Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Jesus Loves the Little Children: Mark 10:13-16

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I remember as a child hearing a little rhyme that went something like this, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby carriage.” In our day we are sad to say that those things do not always occur in that order, but I do think it is fitting that a moving account of our Lord’s interaction with children follows immediately on the heels of His authoritative declaration about God’s design for marriage. While Mark does not give us any indication of the time that passed between the end of the marriage statement and this account, the parallel passage in Matthew begins with the word “Then,” indicating that this episode involving the children took place immediately after the teaching on marriage.

We teach our little ones to sing the song, “Jesus loves the little children.” And no passage I know of demonstrates His love for them as vividly as this one does. The endearing picture we see of our Lord here made this passage an instant favorite of the early church, and has been the inspiration of countless works of art through the years. There are two main thoughts I want to convey to us today from these words: (1) The Differing Perspectives about Children and (2) The Demonstrative Pattern of Children. As we consider these things, we will want to ask ourselves what our attitudes convey to children about the Lord Jesus Christ, how our actions either hinder or enable little ones in coming to Jesus, and finally, how children demonstrate to us what it means to truly come to Jesus by faith.

I. The Differing Perspectives About Children

We see here in the text at least three different perspectives toward children: that of their parents, that of the disciples, and that of the Lord Jesus.

A. The Desire of Godly Parents (v13a)

And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them.

We see in these words a vivid picture of a group of people crowded around the place where Jesus was. We aren’t told how many there were, and we aren’t told who they are. While we would naturally picture in our mind’s eye a group of mothers with babes in arms, the impersonal they and the masculine them at the end of the verse indicates that fathers were present in the midst too, and perhaps even older brothers and sisters. This group of parents and children were bringing children to Jesus. The word translated children is paidia, a term that means “little children.” The parallel in Luke 18:15 uses a different term that means “newborn babies,” indicating that some at least were infants. However in Mark this word paidia is also used of a 12 year old girl, so we may understand that they were bringing children of all ages to Jesus, for at the age of 13 a Jewish boy or girl was considered to have entered the realm of adulthood.

Now the question is, “Why were they bringing the children to Jesus?” Mark supplies with a brief explanation: “So that He might touch them.” Matthew’s account tells us that they also wanted Jesus to pray for the children. But why did they want Jesus to touch and pray for the children? We can only assume that the parents had come into contact with Jesus previously, or had heard of Him, and had seen or heard how His touch had healed lepers, cast out demons, restored sight to blind eyes, and made the lame to walk. They desired that this powerful touch might be applied to their children, if not to make them whole, to preserve them from sickness, spiritual malady, and even death. The advances of pre- and neo-natal care in our modern society has blinded us to the reality than in much of the world, infant and child mortality rates are still astounding. In Jesus’ day, in the poorest of cultures, perhaps half of all children born died before the age of twelve.[1] But moreover, it was not just His touch that they desired, but His prayers. It was not uncommon in that day for parents to seek a blessing for their children at the hands of a rabbi, that he might ask God to grant favor to their children during the days of their lives. So, the bringing of these children was a demonstration of the faith that these parents had in the person of Jesus Christ. Hendriksen writes, “How wonderful that in later years believing parents would be able to say to such a child, now arrived at the age of understanding, ‘Think of it, when you, my child, were just a suckling, Jesus took you in His arms and blessed you. Then already you were the object of God’s tender love. And He has been with you ever since. What, then, is your response?”[2]

It is the desire of every godly parent to usher their children into the hands of Jesus for His touch and blessing on their lives. I have been blessed by God with the opportunity to travel the world and lead hundreds of souls to saving faith in Jesus Christ through preaching and personal witnessing, but I would count it all a failure if I had to stand before Jesus and say that I did not bring my very own children to Him. The choice is theirs to make, but as their parent, it is my responsibility to shepherd the hearts of my children into a mature decision to follow Jesus Christ. At the kitchen table of our humble home in Kernersville when Solomon was just three and a half years old, Donia and I experienced the greatest joy of our lives when our son said, “I want to be a Christian.” And there, we had the blessing of sharing with him about sin and his need of a Savior, and hearing his mouth confess Christ as Lord as he opened his heart to Jesus. For nine months, I would whisper the Scriptures over Donia’s belly and we would pray together for our firstborn to know Jesus at an early age, and from the day he was born, we sought always to teach and model what it means to follow Christ. And it is my most frequently voiced prayer when I am alone with God that He would continue to grow Solomon into a mature understanding of what that decision means and that Salem would soon follow in making that decision. If you want to know how to pray for Donia and me, I can’t think of anything more important for you to pray for than this – that we would be effective in bringing our children to Jesus. I have been a failure on many levels in life and am by no means a perfect parent, but if I fail in bringing my children to Jesus, no success in any other area of life will compensate.

