Of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven

“You’re not old enough for that. Wait until you grow up.” Those words, while appropriate in some cases, can be discouraging for a child. And, as Jesus points out in Matthew 19:13–15, they are horribly wrong if they are used to keep little children away from him and to exclude them from the kingdom of heaven.

Don’t forbid the little children. Both Jesus and the parents were interested in children. Children were being brought to Jesus. The active parties were, presumably, their parents. Matthew describes those being brought as little children. Luke uses the word “babies.” Jesus had left Galilee, and was traveling through parts of Judea. People who had not had the opportunity to be around him were trying to bring their children to him. The parents wanted Jesus to put his hands on the children (apparently in blessing) and to pray for them. They were part of the covenant community. Jesus was aware of the children in the marketplaces. He knew of their games, Matthew 11:16,17. Jesus had called a child to stand among him and his disciples as the responded to their question about the greatest in the kingdom, Matthew 18:2. He said that you need to become like little children to enter the kingdom, and warned severely against causing these little ones to sin, Matthew 18:3,6,10. Clearly Jesus had a genuine interest in and concern for children. They were not a bothersome interference in more important work.

The disciples forbid the children from approaching. The disciples rebuked those bringing the children. They may have had a legitimate concern about pressures on Jesus. Many demands were being made for his time. He was involved in healing the large crowds that followed him, Matthew 19:2. Before this (Matthew introduces this account with “then”) Jesus had been interacting with the Pharisees who were testing him with questions about marriage. He had taken the time to elaborate on the issue with his disciples. They may have considered taking time out to touch little children as something below the interest and concern of their Lord. Children had to grow up before they were important enough for the disciples to notice. And lurking in the context are indications of their severe misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. In Matthew 18:1 they had asked Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom. In Matthew 20:20,21 James and John, through their mother, request the positions of honor in the kingdom. The disciples seem to be so concerned about exercising their authority in the kingdom that Jesus is establishing that they have no time for little children. Thus they forbid their approach.

But, of such is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus lays his hands on the children. Jesus forbids hindering children from approaching him. His language sounds strong. Mark 10:14 tells of his indignation at the action of the disciples. “Our Lord’s reply is to the effect that none are more intimately involved in his redemptive work and ministry than little infants and that therefore they are to be received into the bosom of the saints’ fellowship and love”.( John Murray, Christian Baptism, page 66) Jesus emphatically puts the disciples in their place for daring to hinder the children from coming. Positively, Jesus received the children and placed his hands on them. And as they received his touch he doubtless also granted the parents’ request and prayed for them. Although the words “he went on from there” may just be a natural geographic transition, they do indicate that the final activity of Jesus in that particular location was his placing his hands on the children. They were the focus of his concluding work there.

The kingdom is made of these little ones and those like them. Jesus’ treatment of the children continues the way that children were treated in the old covenant. They were received as part of the covenant community. “… Jesus no longer expects anything from his people and they in turn reject him and hang him on a cross. Still, despite all this, he continues to regard their children as children of the covenant (Matt. 18:2ff.; 19:13ff.; 21:15–16; Mark 10:13ff.; Luke 9:48; 18:15ff.). He calls them to himself, embraces them, lays hands on them, blesses them, tells them that theirs is the kingdom of heaven, marks them as an example to adults, warns the latter not to offend them, says that their angels watch over them, and reads their hosannas as a fulfillment of the prophecy that God has made the speech of children a power by which those who hate him are silenced, and he has ordained praise… from their lips.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics,Vol. 4, p. 528) A covenant child doesn’t “join the church” when he confesses his faith in Christ. He has already been counted by his Lord as being part of his people. Although this passage alone is not proof of the doctrine of infant baptism, the way that Jesus treats the little children here is certainly compatible with that. If little children of believers belong to the kingdom of heaven, if Jesus is concerned with them, if they are among the fellowship of the saints, should they not receive the sign of membership in the covenant, just as they did in the Old Testament? John Murray writes: “There is nothing signified and sealed by baptism that is in excess of that which our Lord asserts infants to be and of that which he commands they should be accounted” (page 66). As a church we need to receive and treat these little ones as the Savior did. Beware of falling into the trap of the disciples and considering children second-class citizens in the kingdom. Don’t misunderstand what Jesus is saying. It is not that little children are free from sin — we are all sons and daughters of Adam. We are not saying that baptism itself saves. It does not. Only Christ saves. We are not saying that children don’t need to be evangelized. All of God’s people need the good news. Notice the emphasis in Deuteronomy 6 on teaching your children. Children are not received into the kingdom of heaven (nor do they receive baptism) on the grounds of presumption. The mark of belonging to the kingdom of heaven is to be administered at God’s command, not on the basis of speculation or presumption. The teaching of the covenant should never be grounds to minimize the seriousness of sin and rebellion. Remember that the covenant sign of membership in God’s kingdom, both in the Old Testament and in the New, has a judgment aspect as well as blessing. Whether you were baptized as an adult or as a baby, pay attention to what the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 167, calls “improving your baptism.” Children, if your Savior has welcomed you, how great is your responsibility to grow in trusting him, in serving and obeying him.

Being part of the kingdom of heaven is not something that waits until you grow up. Regardless of your age, now is the time to come to Jesus and to be received by him.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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