Great Texts of the Bible
The Little Children
Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.—Mark 10:14.
1. In this chapter our Lord touches, and by touching hallows, almost all the stages of human life. First, He defines and fences and dignifies matrimony. Then He passes naturally to the fruit of matrimony—little children—and lays His hands upon them. Next, He receives and guides and loves a young man who had great possessions. And the chapter closes with the highest duty and privilege of manhood,—a self-denying, consecrated life for God, leading on to the same life to be renewed beyond the grave and for ever. “Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”
2. Five things—putting together St. Matthew’s and St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s narrative—five things our Saviour did with “the little children” who were brought to Him. He shielded them under unkindness, and through rebuke brought them to Himself. Next He took them in His arms, an act of simple love, His humanity placing Himself in sympathy with love’s beginnings. Then He laid His hands upon them, a solemn, appropriating act. Then He blessed them, an act of priesthood. Then He made them the text of a sermon, the germ of one great thought which admits again of a vast expansion.
3. No words of Scripture are more familiar to us than the words of this text, for they have their peculiar and special significance at every moment of our Christian lives. They are the keynote of the service by which we are initiated into the Christian brotherhood; they are the natural thought and consolation of those who lose children by death; they are no less the eternal gauge and standard of the spirit in which, at every age, the Kingdom of heaven is to be welcomed and received.
4. Where and when were they uttered? for the time and place of words often throws some light upon their meaning. They were spoken in Perea, as our Lord was on His way, for the last time, from Galilee to Jerusalem. He had closed His ministry in the province of Galilee, in which He had been brought up. He had looked for the last time on the hills He had so often climbed, the lake on which He had so often sailed, the synagogues and streets in which He had so often taught. He would see no more the friendly peasants and fishermen who had listened to Him gladly—at least with eyes of flesh. And He was going to Jerusalem, where the priests hated Him, and had set themselves to compass His death. At first He seems to have intended to take the straight road to Jerusalem, and to pass through Samaria. But when He found that the Samaritans of the border villages would not receive Him He crossed the fords of the Jordan, and travelled through Perea, on the farther, or eastern, side of the river. Now in Perea He found some of the very best people of that time; and some of the worst. For many of the Jews of this district were half heathenised by constant contact with the heathen who, in large numbers, were settled among them. And, naturally, those who remained true to the God and to the faith of Israel were all the more faithful and zealous because of the difficulties they had to encounter and the opposition they had to overcome. And there were many difficulties in their way: among others this. In Jerusalem was the place where they ought to worship; and the roads to Jerusalem were often closed against them. Sometimes, when the snows on the mountains melted, or great rains fell on the hills, the waters, the swellings, of Jordan rose so high, and ran so fast, that the fords became impassable; and they could not go up to the Temple to make atonement for their sins and seek the face of God. Sometimes there was war in the land; and whenever war broke out, among the first places to be seized were the roads, the passes on the hills, and the fords of the river. How keenly they felt thus being shut out from the worship of God, we learn from the Psalms; for most of the Psalms which are full of longing for the courts of the Lord’s house, for the altars on which even the swallows might build their nests, and for the city that was compact together, were written by poets who lived across the Jordan, in Perea; and no doubt these Psalms expressed the yearning of many hearts besides their own. It was in this district, then, where there were many good men and women who were devoted to the service of the Temple, and all the more devoted because they were often shut out from it, and because their neighbours were heathen or heathenised Jews, to whom the Temple and the God of the Temple were not dear; it was here that they brought children to Jesus, in order that He might touch them.
5. Who was it that brought the children to Jesus? Why, of course, it was their mothers; for, in describing this scene, St. Luke uses a word which means not only children, and little children, but babes at the breast, “nurslings.” And who should bring these to Christ but the mothers who nursed them?
6. The disciples “rebuked” the women, and even laid their strong hands on the little ones who came running round Christ, and pushed them back. They seem, indeed, to have been quite unusually rude and rough in their bearing. For when we read that they “rebuked” the women, we are not to understand that they used dignified and polite language. What the word means is that they chid, that they scolded them, rating them for their forwardness and presumption in intruding themselves upon the Master’s notice. And whereas we read that Jesus said to the angry disciples, “Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not,” what we ought to read is “Let the little children go—let go them—take your hands off them, and do not hold them back, do not push them away.” So that from our Lord’s own words we learn that the Apostles were pushing the women and children back and standing in their way, in order to prevent them from coming to Jesus.1 [Note: Samuel Cox.]
There are three things in the text—
An Encouragement—“Suffer the little children to come unto me”
A Reproof—“Forbid them not”
A Revelation—“Of such is the kingdom of God”
The encouragement was to the mothers of the children, and so to the children themselves, though it was spoken to the disciples—“Suffer the little children to come unto me.”
i. Jesus as the Friend of Little Children
1. Children in the Bible.—The child element in it gives the Bible its claim upon the heart of the world. Who can measure the influence of that Bible story of the little babe born in the hut of a Hebrew slave in Egypt? We see the mother looking upon her child “exceeding beautiful,” whilst her great grief chokes her, and she presses it to her heart—for the law is gone forth that the sons of the Hebrews be flung into the river. Then come the stealthy visits to the Nile by night. They fetch home the rushes and weave the ark for the child, and then creep forth to lay the little one upon the bank. Then comes the dawning of that happy day, and the princess and her maidens gather about the child, and it is rescued and adopted as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Such a story as that hangs imperishably in the chambers of imagery, and brings into the midst of us a new tenderness and a new love.
