The picture of Jesus welcoming little children is familiar to many, but this story is much more than an example of Jesus' kindness. Alistair Begg teaches us an important lesson about the kingdom of God: it belongs to the weak, helpless, and unimportant. Salvation cannot be earned by our status or good works, but must be received like a child receives an undeserved gift.
I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Mark 10:13. Mark 10:13:
“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.”
Now, Father, with our Bibles open before us, help us, we pray, in speaking and in hearing to both understand and believe, and obey, and enter into the joy of the truth of that which is the focus of our study now. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I must confess, I only know, I think, three statements that are attributed to Groucho Marx, and you’re probably much the same. And one of them goes like this: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” It’s a very interesting, self-deprecating statement—and pretty humorous. “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
We recognize that in joining clubs there are almost inevitably entry requirements. In some cases, for example, to be a member of Mensa, which is the club for geniuses, there is an entry requirement that is directly related to intelligence quotient. In other clubs, it’s athleticism. In some, it is age: we’re too young, or perhaps we’re too old. In some instances, it is gender. I took a wonderful photograph this summer in St Andrews, of two elderly ladies sitting on a bench outside a small pavilion, looking onto the old course in St Andrews—and across the inscription above them, painted onto the wall, it said that this was the putting green that was reserved for the females and had been there since 1837. I desperately wanted to go putting with these elderly ladies, but I couldn’t, because I was excluded on the basis of gender. Some clubs demand wealth. And so on. And in each case, it has to do with status—our relative standing in comparison to other people around us.
And it is that which makes all the more striking the statements made by Jesus here in this little section that is before us. Because once again, as we’ve seen before, Jesus turns human evaluation upside down and makes entry into his kingdom dependent upon none of the things that are often used by us as means of identifying our significance.
He has already told his disciples—you can read of this in 8:35—that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” It’s paradoxical. It is an enigmatic statement. It’s a kind of upside-down way of thinking about things. Instead of holding on to all that I am and all that I have, Jesus says, “If you will throw all of that away, if you will turn that all over for me and for the gospel, then you will discover what real life is about, and you will have life that lasts forever.”
Well, these verses are familiar to any of us who know our Bibles. I’ve known the core verse here for as long as I can actually remember: “Suffer the little children to come unto me … for of such [belongs] the kingdom of God,” in the King James Version. And the very familiarity that we have with these verses may prevent us from coming to an understanding of what it is that Jesus is teaching. So let me tell you what I think it is that Jesus is saying in these verses, and then we’ll go on from there to unpack them. I think he’s saying two things: Number one, the kingdom of God is for the weak, the helpless, and the unimportant. And number two, unless we receive the kingdom of God on that basis, we will never enter it.
Now, Mark has told us from the very beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is speaking concerning the kingdom. Mark 1:15: “The time [is now fulfilled],” says Jesus, as he goes into the region of Galilee, proclaiming the good news, “the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” In other words, what Jesus is saying is, “I am the King, and I have come now to establish my kingly rule. And my kingly rule is now being established in the hearts and lives of men and women. The signs that I’m about to do will give evidence of the fact that I am Lord over creation.” Hence his healing of people, hence his ability to bring the wind and the waves under subjection, and so on. But he is inviting men and women to bow down before him, to turn from their own kingly rule and reign, and to embrace him. And it is within that wider context that this little section is given to us.
I’ve gathered my thoughts under three words: first of all, the word description; then, the word instruction; and then finally, the word application. Because in verses 13 and 14a, we have description. It is in the third person; there is no dialogue here. And the description gives to us, first of all, the arrival of these individuals, “people.” People. This is generic. There’s no particular significance to the people. It’s just “people.” The “them” is actually in the masculine. I just point that out for those of you who are interested, because I think the way in which, most of the time, we have received this little section, the thought is that here are a bunch of ladies, and they’re bringing their children to meet Jesus—a kind of women’s event for little ones, a kind of children’s ministry feature. But in actual fact, the “them” is a masculine “them,” giving indication of the fact that it is perhaps the fathers who were bringing them, or that older masculine children are involved in bringing the smaller children to have Jesus touch them.
