Our Children God's Children - Rev. C. Bouwman

Mark 10:14c "for of such is the kingdom of God"

Very much of our time as parents is taken up by our children; they have a central, very central place in our daily lives. We tie their shoelaces, dry up their tears, sit with them at the table, read them stories. We send them off to school, fix their torn clothes, help with their homework, listen to their stories, kiss them goodnight. We coach them so they can get their licence, rejoice with them when they make profession of faith, clutch our hearts as they make their first forays into the work force, put together again the heart broken by the failed romance. And once they're married, the involvement remains (be it on a different level), and the fun starts with the next generation. Children take up so much of our time.

With this article, I want to draw out that the children entrusted into our care are heirs of God's kingdom; God has claimed these children for Himself in His covenant of grace, so that all His promises in Jesus Christ are for them. This royal identity implies that each of our children are exceedingly special to God. This identity in turn affects 'even dictates' the way we treat our offspring.

The article is made up of three parts. The first section takes the reader to a scene in Israel many years ago, when Jesus' disciples attempted to save their Master from the neighbourhood children.Bible Text The following section seeks to understand why Jesus was so furious with His disciples for their attempt to blockade the children. The final section attempts to draw out the consequence.

I. The Scene in Israel 

That event in Palestine so many years ago is so well-known to us that we can picture it in our minds. Jesus is busy, busy as always teaching the people (cf Mk 10:1), doing what He came to do. In the midst of His busyness, a number of parents approach Him with their little ones in tow. Their intent is to have Jesus touch their little ones (vs 13). Had Jesus in previous days and weeks not touched so many sick and healed them? Would it not then be desirable to have this Jesus touch one's new-born, one's toddler, one's pre-schooler, one's son or daughter?? The challenges of parenting are legion, and to have a touch from this famous Rabbi - it could only be for the good of the child.

But the disciples say No. While the parents seek access to Jesus, the twelve in their wisdom block their way. Did they think Jesus was too busy to bother with little children? Whatever the reason, the parents may go home again with their little ones minus the desired touch.

Jesus sees what's going on. Our translation tells us that "when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased." That's mildly put. The word used to describe Jesus' reaction is used elsewhere in Scripture to describe fury.1 Jesus was furious with His disciples, He seethed at their conduct. So He tells them in no uncertain terms to "let the little children come to me, do not forbid them." Then Jesus sets the little ones on His knee, one after the other, and blesses each with His hands over the child. We understand: the parents went home satisfied, while the disciples could nurse their wounds.

The question that jumps at us is this: why was Jesus so furious with the disciples' conduct? Were the twelve not doing their best to help their Rabbi? Is teaching the crowds not more important than touching toddlers?? Isn't there even something mystical, something superstitious in their wish for a touch?

Jesus explains why He was furious. Says He: "of such is the kingdom of God." That's why He was furious with the disciples: "of such is the kingdom of God," and the disciples should know it. 

Children an example?

What is meant by the sentence? Various commentators2 tell us that Jesus here refers to a child's innocence and emptiness. That is: Jesus say these commentators is teaching His disciples that only those who are like children can enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who want to work in order to enter the kingdom can't get in, and those who receive grudgingly can't either. One needs to be like a child, empty handed, and ready to receive a free handout - isn't that what a child is like?! Then vs 15 is understood like this: "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God with the innocence and readiness and trust of a child cannot enter it." So the disciples should let the children come to Jesus because these children's attitude in receiving is a good example to the older.

It is certainly true that none will receive salvation if he intends to earn it. We need to stand empty-handed before God's throne and be willing simply to receive. But is this the instruction of the passage?? I do not think so, for the following reasons:

  1. Would such a lesson justify His "great displeasure", His seething fury with the disciples on account of their behaviour? I cannot see how.
  2. More to the point: the "little children" mentioned in our passage refers to a child in age anywhere from infancy to, say, age 12.3 Such little children, despite age, are not at all so innocent and trusting. David says in Ps 51 that he "was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin [his] mother conceived" him (vs 5). In Ps 58 the human race is described as "go[ing] astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies" (vs 3). The doctrine of human depravity is valid not only for when we become older; every child from conception is evil, corrupt, totally void of innocence and holiness. 

    Our experience tells us that too. Even little children are selfish, have a big ego. The infant gets full attention from Mother, and wants it too, to the point that when competition arrives in the house in the form of another baby the older toddler can quite reject his younger sibling: "Baby, go away!" We find it cute, but in actual fact it's evidence of blatant selfishness, sinfulness.4 

    Be like a child in order to receive the kingdom of God? No, dear reader, Scripture does not present the child as being so innocent, such an example. Well does the Form for the Baptism of Infants word it: "We and our children are conceived and born in sin and are therefore by nature children of wrath, so that we cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we are born again."

