"Let the Little Children Come!"
(Delivered Sunday, December 2, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
I've often been surprised, as we've been working our way through the Gospel of Matthew, at how important the seeming little things can be. Some of the things that we find in the Scriptures may appear small and insignificant in terms of our busy day-to-day focus, but are actually earth-shakingly important in terms of the far greater matter of Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Take this morning's passage. It's not very long. It's only three verses in length. It tells a story that most of us would be inclined to dismiss as "cute". We're glad to read about this little, tiny slice-of-life incident in the earthly ministry of Jesus. Sometimes, it even comforts us. But as soon as most of us hear from it—and we're through smiling at it—we almost immediately move on to things that we think are more significant. Many of the commentaries I've read give only passing attention to it. In fact, I'd even say that most of us in the community of faith react to this story with the same misguided sense of priorities that the disciples were exhibiting in it.
And yet, having spent some time in it, I now believe that the real significance of this passage to the weightier matters of eternity is far greater than first meets the eye. I now believe that what this passage is teaching us is so important that, to the degree it is heeded, the kingdom of Jesus Christ is advanced in this dark world. I'd even go so far as to say that our own church ignores the lessons of this passage at the cost of its own future—and at the risk of receiving the Lord's stern rebuke!
What's in this seemingly-unimportant passage? In Matthew 19:13-15, as we read of how our Lord was making His way toward Jerusalem in order to die on the cross for us, we find these words;
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If you've been following along with us in our study of Matthew, that passage may have a familiar ring. It sounds very much like something that Jesus had already told the disciples.
At the beginning of chapter 18, we read that the disciples came to Jesus and asked who would be the 'greatest' in the kingdom of heaven. And in answering their question, Jesus did something surprising. He called a little child to Himself, set the child in the midst of the group of the 'would-be-great' disciples, and said,
As we can see from our passage this morning, the disciples had forgotten the lessons Jesus had taught them earlier. Not only were they failing to rightly value the little ones that Jesus values; but as we'll see in the next chapter of Matthew's Gospel, they also went on to argue further about who was the greatest (20:20-28).
But though these two passages are similar, there's an important difference between them. In chapter 18, the words of Jesus about "little ones" were spoken because the disciples were valuing themselves to highly—arguing over which of them was the greatest. And yet, in this morning's passage, the words of Jesus about "little ones" were spoken because the disciples were failing to value the little ones highly enough! They were failing to see the great opportunity that presented itself to them in the form of welcoming these little ones to Jesus.
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Jesus very greatly values the little ones who believe in Him—not just the little ones in terms of “age”, but also the little ones in terms of “attitude”. He welcomes all who come to Him in child-like faith.
And certainly, that's one of the great lessons we can learn from this passage. In fact, in the other two Gospels that mention this story—Mark's and Luke's—something is added at the end that is not found in Matthew's account. Both of the other accounts have Jesus saying, "Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it" (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17). Obviously, if we didn't see Jesus' call for each of us to enter the kingdom with child-like faith, we'd be missing an important lesson from this particular story.
But it's very interesting that the Holy Spirit didn't lead Matthew to include that closing statement in his account. Matthew's unique focus with respect to this story seems to be on the children themselves. And I believe there's a reason why this is so. Matthew, as we have seen, is the Gospel that is written for the Jewish people—the Gospel that uniquely highlights Jesus as the long-awaited King of the Jews. It describes His ministry, as the Messiah, of commencing the spread of His kingdom on earth. And in this passage, this King is letting us know that the "little ones"—the children who believe on Him—are a vital element in the spread of that kingdom.
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Stop and think of how God has hinted at this important element to us in the Old Testament. Think of how God seems to do some great work in one generation; but then expects that this great work be preserved and passed on to the generations that follow.
In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, just before the people of Israel were about to enter the promised land, Moses—speaking by the Holy Spirit—said to them;
Do you see how vital it is that the great works of God be passed down from generation to generation? Do you see how important “children” are in the plan of God?
Similarly, in Psalm 78:1-8, the psalmist says;
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I believe that this crucial characteristic of God's program—the essential ministry of one generation to another through its children—is what makes this morning's passage so significant. In it, Jesus gives us—as His community of followers—a mandate to expand His kingdom through our ministry to the “little ones” He entrusts to us.
Let's look at this tiny passage together—pulling out some of the principles we find in it. As we do, let's allow our own sense of priorities to be reshaped by our Lord's example—and learn from it how Jesus would have us fulfill our crucial responsibility to the next generation.
