Mark 10:15:—“Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.”
The declaration embodied in this verse, apparently very simple, and certainly perfectly clear in its general sense, is not without its perplexities when examined in its detailed implications. The occasion of its enunciation was an incident in the life of our Lord which manifests His beautiful tenderness as few others of those narrated in the Gospels. In the prosecution of His mission He went up and down the land, as we are told, “doing good.” It was characteristic of His teaching that the common people heard Him gladly. It was of the essence of the beneficent impression that He made that He drew to Him all who were afflicted and were suffering with diverse diseases.
The Evangelists stud their narratives thickly with accounts of how the people flocked to him, bringing all their sick and receiving from Him healing of body and mind. This appeared to His closest followers well worth while. It was all part of his office as One sent from God to heal the hurt of Israel. But the people did not stop there. Mothers brought their babies also to Him, and asked Him to lay His hands on them and bless them, too. Here His disciples drew the line. These babies were not sick and did not need the healing touch of the Great Physician. By the very fact that they were babies they were incapable of profiting by His wonderful words. To intrude them upon His attention was to interfere unwarrantably with His prosecution of His pressing labors, and to supplant those who had superior claims on His time and strength. So the disciples rebuked the parents and would fain have sent the babies away.
But the Lord, perceiving what was toward, was moved with indignation and intervened with His great, “Let the little children come to me, prevent them not.” And taking them in His own arms, He laid His hands on them and blessed them; the word employed being a very emphatic one, meaning a calling down fervently of blessings upon the objects of the prayer. The mothers went away comforted, bearing their blessed babies in their arms.
What a picture we have here of the Master’s loving-kindness! It is not strange if, when we read the narrative, we stop, first of all, to adore and love Him. It is a revelation of the character of Jesus; and what can we contemplate with more profit than the character of Jesus? But we soon begin to realize that the incident is freighted with instruction for us relatively to our Lord’s mission as well, and to question what messages it brings us from this point of view. We ask why was our Lord “moved with indignation” at His disciples for intercepting the approach of the mothers with their babies to Him. They meant well; surely He needed protection from unnecessary and useless draughts upon His energies. Indignation was certainly out of place unless there was some very harmful misunderstanding somewhere.
And so it begins to dawn upon us that the disciples ought to have known better. And that means ultimately that they ought to have known better than to suppose that Jesus’ mission was summed up in instruction and healing. Were this all that it was, it had been right enough to exclude the babies from His presence. Only if He had something for these babies too; only if His blessing on them—not needing healing and incapable of instruction—nevertheless, brought to them the supreme benefit; would it be a crime to shut them out from His offices. Whence we may learn that the blessing which Jesus brought was something above His instruction and superior to His healing ministry. A great physician, yes; a prophet come from God, yes; but above and beyond these, the bearer of blessings which could penetrate even to the helpless babes on their mothers’ breasts.
Perhaps if the disciples stopped short of this, it is not inexplicable that men of to-day, having proceeded so far, should show a tendency to stop right here and utilize this much gain with such devotion that they do not stay to search further. We have obviously here a warrant for infant baptism, they say. For does not Jesus declare that infants are to be permitted to come to Him and are not to be hindered—affirming further that the Kingdom of Heaven is of such, and taking them in His arms and blessing them? And can His Church, representing Him on earth, do less? Must not His Church suffer the infants to be brought to Him and take them in her arms and mark them with His name and bless them? Nay, say others, this and more: A warrant here for confidence in the salvation of infants. For how can we believe that He who on earth so tenderly and solemnly took them in His arms and blessed them, forbidding their access to Him to be hindered, will now in heaven refuse to receive them when they come flocking to His arms? And does He not distinctly declare that the Kingdom of God belongs to such; and does that not mean first of all—whatever else it may mean—just this simple thing, that infants as such are citizens of His heavenly kingdom and must be accredited with all the rights of that heavenly citizenship?
