Sermon text: Mark 10:13–16
 Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them.  But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God.  Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”  And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.
The passage we have before us relays one of the most striking stories about Jesus in the Gospels. Of all the accounts of great men in the ancient world, of all the histories that have been written, scarcely is it ever reported that a great man stooped to the stature of a child. Rarer still—perhaps nonexistent—is the scene where a great king allowed himself to be deterred on his way, and took up an infant in his arms, to bless and celebrate the life of a child who is unrelated to the king and who comes from an insignificant social class. Yet here we are told of how the King of kings has regard for those considered least and despised in the eyes of men. Here we are shown the holy, humble, beautiful heart of Yahweh’s Servant, who rejoices over children, who celebrates the gift of life, and who loves and blesses those so often overlooked by the proud and ambitious.
Our text serves as a bridge that connects the events which precede and follow. It is fitting that here would be placed an event dealing with children right after Christ’s teaching about the sanctity of marriage, for children are the fruit of marital union. And this passage serves as a perfect segue into the story about the rich young ruler as well because that story is concerned with how a person enters the kingdom of God. And in verse 15 of our text, Jesus uses a child to illustrate a quality that characterizes the person who is admitted entrance in the kingdom.
It’s quite remarkable that as Jesus has a higher view of the ordinance of marriage than the culture of His time, so He also has a much higher view of the significance of children. Although He never got married or had children, He blesses both marriage and child-rearing as laudable pursuits to be honored and stewarded faithfully by His followers.
The Lord is, at this point, in the region of Judea (v. 1). As we’ve been pointing out in almost every sermon leading up to this, He’s on His way to Jerusalem. There He will face confrontation with the religious authorities, and the outcome of that confrontation will be the establishment His kingdom, at least in its initial phase. The time is the period somewhere between December of AD 29 and March of AD 30, so the cross is just around the corner.
The Messianic expectations of the disciples are heightened. They believe Jesus is the Christ, as they confessed at Caesarea Philippi. They further believe He will soon be seated on the throne of His kingdom in Jerusalem. But their hopes for a kingdom that is “of this world” were misguided. So Jesus dispels more of their mistaken assumptions by teaching on marriage and the importance of children. The kingdom that He came to establish, in its initial phase of inaugurated presence, will not dimmish, undermine, or overturn the institutions of marriage and the family. He is teaching that these are noble institutions to be highly regarded by all who embrace His teachings by heeding the call to discipleship.
Our Lord’s words here have not lost their relevance. Both marriage and faithful child rearing are under unprecedented assault not just in American culture, but in the entire Western world. There are basically two competing ideologies that are at war in our world as we know it. There is the portion of the populace that holds at least to the vestiges of traditional values stemming from society’s Christian roots. These esteem traditional marriage as between a man and a woman. They uphold the right to life. They believe the nuclear family is the backbone of society. Although the majority of these are not genuine followers of Christ, their values in these areas reflect—however dimly—the influence that His teachings have had on the philosophy of thought in Western culture and on the development of our collective consciousness.
But then there is the other side. Their agenda is to deprecate and leave desolate God’s institution of marriage. They push the idea that a woman has the right to murder the fruit of her womb. They have set out to disintegrate the nuclear family and to make the federal government—rather than the family—the central institution around which society is built.
This warfare of ideologies is not going away anytime soon. Marriage and children and the family are front and center in the culture wars. Our Savior’s teachings in this portion of Mark’s Gospel, then, are more needful than ever. There is always great danger in allowing our thinking to be shaped by what the world around us is saying. We need to always be going back to the Scriptures, consulting the teachings of our Lord, and thinking through how they can be applied truly and consistently to the challenges we are facing. And our text this Lord’s Day is crucial to the construction of a Christian worldview when it comes to the matter of children.
I have three points I want to bring to you from the words of our text: (1) children hindered, (2) children invited, and (3) children idealized.
I. Children Hindered
Verse 13 says, “Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them.” The word Mark uses for little children is somewhat vague; it could refer to anyone within the age of an infant to a teenager. But Luke’s account in chapter 18, verse 15 of his book uses a different word, which means babies or infants. So these were very little children, no more than the age of a toddler.
What does it mean when it says that they brought them “that He might touch them”? Well throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus confers benefits through His touch, which often imparted God’s healing and cleansing power. But these parents weren’t seeking healings. Their only desire in bringing their children was that the favor of God would rest upon their offspring.
Matthew 19:13 adds, “that He might put His hands on them and pray.” These folk were following the long-held Jewish custom of seeking a blessing from a respected rabbi that had travelled to their area. This tradition went all the way back to Noah’s blessing of Shem, to Isaac’s blessing of Jacob, and to Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh when he placed his hands on their heads. It was a gesture of faith by which patriarchs passed on the divine favor that rested upon them to posterity.
