Jesus shows that children are important in the Kingdom and includes them in the same way he includes others on the fringes of society. Adults can learn from children.
Jesus shows that children are important in the Kingdom and includes them in the same way he includes others on the fringes of society. Adults can learn from children.
Hello, welcome to this Series 10 and Episode 6, and we're talking about ‘Jesus and the Little Children’. There's a famous incident in the Gospels where little children are brought to Jesus, which we're going to discuss today. The text we're going to take is Luke 18: 15 - 17, but there are parallel accounts in Mark and Matthew, to which I am going to refer as we go along.
Introduction and Recap
As you will know, if you've been following the story in recent episodes, the tension is building up as Jesus' long expected entry into Jerusalem is awaited. The crowd's anticipation is growing; conflict with the religious authorities is growing; some remarkable parables are being delivered by Jesus; some profound discipleship teaching is being delivered by Jesus; and the story is moving forward steadily. The last episode was in Matthew's Gospel. We looked at Matthew's account of an incident in which the Pharisees asked Jesus a question about divorce, and it provoked Jesus to discuss marriage, divorce, and singleness, at some considerable length. If you were with us in the last episode, you'll remember that story. The text I took was from Matthew 19: 1 - 12, and I'll need to refer back to it during the course of this episode. It's interesting to note the starting point there, in terms of the situation, because Matthew 19: 2 describes the general situation as Jesus was travelling around Judea and the surrounding territories, such as Perea. In Matthew 19: 2, he says cryptically and briefly,
‘Large crowds followed him and he healed them there.’Matthew 19:2, NIV
The popularity of Jesus is still evident but the responses to Jesus are very diverse. I want to mention those briefly before we get into the particulars of this text. Although large crowds were following Jesus, not everyone was supporting his ministry, or believing in him, or endorsing what he was saying. In fact, we have noticed, during the course of our studies, the very firm hostility of the religious authorities, the Pharisees, being at the forefront of that, because they tended to be out there, alongside Jesus, critiquing him, questioning him, and challenging him. They are hostile and they are the ones who were given the role of being the mouthpiece of the religious establishment, the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, in the famous incident that took place, first of all back in Galilee, that I've referred to on a number of occasions in Matthew 12: 24, where they make a pronouncement,
‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.’Matthew 12:24, NIV
Thereby condemning Jesus as a false messiah, operating by demonic or satanic power. Ever since that moment, that hostility has been growing and they have been more alarmed the further south in the country that Jesus travels, because that sense, that he's going to challenge the religious authorities in Jerusalem, is growing. Given that he spent most of his ministry in Galilee in the far north; he was far less of a threat there than he was going to be in Jerusalem. Sometimes the opposition of the religious leaders was so great that it's noted in very graphic terms in the text. For example, in Luke 11: 53 - 54 it says,
‘The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.’Luke 11:53-54, NIV
There's the negative side, and lots of people actually were attracted to the view of the religious leaders, or influenced by it, or became ambiguous or ambivalent about Jesus, because they were getting a conflicting message from their religious leaders. However, on the positive side, there's a very real sense that some people are believing in Jesus because of the miracles that he is doing in this particular period of his ministry.
A good example of that is the event that John described in chapter 11, which we saw a few episodes ago, when Jesus went to the little village of Bethany and raised Lazarus from the dead. John states, many ‘believed in him’ at that point. That was a dramatic miracle that persuaded many people to believe in him. For some people, such was the excitement of what Jesus was doing, that they began to wonder if something incredible was going to happen in Jerusalem when he finally got there. For example, we'll see this shortly when we return to the narrative beyond this particular episode. But Luke records, in Luke 19: 11,
‘Because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the Kingdom of God was going to appear at once.’Luke 19:11, NIV
They thought that something remarkable would happen when he got to Jerusalem. That would be a sort of show of power that would just overturn all his political and religious enemies and bring in God's Kingdom in a more tangible sense. Opinions were divided.
