v.13 The disciples seemed to feel that Jesus was too important to be bothered with little children. The term that Matthew uses refers to children in general, of any age. Luke tells us in his account of this same incident that there were very little children among these brought to Jesus, nursing infants in fact, babies. Remember we saw in 18:2-3 that there was abroad in the culture a low estimate of the importance of children. Jesus did not share that viewpoint. Remember, there Jesus used the lowliness and unimportance of children to illustrate the humility that he requires of his followers. Every Christian must be childlike in the sense that he understands himself to be needy, undeserving of the favor of God and man, and helpless apart from the grace of God.
v.14 Of course, it is not only such children as these who were brought to Jesus who belong to the kingdom of God. As before in 18:1-5, and in many other places in the Gospel, the kingdom belongs to all those who know that they have no claim on Jesus’ attention, affection, and salvation but come because they have nowhere else to turn. As C.S. Lewis once put it, the gospel is not for the well-meaning, but for the desperate. The Lord made the same point in other ways in the Gospels when he accepted, to the amazement and consternation of the Jewish religious authorities, the sick, the outcasts, Gentiles, and women. If you remember, when the blind men cry out for Jesus’ attention near Jericho, later in 20:31, the crowd rebuked them for bothering the Master. Their attitude was the same as his disciples here. Jesus had better things to do, more important things, than attend to blind people, to outcasts. His acceptance of all such, and now children, indicates this fundamental truth: that we do not qualify for Jesus’ attention and help by some virtue or status that we have acquired. It is our need only that attracts Jesus to us.
v.15 In the custom of that day, laying hands on someone signified acceptance and blessing. No doubt Jesus prayed for them, but his blessing meant even more than the prayer!
In the experience of most of us who have been Christians for any length of time, this passage is referred to primarily in connection with the polemics of infant baptism. Opponents of the practice of baptizing the infant children of Christian parents often point out that there is no water in this passage. That is, it is not about baptism and shouldn’t be applied to the question.
Defenders of infant baptism, as we are here, admit that the passage is not about infant baptism per se, but, nevertheless, does bear profoundly on the practice. It teaches, as do many other passages in the Bible, that the children of Christian parents belong to the church – for which reason they are to be baptized – are to be treated as Christians, as the objects of Christ’s blessing, and, by the promise of God, are to be expected – assuming that their parents are faithful in raising them to love and serve the Lord Jesus – to grow up into believing adulthood.
We make several observations from the text.
- The parents of these particular children were believers. These children, therefore, were not just any children, were not the children of unbelievers. What Jesus says about the kingdom of heaven belonging to them applies because they are, as we say, children of the covenant, the children of believers.
This has not always been accepted. John Gill, the 18th century English Baptist argued that we can tell nothing about the parents of these children and thus cannot tell whether the Lord’s remarks apply only to children of Christian parents or to all children. But most commentators accept that such is hardly the impression left by our text. We are told in what spirit these children were brought to Jesus by their parents. It is no doubt true that many children were brought to him during the course of his ministry whose parents had no spiritual interest in Jesus at all. Their children were sick, or crippled, or had leprosy, or were blind, and their parents had heard of Jesus’ breathtaking power to cure every kind of infirmity. They brought their children to be healed. His message, his person did not interest them at the deeper level.
But that outward and only physical interest is not what animated these parents. These children were not sick. They were not brought to Jesus that he might heal them. These parents brought their children to Jesus that he might bless them and pray for them. They wanted Jesus to impart a spiritual blessing to their children. They wanted him to give God’s blessing, God’s favor to their children. This was a spiritual interest on their part, a spiritual act, an act of faith on their part, faith on behalf of their children. And it must not be forgotten that in so seeking God’s blessing upon their children they were standing in the great tradition of biblical revelation and of the covenant of God. From the beginning God had promised to be the God of those who believed in him and their children. They were seeking the fulfillment of that promise for their children and they knew enough to come to Jesus for it.
- Second, when Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven belonged to these children who had been brought to him, he was saying nothing less than that salvation and eternal life belonged to them.
It has sometimes been argued that Jesus was not here asserting the salvation of such children but only that they have the privilege of growing up in the church, within the circle of the kingdom’s influence. He is saying that these are fortunate children, but not necessarily that they are saved. Now, to be sure, there are children, alas, born into the church of God, born to Christian parents, who grow up in unbelief and die in that unbelief. All the children of the church are not saved. In the same way, of course, some who enter the church from the outside, in their adulthood, are not truly converted and are not really saved. There are reasons for this that the Bible addresses in other places: reasons why the children of some Christian homes grow up to be unbelievers and why some converts do not stick.
