‘Once upon a time there was a king who ruled over a vast empire. The king had everything his heart could desire – apart from peace. One day he called his Wise Men to him and told them that he longed to find peace and instructed them to tell him how to achieve it. One of his Wise Men told him that peace could only be achieved by knowing the God who created all things.
In his kingdom the king had many houses and institutions of religion, some very large, some small, all who claimed to represent this God. However, all of these also claimed that this God could only be know and peace obtained by spending a very very long time in the study of their most holy books and the history of all things. The king, being a busy man, instructed his Wise Men to find five of the most learned experts of religion either from the greatest universities, institutions or houses of religion throughout the realm and have them come and tutor the king personally so he might find the peace he longed for.
The day appointed for the Wise Men to report back to the king arrived. In front of him were five of the most prominent and educated teachers and experts of religion in the realm – some from very far away. All five had very impressive qualifications and boasted many titles before and after their names. Each looked serious and sagelike and all were wearing either gowns, robes or expensive suits along with very impressive jewellery and ornamentation commensurate with their status and standing. However, in a far corner of the kings royal meeting room the king saw, in the shadows, one of his wisest Wise Men standing holding the hand of a small child.’
‘Then he (Jesus) had a child come and stand among them. He wrapped the child in his arms ..’
Mark 9:36 (TPT)
Who was this little child so gently brought in to the room of a home in Capernaum, by the sea of Galilee, so long ago and embraced by Jesus? In all possibility the child was one of Peter’s children, for the event took place in the village where Peter’s home was. It was also, we can deduce, a safe place, a haven – for instead of speaking anywhere, Jesus considerately waited until it was appropriate to ask his disciples a sensitive question – ‘What were you arguing about on the way here?’ It seems he did not wish to embarrass them by speaking to them publicly about the matter.
Of course we know what they had been arguing about – which one of them was the greatest. How immature we might say – but ah, how often have we seen this in action without being verbalised among those who claim to follow Jesus even today – and, what is more, among those who consider themselves mature? Some even dress to impress others with their greatness and superiority. We tend to forget that all of Jesus disciples, apart from Peter, were, almost certainly, in their late teenage years at this point.
But the child held in Jesus embrace is presented to these young disciples, and to us, us as an example of the kind of person we must all become to receive Jesus and enter his kingdom, for Jesus says –
‘Truly I tell you, unless you change (or ‘turn’ – a concept identical with ‘repentance’) and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’
(Matthew 18 – NIV)
‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’
(Mark 9 – NIV)
There are two distinct and separate aspects we need to contemplate as we consider Jesus and the child. One relates to the child seen as an example of the one who is admitted to the kingdom of God and to citizenship within it – ‘Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ The other relates to God himself – ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me (Jesus); and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me (The Father).’
But what does it mean when Jesus says that both he and the Father are accepted and welcomed in our acceptance and open armed welcome of a child? I personally believe there is a sense of mystery here – a mystery we cannot fully fathom. So what can we say about these? Let us take the former statement first – as in all honesty it is somewhat easier to understand.
At first glance the story here appears primarily to be a lesson against ambition and emulation – for it is told in response to the disciples desire for ‘greatness’. However this incident also reveals so much more about the heart of God himself and our relationship to him and his kingdom.
Perhaps we should also note at this point that the child is not chosen for any of the qualities the particular child may have – nor whether or not it was the child of one of Jesus disciples – but simply because it was a child. The issue here is the childlikeness, the heart of the child – not its heritage or beauty – and certainly not because of its childishness.
The child then, in the context, is chosen because he or she represents the quintessential citizen of God’s Kingdom. It is not that childlikeness is required for entry only – but childlikeness remains the highest of qualities within the kingdom – and, says Jesus, is the mark of true greatness.
I think one of the first, perhaps even the main thrust of Jesus thinking here has to do with the fact that true ‘seeing’ is a childlike quality. Children see with wonder, simplicity, honesty and through a pure enquiring mind. (1) One aspect of this is seen in Jesus teaching. He spoke and taught in parable, in story – a very childlike way of communication (which is what most theologians prefer Paul to Jesus). Most of the time his teaching went completely over the heads of the ‘religious experts’ of his day. They could not see because they did not possess a childlike heart! In fact Jesus considered them as blind people (See – Isaiah 56:10 & Matthew 15:14). It is of great significance to our enquiry here that Jesus, on one occasion, when he was speaking with his Father, said –
‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.”
Luke 10 (NIV)
True revelation of God requires a childlike heart! To see the Kingdom of God requires a childlike heart! To enter Kingdom of God requires a childlike heart! To live in God Kingdom requires a childlike heart!
In a world where ‘knowing God’ has, by and large, become a matter of the intellect, study and where many believe that advancement in God’s Kingdom and in the echelons of the church can only be achieved as a result of higher education, degrees in theology and a system of ongoing educational and intellectual advancement this comes as something of a shock!
