I Must Enter the Kingdom of God
When pressed some people say they don’t believe in Jesus Christ because of the church. They look at the church and they’re not impressed by what they see. "It’s full of hypocrites" they say and go on to add that there are plenty of folk who are just as good outside the church. Then they go on to point all those scandals, cover-ups and other shenanigans that we hear about all too often.
And of course in one sense they are quite right... and yet at the same time they are profoundly wrong.
Let me tell you what I mean.
No genuine Christian would ever want to pretend that the church is made up of fundamentally good people – it isn’t, and for a very good reason. The message of the gospel contains the sober diagnosis that we are all, every one of us, flawed human beings. That flaw is given a name in the Bible – it is sin and sin is always and primarily rebellion against God.
But that is not the end of the Christian message – the good news is that Jesus came into the world to save such people. In fact the only kind of people Jesus could save were (and are) sinners – there simply aren’t any others! The true church is made up of people who are being saved by Jesus and these folk are only too aware of their own failures to pretend otherwise.
So, yes, the church is made up of people who are affected by hypocrisy but also of every other kind of sin you might care to think of. But you would be wrong to be surprised by that fact – after all what did you expect to see? Further you would be completely wrong to draw from that fact a reason to reject Jesus – it is rather testimony to the fact that he is doing what he came to do!
If you think that the church is all about moral improvement and the attaining of certain standards, then, my friend, you simply haven’t yet begun to understand the real message of the good news that is Jesus Christ!
Church is not a club for the religiously self-satisfied but is much more like a field-hospital functioning on the battlefield of life. Just as you would expect to find sick people in the QEQM so you expect to find recovering sinners in the church. Yes, the sinner is now recovering because Jesus has begun his work in the Christian’s life. The work of transformation has started but it is a transformation that will not be fully completed in this life.
Now, why, you may ask, am I spelling this out this morning?
The reason is simple – I don’t want you looking in the wrong direction! You’ll find plenty of failures in the lives of Christians but that is no reason to reject the Saviour – you need him because you too have failed before God.
The passage before us this morning contains an example of serious Christian failure, we’ll come to it in a moment, but before we do I want you to know that Jesus did not endorse failure but rebuked it. He went on to use the failure of his own disciples as an opportunity to patiently explain more about the Kingdom of God.
Let’s now look together at just what was going on that particular day.
At least that is how the disciples thought about it all. Jesus had been actively engaged in teaching. He had recently been teaching his disciples but also the religious leaders of the Jewish nation. Now these Jewish leaders were in the main hostile towards Jesus but they were important people weren’t they? Surely, his followers thought, if Jesus wants to continue to progress with his ministry he must focus on winning the important people!
How tempting this line of argument has been down through the years! In one way or another it has dogged the church through the centuries. James in his letter warned the church not to show preferential treatment to those in society who were wealthy. In our day it is not only the wealthy who have influence but the celebrities and how we can get excited about some famous person saying positive things about Jesus. Or again, youth can be so singled out with such language as "the future of the church" that other groups are treated as unimportant. Some missions have deliberately targeted the leaders and shakers of society believing that these are the important ones leaving to one side social misfits whose conversion they think might be a hindrance to the conversion of others!
And then that day the disciples were suddenly confronted with a long line of just the kind of unimportant people they didn’t want to see!
Jesus’ fame had spread and mothers came to him bringing their babies with them. Yes, they were right: they wanted Jesus to touch their kids and so impart to them a blessing – would that more mothers would do that in our own day!
But where there are babies there is distraction and noise and short attention spans. I’ve seen it from this pulpit: a new baby is in the congregation and it gurgles and I’ve last at least half of you as your heads turn and smiles cover your faces.
So what is the answer?
The disciples thought they knew: these mothers should be rebuked and told not to disturb the Master who was too busy and focused on other things.
How wrong they were!
It was a tragedy really wasn’t it? They had by now walked with Jesus on a daily basis for some years and how little they knew him and understood what he was about. Didn’t they know? Hadn’t they realised that Jesus was interested in the little people as well as the big ones? He was interested in the respectable and in the outcast? He was interested in the rich and famous but also with the poor and needy. He did not feel put upon by these mothers bringing their noisy kids to him – he welcomed them and his rebuke was not for those who brought them but for those who would hinder them from coming!
