Jason Helopoulos / Feb 26, 2017 / Luke 18:15-17
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Our heavenly Father, we come before you even as the text we’re about to read says: as little children who need a morsel from your hand. We pray that you would condescend to speak to us, and that you would care for our little souls, minds, and hearts as we sit here this morning. It’s amazing to think that each individual here today is sitting under your eye of love. We pray that your Spirit would attend to each of us. Press home the truth of this passage, that we may know that you have spoken to us out of it. In Christ’s holy name we pray, amen.
This is the holy, inerrant word of God:
Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, 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, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Luke 18:15-17
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:8
Thanks be to God. Amen.
This is one of the more famous scenes in the New Testament. It’s often (wrongly) pictured in paintings with Jesus sitting on a rock and a flock of elementary school age children around him. Notice that that’s not actually the scene. Instead, Jesus is being mobbed by a group of parents with infants in their arms. They’re thrusting their babies towards Christ “that he might touch them.”
This text falls into two principal points: first, the value of children in the eyes of Christ; and second, the value of children being set before the eyes of adults. We’re going to look at each of those, but I’m going to spend the majority of my time on the first.
The Value of Children in the Eyes of Christ
The ESV rightly translates the word used for “children” in verse 15 as “infants”. It’s the same word that Luke used in Luke 2:12 for baby Jesus, who was “wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” It’s also the same word used for “infants” in 1 Peter 2:2, where Peter says, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk,” referencing babies who are still being fed at their mother’s breast.
The children who were being presented to Jesus here in Luke 18 were very small—in fact, they were infants. In the Greco-Roman world, children (especially infants) were thought very little of. Maybe it was because of the high child mortality rate at the time, so that was some kind of psychological way for adults to not get too attached to children they might lose. I don’t know. Regardless, children were viewed (as one scholar said) as “not adults”. They didn’t have much value, like adults did. In fact, they didn’t have value at all until they could at least help with the family farm or business. Luke seems to be pointing this out by emphasizing that “they were bringing even infants to [Jesus]…” Even infants!
Children were thought so little of in the Roman world that infanticide and child abandonment were rampant. One of the great missions of Christians for the first few centuries of the church was actually trying to save children who had been abandoned by their parents in the wilderness! Historically, Christians have always been very different in their view and treatment of children. We’re counter-cultural in that way, and the West has benefited from this. There are still lingering effects of care, love, and respect for children, though it’s waning in our day of rampant abortion and child pornography. But where does this valuing of children by Christians come from? It comes from Christ’s view of children.
The disciples didn’t quite understand this view yet, though. They saw this throng of parents bringing infants to Jesus, and they rebuked them. “Why should Jesus’ time and energy be drained by these insignificant, weak, and frail infants? They’re barely members of society. Jesus is a busy man! He’s teaching and preaching—and yes, he’s laying hands on people, but he’s laying them on the sick and the dead. He doesn’t have time to lay his hands on perfectly healthy infants and bless them. He needs to reserve his time for the more significant people!” The Greek verb for “were bringing” (verse 15) is in a form that signifies “continually bringing”. These parents were continually bringing their children. It was ongoing, constant barrage of infants coming before Jesus. So, the disciples rebuke them.
Then Jesus rebuked the disciples. But this was no small rebuke: when Mark relays this account in his gospel, he says that “*[Jesus] was indignant…” He wasn’t simply annoyed, or just slightly bothered. He was incensed that his disciples came to a conclusion that sought to exclude children from his presence! Why? Because all people matter to him. No matter their age or status (or lack thereof), he is not too important, too busy, too taxed, or too powerful, even for children. In fact, it’s just the opposite: he values and loves children, and seeks to bless them.
Mark gives us a bit more detail in his gospel. He says that Jesus took the little children “in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.” Remember Genesis 48, where Jacob blessed Ephraim and Manasseh. He crossed his hands over them, and laid them on the boys’ heads. In Genesis 27, when Isaac blessed Jacob, he laid his hands on them. Hands are laid on people to signify a blessing being imparted to them.
