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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 18

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

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This chapter forms a complete and beautiful discourse on the unity and peace of Christ’s Church, about to be formed. It is to be viewed as a whole, and each of the parts is to be construed in reference to the scope of the whole. The discourse itself, as uttered, must have stood in striking contrast with the ambitious visions and the emulous strife of the apostles, by the occurrence of which it was suggested.

A debate having arisen as to the primacy in the Messiah’s kingdom, our Lord, avoiding all harsh rebuke of their strife, commences his doctrine on the subject by introducing a symbol calculated to soothe their minds to gentler feeling. A child is called; old enough to walk, yet young enough to be taken in a seemly way into his arms. And as the child cheerfully accepts its docile place, and knows no desire of rule or lordship, so must the heirs of the kingdom come down to that temper which is best designated by the term childlike. 1-4 .

Passing then from the natural child to the child by grace, our Lord illustrates, in the most solemn language, the awful sin of offending; that is, of causing Christ’s true child to fall and perish. 5-9. The value of such a child is illustrated by the fact that for him angels watch, because Christ died for him, and in his mercy sought for him as for a lost sheep. 10-14. Next the kingdom is a family and the little ones are brethren. Our Lord, therefore, lays down to them the mode of dealing with the trespassing brother; and he assures all such as comply in temper and act with his law on the subject, that the decisions they make in the Church below are ratified in the Church above. 15-18. And this same divine sanction of the acts, so in spirit and in form done by a whole Church, is bestowed upon the action of the smallest plural number; for that smallest number of his true little ones, acting in the true spirit, is blessed with his true presence. He then lays down a law of unlimited forgiveness of all true penitence, which he illustrates by a parable of an unforgiving one. 21-35.

This chapter is a perfect programme for a peaceful Church.

Verse 1


1. At the same time Literally at that season; namely, at Capernaum, shortly after the miracle of the coin in the fish’s mouth.

Saying, Who is the greatest In regard to the propounding of this question, there is an apparent discrepancy between the evangelists, which we may lay before our readers in full, as an illustrative specimen of the nature of such discrepancies, and the proper modes of dealing with them.


Came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child.

Mark 9:33.

And being in the house, he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? But they held their peace: for they had disputed among themselves who should be the greatest. And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, etc. And he took a child.

Luke 9:46-47.

Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest. And Jesus perceiving the thought of their heart took a child.

At first glance we should imagine an irreconcilable difference, and error of detail. But a closer inspection will show that each evangelist gives different stages of the same transaction. Luke tells of the first rising of the dispute, which probably took place on the way, from fishing in the lake, to Capernaum; and then he omits the rest until Jesus placed the child before them.

Mark commences after they had come into the house, when Jesus questioned them, and they were silent; he omits what followed until the Lord called all together and placed the child before them.

Matthew tells us what occurred after our Lord questioned them, and they were silent for shame. The disciples on reflecting that our Lord evidently knew their debate, ingenuously come and lay the question before him. Our Lord then procures the child, and furnishes an answer in full, in regard to the discussion for the pre-eminence. Matthew 18:1.

From this example the unpracticed reader may easily see how the evangelists supplement each other; and how what at first seems to be irreconcilable difficulty becomes, on farther examination, perfectly consistent proof that fact is the basis of all.

The greatest in the kingdom of heaven The giving of the keys to Peter had not produced the idea in the apostle’s mind that he was thereby nominated head of their body, or prime minister, vizier, or general in the divine kingdom. Among the disciples it was still an unsettled question which should be primate; it might be one of our Lord’s blood relations; it might be the beloved John, or the senior Peter. Our Lord’s discourse decides that it will be neither.

Verse 2

2. Called a little child There is an interesting tradition that this was St. Irenaeus, one of the most celebrated fathers of the early Church.

