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Commentary on Matthew (9)

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Guidance For The New Congregation (18.1-19.1).

This chapter has been compared with the Manual of Discipline found at Qumran which was intended to regulate a specific community, and has been seen as similarly giving instructions concerning the regulating of the new community of disciples. As a general comparison that may be seen as acceptable, but it is not strictly accurate. For it must be noted that this is not really a Manual of Discipline at all, nor is it set out as such, it is rather a warm and vibrant series of teachings which demonstrate the concern that all His disciples must have for those within their wider group (the ‘congregation’ or open community built on the truth of His Messiahship - 16.18) because they have all been united within the forgiving love and compassion of the Father, and have entered under the Kingly Rule of God.

It commences when the disciples, some having their families with them, are gathered in Galilee, preparatory to going to Jerusalem for what is to be Jesus’ last Passover. At this point Jesus brings two things home to them:

  • 1) That He is shortly to be betrayed and executed, after which He will rise again. This had had a deep impact on them and had filled them with sorrow (17.22-23).
  • 2) That, as Peter has no doubt passed on to them, Jesus and His disciples (both male and female) are not really under Temple Law but are sons of the Father, even though in the meanwhile they pay the Temple Tax from God provided resources (17.24-27).

From what follows later we know that the disciples did not see these things as we see them. They had mainly grown up with the idea that although the Jews were at present in bondage to the Romans, one day a Messiah would arise who would sweep the Romans out of the land, and establish the Law and the Temple, finally bringing about the Jews’ worldwide rule and judgment on the wicked. In one way or another this was the common belief of the day in Palestine.

This was in general what John the Baptist had believed (3.11), which was why he had been puzzled at the fact that Jesus had not demonstrated a desire for a positive move forward, or shown any inclination towards political power (11.2-6). This was, with embellishments, what the Qumran community believed, although restricting many of its benefits to themselves as the holy seed, and refusing to have anything to do with the present Temple. This was in general what the Pharisees believed, (although some believed that the Messiah would come as a great teacher), and they anticipated that he would necessarily support their views, and some saw the forward movement as occurring through his powerful teaching of the Law. This was why after the miracle of the loaves some in the crowds had sought to crown Jesus as their king, convinced that, if He could do that, God must be powerfully on His side, so that defeating the Romans should be no problem to Him (John 6.14-15).

So to His disciples what Jesus was saying would appear to them to be pointers to the fact that the moment when they must rise up against their enemies was approaching. They were confident that He had come to ‘restore the kingship to Israel’ (Acts 1.6). Thus His talk about coming betrayal and death, followed by resurrection, probably suggested to them that there was shortly to be an uprising, during which Jesus would be betrayed to the enemy and put to death, followed by His vindication as God raised Him up from the dead, no doubt then to reveal His divine power and destroy the enemy. And, as they late revealed, they were ready to fight to this end, whenever called on, whatever the odds might be (26.51). For they knew from many examples in the Scriptures that God could save by many or by few. His words about their being God’s sons and therefore exempt from Temple tax (as the priests also were) appeared to be a clear indication that they would all then share unique privileges in the new set up as ‘sons’ and not servants.

That this was their view of things is further confirmed by 20.20-21 where James and John sought to pre-empt their fellow disciples by booking the seats of prime authority in the coming period of Kingly Rule. Thus as their anticipation rose at these indicators that He was about to begin His decisive action, so did their expectancy of future privilege. And that was what had caused their recent discussions amongst themselves as to who would be the greatest among them (Mark 9.34). And that was why, when Jesus broached them with it, they came back with the question. ‘Who is the greatest within the Kingly Rule of Heaven?’ It is clear from this that they did not accept that Peter was their leader, or that with James and John he was specially privileged. They still clearly felt that the matter was undecided. But what is important in respect of what follows is that they all had their eyes set on being ‘great’. In spite of all that Jesus had taught them they saw ahead of them a rosy future of privilege and superior status. And that was what they were looking forward to.

Jesus replies by demonstrating that true greatness is found, not in being great or in having an ambition for greatness, but in disregarding the thought of greatness (1-4), in seeking to serve others, in strengthening the lowly so as to prevent them from falling (5-7), in avoiding sin (8-10), in seeking out the erring (12-14), in restoring the fallen (15-17), and in being totally forgiving, as they themselves had been forgiven (21-35). It is found in walking in accordance with the sermon on the mount, for the one who is great within the sphere of the Kingly Rule of Heaven is the one who observes every one of God’s requirements in His Law and teaches men so (5.19). It will also be expressed in his concern to do the will of his Father (7.23; 12.50). So Jesus is here seeking to alter the whole perspective that governs their thinking. That is why He elsewhere says, ‘The Kingly Rule of God does not come with outward observation, for the Kingly Rule of God is among (or within) you’ (Luke 17.20-21). The Kingly Rule of God was already being built up in those who responded to His teaching, and yet they still could not see it.

During the course of this teaching in Matthew 18 Jesus therefore brings up the question of regulation among themselves as the new congregation of God’s people, as those who are within God’s Kingly Rule. For all this will be necessary once He has gone. Following on the need to be concerned for every individual within the ‘congregation’ including themselves (1-14), this includes mutual self-regulation out of concern for each other (15-17), and their responsibility to make clear, as revealed by God, what principles are to bind His people, and what principles can be relaxed (18-20). For His Father will be with them in order to illuminate them (18.19), and He Himself will be among them to guide them in His ways (18.20). It is to be a community of love. They are to see themselves as debtors to God for the amazing forgiveness that they have received, and to remember that they are therefore to have that same attitude towards others who ‘owe’ anything to them (18.21-35). The one who is most conscious of the huge amount of sin for which he has been forgiven, will be the one who is most compassionate and caring and forgiving of others, and who will therefore the better serve Him.

This is the fourth of the so-called sayings sections of Matthew. In the overall pattern of the Gospel it parallels Jesus’ words on sending out the disciples in chapter 10. Having evangelised men and brought them into His new congregation, they must now establish and build it up in a spirit of loving concern and compassion and unity.

Analysis of 18.1-19.1

  • a In that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, (18.1a).
  • b Those who have a humility on the same level as that of children are the greatest in the Kingly Rule of Heaven (18.1b-4).
  • c Those who receive these young believers receive Jesus, but those who cause believers, especially young believers, to stumble will face eternal destruction, for such believers are known in Heaven (18.5-9).
  • d The young believers are His Father’s sheep, and if they go astray He will seek them out and restore them, for it is not His will that any of them should perish (18.10-14).
  • e How to deal with sin arising in the congregation, individually, at the hands of two or three, or at the hands of the whole congregation (18.15-17).
  • f The authority given to the congregation through its leadership to bind and loose, to determine how the new congregation will be regulated and how the Law will be applied (18.18).
  • e Where any two agree on earth concerning what shall be asked of the Father it shall be done for them, for two or three meeting together are sure of having Jesus in their midst (18.19-20).
  • d Forgiveness to one who expresses repentance is to be offered seventy times sevenfold, because they are in the same position as the servant whose king forgave his servant a huge debt (18.21-27).
  • c They are not to be like the one offered full forgiveness who then refused to forgive his fellow servant his comparatively small debt, thus causing him to stumble (18.28-30).
  • b Those who are lacking in the humility to forgive will be brought to judgment, for His heavenly Father will severely chasten the unforgiving and require their debt of them (18.31-33).
  • a And it came about that when Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilee, and came into the borders of Judaea beyond the Jordan, and great crowds followed Him, and He healed them there (19.1-2).

Note how in ‘a’ the disciples came to Him with questions and in the parallel the crowds follow Him. In ‘b’ those who have the humility of little children are greatest in the Kingly Rule of Heaven, while in the parallel those who are lacking in that humility will be dealt with severely. In ‘c’ those who cause believers to stumble will themselves be destroyed, and in the parallel the servant who made life difficult for his fellow servant will be severely punished. In ‘d’ the straying young believer will be restored by the shepherd, and in the parallel the straying offender must be restored by forgiveness. In ‘e’ a sinning member can be dealt with by two or three, and in the parallel the needs of the congregation can be solved by the prayers of two or three. Centrally in ‘f’ the disciples are given the authority to regulate the worship of the people of God in the new congregation.

The One Who Is Greatest In The Kingly Rule of Heaven Is The One Who Has Least Desire To Be So And Does Not Even Think About It (18.1-4).

The ‘disciples’ here are the ones who have ‘gathered’ ready to go to Jerusalem with Jesus (17.22) and included among them little children. But it would be the twelve and their close compatriots who would approach Jesus with their question (as Mark makes very clear). They were the ones most concerned about their own position.

They were becoming more and more aware from what Jesus had said that in some way or other the Kingly Rule of God, which they had experienced in their lives, was soon to become established on a ‘grander’ mode (compare 20.20-23). It was somehow to grow and become widespread (13). And because of their Galilean background they probably thought of it in terms of an eventual military uprising led by Jesus (compare Acts 1.6). And they thus recognised from past history, that from being relative nonentities they would become very important, as had happened to the Maccabees in the previous successful uprising.

