Beginning with Matthew 18 we start a section of the book that records a lot of the teaching of Christ. It will be followed by the journey to Jerusalem and the triumphal entry (Matthew 21). The teachings we encounter first are geared to his disciples. In these passages there will be little or no reference made to the Old Testament directly, and so our time will be spent sorting out what Jesus was saying precisely. Of course we could settle down in one of these units and study it at great length. But in the beginning of our study of the Bible we should try to cover all the material fairly quickly, determining the points and their application today.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. 6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin. Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come. 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
10 See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.
15 And if your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won the brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax-collector. 18 I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he was no able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 The servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [a day’s wage for a worker is a denarius]. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me,” he demanded. 29 His fellow servant fell on his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me and I will pay you back.” 30 But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 Then the master called the servant in . “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled your debt because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailors to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
This chapter is the fourth major discourse in the Book of Matthew. Like the others, like the Sermon on the Mount for example, you could break it up into a half dozen lessons or so. And if you have the time and inclination to do that, that would be most profitable. But it is also valuable to study the discourse as a whole, to see the sweep of it. When you do this, you will not spend so much time on the particulars in each section--just enough to know what each paragraph is saying and how it might be applied.
The discourse is bracketed by comments that it was delivered on one occasion. The chapter parallels Mark 9:33-50 in a number of ways; but the differences are so many that it is likely one or both of the accounts has been selective or has adapted the material to the audience of the book. Here we do not have enough information to know what they did.
The chapter is not a code of rules for the believing community, like Qumran’s Manual of Discipline. It presents principles to follow in the Christian life. This makes the application easier because the principles will work in a variety of situations. What is said in this chapter is not that hard to understand--it is painfully clear.
What strikes you as you read the chapter is the use of family terms for believers--they are little ones, children, brethren. The family terminology, related elsewhere to covenant language, immediately reminds us of our duties to one another.
But what also strikes you is the seriousness of what Jesus taught. His repeated “I tell you the truth” means that what he was saying was binding. And the descriptions of the punishment for those who persistently refuse and rebel underscore the seriousness of it all.
We will work through the passage section by section; in your own work you may study the whole chapter, or separate sections one at a time.
The discourse begins with the disciple’s question about who was the greatest in the kingdom. If we piece the Gospels together, Luke tells us that Jesus detected their rivalry (9:46-48), Mark says he then challenged them and silenced them (Mark 9:33-38), and Matthew reports how they blurted out this question.
The section begins with “At that time.” Jesus had been talking about his suffering and death; but it was as if the disciples were on another wave-length. They are concerned with who would be the greatest. It may be that Jesus’ teaching on distinctions in the kingdom (5:19), or Jesus’ attention to the three disciples and to Peter as the rock, might have set off the rivalry. It would continue in 20:20-23 with the request of the mother of James and John. These kinds of questions came from a group of men who had a limited understanding of the kingdom. If they were thinking of a purely human kingdom like David had, the questions might not have seemed to them out of order. But later when they realized this was the King of Glory who would be seated on the right hand of the Majesty on High, then questions of where they would sit in the kingdom would prove embarrassing by their ignorance.
Jesus responded to their question with a demonstration--a child. The child could have been Peter’s if this was in Peter’s house (17:25; Mark 9:33). Be that as it may, Jesus solemnly warns them (“I tell you the truth”--when did he not tell them the truth?) that they must change and become like little children, for unless they do they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. The point of the child as an illustration is humility (not innocence or faith, for the child would not yet know enough to come to faith). The child is not concerned with social status (although the child quickly learns that from adults). The point is that Jesus advocates humility of mind (v. 4) and not childishness of thought (see 10:16). Then, out of such humility will come the childlike trust.
The point is that the kingdom cannot be gained by merit or force. The disciples have to change, they have to become like children in their heart attitudes. The person who truly humbles himself will be the greatest in the kingdom. The disciples have begun their journey to kingdom greatness by trusting the Lord; but they have to set aside this rivalry and humble themselves.
A good illustration of this is King Solomon. He humbled himself and prayed for wisdom to govern the people of Israel, saying, “I am only a little child” (1 Kings 3:7). And God made him great in every way.
In this section we have a teaching that answers a question. The teaching used the illustration of a child. Such a response would be remembered very well by the disciples who had much to learn.
