Matthew 18:1 – At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

At the end of chapter 17, we found Jesus paying a tax that he technically did not owe.  Jesus chose to pay the tax so that he would not cause an offence or be a stumbling block to any of the Jews.  In other words, he paid the tax to fulfill all righteousness.  He came to earth as a servant, and paying the tax was an act of service and humility. 

It seems the disciples missed this lesson altogether!  Apparently, it went in one ear and out the other, because we now find them discussing which of them was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and consequently, who would have the best job, the most prestige and the highest salary!

By the kingdom of heaven, the disciples mean the kingdom which they believed Jesus would set up immediately after his resurrection – the kingdom of the Messiah.  As we have discussed in the past, they felt his kingdom would have special magnificence and splendor; it would far surpass the ‘golden age’ of Israel under David and Solomon.  They wanted to know who would have the principle positions and offices in this kingdom.  They had debated this issue amongst themselves, but apparently they couldn’t come to a unanimous conclusion, so they asked Jesus to settle the dispute.

Matthew 18:2-3 – And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The disciples’ question revealed attitudes of pride and ambition as well as the desire for wealth and privilege.  Their minds were clearly focused on this earthly life, and what they might obtain for themselves.

Notice that Jesus says unless you ‘turn’ (your translation may say ‘be converted’), you won’t even enter the kingdom of heaven, much less be an important part of it.  The word for ‘turn’ or ‘converted’ means changed.

The disciples must change their thinking, beginning with their understanding of the kingdom of heaven. It was NOT an earthly kingdom like they were expecting. 

It has a heavenly King, who rules from his throne in the third heaven. His subjects are heavenly minded, laboring for eternal, heavenly treasures. Their country is heaven, though they are pilgrims on this earth for a time. The government of the kingdom of heaven is completely spiritual.

The way to greatness in the kingdom of heaven is to be humble and to become the servant of others.  To illustrate his point, Jesus draws their attention to a little child.  Little children know nothing about pride, ambition or the desire for wealth.  They are characteristically humble and teachable. 

The disciples must change not only their thinking, but their actions as well. They must do things that are the opposite of the way things are done in the earthly realm.  

Matthew 18:4 – “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

To answer the original question, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven will be the one who does not strive to be first.  The greatest will be the one who is the furthest away from pride and ambition.  The greatest will be the one who serves others.  The greatest will be the one who obeys divine instruction, even if contrary to their own desires. 

There is another point we should consider here.  As Christians we have been converted/turned from sin when we accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior.  But that does not mean that we are perfect.  Like the disciples, we must constantly strive to be holy, as God is holy.  Pride, ambition and greed can pop up in anyone’s life at any time.  If it pops up in yours, get rid of it as quickly as you can; it will only hinder you in your walk with Christ.

Matthew 18:5 – “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.”

The Lord now uses the word ‘child’ as a metaphor for Christians who conduct themselves with humility and meekness, without ambition or greed. 

Child-like Christians are held in the highest esteem by Jesus.  Whatever kindness, favor or respect is shown to them for His sake, he regards as being done to himself. 

The opposite is also true – whatever disrespect or hate is shown towards child-like Christians, Jesus also regards as being done to himself.

Whoever hinders, tempts or puts a stumbling block in the way of a Christian is hindering, tempting or putting a stumbling block in front of Christ!

Matthew 18:6 – But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Those who are humble, meek and without ambition tend to be overpowered and despised by the people of the world.  But Jesus assures us that he takes it very personally when we are mistreated in the world; we have the assurance that he will one day make all things right.

In fact, Jesus makes reference to a custom of the Syrians, Greeks and Romans.  These societies would sometimes execute condemned persons by hanging a weight around their neck (or sometimes rolling them in sheets of lead) and throwing them into the sea to drown them.  There is no record of the Jews ever doing this, but they certainly knew about the practice.

So, having a millstone fastened to the neck and being cast into the sea became a proverb for certain, dreadful and inevitable ruin/death.

Interestingly, we find a parallel to the ultimate end of our great enemy, Satan.  At the end of the age God will bind Satan with heavy chains and cast him into hell – the lake of fire – where he will meet with a certain, dreadful and inevitable ruin/death.  What a fitting end for the one who constantly puts stumbling blocks and temptations in the way of the saints of God!

Matthew 18:7 – “Woe to the world for temptations to sin.  For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!

Our translation (the ESV) uses the phrase ‘temptations to sin’, while other translations use the word ‘offences’.  These phrases basically refer to anything that entices/tempts you to do evil.  I feel pretty certain that we are all familiar with temptation (I know I am!), so we don’t need to go into too much depth. 

