[April 6, 2008] When Jesus descended from the Mount of Transfiguration, which was a foreshadowing of His resurrection, He began His final journey to Jerusalem. On the way He taught His disciples. If we back up a little bit to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, and Jesus’ revelation of the church, we see that it was from that moment that Jesus began to announce His coming death and resurrection in Jerusalem. It was from that time that He took His disciples aside and began to teach them. From this point of view, the Mount of Transfiguration was part of Jesus’ instruction to the disciples. He was teaching them about the kingdom, which the church is instrumental in bringing about.
In Matthew 17:22-23, when Jesus announced His coming death and resurrection for a second time, a new round of teaching began. This round of teaching continues until 20:16. In light of the kingdom, it is all about living the church. Last Sunday we saw how it was introduced, by the story about how the “sons of free” (‘sons’ as in those who share the sonship of Jesus, therefore it is gender-neutral and, of course, includes the ‘daughters’ without distinction). To live the life of the church, we need to be free, ‘freed-up’ to follow Jesus fully. Yet we do so with humility, careful to honor our commitments (our word) and not offend others unnecessarily. We are free—this is important—but our freedom is concealed in meekness, not arrogation.
What, then, are we to live as the church? First, in chapter 18, Jesus deals with our relationships with one another now that He has made us siblings—sisters and brothers—by our relationship to Him.
It is so important to pay attention to this teaching. On the one hand, Jesus continues to be with us, in our midst teaching us and living in us (28:20). On the other hand, Jesus knew He had limited time to teach His disciples before His departure from them. This teaching, then, is what He wants to leave behind—so that He can continue in our midst effectively. Not just you as an individual, but the community of believers is what is on the Lord’s heart. All believers who wants to please the Lord need to take their relationship to the church, that is, to their fellow believers, with special urgency.
It is so easy to get so caught up in our own individual life or the life of our individual family, or to get fed up with our fellow believers, and to become the lost sheep on the mountains separated from the flock. According to Jesus, this means we have ‘gone astray’ and—in terms of the kingdom, at least—in danger of ‘perishing.’ Most of the time we have no idea that the Lord sees us this way. How many of the Lord’s sheep are in this situation today!
The Little Ones (Matthew 18:1-5)
The first lesson is that among believers no one is any higher or greater than any other but we all are equally like little children. In chapter 16 Peter was singled out because of his confession of Jesus and given the keys to the kingdom, and then he and James and John were singled out and given the vision of the Transfiguration. Lastly, Jesus paid the temple tax for Peter. The question arose among them, was Peter greater than the others? What about James and John and the others? For some reason, Christians still want to be greater than one another. Churches divide because there is this kind of ambition. On the other hand, we can even want to be the ‘most humble’ out of spiritual pride. Neither is acceptable.
Jesus takes a little child and stands him in their midst and says to the disciples that they must turn and become like this child, or else they “shall by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens.”
A lot of misunderstanding comes from this verse. First of all, entering into the kingdom of the heavens does not refer to eternal life nor to the forgiveness of sins, which all believers can be assured that they have. It refers to God’s overcoming purpose, His reign, and therefore to the believer’s reward at the Lord’s coming. At the Lord’s coming, all believers will be judged separately from others, and some—perhaps most—will suffer loss and regret.
Nevertheless, the standard of the kingdom is always the standard for the church and it is our shame to frustrate and displease the Lord who has loved us so much and paid such a price to redeem us for Himself.
The word “turn” and “become” shows that we start out facing one way and need to turn to another way, or we start out being one way and need to become something else. This indicates that the tendency to want to be greater than others is always there and we need to constantly be on our guard, and to ‘turn’ when we discover it. In the church we should only be little children to one another without rank or privilege.
Most of the misunderstanding has to do with the meaning of becoming like little children. People have all kinds of ideas, some of them foolish. Jesus does not want us to be childish or immature, first of all. Nor does the Bible have the Victorian idea that children are innocent little angels. They are not.
Children have many positive traits that we tend to lose as adults, such as freshness and focus and earnestness and simplicity. How do we know which characteristic the Lord is thinking of? He tells us in verse 4—their humility. Among each other, children can be quite competitive and even brutish. The child exhibits humility more in relation to older children and adults. Thus Jesus sets the little child in their midst. The humility of a child therefore has to do with their dependence on and deference to others. Among us, we all must take the place of a little one in relation to one another.
