When Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all" (NASB), what did He mean?
In the quest to make the preaching of the Gospel as effective as possible, many of us have forgotten that making the preaching effective is not our job! God has ordained that men will be saved by the foolishness of preaching (1 Corinthians 1:21). God has also ordained that men should use their spiritual gifts in the service of the Gospel with a careful eye upon faithful stewardship (1 Peter 4:10). God is pleased when His children sacrifice in order to hone their skills in the exercise of their gifts (2 Timothy 2:15). But, God has never committed the results of the efforts of men in His service to those men in His service (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)! However, many men are not content with this arrangement.
In our discontent, we often run in two different directions. Some of us, desiring to make the Gospel evangelistically fruitful, go to great lengths to make the Gospel as easy to believe as possible with as appealing a basis as possible. This has led to a kind of Gospel message that doesn't ask the hearer to make any kind of difficult choice -- all we have to do is receive this absolutely phenomenal gift of eternal life! God wants to give us eternal life and all He asks of us is that we reach out our hand and take it. It's much like a free pass through the pearly gates. You want one? You can have one if you just receive it.
Others of us, desiring to see the Gospel produce a greater harvest of godliness in its followers, have gone to great lengths to attempt to maintain a grace message that, nonetheless, has quite insistent demands attached to it -- God is perfectly willing to give us eternal life if we are willing to permit Him to invade our lives and change them to suit Him. God wants to change us and is willing to open His arms to us regardless of what we have done or what we are currently like as long as we are willing to permit this supernatural invasion of our being. Do you want to be changed? God will do it if you will simply permit Him to give you the gift of eternal life. It's much like a chromosome-ladened sperm looking for a willing egg to fertilize with its chromosomal load so that changes are a part of the initial understanding.
Yet others of us seem to want to present a Gospel that is much like a computer worm. It has a fundamentally appealing offer, but if you respond to it, you find yourself blindsided afterwards by complications and difficulties that you never dreamed were involved.
What, then, is the truth of the Gospel?
How shall we decide?
First, we will have to decide whether we are willing to do our job and let God do His. This issue is a part of the source of the different Gospels that are available today. We need to return to the understanding that our job is to present the message as faithfully as possible. What God chooses to do with our efforts is up to Him.
Second, we will have to intensify our efforts to answer the question of just what the message of God to man is. The only way to discover the answer to this question is to allow God to address us with His words according to His terms.
In doing this, there is one further introductory issue that we must face. If the Gospel is, after all is said and done, a message of changes (and how can it not be when the very least idea -- eternal life is simply a pass to get us through the pearly gates -- yet changes us in two indisputable ways? [we now carry a ticket we did not carry before, and we are now headed through gates that were locked to us before]), are those changes from the outside in (so that God begins chipping away at us from the outside until He finally gets to our core and we finally conform to the image He seeks to create) or are those changes from the inside out (so that God deposits something deep within us that gradually alters what we are until we finally conform to the image that He seeks to create)? This is the question of what the theological pre-conditions are to the offer of the Gospel.
I am convinced that when we attempt to answer these questions we will have to consider what Jesus meant in Mark 10:15. I am also convinced that we will give an answer to this question out of one of two fundamental sources. Our answer will either have its roots in a desire to enjoy the experience of our existence in independence from God, or it will have its roots in a desire to enjoy the experience of our existence in union with God. The bottom line in both of these roots is the goal of enjoying our existence. I've never observed anyone in any situation who did not give the distinct impression that joy was what they really wanted. The qualifiers, in independence from God and in union with God, are theologically necessary fundamentals because these are the two methodological issues of the Bible. To attempt to establish or maintain independence from God is the methodological essence of sin and death. To attempt to establish or maintain union with God is the methodological essence of life. There doesn't appear to be a third option -- a kind of independent union, or sinful fellowship. This translates into either a rather fundamental desire to escape the consequences of sin (to enjoy our existence) without being required to submit to any substantial changes in either our attitudes or our actions (so we can remain independent from God), or a desire to be a participant in the life of God (to enjoy our existence) regardless of what that takes (so we take seriously whatever is laid out in order to maintain union with God).
I am also convinced that our answer will either come out of Jesus' words, or it will come out of a twist which we give Jesus' words that allows us to plug them into the desires referred to above.
It seems to be a fact of life that we all "understand" things according to a rather fundamental set of objectives. When I refer to a set of objectives, I mean that there seems to be a rather complicated hierarchy of values within us that we hold dear. If you will bear with me for a few lines, I will try to clarify what I am trying to say. Everyone loves something, and everyone loves many things. There is, in everyone of us, a fundamental, controlling, value: a basic objective that, in harmony with the most tenaciously held beliefs about methods, makes us what we are and makes our lives what they are. This is a composite of our ultimate priority and the beliefs which most closely surround it. Being an ultimate priority, it does not have but one identity. I have called this ultimate priority joy. But there are also in all of us many other values -- things we hold dear. These other values are servants of the ultimate priority. In order to fix this in your mind, I have drawn a series of circles for purposes of illustration. The solid black circle is the core, the outer circles are the other values.
The center circle represents the ultimate priority. All of the other circles represent lesser priorities that serve one another and, ultimately, serve the central priority. For example purposes only, let's put a name to the central circle: the pleasure of eating rocky road ice cream. Let's say that this is what we live for (I know it's ridiculous, but it serves as an illustration).
Now, let's put a name to the circle that is immediately around that core circle: having a generous helping of rocky road ice cream in a bowl. This is necessary if we are to be able to achieve our ultimate objective -- enjoying the pleasure of eating it! And let's put a name to the third circle as we work our way out from the center: having a bowl and a spoon from which to eat rocky road ice cream (this is not crucial -- one can eat with one's fingers out of the container which holds the ice cream -- but it serves our illustration). Now, the fourth circle: having a five quart container of rocky road ice cream (this is how we are going to get the generous helping that we have placed as a value in the second circle). And the fifth circle: having a refrigerator with a freezer compartment for the preservation of the ice cream until we can get around to eating it. Then the sixth circle: having money enough to pay the electric bill so that the freezer will keep the ice cream frozen until we can get to the pleasure of eating it. Now the seventh circle: having the skill-set to be able to rob a bank without getting caught so that we can get the money to pay the electric bill. Then the eighth circle: having the motivation to get out of bed in the morning so we can go out and rob the bank so we can pay the bill so we can keep the ice cream frozen until we can put it into our bowl and eat it with our spoon. Etc. I'm sure that, by now, you see what I am driving toward: all of us have a central priority and every other priority that achieves value in our thinking only gets to its relative place of value as we believe it serves this ultimate priority.
Now, with the word believe I have introduced a second, highly-complicated issue. Servant-priorities, as opposed to the ultimate priority, are generally the result of what we think will work in our pursuit of the ultimate priority. In our example above, let's say that a person doesn't believe that one can rob banks and not get caught. That unbelief will eliminate the seventh circle's focus on robbing banks and replace it with a method that is believed will work...say, begging on the street corner. At any rate, there is a pretty complex interaction between faith and secondary priorities (what I have called servant-priorities). The point I want to make is that the ultimate priority is not a faith-based choice as all other values seem to be. It is the ultimate objective. Lesser objectives invariably involve our minds and what we believe, but the ultimate objective is simply what we want the most.
With a little thought, you can see that I have actually skipped several circles within the circles because the illustration was getting out of hand. For example, I skipped all of the circles that had to do with a mode of transportation to get to the bank that was to be robbed and back home. I also skipped all of the circles that would have been involved with obtaining the skill set to rob the bank without getting caught. And I skipped many other sets of circles also. I may have even gotten the circles out of order. If you want to, you can re-order them and fill them in at your leisure! But the point, I hope, has been illustrated and made: all of us have something at our core that drives everything else about us. And, this core, or one of the servant-circles, will always govern how we "understand" things. We will accept instruction on how to rob banks without getting caught -- because we want to eat our ice cream! But, we will reject instruction on how to block the production of rocky road ice cream -- because we don't want that production blocked! By the same token, we will accept instruction on how to travel from banks to our refrigerator -- because we want to be able to do that. But, we will not accept instruction on how to refrain from developing the mindset of a thief -- because we have already committed ourselves to using robbery as the way to get the ice cream. And so it goes.
Now, what has this all to do with Mark 10:15?