Mark says that Jesus took these infants and laid them in his arms. He embraced them with one arm while taking his other hand, laying it on them, praying for them, an blessing them. He takes time from his busy ministry, and makes it a priority to bless these children.
I remember when my dad’s side of the family would get together. His brothers and sisters would all gather together at my grandparent’s house, bringing their kids with them. Whenever they were together, they would sit in the kitchen playing board games and card games, and they would just laugh and laugh so loudly. I remember hovering on the outside of the room, longing to be in the middle of that, and having them say to me (time and time again), “Jason, this room is for the adults. Go play with the other kids.” I was barred from joining in.
Five years ago, Leah, the kids, and I traveled to Florida. We went to Busch Gardens, the amusement park/zoo in Tampa. Grayson was 6 at the time, and Ethan was 3, and there was a kangaroo exhibit there that was wonderfully exciting. It had baby kangaroos that you could actually pet! We heard about this, so (when we got into the park) we made a beeline for the baby kangaroo exhibit, stood in line, and waited until we got to the front of the line. All my sons could do was talk about how wonderful it was going to be to touch these soft baby kangaroos.
But when we got to the front of the line, there was a sign that said, “You must be five years old or above to touch the baby kangaroos,” and they had a height requirement too—to touch baby kangaroos! Grayson was old enough, but Ethan wasn’t. He was barred from entering, and he rightfully cried for half the day. I would too! Incidentally, if you’re ever in that situation, a snow cone solves all problems.
But Jesus called to the infants, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” There is no barrier here. There are no age or height requirements. Jesus is more accessible than baby kangaroos, for he loves and welcomes even the smallest among us, “for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”
Make no mistake: the disciples should have recognized this. This was not a new approach by God. He has always welcomed children. We could look at passage after passage in the Old Testament, but I just want to take you to a few. In Joel 2, the prophet Joel warned the people of God of the coming day of the Lord, calling them to national repentance and faith. When he charges them, he says this: “Blow a trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” Worshipers are being called forth. The trumpet is to blow, and the people are to assemble. They are to gather before God. But who? Just the adults? the men? the elders? No, verse 16 says, “Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants.” All of the covenant people of God, including the children and nursing babies, are to assemble before him. He welcomes that.
Think about the high points in Israel’s history: the feast days. During the observance of Passover (Exodus 12), on one of the high days of worship under the old covenant, Moses expects children to be present. He says,
And when your children say to you, “What do you mean by this service?” you shall say, “It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.” Exodus 12:26-27a
We see the same picture in the observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 13) and the Feast of Weeks. “When you gather before me,” God says over and over, “include your children. Bring them near, that they too might be blessed.” Children have always been a part of the covenant community—recipients of God’s blessings, even as adults are. They are not barred from him, as if they have a lesser status. Instead, they’re invited into his presence to receive his blessings.
From the beginning of the people of God, the covenant community has always consisted of both believers and their children. As God said to Abraham,
I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. Genesis 17:7
This promise, like a ribbon, weaves its way all the way through the Scriptures. This is grace.
Children in Israel received the sign and seal of the covenant community: circumcision. They attended the covenant meals and participated in covenant worship. As members of the covenant community, they engaged in the life of that community in the very presence of God, so they might receive blessing.
Christ is not doing something new here. Children are part of our community of faith. They are allowed, and even encouraged, to come near to God and receive his blessings and grace. We are silly, ignorant, disobedient, and/or outright harmful if we hinder them.
Let’s be clear about what Jesus is and is not saying. When he says “for to such belongs the kingdom of God,” he’s not saying that children are naturally regenerate. They aren’t innocent or without sin. When Adam chose to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, all mankind fell in him and with him in that sin. Every person born into this world is born a sinner, and commits sin because of that. Children are not innocent, or even basically good. In fact, they’re downright wicked and evil. They need the grace of God and require the blessing of Christ.
What is Jesus saying? He is underscoring the reality that children can receive that blessing. There are children in the kingdom. That’s what he ties his blessing to in this text. He isn’t just blessing them that they might have friends, a happy life, or riches. He is blessing them as members of the kingdom.
“Yes, but weren’t they bringing infants to him? How can infants receive the blessing of Christ?” Jesus’ answer is that people of any and every age can receive his blessing. Let’s just take it to the extreme: Jacob was chosen in the womb and blessed by God. In the womb! John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb. Our children can enjoy Christ’ blessing from the earliest of ages. They can have faith as a little child. How is that possible? Because faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:6)—one that he can dispense at any time he desires to whomever he wills.
Children, I want you to look at me and listen very carefully right now: you can come to Christ. He calls you to come to him, and you can come, no matter how old you are. Come to Christ.
Let me ask you kids something: who do you love hearing are coming over to your house? Who is it that you can’t wait for their arrival? Maybe it’s your aunt, uncle, grandma, or grandpa—or even your pastor! Whoever it is, I bet that you love it when they come over because they love you, and that in wonderful ways. Maybe they tickle you, they tell you jokes, or just sit down and talk to you. But you know that they love you. Well, Christ loves you more than your grandma, grandpa, aunt, or uncle.
Maybe you love them because they come over bringing gifts. My kids love it when Grandma comes to visit, because she brings gifts. They’re always happy to bring her suitcase into the house, because there’s some craft or gift in there. But when you come to Christ, he gives you the greatest of all gifts. It’s not some toy that will wear out, and that you’ll get tired of. It’s not a candy bar that you consume, and it disappears. No, he gives you a gift that lasts forever and ever—the greatest of all gifts!—but you have to come to him. Jesus says, “Come.” He values children. You aren’t barred from his presence or his blessings.
What does this mean for us as a congregation—and as parents? What is our responsibility in light of this truth? It must be this: we need to bring our children to Christ. Yes, let them come, and don’t hinder their way. But notice that these parents were continually and regularly thrusting their children before Christ for blessing. This must be true of us.
What do I mean when I say that we must bring our children to Christ? First, I don’t mean that we can cause their salvation or make Christ bless them. Salvation is only by God’s grace. However, as Christian adults—parents, grandparents, babysitters, aunts, uncles, Sunday School teachers, and members of this congregation—we are to provide an environment that’s conducive to their growth in Christ. We must keep bringing them before Christ, like the parents in this passage. We must attempt to put no barriers in their path to him. We must continually and regularly bring them into his presence, seeking his blessing.
It’s like gardening. A gardener has no control over whether a seed grows into a plant. God must cause the growth. But the gardener tends the soil, watering, weeding, and making sure that the plant gets the right amount of sunlight. She provides the right environment to the best of her ability, bringing all of her tools, knowledge, wisdom into play to help tend that plant, that it might grow. She can’t demand or cause its growth, but she can nurture, tend to, and hope for it. So can we, as adults, for our children.
How do we do this? How do we keep bringing them before Christ and providing this environment? Of course, we can’t bring our children physically to Christ, that he might touch them (like the parents in this text). It may seem like we’re at some kind of disadvantage because of that, but listen: Christ’s ministry did not become lesser when he sat down at the right hand of God the Father, enthroned above. It is not less powerful or effective. Nothing becomes less glorious in heaven. Instead, we have an even greater opportunity to bring our children before Christ, because we can do so at any time and place. We don’t have to search for him and find out whether he is in Jerusalem, Bethsaida, or Nazareth. We know where he’s at, and we’re never distant from him. We can bring our children before him at any moment and at all times.
How do we bring our children before Christ? First and most importantly, we pray for them. We lift them up, laying our children at his feet, just like these parents—but instead of using our arms, we do so with our prayers. Doesn’t this text tell us that he welcomes them? How ready he was to accept and bless these children! Do we not have the hope that he will give a blessing to our children as we bring them to him? We should, and it should cause us to pray daily for our children: for their souls, their struggles, their sins and temptations, their strengths, their future marriages, their friends, their contentment, their inclinations, and their little minds and hearts. It’s never wasted time.