It has been said by some that the sublimest sentence ever penned is that in the story of the Creation, “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” But I think most of us feel that we come unutterably nearer to God, and know very much more of our Father, in reading the wonderful words, “God heard the voice of the lad.”1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]
Think again how large a space the childhood of Jesus fills in the Bible. For thirty years there is but a single break in the silence concerning Him, but about the Holy Child what scenes of exquisite beauty cluster. We see the simple shepherds under that frosty night; we hear the music of the angels’ song; we gather with the shepherds as they come in haste; we stand with them adoring the little Child wrapped in the swaddling clothes and laid in the manger. We love to linger at the Temple steps as old Simeon takes from the wondering Mother the blessed Babe and sings his song of Israel’s redemption. And we come again to Bethlehem led by the star, and with the wise men we kneel, and fain would lay at His feet the gifts of gold and myrrh and frankincense. And yet again we follow them along their way on that dread night when Joseph and Mary take the young Child and flee from Herod’s soldiers. Of all the pictures that have become graven upon the heart of the world there is none so sacredly treasured as that of the Holy Child Jesus. Who can say how much it has enriched men through all the ages with gentleness and love? Who can say how it has guarded and ennobled childhood?
Again, in the ministry of the Lord, what a place He gave to the children! How much He finds in them to light up the love of God, and to reprove our pride and care! He sits on the Mount and preaches the great Sermon about the heavenly Father. He picks a flower from the field and holds it up. “Look at it. If God so clothe the grass of the field, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” He bids them listen to the birds, the chirping sparrow and croaking raven. “Think of them,” saith He; “your heavenly Father feedeth them; are ye not much better than they?” Then comes the third illustration, and that applies the lesson. The break of the chapter shuts off the third part cruelly. Look at the Lord Jesus amidst the crowd. He has told of the flowers and the birds, and now, He to whom the children ever went at once, stretches out His hand and draws to Himself a little wondering lad, and He applies the lesson. “What man of you, if his little son ask bread, will he give him a stone, or if he ask a fish will he give him a serpent, if he ask an egg will he give him a scorpion? Therefore, if ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]
A young father was wakened early one morning, while it was still dark, by his young son in the cradle at his side, asking for a drink. When his thirst was satisfied, and the father had lain down again, the little fellow asked if he might sing. But his singing became so lusty that an embargo had to be put upon the service of song, for the sake of the other sleepers. There was silence for a brief moment. Then it was broken again by the child’s voice. “Father.” “Yes, little lad.” “Is your face turned this way?” And, with his heart strangely stirred and warmed, the father tenderly said, “Yes, laddie.” And the night shined as the light for the boy because of his father’s face.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon.]
2. The Affection of Jesus for the Little Ones.—As to the fact of the deep affection—it shines on the face of this whole narrative. Whatever may have been the precise motive of the disciples in rebuking the parents who brought their children to Jesus, it is out of the question to suppose that they were characterised by any positive or peculiar indifference to the little children. No; but Jesus was characterised by a very peculiar, gloriously affectionate, concern for them and their welfare. Mark the deep contrast here between the Master and even His truest disciples. See His positive displeasure, pain of soul (the original word is a very strong one), at their unkind rebuke. See how He hastens to assure the parents that His followers had miserably misread, misinterpreted, the mind of their Master. See His emphatic and impassioned welcome to the children in the injunction He lays on the disciples, “Suffer them to come unto me; forbid them not.” See how He takes them up in His arms, frowns on the disciples, smiles on the children, places His hands gently and lovingly upon them, and blesses them. And this is not the only place where we find Jesus taking up little children in His arms. In the previous chapter we read, “He took a child and set him in the midst of them; and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me.” Again and again we find Him speaking of the little ones—“It is not the will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” And near the close of the Gospel history we read the following words: “When the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple and saying, Hosannah to the son of David, they were sore displeased, and said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea, have ye never read”—behold how He welcomes the children’s songs!—“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise.”
I remember long ago being very much pleased to read of the French general who was sent to fight along with the English against the Russians in the time of the Crimean War—General St. Arnaud. When he landed at the Crimea, he lifted up the first pebble on which his foot trod, and plucked the first flower on which his eye lighted, and sent them to his only child, a daughter living far away. He was very ill when he landed; indeed, he died soon afterwards—and at that time he had a great deal to think of, and yet you see there was room in his heart for thoughts of his daughter, and he showed in this striking way his love for her.1 [Note: W. H. Gray.]
There is a significant story of the great sculptor, Dannecker, that, when he was working at his statue of Christ, he took a little girl into his studio, and placing her before the figure asked her what she thought of it. For a moment the little one hesitated, and then replied, “He was a great Man.” The sculptor was disappointed: that was not the ideal he had set before himself. But again he went bravely to work, toning down this line, throwing more expression into this feature, until at length it seemed to him that he had succeeded. And so it proved. For when again the child was permitted to gaze upon the wonderful figure, there was no longer any hesitancy in her words as she exclaimed, “That was the Christ who said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me!’ ”2 [Note: G. Milligan.]
When God with us was dwelling here,
In little babes He took delight.
Such innocents as thou, my dear,
Are ever precious in His sight.
Sweet baby, then, forbear to weep;
Be still, my babe; sweet baby, sleep.3 [Note: George Wither.]
ii. The Invitation to come to Him
1. It was an invitation to their parents to bring them.—If we take the total number of miracles in the Gospels, the individual details of which are given (and the number is not large), we notice that of these, four concern children: the son of the nobleman, the daughter of Jairus, the daughter of the Syrophenician woman, and the lad belonging to the unknown father. These children did not come; they were brought. They were all indebted to parental intercession, and of these parents three were fathers, one a mother. For the good of the children in body and soul the father should always take the lead. If he does not the mother may—how often with wonderful success. The joy of joys is when both are united and resolved. How various were these people! One was a nobleman; but in suffering, noblemen cannot do without the Healer. Jairus was a man of education and station and means, with the additional advantage of being a leader in religious worship. The undescribed or unnamed father seems to have been poor, untaught, little heeded, possessing no influence; while the woman was a heathen, a castaway, spurned as a dog. But they all had love, and yearned for the welfare of a child; they all had faith, and each brought a child to Jesus.
