Jesus Loves the Little Children
Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And after laying His hands on them, He departed from there. (19:13–15)
All children raised in a Christian home or who have attended Sunday school when they were young, long remember singing such songs as “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Those lovely sentiments are based on clear biblical truth. Jesus does love little children, as this text from Matthew attests. The parents of these children wanted Jesus to touch them and bless them, and He was more than willing to accommodate that desire.
Some years ago, a family in our church experienced a great tragedy. The mother and the two daughters were planning to fly the next day to New Zealand to join the husband and father, who was on a preaching mission there. As the wife was learning some new crotchet stitches to use on the long flight, the girls went outside to play. A few moments later the mother heard the screeching of automobile tires, but since there was no sound of a crash she thought little of it—until her older daughter came running into the house crying that her sister, Tanya, had been hit by a car.
The girl was unconscious but showed no sign of serious injury. While the mother bent over her, Tanya breathed a heavy sigh and turned her head to the side. At the hospital the neurosurgeon told the mother that the girl had suffered massive brain damage and had little chance of surviving. Relatives and friends prayed fervently and the mother kept a vigil with her precious daughter throughout the night, praying with great intensity that God would spare and restore her daughter. But she also prayed that, above all, God’s will be done, even if it meant taking Tanya to be with Himself.
A relative who was a doctor explained that Tanya’s breathing and heartbeat were functioning at the hospital solely by artificial means. “Her body is being kept working,” he said, “but Tanya isn’t there anymore. She is with the Lord.” With a radiant face her mother said to the Lord, “Have thy will, not mine.” To her friends and loved ones she explained, “I shall not forsake my Lord; because if I did, I would be saying Tanya is gone forever. I [will] do as King David in the Old Testament had done when his child was taken. He washed his face, changed his clothes, and went about his business, satisfied that God knew best.”
At that moment she determined there would be no more begging God to bring her little girl back. Tanya was in the Lord’s care, and her mother believed she had entered His presence when, lying unconscious on the street, she sighed and turned her head. The mother testifies that she was filled with an inner strength that was foreign to her. She recalled that for several months previously Tanya had prayed, “Lord, I want to go and be with You while I’m young.” When her mother asked why she made that request, Tanya smiled and replied, “Because I want to sit on Jesus’ lap when I get there; and I don’t want to be too big.” On remembering those words, said the mother, “New assurance and peace surged through my sorrowful soul. I was refreshed with a joy that we were all in good hands and that God hadn’t forsaken us for an instant.”
That mother and the rest of the family could rejoice even in the death of that beloved little girl because they knew where she had gone. Because she had been led to the Savior, she was now gathered into His arms, where she had longed to be.
Every Christian parent should take deeply to heart Paul’s admonition to bring up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). If the children die, parents know where they are. If the children live, parents know to Whom they belong and for Whom they live.
Perhaps only a short while after Jesus had finished teaching the Twelve about marriage, divorce, remarriage, and singleness (Matt. 19:3–12), another group of people then came seeking His ministry. At that time some children were brought to Him, doubtlessly by their parents. Both Mark and Luke use the imperfect tense (“they were bringing”), indicating a continuing process and likely an extended period of time (Mark 10:13; Luke 18:15). When word spread that Jesus was in the area, parents were drawn to this Teacher whose love of children had become known throughout Palestine (cf. 17:18; 18:2–3; John 4:50).
The Greek word used here for children was paidia, a term referring to young children from infancy through perhaps toddler age. In his parallel passage, Luke tells us “they were bringing even their babies” (18:15).
But the disciples resented the intrusion into their private time with Jesus, and they rebuked the parents. The Greek verb behind rebuked could carry the idea of threatening, and its being in the imperfect suggests that the rebuke was as continuous as the bringing. As more and more parents brought their children to Jesus, the disciples continued to try to repulse them. Obviously the Twelve, who had spent the better part of two years living with Jesus and hearing every word He spoke and observing everything He did, did not yet fully share His mind and heartbeat.
Only a few days earlier Jesus had taken a young child in His arms in the disciples’ presence. Specifically for the sake of the disciples, who were in the midst of a dispute about who was the greatest in the kingdom, He had declared, “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:1–4). No doubt at countless other times the Twelve had witnessed similar expressions of Jesus’ tenderness and gentleness and His great patience with those who came to Him for help. They had seen His compassion pour out in an endless flow of healing, encouragement, and comfort.
They also knew that the Talmud taught Jewish parents to bring their children to respected rabbis for blessings and prayer. A father would customarily bring his infant child to the synagogue and pray for the child himself. He would then hand it to the elders, who would each hold it and pray for God’s blessing on the young life. Many churches today follow a somewhat similar pattern in prayerfully dedicating small children to the Lord.
Following in that tradition, those Jewish parents in Perea, “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” (v. 1), brought their children to Jesus to be blessed. He not only was a popular, if controversial, rabbi known for His miracle working power but was also known for His compassion and His willingness to meet the needs of even the lowliest and most helpless people of society. If He were indeed the Messiah, as He claimed to be, those parents saw a marvelous opportunity to have their children blessed by the Lord’s own Anointed One, the Deliverer of Israel.
