the Supreme Being. Jesus is God's representative. Therefore, by accepting Jesus as he is (God's representative), they are accepting God.
Let's use an example. Just consider the situation where a president of a country sends his ambassador to another country to negotiate on his behalf. What if the other country ignored the ambassador when he arrived? What if they put him in jail? Certainly, this would offend the president who sent the ambassador, correct? When the other country receives the ambassador, they respect him because they respect the president and the country who sent him.
In other words, the ambassador is not there on his own. He is being sent by his president.
Jesus is trying to tell his students the same thing - that he has been sent by God and is thus representing God.
Jesus said this elsewhere:
"For I have descended from the spiritual realm not to please myself but to please Him who sent me." (John 6:38)
“My teaching is not mine, but comes from He who sent me." (John 7:16)
This means that Jesus is clearly stating that he is God's representative.
This also contradicts those who claim that Jesus is the Supreme Being. To be sent by God means to be God's messenger. Jesus is God's loving servant. And because Jesus is representing God, to accept Jesus means to accept God.
This is being communicated by Jesus in his statement about children. Jesus came to the physical world as God's representative, to introduce us to the Supreme Being and show us how to love and serve God. We simply need to accept his teaching, confident that it is ultimately coming from the Supreme Being. This means that God knows we will be happy when we resume our innate loving relationship with Him. This is why Jesus' most important teaching was:
"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’" (Mark 12:30)