Verse 3

3. Be converted, and become as little children Conversion generally implies our being turned, by the influence of truth and the Divine Spirit, with the consenting act of our own will, from our course as sinners to the ways of religion. But here, perhaps, it more specially signifies the being brought to renounce the disposition to seek pre-eminence or power over our fellows, especially in the Church. This was now the besetting sin of the disciples, of which it was their momentous duty to repent, and, by the aid of divine grace, be turned or converted. In this work God does the converting; man does the repenting and the turning to the new course. Justification is simply the pardon of our sins through the merit of Christ. Thereby we are treated by God as if we were just, or innocent of sin past. Regeneration, or the being born again, is the bestowment of those new feelings of love to God and his cause, by which we become in heart and soul children of God; and we are thence adopted into his family. Sanctification is the power and disposition, more or less complete, to live free from sin, to overcome temptation, and to dwell in the uninterrupted enjoyment of God’s smile. Become as little children Our Lord selects a child at the age when conscious artifice and the desire of superiority are not yet developed, and the lesson was doubtless illustrated by the docility with which the child came. The feeling of dependence on the parent is as yet complete. It has no plans of ambition, no thought of being superior to another. Now grace must take our full-grown nature and lay these turbulent passions as completely at rest as in the bosom of that serene child.

Shall not enter the kingdom So far from keeping the keys of the kingdom of heaven you shall not enter it yourselves. Ye shall not enter that kingdom below, and by consequence shall fail of the kingdom above.

Verse 4

4. Humble himself as this little child It is to meek and quiet humility that our Saviour would have them converted. Thus it is that even the Christian often needs converting to the abandonment of errors and false habits and to the fuller possession of Christian graces.

Greatest in the kingdom of heaven Hence there are degrees in the happiness of the blessed in heaven.

Verse 5

5. Whose shall receive one such little child Not the actual child but the spiritual child, whom grace has made. Receiveth me In receiving him who is my spiritual image. For our Lord here passes from the symbol to the thing symbolized, from the child by nature to the child by grace.

Verse 6

6. Shall offend The word offend, at the present day, signifies to irritate or make angry. It here, however, signifies to cause to sin or to apostatize. It is to make one offended with Christ. Hence, as on the one hand he who receives, or cherishes, the humble Christian receives Christ himself; so he who causes the humble Christian to lose his religion and his soul, renders himself liable to unutterable condemnation. See note on Matthew 18:7.

A millstone were hanged about his neck… drowned The millstone here specified was not the domestic hand-stone, turned by women, in grinding. See note on Matthew 24:41. Besides this there was among the Jews the heavy sort, of which the upper stone was turned by the ass, and hence in the original called the ass-millstone. Hanged about his neck to secure his sinking. In the depth of the sea In the main centre of the sea. The capital punishments among the Jews were either burning, stoning, strangling, or beheading. Drowning was and is prevalent among other Eastern nations, and it existed even among the Greeks. This was said to be the punishment for the crime of sacrilege, to which the crime of seducing a soul from Christ is analogous. The intensity of the depth is described as the image of the utter ruin which his crime deserves. It of course implies that he perishes under the divine displeasure, and receives from God the depth of punishment of which the human penalty is so apt an image. Indeed, the whole must be figurative. Our Lord could not mean that in any case a civil or state punishment would be inflicted upon the man who should cause a Christian to fall into sin.

Verse 7

THE WOE OF OFFENCES, Matthew 18:7-9.

7. Woe unto the world because of offences Let it be noted that the word offences here does not signify merely sins, or provocations to anger. It means causes which produce sins or apostacies in men. Nor does the word stumbling-blocks, adopted by some commentators, convey a correct image or idea. The word is derived from a Greek term, which originally signified the trap-stick to which the bait was fixed, by touching which the animal sprung the trap and so was caught. Hence it signifies any moral enticement by which a person is entrapped into error, sin, or apostacy. Snare or entrapment is the true moral idea. In this world these temptations and entrapments must come. But woe to the man who is the intentional author of them. He who broaches deceitful infidelities or heresies, by which men are seduced from the paths of truth and well-doing, is performing the devil’s work, and must reap the devil’s reward. See commentary on Matthew 5:19-20. Since errors and temptations are sure to come, and so liable to ruin both their author and their victim, do thou sever them from thee, though as dear as the hand or the eye.

It must needs be that offences come Since men are free, and being free will offend, it must follow that offences will meet us in our experiences. God does not slay men, nor deprive them of their free nature, nor limit its natural flee action in its allotted range, in order to prevent the sin. For it is a fundamental law of probation, that character shall have full scope freely to develop itself; so that responsibility can justly exist, penalty can be justified, and rewardable free desert can arise. God reserves to himself an absolute control over the laws of nature; he locates men in existence, confers or limits their capabilities, and foreseeing what they will thus freely do, he regulates all his own plans so as to educe the highest good.

Verse 10

PARABLE OF THE LOST SHEEP, Matthew 18:10-14.

10. One of these little ones Those whom my grace has made to be as little children. Despise Undervalue them. Esteem it to be a small matter to destroy their souls. Their angels Of the existence of angels the Bible furnishes abundant proof. See note on Matthew 1:20. That these angels, as messengers of God, do minister to his people, Paul expressly affirms, by asking: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” Hebrews 1:14. And so the Psalmist says: “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him.” Psalms 34:7. That individual Christians have particular angels is clearly implied by the words of Peter’s friends: “It is his angel.” Acts 12:15. And so the little ones here mentioned have “their angels.” These angels are said to behold the face of God. This, if not taken from the fact that the prime ministers and favourites of kings are familiar with the face of their royal masters, as having free access to them, is at least an analogous fact. So in Esther 1:14: “Next unto king Ahasuerus were the seven princes of Persia and Media, which saw the king’s face.” And so in Luke 1:19: “I am Gabriel that stand in the presence of God.” The doctrine is, then, that of every humble Christian the angel is God’s favourite and presence-angel. A glorious reason why we should not despise them! We presume not to say how far this is figure, and how far it is literal fact. That angels did often, by special mission, minister visibly to the saints of the Old Testament and the New, is matter of sacred history. That their salvation, through Christ, is matter of interest to angels we are told in 1 Peter 1:12. Still the idea that every Christian’s special angel enjoys the direct view of the Divine Being, as a special favourite in heaven, may be rather more safely viewed as a beautiful symbol borrowed from earthly courts. It may represent that favour which the merits of Christ procure for the redeemed before God. Christ is as a host of angels in their behalf, before the face of God.

The idea of Mr. Watson, that a person’s angel is his disembodied spirit, seems not well founded. The friends of Peter (Acts 12:15) imagined the person at the gate to be his angel, from the popular notion that a man’s guardian angel or genius in person resembled himself.

Verse 11

11. For the Son… is come to save… lost And this is the reason why their representatives are admitted to the face of God. Lost Such was their condition in themselves. And their lost condition is a reason why they are in danger of being despised. But it was for them that the Son of man came.

Having in the last verse described the Christian as originally lost, our Saviour proceeds from that very word to enhance our view of the value of his soul. Just because he was lost, the Son of God came to seek and save him. Had he not been a lost one he would have concentrated less interest upon himself. And this principle the Saviour illustrates by the case of the lost sheep, who by his loss gains to himself all the interest of the owner, who to save him leaves the rest of the flock comparatively uncared for.

And how shall we dare to be careless of the salvation of those on whom Christ lavishes such interest? The parable is given more fully in Luke 15:4-6. Leave the ninety and nine… into the mountains The true rendering is, Doth he not leave the ninety and nine upon the mountains. That is upon the mountain pasture, where flocks were often richly fed.

Verse 14

14. One of these little ones should perish Our Lord through this whole passage intimates that it is possible for those who have become the little ones of Christ, at last to perish. If it were in fact a law of the divine administration that they could not apostatize, much of the language here used is deceptive. It is indeed replied that all those warnings are the means of preventing the apostacies, which are rendered impossible by them. But it is very unnatural to say that God prevents that which he has determined shall never take place, by continually representing it as possible. This would be to make it impossible by continually declaring it possible. MODE OF DEALING WITH OFFENDERS, 15-20.

Verse 15

15. Moreover Jesus still continues, in strict sequence after the preceding, to lay down laws for the body of his childlike followers. How is one of them to deal with another who trespasses against him? From this it is to be seen that our Lord does not teach that the Christian is one who has no regard to his own right, or who sits passively under any trespass whatever. Yet in our dealing with such a trespasser, the leading object should be to gain our brother. To restore him to a right state of mind, and thereby to bring back the former state of childlike harmony, as well as save his soul is the first aim. If you succeed in these results, the highest objects will be gained all round. If he prove obstinate, the result will be that you and the Church will be righted, and he will not only be condemned by the Church below, but the sentence will be ratified by God in heaven.

If thy brother If in this community of Christ’s little ones there shall be one who trespasses against thee, who art also one of the same childlike brotherhood. Tell him his fault Not so much to gain thy own rights as to gain his soul and thy peace and the purity and peace of the Church. Alone So that there shall be no motive of pride to induce him to make out a good case before a witness. Thou hast gained thy brother Thou hast prevented one of Christ’s little ones from perishing. Thou hast delivered thy own soul. Thou hast vindicated the purity of the Church.

We append Mr. Wesley’s notes on this passage:

“If thy brother Any who is a member of the same religious community: Sin against thee, 1. Go and reprove him alone If it may be, in person; if that cannot so well be done, by thy messenger, or in writing. Observe, our Lord gives no liberty to omit this, or to exchange it for either of the following steps. If this do not succeed, 2. Take with thee one or two more Men whom he esteems or loves, who may then confirm and enforce what thou sayest; and afterward, if need require, bear witness of what was spoken. If even this does not succeed, then, and not before, 3. Tell it to the elders of the Church Lay the whole matter open before those who watch over your and his soul. If all this avail not, have no farther intercourse with him, only such as thou hast with heathens. Let him be to thee as the heathen To whom thou still owest earnest good will, and all the offices of humanity.”

Verse 18

18. Shall be bound in heaven As you are but executing the laws of Christ, the great Head of the Church, even in expelling from his family an obstinate and impenitent trespasser, so he in heaven will ratify your sentence.

We here see that Christ has authorized his Church to exist, and to exercise judicial powers in order to secure her purity and peace. And if she proceeds in the performance of these duties in temper and process as he prescribes, she but executes his laws, and she will be sustained by God himself. But the divine ratification follows only when the whole procedure is required by and accords with the spirit and law of Christ.

The binding and loosing, therefore, bestowed upon Peter belong to all collectively. It belongs to no pope or potentate. It resides in the body of the Church.

Verse 19

19. If two Let it be remembered that our Lord is still stating the blessed results of preserving the true childlike place of his little ones, as depicted in the previous discourse. He has just told them how God will ratify their collective proceedings, in accordance with Christ’s laws as a Church. He now proceeds to the them that it requires not the assembly of a whole Church to obtain the gifts of God. The smallest number shall suffice to obtain the fulfillment of prayer. As touching anything That is, as touching anything which could be obtained even by the largest number.

The fewness of the numbers shall be no bar to the answer of their prayers.

It shall be done for them That is, it shall be done for them in accordance with the usual laws of God’s kingdom of grace and nature. If the prayer be of that faith which God’s laws of prayer require; if the faith be such as God’s Spirit hath empowered, and be by us co-operatively exercised. It is the purpose of the present verse not to state under what conditions prayer shall be heard, or how extensive the range of fulfilled prayer; but to encourage even the smallest number who shall gather together for prayer, that their fewness is no bar to the proper answer from God.

Verse 20

20. For where two or three Thus does the Saviour for all ages encourage the smallest meeting of his followers. If there be two, lo, there shall be a third! If there be the faith-offered prayer, it shall be heard.

Verse 21

21. Peter… said… how oft Peter perceives that a law of tenderer dealing is to prevail in the Church than exists in the synagogue. The Jewish limit of forgiveness was thrice and no more.

Verses 21-35


This parable enforces the rule just laid down by our Lord to Peter. It draws a contrast between God’s patient forgiveness and man’s unpitying cruelty.

It warns us of the terrible penalty of incurring God’s justice by our merciless dealing with our fellow-beings.

Verse 22

22. Seventy times seven This may seem a maxim of impracticable morality; but the duty of such a succession of pardons is founded upon the supposition of the offender’s sincere repentance, as a condition, and the absence of any danger from his machinations. Doubtless one would endeavour in some way to remove the liability to such repeated backslidings and necessities for forgiveness, before the full number above named had arrived. Yet the rule lays down that in no case do we retain resentment toward a sincere penitent. And thus we have a striking parallel to the state of things between God and ourselves as continually sinning and repenting.

Verse 23

23. Kingdom of heaven God’s administration of justice, under the Messiah’s reign. King the symbol here of God, who is king of the universe. Servants His officers of government; perhaps here the collectors of his revenue.

Verse 25

25. Sold The Roman law as well as the Jewish allowed the sale of a debtor. By Jewish law the servitude would last but six years.

Verse 26

26. Pay thee all Man can pay God nothing. Yet, through Christ, he accepts our surrender of all, and forgives. See Matthew 18:34.

Verse 28

28. Went out From his Lord’s presence, to inflict the severity. This sets the contrast in a more aggravating light. Fresh from the mercy of his Lord, he goes forth to inflict cruelty upon his fellow. So do men. They are, indeed, often at the same moment, spared of God and unsparing of others.

A hundred pence He owed his Lord ten thousand talents; some ten or fifteen million dollars! He could not forgive a hundred pence, about fifteen dollars! This reminds us how much more God does forgive us than we can forgive others. Oglethorpe, governor of Georgia, said, in a passion, to Mr. Wesley: “That vile servant of mine misbehaves, though he knows I never forgive.” “Then,” said Mr. Wesley, “I hope you never sin.” The beautiful reproof overcame the angry governor.

Took him by the throat Literally, grasping, he choked him. The plaintiff in a Roman suit customarily seized the defendant and drew him to the court. The present prosecutor performs the act with a merciless violence.

Verse 30

30. Till he should pay the debt Until with nothing he should pay fifteen millions of dollars that is, for evermore; for it can scarce be doubted that this is the very implication of our Lord. He puts the amount intentionally large, to show the immensity of our liability to God’s account. He then expresses the duration of the imprisonment by the expressive words until he should pay the debt. It seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that our Lord meant to teach that for the unforgiven man there is no possibility of ever exhausting the penalty of the law.

Verse 31

31. Fellow servants… very sorry They were sorry, but God was wroth. God’s servants grieve over their fellow’s sins; but vengeance belongeth to God. Even in expulsion from the visible Church, their true feeling is grief and love for the excommunicated; the act being done truly for his salvation. Told unto their Lord God’s saints are forever laying the sins of men before him in confessory prayer. But God’s own omniscience is forever taking evidence of man’s sins.

Verse 34

34. Tormentors Not jailers only, but inflicters of chastisements. For criminals in prison were often condemned to scourging. Pay all See on Matthew 18:30. Of course it was impossible for the bankrupt in prison to pay his fifteen million dollars.

The king, it must be observed, imprisons him for the debt which he had at first forgiven. The old forgiven sin of the apostate sinner springs up anew and condemns him. A man is finally punished for all the sins of his life. It helps him not one jot that at one time he was pardoned, but rather aggravates his case.

Verse 35

35. So On the same principle of retribution. If we forgive not others, God will not forgive us. From your hearts In mercy to ourselves we must turn the resentment out from our inmost hearts, that our own hearts may be abodes of peace and love. To this rule we consent every time we repeat the Lord’s prayer. Surely the law of forgiveness must prevail in the kingdom of love. Judgment without mercy is for him that shows no mercy.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Matthew 18". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/matthew-18.html. 1874-1909.
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