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Explore the Bible Series

November 4, 2007


Background Passage: The Gospel of Matthew 18:1-35

Lesson Passage: The Gospel of Matthew 18:6-7; 10-22


Introduction: Matthew 18:1-35 contains the fourth great discourse of Jesus, recorded in this Gospel.  The other sermons were directed toward larger crowds, but this discourse aimed at instructing the small band of disciples in important Kingdom principles, principles Jesus needed to communicate as his death and resurrection drew near.  Four major ideas dominate the chapter: humility, holiness, love, and forgiveness.  Followers of Jesus must exemplify these qualities; otherwise, they will find themselves shut out of the Kingdom of God (See vv. 34-35).


In this text, Jesus dealt with the most difficult and challenging aspects of discipleship, the attitudes and dispositions of the heart.  Outward conformity to the commandments of God proves comparatively easy in contrast to these internal qualities.  Frankly, I find it a constant struggle to maintain a godly disposition; indeed, the heart is the Christian’s great battleground.  This passage will, no doubt, highlight the frailties of your humanity, and, apart from the grace of God, you may despair at the clear message you will encounter.  Pray for the Holy Spirit’s help to promote these characteristics in your life, and give diligence to self-examination regarding the disposition of your heart.  Above all, this passage should bring us, again and again, to the cross of Christ for pardon, renewal, and restoration. 


God, help us all to read and obey your word. Also, may we receive your grace for failures to live by your precepts.


Outline of the Background Passage:


I.                   Humility (vv. 1-6): As a child, I often heard this passage cited as a proof-text for the “age of accountability” teaching.  This text, my teachers reasoned, taught the innocence of children; therefore, Kingdom citizens must return, according to this view, to the innocence of the childhood to become followers of Christ.  This position, I think, misreads the text.  Jesus did not highlight the innocence of the children; rather, he used the little ones as an example of humility (See v. 4).  

A.    The question of the disciples (v. 1): Matthew does not reveal the disciples’ motive for asking this question about greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven.  From other passages, we know that these men were capable of ungodly ambition as they sought positions of esteem in the Kingdom. Mark and Luke indicated that the disciples’ question arose during an internal dispute about Kingdom prominence (See Mark 9: 33-37 and Luke 9:46-48).  Though Synoptic accounts differ a bit, the gist of the story seems to reveal unworthy ambition among the band of disciples.  They vied for prominence, and Jesus corrected their errant views by calling for childlike humility. A more pronounced example of the disciples’ ambition can be found in the request by John and James to have particular places of honor in the Kingdom (See Matthew 10:35-45).

B.     The humility of a child (vv. 2-4):  Jesus’ discourse obviously did not take place in an isolated place.  A child stood nearby, and the Lord bid the little one to come stand in the midst of the Twelve.  The Lord, it seems, made very clear what child-like quality he wanted to impress on his followers.  Jesus, of course, did not call his disciples to immaturity; rather, he used the child as an example of humility (the word denotes contrition, lowliness, modesty).  

C.     A somber warning (v. 5): The “child’ to whom Jesus referred is the child of the Kingdom.  Perhaps some disciples would recoil from the lowliness to which Jesus called his people.  Would not others see this contrition as weakness and take advantage of the humble brother?  Jesus warned that a terrible fate awaited those who took advantage of a humble, child-like follower of the Lord.


II.                Holiness (vv. 7-14): Next, Jesus called his followers to the painful realities of a holy life, as painful as severing a limb from the body. 

A.    The necessity and source of many temptations (v. 7): For reasons that we cannot fully understand, the temptations of life, according to Jesus, are necessary and inevitable.  These allurements to sin come from the world, and Jesus pronounced a certain coming judgment for this world-system that entices men to sin.  Also, note the personal responsibility that individuals will bear for enticing others to sin.

B.     A painful remedy for temptation (vv. 8-9): Jesus used a similar imagery in the Sermon on the Mount.  A diseased limb must be amputated to save the rest of the body.  Of course, Jesus, in these passages, did not advocate body mutilation; rather, he revealed the painful, radical measures needed to promote holiness of life.  Our heart-sins (like pride or unforgiveness) will not yield to half-way measures.  No, they may well require radical “surgery” to cut off “diseased” aspects of our character.  For instance, an affront to our prideful hearts may seem as painful as severing a limb.  Forgiving a brother may be as agonizing as plucking out an eye.  The holiness that befits a disciple of Jesus demands a “surgical” removal of all impediments to an obedient life.

