MATTHEW 19:13-15
Pp Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17

The minimum age of acceptance
Jesus accepts nothing
How to accept the Kingdom

We have previously seen how the passage in Luke which runs from 9:51-19:27 is an extensive treatment of a few weeks when Jesus was on His way from the area around Galilee to Jerusalem for the final time before the crucifixion and resurrection. What takes Luke some ten chapters to describe and catalogue takes both Matthew and Mark two and one chapter respectively and it’s immediately obvious that the first two Gospels will not have all the incidents recorded in their narrative.

Indeed, Luke appears to be more concerned with what happened ‘in the journey’ rather than Matthew and Mark who mention that Jesus journeyed from Galilee to Judea and ministered there (Mtw 19:1-2). Nevertheless, with this passage about the children coming to Jesus, we find that the three records once again come together and that, from here until the entry into Jerusalem, they follow the same order with just a few unique passages in Mtw 20:1-16 (the parable of the labourers in the vineyard), Luke 19:1-10 (the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector) and Luke 19:11-27 (the parable of the nobleman who goes into a far country). Luke also misses out the request of John and James’ mother concerning a position for her sons which both Matthew and Mark record (Mtw 20:20-28, Mark 10:35-45).

But the facts of the matter appear to be that Luke 9:51-19:14 are a record of what transpired on the journey towards Judea but that Luke 18:15-19:27 concern the events which occurred during the short time of ministry to Israel in the region of Judea ‘beyond the Jordan’ and as they journeyed towards the city for the final Passover (Mtw 19:1-2).

A few commentators give the background to this incident as being the Jewish custom, as Matfran notes

‘ bring a child to the elders on the evening of the Day of Atonement “to bless him and pray for him” (Mishnah Sopherim 18:5)’

but this seems difficult to understand as being a direct parallel. After all, we’re approaching the festival of Passover which was some six months prior to the Day of Atonement and it’s strange to think that the tradition of a future time was bleeding over into a spontaneous approach by the parents with their children.

Perhaps it would be better to say that praying with children was institutionalised in the practice but that fathers and mothers were still as anxious for the child’s well-being throughout the year when they recognised someone who seemed to be directly in touch with God and who may be able to impart some blessing to their offspring.

Matfran’s citing of a Mishnaic passage is, unfortunately, incorrect - there’s no division called ‘Sopherim’ throughout its pages so I’m unable to check out the reference. Matmor, however, cites Jeremias in a footnote who speaks of the age of the children as being from one to twelve years of age and this would certainly be in keeping with what will be seen in the subsequent sections.

Besides, it would be natural for any parent who was concerned about the spiritual well-being of their children to seek out the best for them and to enlist the support of anyone and anything which would give them a decent start in life that would set them on the correct path through life. If only from a natural viewpoint, what the parents are trying to do is predictable and needs no religious precedent to give them justification for their actions even if they did have in the back of their minds what used to take place on the eve of the Day of Atonement in the month of Tishri, the seventh month.

The disciples’ rebuking the people who were bringing the children to Jesus shouldn’t be immediately thought of as something which showed their hardheartedness and their lack of spiritual insight. After all, it could have been a long day and they may well have been restricting access to Jesus simply because they were concerned that He get some rest before the activities which were to occur the following day.

However, that Jesus speaks about not forbidding them to come to Him would indicate that, perhaps, there was more in their actions than is immediately obvious. Although we can’t be certain, it may have been that they genuinely felt that such a request was below Jesus - after all, wasn’t their Master raising the dead, healing the sick and casting out the demonic? What time did He have for laying His hands on a few kids which didn’t seem to have too much wrong with them?

Jesus’ indignance (Mark 10:14), then, could well have been as a response to the disciples’ attitude in turning them away and of thinking the request unworthy of their Master rather than as a response of the disciples in trying to protect Him.

Matmor cites Hill in a footnote in which he observes that the disciples could have been anxious to have Jesus approach Jerusalem (Mtw 19:15 concludes that Jesus ‘went away’ as if the approach of the families was a direct interruption) and to witness what they thought would happen - that is, of a triumphant messianic establishing of a visible Kingdom. While this is possible, it remains no more than supposition as does the previous possibility.

In this passage, we can see three different aspects of acceptance. Even though the picture which this conveys to the reader is one of Jesus’ care for even the smallest of men and women and of the most insignificant, it can be broadened to teach the reader about three areas which each deal with acceptance before God.

The minimum age of acceptance

Mtw 19:13 uses a regular word (Strongs Greek number 3813) which is translated correctly as ‘children’ by the RSV and is used elsewhere as a label to be put on children in general (John 21:5, I John 2:18, 3:7). It’s Luke 18:15, however, which employs a word (Strongs Greek number 1025) which more correctly means ‘infants’ or ‘small children’, being rendered by the first of these two words in the RSV. Kittels goes so far as to note its usage in places where the meaning is ‘embryo’ but stops short of giving it the meaning of children in general.