The disciples made a mess of things and conveyed a misleading impression to others as they tried to protect Jesus but Jesus did not welcome such protection. He had come into the world to save sinners and he was interested in both the weak and the strong, the poor and the rich, the unimportant and the important, members of society. My friends it means that you can come to Jesus and know that he will be interested in you.
"To such belong the kingdom of God"
To the disciples the babies were an inconvenience but not to Jesus – he saw them in a completely different light. And so he would not allow his followers to stop the children being brought to him and he went on to give them a reason why before proceeding to elaborate upon it.
vv.16-17 "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."
Jesus wanted to impart a blessing to the children who were being brought to him by their mothers and he used this occasion of imparting blessing to speak of the blessing of intense involvement in the Kingdom of God.
These are the salient facts that Jesus wanted his disciples to learn:
To belong to the Kingdom of God is a good thing
But not all do belong, it is essential to enter the Kingdom
What is involved if a person is to enter the Kingdom
Let us look more closely at this.
Firstly, the assumption that underlies Jesus thinking at this point is that the Kingdom of God and belonging to it is a good thing. This might sound obvious and indeed Jesus did not bother here to openly declare it to was so – after all folk were pressing in around him looking for blessing, a blessing which he did refer to as belonging and/or entering the Kingdom of God.
It is however important for us to understand this for ourselves. Is that how you think about belonging to the Kingdom of God? If you don’t think that to belong to this kingdom is important and precious beyond measure you won’t make much of a priority of entering it. If, however, you do begin to understand of the privilege, worth and value of it then you will give yourself no rest until you are sure that you have a personal interest in this Kingdom.
Secondly, not everyone does belong to this Kingdom. This cuts across what the man-in-the street naturally wants to believe. The ungodly, who show no interest in the things of God while they live, nevertheless want to consider it their inalienable right to enter heaven when they die. Though they take no pleasure in God while they live they want to believe on the other hand that he will take pleasure in them and reward their self-centredness with access to his Kingdom. And yet this is one more passage where Jesus makes it clear that such thinking is quite simply wrong and he does it three ways in the space of just a few lines:
v.16 "to such belongs the Kingdom of God" strongly implies that this is a particular group and that others exist who simply "do not belong" in the same way.
v.17a "whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God" speaks of those who deliberately for whatever reason reject the offers of God’s grace.
v.17b "shall not enter it" This indicates that no-one is automatically a member of this Kingdom – the door to this Kingdom currently stands open but we must go through this door and enter or else we will be forever excluded.
Thirdly, if it is true that belonging to this Kingdom is so obviously a good thing and if it is also true that we are naturally members of it the question any sane person would want to pose is: "How can I enter this Kingdom?"
Perhaps the first thing we should remind ourselves of is the fact that it is not easy to enter this Kingdom and for this reason. The Kingdom of God, where the reign and rule of God are paramount, is a no place for an easy compromise with sin. As God is light so his Kingdom is characterised by a holy otherness that allows no corner for the darkness of sinful lives. If we, who are naturally sinners and not light, are to enter this matter of sin must be dealt with. This is not something that we can do for ourselves but must be done for us – the good news is that Jesus has done all that is necessary!!
This aspect is well illustrated for us in this incident in that the mothers brought their children "to Jesus". It highlights that the way into the Kingdom is through Jesus and through Jesus alone. Each of us must be brought to Jesus – it is not a question of our parents bringing us or a friend bringing us but we must be brought nonetheless.
Who then is it who might bring us?
Jesus himself has given us the answer:
Jn.6:44 "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him."
Has he brought you? And have you responded to God’s gracious dealings with you? We are not to sit back and imagine that we have no responsibility here for Jesus went on to speak to his disciples of the manner in which we respond to him:
v.17 "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."