On the present occasion He encouraged the parents to bring their children to Him whatever their bodily or spiritual state might be. He did not say to them, “Take these children hence.” He did not say, “They can get no good from me until they are older.” He did not say, “Bring them back to me when they can understand what I teach, and when they can express their assent to my teaching.” He did not say, “Wait till they can believe before you ask me to bless them.” The parents wanted a blessing, not an empty form, not a prayer, not a mere outward rite—they wanted a blessing, they wanted Christ to touch them, and in touching them, to give them something which was of use. And Christ responded to their wishes—He touched their children, He put His hands on them, He blessed them, and He said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” His words, surely, tell us that before the age of ripe understanding, before the child can tell his faith or his spiritual wants, God can do the child good; seeds of goodness, through God’s power, through Christ’s blessing, may be sown; and, in any case, Christ declares that children will have a place in the Kingdom of God, and, having a place, they have a name, and the outward emblem of the place and the name: He put His hands on them and blessed them.
Parents of the coming generation, bring your children to Jesus! I speak not in the voice of the Churches, I speak not in the name of the Creeds, I speak not in the phrase of religious revivalism. I speak in the interest of the schoolmaster, in the interest of education, in the interest of social development. The mothers of Galilee made a shrewd choice for their model. They came not with their children to Peter, or James, or John; they sought not to kindle them by Andrew, or Philip, or Nathanael. They went up to the highest—to Jesus. Ye mothers of England, be not less shrewd than they! Would you kindle the inspiration of your children? Beware of the torch to which you bring them. Do not say, “They are very small lives, and therefore a little will do it.” Do not lead them to a wax match or a taper or a candle. Small lives need the greatest heat to fan them into flame. Seek for them nothing less than the sun—bear them into the presence of Jesus. They will learn all things from Him—the beauties of the field and the pity of the heart and the fervour of the mind. Cæsar will not teach them such courage; Socrates will not show them such calmness; David will not impress them with such chivalry; Moses will not inspire them with such meekness; Elijah will not imbue them with such earnestness; Daniel will not touch them with such manliness; Job will not nerve them with such patience; Paul will not fire them with such love. They will climb to the top of the mansion quicker than they will scale the ladder on a neighbouring wall; bring them first to the mountain; point them to Jesus.1 [Note: George Matheson.]
The baby has no skies
But mother’s eyes;
Nor any God above,
But mother’s love.
His angel sees the Father’s face,
But he the mother’s, full of grace;
And yet the heavenly kingdom is of such as this.2 [Note: John B. Tabb.]
2. It was an invitation to the children to come.—But what does “come to Jesus” mean? There is not a commoner expression on the lips of many good persons than to bid children “come to Jesus.” Now, however correct and Scriptural the expression may be, it cannot mean in every point the same thing now as it did when Jesus Christ was on that day sitting in the house discoursing to the people, and when certain children were brought to Him. On that occasion the child, if he were not a mere infant, understood what it was to be brought to Jesus. He saw Jesus with his bodily eye as He sat amongst the crowd; he heard Jesus speak; he might mark the kindly light of His eye, and be encouraged by the kindly smile that played around His lips; and he might, in his trembling and fear, be soothed by the tones of the voice of Jesus. If there was any gladness at all—any pleasure, any interest—in the act of coming or being carried into the presence of Jesus, it was the pleasure and interest that a child derives from seeing a human face, from hearing a human voice, from being touched by human hands, and from being raised into the arms of a Man in whose embrace he found himself safe, and in whose presence he was not afraid. This is all changed now. Jesus is present as ever, but His presence is spiritual, and coming to Him is no longer a literal but a spiritual act.
Coming to the Lord is not action, but mental attitude. The history is known to all, how some half a century ago a bright young girl, under pressure of the Divine Spirit, asked her pastor what she should do to be saved. “Why,” he said, “come just as you are to the Mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God.” And his words seemed to her like an idle tale, for by materialistic teaching of the physical departure of Jesus, by the Ascension, her Lord was taken away from her, and she knew not where they had laid Him. But that night, in her own home, she knelt down, and there was God, where He always is, “closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet.” While she was musing, the fire kindled, and at last, under the constraining breath of the Holy Spirit, Charlotte Elliott wrote—
Just as I am, without one plea,
Save that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come.
“When Jesus saw it, he was much displeased.” It is a strong word that is used. This is the only time in the whole of the Gospel narrative that such a strong word is used of Him. “Much displeased”; the same Greek word is used in the Gospel narrative of the ten disciples when they heard that James and John had tried to secure the best places in the coming Kingdom, and there it is translated “moved with indignation.” We can therefore quite consistently translate our passage, “When Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation.”
1. Why did He reprove the disciples so severely? There are several probable reasons—
(1) Their conduct did wrong to the mothers.—They rebuked the parents for doing a motherly act—for doing, in fact, that which Jesus loved them to do. They brought their children to Jesus out of respect for Him: they valued a blessing from His hands more than gold; they expected that the benediction of God would go with the touch of the great Prophet. They may have hoped that a touch of the hand of Jesus would make their children’s lives bright and happy. Though there may have been a measure of weakness in the parents’ thought, yet the Saviour could not judge hardly of that which arose out of reverence for His person. He was therefore much displeased to think that these good women, who meant Him honour, should be roughly repulsed.
(2) They did wrong to the children.—Sweet little ones! what had they done that they should be chided for coming to Jesus? They had not meant to intrude. They would have, fallen at His feet in reverent love for the sweet-voiced teacher, who charmed not only men but children by His tender words. The little ones meant no ill, and why should they be blamed?
(3) They did wrong to Himself.—It might have made men think that Jesus was stiff, reserved, and self-exalted, like the Rabbis. If they had thought that He could not condescend to children they would have sadly slandered the repute of His great love. His heart was a great harbour, wherein many little ships might cast anchor. Jesus, the child-man, was never more at home than with children.
(4) It was contrary to His teaching.—For He went on to say, “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.” Christ’s teaching was not that there is something in us to fit us for the Kingdom; and that a certain number of years may make us capable of receiving grace. His teaching all went the other way, namely, that the less we are and the weaker we are, the better; for the less we have of self the more room there is for His Divine grace. Do you think to come to Jesus up the ladder of knowledge? Come down, sir, you will meet Him at the foot. Do you think to reach Jesus up the steep hill of experience? Come down, dear climber; He stands in the plain. “Oh! but when I am old, I shall then be prepared for Christ.” Stay where thou art, young man; Jesus meets thee at the door of life: you were never more fit to meet Him than just now. He asks nothing of you but that you will be nothing, and that He may be all in all to you. That is His Teaching: and to send back the child because it has not this or that is to fly in the teeth of the blessed doctrine of the grace of God.
(5) It was quite contrary to Jesus Christ’s practice.—He made them see this; for “He took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.” All His life long there is nothing in Him like rejection and refusing. He says truly, “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” If He did cast out any because they were too young, the text would be falsified at once: but that can never be. He is the receiver of all who come to Him. It is written, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” All His life He might be drawn as a shepherd with a lamb in His bosom; never as a cruel shepherd setting his dogs upon the lambs and driving them and their mothers away.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
2. What reasons could the disciples have had for preventing the children coming to Jesus?
(1) Concern for Jesus Himself.—We do not want to think badly of such men as Peter and John, Thomas and Philip. And there is no reason why we should think they behaved very badly. They only made a mistake such as we all make sometimes. It was love, rising to zeal, for their Lord which led them to push back the children, though it was not a zeal according to knowledge. They thought He would not like being interrupted in the midst of a grave public discussion. And, besides, they were themselves very much interested in the discussion that was going on, and had begun to take part in it. They did not wish it to be broken off. They thought the women and children could very well wait. They were vexed and annoyed with them for coming forward at such an inopportune moment. And so they pushed them back, and I dare say called out, “Keep back there! He can’t attend to you now. Don’t you see that He is busy?”
(2) Doubt of the children’s capacity to understand Jesus.—They regarded the child perhaps from the point of view of its intellectual attainments, and reasoned that it was too young to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between system and system. Does not our Lord’s answer favour this interpretation? For He at once showed that if it was not the mere innocence of the child that He was prepared to bless, neither was it the child’s willingness to receive information and ask no further; but that it was upon that spirit of truthfulness, upon the desire to know truth for its own sake, that He conferred His blessing. And Jesus at once proceeded to show how that same quality which He blessed might be still alive, still unquenched by the world in the full-grown man. “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”
I will say broadly that I have more confidence in the spiritual life of the children that I have received into this church than I have in the spiritual condition of the adults thus received. I will even go further than that, and say that I have usually found a clearer knowledge of the Gospel and a warmer love to Christ in the child-converts than in the man-converts. I will even astonish you still more by saying that I have sometimes met with a deeper spiritual experience in children of ten and twelve than I have in certain persons of fifty and sixty. It is an old proverb that some children are born with beards. Some boys are little men, and some girls are little old women. You cannot measure the lives of any of us by our ages. I knew a boy who, when he was fifteen, often heard old Christian people say, “The boy is sixty years old: he speaks with such insight into Divine truth.” I believe that this youth at fifteen did know far more of the things of God, and of soul travail, than any around him, whatever their age might be.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
(3) Forgetfulness of their value.—The soul’s price does not depend upon its years. “Oh, it is only a child!” “Children are a nuisance.” “Children are always getting in the way.” This talk is common. God forgive those who despise the little ones. A boy is more worth saving than a man. It is infinite mercy on God’s part to save those who are seventy; for what good can they now do with the fag end of their lives? But these dear boys and girls—there is something to be made out of them. If they yield themselves now to Christ they may have a long, happy, and holy day before them in which they may serve God with all their hearts. If a famous schoolmaster was accustomed to take his hat off to his boys because he did not know whether one of them might not be Prime Minister, we may justly look with awe upon converted children, for we do not know how soon they may be among the angels, or how greatly their light may shine among men.
The writer knew a splendid missionary woman in India, who, when only eight years of age, saw, as in a vision, multitudes of heathen children on a distant shore beckoning her to come and teach them of the true God. Another, who did good service in Africa, was, in her childhood, so desirous to help the cause, that she collected shavings from the carpenters’ shops and sold them for kindlings to the neighbours, the money earned going into her missionary box.1 [Note: H. S. Dyer.]
(4) Ignorance of their need of Jesus.—If any mother in that throng had said, “I must bring my child to the Master, for he is sore afflicted with a devil,” neither Peter, nor James, nor John would have demurred for a moment, but would have assisted in bringing the possessed child to the Saviour. Or suppose another mother had said, “My child has a pining sickness upon it, it is wasted to skin and bone; permit me to bring my darling, that Jesus may lay His hands upon her”—the disciples would all have said: “Make way for this woman and her sorrowful burden.” But these little ones with bright eyes, and prattling tongues, and leaping limbs, why should they come to Jesus? They forgot that in those children, with all their joy, their health, and their apparent innocence, there was a great and grievous need for the blessing of a Saviour’s grace. If we indulge in the novel idea that our children do not need conversion, that children born of Christian parents are somewhat superior to others, and have good within them which only needs development, one great motive for our devout earnestness will be gone. Our children need the Spirit of God to give them new hearts and right spirits, or else they will go astray as other children do.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
A mother was knitting under the porch of her house one autumn afternoon. Her boy was playing with other children on the village green. Beyond the green was the river, and on the opposite bank of it was a wood full of nuts and berries, and sweet-smelling leaves, and flowers, and many other things which children delight to gather. “Let us cross to the wood,” said some of the bigger children. “I shall cross too,” said the little boy whose mother was knitting at the door. The ford was a little to the right, and just out of his mother’s view. There were stepping-stones all the way across. And the little nutting and berrying party got quite safely to the other side. But the clouds had been darkening over the sky since morning. And now it began to rain. First it came in heavy drops, then there was a peal of thunder, then came down torrents of rain. The bigger children hurried back to the ford, and one by one got over safely. The little boy whose mother was knitting under the porch was last. The river had by this time risen. The stepping-stones were beginning to be covered. The little man took one step, then a second, then he came to a stone over which the river was flowing swiftly, and his heart failed. He wrung his hands with fear, and cried with a piercing cry. The mother heard his cry, and new to the ford. She was too late. She could not reach her child. A broad black flood of water came thundering down between her boy and her. “My child!” she cried. “Mother! mother! come for me,” cried the boy. All the village came down to the riverside—men and women, young and old; but no one would venture to cross. They looked and pitied; they looked and wrung their hands, but they gave no help. At that moment a young shepherd, leading his flock down from the mountains, entered the village, and saw the peril of the child. He left his sheep on the green, and took great strides to the river brink. The roaring of the water over the stones was terrible, but he heeded not. He stepped boldly from stone to stone. In the centre the flood had carried some of them away: he plunged into the stream. With strong arms he beat the water to the right and left. He pressed his feet against the currents, and swam right over to the boy. With one arm he clasped the child, with the other he once more grappled with the flood. There was the roaring of the stream beneath, and the raging of the storm above; but the brave shepherd, partly walking and partly swimming, brought the boy to the bank, and delivered him to his mother. That was a boy who found a saviour. And what the brave young shepherd saved him from was death. But Christ was the real Saviour that day.1 [Note: A. Macleod.]
