6. Instructions to His Disciples. Concerning Forgiveness.
1. Concerning the Little Ones and Offences. (Matthew 18:1-10.)
2. The Son of Man to Save What is Lost. (Matthew 18:11-14.)
3. The Church Anticipated and Instructions Concerning it. (Matthew 18:15-20.)
4. Concerning Forgiveness. (Matthew 18:21-35.)
So closely is this chapter connected with the events of the previous one that it should not be divided into a separate chapter at all. It was “in that hour” the disciples came to Him with their question. When the Lord had just uttered the great truth “the sons are free” and added His gracious Word “that we may not be an offence to them” and the disciples asked their question about being greatest in the kingdom, the great Teacher continues His teachings.
“Who then is greatest in the kingdom of the heavens? And Jesus having called a little child to Him, set it in their midst, and said, Verily I say to you, unless ye are converted and become as little children, ye will not at all enter into the kingdom of the heavens. Whoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens” (Matthew 18:1-5). In the Gospel of Luke (chapter 9:46) we read that they were reasoning amongst themselves who should be the greatest. Perhaps the Lord’s words to Peter about the keys of the kingdom produced this strife among the disciples. While the Lord had set His face like a flint to go up to Jerusalem and spoke of His coming suffering and death, they had these selfish thoughts and reasonings. And so they approach the Lord, in the hour when He, who had become poor, had manifested His divine power in bringing the fish with a piece of money from the bottom of the sea to Peter’s hook. And how graciously He teaches them. He knew their hearts and read their thoughts. He knew the depths of their natures and that one of their numbers was not His own. What love that He so patiently instructs them.
The disciples meant of course the kingdom of the heavens, as they understood it, that kingdom which was and is to be established in the earth, and their selfish ambition was reaching out for a great earthly position in that kingdom. They thought of the time when service, self-denial and suffering would be rewarded by the King; who then would be greatest? And the Lord takes a little child and sets the little one in their midst and through this object lesson teaches them who will be the greatest in the kingdom. What the Lord tells His disciples here is practically the same which Nicodemus heard from His lips in that night visit. The kingdom must be entered in and that means conversion, to turn about in a different direction, and become as a little child, in other words, a new life is given, a new existence begins, the believer is born again and enters the kingdom as a little child, as he entered by the natural birth into the world. He gives therefore the great characteristics of those who have entered the kingdom and the great principles which are to govern them. It is lowliness, littleness and dependence. These are the characteristics of a little child. “Whoever therefore shall humble himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens.” Having entered into the kingdom by being born again, we are to act practically according to these principles and he who does so is the greatest. The new life will grow and develop, but in regard of these characteristics the believer is ever to remain a child in simplicity, dependence on the Lord and in lowliness of mind as well as self-forgetfulness. It is by the constant following of these principles that growth in Grace is attained. Nothing is more detrimental to the development of spiritual life than self-consciousness, self confidence and pride. How often the Lord has to do with His children what the earthly father has to do with his children when they are wilful. He has to discipline them, and that means to show them their true place as a little child. “Moreover, we have had the fathers of our flesh as chasteners, and we reverenced them; shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of spirits, and live? For they indeed chastened for a few days, as seemed good to them; but He for profit, in order to the partaking of His holiness” (Hebrews 12:9-10). Lowliness of mind, that self-forgetfulness and dependence on God, was the path of the Lord Jesus Christ in the days of His humiliation. Let this mind, therefore, be in you which was in Christ Jesus.
“And whosoever shall receive one such little child in my name receives me. But whosoever shall offend one of these little ones who believe in me, it were profitable for him that a great millstone had been hanged upon his neck and he be sunk into the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; yet woe to that man by whom the offence comes! And if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee; it is good for thee to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than have two hands or two feet to be cast into eternal fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee; it is good for thee to enter into life one-eyed, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire” (Matthew 18:5-9).
The great thought put here before us is the identification of the Lord with every little one, each who has become a little child, that is born again. He is their Father and their Lord, closely identified with them. It reminds us of that beautiful word “He that toucheth you toucheth the apple of His eye” (Zechariah 2:8). It is spoken of Israel, it finds a still higher application in us. We also may think of that other statement: “In all their affliction, He was afflicted” (Is. 63:9). And so honor done to one of the little ones is done unto Him, injury done to one of them is injury done to Him. What glory of the believer this reveals! How this fact should teach us how to behave one towards the other and not despise any one who is Christ’s. How apt we are to do this. This one or that one is so little taught in the Word, he is so ungracious -- and with all our criticism we forget he is after all one of Christ’s own.