Life is full of important responsibilities for us all, but none is more important than this – that we bring our little ones to Jesus. You may say, “Pastor, my children are grown now.” I say, they are still your children, and you ought to still be standing at the door knocking, asking Jesus to touch them and bless them and bring them to a saving knowledge of Himself. It is never too late. And some others now have that opportunity to do the same with grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Pray for them in private, and let them hear you pray for them when you are together that Christ would touch and bless them, and do not let a single opportunity pass that you could take them one step closer to Him. And if you do not have children of your own, think of the countless children who do not have godly parents ushering them into the presence of Jesus, and step into the life of one of those children to shepherd them into the fold of Jesus.

What a stark contrast we see when we juxtapose the desire of these godly disciples with …

B. The Disposition of Grumpy Disciples (v13b)

“But the disciples rebuked them.”

How disappointing it must have been for these godly parents who sought the Lord’s blessing on their children to meet instead these disciples who were less than hospitable. The word translated rebuked here has been found elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel. In Mark 1 and Mark 9, it is the way that Jesus spoke to a demon. In Mark 4, it is the way that Jesus spoke to the storm. In Mark 8, it is the way that Jesus spoke to Peter when He said, “Get behind me, Satan.” Get this – the disciples spoke to these parents who came to Jesus in faith in the same way that Jesus addressed demons(!) – rebuking them, as it were commanding them to leave their presence. We can’t fathom that, can we? After all, do they not remember what Jesus said in 9:37 – “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me”? Do they not remember what He said in 9:42 – “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea”? How quickly they seem to have forgotten.

But before we are too hard on the disciples, let us ask ourselves, “Do we not remember how the Lord said …”? Are we not prone to forget the commands and exhortations of Scripture and resort instead to the thinking of our human nature and our culture? Indeed, we do the same. The words of Christ run so radically contrary to our nature and our culture that we often conveniently forget them and resort, as Peter did when he rebuked the Lord about the message of the cross, to setting our minds on man’s interests rather than God’s. The ancient world did not look upon children with favor. Children were often considered a financial burden on a family, and were not looked upon with honor by the society as they are today. In some ancient cultures, children were literally thrown away if their parents did not want them. Sometimes discarded children would be gathered by unscrupulous people for raising and training into prostitution, gladiatorial sport, or begging. At times, the children would even be disfigured to evoke more pity when they begged on the streets.[3] And in many parts of the world today, this is still happening. So the disciples’ disposition here shows that they looked at children through the same lens that the rest of the world used – they were an unnecessary, undignified, and unwelcome distraction to more important matters.

Some would likely point to the numerous offerings churches have put forth today as ministries to children and say, “See how things have changed?” Indeed, we have come a long way from the ancient view of children, but our progress has been slow and is incomplete. I can’t help wondering if the message that we send to our young people by placing them here and there in age-graded activities is actually sending a different message. Might it be that much of what is done today in the name of “children’s ministries” is really a more polite way of saying, “Now, now, little ones, you go off and play games and sing songs while we grown ups deal with more important matters”? Is our desire really to provide age-appropriate biblical instruction, or is it to minimize noise and distraction so that we can do grown-up things in “big church”? I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me here and think I am unappreciative of the years of faithful service that many in this church and other churches have given in ministering to children, because I do recognize and appreciate it. But I want to say loud and clear that I believe the proper place for children in church is seated beside of mom and dad where they learn to worship together as a family and learn from an early age the discipline of hearing biblical instruction, which is not always accompanied by fun and games and movies. It is a very sobering statistic that most churched young people do not continue to be active in church life once they move past the youth group. I believe that one of the most important reasons for this is that from birth, the church has said, “What takes place in here is not for you, now move along with the rest of the kiddies to the playground.” We tell people that church is great for building family relationships, yet in our church programming, we do little to foster family togetherness, but rather send the babies over here, and the toddlers over here, and the teenagers over here, while mom and dad go over there and do something altogether different.

