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Matthew 18.01-20

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May 9, 2007 at FBC, Comanche; Expositional studies: Matthew

Text: Matthew 18:1-20

      7 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” [KJV]

“The Beauty of Peacemaking”


Matthew 18

The Disciples Argue about Who Would Be the Greatest—Matthew 18:1-6115

The end of chapter 17 is the record of Jesus giving his disciples a glimpse of his new kingdom and himself as its king. The special privileges and responsibilities of members of this kingdom led the disciples to question their status as special friends of the king. All believers are presently part of the kingdom, yet the consummation of that kingdom is still in the future. In the meantime, we must learn to live together in a way that pleases God. In this chapter, Matthew included a fourth discourse that deals with life in the community of believers.

Matthew 18:1

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (nrsv) The opening phrase “at that time” ties this event to the previous teaching (17:24-27). The disciples wondered about this coming kingdom of which Jesus would be the king. In addition, Jesus’ talk of his coming death probably made them wonder how they were to run the kingdom in his absence.

In Jewish culture, a person’s rank was of considerable importance (see Luke 14:7-11 for an example); thus, the disciples were naturally curious about their position in the coming kingdom. Jesus’ teaching in 5:19 had indicated that there would be distinctions (“least” and “great”) in the kingdom of heaven. Mark explains that this question had caused an argument among the disciples (Mark 9:33-34). This question also may have been fueled by the special privileges given to Peter, James, and John at various times, most recently their trip with Jesus to the mountain and then their silence about what had happened there (17:1-9). Matthew characteristically abbreviates the story in order to focus on the teaching. The situation became an occasion for Jesus to teach about true greatness and the role of competition in the coming kingdom.

The Greatest

At first glance, the answer to the disciples’ question “Who is the greatest?” is easy: God. But that answer misses their point, which was: Among those who can compete for greatness (God and angels being above competition), who takes the top spot in heaven’s all-star rankings?

Now the question becomes much more complicated, since it involves motives contrary to heaven’s interests.

Many questions are like that. Phrased simply, they hide attitudes that require an answer quite different from the one anticipated by the question itself. As you listen to the questions of younger Christians, be sure to address matters of faith, of direction and motive, of pride and rebellion—matters implicit in many questions but too often bypassed for the easy answer. Be a real listener. Hear the heart.

Matthew 18:2-4

He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (nrsv) To answer the disciples’ question, Jesus called a child. The Aramaic language has the same word for “child” and “servant.” Thus, when Jesus took a little child into his arms, he made the explanation of greatness even more distinct—to be great, one must serve. The disciples needed to change and become like children. What did Jesus want them to change? In this instance, it was their attitude toward greatness. The disciples had become so preoccupied with the organization of Jesus’ earthly kingdom that they had lost sight of its divine purpose. Instead of seeking a place of service, they were seeking positions of advantage. Jesus used a child to help his self-centered disciples get the point. They were to have servant attitudes, not being “childish” (arguing over petty issues) but “childlike,” with humble and sincere hearts. As children depend on their parents, so people who come to God must be willing to wholly depend on him. The kind of people whom Jesus described as “blessed” in the first four beatitudes (5:3-6) picture the complete dependence upon God that is needed in order to come to faith.

That Jesus called a child as his example of greatness in his kingdom reveals the nature of this kingdom. God’s people are called to humility and unconcern for social status. Those who persist in pride and “ladder climbing” for the sake of status in this world will never enter the kingdom of heaven. By contrast, those who, in humility, realize their need of a Savior, accept him, and move into the world to serve, not only enter the kingdom but will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus would later explain: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (20:26-28 niv). True humility means to deny oneself, to accept a position of servanthood, and to completely follow the Master.

Like a Child

What did Jesus mean? How do we become like children? Jesus never asks his disciples to be naive simpletons but to trust him with the settled confidence most typical of a child. Here are some ways:

t    With your money, avoid schemes which play to your greed (get-rich-quick stock funds) and cooperate with programs that really help the poor, foreigners, and the sick (food pantries, ESL centers, cancer research).

t    With your mouth, avoid gossip, backbiting, and lying for advantage. Be someone who tells the truth without exaggeration, who doesn’t bad-mouth friends.

t    With your mind, avoid teachers whose foundational commitments exclude the possibility of God, sin, or human freedom. Learn all you can about science, the arts, history, literature, and foreign cultures from teachers who respect biblical ideas or, better yet, who embrace the Bible as true.

Matthew 18:5

“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” (niv) In addition, Jesus taught the disciples to welcome children. This was a new approach in a society where children were usually treated as second-class citizens. Jesus equated the attitude of welcoming children with a willingness to receive him. The principle, as often seen in Matthew, is that God and Christ will consider the way one treats others to be equal to (1) the way one will be treated, or (2) the way one treats Jesus (for example, see 6:14-15; 25:31-46). But the meaning here goes deeper, beyond simply welcoming children, as important as that is. An attitude that welcomes a little child like this in my name, readily welcomes and embraces believers of little worldly importance and low status. This shows an attitude that also welcomes the Savior, for he too was of little worldly importance and of low status. In God’s kingdom, greatness lies in acceptance of and dependence upon the Savior. Together in the church, believers are to welcome and love one another, encourage one another, allow everyone a place to shine according to their gifts, and appreciate one another.

Matthew 18:6

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (nrsv) As in 18:5, these little ones refers not just to children but to Jesus’ “little ones”—the disciples. Children are trusting by nature. They trust adults; and because of that trust, their capacity to trust in God grows. God holds parents and other adults who influence young children accountable for how they affect these little ones’ ability to trust God. To cause a child or any fellow disciple to sin or fall away from the faith means to purposely put a “stumbling block” in the way to make him or her trip and fall. Jesus warned that anyone who turns believers away from him will receive severe punishment. Jesus’ words warn believers that they must not only teach the truth, but live it. If anyone causes young people or new Christians to doubt or fall back into sin, this is a grievous sin with terrible consequences. If they stumble because of wrong teaching, that is a stumbling block as well. Those guilty of such actions or attitudes are putting a stumbling block before other believers. Jesus graphically described the harsh consequences of such sin.

millstone was a heavy, flat stone used to grind grain. There were two common kinds of millstones in use at this time. One was relatively small and was operated by a person. One was large and was connected to an ox or donkey that would walk in a circle, causing the stone to roll and crush the grain. The Gospel writers used the word for the huge animal-operated millstone. To have a millstone tied around one’s neck and then be dumped into the sea meant certain death by drowning. Even the horror of such a death was minor compared to what this person would face in eternity.

With his staff officers around him, Napoleon Bonaparte once spread a large map on the table, put his finger on a country colored red, and said, “Messieurs, if it were not for that red spot I could conquer the world.” That red spot was the British Isles. The devil gathers his lieutenants about him, points his index finger at Calvary, where the blood of the Son of God is shed, and ruefully moans, “But for that red spot, I could conquer the world!” Why should we surrender to Satan whom Jesus defeated on the cross?

—John Wesley White

Jesus Warns against Temptation—Matthew 18:7-9117

Matthew 18:7

“Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!” (nrsv) Verses 6-9 are linked together by the words skandalizo (meaning “cause to sin”) and skandalon (meaning “temptation to sin”). Stumbling blocks will always be a danger to Jesus’ disciples in their time on earth—whether they come from the fellowship (18:6), the world (18:7), or the sinful nature itself (18:8-9). As Jesus had explained in the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the weeds will exist until the end of the age, so evil and its accompanying temptation to sin will be ever-present problems for Jesus’ followers.

Jesus described two “woes” in the verse. The first woe is to the world because of its stumbling blocks; the second woe is to the one person through whom the stumbling block comes. “The world” is used in Matthew to designate unbelieving humanity and relates especially to the Jewish leaders here. Jesus’ followers face constant temptations to do evil from the world in general. Yet this does not excuse those individuals who are the cause of stumbling. They face a further “woe.” Corporate and individual responsibility are included in the “woes” of those who lead people astray into sin. This responsibility to lead people correctly applies to individuals, churches, and institutions. No person or organization should lead people astray into sin.