It’s variously employed in the NT but is normally used to speak of a child who is in the earlier years of its development. Hence, in Luke 1:41,44 it speaks of an unborn child and, in Luke 2:12,16 (as also I Peter 2:2), of a new-born child. In Acts 7:19 it speaks of very young children when compared with the story of the Exodus to which it relates though II Tim 3:15 uses it of children who are young but who are able to learn. This latter usage shouldn’t imply an ability to read, however, just an ability to learn the information that’s presented to it and to be rational in its thoughts.

Luke, then, isn’t thinking of the upper age limits on children who, in our own western definitions, may be somewhere between thirteen and sixteen years of age but of the very young children who may have been no more than three or four.

While it’s correct to see their ages spanning a large amount of years, we shouldn’t place any lower age limit except to perhaps interpret Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of Heaven belonging to such people in the context of II Tim 3:15 where an ability to learn is assumed and inferred.

Mark 10:16 also forces us to conclude that amongst the numbers who were coming to Him were children who couldn’t have been much older than five or six years of age for He

‘...took them in His arms...’

an action which isn’t the easiest of things to do with a sixteen year old! If you’ve any doubts about that, find one and try it.

His words that to such people as this belonged the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16) further illuminates the words which Jesus has already spoken concerning children in Matthew chapter 18 where we saw that a child was used as an example of what it meant to be nothing in one’s own eyes in order that one might be something in God’s. Here, there’s a slight change of tack, however, for children aren’t just being used as an example but are being proclaimed as capable of belonging to the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

After all, it’s the children who cry out in the Temple just a few days later that Jesus is the Son of David (Mtw 21:15). Whether or not this was in mimicry of what had just taken place as Jesus approached the city doesn’t appear to be important (Mtw 21:19) and the point seems to be that they were eager to profess a truth in a place where their more careful parents would be ashamed to do so.

Therefore, according to Jesus, children, even at a very early age, should be considered to have the capacity of ‘receiving’ Him and of responding to the moving of His Holy Spirit both among them and in them. And that response of a child must allow them to share in all the good things that an adult also has a right to as a child of God.

Matmor comments that, in Matthew chapter 18, the idea has been to speak of children as being a type of the believer but here in Mtw 19:14 when Jesus says

‘...for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven’

He’s saying much more. There’s no thought in these words of the disciples needing to become like children - the thought is that it’s these small children who are the people who can gain direct access into the Kingdom of God on earth.

When John 1:12-13 speaks of all who received Him (where the idea is of those in His earthly life who ‘received’ what He was doing in their midst and who received Him into their houses, villages and synagogues) being given the power to be able to become the children of God, that ‘all’ must necessarily include literal children who saw in Him something which they may not have fully grasped but which they perceived as being special. Even Paul will speak in Gal 3:26 (my italics) that

‘ Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith’

where, if faith is present, literal children must also be included. And, if natural children they must also be spiritual children, heirs of all that God has for mankind (Rom 8:17).

Children have every right to come to know Jesus and to share in the full blessings and provision of Christ at a very early age - there simply is no lower age limit in God’s eyes for a child to be able to reach out towards Him and to receive the things which He wills to do though, as I’ve pointed out above, the only criteria is that the child should be capable of understanding and learning - something which we normally set limits to but which can only be adequately determined individually by God Himself.

The problem with a lot of teaching regarding children (though the emphasis has changed over the years) is that we tend to preach at them

‘You children must become like us before you can share in the riches of Christ’

whereas Jesus proclaims (Mtw 18:3, Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17)

‘You adults must become like the children before you can enter the Kingdom, let alone to share in its riches’

The Gospel of the Kingdom, then, knows of no minimum age at which a child can come to know Jesus - even though the world’s social workers and people in positions of authority would point the finger at many churches and claim ‘brainwashing’ when they themselves are guilty of such political propaganda come election time that seeks to sway the electorate to make choices which favour their own livelihood.

It’s better that a child knows Jesus at a young age (or, at the least, is given encouragement to see what is both right and wrong in God’s eyes even if they don’t, at that early age, come to receive a revelation of Jesus and His work), grows up with Jesus, learns how to be faithful to Jesus and becomes a responsible adult in today’s society rather than to be let loose into a world to do their own thing, to express themselves by damaging others and to be a liability to society at large by the things which they enjoy.

And the question always needs to be asked whether the pulling away from goodness and love within the structures which kids grow in has resulted in a society which is more like God to bestow love to others or whether it’s more likely to retaliate and destroy itself. The removal of absolutes through the removal of a belief in God has seen an undermining of morality even though moralistic systems try to be imposed upon people at an older age when it’s far too late.

The child who learns how to live righteously in the world at a young age will be the child who is a conscientious member of society. But the child who’s left to grow up with no boundaries will not wish that they be imposed upon him when he comes of age.

Jesus accepts nothing

The title to this section may sound a little strange but it goes back to what we saw children to be in Matthew 18 - that is, representative examples to adult believers, as people who are both nothing and nobodies. Children were one of the sections in society who had no social standing, who could be done with as the adults saw fit and were certainly not individuals who were highly prized for their command of spiritual matters.