Care, however, must be taken in interpreting the passage concerning those who offend, the casting into the sea with a millstone and into eternal fire. [Christ here speaks of a kind of death, perhaps nowhere, certainly never used among the Jews; He does it either to aggravate the thing, or in allusion to drowning in the Dead Sea, in which one cannot be drowned without something hung to him, and in which to drown anything by a common manner of speed implied rejection and execration. -- Horae Hebraeicae.] That this cannot mean the true believer, who gives offence is obvious. The true believer may give offence, as alas! he often does, but the fate “eternal fire” or “hell of fire” is not for him. But in the kingdom, the kingdom of the heavens as it is now, there are not alone those who are truly born again, but also many who are mere professors without possessing life. These are of course indifferent and careless about grieving Him. The “eternal fire” is surely for those who though professing, continue deliberately in sin and unbelief. And yet the exhortation has a most solemn meaning for every true believer. Whatever is in your way, whatever is a stumbling block it is to be removed. If it is the hand by which we serve and act, or by the foot, the walk, or by the eye, the very best we have, put it away so as not to give an offence.
And our Lord continues: “See that ye do not despise one of these little ones; for I say unto you that their angels in the heavens continually behold the face of my Father who is in the heavens” (Matthew 18:10). It would take many pages to follow or state all the different interpretations of these words and the various theories and doctrines which have been built upon it. That there are difficulties here none would deny.
Much has been made of this passage in teaching that there is a “guardian angel” for every believer. That angels have ministries which we cannot fully grasp now, cannot be denied.
“Are they not all ministering spirits sent out for service on account of those who shall inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14). Faith can enjoy it, child-like faith, without going into speculation. However the passage does not teach that every believer has an angel who guards and protects him and who sees the Father.
The question is, does the Lord still speak of believers or does He now refer to actual little ones? We believe the latter is the case. With the tenth verse ends properly the exhortation of the Lord in answer to the question of the disciples. The little child He had put in their midst was most likely still there, and it is now concerning little ones, little children, He speaks, that they should not be despised. Children are subjects in the kingdom of the heavens. How little the disciples understood their Lord and how they needed the very exhortation not to despise one of these little ones is seen in the next chapter, when they brought little children to the Lord and the disciples rebuked them. The Lord then declared: “Suffer little children, and do not hinder them from coming to me; for the kingdom of heaven is of such” (chapter 19:13, 14). And when the Lord now speaks of “their angels in the heavens continually behold the face of my Father,” what does He mean by it?
All of course depends on the interpretation of “angel.” At the first glance it would seem as if these little ones have angels in heaven. There is a passage in Acts 12:1-25 which is the key to solve the difficulty here. When Peter, rescued by an angel, led forth miraculously from the prison house, knocked at the door of the praying assembly and Rhoda maintained that Peter stood outside, they said “It is his angel.” They believed that Peter had suffered death and that his angel stood outside. What does “angel” mean in this passage? It must mean the departed spirit of Peter. This fact throws light on the passage before us. If these little ones, who belong to the kingdom of the heavens, depart, their disembodied spirits behold the Father’s face in heaven; in other words, they are saved. Surely heaven is peopled by these little ones. What a company of them is in the presence of the Lord! The little ones perish not. The work of the Lord Jesus Christ was for them. The verses which follow and which have been said to be an interpolation, belong rightly here; indeed, they fit in most wonderfully, though in the Gospel of Luke we have the substance of these words enlarged. “For the Son of Man has come to save that which is lost.” [The omission of “to seek” is significant. They (little children) are lost ones needing a Saviour, but seeking implies a condition of active wandering from God such as in their case is hardly begun yet. -- Num. Bible.] “What think ye? If a certain man should have a hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, does he not leave the ninety and nine on the mountains, go and seek the one which has gone astray? And if it should come to pass that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoices more because of it than because of the ninety and nine not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in the heavens that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:11-14).
The words of our Lord, which follow His gracious declaration, that it is not the Father’s will that one of these little ones should perish, are very important. Here for the second time in this gospel and the last time, the Lord uses the word “church,” or as we translate it “assembly.” We must have therefore additional teachings given by our Lord concerning His church, which He had announced in the sixteenth chapter He is going to build. We have learned before that the building of the church was future, that when He gave that statement there was no church in existence. And so the words He spoke to His disciples in the passage before us are in anticipation of the gathering out of the assembly or church.