It is no part of my purpose to stop and examine the validity of these inferences. Let it be enough for us to-day to note clearly, merely that they are inferences. And having noted that they are inferences, let us for the moment at least pass them by, and engross ourselves in the teaching which is explicit and for the sake of which, therefore, we must suppose that the incident is recorded. For our Lord did not leave His disciples to draw inferences from the incident, unaided. He draws one for them; and that one is what we have chosen as the subject of our meditation to-day. In this inference He withdraws our minds from the literal children He had taken and blessed, and focuses them upon the spiritual children who should constitute the Kingdom of Heaven.
You will observe that He passes at once from the one to the other. When He says “For of such is the Kingdom of God,” He does not mean that the Kingdom of God consists of literal infants, but rather of those who are like infants. You may assure yourselves of this by turning to the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs”—or “of them”—“is the Kingdom of heaven.” That is to say, the Kingdom of heaven belongs to—or is constituted of—the “poor in spirit.” So, here, if what were intended were that the Kingdom of God belongs to—is constituted of—infants, we should have: “For of them”—or “theirs”—“is the Kingdom of God.” What we do have, however, is not that, but, on the contrary, “For of such as they—of their like—is the Kingdom of heaven.” The Kingdom of heaven is declared, therefore, to be constituted not of children but of the childlike. And the declaration is at once clinched by the words of our text, introduced by the solemn formula “Verily,” “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.”
The message which the incident is made by our Lord to bring us, therefore,—and which, accordingly, the passage directly teaches us with no inferences of ours—does not concern either infant baptism or infant salvation, but distinctly the constitution of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, it asserts, is made up, not of children, but of the childlike. And that concerns directly you and me. The Kingdom of God, our text asserts, is made up of people like these children whom our Lord took in His arms and blessed. And that being so, we are warned that no one can enter that Kingdom who does not receive it “like a little child.” This is as much as to say, not only that childlikeness characterizes the recipients of that Kingdom, but that childlikeness is the indispensable prerequisite to entrance into it. It certainly behoves you and me who wish to be members of the Kingdom of God to know what this childlikeness means.
Well, many think at once of the innocence of childhood. The statement is, in effect they say, that the Kingdom of God consists solely of those who are in their moral innocence like children. Only such can enter it. A grave difficulty at once faces us, however, when we enunciate this view. That is that Jesus does not seem elsewhere to announce innocence as a—as the—condition of entrance into the Kingdom which He came to establish. On the contrary, He declared that He came not to call the righteous, but sinners, and announced that His mission was to seek and save what is lost. The publicans and harlots, He tells us, go into the Kingdom before the righteous Pharisees. To give point to this we note that in Luke’s narrative the parable of the publican and pharisee praying in the temple immediately precedes the account of our present incident, and is placed there evidently because of the affinity of the two narratives. It would read exceedingly oddly if the publican was justified and the pharisee, with all his righteousness, rejected, and immediately afterwards it were asserted that the Kingdom was solely for the innocent. No, there is nothing clearer than that Jesus’ mission was specifically to those who were not innocent—that it is characteristic of those who enter His Kingdom that they do not feel innocent—that, in a word, the Kingdom is built up from and by the “chief of sinners” like Paul, and those who say of themselves that “if any man say he hath no sin he is a liar, and the truth is not in him,” like John. Not the “righteous” but “sinners” Jesus came to save.
Remembering the pharisee and publican, shall we not say, then, that the trait of childhood here celebrated is, if not exactly innocence, at least humility? It was precisely humility that characterized the prayer of the publican and our Lord elsewhere commends humility as in some sense the primary Christian grace. “Blessed,” He says in that first beatitude, which we have already cited, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs—of them—is the Kingdom of heaven.” Is not this an express parallel to our present passage, saying in plain words what is here said in figure? When we read, then, that the Kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are childlike, and only he can enter it who receives it as a child—is not the very thing meant, that none but the humble-minded, the poor in spirit, can possess the Kingdom? Indeed, is not this very thing spoken out in so many words in a closely related previous incident when Jesus took a child and set it among His disciples, as they were disputing as to who should be greatest, and bade them to humble themselves and become as that little child if they would be great in the Kingdom of heaven—enforcing the lesson moreover with a declaration almost the same as that of the text: “Verily I say unto you, Except ye turn and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the Kingdom of heaven”? It certainly seems as if in that passage at least the humility of little children is just the thing signalized, and entrance into the Kingdom is hung on the possession of that specific virtue.