Because Jesus did not rebuke the parents or resist blessing their children, it is obvious that their motives were pure. They did not comprehend Jesus’ true greatness, and probably few, if any, of them had put their trust in Him as Lord and Savior. But they recognized Him as a genuine teacher from God who loved them and who cared for their precious little ones. They therefore sought His intercession with God on their children’s behalf, in the hope that they might grow up as the Talmud admonished: strong in the law, faithful in marriage, and known by good works.
Jesus was not naively sentimental about children. Having created them, He well knew they are born with a sinful nature. Children have a certain innocence, but they are not sinless. He knew that they did not have to be taught to do wrong, that their little hearts were naturally bent toward evil. But He loved them with a special compassion and, because of their natural openness and trustfulness, He held them up as examples of the attitude required for kingdom citizenship (Matt. 18:3–5).
Those who share the mind of Christ share His concern and love for children. No church or Christian movement has prospered spiritually that has disregarded or neglected the care and training of its children. The heart that is warm toward the Lord will inevitably be warm toward children.
One writer has made this beautiful observation:
As the flower in the garden stretches toward the light of the sun, so there is in the child a mysterious inclination toward the eternal light. Have you ever noticed this mysterious thing that, when you tell the smallest child about God, it never asks with strangeness and wonder, “What or who is God? I have never seen Him”—but listens with shining face to the words as though they were soft loving sounds from the land of home? Or when you teach a child to fold its little hands in prayer, it does this as though it were a matter of course, as though there were opening for it that world of which it had been dreaming with longing and anticipation. Or tell them, these little ones, the stories of the Savior, show them the pictures with scenes and personages of the Bible [and] see how their pure eyes shine, how their little hearts beat. (R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1943], p. 743)
Jesus therefore said to the Twelve, and still says to His disciples today: “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me. The Greek verb behind let … alone is in the aorist tense, whereas the verb behind do not hinder is in the present tense with a negative, indicating a call to stop something. The Lord was therefore saying, “Let the children alone, beginning immediately, and stop hindering them from coming to Me.”
From Mark we learn that Jesus was greatly indignant with the disciples (10:14). They frequently frustrated and disappointed the Lord by their insensitivity and selfishness, but this is one of only two or three occasions on which He actually became angry with them.
It is likely there were a number of reasons He was angry with them. He was angry because He loved little children with great affection, and He no doubt felt special compassion for them because of the sinful, painful, corrupt world into which they had been born and whose evils they would progressively have to face as they grew up. He was angry because He also loved parents and understood the special longings and anxieties they have for their children. He realized that loving little children was a way to their parents’ hearts. He was angry because no one, not even the tiniest infant, is outside the care and love of God. He was angry because of the disciples’ persistent spiritual dullness and hardness. And He doubtlessly was angry because the disciples presumed to determine who could and could not approach Him, the Christ and Son of God. It was neither within their prerogative nor their competency to make such choices. It was rank presumption for them to hinder the parents and their children from coming to Jesus. Specifically, He was angry because the kingdom of heaven belongs to, that is, it encompasses and is characterized by, children such as these.
There is nothing in the text to indicate that, as some claim, Jesus was isolating these supposedly elect children from others who were nonelect. Furthermore, He makes no mention of baptism, parental covenant, parental faith, or ecclesiastical rite. Nor does He mention personal faith on the part of the children, who were probably too young to have exercised such belief. The Lord was simply saying that those children, representative of all children, were a picture of the humility, dependency, and trust of those of any age who enter His kingdom.
The kingdom of heaven is the sphere of God’s rule in Christ through gracious salvation. For those who have reached the age when personal saving faith can be exercised, the kingdom is entered only by a divinely illuminated understanding of what it means to trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The implication of such as these is that for those who, because of young age or mental deficiency, are incapable of exercising saving faith, God grants them, in the event of death, entrance into the kingdom by the sovereign operation of His grace. When children die before they reach the age of decision, they go into the presence of Jesus Christ, because they are under the special protection of the sovereign King.
It was that glorious and comforting truth that David expressed when he lost his infant son born to Bathsheba. “I shall go to him,” David said, “but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). While that statement may indicate little more than a resignation to their both entering the realm of the dead, the personal pronouns I and him, as well as David’s confident belief in the life to come (see Acts 2:25–28; Ps. 16:8–11), lend credence to the idea that he was confident of personal consciousness and identity in the life to come. David knew that he himself belonged to God and would one day enter His presence, and he had equal confidence that, when he entered the Lord’s presence he would meet the little son who had preceded him there.
It is not that small children are regenerate and then lose their salvation if they do not later receive Christ as Lord and Savior. It is rather that His atoning death is applied on their behalf if they die before they are able to choose on their own. It may be that the infant mortality rate is so high in many countries where the gospel has not yet penetrated because the Lord is taking those little ones to Himself before they can grow up in a culture where it is so difficult to encounter the gospel and believe.
But what an awesome responsibility faces Christian parents to make sure that their children are taught about Christ and are led to receive Him as Savior when they are able to exercise saving faith.
Just as the children’s parents requested, Jesus laid His hands on them and blessed them. In Mark’s account of this incident (10:16), the Greek form behind “blessing” is intensive, indicating a passionate fervency. Jesus must have smiled with infinite kindness as He looked into the faces of those tiny children. We do not know the specific nature of His blessing, but we can surmise that He promised the provision of God on their behalf and the care of God over each one of them.
Luke reports that Jesus then declared, as He had a short while earlier, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all” (Luke 18:17; cf. Matt. 18:3). In other words, the kingdom is populated by only two kinds of subjects, those who die while little children and those who come in the trusting and humble attitude of little children. Only those enter God’s kingdom who come to Him in the simplicity, openness, dependency, lack of pretension, and lack of hypocrisy of little children. As John Calvin commented, “The passage broadens to give kingdom citizenship to both children and those who are like them.”
Some years ago a young Hindu man from southern India named Paul Pillai was converted to Christ and received a call to reach the northern part of his country for Christ. After attending seminary in the United States, he returned to India and founded Grace Bible College, dedicated solely to training young men called to the ministry.
After graduation, students are helped by the school for a period of some six months in establishing a local church in a village or city. One of their most effective means of winning converts, however, is a children’s home. Orphaned and abandoned children are taken to the home, where they are fed, clothed, and sheltered. They attend public schools in order to keep identity with their own culture, but they are also given concentrated study in God’s Word. Although adult Hindus and Muslims are extremely difficult to evangelize, those young children are open to the gospel, and many of them confess Christ as Lord and Savior. A large percentage of the boys from that home go on to attend the Bible college and become effective evangelists and pastors. Because they were reached with the gospel at an early age, they were open and responsive to the claims of Christ.
Five key words can prove helpful in giving guidance to parents and Christian workers in leading children to Christ. The first word is remember. We should remember that every child is created by God and, in that sense, already belongs to Him. “Thou didst form my inward parts,” the psalmist declared, “Thou didst weave me in my mother’s womb.… I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:13–14). All “children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward,” given to parents as gracious blessings (Ps. 127:3). It is God’s plan and desire that every child be returned to Him for His use. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” we are told in Proverbs, and “even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).
A second key word is teach. Christian parents have the high calling of bringing up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Timothy became especially useful to the Lord and to the apostle Paul in part because from childhood his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, had taught him “the sacred writings which are able to give … the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15; cf. 1:5).
That pattern for godly instruction was set forth early in Israel’s history. Through Moses, God commanded His people to believe in and worship in the right way: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (Deut. 6:4). He also commanded them to personally and sincerely accept that truth with uncompromising conviction and devotion: “And you shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart” (vv. 5–6). More than that, they were commanded to teach godly truth and obedience to their children, talking about those things at home and in the community, from the time they arose until the time they went to bed (v. 7). God’s Word was to be taught to their children and exemplified before them.
As important as special times of family Bible study and prayer are, only consistent godly living by parents will clarify and cement God’s Word in their children’s minds, hearts, and lives. Parents should also provide visual reminders of God’s Word. Just as Israelites were to bind God’s Word on their hands and foreheads and write it on the their doorposts and gates (Deut. 6:8–9), so Christian parents can have Bible verses and plaques throughout the house to reinforce scriptural truths. When Bible stories and truths are sung, further reinforcement is given.
In that Deuteronomy passage God gave ancient Israel a final warning not to forget Him and His Word after they had come into the Promised Land and were surfeited with material blessings, “lest you forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” and “follow other gods, any of the gods of the people who surround you” (6:12, 14). Like their parents, children need to beware of the many false idols by which the world lures them away from the Lord.
A third key word is model. Children not only need godly precepts put godly patterns. Eli the priest was a negative example to his two sons. Following the ungodly model of their father’s life, they went even to further extremes of immorality and sacrilege. When Eli rebuked them they paid no attention, partly because his rebuke was halfhearted and far too mild and partly because they had no respect for him due to his own compromised living (1 Sam. 2:12–25).
In a similar way, even the great David failed to be a godly example to his sons. His son Absalom was so wicked and rebellious that he sought to kill his father and usurp his throne. His son Solomon took hundreds of wives and concubines, including many foreigners whose pagan ways turned him from loyalty to the Lord. Not only was Solomon’s family shattered but also the kingdom. King Hezekiah disobeyed God’s instruction by showing the royal jewels to the king of Babylon, and his son Manasseh surpassed his father’s compromise and totally abandoned God’s law.
Writing in Eternity magazine (May 1979, p. 35), Tom Cowan observed,
Parents must be aware of the personal value of truth for their own sakes and not just for the sakes of their children. We cannot simply make a child believe in a truth because it’s good for them. Their perceptive spirits will sense when we are doing something to engineer or manipulate a certain response. Instead it is the authenticity of parental commitment to truth apart from the lives of children that brings the freedom to share and to pass on that truth to them. In other words, a mature motive for passing on truth is that as a parent I hold that truth to have value for my life, independent of my children and their response to it.
A fourth key word is love, so obviously imperative that little needs to be said about it. Only parents who lovingly weep with their children, rejoice with them, hurt with them, unselfishly serve them, show them genuine affection, and sacrifice for them will effectively influence them in the things of the Lord.
A final key word is trust. After parents have done everything humanly possible to raise their children in the way of the Lord, they must ultimately trust Him to make those efforts fruitful. Only the Holy Spirit can reach into the human heart, including the heart of a child, and only His power can give spiritual life and empower spiritual faithfulness.
