The Child in the Midst

And he came to Capernaum: and, being in the house, he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves who should be the greatest. And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all. And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them; and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me; and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.

— Mark 9:33-37

Nothing is required of man that is not first in God. It is because God is perfect that we are required to be perfect. And it is for the revelation of God to all, that they may be saved by knowing him, and so becoming like him, that a child is set before them in the gospel. It is the recognition of childhood as divine that will show the disciples how vain is the strife after relative place or honor in the great kingdom.  He who receives a child in the name of Jesus, does so perceiving wherein Jesus and the child are one.  He must not only see the ideal child in the child he receives—that reality of loveliness which constitutes true childhood—but must perceive that the child is like Jesus, or rather, that the Lord is like the child, and may be embraced, yea, is embraced, by every heart childlike enough to embrace a child for the sake of his childness.  A special sense, a lofty knowledge of blessedness, belong to the act of embracing a child as the visible likeness of the Lord himself. For the blessedness is the perceiving of the truth, that the Lord has the heart of a child.

But the argument of the meaning of our Lord’s words, in my name, is incomplete until we follow to its second and higher stage: “He that receiveth me, receiveth him that sent me.” The Son is as the Father; he whose heart can perceive the essential in Christ, has the essence of the Father. To receive a child in the name of Jesus is to receive Jesus; to receive Jesus is to receive God; therefore to receive the child is to receive God himself.

Commentary

Mark 9:33-37 contains two observations: (i) one who is a servant of all—the sort of person the world regards as “last”– is, from a Kingdom perspective, "first"; and (ii) that in welcoming a child “in Jesus’ name” one welcomes Jesus, and thus welcomes God. Three things then strike me:

  •  Children need to be served, and this is the most obvious connection between (i) and (ii).
  • Jesus spoke about children in several other passages, two of which emphasize that having childlike qualities is essential to our salvation:

a.     Just a bit further on, in Mark 10:14-15, Jesus says, “the kingdom of God belongs to [the little children]…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will not enter it.”

b.     In Matthew 18:5, Jesus uses the exact same language as in Mark 9:37 ("whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" ). The two preceding verses in Matthew, 18:3-4, are  “...unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."  The reference to welcoming a child, shared between Matthew and Mark, is connected to the idea that our salvation is dependent on becoming like a child.

  • The meaning of welcoming  (or “receiving”) a child “in Jesus’ name” can influence how one understands the passage.

George MacDonald’s interpretation of Mark 9:33-37 is by no means obvious. I found it useful to read commentaries written by theologians representing a variety of perspectives before returning to the Unspoken Sermon, The Child in the Midst, from which the January 1st entry above is drawn. Two of the best were by William Barclay and John Piper (yes, that John Piper).

William Barclay writes that Jesus did not abolish ambition; “rather, he recreated and sublimated ambition. For the ambition to rule, he substituted the ambition to serve.” Barclay then interprets Jesus’ words about children in this context, writing “children need things; they must have things done for them. So Jesus says, ‘Whoever welcomes the poor, ordinary people, the people who have no influence and no wealth and no power…is welcoming me. More than that, that person is welcoming God…in effect, Jesus here says that we ought to seek out not those who can do things for us, but those for whom we can do things, for in this way we are seeking the society of himself. This is another way of saying ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40).”

So, Barclay’s sees the reference to children as elaborating on the primary point of the importance of having a servant’s heart. However, he also establishes a correspondence between those we serve and Jesus, and the concluding reference to Matthew 25:40 also establishes an identity between children—as representatives of “the least,” those who must be served—and Jesus himself (and thus God).  I note that abbout half the translations of 25:40 have “you did it for me” rather than “to me;” but “to me” makes far more sense, since Jesus (the King in the parable) has just been asked, “when did we feed you or clothe you?” 

John Piper, much like Barclay, writes that in this passage Jesus “radically transforms the quest for greatness…[which consists of] putting yourself in a position to serve everyone—to be a blessing to as many as you possibly can.” Indeed, pretty much everyone, including MacDonald in his full sermon, makes a similar point. The interesting difference is where each one’s commentary goes next.

Piper doesn’t disagree with Barclay’s point that Jesus is calling us to seek out and serve the dispossessed; but his emphasis is different. The issue is the manner in which we serve, and on our underlying motivation. Piper writes that “Jesus turns the whole discussion away from the value of the child to the value of God…Two things are utterly crucial in caring for children. One: is it done in Jesus' name? …Ministering to children in any way but in the name of Jesus, does not fulfill the will of Jesus. And the second crucial thing in caring for children is that we do it with a longing to experience more of Jesus and more of the One who sent him, God the Father… You serve a child best when you receive a child and care for a child and spend time with a child and hold a child NOT in the name of the child, or in the name of mankind or in the name of mercy or in the name of America's future, but in the name of Jesus, the Son of the living God. And you serve children best when you receive a child not merely because your joy is first in the child, but first and finally in God.

