Suffer the Little Children
Matthew 18:1-6; 19:13-15
January 16, 2013 | Ray Pritchard
“Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14 KJV).
On January 20 we will observe Sanctity of Human Life Day. Each year we choose the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. That decision matters because at least 50 million babies have been legally aborted in the last forty years.
50 million is a lot of people. Here’s a way to think about it.
Take the population of Georgia,
Plus the population of Michigan,
Add the population of Virginia,
Plus the population of Nebraska,
Add the population of Nevada,
Include the population of Iowa,
Add the population of South Dakota,
Then add the population of Rhode Island,
Take the population of Arizona,
Plus the population of Oregon,
Add the population of Kansas,
Include the population of Vermont,
Plus the population of Mississippi,
Then add the population of Alaska.
50 million is a lot of people.
That would total approximately 50 million people.
That’s 14 states wiped out.
That’s what we’ve done in America since 1973.
That’s what we’re still doing.
In 2009 41% of all viable pregnancies in New York City ended in abortion.
It’s hard to know what to do with a number like that.
Forty years after Roe v. Wade, abortion remains a divisive issue in American politics. In one hopeful note, the Gallup Poll on Abortion shows that support for the pro-life position has been slowing rising since 1996. In 2012 50% of those surveyed called themselves pro-life while 41% self-identified as pro-choice.
Because this is a sensitive issue, many people prefer not to think about it. In any congregation you will find a spectrum of opinions and a spectrum of experiences.
Some are angry.
Some are brokenhearted.
Some are guilty.
Some are chained to the past.
Some are frustrated.
Some are unsure where they stand.
Some want to change the subject.
It’s almost impossible to find anyone who is truly neutral.
How should we approach this issue? I wonder what Jesus would say about abortion. How would he feel about it? What if he were walking among us today? Is there any way to be sure about what he would say?
We can begin with one obvious fact. Jesus never directly addressed this issue, mostly because abortion was not commonly practiced in Israel. It was considered a pagan practice. Because the Jews in Jesus’ day did not kill their unborn, there was no reason to address the issue (See The Early Church on Abortion and Abortion in the Bible and Church History).
So if we ask, “What would Jesus do today?” we’re not asking the right question. We ought to ask, “What did Jesus do and what did he say?”
The gospels leave us with many important clues, none more important than this. How did the Lord Jesus treat children?
Abortion was not commonly practiced in ancient Israel.
Jesus dealt with children on two separate occasions. The first is recorded in Matthew 18 and Mark 9. The second is mentioned in Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 18. All say substantially the same thing.
The Basic Principle
Let’s begin with a statement of the basic principle from an incident recorded in Matthew 19:13-15.
Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
This has been called “the Magna Carta of Children.” These are some of the simplest words Jesus ever spoke. Only hard hearts would not be moved by them.
I am touched by several things in this passage:
1. The spontaneous desire of parents to bring their children to Jesus. When Luke tells this story, he uses the Greek word for “babies.” It’s the same word he used for John the Baptist leaping for joy in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:44).
2. The disciples’ reluctance to let the children come near. How typical this is, how very modern. We get so task-oriented and so busy saving the world that we don’t want the children to bother the Savior. How strange, how sad, and yet how often this happens. The disciples were like the president’s bodyguards, keeping well-wishers at a distance. To the disciples, the children were just a bother, one more interruption in an already-busy day.
3. Jesus’ indignation at those who would keep children away from him. In Mark’s version of this incident (Mark 10:13-16), he uses a word that means Jesus was upset by what his disciples did. Many translations say he became angry. The ERV says it this way: “He did not like his followers telling the children not to come.” The Message says, “But Jesus was irate and let them know it.”
Jesus was irate and let them know it.
4. Only those who are like children can come at all. Look at what Jesus said in Mark 10:15 (HCSB), “I assure you: Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” That must have shocked those big-shot disciples. Ironically, at that moment the little children were closer to Jesus than the disciples who tried to keep them away.
5. Jesus’ willingness to embrace children and bless them. According to Mark 10:16, “He took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” No wonder parents loved him. If you show kindness to my children, it means more than if you had shown kindness to me. Little children are smarter than we think. They know when they are loved, and they respond with love to those who love them. No wonder children flocked to him.