3. How are children hindered from coming to Jesus still?
(1) By force of Example and Conversation.—The force of example, whether for good or bad, is very powerful, and especially is it so with parents upon their children and teachers upon their pupils. Peradventure, father, if you had been an earnest Christian your son would not have been ungodly; possibly, dear mother, if you had been decided for the Saviour the girls would have been Christians too. How few consider the extent to which the minds of young children are affected by the conversation they hear! Men talk lightly and falsely upon religious and moral subjects. They may mean no harm to the child; they may forget its presence, or ignore the fact that it is listening, and drinking in much that they say. Yet it is doing so; and, being unable to balance and weigh the truth for itself, their words have left a stamp of irreverence, of doubt, of sinful thoughts, and perhaps obliterated the lessons of purity and the fear of God learned at a mother’s knee. They can hardly inflict a deadlier or more cruel injury than this.
If there is one thing which, more than any other, is woven into every part of the texture of modern society, it is that which in mercantile and commercial transactions goes by the name of credit. Credit is merely a Latin equivalent for our good, homely English word “trust.” Society is held together at every turn by trust—by mutual trust. Impair this mutual trust and confidence, and you get in commercial circles what is called a “panic.” Destroy it, and society is brought to a standstill,—is disintegrated, and broken up. Now, where is the meaning of the word “trust” first learned? And where is the thing which corresponds to the word first practised? Evidently in the home. The baby drinks it in with its mother’s milk. The growing child, by what seems to be a natural instinct rather than an acquired habit, trusts those whom he learns to call by the names “father” and “mother.” It is an evil thing for the family, and an evil thing for society, when the child’s confidence is shaken and he finds that father and mother are not always to be trusted. And this lesson of trust is not confined to the relation of parent and child only, but belongs equally, though in other forms, to every relation of domestic life. Husband and wife, for example, learn, as the years go on, to repose the most absolute trust in one another. In a word, the bonds of trust which bind society together are forged in the first instance in the home.1 [Note: D. J. Vaughan.]
I cannot tell you how much I owe to the solemn words of my good mother. It was the custom on Sunday evenings, while we were yet little children, for her to stay at home with us; and then we sat round the table, and read verse by verse, and she explained the Scripture to us. After that was done, then came the time of pleading; there was a little piece of Alleyn’s Alarm, or of Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, and this was read with pointed observations made to each of us as we sat round the table; and the question was asked how long it would be before we would think about our state, how long before we would seek the Lord. Then came a mother’s prayer, and some of the words of a mother’s prayer we shall never forget, even when our hair is grey.2 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
(2) By want of Religious Education and Influence.—Among the problems of the age none is more difficult than that involved in the question, “How shall the Church best succeed in reaching the masses of the people and bringing them to Christ?” Whatever else may be included in the solution of this problem, we shall come nearest to success when we have discovered how to lay hold of the children. The all-impelling motive by which the Church needs to be animated in its work among the young-is supplied by the fact that the children belong to Christ. “Of such is the kingdom of God.” Think what that truth implies. If these children—and not these only, but all children everywhere—are Christ’s, the work of training their young souls for Him is not one to be performed just anyhow or anywhere or by any means. Our Master has laid upon us individually a heavy responsibility in regard to these His little ones. Some of them are the children of God-fearing parents; but are those parents doing all they can to “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”? Some of them, we believe, already cherish in their hearts a love for the Saviour and a yearning after goodness which they themselves cannot express, and are almost too young to understand. What are we doing—are we doing anything—to develop that “soul of goodness” in them? Are we taking them by the hand to lead them to Jesus? Many of the children around us are already learning lessons of evil from their associations at home and in the street. Are we hasting to eradicate these noxious weeds and to replace them by the good seed of truth and virtue? If we would reclaim the world for Christ, we must begin with the young; and alike as a stimulus to duty and as an encouragement to our toil, we are reminded that the children belong to our Lord and Master. “Of such is the kingdom of God.”
A childhood without reverence, a childhood without any upward affection, a childhood to which nothing is mysterious, and therefore nothing sacred, a childhood with no heaven, with no encircling world about it save that of the men and women who minister to its wants; with a spiritual imagination wholly undeveloped; a childhood discontented, wearied, and without interest, satisfied with nothing, not even with self, though with no guide or hope towards improving that self—what picture so sad as the material crime that follows an unreligious youth.1 [Note: Canon Ainger.]
We are told that once in the course of a conversation with Madame Campan, Napoleon remarked, “The old systems of instruction seem to be worth nothing; what is yet wanting in order that the people should be properly educated?” “Mothers,” replied Madame Campan. The reply struck the Emperor. “Yes,” he said, “here is a system of education in one word. Be it your care, then, to train up mothers who shall know how to educate their children.” Have we not there a striking testimony to the power of home influence, to the degree in which those who watch over a child’s earliest years mould and direct his after life? It is more than a genealogical notice, it is a testimony to character, when in the Books of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah and Israel we read of such and such a king, “and his mother’s name was so-and-so, and he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord.” The memory of the prayers which he had learned by his mother’s knee saved, so he himself tells us, a great American statesman from atheism. “The older I grow,” says Thomas Carlyle, “and I am now upon the brink of eternity, the more comes back to me the first sentence of the Catechism which I learned when a child, and the fuller and deeper its meaning becomes, ‘What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever.’ ”2 [Note: G. Milligan.]