Caring for the Whole Family of God
Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there. (Matt. 19:13–15)
Sometimes we simply get left out. We may be sitting on a porch when the discussion turns to cigars, your favorite country music performer, or the history of guacamole. Lacking any knowledge of the topic, our body is present, but our mind is excluded. It is an awkward feeling.
Today, it is easier than ever to feel left out at a social level. Current statistics indicate that about 23 percent of American households consist of a father and mother and kids living together, 26 percent of households consist of a single person living alone. Since the 23 percent of family households each have several members in them, far more people still live in families than live alone. Still, a great number of people live alone, and the percentage in 2005 was roughly twice as high as it was in 1960, and rising.
Gilligan’s Island was an improbable television success in the 1960s. In it, the skipper and Gilligan, Mary Ann and Ginger, the professor, and the Howells went on an afternoon tour on the Minnow. The weather started getting rough, and the tiny ship was nearly lost. They shipwrecked on an island, but even though they had anticipated a three-hour tour, they cleverly brought enough clothes and tools to last for four years. On that island, there were three single men, two single women, and one married couple. Statisticians say we are becoming a Gilligan’s Island nation: single adults (sometimes known as “marriage-free”) may eventually become the majority.
Many people place singleness and loneliness together in their mental map, but that would be simplistic. Some singles have a rich web of relationships, and some married folk are virtual singles. Some are trapped in a cold relationship; others live in two different cities.
There are many ways to become trapped and lonely. The actor who played Gilligan, Bob Denver, was a celebrity because he once played Gilligan and the reruns reran forever. In real life (no surprise) Denver was not at all like Gilligan. Yet his former character trailed him, trapped him, wherever he went—and he never even received compensation for the burden because the show was filmed before such matters entered contracts.
In Matthew 19, Jesus addresses two of the life situations that can lead to loneliness or exclusion; he speaks of singles and of children. In each case, he embraces the people who might be left out. Because he cares for the whole family of God, we should care enough to embrace them too.
Jesus’ Perspectives on the Single Life
There are many ways to be single. Jesus mentions four reasons why people are single: fear of the commitment, physical inability to marry, inability to marry imposed by others, and a willingness to be single to serve the Lord in a unique way.
Fear of The Risks of Marriage
As we saw in the previous passage, the Pharisees realized that marriages can easily sour, so they asked Jesus about divorce as a way of escape (19:7–9). When Jesus said frivolous divorce is adultery, both the Pharisees and the disciples balked. As men of their times, they assumed that divorce was always an option and it seemed comforting to have that option. Without it, they said, “it is better not to marry” (19:10). That is, if Jesus is that strict the disciples think people will boycott marriage entirely. Since they knew God favors marriage, they were asking Jesus to reconsider.
But Jesus declined and invited them to reconsider instead: “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given” (19:11). That is, if they cannot enter marriage with a resolve to be faithful to the end, it is better not to marry at all.
The thought of lifelong commitment has always had the capacity to strike fear into the heart of skeptics and doubters. Today there are more reasons than ever to resist marriage:
- Fear of divorce. Today’s singles have seen so many divorces, so many bad marriages, they hesitate to take the plunge, especially if their own parents divorced.
- Alternatives to marriage are ever more acceptable: living with Mom and Dad, finding a long-term roommate, cohabitation.
- As the median age for marriage steadily rises, ever more singles establish their identity so deeply that they find it difficult to give up their lifestyle in order to marry someone who has one’s own strong set of preferences.
So some people prefer to avoid the risks and costs of marriage. But Jesus mentions three more reasons why people may never marry: “Some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (19:12).
Some Cannot Marry
Some are eunuchs, that is unable to marry, “because they were born that way” (19:12). For genetic reasons, from the day of their birth, they cannot marry.
Others were born healthy but were made eunuchs “by men.” That is, they suffered the violence of castration that was sometimes imposed on a king’s servant. They may also have suffered a war injury or suffered an accident, so that they are physically unable to marry. To this day, some are stricken by genetic disorders or tragic events in their personal history so they cannot marry.
Some Choose the Kingdom
So then some are afraid to marry and others cannot marry. A third group has “renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.” They choose to give up marriage and family in order to dedicate themselves to God’s service. The mind easily turns to the two great men of that day who remained single in order to serve God’s people: John the Baptist and Jesus. Paul apparently chose to remain single, once widowed (1 Cor. 7:8). These people chose the single life because it gave them freedom to fulfill their life mission.
John the Baptist and Paul lived in constant danger and suffered martyrdom in the end. They chose not to bring a wife or a child into their life of risk and suffering. They were free to give everything, to risk everything for the gospel ministry. Jesus sacrificed his life on the cross and chose to face that alone, for our sake.
Throughout church history, great Christians have followed their example: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Stott, to name a few. Aquinas and Stott gave their lives to teaching and scholarship. Mother Teresa gave her life to the poorest of the poor and sickest of the sick. Could she bring a husband or children into that life?
At the time of the Reformation, western European churches required all priests to be single. Martin Luther was single when he wrote his theses, and John Calvin was single when he wrote the first edition of the Institutes. As they founded their Protestant churches, they wanted to restore what they believed the church had wrongly forbidden. They believed that both marriage and singleness are callings and ways of life God can bless. So at the age of forty-two Luther married, and at the age of thirty-five or so, Calvin did too. They believed they could serve the Lord perfectly well whether married or single.
Singleness in the Bible
In the Old Testament, singleness is the exception. In the beginning, God designed people to find companionship in marriage. There were exceptions (Isaac was forty when he married, according to Gen. 25:20), but in Bible times, people tended to marry at an early age. In Israel and in various other societies, singleness was typically a temporary or transitional stage. People married relatively soon after they reached physical maturity. Although there were exceptions, strictly arranged marriages were rare, and even when parents proposed a spouse, children had the right to veto the parents’ choice. Still, parents often helped select a spouse. People who were widowed or divorced often remarried in a short time. To be single, to be childless, was typically viewed as misfortune, even a curse or a tragedy.
In the New Testament, both marriage and singleness are good. John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul were all single for the sake of the kingdom. They show that a man or woman can have a rich and meaningful life as a single person. Since Paul says singleness is a gift, for some singles at least, it is a blessing and a calling.
With so many single adults, society may be a little more kind to singles, but many still ask faintly suspicious questions of single people. Seeing a thirty-something man, they wonder if he is immature, irresponsible, or perhaps gay. They whisper that a thirty-something woman is too choosy or wonder if she knows how to attract a man. The church can be guilty of the same judgmental spirit, as any single seminary student who hopes to be anything but a youth pastor can attest.
Paul calls singleness a gift (1 Cor. 7:7). But as one single Christian said, “If singleness really is a gift, why doesn’t anybody want it?” If it is a gift, it’s like the Christmas sweater that makes you think, “It’s OK, I suppose, but I really wanted the other one.” Most single adults, but especially single women, say they would rather have the gift of marriage than the gift of singleness. Of course, such comments probably mean the speaker has a temporary call to singleness, rather than the gift for it. Why then is the gift rare and the call rarely desired?
Sociologist Deborah Tannen says, “Though all humans need both intimacy and independence, women tend to focus on the first and men on the second.” Most pastors and counselors would probably agree. For whatever reason, women who are single seem to care about it more, whereas men can be unconcerned.
But it is important not to generalize too much. There are all kinds of singles. Some are lifelong singles, others are single again. Some are desperate, some are contented. Others are disillusioned; they have given up on finding a mate. People may be single by choice or because their career or avocations seem to demand it.
People have all kinds of opinions about singles: they are lonely or brave, deprived or strong, patient or picky. But those who are married should beware lest our opinions become judgments. It is best for married couples to listen to their single friends, one by one, and to listen to Scripture, to understand and to love singles as they are.
Both singleness and marriage are callings from God. Further, in the end, everyone will be single, for marriage ends when the Lord returns (Matt. 22:30). The family is very big and very happy in the new heavens and the new earth. Then all who gave up marriage for the Lord’s sake will be repaid, and all who suffered through a broken family will be comforted.
The Freedom of the Single
Jesus and Paul both affirm that there are advantages to the single life. Both say singles have greater freedom to serve God: “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife” (1 Cor. 7:32–33).
Singles clearly possess certain kinds of freedom that the married do not have. They can move without uprooting a spouse and children. They can come and go without feeling they have to tell anyone when they come and where they go. They can rise early or go to bed late without waking anyone.
This does not mean that the single life is easier, however. In fact, the single life is harder in important ways. Of course, singles still must work and care for all the essentials of life. A married couple can divide the labor, according to their interests and abilities, of caring for the home, meals, clothes, finances, social calendar. Singles generally cannot.
Singles have other challenges. The freedom and mobility that produce a unique opportunity to serve the Lord also produce the potential for self-service. Marriage and parenting force us into the process of maturation. Husbands, wives, and children force us to pay attention to them, to listen, to sacrifice, and to lay aside our goals for the sake of their interests and needs.
Years ago, I had a single friend in his thirties who was trying to tape, from his television, every Bugs Bunny cartoon ever made. As the time of diminishing returns set in, he sometimes ran his VCR sixty hours a week and, reviewing his tapes, failed to find one new cartoon. Eventually, he met the woman of his dreams, started a family at once, and gave up his cartoon quest. If we serve our spouse well, some of our silly quests drop out of our lives. Clearly, every life situation has both liberating and constraining elements.
Called to the Single Life?
Whether we are married or single, contented or discontented, Paul states a principle that speaks to everyone: “Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him” (1 Cor. 7:17). In context, Paul originally spoke to men and women who found themselves in a bad marriage and wanted to flee. He declared that even a poor marriage is a calling assigned by God.
The broader lesson is that God calls everyone to a place, a “life assignment.” This idea is so vital that Paul repeats twice: “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.… So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (7:20 NIV, 24 RSV).
People who are unhappy with their lives think a change of circumstances will cure their problems. But Paul says no one needs to change his place to please his God. Changing our place may not even be the key to finding happiness. After all, the most fundamental factors for happiness in any place are God and the self, and God is everywhere and we take ourselves wherever we go.
A moment later, Paul illustrates his point through slavery: “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (7:21). This is simply astonishing: Paul tells slaves, “Don’t let that bother you” (CEV), as if slavery were “no problem” (literally “not a concern to you”). Paul is not endorsing slavery; rather, he is telling believers how to live within a pervasive, entrenched institution until Christian principles bring it down centuries later. But for now, he says, everyone belongs to someone. Believers are “bought at a price,” so that we are now “Christ’s slaves” (7:22–23). Yet slaves who belong to Christ are spiritually free. Our spiritual liberation is so radical that, by comparison, even enslavement matters little. So, Paul said, everyone is free to serve God, whatever his life situation. The person who is single should, therefore, consider it to be God’s calling and strive to serve the Lord there. Struggling singles need to rest in God’s providence.
If this text speaks to unhappy singles, we should remember that Jesus and Paul do praise those who embrace the single life for the sake of the kingdom. The mission of Christ requires some singles—and some couples—to give radical service to the kingdom. Today we think that the sacrifice of the single person is “giving up sex,” but it was more radical, in Jesus’ day, to give up heirs. This was an especially daunting sacrifice in a time when family—not insurance or government programs—cared for the sick, the poor, and the aged. In that day, to give up heirs was to declare, “My future is not guaranteed by the family but by the church.” The church, as the concentration point of God’s kingdom, is now a believer’s primary hope and primary loyalty. The person who is single for the sake of the kingdom wholly believes that in the church he finds his father and mother, sister and brother (Matt. 12:46–50).
Singles in the Family of God
The church must love its singles, and singles should love the church. The church loves singles first by knowing them, understanding that singles, like couples, have phases too. It is one thing to be single at twenty-two or twenty-five years. Friends are starting to get married but most are still single. There may be pressure to have a boyfriend or girlfriend and some relatives may ask nosy questions, but it is definitely acceptable for someone in the twenties to be single.
As an unmarried adult approaches thirty, the pressure builds as more and more friends marry. Meanwhile, a few friends are already divorced and that causes more caution. At the age of thirty-five or more, a man feels significant pressure, but a woman who wants to become a mother may feel desperate as her biological clock ticks away the months. Even someone who has chosen to be single and generally enjoys it may wonder if he or she has made the right choice when it starts to feel irreversible.
The divorced are single, but their situation is different. Some feel like second-class citizens at church. They may feel socially ostracized. They may think that people feel awkward around them. The age of the widowed and the divorced matters greatly. Is remarriage probable, possible, or unlikely? What are the pros and cons as they assess a second, more calculating turn in the marriage game? Married folk must listen to their single friends carefully and empathetically, until they hear what their experience of singleness is.
The idea that the single life has stages should hardly be a surprise. We have long recognized that marriage has varied stages, each with its joys and challenges. Newlyweds have to adjust their lifestyles. New parents have adjustments too, for the first child especially, and also for the third, because when the third child arrives, the parents are outnumbered! Parents of toddlers, grade school children, and senior high school children all have unique duties and worries. Even empty nesters have to make their adjustments.
Every life situation has its challenges, and everyone wants to avoid the darker ones. There is always some pasture that looks greener. Whether married or single, whether life seems easy or hard, the Lord is sovereign and has called us to the life we lead. For the single and the disappointed, it is important to remember his promise never to leave, never to forsake us. Whether he fulfills this promise directly or through his church, we will do as he said.
Once I was surprised to see an old friend from another state at a large gathering. Like me, he is a middle-aged senior pastor who works to stay in shape, both for the joy of sports and exercise and so our bodies serve our minds and spirits well. He sized me up, grabbed my shoulder, and declared, “You’re looking good.”
“Maybe,” I lamented, “but I just strained my hamstring and it’s killing me.” He laughed, “Man, you always look like you’re in shape, but every time I see you, you’re wounded.”
“True enough,” I replied, “and that covers more than my body.”
Indeed, my friend offered a fair description of most of our lives. We look good, but we’re wounded. That is true of everyone, whether married or single. And it is one way to approach the gospel. We generally look good, but we are wounded. Some are tempted to think that the divorced and the older singles are more wounded, but we all are broken, whatever our life situation may be.
Happily, Jesus loves us, wounded as we are. He added, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Love is a bedrock value of the church, and each church must find ways to build fellowship and community and thus to show that we are a large but genuine family. We do more than worship and learn and serve together. We enter each other’s homes and lives to support and encourage one another. Everyone, even the most socially adept, can feel left out at times, but there is a special challenge for some singles. After all, God did design marriage, in part, to solve the problem of loneliness (Gen. 2:18). So let those of us who are married make a special effort to welcome singles into our lives.
For those who are single, let us remember the perspective Jesus offers. Some people are single from birth, others from one of the tragedies of life, since someone mistreated them. But it is also possible to be single for the sake of the kingdom. Anyone can use the opportunities that uniquely come to singles as they strive to serve the Lord Jesus.
Jesus and Children
If singles can be excluded, children can also suffer neglect in the church. Of course, we have our classes and programs for them, but we still have ways of shunting them aside. Not so with Jesus. Soon after Jesus finished addressing marriage and singleness, we read that parents brought their children to Jesus “for him to place his hands on them and pray for them” (Matt. 19:13). People could tell that Jesus was gracious and kind; parents and children were attracted to him and sought his blessing.
But the disciples “rebuked those who brought them” (19:13). They apparently thought children were unworthy of his time and attention. So they rebuked the parents and sought to send the children away. Jesus responded two ways. First, he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (19:14).
Second, he touched them. He “placed his hands on them” (19:15). Mark says, “He took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (10:16).