Anyway, notice three things under “description.” Number one, that the parents’ expectation is understandable. The parents’ expectation is understandable—namely, that they want this increasingly famous rabbi to bless their children. There is some precedent for this. And as you read various writings of this time and, indeed, as you review history, you will remember that the blessing of the rabbi has always been important to those who come from that background. And of course, you’re tired of this, but I always refer to my favorite movie in this regard, Fiddler on the Roof—and they come to the rabbi, and remember, and they say, “Do you have a blessing for the czar?” And he says, “Yeah, may God bless the czar and keep him as far away from us as possible. That would be my blessing for the czar.” Well, in the same way, it’s perfectly understandable; if it was in contemporary terms, people would be coming to Jesus and saying, “Jesus, would you bless my children, and could I possibly have a photograph while you are doing so?”
So the expectation of the parents is understandable. Secondly, the disciples’ reaction is unacceptable. Instead of acting as a bridge, they act as a barrier. Instead of making it easy for these individuals to be blessed by Jesus, they are preventing them. It’s an irony, isn’t it, that the followers of Jesus could in any circumstance be the ones who were preventing other people from being blessed by the Jesus that they have begun to follow. Mercifully, their attempt at prevention in this instance is absolutely set aside, as we will see in verse 16.
And then thirdly, we notice under “description” that Jesus’ indignation is unmistakable. If the parents’ expectation is understandable, and if the disciples’ reaction is unacceptable, then the indignation of Jesus is quite unmistakable.
Now, the word that is used here is a fairly graphic word; it is a strong word. And once again, it gives indication of what Jesus had already pointed out in relationship to these fellows—most recently, back in chapter . After he had explained the nature of his suffering that was in prospect in Jerusalem, you remember, Peter had taken him aside and had remonstrated with him strongly, saying, “Jesus, we don’t want you to go up to Jerusalem and do these things that you’re talking about—suffering and dying.” And on that occasion, Jesus had rebuked him sharply, and he had said to him, “The problem here, Peter, is that you do not have in mind the things of God. You have in mind the things of men.” In other words, “You’re thinking wrongly about these issues.” And it is that which is present now in this encounter—hence Jesus’ anger with his disciples. The people are coming, asking if Jesus will bless their children. The disciples say, “No, just get these kids out of here!” Jesus is indignant in his response.
Oh, the disciples understood that the children had no standing in society; Jesus understood that as well. But that was not a reason for them to dismiss them as they did. They were going to do the same thing, probably, in the company of others later on, when they meet the blind beggar Bartimaeus. That’ll be later on in chapter 10 here. And you remember, here is a blind beggar at the side of the road, and he’s crying, “Son of David, have mercy [up]on me.” And those who are at the front of the procession, and presumably disciples among them, tell him, “Be quiet! Be quiet. Jesus is involved in important things here. He doesn’t have time for all this shouting and bawling. He doesn’t have time for you and your expectation of the blessing of your children.”
And, of course, at the end of chapter 9, you remember, classically—if you’re able to go back far enough—that they had already come to Jesus, explaining, with their feathers preened, that they had found a man driving out demons. This is 9:38: “We found him driving out demons in your name, and we told him to stop, because he wasn’t one of us. We didn’t like the fact that he didn’t fit into our little framework. So we just told him to stop.” And then they’re waiting for Jesus to say, “Excellent work!” And Jesus says, “What are you talking about, you told him to stop? Do not stop him! Don’t stop him.” It’s the very same phrase that is used here: “When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. [And] he said to them, ‘… Do not hinder them.’” “Do not stop them.”
