Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 09/10/1995
Luke 18:15 And they were bringing event heir babies to him so that he might touch them, but when the disciples saw it they began rebuking them. 16 But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all.”
One of the most touching and appealing vignettes in all the recorded life of Christ is this short passage we come to today: his blessing of the children. Its emotional impact is immediate, poignant, and simple; but it is also fraught with profound theological significance. Therefore I want to look closely with you at four aspects of the scene which you may not have thought about before.
First, we need to understand exactly who these people are in order to understand fully the significance of what they were doing. Matthew and Mark both use the general word paidia, which could be translated “children.” But Luke uses the most specific term brephe, which refers to nursing infants. Thus we must revise our view of the scene, created by Sunday School art that makes the group of children include toddlers and others, focusing naturally on the age of the Sunday School children for whom the quarterly in question was written—usually beginners, primaries or juniors. There was at this time a custom among the Jews whereby parents would bring their children to the rabbi for his blessing on their first birthday. Luke’s careful use of the word brephos, nursing infant, is consistent with the idea that this was exactly what was happening. So let us imagine that the children are babies about a year old.
There is another probably false assumption we make about this scene, and that involves the parents. I seem to remember it being depicted with a focus on the mothers of these children as the ones bringing them, probably from the assumption that the fathers would have been at work. But Luke uses a masculine pronoun for the parents. It was quite specifically the fathers! And this again is consistent with Jewish culture. In the Old Testament (as well as the New) the father is the head of the family. In the Old Testament one of the things this meant is that he took the lead in the religious training of his children; it was his primary responsibility. He was to be the source of godly example and spiritual leadership in his home. In this both parents cooperated, but the father took the lead. Solomon shows us this practice in Proverbs: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (Prvb. 1:8). He continues by comparing the discipline of the Lord to that of an earthly father toward the son in whom he delights (3:11-12). And though mothers are included as part of the team, it is primarily the fathers who are held accountable and whose instruction sons are exhorted not to ignore (4:1-5). In Exodus, it is the father who answers the children’s questions about the Passover (Ex. 12:24-27). In the New Testament we see that same basic pattern (Eph. 6:1-4). God wants Christian fathers to be intimately involved in raising their children, indeed to take the initiative in seeing that they are brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
If this is true, then current trends must give us pause. A recent survey showed that 53 % of fathers spend less than thirty minutes per day with their kids; 25 % spend less than five minutes a day with them. It has been well said, “The biggest problem in this country is that we think raising children is something that can be done in your spare time.” Now increasingly with the demands of the two income household, mothers are falling into the same pattern. That is a huge problem, but it is not the one this passage addresses. What it says, it says to the Dads: You are the one responsible to bring your children to Jesus!
So what were these parents—these fathers—doing as they brought their babies to Jesus? If they were following the Jewish custom of bringing their one-year olds to the rabbi for his blessing, they were performing a very significant act of faith which involved the expression of a deliberate choice. They were bringing their children to Jesus instead of to their normal local rabbi! This was a radical choice with potentially costly consequences. For Jesus has already been rejected by the religious establishment. This was not just a nice, pious act by these fathers; it was a serious declaration of loyalty to Jesus as the one they looked to as their Messiah, no matter what the local rabbis said. They were taking their spiritual responsibility for their children very seriously. They had asked the question, “Where is God’s blessing for my children to be found?” And they had answered that as far as they were concerned, it was to be found with Jesus and not with the rabbinical establishment. So to Jesus they went, even at the risk of exclusion from the synagogue. How great this risk was is shown by Peter’s fear as expressed in his denial of even knowing the Lord later on. How ironic that Peter was among the disciples rebuking these men for showing greater faith and commitment than even he had yet developed—except in his big talk!
Fathers, do you see the example these men set for you? You too are responsible to have your family loyal to Christ and his Gospel. Today, that means being sure that they are part of a church that believes and teaches the Bible and preaches the biblical Gospel without compromise. Like these fathers, you must not do the convenient thing. The church to which your family should belong is not the one with the most exciting programs or the most comfortable building or the most charismatic leader. It is the one where the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.