The idea also comes from the priestly blessing of Numbers 6, where the Levites were to say to the people of Israel: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.”’ Then the Lord says, “So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.” These parents wanted Jesus to invoke God’s name over their children so that the children would live under God’s authority, favor, care, and protection. Such an act of blessing was more than a simple expression of good wishes; it was an actual invocation of God that was believed to be effective in bringing about the fruition of the intended blessing.
Such a practice shows that what was deeply ingrained in the biblical worldview, reflected in the thought structure of the Jewish people, was the ideal that elder generations had the privilege and responsibility of passing on to younger generations a godly heritage. The American ideal (or at least it used to be) is to leave one’s descendants with an inheritance consisting in things of monetary value—investments, estates, businesses. But the biblical ideal, more than that, is to bequeath to one’s posterity a heritage of divine blessing—the wisdom of knowing God and the blessing that comes from the knowledge of God and His ways.
Yes we are to look out for our children’s physical wellbeing, and yes, it is prudent to do that with some forethought about their future economic conditions. But what is of primary importance is not their physical interests but their spiritual formation. Parents are to do everything within their ability to bring their children to Christ so that they can experience the blessing of God. These parents then that we read about here were doing the best possible thing they could’ve done, and they thus set a fine example for parents to follow in every generation.
“But the disciples rebuked those who brought them.” They grievously mis-stepped. That word “rebuked” is used in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus’s rebuke of demons, of Peter’s rebuke of Jesus, and of Jesus’s rebuke of Peter. It “primarily refers to the action of corrective rebuke,”[i] supposing that the party thus censured had done something wrong. But these parents had done nothing wrong; it was the disciples who were wrong.
As one commentary put it, “Eager to get on with the business of setting up the kingdom, the disciples have little time for people who do not wield political power.”[ii] As far as the disciples were concerned, they were on their way to Jerusalem to set up the throne of God’s Messiah. The clash of the kingdoms was about to begin, and children had no role in this matter except to step aside and make way for the Messiah to march through on His most important mission. Thus the children were despised and rejected because of their smallness of stature. They had nothing to contribute to the carnal ambitions of the misguided Twelve.
So the disciples hindered the children from being brought to Christ. They should have been on the frontlines of encouraging parents to bring their children to Christ, but they actually impaired them. And the same pattern has been tragically repeated down to our present day. So many professing believers, instead of being instrumental in bringing children—even their own children—to Christ, have instead been a hindrance and obstacle to their coming to Christ. And the Lord’s words which follow serve as a stern rebuke to all such hindrances.
But how? How have professing Christian people hindered children from coming to the Lord? In many ways. For one, Christians have hindered children by viewing them as unwanted and burdensome. Christians are having fewer and fewer children, period. And fewer children obviously results in fewer children who come to Christ. The idea that a couple can get married and then view the attempt to have children as entirely optional is a notion imbibed from our modern era, but it is unbiblical and was never believed by any Christian church or denomination prior to the early 1900’s. Increasingly, since the invention of contraceptives and abortifacient drugs, and since the cultural revolution of the 1960’s, Christians are having less children.
Yet God said, “Be fruitful and multiply” and have dominion (Gen. 1:28), and those are commands in the original Hebrew. Solomon said in Psalm 127 that “children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.” I’m not promoting the views per se of what is known as the Quiver-Full Movement, but I am saying that children should be welcomed; they should be desired; and Christians should seek to have as many as possible as sanctified wisdom would dictate. Why? So we can, with the help of God, lead them to Christ, and raise up a generation of successors who advance the cause of Christ’s kingdom in the world.
Another way Christians hinder children from coming to Christ is by lukewarm and apathetic religion. Parents whose love and devotion to Christ is hardly discernable—if it’s genuine at all—shouldn’t expect their children to rise above the tide of their examples. Parents who are lukewarm and uncommitted to Christ’s church shouldn’t expect their children to grow up and be exemplary church members or pillars among the people of the God. If you are cold in your devotion toward the Bible, if you hardly ever read it, if you never get enjoyment and delight in talking about it and living out its principles, then you are teaching your children by your example—regardless of what you say with your words—and you are misleading them into believing that the Bible is boring and not very relevant for life.
Another common hindrance is the hypocrisy of parents. There is nothing that makes Christianity more distasteful than the example of an authority who claims to believe it but lives as if the opposite were true. Hypocrisy is a highly destructive influence that will undo the good that a child might receive from ten thousand sermons. Example speaks more loudly than words. A continually hypocritical example is the perfect pedagogy for propagating pagans.