That is how we are to be. But then we must also receive one another as if we were receiving Christ. When Jesus says, “because of My name,” He means receiving those who bear the name of Christ, that is, our fellow believers. We all must receive all our fellow believer as if they were Christ Himself. And we must do this “without respect of persons,” that is, without rank or privilege or comparison. No one is higher or lower than another. In the world we may have titles, but among us we are only equal brothers and sisters, and all of us are ‘little ones’ at that. We should go out of our way not to make another believer feel lower than us in any manner, such as our education or worldly status, or our comparative wealth or taste or even hygiene. Watch out for this.
If we understand verse 5, and 10:40-42, we would not misunderstand Matthew 25:31-46 the way it is almost universally interpreted.
Causing Another Believer to Stumble (18:6-9)
Also, if we understood verses 1-4, we would not imagine that verses 5-14 are referring to actual children. Jesus talks about actual children in 19:13-15. Here, however, the little ones are our fellow believers. We are all little ones.
Now Jesus warns about causing your fellow believer to stumble. To stumble means to harm a person’s relationship to Christ. If we lead a fellow believer astray by bad teaching, we cause them to stumble. If we put temptation in their path (what may not be a temptation to us but is to them), we can cause them to stumble. If we do not receive them, we cause them to stumble.
Jesus is emphatic about how important it is to avoid this. You cause yourself more harm than the other. You would be better off dropped in the open sea with a great big stone tied around your neck! “Woe to you,” Jesus says. Ouch.
It is important not to harm one another, so important that we would be better off cutting of our hand or foot or plucking out our eye. Of course, Jesus is not recommending that we maim ourselves, because in fact we would not be helping anyone else in this way. He is emphatic, however, about how much we must be willing to sacrifice to avoid stumbling a fellow believer. The consequence is not that we would be sentenced to hell, but that the fire of hell can still burn us (see 1 Corinthians 3:13, 15; Hebrews 6:8 and Revelation 2:11) before we enter into life.
The way to avoid harming others and causing them to stumble is to take care of yourself first that you are not stumbled by others and then to humble yourself like a little child does when they are in the midst of adults.
Despising Another Believer (18:10-14)
How easy it is for us to despise one another! We fool ourselves if we think we are not doing this when we speak badly of one another. Our negativity about one another is a form of despising. When we do this we despise Jesus Himself (see verse 5). I do not think we hear ourselves when we speak. How easy it is to complain about others. Yet who are we? Their angels continually behold the face of the Father in heaven, and Jesus came and paid the ultimate price for them as much as for us. How dare we! do we not know how much the Father, how much Jesus, loves that individual?
In fact, we have no idea. But we ought to try to impress ourselves with it. “For the Son of Man has come to save that which is lost.” We despise—we look down on, we complain about—those whom Jesus loved so much that He went to the cross to die for them. Do you think He only went to the cross for you? No, it was for the little one whom you despise. Let this impress you. Jesus says, “What do you think?” In other words, think about it. We ought to value one another as much as Christ does. He even says we ought to treat the least among us, the one we are most tempted to despise, the way we would treat Him. Would you gossip or complain about Jesus?
We like to say that so and so is not much of a Christian. We immediately condemn their behavior. I even hear believers say of one another, so-and-so is not a Christian. If they profess Christ, they are. But we are judging their behavior. That is not our place. Our place is to treasure them, to regard them with the love that Christ has for them. The Lord is not concerned with us condemning the one who goes astray, who stumbles and falls, who behaves badly, or who gets lost. He Himself is willing to leave the ninety and nine and go and seek out that one.
Of course, the Lord does not actually leave the ninety and nine, and neither should we. The point is rather on how important is the one who has gone astray, so much so that we can even leave the ninety-nine alone to pay special attention to the one who is failing.
In Luke 15 the parable is the same but the context is different. The intention of the parable is different in each place. In Luke it is about salvation; here it is about restoration. There the emphasis is on Christ as Savior. Here it is on the importance of the one whom we are tempted to despise, the one who has gone astray, who does not measure up.
The real point of this parable is not that Jesus is the good Shepherd, which no doubt is true, but that we each need to shepherd one another, and especially those who are weak or failing among us.
Whose responsibility is the one who goes astray? Is it Jesus’ alone or is it those who have rank among us, say, the pastor or the elders? No. In this chapter Jesus is emphatic that there can be no rank among us but that it is everyone’s responsibility to shepherd one another, to go after the one who has strayed, to make sure no one stumbles or is harmed. On the one hand, we are all little ones and need to be humble with one another, without any rank or special respect. This means we must treat our brothers and sisters, any one who names the name of Christ, as if they were Christ in person. On the other hand, we must treat all others as our little ones and our personal responsibility; we can despise no one. In this case, we must be like Christ to them and not let any of them perish. This is what it means to be the church!