Now, at some point, all of us have heard sermons that pretty well evaporate at this point. The sermon has got about as far as the minister wants it to go, and it pretty well fizzles out with a sermon that becomes a sort of moralistic exhortation that goes like this: “Now, we’ve seen what happened here, folks. The parents came looking for a blessing. That’s nice. The disciples reacted badly. That’s horrible. But isn’t Jesus just amazing? I mean, Jesus was nice to children, and here’s the point: we should be nice to children too. Now, we’re going to have a closing hymn, and I hope that you’ll all have a wonderful time this afternoon, and just be nice to your children. Isn’t that what the Bible is saying here? Don’t be like these miserable disciples, but instead be like Jesus.” And so we have, as a sort of romanticized, sentimental thing, at which point every male in the congregation nudges his wife and says, “This is why I don’t come here, because apparently this is Christianity. It’s a kind of feminized thing, and you’re supposed to put blankets over old ladies’ knees, and you’re supposed to be nice to children. I didn’t need to go and use up an hour of my morning in order to discover this.”
Well, don’t let’s sidestep the fact that Jesus is wonderfully nice to children. There’s no setting that aside; there’s no denying that. And he does stand in direct contrast to the disciples, doesn’t he? But that surely isn’t the point. That surely isn’t why Mark has recorded this. Luke records this. Matthew records this. We could find that out in other ways. And indeed, we can be absolutely certain that it isn’t the point, because Jesus makes the point. And we move from description to instruction.
“When Jesus saw this, he was indignant.” End of description, beginning of instruction. “He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to’”— and this is important—the kingdom of God belongs not to children, but “‘the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’” So now we gotta think about what he means, “such as these.” And then he says, “[And verily,] verily I say [to] you”—in other words, “This is one of the big ones.” “Let me tell you,” he says, “while I’ve got these little ones with me here, let me tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will by no means enter it.” Oh, well, that puts a lot more teeth in the dialogue, doesn’t it? That brings it out in an entirely different way.
And that’s why I say there are two things that Jesus is saying. And here they are again. Number one, the kingdom of God belongs to the weak, the helpless, and the unimportant.
Now, you see, contemporary views on children hinder our ability to grasp this. In the first century, they understood the nature of a child. In the twenty-first century, we are in danger of completely misunderstanding the nature of a child. So is Jesus simply saying, “Children are cute, they’re cuddly, they’re innocent, and they’re the center of the universe. So if you will only find it in yourselves to be a little more cute and cuddly, and stop doing all the naughty things you’re doing, then you can also come and be part of my kingdom.” Well, some people might want to say yes to that.
But no, the point here is not about a child’s subjective qualities. Children are cute, they are cuddly, but they’re not innocent. If you think children are innocent, you don’t know any children! If you think children are innocent, you’ve never been a child! And that’s impossible. And they ought not to be the center of the universe.
But the point is that it is the objective characteristic of children that is at the heart of Jesus’ explanation. In other words, children are small, they are weak, they are helpless, they are at the bottom of the social order. They do not vote, they do not have a driver’s license, they are not asked about decisions regarding significant events in their own lives or in the lives of their family or their extended family. They are taken to the physician in order that they might have their inoculations, despite the fact that they are not big enough or developed enough to initiate that doctor’s visit or to stand against that doctor’s visit. They are, characteristically, without claim or without merit. They are small. They are helpless.
Now, when you articulate that, you realize it’s no wonder, then, that they are so warmly received by Jesus—that Jesus would receive such individuals with such warmth, in contrast to the rebuke of the disciples. In other words, they are the epitome of the needy. They are the epitome of the needy. They do not wake up in the morning and decide whether they’re going to have All Bran or Cheerios or whatever it might be. They wake up in the morning in their infancy, and they are entirely dependent on another providing nourishment for their bodies, providing cleanliness for them, providing their care. They are hungry individuals. They are lonely individuals. When we put them to bed at night, they often ask us if we will leave a light on, in the hope that that little bit of light will be an encouragement to them, because they feel themselves to be alone in this gigantic, big bedroom—and it only may be eight by ten.
Now, it is only when we come to terms with that that we can then make any sense of what Jesus is saying here. When Jesus says, “The kingdom of God belongs to people like this”—people like what? People like those who are needy, who are lonely, who are helpless, who have no claim or merit in themselves. So that Jesus is actually teaching his disciples that the kingdom of God belongs to those who have no obvious importance. No obvious importance. That the kingdom of God belongs to people, if you like, who have zero status. Not the people who can buy themselves in, not the people who can religionate themselves in—none of these things! It is the very littleness, the very helplessness, of children that is in focus.
That is why he then goes on to say, “[And] I tell you the truth”—verse 15—unless we receive the kingdom of God on that basis, we’ll never enter it. Well, this is actually a hard saying of Jesus, isn’t it? In other words, to receive the kingdom of God depends upon our willingness to receive it. To receive it. To be given it. That we can’t claim it as a right, we can’t attempt to earn it as a reward. You see how very different this is, then, from the idea that focuses upon the subjective qualities of children and says, “If you will actually try and cultivate these kind of things in your life, then you’ll receive the kingdom as a reward from trying to do your level best with these things.” That’s the absolute reverse of what Jesus is saying.
Jesus is saying, “If you come to terms with the nature of what it means to be a child, then you will realize that if it takes that to enter the kingdom of heaven, the only way that you will ever be in the kingdom of heaven is a result of accepting it.” In other words, it’s not about achieving, it’s about accepting—which, of course, runs through the whole story of the gospel. By the time Paul is writing his own letter to the church at Rome, he puts it so succinctly, doesn’t he, when he establishes the contrast between sin, which pays wages, and the gift of forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus, which is actually not earned as a wage but is received as a gift. Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
You see, it is this very notion which is a stumbling block to all who take pride in who we are, in what we are, in all that we have been able to achieve. And whenever we introduce these elements into our Christian experience, we distort the grace of God. We distort what Jesus is saying here.
Now, he’s going to go on—and we’ll see this next time, all being well—and be encountered by a man who came to him and said, “Good master,” or “Good teacher … what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Tell me what I need to do.” That’s the question always of religion, isn’t it? “Tell me what I need to do.” And it is a distortion of the gospel that says, “Well, let me tell you what you need to do.” The good news that Jesus was proclaiming was not good news that tells us what we need to do, but the good news about what Jesus came to do— from our perspective, looking back, the good news of what Jesus has actually done.
And in a remarkable way, the story of the good news, in relationship to children, in all of their helplessness, and in all of their need for attention, and for care, and so on, is embodied in the incarnation. That the story of Christianity is not the story of man’s attempt to try and penetrate the barriers of God’s majesty and greatness but is the story of God coming and penetrating our world. “From heaven you came, helpless babe, entered our world, your glory veiled.” That God himself becomes incarnate in the helplessness and fragility of the Bethlehem scene. No surprise, then, that entry into this kingdom would be an entry to be enjoyed by those who come as little children.
Nicodemus came to Jesus as a religious individual, with all of his credentials, only to discover that he could never see the kingdom of God, he could never enter the kingdom of God, unless he was born again. In other words, unless God did something, then he would just remain as a religious individual, ticking off all the things he got correct, marking with an X all the things he got wrong. And there are not a few individuals who come routinely to Parkside, and that is as far as you’ve got—determined to become religious, to do whatever you can, in order to finally make it into this kingdom. I hope you haven’t picked up from me or from any of my colleagues the idea that it is an issue of status, that you have to be a certain kind of person, that you have to dress in a certain kind of way, that you have to have a certain kind of intellect, that you have to have a certain kind of religious and privileged background. None of these things counts for anything in entry to the kingdom of heaven. And to the extent that we would raise any of these things as a barrier, then we would be as guilty as the disciples of preventing people receiving a blessing which Jesus freely gives.
Well, let me end with a couple of words by way of application. And you are sensible people; you must examine this text again and see if what I say to you is accurate. But you see, what the gospel does—what this story does—it both humbles our pride and it picks us up in our fallenness. So that it humbles the pride of all for whom status is the issue, and as a result of that status, we refuse to bow the knee to any other king. We’re like Herod, who, when the news was out that a king had been born in Bethlehem of Judea, “was troubled, and all [of] Jerusalem with him.” Why? Because he did not want to have any other king except himself, no one else on a throne except Herod. That’s what we are by nature. By nature, we don’t want anybody to come and rule and reign over our lives—over our marriage, over our sexuality, over our finances, over our decisions in life, and so on.