C.     An encouraging parable (vv. 10-14): Again, the “little one” referred to here should not be identified with the child Jesus used as an example for his disciples.  The “little one” refers to those who humble themselves and take great pains to continue in holiness (v. 10 seems to make this clear). True disciples may grow discouraged as they consider their meager progress in the way of holiness; indeed, they may, at times, wander form the fold into the wild and dangerous wilderness.  In these circumstances, the poor lost sheep may grow disoriented and confused.  Seeking the Shepherd may prove impossible because of the bewildering circumstances; yet, the Shepherd does not abandon his sheep to the howling wilderness.    He seeks out, finds, and rejoices over the recovered sheep.


III.             Love (vv. 15-20): God longs for his children to love one another, a love that has real, tangible effects in the church.  Jesus, fully conscious of human frailties, knew that disputes would arise among the people of God, and the Lord provided a simple, wise formula for handling these situations. Four steps, according to the Lord’s directives must be followed when a brother has offended someone.

A.    “go and tell him his fault”: Careful communication may resolve the problem quickly. Perhaps the offense was unintended, or a reasonable explanation may clear the path for reconciliation.  If the brother refuses to hear the offended person, maters become more public and serious.

B.     take two or three witnesses”: This directive assumes that the offense has some tangible evidence to which witnesses may add some credibility.  If the offending brother still will not hear the concerns and reconcile with the offended person, then things must go to the church.

C.     “take it to the church”: The final court of appeals rests with the local church.  If the offending brother will not hear the church, a final tragic step must follow. 

D.    “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”: Forgiveness and reconciliation should characterize all Christian relationships; however, persistence in sinful patterns of behavior may render some relationships impossible to salvage.  Sadly, there can come a time when the relationship, at least temporarily, must dissolve.  Christians must not indulge sinful behavior in the interest of appeasing a rebellious and disobedient “brother.”  While Christians should always readily forgive a repentant brother, he must (and the church should affirm) discontinue the friendship.  I Corinthians makes clear that this break must have a loving, redemptive aim, and, as soon as the “brother” repents, full and free pardon must result.  Note that Jesus’ comment about “two or three agreeing” occurs within the context of church discipline issues.  Many of the television preachers completely misuse this comment to promote a “health and wealth” agenda.


IV.             Forgiveness (vv. 21-35): Finally, Jesus dealt with a very difficult issue, forgiveness.  People who feel deeply wounded by the attitudes and actions of others may find forgiveness very difficult.  Once the offending brother has asked forgiveness, the offended person must, according to Christ’s command, grant forgiveness.  The Lord used a parable, recorded only in Matthew’s Gospel, to drive home his point.

A.    Peter’s question (vv. 21-22): Peter, puzzled by the Lord’s words, asked about the scope of Christian forgiveness.  The rabbinic tradition required that an offended person forgive seven times, but Jesus demanded that his people evidence a boundless capacity for forgiveness.

B.     A parable of forgiveness (vv. 23-34): An indebted man came before a great king to whom the poor man owed a large sum of money.  The poor man, unable to pay his account, made an earnest plea for pardon, and the merciful king forgave the man his debt.  The forgiven man, then, mistreated another person who owed him money (a much smaller sum than owed to the king).  A man who received great mercy would not offer smaller grace to another person.    Please note these important points.

1.      No grace was bestowed unless the indebted man asked for forgiveness.  In both cases, the indebted men pleaded earnestly for mercy.  Even the merciful the king did not extend pardon apart from the sincere petition of the offender.  The unmerciful servant’s sin, in part, related to his heartless response to the pleas of the man who owed him one hundred denarii.

2.      In part, the motive for forgiveness grows from the awareness of one’s own need for mercy. Proportionately, whatever pardon humans bestow on others pales in comparison to the great mercy the King has given to sinners.

3.      Unheeded pleas of forgiveness place the unmerciful person in a very dangerous position before God.  Where forgiveness is asked, the true disciple of Christ must extend the mercy of pardon and reconciliation.