Why Are Children Close to the Kingdom of God?

Below is an excerpt from my new book: Growing Down: Unlearning the Patterns of Adulthood that Keep us From Jesus:

Picture the scene with me. It’s another busy day in the life of Jesus. His reputation has spread; He scarcely has a moment to Himself anymore. Everywhere He and His disciples turn, there are people. Sick people. Needy people. Accusing people. Skeptical people. And, on this particular day, there are also a bunch of kids.

It seemed parents in the crowd had started pushing and shoving their way forward with their kiddos in tow. They were coming because it was customary in those days for a great teacher of the law to lay their hands on children and pray for them in order to bless them. That’s just what these parents were doing. They, like Nicodemus, didn’t quite know what to make of Jesus, but they had seen and heard enough to know they wanted to get their rugrats some of that blessing He might be handing out.

Jesus’ disciples didn’t want any part of it. In fact, the disciples “rebuked” these tiger parents and their disruptive kiddos (Matt. 19:13). That’s a strong word – rightly so. There was nothing polite about what the disciples did; it’s not as if they pulled mom and dad aside and quietly whispered, “Jesus is actually teaching right now, but we’re going to have a meet and greet later and you are more than welcome to come then.” This word is so strong, in fact, that in another form it can be translated, “punished.”

I can relate, I suppose. I remember a couple of years ago when Jana and I took our three children (then nine, six, and four years old) to the most magical place on Earth. I remember going through the turnstile and being greeted by plants resembling cartoon dogs and ducks and the familiar refrain of “It’s a Small World.” We stood for a moment, looking at the gates of the Magic Kingdom at DisneyWorld, and then the terrible reality it me: We’re here too early.

That wasn’t the plan. I had clocked it out. My goal was to arrive anywhere from two to seven minutes early because I knew arriving any earlier would result in anarchy. And yet there we stood, forty-two minutes prior to gate opening.

That’s forty-two minutes in the unshaded heat. Forty-two minutes with three kids and two iPhones. Forty-two minutes of nowhere to sit except the scalding Floridian concrete. Forty-two minutes of looking at the promise of fun and adventure and not being able to go in. And after about seventeen seconds, the displeasure of these children sat in:

“When is it going to open?” Forty-two minutes.

“Why can’t we go in?” It’s not open yet.

“How come those people are going in?” Because they are staying at a hotel on site.

“Our hotel stinks! I want to stay at that hotel!” Get a job.

In that moment, I could have done with an entourage of my own disciples bent on protecting me from the kids. That’s what the disciples did—they formed a verbal and punitive wall around Jesus, and ironically, they did it to protect Him.

Jesus is too busy for that kid. He’s too important to spend time like this. He shouldn’t have to deal with these trivialities. If you only knew Him like we do, you wouldn’t be so quick to bring your snotty brats this close.

Funny how we do that sometimes, isn’t it? Try and protect Jesus? We do it in the marketplace and in debates; we do it in the culture and with the skeptic. We are like Peter, drawing our sword and waving it at any old ear that needs to be cut off, like the Son of God isn’t capable of protecting Himself.

Jesus, in response to the protection of the disciples, is even more incensed than they were at this intrusion: “When Jesus saw it, He was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to Me’” (Matt. 19:14).

Now, Jesus got frustrated with His disciples a lot. He was disappointed in their level of understanding several times. But this is the only time in the Bible where He is “indignant” with them. Evidently, there was something about this whole scene, chaotic as it undoubtedly was, that made the Son of God really, really angry.

There are a lot of conclusions we can draw about that. We can know, for example, that there is a special place in the heart of Jesus for children. We can also know that Jesus loved the parents, and He knew that denying the children meant casting away mom and dad. And we can know that Jesus was angry because no one—not even the smallest baby—is outside of His providential care.

But we can also see from here that Jesus was angry because the disciples had missed something crucial about the nature of the kingdom of God and what it means to receive it: “Don’t stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I assure you: Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

It seems that for all the growing in knowledge, understanding, and proximity to Jesus the disciples had done, they really hadn’t moved much past square one. In fact, these children were closer to understanding what it means to come to Jesus and embrace His kingdom than the disciples were. The same thing is true for us.

If we want to grow up in Jesus, then it seems we must grow down and become more like children. But that presents a problem, doesn’t it? What I mean is, it seems that the Bible combines faith and children in both a positive and a negative way. In the passage above, it’s clearly positive. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is made up of people like the children. And yet Paul seemed to argue just the opposite: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (1 Cor. 13:11). It seems like the Bible is speaking out of both sides of its mouth, or at least that Jesus and Paul disagree. Jesus was teaching that entering the kingdom of heaven is about having faith like a child; Paul seems to say that growing in Christ is about putting away childish ways.

Let’s frame it another way—maybe there is a difference between “child-like” faith and “childish” faith. That is to say, a childish faith is a mark of immaturity as a Christ-follower. But child-like faith is a mark of depth. In fact, you could perhaps say that the disciples were marked by childish faith and what they needed was to become more like the very ones they were so eager to turn away.

If that’s true, it begs the question of what it means to come to God over and over again as a child might. But to get to the end of that trail, where we really know what it means to grow up in Christ by growing down, let’s see if we can find out what it is about being an adult in the eyes of the world that might keep us from truly embracing and experiencing the fullness of who Jesus is and what it’s like to live in His kingdom.

Growing Down releases on April 1, but is available for pre-order now.

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