  3. Further, we need to read well what the passage says. The passage does not say that the kingdom of God is for grown persons who are like children. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is "of such" children themselves. That is: the children themselves are possessors of this kingdom; the kingdom is their's.5 That's Jesus' point as He speaks to the twelve disciples standing around Him (and the parents of the children can hear it!); Jesus tells the disciples that these very physical children standing over there with their parents possess the kingdom of God, that kingdom is "of" them. Though sinful, though conceived and born in sin and subject to all sorts of misery, even to condemnation, these little ones over there are possessors of the kingdom of God. That's the obvious meaning of the words Jesus uses.

I conclude: Jesus's point in the passage is not that the disciples should see child-likeness as an example adults should follow to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus' point is instead that those particular children standing over there with their mothers are heirs of the kingdom of God. Their identity was so obvious to Him that He seethed with His disciples because they did not take that reality into account.

How did Jesus Know?

"Of such is the kingdom of God," Jesus said to the disciples. Where did Jesus get that from? Why could Jesus speak so categorically about these children being "of" the kingdom of God?

As it turns out, Jesus simply took at face value what the Lord had revealed in the OT about children in Israel. Note: Jesus does not say that all children are possessors of God's kingdom. He is speaking of that specific group who had been brought to Him to receive His touch. These were children of Israel, that is, were persons who by birth had received from God a place in His eternal covenant of grace. 

It is not true that God has a soft spot for children as such. In the flood the whole human race died, except for the eight adults in the ark. The whole human race includes the aged and the strong, includes also the infants of one day old and the toddlers just learning to walk. The people of Israel were commanded, when they entered the Promised Land, to kill all the inhabitants, including not just the aged and the strong, but also the infants of one day old and the toddlers just learning to walk (cf Dt 7:2; 20:17). It is just not true that "Jesus loves all the little children of the world." That little ditty is an outright lie.

Covenant 

What is true, though, is that God loves the believers, those who trust in Him, and loves also the family, the children of the believer.6 In the flood God was sovereignly pleased to save not just the believer Noah, but also his family, including wife and sons and daughters-in-law (Gen 6:17f).7 This love for the family "believers and their children" is enshrined by God into a normative pattern for Himself in the promise He voiced to Abraham. Said God to Abraham in Gen 17:

"I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you" (vs 7).

The children of believers are claimed by God as His special possession. In God's covenant with Abraham God promised that He would be God to Abraham, and in the context of God's revelation in the covenant this promise meant nothing else than that God imposed such a bond between Himself and Abraham that He would be Abraham's God forever, that God would care for Abraham, would forgive His sins, would reconcile him to God, yes, that God would be his Friend always. That wonderful promise, though, was not for the man Abraham alone; it was equally valid for Abraham's children! Though no child had yet been born to Abraham, God promised already that any child one day born to this man would be possessor of the kingdom of heaven; God would be his God. God imposed a bond of eternal grace on Abraham and on His children.

When God, then, delivered a people from Egypt, God did not deliver the adults only, or the pious only; God in faithfulness to the promise spoken to father Abraham took out of bondage His people, older and younger alike. When God made His covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai, God made special mention of the children in Israel; "I," said the Lord, 

"am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments" (Ex 20:5f).

That's the promise: into countless generations of the faithful God would bless the children.
So, when the prophet Isaiah had to speak of the coming Messiah, he did it like this:

"He will feed His flock like a shepherd; 
He will gather the lambs with His arm, 
And carry them in His bosom, 
And gently lead those who are with young" (Is 40:11).

The little ones, the lambs, are so precious to God that the Messiah will "carry them in His bosom". These little ones, by God's sovereign decision, are the heirs of God's promises of life and grace, of forgiveness and mercy everlasting. So spake the Old Testament.

Shall the disciples then send away the little ones brought to Jesus?! It's so understandable that Jesus was seething at the audacity of the twelve. Had they not read the Scriptures? Did they not know from the Word of God itself what God thought of His children by covenant? Their Bibles were so crystal clear: of the little ones was the kingdom of God! Send them away? Deny them access to the Saviour of the world? No, a thousand times NO! God's revelation made so clear, so very clear that the little ones those whom God in wisdom entrusted to believing parents were precious, so very precious to God. God sent His only Son into the world not only for the mature, the adults, those who can think; God sent His only Son into the world for the salvation of the little ones. Their's is the kingdom of heaven! That's what the OT taught, and so that's what the disciples should work with, should embrace, should believe. And so let the little children come to Jesus! "For of such is the kingdom of God."

The NT is not Different

That the NT operates on a the same principle is evident from various passages of the NT Scripture. Peter on the day of Pentecost addressed the very crowds who had once crucified Jesus and cried out that His blood "be on us and on our children" (Mt 27:25). Said Peter to that crowd:

"Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

Now: why could Peter be so certain that this crowd of sinners could be forgiven, could receive the Holy Spirit? Because, said Peter, "the promise is to you." What promise? The one of Genesis 17, that God will be God to the believer. But, he adds, the promise is not only for you adults; the promise is also "to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:39). That's Genesis 17: 

"I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you" (vs 7).

Peter takes the principle of the OT, and works with it in the dispensation of the Holy Spirit: God's covenant is made with believers and their seed.

Because the principle of Genesis 17 is operative in the NT era, the apostle Paul says to the saints of Corinth that the children of the believing parent "are holy" (I Cor 7:14). And when the Philippian jailer after the earthquake asked the apostles what he had to do, Paul said to him this: 

"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31).

Again, when Cornelius was told by the angel to send for Peter, he was assured that Peter would speak words "by which you and all your household will be saved" (Acts 11:14). Lydia believed the preaching of the apostle Paul, and as a result she was baptized "and her household" (Acts 16:14f).8 Time and again the Scriptures of the NT confirm the principle of the OT: the children of believers, no matter how little, are precious to God, are claimed by God as His.

In agreement with this revelation of God in Scripture, the fathers at the Synod of Dort made the following confession:

"We must judge concerning the will of God from His Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents. Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy" (Canons of Dort, Chap 1, Art 17, pg 539).

There it is, dear reader, in the words of our own confession. Here you and I echo the words of Jesus in our text: "of such is the kingdom of God."9 Every child conceived in the womb of a believer is a child of God! Neither miscarriage nor handicap nor timely birth nor illness can change that reality: "of such is the kingdom of God." 

It is, therefore, simply not true that our children need to make profession of faith before it can be said that they belong to Christ, before it can be said that they are possessors of the kingdom of God. That kingdom belongs to them already, because God has said so. Certainly, those little ones need to be taught Who their God and Father is. But it is not true that they don't really yet belong to God, or belong to God in a lesser sense, until the day they actually themselves believe in the Lord and profess the faith. In the words of Lord's Day 27: "Infants as well as adults belong to God's covenant."

The Consequence.

Jesus was furious with His disciples when they failed to understand and apply the plain and straightforward teaching of Scripture. Let us for our part make sure that we appreciate well the glorious identity God in mercy has granted to our children! And therefore treat them literally as God's children.

The baby in the womb, the infant in the cradle, the toddler in the play pen, the school-ager, the teenager: all our children 'irrespective of talents received' are children of God by covenant. In Jesus' words: "of such is the kingdom of God," all God's riches are promised to them. How rich, how wonderfully rich, those little ones are! 

And we parents are allowed to tell them about it!! I cannot imagine a more glorious task!


Footnotes.

  1. Elsewhere only in Mt 20:24; 21:15; 26:8; Mk 10:41; 14:4; Lu 13:14. This is the only passage where the word is attributed to Jesus (Return)
  2. For example: Lane and Hendriksen. (Return)
  3. Cf Luke 1:59 (infant John at circumcision) and Mark 5:39f (sick daughter of the synagogue ruler is 12 years old). (Return)
  4. M vanVeelen, "Als een Kind", in Pro Ministerio, A.2, pg 345f. (Return)
  5. This point is well argued by John Murray, Christian Baptism (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), pg 60f. (Return)
  6. For the following argument, I am indebted to Edward N Gross, Will my Children go to Heaven? (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995), pg 19-41. (Return)
  7. The first prayer in the Form for Infant Baptism mentions this point. (Return)
  8. Cf also Crispus (Acts 18:8), Stephanus (I Cor 1:16), Onesiphorus (II Tim 1:16; 4:19). (Return)
  9. As to vs 15: "Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it." The commentators point again to the attitude of the child: passively receiving. This time it will be true - in derived sense. The immediate point Jesus makes here is that none can contribute a thing to one's salvation; God imposes His promises on believers and their seed, though yet unborn. Without our asking, without our permission, God imposes promises of redemption. That fact that little ones are heirs of the kingdom points up this doctrine. If adults would be saved, they too need to be as empty before God as a little child, be it unborn or just born or a toddler.
    (Return)