“Educate children without religion, and you make a race of clever devils.”3 [Note: Wellington.]
(3) By neglect of their Place in Public Worship.—Are the services of the sanctuary of such a character as to interest and benefit the young? So long as the children sit quietly in their places few members of our congregations are really conscious of their existence and presence in the sanctuary. This ought not to be. Every part of our worship should have its share for the young as well as for the old. Our psalmody should be so arranged that their fresh voices may bear a part in its melody. Our prayers should convey their needs to the throne of grace as well as the wants of their parents. And while it is manifest that there must necessarily be much in most sermons, perhaps something in every one, that may be beyond their present powers of comprehension, ministers should recollect that they are pastors of the lambs not less than of the sheep. The congregation which affects to despise the simpler words which the preacher now and again drops for the benefit of “these little ones,” should take heed lest it despise that which is precious in the sight of God.
In that pathetic scene in which Charles Dickens describes the death of Jo, you will remember how Jo, in answer to the question whether he ever knew a prayer, told how, different times, “there was gen’l’men come down Tom All-alone’s a-prayin’, but they all mostly sed as the t’other wuns prayed wrong, and all mostly sounded to be a-talkin’ to theirselves, or a-passin’ blame on the t’others, and not a-talkin’ to us. We never know’d nothink. I never know’d what it was all about.” Poor little street arab, passing away into the dim unknown with no other knowledge of Christ’s religion than that!1 [Note: G. Milligan.]
The revelation is of the nature of the Kingdom—“Of such is the kingdom of God.”
Of whom? Of little children, or of those who are childlike? Some (as Baxter) take the words literally. They understand Christ to refer to the number of actual little children which are now in heaven. Those little children never wilfully resisted grace, or put the Saviour away from them. And their guilt, which they brought with them into this world, having been rolled back in the death of Jesus Christ, they, dying in infancy, went, to glory. And when we remember the exceeding great number of the infants that die on the threshold of life, and therefore the very large proportion which they must make of the company of the saints, we can quite see that there may be truth in what Christ said, even to the very letter, if infants dying are infants still—“Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Whether our Lord did refer or not to the literal childhood which there may be in heaven, He certainly extends His assertion to those who, though not children, are like them.1 [Note: James Vaughan.]
Remember what Christ’s words are: “Of such is the kingdom of God.” What can the words mean if not that children and all who resemble them, all who possess the essential qualities of childhood, are members of that Kingdom? If I were to point to these roses, and say, “Of such as these is the floral kingdom composed,” what would you think of the good sense of a man, however wise he looked, if he should go away and affirm that what I meant was, that all flowers like roses were in the floral kingdom, but that roses themselves were not? Or if I were speaking of angels, and said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven,” what sort of commentator would he be who should argue from my words that no angel was in that Kingdom, that they were all outside it? And when our Lord, speaking of children, says: “Of such is the kingdom of God,” what can we think of those who argue from His words that children themselves are not in God’s Kingdom? I will tell you what I think of them: I think they hold some dogma, or creed, not in harmony with the mind of Christ, and try therefore to wrest these gracious words from their plain meaning.2 [Note: Samuel Cox.]
What then are the qualities in children which made it possible for the Christ to say, “Of such is the kingdom of God”? As we seek for an interpretation of Christ’s warning to His disciples, in some respects it is obvious that no one would wish grown-up men to be like children. There are Christian graces which they cannot exhibit, and depths of feeling which they cannot reach. The sorrows, indeed, of childhood are possibly sharper than we think while they last. The bruised finger or the broken toy brings a paroxysm of distress. But the young child knows nothing of the sacredness of loss or mourning. It will play in the nursery though death has entered the house; and the rooted love of riper years is of far nobler growth than is possible in the earliest days of life. Again, children are often heedlessly exacting and imperious. It is reserved for men and women to show forbearance and self-sacrifice. Children also are sometimes unwittingly cruel and inconsiderate. Kindness to man and beast is one of the things which we seek to teach them, and they cannot be taught too soon. But in its fulness and depth it is a mature virtue. So are steadiness and endurance. We rebuke a man for the want of them in saying he is “as giddy as a child.” Again, some children, who afterwards become thoroughly trustworthy, have not always seen the value of truth. In short, there are many childish imperfections and defects which we make no great count of because children have no power to put them into mischievous force. The law, indeed, takes wise cognisance of this, refusing to admit or acknowledge their possession of responsibility in some matters till the age of twenty-one has been reached. What, then, was it in the little children that made Jesus say, “Of such is the kingdom of God”?
1. Was it their Weakness and Dependence?—Every child is, and must be, very weak. It is its nature to be weak. It could not be a little child if it were not weak. So it is with every child of God. His weakness is an essential part of his being what he is. He could not be a child of God if he were not weak. What is weakness? Emptiness—for God to fill with Himself. What is weakness? Room where God may work and His grace expand. What is weakness? To be nothing, that God may be everything. We do not march into heaven; no one enters heaven so; we are to be borne in the arms and on the bosom of Jesus Christ. And we are undertaken for in everything; just as the father for his babe, so Christ for us: provision for all our wants, to feed our body and our soul, to pay all our debts, to carry out all our true wishes, to carry us, to train us, to perfect us, to make us quite happy in Him, and to glorify Himself in us.
2. Was it their Trustfulness?—The little child is characterised by trust. We almost smile at a child’s credulity. Why do we smile? Because we have learned too painfully that it does not do, in such a world as this, to trust any man as that little child trusts us; and to take him at his word as that little child is accepting us at our word. Alas that we should have to unlearn that holy art, that characteristic of childhood! Alas for a world which finds it necessary to coin such a word as that,—credulity! The greatest lesson we have to learn in life, the hardest thing we have to do, is to take God at His word. It will be an end of all unhappiness and of all sin, if we can just do that, take God at His word.