The irony continues with the disciples actually presuming to rebuke these fathers for wasting Jesus’ valuable time. The disciples are guilty here of the same gross insensitivity which would prevent them from understanding what Jesus was really about until after the resurrection. Their apparent assumption was that the Lord was busy with much more important things, like his controversies with the Pharisees, to waste his time on a bunch of whining babies who had no public relations value that they could see in the slightest. In this of course they had missed the very thing that all those controversies were about: the salvation of people like those who were coming. They missed the significance of the faith of these fathers and how valuable that would be to Jesus—far more valuable than refuting all the Pharisees who weren’t really reachable anyway in the world. And they had missed the value of the kids themselves. In addition, they had forgotten the lesson of Luke 9:46-48, when Jesus had interrupted their argument about who was the greatest by standing a (slightly older) child in their midst and telling them to be like that. Jesus was not happy with them. In fact, he felt strongly about it. Mark says he was indignant—the only time that word is used about him. Forbidding the little children was a serious offense! Parents—especially Dads—does Jesus have any reason to be indignant with us?
Jesus’ attitude toward the children however was one of compassion and love. In the way he valued them he was in sharp contrast with his times. Only in the culture of death which has given rise to the abortion industry in our own time have we surpassed ancient pagans in callousness toward the lives of children. A letter has survived from one Hilarion to his wife who was living in Egypt, who had told him she was pregnant. “If it is a male,” he writes back, “receive it; if female, throw it out.” Decadent Romans who had more children than they thought their budget would support would “expose” them—simply leave them in the wilderness for wild animals to find. The Jews knew better, and Jesus raises the value of children even higher. Remember that these are only one-year old babies. They will not even remember this encounter. Yet Jesus still considers the time spent with them worthwhile. Jesus changed the world even for people who do not believe in him, and our traditional Western compassion for children is an example of this fact—though we are departing from it again after almost two millennia of its influence.
“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child,” says Jesus, driving home the lesson of the encounter for his disciples, “shall not enter it at all.” But how do we enter the kingdom like children? The age of these children is the key to understanding how they serve as a model for entry into the kingdom. Usually we emphasize their faith—and indeed other passages do speak of that. Children are not suspicious; they are very trusting. There is some truth in that observation. But while the faith of a child is appealing, and while we should have that kind of trust in our heavenly Father once we have been convinced that the claims of Christ are valid, the faith of a child is also dangerous. The less romantic might call it not faith but gullibility. It is what makes the career of molesters pursuable. So Scripture balances the appeal to childlike faith with appeals to have an adult faith, to grow up beyond the milk of the word to solid meat. But that is not what this passage is talking about anyway.
The fact is that one-year olds were not capable of saving faith in Christ, whether childlike or not. Some of them probably squalled and kicked when he took them, as they sometimes do at an infant baptism or dedication today. They were not of an age to make a rational decision to trust Jesus as their Messiah or not. They did not even know what a Messiah was. Hence the word “faith” does not appear in this particular account. So what was it about these children’s way of receiving Jesus’ blessing that he could have been pointing to? It was their utter and complete helplessness. Remember that this passage comes in the context of the story of the Pharisee and the Publican, which also emphasizes the sinner’s total dependence on God’s grace, his unmerited favor. The Pharisee thought he had done a lot to earn God’s favor; the Publican knew he had done nothing. It was the one who acknowledged his helplessness and threw himself on God’s mercy, the one who brought nothing to the Temple but his need, who went away justified. In like manner, a baby cannot do anything to get Jesus’ blessing but to be passively brought and to receive. And so, how do we enter the kingdom of God? We must come to Christ not like the Pharisee but like the Publican. We must come not like the Pharisee but like these little babies. In other words, we can no more be saved by our own merit than a baby can earn his milk. We can no more be saved by our own effort than a baby can produce his own milk. We can no more be saved by our own works than a baby can buy his own milk in the store. Jesus loses no opportunity to reiterate in his own inimitable way the doctrines that would later come to be called justification by faith alone and salvation by grace alone, apart from works.
Jesus’ teaching on salvation was radical. It was the opposite of what people always assume. We will do good deeds, we will keep the Golden Rule, we will tithe, we will be baptized, etc., etc., etc. But all this misses the point completely. It ironically demeans the free gift of God which is too great and too high ever to be earned. And it does nothing to deal with our sin, whose guilt can only be removed by the Cross. Therefore, come to Christ as a little child, a nursing infant. Come to him as one wholly helpless, utterly dependent on God’s grace, bringing nothing by which you can claim admittance except your very need itself. For those who come thus, admittance and welcome into the kingdom are freely given. But those who come in any other way will never enter into it at all.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams