Matthew 18:1-14, Disciples as Little Ones

[September 9, 2012] As soon as Jesus revealed His qahal or church (meaning, “summoned gathering”), which is to be built on the foundation of the divine revelation of who He is, He introduced the way of the cross as inseparable from Himself and as inseparable from His church. The entire teaching subsection, from 16:21 to 20:34, is but an exposition and application of this principle. This teaching subsection is divided in three, punctuated as it were by the passion predictions, thus: 16:21—17:20 on the salvation and glory of the church; 17:21—20:16 on the way of the church; and 20:17-34 on the church and Israel in relation to the kingdom. The second of these divisions, on the way of the church, is divided again in three: 17:21-27 as an introductory piece; 18:1-35 on the way of the church among its members; and 19:3—20:16 on the way of the church in the conduct of its households; the two later subdivisions being marked by a change of geography (19:1-2). Chapter 18, on the way of the church among its members, is divided in two on the basis of its descriptor of the disciples: in verses 1-14 the disciples are described as “little ones,” and in verses 15-35 the disciples are described as “siblings”; the content however is not so neatly divided. Our interest today is in the first half of chapter 18.

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this chapter. In the course of Christianity’s doctrinal debates much ink has been expended on the nature of the church. Matthew’s concern is practical. The disciples are those to whom the Father has revealed who Jesus is (He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”), and thus not those who merely profess this as a belief but to whom it has been revealed. Many people profess this belief whose spirits are as un-illuminated as the next fellow. Those to whom God has revealed the true nature of reality in the Person of Jesus are those whose spirits have been awakened from their long dormancy and who have begun the journey of what to do with themselves in relation to their situation in the world and in relation to their own souls. These are the “members” of the church, irrespective of their relationship to any institution called “the church.” These people, upon awakening, discover that they are involuntarily and without their consent in a special relationship to all the others who have been similarly awakened (by the revelatory “call” of Jesus). There is nothing they can do about this; it is simply so. No “disciple” can be a separate individual; they are invariably and indelibly tied to fellow disciples whom they have not chosen but have been chosen for them (by the action of the Holy Spirit in the call of the Gospel) and whom they cannot disown and from whom they cannot escape. How are we to respond to this factual situation into which we as believers find ourselves thrust? How are we to relate to these others? This is what this chapter is about.

In the context of the Gospel according to Matthew, this point becomes particularly poignant when one’s fellow believers—those whom the action of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel has chosen—happen to be gentiles, uncircumcised gentiles who have no precise knowledge of Halakah (Jewish law) and who do not practice it. From the perspective of Matthew’s first audience, as a Jew (a Jewish believer in the Messiah Jesus), how open am I to be towards these surprising people (surprising because they were pagans but have renounced their idolatry and have given their allegiance to the God of Israel through His Messiah)?

The Kingdom and the Church (Matthew 18:1-4)

The disciples ask, “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens?” Jesus’ answer has to do with “entering” the kingdom of the heavens and with being the “greatest” in the kingdom of the heavens. I started out by saying that this chapter is about the church, but immediately we find that Jesus is talking about the kingdom. The church and the kingdom are not the same, yet they are inseparable. Let us establish the distinction and relationship between them.

The church is as I have described it. The Messiah has called people by His own revealed presence, that is, He has invited them to place their fidelity and loyalty and allegiance in Him, and thus to enter into the sphere of His own Person. While they respond freely in doing so, that freedom has been given by the Gospel itself, that is, by the action of the Holy Spirit within them through the Gospel, the Gospel being the presentation of Jesus (the Good News, Glad Tidings, Joyous Announcement—the English gospel  deriving from the Anglo-Saxon gōd spell or “good story”), revealing Christ to them. Their freedom derives directly from that revelation in their spirit, the openness of their intentions being prepared covertly beforehand by their history under the providential influence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. In other words, though they choose to give their fealty to Christ, to believe upon His revelation and thus into Him, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is all by grace. They chose, it is true, but in reality, they had no choice but to so choose with the freedom that was given them. The choice was irresistible because of the attraction of its Object. The revelation of Christ, seeking them out through the Holy Spirit, chose them. Our being included in the church is all by grace; and not only our inclusion, but everyone else’s too.

Those in the church are distinguished from those outside the church by being those to whom this revelation has reached. It is a temporal distinction, for many (if not all) of those outside the church will one day believe. Moreover, all human beings by virtue of their existence (their creation), are meant to know Christ. Perhaps, in the ages to come, all will.

The kingdom of the heavens has to do with the rule of the heavens, that is, the rule of God. In particular, the “rule” to which the kingdom refers is the overcoming rule of God asserted upon all that resists and defies God. God sits upon the throne of God subduing all to His rule. God exercises this kingship as the Son of God (the Father exercises His kingship through the Son), who executes this kingship by His incarnation and work as the Messiah (the Anointed One), and who thus—as Ruler—becomes the Son of David in relation to Israel but the Son of Man (see Daniel 7:13-14) in relation to all of humanity. John the Baptist presented Jesus to Israel, and Jesus so presented Himself, as the “drawing near” of the kingdom of the heavens. His Person is the kingdom or kingship of the heavens; His coming among us is the drawing near of the kingdom. His kingship is His lordship. The lordship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the same lordship, never exercised by One without the Others, and therefore always exercised in a threefold way.

(Though Matthew and Mark focus on the action of the Trinity primarily in masculine terms, Luke and John portray it mainly in feminine terms. Though the hypostatic face-to-face action of the one divine essence is threefold, it expresses in a reciprocal bi-gendered way.)

When we become members of the Messiah’s qahal, the church, we come under the rule of His kingship and under the providential discipline of the Father through the Holy Spirit, and under the judgment of the Son at His coming in glory (His manifest revelation). So while we are members of the church by grace, we at once become responsible and accountable to the lordship of the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit. We are forgiven freely by His grace and yet we nevertheless are under His judgment. By grace we know the forgiveness of redemption. We now permanently belong to Christ and are given the gift of eternal life; we are now God’s children by virtue of a new birth from above. The judgment that separated us from God has been removed. However, this is not the only kind of forgiveness there is. By the fact that we have been redeemed (and forgiven in this most important sense) we come under the discipline of sons and daughters. There is child-rearing to be done to bring about the maturing of the child until they can enter their majority and become heirs. We cannot inherit what is ours until we are ready. We are sons and daughters by virtue of our being children, but we cannot take what belongs to us as sons and daughters, that is, we cannot enter the kingdom of the heavens, until we have matured and shown ourselves capable. This is the purpose of the discipline that we are under. In relation to this discipline, there is also forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” “For if you do not forgive men their offences, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your offenses.” This is spoken to the sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, that is, those who have been redeemed. At the judgment seat of Christ at His coming again in glory, when we have resurrected, it will be determined whether we are ready to enter into the joy of our Master, that is, into the enjoyment of eternal life (which we also possess inwardly, though not yet outwardly). If we are not ready, we cannot enter into life, that is, into the kingdom. We cannot enter until we have rectified that which we need to. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth as we are separated from His presence at the wedding feast and cast into the outer darkness, thereafter to experience the fire of 1 Corinthians 3:13. We ourselves will be saved, “yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). That fire will no doubt be the fire of Gehenna (a metaphor for the natural affect of the nearness of the holiness of God’s glory upon us), though its affect on us will only be for a time.

Become Like Little Children

“Who then is greatest in the kingdom of the heavens?” Jesus calls a little child to Him and stands the child in the midst of the disciples. What are the feeling and attitude and demeanor of this child in relation to this circle of adults? Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you shall by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens.” So, we must change (somehow this change involves “turning”) and become like little children. In what way are we to become like little children? Little children have many attributes and we can attribute many things to them, some accurately, some not. To what is Jesus referring? It is clear in His next statement: “He therefore who will humble himself like this little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens.” It is the humility of children that we are to acquire, in particular, the humility of children with respect to adults. We are to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21); “in lowliness of mind considering one another more excellent than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3); “take the lead in showing honor one to another” (Romans 12:10); “not setting your mind on the high things but going along with the lowly; do not be wise in yourselves” (Romans 12:16); and so on.

The believer is a “little one” and is to have the attitude of a child in relation to all their fellow believers. They will be more or less submissive to the Lord’s lordship depending on the extent to which they have this attitude, and they will come under the Father’s discipline accordingly. So we are in the church on the basis of grace, but how we are disciplined and judged depends on how we are with respect to each other.

There is nothing here in Jesus’ words which say that this attitude of humility should not extend to those outside the church. It should be our general disposition to everyone, for we cannot see the invisible work of the Holy Spirit as She prepares an unbeliever’s heart and spirit for the revelation of the Son. It is a beautiful thing to behold when the germ of the Gospel seed unexpectedly pokes its shoot through the soil of the unconscious and into the light.