Oh, that we would be like Job. In Job 1, it says that he rose every single morning to offer sacrifices and prayers for every single one of his children, and that he did this continually. It marked his life. How can we expect daily blessing for our children if we don’t ask for them daily?
Let’s be clear: this isn’t a duty just for parents. Hillary Clinton once said that “It takes a village to raise a child.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know what it takes to raise a covenant child: a church. It takes the whole church—all of us. Your children need you, and your children need me. We don’t take an idle vow when we do a baptism on a Sunday morning. Yes, the parents make a vow to raise the child in the fear and admonition of the Lord, but they’re not the only ones. We all stand up together and vow to assist them in the raising of their children. It’s not an idle vow. Why do we do that? Because it’s not just their child. That child is part of our covenant community—our church. That child belongs to us, so we seek to raise this child together. He needs us.
How do we do this? As a community, we seek to provide an environment where this child will come to saving faith and grow in that faith. Some of you are beyond the child-rearing stage. Others don’t have children. Some may even desire them, but the Lord hasn’t answered that prayer yet. We understand that that can be incredibly painful. I’ve been there. But let me remind you that all the children in this room, down the hall, and down in the West Wing need you. They need your ministry, your godly example, and your friendship and love.
Few things warm my heart more than walking out into our hallways and watching as some adult sits next to a child on one of those benches and just talks. I love it. We get to be recipients of that all the time in friendship. Some of you do this so well. These children look up to you. They see your example in Christ—and what an impact you have upon them! They need your willingness to teach them in Sunday School and youth group, but most importantly, they need your prayers.
Some of you are looking for ways to serve this church, and one of the best ways you can is by praying. What would it be like if you took the directory that we pass out and committed to praying every month for every single child by name? People wouldn’t know the ministry that you’re doing, so you wouldn’t get all kinds of applause, but “[t]he prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” What would happen if 12 people in this congregation committed to doing that every single month? If the prayers of a single righteous man avail much, how much would it avail if 12 were doing it every single month? Pray for those infants who can’t utter prayers, for those toddlers who can’t quite utter prayers like you, for those teenagers who are so busy and distracted that they seldom pray, and especially for those covenant children who have wandered from the faith. Oh, how they need your prayers.
One brief pause: I know that some parents in this room hear a passage like this and say, “What happened to my child? I haven’t received this blessing. I brought them to worship, week in and week out. I prayed for them and taught them the things of the word. They went to Sunday School and youth group. I wasn’t shy about sharing my faith with them. I sought to surround them with good and godly friends. But now, they live a life of unbelief, wandering from the faith that I’ve taught them.” First, remind yourself over and over again that you taught them the things of God and sowed the seeds of truth. The word does not return void; remember that. Remember how often you prayed for them, and remind yourself that you did bring them to church, week in and week out, and you did point them to Christ through your conversations and actions. Did you do it perfectly? No. But who does?
The seeds have been planted. The truth that you planted there will call out to them for the rest of their lives, saying, “Hey, believe! Believe!” Keep praying. Be like the widow who just kept going tenaciously after that judge. Keep praying and knocking on that door until your petition is answered. Enlist other people in this congregation to join you. Pray! and hope! Don’t ever let Satan put the lie in your head that they’re too far gone. They are never too far gone, too old, too stuck in their ways, or too deep in sin for the grace of God. Never. Keep praying, keep hoping, and enlist us.
Second, we bring our children to Christ by instructing them in his truth. It isn’t enough to just pray for them; we need to teach them as well. The best way that I know of to do this is in regular family worship. Gather together as a family around the word, and pray together every day. If you’re grandparents, aunts and uncles, or high-schoolers who babysit, then when you’re with those kids, make it part of your practice to do this. Gather together, read, and pray. The word and prayer are God’s chief means of grace, by which he chooses to bless us as he sits enthroned above.