This must have seemed apparent to them from much of what He had said, (as interpreted by their background, for there was general widespread expectancy of a military Messiah), and although they did not fully understand its ramifications, they sensed by now that it was ‘at the door’ and that they were to have an important part to play in it. And there is little doubt from their attitude here that each of them was looking forward to being important.

They had no doubt learned from an awed Peter of what had happened with regard to the Temple tax. That in itself was an indication to them that Jesus had in mind being soon freed from earthly obligations when as King and Messiah He took up His rightful position, (as it seemed that He would soon do), and they would then all seemingly be seen as part of ‘the Royal Family’. Then no one would be able to ask them for tax. They would be the ones who would do the taxing! So now they wanted to make sure that they did not miss out in the competition for the highest positions.

Initially they had not intended to approach Jesus about the matter. Somehow they had sensed that He might not approve. But they had certainly been discussing it among themselves (Mark 9.33-34). And the reason that their question came up at this point was because Jesus had asked them what it was they had been talking about on the way. Without realising it they had become like politicians, gathered around a new successful leader, vying for the best posts. So now, while trying not to make it too blatant, they wanted His advice on the best way of going about it. Of course this could be presented as being so that they could be worthy ministers. They would want Him to have the impression that they did not want to let Him down. But there is no doubt that it was also because they wanted to ensure that they did not lose out.

If they had taken in His words about humiliation, death and resurrection at all, it was probably because they were thinking in terms of a coming battle for the establishment of His Kingly Rule during which He would be captured, humiliated and executed, only to rise again and confound His enemies. Then the Lord’s Anointed (‘Christos’) would finally triumph with Israel over the nations (Psalm 2) and they would share His triumph. So the question now was, who was the greatest among them? Or alternately, how could they become the greatest? And the following question then would have been, where did each one of them fit into the picture? How were they doing? Only Jesus’ first answer did not somehow seem to encourage that.

Analysis.

  • a In that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest within the Kingly Rule of Heaven?” (1).
  • b And he called to him a little child, and set him in the midst of them (2).
  • c And said, “Truly I say to you, Unless you have been turned, and have become as little children, you will in no way have entered into the Kingly Rule of Heaven (3).
  • b Whoever therefore has humbled himself as this little child (4a).
  • a The same is the greatest in the Kingly Rule of Heaven (4b).

Note that in ‘a’ the question is as to who is the greatest within the Kingly Rule of Heaven and in the parallel the answer is that it is the one with the humble attitude of a little child believer. In ‘b’ the child is set among them, and in the parallel he is the example of the humility required. In ‘c’ it is stressed that only by being made like this can a man even enter the Kingly Rule of Heaven.

18.1 ‘In that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest within the Kingly Rule of Heaven?” ’

‘In that hour’ is similar to ‘at that time’ and connects what is now said with what has just gone before. Three of them (Peter, James and John) were probably already feeling a little smug, with ambitions that were growing (20.20-21). They were no doubt conscious that they had been ‘picked out’ and had experienced His glory in the mountain, although none of the others knew about that yet. How difficult it must have been for the three to keep their mouths shut when the argument was progressing. Yet perhaps it was their very silence about what had happened that had provoked the arguments about greatness. They were possibly seen as getting above themselves.

For none of the disciples seems to have had any doubt about their own coming importance or worthiness for it, and the fact that it was clearly something that they had all been arguing about on the way to where they were (Mark 9.33-34) demonstrates how important it was to them. It could even have been argued (by them) that it was ‘seeking the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness’, for their success would surely ensure the success of the Kingly Rule of God. But in their hearts they all knew perfectly well that Jesus would see them as being in the wrong, and that somehow this was not in accord with what Jesus had taught them. That is why they had hoped to keep it from Him. And thus at His questioning them as to what they had been talking about they were ashamed. However, in the end one of them obviously owned up to it and they then followed it up by asking, “Who then is greatest within the Kingly Rule of Heaven?”

The implication behind the question was not necessarily as to who was to be their leader, for they probably thought in terms of group leadership, but rather as to who would occupy the highest positions, and what the requirements would be. They wanted a rating and some assurance of their value. They did not want to lose out. (And James and John would shortly attempt to pre-empt them all (20.20-21) so the lesson given here was not easily learned).

The question refers the readers back in their minds to 5.19 where what it is to be great within the Kingly Rule of Heaven is described. They should therefore have known the answer. It was to love God’s Law and observe and teach it. But the last thing that had been in their minds when they were discussing together was of being humble teachers.

Thus this was a good question with which to open words about relationships and responsibilities under the Kingly Rule of Heaven, for it enabled Jesus to put the emphasis right back where it needed to be, on humility. (A further link back to chapter 5 is found in verses 8-9, see 5.29-30). So the sermon on the mount is to be seen as very much involved with this teaching about the beginnings of the new congregation.

(Two thousand years have passed by and even today Christian leaders have not changed. They still pride themselves on their status, and vie for importance, for the lesson is hard to learn. It is not too difficult to be superficially humble when we know that people regard us with awe. Then we can gently smile and let others tell us how wonderful we are. What is more difficult is being truly humble and genuinely having no regard for position at all. And that is a lesson that few have fully learned. If we still think of our position and grading, and of our own importance, then we have not yet become ‘great’ within the Kingly Rule of Heaven. We are nonentities in God’s eyes, whatever we think of ourselves, and whatever others think of us).

Notice that the question assumes the presence of the Kingly Rule of Heaven among them, otherwise none could be greatest in it, and that was the question that they had been discussing among themselves (Mark 9.34, compare also verses 4, 23-35). This can be seen as confirmed in two other places where greatness is connected with the Kingly Rule of Heaven. The first is in 5.18-20 where we were told that ‘those who do and teach His commandments will be called great in the Kingly Rule of Heaven’, whereas those who are more lax about them will be called least in the Kingly Rule of Heaven, and those who are off the mark altogether cannot even enter within the Kingly Rule of Heaven. The second is in 11.11 where we learned that ‘he who is least in the Kingly Rule of Heaven is greater than John the Baptist’, signifying that there was at the time a Kingly Rule of Heaven (otherwise the saying is meaningless, for John would unquestionably be in the future Kingly Rule of Heaven, and ‘great’ within it). It gains its point from the fact that to be within the new Kingly Rule of Heaven now that Jesus was here was to be of higher status than the prophets of old. Thus present greatness of this kind was possible because the Kingly Rule of Heaven was here, it was coming in forcefully (11.12), it was among them (Luke 17.21), they were sons of the Kingly Rule (13.38).

But His disciples should have taken the hint from these verses as to what that greatness consists of. It is a greatness of quality. It consists of fully following His commandments, of partaking in the new age because they serve Him. The thought is of living to please God, of doing only the will of His Father in Heaven (7.21; 12.50). But that was in fact the opposite of what the disciples were now seeking. Their thoughts now were not on doing the will of the Father but on how to make sure that they obtained the best places for themselves. So their failure here is not just to be seen as resulting from ignorance, but as resulting from an unwillingness to recognise and face up to the truth, and to have the right attitude towards it. The truth was that they were still sinners, and often still looking in the wrong direction.

For in this case they were failing to ‘seek the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness’ (6.33) and were seeking self-aggrandisement. They had forgotten the lessons so hardly learned and memorised (as we also so easily do). Practicalities had taken over (after all we must be practical). They were soon, however, to learn to their shame that they were looking in the wrong direction. True greatness, they were to find, would be discovered by taking the opposite path to the way that they had in mind. It would be found by eschewing greatness and seeking the way of service and humility (20.26-28).

18.2 ‘And he called to him a little child, and set him in the midst of them.’

So Jesus looked at His disciples as they gathered eagerly around Him, each hoping for a word of commendation, and then His eye wandered to someone who had not joined their group. It was a little child among the company, one who believed in Him and loved Him, and had no thoughts about greatness. This little child had not joined the seekers after glory. He had not even considered it. He knew that they were more important than he was and he was content with what he had. He sought no greatness. He was probably playing with his brothers and sisters. Like all children of that day he simply did what he was told and recognised his lowly place (at least as far as adults were concerned). As a believer (verse 6) he no doubt also sought to please Jesus, and that may well have been his greatest ambition. For all children loved Jesus. And he would no doubt willingly have done anything that Jesus asked of him. But he did not think about his ‘position’ within the Kingly Rule of Heaven. He was just glad to be within it. The idea of ‘position’ in that regard meant nothing to him. So Jesus called to him and set him in the midst of the disciples.

18.3-4 ‘And said, “Truly I say to you, Unless you have been turned (or ‘be turned’), and have become as (or ‘become as’) little children, you will in no way have entered (or ‘will in no way enter’) into the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Whoever therefore has humbled himself (or ‘humbles himself’) as this little child, the same is the greatest in the Kingly Rule of Heaven.” ’

Then He turned to His disciples and ‘strongly affirmed’ to them that the only way by which they could have entered into the Kingly Rule of Heaven was by their ‘having been turned’ (or ‘having been converted’ - compare John 12.40) and having become as little children, by humbling themselves as this little child, and having the same attitude in this regard as he had. The verb is in the second aorist passive, (as are many of the verbs that follow), which can act like a perfect (have been and are) or as describing a past event in the future (in the future you will say I have been turned), depending on context. The second aorist is a tense often used to indicate timelessness in this way. Thus in this case it could be applied to all, some as having already been turned, and others as needing to be turned. It leaves the matter open. The translation ‘be turned’ rather than ‘are turned’ or have been turned’ results from treating the passive as a middle. But as we are told elsewhere that men will not turn to God of their own volition (John 12.40) it is best to translate as a passive, ‘have been turned’ or ‘are turned’.

Thus Jesus is stressing that the test of whether any are truly within the Kingly Rule of Heaven is that they ‘have been turned and have become as little children’. Let them consider the fact well for their present attitude must leave the question in doubt. It is the one who has been turned and humbled himself as this little child who is the greatest under the Kingly Rule of Heaven, as He has constantly stressed. Such a person is a ‘blessed one’ (5.3-9; 11.28-30).

This was a powerful challenge. He was telling them that they needed to look again at their foundations. The reason that they were looking at things in the wrong way was because their attitudes of heart were wrong. This idea that they should have become ‘as children’ would, in fact, have come as a surprise to them. The normal Jewish conception was that you only gained importance when you became an adult. Now Jesus was telling than that they were wrong. It was only by their having been ‘converted’ back into the ways of a little child, the way of humble obedience and acceptance, that they could even have entered under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. It was not that they had had to become ‘childish’, It was that they had to have put aside all thoughts of grandeur and importance, and have come in humility and lowliness as little children to His Father, recognising His control and simply doing His will (11.28-30; 7.23; 20.26-28) and desiring nothing more.

Jesus then pointed out that such a change could only have taken place through the activity of God. It could only have happened if they ‘had been turned’ by God, if they had been ‘converted’. His point was that no one can approach God for forgiveness on the basis of his position and of his own worth. That was the mistake made by the Pharisee (Luke 18.11-12). Rather he must do it by acknowledging his non-worthiness (Luke 18.13). He does it in fact as a result of God acting on his life and bringing him on his face before God (verse 26). And he thus comes recognising that like a little child he has nothing to offer and nothing to give. And then like a little child he receives freely from God what God gives him, forgiveness and mercy and a new life (verse 27). Without that no man can enter within the Kingly Rule of Heaven. And that is how he must continue. For it is people like this who alone prove the truth of the beatitudes (5.3-9). This is the true path of self-denial, the path of taking up the cross and following Jesus (16.24). For the one who takes up his cross is also turning his back on all the acclamation of the world. He has left all that he was behind him. It is thus to enter into a new sphere of living, under the Kingly Rule of Heaven, where only the Father’s will is important.

We should remember that at least one person present was not within the Kingly Rule of Heaven (Judas), and there were quite possibly others (John 6.64. 66). So Jesus was here asking them each one to search their hearts and consider whether they had truly entered into the Kingly Rule of Heaven. For if they had not what He was about to say would have no meaning at all. (It was intended to give His disciples a jolt).

And then He points out that they must continue to remember the status on the basis of which they have come to God, and carry it through into daily living. That is what the servant in the parable He is about to tell failed to do (verses 27-28). They must recognise themselves for what they are. Their status is not that of great men vying for their deserts, but of humble debtors paying off a debt of forgiveness. They in fact deserve nothing. Rather than seeking for greatness they should therefore be blushing for shame. Thus like a little child they must learn to serve God ‘innocently’ without any desire for position, or status, or recognition, or thoughts of self-importance, recognising, like a child, that whatever they do they are only doing what it is their duty to do, and should be grateful for the opportunity to do it. And they are to ask for nothing in return. (Then all things will be added to them - 6.33).

Even today in the days when we teach them to be precocious, little children are often like this for a while, before we turn them into ‘little adults’ before their time, and take away their innocence from them. And that is the innocence that those who follow Jesus are to seek to restore in themselves, the same innocence that was theirs at the moment of their conversion (if they have been truly converted) when they put to one side all thoughts of deserving, and simply recognised their total lack of worth. That is the position that they must from now on continually maintain. That is the way to greatness under the Kingly Rule of Heaven (compare 20.26-28).

A Powerful Warning Against Being A Cause Of Stumbling To Young Believers (18.5-10).

Jesus now moves on from a consideration of the need for His disciples to have become ‘as little children’ in regard to service for Him, to the equal need for them to recognise the importance of all ‘little ones’. This change of description draws attention to the fact that He now has in mind those who have become ‘as little children’ because they have believed on Him. In those days children were not seen as too important outside their own family, (although the Jews did take great trouble within the family to teach their children the Law, as the Law itself required), but the disciples were to recognise that to God such children who believe in Him are very important, and are to be seen as very important, as are all who become as little children because they believe. All such are therefore to be nurtured and encouraged, and every effort must be made to prevent their stumbling, for as believers they are the Father’s children. Indeed they are so important to Jesus Himself that not only is to receive and welcome them into fellowship and a sphere of caring, similar to receiving and welcoming Him (compare 25.35-40), but also causing them to stumble or to be entrapped is a heinous offence punishable in the most dreadful way, for the latter is an offence which reveals the one who is deliberately or carelessly involved in it as being outside the mercy of God. By it they will be demonstrating that they themselves are too high above themselves and have not ‘become as little children’. For the one who has become as a little child will receive them and care for them and tend them with greatest care.

Analysis.

  • a “And whoever will receive one such little child in my name receives me” (5).
  • b “But whoever shall cause one of these little ones who believe on me to stumble, it is profitable for him that a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea” (6).
  • c “Alas to the world because of occasions of stumbling! for it is necessary that the occasions come, but alas for that man through whom the occasion comes!” (7).
  • b “And if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from you. It is good for you to enter into life maimed or lame, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into the eternal fire, and if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from you. It is good for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire” (8-9).
  • a “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (10).

Note that in ‘a’ the believing child is to be received and welcomed as a believer in His Name, and to receive and welcome him is therefore to receive Jesus, and in the parallel the child who is a believer is not to be despised for he is ever represented by angels who are welcomed in the presence of His Father. The child is thus seen to be beloved of both Jesus and His Father. In ‘b’ to cause a young believer to stumble or fall into a trap is so dreadful a crime that the worst of deaths is preferable, and indeed in the parallel His disciples are to go to the most extreme of lengths so as to ensure that they themselves do not stumble, either in this way, or in any other way, lest they prove false and finish up in eternal destruction. Centrally in ‘c’ we have the recognition of the inevitability of occasions of stumbling arising, and the sad position of those through whom they happen.

18.5 “And whoever will receive one such little child in my name receives me.”

(Some of the verbs continue as second aorists and could therefore be translated as perfects - ‘whoever has received one such little child in My name receives Me’ - thinking, however, in this case of an action that will be ‘past’ in the future, for a major purpose of the second aorist is in order to be ‘timeless’ and rather to indicate a particular action, a purpose retained in the translation).

‘One such little child.’ This probably refers back to those who have ‘become as little children’ (verse 4), that is, all true disciples. Once they have chosen to become His children He has a special care for them. Thus from now on He describes them as ‘little ones’.

‘In My Name.’ Compare here the one who gives a cup of cold water to a child ‘in the name of a disciple’, that is because the child is His disciple (10.42). Here then His disciples are to receive their fellow-disciples ‘because they are His and bear His name’. They are ‘received in His Name’ because they bear the name of Jesus, that is they declare themselves to be His followers, to be ‘Christ’s men’. They believe in Him and declare Him to be their Master.

The word ‘receive’ regularly means ‘to receive with hospitality, to welcome’ (compare and contrast 10.14), but its meaning here is wider. Those who ‘receive’ others offer an open-hearted acceptance. And when they do that to one who believes in Him, however humble, they receive Jesus Himself (‘Me’ is emphatic). We can compare also how when they are persecuted, Jesus Himself is seen as being persecuted (Acts 9.4-5). And when they are in need and fed and clothed etc. it is as though it was done to Him (25.35-36). The oneness of His people with Himself is made very clear here. In Jesus’ eyes what is done to His true people is done to Him.

18.6 “But whoever shall cause one of these little ones who believe on me to stumble, it is profitable for him that a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea.”

