And when they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you discussing on the way?" But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, "If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." And he took a child and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."
Hurting and Needy Children All over the World
If you leave out the heartache of miscarriages and the genocide of abortion (which this conference did), the statistics of the conference are painful enough. Fourteen million children who reach the age of birth die each year before the age of five. If we could all put a face on each of those children and hear the wheezing and the cries and feel the final limp silence, what an ocean of grief would fill the world. I always marvel at the awesome emotional depth and complexity of God that enables him to empathize with the grief of millions and millions of parents all the time, and yet rejoice with those who rejoice in him.
Poverty, Sickness, and Dying Before the Age of 5
Of these fourteen million, about ten million die from five conditions: about five million from diarrhea; about three million from measles, tetanus, and whooping cough; and about two million from respiratory infections, mainly pneumonia. Most of these could be saved by simple Oral Rehydration Therapies for the diarrhea; a five dollar injection for the measles, tetanus, and whooping cough; and a $.50 antibiotic for the respiratory problems.
But of course the vast majority of these children are among the desperately poor, far from the medical blessings we take for grated. About 800,000,000 people live in absolute poverty. Of these, 70,000,000 are on the threshold of starvation. Another 400,000,000 consume less than the "minimum critical diet." Half of the children of the absolute poor do not live to be five. Over 100 million children are always hungry. Keep in mind that about 195,000,000 of these poor are professing Christians.
Even if Jesus hadn't said things as stunning as we read in this text, children would have to be a major concern, because 30% of the world's six and a half billion people are under the age of 15. There are at least 90 countries where over 40% of the population is under 15 and several countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe where over half the population is under 15.
Victims of Violence Abroad
Increasingly these children are not only the victims of malnutrition and disease and starvation, but also of violence. Let me make this painfully vivid with a quote from a letter I got last week from Robert Seiple, the president of World Vision.
One of our sponsored children, a 14 year old Palestinian boy living on the West Bank, was caught by 16 Israeli soldiers as he was writing graffiti on a wall. The soldiers placed him up against the wall, and one shot him four times in the eye. As he lay on the ground, still alive, he was savagely beaten for almost an hour. During that time he was forced to stick his finger into his wound and wipe out the graffiti with his own blood. He was then bound and dragged through the village streets; finally thrown into the back of a jeep, and rudely dumped at a local hospital. Miraculously, he lived. Tragically this incident is not atypical. The entire drama was witnessed by an American. It has since been recorded in Western journals.
Victims of Violence in America
Now the point here is not to criticize other nations, or to say that atrocities only happen to children in war-torn regions. America is one of the most violent countries in the world against its children. Not only do we kill a million and a half pre-born children a year, but 22% of the children in America live in poverty; one out of every four girls under eighteen has probably been sexually abused by someone close to her; possibly as high as 30% of all mental retardation may be owing to fetal alcohol syndrome; one study of 36 hospitals showed that in 10% of the pregnancies mothers used illegal drugs during pregnancy; and 89% of school teachers surveyed report that abuse and neglect of children are a problem in their education. The American home is increasingly an unsafe place for children to be. And there is no better place. The family is God's will.
Jesus' Word About Children
Now let me put over against this the Word of the Lord Jesus—the Word that has absolute authority for all Christians and shows us how to spend our short lives in the most significant way, and gets at the root of why so many children suffer from neglect and abuse.
In our text Jesus says two very powerful things that will transform the way we relate to children. And between these two things, one in verse 35 and the other in verse 37, Jesus places a real living child. Let's listen to these two things that Jesus says and see what the child has to do with each one.
The Path to True Greatness
The first thing Jesus says is in response to the fact that the disciples were discussing who of them was the greatest. Verse 34: "But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest." To this Jesus responds with his first word (verse 35): "He sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, 'If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.'"
He Doesn't Destroy the Pursuit of Greatness
What Jesus does here is very profound. He recognizes in his disciples' quest for greatness a good thing that has become ugly and distorted by sin. And instead of destroying the whole distorted thing, he describes a pathway on which the distorted and ugly pursuit of greatness will be radically transformed into something beautiful.
Nowhere does Jesus criticize a person for pursuing true greatness or true significance. I think that's because he created us to be great and to be significant—to come to the end of our lives and feel that they were well spent and well invested. But what has happened to this God-given longing for greatness is that it has been corrupted by sin in two ways:
- it has been corrupted into a longing not to be great, but to be
known as great; and
- it has been corrupted into a longing not to be great, but to be greater than someone else.