These verses form a tight unit built around a promise-warning proverb and held together by the “stumblingblock” theme. What is new, though, is the reference to believers as “little ones,” clearly building on the teaching of verses 1-4.
The first part of the teaching is a blessing: whoever welcomes a little child in the name of Christ welcomes Christ. Jesus was not meaning “little child” literally, but one who has humbled himself or herself to receive Christ by faith. They are the disciples. And they are not welcomed because they are great--they are welcomed because they are believers in Jesus. That is the basis on which the devout welcome disciples. This goes beyond mere hospitality; it presupposes the animosity of the world and is therefore the spiritual care of the devout followers of Jesus for the disciples of Jesus. To welcome them is to welcome Jesus into their homes.
On the other hand, children are susceptible to danger and can stumble, even the greatest of them. So the warning is given to those who cause these little ones to stumble. The idea is that by rejecting the little ones, by not welcoming them, some will cause them to stumble in their discipleship. It may lead to serious sin; but it immediately concerns their following Jesus. Rejecting them is rejecting Jesus (see 10:40-42; 25:31-46).
Because the crime is so great, that is, because they not only reject Jesus but seek to cause the little ones, believers, to sin and turn away from Christ, the denunciation is strong. It would be better for them to be drowned in the sea before doing this, than to commit these crimes and face eschatological judgment. There is some advantage for a premature death of the wicked. Jesus referred to the heavy millstone, the stone pulled by animals, to make the point forceful; and the description of eternal punishment is likewise severe. The point is that the little ones, the disciples of Jesus, are under his care; and whatever people do to them, they are really doing to Jesus. This too fits the imagery of a family.
Then Jesus announces a woe to the world, especially to those who would do so wickedly (7). This is a proclamation of judgment, not an expression of sympathy. And it focuses on the world and the stumbling blocks. The stumbling blocks are there, but woe to those through whom they come. By this teachings believers know that there will be opposition and occasions for stumbling--Jesus said it is there (which indicates it is a part of God’s [permissive, at least] will for the victory of faith). But Jesus’ words also assure that in the end justice will triumph.
A good illustration of this is in Acts 4:27 and 28. It was the plan of God that the Messiah was to be opposed, rejected and crucified. But Herod and Pilate and the leaders got together to plot how to kill Jesus. By their choice they would become the ones through whom the opposition developed. Here is that strange cooperation of divine plan and human will in the realm of the wickedness of the world. Herod and Pilate did what they wanted to do; and it would have been better for them if they had never been born.
Then in verses 8 and 9 Jesus instructs the disciples to get rid of things that cause them to sin. The language here is extravagant. But the point is that disciples also could become aggressors and not just victims: “ But, if your hand . . . .” Failure to deal radically with sin in their own life, especially sin that harms other believers, betrays their allegiance to the world. It is not enough for Christians to confess such sins and then go their normal way. No, they must determine how to rid themselves of the opportunity and the propensity for such sin.
How do we know that these lines are to be interpreted figuratively? Some have taken them literally and cut off hands and maimed themselves to root out sin. But the root of sin is the heart. We know Jesus did not mean to cut off the land literally, so that one could enter the kingdom maimed, because no one enters the kingdom maimed. We will all be raised and changed and made whole. This is the language of hyperbole. Get rid of the occasion for sin, especially if that sin is destroying the little ones.
And, the passage is not really telling the church to excommunicate sinners. Jesus’ point is very different than that.
So in this section Jesus builds on the teachings of humility introduced before, but he does it now with proverb-like sayings, i.e., what is better and what is worse, to teach what people should do. The teaching is not designed to say throw wicked people into the sea or cut off hands that offend; rather, it is designed to say that people should not sin against others, especially the believers, and cause them to sin. The church has not taken this to heart, for its history is filled with acts of wickedness against other believers, often by those with the power to do so, but not entirely by them. That is not humility; they are not great in the kingdom (those who are in the kingdom).
The parable told here appears also in Luke 15:3-7. But there it is not told to disciples, but to the Pharisees, in defense of Jesus’ attitude to sinners. Lots of scholars struggle with the question of which was the original telling, or where the story came from, or other critical issues. The parable is simple and powerful enough to have more than one use, to be told for more than one purpose. But a close look at the two passages will reveal a few differences, indicating that they were two similar parables told with very different aims. In Matthew Jesus was explaining his Father’s concern that none of the little ones should be lost.
