Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Becoming Like Little Children

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

Matthew 19:13-15, TNIV

Many preachers I know tend to ignore these verses. Possibly that is because they do not see many resemblances between themselves - rushed off their feet, always trying to stir others into action, wanting to see God's church grow – and little children. And these really are very little. The word used - paidion - really means “infant”, but can be used of bigger dependent children. Here, they are brought to Jesus, which suggests they aren't really mobile yet. In a description of the same event, Luke uses the word brephos which clearly means “baby”.

Probably the majority of sermons I have heard on these verses (and on the parallel passages – Mark 10:13-16 and Luke 18:15-17) tend to focus not on what Jesus meant when he said this, but on what the preacher would have meant if they had said it. So they look at what babies mean to them, and from that examine what it means to receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child. (It's pretty much the same as happens when they speak about people being the salt of the earth – they don't look at what salt means in the Bible and what it would have meant to the hearers; they just think about what it means to them or used to mean to people 500 years ago. Incidentally, salt in the Bible tends to either represent the covenant or be about God bringing judgement.)

Some people do a good job at looking at the context, particularly in Mark and Luke, and get the idea that it's about holding onto God and not seeking to get into heaven on the basis of what we do. And that's certainly true, but I think we can do better.

So what did Jesus mean?

We get a very big hint because Matthew 19:13-15 isn't the first time Matthew has mentioned little children. A chapter earlier, we get this...

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

He called a little child, whom he placed among them. And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place — becoming like this child — is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

"If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea..."

Matthew 18:1-6, TNIV

Jesus uses talking about little children as a springboard for discussing “kingdom ethics”. But what he says first is that we need to repent and become like children, and that what matters specifically is humbling oneself like the child. Now I don't tend to think of children as especially humble. I certainly wasn't especially humble as a child. But in a culture where children had a lower status, it means more. Specifically, I think what Jesus is talking about here is becoming like a child in terms of rejection of status, and rejection of trusting in ourselves.

We see that in the way that the becoming like a child stories in Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 18 are all linked to the Rich Young Ruler, whose problem was that he was holding onto his wealth and his status. Jesus applies the need to become like a little child by telling the rich young man that he needed to give all his money away. That was what it meant for him.

Strikingly, and this was what got me thinking about this question originally, we see the same sort of thing in Psalm 131.

My heart is not proud, O LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.

Psalm 131, TNIV

Once again, the being like a child (this is a different word, specifically to do with being weaned) is connected to humility. But also to contentment. The weaned child is calm, and does not have any ambitions beyond being with its mother. Likewise, becoming like a child for us means rejection of ambitions, rejection of status, and simply being content to be with God. And actually, isn't that what Jesus did? He laid down all of his status, to the point of dying on a cross, and was content merely to do his Father's will.

Sadly, with the busyness of life, that is a place that many preachers find it hard to be. We have too many ambitions and plans, even if they are ambitions for God's church, and not enough contentment and becoming like little children.

I suggest reading through Psalm 131 slowly a few times, and praying through it, as a good start to a remedy.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Experiencing God

We hold that an experimental [i.e. experiential] knowledge of Christ crucified and interceding, is the very essence of Christianity.


We hold that, as an inward work of the Holy Ghost is a necessary thing to a man's salvation, so also it is a thing that must be inwardly felt... there can be no real conversion to God, no new creation in Christ, no new birth of the Spirit, where there is nothing felt and experienced within.

J.C. Ryle, quoted in Faithfulness and Holiness by J.I. Packer, p.32

I find this very interesting. Of course, I agree with him. And so did George Whitefield.

But every Christian must be an Enthusiast! That is, he must be inspired by God, or have God in him. Had I mind to hinder the progress of the Gospel and to establish the kingdom of darkness, I would go about telling people they might have the Spirit of God and yet not feel it.

George Whitefield, quoted in Pollock's biography of him, p.86

But when did what is now called conservative evangelicalism stop having this stress on the importance of a personal experience of God? So often we look back to great men of God like Ryle and Whitefield and forget that in many respects they were quite a bit more charismatic (in today's terms) than many of those who now look back to them as spiritual ancestors. Was it simply an over-reaction against some of the excesses of early Pentecostalism that drove so much of contemporary evangelicalism into such an unemotional state?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

J.C.Ryle - feeling things

To suppose that people do not feel things because they do not scream and yell and fill the air with their cries, is simple nonsense.


To feel trouble deeply and yet submit to it patiently is what is required of a Christian.

J.C. Ryle, quoted in Faithfulness and Holiness by J.I.Packer, p.24, 26

Monday, July 06, 2009

Answering Richard Dawkins?

Some years ago, there was a group of men called the Jesus Seminar. They didn't believe that what the Bible said was true, and they were trying to work out what Jesus actually said. They did so using a rather strange method. They tried looking at what the Bible said that Jesus said, and getting rid of everything that might have been said by the Judaism of the time or by the early Church. Since Jesus was a Jew of the time, and the early Church came into existence largely as a result of what he said and did, those criteria are going to give an awful lot of false negatives. In addition, they wanted it to be in more than one source, but if the gospels were too similar they didn't count them, which is more bad criteria. Using their criteria, what you get out even a sceptical non-Christian historian would pretty much have to admit that Jesus said. But there are a lot of things that Jesus pretty certainly said that they will miss out. But anyway...

As I remember it, they ended up concluding that there was one thing that Jesus absolutely definitely said, which was so different from anything other people were saying, and it's something that we still ignore pretty spectacularly. It was this: "love your enemies".

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.
Luke 6:32-35, TNIV

All too often, we just don't do it. We love people who are like us or people who are nice to us. If people aren't nice to us, we try to be polite back and sometimes pray for them or something. But we don't really love them.

Let's take a clear example. Richard Dawkins. I lived round the corner from him for three years, and the extent of my love for him was not running him over in my car when he was cycling. That's polite, but not exactly what I'd call really loving.

The way that most Christians respond to Richard Dawkins usually seems to be taking one of the following options:

  • Ignoring him and hoping he'll go away
  • Finding a Christian who knows a bit about science to do a talk
  • Writing a badly thought through response
  • Finding someone who really has read Richard Dawkins and engaged with him to do a talk or write a book
  • Finding someone to do a public debate with Richard Dawkins
  • Praying for Richard Dawkins to become a Christian

I don't think any of those should be our first course of action. Some of them are helpful and useful, and some good books have been written on Dawkins. I think our first course of action should be to love him. I sincerely hope there are Christian organisations and churches and individuals who send him a Christmas hamper or something. Not because they want him to pay attention to them, but because they love him.

The way that things should work (e.g. in 1 Peter 3) is this:

  • People attack Christians
  • We respond by loving them
  • People ask us about what we believe
  • We tell them about Jesus

Pritchard - Real Life

Without God we cannot live; we can only take a longer or shorter time to die.
John Pritchard, The Life and Work of a Priest, p.28

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Sorry for the lack of posts at the moment. I've moved house and don't currently have internet access. This should hopefully change before too long!