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Entering the Kingdom of Heaven Like a Child

Series: Luke

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Apr 3, 2011

Luke 18:15-17

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The Lord's Day Morning

April 3, 2011

“Entering the Kingdom of Heaven Like a Child”

Luke 18:15-17

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, let me invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 18. We’re continuing our way through the gospel of Luke together, and we're looking at a short passage today in verses 15 to 17. As you’re turning to that passage, let me encourage you to look at the story that immediately precedes it, which we studied together last week, and then the story that immediately follows it, because I believe that looking at the content of those stories will help you understand what is being said in a passage that is brief and could be somewhat enigmatic without a context.

If you will remember, last time we were together we looked at the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple. And in that story, Jesus spoke about a man who was personally very confident of his status and his deeds before God, but who left his time of prayer not declared right with God. Whereas, a tax collector who recognized that he had no claim because of his status and he had no deeds to commend him to God, had cried out to God for mercy. And what does Jesus say about him? “He went down to his house justified” - declared right with God, forgiven, accepted, pardoned. So Jesus has just pictured one man who thinks that his status and deeds commends us to God and gives him right of entry into God's kingdom, and one man who denied that his status or deeds gave him any claim over God but only pled for God's mercy. And Jesus points to the man who pleads to God's mercy as the example of our appropriate posture before God.

Then, in the story that follows the passage that we're going to read today, we are told about a rich young ruler who was morally upstanding, he was wealthy, he was prominent, and he came to Jesus asking a question — “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And it's very clear from the story that we're going to study when we get there that he thought of himself as a law keeper, someone who had been morally upright and obedient to God's law from the earliest days of his life, and that this, therefore, gave him a certain status and that his deeds commended him to God for entry into His kingdom. And once again, in this story, Jesus will tell His disciples, “No, that kind of man, it's impossible for that kind of man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

Now in between, is this story of parents bringing children to Jesus and asking Jesus to bless those children. The background of this is probably the practice of pious, Jewish people in Jesus’ day of bringing their children to the rabbi or to the priest around the Day of Atonement and asking the priest or rabbi to bless their children. And apparently in Jesus’ ministry this happened to Him. It's an indication of the esteem that people held Him in that they would want to take their children to Him for a blessing in like manner.

Well, you have to ask yourself the question, “Why has Luke put that story about Jesus blessing the children and then saying that the kingdom of God belongs to such as these and only those who enter it like a child will enter it, why does Luke put that story in between those other two stories?” Because he is showing you what a disciple of Jesus looks like. He's showing you the heart, the attitude of a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. And he's showing you the attitude you have to have in order to become a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ and to enter into the kingdom of God.

Well with that as a little bit of background, let's go to the Lord in prayer and ask for Him to bless us as we study the Word.

Lord, we need the help of Your Holy Spirit as we read and listen to and give attention to Your Word. Sometimes we need it Lord because we're blind to our own sin and we need the Spirit to open our eyes to see how the Word speaks to our own sin. Sometimes we need it Lord simply because our understandings need to be instructed and we need to understand what the Word is saying in order that we might believe and practice it. Other times the Word is calling us to do things that are painful and difficult and we need the grace of Your Holy Spirit to accept short-term pain for long-term gain. There are many reasons, O Lord, why we need You to open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Word. And we ask that You would do precisely that today, in Jesus' name, amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it:

“Now they were bringing even infants to Him that He might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him, saying, ‘Let the children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

This story is about discipleship, and the occasion of these parents bringing children to Jesus for a blessing became an occasion for Him to instruct His disciples and those parents and perhaps the Pharisees who were still listening in, in what exactly discipleship of the Lord Jesus consists, and what the attitude, the self-assessment, the posture of a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ is, and how one enters into discipleship with Jesus and comes into the kingdom of God. This passage is also about children and about grace. It tells us a lot about what Jesus thought of children and how He was concerned to minister to children and it teaches us about the Gospel of grace. And it's vital for us to understand its message. And so I want to look with you today especially at two things — what we learn from Jesus’ ministry to children in this passage about how to bring children to Jesus, and then what we learn in this passage about how to enter into the kingdom of God, how to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, and what our own attitude and self-assessment is.

