Matthew 18 Commentary

Matthew 18:1-4

In first-century Judea, children were not only considered weak and vulnerable, but socially invisible.  The basic protections that most modern countries afford them today were non-existent at this time.  So Jesus’ illustration was far more shocking to his hearers than it is to us.  Nostalgia is a luxury that couldn’t be afforded in a world that had few comforts and permitted even less free time.  In Jesus’ day, children were to be taught that they must grow up quickly and to become high-functioning adults as soon as possible. 

Childhood was certainly not taught as a thing to be emulated.

But Jesus chose his metaphors well.  Little children are the best earthly examples of his people.  They are the most faithful human examples.  They best resemble what godly humility looks like in the world.  They are completely dependent on their parents for protection and sustenance.  They draw all their identity from their parents and their joy rises and falls with their approval.  They long to be with their parents when they are away and happy when they are near.  They run to their parents for comfort and help when they are afraid or hurt, and they always keep close to them.  And little children have no concerns about their reputations or race.  They play uninhibited with every other child they meet and they accept other children on basis of what’s inside their heart, not on outward appearances.

Jesus’ illustration paints a picture perfect, humble submission to him.  There can be no “adult independence” entwined in with the kind of faith God requires.  There can be no self-reliance swirled in with a complete dependence on God.  Faith is a total reliance.  It cannot waiver between self-dependence and childlike reliance on God.

Jesus isn’t looking for well adjusted, self-confident, self-reliant adults who are comfortable in their own skin.  He also isn’t looking for people whose hearts are of wet cement that are destined to become well cured, dried and impenetrably hard.  Jesus is looking for uninhibited little children.  He is looking for sinners who are willing to give up their dreams and self-sufficiencies in order to depend on him – to cling to the One who is sufficient in all things and is able to save.

Matthew 18:5-9

Drawing the most serious and fearful images from ordinary things, Jesus again impresses upon his hearers the gravity of sin.  On this occasion, he says that if you cause just one small child to sin, you should be tossed in the sea with a four-hundred pound rock around your neck.  He says that since the offense is great, equally great should be the punishment.

But again, Jesus is using a metaphor to describe a punishment that is far worse than a sudden drowning.  The Sea of Galilee’s average depth is about 80 feet and having such a weight around your neck would cause certain death.  Either from the weight of millstone would snap your neck immediately, or the incredible water pressure would crush you at the bottom of the sea, or you would inevitably drown should you somehow survive the first two dangers.  Yet as horrible as such a death would be, it cannot even begin to compare to the horrors of hell.

In the grand scheme of God’s overarching plan there can be no comparison between heaven’s treasures and earth’s trinkets.  But that is not how we are wired to think, and the deceitfulness of sin deadens our spiritual senses to horrors of hell. Giving up our sin addictions is painful and costly to us, and because Adam’s fall has been passed to the entire human race, we are faithless and pitiful creatures.  We depend only on things we can see.  We depend on things that provide for our bodies and the things we love. And often what we love harms those we love, and we forget that the things that sustain our bodies were created by the hand of an unseen God.  

This is why giving up our sin addictions for Jesus’ sake is like cutting off an arm or gouging out an eye.  We are so inclined not to believe in the unseen and to trust in our talents and abilities, that when we do part with our sin it is painful.  And this is also why the trials of life are such a blessing to the Christian because each is opportunity to be free from sin. 

Better a little pain now and eternal joy later, than a little joy now and unending pain later.

Faith in Jesus offers us a better reward both in this life and the life to come.  Offered to us is the confidence and peace of Christ now, even through life’s uncertain storms.  And offered to us is the incomprehensible joys of tomorrow – an eternity with the Creator of every good thing.

Matthew 18:10-14

The default of God’s heart is always towards mercy and his ear is always trained to hear the poor, the downtrodden and the needy.  Like the good shepherd that leaves his large flock to look for one lost sheep, God cares for those of his that are lost.  This is why the Father sent his son Jesus, to seek and save the lost and to lead them to safety.  Out of his love and mercy the Father sent his Son to be the Good Shepherd for us, and to rescue us when we wander from his grace.

And because the Father loves his sheep, he will not allow them to be mistreated forever.  Jesus reminds his hearers that his little ones are always heard in his Father’s throne room and that their angels in heaven are always given an audience.  Though God’s children will suffer for a little while on earth, their suffering should not give their antagonists any comfort.   God will rescue his people and will punish those who terrorize his children. 

If we love God and are for God, we should not look down on anyone – particularly a brother or sister in Jesus.  Those who are now poor, disabled, elderly, physically or mentally frail share in the same inheritance by faith in Christ as those who are physically healthy, productive and strong.  Since Christians are to imitate their Father in heaven, they are to be merciful and kind to the weak, and they are to be his helpers as he seeks to rescue his lost sheep.

Matthew 18:15-19

Reconciliation is a very Christian trait.  The desire to be at peace with our fellow brothers and sisters for the sake of conscience and to promote the name of Jesus is an essential proof of the Holy Spirit within.  If your brother offends you it is your duty to go to him.  You should never burn in anger or remain bitter towards anyone, but seek peace whenever possible.  And if no peace is possible, you must diffuse any anger or bitterness you have towards others by relying on Christ and remembering what he has done for you.

Jesus command to extinguish our bitterness by going to our brother isn’t followed today.  Offenses are stuffed down and ignored, and never dealt with by faith.  Large offenses often deteriorate into divisions, gossiping, and immediate public confrontations bent on revenge.

Yet Jesus commands us to go to our brother as an expression of humility for the sake of peace.

Whenever we go to someone who offends us, we must approach the situation with gentleness and love.  We must approach the situation like a bomb technician approaches an explosive device, working slowly and carefully, and checking methodically to see if there is an easy way to quickly defuse the device. 

And if the bomb proves to be too difficult for us, we must consult other experts for help and wisdom.

If all else fails, we should detonate our grievances safely, and at a great distance away from the general public.  We should always seek discretion when rebuking a brother.  The involvement of a local church should only be used as a last resort and for the most serious offenses.  For Elders have been given the power to bind and loose in such matters and laypersons are instructed to submit to their decisions, even though the office of elder requires a submission to the body as well.

So mutual agreement must always be sought and humility must always be practiced.  There will be times when reconciliation is impossible and an elder is needed and even in these situations we should be ready with kindness and always be willing to forgive.

When two or more are gathered for Jesus’ sake there is power among them.  Christ is present when we gather, and when he is present he brings his power by his Spirit.  He will grant our requests according to his will and for the sake of his glory.  And so by the collective resolve of Christ’s Church, in harmony with Jesus’ Gospel, let God’s will be established; and let us listen closely to and embrace any rebuke from our elders – especially those presented to us in a kind and gentle way.

Matthew 18:20-35

The forgiveness we offer others should be the same that the Father offers us.  God’s forgiveness is deep and generous.  It is given to us as undeserved and unmerited. For Christ earned our forgiveness, though we have done nothing to deserve it. Through Christ, the Father forgives each of his children a mountain of debt in exchange only for their gratitude and loyalty. He forgives and requires only that we love him as he first loved us.

In this parable, a man who owed an enormous sum begs for his life and is granted mercy.  The man had racked up a ridiculous sum, probably due to excessive cruelty and foolish living, and yet he was forgiven the massive amount of debt anyway.  His debt was a king’s debt that could only be forgiven by the king.  It was a debt so large that this king might not ever be able to recoup the losses in the future.  Nevertheless, the king lavished a kindness on the undeserving servant and pardoned him of everything.

The servant’s response shows us the depth of wickedness and just how little he loved his king.  His response should have been one of gratefulness and joy.  He had been offered a new life, free from the bondage and oppression that awaited him. All those sleepless nights worrying about the day of reconciliation before his king were now a distant memory.  He was free to start over.

But instead of expressing a changed and grateful heart, the servant immediately went out and violently demanded money from a peer who owed him a little money.  Though this was a sum that could have been repaid in a matter months, the forgiven servant offered none in return and had the servant thrown in jail.  Though this servant had owed his king more than 1,000 lifetimes of average wages, he chokes a fellow servant and jails him for only a few months worth of debt. The servant should have imitated his king.  He should have set aside his rights to any uncollected debt out of gratitude.  He should have forgiven this servant as his king had forgiven him.

As amazing the king’s compassion was towards his servant, equally amazing is the cruelty the servant showed towards his brother.  The servant throws his peer in jail, making it all the more harder for him to repay the debt. He mistreats him and shows him no mercy.  He has no gratefulness or appreciation towards his king in the wake of his forgiveness.  The wicked servant had every reasonable expectation to expect this debtor to repay his debt, yet the king had no reason to expect the servant he forgave would be able pay back but a fraction of what he owed.  Yet the servant is the one who acts violently over relatively little, while the king grants mercy over much.

In the end, the servant receives a just punishment – and it turns out to be a punishment far worse than the one he would have originally received now that his forgiven debts are revoked.  And the Gospel implications of this parable are clear.  Now is the time to settle accounts and now is the time for us to forgive our neighbors, brothers and enemies through true faith and a broken heart.  Our faith is best expressed through forgiveness.  For there is no act that proves dependency on God more than forgiveness, and there is no act that expresses love more clearly than pardoning a neighbor.  There is also nothing more potent than showing an undeserved mercy. 

God demands that we be like him in every way.  And through forgiveness we imitate his mercy and love.

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