Speaking in general terms, we observe the following about temptations/offences:

  • They can come from outside yourself (like seeing a scantily clad woman or man). 
  • They can come from inside yourself (envy or pride, for example). 
  • They can include some things that you might not have considered.  For instance, persecution is actually a temptation, because it entices you to turn away from God.
  • They are most often caused by unbelievers.  There will always be people attempting to make others sin.  There will always be those who rejoice when they can lead a Christian astray or cause them to fall.
  • They can also be caused by Christians (including you and me).  If you do something that entices someone else to sin, that is an offence.  For example, if you call someone and ask if they have heard the latest news about so-and-so, you are tempting the other person to gossip.   You would be the source of an offence.
  • They require an accounting.  The depravity and fallen nature of man makes temptation inevitable.  However, this does not remove or reduce the personal responsibility of the person who causes offences, or the person who falls for them.

I don’t know about you, but when I look at the nature of offences, it almost causes a sense of hopelessness.  The amount of offences in the world is staggering!  I am willing to bet that we have all fallen for temptations and we have all caused others to be tempted.

No wonder Jesus says, ‘Woe to the world’.  Woe is an expression of sorrow or grief.  Jesus is truly pained by all the offences or temptations that abound in the world.  He is sorry for mankind (the world), because he knows offences/temptations are open doors for Satan to steal, kill and destroy the human race.  All of the horrible suffering that we find in the world is:  

  1. Caused by Satan’s malice
  2. Perpetrated by man’s wickedness
  3. Occurs with God’s permission 

Yes, you read that correctly – God allows us to be tempted and He allows us to tempt others.  In fact, Jesus says that it is necessary that temptations come.  What does he mean by that? 

Jesus does not reveal the answer to that question here in the gospel of Matthew, but the apostle Paul gives us an explanation:

1 Corinthians 11:19 – For there must be factions in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.

Paul tells us that God uses temptations for his own divine purposes.  By them the righteous may be tested and purified.  By them, the sheep are separated from the goats.  Remember, each man is given a free will.  He can choose righteousness; he can choose to turn to God and be delivered from temptation:

1 Corinthians 10:13 – There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it.  

How can we overcome or escape temptation?

One way is through prayer.

Mark 14:38 – Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.  The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. 

Another way is through the word of God.  When Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, he constantly beat Satan back by using the word of God.

Luke 4:3-4 –  And the devil said unto him, If you are the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread.  And Jesus answered him, saying, ‘It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’

Being thankful and keeping control our tongue are also good ways to avoid offences/temptations.

Matthew 18:8-9 – “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”

This is not the first time Jesus has made this statement.  He also declared in back in Matthew chapter 5.  In case you don’t recall that lesson, let me refresh your memory:  

This seemingly strange statement is really clear and simple, once you take a good look at it.  Let’s begin by looking at the phrase ‘causes you to sin’, or your translation may say ‘offends you’.  The original meaning of this word in the Greek signifies something that is a stumbling block.  A stumbling block is anything in your path that causes you to fall.  In this case, it would mean anything that causes you to fall into sin.

So, what is causing us to fall into sin?  Jesus describes it as either our right eye or our right hand.  Clearly, this is NOT to be taken literally. Cutting off your hand or removing your eye will not free you from sin. 

We often use parts of the body as metaphors. For instance, we use the word ‘heart’ to mean affection or feeling. We use the word ‘bowels’ to mean compassion. We use the word ‘guts’ to mean bravery.

Here, the word ‘eye’ means inward intent or desire to sin, while ‘hand’ refers to the physical act of sinning.  This fits in with the case that Jesus is making about adultery; it entails not only the outward, physical act (hand) but also the inward lust of the mind (eye).

The truth is that the mind and the body work together to sin.  First, the mind conceives the sin.  Then, it considers and thinks about the sin, until it has been firmly rooted and established in the heart.  Once that is done, the evil grows to fruition and the body commits the actual act of sin.  This is why it is vitally important to bring your thoughts into captivity for Christ.

Now the overall meaning of the passage becomes clear.  Anything that causes us to sin (either mentally or physically), needs to be ‘cut off’ or removed from us completely.  It’s that simple.  So keep in mind the warning of Jesus – if you don’t get rid of sin, you could wind up in hell.

Matthew 18:10 – “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.  For I tell you, that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

Little ones:  ‘Little one’ refers to one of the meek and humble servants of Christ.  No one is to neglect, injure or afflict them.  They are not to be treated with contempt or distain. Furthermore, as Christians, we should be especially careful not to tempt or give offence to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  

Angels:  This does not necessarily mean that each person has their own guardian angel.  It means that angels, in general, are present in the throne room of God.  They are messengers that do God’s will; they are on constant standby to come to the aid of any Christian when they are instructed by God to do so.

Always see the face of my Father:   This is taken from the custom of earthly monarchs.  To be permitted to see the king’s face continually, meant to have unlimited access to him.  This was a sign of favor, which most people did not enjoy. 

The meaning of this verse is that no one should despise the humble followers of Christ, for God himself watches over them and has powerful servants who are ready to come to their aid, in an instant of time.  This shows the incredible love and concern that God has for those who trust in him.  It speaks of the value he places on each believer.  If God holds each Christian in such high regard, who are we to despise them?

Matthew 18:11 – For the Son of man came to save the lost.

How much does God love you?  Do you ever wonder about that? 

Sometimes, in our earthy relationships, people withhold love from us if we displease or disappoint them.  But I want you to know that GOD IS NOT LIKE THAT! 

God loves you unconditionally.

He loves you when you obey and when you disobey (although he may discipline you).  He loves you when you succeed and when you fail.  He loves you when you are right and when you are wrong.  God’s love for you is never based on your performance.  He loves you unconditionally.  You don’t have to do anything to earn his love.  He loves you period.

Want proof?

God so loved YOU, that he sent Jesus to earth to die for your sin, so that YOU could be reconciled to him!  The creator and ruler of all the universe, agreed to leave the splendor and glory of heaven to become a man for the sole purpose of redeeming YOU. 

Romans 5:8 – God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

God values you so highly and cares for you so much, that he has angels standing around his throne, in case you need assistance (Matthew 18:10).

God keeps such a tender watch over you, that he sees every time you get up or sit down.  In fact, he is acquainted with all your habits and he even knows every word that will come out of your mouth before you speak it.  He lays his hand upon you, protecting you from the front and the rear (Psalms 139:1-6)!

God is so full of joy about you, that He rejoices over you with singing (Zephaniah 3:17).

 God loves you so much, that he makes special preparations for you to be with him for eternity (John 14:2-3).

If you need any more proof, just take out your bible and start reading.  God’s love for you is evident from the first page to the last!

Matthew 18:12 – “What do you think?  If a man 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?”

In the natural realm, if a shepherd lost a sheep, he would not abandon it; he would go and search for it.

Similarly, God is the great shepherd. If one of his children wanders away (or is cut off from the flock) through offence or temptation, he certainly does not abandon them. He seeks them out in order to restore them back to the flock.

God is very concerned, not only for his entire flock, but for each individual, including you.  The scriptures tell us that Jesus is a good shepherd, and he calls each one of his sheep by name (John 10:3).  This means that Jesus knows YOUR name.  YOU are of great value to him; if you should stray he will seek to gather you back to himself.

Matthew 18:13 –“And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.”

God is overjoyed when one of his wandering children has been restored to the flock.  It is safe to assume that whoever offended them, or caused them to fall away because of temptation, will answer to God.

Matthew 18:14 – “So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”

It is not God’s will that any should perish. This we know. But, I think we might also consider the unspoken implications of this statement: 

It is God’s will that all of his children should be saved.  His will cannot be thwarted, side stepped or cancelled out.  He will see that it is done.  

This applies to every sheep in the flock.  We might be satisfied if 99% of the flock is safe and protected, but not God.  He is only satisfied with 100%. 

Anyone who causes a Christian to fall to temptation or offence, is provoking God by their actions and they will be held accountable for it.

Matthew 18:15 – “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

In verses 15-18 Jesus gives us instructions for how to handle offences. 

The term ‘brother’ means another Christian.  Christians are called brothers (and sisters) because we all belong to the same redeemed family and we all have a common Father (God).

To sin against you means to injure you by words or by conduct.  Your character, your property or your person may suffer injury. 

When someone injures/sins against you, it is your responsibility to go to them and seek an explanation. Don’t wait for them to come to you.  This private conversation does two things. 

First, it gives your brother a chance to explain what happened.  Perhaps the incident was all just a big misunderstanding, and a simple conversation can set the matter straight.  If so, both parties can move forward in love and unison. 

Second, if there is a real problem, it gives your brother a chance to acknowledge his (or her) offence and make amends for their wrong doing.  Once amends have been made, we are to forgive and forget.

Third, it gives us a chance to correct them in love, without exposing their mistakes to the world at large. Exposing the fault of another without approaching them first is just wrong.  It makes the rift between the parties even bigger, and it gives the church a bad name in front of unbelievers.

If the other party is receptive to your concerns, the bond between you will continue to be strong and firm.  The offence will be dealt with and have no power to cause further damage to either party or the church.

It’s almost like the offence is a small fire.  Correct handling of the situation is like throwing a bucket of water on the fire.  It is immediately put out, with no further damage done.

Matthew 18:16 – “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”

There is always the possibility that the party who has offended you will not repent or acknowledge any wrong doing.  If this is the case, you are to again try to resolve the problem taking with you mature and trusted men/women of influence who can serve as impartial witnesses and give wise council in the situation.

Matthew 18:17 – “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.  And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

In the Jewish synagogue there was a council of elders who listened to these kinds of cases.  In your church, the case may go before the pastor and elders.  The goal is for the offender to be admonished and then reformed, so they can stay in the fellowship.

What if no resolution can be found?  Then, as a Christian, you still owe this person goodwill and acts of kindness, which you would show to any unbeliever.  You do not have the right to slander or gossip, and you must forgive.

However, Jesus says that we are to have no religious communion or intimate friendship with him, until he acknowledges his fault.  In other words, don’t set yourself up to receive further injury.  Also, just as a Christian might take a tax collector to justice through the court system, so you would have the right to resolve the matter in public court.

Breaking off religious fellowship with a person does three things.  It keeps the honor and purity of the church intact, avoiding scandals that may reflect back on the body of Christ.  It gives the offender the chance to consider his sin and repent.  And it keeps other members of the church community from falling into the same sins.

Here are a few additional things to keep in mind:

  • If the person repents and submits, they are to be readmitted into fellowship.
  • While this may seem harsh to us, these are the direct orders of Jesus. 
  • It is important for us to take note that these three steps must be taken in order.

Matthew 18:18 – “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

This is the second time Jesus has said this to the disciples.  The first time was in Matthew 16:19.   At that time we learned that to bind something was to forbid or refuse it; to loose something was to grant or allow it to be done. 

Back in chapter 16 binding and loosing were given in the context of establishing the doctrine of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.  This authority has been passed down to every minister of the gospel from then, until now.

In this portion of scripture, binding and loosing are given in the context of church discipline.  The meaning is that if the church reprimands an offender, the court of heaven will support the sentence.  The offender cannot seek justice from heaven, he must resolve the matter here on earth with those of the church who pronounced the sentence.  Once the sinner has repented, he is loosed from his sentence and must be readmitted into church fellowship.  

Although each individual church is different, an occurrence of this nature is probably rare.

Matthew 18:19-20 – “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

The Greek word for ‘agree’, means to symphonize or harmonize.  It is a musical term for instruments set to the same key and playing in tune with each other.  When used in the context of prayer, it refers to two or more individuals who have a perfect agreement in hearts, desires, and purposes. 

It implies that just as a number of instruments skillfully played in unison are pleasing to the ears of men, so a number of people united in earnest prayer is highly pleasing to God. 

Anytime the body of Christ meets together in his name for spiritual purposes (including church discipline), he is present. He will guide our councils and quicken our prayers.

Let me repeat that – Jesus has graciously promised to be present whenever his people assemble together in his name, even if there are only two. 

Given this promise, would it benefit us and our church body if more people came to weekly prayer meeting?

Does this promise motivate you to gather together to cover our church in prayer and seek guidance from the Lord for an uncertain future?  What if we sought the Lord for increased gifts of healing or additional spiritual gifts for our body? 

Every day, perhaps even every hour or minute, somewhere in the world two or more believers are gathered together worshipping and praying, experiencing the truth of this promise – that Jesus is also present with them.  This is a very special promise from God.  Don’t take it for granted.  Ask him how you can be a part of it!

So let me offer you some encouragement: 

Has someone offended you?  It seems easy to call a friend and tell them how you were wronged.  It is very easy to get angry and resentful.  You may experience a desire to retaliate.  But none of these things are God’s plan for offences.

I encourage you to apply biblical principles to your dilemma.  First, pray.  Second, meet with that person who offended you in private, or by phone or by a written message.  Tell them that you were offended and give them a chance to make things right. 

Remember, just because someone offended you, it does not give you permission to gossip, revenge or hate.  Satan loves to use offences to bring division to the body of Christ.  Divided, we can be conquered by Satan.  But if we follow the example of Christ, we can maintain love and unity in our local body.

Let me offer you some relief:

Have you ever failed, stumbled or sinned and then wondered if God still loves you?  Be assured, God is totally, completely and hopelessly in love with you! 

His love for you is not dependent on your success.  He does not with hold it when you fail.  So relax!  Continue to draw close to him and allow the Holy Spirit to work in your life.  Keep on working towards holiness and spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace, etc).  If you fall, repent; but don’t believe the lie that God has cast you away!  

Let me offer you some strength:   

You are not alone!  There are always other believers in Christ who are willing to pray with you, to stand with you and to believe with you for victory and deliverance.  And Jesus has made a special promise to every believer – when at least two are united in purpose and desire, He is present!  So if you are facing a problem right now, call upon another member of the body to strengthen you by being your prayer partner, and believe that Jesus is with you both!  

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