“Let the little children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Jesus in Mark 10:14).

We are used to our leaders fawning over children. It’s become cliche that politicians kiss babies and concerned citizens always tell us to “Think of the children!” But such tender concern for children has not always been common.

For Greeks and Romans in the first century there was virtually no sentimentality regarding children. Abortion was frequent. Infanticide was even more common. There were too many mouths to feed in the Empire. Offspring were good to work in the fields, but as small children they were unwanted. They were sometimes left for dead in the outdoors or on literal trash heaps.

The Jews treated their children better. A child was a gift from God. But still, children enjoyed no social standing. Like most women, children derived their standing from their relationship to adult males. As unique persons, little kids were better off seen and not heard.

The disciples, therefore, had good reason to think this business of bringing children to Jesus inappropriate and bothersome. Like waiting in line to ask Jesus to tie your shoe. Like clamoring for Jesus to pet your hamster. The man’s busy and should not be bothered with such trifles.

The disciples were simply managing their Master’s time. Except they had no idea what mattered to the Master. Only once is this word “indignant” used of Jesus. That’s how he felt when the Twelve shooed the children away.

Little children were not the sort of people Jesus meant to avoid. They were precisely the people he wanted to see. Jesus did not find children a bother. He cared about their little cares. Their big cares too. He was more patient with other people’s children than we are with our own. He saw them as examples more than burdens. He was tender with children and tough on those who overlooked them. Jesus loved to welcome the little children, take them in his arms, and bless them. He still does.

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14 thoughts on “Suffer the Little Children”

  1. Clarice says:

    Thanks for this. A helpful and encouraging read this morning as I fight to imitate Jesus’ tenderness and care towards my (crazy, wonderful) toddler boys.

  2. We need good reminders like this on a regular basis the historical change that occurred with the advent of Christ, both redemptive-historically, and just in the broader culture. Thanks for the post.

  3. Yes. This is both a good and timely reminder. To kick it up a level, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 18:2) and — “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17).

    Joel Green wrote “…receiving the kingdom” is intimately tied to “receiving little children.” That is, the wording of verse 17 masks an ellipsis: ‘Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as one receives a little child will never enter it.’ ’Receiving little children ‘s tantamount to granting them hospitality, performing for them actions (washing of feet, kiss of greeting, and anointing the head—7:44-46) normally reserved for those of equal or higher status. Jesus is asking his followers to embrace a topsy-turvy system of values and to extend respectful service to that social group most often overlooked.”

    “The rationale for such behavior is straightforward. It grows out of a transformed sense of the way the world works, one based on the power of the kingdom of God to deconstruct those worldly systems and values that stand in opposition to God’s project. In this light, the action of the disciples is all the more self-indicting. Jesus “rebukes” whatever contests God’s redemptive purpose; as they rebuke those bringing children to Jesus, the disciples find themselves contesting the divine purpose, demonstrating their complete incomprehension concerning the nature of God’s project.”

    “Failing to understand how the in-breaking kingdom undermines and supplants conventional canons of honor and status, the disciples fail to grasp God’s concern for those held in lowest regard, fail to comport themselves with humility so as to share that concern, and fail to function as Jesus’ agents. Having refused to extend respectful service to the socially marginalized, having misconstrued the nature of the kingdom, how will they ever enter it?” (Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Joel Green, pp. 651-652).

    From: The kingdom of God belongs to such as these http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/the-kingdom-of-god-belongs-to-such-as-these/

  4. marc mullins says:

    Love the article. I was at church last night with mostly older folks while my 3 and 5 year were pushing the limits of my patience and pride of control of my kids, before my congregation. I was like a Roman, burdened and bothered. The wise old Godly elder folks in the church just loved them, and were frankly pleased by their playfulness.

  5. Marti Lowder says:

    When, in my mind’s eye, I “see” myself with Christ, I am always 5 years-old, lifted by His strong arms, and held securely with my head next to His heart.

    Thank you for this article!

  6. Eugene says:

    Hello Pastor Kevin,

    Does the Reformed tradition teach that kids who die without saving faith will go to hell, no matter what age they are? In other words if they are born depraved in their nature, how are they then justified before a Holy God. I know some people differ but it would be helpful to know what you teach and think.

