Is church for children or for grown-ups? Whatever the advantages and disadvantages of children’s church, don’t get the impression that the important part of church is just for grown ups! In Matthew 18:1–14, Jesus not only talks about children, he calls a child into the middle of a discussion with his disciples.
Enter the kingdom as a little child. Humble yourself like a child. The disciples asked Jesus who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They had caught part of his teaching about the kingdom, and assumed that the chief positions would soon be available–and they were positioned advantageously! Jesus had a little child stand among his disciples. We tell children, you need to grow up. But Jesus says, you need to change and become like a little child. In the ancient world, children were sometimes considered relatively unimportant. Our culture gives more attention to children. Even today you need to be old enough to do certain things. Avoid the self-centeredness, the positioning, the self-assertiveness which the world associates with the successful. As he did in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns the world’s standards upside down. The mark of true greatness in the kingdom is humility! Be willing to assume the position of unimportance, be willing to be unnoticed. “That man is truly humble who neither claims any personal merit in the sight of God, nor proudly despises brethren, or aims at being thought superior to them, but reckons it enough that he is one of the members of Christ, and desires nothing more than that the Head alone should be exalted.” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospels)
Trust Jesus, who cares for children. What characterizes these little children is that they belong to the Father in heaven. Even these little children are the objects of the Father’s care and concern. The Father rejoices in each of them, just as the shepherd rejoices in the finding of the hundredth sheep, the one that was lost, verse 13. Jesus describes these little children as “these little ones who believe in me,” verse 6. It becomes clear that Jesus is talking, not just about those who are young in years, but also about those who are child-like. Just as a young child depends on his parents for everything, so we, as the children of the Father in heaven, are totally dependent upon him. If trust does not characterize you, you are not a citizen of the kingdom! The self-promotion implied in the question of the disciples (verse 1) really contradicts this trust. “He, who truly believes, vividly realizes that God is loving, merciful, forgiving, glad to receive sinners. Faith transfers to God what human parents experience in themselves with reference to their own children, the desire to help and supply, Matt. 7:7–11. Not to trust would be ascribe to him the evil disposition of sinful men towards one another. This reliance of faith is not confined to the critical moments of life, it is to be the abiding, characteristic inner disposition of the disciple with reference to every concern.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church, page 97)
Because you are children in the kingdom, live as children of the kingdom. Don’t you dare cause a little one to sin! In verses 5 and 6 Jesus speaks of welcoming a child and of causing a child to sin. He seems to have broadened the concept to include, not only those who are chronologically children, but also those who share in their trust in the Father in heaven. At the same time, don’t forget that even the little children are truly part of the kingdom. Church membership belongs to all who are the Lord’s not just to grown ups. Positively, to welcome a little child like this in Christ’s name, is to welcome Christ. We sometimes get into evaluating people, judging how important they are in order to determine how we relate to them. Instead, welcome even the most humble in the name of Christ. Jesus also warns, don’t you dare cause a little one to sin. He uses vivid language to make clear that death itself is better than the judgment that God reserves for those who cause the objects of his care to sin. That brings Jesus to a warning of the importance of avoiding any sin, verses 7–9. Jesus’ language is vivid, and not to be taken as advocating self-mutilation. (Sin involves the heart, and not just the hand, foot, or eye.) One of our members recalls a pastor saying that Jesus is making the point that sin requires radical surgery. He is reminding you that there are eternal consequences to your choices. Choose to persist in rebellion and disobedience, and the eternal death of hell is yours. Avoid sin, no matter what the cost. You need to repent, to turn away from sin and to Christ. “Again, in the new life which follows repentance the absolute supremacy of God is the controlling principle. He who repents turns away from the service of mammon and self to the service of God. Our Lord is emphatic in insisting upon this absolute, undivided surrender of the soul to God as the goal of all true repentance. Because this and nothing less is the goal, he urges the necessity of a constant repetition of the process. Even to his followers he said a a comparatively late stage of his ministry, ‘Except ye turn and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven,’ Matt. 18:3.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church, pages 93–94)
Rejoice with the angels! The little ones may be ignored and even despised by the world. But their angels see the face of the Father in heaven. This is not just a guardian angel. Rather, the plural is used. And the angels are in heaven, beholding the face of the Father. (Be careful not to get too tied up in the details of angels. The focus is not on them, but on the Father, and secondarily, on those who trust in him.) The Father values these little ones so highly that “their angels” are always allowed in his presence, seeing his face. Your Father is not willing that any of these little ones should perish, v.14. His concern contrasts, both with the way the world viewed children, and with the self-promotion of seeking an important place in the kingdom. The depth of the Father’s concern is seen in the gift of his own beloved Son to be your Savior. The joy, not only of the shepherd finding the sheep, not only of the angels in heaven, but ultimately of the Father, that joy should fill your heart as you share in the trust of a child in his Father in heaven.
Become like a little child, and in that position of humility, experience the riches of God’s grace, the joys of being part of his kingdom. Regardless of your chronological age, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is children’s church. It is your church.