In some way then Jesus was urging his followers to be childlike – but just what did he mean by this? When we think about little children and their ways while we might be amused by their antics we are not impressed by everything we see. In fact in English we have two different words one to express what might be considered negative and another what is positive:
to describe a person as childish or of acting in a childish way is largely negative and you wouldn’t appreciate being told that your behaviour was childish. Childish behaviour would be that kind of silly, foolish or immature behaviour that you hope your own children would grow out of.
to describe a person as childlike is not the same thing at all as we use this word to refer to more positive aspects of a young child’s life. Childlike behaviour would typically include trust, simplicity and a certain unfeigned straightforwardness.
A young child is typically:
When it comes to spiritual matters it is important for us to come to realise that we are just like that too! The child will happily rely on the help of others and will readily trust his/her parents to supply all the good things that are needed. The young child feels no shame in a lack of knowledge and rather than pretend he/she knows everything will rather ask those interminable questions.
The young child isn’t worried about where he/she is going as long as Mum or Dad are there he/she is happy as they know what they’re doing and so can be trusted (this even in cases where the parents haven’t the foggiest idea of quite where they are or what they should do next!)
And this is what Jesus means when he commends child-likeness to the would-be disciple.
Do you want to enter the Kingdom of God? Then you must realise that as you stand you are vulnerable. You must recognise that your own strength and ability is far too limited to deliver you. And you must simply trust Jesus, humbly receiving what you need.
You don’t go about pretending that things aren’t as bad as all that and neither do you puff yourself up and strut around as though you are able to meet whatever requirements God might put before you. You don’t adopt the attitude that you don’t need any help but you gladly embrace the help he offers.
That’s how the Kingdom comes to belong to you! That’s how you enter the Kingdom of God!
A child doesn’t know it all, doesn’t understand it all, and you don’t need to either. But the child asks questions wanting answers and you should too. You should want to know what it is that God has done in Jesus Christ for sinners like you – but you don’t wait until you know it all. If you were to wait that long you’ll never come and when the end comes you simply won’t be ready.
So come to Christ and if you find that difficult then pray to the Father to lead you until you are sure that he has!
Growing from childish to childlike faith
Now when a person becomes a Christian his/her faith will be a basic and simple faith. While it is fine to begin the Christian life with this sort of basic knowledge it is not worthy of a Christian to remain at that level – we need to grow, all of us, and we must be careful not to allow childish attitudes and thoughts to dominate our Christian lives.
Typically a childish faith is self-centred and demanding. Such a faith expects God to shield us from all difficulties and to make life comfortable for us. It will cling to vainly to a series of misconceptions which may include any or all of the following:
Good Christians don’t have pain and disappointments.
God wants to make us happy.
God always answers prayers.
Faith will help us to always understand what God is doing.
Good Christians are always strong.
Such views are widespread but do not reflect a mature understanding of how God deals with his people. It is all too easy to embrace such ideas because there is something in us that simply wants it all to be true.
By way of contrast, childlike faith focuses on God and trusts Him to use even difficulties for our good and His glory. Childlike faith, the kind of faith that Jesus commends, will view life from a very different perspective:
God uses our pain and disappointment to make us better Christians.
God wants to make us holy.
Sometimes He answers with "No" or "Wait."
Faith will help us to stand under God’s sovereignty even when we don’t have a clue about what God is doing.
Our strength is in admitting our weakness.
A Final Word
Before we leave this particular portion of Scripture let us take seriously what Jesus says about not hindering others, particularly the weak and seemingly unimportant people from coming to Jesus.
How might we hinder such folk? We won’t, I hope, tell them not to come and hear the gospel! But are we living our lives, those who of us who consider ourselves to be disciples of the Lord Jesus, in the way he would have us live? Are we living unashamedly for God and his honour? Are we showing love to our fellow believers? That is are we serving their best interests because God has done so much for us? To the extent that we fall short in these areas we hide the wonders of God’s love and others looking in might be tempted to think that Christianity is not really that great because of the poor quality of our lives.
Let us not see efforts to bring others to Jesus as an inconvenience or a disturbance but rather be glad every time a new person comes to hear the good news.
May God bless his word to us all today.