The Seriousness of Offending a Little One (18:5-9)

The little children that Jesus spoke of in these verses do not refer to literal children but to our fellow disciples. Though we need to become as humble as little children with respect to all others, the little children of whom Jesus speaks do not refer to all others but to those whom He has called. “Whoever receives one such little child because of My name, receives Me.” We are to receive one another as we would receive Christ Himself, that is, with the love, honor and respect we would give Him, for in receiving a fellow believer, we are receiving Christ Himself. Here is where the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40 (and 25:45) are applicable: “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of these, the least of My siblings, you have done it to Me” and “inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, neither have you done it to Me.” Jesus earlier introduced this idea in 10:40-42, though like chapter 25 with respect to how “outsiders” treat the believers: “He who receives you receives Me … and whoever gives to one of these little ones only a cup of cold water to drink in the name of a disciple, truly I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” If the unbeliever shall by no means lose his or her reward, depending on how they treat a believer (a little one), how much more so will believers be awarded on the basis of how they treat one another! However we regard the least of our fellow believer is how we regard Christ, and under the rule of the heavens, we will be disciplined accordingly (in this age and in the age to come).

So if we offend (stumble) “one of these little ones who believe into Me,” it is the same as offending Christ. No matter what gain we might have gotten by such behavior, the discipline will be so severe—we are talking about true born-again believers here—“it is more profitable for him that a great millstone be hung around his neck and he be drowned in the open sea.” Listen to how serious Jesus is being! Our behavior towards one another within the church is of utmost importance; and we cannot in any way get around what Jesus is saying. “Woe to that human being through whom the offense [stumbling block] comes.”

Yes, Jesus is saying that unbelievers will be judged on the basis of how they treat believers (this is the import of 10:40-42 and 25:32-46). But the words that follow in verses 8-9 are spoken to the disciples and means that they too will be judged on this basis. “Your Father in the heavens,” with respect to the kingdom of the heavens, will discipline all those who have come to Christ as His own sons and daughters, and He will discipline them severely when it comes to how they treat each other.

How often in fact we do offend one another! How often we discourage one another! How often we weaken the faith of our fellow disciple! It may be by how we treat them, by the words we say to them, or by the bad example we allow them to see. The hypocritical way in which we live terribly discourages our fellow believers. It is a stumbling block to them. It is not so much our idiosyncratic ways but rather our hypocrisy that is offensive. We may also cause them to stumble by allowing for ourselves when we are with them what they ought not to allow for themselves. For example, eating food from the market place that had previously been offered to idols, as was common in an ancient city, would cause us no harm if we know that idols are nothing. But a fellow believer who still believes that idols are real might be inclined to follow our example and partake of the table of demons and thus be fellowshiping with them (see 1 Corinthians 10:19-22—the whole discussion in 1 Corinthians also speaks of offending the conscience of an unbeliever).

We should be willing to go out of our way to avoid causing offense to our fellow believer, even if it means—figuratively speaking—cutting off our hand or foot or plucking out our eye. Taking such extraordinary measures, sacrificing so much, is well worth it, according to Jesus, in view of the alternative. Being “cast into the eternal fire” or “into the Gehenna of fire” does indeed refer to the same “lake of fire” reserved for the devil and his angels. It is eternal because it is a depiction of the character of God, the divine holiness, which always burns against sin. But there is a difference between being cast into the eternal fire and being cast eternally into the fire. Jesus’ words do not mean the later. It is the nature of the fire that is eternal, not the duration of our endurance of it. Moreover, the word “eternal” here literally means “age-enduring” (aiōnios), which may refer concretely to the age to come (which has a limited duration, for there are ages after that) or mean more abstractly “forever.” Believers who are touched by the fires of God’s judgment endure it only for a time, whether in this age or in the age to come. That fire, however, is thorough and burns until it has consumed completely whatever it was meant to consume.

If we anticipate what it says in verse 17, that we are to let the offending one “be to [us] just like the gentile and the tax collector,” then the “hand” or “foot” or “eye” that we are “to cast from [us]” can well be metaphors for siblings who cause us to stumble and yet refuse to “hear” in order to be reconciled to the church. Yet we are not to despise them, but we are to have a shepherd’s heart to still seek them out.

Do Not Despise One Another (18:10-14)

When Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones,” He has shifted the emphasis from negatively offending others to positively caring for them. That is, not only must we not despise our fellow disciples, we must regard even the least of them—those whom we may be tempted to despise or judge—with even greater regard, and instead of judging them, “seek the one that has gone astray.”

In verses 5-9 Jesus’ concern was that we do not offend our fellow believer; that we not be the cause of our fellow believer’s fall. In verses 15-35 His concern turns around; it will be with our sibling sinning against us (though verses 8-9 may also be understood this way). In verses 10-14, Jesus’ concern is with the sibling not measuring up to our standards; they have gone astray; we are tempted to despise them. This concern falls between the other concerns: on the one hand, our despising another may lead us to offend them; on the other hand, we may despise them because they offend us.

In verse 10 Jesus says that “their angels in the heavens continually behold the face of My Father who is in the heavens.” From this people get the notion of children having their own guardian angels. Actually, that is not the point here. First of all, the “little ones” refer not to children but rather to our fellow believers. Second, angels are the messengers between heaven and earth. The word “angel” means messenger and can be translated either way. An earthly messenger is also an “angel.” Jesus here means to say that if you despise one of these little ones, who are so precious to the Father, their heavenly messengers will surely make this known to the Father. When Cain slew Abel, YHWH asked him, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And YHWH said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:9-10). The messengers in the invisible realm of heaven, the realm that is invisible to us, nevertheless pay attention to how we despise our fellow believer, and they continually behold the face of Jesus’ Father. In other words, even though the least of our siblings, the little one who believes in Jesus, may not be aware of our despising them, their heavenly messengers are aware and will bring this to the Father’s attention in the sense that the Father will demand an accounting from us. We will be judged for despising our sibling even though our sibling (whom we may think is insignificant) is unaware of our attitude.

Why do we despise them? In verses 11-14 Jesus focuses on the one who has gone astray and who perhaps is lost. We despise them because we judge them. However, it is not our place to judge them and thus consequently despise them. Rather, if we are aware that they have gone astray, we are to seek them out and bring them back. In these verses we—every believer—is expected to be as a shepherd toward her or his fellow believers. It is not our place to berate our fellow believer but rather to “leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and seek the one who has gone astray.” Here Jesus does not mean that we actually separate from our fellows, that is, leave the fellowship of believers—for then we would be like the sheep that has left the flock—rather he means we should leave the comfort of merely being a sheep among “the ninety-nine which have not gone astray” and become like the shepherd and take responsibility for the one who has gone astray. As the verses that follow show, it falls upon every believer to take responsibility for every other and not to simply take satisfaction and comfort in being among those who have not gone astray. We must bear one another’s burdens, especially when the little one (the believer) has gone astray.

So, on the one hand, we must not actively harm our fellow believer. Yet this is not enough. We could smugly sit on our hands and hang out with the righteous, looking down on those whom we despise. Jesus demands that we must actively seek out the little ones—“the least of My siblings”—who have gone astray, and bring them into the safety of the flock. Indeed, we must be willing to risk our own safety for theirs (whatever that means). “For the Son of Man has come to save that which is lost,” and we cannot separate ourselves from His purpose and concern without ourselves going astray.

The concern here is not in our policing one another nor is it in creating an atmosphere of conformity to a group standard. Everything has to do rather with protecting the Father’s children, with ensuring that they do not “go astray” and become “lost” and “perish.” The concern has to do with the kingdom of the heavens (in contradistinction to eternal salvation), rather than with our group and its own standards and boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. Indeed, the church’s boundary has to do with grace, that is, with the Father’s choice, not ours. The concern over the little ones has to do with something less visible. It has to do with the kingdom, and our concern has to do with protecting the Father’s interest in His little ones. In the church we all come under not just the impersonal divine government (which affects everyone impartially) but also under the Father’s personal government (and discipline), and under that government ourselves we are responsible for each other under that government. Our responsibility does not entitle us to despise or judge another; rather it is the responsibility of love and caring.

Making this distinction does not protect us from the self-deception of (collective) self-righteousness. That issue is dealt with earlier, in the humility taught in verses 1-5. The issue here is that while we put ourselves below others (verses 1-4), and cause others no harm (verses 5-9), we must also take responsibility for each other (verses 10-14). While taking responsibility for the other, we cannot on the one hand despise the one who has gone astray, nor on the other hand can we neglect that one. Jesus is asking of all His believers that we do all of this, for only this is the proper attitude of the church: the rule is love that is active toward one another in humility. Under the government of God ourselves, we serve one another through love and humility; we are not entitled to judge or despise one another (even—especially!—the “least of these”) and indeed will ourselves come under the Father’s severe judgment if we do so.

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