Jesus continued and he kept adding new dimensions of teaching. We saw in the last episode how he substantially added to his earlier teaching about marriage, in that remarkable passage in Matthew 19: 1 - 12, where he speaks about marriage as being part of the creation pattern; he speaks against easy divorce; he speaks in favour of singleness for the sake of the Kingdom of God; and he's adding a huge amount to his teaching about discipleship. Something similar happens here, in a different context, because in this very simple episode there's some profound truths and I want to look at those closely now.
Mothers Bring Children to Jesus
Let's turn to this very short passage in Luke 18: 15 - 17.
‘People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."’Luke 18:15-17, NIV
Here's a fascinating insight into what was going on on the road, so to speak, as Jesus was travelling around. Here we see, behind-the-scenes, the influence of mothers who probably were the prime movers in this attempt to bring young children to Jesus for him to bless them by laying hands on them. Luke uses a Greek word here which is translated in the NIV as ‘babies’, a word for very small children, but in Matthew's parallel account, in Matthew 19: 13, he uses a slightly different Greek word, which implies children from that age to an older age - toddlers and possibly beyond. We don't know exactly the age group, but we can imagine in this scene, babes in arms, literally infants, we can imagine toddlers who can only just walk, and we can imagine slightly bigger children, all being amongst those who were being brought to Jesus.
Mark actually states clearly that Jesus did lay his hands on them, very particularly. Mark 10: 16 tells us,
‘And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.’Mark 10:16, NIV
That's implied in Luke's account, but it's not actually stated so clearly. The interesting thing here is that this move by parents, to bring the children to Jesus, was resisted by the disciples. They weren't happy about this at all. But they are completely overruled by Jesus.
The Place of Children in Jewish Society
This raises a number of interesting questions. The first one I want to think about is, how were children viewed in Jewish society at the time? Children were valued, but their sphere was home; they stayed at home and their social life was based around the home and around the village communities where they might play with other children. The key thing is, they were not welcomed into public life. Children are not seen in public and official events, and in any formal socialising that adults might do. In the religious life of Judaism, they had very little place indeed. It's true that some of the Jewish rabbis would place their hands on children and bless them, like Jesus did, but they were kept out of the public eye in general. When they became adults, which would be at around the age of 13 or 14 in those days, then they entered into public life much more substantially. Most young adults and late teenagers would be expected to get married quite early as well. Children were valued, but not in public life.
Here we have a breach of that culture because they are getting centre stage in a very public situation where Jesus is surrounded by crowds. We can imagine hundreds of people around and the priority turns to the little children, even infants, being carried to Jesus. Why is there a disagreement between Jesus and his disciples? Why do they object to what these parents were doing in bringing the children to Jesus? Here's an interesting, initial observation. Many of these disciples probably didn't have children of their own. As I've stated in previous episodes, they were young men presumably presumably in their late teens or 20s. We don't know that all of them were even married, and if they were married, we don't know that they had children, and their children certainly weren't with them at the time. Some of them may not have had children of their own. They viewed the parents' request as a distraction for Jesus. They misunderstood the opportunities of that situation. Jesus wanted to affirm the parents, to value the children, to pray for the children, to bless them, and to show his welcoming attitude. I think that's a key part of what we're learning from this very interesting little passage here.
Jesus Welcomes All
It's interesting that, as we study the life of Jesus, we see that he welcomes all, and gives them an opportunity to have a place in his Kingdom and in his community, and his discipleship community. He specifically welcomes a number of groups from the fringes of adult Jewish society and draws them into his Kingdom, and we're adding another group here. Let's think some of the other groups we've come across in the narrative so far; we've come across tax collectors on numerous occasions, ones who were social outcasts because they, through their job, were working for the occupying power, the Romans or their associates, and because they made a lot of money out of taxation, and they obviously had a huge private income, and they were generally considered irreligious and corrupt. We've come across them already haven't we? It's just a few episodes back that we looked at the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, when the tax collector goes up to the Temple and he beats his breast and he wouldn't look up to heaven, and he calls on God to have mercy on him because he's a sinner, and then he is justified. We know even that one of Jesus' disciples, Matthew, was a tax collector. So Jesus welcomes these who are on the fringe of society.
