Gospel: Matt 18:1-20
Epistle: Rom 13:1-10
Lesson: Ezek 33:7-9
Psalm: Ps 32:1-7
CLB Commentary – Prof. Brad Pribbenow
Perhaps the biggest challenge to preaching this week’s Gospel text is deciding how to narrow it down to just one idea. The pericope appears to cover (at least) four or five “preachable” topics. Yet the preacher should work hard to bring together the whole text with a focus on one “big idea.” My hope in this commentary is to offer a reasonable suggestion for that main theme.
This text is the fourth of five main teaching sections in Matthew. Each of these sections is concluded by a similar verbal marker, something like, “When Jesus had finished saying these words” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). Unique to this fourth teaching section is its attention to relationships within the community of faith. This is important in narrowing down the scope and thrust of the text.
A somewhat lengthy but helpful introduction to Matthew 18 is found in the Tyndale NT Commentary by R. T. France:
The fourth major collection of Jesus’ teaching, which is concluded by the usual formula in 19:1…, is concerned with relationships among Jesus’ followers, who are clearly seen as a distinct community…. Within such a community there is opportunity both to harm and to care for others, and the health and effectiveness of the group will depend on the attitudes to one another which are fostered. While all that is in this chapter would be relevant even in the period of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew has clearly brought it together in this compact form with a view to the needs of the developing church. It is not so much a ‘Manual of Discipline’, with regulations parallel to those of the so-named document from Qumran…, as a guide to relationships: it is only in vv. 15–17 that specific procedures are set out, and those are not so much ‘disciplinary’ as pastoral.”¹
This introduction draws out the importance of this text’s application for Jesus’ disciple community, a community which, for us, is the church. In line with this, we ought to keep in view the pastoral and restorative nature of these 20 verses. Dealing with sin and waywardness is done with the hopes of restoring the one who offends.
The care for community is framed in this text by the image of a child (18:2, 3, 4, 5), also termed the “little ones” (μικρoς, mikros). This word, the “little ones” appears three times in this pericope (18:6, 10, 14). It is understood that in many cultures children are the most vulnerable and weak among its members. Yet the IVP Background Commentary adds this further reflection: “In Jewish culture, children were loved, not despised; but the point is that they had no status apart from that love,
and no power or privileges apart from what they received as total dependents on their parents.”² This is what Jesus (and Matthew) are getting at: to be a part of the Kingdom of God is to recognize your complete dependency on God. He is your guardian, your provider, and your only means of identity and existence. To reiterate the point, Jesus is not just talking about children; he’s describing a reality for every believer.
Since all believers are called to be like children, the exhortations regarding the treatment of “the little ones” are aimed at all of us within the Body of Christ. When Jesus speaks of the one who “causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble” (vs. 6) he is instructing anyone who causes a fellow disciple, a brother or sister in Christ, to stumble. Our effort to avoid this hurtful activity within the Body of Christ should be so vehement that it should equate to cutting off a hand or foot, or plucking out an eye if these are recognized as the source of this sin toward our brother or sister in Christ (vs. 8–10).
Jesus seems to anticipate (perhaps he’s also responding to, 18:1) his disciples offending one another. In other words, they will wander or go astray (vs. 12). Our attitude toward those who go astray is to be like our Father in heaven: “So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish” (vs. 14). Likewise, “if your brother [a little one] sins” (vs. 15) against you (another little one), we are to deal with them firmly, yet with the aim of bringing him back from straying.
As Craig Keener notes: “We should keep in mind that the whole context of this passage on church discipline is mercy and forgiveness; forgiveness qualifies (but does not annul) the force of this passage on disciplining unrepentant offenders in the Christian community. The contextual emphasis is the hope of bringing back the erring, not confirming them irreparably in their guilt.”³
And so a central thread of this passage is care for one another within the Christian community. We hear in this text of how God desires us to treat those who offend. And we acknowledge the major motivation of this generosity and pastoral concern as our own heavenly Father, who has acted with grace and mercy toward us when we have gone astray. He has sought us, confronted us, healed us, and restored us. Praise God for such a loving Savior. May he bring his reign in his church!
¹R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary. TNTC (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 272- 273.
²Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 93.
³Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 94.