Today many people fawn and dote over children. Others, like the disciples, think children should be kept quiet and out of the way. When I finished my seminary training, I took a call to revive a nearly failed church plant. I preached, my wife played the piano. One day when our nursery was not functioning, my wife handed our six-month-old baby to a friend as she rose to play the final hymn. In her hurry, she forget to mention that our little child was already an avid crawler. The holder, not knowing how mobile our little girl was, put her down. Off she went, crawling past people’s feet and through the rows of chairs during the hymn. Did the Lord think that was terrible? Some people do. They think children should sit still, be quiet, and stay out of the way, until as one adult told me, “they get interesting.” But when they finally do “get interesting,” they will have learned long ago that such adults are not interested in them.
But Jesus is interested. He lets the little children come to him. Throughout Matthew 18 and 19, the Gospel repeatedly asks who is a member of God’s kingdom:
- Not those who gobble up the offer of God’s forgiveness, but refuse to forgive others (18:21–35).
- Not the Pharisees who come to Jesus, asking, “What is the least I can do and still be considered a good man?” (19:1–12).
- Not the proud ruler who comes to Jesus swearing he has kept all the commandments, but then refuses to follow Jesus (19:16–30).
Who then is a member of the kingdom? Not once, but twice, Jesus says the kingdom belongs to “such as these” children. He does not mean that all children automatically enter the kingdom. But he says the kingdom belongs not to the proud, but to those who are humble, like a child (18:4). He says the kingdom belongs to those who seek his blessing, such as these parents and children (19:14).
Because God blesses children, we also try to bless children and to care for them as Jesus did. Therefore we organize programs for children such as Sunday school, catechism classes, choirs, and youth groups. But to welcome children is more than a program, it is a spirit that welcomes children in worship even if they squirm and whisper a bit.
Children can sense when they are welcomed. They love their teachers and pastors when they know they are loved and taken seriously. They can learn spiritual things from classes and even from sermons at remarkably early ages, especially if their parents expect it of them by asking them what they heard and learned (if a child goes to school all day, he can sit still—more or less—for an hour of worship). Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me” (19:14). So let them come in private, in the home, and in the church.
We have surveyed the various stages or situations of life. People are either married or single, either children or adults. Every situation has its challenges and its blessings. Each is a call of God, at least for a time. The Lord gives us two resources for our callings: his love for us, shown through Christ, and our love for each other, shown day by day. May we embrace God’s calling and seek his grace for it.
14. Suffer children. He declares that he wishes to receive children; and at length, taking them in his arms, he not only embraces, but blesses them by the laying on of hands; from which we infer that his grace is extended even to those who are of that age. And no wonder; for since the whole race of Adam is shut up under the sentence of death, all from the least even to the greatest must perish, except those who are rescued by the only Redeemer. To exclude from the grace of redemption those who are of that age would be too cruel; and therefore it is not without reason that we employ this passage as a shield against the Anabaptists. They refuse baptism to infants, because infants are incapable of understanding that mystery which is denoted by it. We, on the other hand, maintain that, since baptism is the pledge and figure of the forgiveness of sins, and likewise of adoption by God, it ought not to be denied to infants, whom God adopts and washes with the blood of his Son. Their objection, that repentance and newness of life are also denoted by it, is easily answered. Infants are renewed by the Spirit of God, according to the capacity of their age, till that power which was concealed within them grows by degrees, and becomes fully manifest at the proper time. Again, when they argue that there is no other way in which we are reconciled to God, and become heirs of adoption, than by faith, we admit this as to adults, but, with respect to infants, this passage demonstrates it to be false. Certainly, the laying on of hands was not a trifling or empty sign, and the prayers of Christ were not idly wasted in air. But he could not present the infants solemnly to God without giving them purity. And for what did he pray for them, but that they might be received into the number of the children of God? Hence it follows, that they were renewed by the Spirit to the hope of salvation. In short, by embracing them, he testified that they were reckoned by Christ among his flock. And if they were partakers of the spiritual gifts, which are represented by Baptism, it is unreasonable that they should be deprived of the outward sign. But it is presumption and sacrilege to drive far from the fold of Christ those whom he cherishes in his bosom, and to shut the door, and exclude as strangers those whom he does not wish to be forbidden to come to him.
For of such is the kingdom of heaven. Under this term he includes both little children and those who resemble them; for the Anabaptists foolishly exclude children, with whom the subject must have commenced; but at the same time, taking occasion from the present occurrence, he intended to exhort his disciples to lay aside malice and pride, and put on the nature of children. Accordingly, it is added by Mark and Luke, that no man can enter into the kingdom of heaven unless he be made to resemble a child. But we must attend to Paul’s admonition, not to be children in understanding, but in malice, (1 Cor. 14:20.)
14 Jesus does not want the little children prevented from coming to him, not because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them, but because the kingdom of heaven belongs to those like them (so also Mark and Luke, stressing childlike faith). Jesus receives them because they are an excellent object lesson in the kind of humility and faith he finds acceptable.
