One of the most abused Bible passages today is Matthew 19:14 where Jesus commands His disciples to allow children to come to Him. I have heard this verse used to argue everything from children preaching to a strange idea of everyone becoming children again in heaven, this is not to mention the heresies this verse has been used to support. While there is much that this passage doesn’t tell us, it nonetheless is an important Bible verse that speaks volumes for Christians today.
To apply our potent little Bible passage it will be useful to first unpack it. This passage occurs during a period of Jesus’ teaching ministry. At one point a number of parents sent their children over to Jesus to be blessed by Jesus. Upon witnessing this event Jesus’ disciples interrupted and rebuked the children for daring approach the Messiah. Their reasoning for rebuking the children was they believed that children approaching Jesus brought shame to someone so important. At that time children were regarded as inferior to adults, sometimes even sub-human. Among the wealthy, care of children was a duty of slaves and fathers were particularly separated from their young children. Jesus’ disciples thought Jesus ought to only be in the company of the important as the true King of Israel. Jesus rebukes this attitude and uses the children in his presence as an illustration of His kingdom. Jesus does not respond by saying the kingdom of God is for children as some misrepresent this passage, instead Jesus tells his disciples the kingdom is for those who come to Him in the same manner as children. Jesus is saying the only ones worthy of His kingdom were those who realized their unworthiness on their one much like children did at that time. Jesus commands His disciples not only to welcome all children but He even calls His disciples to take on the posture of these children if they hope to reach heaven.
This passage tells us that Christ’s Kingdom and Christ’s Church is for those who recognize they don’t deserve it. Many in the Kingdom will be those the world regarded as insignificant because a false posture of importance is the greatest barrier to heaven. In 2016 the opposite era of Jesus’ day often exists, instead of being regarded as unimportant children sometimes are treated like little emperors; we encourage our kids to think they are the best thing since sliced bread. Even in churches sometimes children are treated like they deserve constant praise and esteem. It may stand to reason that this is now least applicable to how we relate to children, but I worry the modern church has its own ways of forbidding the children.
It’s important to note the act the disciples were rebuked for was not merely disliking children, but refusing children the privilege of being in Jesus’ holy presence in the same way that adult disciples were. Undoubtedly these disciples had no opposition to children having their own different type of experience with Jesus’ presence, but children dare not come to Jesus on the same standing as adults in their eyes. When one understands Jesus’ presence and his kingdom as the primary concern, it is easy to find a modern application and see modern ways that we act like the foolish disciples. Today God’s covenant communities and even His body is shown to the world in the local church. As much as we like to treat church as our own little religious communities shaped in our likeness, every true Church is Christ’s church and shows the world His presence.
One could easily see how even today we believe that children ought to be separated from the adult experience of Jesus’ presence and His covenant community. Most church even craft an entire different church experience for children, sometimes even for teenagers. It’s not uncommon for a family to ride together to church and not see each other again until mom and dad pick up their kids after the worship services have concluded. We advertise this kind of rejection of children from Jesus’ covenant community as a positive; kids get to have junior church, kids worship, I’ve even heard of a church that offered kid communion. As well-intentioned as this might be, it’s hard to see how this mentality stems from the reasoning of our savior rather than the rebuked disciples. Perhaps much of this is because we fail to grasp the importance that Jesus placed upon the intergenerational worship service. Even the preaching of the Word is shown in scripture as being a special power from the Holy Spirit. The preached word is infinitely more powerful than thunder and John Piper rightly says one would never see a reason for junior thunder. This is why our church leadership has become uncomfortable with the term children’s church or junior church. We only offer similar programs to prepare children to partake in the amazing reality of Jesus’ presence in the church. Further, we are excited to see parents bring their kids into the service well before our third grade graduation.
It might look very different but we still forbid children from the special presence of Jesus. We forbid the children often today in the church gatherings. Jesus welcomed the children not by creating an original religious experience but instead by welcoming children into His very presence. Churches today welcome the little children when we consider it a blessing not an annoyance when we hear an infant crying in the sanctuary. We welcome children by applying the sermon to life on the playground not just life in the office. We welcome children when we are as excited to teach their Sunday School class as we are to teach an adult class. We welcome the children when we persist on raising our own children in the fear of the Lord even when we would rather put their shows on and scream in our bedroom. We even welcome children when we do the hard work of helping a child learn to sit through the sermon when our experience would be more enjoyable without them. Welcoming children like welcoming all those society deems unworthy will take work, but Christ smiles upon His church when we embrace this call. It’s ironic that the way many churches claim to value children is by considering them unworthy to be part of the worship service. I don’t know anyone who would regard their children today as subhuman but I worry we still need to heed Jesus’ call to welcome the children.