Matthew 18:8-9

“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire.” (nrsv) With strong language (not meant to promote self-mutilation), Jesus described how the disciples should renounce anything that would cause them to stumble (sin) or turn away from the faith. The action of surgically cutting sin out of their lives should be prompt and complete in order to keep them from sin. Temptation to sin can come from various sources. In the Bible, “feet” are often associated with traveling to do evil, and “hands” with accomplishments. Jesus continued, “And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” (niv) “Eyes” were associated with vision or desires of the heart, aspirations, or ambitions.

All who desire to follow Jesus must remove any stumbling blocks that cause sin. Jesus did not mean to literally cut off a part of the body; he meant that any relationship, practice, or activity that leads to sin should be stopped. As a person would submit to losing a diseased appendage (hand or foot) or a sense (sight) in order to save his or her life, so believers should be just as willing to “cut off” any temptation, habit, or part of their nature that could lead them to hold on to this world and turn away from Christ and into sin. Just cutting off a limb that committed sin or gouging out an eye that looked lustfully would still not get rid of sin, for that must begin in the heart and mind. Jesus was saying that people need to take drastic action to keep from stumbling.

This also applies to the corporate responsibility of believers and includes excommunicating those who would lead others astray (the Pharisees in Jesus’ time; the false teachers in Matthew’s time). Anyone who presents a stumbling block to the believers must be “cut off” from the fellowship.

The reason? Jesus explained that it would be better to have lost some worldly possession, attitude, or action than to keep it and be thrown into the eternal fire or the fire of hell because of it. This is true, radical discipleship. While no person will be completely sin-free until heaven, God wants an attitude that renounces sin instead of one that holds on to sin.

The word translated “hell” is Gehenna”; it is derived from the Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where children had been sacrificed by fire to the pagan god Molech (see 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35). Later, during the reign of good King Josiah, the valley was used as the city’s garbage dump (2 Kings 23:10) where fire burned constantly to destroy the garbage and the worms infesting it. Thus, Gehenna accurately described the place of “eternal fire” (Matthew 5:22; 10:28; Luke 12:5; James 3:6; Revelation 19:20) that has been prepared for the devil, his angels, and all those who do not know Christ (Matthew 25:46; Revelation 20:9-10). This will be the final and eternal state of the wicked after the resurrection and the Last Judgment.

Jesus Warns against Looking Down on Others—Matthew 18:10-14118

Matthew 18:10

“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” (nrsv) This verse is found only in Matthew and bridges from the concept of leading the little ones astray to seeking them when they do go astray (see also 18:6). “Little ones” can refer to both children and disciples. The words “do not despise” pointed directly at the pious religious leaders who showed nothing but contempt for those below them on the “spiritual ladder” (see, for example, Luke 18:9-14 about the Pharisee and the tax collector). The reason the “little ones” should not be despised is because their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. Some have seen in these verses the concept of guardian angels. These words neither prove nor condemn the concept. Seeing God’s face means having access to God, so these angels are ministering angels (see Hebrews 1:14). The Old Testament does not speak about guardian angels assigned to God’s people, but it does speak of angelic intercession and help (as in Psalm 91:11). Also, in Daniel 10:10-14, angels watch over nations. The meaning here is that God’s people are constantly represented before the Father; therefore each one of us has special importance. The writer of Hebrews said, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14 niv). Any investigation of angels should keep in mind that it is God’s care that they administer, so the focus should be on God, not merely angels (see also Luke 15:10; 16:22).

Too Busy for Children?

Our concern for children must match God’s treatment of them. Angels watch over children, and they have direct access to God. These words ring out sharply in cultures where children are taken lightly, ignored, or aborted. If their angels have constant access to God, the least we can do is to allow children to approach us easily in spite of our far too busy schedules.

Matthew 18:11

“For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” (nkjv) This verse is not found in the earliest and best manuscripts; therefore, it is not included in most modern versions. It may have been encouraged by the words of Luke 19:10, added by a later scribe to provide a better bridge between 18:10 and the parable in 18:12-14. In Luke, these words describe Jesus’ acceptance of Zacchaeus, who had been lost, but was saved when Jesus found him. Through faith, anyone who is lost can be forgiven and made new.

Matthew 18:12

“What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” (nrsv) The differences between this parable as recorded by Matthew and by Luke are important. In Luke’s context, the words were addressed to the religious leaders who objected to Jesus’ dealings with undesirables (such as Zacchaeus, the tax collector). In Luke’s account, the sheep is “lost”; in Matthew’s account, the sheep has gone astray. Here, Jesus was addressing not his opponents but his disciples, reminding them that God’s care extends to each of his “little ones” (here portrayed as sheep). If a sheep should go astray from the flock, God, like a protective shepherd, will go in search of the one that went astray. God is concerned about every single believer and will actively go in search of those who have “gone astray” (meaning they have gotten out of a right relationship with him, are heading toward false teaching, are heading down a dangerous path in life, or are falling into sin).

“Seeking” Ministries

Many churches around the country (even the world) have begun to adopt creative new means to appeal to nonbelievers. Some have seekers’ ministries, bringing the gospel to divorcees, singles, gays, and other groups that feel marginalized in most churches. Often these churches are criticized for glitzy music, peppy sermons, and shallow teaching—by other churches that have forgotten about shepherds.

With all your might and creative methods, go after people who are lost, astray from God. Be the shepherd who searches for the stranger and the straggler. Help your church adapt the message—not its truth but its format—to reach people living around you who don’t believe.

Matthew 18:13-14

“And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” (nrsv) The sheep went astray, but the shepherd sought after it. If he finds it … he rejoices over it. The love for the little lost sheep is not at the expense of the rest of the flock. That the shepherd left the ninety-nine behind should not be pressed to mean that he leaves them unprotected. As noted above, not every detail of a parable must be pressed. The point is that the Father does not want any of his flock to wander away. Jesus explained that “in the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (niv) God so loves each of his followers that, should they go astray, he actively seeks and rejoices when they return to him. Just as a shepherd is concerned enough about one lost sheep to go search the hills for it, so God is concerned about every believer no matter how small or weak his or her faith might be (he is “not wanting anyone to perish,” 2 Peter 3:9 niv). A sheep that is not “found” (that is, one that willingly refuses faith) will face a consequence—that sheep will remain lost. But God does not want that to happen. What wonderful love! God rejoicing in us! God rejoicing when a “lost” person is “found!” And God wants faithful believers to be part of the rescue team. Our follow-through care of new Christians, our small group ministry, and our individual contact with fellow believers should demonstrate the Great Shepherd’s care for his sheep.

Jesus Teaches How to Treat a Believer Who Sins—Matthew 18:15-20119

The thrust of the parable in 18:12-14 leads naturally into the area of discipline. Note that the rigid use of excommunication (18:8-9) was muted by the law of love, which seeks to bring the straying believer back into the fold.

Matthew 18:15

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” (nrsv) These are Jesus’ guidelines for dealing with those who sin against us. These guidelines were meant for Christians (not unbelievers) and for discipline and conflict resolution in the context of the church, not in the community at large. These steps are designed to reconcile those who disagree so that church members can live in harmony.

The two earliest manuscripts omit the words “against you,” and indeed there is a very high degree of doubt about their inclusion. The addition of “against you” focuses the sin in the area of personal offenses; its exclusion means believers could confront other believers when they see sin in their lives, not just when the sin is interpersonal. Of course, since most sin is interpersonal, these offenses must be dealt with properly.

Jesus explained that the person who has been offended must first go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. A personal confrontation, carried out in love, will allow the sinning member the opportunity to correct himself or herself. However, the person doing the confronting ought to be very certain of his or her accusation and that he or she is doing this out of true humility with a view to restoration of the other (see Galatians 6:1-4). This call to confrontation is not a license for a frontal attack on every person who hurts or slights us. Many misunderstandings and hurt feelings can be solved at this stage. This saves church leaders from getting involved in everyone’s personal concerns. Personal confrontation also keeps believers from gossiping with one another. Instead, believers are to be mature enough to go directly to the source and deal with the problem at that level.

When someone wrongs us, we often do the opposite of what Jesus recommends. We turn away in hatred or resentment, seek revenge, or engage in gossip. By contrast, we should go to that person first, as difficult as that may be. Then we should forgive that person as often as he or she needs it (18:21-22). This restores relationships.

Matthew 18:16

“But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (nrsv) If the personal confrontation yields nothing and the confronter is not listened to, then he or she is to proceed to step two. In this step, the confronter takes one or two others along. This is backed up by Old Testament law (see Deuteronomy 19:15). It is unclear from the text whether these “others” come along in order to support the confronter by bringing additional testimony about the erring person’s sin, or if they are witnesses to this second meeting so as to give testimony should the erring person need to be brought before the church (step three, 18:17). These “others” also ought to help in reconciliation at this second meeting, hoping to settle the matter privately. An erring person might be willing to listen to the wise counsel of these “others.”

Resolving Conflicts

Jesus’ advice for keeping peace in your relationships:

t    Don’t ignore conflict; address it.

t    Don’t exaggerate conflict; solve it with the least possible publicity and public scrutiny.

t    Don’t abandon conflict; pursue it to resolution.

t    Don’t fence yourself in by conflict; taking two or three witnesses requires that you also are open to reproof and correction.

t    Don’t recycle conflict; once resolved, let it go and get back to your life.

Matthew 18:17

“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” (nrsv) If the additional witnesses can accomplish no reconciliation and the member refuses to listen to them, then the third step is to tell it to the church. (This is the second and last time that the word “church” is used in the Gospels, see 16:18). The objective at this point still is not disciplinary action but helping the sinning person to see his or her fault, repent, and be restored.

“And if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (nrsv) Even the law of love has its limit. The fourth and last step is to disassociate from that person. Some have construed this advice to be the final step of excommunication. The goal, even through this difficult act, is to help the person see his or her sin and repent. Paul recommended such action to the church in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15). The person should be treated as a Gentile and a tax collector; such people were shunned by the Jews. Matthew recorded this saying for his Jewish audience who would understand the metaphor for the kind of avoidance Jesus demanded in this situation. In the phrase “let such a one be to you,” the word “you” is singular—while the decision of the church is made corporately, the avoidance is acted out at the individual level.

While all people in the church are “sinners saved by grace,” and while no church will ever be free of members who commit sin, the person described here has a huge blind spot to sin, and many people can see it. Yet this person refuses to listen to those whom God sends to help. In the church, believers are to teach, challenge, encourage, admonish, help, and love each other. But there can be no true fellowship with a believer who refuses the loving guidance of his or her fellow church members.

Matthew 18:18

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (nrsv) This verse parallels the similar authority given to Peter and the disciples in 16:19. Here the authority belongs to the church—the words “you” in this verse are plural. The “binding” and “loosing” refer to the decisions of the church in conflicts and discipline. Among believers, there is no court of appeals beyond the church. Ideally, the church’s decisions should be God-guided and based on discernment of his Word. Believers have the responsibility, therefore, to bring their problems to the church, and the church has the responsibility to use God’s guidance in seeking to discipline members. Handling problems God’s way will have an impact now and for eternity.

Matthew 18:19-20

“Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (nkjv) In context, the application of this verse applies to matters of church discipline. Other verses apply to prayer in general (21:22; John 14:13-14; 15:7-8, 16). Some scholars explain that the “two or three” who agree refers directly back to the previous verses (especially 18:16)—the people in the confrontation (the offender and the one offended, or the group brought in step two). These people come into the confrontation, and God stands behind them as they work through their disagreement. If the matter must go before the church, God is there helping those in agreement to deal with the sinning member as they ought. Indeed, God may be using the people to “chase down the lost sheep,” so to speak, and bring him or her back “into the fold.”

Jesus looked ahead to a new day when he would be present with his followers not in body but through his Holy Spirit. In the body of believers (the church), the sincere agreement of two people is more powerful than the superficial agreement of thousands because Christ’s Holy Spirit is with them. Two or more believers, filled with the Holy Spirit, will pray according to God’s will, not their own; thus their requests will be granted. In context, if the focus of their prayer is the repentance and restoration of the sinning believer, then that meeting of two or three concerned believers will have tremendous power when they realize the promise that God is there in the midst of them.[1]


[1] Life Application Bible

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