The “little ones” are the believers, the ones who humble themselves and become like little children. If they do that, they will be among the Messianic community. But if they mistreat the little ones and oppose them, they will share the woes..
The reason that the little ones must be treated with respect is because “their angels in heaven” always see the face of the father. Many have taken this as a reference to guardian angels--that every believer has a protecting angel. But there is no evidence in the Bible of that. And besides, why would they be in heaven always seeing the face of God? B. B. Warfield develops what may be the best interpretation of this, namely that the angels of the little ones are their own spirits after death, which always see the father’s face. Do not despise them, Jesus says, because their destiny is to be in the presence of God, to see his glory (see Acts 12:15).
So if God rejoices over one straying sheep that is found, how would people dare cause any of the sheep to go astray? The father is unwilling for them to be lost; so to try to scatter the sheep is to oppose the will of God. The flock as a whole will not be missing even one of its true members.
Now Jesus explains how the members of his church (which he said he was going to build [Matt. 16]) should deal with someone who sins against another, or, more specifically, how to deal with someone who despises another brother.
The initial step is to confront the brother privately and show him his fault. The aim is to win him over, not to destroy him. The one who does this must do it with true humility and in love.
Then, if the private confrontation does not work, the next step is to take two or three witnesses and try to bring about a change (Deut. 19:15). The use of witnesses shows the link between the Messianic kingdom and the Israelite community of the Old Testament period. The united testimony of the witnesses will establish the resolution.
If the guilty person refuses to submit to the considered judgment of the people of the Messiah, the church, then that one is to be treated as a pagan. This does not mean here to treat the guilty with compassion (just because Jesus had compassion on the pagans and tax collectors). Jesus has in mind barring the guilty from the community until he repents. Each member of the church is to abide by the corporate judgment of the church with the responsibility of ensuring the good of the Christian community.
Verses 19 and 20 are not a general promise for prayer, as if to say anything we pray for if a couple of people agree on it then God must do. Teachings on prayer occur in other places, but here they are concerned with the confrontation of a guilty brother. The text does not say they pray, just if they agree “about anything”--here “any judicial matter.” The two who agree are probably the offender and the one against whom the offense has been committed. So if they come to a resolution and agree, it will be allowed, ratified--it will “come off.” This is because they prayed and came to a wise decision, and God’s binding and loosing stands behind the process followed--God’s presence stands with his judges/elders.
All of this prompted Peter to come to Jesus and ask how many times one must forgive a brother--seven times? This now concerns personal forgiveness, not the work of the church. And Peter must have thought he had covered the answer: Judaism taught forgiveness for the same sin three times, but Peter suggests seven.
But Jesus’ response is way more than that. He alludes to Genesis 4:24 to say seventy-seven times! Lamech’s revenge becomes a guideline for forgiveness. Jesus did not mean that seventy-seven was the limit; nor did he mean there was no discipline in the church and that people should simply keep forgiving. His point was that sins among the brethren, these little ones were to be forgiven, and forgiveness cannot be limited by frequency or quantity.
The point of the Gospel, as the next parable shows, is that everyone has been forgiven more than they will ever forgive.
In this context this story is clear enough, painfully clear. It illustrates the Lord’s prayer that we ask forgiveness as we forgive. This unmerciful owed millions, and he was forgiven his debt. But he then turned around and exacted a hundred days wages. But he had no sense of forgiveness or mercy. And it all came back on his head at the end, or in judgment day.
There is no incongruity with God’s magnanimous forgiveness and his ruthless judgment. It is because God is so compassionate and merciful that he cannot and will not tolerate those who are not. People who do not forgive do not truly know what it means to be forgiven--they see it as a personal gain and something to be used to gain personal power over others.
There is no reason to go back through each of the six sections and summarize the point being taught and the method Jesus used. That has been clear enough in a careful reading. This is one of those passages where it is clear but troubling.
The theme of the chapter is certainly the care and well-being of the little ones, those who follow Jesus by faith. They are not to be harmed of mistreated in any way, especially by others in the church (would that the churches paid attention to this). And, for the sake of the unity of the church, believers are to find the correct way to resolve their difficulties, and that involves prayerful consideration with witnesses, and forgiveness without measure (would too that the churches practiced this).
But these are not options! Jesus’ warning for those who harm the little ones, or those who sin against the brethren, or those who refuse to forgive, is very sharp. His warning raises the question in each case whether those who do such things are even in the church.