Let's begin with what we learn about children in this passage. One thing that is very clear from what we're just read is that Jesus cared about children. He cared about children, He cared about even infants, and He gave attention to them as a regular part of His ministry. And that comes out in several ways in this passage. First, if you’d look with me at verse 15, notice that Luke tells you “they were bringing even infants to Him that He might touch them.” Now the very phrase, “they were bringing,” is perhaps an indication from Luke that this was a common occurrence in Jesus’ ministry. Luke knows that this passage is found in one particular context in the gospel of Mark and he sets it in a very different context, in a context in which Jesus is addressing the issue of discipleship and the heart attitude of those who are members of the kingdom. But the way he introduces this story is not like he was saying, “Now on one occasion and on one occasion only, some parents brought their children to Jesus and this happened.” The way he says this indicates that this is something that happens very regularly in Jesus’ ministry; that parents regularly brought their children to Jesus and asked that He might touch them or bless them.

Now we're already spoken about what the context of this might have been — pious Jews bringing their children to the rabbi or to the priest for a blessing. This seems to be happening with Jesus. But what's so important is that Jesus seems to be interested in this. Jesus does not rebuke them for simply following the traditions of the elders, although He does in other cases. Jesus seems to be anxious to minister to these children and to these parents. I love what J. C. Ryle says about this passage. He says, “The souls of young children are evidently precious in God's sight because here and elsewhere there is plain proof that Jesus cares for them no less than for grown-up people.” And Jesus does indeed seem very interested in ministering to these children. And Luke is the one who records this story and he says that even infants were here.

And you can see this in other ways in the passage as well. Not only are we told by Luke that the parents were bringing their children to Him, but the disciples actually try and stop this from happening. And you can understand the rationale of the disciples. The disciples are probably thinking something like this — “People, don't you know that Jesus is busy with important stuff? Don't bring these children and infants and bother Him and keep Him from doing things that are really important!” And over His disciples’ own objection, Jesus said, “No, no, no — allow those children to come to Me. Parents, bring those children to Me because,” He says, “to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Now we're going to see that where Jesus is going in this passage is in teaching a lesson about discipleship to His own disciples and to all who were there who were listening. But there are some things that we learn about bringing our children to Jesus from Jesus’ interest in ministry to children in this passage.

Earlier this week I stumbled across a blog entry that has been reduplicated all over the internet this week and I don't even know where it started but it's called, “Five Ways To Make Your Children Hate Church.” Now, the point of the blog entry, it's written by a pastor, is to tell parents that sometimes they can do things that inadvertently cause their children not to get the blessing that they ought to get from gathering with the people of God for worship. And I'm not going to read the whole entry to you but I will give you a little taste of some of the things that are said by way of sort of tongue-in-cheek instruction. “If you want to make sure that your children hate church,” this entry says, “make sure that your faith is something that you only do on Sunday mornings. Make sure — if you want your children to hate church, make sure that your faith is something that you only do on Sunday morning. Make sure that you only pray in public and you never pray it with them privately or in your home. Make sure that you only focus on being good and keeping up appearances and keeping up appearances and never on the Gospel and on the cross. If you want to make sure that your children hate church, make sure that your church participation is a priority but only as long as there's not a better option.” — You know, the big game or a social event or something else going on that might be a better option than coming to church. “Make church a priority but only as long as there's not another option.” And then it goes on like that and you can see what the author is getting at. He's getting at our religious hypocrisy and how that can undermine the very message that we're trying to send our children when we gather as the people of God to worship.

Well if you were going to answer the question, “How do you bring your children to Jesus?” because Jesus seems to be so interested in ministering to your children, He's interested in the souls of your children, how would you answer that question? How would I bring my children to Jesus? And one good answer to that of course would be: bring them under the means of grace. God has provided means of grace whereby He draws sinners to Himself and He builds them up in grace and that means bringing your children to public worship and sitting with them and actually looking forward to it and having a Lord's Day and reading the Bible and praying and singing with them and using the Catechism with them and using those means of grace that the Lord has given us to edify them.

Well that would be a good answer, but this last week I ran across an answer I think that puts those things, those simple, important things that we've just said about the means of grace in a broader context to the whole of life that will be very instructive to you. As a staff, each month we fill out a monthly report so that we can tell one another what we are doing in ministry. We can tell one another what new congregation members that we've met, problems that we're having, opportunities that we have, issues that we think could serve to improve our ministry to the church and serve you better. We use it as a way to hold one another accountable and also to give one another encouragement. And Barbara Porter, as she always does, handed in her ministry report for the month. Now Barbara Porter, along with Weezie, Barbara is our Associate Children's Director. If you don't know Barbara Porter, you've missed a blessing. Well down under her answer to the question, “Ideas for improving my ministry area,” she speaks about the importance of helping to equip our Christian parents in their responsibility as parents in the rearing of Christian disciples. And she wrote down thirteen things that she thinks our Christian parents need to know and understand about bringing our children to Jesus, about rearing them in the knowledge of the Lord ,that were rich — so rich, that Jeremy and I read them and thought, “Barbara, you need to write a book!” So I want to share them with you because they’re showing you how to bring your children to Jesus.

And this is what Barbara says:

1. Make sure that you are guarding, nourishing, and focusing on your own spiritual condition. Are you putting Christ first? Do you make time to worship, fellowship with other Christians, read the Word of God, and pray?

2. The example you set as parents is crucial to rearing Christian disciples. Do you realize the importance of living out your Christian faith every day in front of your children? Do they see that Christ is first in your life and that you seek to glorify Him in everything you do?

3. Demonstrate to your children that your relationship with your spouse is the most important human relationship that you have, and prove this by showing respect for your spouse and displaying sacrificial love and physical affection for him or her.

4. Show your child and tell your child that you love them every day. Work diligently at building a relationship with them. Take time from their earliest days to communicate with them about deep and important things.

5. Read the Word of God with your child and pray with and for your child every day.

6. Give your child responsibilities. Do whatever it takes to create within him or her a godly work ethic. Do not do for your children what they are capable of doing for themselves. Those who hate work are among the most unhappy and unfulfilled people in this world. Adam and Eve had responsibilities to fulfill even in the Garden of Eden before sin entered into the world. Work is truly a great gift from the Lord.

7. Do not bail your children out of the consequences that arise because of their own actions and choices. (I could read that one again seven times!) It is essential for them from their earliest days to learn that sin has consequences. You will not always be there to rescue them and you should not enable them.

8. Teach by example that Christ expects us to be presenting our bodies to Him as living sacrifices. The world teaches that it is all about us, breeding those who love themselves first and best. Give them opportunities from their earliest years to serve others, those inside and outside the church. Take them on a short-term mission trip so that they can see the extent of their own blessings and the extent of others’ deprivation.

9. Teach them respect for others. Show them by example that it is the soul of another person that they should value and not the person's outer shell. Part of showing respect for others involves on their part: modest dress, inclusion, encouragement, forgiveness, praise, and setting a godly example.

10. Impress upon their children the brevity of this earthly life. God compared it to a vapor. Analyze your desire to accumulate things. We must demonstrate to our children by our actions and priorities that material things will never be enough and they will never satisfy us. One day we will all give an account of our lives to our Creator. Only one life will soon be passed. Only what is done for Christ will last. Help your children to understand that this earth is not our home and therefore we should not treat it as such.

11. Demand and command respect from your children. If they do not respect you, whom they can see, how will they ever be able to respect God, whom they cannot see? Do you live in such a way that you are worthy of their respect? Do you say one thing and yet do another? Even a young child can spot a hypocrite.

12. Teach your children that pleasing God is their ultimate goal. To do this means sometimes being alienated from the crowd. Pray with your child for one friend who is godly and true. God will provide this friend.

13. Make sure your discipline is consistent and abounding in mercy. These principles must be put into place from a child's earliest days. It's easier to build children than to repair men. If children grow up with these truths as a part of their everyday lives, it will make the job of parenting them as teenagers a more joyful experience.

Now all of those things are ways for us to bring our children to Jesus. Jesus cares about the souls of our children. Are we bringing them to Jesus? Well that's the first thing I want you to see in this passage. That's point one, believe it or not!