This: Mark 10:15 are words that Jesus uttered that address, not the ultimate priority (joy as the characteristic experience of those who enter the Kingdom of God), but one of the methodological priorities that is closest to it (the particular necessity for entrance into that joyful experience). In other words, Jesus is not addressing the ultimate objective, but the primary methodological objective...a faith issue. However we are already predisposed to deal with it in one way or another. There are some of us who do not care that Jesus uttered these words because we do not think that His words are of any value in helping us to achieve our core objective (participating in the joy of God's Kingdom is not what we want -- we want joy on our own terms). [I do doubt, however, that there are any such people who have read this far into this study since those who do not value Jesus' words do not typically surf the Net to find articles on the meanings of Jesus' words.] Of those of us who do think Jesus' words are of value, there is yet a distinction. Some of us will approach Jesus' words with a clear determination that His words will not be allowed to alter our current "understanding" of Jesus because we already know the "truth". Others of us will approach Jesus' words with a determination to permit an alteration of our current "understanding" of Jesus because we want to move deeper into our participation with Him in the joy of life.
What determines which we are? Not the core. Everyone's core is the same. Everyone wants joy. What determines which we are is the methodological circle that most immediately surrounds the core. This is the most fundamental methodological issue that leads us into the core. This answers the question: what is the necessity for the entrance into joy? (or, in the words of the Philippian jailer, "What must I do to be saved?") Earlier I said that this circle consists of either the belief that independence from God is the way to joy, or the belief that union with God is the way to joy.
So, how do we take Jesus' words in Mark 10:15?
Let's start with the options. At this point we need to understand something that Elliott Johnson said in his book, Expository Hermeneutics: "Human language is often ambiguous because language forms are polysemic, that is, the forms (words, constructions, sentences) are often capable of different senses" (p. 39). This means that when we approach any given statement, we need to understand that the words can often be taken in different ways. That doesn't mean the text means more than one thing, but it does mean that understanding will not be automatic. We will probably have to examine many details in order to find the correct meaning. This requirement is complicated by the reality that we are predisposed to reject some meanings by the methodological-core values we hold, and it is further complicated by some of the lesser values we hold because we cannot see the richness of the possibilities that exist in them. There are several ways to obtain the money to pay the electric bill; one does not have to rob a bank! However, if one has already gone too far down the path of robbing banks, he will simply not even entertain the notion that maybe he ought to get a job in order to obtain the money necessary for the electric bill. So, we need to exercise caution when we evaluate the options.
So, what are the options?
Let's look again at the statement. "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all"
To begin, let us consider the phrase shall not enter it at all. The it refers to the Kingdom of God. The at all is an interpretation of a use by Jesus of a double negative. That double negative could have been presented with emphasized print as I have been doing in this study, "...shall not enter it...", but the translators didn't want to use emphasized print, so they chose a linguistic method of getting the idea across. The point is that Jesus is saying there are some folks that will not, under the described circumstances, enter the Kingdom of God. This phrase is rather easily interpreted by simply looking ahead in this context of Mark 10 to verses 25-26. In this place, Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples then asked, Then who can be saved? Thus, for the disciples in this context, entering the kingdom of God was the equivalent of being saved. And Jesus did not challenge their interpretation of His words. Rather He reinforced it. That they were correct in their understanding is shown by the fact that one cannot be saved and not enter the Kingdom, and one cannot be unsaved and enter the Kingdom. Thus, it is a fairly easy thing to understand Jesus' warning that those who shall not, under the described circumstances, enter the Kingdom of God will not be saved. This means that those who do not enter the Kingdom will perish because they are lost.
Thus, we conclude that Jesus was dealing with a very crucial issue: man's eternal destiny. It makes a great deal of difference whether a man enters the Kingdom or goes to Hell. Eternity is a long time. This means that Jesus was dealing with most important issues, not peripheral ones.
Now, let us consider the words like a child. This phrase is probably the least understood part of Jesus' words. One of the things that makes it hard to understand is that the phrase can be taken in several ways. One of the problems is that the King James Version translates the word like with the word as. Like sometimes tends in the direction of identifying a method, as in eating like a pig. As, on the other hand, opens the door to the possibility that Jesus was identifying a temporal or characteristic limitation, as in as [when I was] a child, I played with mud pies. In other words, Jesus' might have meant that if a person did not receive the kingdom while he was a child, he would not enter it at all, or He might have meant that one needs to receive the Kingdom like a child does, or He might have meant something else. The possibilities of meaning are in the ambiguity of the words.