No wonder then that it is seen as so dreadful to cause such a one ‘to stumble’ or ‘be ensnared’ (skandalizo - the skandalon was the trigger that set off a trap or snare). For to cause such a young believer to stumble and fall to the ground is, as it were, to make Jesus stumble and fall to the ground. And Jesus says here that such behaviour deserves capital punishment of the most severe kind. Drowning was a Roman method of execution. And here the success of the drowning is ensured by having a huge millstone, in this case large enough to require a donkey to drive it, tied around the neck, so as to ensure that once the person has been thrown from a boat into the sea (or from a precipice, Jesus is concerned with the end not the method), he sinks without trace. Death at sea was an abhorrent thought to a Jew for such a person had no grave (compare Revelation 20.13). And yet that form of death would be better for a man than the fate that is in store for someone who makes His little ones stumble, or go astray. The idea behind the word ‘to stumble’ includes ‘to be entrapped’. Either way the little one has been led into sin by the words or example or failure to care of someone who should have known better.

The ludicrous picture of the huge millstone emphasises the seriousness of the offence, for no one would even consider using such a large weight for such an execution (the thickness of rope that would be required would be as thick as the neck). It must thus be seen as signifying ‘making doubly sure’. There is no escape from it.

But how are little ones caused to stumble? In context it is by those who are themselves not providing the right example. By not walking in humility and lowliness, by not revealing Jesus, by not shining as lights in the world (5.14, 16), they are thus leading others astray. For how we behave speaks louder than what we say, and one good example is worth a thousand words. However, we may no doubt also see behind this: false teaching which leads people in the wrong way, for that is equally condemned in Scripture (2 Peter 2.1); unnecessary disparagement; acting towards young believers with a wrong attitude; lack of pastoral care; and so on. Compare how Jesus described Peter as becoming a stumbling block to Jesus Himself (16.23).

18.7 “Alas (or ‘woe’) to the world because of occasions of stumbling! for it is necessary that the occasions come, but alas for that man through whom the occasion comes!”

Jesus then expresses His grief at the thought that nevertheless such things will happen. The initial word can be translated ‘alas’ or ‘woe’. It is a cry of distress and warning. Here it is both. The world will indeed put occasions of stumbling in front of His believing ‘little ones’, whether young in person or young in spiritual awareness or simply young through their humble attitude. It is part of the necessity of the world because of the way in which it has been made, for in giving to men the freedom to be able to sin God opened the floodgates of sin and selfishness. However, let all recognise this. There is only woe for those who behave in this way, (even though it is a woe that grieves Him, for He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked). And it is a woe that is as dreadful as He has described.

18.8-9 “And if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from you. It is good for you to enter into life maimed or lame, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from you. It is good for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire.”

Attention is then turned to the one being caused to stumble, and this includes us all. For in the end we cannot blame others. Stumbling is in the end something that we do ourselves. And examples are then given of the great effort that must be put into avoiding any likelihood of stumbling. Again Jesus uses the method of exaggerated illustrations. If someone has stumbled, then rather than stumbling again through the temptations of hand, foot or eye it would be better for them to rid themselves of that hand, foot or eye that caused the stumbling, by cutting it off, or gouging it out, and hurling it away. The thought is of instantly ridding oneself violently of the causes of sin, without hesitation, because of the awareness of the awfulness of the sin. This is presented in an exaggerated picture of an instant response by hacking off the hand or foot and hurling it away, or of an instant gouging out of the eye and flinging it from them (compare 5.29-30), so that the sin will not happen again. In other words it is vividly describing a violent reaction. No violent reaction is to be thought of as too great in order to avoid sin. We should be ready to do anything in order to be rid of the cause of sin!

It is not, of course, intended to be taken literally. Removing hand, foot or eye will in fact make little difference to whether we sin in the future. (It may in fact result in more sin). It is what is in the heart that must be rooted out (15.19-20). So the idea is rather that sin must be countered in the most severe way possible by the individual concerned. It was not intended to be a method of punishment, nor to be carried out in the cool light of day (such a sad and grotesque idea was left to a desert warrior prophet speaking to backward and fierce warrior tribes in Arabia who were used to chopping people up, and equally carried out by grotesque people who enjoy the same cruelty today). The point was rather the necessity of personally taking immediate and extreme action against sin as soon as it was committed, so as to avoid it happening again, and that because of its dreadful consequences. And the reason for the drastic action was that not to deal with such sins would be to be in danger of forfeiting eternal life and ending up in the eternal fire of Gehenna (the place of flaming destruction, the eternal Rubbish Dump where the maggots never die or cease consuming the rubbish, and the incinerating fire never goes out - Mark 9.48). It was a warning that we all ought to take more seriously.

Notice once again the choice of the two ways which is so emphasised in Matthew (7.13-27;6.14-15, 19-24, 32-33; 10.13-14, 28, 32-33). Better to enter into life maimed, than enter into eternal destruction as a whole person. (In future this would have a deeper significance when Christians were tortured and deliberately maimed, accepting it joyfully for the privilege of suffering for His name’s sake).

18.10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

Then Jesus returns to His main theme. Little ones who believe in Him, whether little in stature or little in outward importance, or little because of their humility, are not to be despised, for they are so important that they are represented by angels before the face of His Father in Heaven. This is not a doctrine of guardian angels as such, but an indication that believers are important enough to be represented by angels before the very face of God (compare also Hebrews 1.14). Every believer can know that his name is written in Heaven, and that someone represents him in the very presence of God, and constantly reminds God of his need, because he is so important to God. Compare the twenty four elders in Revelation 4-5 whose duty it is to perform such a function.

Note the link between this verse, earlier verses in 3-5 and verse 14 in the reference to ‘little ones’. The theme is continual throughout. These little ones are the poor in spirit to whom belong the Kingly Rule of Heaven (5.3), in which they find true greatness (verse 4). They are the true heavenly people. They are as important to Jesus as Himself (verse 5). They are those who believe in Him and are thus under His care and protection (verse 6). They are those who have been truly forgiven (verses 21-35). They are the members of the new ‘congregation’ (verse 17). And therefore their interests must be safeguarded.

‘My Father in Heaven.’ We note again that whereas in the first part of the Gospel the emphasis had been on ‘your Father’, as Jesus sought to build up their recognition of how important they were as a group before their Father, in this second part the emphasis is on ‘My Father’ as He seeks to bring home to them His unique Sonship. They are important to the Father because they believe in Jesus, and He is His Father’s Son.

The Little Ones Are So Important To God That If One Goes Astray He Seeks Them Until He Finds Them (18.11-14).

Jesus here uses the idea of the shepherd seeking his sheep, which was something that happened fairly regularly in Palestine. Seeing a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, or returning home with it in triumph, was a familiar sight to all his listeners, and He used it to illustrate many truths. Here it illustrates the truth of God’s concern for His own, and the fact that He will never allow even one of them to perish (John 10.28-29). Elsewhere it can signify Jesus’ search for those who are lost (Luke 15.4-7).

Analysis.

  • a “How do you think about this? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them is gone astray” (11-12a)
  • b “Does he not leave the ninety and nine” (12b).
  • c “And go to the mountains, and seek that which is going astray?” (12c).
  • d “And if so be that he finds it” (13a).
  • c “Truly I say to you, he rejoices over it” (13b).
  • b “More than over the ninety and nine which have not gone astray” (13c).
  • a “Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish” (14).

Note that in ‘a’ one little sheep has gone astray, and in the parallel their Father is concerned for that one little sheep. In ‘b’ the shepherd leaves the ninety nine sheep who are in safety, and in the parallel rejoices more over finding the lost one than over the ninety nine who did not go astray. In ‘c’ He seeks that which is gone astray, and in the parallel He rejoices over it. Centrally in ‘d’ is the fact that He finds it.

18.11-12a “How do you think about this? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them is gone astray,”

Here in context the hundred sheep represent the new community, His new congregation. They are those who have been gathered out of the lost sheep of the house of Israel (9.36; 10.6, 16; and compare Ezekiel 34.1-16).

The one who goes astray is the one who has been caused to stumble (verses 6-7), or who has failed to take drastic action over sin (verses 8-9). The whole picture here is limited to the needs of His own wider group of disciples, His ‘congregation’. A ‘hundred’ sheep contains within it the idea of completeness. It indicates a complete flock. Up to this point not one was missing. (It is doubtful if most shepherds were able to count).

‘One is gone astray.’ Note the emphasis on its oneness. It is out there and alone. It is waiting for someone to come and help it. Shortly, in verse 15, one will come to help it, and then if necessary two or three. And if that is not enough the whole of the remainder of the congregation (the whole ninety nine). For the whole congregation is a ‘self-help’ group with concern for each other, because they love one another, and are aware that they are all forgiven sinners. And they will be acting in the name of the shepherd.

18.12b “Does he not leave the ninety and nine, and go to the mountains, and seek that which is going astray?”