14–15 Children matter in the kingdom of heaven, which can be entered only by those who are like children and where those of the lowest status are the great ones (18:3–4). Here, as in 18:2, it is literal children who focus the issue, but here too, as in 18:5, the use of “such” rather than “these” indicates that the thought is broader than the literal children who are present in the narrative setting. Those who are to be welcomed and encouraged in Jesus’ name include also those who are spiritually in the position of children, the unimportant, the dependent, the vulnerable; the statement that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such people reminds us of 5:3, 10, where the same statement is made about the “poor in spirit” and the persecuted. To keep such people away from Jesus is to run a risk worse than being drowned with a millstone (18:6).
The laying on of hands as a mark of blessing appears in a variety of biblical contexts. In this gospel we have met it in relation to healing (9:18, and cf. “touch” in 8:3, 15; 9:29) and in 17:7 Jesus’ touch brought reassurance in panic. Laying on of hands for healing is mentioned also in Mark 6:5; 7:32; 8:23, 25; Luke 4:40; 13:13; Acts 9:12, 17; 28:8. But the gesture is also appropriate for commissioning someone for a special responsibility (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6) and for conveying the gift of the Spirit (Acts 8:17–19; 19:6) and it apparently held an unspecified place in the regular ministry of at least one branch of early Christianity (Heb 6:2). In view of this wide usage it is not appropriate to look for any more specific significance here than as a mark of blessing to accompany prayer. This pericope thus has no direct bearing on the issue of whether young children should be baptized, though those who debate that issue need to be sure that their conclusions and their practice enshrine an appropriate welcome to children to whom “the kingdom of heaven belongs,” and do not turn them away.
19:13–15 / When little children were brought to Jesus so that he might lay his hands on them and pray, the disciples rebuked those who brought them (Phillips says that they “frowned on the parents’ action”). The disciples were annoyed that their journey to Jerusalem was being slowed down. Jesus, however, had different priorities. Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to the childlike. So first he gave them his blessing (i.e., placed his hands on them) and then he continued on his way. Verse 14 has often been used in support of child baptism (cf. Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament, pp. 71–80), but the argument lacks force (cf. Tasker, p. 185).
Ver. 14.—Suffer [the] little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me. He speaks as though the infants were ready and eager to come to him, if they were not prevented. He thus intimates the truth that, though incompetent to understand God’s blessing, children were not incompetent to receive it. There was no natural impediment to bar the way. Unconscious infants, under the Mosaic dispensation, were admitted to the privileges of the Jewish Church by the rite of circumcision; in Christ’s kingdom analogous mercies were to be extended to them. From this passage has been derived a cogent argument for infant baptism, because Christ herein showed, not only that tender age and immaturity of reason put no obstacle in the way of his blessing, but that children were the standard by which fitness for his kingdom was to be tested. For of such is the kingdom of heaven. They who would enter Christ’s kingdom must be pure, simple, obedient, as little children (comp. ch. 18:3). That is why he says, “of such,” not “of these,” intimating that it is not to the age, but to the disposition and character, that he refers. Some, not so suitably, confine the saying to such as are dedicated to God in baptism. It is well said that what children now are is God’s work; what they shall be hereafter is their own.
Jesus’ judgment on children (19:13–15)
If Jesus caused consternation by the revolutionary attitude he displayed towards marriage and divorce, what he has to say about children is no less staggering. Children in ancient society, Greco-Roman and Jewish alike, were there to be seen and not heard. They had no rights, no status. They did not matter very much until they grew up. So when the disciples shooed away people who were bringing little children to Jesus for his blessing, they were acting in a typically Jewish (and for that matter Gentile) manner. But that is not the attitude Jesus wants to see in the kingdom. Children matter, and have much to teach us. They are usually more sensitive to the things of God than adults are. Their attitudes of trust, simplicity, inability to put forward their own achievements, and dependence, all characterize true disciples. Those qualities are priceless in the kingdom of God, and therefore children can provide a signpost towards life in the kingdom style. So Jesus stands their assumption of the irrelevance of children on its head. His response reveals several things.
First, Jesus welcomed little children. He did not drive them away. He was irresistibly attractive to children—and that is one of the marks of a great person. Secondly, Jesus rebuked those who wanted to keep the children away from him. He was not too self-important to bother with them. It is interesting that the phrase do not hinder them (mē kōluete) became part of a baptismal formula for children in the second and third centuries. The welcoming attitude of Jesus to children was one of the indicators that led Christendom to baptize children, though of course this passage had no original connection with baptism. Thirdly, children can actually receive a blessing from the hands of Jesus, even when they are too young to understand. Moreover, they can enter the kingdom. ‘The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ (14). And most important of all, children can and do model the conditions of entry into the kingdom of God. Their unself-consciousness is a paradigm for us all.
These are among the reasons that have led the majority of Christians to baptize the children of believers. That is reasonable, and in line with the Old Testament recognition of the place of children within the covenant: boys were given circumcision, the mark of initiation, at seven days old. But that is not the main purpose of the passage, which is designed to show the reversal of human judgment once we allow Jesus to dominate our attitudes. To him the children are not to be despised or kept away; they are important, and indicate the way into the kingdom.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 3, pp. 177–184). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Doriani, D. M. (2008). Matthew & 2. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (Vol. 2, pp. 184–195). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 2, pp. 390–391). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 475). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 727–728). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.
 Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew (pp. 182–183). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). St. Matthew (Vol. 2, p. 247). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
 Green, M. (2001). The message of Matthew: the kingdom of heaven (pp. 205–206). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.