Another way children are hindered from coming to Christ is by neglect of leading them into a knowledge of the things of God. When there is no family Bible reading in the home, when there is no sincere prayer to God when the family assembles, when there is no solid education from the perspective of a biblical worldview, when there is no formative training in Christian values, when there is no corrective discipline for intentional rebellion, children are left to their own devices with no effective counterinfluence. They will naturally be carried along with the stream of this world’s pattern of thinking, until their inherent sinfulness completely overtakes them and swallows them up into a lifestyle of profaneness.
Another way children are hindered is by being allowed to become indoctrinated with ungodly ideologies and to be corrupted by worldly influences. The Book of Proverbs especially warns about this, urging the young and simpleminded to heed the wisdom of fathers and mothers and to shun the influence of Lady Folly. But this biblical wisdom stands at odds with a whole onslaught of ungodly agendas pushed by a globalist cabal. Popular pundits are increasingly promoting the Marxist idea that children are not the property of their parents but of society as a whole. Peter Hitchens was a correspondent in old Moscow and witnessed the rise of Communism firsthand. In his book, The Rage Against God, he wrote that “the youth movements of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia were startingly similar. Any ideological or revolutionary state must always alienate the young from their pre-revolutionary parents if it hopes to survive in future generations.”[iii]
Biblically, children are under the authority of parents, and parents must use this authority under Christ to teach them, correct them, protect them from harm, and lead them to the place of maturity wherein they can learn to exercise discernment and think with the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). We shouldn’t allow indoctrination from the secular state to be the primary influence on the structure of their thinking.
Children must not be hindered! They must be invited to Christ and brought to Him! And that’s what we read in verse 14.
II. Children Invited
“But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God’” (v. 14). He wasn’t just displeased, He was “greatly displeased.” The original word means to be angry to the point of indignation. Jesus was outraged at the behavior of the disciples who had hindered the little children from being brought to Him.
His indignation was actually a sign of His love. It was His affection for them that evoked this strong emotive reaction. Children have a special place in the heart of Christ. In Graeco-Roman society, the importance of a child was solely related to the man or the father to whom that child belonged. Even then, the child was only held to have social importance when he came to maturity. But Jesus attaches a special honor and high esteem on every child, even on every infant. He invites children to come to Him and be blessed by Him and to learn from Him from the youngest age. He even died to save little children. And you may disagree (and if you do that’s okay—this is not a hill to die on), but I believe, with many fine theologians who have held to this view, that Jesus regenerates and saves—by His sheer grace and love and mercy—little children who die in infancy. As the song goes, “Jesus loves the little children.”
How then should Christians reflect Christ’s love as they lead their children to Him? If I may say this with respect and appreciation for my paedobaptist friends, the Lord here says nothing of infant baptism. It has been the habit of many interpreters to appeal to this passage as a prooftext for infant baptism. But there is not a drop of water in the text. I think it’s a well-established biblical and historical fact that the apostolic church of the first century practiced the baptism of converts by immersion upon their personal confession of faith in Christ. If Jesus were hinting at infant baptism here, we would have expected the apostles to pick up on that and to have implemented it in their practice. But they didn’t. It says nothing of bringing children to a baptistry, but of bringing them to Christ.
How then do we bring them to Christ? We can’t literally bring them to Jesus like the parents in our text, but we can bring Christ to them by bringing them under the sound of the gospel. Children should be exposed continually to teaching, preaching, and conversation about the gospel.
In this broad way, some of us might even be used of God to bring children to Christ who are not our own. I thank God for children’s ministries, especially for ones that reach young people who might not otherwise hear. If the Lord ever calls you to serve Him in this capacity, don’t despise the day of small things, for you serve in a ministry that is close to the heart of Christ.
And with your own children, just think, if you are faithful to congregate with Christ’s church, and it’s a gospel preaching church like this one, then if you bring them to church every Sunday for 18 years (just once a week), that’s almost 1,000 times that they’ll sit under the gospel-centered preaching of the Word. We’ve got to place priority on making the gospel clear to our children and take advantage of every opportunity to put them under the influence of the means of grace with the hope that it might please God to unleash His saving power upon their souls.
We also let the children come to Christ by leading them in family worship in the home. The family should be gathered together on a regular basis, ideally a daily basis, to read from the Scriptures and pray together. At this time, a portion of the Bible should be read, and the head of household should make some comments and offer some explanation of the passage. Then prayers should be offered to the Lord for needed family graces and mercies, in addition all kinds of other prayers as well.