A lady said to a little daughter of the missionary Judson, “Were you not afraid to journey so far over the ocean?” “Why, no, madam,” returned the believing child; “father prayed for us!”1 [Note: J. N. Norton.]
During a recent hard winter, a poor widow, with several helpless children, was reduced almost to her last crust of bread, when one of her little boys, who saw her distress and anxiety, said to her, “Please don’t cry, mother; I will write a letter to Jesus to help us!” The woman was too much occupied with her troubles to notice his singular remark, and so, taking her silence for approval of his purpose, he sat down and scrawled on a bit of paper, torn from an old writing-book, these words: “Dear Saviour: my mother and my brothers and sisters have had no breakfast nor dinner to-day; please send us something to eat.” He then signed his name, with the street and number, and, running to the post-office, dropped the letter into the box. When the letters were sorted, the clerk’s attention was attracted by one directed, in a child’s hand, “To Jesus Christ.” In his perplexity, he showed it to the postmaster, and he, in turn, handed it to a good Christian man who came into the office for his mail. “I will take care of it!” said the gentleman.2 [Note: Ibid.]
A tender child of summers three,
Seeking her little bed at night,
Paused on the dark stair timidly.
“Oh, mother! take my hand,” said she,
“And then the dark will all be light.”
We older children grope our way
From dark behind to dark before;
And only when our hands we lay,
Dear Lord, in Thine, the night is day,
And there is darkness nevermore.
Reach downward to the sunless days,
Wherein our guides are blind as we,
And faith is small and hope delays;
Take Thou the hands of prayer we raise,
And let us feel the light of Thee!1 [Note: Whittier.]
3. Was it their Candour?—There is a notably direct expression of thought by children. It is true that their exercise of this candour may need to be checked. There are many things which we think, but which, for various reasons, we rightly abstain from saying. And yet a child might teach us to say nothing which we do not mean. ‘The cynic may sneeringly remark that the use of language is to conceal our thoughts. It is, however, scarcely necessary to ask whether this does not suggest a radically un-Christian perversion of speech. How well it would be were people to be more straightforward in their words! Without their being rudely outspoken, what needless difficulties would be escaped, what misunderstandings would be avoided, from what mischievous perplexities would families and society be spared!
We are sometimes afraid to say this, or do that, which, if said or done, would bring welcome and legitimate relief to ourselves and others. How often a man regrets that he had not the moral courage to take such and such a course, to have been a little more plain spoken! What mistakes and misapprehensions would have been avoided, what explanations would have been rendered unnecessary, if he had only said what he believed when the opportunity presented itself! How the air is sometimes cleared by the utterance of a thought which had been (so they afterwards fancy) in the mind of all, but which no one had had the courage to express in words! This direct, uncalculating simplicity of speech is just one of the things in which men may well learn of children.2 [Note: H. Jones.]
4. Was it their Receptiveness?—This seems to be implied in the further statement, “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.” It is the habit of a child to receive, and he has no difficulty in receiving. He began his course instinctively; before he had developed powers of reflection and choice, he began taking in supplies. He needed to be taught many things, but the art of receiving was born with him. It is different with some other simple exercises; for example, giving. To give is not at all so native to him as to take, and a mother will often exhibit what she regards as a little triumph of education when her child can be induced to part with something he has got on being asked for it.
5. Was it their Humility?—Children are naturally humble. It is only when they have been spoiled by foolish flattery and over-indulgence that they become proud. Naturally, they shun observation, and blush at compliments.
Lord, forever at Thy side
Let my place and portion be;
Strip me of the robe of pride,
Clothe me with humility.
Humble as a little child,
Weaned from the mother’s breast.
By no subtleties beguiled,
On Thy faithful word I rest.
6. Was it their Innocence?—There is so much of evil that a child does not know, much indeed that it cannot know. As it grows older, a great deal of what it can and does know, by seeing it, may still remain unknown to its own personal experience. About this unconsciousness of evil there is something sacred. It seems more unearthly than anything else that we know. Even when ignorance is gone, yet innocent knowledge and guilty knowledge are so far apart that still there is a kind of heavenly presence round all those who have not yet sinned, in so far as they have not yet sinned. Of such is the Kingdom of heaven. This kind of purity, the purity which has been kept clean, not that which has been made clean, always seems to have a peculiar unearthly lustre. Repentance puts a man back sometimes, not merely where he was, but even higher. A man who has stained himself is sometimes so purified that his character seems more stainless than ever. And yet, though he may gain a greater degree of purity than ever, it is not the same kind of purity. There is nothing which quite matches perfect innocence. And the innocence of children is more perfect than any other on earth. As we grow older we have to replace it by hearty and deep repentance, by corning to Christ for cleansing, by fleeing from temptation with the utmost earnestness, by prayer to Christ for strength. And we shall have what we ask. But nothing else can quite replace the simple attachment which binds the innocent heart to the loving Saviour, and the grown Christian clings with earnest longing to whatever fragment of childlike innocence still remains to him. And as he grows older there is no temptation which cuts him with deeper pain than one which solicits him to do a wrong thing which he never recollects having done before.
I have read of an artist who painted a portrait of a child, beautiful and promising, and he was so pleased with it that he called it Innocence. Many years afterwards he was advised to paint a companion portrait, and to call it Guilt. To find a proper representative for this, he visited a prison in which there lay a man who was sentenced to death for a very brutal murder, and who had had a very bad record before that murder was committed. He received permission to go to the prison, and to paint the portrait of the criminal. What was his surprise to find that his representative of Guilt was the very person who, five and twenty years before, had sat to him as the representative of Innocence.1 [Note: W. H. Gray.]
Once, when his infant son was brought to Luther, and he kissed it and folded it to his heart, he said, “My God, how dearly Adam must have loved Cain, the first-born human creature! And afterwards he became a fratricide. O Adam, woe, woe to thee!”2 [Note: Watchwords from Luther, 239.]
