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I choose not to argue from the expression of their being brought to Christ: not thinking it sufficient to prove, that they were carried in arms. For the phrase may be used of such as are led, conducted, guided to a place or person.
Upon the whole we may conclude, I think, that they were what they are called by the evangelists, little children, or infants. None of them were arrived to the full exercise of reason: and some of them might be carried in the arms of their friends.
II. The next particular to be considered by us is, what views they had who brought these little children to Jesus: or, for what end they were brought to him.
It does not appear that they were brought to Jesus to be healed by him of any sickness, or weakness, which they were afflicted with: for there is nothing of that kind hinted in any of the evangelists, though no less than three of them have recorded this history. And, if that had been the case, the disciples, it is likely, would not have rebuked the persons who came with these children. For before now there had been such applications made to our Lord by many persons, not only for themselves, but for others also: for their friends, or their children, or their servants. For what end and purpose, then, may some say, should these little children be brought to Jesus, who were so young as to have little or no exercise of reason and understanding, and must therefore have been incapable of receiving instruction?
That we may the better answer this inquiry, we should attend to the evangelists' expressions. St. Mark says, "they brought little children to Jesus, that he should touch them.” St. Luke: they brought unto him also" or even "infants, that he should touch them." But in our text, in St. Matthew, it is said: "that he should put his hands on them, and pray." And it is likely, that this is the meaning of all the evangelists: it having been common among the Jews, to lay the hand upon those whom they blessed: or for whom they prayed to God, that he would bless them. So, when Jacob blessed the two sons of Joseph in Egypt, a little before his death, he laid his hands upon each of them, Gen. xlviii. 14.
These persons therefore, here spoken of, brought these "little children" to Jesus, that he "might lay his hands upon them and bless them." They had a high opinion of the piety of Jesus, and of his interest in the divine favour. Probably they were disciples, or believers, such as took Jesus for a prophet, and even the great prophet who was to come, the Messiah. And they were desirous that their children should receive a blessing from him.
Some may be apt to think, this must have been a superstitious, and fond conceit of these persons. To which I would answer, that, probably, it was not entirely so. For in that case Jesus would not have shewn them such regard. It cannot be thought, that our Lord would countenance an action, that was altogether unreasonable, and quite destitute of all good foundation. And supposing, that there was a mixture of some wrong views in this conduct, the Lord Jesus was more gracious than to reject these persons, or condemn their design upon that account. The twelve disciples had not been perfectly disinterested, or free from all secular views, in coming to him and following him. Yet he was well pleased with their attendance on him: and he promised them a reward for it if they continued to act as disciples with sincerity: though they still wanted a sinless perfection, and had not a wisdom void of all defects, Luke xxii. 28-30.
III. The third thing is the reception he gave these children: which at the very first view, we plainly perceive to be kind and gracious.
The disciples rebuked those who brought them. They turned them away, as impertinent and troublesome. They refused them admission to the presence of their Master, and reproved their design in coming to him. But when Jesus perceived what had been done, he was much displeased, and said unto them, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not ;' nor their friends, who would bring them to me. And those in particular, who were now brought to him, he received. Some of them he "took up into his arms," and affectionately embraced them on all he "laid his hands, and blessed them."
How he blessed them, or prayed for them, the evangelists have not said particularly: but we may reasonably conclude, that he offered up to the Father some prayers for them, suited to the doctrine taught by him.
Possibly he presented some requests, agreeing with the prayer he had given to his disciples. Or, he prayed for them that they might know God, and him whom he had sent, so as to obtain everlasting life.'
Or, Father, sanctify these little children through thy truth: thy word is truth.'
Or, I pray not, that thou shouldst now take them to thyself out of this world, though it be 'a world of snares and sorrows: but 1 pray that thou wilt keep them from the evil of the world. Father, keep through thy own name these little ones, which have been now brought unto me.' In some such way as this we may suppose he blessed these little children, or prayed for them and recommended them to God; that is in a manner becoming his affectionate concern for their real welfare and everlasting happiness, and his near relation and intimate union with the Father. IV. The fourth and last thing to be observed by us is Christ's declaration concerning these little children: "Of such is the kingdom of heaven."
So here in St. Matthew. But in the two other evangelists the expression is: "Of such is the kingdom of God." Which two expressions are equivalent, denoting one and the same thing; the gospel dispensation, the state of things under the Messiah, or the church and kingdom of God on earth, in which men are prepared for the heavenly state, the church and kingdom of God above: therefore John the Baptist said: "Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at hand," Matt. iii. 2; ch. iv.17. And so Jesus preached likewise.