Even in that passage, however, it may be well to move warily. Is humility the special characteristic of childhood? To become like a child may certainly be an act of humility in one not a child, and it is very intelligible that our Lord should, therefore, tell those whom He was exhorting to become like a child that they can only do it by humbling themselves. But is that quite the same as saying that humility is the characteristic virtue of childhood, or that a humble spirit is the precedent condition of entering the Kingdom of heaven? We seem to be in danger of reading the passage too superficially. Our Lord tells His disciples that they cannot enter the Kingdom which He came to found except they turn and become like little children; and He tells them that they cannot become like little children except by humbling themselves, and, therefore, that when they were quarrelling about greatness they were not “turning and becoming like little children.” But He does not seem to tell them that humility of heart is the characterizing quality of childlikeness; in this statement it is rather the pathway over which we must tread to attain something else which is the characterizing quality of childlikeness. Childlikeness is one thing; that by which that state is attained is another.
Much less is humility suggested to us in our present passage as the constitutive fact of childlikeness. These babies that Jesus took into His arms, in what sense were they lowly minded, and the types of humility of soul? If they were like other children of their age, they were probably, so far as they showed moral characteristics at all, little egotists. There is no period of life so purely, sharply, unrelievedly egotistic as infancy; and there is, consequently, no period of life less adapted to stand as the typical form of that lowliness of mind which seeks another’s, not one’s own, good.
Others have gone further and I think done better, therefore, when they have suggested that it is the simplicity of childhood, its artlessness and ingenuousness, which is the trait which our Lord intends when He declares that the Kingdom of Heaven is made up “of such” as they, and that no one who does not receive that Kingdom like a child—that is, in childlike simplicity and ingenuousness—shall enter into it. Above everything else the mental life of a child is characterized, perhaps, by directness. It lacks the sinuosities, double motives, complications, of the adult intelligence. The child does not think of “serving two masters,” but gives itself altogether to one thing or the other, and possesses at least the single purpose if not always that precise singleness of eye which our Lord commends. We know what an encomium our Saviour passed on that singleness of eye because of which the whole body should be full of light; and what an echo of this teaching His apostles sound in the praise of that singleness of heart or simplicity of soul in which they make the Christian disposition to consist. May it not, then, be this lack of duplicity in thought and feeling, this clear simplicity of heart which results in singleness of devotion, that our Lord declares here to be characteristic of childhood and of those spiritual children who alone may be true disciples?
This is a very attractive idea; but attractive as the idea is, it seems a little artificial and not easily deducible from the passage itself. It might fit very well in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew—and, indeed, would give a far better sense there than the conception of humility; but it seems to be outside the scope of our present passage. These children were mere babies—and in what clear and outstanding sense are babies characterized by simplicity of heart and singleness of soul?
We feel, then, that a great step is taken when others step in and suggest that the particular trait which our Saviour has in mind when He declares that only the childlike can enter His Kingdom is the trustfulness of the child. Here we touch, indeed, what seems really the fundamental trait of the truly childish mind, that colors all its moral life, and constitutes, not merely its dominant but we might almost say, its entire disposition—implicit trustfulness. The age of childhood is, above everything else, the age of trust. Dependent upon its elders for everything, the whole nature of the child is keyed to trust; on trust it lives, and by means of trust it finds all its means of existence. Its virtues and its faults alike grow out of trust as its fundamental characteristic. There is no picture of perfect and simple and implicit trust discoverable in all the world comparable to the picture of the infant lying peacefully and serenely on its mother’s bosom. And we must remember that this is the spectacle that our Lord had before Him. The mothers were bringing their babies to Him to be blessed; He looked at them as they approached; and, observing the utter trustfulness of the attitude of the child reclining in the nest of its mother’s arms, He announced that here is the type of the Kingdom of God and of its children. In these trusting babies He saw the symbol of the citizens of His Kingdom. “Of such as these,” He declared, “is the Kingdom of God”; and then He added that no man who did not receive the Kingdom like one of these little trustful babies, could even enter it. Trust, simple, utter trust, that is the pathway to the Kingdom.
We cannot doubt that in thus directing its attention to the trustfulness of little children as their characteristic trait, the mind has been turned in the right direction for the proper understanding of our Lord’s declaration. But even yet, I think, we have scarcely reached the bottom fact. You will observe that all the suppositions hitherto made move in the subjective sphere. Dispositions of mind alone have been suggested; men have been seeking to discover the disposition of mind which is most characteristic of childhood; to which we may suppose, therefore, that our Saviour, referred, when He declared that His disciples must be like children if they would enter His Kingdom. But our passage says nothing of dispositions of mind; and why should we?
Why not seek an objective characteristic here? These babies, which Christ took in His arms—what dispositions of mind had they? We must now revert to the narrative, and observe with care that these children were, in point of fact, mere babies. Perhaps we have been thinking of them rather as well-grown children, and picturing them as standing around our Lord’s knees, giving Him eager, if wondering attention, as He spoke to them. Nothing of the kind. They were babies in arms, perhaps of only a few weeks or months old, perhaps of only a few days. They had no disposition of mind. Luke calls them distinctly infants, and speaks, therefore, of their being brought as remarkable: “They were bringing to Him even their babies.” And that is the reason why the disciples rebuked their parents for bringing them—mere babies who could get nothing from the Master. The same thing is less clearly but equally really suggested in the other narratives; we read that they were brought; that Jesus took them in His arms, and the like. We must think of them, then, as distinctively babies. What dispositions of soul were characteristic of them? Just none at all. They lay happy and thoughtless in their mother’s arms and in Jesus’ own arms. Their characteristic was just helpless dependence; complete dependence upon the care of those whose care for them was necessary. And it would seem that it is just this objective helpless dependence which is the point of comparison between them and the children of the Kingdom.
What our Lord would seem to say, then, when He says: “Of such is the Kingdom of heaven,” is that the Kingdom of heaven is made up of those who are helplessly dependent on the King of the Heavens. And when He adds that only those who “receive” the Kingdom like a child can enter into it He seems to mean that the children of the Kingdom come into it like children of the world into the world—naked and stripped of everything, infants who are to be done for, who can not do for themselves. There is every indication of this as our Lord’s meaning. Among others we note that the record of the incident is followed immediately in all three Gospels by the record of the incident of the rich young man—which goes on, you see, to illustrate the same idea. For what was the trouble with the rich young man? Just this: that he could not divest himself of everything and come into the Kingdom naked. “He had great possessions.” “How hard, children,”—this “children” is possibly a reminiscence of His demand that they should be “like children”—“children, how hard it is for a rich man—or for anyone—to enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Into this Kingdom we can enter only as poor and naked and helpless as children enter the world. That we have nothing is the condition that we may have all things. Perhaps it may not be too much even to say that what the passage teaches is that we enter the Kingdom of heaven as we enter the world only by a birth—a birth which comes to us—which we do not secure. In that case we have a parallel passage in the third chapter of John which is one of the very few passages in John where the term “Kingdom of God” occurs.
The upshot of it all is, then, this: that the Kingdom of God is not taken—acquired—laid hold of; it is just “received.” It comes to men, men do not come to it. And when it comes to men, they merely “receive” it, “as”—“like”—“a little child.” That is to say, they bring nothing to it and have nothing to recommend them to it except their helplessness. They depend wholly on the King. Only they who so receive it can enter it; no disposition or act of their own commends them to it. Accordingly the Kingdom of God is “of such as little children.” The helpless babe on the mother’s breast, then, now we can say it with new meaning, is the true type of the Christian in his relation to God. It is of the very essence of salvation that it is supernatural. It is purely a gift, a gift of God’s; and they who receive it must receive it purely as a gift. He who will not humble himself and enter it as a little child enters the world, in utter nakedness and complete dependence, shall never see it.
Benjamin B. Warfield, Faith and Life (Bellingham, WA: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1916), 65–80. This work is in the Public Domain. Photo: Robert Davis / Cambridge Brevier Revised Version (1881/1885) with Verses