One of the first principles we find from this passage is that we are to . . .
1. ACTIVELY BRING LITTLE ONES TO JESUS (v. 13).
Verse 13 begins by saying, "Then, little ones were brought to Him . . ."
There are two things you need to know about these opening words. First, you need to know that the word translated "little ones" doesn't refer to children in a general sense. It speaks specifically of very small children. In fact, when Luke tells the story, he uses the word that is translated "infants". You need to know that these are babies and toddlers that were brought to our Savior—tiny ones that were helpless to come on their own.
And the second thing you need to know is that they are here being presented as the passive recipients of an action performed by someone else. They were “brought”. Because they had no power to come to Jesus on their own, they had to be taken to Him and set in His arms by the merciful action of those who did have power—most likely their parents, or some guardian who was entrusted with the responsibility of their care.
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Now; this suggests that one of the greatest acts of responsibility we have as members of the Body of Christ is our work of actively bringing little ones to Jesus Christ. We obviously cannot bring them to the bodily presence of Jesus—as the parents in this story were able to do. But we can and must bring little ones to Jesus in the “spiritual” sense—that is, in the sense that we draw their attention to Him and teach them about them as early in life as we possibly can.
If God has entrusted you with the care of children or grandchildren, you have the spiritual duty to actively bring them to Jesus! When they are tiny, and you hold them in your arms, you must whisper to them about the God who made them. You must take them on walks or let them look out the window; and tell them about the God who made the world around them. As they learn about God's love for them, you must tell them about His Son, Jesus Christ. When they disobey, you must tell them about the reality of sin; and about how Jesus paid for our sins on the cross. And you must tell them about the eternal home Jesus is preparing in heaven for those who trust Him.
Bring them to Him! Get a copy of some great children book like The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes, or My Very First Bible; and read to them from it—talking to them about the pictures they see. Do your best to get the great stories of the Bible into their little minds as early as you can—and especially the story of Jesus' birth, His sinless life, His miracles, His cross, His resurrection, and His ascension to His Father in heaven. Teach them Bible songs. Pray with them. When they get up in the morning and see you sitting in an easy-chair having your quiet time, let them jump up into your lap and listen as you read aloud and pray. Pray before you eat dinner together. Pray with them as you tuck them in at night. Bring them to church; and make a special effort to bring them to Sunday School.
Bring them to Jesus in the details of everyday life at home— talk of Him "when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up". Don't buy into the philosophy that says that you should leave them alone in the hopes that they'll 'find their own way'. That's a ploy of the devil! There is no other way! They need your help to come to Jesus. Actively bring them to Him!
And here at church; be involved in the church's broader ministry to the children Jesus entrusts to us. Obviously, not everyone is called to work as Sunday School teachers or nursery workers. But each one of us can convey a welcoming attitude toward the little ones, and be a part of letting them know that Jesus loves them. We can all support the ministries in our church that reach them and teach them about Him. We can all invite our nieces and nephews to church; and encourage our neighbors to bring their children and come. We can all pray for the kids and for those who minister to them; and volunteer to help in whatever ways we can. We can all pray that our church family becomes increasingly a place that Jesus would be pleased to bring little ones into—because He knows that they will learn about Him here.
Those little ones are vital to the kingdom of Jesus. By His grace, they may grow up to become big ones who teach other little ones about Him. And so, while they are little, they need us to bring them to Him.
Let's not break the chain of "faith" that runs from one generation to another. Let's make it our commitment to follow the example set for us in this passage; and actively bring the little ones to Jesus!
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As we read on, we see another aspect of our ministry to the little ones we are to bring to Jesus; and that is that we are to . . .
2. EARNESTLY SEEK JESUS’ BLESSING UPON THEM (v. 13).
It says in this passage that "little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray . . ." (v. 13).
This not only says something about Jesus; it also says something about those who actively brought the children to Him. Those who brought them must have heard Him teach, and must have seen His miracles. They must have grown to have significant convictions about who He was—because they were motivated to bring the little ones to Him so that He could bless them. This demonstrated their faith in Him.
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May I suggest that something of your and my faith in Jesus is exhibited in how earnestly we will seek His blessing on the little ones He has entrusted to our care? If you have children—or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews whom you love; but you don't pray for them regularly, and plead with the Father that they believe on Jesus and live for Him; then what does that inactivity say about your sense of who Jesus is? If it doesn't much matter to you whether or not the little ones in your life come to know Jesus Christ, then what does that indifference reveal about your faith in Him?
I was reading the other day from Paul's letter to the Thessalonian believers. I was impressed with how deeply Paul loved that body of believers. And I was particularly struck with what Paul said was his great desire and longing with respect to them. He wrote,
For Paul, there could be no greater joy, or fulfillment of his love for the Thessalonian believers, than to see them in heavenly glory—perfected in the presence of Jesus Christ, and blessed in Him eternally. That was how much he loved them. It also revealed how highly he esteemed their Savior. And if that's how Paul felt about the Thessalonians, can we have any less of a passion for the children God places in our care?
When we look at little children, we need to see them as Jesus sees them. He looks upon them—even the tiniest of them—as souls of so much eternal value to Himself that He willingly died on the cross to redeem them. They are among that mass of fallen humanity Paul spoke of when he wrote;
And if we believe the truth about Jesus, and if we see those little ones as He sees them, then we will earnestly seek to bring those little ones to Him so that His blessings might rest upon them. And we would seek the blessing of salvation for them most of all!
If we truly love them, then we could want no greater thing than for Jesus to—as it were—lay His hands on them and pray for them. So; let's follow the example of these believing mothers and fathers in Jesus' day; and seek to bring our little ones to Him that He might bless them.
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A third principle we find in this passage, with respect to the little ones God has entrusted to our care, is that we . . .
3. DO NOTHING TO HINDER THEM AS THEY ARE DRAWN TO JESUS (vv. 13-14).
Those who brought the children to Jesus were following an Old Testament pattern. Often in the Bible, a person of spiritual esteem or authority would place their hands on someone else in order to visibly convey a blessing upon them (see Genesis 48:14; Numbers 22:6; 27:18, 23). But the disciples rebuked them when they saw them bringing their children to Jesus for this.
Why did they rebuke the people who brought their children to Jesus? Perhaps they thought that they were protecting their esteemed Teacher from unnecessary interruptions and distractions. After all, their Master was the Messiah; and they thought it would have been beneath His dignity to have little children touching Him and crawling upon Him. Perhaps—as is suggested by the word "then" at the beginning of the passage—they realized that He had just engaged in debate with the Pharisees over disputes about the law (vv. 1-9); and were seeking to protect His rest and to relieve Him of those who were making more demands of Him. It may have been that they had just finished hearing Him teach on an important subject that they had questions about (vv. 10-12); and now that they had Him alone, they didn't want to have to share Him with others. It may even have been that—quite frankly—the disciples didn't want the noise and commotion, and didn't want to have to do all the work that a crowd of parents and children would require of them.
In any event, they rebuked the people who brought the children. But Jesus then responded in a way that rebuked the disciples for rebuking them! In Mark's Gospel, we're even told that Jesus was "greatly displeased" with His disciples for this (Mark 10:14).
The Lord gave His disciples a command in two parts. First, He said, "Let the little children come to Me" (v. 14)—which, you might say, was the positive part of the command. And isn't it interesting that He didn't say, "Let the parents bring the little children to Me"? Rather, He focused on the children—"Let the little children come to Me" (or as it is in the New American Standard Version, "Let the children alone"). They were no burden to Him. He could see that even these tiny ones wanted to be near Him; and He Himself welcomed them to come.
And second, He said, "[A]nd do not forbid them" (v. 14)—which, you might say, was the negative part of His command to them. In the original language of this text, His words are put in such a way as to prohibit an action that they were even then performing—as if He were saying, "You are even now hindering them from coming to Me! Stop it!"
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I wonder if one of the things that the Lord Jesus loves about little children is that they are uninhibited in being drawn to Him. In saying this, of course, I don't believe we should forget that even the smallest of children are born as members of fallen humanity. None of us are born into the human family innocent, or without the taint of sin upon us. Even in a small child—given time—the flesh will begin to rebel against the grace of God. But it seems to me that when tiny children learn of who Jesus is, they are not so easily inclined to withdraw from Him as they would prove to be in later years—out of arrogant pride, or a love for sin. It's a prime time for them to draw near to the Savior and learn of Him.
And yet, though they may be relatively uninhibited in coming to Jesus, they can be hindered—by us. We can hinder them by refusing to bring them to Him when they want to know about Him. (When someone has children who want to come to church, and who are even begging to be taken; but the parents find some excuse for not going—what a horrible thing to have to give an account for on the day of judgment!) Or we can hinder them by allowing the things of this world to crowd out their vision of Him. We can hinder them by giving them a false understanding of Jesus (like the little child that I heard of in a former church who was afraid to speak the name of Jesus in Sunday School because he had been taught that "Jesus" was a bad word). We can hinder them by not living a consistent Christian life at home before them. We can hinder them by treating their budding love for Jesus as if it were something that didn't matter—or that was to be made fun of.