When it came to a discussion about who was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven (Mark 9:33-34), Jesus had to remind the disciples that greatness was being nothing (Mtw 18:3-4) not of being held up to be something. Both Mark and Luke include a statement by Jesus here (Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17) that Matthew has already included (Mtw 18:3) which brings out the important point that Jesus moves on to as a reminder of that previous discourse.

Perhaps the reason for Matthew not repeating it here is that he expects his readers to have the words ringing in their ears and to see this incident as an extension of what has taken place a few weeks’ previously. Whatever, the exact reason is impossible to know, but it’s certain that Jesus uses the opportunity to proclaim once more to the disciples that He’s willing to accept the nothings in society, the ones who have no social status and standing, into the Kingdom of Heaven and that those who are elevating themselves into positions of importance and authority will be the ones who fail to even enter its doors.

Jesus, then, has got time even for the least in our society - the tramps, convicts, prostitutes, AIDS victims, violent and abusive, destitute, homeless, divorced and whoever else society has written off or who we ourselves find an embarrassment. Though men and women who think they’re more important (Mtw 18:1-4, 19:13) may stand in their way, Jesus readily accepts all who are accounted as nothing in our society on the basis of a positive response to Him, rather than on social standing. Indeed, those who consider themselves to be the more important are found wanting and aren’t participants in the privileges of the Kingdom (Mtw 18:3, Luke 18:9-14).

The people who Jesus encountered in His life should be noted at this point and their repudiation in the society of His day should also be underlined.

Mary Magdalene was quite possibly an upper class prostitute for her surname betrays the fact that she came from the Galilean city of Magdala which was renowned for such a profession (Luke 8:2). That’s not to say that she was a prostitute but there remains the possibility that her acceptance in the eyes of the religious Jewish elite would have been frowned upon as was the woman who came to Jesus and was forgiven because of her faith (Luke 7:36-50), rather than be condemned because of her sin.

The adulterous woman of John 8:2-11 also found acceptance before Jesus and His frequent fellowship with tax collectors and sinners who were the abhorrence of the day’s religious leaders and of the nation in general is well documented (Mtw 9:10 as just one example).

Jesus seemed to take great delight in turning the nation’s prejudices on their head, extending forgiveness to people who the religious had rejected long ago and of rejecting the religious who thought of themselves as being God’s special people within society.

It wasn’t that Jesus expected that the violent would still remain so or that the prostitute would continue in her profession after encountering Him but that, initially, mercy and forgiveness could be imparted to the sinner in order that acceptance before God could be achieved and, from that point, a new life before God could be lived.

The people who held position and who were considered to be important in their own eyes often could never come to terms with having to make a choice between their own righteousness and that which God wanted to give them because it depended on themselves having to confess that their life was unacceptable to God - a statement which would have seriously undermined their place within the nation.

But God goes for the nobodies and the nothings, for the sinner and the obnoxious, that the transforming power of God might be seen in those who could not effect a change on their own.

How to accept the Kingdom

The third aspect of acceptance is of how a man or woman is expected to accept the Kingdom of God and is recorded in both Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17 who recall Jesus’ statement that

‘...whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’

The way the Pharisees had embraced the Kingdom was insufficient (Mtw 3:7-10) because they came as proud men thinking that baptism in water would be advantageous without a wholehearted reliance on repentance and of faith toward God, holding fast to their current lifestyle which was based on works and self-righteousness.

The disciples, on the other hand, readily accepted the Kingdom, realising that, in themselves, they had nothing to merit it (for example, Luke 5:8, 18:13).

The children had no position in society to rely on acceptance before God (see on Mtw 18:1-4) as has been previously noted. They saw Jesus and were unrestricted by anything they were. Similarly, unless a new believer forsakes everything that they have or might be regarded as being in society and turn to become like children in the sense of being regarded as nothing, it is impossible that entry into the Kingdom of Heaven can be gained.

Position and power is a great restriction to entry as Jesus will go on to comment in the following incident of the rich man who is unwilling to forsake the riches he has in order to be perfect before God. Jesus’ statement in Mtw 19:23 that

‘ will be hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven’

is met with alarm in the disciples’ minds (Mtw 19:25) simply because they suppose that it puts such people into a unique position for charitable acts and of a special position before God but, contrary to that popular belief, it’s actually the possession of riches which bars them from entry. So it is with the great men of this world and those in positions where they sit as the end of rule and authority.

To submit to Jesus is to bring self-will under the will of God, to lose self-determination for a dependency upon knowing and obeying the will of God and of being nothing any longer in one’s own eyes. These are not easy things for any man to do but they’re especially difficult for the powers that be - no wonder, then, that when revival has started in times’ past, it’s often been the lower classes who have responded eagerly and readily to the Gospel message and it’s only after time that the powers that be begin to grasp hold of what’s transpiring.

To accept the Gospel is to lose everything one has and everything one is - fame, fortune, notoriety, riches, position. But it is the only way to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.