Children’s Ministry Magazine visited with bestselling author and senior pastor John Ortberg to discuss his book, Who Is This Man? (Zondervan). Ortberg’s powerfully written book takes a deep look at who Jesus really was as a man in his time—and the very real and enduring impact he had on children.
CM: In Who Is This Man?, you write eloquently about the contrast between Herod the Great (a man of distinct social status) and Jesus the Child (a lowly human-born infant). As a child of the ancient world “on the bottom of the social rung,” you say Jesus came into the world with no dignity. Can you explain what you mean?
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Ortberg: In the ancient world, dignity was a big deal. It was associated with having power, being high status, having wealth, and not having to be a servant. Jesus came as a servant. We tend to think of humility in our day as a virtue that everyone admires, but in the ancient world it was not so. People wanted to be great but not to be humble. Jesus really redefined humility. It’s largely because of him, his servanthood life, and particularly his crucifixion and resurrection that led to humility being a virtue that is so widely admired.
CM: You write that Jesus’ birth represented the birth of the idea that every human being has equal worth. This was an entirely alien concept in the ancient world, and it has transformed how we view children today. How did exploring this concept change the way you think about children?
Ortberg: I was amazed at how Jesus impacted our world’s view of children. It was so striking that one entire book about the subject is simply called When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. I gained a tremendous sense of empathy for children in the ancient world—how many of them died of exposure, how many others were aborted, how many others were brought up in slavery or poverty. And it made me think as well about children who suffer all around our world in our day. It’s amazing to think how our society has changed because Jesus
CM: There’s an unsettling portion of your book that deals with how infants were often left to die during their first eight days of life. This was a decision made by the head of the household the babies were born into. You write: “Since Jesus was regarded as a mamzer—the descendent of a forbidden relationship between two Jews—he would likely not have survived had Joseph been Roman. Abandoned children were often left on a dump or dung hill. They most often died; sometimes they were rescued, but usually that was to become enslaved. This happened often enough that hundreds of ancient names are variations of the word kopros, which was Greek for ‘dung.’ ” This is an incredible concept—that children were thought of with such little regard that their identity would be built around the concept of human refuse. Although we clearly don’t view children with such disregard today, in what ways are we still falling short culturally and as a global community?
Ortberg: We fall far short both within our own culture and all around the globe of viewing and treating children with the kind of worth Jesus gave to them. It’s a tragedy when children are not able to have a healthy diet, it’s a tragedy when children aren’t given the gift of a great education, and it’s a tragedy when children aren’t able to have the kind of health care that they ought to have. In too many cases, we may be concerned about our children but not, as the old Sunday school chorus says, all the children of the world—all of whom are loved by Jesus.
CM: You say Jesus began a social revolution, where children went from hardly being considered people to becoming more valued and protected. As a result of his ministry, early Christians prohibited abortion, exposure, and infanticide. You write: “Elevation of the child came through Jesus.” Why do you think this is such an important aspect of Jesus’ ministry? And how can children’s ministers look at the oft-quoted piece of Scripture (“Let the children come to me”) with fresh eyes and see the deep meaning wrapped in it?
Ortberg: One of the striking aspects of Jesus’ teachings and his life was the way he spoke not simply of the value of children, but how we can learn from them. In the ancient world, children weren’t thought of as people who had much to teach adults. They were just kind of thought of as inferior adults. When Jesus said, “Unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven,” he was going into uncharted territory. People began to view children as human beings through whom God wanted to speak to us—and I think that makes people see children differently.
CM: How can we communicate this message to our churches, where children’s ministry is sometimes viewed as a lesser ministry?
Ortberg: The biggest single gift we can give in terms of communicating this message to our churches is to simply cite Jesus himself. Every time we remind people that Jesus said the disciples were not to keep children away, every time we remind our church that Jesus loved to hug little children and bless them, we’re elevating the status of children in our midst. I think when folks volunteer in our churches to serve children, they’re doing what Jesus himself chose to do—and we want to make those people heroes.
CM: What would you say to the average, twice-per-month-church-attending parents today who don’t feel equipped?
Ortberg: I can’t imagine anybody who feels equipped, but if I wait until I feel equipped, I’ll never do it. The reality is all parents are their children’s faith teachers whether they want to be or not. And, I would say, don’t allow your inadequacy to keep you from doing what no one else can do. Pray, ask God for help, look for resources, find a great church to partner with you, and read. Above all, plunge into the adventure of knowing God yourself not only for your sake, but also for the sake of your children.
CM: How would you encourage children’s ministry volunteers and leaders who live in the trenches day in and out who wonder whether their ministry makes a difference?
Ortberg: When I was at Willow Creek Church, our senior pastor Bill Hybels used to have a wonderful saying for people who were involved in ministry: “You’re not crazy. It’s worth all the hours and the effort, all the prayer, all the blood, sweat, and tears.” We’re told in Scriptures that our lives are hidden with Christ in God. And part of what that hiddenness means is, we won’t know in this lifetime the true significance of what we’ve done. Only God really sees and knows the fruit. We walk by faith and not by sight, and so I would say to every ministry volunteer, every leader, everybody who labors so that there can be a connection between an adult and a child that honors God and presents Jesus: You’re not crazy. It makes a difference. It made a difference in my life in the church where I asked Jesus to be my forgiver and my friend when I was a boy, and it makes a difference in the lives of millions of children still.