And what does the Shepherd do when He finds that one has gone astray? Why, He goes out into the mountains to seek the one who has gone astray. Note the emphasis on the cost. He ‘goes to the mountains’ to seek the one which is lost. A real effort is put in and a real price is paid. In one sense the Shepherd here is the Father. It is His concern that is being described (verses 10, 14). But He does it, of course, through His shepherds; through Jesus, and through all who follow Jesus truly.

He ‘leaves the ninety nine’ in the care of others. To the average person of that day ‘ninety nine’ would be a discordant number. The fullness suggested by one hundred has been broken. The divine shepherd cannot therefore rest until fullness is restored for every member of the flock is of equal importance.

(In actual fact it is doubtful how many, if any, of the shepherds, could count to a hundred. They would know that the sheep was missing because they knew them all by name (John 10.3). They would not even know how many remained. But they would know that it was an incomplete number. It was ‘ninety nine’ not ‘a hundred’).

18.13 “And if so be that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety and nine which have not gone astray.”

The ‘if so be’ is a warning against presumption, but verse 14 cancels out any doubt for the true believer, for the will of the Father cannot be thwarted. A lost sheep may sometimes not be found, but that is never true of one of His Father’s little ones. And the point is that when that failing, helpless, foolish sheep is found He rejoices over it (the true disciple who has gone astray and has been found) more than over the ninety nine who did not go astray (the true disciples who remain ever true). This does not mean that He loves the one more than the others. It does not mean that it is more important than the others. It is simply an indication of the compassionate heart of the Shepherd and of how much all His sheep mean to Him (compare here the story of the prodigal son, the father, and the elder brother - Luke 15), and how much they should mean to us. It is in fact what does happen among shepherds in real life. He rejoices over the sheep that is found, and the fact that not one of the sheep so dear to Him has been lost. The rejoicing is because sin and death has been defeated, and a beloved one has been restored. The full number has been made up.

18.14 “Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”

In the same way as the shepherd cares for his sheep, so does the Father care for the little ones who believe in Him (verse 6). However small, however unimportant they may seem to be, it is not His will that any of them should perish. How much safer His little ones are, therefore, as compared with sheep. For the will of the Father cannot be thwarted (John 10.29). Note the use of ‘your’ Father. He is the Father of all the ‘little ones’ who believe in Him. That is why they will not perish. It is not therefore to guardian angels that we should look but to ‘our’ Father in Heaven.

The use of ‘your Father’ here stresses the personal love of the Father for His own, for this is the only use of ‘your Father in Heaven’ following 10.29 (although see 13.43; 23.9). Since that point Jesus has always spoken of ‘My Father in Heaven’ (10.32, 33; 12.50; 15.13; 16.17; 18.10, 19, 35) or the equivalent (11.25, 26, 27; 16.27; 20.23; 24.36; 25.34; 26.29, 39, 42, 53). Prior to that the emphasis had been on ‘your Father in Heaven’ or the equivalent (5.16, 45, 48; 6.1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26, 32; 7.11; 10.20, 29) with ‘My Father’ only being used when their doing of His will and the facing of the future judgment was in mind (7.21). Having initially made clear to them therefore that God was their own Father, He then began the self-revelation in which He wanted to emphasise that God was His Own Father in a unique way (especially see 11.25-27), and that as His Son they must now follow Him in His special relationship with the Father, knowing the Father through Him.

Some important Greek manuscripts do have ‘My Father’ here (B Theta f13), but the majority favour ‘your Father (Aleph, D, W, f1, 28, 565), and in view of the above usages ‘your Father’ is the harder reading, and it fits well here as stressing the Father’s special relationship with His sheep.

The Practical Application of This Love And Humility In Dealings With The New Congregation of God’s People (18.15-20).

Having expressed the concern that His true disciples must have to walk as humbly as a little child; to prevent others from stumbling; to themselves deal severely with sin in their own lives; and having emphasised their need to share His Father’s concern over those who go astray; Jesus now make a practical application which not only brings this out but emphasises the responsibility in the matter of the whole of the new ‘congregation’, the new community of the people of God. There is to be a unity and oneness among them which will not only benefit all, but will also make them effective as a unit together. Note especially the repeated emphasis on two or three working together. The chiasmus suggests that the whole of this passage must be seen as dealing with the question of someone who has stumbled and needs restoring in all humility and graciousness, although that need not discount a wider application. Note that the emphasis is on restoration. Judgment may finally be necessary, but that is not the primary aim. The thought is that His congregation should be a ‘self-maintained’ unit with Him at its heart. No sheep must be lost.

There is an interesting parallel to these instructions in the regulations of the Qumran community, ‘let him rebuke him on the very same day lest he incur guilt because of him. And furthermore, let no man accuse his companion before the congregation without first having admonished him in the presence of witnesses’.

Analysis.

  • a “And if your brother sins against you, go, show him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (15).
  • b “But if he does not listen to you, take with you one or two more, that at the mouth of two witnesses or three every word may be established” (16).
  • c “And if he refuse to listen to them, tell it to the congregation (ekklesia - church)” (17a).
  • d “And if he refuses to listen to the congregation also, let him be to you as the Gentile and the public servant” (17).
  • c “Truly I say to you, whatever things you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever things you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (18).
  • b “Again I say to you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father who is in heaven” (19).
  • a “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (20).

Note that in ‘a’ two come together to resolve a spiritual problem, and in the parallel two or three who gather in His Name can be sure that Jesus is among them. In ‘b’ one or two more are called on, and in the parallel, agreement between two ensures God’s cooperation. In ‘c’ the whole congregation is brought in, and in the parallel what they all bind on earth shall have been bound in Heaven, and what they loose on earth shall have been loosed in Heaven. Centrally in ‘d’ the one who rejects the ministration of the whole congregation is to be dealt with as an unbeliever in need of mercy.

18.15 “And if your brother sins against you, go, show him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

Here Jesus emphasises the responsibility that each disciple has for his ‘brother’ disciple. He is saying that we are all responsible for each other! (Compare 7.5). We must remember that this is spoken to those who have been warned that they must be as little children in their approach to their spiritual lives, humble, lowly and not self-seeking or self-opinionated. They must be concerned not to cause another to stumble. They must be dealing sternly with sin in their own lives. They must be concerned with their Father’s desire to restore any who have gone astray. It is to such that Jesus gives this task, where a brother is known to be sinning. It is thus not a charter for trying to pick holes in people or get them into trouble. It is not for the hard hearted. We must ‘consider ourselves, lest we also be tempted’ (Galatians 6.1).

And the disciple who discovers sin in another disciple will try to deal with the matter discreetly and personally. He is to go to him person to person to seek to show him his fault privately without drawing the attention of others to it. Then if the one who has failed listens to him the brother has been ‘gained’. He can still be treated as a brother. The straying sheep has been restored. The stumbling little one has been bolstered up. The congregation is still complete. Paul describes how it is to be done, ‘in a spirit of meekness, looking to yourself lest you also be tempted’ (Galatians 6.1). For there is nothing more likely to cause a man to sin than when he seeks to help another who has sinned. The danger is that he might become censorious or complacent, self-exalting or privately self-conceited, petty minded or over-magnanimous. He treads a difficult path. And the hope is that the whole matter will be dealt with lovingly and amicably, without drawing anyone else’s attention to it.

One principle lying behind this is Leviticus 19.17. ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour honestly so that you will not share in his guilt.’ The idea is that we all have a responsibility towards each other so as to preserve the purity of God’s people.

‘Against you.’ The manuscripts are divided as to whether this should be in the text. Aleph, B, f1, 1582 exclude it, while D, W, Theta, f13 28 and many others include it. As it is difficult to see why it should have been excluded (unless it was being misused) the former is probably more likely. But it does not really make much difference. In either case the point is not to get one over on someone, but to honestly and genuinely, spiritually and humbly, help them in dealing with their sin. For every disciple who sins has sinned against every other disciple.

The sin in mind here is a blatant open sin whose effects are still felt, or which is still going on, and the purpose is the forgiveness of the individual and the restoration of fellowship in the discipleship circle, and the individual restoration of the disciple involved. The need for the prayerfulness of all who are involved can be assumed from verse 19.

18.16 “But if he does not listen to you, take with you one or two more, that at the mouth of two witnesses or three every word may be established.”

That the sin is to be seen as something serious comes out here. It is not just a matter of personal disagreement, for now others are to be involved, and they will of course ‘judge’ the matter for themselves in order that they might be of help to the one who has fallen. They will need to be primed on the matter in hand, and they may in fact in some cases simply advise that in their view the matter is not important enough to take further. But where the sin is a serious one then they will decide on the matter between them and at that point come to their brother disciple in order to resolve the issue. Note again that the aim is to restore the disciple and to prevent the matter becoming too public. Mercy and forgiveness is ever in mind. Bringing in one or two more (of the kind of character that Jesus has previously described) will ensure that the matter is being fairly dealt with, and the hope will be that together they can restore the erring disciple in a spirit of love and humility, without widespread publicity. In this emphasis we discover Jesus’ hatred of ‘gossips’.