You have noted that the NASB differed from the KJV in its choice of like instead of as. Why the change? Probably because as lends itself to a possibility which the interpreters considered to be wrong. So, let's consider the use of like. What does it lead us to conclude? By itself, almost nothing! The word translated like is a word that is so ambiguous that it takes three pages in a book whose pages measure 7" X 10" with small print in double columns to tell us what all we might conclude from its use! But, that book does give us some help in that it points to the fact that this particular word is often used elliptically. What that means is that part of the meaning is left unstated. In other words, to grasp the meaning of the phrase like a child, one must add some words. The most popular addition is receives the Kingdom. The result of this addition is that Jesus is presented as saying like a child receives the Kingdom. In other words, Jesus is presented, by the elimination of the ellipsis, as saying whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child receives the Kingdom shall not enter it at all.
The problem with this solution to the elliptical ambiguity is two-fold. First, it assumes that Jesus meant that one had to mimic a child's methodology for receiving the Kingdom and then leaves it up to the hearer to assign content to that methodology. Second, it violates everything in the context.
Let me explain.
First, how does a child receive the Kingdom?
How do we answer that? It would seem that if Mark was going to tell us that Jesus rests peoples' eternal destiny upon a critical issue of special methodology (that of a child as opposed to that of an adult), he (Mark) would at least attempt to make us aware of just what that methodology was. That means that we ought to be able to search Mark's record of Jesus' words to see when and where He taught the child-methodology for receiving the Kingdom. But, when we search his words, we do not find Him ever telling us how a child receives the Kingdom in a way that is uniquely characteristic of children. There is another New Testament text that talks about "children who believe in Me" but Mark's readers do not have this text before them and there is nothing unique in that methodology. And, Matthew 18:3 records Jesus as saying, unless you...become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven, but this text does not unambiguously establish how children receive the Kingdom. This text, like the Markan text, is characteristically misunderstood according to a sort of idealized child-characteristic. Most think it means that children are naturally humble of attitude and that gives them a sort of leg up in respect to entering the Kingdom. Probably, though, the text has more to say about the attitude adults take toward children than it has to say about the attitude children take toward themselves, or toward the Kingdom. In other words, in Matthew's words (which Mark's readers did not have in any case) Jesus was insisting that the adults to whom He was speaking adopt the same attitude toward themselves that they have toward children. And what attitude is that? Well, ultimately only a careful study of the context will tell us, but most adults tend to think of children as incompetent and needy. It is far more likely that Jesus was telling His disciples that unless they began to see themselves as incompetent and needy, they would not enter the Kingdom than it was that He was telling them that children are naturally humble of attitude and the disciples needed to copy their example. My point is that there is no clear example in any of Jesus' words that Jesus taught a special child-methodology for receiving the Kingdom.
Rather, it requires of adults a characteristic of attitude (humility) that they typically assign to children (as a reality) if they are to receive it. There is a difference between possessing "a mean estate" (a humility of reality) and being willing to admit that condition (a humility of attitude). It is possible for a person -- either child or adult -- to be incompetent and needy without being willing to admit it...precisely what the disciples' problem was in Matthew 18! Jesus was simply telling them that they needed to wake up and see themselves in the same light as they saw children.
At any rate, Mark's readers did not have Matthew's words before them, so they were forced to find Jesus' meaning in what Mark wrote. What I am saying is this: if Mark believed that Jesus taught that children receive the Kingdom in a particularly notable way -- and that way is the only way anyone ever gets into the Kingdom -- it only stands to reason that somewhere in Mark we would be told how children receive the Kingdom.
But we are not. You will look in vain in the words of Mark for any teaching on a child-methodology for receiving the kingdom.
So, where should we go?
How about the context of His statement? It stands to reason that Jesus' words would best be understood by simply looking into the situation that called them forth.
So, let's do that.
The first thing we notice when we look into the text is that Jesus was significantly irritated with His disciples (the text says He was much displeased, or indignant). His words about receiving the Kingdom arise out of His anger with His disciples. That means that His words were designed to correct those disciples whose error was no small matter. There is no point in making the consequences of failure so cataclysmic as eternal condemnation if the error is a small thing. By the same token, the fact that Jesus raises the stakes so high indicates that He is deadly serious about how important what He is saying is.