Keep throwing these kids in the way of the means of grace. Do family worship. Without some regularity in something like this that provides structure and purpose, I think we assume that we’re instructing our children a lot more than we actually are. Just do this daily. Consistent family worship is one of the best ways to make sure that you’re teaching and instructing. It isn’t rocket science. It just takes 15 minutes. You eat dinner together, clear off the dishes, go into the family room, and sit down. Or, don’t even get up from the table—just stay there. That doesn’t work in my house, because Leah likes the dishes done, so we get the dishes done and go to the family room. Then you sit down, open the Bible, just read a little bit of the Scriptures, and pray. Don’t make it complicated.
Fathers often get zealous about this. They say, “Well, if we’re going to do family worship, let’s go to Leviticus and read four chapters tonight!” No, just read a short passage, and then pray. That’s it, day in and day out. As you grow as a family, maybe you’ll begin to ask questions, discuss, and sing hymns together, but you start by reading the word and praying together every day. It doesn’t have to take long, or be intimidating or hard. Just put the children that are under your care, whoever you are, in the way of God’s blessing.
That’s what it is: a blessing! Worship is a means of grace. Reading the Scriptures is a means of grace. Prayer is a means of grace. If you miss a night—or three nights—or a week, and you suddenly realize it, do you say, “Oh, now I have to start the wheel back up again. What a burden”? No, just pick it right back up again. It’s not meant to be a burden, but a means of grace and blessing. You’re just reading and praying. It’s that simple.
Be passionate about family worship. I’ve seen the fruit of it in my own family and countless other families who have begun to practice it. If you don’t know how to do it, shoot me an email. You can come over to our house and join us. We’d love to show you how. It’s one of the best ways to instruct our children daily.
Third, we bring our children to Christ by including them in the pinnacle activity of this community: corporate worship. This isn’t just an adult moment. Children aren’t meant to be left hovering on the outside of this room. They are invited in by Christ himself. To understand this, you have to understand what’s happening when we gather together in this room.
We often talk about worship as if its essence is in receiving and giving. There’s truth in that. When we come to worship, you and I receive and give. We receive the joy, peace, love, and hope of Christ. We receive the assurance of his pardoning grace. We receive all of that here, but the essence of worship is not receiving.
So you say, “Well, it’s giving.” Yes, it’s true that we give. We give our tithes and offerings. We give our praises and thanksgivings. We give prayers to God. It’s true that we’re giving, but the essence of worship is not giving either.
Rather, the essence of worship is being. We’re just being with God. In worship, what happens is that the holy, sovereign God of the universe meets with you by his word and Spirit. He draws near to us as we draw near to him. The giving and receiving flows out of that, but worship is primarily about being—not just dwelling with him, but actually being in his presence.
This is the summit, the mountaintop, of the church’s life and the Christian’s life on earth. In this weekly gathering, we are in his presence, and blessings flow. How incredibly strange it would be if covenant children, members of this covenant body, were not welcomed in the midst of this important thing that we do in our life together? It would be very odd.
No, this is one of the principal ways that we bring them to Christ. We want them in the midst of his presence and these effectual means of grace—the word, prayer, and the sacraments. The more they are in the way of the means of grace, the better the opportunity for their souls to encounter God. It’s our job as a community to keep putting them in the way of God’s blessing.
I know it can be difficult. It’s not always easy to have children in this room, so we provide childcare up to a certain age for parents who are desirous of it. It’s hard, and it sometimes makes you go home feeling like you left a wrestling match with someone who was ten weight classes before you—and you lost. It can be discouraging and depressing, and even feel like torture at times. I’ve been there, and I’m still there on some days. But it’s worth it, because our children are in the presence of Christ, and you never know what blessings may flow to them—what word they might hear that will stick in their little minds, what prayer they will utter that might be life-changing, or what truth or hymn might affect their souls.