Point two, very quickly, but very, very importantly, because this is where Jesus is going with the illustration of children in this passage. And this is His point: Jesus invites those and those only to Himself who cannot merit anything to gain the kingdom. Look at what He says in this passage. “Let the children come to Me, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” And then He says it the other way around negatively. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child, shall not enter it.” Now, you should be scratching your head. What do You mean, Jesus? What do You mean that I have to be like a child if I'm going to enter the kingdom, and if I'm not like a child, I'm not going to enter into the kingdom? I really want to know, Jesus. What does that mean? And commentators give sometimes different answers. Sometimes they say, “Well, Jesus is talking about the humility of children.” But I agree with Derek Thomas. I haven't found children to be very humble. Sometimes commentators say, “Well, Jesus is talking about a child's childlike trust.” Maybe, but I think what Jesus is getting at is actually a little different and it's actually evident from the context. Note two things in the context that help you here.

First of all, when the parents start bringing their children to Jesus, what do the disciples say? “Don't bother Jesus. This is not important. This is something not important enough for an important person like Jesus to get involved in.” And in doing that, the disciples are showing a common attitude in the first century. We live in a world that is child-centric. The whole world is built around children. Parents obsess around children; advertisers, marketers, and people who sell things obsess about children today. They sell most things to you through your children. That is not how it was in Jesus’ day. Children had little or no social status. They were nobodies. They weren't important. Now Jesus tells this, Luke records this, in between the stories of two men who thought they were very important. Furthermore, children, because they are children, could not even begin to claim by their deeds the right to enter into the kingdom of God. And Jesus puts this story right between the two stories of men who claimed, by their deeds, the right of entry into God's kingdom.

So what is Jesus saying? Jesus is saying, “Those little children have neither the status nor the deeds whereby they have the right to enter into My kingdom. Therefore, no one who claims to have the status or deeds to enter into My kingdom can enter into My kingdom. Only those who know that they do not have the status or deeds to enter into My kingdom can enter into My kingdom.” It's the sheer receptivity of these children that Jesus is pointing to. They are not those who do, they are those who are done for. Jesus is saying in this passage, “You don't enter My kingdom by who you are and what you do. You enter My kingdom by who I am and what I do. And only those who enter that way ever enter My kingdom at all.” That's why He's depicting the children as a model for the way that you enter into the kingdom because they had no status and they could perform none of the deeds that the two men perform on either side of this story. And thus it beautifully illustrates that the way you enter into the kingdom is by who He is and what He has done, not by who you are and what you have done.

Let me illustrate that in another way. In a very famous speech, President John F. Kennedy once challenged our country, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Now that was not only an inspiring speech when he gave it, and timely then, it's probably more true now that we need to understand that than ever before. So as far as a civics lesson for the citizens of a republic, that's a good message. But as theology for salvation, it's the exact opposite message of Jesus here. Jesus is saying, “When you want to enter the kingdom, don't ask what you can do in order to make yourself right to enter My kingdom. Ask what I have done that you might enter into My kingdom.” Or if I could put it this way, Jesus is saying, “Ask not what you have done for Jesus, but what Jesus has done for you. Ask not what you can do for Jesus, but what Jesus can do for you.” There is of course the time to ask the question, “What can I do for Jesus?” It is not, however, when you are standing before God waiting for His verdict of “declared right” or “condemned.” There, the only thing that matters is what Jesus has done, not what you have done. The only thing that matters is what Jesus has done for you, not what you have done for Jesus. The question, “What can I do for Jesus?” comes later then in the Christian life. Jesus is getting at that right here. He's telling us that only those who know that they lack the status and they lack the merits to enter into His kingdom can enter into His kingdom. In other words, it's a message of grace.

And we're going to sing about that in just a few minutes. If you’d take your hymnals before we pray and turn with me to the hymn that we're going to sing right afterwards. Look at number 695 and look especially at the second stanza. “By grace alone shall I inherit that blissful home beyond the skies. Works count for naught (or nothing). The Lord incarnate has won for me the heavenly prize. Salvation by His death He wrought, His grace alone my pardon brought.” That is exactly what Jesus is teaching in each of these three stories. It's a message about grace. It is by grace that we become disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Bring its truth home to us we pray. In Jesus' name, amen.

Let's sing the first two stanzas of number 695.

Again I would remind our congregation members that after the benediction I would invite you to be seated. Our guests, our visitors, are free to make your way to your homes or to your meals, and we’ll stay, congregation members, for a brief congregational meeting.

Receive the Lord's benediction. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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