Neither Barclay nor Piper explicitly define the meaning of “receiving” (or “welcoming”) a child in Jesus’ name, but Piper clearly means, “in the context of everything Jesus has said.” One Biblical commentary I read on the phrase “in the name of” interpreted “in Jesus’ name” to mean “by his authority” (just as a policeman shouting “stop in the name of the law!” is invoking the authority of the law), which is consistent with Piper’s usage.

Piper goes on to write, “Why is this the best way to serve? Because the most important blessing you can give to a child is the all-satisfying centrality of God in life. And, believe me, this is caught more than taught. And that's why you must serve them in this way; you would lead them in this way.

“In other words, when I call you to be the servant of all, including children, I am not calling you to some heroic self-sacrifice. I am calling you to stop chasing the bubbles of man's praise and start pursuing God. Stop trying to receive praise in the service of men and starting receiving God in the service of children. What do you want? Do you want the fleeting praise of mortal men? Or do you want God?

I like Piper’s meditation on this passage, but it’s not entirely satisfying. Undoubtedly, Jesus would have us focus everything we do on “pursuing God,” and to serve children (and others) as He would have us do so, helping them to see the importance of making God central in their lives. But making the pursuit of God the matter of first importance is an awfully generic point; why did Jesus use a child in this and the related verses I quoted above, rather than some other lowly figure, such as a slave? Piper doesn’t address that in any deep way. It can’t simply be to avoid making mistakes in the rearing of children and service of others. Piper's points are wonderful, but it seems to me he stops short of fully exploring this passage. 

While I created Consuming Fire to introduce as many people as possible to George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons, these daily devotional entries are only excerpts from a three-volume work; I endeavored to keep all of the key points, but cut the word count in half. In the first several pages of The Child in the Midst, which were left out of Consuming Fire, MacDonald wrote of both Mark 9 and Matthew 18 that “these passages record a lesson our Lord gave his disciples against ambition, against emulation. It is not for the sake of setting forth this lesson that I write about these words of our Lord, but for the sake of a truth, a revelation about God, in which his great argument reaches its height.” 

I began the January 1st entry at the point just after MacDonald wrote, “I now approach my especial object…the enunciation of a yet higher truth…”: “Nothing is required of man that is not first in God. It is because God is perfect that we are required to be perfect. And it is for the revelation of God to all, that they may be saved by knowing him, and so becoming like him, that a child is set before them in the gospel.”  MacDonald’s emphasis is on how Mark 9:33-37 gives us an insight into the character of Jesus, and thus of God, which is of importance to our salvation. Jesus makes it clear that we need to possess childlike qualities if we are to "enter the kingdom of heaven," which is to me synonymous with salvation. We can all agree that we are "saved through faith;" but imitating Christ, striving to have the mind of Christ, is the active working out of faith in one's life. For MacDonald, salvation is a process of being conformed to His image, and MacDonald sees Jesus’ words in Mark 9 as further revealing the character of Jesus (and thus of God), helping us to know Him, that we might become like Him.

In a section of the sermon which could not fit into my brief January 1st excerpt, MacDonald defines what he believes “in my name” to mean:

“This means, as representing me; and therefore, as being like me. Our Lord could not commission any one to be received in his name who could not more or less represent him…moreover, he had just been telling the disciples that they must become like this child; and now, when he tells them to receive such a little child in his name, it must surely imply something in common between them all—something in which the child and Jesus meet—something in which the child and the disciples meet. What else can that be but the spiritual childhood?”

Commentators as varied as Matthew Henry and Professor Pheme Perkins (who wrote the commentary on Mark for The New Interpreter’s Bible) see “the child, who was socially invisible, as the stand-in for Jesus” (quote from Perkins).  However, one can disagree with MacDonald's definition of “in my name,” and still end up agreeing with his conclusion. Let’s take Piper’s approach and reread Mark 37 (Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me) as follows, combining his approach and MacDonald's: If we welcome a child under the authority of Jesus and with regard to His words, we see Jesus in that child; and thus, since Jesus is the revelation of God, we see God in that child.

Jesus opens up our minds with paradoxes, and there's a beautiful paradox in using a child, who must be served, as the stand-in for Jesus, servant of all.  

What does it mean to say that God has a childlike nature, and what are the implications for how we worship him? That is the subject of the next eight entries in Consuming Fire.

Jess Lederman