Sadly, family worship has fallen out of practice among Christians. But its regular observance was a major emphasis of the Reformation, which sought to reform all of life, including the family, according to the Word of God. And it has its roots in the Scriptures. Family worship was first instituted all the way back in Genesis 4:26. We’re told that “as for Seth, to him also a son was born; and he named him Enosh. Then men began to call on the name of the LORD.” That is a metonym for worship; they were worshiping God together. One theologian commented, “It is evident that the first worship which the first man and his children paid to God could be nothing else than family worship, since they constituted the only group which then existed on the earth.”[iv] So family worship existed in the primordial history even before formal church worship existed. And when church worship was later instituted, it was not intended to be a replacement for family worship, but a supplement to it.
And just think: if a family gathers and reads and discusses just one chapter of the Bible together each day, and they do this for 18 years (from the child’s infancy to adulthood), they will have read and discussed the entire Bible together at least five times! Such family devotions provide an invaluable forum for discussing every conceivable topic under the sun, and for parents to impart to their children a broad curriculum of personalized biblical instruction. It provides opportunity to point them to Christ, and to invoke Christ’s blessing on them, every single day.
Parents should bring their children to Christ, also, by every other means possible. For us who are parents of little children, we should strive to be a consistent, godly example to them. We should seek to provide a biblical education for them through methodical and catechetical instruction. We should train them and seek to form character in them through formative and corrective discipline, without passive leniency or overbearing severity. We should equip them to think biblically and critically about the world around them. We should instill in them an appreciation for truth and goodness. We should protect them from corrupt and worldly influences that can easily ensnare their souls. We should train them in whatever ways we can to cultivate the character, the gifting, and the capacity to serve God faithfully in whatever vocation God might call them to. And we should especially shepherd their hearts, pastor their souls, watch over their spiritual condition, and play the role of prophet, priest, and king to them—under Christ—as we seek to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
In all this, we must realize that we have no power to actually secure the saving benediction of Christ upon our children. For that, we are at the mercy of the sovereign Lord who works when and how and in what manner He pleases. A baby doesn’t come into the world in innocence, or as a clean slate; he is rather “a viper in a diaper.”[v] Children inherited from us our sin and fallenness. They are, in that condition, bound in iniquity unless and until the Lord sets them free. Their greatest need is not behavioral conditioning, or education, or reformation, but regeneration. They must be converted, and so must we. The Lord stresses the necessity of conversion in verse 15.
III. Children Idealized
“Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (v. 15). The Lord uses a double negation in the Greek, placing strong emphasis on “by no means.” He’s stressing the inflexible condition for entrance into the kingdom of God. You must receive it like a little child or you will certainly not enter it. There is no other way to receive it!
So what does it mean to receive it as a little child? It can’t mean to become innocent because children are not morally blameless. And it doesn’t mean we must become naïve, or take a simplistic approach to matters of faith, or blindly receive every claim that is made about the gospel without an informed faith. There are many qualities about children that the Lord is not commending in these words.
What Jesus getting at is elaborated in more detail in Matthew 18:3–4. There, He said, “unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The quality in children that is idealized is their humble dependence. Little children are objectively helpless and totally dependent.
And that is how we must receive the kingdom: as humbled souls who have been stripped of the pride of self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. We must receive the kingdom by approaching with a recognition of our lowly stature. Like a little child, we receive it by holding out a conscientiously empty hand asking God for His gift of salvation. We must approach the Father with open mouths pleading, “feed me with your goodness or else my soul will starve and perish.” We must come into the kingdom through the profound recognition that we depend entirely on God’s goodness toward us, that we are incapable of securing the blessings of the kingdom for ourselves, and that we have need for everything to be done for us.[vi] And blessed be God who in His goodness has sent Christ to accomplish everything on our behalf, so that we can receive His blessing, if only we do so in simple faith and childlike dependence.
Father, as we receive your kingdom like little children, we praise you each one of us who has done so can confess that atonement is achieved, expiation is completed, satisfaction is made, my guilt is done away, my debt has been paid, my sins have been forgiven, my person has been redeemed, my soul has been saved, hell is vanquished, heaven is opened, and eternity is made mine. Help us to trust you in all this with childlike dependence for Christ’s sake. Amen.
[i] Michael Scott Robertson, “Discipline,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).
[ii] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Mk 10:13.
[iii] Quoted in Erwin W. Lutzer, We Will Not Be Silenced (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), 157.
[iv] J. H. Merle d’Aubigne, Family Worship: Motives and Directions for Domestic Piety, a sermon preached in Brussels; first published in Paris. Quoted in Mark Chanski, Manly Dominion in a Passive-Purple Four-ball World (Calvary Press Publishing, 2004), 138.
[v] Voddie Bauchum, Jr. Family Shepherds: Calling and Equipping Men to Lead Their Homes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 118.
[vi] R. Kent Hughes, Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 247–48.