When I think of Jesus' rebuke of the disciples here, I think of the dreadful words He spoke in 18:5-7;
We all know that it would be dangerous to get between a mother bear and its cub. But how much more dangerous it would be to get between Jesus and one of the little ones who believe in Him!
May we never do anything to hinder little ones who are drawn to Jesus! It is a fearful thing to be on the 'wrong side' of the One who gave His life for them (Hebrews 10:31)!
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We would tremble to hinder them if we also . . .
4. HUMBLY RECOGNIZE THE VALUE JESUS PLACES ON THEM IN HIS KINGDOM (v. 14).
Jesus told the disciples, "Let the little ones come to Me, and do not hinder them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven" (v. 14).
Now note carefully that Jesus didn't say, "For of these is the kingdom of heaven." He wasn't saying that only children get to heaven. Rather, He said that they should be esteemed because they are examples of the faith of the sort of believer that constitutes the kingdom of heaven. "Of such", He said, "is the kingdom of heaven."
Jesus said something very similar to this in chapter 18; when He placed that small child in the midst of the disciples and told them that "whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (18:4). I have suggested before that a good way to understand that verse is to remember what King David wrote in Psalm 131:
And so, when I read the Lord's rebuke in this morning's passage, I can't help but think that He's telling the disciples, "Don't you ever hinder these little ones from coming to Me! You have been competing with one another over which of you will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven—completely forgetting that I have already told you that whoever humbles themselves before Me like one of these little ones is the greatest in My kingdom. You have your sense of what constitutes 'true greatness' upside-down. Don't despise them; and don't stand in the way of these little ones. If anything, learn from them! They are the ones who exhibit the kind of faith in Me that I accept!"
If we understood true greatness in Jesus' kingdom as He taught us, we'd never again be irritated by the presence of children who truly love Him and believe on Him. Rather, we'd be honored.
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And finally, there's one more lesson to be learned from this passage with respect to our ministry to children; and that is that we ought to . . .
5. PLACE AS HIGH A PRIORITY ON MINISTRY TO THEM AS JESUS DOES (v. 15).
We see this in the very last verse of this passage. It may not seem very important at first; but it is actually enormously important in its implication.
In verse 15, we read, "And He laid His hands on them and departed from there." Now; where was it that He was going "from there"? We find the answer in 20:17—that Jesus was "going up to Jerusalem". And what was it that He was going up to Jerusalem to do? We see the answer in 20:18-19; when He tells His disciples,
Can you think of anything more 'pressing' in the earthly ministry of our Lord than that? Can you think of a higher priority for Him than the cross? Can you think of Him having a greater burden on His mind than what was before Him? And yet, look at what He does! In spite of the great and dreadful task that was set before Him—knowing what lay ahead of Him—He nevertheless stopped in His progress to the cross, and prioritized the time of welcoming the little children in His arms, laying hands on them, blessing them, and praying over them. I have no doubt that, for the rest of their natural lives, those "little children" never forgot that Jesus gave Himself to them in that way; do you?
Now; I don't know what it might be that you and I think we have to do that's so earth-shakingly important—even in respect to 'ministry'. But we could be sure that, whatever it is, it's nothing compared to the task that was set before our Savior. And if, in that context, He prioritized giving His time and energies to the care and ministry of little ones, then as a church of His followers we'd better do the same!
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Can you see now why this passage is so important? In it, our Lord Jesus gives us a mandate to minister to the little ones He entrusts to our care. We are to place a high priority on this ministry; because in doing so, we are following the pattern our heavenly Father set in the Old Testament for the expansion of His plans and purposes on earth. To minister to the little ones who believe on Jesus is to do the work of His kingdom!
So; let's be sure that we do those things Jesus teaches us to do in this passage: that we actively seek to bring little ones to Him; that we earnestly seek His blessing upon them; that we do nothing to hinder them in drawing near to Him; that we humbly recognize the great value He places on them; and that we place as high a priority in ministering to them as He does.
And as we do so, may those 'little ones' He has entrusted to us grow up to be 'big ones' who love Him greatly, serve Him faithfully, and expand His praises widely!
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