We must ask ourselves some difficult questions. When a child is seated near you in service and begins to make noise or move around, does your countenance reflect joy that a parent has sought to incorporate the child into the life of the family of God, or does it reflect a perturbed grimace that could be likened to the disciples’ rebuke? What does our church budget say about our desire to reach children for Jesus? What do the conditions of our facilities or the scheduling of our activities and programs say? Do they say, “Jesus loves the little children”? Or do they say, “Get out of here so we important adults can do important grown-up stuff”? When godly parents seek to bring their children to Jesus, are they met with the disposition of grumpy disciples or will they hear …

C. The Declaration of a Gracious Savior (14a, 16)

The first words of v14 are important: “But when Jesus saw this.” Jesus saw the disciples rebuking the children and their parents. Jesus sees everything that is done, and takes special notice of those things that His people do in His name. And when He saw this, the Bible tells us that “He was indignant.” This is the only time in the NT that this word is used of the Lord Jesus. The word used here indicates that he was aroused to anger. One commentator explains that the word carries a connotation, “to vent oneself in expressed displeasure rather than simply brooding about it.”[4] Jesus was angry and He voiced his anger toward His disciples in perhaps an unprecedented way. Some people object to the image of an angry Jesus, thinking it somehow a contradiction to His love. But notice here that His love is the reason for His anger. “He was angry with His disciples because He loved so deeply and tenderly the little ones and the ones who brought them.”[5]

Lovingly, tenderly, graciously, Jesus said, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them.” He wants the children to have access to Him, and He doesn’t want anyone or anything standing in the way of them. The phrase, “Do not hinder them,” might be translated, “Stop hindering them,” indicating that the disciples were physically restraining these families from reaching Jesus. Jesus’ words remove the obstacles from the path of faith and open the door of access to His touch and His blessing. And He did more for them than they asked. If you note in v16, He did more than just touch them and pray for them; Jesus actually took the children one by one up into His arms and lay His hands on them and blessed them. The word used for blessed is intensive, causing some to render it, “He fervently blessed them.” He did not recite over them words of meaningless repetition, but genuinely and enthusiastically pronounced sincere words of blessing over them as He lifted them in His arms. Do you have hopes, dreams and prayers of what Christ can do for your children? Oh, He can do all that you desire, and even more than you can imagine. But woe to that one who would stand in the way. With that one He will be indignant and has promised something worse than a millstone around the neck! As a church, we must be careful not to represent Jesus to the city in which we live, as the disciples had done. We must not say to them: “This is how Jesus is – He has no time for you and your children!”[6] Rather we must represent Him truly and make sure they know that we serve a Lord and Savior who earnestly desires for them to come and bring the children to Him so that He can touch their lives, lift them into His arms, close to His heart, and bless them.

These differing perspectives about children deserve our attention. Will we join the untold number of godly parents and others who sought to bring their children to Jesus in spite of any obstacles that stood in their way? Will we be like the disciples and usher the children off to the playground under the assumption that Jesus has more important things to do? Will we show the community around us a Jesus who says, “Let the children come”?

There is another aspect of this story that is perhaps even more important than what our attitude is toward children. This second aspect has to do with what our attitude is toward Christ. This is more than just an endearing story about Jesus and some children. These children go from being the objects of His love to be objects of His lesson to the multitudes. There is something in them that all of us must emulate.

II. The Demonstrative Pattern of Children (vv14b-15)

According to Jesus’ words in this text, we have much to learn from children. While the prevailing mindset may be that children need to be more like us grown ups in order to come to Jesus, the Lord says we have it backwards: we grown ups need to be more like children in order to come to Him. As we look at the children who were brought to Jesus, we see a demonstration of what it means to receive the Kingdom of God and what it means to respond to the Kingdom offer.

