The world into which Jesus was born was a world that was harsh to live in and often deeply harmful to children. Jewish parents regarded their children as a blessing and a gift from God. Parents and rabbis were involved in training children and passing on to them the knowledge of God. But outside the Jewish community, those kinds of protections and advantages were non-existent. 

I’m sure ancient parents loved their children, but they were not sentimental about childhood in the way we are, and they were not shaped by the Bible in the way their Jewish counterparts were. Roman fathers had lawful authority to kill their children if they were mentally or physically deformed, or if they were unwanted or unable to be cared for. In the first century, only 50 per cent of children lived to be five years old. Of them, only 40 per cent would make it to 12. 

It was into this world that God chose to come – incredibly, as a child. Jesus had a real childhood. God became a baby, vulnerable, weak and dependent. The one who sustains the universe gasped for breath. The Bible records little of Jesus’ childhood because it reflects the ancient world’s essential disinterest in childhood. To be a child was to be marginalised, an adult in waiting, of no great interest or influence. 

Jesus grew in “wisdom, stature, and favour with men” – he experienced developmental growth. We even have recorded in Scripture a moment of tension between Jesus and his earthly parents, when he gives them a short lesson in the Trinity – “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 

Every human being in every age has experienced childhood, and so has Jesus. I think that is quite significant in terms of sharing Jesus with children. God, in his kindness, has come to us in such a way that we may say to little children, “There was a time when Jesus was a little child, too”.  

God’s heart for children

Apart from what the gospels tell us about the infancy of Jesus, they do not contain a large number of verses about children. However, given the low profile of children in the ancient world, the gospels do record that children were surprisingly present in the life and ministry of Jesus. 

Scholars of Jesus’ day rarely spent time with children outside of classes, but Jesus seems to have enjoyed the company of children. In Luke 7:31-35, Jesus uses the play of children to make a point. He evidently took notice of children and their activities. He healed children – Jairus’ daughter, the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, the boy with the spirit that threw him into the fire. Jesus took children in his arms and blessed them, and included them in his teaching. Their presence at the feeding of the 5000 and 4000, for example, is recorded, although the number present is not.

John highlights children as metaphors to understand entering into a relationship with God (John 1:12; 3:3-6). Matthew, Mark and Luke, however, all include in their gospels the same elements of Jesus’ teaching regarding children.

In the crucial area of who enters God’s kingdom and how it is to be done, we find that Jesus uses children to teach adults a lesson.

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it”. And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16; cf Matt 19:13-15, Luke 18:15-17).

The disciples reflect their culture and ours. Children should not be allowed to bother important teachers and men of God. Keep them away, he’s too busy for mere children. But Jesus’ response reflects God’s heart. Everything about Jesus in this passage is a surprise. His attitude to children is a surprise, his words about children are a surprise, and his actions towards children are a surprise. 

First, he’s angry. Jesus only gets angry occasionally – and one of the things that Mark’s Gospel records him being angry about is people trying to keep children away from him. 

Are children welcome here? 

I remember when my daughter was very small she attended a kindy ballet held in a local church. On the noticeboard was a one-page leaflet titled “Children at St Ethelbert’s” (not its real name). In small font, there was a whole page full of text that explained how children should be managed through the service, including what kind of food packaging met acceptable limits of noise. Several times through this very helpful brochure was the reassurance that if at any time you were unsure about whether your child was disturbing the worship, you should feel perfectly comfortable about taking them outside!

My first thought was that, as a parent, I would get the message loud and clear that I wasn’t welcome. But my second thought was how angry Jesus would be with that. In what ways do we hinder children? 

Jesus’ words here are shocking, too, because of the way they exclude those who will not receive the kingdom “like a little child”. I take that to mean empty-handed, dependently, humbly, thankfully, no merit of our own, trusting the grace of God – not on the basis of any kind of self-assertion or personal achievement but as a gift. 

But the real shock is that, as much as the Scriptures exhort parents to instruct their children, here Jesus is saying that the children you must train to know and serve God you must also learn from. Jesus says God is at work in them in ways that are absolutely essential for adults – all adults, not just parents – to understand and imitate. The kingdom may be entered only if it is received like a little child. 

That doesn’t mean everyone has to love children but everyone has to learn from them. I don’t mean that the teaching and learning of adults and children is an exact balance, a 50-50 swap. But Jesus makes it clear: you cannot be his disciple and dispense with children.

Children and discipleship

Children are not only used as models of who and how to enter the kingdom but also as models of the life of the kingdom. Jesus uses children to illustrate discipleship.

The Twelve are obsessed with greatness and Jesus often finds them arguing about it. How can Jesus open their eyes to the reverse values of the upside-down kingdom of God? In Luke 9 we read:

An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”

Once again, Jesus shocks the disciples by putting a mere child in the place of honour next to him. Jesus places a child in the place that should have been reserved for the most prominent and favoured person. 

If you were looking for encouragement to be involved in ministry among children, this would have to be the theme verse, wouldn’t it? Whoever welcomes this little child welcomes Jesus. To serve children by encouraging them to know and love Jesus is to serve the Lord himself. 

Jesus’ kingdom is an upside-down kingdom. God has chosen what is weak and foolish to shame the wise and the powerful. God has made known to babes what he has concealed from the self-righteous. Keep reading the Bible to kids, keep filling their hearts with songs to the Lord, keep painting pictures of the rainbow that reminds us of God’s faithfulness and love, and keep explaining how Jesus died and rose again, King of Kings and the friend of children.