The Greatest in the Kingdom (Matthew 18:1-14)
Not yet delivered from the desire for prominence in the coming kingdom, the disciples came to Jesus with the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” It is a question that would not concern the truly noble soul. But devoted as these disciples were, they could not seem to get away from the thought that the kingdom was to be a place and a time for flesh to assert itself, although the Lord had rebuked them for this on former occasions.
This time He answered both in word and by an object lesson. He called a little child. The wee one responded and came to Him without hesitation, we may be sure. Setting the child in their midst Jesus explained that the true subjects of the kingdom are the meek and lowly who hear the voice of Jesus and come at His call, content with the place of His appointment. The greatest in the kingdom will be the one who is willing to take the lowest place, thus proving himself a follower of Him who came from the glory of God to be a servant in this world of suffering and sorrow.
To receive a little child in His name is to receive Him, because He identifies Himself with all who trust Him. He is the Savior of those who, because of wasted years in sin and debauchery, realize their need of forgiveness and cleansing. He is also the Savior of the little ones who, in their comparative innocence, are attracted to Him because of His tender interest in them.
Whether absolutely true in detail or not, there is much truth in general in the story of the stern-visaged minister who was preaching a sermon on “The Tears of Jesus.” He is said to have exclaimed, “Three times we read that Jesus wept, but we never read that He smiled.” A little girl below the pulpit cried out, forgetful of where she was, “Oh, but I know He did!” Shocked at the interruption the minister asked, “Why do you say that, my child?” Thoroughly frightened as she realized all eyes were upon her she replied, “Because the Bible says He called a little child and he came to Him. And if Jesus had looked like you, I know the child would have been afraid to come.” She did not intend to be rude. It was a child’s frankness, but it told a wonderful truth. Children were never afraid of Jesus, and He was always ready to bless and acknowledge them.
Nor did He ever speak more sternly to anyone than to the person who would cause a child who believed in Him to stumble. It would be better for that person if he were cast into the depths of the sea with a millstone tied to his neck. Jesus foresaw such stumbling-blocks but warned His hearers not to be among them. Better to mutilate oneself by cutting off a hand or a foot than to be guilty of using either physical member to point or lead one of these children astray. To do so was to be exposed to the fire of Gehenna—eternal judgment. In the same way He speaks concerning the eyes that, alas, have often led vicious and lascivious men to look wickedly upon childish innocence.
We are warned never to despise these little ones because the Father has a special interest in the children, and in Heaven their guardian angels always appear before His face. Possibly by “angels” here, however, we are to understand the spirits of departed children. Both views have been held by godly men, and it may be best not to be too dogmatic regarding it, for whichever may be intended here, unquestionably both are true.
When speaking of adults in Luke 19:10 Jesus said, “The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Here as He speaks of children He simply says He came to save them. While members of a lost race, they have not wandered willfully into paths of sin; so they do not need to be sought.
The parable of the lost sheep gone astray on the mountain of sin follows, for it is not only to save the children that He came. There is rejoicing in Heaven, where myriads of saints are safely gathered, over one wanderer recovered and saved. But if this be so—and it is— how much more the joy when one is saved in early childhood, and so never wastes long years in rebellion against God.
Matthew 18:14 gives the assurance that all children dying before coming to years of accountability are forever saved through the work of Christ. It is not the Father’s will that any of them perish; and inasmuch as their wills are not set against the will of God we may be certain they are with Christ in the Father’s house.
Discipline in the Church (Matthew 18:15-20)
Two things are brought into juxtaposition in this chapter: the kingdom in its spiritual aspect (verses 1-14), and the church that was to be brought into existence by the Lord after His death and resurrection (verses 15-20). The Lord spoke for the first time of the church which He was to build on the occasion when Peter made his great confession. In Matthew 18 Jesus gave instruction concerning discipline and godly order in that church, which, while one throughout the world, was to be expressed locally as distinct assemblies in various places. The church is seen here in its local aspect as an assembly of believers responsible to maintain principles of righteousness, and therefore to deal in discipline with refractory or trespassing members who refuse to repent.