We all know the story of the expert Pharisee, Nicodemus, who approached Jesus under the cover of darkness. Indeed, some consider Nicodemus to have been the foremost religious scholar of his generation. It cannot be without significant that it is to such a man that Jesus goes a step further – not requiring only a childlike heart – but a return to that of a new-born child – ‘I tell you the truth, unless you are born again you cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ (John 3:3 NLT)
So we are forced to address the deeper question – why is this so? Why the requirement for childlikeness? The answer is so shocking as to sound heretical or even blasphemous – it is because God himself is childlike! In truth God never asks us to become something he is not – so we are forced to the conclusion that he is at heart childlike. Jesus is very clear – ‘Whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’. It stand to reason therefor that the greatest in the Kingdom is the one who is most like God himself! And if a child is the one who is the greatest – then that child is a reflection of his or her Father – God.
And it is in this that we see something of the Spirit of the childlike God – reaching out to the spirit of the child in his childlikeness. It is here – at the point of childlikeness that the divine and the human meet – and it is only at this point we can enter the kingdom. At one level then (although I think there is much more) it is as we embrace and imbibe the childlikeness of the child that we embrace God – ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me’.
As we have already said, the childlike heart is required, not only for entry into the Kingdom of God – but also for on-going citizenship within it. Although it is beyond the scope of this short meditation to examine all of the implications of this – think of one which becomes very obvious in Jesus teaching – humble submission. Humble submission was a mark of the life of Jesus and such submission flowed from his childlike trust in The Father. Childlikeness, in its purity, has no desire to dominate or rule. Linking directly with what Jesus has already said here, on another occasion he called his disciple to him and said –
‘You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.’
(Matthew 20 NLT)
How much misery, brokenness and even death and destruction would have been avoided in the history of our world if those who have claimed to be disciples of Jesus had followed this rule? But alas – the religion of childlikeness soon disappeared from the church and was replaced by attitudes and structures which mirror exactly those condemned by Jesus. Yes – thank God, there have always been and still are many who do follow the childlike God and Father of Jesus. And it is through them that his heart still beats in our world today. The question is – are we one on them?
But ‘Ah’, some of my more theologically minded friends will say -‘There is no hard evidence of this childlike God in the Bible and Paul never mentions him!’ But wait! Who is the old man I see running through the dusty street of a Palestinian village holding the skirts of his robes? He is laughing as stunned villagers watch in shocked silence and incredulity. In a moment they see he is in fact running towards an emaciated figure stumbling towards the village. His servants who are running behind him suddenly stop as they see their master throwing his arms round the filthy young man they can now see more clearly – holding him in a tight embrace and kissing him repeatedly. His excitement is palpable to everyone – but no one understands the childlike behaviour of the old man they now see before them holding his lost son. Is there, I ask you, any picture more graphic than this of the childlike heart of God our Father?
Ultimately then it is only the childlike who will triumph and before The Child all others will bow – for The Child is also The Lamb! And his true followers are like him – those who possess his childlike, gentle, humble, heart. And, ultimately, it is the childlike who will rule with The Lamb – for childlike rule is the only rule allowed in the Kingdom of God.
‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11 RSV
‘The king of the vast empire gazed into the eyes of the little child as he was led towards him by his most trusted of wise men. And, in a momentary flash of revelation, the king saw, not the child, but the God of all things walking towards him with a beautiful smile on his face. The king instinctively reached out his arms towards the child who, at that moment, broke free from the hand of the Wise Man who held him – and, as the king embraced the child, an indescribable, mystical, eternal peace flooded his being. The wise men of this world began to withdraw, silently, reverently. With their heads bowed they passed the king and the child who were still locked in a silent embrace. As they reached the vast doors of the kings royal meeting room one of the religious experts glanced back for one last look at the king and the child – but the child was nowhere to be seen – only the king – now on his knees weeping with his arms raised to heaven.’
(1) It should be noted that the story of Jesus and the child has a yet deeper significance in the Jewish, Islamic and Eastern Orthodox traditions – all of whom reject the Roman Catholic and Protestant theory called ‘original sin’. So, in these traditions, the child is seen as totally pure and undefiled. In fact the doctrine of ‘original sin’ appears only to have emerged in the Christian world about the 3rd century and becoming fully formed with the writings of Augustine of Hippo (354–430), who was the first author to use the phrase. Influenced by Augustine, the councils of Carthage (411-418 c.E.) and Orange (529 c.E.) brought the doctrine of ‘original sin’ into the official teachings of the Church. At the time of the Reformation this doctrine was perpetuated by Luther, Calvin and others – and remains the teaching of most Conservative/Evangelical denominations today.
See also – ‘Childlike God’ – https://steve-taylor.org.uk/the-heart-of-god/childlike-god/
If you want to meditate further on this subject I would recommend a thoughtful consideration of – ‘The Child in The Midst’ – George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I.