Perhaps the best example of an upside-down kingdom is how Jesus treated children.
When Jesus walked the earth, childhood wasn’t considered a special stage of life and wasn’t really valued. In fact, childhood was, to all intents and purposes, nothing more than a training ground for adult life. This low view of children was based on the notion that children were weak-minded, unreliable, and in need of strict discipline (e.g. Proverbs 22:15).
While children had a low status in society, they were nonetheless appreciated. Jewish adults believed children were a gift from God and a sign of His blessing (e.g. Psalm 127:3-5). They, therefore, valued the education of children and taught them to obey God’s commands, decrees, and laws (e.g. Deuteronomy 6:1-9).
It’s against this complex background of negative and positive views about children that we come to the story of the little children and Jesus:
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. Mark 10:13-16 (NIV).
What an extraordinary passage of Scripture! Imagine the sense of incredulity and consternation as the adults grappled with the notion that children, the lowest and most powerless members of society, are kingdom models for adults.Children, the lowest and most powerless members of society, are kingdom models for adults. Click To Tweet
Children as kingdom models for adults? For the Jews, it was an upside-down view because it flew in the face of following the Law as the sole basis for entrance into the kingdom of God. Yet herein lies grace personified – it’s not the Law that enables people to receive the kingdom of God, its dependence on God that’s marked by humble trust, i.e. childlike reliance.
Humility is the focus of Matthew’s telling of the story of a little child (cf. Matthew 18:1-5). Matthew’s context was the disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ response challenges the status of adults. In a great reversal, He redefines loving and serving children (a low-status activity) as a mark of greatness.
Receiving the kingdom of God as little children is an age-old struggle. Like the Jews, we don’t tend to jive with Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.
Look at how we invite people to enter into the kingdom of God. Usually, the formula is focused on the message of the cross, confession, repentance, and faith. Yet in a culture that values prestige, power, and possessions, we shy away from telling people to forfeit their rights, take the lowly status of a child, and in simple dependence on God’s favour, enter His kingdom.It's often the undistinguished people who care for children, while the important people in the church have limited contact with them. Click To Tweet
In addition, look at who welcomes and works with children in the local church. Undistinguished people often undertake the care of children. Yet the pastors and elders, those who some people would consider the important people in the church, often have limited contact with the children.
Finally, consider the ways we sometimes hinder children from coming to Jesus. Notice how children have little to no say in what happens in the local church; how the main weekly service of the local church is geared primarily toward adults; and how children are rarely invited to be co-labourers with adults in ministry.
Sadly, it isn’t just Jesus’ disciples who don’t understand the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God. If we’re going to enter the kingdom we must recognize that when Jesus took a little child in His arms, it was an example for all of us. So let’s make sure we’re never a barrier to children coming to Jesus. And let’s look for practical ways to “change and become like little children” Matthew 18:3.
© Scripture Union, 2019