Then, when we look to see what the disciples were doing that made Jesus angry, we see that they were rebuking the parents who were bringing their children to Jesus for blessing. This is significant because what it tells us is that the disciples were unwilling to receive children. They were, rather, attempting to send the children and their parents away.
What is the big deal about this? The answer is in the larger context -- Mark 9:37. There, in the response of Jesus to disciples who were arguing with one another about how great they were, we find Jesus saying, "Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him Who sent Me" (NASB). Here Jesus pointedly said that a person received Him by receiving children in His name. He even went further to say that a person received God the Father by receiving children in His name. In fact, we would not be out of line to say that Jesus said one receives the kingdom by receiving a child in His name. Thus, when Jesus saw His disciples rebuking the parents of the children for bringing their children to Jesus, He saw them rejecting Him and His Father! This irritated Him. The disciples were acting like He had never said "Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him Who sent Me." But, He had said it, and He meant it. So, Jesus' words about receiving the Kingdom like a child arose from His irritation with disciples who acted like He didn't know what He was talking about when He told them that to receive a child in His name was to receive the Father -- and, by extension, the Father's Kingdom...the Kingdom of God.
This is the context of Mark's record of Jesus' words. It may not comfortably fit our theology, but it is the context of Jesus' irritation and His correction of His disciples.
Then there is another little detail in the text of Jesus' words in Mark 10. He said, Do not hinder the children because the Kingdom of God is made up of such! Now I know the NASB says the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these, but both that translation and that theology is flawed. The context is weighted toward the argument that Jesus was saying that the Kingdom has this characteristic: it is made up entirely of children! Does this mean no adults will be there? Yes, but not in the most literal sense of the words children and adults. Do not forget John 21:5. There Jesus called His adult disciples "children". What does this mean? The most likely interpretation is that Jesus considers all of those who enter His Father's Kingdom to be child-like...so much so that He calls them "children" and inspires His apostles to do the same (see I John 3:3 and its multiple references to adults as children). But, child-like in what way?
To answer that, let us consider the children in Mark's gospel. What is the common denominator that is required of those texts if we are to have any hope of being able to understand Jesus' words? To begin our answer, we must look at the most immediate context that produced Jesus' words. In this context, parents are bringing their children to Jesus for His touch. Jesus' understanding of what that meant is revealed by His action: He blessed them. He saw the children as their parents saw them: in need of His blessing.
This context, then, hints at the common denominator of the other child-stories from which we hope to understand Jesus' words. When we look into Mark's use of stories which involve children, we see children in need whose parents want a solution from Jesus (Jairus' dead daughter, the man's demon-possessed child, the Syrophoenician's demonized daughter). But all of the stories seem to add one further item. The parents take the initiative because the children are not competent to obtain the desired results on their own. Thus, to be child-like is to be in need of blessing from Jesus but to also be without the competency required to obtain it. In need, and incompetent; such is the issue of child-likeness.
What does all of this mean? Well, let's pull the details together to see what we find. Interestingly, Jesus' words in Mark 10:15 are almost the reverse from what we would expect. The scenario is this: from 9:37 we see that Jesus taught that to receive a child was to receive the Kingdom; then, in 10:13 the disciples were forbidding the children; so, in 10:15 we would expect Jesus to say, If you are not willing to receive the children, you are not willing to receive the God of the Kingdom. But He did not say it this way. Instead, He turned it around and said that anyone who is unwilling to embrace the Kingdom like a child shall not enter it at all. What does this mean? Is Jesus telling the disciples that they ought not to be blocking the children because of the impact it will have on the children? Or is He telling them that if they are willing to block the children, they will find the Kingdom willing to block them?
How shall we answer? Let's reconsider the context. We have already made the claim that Jesus' words are not in the form we expect. This means one of two things. Either we have misunderstood the context so that our expectation is in error -- i.e., we should have expected Jesus to say the words He did. Or we have misunderstood His words -- i.e., our expectation is correct and we need to see His words in its light.
