The Bible is full of stories about children, which shows us how important they are to God. Elaine Storkey believes the way Jesus interacted with children gives us a blueprint to follow today too
Study passages: Matthew 18:1-6, Mark 10:15-16
If we wanted to find out more about childhood we could go to psychologists or family care workers who have often spent a lifetime studying and thinking about children. Or we might go to children’s fiction authors or animators to find out more about childhood. For most people, delving into the biblical authors to get to know children better would not be high on their list. And yet, although the scriptures were almost certainly written predominantly for adult readers, they speak often and clearly into the subject of childhood.
Stories of children in the Bible
This certainly comes out in its stories of individual children, particularly in the Hebrew scriptures. We can cite the example of Ishmael who was banished with his mother into the wilderness, and was rescued from starvation and death by God (Genesis 21:8-21). Or Isaac, who would have been sacrificed, if God hadn’t intervened (Genesis 22:1-18).
Then there is Rebekah who offered hospitality to travellers (Genesis 24), Dinah who went to visit girlfriends and was raped (Genesis 34), Joseph who shared his dreams with his brothers and was sold into slavery (Genesis 37), Moses, who was hidden in a crib in the bull rushes for his safety and his sister, Miriam, who was sent to watch over her baby brother (Exodus 2:1-10).
Jesus wants us to recognise our responsibility to protect children
Some children received a call from God at a young age, like Samuel (1 Samuel 3). Young David killed the giant Goliath with a stone from his catapult (1 Samuel 17) and went on to become king. Later, the elderly King David was looked after by Abishag, who was still a child (1 Kings 1:1-4).
Although the distinction between children and young adults was not drawn definitively in the various biblical periods, from the perspective of our age these would all have been children. And their stories in the biblical text often serve to identify the responsibilities God gives to children, while leaving us in little doubt about their vulnerability.
In the New Testament we don’t encounter children much by name, but their significance is made very clear to us. They have a very special place in the Gospels, where we meet them largely in relation to Jesus. Unlike so many teachers, Jesus went out of his way to welcome children (Matthew 19:13-14, Luke 18:15-17). He blessed them (Mark 10:13-16), healed them (Matthew 15:21-28, John 4:43-54) and even raised some of them from the dead (Mark 5:21-43, Luke 7:11-17).
Observations on children continue into the early Church when we discover that Philip’s four daughters were prophets (Acts 21:9). And who can forget the story of Eutychus, a drowsy adolescent attending a Christian meeting who dropped asleep and fell down from a high building? His life would have been cut very short without Paul’s intervention in the name of Jesus (Acts 20:7-12).
What Jesus taught about childhood
In the light of all we have seen, it should come as no surprise to find passages where Jesus taught about childhood and also put his own teaching into action in the way he related to children. In Matthew 18:1-6, he answered an innocent-sounding question from his disciples about who was greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He called a little child over, placed them in the middle of his disciples and used the child as a role model. The answer the disciples got was that unless we change and become like little children we will never even enter the kingdom of heaven.
These extraordinary words provide important teaching both on children and on the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was not describing some place we go to after death. He was pointing to God’s kingdom, which exists here and now within our earthly kingdoms yet which operates with completely different values and understandings. It counters idolatry, urging us never to worship something in creation rather than God.
It encourages us to forgive our enemies. It puts principles of love, compassion, justice and righteousness into practice. But what is it about children that we need to emulate if we are to be its citizens?
The characteristics of childhood suddenly become crucial. Jesus pinpointed their ‘lowly’ position. Children, by and large, are not self-important (even less so at the time Matthew was writing). They are not fixated on status. They are young creatures in whom Jesus saw trust, faith, teachability, dependence, directness and vulnerability. All of these characteristics of childhood are ones we can learn from.
Jesus made two other very important points. We are to welcome children. That means we are to make time for them, and give them priority and care. We are to engage with them, accept their lack of maturation, and not be impatient for them to grow up.
Jesus also wanted us to recognise our responsibility to protect children. Children are vulnerable. And his words of warning in Matthew’s Gospel are among the most chilling in the New Testament: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (v6).
So much can be read into that word ‘stumble’. It can refer to people who violate children, or bring them harm, causing them to doubt whether they have a heavenly Father who loves them. Jesus was clear. God’s judgement on this is so terrifying that if a horrible death could avoid the sin, that would be preferable.
What does this mean to us today?
Today, many study what children think, believe or feel that they need. The results of a lot of research point to a gap in real guidance about inter-generational communication, and a rise in anxiety amongst the young.
Very often adults are urged to indulge children, to fill their lives with material clutter to keep them amused. And children are encouraged – through advertising and peer pressure – to really, really want something just because most other people their age have it.
This intensity of ‘wanting’ taps into a human tendency where people look to other people to find out what things have value. It’s bolstered in our consumer society by a combination of psychology and marketing, as producers no longer simply sell products, but fads, feelings, values, emotions and even identity.
The calling to nurture children is one of the most demanding callings of our age
At the same time our culture makes it harder for parents to spend time helping their children not to be swayed by the opinions of others and combat the shadow side of a media-dominated society. Current exposure to social media, grooming, bullying and abuse all highlight the need for careful safeguarding and protection. And for good reason.
The much-publicised teenage suicides of children from loving, caring families send shockwaves through the culture, leaving unbearable pain behind. And those of us who have worked with people who’ve known abuse, betrayal or neglect in their childhood, rather than love, recognise what a terrible legacy that can leave.
So Jesus’ words and actions cut into the turmoil of our culture and offer us a way forward that is so different. We are to welcome children, to bless them, to spend time with them, to hear them, engage with their concerns and listen to their hearts. We are to protect children from all the fads and values that would drag them into obsession and bondage as well as from predatory behaviour and violation of boundaries.
We are to help them to understand the forces they are up against: the principalities and powers that the New Testament warns us of when it offers the Holy Spirit as our guide. We are to pray for children to believe in the God who loves them and delights in their child-like qualities. We are to help them let go of fear and trust God for the future.
The calling to nurture children is one of the most demanding callings of our age, whether faced by parents and family members or friends and church communities. But it’s vital. A child nurtured in the love of God will be our best gift to the generations to come.