In some of the best manuscripts the words “against thee” in Matthew 18:15 are omitted after “trespass,” so that there may be more involved than trespass against one individual. He who recognizes the trespass and is concerned about it is instructed not to blazon it abroad thereby defiling others who might not otherwise know anything of it. Rather he is told to go to the offender privately and speak to him about the matter, endeavoring to bring him to repentance. This was in accordance with the law of Moses which commanded, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him” (Leviticus 19:17). In Galatians 6:1 we are told, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” To so act toward an erring one is to fulfill the Lord’s admonition, “Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). It is the duty of the one who is cognizant of the offense to apply the water of the Word to an offending brother’s feet. This principle is applied in both the old and the new dispensations.
But if the wrongdoer is stubborn and willful and shows no disposition to put things aright, the one dealing with the offense is to take one or two more brethren and see him again. These witnesses are to hear and give their judgment according to the facts presented. If they agree that wrong has been done, they are to join with the first in seeking to bring the recalcitrant brother to acknowledge his sin and seek forgiveness. If this does not avail, and the trespasser is adamant and refuses to accept their admonition, the matter is for the first time to be put before the local assembly, which will hear the case. If convinced of the righteousness of the plaintiff, the accused one is again to be admonished to acknowledge his wrong and endeavor to put things right. If he refuses to hear the church, he is to be put under discipline and treated as an outsider—as a heathen, or worldling, and a publican.
It is only in this place that we get these words of which Rome makes so much: “Hear the church.” This teaching does not call on us to bow to the teaching of the church as such, but in this type of incident the man under discipline is responsible to accept the judgment of the assembly. Nowhere is the church said to be the authoritative teacher. On the contrary, the church is commanded to hear what the Spirit says through the Word.
The binding and loosing of Matthew 18:18 is illustrated in the Corinthian Epistles. It deals with church, or assembly, discipline. When Paul commanded the Corinthian assembly to put away from themselves the wicked person—the incestuous man—Paul was binding that man’s sin upon him until he should repent (1 Corinthians 5). When he instructed the assembly to forgive that man upon evidence of his repentance, he was loosing him (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). Such actions, when in full accordance with the Word of God, are bound in Heaven.
Matthew 18:19 suggests something even higher than this. Suppose a case where human judgment is at fault, and the saints are in utter perplexity. They may appeal to the Lord Himself for light and help. Wherever two agree, or symphonize, as the word really is— that is, where even two come to God in prayer in harmony with His Spirit and with one another—He will act for them, doing according to His will in the church on earth as that will is done in Heaven. For every local assembly of believers gathered together in the name of the Lord Jesus may be assured of His presence. This does not refer to some one special group claiming more intimate association with Christ than others, but the Lord’s presence is predicated for every company gathered in His name, no matter how small that company is. What comfort this is in a day of ecclesiastical ruin and yet of great religious pretension!
Lesson in Forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35)
The rest of the chapter deals particularly with forgiveness in several different phases. The whole problem is easily solved for the Christian. We are to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). From the kingdom standpoint, however, forgiveness is based upon the repentance of the offender. Christ’s disciples are to maintain an attitude of forgiveness at all times and toward all men. But they are to bestow that forgiveness upon the one who says, “I repent” (Luke 17:3-4). To fail to do this will bring the unforgiving one himself under the chastening hand of God in government, as seen in the parable of the obdurate servant who refused the plea of his fellow-debtor for mercy. This principle abides even in the dispensation of the grace of God, for grace and government go on together. No one is more responsible to show grace to others than he who is himself the object of grace. Much of the chastening that we as Christians have to undergo can be traced to our hard and oftentimes relentless attitude toward those who have offended us. We would save ourselves much sorrow brought by the disciplinary dealing of our Father (Hebrews 12:6-11) if we were more careful and considerate of others.
“How oft shall… I forgive him?” Peter had not risen to the true conception of grace that God had shown toward him, and that he was to demonstrate toward a brother.
Seven is the perfect number. Our Lord raises this, as it were, to its highest power. Our forgiveness is to be like that which God has given to us. Seventy times seven may seem like an impossible number of offenses to forgive, but have we not all exceeded that number many times in our relations with God?
In this parable the disciple is viewed as a subject of the kingdom under the government of God, who though He is our Father, exercises corrective discipline over His people (1 Peter 1:17). Ten thousand talents was an immense sum, whether the talents were of gold or only of silver. It suggests one who has been guilty of great offenses against the divine government.
