Think of a toddler, still wobbly on his feet and unable to speak even one intelligible word. What does a toddler tell you about you and Jesus?
That's the question for us this morning as we make a start on our new autumn series in Luke's Gospel, covering chapters 18 and 19, picking up from where we left off last year. The overall title for the series is 'The King and the Kingdom'. And the kingdom of God is really the theme of the short section we're looking at today – Luke 18.15-17. My title is 'Jesus and the Children'.
Where have we got to in Jesus' ministry by the time we get to the incident reported here? By this stage, the closest disciples around Jesus have realised that he is the Messiah – God's chosen King – without understanding what that will mean for him and for them. Jesus has warned them that the road to glory lies through suffering. He will be crucified before he is raised to the throne of heaven. They really don't have a clue what he's talking about. And they certainly don't want to follow him on the road through suffering. But Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem where he knows he will die. He is slowly making his way there. But Jesus is teaching all the time, and by this time wherever he goes the crowds swirl around him. He is in great demand. So there are many interruptions to the journey. This incident that we're looking at today is one of them.
And I should warn you at the outset that there's no way we're going to be able to avoid reference to my little not-quite-toddler grandson Ezra. So brace yourselves for that.
Take a look, then, at what happened. Luke 18.15:
"Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them."
Who's bringing these young children to Jesus, through the crowds? We're not told, but presumably mainly the parents – not to say grandparents. Why were they doing this? Again we're not told, but surely it was because they wanted Jesus to bless their children. Why did the disciples try to prevent them, and tell them off for trying to get through to Jesus with their infants? Presumably, because Jesus was busy and hard pressed, and as far as they were concerned these children were too insignificant for it to be worth bothering Jesus with them. In their minds, Jesus had more important things on his mind and more important people to be dealing with.
So how does Jesus react? Verses 16-17:
"But Jesus called them to him [that must be the infants with their parents], saying, 'Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you [that is, pay close attention to what I'm about to say because it's very important], whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.'"
This is a scene to melt even the hardest heart don't you think? It's moving to watch in our mind's eye these children gathering around Jesus. Mark, in his account of this same incident in his Gospel, adds a bit more detail. He says (this is Mark 10.16):
"And [Jesus] took [the infants] in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them."
The other day there was a bit of a Twitter storm-in-a-teacup about a photo of Daniel Craig, aka James Bond, carrying his baby daughter in a baby-carrier aka papoose against his chest while out walking. A certain Piers Morgan wasn't keen on the look.
Perhaps he needs reminding that God himself, in the person of Jesus, took infants in his arms, laid his hands on them and blessed them. And as the Son of God did that, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that this is really all about Jesus' attitude toward children. But this wasn't primarily a lesson about children, let alone about masculinity.
In fact, we know that to think that would be to miss the point because Jesus tells us what his main point in doing this is. It's there in verse 17, and we'll come back to that. Rather, this was a lesson about us and the kingdom of God. Nonetheless, no doubt there are very important secondary lessons to learn from this about children, Jesus, and the gospel. And J. C. Ryle says we should note five things from this.
One, children are precious in God's sight. So they should be to us and to the church. If you're one of those who pours out time, energy and love caring for and teaching the children of this church, then you need to know that what you're doing is bang in line with the priorities of Jesus.
Two, young children are capable of receiving grace.
Three, though this passage of Scripture does not prove the rightness of infant baptism, it is relevant, and infant baptism seems agreeable to the general tenor of Scripture. I think he's right about that, though that's a topic for another day. And it's worth noting that Jesus' blessing of these children is not indiscriminate – these are precisely children who are brought to Jesus by their families for his blessing, so at some level, these are believing families who trust that Jesus is the source of blessing.
Four, young children can know God through Jesus.
And five, young children can be saved. And, we could add, it's entirely appropriate for believers who have children die in infancy to assume that they are saved. We should never underestimate the capacity of children for a real and living relationship with Jesus. They may only have been born for the first time recently, but they can still be born again by the Holy Spirit.
So J. C. Ryle says that this passage …
"… is a strong testimony of our Lord Jesus Christ's care for little children. There is a deep significance in this rebuke of those who would keep infants from him …"
And that's surely right, and we need to take those lessons deep into our hearts and live them out in our behaviour and in the ministry of our churches. But Ryle goes on:
"… it seems probable that the principal idea in our Lord's mind was to set before us the beauty of a humble and child-like spirit, and to commend such a spirit to his disciples for imitation."
And he's surely right about that too. Because look again at verse 17, where Jesus says this, as this incident comes to its climax:
"Truly, I say to you [so he's saying, listen hard – I'm about to tell you what I really want you to learn from this], whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."
So, in the end, this is not about children, for all that it's relevant. These infants are living visual aids for something Jesus is teaching. This is about our relationship to the kingdom of God. And about that there was (and is) much misunderstanding – about its nature, about who's in it, and about how to get into it.
Three questions follow from that. First, what is the kingdom of God? Secondly, what does it mean to have the kingdom of God? And thirdly, how do we receive the kingdom of God? So let's think about each of those in turn.
1. What is the Kingdom of God?
"… whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."
What then, is this kingdom? Well the first thing to realise about the kingdom of God is that it's hard to think of anything more central to all that Jesus taught. So Luke reports in Luke 4.43 how Jesus summed up his teaching and preaching as about "the good news of the kingdom of God".
So what is this kingdom? I have long found very helpful Graeme Goldsworthy's summary of what the Bible tells us on this. It is that the kingdom of God is "God's people in God's place under God's rule." It's the people of God – his family, his adopted children – living in the perfect place that he has created and set aside from them to be their home, under his just, merciful and loving rule.
Four things need to said in addition to that.
First, this is an eternal kingdom. Our eternal life is to be part of God's kingdom forever.
Secondly, it tells us what it means to be blessed. Because this is what we were made for – to be part of his glorious kingdom forever.
Thirdly, though it is an eternal kingdom, it has already begun. It began with the coming of Jesus into the world. And it is growing as more and more people receive him by faith as their Lord and Saviour.
Fourthly, and key to understanding the kingdom, is that the King of the kingdom is Jesus. Jesus is the King. So when Jesus arrived into the world, the King of the kingdom had arrived and in him the kingdom had arrived. And this king is both powerful and humble. His road to glory and his eternal reign as King was via the cross. He is the crucified and risen King. And he went to the cross to pay for the sins of his people with his own blood. He bought us with his blood. And he adopts us into his family and brings us into his kingdom by giving us his Spirit even when we are dead in our sins, and enemies of God, helpless and hopeless.
What is the kingdom of God? It is God's people in God's place under God's rule, by the grace of God through the crucified and risen King, Jesus the Son of God the Father. That's the first question. The next is this. So:
2. What Does It Mean to Have the Kingdom of God?
And I ask that because Jesus uses this very striking language here. He says of these children, "to such belongs the kingdom of God". And he says, "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." So in some sense, the kingdom of God can belong to us. We can receive it. We can have the kingdom of God. It can be ours. And that becomes true of us when we enter the kingdom.
We enter the kingdom when we become one of God's people in God's place under God rule, bought by the blood of Jesus, our sins paid for and forgiven, lived in by his Spirit and beginning to experience all of his promised eternal blessings.
And, to pile blessings upon blessings, not only do we enjoy all the privileges of subjects of this glorious King, but he shares the rule and ownership of his kingdom with us. This is mind-blowing but true. We become heirs of the kingdom, sharing in the glory of Jesus and in the rule of his eternal kingdom.
A few weeks ago, our grandson Ezra moved into a new home. It's a very nice home. It cost a lot of money – far more than Ezra has, not least because he has none. It was bought by his parents, Ben and Sophie. It is their home. Ezra paid nothing. How could he? He's only a year old. But they've brought him into it. And now it's his home too. If he could speak (which he can't), he could rightly say, "This my home. It's mine." So it is with us and all the glories of the kingdom of God. That's what it means to have the kingdom of God. It's all by grace. Which brings me to our final question.
3. How Do We Receive the Kingdom of God?
When we have entered the kingdom of God, we belong to God forever; we live under the powerful and loving rule of Jesus our King, adopted as God's children, indwelt by his Holy Spirit, heading for heaven and destined for the new creation which will be our perfect home for all eternity – with no sin, no Satan, no suffering and no death.
So our whole eternal destiny hangs on receiving this kingdom. How do we receive it? There is only one way. Like a little child. That is the simple lesson that Jesus is hammering home here. Like a little child.
"Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."
How did those infants receive that staggeringly wonderful blessing direct from the heart and hands and by the touch of the Son of God himself? He lifted them into his arms. He looked out for them, swept aside all the hindrances and objections, loved them, lifted them into his arms and blessed them. He did it. Not them. What did they do? Nothing. They were just on the receiving end of it all. They may or may not have lifted their arms as Jesus took their little bodies into his strong hands. It was all a gift. They had nothing to offer; they could do nothing.
It's actually a long while since I last had close and continuing with a baby, in the way I do now with little Ezra. Not, of course, that it's a new experience – after all, we have raised three children. But you forget. And let me tell you the thing that has come home to me afresh with great force, watching Ezra. It's this. He is completely helpless. Even now, over a year after he was born, he is totally and utterly dependent on his mother and father. They pour out their love on him. They give him everything. And what does he do in return? Not a thing. He just receives. And loves them back.
That's how we receive the kingdom of God. Like a little child with total trust; lifting our hands to be taken into the arms of Jesus; receiving all his blessings, and loving him back. As the old hymn says:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling …