A Kingdom of Children
13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
Nothing can warm the heart quite like a picture of Jesus surrounded by children. Just imagine the scene that is described at the beginning and end of this passage. “And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them. . . . And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them” (vv. 13, 16).
The parents of these children have brought their little ones to Jesus hoping that he would touch them. The desire for the touch of Jesus was much more than wanting a handshake or “high five” from a celebrity. Six other times in Mark’s Gospel we read about Jesus touching someone and in every one of those instances his touch was associated with healing (1:41; 3:10; 5:27ff; 6:56; 8:22). Laying hands on someone signified a blessing conveyed to them (Gen 48:14-18). The touch of a rabbi was especially significant for that purpose. So it is not surprising that parents wanted to have Jesus touch their children. They wanted him to bless them.
But the disciples are trying to control the crowds and these young families are becoming a nuisance. Jesus has too many other important things to do; too many other important places to be. Remember that children in first century Judaism were not viewed in the same way we view them today. While children were important, their value was derived from the expectation that they would continue the family name. Childhood was only an unfortunate delay in the growth toward adulthood. Pre-adolescent children were therefore very low on the social scale and were not to be a bother to adults, especially to such an important one as Jesus. The rebuke of the disciples would have been viewed as appropriate as the rebuke of a Secret Service agent when approaching the President.
But Jesus insists on taking the time not only to touch these children but also to embrace them in his arms. They are important to him. While the disciples are quite sure that Jesus ought not waste his time on these kids, Jesus shows them that there is much to learn from these children.
MINISTRY TO CHILDREN
Perhaps we are not that much different in our attitude toward children today. Perhaps our sentimentalism is only a cover-up for our inability to see what Jesus sees in the little ones among us. Children’s ministry is one of the most underappreciated ministries in the church today. Just about every church I’ve ever been a part of is continuously in need of more volunteers to serve. It’s ironic that we think we are following Jesus by bowing out of children’s ministry because we don’t feel “called” to that work. Maybe we have the mindset of the disciples toward children more than we would care to admit.
How children can help you
I must confess that is how I often feel. I would much rather be up here every Sunday than to have to “miss worship” by ministering to our children. I have never considered the truth that ministry to children can be just as much an act of worship than what I can do in the sanctuary. And if I’m honest, I would have to admit that too often I would rather be up here with the adults where I am known than with the kids where I am not much appreciated.
This is precisely why Jesus says that children can help you in your pursuit of greatness in the kingdom of God. You see, we are naturally bent toward seeking a name for ourselves. Spending time with little children will not get you very far in that quest. But Jesus taught us in Mark 9:35-37 that in order to be great in the kingdom of God we must be last of all and servant of all. We have to take the position of the least among our peers. The reason is because then we are mercifully led to take our eyes off of ourselves and our own kingdom. Jesus then took a child into his arms and declared, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Mark 9:37).
Yes, this is a shameless plug for volunteers to work in the children’s ministry at Crosstown. But we are not trying to guilt you into it. We are calling you to this work not primarily because we need it but primarily because you need it. You need it so that you can be helped away from the self-centeredness of your depraved heart. Ministry to children can help you take your eyes off of yourself. Ministry to them out of sincere love will put your eyes on Jesus. That’s one reason he encourages us to minister to children.
I remember growing up there was one lady who served every week in the church nursery. And she had never married and never had any children herself. Imagine 30 years of changing diapers and wearing the spit-up of hundreds of children that are not your own. Few of us think that is fun. Fewer still really believe it is valuable. But Jesus says it is.
Do not hinder them
Ministry to children is not valuable only because of what it can do for you. There are eternal issues at stake for them. That’s why when Jesus saw what the disciples were doing, “he was indignant.” Rarely do we read about such strong emotion coming from Jesus. In Mark 3:5 we read that he became angry at the Pharisees for their heartlessness toward a man with a withered hand. But this seems even more intense. Jesus was not just angry. He was outraged. This is the only time this word is used in reference to Jesus. Why is he so angry? Isn’t he overreacting? Can’t he just say, “Hey guys, it’s ok. We can make time for these kids. Let them come.” Instead, you can see the redness in his face as he rebukes the disciples.
The disciples once again thought they were serving Jesus. They were protecting him from the crowds and these bothersome, probably noisy, children. But Jesus says they were hindering the children from coming to him. The only other time we find this word in Mark is in Mark 9:38, in a context very similar to this one. Remember the unknown exorcist? Thinking they were doing the right thing by forbidding him to cast out demons in Jesus’ name, the disciples were surely surprised when Jesus said, “Do not stop [hinder] him.” By trying to stop this man from practicing his faith in Jesus the disciples were in danger of causing him to lose what faith he had.
Jesus is furious because the disciples are a threat to the faith of these children. The physical coming to Jesus was an illustration of the spiritual coming to Jesus. It would be better for them if a millstone were hung around their neck than that they should be a barrier between these children and the Lord. Instead of trying to stop them from coming to Jesus, they should have been facilitating the meeting.
This is what we are called to do for children. Isn’t it sobering to think that we play this kind of role in the lives of little kids? This is serious business. And one that every parent should think about deeply.
And every church should think about it deeply, too. You can tell how serious a church is about following Jesus by seeing how importantly they view their ministry to their children. I’m not talking about how well we entertain them during church. I’m talking about how well we disciple them in the church.
At Crosstown we believe the church’s job is to come alongside parents and help them bring their children to Jesus. This is what children’s ministry at the church is for. If you have a child in our children’s ministry you take home a worksheet with questions to discuss with your child. We give out other materials to help you bring your children to Jesus. I pray you use these resources. If you don’t, I sure hope you use something else. Do not hinder the children from coming to Jesus.
But we’ve been asking ourselves about our older kids, the ones who sit in the service with us. How can we help you bring them to Jesus? We like them worshiping with us, but can we do more? We think we should. So we are hoping to begin a children’s ministry hour after New Year’s for the children at Crosstown, especially for our older children. We are only doing this to try to facilitate the parents’ task of bringing their children to Jesus. Please be praying with us as we think about how this should be done.
But one way or another it must be done. How we raise the children in this church is as critical as anything else we aim to do. It is central to what we believe about the gospel, too. I do not think it is an exaggeration when one commentator wrote:
Another gospel would have resulted and not that of Jesus, and another church rather than his church, had children been kept from Jesus and had Christianity been made into something for men alone.
The kingdom of God
You see, there is something significant about children that relates to the gospel because twice in this passage Jesus says that the kingdom of God is related to children. This is why Jesus is furious with those who hinder children from coming to him. What is the connection between children and the kingdom? First, children tell us something very important about the citizens of the kingdom. Second, they inform us about admission to the kingdom.
THE CITIZENS OF THE KINGDOM
Children tell us something about the citizens of the kingdom of God. “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (v. 14).
The King and his subjects
This explains why Jesus is so interested in the little children that surround him. It’s not sentimentality. It’s responsibility. He is the king in the kingdom of God and he sees his citizens in these children. And he is a good king. He loves his citizens. He protects his citizens. You don’t want to mess with those who belong to King Jesus. He so closely identifies with his people that if you offend them you are offending him.
Does this mean that all children without exception are subjects of his kingdom? Does this passage mean that we should assume that all children are saved? This is a valid question, but it is not the point of this text. This is a passage about discipleship, and Jesus wants to correct our misunderstandings once more about what it means to be his disciples.
To such belongs the kingdom
You see, what is most surprising is that Jesus seems to identify more closely with these children as his subjects than he does with his own disciples. The kingdom of God is filled with subjects like these children. It is not filled with subjects like these disciples who are concerned about who will be the greatest (Mark 9:34). This is a stern rebuke to these twelve men who do not think that anyone has access to Jesus like they do (Mark 9:38). But now, with Jesus surrounded by children, it is the disciples who are on the outside. These children can lay claim on the kingdom but apparently the disciples cannot.
But all is not lost. The disciples are not excluded from the kingdom because of their age, something that they can do nothing about. They are excluded because of their attitude. So long as they seek to be the greatest, they have no share in God’s kingdom.
