Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus and the Children
July 28, 2020
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus and the Children
Each of the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tells of Jesus’ interaction with children who were brought to Him to receive His blessing. The account in the Gospel of Luke will be the focus here, along with some points added from the other Gospels.
They were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.1
In this Gospel, the children brought to Jesus are called infants, whereas in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark they are referred to as children. In any case, the fact that they were “brought” indicates that they were quite young, as does the statement in the Gospel of Mark that he took them in his arms.2 The purpose of the parents bringing their children to Jesus is made clear in the Gospel of Matthew:
Children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray.3
The disciples’ rebuke most likely wasn’t aimed at the children but at the parents who were bringing their offspring to be blessed by Jesus. It’s unclear why the disciples rebuked those bringing the children to Jesus, as the text doesn’t comment on the reason; however, as we’ll see, Jesus’ response shows that their attitude and actions were not in alignment with Jesus’ view of how the children were to be treated. It’s likely that the disciples thought that it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to take His time to involve Himself with the children.
In the time of the Roman Empire, children often experienced early death due to disease and a general high mortality rate. Unwanted children were sometimes put out on the side of the road to die of exposure, and this was not a shocking or unusual practice then, as it would be now. Sometimes unwanted infants would be taken in by others and raised as adopted children. Many others were collected and enslaved.
In ancient times, there were a variety of reasons why parents abandoned their babies to the elements, including the parents’ poverty, as a means of limiting the size of the family, and due to any visible impairments or unusual physical characteristics of the newborn. Of course, some parents chose to raise children who had congenital deformities. Numerous unearthed adult skeletons from the ancient world show the effects of such conditions, which would have been noticeable at birth, so we know that some children born with physical deformities did grow into adulthood.
The Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire did not participate in infanticide nor abandonment/exposure. Jewish writers such as Josephus and Philo of Alexandria condemned these practices as barbaric acts. While the New Testament doesn’t directly address the abandonment of children to exposure, the writings of the early church condemned Greco-Roman practices that ran counter to Christian beliefs, which would have included gladiatorial battles, abortion, infanticide, and leaving children to die of exposure.
In contrast to the disciples’ rebuke of those who were hoping that Jesus would lay hands on their children and bless them, Jesus told the disciples to permit the children to come to Him.
Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”4
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is said to have been indignant at what He considered unfair treatment.5 To Jesus, every person was significant, and He didn’t want anyone barred from having access to Him, including young children and infants.
Jesus went on to make a point about discipleship. He said that God’s kingdom is made up of people such as these children. In saying this, He pointed out that children had value and that they were worthy of entering the kingdom of God. His willingness to accept them implied that children were able to show trust and faith in Jesus.
The use of the phrase for to such belongs the kingdom of God makes a second point. The children whom Jesus refers to represent something basic about members of God’s kingdom—namely, that believers are to have childlike trust and reliance on God. As children depend on their parents, so do God’s children depend on Him.
Jesus didn’t say that the kingdom belongs “to these,” meaning to the children, but rather to such belongs the kingdom, meaning that the kingdom belongs to those who are like the children. He wasn’t stating that children have innate goodness, but rather that children have a certain quality which is essential for entering into God’s kingdom. One author states:
Unfortunately neither Jesus nor the Gospel writers elucidated exactly what this quality is. Some suggestions are (1) the humility little children possess because they lack anything to boast of and can make no claim on God, (2) a simple faith free from doubt, and (3) a lack of attachment to possessions. In light of the preceding passage and Matthew’s specific application of “childlikeness” to humility, the first suggestion seems best.6
Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.7
To receive the kingdom of God is to be submitted to the authority of God’s rule. Adults possess their own power and authority, which can clash with God’s authority. Because of this, the one who wishes to enter the kingdom must receive it like a child does, without self-importance. Author Robert Stein states:
The most likely interpretation is that people are to receive the kingdom of God as children receive things, that is, without questioning, without presumption of one’s self-importance, in simple obedience, in humility and faith/trust. They are to receive the kingdom as children receive a gift.8
The account in the Gospel of Luke ends at this point, while the Gospels of Matthew and Mark both mention that Jesus laid His hands on the children. In Mark we read: He took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.9 Jesus’ action of taking the children in His arms and blessing them shows that He accepted the children as well as the intentions of those who brought their children to Him. He went further than just laying His hands on them; He held them in His arms, and blessed them. In doing so, He publicly made the point that children are accepted and valuable in God’s kingdom.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Luke 18:15.
2 Mark 10:16.
3 Matthew 19:13.
4 Luke 18:16.
5 Mark 10:14.
6 Stein, The New American Commentary: Luke, 453.
7 Luke 18:17.
8 Stein, Mark, 464.
9 Mark 10:16. See also Matthew 19:15.