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Jesus and little children

“Let the little children come to Me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)


Children occupy an important place in the heart and teaching of our Lord Jesus, as recorded in the various gospel accounts. One of His famous interactions with children occurs in Matthew 19:13-15, which recounts an incident that happened after He had gone into Judea, having completed His ministry time in Galilee, and was preparing for his final move to Jerusalem.

During His time in Judea, large crowds followed Him and He taught them about God’s intentions for marriage, adultery and divorce, in response to the religious leaders who were trying to test Him by asking whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason.

"Then children were brought to Him that He might lay His hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ And He laid His hands on them and went away” (Matthew 19:13-15).

In one of his weekly devotionals, pastor John Piper explained that there was nothing controversial about the disciples’ thinking. “The first-century world didn’t see children as cute and innocent, like many modern people do. Children got in the way, and compassion toward children was not a virtue. This means the parents had to know it was a long shot for Jesus to touch their kids, and doubtless they were unsurprised when the disciples turned them away.”

Here, the unexpected response and radical teaching of our Lord Jesus reveals something important about the heart of God and the role of little children in His salvation plan to usher in His coming kingdom.

Children as utterly helpless

In the gospel account where Jesus instructs His disciples not to hinder children from coming to Him, "for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven,” He does not say that the kingdom of God belongs to these specific children, but rather those who are "like" them, as explained by Kent Hughes, a professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. Such child-like receiving is expressed in total trust, notes Kent Hughes.

“And without their parents, children are utterly helpless,” he goes on to say.

"A new-born, naked, with flailing hands and feet lifted toward the sky, is a heart-wrenching profile of helplessness. And unlike any other creature, its helplessness extends for years. No child would survive its early years without the help of others.”

I am sure that those of us who have gone through our parenting years will readily testify to the truth of this statement, as we recall those lingering moments of helplessness and dependency manifested in the growing-up years of our children. Yet, the Bible reminds us that the attitude of helplessness and total dependency of a child on his parents reflects God’s intention for every believer who comes into His kingdom. The apostle Peter exhorts us thus: “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the Word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious” (1 Peter 2:1-3 NKJV).

Children as teachable model

In contrast to the spiritual pride of the Pharisees and religious leaders of His days, our Lord Jesus points us to little children as model of teachability in God’s kingdom. He says, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4).

What does our Lord Jesus mean? What is so commendable about being like a little child? First, we have to take a look at the beginning of Matthew 18 to understand why Jesus uses a child as an example for the disciples. Verse 1 tells us, “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” The disciples are arguing among themselves, and they then bring the matter to Jesus to settle. They probably do not think Jesus will choose one of them, but perhaps He might tell them how to become the greatest or give them a prophetic type of answer that will settle the issue once and for all. However, what they do not expect is for Jesus to tell them, “unless you turn and become like children” and then leave it to them to figure out the meaning on their own.

According to ancient Jewish culture, children were regarded more as “property” than proper members of the family. They were expected to observe and obey. RT France says in his commentary, “A child was a person of no importance in Jewish society, subject to the authority of his elders, not taken seriously except as a responsibility, one to be looked after, not one to be looked up to.” He goes on to explain that Jesus’ teaching would have been radical but making His point clear, that “true greatness is found in being little, true importance in being unimpressive” (France).

A Christian writer and parent remind us: “The longer we live, and the further we get from actually being little children, the harder it can be to live this way. After all, difficult experiences can change and harden us. But when it comes to faith, it doesn’t need to be that way.” Indeed, Christ is inviting us to come to Him in childlike faith and openness, that we may be teachable to learn from Him.

Children as lesson on humility

We observe that kids love to learn new things, explore their new surroundings and ask “why” or “how”. They need to know what everything means, to touch and taste objects, and to experience for themselves their tiny world around them. In complete humility, they are open to what parents, teachers and other grown-ups are wanting to pour into their little minds.

This is what Jesus means when He teaches us, “turn and become like children” and “humbles himself like this child.” When we humble ourselves before God, we cry out in unison with the psalmist David, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statues; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Psalm 119:33-34).

As adults, we often realise that there are many situations beyond our control. We realise that we don’t have “it all figured out”. May the Holy Spirit help us to be teachable and humble, willing to come and sit at the feet of our Lord Jesus like Mary did, and learn from Him. May He help us to align with the words and attitude of John the Baptist when he says, “He (Christ) must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). Amen.

- Eld Elgin Chan

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