He also welcomes a group called ‘sinners’, of whom a central group were prostitutes. We know of several occasions where Jesus particularly welcomed them, and offered them the opportunity of finding faith, finding relationship with God, and having human relationship with the discipleship community. We remember the woman who anointed Jesus' feet at a Pharisee's house during dinner, as recorded in Luke 7: 36 - 50, that caused a real scandal, but Jesus welcomed her.
Not only tax collectors and sinners, but also Samaritans. Remember the woman at the well?(John 4) A Samaritan woman who's welcomed into the Kingdom at a very early stage by Jesus, as she believes in him as the Messiah.
Not only Samaritans, but also lepers, those who had to live outside of regular community and village life, because they were segregated because of their illness, in order to avoid infection. They're welcomed in. Jesus heals lepers, Jesus touches lepers, Jesus responds to them. Remember one of those ten lepers who is healed, as recorded by Luke's Gospel, and comes back to thank Jesus and Jesus commends him for his faith. He's coming into the discipleship community.
Here in this passage we can add in children, on the fringes of adult society, but they have a place in God's Kingdom and they can have a relationship with God. This is a very important passage and it helps us to understand that Christianity should not be understood just purely as a faith for adults. God is working in children and he can lead them to himself from a young age.
What can we learn from this passage? What seems to be a very simple and straightforward passage has some important, deep truths for us to learn. Here's another affirmation, indirectly, of family life. The last episode, in the chronological sequence that we're following, from Matthew 19: 1 - 12, as I mentioned earlier, was about marriage, and about the family indirectly. But it was about marriage. Jesus there, very clearly endorsed marriage as a foundational reality, that God made possible through the way he created humanity. He created male and female, men and women, to be compatible together in a harmonious, lifelong, marriage relationship, which would be the basis for bringing children into the world.
This affirmation has an implication, that marriage is the right and safe basis from which to bring children into the world. That might seem very self-evident to some of us, but these are Biblical truths, and in the modern world, particularly the modern Western world, these foundational truths are being brought under serious scrutiny and questioned, and alternative versions of relationships are very much being offered. But if we go back to Genesis 1: 27 - 28,
‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it."’ "Be fruitful and increase in number".Genesis 1:27-28, NIV
The implication here is that the most secure context for children to be raised is in family life. That's why, in Matthew 19, when Jesus is talking about divorce, he's arguing against divorce because he wants a secure family environment, and a secure marriage environment, to be the normal experience of people in the Christian discipleship community. There's an affirmation of children through an affirmation of marriage. The logical conclusion is that when children come to Jesus he welcomes them. He doesn't want to make them second-class citizens. He doesn't want to make them on the fringes of his ministry.
The other thing we learn from Scripture is that God works in children and often calls them to himself, even in their formative years. It's a great mistake to consider that we can only really help children to understand the Christian faith as they grow up, and as they move towards adulthood. It's much better to seek to impart that faith to children at all ages. We should not underestimate the power of God to work in the hearts and minds of children, even from a young age. We don't want to manipulate them or control them, we can't do that; they'll make their own decisions. But we can give them the teaching, the truth, and the values, and the information, which the Holy Spirit can use to form faith within them. When we look through the Bible we see examples of how God worked powerfully in children. The most obvious example in the Old Testament is Samuel, who became a great prophet in Israel, who was dedicated by his mother, Hannah, to be specially devoted to God, because he came miraculously to her when she had had a long period of infertility. Samuel grew up in the place of worship in ancient Israel, before the temple was built, in the shrine of worship and the place of worship, with the priest Eli. In 1 Samuel 3, even as a child we see God speaking to Samuel and calling to him, waking him up in the night, and then beginning to speak prophetic words to him, even though he was only a child. Another example is John the Baptist, Luke 1: 15 tells us that he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before he is born. Something miraculous happened in John, before he even came into this world and was born. We should never underestimate what God is doing in children.
