Notes Matthew chapter 18
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven 18:1-5
18:1. At that time looks back to the conversation on the temple tax and the miracle of the fish, in which Peter played a prominent part (17:24-27).
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Not so very long ago Peter had been called a rock by Jesus (16:18) and he had been taken into the mount with two other disciples, where the Transfiguration took place (17:1). This is why the disciples were busy with the question of who would have what position in the Kingdom of God. Jewish scholars were also occupied with this question, which received different answers. The three principal interpretations were that the highest place was determined by uprightness, knowledge of the law and martyrdom (SB I, 733).
It appears from their question that the promise of the Messianic kingdom of peace to come (cf. 16:28) occupied the disciples much more than the suffering and death of the Messiah (17:22-23).
2. He called a little child and had him stand among them. Jesus gives them an object lesson. Mark tells us further that Jesus embraced the child (9:36). An old tradition (reliable?) tells that on account of his nickname theophoros (= carried by God) Ignatius, later bishop of Antioch and martyr, was the child.
Jesus saw in the child the opposite of what He saw in the disciples, who were preoccupied by outward honour and power and strove for a high position.
3. unless you change and become like little children. Jesus begins His answer with, and puts emphasis on (‘I tell you the truth’), the condition of entry into the Kingdom of God: ‘unless you become again as little children’. ‘Change’ (Gk. streph) when used together with another verb gains the force of ‘again’. (Num 14:25; Deut 1:40; Mal 1:4; 3:18 etc.). It was not intended that the disciples should become childish, but that like Jesus they should be able to say, like a child, Abba, Father, to God.
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. They quarrelled about the chief place in the Kingdom, but forgot how the Kingdom must be entered! It cannot be entered by deserving works and even less by a great ambition. The Kingdom of Heaven is a gift of God, received by those who learn to say Abba, Father, to Him, i.e., who put their entire trust in the Heavenly Father. This way has been opened by Jesus and is the condition for turning back to the Father’s house, to the Father’s arms.
4. V.3 deals with becoming like a child, the condition for entry into the Kingdom of God, while in v.4 Jesus says that whoever remains in this disposition is the greatest in the Kingdom.
whoever humbles himself, who esteems himself lowly, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The Jews of Jesus’ time were well known for drawing attention to their virtues and the Greek world despised humility. But Jesus taught that one did not have to strive to be the greatest, but the least. To attain something in this world you have to subject other people to you, but to attain something in the Kingdom of God you must subject yourself, become the least.
5. whoever welcomes a little child … in my name welcomes me. We find the third lesson connected to the child in this verse, which tells of the small and the unimportant which are great with God. The verse may well refer to v.2 and deal with a real child.
In ancient times children were generally considered unimportant, someone who did not count. But Jesus says that whoever cares for a child, pays attention to him (receives him) in His name, i.e., for His sake, does so to Him.
But a little child like this (litt.’one such little child’) may, on the other hand, refer to vv.3-4 and speak of a person who has received an abba-disposition. The text in that case means: whoever receives these believers, who are of no importance by worldly standards, in a friendly and hospitable way, receives Jesus Himself (cf. 10:40;25:40).
Jesus Warns against Temptations 18:6-9
6. one of these little ones. Jesus does not only mean children by ‘these little ones’ (v.2, cf. 19:14), but also all who believe in Him (vv.3-4; 10:42; cf.11:25; 25:40,25).
if anyone causes one of these … to sin. A skandalon is a stick with a bait, which was placed near a trap to lure the animal; more generally, trap, stumbling-block. Hence the Greek word skandaliz means to cause (someone) to stumble, in the sense of ‘tempt to sin’, ‘bring to transgression’ (cf.13:41; 16:23).
a large millstone (litt. donkey mill). There were two sorts of millstone in Israel, a small one which could be worked by a man, the quern or hand-mill and a large one worked by an animal, usually a donkey (the donkey mill). Both mills consisted of a round stone disc with a hole in the middle, which was then turned over another stone. It is obvious that Jesus is here speaking of the upperstone of the big mill, the donkey mill. The Jews (in contrast to the Syrians, Greeks and Egyptians) never practised capital punishment by drowning, but they knew of the concept (SB I, 778).
it would be better for him to …’ accords with rabbinical usage and means that it would have been better for this man to be put to death before he committed sin.
Jesus is saying here that next to rejection of forgiveness (see Matt 11:20-24), temptation to such a rejection is also an unforgivable sin.
7. Woe to the world … such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! Temptations are unavoidable because of the lordship of satan and the influence of sin in the world. But every man through whom temptation comes, is personally responsible. The first woe is a complaint of sadness at the state of the world, at those who are tempted. The second is a threatening indictment of those through whom temptation comes.
8-9. If your hand or your foot … and if your eye causes you to sin. After dealing with temptations which come from outside (vv.6-7), temptations which come from within are now discussed. In images and with hyperbole (exaggeration) Jesus draws our attention to this important matter: combatting one’s own personal, sinful ego. Hand and foot speak of a man’s actions and behaviour, of his deeds. In contrast, the eye is a member that does not give, but receives. It is therefore a picture of desire and covetousness (Num 15:39; Job 31:1; Prov 23:26; 1 John 2:16).
to enter life … thrown into eternal fire. ‘Life’ is the life of the coming age, everlasting life. The fire spoken of here is no ordinary fire, but an eternal fire, which does not only indicate that it is everlasting but also that it is of a different order from natural fire. Eternal fire and the fire of hell do not mean Hades, the underworld, the place for punishment before the resurrection of the dead, but the ‘lake of fire’, to which all unbelievers will be condemned at the Last Judgment (Rev 20:14-15).