"Of such is the kingdom of heaven:" that is, of such consists the kingdom of heaven. Or, to such belongs the kingdom of heaven, with its privileges: such as these are the members and subjects of God's church and kingdom on earth, and heirs of his kingdom in heaven, with all its riches and glory.
The chief difficulty is to determine the meaning of the word such: there being, as it is thought, an ambiguity in that expression. And it may be questioned whether we are hereby to understand, of such as resemble these little children is the kingdom of heaven: or of such little children as these. I shall therefore observe to you, how these words are paraphrased by some pious and learned expositors of scripture.
Upon these words an ancient writer observes: Christ does not say, of these, but of such is ⚫ the kingdom of heaven: that is, of persons of simplicity, who are innocent, and free from vice ' and wickedness.' A modern writer explains the words in this manner: Of these, and such like. Christ does not exclude children, when he includes the adult, who are like them.' Another learned interpreter of our time thus paraphraseth the words of the text. • Do not 'hinder little children from coming to me. For it is these, and men qualified like these, with 'innocence, humility, and a teachable disposition, free from all prejudices, and customs of sinning, 'that are the only fit persons to be made members of my church on earth, and inheritors of the 'kingdom of God in heaven.'
And we are farther assured, that our Lord intended to say: 'Of such as are like these little children is the kingdom of heaven;' because he does expressly recommend resemblance in what follows in St. Mark and St. Luke. "Verily, I say unto you: Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child, shall not enter therein." And I think, the other sense, though not so certain, ought not to be quite set aside: that is, to these and such little children, '(as well as those who are like them) belongs the kingdom of heaven.'
However, it is fit we should consider what Christ recommends in these words, and wherein they who are adult, and grown up to years of understanding, ought to resemble little children. Let me mention three or four things: freedom from prejudice, or openness to conviction: freedom from pride, or humility: freedom from worldly affections, or indifference to earthly things: and finally, freedom from custom of sinning, or innocence.
1. One thing observable in little children is freedom from prejudices, or openness to conviction; which is one great part of a teachable disposition. Indeed, they do not know the truth. But then, neither are they prejudiced against it: and by that means they are ready to receive it, when proposed to them. This is a property which all ought to aim at, and to preserve so long as they are imperfect in knowledge. The want of this temper hindered the Jews from receiving Jesus, and the truths he taught. They had a prejudice, a false and groundless notion, that the expected Messiah would be an earthly prince and powerful monarch, and would set up a worldly kingdom on this earth; in the civil advantages of which his servants and followers should partake: whereas it was a spiritual empire in the hearts, and over the lives of men, and a kingdom of righteousness that he was to introduce, in order to prepare men for the services and enjoyments of the heavenly life.
• Theophyl. in Evang. p. 112. VOL. V.
Luc. Bru. ap. Pol. Syn.
Dr. S. Clarke.
It must be of great advantage, to be free from that prejudice, or any other like it: and to be determined to quit any notion, when good evidence to the contrary is produced.
2. Another thing observable in children, and in which others ought to resemble them, is freedom from pride or humility. This temper also renders men teachable and tractable, and susceptible of improvement in knowledge and virtue: whereas conceit is a most effectual bar to improvement of every kind. They who are opinionated of their knowledge and wisdom, or of their eminent character, and noble exploits and services, will not bear to be admonished, nor submit to receive new truths and farther discoveries, how well soever recommended.
Here we cannot avoid recollecting those words of our Lord, where he expresseth his cheerful acquiescence in the success of his ministry, and says: "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth: because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes," Matt. xi. 25.
"Hid from the wise and prudent:" not from those who were really so: but from those who were so esteemed by many, and who were opinionated of their own knowledge and wisdom, and their reputation in the world: whilst the doctrines and truths of the gospel were understood, believed, and embraced by babes: men of inferior station and condition, meaner attainments, and less conceited of themselves, and perhaps despised by others. But not being greatly conceited, they hearkened to instruction, and discerned and embraced the truths taught and proposed to them. 3. Another thing observable in children is freedom from earthly affections, or indifference about the great things of this world: such as riches, honour, and preferment. This is so obvious, not only in little children and infants, but in all very young persons in general, that parents, and others of experience in life, are oftentimes not a little concerned at it, lest they should not duly regard their temporal interests. And they think it expedient to shew them the use and value of these things, and by frequent observations infuse at least a small degree of ambition, and some worldly-mindedness into their constitution.