Think of it . . . the parents wanted their children to come to Jesus . . . the boys and girls were not afraid of him . . . and he picked them up in his arms . . . then he put his hands on them and blessed them. “Their innocent helplessness appealed to the King.” (Charles Erdman)
Should we do any less? Is there any work greater than caring for children? Should we not also bring our children to him? And if we do, will he turn them away? No, he will not. He will embrace our children just as he embraced these children so long ago.
Jesus will not turn our children away.
It is Christ-like to love children, to care for them, to welcome them, and to embrace them. It is like Jesus to become indignant at those who would mistreat them.
Is it not like Jesus to save the babies the world would kill?
Jesus is the little child’s best friend. His blessing has brought its benediction wherever his name has been heard. Christianity has always been the religion that safeguarded the rights of children.
Wherever the gospel goes . . . it honors families . . . it ennobles motherhood . . . it protects and preserves the place of children.
Where Christ is known and trusted and followed, and where his example is the model, there infancy is sacred and children are safe.
The Solemn Warning
Lest we miss the seriousness of all this, Matthew 18 includes another story that starts as a question the disciples asked.
“Lord, who is the greatest in the kingdom?” (v. 1)
Strange that Jesus’ handpicked men would ask a question like that. You would think that having followed the Master for many months, all thought of human competition would have vanished.
But you cannot cancel human nature.
So Jesus took a child and had him stand in their midst (v. 2). As the disciples looked at the young boy, they wondered what Jesus meant to say. The answer was simple and clear:
“Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3).
Then the direct answer to their question:
“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 4).
Jesus is the little child’s best friend.
Then comes the heart of the message for us today. In the next few verses Jesus tells us why children matter so much to him and why they should matter to us.
Here are three principles we need to consider:
1. When we welcome a child in Jesus’ name, we are welcoming Jesus himself.
“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” (v. 5). This statement has enormous implications:
1. How we feel about having children.
2. How we respond to cultural pressure from radical feminism.
3. How we react to the burden of childrearing.
Why does he say that to welcome a little child is to welcome him? Because Jesus himself was once a baby!
The reverse is also true. When we reject our children, we are rejecting Christ himself. The words of Paul Vitz (Psychology as Religion, p. 66) come to mind:
Recall that the young Mary was pregnant under circumstances that today routinely terminate in abortion. In the important theological context of Christmas, the killing of an unborn child is a symbolic killing of the Christ child.
2. When we deliberately harm a child, we face an unspeakable judgment.
“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (v 6).
Literally the warning is against those who cause little children to stumble. What does Jesus mean by this? It means to lead them into sin, to tempt to evil, to hurt the children, to abuse them, to neglect them, to ignore them, to expose them to danger, and ultimately to harm them physically or spiritually.
When we reject our children, we are rejecting Christ himself.
It’s anything we do that causes harm to come to our children.
Note that Jesus applies this to “these little ones who believe in me,” thus teaching us a vital truth. Sometimes we wonder, “Can a child truly believe in Jesus?” Yes, indeed, and if we have raised our children in the truth of God, we ought to expect them to believe.
Let us pray to that end and work to that end.
Let us ask God to save our children at an early age.
Some people mock the faith of a child. That is a terrible thing to do. Some cast doubt and make jokes as if only adults can believe in Jesus. How sad, how tragic, how truly evil that we should make fun of God’s little children. Here is Charles Spurgeon’s comment in Do Not Hinder the Children:
People occasionally say of such a one, “He is only fit to teach children: he is no preacher.” I tell you, in God’s sight he is no preacher who does not care for the children.
John Piper (Let the Children Come to Me) offers this warning to those who belittle reaching children for Christ:
If you are receiving the kingdom yourself like a little child, then you will not do anything to hinder little children from coming to Jesus. But if you are trying to enter the kingdom some other way than by receiving it like a child, then you will probably be a hindrance to children. If you are not childlike toward God, children will probably be beneath you and not worth your time.
In my notes I found the following quote, which has no attribution. So I will share it not knowing who said it and simply make a follow-up comment.