Some have taught that the word “church” means a synagogue. Church and synagogue, however, are totally different terms. (Of late this argument has been pressed in certain quarters that the word church means synagogue. However if the Lord had meant synagogue the Holy Spirit surely would have used the Greek word “synagoge” instead of “ecclesia.”) Others have failed to see the close connection which exists between the first part of the chapter and the continued teachings of our Lord going now on about the authority of the church. That all is vitally connected in this chapter may not be discovered at the first glance, but it is so nevertheless. He had answered their question about the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens and true believers were described by Him as little children, born of God and in possession of the characteristics of a little child. No offence should be given to any of these little ones. He then spoke of His own mission, that He came to save that which is lost and of His Grace in seeking the sheep which has gone astray till He finds it and rejoices over it. And now He speaks of a brother who has sinned. How is he to be treated? The connection then is clear. If He sought us and saved us when we were lost in our sins, so we, in possession of His life, in the spirit of a little child in dependence upon Him and in meekness, are to seek our brother who has sinned. The instructions He gives, however, soon refer us to the church and her executive power on the earth during the absence of the Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. But we have to examine these words in detail.
“But if thy brother sin against thee, go reprove him between thee and him alone. If he hear thee, thou hast gained a brother” (Matthew 18:15). The question is how sin in a brother is to be treated. What kind of a sin is meant, whether a sin against a person or sin in a wider sense of the word, we shall not attempt to discuss. He is a brother who has sinned and the first thing to be done is that the one who knows about it is to go to him personally and reprove him, that is, show him his fault. The object of his reprover is not perhaps to defend himself, if a personal matter, a false accusation, is the sin, but it is to restore and gain the brother. But to go to the brother who has sinned needs great caution, earnest prayer, meekness and self judgment. If the reproving is attempted in a wrong spirit it will work untold harm. The Holy Spirit has given us in Galatians the description of the brother who should go and reprove him who has sinned and the manner in which he is to do it. “Brethren, if even a man be taken in some fault, ye who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of meekness, considering thyself lest thou also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). Alas! how little this is done. Instead of going at once to the brother who sinned, after earnest prayer and with the love and grace of God in the heart, the sin of the brother is often spread about and by this un-Christlike behavior magnified. Bitter feelings are stirred up, resulting in greater evils, slanders, backbiting, lying and other sins. If at last some one makes an attempt to see the brother, he finds the case perhaps beyond hope. How simply our gracious Lord has pointed out the way for us, what the first step is to be if the brother has sinned. It is to be treated as a personal matter and the sinning brother should not needlessly be exposed. Such grace manifested is able to gain the brother.
But in case he does not hear, what is to be the second step? “But if he do not hear thee, take with thee one or two besides, that every matter may stand upon the word of two witnesses or three” (Matthew 18:16). Of course the two, which are to be taken along in this second step to restore a brother, must have the same spiritual characteristics as the brother who came to him first. It is to bring still greater love to bear upon him, but at the same time to show the brother that unconfessed sin, sin not put away, cannot be tolerated in a brother. Should he stubbornly refuse to see his fault, his case would appear hopeless and the last step to be done would hardly reach him, for from the very outset he has been hardening his heart against love and grace, the love of Christ, which sought to restore him.
And so the Lord gives the last injunction, “But if he will not listen to them tell it to the assembly.” The sin is now to be made public, the whole assembly is to hear of it and of course from the side of the assembly or church there is to be renewed seeking to gain the brother in love. Hasty judging is to be avoided and in all these steps impatient haste, the fruit of the flesh, is to be avoided.
The assembly is mentioned, we repeat, in anticipation of its building in the future. The injunction given here could not have been kept at the time when the Lord gave it, nor before the day of Pentecost. (It is very interesting though to find that the Elders and Rabbis of old had many sayings about reproving a brother which remind one strongly of the words here. It was also customary among the Jews to note those that were obstinate and after public admonition in the synagogue to set a mark of disgrace upon them. The words by our Lord, “Where two or three are gathered together unto my Name there I am in the midst of them,” is also found in the talmudical writings. The old Rabbis say, “Two or three sitting in judgment, the Shekinah is in the midst of them.” However all this does not authorize to say the synagogue is meant here.) First of all the church had to be called in existence. That the church is a gathering of persons unto the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we find later. This assembly then, the church, is to act as a body in the case of the brother who has sinned. Of course it means a local church gathered unto the name of the Lord of which the offender is a part.
“And if also he will not listen to the assembly; let him be to thee as one of the nations and a taxgatherer. Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on the earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on the earth shall be loosed in heaven.” These are solemn and important words, as they not alone give us light on what is to be done with an impenitent brother, but also show us the responsibility and authority of the church on earth. He is, after refusing to hear the church, to be considered as one outside, one who has forfeited his place. This however does not mean that further attempts should not be made to restore him. The action of the assembly is to prove that holiness is to be maintained.
And now the “verily” of the Lord. Whatever has been read into these words of binding and loosing by the assembly we pass by. The words simply tell us that the Lord conferred authority to act on the earth for Himself, and the authority is absolute. But to whom does He give this authority? To the disciples, apostles to be conferred by them upon others? Never! That is the unscriptural, man-made doctrine which has displaced the person and the work of Christ, one of Satan’s most powerful inventions. The authority is given to the church. He gives the church executive power. She is to act according to His rules laid down and in acting in fullest harmony with the absent Lord and obedient to His Word as well as guided by His Spirit, the action of the assembly is valid in heaven. The Lord sanctions it in heaven, whether it is binding or loosing. If, therefore, anything is done which deviates from His Word and is not according to His mind, He cannot sanction it. The case must be a very plain one. If there is disagreement, diversity of opinion, taking of different sides, it is evidence that the Lord cannot sanction what is done.
Alas! how little these injunctions have been followed! How little the church has understood the way of grace as well as her heaven-given, solemn authority. That which professes to be the church has made attempts to follow these injunctions, but being disobedient to the Word, has failed long ago and is powerless to carry out these words. Much of that which calls itself church is simply a human man-made institution, having adopted a set of rules, a form of government much like a club. Saved and unsaved are taken in and as for discipline that is all out of question.
And those who returned to the first principles how great their failure! The flesh has come in and worked havoc; things are done often in a sectarian spirit, a spirit which the Lord can never sanction. Yet all failure is no proof that what is spoken here by the Lord is impossible to carry out. It is possible and ever will be possible as long as our Lord is gathering out a people for His name. And while failure is everywhere failure may be avoided from our side if we are obedient to Him and to His Word.
He then continues with the words of comfort just on account of the difficulty: “Again I say to you, that if two shall agree on the earth concerning any matter, whatsoever it may be that they shall ask, it shall come to them from my Father who is in the heavens. For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:19-20).
The Lord knew the difficulty of such a path and the responsibility which rests upon believers as an assembly with such an authority put upon them, and therefore He gives this exceeding great and precious promise. It is a promise which tells us that He and His strength and wisdom is on our side and that He is willing to supply that which we lack. The promise stands first of all in connection with the restoring of a brother who sinned. United prayer is first of all needed. Yet the promise is not limited to this. We are told to ask touching anything and the assurance is given that it shall be done for us by the heavenly Father. Prayer in secret is blessed and made in His Name has the assurance likewise of an answer, but united prayer, even if only by two who are agreed, who know their place, their responsibility, is what the Lord here emphasizes. And there is much need in these days of believers being agreed and casting themselves upon this promise, in confession of their weakness and with their responsibility resting upon them, making their requests known unto God. What mighty works have been accomplished in this way! It would take pages to record some of the victories gained, doors opened, barriers broken down, hundreds and thousands of souls saved, all accomplished through united prayer. He is still the same; the promise still holds good. And how graciously He puts the number the lowest; not a hundred, not fifty, not twenty-five -- but if two shall agree.
The words “Where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them” gives us the center to which the assembly is gathered. [Not in My Name. This is a wrong translation. It is _unto My Name.] Not the name of a man, but unto the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the exalted Head of His body. The promised presence of the Lord is for those who acknowledge the Lord Jesus Christ as the One to whom they are gathered. Alas! that the very passage should have been used to foster the same sectarianism which has been the snare of the professing church! And still it is true where two or three are gathered unto the Name, which is above every name, rejecting all other names, there is an assembly and there is the Lord in the midst of them.
Peter now comes once more to the foreground. He is again the spokesman of the disciples. The mention of the word “church” most likely revived in him the memory of the words the Lord had uttered after Peter’s confession of Him as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter had, of course, then no knowledge of the full meaning of that which came from the lips of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Until seven times? Jesus says to him, I say not to thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22). The question is in closest connection with what the Lord had said. But He had not said a word about forgiving a brother. The word “forgive” was not used once by our Lord; He had spoken of gaining a brother who had sinned. Did Peter perhaps mean how often he should forgive his brother before the case should be taken up in the order as indicated by our Lord? We think it is now specifically the question of personal grievances we may have against a brother. Peter thinks and speaks of self. The Rabbis had given the following rule: “Pardon a man once, that sins against another; secondly pardon him; thirdly pardon him; fourthly do not pardon him,” etc. (Bab. Joma.)
Peter, quite well acquainted with the traditions of the elders, most likely thought of this and he desired to show his appreciation of the gracious words he had heard by declaring his readiness to forgive his brother not three times, but twice three times and a little over. Until seven times? he asks. Surely, he must have thought the Lord will be pleased with such generosity and brotherly love. Ah, how little he knew the Grace of Him whom he had followed. The answer of the Lord must have been a revelation to Peter, “until seventy times seven.” This is unlimited forgiveness. This God in Christ has forgiven us and forgives us, and the same Grace, unlimited Grace is to be shown towards the brother who sins against me. It is the same blessed word God the Holy Spirit gives us in the Epistles, “forbearing one another, if any should have a complaint against any; even as the Christ has forgiven you, so also do ye” (Colossians 3:13). “And be to one another kind, compassionate, forgiving one another, so as God also in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
This human question of Peter brought out the fullness of divine Grace.
And now the heavenly Teacher utters in connection with this a parable. “For this cause the kingdom of the heavens has become like a King who would reckon with his bondmen. And having begun to reckon, one debtor of ten thousand talents was brought to him. But he not having anything to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife and his children, and everything that he had; and that payment should be made. The bondman, therefore, falling down did him homage, saying, ‘Lord have patience with me and I will pay thee all.’ And the lord of that bondman, being moved with compassion, loosed him and forgave him the loan. But that bondman having gone out, found one of his fellow bondmen who owed him a hundred denarii. And having seized him, he throttled him, saying, Pay me if thou owest anything. His fellow bondman therefore, having fallen down at his feet, besought him, saying, Have patience with me and I will pay thee. But he would not, but went away and cast him into prison until he should pay what was owing. But his fellow bondmen having seen what had taken place, were greatly grieved, and went and recounted to the lord all that had taken place. Then his lord having called him, says to him, Wicked bondman! I forgave thee all that debt because thou besoughtest me; shouldst not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow bondman, as I also had compassion on thee? And his lord being angry delivered him to the tormentors till he paid all that was owing to him. Thus also my heavenly Father shall do to you if ye forgive not from your hearts every one his brother” (Matthew 18:23-35).
In looking closer at this parable we must first of all be clear on the fact that it is a parable of the kingdom of heaven, and as such does not present to us the conditions as they prevail under the Gospel of Grace and in the church.
It is not the assembly which is before the Lord, but the Kingdom of the heavens, therefore the parable describes conditions as prevailing in the Kingdom. The parable illustrates an important principle. Here we have a picture of the sinner in the servant who owes the king ten thousand talents, about twelve million dollars. He is unable to pay this immense debt, as the sinner is unable to pay his debt. The servant is threatened with complete loss of all he has and possesses; and then appeals to the king, asking his patience for his willingness to pay all. But what does the king do? He ignores the plea; he knows the impossibility that this penniless servant could ever pay the debt he owes, and then in marvelous compassion he sets the bound servant free and forgives him. All this illustrates the hopelessness of the sinner and the Mercy of God without bringing out the blessed facts of the Gospel. This would be beyond the scope of the parable. But what happens? The liberated and forgiven one finds a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii, which is about seventeen dollars. Fresh from his terrible experience, his narrow escape and the great mercy shown to him, he flies at the poor fellow’s throat, a thing the king had not done, demands his pay, and without taking his plea at all into consideration casts him into prison. The mercy shown to him had not touched his heart; and with all that rich mercy extended to him, he is a wicked man and addressed thus by the king, who gives him over to tormentors, to suffer till he should pay all that was due. Thus a mere professor of the Gospel may act; his profession outwardly is that he is a sinner, that he owes God much and he professes to believe in the compassion and forgiveness of God. His heart, however, knows nothing of the Mercy and Grace of God. He goes on acting wickedly, and his evil heart is manifested by the way he treats his fellow servant. Where Mercy is given, Mercy must be shown. If the heart has really apprehended the Grace of God and realizes what God has done for us in His wonderful Grace, it will ever be gracious and forgive; if we do not act according to this principle we must expect to be dealt with by a righteous and holy God.
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Gaebelein, Arno Clemens. "Commentary on Matthew 18". "Gaebelein's Annotated Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany