Two things are brought into juxtaposition in this chapter: the kingdom in its spiritual aspect and the church yet to be brought into existence by the Lord after His death and resurrection, but 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.
The kingdom section includes verses 1-14:
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
Not yet delivered from the desire for prominence in the coming kingdom, when heaven’s authority shall be established over all the earth, the disciples came to Jesus with the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” It is a question that no truly noble soul would ever ask, or about which he would be concerned. 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 him in the midst, Jesus said solemnly, “Verily, I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, 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 scene 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 not only the Savior of those who, because of wasted years in sin and debauchery, realize their need of forgiveness and cleansing, but 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 often-told 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?” Now 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 whoso should cause to stumble one of these little ones who believed in Him. For such, it were better that a millstone be hanged about his neck and he be cast into the depths of the sea. Such stumbling blocks He foresaw, but He 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 which, alas, have often led vicious and lascivious men to look wickedly upon childish innocence.
Because the Father has a special interest in the children, and in heaven their guardian angels always appear before His face, all are warned never to despise these little ones. 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 unquestionably both are true in fact, whichever may be intended here.
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 such 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.
Verse 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. 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.
On the occasion when Peter made his great confession, the Lord had spoken for the first time of the church that He was to build. Now He gives instruction concerning discipline and godly order in that church, which, while one throughout the world, was to be manifested locally as distinct assemblies in various places.
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (vv. 15-20)
In some of the best manuscripts the words “against thee” are omitted after “trespass,” so that there may be more involved than trespass against one individual. “If thy brother shall trespass.” He who recognizes this and is concerned about it is instructed, not to blazon it abroad, and so to defile others who might not otherwise know anything of it, but 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 shall in anywise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him” (Lev. 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). To apply the water of the Word to an offending brothers feet is the duty of the one who is cognizant of the offense. 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 right, one 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 own 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, and if convinced of the righteousness of the plaintiff, the accused one is again to be admonished to own 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.” They do not call upon us to bow to the teaching of the church as such, but in an instance of the kind here dealt with the man under discipline is responsible to accept the judgment of the assembly. Nowhere is the church as such 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 verse 18 is illustrated in the Corinthian Epistles. It has to do with church, or assembly, discipline. When Paul commanded the Corinthian assembly to put away from themselves the wicked person—the incestuous man—in 1 Corinthians 5, he was binding his sin upon him until he should repent. When, in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, he instructed the assembly to forgive this man upon evidence of his repentance, he was loosing him. Such actions, when in full accordance with the Word of God, are bound in heaven.
Verse 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 in the midst. 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 is this in a day of ecclesiastical ruin and yet of great religious pretension!
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 (Eph. 4:32; Col. 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 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 in the way of disciplinary dealing on the part of our Father if we were more careful and considerate of others (Heb. 12:6-11).
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses, (vv. 21-35)
“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 manifest toward a brother.
“Until seventy times seven.” 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?
“A certain king, which would take account of his servants.” 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).
“One … which owed him ten thousand talents.” This 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.
“He had not to pay.” The offender is morally bankrupt. No man can ever make up to God for the wrong he has done. “His lord commanded him to be sold.” 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 could meet the full demands of God’s holy law, yet the attitude of this debtor is 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 own 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 anything like the extent that our sins have offended a holy God. “Pay me that thou owest.” 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.
“His fellowservant… besought him.” He takes the same attitude toward his creditor that the other had taken toward his lord, and he should have had the same consideration.
“He would not: but went and cast him into prison.” 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, the unworthy creditor’s evil action was reported to his lord by those who were aware of the facts of the case.
“O thou wicked servant!” The indignation of the master 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, where the recipient of it forfeits all title 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.
“So likewise shall my heavenly Father do… if ye… forgive not.” It is the Father who deals with the members of His own family, and who 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 shall be sternly disciplined in order that the government of God may be maintained 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 in great confusion of mind 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 (Heb. 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 He would teach us by discipline the heinousness of sin in His sight (2 Sam. 13-14). Forgiven ourselves, we are to forgive our brethren who sin against us (Col. 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 (v. 17; 2 Cor. 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; Rom. 2:12; James 4:17; 1 John 5:17).
In the following instances, we see the government of God exemplified:
1. Jacob: He deceived his father (Gen. 27:18-24); his sons deceived him (Gen. 37:31-35).
2. Moses: He failed to glorify God at Meribah (Num. 20:11); God refused to let him go into the land (Num. 20:12).
3. David: He sinned in the matter of the wife of Uriah (2 Sam. 11:1-26); the sword never departed from his house (2 Sam. 12:9-10).
4. The Corinthians: They dishonored God at the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:20-22); sickness and death of many resulted (1 Cor. 11:30).