Children will come to Jesus if we do not hinder it.
Let us ask God to save our children at an early age.
Our responsibility is not so much to bring them to Christ as to get things out of the way that hinder them coming to Jesus. Then I found this written in my notes:
Children naturally love Jesus!
That statement strikes me as true if by it we mean something like this: “Just as the children of Jesus’ day knew that he was their friend, even so children today love to hear about him.” If we will but tell the story of Jesus, our children will be drawn to him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
But then we must face the judgment of Matthew 18:6. In the ancient world, the farmers would take freshly-harvested grain and grind it between two heavy stones. The “millstone” was a huge stone so heavy that it was pulled by a donkey. The “depth of the sea” represents the deepest, darkest, most turbulent spot. If you hang a millstone around a man’s neck and drop him in the depth of the sea, he will most certainly drown. The millstone makes his death doubly sure. It speaks of a terrible, agonizing death.
Jesus said the judgment of those who harm his children is much worse than that!
And so I must ask the question. What does Jesus say about those who make their living by killing babies? What of those who make millions in the evil abortion industry? What of the cowardly politicians who vote for it?
I would not want to be in their shoes when Judgment Day comes.
Pope John Paul II cast the matter in a larger context with these words:
“Whoever attempts to destroy human life in the womb of the mother not only violates the sacredness of a living, growing and developing human being, and thus opposes God, but also attacks society by undermining respect for all human life.”
President Ronald Reagan put it very simply: “Everybody who’s for abortion has already been born.”
3. When we protect a child from harm, we are only doing what God has already done.
“See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (v. 10).
Check out that phrase: “their angels in heaven.” Is this a reference to what we commonly call “guardian angels”? Perhaps. Certainly it means that the angels of God watch over little children. What do they do? They protect them, they care for them, they watch over them.
Everybody who’s for abortion has already been born.
I think I’ve learned something about this ever since our grandchildren started arriving several years ago. Whenever a new picture of Knox or Eli pops up on Facebook, Marlene makes sure I see it. A few weeks ago Josh posted a video of Knox standing in front of a snowman in Vermont. With a little prompting from Josh and Leah, Knox (who is 2 ½) sang “Frosty the Snowman.” We played that video over and over again. Then Mark posted a video of Eli doing some Gangham-style dancing, if that’s what you call it when a little boy who is not yet two waves his arms to the music, dips this way and that way, claps his hands at the end, and then looks at the camera with a smile, as if to say, “I did a good job, didn’t I?” It was terrific, and we watched it over and over, examining every move he made. We never grow tired of it.
Last June Josh and Leah made a Smilebox video of Knox wishing me Happy Father’s Day. He couldn’t quite get it all out, so he said, “Happy day,” and smiled. At the end he said, “Bye-bye, G-Pa.” I saved it on my computer desktop so I could watch it any time I like. I’ve seen it at least 35 or 40 times. And it does something to my heart every time I see it.
I am captivated by my grandsons. Or perhaps I should say, “They have captured my heart,” and they did it without even trying.
I will do whatever I can to help them. They don’t have to ask me. I should say in passing that it’s different even than when Josh, Mark and Nick were growing up. After thinking about it, I can’t explain exactly what the difference is, but it is there.
So I think about my sons and now about my grandsons. They are never from my mind, and no one has to remind me to think about them. Even as I write these words, there is something inside that I feel, a kind of love and concern and fear and joy all mixed up together.
How much more will God take care of my children and grandchildren.
But if I, a very imperfect father and grandfather, feel that way about my children and grandchildren, how much more does God love them.
How much more will God take care of them.
How much more will he watch out for them.
How much more will he reward their trusting hearts.
If my children are precious to me, if my grandchildren mean so much to me, do they mean any less to God? They are far more precious, for he sends his angels to watch them while they sleep. Sometimes when I’m busy, I don’t think about them. But the Lord never forgets.
But how does he remember them all? He never gets their names mixed up.
At this point I will interject something from my notes, written almost 30 years ago when the boys were still at home and very young:
“One of the angels leans over and says, ‘Joshua is the one who looks like his father. Mark is the one covered with paint. Nick is the one swallowing pennies.’”
Honestly, I can’t remember what that means because I wrote it a long time ago. But I’m sure it’s quite true, at least the larger point that God knows our children by name, individually and personally, and he knows which is which and never gets them mixed up.
The angels who watch over my sons and grandsons are in the presence of God. Nothing they need ever goes unnoticed.
Doing the Work of Jesus
Our God sees and knows all the little children of the world. Every time we move with love and compassion on behalf of the children, born and unborn, we are doing that which is dear to the heart of God.
I will declare to you what I believe. The Lord Jesus is on the side of those who love little children. And we are on his side when we stand up for them.
We are on the side of the angels when we do everything in our power to stop the killing of the unborn.
Jesus is on the side of those who love little children.
We’re doing what Jesus would do.
We’re doing what he did when he took the children in his arms and blessed them.
In its widest embrace, this principle involves all those who love little children. It includes an army of doctors and nurses who treat infants and young boys and girls. It includes those who teach our children. It certainly includes those who rescue children from brutality, abuse, slavery and sexual exploitation.
God bless every Sunday School teacher who comes week after week to teach the children in her class.
God bless the Vacation Bible School volunteers.
God bless the Awana workers.
God bless the children’s choir leaders.
God bless those who lead backyard Bible clubs.
God bless those who take in foster children.
God bless those who adopt children.
God bless those who care for children with special needs.
God bless those who lead Children’s Church and give the Children’s Sermon on Sunday morning.
God bless those who write good books for children and design safe toys for them and sing to them and pray with them and for them.
But there is more that needs to be said as we think about the tragedy of abortion.
When we give our money to those who help unwed mothers, we are doing the work of Jesus.
When we give our time to counsel the confused, we are doing the work of Jesus.
When we urge our leaders to protect the unborn, we are doing the work of Jesus.
When we volunteer at our local crisis pregnancy center, we are doing the work of Jesus.
When we speak out on behalf of those who have no voice, we are doing the work of Jesus.
When we risk misunderstanding and embarrassment to save lives, we are doing the work of Jesus.
As the old chorus says, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” We need only to add that he loves those little children even before they come out of the womb.
We are for Jesus, and Jesus is for children.
Let me summarize my message this way: There are many reasons why we oppose abortion, and chief among them is this. We are for Jesus . . . and Jesus is for children.
That’s why he said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
What Our Children Teach Us
Our children can teach us so much. Dr. Thomas Elkins writes poignantly from his own personal experience:
“We look at our own child, Ginny, who has Down syndrome, and see our own limitedness. She shows us love even when we, at first, were not totally accepting of her. These kids love us until we begin to love them back. And by loving them, we learn a whole new definition of love-something very akin to grace.”
Our children teach us that you don’t have to be perfect to be loved. Love is deeper than that. You don’t have to have a spotless record. You can be the world’s biggest failure, and still you are loved. That’s grace!
And we learn it from our children.
Just become like a little child.
Which leads me to ask this personal question. Do you want to go to heaven? It’s very simple, really. Just become like a little child. That’s all.
–Come to Jesus and say, “I need you.”
–Come to Jesus and say, “I’ve blown it.”
–Come to Jesus and say, “I’m trusting in you.”
That’s like a child. . . . Humility . . . Total dependence . . . Complete honesty . . . No cover-ups . . . No games . . . No pride . . . No conditions . . . No deals.
As you come to Jesus, keep the words of this familiar children’s hymn in mind:
Jesus loves me! This I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak but He is strong.
This verse tells how Jesus saves us:
Jesus loves me! He who died
Heaven’s gate to open wide;
He will wash away my sin,
Let His little child come in.
And the chorus is a wonderful affirmation of faith:
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.
Perhaps you should stop right now and sing those words and make them your own.
Heaven is for people who aren’t ashamed to become like children. That’s the only way anyone ever gets in.
You aren’t perfect . . . That’s the truth.
But Jesus still loves you . . . That’s grace.
You can enter the Kingdom of Heaven if you want to. The door is open to those who are not ashamed to come as little children.