A number of months ago, I was sitting over here. The previous week, a member our congregation was on their deathbed, and it was reported to us that morning. So, from the pulpit on Sunday morning, we got up and prayed for that individual. The next week, I was sitting there, and the person we had prayed for was standing over here in worship, singing, with their arms up in the air. It was like Lazarus back from the grave. Tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t see, thinking of how God heard our prayers.
After the service, I was walking down the aisle there, and I walked by two moms who were having a conversation after the service. I wasn’t the only one who noticed. They were comparing notes about their kids, who had seen this individual praising God after she had been prayed for. One mom said to the other mom, “My kids were so excited to see that she was back.” And the other mom said, “Yeah, my kids said, ‘God heard our prayers!’”. You never know what impact having children in the presence of God’s people and in the presence of Christ will have upon their little souls.
Let’s be clear: we don’t just invite children into our worship services for their benefit. The entire church benefits from having children in worship. At times, children may be loud or too distracting, and they may need to be taken out of the sanctuary. But, as has been said, if there’s no crying, the church is dying. The sounds of young children remind us that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church. Some of us adults in this room would do well to remind ourselves of that every time we get a little bothered by that restless kid in front of us that we say is a distraction—though you can watch an NFL game while your wife is in the kitchen, banging dishes and talking to you, and you don’t hear a thing she says. A little noise in the sanctuary is alright. It reminds us that there will be a new generation of believers. It’s good to have them in the service.
I’ve often been encouraged at our Sunday evening prayer meetings, when we gather together in groups, and kids start praying. God blesses my soul when I look around this room on Sunday morning, and kids are standing up and singing with all that their little lungs can muster. It should make your soul leap to hear some kid down the pew give a loud “Amen!” at the end of that congregational prayer.
The Value of Children being Set Before the Eyes of Adults
As much as the body of Christ needs old, seasoned saints, it needs children. It needs to see their faith and love. That’s Jesus’ final point. He blesses the children and says, “for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” In Christ’s eyes, children are not a distraction in our worship of God, but an example. We need children constantly before us, so that we might learn.
As we see the value of children in the eyes of Christ, he sets the value that children model before our eyes. What does Jesus want us to take notice of? What makes these little lives something that we need to learn from? What is it that marks them? He doesn’t elaborate in this passage, but Matthew 18:4 seems to give the answer. There, Jesus calls a little child to himself, sets that child in the midst of the disciples, and says this: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Children picture before us utter trust and reliance—simple, unadorned, trusting faith—and we need that example. My children are still at the age where if we’re walking into a store, crossing a street, or moving into a crowd, I can stick back my hand and a little hand will immediately fill it. Attached to that little hand is a little arm, and attached to that little arm is a little body which will follow wherever I lead, trailing behind me. It’s simple trust, and utter dependence. Jesus is saying that just as a little child depends on his parents, so we (as children of God) are to look to the Father in faith—in simple, dependent, utter trust.
That’s the only way to receive the kingdom. There’s no entrance, except by simply trusting in the Savior who died for your sins. It’s the only way to continue in the faith: utter trust. Children model that before us. The more mature we are in the faith, the more our life of faith looks like that of a child. All of us have much to learn from them.
How precious children are in the eyes of Christ, and how precious they must be to us as a church. Let us keep bringing them to Christ, not hindering their way, but praying for them, instructing them, and including them. Let us entrust them to Christ. He received them on earth, and he never changes. He cared for them then, and he cares for them now. That’s a good reminder for constantly anxious adults: entrust your children. We would do well to simply trust in our Father, as these children so naturally do. Follow their example.
Let’s pray. Our heavenly Father, we’re thankful that we’re able to call you Father—that you’re a God who calls us to simple trust and faith in you, your Son, and the Holy Spirit—our one true God. Even more so, we’re thankful that you are worthy of our trust. We pray that as we care for the children in this congregation, that you would help us to care for them even as you care for us, that we would continue to seek to see them blessed by you even as you bless us, and that we would not hinder them. In Christ’s holy name we pray, amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
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