Friday, 15 June 2018

Childlike - or childish?

Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it”. Mark 10:15

When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 1 Corinthians 13:11

Somebody asked me recently how I would explain the “apparent conflict” between these two verses.

On the one hand Jesus tells his followers that they must “receive the kingdom of God like a little child” if they are to have any hope of entering it. On the other, Paul tells the Christians of Corinth that “when I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me”.

A contradiction? I don’t think so.

Jesus and Paul are speaking in completely different contexts and addressing completely different situations.

Talking about how men and women can enter the kingdom of God, Jesus vividly cuts the ground from under the feet of anyone who imagines they can do this under their own steam - by their own goodness, effort or “religiousness”.

No! he says. The only way to enter the kingdom of God is to receive it as a free gift, just as a small child will reach out their hand to take something from an adult. It’s all to do with innocence, dependence and trust.

Jesus, I’m sure, was very well aware that children can be quarrelsome, selfish and difficult - no way would he idealise them as “little angels”! - but the point he is emphasising is that small children can literally do nothing for themselves. And, by the same token, just as they depend utterly on trusted adults, so we can do nothing for ourselves in terms of entering God’s kingdom; we can only trust totally in God our heavenly Father.

Paul, on the other hand, is speaking into a very different situation. Putting it bluntly, he is thoroughly brassed off with the childishness of the Christians of Corinth. See what he says in 3:2: “I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit, but as people who are still worldly - mere infants in Christ...”

All sorts of bad things are happening in the church, and it seems that they couldn’t care less. Skim through the letter and you find: factions and divisions; immoral behaviour (not just tolerated but delighted in); chaotic worship services; church members hauling one another up before the pagan law courts; the communion meal turned into an excuse for gluttony and drunkenness. What’s going on!

They’re no better than a bunch of children squabbling and fighting in the playground!

And it’s in this context that Paul suggests that it’s high time they “put the ways of childhood behind them”.

I think a good way to sum it all up is this: Childlike - good, yes! Childish - bad, no!

The two passages highlight a vital principle of Bible interpretation, and also pose a two-fold challenge.

The principle of interpretation is: When you read the Bible, always see the verse or passage in context. Don’t just yank verses out like a fish on a line and read into them whatever meaning you fancy. That can lead to serious error.

The first challenge is: Would you like to enter the kingdom of God? - that means, have your sins forgiven, receive the gift of eternal life, become a son or daughter of God the Father.
Yes? Then whatever you do, don’t try and do anything. Salvation is a free gift, and it cannot be earned, deserved or paid for. Just reach out your hands in simple, childlike trust and take from God what he is overjoyed to offer you. It’s that simple; it really is!

The second challenge: Are you already in the kingdom of God? Perhaps you came to faith in Christ many years ago, and still today you are part of the church. That’s good. But... how mature are you? How grown up?

Have you taken the time and trouble to deepen your faith and knowledge? Have you consciously tried to develop Christlike holiness and thoughtful discipleship?

Or (if the truth were known) are you a bit like those petty, childish Corinthian Christians to whom Paul says, in effect, “Will you please, please, please grow up!”?

Paul wasn’t the only church leader to know this kind of frustration. The unknown writer of the letter to the Hebrews had it just the same. He scolds his readers, “You need milk, not solid food!” He urges them to “move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity...” (Hebrews 5:12-6:1).

It seems that spiritual immaturity has been a curse of the church down through two thousand years. Make sure you’re not perpetuating it!

Dear Father in heaven, help me to be, as Jesus said, as shrewd as a snake and as harmless as a dove. Amen.

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