Picture the scene: parents are bringing their babies and infants to Jesus so that he will ‘place his hands on them’. What is going on here? Why are the parents doing this? I think the parallel passage in Matthew is helpful here: ‘Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them.’ (Matthew 19:13) In faith, these parents and bringing their children to Jesus in order to receive a prayer of blessing. This custom might even have dated all the way back to Jacob placing his hands on Ephraim and Manasseh and blessing them. (Genesis 48:14) Truly, this is a beautiful occasion.
However, this serene and happy picture is disturbed by those who should have known better – the disciples. They act as bouncers, trying to prevent the children from having access to Jesus. How ironic that those who would be sent out in order to bring people to Jesus are here trying to block children from coming to him. We are not told what their motives are. Perhaps they think Jesus is too tired or that he has more important things to do than deal with kids. Or perhaps the disciples feel that they have important matters to deal with and that the children are just getting in the way of their work. No doubt they were sincere, but they were sincerely wrong and Jesus must rebuke them.
These 3 verses are packed with important principles which apply to each one of us here whether we have children or not.
1. Children are important to Jesus
Clearly, Jesus is so approachable and willing to make time for wee ones, who in those days, were not as highly valued as they are in our culture. We’ve all heard of the old proverb that ‘Children should be seen but not heard’; in Jesus’ days it was almost as if children should not even be seen! As so often is the case, Jesus acts in a counter-cultural way and treats children as they should be treated, with respect and love.
J C Ryle: ‘The souls of young children are evidently precious in God’s sight.’
And it goes without saying, that if children are so precious to Jesus, then they ought to be precious to us too. Is that the case for us? Is our church family known as a place where children are cherished and welcomed and considered just as much as everyone else? Do we value the crèche rota, Sunday School, camps and child protection? Are these things worth the investment of our time? Do we try and get to know the children we have? Do we pray for them? Do we invite them into our homes?
Maybe we need to tell our children how much they matter to God. We can read them this passage and explain to them that Jesus is for them. They need to know that age is no barrier when it comes to the Kingdom of God. It’s not like learning to drive, and you have to wait until you are 17. Are we praying for the work of KART? (Kirkcaldy Area Reachout Trust) Are we praying for the young people in our communities, that they would come to know the love and grace of Jesus? Children are important to Jesus and must be to us.
2. The parents: an example to copy
The parents have seen Jesus bring blessing upon many in Israel and they trust that he can do the same for their children. They are doing the best possible thing they can do for their children, in that they are bringing them to Jesus. Nothing is more important.
This begs the question: how can we bring our children to Jesus today? We bring our children to Jesus as we open up the Bible with them and pray with them. We bring them to Jesus by praying for them. We bring them to Jesus by bringing them to church week by week, where they can hear God’s Word read and explained. In baptism, we bring our covenant children to Jesus and ask him to bless them just as he has blessed us. Of course, at the time the babies and infants do not understand what is being symbolised in the sacrament, but in that regard, they are like the children in our passage, who would have been too young to understand what Jesus was doing for them, and yet were blessed nonetheless.
We are willing to sacrifice our time to drive them to camps and youth groups because it matters. We try and show our children that God is the centre of the universe and the centre of our lives and deserves our reverence, love, worship and praise. This is why we have family worship. We explain the gospel to them again and again, for to such belong the kingdom of God. We bring them to the 5:30 pm service, so that they find it normal sitting through a whole church service on a regular basis, even if there are parts they don’t understand yet. Though children often understand far more than we think they do!
Do you want to be like the parents and grandparents in this passage? Then make sure your priority for your children is not their health, happiness or education, important as these things are, but that bringing them to Jesus trumps everything else. Is that how we live in practice?
3. The disciples: behaviour to be avoided
We might be tempted to look down on the disciples here. It’s such a serious thing to block children from coming to Jesus and they are rightly rebuked by the Lord. What on earth were they thinking? They should have been doing the opposite. And yet, I have been like them many times. Each time I have been a poor example to my own children, I have hindered them from coming to Jesus. Each time I have failed to pray for them as I ought to, I have been a barrier. Each time I have failed to love my wife, or failed to practice what I preach, or behaved like a hypocrite, I have been like the disciples, and probably far worse than the disciples. In short, my own sin has been a barrier, and to varying degrees, that can be said of us all.
Jesus is clear (verse 16) that we must not hinder the children from coming to him. This can be subtle. For example, our silence can hinder them. In other words, we fail to speak of Jesus at home, or fail to have family worship. We are just too busy for God, so we think. We don’t encourage them to think about the issues of life from a Biblical point of view, and think we can just leave them to make their own minds up, as if our culture is neutral and balanced. It is not. ‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.’ (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
One Christian writer gives satirical advice regarding things we can do if we want to put our children off from trusting in Jesus. He says: ‘Make sure your faith is only something you practice on a Sunday. Only pray in public, and never at home. Make church attendance a priority, unless there’s something better you find to do! Focus just on morals and not on the gospel of grace.’ I hope we can see just how easy it is for our attitudes and actions to block our children from seeing Jesus. May God forgive me for times I have done this.
More positively, if you want to be a channel of blessing for your children, then ensure your own walk with Jesus is strong and that you are not just talking the talk, but are also walking the walk. We can only do this with the help and empowerment of Jesus. Do what you can to show them the love of Christ by forgiving others, being gracious, respectful and sacrificial.
4. Coming to God like a child
‘Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ (Luke 18:17)
Jesus moves from teaching about the importance of children to another theme, how to become and live as a Christian. Of course, we must give this topic our maximum attention. What is it about young children that we need to emulate when we come before God?
Young children are helpless and dependent. If they are hungry, they are unable to feed themselves at that age, but will come and ask mum or dad for food. If a young child falls and skins their knee, they have nothing to offer their parents – they simply come with empty hands asking for help.
That’s exactly how Jesus wants you to come to him! He wants you to come to him in your helplessness and in total dependence. As we saw last week, Christianity is not about what you can to for God, but about what God can do for you. It is not about your status, but about his grace.
It is fascinating that that this passage is found between the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, and the account of the rich young ruler. The Pharisee did not come to God in all his need asking for help- quite the opposite. He was sure God must be pleased with him for all his acts of piety. He came with great pride. It was the tax collector who came as a child, with nothing to offer God, but simply coming in his need and asking for help. The rich young ruler was blind to his own spiritual need, thinking of himself as a law-keeper. He does not come as a child, asking for help.
Jesus’ words are solemn here. He’s not giving us some friendly advice, but he’s informing us that unless we come to him like helpless and dependent person, we will never make it to Heaven. The Pharisee trusted in what he thought he was doing for God. The rich young ruler trusted in his wealth and his law-keeping. These things are not acceptable to God. We must come only as sinners, asking Jesus for the free gift of forgiveness.
We have been thinking so much about the Queen over these last few days. My favourite quote from her is this: ‘History teaches us… we need saving from ourselves, from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world… neither a philosopher or a general… but a Saviour with the power to forgive.’ The Queen, we believe, understood that her status as monarch is not what made her acceptable to God. She too had to come as a child to Jesus, asking for help and forgiveness.
None of us can earn our way to Heaven. Not even with 70 years of humble service. ‘The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.’ (Romans 6:23) Young children are usually very good at receiving gifts. They come with open hands and take the gifts and are thankful for them. This is how we must come to God. Little children are not those who do, but those who are done for.
It is my prayer today that each one of us here would come to Jesus in this way, not thinking about what we can do for God to make ourselves right with him, but rather trusting in what he has done for us on the cross. Do not trust in yourself but in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you have not already, come to Jesus in prayer, confessing your sin, and with empty hands, asking for the gift of God, eternal life.