This story here really reminds us to take children seriously, and to take the work of the Holy Spirit seriously in regard to children. I hope this will be an encouragement to those I'm speaking to, who are parents and grandparents, who have responsibility for children as teachers, or who have responsibility for children in church contexts or in other ways. This is a vital ministry, to care for and to nurture children in ways that are appropriate to their age. We should keep this story vividly in mind as we consider and care for children, and pray for their blessing, and for them to grow up into those who are disciples of Jesus. The other thing we learn from this passage is what children can teach us, as adults. Verse 17,
‘"Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."’Luke 18:17, NIV
It turns out that the attitudes of little children can help adults grasp the pathway to faith. So, let's go back and think about this. We've come across this issue in an earlier episode with Jesus talking about children. I want to propose to you that there are three obvious things that children demonstrate in their relationships with adults and in how they receive things that are taught to them. Three obvious aspects of this which are helpful for us. One is simplicity, children are much simpler than adults in the way they receive things. Secondly is trust, in normal circumstances they'll trust trustworthy adults. Thirdly is humility, children know that they don't know everything. They know that there's a lot to learn and in general their attitude is one of humility and openness to learn new things. So, three things: simplicity, trust and humility. These are three things that adults can helpfully adopt as attitudes when we approach the living God, and when we approach the claims of Christ, and when we approach the life of faith. We need to be simple in our hearts' attitude in our approach to God, we need to have active trust, which is faith, and we need to be humble and express a real need for God. Let the attitudes of children, as expressed in this story, inform us, help us, and shape our understanding of how we are to relate to God.
One of the most striking things about the New Testament is, how repeatedly our relationship with God is described as the relationship between children and a father, our heavenly Father. That's a very striking reality and it bears out what we're saying here about learning from children, in their ordinary human relationships. Let me give you two examples of this, very striking examples. John 1: 12 said,
‘Yet to all who received him.’ that's Jesus, ‘to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. Children born not of natural descent, nor a human decision, or a husband's will, but children born of God.’John 1:12-13, NIV
So Christians can truly say that we are the children of God, that a spiritual rebirth has taken place in us, rather like physical birth. Something new has happened inside us, which establishes our relationship with God, as a relationship between a father and his children. We are born of God. What a powerful expression! What a surprising way to describe Christian faith in its relational dimension. But that's what it says, and Galatians 4: 6 - 7, describing some of the dynamics of this relationship: Paul says,
‘Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father," So you are no longer a slave, but God's child; and since you are his child, God has also made you an heir.’Galatians 4:6-7, NIV
The Holy Spirit, living within us, enables us meaningfully to call God, Father. It turns out that we can learn from children. We can learn from their attitudes and we can realise that their relationship with us, as adults, and particularly as parents, is very similar to our relationship with our heavenly Father in a spiritual sense. So this simple little passage has lots of important things to teach us. It encourages those of us who have any responsibility to nurture and care for children, to do so with all our heart, with faith, to add in our prayers to our practical love and nurture and support. Let this be an encouragement to mothers, to fathers, to grandparents, to teachers, to Sunday School teachers, to those who care for children. This is vital work and something really worth investing in. Remember as you do it that Jesus received the children. The disciple said, ‘No, no, no, no! We don't want them close by.’ But Jesus said, "No, they're coming to me, I'll receive them, I'll pray for them, I'll bless them."
We thank God for this amazing passage. So simple, quite well known, but with lots of deep truths in it, that can help us understand God's Kingdom and aspects of the human family that we need to think about. He has a great place in his heart for children. He can work miraculously in the lives of children of all ages, and our job is not to stand in the way, but to enable that to happen to the full. Thanks for listening.