But, here, in Matthew 19, we hear the Lord say that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such children and, in saying that, he is saying, nothing more, nothing less, than that such little children are saved; already saved as little children. The Lord puts that point beyond dispute when, just down the page, in the next use of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God” – the phrases mean the same thing – in v. 23, he speaks of how difficult it is for rich people to be saved. That is what he means when he speaks of being in or entering the kingdom of heaven or of God. To be in the kingdom of God or heaven is to be saved. Indeed, the whole discussion begins in v. 16 with the rich man asking the Lord “what must I do to have eternal life?” And, in v. 25, the disciples, responding to the Lord’s surprising answer to the rich man, say, “Who then can be saved?” We are talking about salvation here, the salvation of children, nothing more, nothing less. To belong to the kingdom of heaven, as the Lord puts it in v. 14, is to be saved, to have eternal life, to be going to heaven. That really isn’t a controversial point. Almost every commentator accepts that that is the Lord’s obvious meaning. In the context of the Gospel of Matthew, he couldn’t have meant anything else.
So, in other words, the Lord is saying, as the Scripture often teaches, that according to the covenant that God makes with his people, he will bestow his salvation on their children. He is saying, as the Bible so often says, that God’s grace will regularly, even ordinarily, reach into the hearts of the children of believers and recreate them when they are still very young, even babes in arms, even, in some, perhaps many cases, when they are still in their mother’s womb. He is saying that it will be the experience of uncounted multitudes of children born and raised in believing homes that they will, in David’s words, “trust in the Lord’s from their mother’s breasts,” or, as the author of Psalm 71 puts it, “trust in God from their infancy,” or, as Paul said had been true of Timothy, they would, from their infancy know the saving power of Holy Scripture. And, if that is so, how dare these disciples of the Lord think that the little ones didn’t mean as much to him and were not as much an object of his saving love and tender care, and not just as much in need of his blessing and just as entitled to it, as any believing adult.
Our Lord is not breaking any new ground here. He is reiterating the ancient doctrine of the covenant God made with Abraham and renewed countless times with the people of Israel. The children of the church belong to the church because they too are the objects of God’s saving love and grace. He has made the same promise of life to them as he has made to adult believers. Salvation is there first for their parents to claim for them by providing for them a believing and obedient and faithful instruction and nurture and, then, for them to claim for themselves as soon as they are able.
That is a teaching so frequently and so emphatically found in Holy Scripture that it should be controversial to no one. But it is also a fact everywhere to be observed in the kingdom of heaven. Many, many of you indeed, came into the kingdom of heaven as young adults or older. You lived years in unbelief until you were drawn inexorably to Christ by a sovereign power you hardly understood at the time. You found your life transformed and revolutionized by the new and living conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior as the Scriptures say. You remember the time, some of you can remember the very moment when you stepped out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.
But many more of you have been Christians for as long as you can remember. You are like me in this, that you have no recollection being an unbeliever or of becoming a Christian. You really have, as I have, trusted in the Lord from your mother’s breasts. You sometimes wonder when you were born again; when the Holy Spirit made you a new creation. Was it before your birth? Shortly after? At your baptism? In your early years, still too early to remember? All you know is that so long as you can remember, you have known Jesus and believed in him and trusted him for your salvation.
The timing of your entrance into the kingdom of heaven was not the same as someone who became a Christian at 25 or 35 or 45 years of age; your experience of coming to faith has not been the same as his or hers, but you belong with him or her just as certainly to that kingdom. Your experience has been different, but your faith is the same. And what a blessing it has been to be born and raised in a Christian home and to be loved of God and Christ from the headwaters of your life and to have his blessing upon your head from the beginning.
What matters most, of course, is that you are in the kingdom of heaven, not when you arrived. A great many children come in long before a great many adults. That is not only the expectation of much teaching of the Word of God, but the simple observation of life in the world.
I have told you several times about William Haslam, the Anglican priest of the middle 19th century, who was for some years a priest while still an unbeliever. Not so uncommon a combination in the Anglican church of that time. But he became one of the most famous converts of the 19th century English church because he was converted by a sermon he himself preached. As he preached about Jesus Christ he came to believe what he was saying and his heart and life were transformed. He was ever after known as the parson converted by his own sermon.
I was interested to discover recently, in reading the biography of John Stott, the Christian writer, preacher, and leader of our own time, that one of his ancestors, another Anglican minister, was led to personal faith in Christ, also after his ordination to the Anglican ministry, by that same William Haslam. But that man, Percy Stott, and his wife, had ten children, all of whom became active evangelical Christians. These would be John Stott’s cousins. One of them was on the Executive Committee responsible for Billy Graham’s remarkable London Crusade at Harringay in 1954. John Stott became a Christian during his high school years. His cousins, all ten of them, became Christians imperceptibly, in their Christian home, imbibing their faith in Christ with their mother’s milk. Ten to one. Perhaps that is not so far off the proportion of Christians in history and in the world today who hail from the Christian home versus those won from out of the world. G.K. Chesterton once said, “There are two ways of getting home, and one of them is never to have left.”
We don’t mean that they did not have to be born again – surely they did. They were conceived in sin and death as the Scripture says. But very early God’s grace met them and changed them, earlier than they can themselves remember. The kingdom of heaven belonged to them before they understood what that kingdom was or what an unspeakable privilege it is to belong to it.
This grand doctrine has been the hope and the assurance and the motivation of unnumbered generations of Christian parents who have believed God’s promise, have raised their children to love and serve the Lord, and seen God’s grace taking roots in the hearts and lives of their sons and daughters. It has been a doctrine of the most intense consolation in the face of the early death of children, a trial still suffered by Christian parents, even parents in this congregation, though not nearly so often as once was the case. To know that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the children of parents who love the Lord and are themselves committed to his salvation, is all that can possibly console a grieving mother or father in such a black day. It is the same consolation whether we think of the baby or the parent.
Babes, caught away from womb and breast,
Have cause to sing above the rest;
For they have found that happy shore
They neither saw nor sought before. [Ralph Erskine]
True enough. And this is also true.
Oh when a mother meets on high
The babe she lost in infancy,
Hath she not then for pains and fears,
The day of woe, the watchful night,
For all her sorrows, all her fears,
An over-payment of delight?
[Cited in Bannerman, Church of Christ, ii, 121]
There is a tombstone in the graveyard of Winchester Cathedral that stands above the grave of one Susanna Taylor who died at 4 years of age. It is inscribed with three short lines of Latin. Three lines that express precisely the same conviction, the same hope, the same understanding of children’s great need and where, and where alone, that need can be met, as had these parents who brought their children to Jesus. Of Susanna Taylor it is written:
“Dear to her friends; dearer to her parents; dearest to God.” As a parent I praise God that the same promises he made to me he has made to my children, indeed, that as the Bible says, they are his children before they are mine. I know I don’t fully appreciate what a great kindness God has shown me in making this promise, but I suspect there will be but one moment happier for me and Florence – in all eternity – than that moment when, in heaven already, we take the hand of our sons and daughters as they join us there!
But, we will come more fully to understand and appreciate the glory of this promise and this reality of covenanted, promised grace to our children and our children’s children, if we take care this morning to listen to the Lord’s rebuke and correction of his disciples once again: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Wherein lay the error in their thinking? It is found here: that they supposed that Jesus was too busy to be bothered with children. He had a great work to perform and should not be distracted with little ones who were too young to understand what Jesus was doing and what he was teaching the crowds. But, and this is Jesus’ point, someone would think that and say that only because he had misunderstood the nature of Christ’s work because he had misunderstood the nature of man’s need.
Children illustrate that need perfectly and until the adult sees himself in the child, he does not see himself truly or accurately. John Donne, the great English preacher and poet speaks of “That spiritual death in which my parents buried me when they conceived me.” Guilty and helpless sinners: that is what all human beings are by conception and by nature. But the child looks more helpless than the adult. And the adult comes, in his pride, to think of himself as far from helpless. He does not think of himself as utterly dependent but as independent. He thinks he has grown out of that childish dependence upon others. He imagines that he has left childhood behind. Martin Luther, who loved his children dearly, and understood this text very well, said, in a semi-joking way, when exasperated by the behavior of his children:
“Christ said we must become as little children to enter the
kingdom of heaven. Dear God, this is too much. Have we got
to become such idiots?” [Cited in Bainton, Here I Stand, 302]
And the answer, of course, is “No; we don’t have to become such idiots. We are already such idiots. That is the entire point.” The adult has passed out of childhood only in the most superficial and unimportant ways. He doesn’t require another to feed him or put him to bed. His behavior is no longer childish in certain outward and obvious ways. But in the matter of his entering the kingdom of heaven, he might just as well be a babe in arms. Helpless, clueless, uncaring, and unconcerned. He is no more capable of bridging the chasm that separates him from a holy God than an infant is capable of feeding itself or earning a living.
In days when the practice of infant baptism was not controversial in the Christian church, Augustine used the practice to make an important point against the Pelagians, –who also practice infant baptism – the Pelagians, those who had corrupted the message of God’s grace to helpless sinners into a message of self-help and self-salvation. It is infant baptism, Augustine said, that provides a perfect picture of what salvation is and how it comes to men. The baby does not walk into church and demand to be baptized. He is carried in arms. He is unknowing. He is helpless. He is done for; he does not do anything. The kingdom of heaven belongs to him precisely because anyone and everyone who enters the kingdom of heaven is, as the infant being baptized, carried in God’s arms. The baby like anyone else who becomes a Christian does so because he is overcome by God’s power. Anyone who comes to Christ finds and later confesses that his mind was changed, his heart was warmed, his will was turned not by his own power, not by his own doing, but by the Holy Spirit working in him. And if it is God’s grace and God’s work, it can be done, it may as well be done, in a little child as effectively as it is done in the case of a man or woman converted from the unbelieving world. It is the little child, the baby, Augustine said, who is the picture of every Christian. And every true Christian knows it and sees himself or herself in the helpless infant who is baptized; upon whose head is sprinkled the water that signifies and seals the cleansing from sin that comes from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Indeed, it is not too much to say that any real Christian will immediately understand the Lord’s comparison and see himself or herself in those helpless babes that were brought to Jesus that he might bless them. Holy Spirit, we pray, bring us to Jesus that he might bless us, for we cannot get to where he is unless you carry us there. And we cannot have his blessing unless he consent to place his hand upon us. And we will not have the Father’s welcome into the courts of everlasting day unless the Lord Jesus himself prays for us.