And as they consider their approach to the one who has ‘fallen’ they will pray together. And when these two or three gather together in His Name they know that He will be among them (verse 20). He will guide them in their thinking and in their approach (compare 1 Corinthians 5.4). And it is only then that they will approach their fellow disciple.

The point here is that now the principle of someone not being judged ‘except on the evidence of two or three witnesses’ is in mind (Deuteronomy 19.15). No one should suffer the humiliation of being brought before the whole congregation without the agreement of such witnesses. Clearly therefore they will require some kind of evidence before they can become ‘witnesses’. That could be the evidence of the disciple’s own admission of the sin, or some other kind of good evidence. They must ‘enquire, and make search and ask diligently’, for without that they would have to reject the charge (compare Deuteronomy 13.14). And verse 19 emphasises that their judgment must be made prayerfully, and that Jesus’ Father in Heaven should be brought in to the matter. For He is the final judge of all men (7.23-24; 10.32-33). If only we were all as careful as this before we judged another.

18.17 “And if he refuse to listen to them, tell it to the congregation (ekklesia - church). And if he refuses to listen to the congregation also, let him be to you as the Gentile and the public servant.”

But if the charge is proved and the matter is serious, and the disciple refuses to listen to the small group, then the next step is to bring the matter before the whole ‘congregation’, the gathering of all believing disciples (or of all in one vicinity, as with a synagogue). ‘The congregation’ was the description given in the Old Testament to the gathering of all mature, male members of Israel. It represented the whole of Israel. Thus here Jesus has in mind the new Israel, seen as one. Later, of course, this would be divided up into individual churches, but that was not so here, although a limited local group might have been in mind. The gathering here would overall be of all those genuinely recognised as disciples.

And if the sin is accepted to be so by the whole ‘congregation’ of the new Israel, and the guilty disciple refuses to listen to them and turn from his sin, then he is to be treated as though he were no longer a member of ‘the congregation’. He is to be seen as a non-disciple. He is to be treated as an outsider, in a similar way to an ‘unbelieving’ Gentile or public servant, both of whom would as such be excluded from the congregation of Israel. (This description demonstrates the strong Jewish background of the words). He is to be seen as no longer ‘of us’ (1 John 2.19).

The ‘you’ is singular, but the question arises as to whether it means the original ‘accuser’ (verse 15) or the whole congregation. Possibly it in fact means the accuser as representing the whole congregation, or alternatively we might translate ‘let him be to each one of you as --’.

We should note that this is not signifying the total rejection of the sinner from the possibility of the mercy of God. The attitude of the Christian congregation towards both Gentiles and public servants, like that of Jesus, was to be one of love, together with a longing to bring them to Christ. It was to be a hope for their repentance. But they are particularly mentioned because both of these were examples of those who were least likely to obey God (compare 5.46-47), and were those who among the Jews would not normally be seen as a part of the congregation of Israel. (This brings out how these words strictly refer to a period before Jews and Gentiles could be expected to be mingling as one in Christ). The point is simply that the one who continues in sin is no longer to be seen as ‘one of the congregation’. He is now to be seen as an ‘outsider’, for he is no longer a true witness. The blot on the fellowship has to be removed (compare Acts 5.1-11 for a drastic example). It does not necessarily refer to official excommunication. It rather represents an attitude to be taken up towards him so as hopefully to bring him to his senses. In a similar way exclusion from the synagogue for a period was a punishment carried out by the Jews for recalcitrant sinners, which could become permanent if the sinner still refused to repent. We must not, however, just assume that the followers of Christ would simply follow the pattern of the synagogue, for they were expected to be more merciful. We should note, of course, that it was always open to the man to repent, as it was also open to the Gentile or public servant to do the same.

18.18 “Truly I say to you, whatever things you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever things you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

But the congregation must seek to ensure that the verdict reached and the judgment carried out is approved of by Heaven (‘shall have been bound in Heaven’). It is essentially Heaven’s verdict that must be reached. Nevertheless the congregation is necessarily given the authority to express that verdict and carry out the sentence, still acting in meekness and considering carefully the genuineness of their own hearts (Galatians 6.1). And God’s promise is that He will be behind them in their decision, if genuinely and spiritually reached. No doubt the elders would play a great part in bringing the matter to its conclusion, but the final verdict belonged to all (verse 17).

When the Jews wanted to know how to apply the Law they looked to the Scribes who would determine the application of the Law by either enforcing its strict requirements (‘binding it’), or by ‘loosing’ it by some interpretative method. In the same way the congregation of disciples was given the authority to seek the mind of God on the Law and then apply it, as they might well have done in the case of this person just excluded from the congregation (verse 17).

But this declaration parallels that made to Peter in 16.19, indicating that there Peter received the promise as an individual disciple who would share the authority with other individual disciples, rather than as someone who was unique. Thus here it also has a more general application to all matters to be decided among the people of God, a procedure which we find carried out officially in Acts 15.

18.19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father who is in heaven.”

The importance of ‘two or three’ having been established with regard to helping a failing brother, Jesus now applies the idea more widely. Being too much of an individual is not encouraged. That is why the disciples had been sent out in twos. The question that arises here is as to whether this verse should simply be strictly applied in the context of the help given to the failing brother, or whether it should be seen as an expansion on the argument. In the former case it is confirmation that when a plurality (two or more) agree on what to ask about a disputed question, (‘about any judicial matter that they should ask’) they can be sure that they will have His Father’s assistance in the matter. He will give them guidance and show them what to do. This would be very necessary in the case of the two called on in verse 16.

But we can argue that Jesus is saying that just as two or three could act together to confirm a case before the congregation (verse 16), so equally two or more can confirm any request which is in accordance with Scripture which is to be made to His Father, with the result that they can be sure that they will receive what they ask. It should be noted that the idea of ‘two agreeing’ is not intended to be just a casual agreement to pray for something without very much thought because it sounds like a good idea, or simply refers to one praying and another saying ‘Amen’. It is a coming together as a twosome in order to first determine what would be reasonable to request. It is taking prayer seriously. They would thus in their deliberations take into account the principles of prayer, such as asking according to His known will (1 John 5.14), coming in the name of Jesus (asking what He wills, backed up by the authority of His Name), asking in accordance with Scripture promises, asking as those who have no iniquity in their hearts, and so on. They would decide whether they had any right to expect God to hear them. Once, however, they had genuinely come to what they believed was the mind of God on the matter they could then have confidence that they would receive what they asked, and their very method of coming to their decision will have increased their faith and expectancy. (The final judgment would come in whether the prayer was answered or not).

As with verse 18 probably both cases are true. Jesus may well have intended it to have both the particular application in regard to ‘judging’ those who are unrepentant about some gross sin, and the wider general application to matters that could be taken up in prayer.

18.20 “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

And the reason that all this is so is because when two or three gather in His Name, He is there among them. Whether the question be one of assisting a fallen brother, or whether it is one of considering the advancement of the Lord’s work, Jesus will be there with them in order to direct and guide. In the case of the first interpretation in verse 19 this would be expressing Jesus’ promise that when two or three gather with the purpose of coming to a judgment on some matter of morals they could be sure that Jesus was among them as the senior Judge to ensure that they had the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2.16). The Rabbis similarly thought that ‘if two sit together and words of the Law are between them, the Shekinah (the glory of His presence) rests between them’. This would be especially comparative if the believers are seen as judging from the open Scriptures.

In the case of the second interpretation this would give the assurance that whenever two or three came together in worship, or to make decisions in His Name, or with the aim of specific intercession, they could be sure of the presence of Jesus among them in a very real way in order to guide them, over and above His usual presence, this in accordance with His promise in 28.20. They would know Him as ‘God with us’ (1.23). This would be especially important once they were ‘on the road’ as evangelists. Again both the particular and the general were probably in Jesus’ mind. It was a general promise but with a particular application to the situation just described. It brings out that being a Christian is in the end a cooperative effort.

We note here Jesus’awareness that soon He would no longer be with them physically.

But How Often Should We Forgive? (18.21-22).

The idea that disciples should approach those who have sinned against them and seek to be reconciled with them raised in Peter’s mind the question of how often this was required. How often should someone who fails be forgiven? And when he suggested that possibly he should forgive ‘seven times’ he probably knew that he was outdoing the Scribes with their ‘three times’. Thus he may well have been looking for and expecting Jesus’ commendation for his generosity of spirit. He was therefore probably quite taken aback when Jesus replied, ‘not seven times, but seventy time seven times’. Peter then realised that he was not quite as merciful as he had thought.

The idea of forgiveness here connects back once more with the sermon on the Mount. There also Jesus had emphasised the necessity of forgiveness, just as we ourselves have been, and are being, forgiven (6.14-15). And in 12.31-32 He had emphasised the greatness and wideness of God’s forgiveness. Now He will stress its unlimited nature. The Gospel is both based on forgiveness, and produces forgiveness.

Analysis.

  • a Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” (21a).
  • b “Until seven times?” (21b).
  • b Jesus says to him, “I do not say to you, “Until seven times” (22a).
  • a or c “But, “Until seventy times seven” (22b).

Note that in ‘a’ the question was how often it was necessary to forgive. The parallel says ‘seventy times seven’ times. In ‘b’ Peter’s suggestion is seven times, and in the parallel the reply is ‘no, not seven times’. But there is also a sequence.

18.21 ‘Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?” ’

Peter here reveals how God’s compassion has come home to him through the teaching of Jesus, but even he has not yet perceived the magnanimity of God. The Scribes taught, on the basis of Amos 1, that a man might be forgiven three times, but that on the fourth judgment must come on him. Thus Peter’s ‘seven times’ was an extension of that principle to an even greater level. ‘Three times’ indicated ‘a few times’. Thus ‘seven times’ indicated the next stage up, ‘many times’ (a divinely perfect number of times). But clearly there had to be a limit on how many times a person could be forgiven.

18.22 ‘Jesus says to him, “I do not say to you, “Until seven times”, but, “Until seventy times seven”.

So Jesus is basically saying, “No Peter, there is no limit. Think in terms of seventy times seven.” Jesus was not, however, saying that a person could be forgiven four hundred and ninety times. He was saying that there is no limit to how often a person can be forgiven. This is good news for us, for there are many sins that we have committed far more than four hundred and ninety times, and yet here we have the promise that God is still willing to forgive us.

Some translate as ‘seventy seven times’ (the Greek is the same expression as that used in LXX to translate Genesis 4.24), but others argue that that is not what the Greek indicates. If the former is so then Jesus is taking Lamech’s increased requirement for revenge (seventy seven times compared with Cain’s seven times) and applying it to forgiveness. But it is not strictly a parallel. Lamech was not speaking of taking revenge seventy seven times, he was speaking of how great his vengeance would be. Here Jesus is speaking of the number of times an unlimited forgiveness must be offered (and whether it is seventy seven times or four hundred and ninety times it means exactly the same thing - it is without limitation).

We should, however, consider carefully what Jesus was really saying. He was not actually saying that we must forgive everyone for whatever they do, and never take what they have done into account when dealing with them. That would be gross foolishness. Even though we do have to approach them in a spirit of love (5.43-48), we do have to consider men’s past behaviour and their present attitude when deciding how to deal with them. Certainly we must love our enemies and not have feelings of vindictiveness towards them, but while that is good, it is not the meaning of forgiveness. Forgiveness means restoring a person to the relationship in which they were seen before they sinned. It means treating the sin as though it had never happened.

So Jesus is rather here speaking of behaviour between fellow-disciples (note Peter’s ‘my brother’) on the basis of their having repented (as in verse 15). This comes out in Luke 17.4. ‘If your brother sin, rebuke him, and if he repent, forgive him. And if he sin against you seven times in the day, and seven times turn again to you, saying “I repent”, you shall forgive him.” It will be noted there that the forgiveness follows a profession of repentance truly given. The point therefore is of the forgiving of those who seek forgiveness, and that means reinstating them into the position in which they were before they sinned. It means trusting the repentant thief to again look after your money on the basis of a genuine representation of repentance, because you now know that he can be trusted, just as God trusts us once we have truly repented. Thus in the case of verse 15 the brother who repents is restored, while the one who refuses to repent is treated on a different level (verse 17), still with love, but on the basis of the condition that still holds.

These words then make verse 15 unrestricted. No individual believer or ‘congregation’ can limit the level of their forgiveness to one who truly expresses repentance. Such an expression must be taken at face value and acted on. We have thus no right to say to someone that we can no longer accept their apparently sincere offer of repentance, for we must always take the weakness of the sinner into account, just as we expect God to take our weakness into account.

On the other hand without genuine repentance there can be no true forgiveness. God looks with mercy and benevolence on all sinners (5.45) but He offers forgiveness and a place under the Kingly Rule of Heaven only to the repentant (4.17), and in His case he knows how genuine our repentance is.

The Parable Of The Forgiven Servant Who Could Not Himself Forgive

This subject of repentance and forgiveness was of such importance under the Kingly Rule of Heaven that Jesus now tells a parable about it. The parable again stresses the present nature of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, for the first servant finds forgiveness and then goes out and behaves unforgivingly towards another. The process is ongoing.

The basic meaning of the parable is simple yet profound. It first indicates the greatness of the level of God’s forgiveness. It is for the ‘billions of sins’ which each of us has committed. It is total forgiveness for a huge debt on the basis of repentance. In this regard we should recognise that we all sin every day continually. It is not just a question of what we do, but of what we do not do. We sin because we fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23). We sin because we fail to do all the things that we should be doing to bring men to God and to make the world a better place. ‘He who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin’ (James 4.17). We sin because we often do not even recognise the good that we ought to do. It is not that we necessarily deliberately disobey God. It is because we are so sinful that we do not really realise in what ways we come short. Thus we all need forgiveness every day for being what we are.

The parable then stresses the small nature (in contrast with the size of God’s forgiveness) of any forgiveness that we are called on to offer. But its prime point is that God’s forgiveness has not genuinely been accepted by one who is then unable to forgive others. In the parable the king’s forgiveness is rescinded. But that can never be so with God’s forgiveness. Thus parables can never be applied too strictly. On the other hand it is a warning to us not to assume too readily God’s forgiveness, for Jesus warns that if we do not forgive those who sin against us and repent, so neither will God forgive us. This is not because forgiveness is conditional. It is because truly being forgiven will make a person ready to forgive others. Someone who has been truly forgiven will inevitably be forgiving because they are aware of how wonderful their own forgiveness has been, and because of the work of God within them (Philippians 2.13).

Analysis.

(Note that the small letters demonstrate the chiasmus. The capital letters draw attention to the inner sequence).

  • a “Therefore is the kingly rule of Heaven likened to a certain king, who would call his servants to account for their activities” (23).
  • b A “And when he had begun to call them to account, one was brought to him, who owed him ten thousand talents (that is in our terms ‘many billions of dollars/pounds’), but because he did not have the wherewithal to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made” (24-25).
  • c BC“The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you all’, and the lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt” (26-27).
  • d AB “But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow-servants, who owed him a hundred denarii (one hundred day’s wages), and he laid hold on him, and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow-servant fell down and besought him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you” (28-29).
  • e C “And he would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay what was due” (30).
  • d “So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were deeply sorry, and came and told their lord all that was done” (31).
  • c “Then his lord called him to him, and says to him, ‘You wicked servant, I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow-servant, even as I had mercy on you?” (32-33).
  • b “And his lord was justly angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due” (34).
  • a “So also will my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts” (35).

Note that in ‘a’ the Kingly Rule of Heaven is likened to a king who calls his servants to account, and in the parallel we have the reaction of Jesus’ Heavenly Father to those who do not forgive, they will be called to account. In ‘b’ the king was requiring his servant to pay all his debt and in the parallel he is still required to pay all his debt. In ‘c’ the servant pleads for mercy and is forgiven all his debt, and in the parallel the king reminds him that this was what had happened. In ‘d’ we have that servant’s treatment of a fellow-servant described, and in the parable the fact that this is reported to the king. Centrally in ‘e’ is the failure of the servant to forgive his fellow-servant, the basic point that called for the parable.

18.23 “Therefore is the kingly rule of Heaven likened to a certain king, who would call his servants to account for their activities.”

At first sight this appears to be another example of a parable of the final judgment, but in fact it turns out not to be so. It is rather a parable of the ongoing nature of the Kingly Rule of Heaven on earth prior to the final judgment. It is a good example of how the Kingly Rule of Heaven has commenced on earth, prior to it merging with the ‘heavenly’ Kingly Rule of Heaven.

In the parable the king is seen as ruling over those within his kingly rule, and regularly calling his servants to account. It can to some extent be compared with the scenes in Job 1-2, but here it is His earthly servants who are called to account. This ‘calling to account’ is that which takes place when a person is faced up by God with the size of their debt to Him. They are then ‘called to account’. He is seeking to call them to repentance.

18.24 “And when he had begun to call them to account, one was brought to him, who owed him ten thousand talents (that is in our terms ‘many billions’).”

One servant was brought before Him whose debt was so large that it was larger than the gross national product of many smaller countries. It was ‘ten thousand talents’. The talent was not so much a coin as a unit of monetary measurement (a little like having ‘a million pound bank note’). In one measurement it was the equivalent of two hundred and forty gold coins. Gold coins were rarely in use apart from by the very rich (although see 10.9 which suggests that some disciples came from fairly wealthy backgrounds). And ten thousand talents was the equivalent in this case of two million four hundred thousand gold coins. It was a fabulous amount. It was over three times more than was in David’s treasury at the highest point of his reign (1 Chronicles 29.4), when he was fabulously rich, and more than all the gold used in building and furnishing the Temple of Solomon (1 Chronicles 29.7).