A. Children Demonstrate the Characteristics of Kingdom Recipients (14b)

For the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

This statement has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, misapplied, and misused in countless ways through the centuries to foster all kinds of error in what it means to be saved. It is not uncommon to hear this phrase explained in sermons, Sunday School lessons and inspirational writings as meaning that there are inherent qualities in children that make them more acceptable to Jesus than adults. We are often told that these words mean that in order to become a follower of Jesus, one must be humble, innocent, and willing to believe the unbelievable. However, we must not forget that children can be selfish, mean, ungrateful and demanding also. We are not born pure only to become sinners later in life. The book of Ephesians teaches that we are by nature children of wrath! We are born with a sin nature, and anyone who denies that has never raised children. What do we say about someone who is self-centered, demanding and petty? We say they are being childish. So, if we assume that Jesus commends children because of their innocence, purity, or any other characteristic within them, then we must conclude that the disciples’ acceptability in God’s kingdom depends on them having similar virtues in themselves. “But, as Mark’s depiction of the disciples makes repeatedly clear, that is exactly what they are not, nor are we.”[7]

It is not the inherent characteristics that children have demonstrate what it means to receive the kingdom, but rather it is what children lack. They are helpless, small, and dependent totally on the kindness of others to supply for them what they cannot attain on their own. A little child has nothing to bring, no credits, no clout, no claims; whatever a child receives, he or she receives as a result of sheer neediness and the grace of another person to meet that need in spite of the lack of any merits within him or herself. And so, the Lord Jesus says that Kingdom belongs to such as these, that is, to those who are willing to recognize their own smallness, their own helplessness, their own dependence on the kindness of God’s grace. The Kingdom stands open to those who would receive it as a gift of grace, not as a reward for merit, as has been said, “Only empty hands can be filled.” If you come to Jesus thinking that you have earned or deserve to be a partaker of His Kingdom, then you have missed it. You must come like a child, in neediness, and recognize that He wants to give you something you don’t deserve because of His love for you and His grace. Smallness, neediness, helplessness, dependence – these are the characteristics of Kingdom recipients, and “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” And with these words in v15, Jesus teaches us that …

B. Children Demonstrate the Choice of Kingdom Response (15)

These words indicate that we have a choice to make in response to the offer of Christ’s Kingdom: We will either receive the Kingdom like a child, or we will not enter it at all. There is a strong double-negative in the Greek text here, handled by the NASB with just the simple word not. But if we would be true to the intention of the text, we must say that Jesus says, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will “No, Not enter it at all.” This categorically excludes any other means of entry into the Kingdom.[8] Receive it as a gift you do not deserve or don’t receive it at all.

A baby is crying in the corner of the room. Why does the baby cry? Is he hungry? Does she have a dirty diaper that needs changing? Why doesn’t the baby just take action and feed himself or clean herself up? Because that baby cannot. And just like that baby, we stand in need of food we cannot produce for ourselves, in need of cleansing that we cannot perform on ourselves. Our only hope is to receive the gracious offer of Jesus to meet our need and clean us from the filth of our sins. And He offers to do just that for us, unmerited, undeserved, because He loves us. He offers us the immeasurable gift of Himself and all the benefits of knowing Him as Lord and Savior. But the question is, “Will we receive the gift?” If we will not, then we are without help and without hope, powerless to do anything of our own to remedy our own condition. The old gospel song, “Rock Of Ages,” says, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to Thee for dress; helpless, look to Thee for grace; foul, I to the Fountain fly; wash me Savior, or I die.”

The sovereign God of the Universe has opened a door of access to us, from the youngest to the oldest, and said, “Come to Me. Be not hindered. My grace shall supply all your need, even the greatest need you have – that of cleansing from your sins.” The Lord Jesus died your death and mine on Calvary’s cross and received in Himself the due penalty of our sins, when He Himself had committed none. He died for you. He died for Me. And He is risen from the dead, beckoning you to come to Him like a child: needy, helpless, dependent. Receive what He offers as a child receives an undeserved gift of love. But if you would say to Him, “No thank you. I will do it myself,” He says, “you will not enter at all.” This is the choice we must make in response to the offer of His Kingdom. Some of us may need to receive that gift this very day.

[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 161-162.

[2] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), 385.

[3] David E. Garland, The NIV Application Commentary: Mark (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 385.

[4] James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 306.

[5] Hendriksen, 383.

[6] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Carlisle, Penn.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 161.

[7] Edwards, 307.

[8] D. Edmond Hiebert, The Gospel of Mark: An Expositional Commentary (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1994), 283.

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