KINGDOM GREATNESS Matthew 18
“Unless you change . . . you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself as this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3–4).The question about greatness is important. Today too Christians need to understand Christ’s answer.
The mark of greatness in Christ’s kingdom is a childlike responsiveness to the Lord (18:1–5) that guards others (vv. 6–9) by seeking the lost (vv. 10–14), seeking reconciliation (vv. 15–19), and forgiving freely as we have been forgiven (vv. 20–35).
Understanding the Text
“He called a little child and had him stand among them” Matt. 18:1–5. The significance of so many Gospel stories and sayings depends on what has happened just before them. Matthew 16 reported the failure of Israel to respond to Jesus, expressed in the open rejection of leaders and in the failure of the people to recognize Christ as Son of God. Now, in response to a question about greatness, Christ “called a little child.” The child, unhesitating, came in response to Christ’s call and “stood among them.” The key to greatness in God’s kingdom is to respond just as unhesitatingly to the call of the King. You and I can “change and become like little children.” We can hear and obey Jesus’ voice. In the simple life of obedience we achieve what so many yearn for: greatness in God’s sight. What a tremendous blessing this is. Not many of us will become famous, or be remembered for notable achievements. Yet the simplest Christian can respond to God’s voice, and in responding be truly great. “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin” Matt. 18:6–9. Outsiders (the “world”) will try to cause “one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin” (v. 6). Outsiders will actively try to cause Christ’s disciples to stumble. It would be better for them to have drowned before doing so (vv. 6–7), or to lose the member of the body used to cause sin (vv. 8–9). These words underline the importance of encouraging the attitude of “little oneness.” It’s difficult enough to maintain an attitude of childlike trust and responsiveness that is to characterize citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. In fact, one of the most important missions of the church is to nurture this attitude in its members. We must remember that children aren’t thrust out into the world alone. They are kept safe within the warm and loving context of the family. In the Christian family, the church, we can help each other become truly great. Sometimes Christians hinder rather than help others respond to Jesus in simple faith. One question we need to constantly ask ourselves is: How can I help others love and respond to Jesus Christ? If we’re uncertain about the answer to that question, then the rest of Matthew 18 is particularly important. Here we are shown just how to help others live in a “little one” relationship with Christ and His church! “If a man owns a hundred sheep” Matt. 18:10–14. The famous story reminds us that we human beings are very much like sheep. We are prone to go astray. Yet here Jesus pictured the shepherd hurrying off to find the one of his hundred sheep who was lost. Older versions beautifully capture the emotions of the shepherd who finds his lost sheep: he “brings it home rejoicing.” Nurturing “little oneness” in others means remembering that they too are likely to go astray, and that they too are precious. When one does go astray, we are to take the initiative and seek restoration. Perhaps most striking, when we find the straying little one we bring him or her home “rejoicing.” There are no recriminations. No attempts to make the person who strayed feel guilt. There is simply joy that one lost has been found. We need to remember and apply this principle in dealing with our children. Yes, they’ll go astray at times. When they come back let’s avoid recriminations. Showing our joy that they are home again will do more to prevent future straying than any punishment in the world! “If your brother sins against you” Matt. 18:15–20. A new analogy is introduced, to stand alongside that of Christ’s little ones as sheep. Jesus’ people are family. And, as in any family, the children are sure to sin against one another. There will be jealousy. There will be competition. There will be lies. There will be hurts given and received. How do we handle the family spats that are so destructive of Christian “little oneness”? Jesus gives a three-step procedure. Go to the person and show him his fault. If he listens (and here our forgiveness is implied, cf. v. 21), family harmony is restored. If he does not, bring along one or two others and try again. Finally, involve the whole church family. If the brother still refuses to listen, then “treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector.” This phrase points to church discipline: not one member of the Christian community is to have fellowship with that individual. How does this preserve “little oneness”? And who is the process designed to help? It helps everyone! It helps the person at fault, for the disciplinary process encourages confession and restoration. It helps the person hurt, for confession removes the obstacle to feeling close again. And it helps the congregation, which has shared in a process that affirms the importance of intimate, loving relationships as the context for our life together as little ones of Jesus. With that fellowship intact, we have a very special confidence in prayer (vv. 19–20). I know. It’s hard to go to someone and tell him what he did has hurt me. It’s hard to confront. But Jesus commands it. And remember, responding to the voice of the King is the key to greatness in the kingdom of God. “How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” Matt. 18:21–22 Peter is such an attractive character. He’s a leader. He’s a risk taker. He’s quick to speak up, eager to please, and always very human in his strengths and weaknesses. This time Peter displayed what he must have thought was a special dedication. “OK, Lord,” he seemed to say. “I’m ready to try it. Why, I’ll even forgive my brother if he sins against me seven times!” Just how great a dedication this was is illustrated by rabbinic teaching of the time. The rabbis held that a person could be forgiven a repeated sin three times. But the fourth time, there was no forgiveness. Peter was saying he was willing to go further than anyone expected, in order to obey the Lord. Many times we’re like Peter. When you serve 25 church dinners, and no one even says, “Thanks,” by the 26th you wonder. You begin to feel you’re being taken advantage of, and it’s not quite a labor of love anymore. When you forgive a person for repeated sins, as the offenses mount you become more and more upset. You feel that, if the person were really sorry, he or she wouldn’t do it anymore. Yes, we’re ready to do more than anyone has a right to expect. But there are limits. Christ’s call for “seventy-seven times” established a totally new principle. In the community of faith, there are to be no limits on mutual forgiveness. There are to be no limits on obedience! We are to continue to live as “little ones,” responding to Jesus whatever others around us may say or do.
Canceled Debts (Matt. 18:18–35)
When our Lord called for brothers and sisters in God’s family to extend unlimited forgiveness to each other (vv. 15–22), He didn’t explain how this would help the repeat offender grow in holiness. That was left for the Apostle Paul to explain in 2 Corinthians 5. What Jesus did do was give us the most compelling reason of all to forgive one an other. That reason is expressed in the story of a servant who owed a king a great debt. When the servant could not pay, the king “took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go” (v. 27). Then the servant met a fellow servant, who owed him a paltry sum, and “had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt” (v. 30). The king was angered when he heard. It was hardly appropriate for one who had been forgiven so much to make such an issue of a debt which was so little. The thrust of the story depends largely on the amounts of money Jesus mentioned. In the first century, a denarius was a silver coin representing one day’s wages for a working man. A talent was a sum equal to 3,000 denarii, so the first servant’s debt was the equivalent of 30,000,000 days’ wages! If the first servant had labored every workday for 50 years, and given every cent earned to the king, it would have taken him some 2,725 lifetimes to pay his debt! Yet each of us has but a single lifetime to live. By any measure, the debt owed the king was unpayable, and the 100 denarii owed by the second servant was insignificant. What a reminder when we find our hearts hardening toward a brother or sister after a few repeated hurts. God, the great King, has forgiven us an absolutely unpayable debt. He has forgiven our sins, simply because He took pity on us. In contemplating the forgiveness we have received from God, we find the grace we need to forgive one another.
Next time you find it hard to forgive, meditate on the forgiveness you have received from our Lord.
“If you want to work for the kingdom of God, and to bring it, and to enter into it, there is just one condition to be first accepted. You must enter it as children, or not at all.”—John Ruskin