But our blessed Lord, without undervaluing, or depreciating any of the comforts of this life, recommends, and highly esteems, as you well know, a judicious contempt of all earthly things, and a determined preference of truth and integrity, the favour of God, and a title to the heavenly happiness, above all earthly honours, possessions and enjoyments. And he often declares, that he who is not willing to part with what he has of these things for his sake, if the circumstances he is brought into should require it, cannot be his disciple, or approve himself a lover
The necessity of resembling little children in indifference to riches, or in a freedom from inordinate affection for them, is illustrated by a history, which follows the text, of the rich man, who when directed by Christ to go, and sell what he had, and give to the poor; assuring him withal, that then he should have treasure in heaven; "went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.'
The necessity of resembling little children in freedom from ambition, or an immoderate desire of grandeur and preferment, Christ taught his own disciples in particular. For, when they had asked him, "who should be greatest in the kingdom of heaven," supposing the kingdom of the Messiah would have in it much honour and power, "he called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said: Verily, I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself, as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven,"
Matt. xviii. 1-4.
4. Another thing, in which others ought to resemble little children, is freedom from custom of sinning, or innocence. Little children, and infants, such as most, or all those were who were now brought to Christ, are universally allowed to be free from actual sin. They have as yet made no wrong choice: they have done no evil thing. And others, who have sinned, in order to partake of the kingdom of God, are to become like them, by washing away their sins with the tears of unfeigned sorrow, by reformation and amendment, by ceasing to do evil, and being free from the habitual and allowed practice of all iniquity.
Of such as these consists the kingdom of heaven. To those who in these things resemble little children belongs the kingdom of God. Such will receive the gospel. They will come into the kingdom of the Messiah. They will continue true members and faithful subjects of it, and finally inherit all the glory and happiness of the kingdom of God above..
V. Having considered these several particulars, let us now make a farther improvement in some reflections.
1. The doctrine of this text may afford comfortable thoughts concerning such as die in infancy, or in very early age, before they have done good or evil. Christ, speaking of little children, says: "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." If he do not clearly say, of these, and such like children, yet he certainly says, of such as resemble them is the kingdom of heaven. And if we should not suppose him to say expressly more than that, yet it is sufficient to fill us with comfortable apprehensions concerning those who are removed hence in very early life. For it cannot be easily admitted, that they should perish everlastingly, who are set before others as emblems of simplicity, innocence and humility, and patterns of imitation and resemblance.
To these do not belong the characters of those whom Christ will bid depart from him. They are not workers of iniquity. They have not refused to entertain and relieve the afflicted and persecuted followers of Jesus on earth. He has declared, that " He has declared, that "they who do not receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child, shall not enter therein." And can it be thought that little children shall be excluded?
2. This text teaches us to be cautious, how we disparage the human nature, and say, that it is in its original conception corrupt, depraved and defiled. Our Lord seems not to have acknowledged any original depravity of our nature: for he recommended a resemblance of little children to his disciples, and others. And when little children were brought unto him, he expressed affection for them. He embraced them, and blessed them, and said, "Of such is the kingdom of heaven."
They who vilify nature, do, in effect (though perhaps unwittingly, and undesignedly) reproach the Author of nature.
Solomon, after an attentive survey of the affairs of this world, and particularly the many disorders therein, was fully persuaded of this truth: "This only have I found," says he, "that God made man upright. But they have sought out many inventions," Ecc. vii. 29.
St. Paul when he proves all men, both Jews and Gentiles, "guilty before God," Rom. iii. 19, alleges not their bad nature, but their evil practices.
Some indeed are early drawn aside into evil courses by the snares of this world; which occasioned the Psalmist to say hyperbolically of some wicked men: "They are estranged from the womb. They go astray as soon as they are born," P's. lviii. 3. And in like manner David, after the commission of the great sins he had fallen into, recollects also his past sins, and says: "he had been shapen in iniquity, and in sin did his mother conceive him," Ps. li. 7; that is, he laments his too great propensity to some sins, and humbly owns, that even in early life he had done things which he ought to repent of, and blame himself for. But he is here speaking of himself, or his own particular constitution, not of all men in general.
The scripture does not ascribe the difficulty of reforming great sinners to the badness of their nature, but to the evil habits they have contracted: representing it as very unlikely, that they should "do good, who had been accustomed to do evil," Jer. xiii. 23.
St. Paul reminds the Ephesians, that once, in their Gentile state, "they were dead in trespasses and sins," Eph. ii. 1. Which expression, however, can never be applied to infants. And with the apostle, a life in sin is not life but death. As he says elsewhere: "She that liveth in pleasure, is dead, while she liveth," 1 Tim. v. 6. And what follows, shews, that he means practice of sinning, or actual and wilful sins. "Wherein," says he to those Ephesians, "in time past ye walked, according to the course of this world," Eph. ii. 2.-He proceeds: "Among whom also we all," we Jews also, for the most part, and generally, "had our conversation in times past, in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh, and of the mind: and were by nature," in our former state, before we were enlightened by the gospel, "children of wrath,' deservedly exposed to punishment, "as well as others," ver. 3. "But God who is rich in mercy, for his great love, wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together with Christ.—And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together, in heavenly places in Christ," ver. 4, 5, 6. The whole context shews, that the apostle is not speaking of punishment due to natural corruption, but to actual sin. Nor does he say, And indeed we all are, but "were by nature children of wrath." So we were when we "had our conversation in the lusts of our flesh." But God in his great mercy had through Jesus Christ delivered the Ephesians, and others, from that state of sin and misery.
We are weak and frail, and liable to temptations. But we can easily conceive how God may treat such creatures wisely and equitably. He will shew his displeasure against the presumptuous, and even the careless. And he will reward the obedient, the careful and watchful. But we are not able to conceive how God should reject and condemn any for what is not owing to choice, but nature.
Some men will confess the corruption of their nature. But, I apprehend, it must be truer humility, for a man seriously, and sincerely, without reserve, to confess all his sins in thought, word, and deed, against God and his neighbour. The former is only an acknowledgment of supposed corruption, common to all; and may be attended with spiritual pride, and scornful disdain of others. But to confess sincerely all our own sins and faults is true humility. This humility is a virtue in such creatures as we are, and the ground of other virtues. It is also acceptable to God. And "whosoever confesseth and forsaketh his sins, shall have mercy,' Prov. xxviii. 13.
3. This history teaches us the right of young persons to be present at the worship of God: and seems to hold forth the duty of those under whose care they are, to bring them early to it. Some brought little children to Christ, that he might lay his hands on them, and bless them. And he received them, and did as he was desired. Though children do not understand every thing that is said, yet they have ears to hear, and eyes to see, and will observe. And gradually a reverence for the Divine Being, and an apprehension and persuasion of invisible things, will 'be formed in their minds, and such principles implanted in them, as will bring forth good fruit.
4. We may infer from this history, that it is not below persons of the greatest eminence for wisdom and piety to shew affection and tenderness for little children. Jesus Christ is a good pattern for imitation in all his condescensions. And his disciples should do as he has done. Let us receive kindly, and, as we are able, recommend to the divine favour and protection such little children as Jesus himself, when on earth, received and blessed.
5. We hence learn, that all of us arrived to years of knowledge and understanding should see to it, that we bear a resemblance to little children: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Let us be always like them in freedom from prejudices, being open to conviction, disposed to learn, and make further improvement by all discoveries proposed to us.
Let us resemble them also in humility, or freedom from pride, and high conceit of ourselves: which obstructs improvement, excites to a haughty and imperious behaviour, and disposes to strife and contention, anger and resentment.
Let us resemble them in indifference about worldly things, or a freedom from an inordinate affection for riches, honour and preferment, pre-eminence and authority.
Lastly, let us resemble them in innocence, being as free from all evil practices as possible. In a word, according to this observation of our Lord, we should always endeavour to be, in many respects, what we once were, and what we still see little children to be. So shall we do no evil. So shall we be Israelites indeed, in whom is no guile.
6. This history affords encouragement to young persons arrived to the use of reason and understanding to come to Christ, and offer up themselves to God in and through him. Jesus received the little children who were brought to him; and he proposed them to others as patterns of resemblance, they being free from customs of sinning. But after all, they were rather emblems of virtue, than virtuous themselves. Much more then will they be received by him, who being still without guile, have an actual propensity and disposition to virtue and goodness. If you should neglect yourselves, when you have attained to the use of your rational powers, and are entering into the world, bad principles and habits will grow up, like weeds in a rich soil, of which no care is taken: and you will soon lose all that innocence and simplicity which endears children to the Lord Jesus.
Let me therefore propound to you the few following counsels and directions.
1.) Be induced to give up yourselves to God with deliberation, and with all the seriousness and solemnity you are able, engaging and resolving, that you will not sin against him, or do any thing contrary to his holy commandments, so far as you are acquainted with them. Such a fixed and deliberate purpose and resolution of mind, once formed, may be of great and lasting advantage to you.
2.) Be diligent, and improve your time for gaining knowledge. You are not to be like little children in every thing. You should resemble them in innocence: but in " understanding