7. Was it their Obedience?—A characteristic of the child is the instinct of obedience. It is natural and easy to a child to obey. And every wise father and every wise mother keeps the instinct always in exercise. To this natural readiness to obey does the mother appeal when her child is tempted by this trifle or by that. Often a message is sent, or a service is required, just when the little will was on the point of going wrong. To this same instinct the mother often has recourse when childish troubles fret the temper. Something to be done, something to be fetched, some message to a servant employs the thoughts, and the sorrow is forgotten. The child of course has other instincts, and very early the instinct of obedience comes in conflict with wishes, and caprices, and fancies, and temper, and begins to fade out of the character even more rapidly than the natural grace of innocence. But that same readiness of obedience, that same instinctive impulse to obey superior bidding, the man has to learn if he has not been able to keep. And blessed indeed is he who has kept it. The temptations, the conflicts, the falls, the sorrow, the mischief from which he is saved who has kept on from childhood the readiness to do what he is bid, and who, as other authorities are removed, transfers his hearty and quick submission to God’s messenger within the soul, who shall number?
8. Was it their Simplicity?—One of the characteristics of the child is simplicity. There is not, there cannot well be, in a child any depth or persistency of worldly purpose. Rather a child is altogether purposeless. Affectation there may be in a child, but it cannot last. It comes and goes. Longing for some particular object there may be, but how easily it is diverted! The heart is readily reached. There is as yet no crust formed over it by selfish aims. There is as yet nothing to check natural generosity. There may be the germs of worldliness, but they are not yet come to their growth. The springs of the heart are still fresh. The impulses are still warm. The readiness to believe is still strong. This, too, passes away, unless it is kept by prayer and by personal communion with God. This, too, if it pass away, must be recovered, if a man is to be a servant of Christ. And this cannot be kept and cannot be recovered by conflict with ourselves. To keep innocence and to keep the instinct of obedience, demand chiefly the will. But to keep simplicity demands that kind of prayer which seems to make a man familiar with the very presence of God, which seems to keep him constantly in the outer court of heaven, which seems to give him unconsciously the language, the bearing, the countenance only to be got from heavenly thoughts.
You must accustom yourself to seek Him with the simplicity of a child, with a tender familiarity and a confidence acceptable to so loving a Father.1 [Note: Fénelon.]
In a grown man the direct and negative simplicity of a child is childishness; yet though he may not and cannot become a child, to become in some measure childlike, to make himself reflexly and positively what he was when Nature first gave him into his own hands, is the scope of all rightly directed moral endeavour. Normally, his first exercise of liberty is to shatter this simplicity to atoms; to go as far as may be from his infancy; to break up and explore the infinite possibilities of his nature. His subsequent task is to return homeward, to reconstruct freely, consciously, appreciatively, what he has shattered; to consent understandingly to God’s designs in his regard. This is the law of all moral and spiritual life.1 [Note: Father Tyrrell.]
9. Was it simply their Attractiveness?—The young do not know how deep an interest, how warm an affection, how keen a sympathy they always attract from those who are older. They do not know how strong is the desire which older people feel to make them happy, to win their affection, to guide them right. They do not know the pleasure which they give when they seem pleased, when they show affection, when they show nobleness, or truth, or unselfishness of character. When a man has grown to manhood there cannot be the same interest in him unless he is a personal friend. He is bound to see to himself. He cannot be helped in the same way. And God accordingly has not unlocked all hearts to him, as He has to those who are younger. But the young are ever surrounded by those who long for their welfare, whose delight is to see them delighted, whose hope is to see their happiness resting on a sure foundation. Can there be any other time of life when it will be easier to let right feelings and warm-hearted simplicity rule the soul than while much of the childlike character still remains, and the tenderness of God is still reflected all around in the yearning good wishes of older friends?
10. Or was it, last of all, the powers that lay hidden in the child?—It was not only the winning beauty of the little children that held Jesus. He saw in them the pledges and most striking emblems of the great Empire of God. “Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” “Thou best Philosopher!” “Mighty Prophet!” “Seer blest!” says Wordsworth, in his “Intimations of Immortality.” Lofty language to apply to a little child, and yet all and more is contained in the simple words, “Of such is the kingdom of God.”
Who is He in all the world who does most for us? Think of the great world with all its roar and traffic and eager crowd; think of all the interests that busy and concern men. There are the thinkers who think, and the artists who bless us with beauty, and the poets who sing. There are those who enrich us with the luxuries of life, and those who toil for its comfort and necessities. But who does most for us? He does most who brings to the heart a new accession of love—of love that subdues all the thought and aim of the life;—that uplifts its little common round into a thing purged of its selfishness and made beautiful by thought of others. If that be so, then let the world make room for the apostle of love—the little child.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]
The Little Children
Abbey (C. J.), The Divine Love, 322.
Brown (C. J.), The Word of Life, 50.
Burrell (D. J.), The Church in the Fort, 297.
Cox (S.), The Bird’s Nest, 83.
Doney (C. G.), The Throne Room of the Soul, 183.
Gibbon (J. M.), The Children’s Year, 43, 51.
Gordon (S. D.), Quiet Talks on Home Ideals, 175.
Gray (W. H.), The Children’s Friend, 1.
Kuegele (F.), Country Sermons, i. 212.
Macleod (A.), Talking to the Children, 237.
Matheson (G.), Messages of Hope, 181.
Milligan (G.), in Great Texts of the New Testament, 243.
Newbolt (W. C. E.), Counsels of Faith and Practice, 104.
Norton (J. N.), Milk and Honey, 189.
Pentecost (G. F.), Bible Studies, 85.
Shedd (W. G. T.), Sermons to the Natural Man, 379.
Smith (J.), Short Studies, 74.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, x. 413; xxxii. 565.
Temple (F.), Rugby Sermons, ii. 259.
Vaughan (D. J.), Questions of the Day, 55.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), v. No. 557.
Watson (A.), Christ’s Authority, 296.
Christian World Pulpit, xxii. 246 (Wagstaff); xxiv. 280 (Aldis); xxxvii. 86 (Jones).
Church Pulpit Year Book, ii. 229; vi. 205.
Contemporary Pulpit, 2nd Ser., ii. 200 (Ainger).
Preacher’s Magazine , 437 (Campbell); , 436 (Pearse).