This huge debt was Jesus’ indication of the huge debt that each of us owes to God at the moment of our repenting and believing. It is basically incalculable (‘ten thousand’ is a round number based on the fact that ‘a thousand’ usually indicates a large incalculable number. Thus ten times a thousand is even more incalculable). It symbolises a debt that can never be paid off. There is no idea here of our good deeds being able to balance off the bad. Rather the opposite is the case. It is that our good deeds cannot even remotely approach the level of our bad deeds. For in the end our so-called ‘good deeds’ are only really the doing of what we should do anyway (Luke 17.10). There are therefore no ‘good deeds’. So this man’s only hope was ‘forgiveness’ of the debt.

18.25 “But because he did not have the wherewithal to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.”

And when he could not pay his debt his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all his possessions so that something of what he owed might be paid. This was a normal procedure with a largish debt, or a huge one like this. They then joined the ranks of bondmen and bondwomen, and slaves. This was always the fate of the bankrupts of the day. But none of them would fetch even a talent in the markets of that day, and most a good deal less. The thought was not of repayment of the debt so much as punishment for letting the situation arise. It is a reminder that if we give all that we have, and our own lives also, it could not even put a scratch on the debt that we owe to God.

We should note that even this act is merciful. Once sold off nothing more will be done to him. He is not suffering the worst possible scenario, that of being tortured so as to ensure that he is not hiding his assets and then in order to squeeze out of his family whatever they could pay (compare verse 34).

18.26 “The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ ”

Being faced up to his debt the servant was ‘repentant’. He offered that somehow if only his lord was merciful he would, given time, find some means eventually of repaying the whole debt (‘all’). Many see God like this. They see Him as requiring them to earn forgiveness by a lifetime of devotion (and as we have seen that would not be sufficient anyway). But Jesus’ point is that God is in fact not like that. He is a God Who forgives freely. All in fact knew in their hearts that this servant would never be able to pay off such a huge debt. His only hope was total and free forgiveness.

18.27 “And the lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.”

But his lord was a compassionate man. And when he saw his servant’s repentance he forgave him his debt and released him. It may of course be that his hope from this was that his servant had learned his lesson and would now out of gratitude be his servant for life. But that was only secondary. The prime grounds for the forgiveness of the debt was the compassionate nature of the king.

Note the emphasis on the relationship. ‘The lord of that servant.’ The one was supremely superior to the other. He had total rights. Jesus clearly intends us to see him as signifying the Lord of all.

18.28 “But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow-servants, who owed him a hundred denarii (one hundred day’s wages for a low-paid worker), and he laid hold on him, and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ ”

And then what follows is intentionally grotesque. The servant had a fellow servant who owed him the equivalent of one hundred days wages for a low paid worker. On one scale this equalled the value of four gold coins (one sixtieth of a talent). But he was so little moved by the forgiveness that had been offered to him that he grabbed him by the throat and demanded immediate repayment. Note that he was not only demanding, but violent. He was furious that this man had not repaid his debt. Ideas of forgiveness were totally foreign to him. The offer of forgiveness to him had not touched him.

There are indications in Rabbinic literature that grabbing a debtor by the throat was an accepted procedure of the day. But the emphasis here is on an increasing lack of compassion (thus later the king will deliver the unforgiving servant to the ‘torturers’). When men lack compassion that attitude of heart grows until it becomes positive evil. No man stands still. As he grows older he either softens or hardens.

18.29 “So his fellow-servant fell down and besought him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”

Then, just as he himself had previously done, the fellow-servant fell on his knees and begged for time to pay the debt. He promised, and this time with some likelihood of payment, that eventually full payment would be made. The similarity with the previous situation is deliberate. He was seeking the same kind of forgiveness that had been given to the other, and it should therefore have spurred him into recognition if he had had the smallest amount of true moral awareness. But he was so hardened that he was unmoved by the forgiveness that had been offered to him, and did not even associate it with the other.

18.30 “And he would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay what was due.”

There was no forgiveness in the heart of the unforgiving servant. His own experience had left him untouched. So he had the servant cast into a debtor’s prison until he could pay all that was due. And there he would languish until someone could pay his debt.

18.31 “So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were deeply sorry, and came and told their lord all that was done.”

But his fellow-servants saw what he had done. And filled with deep regret at what had been done to their fellow-servant they ‘told their lord all that was done’. ‘They were deeply sorry’. These men too were compassionate. Their lives had been touched by mercy. They were the merciful who would themselves obtain mercy.

18.32-33 “Then his lord called him to him, and says to him, ‘You wicked servant, I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me, should you not also have had mercy on your fellow-servant, even as I had mercy on you?”

When the lord heard of what had happened he summoned the servant to him. The servant would enter confidently enough. He was totally unaware of the wrong that he had done. His heart was hardened in sin. But then he was brought up short by what he heard. ‘You wicked servant’. And then the full extent of his wickedness was brought home, and that was that, although he had received mercy, he was unwilling to show mercy. He would not do to another what had been done to him. Although he had been forgiven, he would not forgive. He had himself begged for mercy, and had received it, but had then mercilessly turned away from another who had begged for mercy.

18.34 “And his lord was justly angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due.”

Jesus points out that his lord was justly angry. The servant had failed to benefit by the compassion shown to him, and had not himself become compassionate. Thus his last state was worse than his first. Instead of being sold off, and then at least forgotten, he was handed over to the torturers. Their first task was to torture him in order to make him reveal what assets he might have hidden away. Then it would be done in order to make him an object of pity so that family and friends might come to his aid and help to pay off his debt. But it was a debt too heavy to be paid. There was no hope of release from his tormentors.

It should be noted that this was a regular method among many Gentiles for dealing with once wealthy debtors. It was a matter of screwing out of the man whatever could be obtained. But the point is that it would never have happened to him if he had not himself been unmerciful. What a man sows he will reap. But we should note that this is a part of the story demonstrating the consequences of being unmerciful. It is not an indication of what God does to us. (Indeed there would be little point. God knows of anything that we might wish to ‘hide away’ and He knows well enough that no one else can contribute towards our debt. They have too much debt of their own to be concerned about). The point being made is that his last condition is worse than his first (compare 12.45).

18.35 “So also will my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts.”

The story ends with an application. This is how His Heavenly Father will behave (not the torturing but the calling to account) towards all who do not forgive their brother or sister from the hearts. The reference to brother indicates that primarily this applies to forgiveness between ‘brethren’ within the circumstances laid done in verses 15-20. Thus the extreme punishment is a deliberate exaggeration so as to bring out the seriousness of the matter. But we stop there, for the idea is that having been forgiven we must be living our lives in the light of chapters 5-7, in terms of the Sermon on the Mount (and especially 6.14-15). By it Jesus is saying, ‘freely you have received, freely give’.

It should of course be noticed that the king offered his forgiveness first before the servant was expected to forgive. It was not that the servant had to earn forgiveness. His crime was that having himself been offered full forgiveness he refused a lesser forgiveness to another, because forgiveness had found no place in his heasrt. His lord had given him the example, that he might follow in his steps. And the point behind it is that he had no real consciousness of the forgiveness that he had been offered, for had he really been conscious of it, it could not have failed to stir him to forgiveness of a fellow servant. (All his fellow-servants saw that). For us it is a reminder that if we have been truly forgiven, and are conscious of it, then it cannot have failed to change our lives. And if it has not done so we need to ask ourselves whether we really have received forgiveness. For the consequence of our forgiveness is that we are to be perfect even as our Father in Heaven is perfect (5.48).

19.1 ‘And it came about that when Jesus had finished these words, he departed from Galilee, and came into the borders of Judaea in Beyond Jordan, and great crowds followed him, and he healed them there.’

Once Jesus had completed His ministry in Galilee He set off for Jerusalem for the last time, coming into the borders of Judaea. He had made a number of previous visits to Jerusalem, as we know from John’s Gospel, but this would be His last. During this visit He will present Himself to the Jews as the Coming King for those who have eyes to see. As usual great crowds followed Him. They also would be going up to the feast. And He continued His ministry towards them, healing them in both body and soul (compare 8.17). For similar closures as this (‘when He had finished’) following selections of His teaching see 7.28; 11.1; 13.53; 26.1.

‘Beyond the Jordan.’ The areas around the Jordan on both sides of the river were called ‘Beyond the Jordan’ (compare our description Transjordan). If this entry was into Judaea proper it would necessarily be in Beyond Jordan on the west side of the Jordan. On the other hand Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem via Jericho indicates that at some time stage He probably went East of Jordan into Peraea, finally crossing the Jordan from east to west in order to take the Jericho road. But Matthew’s concern is to emphasise the entry into Judaea, after leaving his native Galilee.

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