It is my argument that we have allowed a faulty grasp of the ellipsis to throw us off. It is my argument that there is a better form of the elliptical meaning -- one that fits the context and its flow of thought. What is it? If we reconsider the ellipsis issue, we can find Him saying, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like the child it is (or, the association of children it is as per verse 14) shall not enter it. The foregoing context pretty much requires that His meaning has something to do with both receiving children, or not, and receiving the Kingdom, or not. Now this supply for the ellipsis exactly fits with Mark 9:37, for there He said that to receive a child was to receive the Kingdom and that implies strongly that to reject a child is to reject the Kingdom. This supply for the ellipsis also exactly fits verse 14, for there Jesus actually characterizes the Kingdom as of children. This supply for the ellipsis also exactly fits the scenario of disciples who are refusing to receive needy children and being warned by the anger and words of Jesus that the Kingdom of God will not tolerate that action or attitude. In a word, this supply for the ellipsis answers all of the contextual demands of the text.
The problem here is that many of us think this turns the Gospel into some kind of methodology of salvation by works. But it does not.
If one receives Jesus by receiving a child in His name (9:37), and one additionally receives the Father by receiving Jesus, and one then receives the Kingdom of God by receiving the God of the Kingdom, how can Paul, or anyone else, come along and say that salvation is by grace through faith and not of works?
There are a couple of answers.
One is that the very Gospel that was designed to bring us to eternal life (the Gospel of John) says that it is absolutely necessary to receive Jesus in order to become a child of God (John 1:12). So, receiving someone/Someone is not a "work". If it was, we could not be told in the Gospel of faith that we had to receive Jesus. This raises a central question: what does it mean to receive a child/receive Jesus?
That it is not a work is clear from the Gospel of John's emphasis upon faith as opposed to works. But, then, what is it? To attempt an answer, let us go back to Mark's twin uses of Jesus and children in respect to the contextual issue of disciples who were interested in being seen as great. The first of these is Mark 9:33-37. This is the place where Jesus pointedly taught that receiving children in His name was the equivalent of receiving the Kingdom. The second is the one from whence we began this study (Mark 10:13-16). Since this latter one is the immediate context, let's first ask ourselves what Jesus meant in this text by receiving the children. At the most fundamental level, He meant to permit them to come to Him. This was not a calling to perform some great task; rather, it was a demand that they cease their labor of blocking the parents! Rather than being a work, it was a demand that they cease the kind of work they were pursuing. That raises an interesting question: why did the disciples not want the children to get to Jesus? They are not recorded as trying to stop Jairus or the man whose son was demonized. They apparently didn't try to stop the Canaanite woman. What was the difference? One observation that suggests itself from the context is that the disciples didn't see any crisis that would provide some powerful display for a solution so that Jesus, and they with Him, could be seen as great. This desire to be seen as great is, after all, the immediate context for Jesus' first words about receiving children (9:33-37). Could it be that the disciples were rebuking the parents because they, at least in their own minds, had the authority to do that [in the exercise of their greatness] and because they did not see in those children any real opportunity to promote themselves as great? To say it another way, the children had nothing to commend themselves to the disciples as those disciples sought opportunities to prove their greatness? The point is: the disciples were laboring at works which both demonstrated their greatness and demeaned the greatness of others and Jesus commanded them to stop those labors immediately! Thus, the contextual concept of receiving is a command to cease a certain kind of laboring...the kind that causes both oneself and others to think of the laborer as great. Is this not the heart of the Gospel? It it not fundamental to salvation by grace and not works that one must cease laboring to attempt to be acceptable/great? Would not this definition of receiving Christ fit the theology of believing in Him as opposed to believing in one's own qualifications?
Now let's return to the earlier text (9:33-37) and ask what Jesus meant by receiving children there. There are two issues raised by that text. First is the issue of the disciples' notion of greatness in the Kingdom. They thought that greatness in the Kingdom was characterized by the ability to dominate others. This was why they were arguing with one another about who was the greatest. What is arguing if it is not the attempt to dominate someone else? But Jesus completely contradicted this idea! He said, on the contrary, that greatness in the Kingdom was characterized by a willingness to be dominated by the needs of others. The second issue is Jesus' handling of the child He sat in their midst. The text makes the point of saying, He took him in His arms. By this action, Jesus gave the second clear hint as to what He meant by receiving a child. He simply gave him a hug. This was not some profound labor that qualified one to inherit the Kingdom of God! Rather, it was simply an expression of a willingness to give to the child what he needed. Now, when we put these two issues together, we find that Jesus' concept of receiving a child was relatively simple: it meant being willing to respond to need without being ruled by the desire to dominate in order to prove one's magnificent qualifications.