The offender, having no resources, is morally bankrupt. No man can ever make up to God for the wrong he has done. According to the law then prevailing, the insolvent debtor could be sold into slavery.
“Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.” While no man can meet the full demands of God’s holy law, the attitude of this debtor was one of penitence and repentance.
“The lord of that servant.. .loosed him, and forgave him the debt.” Even so does God deal with His erring servants when they face their sins in His presence and bow before the claims of His righteous government. Observe, it is not the case of the forgiveness of an unsaved man that is here before us, but a servant of God who has grievously failed.
“One of his fellowservants… owed him an hundred pence.” It was a very trivial sum, as compared with the other great debt. No man can possibly offend any of us to the extent that our sins have offended a holy God. To demand full satisfaction of a brother who has wronged me, when God has dealt so graciously with my greater offense, is to act inconsistently with the principle of grace.
The fellow servant took the same attitude before his creditor as the first servant had taken before the king. The fellow servant should have been given the same consideration. However the creditor was obdurate and not only refused forgiveness, but also cast his fellow servant into the debtors’ prison, doubtless hoping his friends would come to his aid and pay the debt.
“His fellowservants…told unto their lord all that was done.” Shocked by such conduct, other servants reported the unworthy creditor’s evil action to his lord. The indignation of the king was stirred by the perfidious conduct of the one toward whom he had extended such clemency.
“Delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due.” Governmental forgiveness may be revoked, as in this instance, when the recipient of it forfeits all right to consideration because of his inconsistency afterward. Observe that it is not that eternal forgiveness which God bestows upon the believing sinner that is here in view, but the forgiveness of one already in the kingdom who has grievously failed. The Father deals with the members of His own family, and will not overlook harshness or lack of compassion on the part of His children toward their erring brethren. There are many of God’s children who are under disciplinary correction all their days simply because there is someone whom they will not forgive. Let us search and try our own ways as to this matter.
Those who have entered into the kingdom by new birth (John 3:5) are all forgiven sinners who stand before God on the ground of pure grace. Nevertheless, as children in the family of God, they are subject to the Father’s discipline and are under His government. The moment our responsibility as sinners having to do with the God of judgment ended, our responsibility as children having to do with our Father began. In this new relationship we are to display the activities of the divine nature, and therefore are called upon to act in grace toward any who may offend us. If we fail to do this, we will be sternly disciplined in order that God may maintain government in His own family.
Different Aspects of Forgiveness. If we do not distinguish the various aspects of forgiveness as set forth in the Word of God, we are likely to be confused because of God’s disciplinary dealings with us after our conversion to Christ. When He saves us He forgives us fully and eternally and will never, as Judge, remember our sins again (Hebrews 10:17). But as His children, we are to confess our sins whenever we fail, and He gives restorative forgiveness (1 John 1:9). Certain governmental results, however, may follow these failures, which are not to be construed as indicating that God has not pardoned, but that He would teach us by discipline the heinousness of sin in His sight (2 Samuel 13-14). Since we are forgiven, we are to forgive our brethren who sin against us (Colossians 3:13). Members of the church who offend against God’s righteous principles are to be disciplined, but forgiven when they give evidence of repentance (Matthew 18:17; 2 Corinthians 2:7).
Degrees of Guilt. Our Lord’s teaching shows us clearly that there are varying degrees of guilt in regard to sin. All sin is wickedness in the sight of God. But the greater one’s light and privileges, the greater is his responsibility. Consequently, the sin of one who knows God’s Word and has enjoyed years of fellowship with the Lord is far worse than that of one who is comparatively ignorant and immature. Degrees of punishment vary accordingly. See Luke 12:47-48; John 13:17; Romans 2:12; James 4:17; 1 John 5:17.
We see the government of God exemplified in many instances in Scripture. For example, Jacob deceived his father (Genesis 27:18-24); his sons deceived him (Genesis 37:31-35). Moses failed to glorify God at Meribah (Numbers 20:11); God refused to let him go into the promised land (Numbers 20:12). David sinned in the matter of the wife of Uriah (2 Samuel 11:1-26); the sword never departed from his house (2 Samuel 12:9-10). The Corinthians dishonored God at the Lord’s table (1 Corinthians 11:20-22); sickness and death of many resulted (1 Corinthians 11:30).