In other words, the joy of true greatness has been perverted by sin into the carnal pleasure we sinners get when others praise us and when we think we are greater than others are. Jesus sees this in his disciples and instead of destroying the whole distorted thing, he describes a pathway on which it will be radically transformed into something beautiful.
He Radically Transforms the Quest for Greatness
He says true greatness is not wanting to be first while others are second and third and fourth, but true greatness is the willingness to be last. And true greatness is not positioning yourself so that others praise you, but true greatness is putting yourself in a position to serve everyone—to be a blessing to as many as you possibly can.
So Jesus doesn't condemn the quest for greatness. He radically transforms it. Go ahead and pursue it, he says. But the path is down, not up.
Take pastors, for example: the measure of true greatness is not how many people come to his church, or how many books he has written, or how many conferences he speaks at, or how many stations carry his radio program. The measure of true greatness is to what degree has the impulse to self-exaltation been crucified? How much heartfelt desire to serve others has there been? How much readiness and willingness to decrease while others increase?
Beware how you measure greatness in the servants of the Lord. Paul said, "Do not pronounce judgment before the time, until the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God" (1 Corinthians 4:5; cf. Romans 2:29).
Children Are Among the "All" We Are Called to Serve
That's the first thing Jesus says in this text. "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." And before he says the second he takes a child and puts him in the circle of apostles. Verse 36: "And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms . . . " First he set the child in the midst of the group, and then he picked up the child in his arms.
Now why did he do this? What does this action have to do with the teaching on true greatness that Jesus just gave to the twelve in verse 35?
The point is so clear that Jesus doesn't have to say it. The point is that children are among the "all" of verse 35: "You must be the servant of all . . . " For example, here's a child. I am taking this child in my arms to show you that if you would be great, if you would be first, you must be the servant of children. You must take time for children. You must not look down on or despise children. You must not say this is simply women's work. If you would be great, you will not rule out nursery duty; you will pray earnestly about teaching primaries; you will think hard about leading a boys' club or girls' club; you will spend yourself in the fight to overcome child-killing.
Why Bring Children into the Picture?
Why does Jesus illustrate his point about serving with a child? The discussion wasn't about children. Why does Jesus bring them in?
The answer is that there is no political payback in serving children: they can't vote. And they don't give speeches about how great is your helpfulness. In fact they pretty much take for granted that you will take care of them. They don't make a big deal out of the fact that you pour your life out for them. And so, children prove, more clearly than any other kind of people, whether you are truly great or not—whether you live to serve or live to be praised. (Cf. Luke 14:13–14 for how the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind also prove this.)
Receiving Children in Jesus' Name—Receiving God
Now comes the second thing Jesus said (v. 37), and it is utterly unexpected. We might have expected him to pick up on his point in verse 35 and apply it to children. Something like: "Now here's a child. The person in our society that men don't serve. The person men don't take the time for. The person you don't think is worth your time. Well I am showing you that children are worth your time. They are significant. When you receive one of them and serve one of them, you are serving a person just as valuable as the emperor of Rome."
But that is not what Jesus says. Jesus turns the whole discussion away from the value of the child to the value of God. This is what is so different about Jesus and about the Bible—even from many of our Christian child-advocates writing today. Jesus says: "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."
Two Utterly Crucial Elements to Caring for Children
Two things are utterly crucial in caring for children. One: is it done in Jesus' name? "Whoever receives one such child in my 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. "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me and whoever receives me receives not me but the One who sent me."
Why does he say this? Why does he bring everything to a focus on God and the value of receiving more of God? Do you ever want to say to Jesus, "Lighten up! Does everything always have to be theological?" The answer is yes, it does. For Jesus everything has to do with God, or it is fundamentally distorted.
How to Serve Children Best and Why
And if someone asks, What about the children? Aren't you supposed to serve the children because of the children? Surely the answer of Jesus here is this: 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.
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.
Putting Jesus' Two Statements Together
Now put the two things Jesus said together. In verse 35 he said: if you would be first, you must be last of all and servant of all (especially children). And in verse 37 he said: if you receive a child in my name, you receive God. 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?