This is why God chooses to fill his kingdom not with many who are wise, powerful, and noble but rather with the foolish, weak, lowly, and despised (1 Cor 1:26-28). Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). And, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10). This is a description of those who are the rightful subjects of God’s kingdom and who therefore inherit the blessings promised by the kingdom. God fills his kingdom with people who know they are not the greatest.
So by taking these children into his arms and pronouncing a blessing upon them, Jesus is not saying that his kingdom will be filled exclusively with children. He does not say, “Let the children come to me . . . for to them belongs the kingdom of God.” He says, “for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” The expression means that these children possess “certain definite qualities” that are true of those who can claim the kingdom. Jesus is again showing us what it takes to be a genuine disciple.
It will not take personal greatness. The subjects of the kingdom are not great ones but simple, faith-filled ones. To the Jewish elite Jesus once said, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt 21:31). We will surely be surprised one day by those who do enter the kingdom. And we will surely be surprised one day by those who do not. The reason we will be surprised is because we do not intuitively understand the gospel and what it tells us about what admission to the kingdom is. But children can help us understand.
ADMISSION TO THE KINGDOM
Verse fifteen is the most important verse in this passage. It begins with these words from Jesus: “Truly, I say to you.” Thirteen times in Mark Jesus begins a pronouncement like this, indicating that what follows is particularly important. This is the heart of what Jesus wants his disciples to learn in this situation. He is teaching them about admission to his kingdom. What does it take to become one of his citizens?
Receive the kingdom
First, Jesus tells us that we must receive the kingdom. Every citizen of this kingdom enters not because they have earned that right but because they have been given it. The kingdom of God cannot be purchased or merited. It is free. God gives it. We receive it.
How do we receive the kingdom? By accepting its King and his demands over our lives. This is critical. Receiving the kingdom means submitting ourselves willingly to God’s authority over our lives and gladly embracing the radical values of Jesus. I say willingly and gladly because Jesus has no resentful subjects. If you do not desire his kingdom you have not received his kingdom.
Like a child
Second, we must receive the kingdom like a child. This is the offense of the gospel. This is what the disciples had not yet learned. This is what keeps so many out of the kingdom.
And this is why we have much to learn about the gospel from children. Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 18:3 that “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In what sense must we become like children?
It is not their supposed innocence or purity or humility that Jesus commends. He is not telling us that we have to become innocent and pure to receive the kingdom, something that we cannot be no matter how hard we try. Interestingly, in Luke’s account of this passage (Luke 18:15) he tells us that the children that were brought to Jesus on this occasion included infants. He is telling us that we have to become helpless, like a newborn infant. The kingdom of God is the inheritance of those who receive the kingdom with nothing to contribute.
Barred from the kingdom
Finally, unless we come to him on these terms—and he will not negotiate any other terms with us—then we will be barred from the kingdom. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Once more Jesus’ words are related to us with the highest degree of seriousness. The words shall not enter are a double negative in Greek indicating the absolute impossibility of entering some other way. The only way to enter the kingdom is to receive the kingdom by submitting to its demands and Jesus’ lordship over your life as a helpless, needy child.
CONCLUSION: EASY AND RESTRICTED ACCESS
Is the kingdom of God easy or difficult to enter? It is both. It is like getting access to the most secured area of the Pentagon. If you have the right military credentials it’s easy to get in. If you lack those credentials, you haven’t got a chance.
That is why the gospel is both the best news you can ever hear and at the same time the most difficult news you will ever hear. It is good news because it means the credentials granting you access to the kingdom of God have already been provided for you. Entering the kingdom is as easy as it is for a child to sit down at the family table and eat a meal provided for him at no cost to himself.
But that is also why the gospel is difficult news. Because unless we come to God’s Table with nothing we will be barred from the pleasures of his kingdom. Our “grown up” value of pride will restrict us from entering in.
No merit of our own
Can the wrath of God suppress.
Our only hope is found
In Jesus’ righteousness.
The kingdom has come near in the person of Jesus. To receive the kingdom is to receive Jesus and his righteousness as our credentials and as our only hope. There is no other way, for his kingdom is a kingdom of children.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 309.
 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), rev. and ed. Frederick William Danker, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1010.
 R. T. France, Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2002), 397.