    Personally I would agree with John Macarthur’s position, in which he wrote about in a book titled “Safe in the arms of God” where he believes and teaches they would go to be with God.

    Thank you,
    Eugene

  7. Michael B. says:

    I think the Forum Thought Police deleted my previous post, but the Bible contains numerous instances of God killing kids or ordering kids to be killed. The “God Loves All the Little Children” God you worship is one of your own making.

  8. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Eugene, the Canons of Dort teach that children of believing parents are saved, though they may die as children. I’m not aware of any specific confessional teaching about all children going to heaven, but I suspect most Reformed theologians today would come down where Mohler and MacArthur do, even if by a different route.

  9. Eugene,

    With all due respect to Pastor Kevin, whose godliness and usefulness in the gospel ministry far exceed my own, and whose writings I respect and have been edified by, the confessional Reformed tradition, as expressed by the Canons of Dort to which Pastor Kevin is bound by ordination, and the Westminster Confession of Faith to which I am bound by ordination, say the following:

    Canons of Dort, 1.17:
    “Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.”

    Notice what the Canons do not say: they don’t say all children of believers which die in infancy are saved. The Canons focus not so much on the infallibility of deceased infants’ election and salvation but on the comfort of Christian parents, pastorally encouraging them not to doubt. This is a far cry from declaring the children either saved or unsaved, but instead declares that given the nature of God’s covenantal grace which extends down through the generations, and given the fact that children of believers are holy (set apart), Christian parents who lose a child in infancy (or miscarriage) ought not to live the rest of their lives doubting God saved their child. They should rest their concerns in the bosom of a God whose relationship with children of believers was declared in the covenant made with Abraham and made manifest by Jesus’ welcome.

    But whereas the Canons of Dort go out on a sort of pastoral limb to make a judgment for the sake of comforting bereaved Christian parents, the Westminster divines went out on no such limb, confining themselves to a statement rather more obvious in nature (Westminster Confession of Faith 10.3):

    “Elect infants who die in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when, where, and how he pleases. So also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.”

    So, based on these two confessions, are the children of believers which die in infancy saved? Ultimately and finally, God alone knows; we cannot know infallibly. But, given the nature of God’s covenant mercies from generation to generation, Christian parents should not live the remainder of their lives fretful or anxious about their deceased child’s election and salvation, but should instead rest their parental heartaches in the nature of God’s covenant grace toward His people (Canons of Dort), and for those children which are elect, at some point between conception into original sin and death they had to have been regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit (Westminster). In other words, children who died in infancy are no exception to the order of salvation: they must be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven (John 3); if elect, they were.

  10. Dan says:

    Passages like this have helped to confirm my paedobaptist position. If we are to bring our children to Christ, how would that exclude baptism? I believe Sinclair Ferguson preached an excellent sermon on this text if anyone is interested.

  11. Eugene says:

    Hello Pastor Kevin & Zach.Thank you for your replies.

    To summarize: Children who are born from believing parents and die at an early age have no assurance of salvation. However a parent should not fret, but rest in the Covenantal grace of God. Also a child if he is really elect (because he may not even if born to believing parents), then he must be regenerated and Saved by Christ through the Spirit.

    This raises additional questions (by the way I’m not raising questions for merely discussion sake, but would like to better counsel those whom I talk to):

    1. Can a child be born from unbelieving parents and still be elect? Or to put it oppositely, Can a child born from believing parents be a reprobate? If so why do the confessional statements focus on Covenantal grace at all?

    2. How is a child saved by Christ through the Spirit without saving Faith and repentance (I can understand a child being regenerated, but aren’t we justified by Faith in Christ alone)?

    3. In your counsel to two different people (believer and non-believer), do you tell a believing parent that His/Her child might be saved and an unbelieving parent that they are in Hell?

    4. Also is there a distinction between infant, child, and or age these confessional statements apply too?

    Thank you for your help,
    Eugene

  12. Ted Bigelow says:

    Gentlemen,

    I recommend MacArthur’s book, “Safe in the Arms of God.” If you want to comfort your own heart with truth, nothing but Scripture will do. He lays out far more Scripture than you might imagine, and in so doing presents a compelling case that all children in death enter immediately into the presence of Christ. To refute his argument you’ll have to deal with many more texts of Scripture than you likely expect. And thus far, no one has (or should).

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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