Now let's see if we can pull the two contexts together. In the earlier one, the focus is upon disciples striving with one another over greatness and being rebuked by the teaching that one could receive the God of the Kingdom by simply giving up this effort to become great by dominating, and hugging, in My name, a child of the Kingdom as a representative of a Kingdom of servants. In the later one, the focus is upon disciples who were continuing to attempt to prove their greatness by dominating parents with their children and being rebuked by Jesus Who tells them that to insist on proving one is qualified for the Kingdom by being dominant is to block oneself from entering the Kingdom altogether. This means that Jesus held two issues firmly together. One is that the Kingdom is made up of needy persons and anyone who would become a part of that kingdom must accept the implications in two directions. It means embracing one's own neediness; and it means embracing the reality of the neediness of others. The other is that the Kingdom will reject anyone who refuses to stop attempting to be Kingdom-ready by doing great works.
Then there is another answer: the words of Jesus were spoken within a context of poor behavior that was being driven by lousy attitudes at a critical level. In Mark 9, the disciples were arguing with one another about how much greater each was than the other. This was a poor behavior. But, what was behind it? A lousy attitude of arrogance and self-importance. In Mark 10, the disciples were rebuking parents for bringing their children to Jesus. This was poor behavior. But what was behind it? A lousy attitude. In fact, an attitude about the nature of the Kingdom that was essentially false. We might say, so false that if this core concept was not changed, salvation was impossible. Jesus' words should not be taken to mean that an acceptable action that was coupled to a lousy attitude would yet result in entrance into the Kingdom (if you just grit your teeth and receive one such child in My name, you will be receiving Me, My Father, and His Kingdom) -- this would be salvation by works. By the same token, Jesus' words should not be taken to mean that a proper attitude at the level of the essential core reality can legitimately produce a lousy behavior (how can disciples reject children if they have embraced the reality that the Kingdom is made up of children?) -- this is salvation by a graceless and bogus faith. In fact, Jesus' words should be taken to be corrective first of the bogus attitude and then of the flawed behavior. In other words, Jesus was addressing a fundamental theological orientation, not a fundamental behavior. Jesus was not fundamentally angered by the behavior itself (He showed no anger in 9:33-37); He was angered that His doctrine of the essential nature of the Kingdom had been rejected. The disciples did not want to think that the Kingdom was made up of incompetent children because they did not want either to have to see themselves in that light, nor to have to respond to the automatic demands that incompetent children create. They preferred to think it was made up of competent and self-important people like themselves (see Mark 9:34 and 10:35-37) who had the options of deciding if and how they might respond to the others in the Kingdom. But, Jesus insisted that if a person was not willing to embrace a Kingdom which has an essential nature of being made up of needy persons, he would not enter it at all. In other words, Jesus was addressing the essential makeup of His Father's Kingdom. It is made up of needy persons. No one is going to go into that Kingdom who is unwilling to embrace the reality that it is a kingdom of needy persons. Self-important people seldom see themselves as needy, and they are seldom interested in being used of God to meet the needs of needy persons. But self-important people are going to be rejected from God's Kingdom!
Now, let's return to the beginning. We started out by saying that we are driven by our core value in conjunction with those belief-values that most immediately surround it. And we have concluded by arguing that if we reject the core identity of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God will reject us. Perhaps the greatest problem confronting the Church today is the divorce that has occurred between values and faith. The faith, which is the methodology of the core value, has been cut loose from the core value, which is the objective that is to be sought by the methodology. In our desire to persuade people to trust Christ, we have let it be thought that faith is unconnected to the divine intent for saving by faith. God's intent in salvation is reconciliation between men and Himself and between men and their fellows. Any so-called faith that does not bring about a reconciliation between the believer and the Promiser is bogus. Therefore, it is impossible for a person to be saved by a faith that rejects the essential nature of the God of the Kingdom.
So, the conclusion of the matter is this: Jesus laid down a fundamental truth in regard to the nature of the Kingdom of God and how that nature impacts the question of who enters it. He pointedly said that no one will get in who is unwilling to face the neediness issue...both in respect to himself and in respect to others.