No, we’ve regarded what we’ve done so far as very commendable. And we, frankly, are not the kind of people who receive gifts. We are benefactors—it’s the American way—we are not beneficiaries. And we may not say it as boldly as that, but that is our reaction to the gospel: “I will take care of this myself, thank you.” And Jesus says, “Well, I got news for you. There is no possibility of you ever entering the kingdom, in all of its finality, unless you receive it in the hopelessness and weakness and helplessness that is represented in a child.”
And it not only humbles the proud, but it welcomes the individual who knows himself to be absolutely at the bottom of the tree. And there are those who, by dint of all kinds of circumstances, have finally arrived there. And we would say that our congregation this morning probably divides itself along those lines. Outside of those who have been by grace through faith welcomed into this forgiven kingdom, we either stand away from it because we’re too proud to receive the gift or because we don’t believe that anyone like me could ever receive the gift. “You mean you would give this to me?” Yeah!
If we had any doubt about the status factor having no play in entry into the kingdom, if we had only one place to where we could go, we would go to the cross of Jesus Christ and to the dialogue that ensued with the thieves on either side of him. And how the one says to the other—and I quote it so often, because I love it so much—“We shouldn’t be saying all these bad things to this man. We’re up here getting what we deserve. But he’s done nothing wrong.” Then remember his prayer? His request? “Lord, will you remember me when you come into your kingdom?”
Jesus didn’t turn around and say, “Oh no, there’s no possibility of that. If you could have got down from this cross and lived longer, become a little more religious, done some good things, and so on, I could possibly have got you in somewhere—nowhere near the front, but somewhere near the back.” He says, “Yeah, I can do better than that. Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Well, we began with Groucho Marx. Let’s finish with Groucho Marx. I found another statement from him that I thought was pretty good, especially in relationship to our subject matter this morning. He says on one occasion, as he’s in conversation with some friends, “A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.” Samuel Rutherford says, “Down with your topsail. Stoop, stoop! it is a low entry to go in at heaven’s gates.” In other words, we may only come exactly as we are, offering nothing in our defense, claiming nothing on our behalf.
These children would have grown, wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t have any photographs their parents could have shown them on the front hall dresser, said, “Hey, that’s the day that you received the blessing of Jesus.” They would have asked their moms and dads, “Did I ever meet Jesus of Nazareth?”
“Oh yeah! We’ll tell you about that some time. We don’t have time right now. But it was a great day. Jesus actually took you in his arms, and he blessed you.”
“Why did he do that, Mom? Had I done something special?”
“No. He just did it.”
“You mean it was just, like, a gift? Do you mean it was just, like, grace?”
Until we understand that, we don’t understand the gospel. And until we understand the gospel so that we can convey it in that way, we are in danger of inventing a gospel of our own, which either secures people in their pride or leaves them in their lostness. Neither option Jesus has left open to us, if we’re going to be faithful , ’cause he never intended to.
And now, gracious God, we commend one another to your care and to your keeping—that you will mark our steps in the hours that remain to us in this day. That we might move according to your will and in the celebration of your goodness. That you will help us not to be like those who prevented others who came looking for Christ to bless them. That we will not be like those who resisted him on the basis of their own status, but that we might come to you in childlike trust and believing faith.
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest with and remain with each one, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Norman Jewison (Beverly Hills, CA: United Artists, 1971). Paraphrased.
 Mark 8:31–33 (paraphrased).
 Mark 10:47 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 9:38–40 (paraphrased).
 Mark 10:15 (KJV).
 Romans 6:23 (KJV).
 Mark 10:17 (NIV 1984).
 Graham Kendrick, “From Heaven You Came” (1983).
 See John 3:1–3.
 Matthew 2:3 (KJV).
 Luke 23:39–42 (paraphrased).
 Luke 23:43 (paraphrased).
 Samuel Rutherford, The Loveliness of Christ, Vintage Puritan (1909; repr., Louisville, KY: GLH, 2016), 27.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.