Jesus wants to draw our attention to the fact that it is better to deny ourselves something in this life than that everlasting life should pass us by and that we should come under judgment, because we have fallen into sin.
The Lost Sheep 18:10-14
10. See that you do not look down (a warning): despising a fellow-man is no small matter for angels are their friends. These little ones are both believers (v.6) and little children (vv.1-5). Cf. Matt 19:14 (‘such as these’). Jesus is speaking on the one hand to the world (vv.6-7), but on the other hand to His disciples as well.
their angels … always see the face of my Father. That the angels always behold the face of the Father means that they belong to the innermost circle round God’s throne; they stand immediately before God and can always approach Him unhindered. They are angels charged with protecting believers (Ps 91:11; cf. Acts 12:7; 7:15). Angels are called according to the lord they serve (God or the devil) or according to the area of which they are in charge (Dan 10:13,20,21; 12:1; 1 Cor 11:10; Rev 1:20; 14:18; 16:5).
11. This verse is not found in some old manuscripts, but the great majority have it.
Jesus gives two reasons for His warning (‘see that …’) in v.10a, that is, in v.10b (‘for …’) and v.11 (‘For’, the Gk. gar which is not translated by the NIV). He warns against despising little ones, because they are protected by angels and because the Son of man has come to save them.
‘Son of man’, see commentary on 8:20.
12. Shepherds often worked together, so that all the sheep of the village grazed in the same place (cf. Luke 2:8). For this reason one of them could leave the sheep without difficulty.
on the hills makes us think of a meadow far removed in mountainous country (cf. Luke 15:4). The Greek word for ‘wander away’ (plana) is also used for ‘transgress’ and ‘deceive’ in Matthew (Matt 24:4,5,11,24). Here is emphasised the foolishness of the sheep’s action.
The parable is given in an extended version in Luke 15:3-7.
13-14. And if he finds it. It was not absolutely certain that he would find the sheep. It does not only depend on the Shepherd that a lost sinner is found. The grace of God can be resisted. But the shepherd rejoices more over the one sheep that was lost and was found again than over all the others for whom he did not have to be anxious.
Thus the parable tells us of God’s pleasure in saving the least important of all (the little ones, cf. v.5), lost sinners (Luke 15:7).
Admonishing a Brother 18:15-20
15. If your brother sins against you. This verse does not speak of the recompense we shall gain from him who has sinned against us (some mss. do not have ‘against you’). It is concerned that the brother who sins will be won, i.e., will come to repentance and so won for the Kingdom of God.
go and show him his fault. ‘You’ must take the initiative, so that everything will come in order. It has already been said in the law of Moses: ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share his guilt’ (!), Lev 19:17 cf. also Gal 6:1.
16. if he will not listen, take one or two others along. Do not give up if you do not succeed the first time. Try again! Jesus Himself did not give up (Matt 23:37; Luke 13:8). The attempt has not failed, even though there was no result the first time.
According to the law, a matter was confirmed by the word of two or three witnesses (Deut 17:6; 19:15; cf. John 8:17; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19).
17. tell it to the church. The church (Gk. ekklsia) here is the local church. A church has to have rules for its belief and its mode of life, founded on the Word of God. Lack of spiritual discipline undermines the authority of, and respect for, the church. It is obvious that the local church is the final authority (not the bishop, not the synod, etc.).
treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector means as someone who does not belong to the church. It does not mean that such a one is hopelessly lost or that the church has no duties towards him (cf. 8:5-13; 9:9-13 etc.). It must try to win him, but can have no spiritual fellowship with him, so long as he is unconverted. Sinners put themselves outside the church.
18. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind … and whatever you loose on earth… Here the same authority that was previously given to Peter (see 16:19) is now given to the whole church. The promise is repeated in John 20:23. Jesus is indeed speaking to the Twelve (the Gk. humin, ‘you’ is plural, in contrast to vv.15-17), but not to them as apostles, but as the nucleus and beginning of the church (cf. v.17 and 19-20).
Whether anyone can obtain forgiveness depends on whether he repents and is converted (vv.15-17). But if the sinner confesses his sins the church can forgive him and he is released both in heaven an on earth.
19. if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for. Church discipline must be surrounded by heartfelt prayer. The powers of the church are not outward, but it is prayer that has unlimited power. There is one condition, unity. But if this is fullfilled, the promise is exceedingly great: ask what you will and the Father will give it you (cf. John 14:13-14; 15:7,16).
The Greek word for agree (sumphne) is formed from sun (together) and phn(sound), and literally means sounding together, being in harmony.
20. where two or three come together in my name. That Jesus can be present wherever people are gathered in His name, speaks of His divinity (cf. 1 Cor 5:4). No one except God is omnipresent. The certainty that prayer will be heard does not depend on the size of the church, nor on the virtue or capability of the believers, but on the presence of Jesus.
The rabbis said: if two are agreed and speak the words of the Torah, the shekinah (the Dwelling of God) is in their midst (SB I, 794). So we see that Jesus takes on Himself the place of the Torah and that in Him God is present on earth (cf. Matt 23:37-39).
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant 18:21-35
21. how many times shall I forgive my brother? Forgiving is the same as regarding something that has happened as if never occurred. If someone asks us for forgiveness, we must forgive him from the heart (v.35, cf.Eph 4:32). Such an attitude frees us from hardness and bitterness. Forgiving is not just an action, it is also a disposition. Counting how many times one has to forgive indicates a fleshly disposition. Peter considered seven to be a generous offer, because the rabbis of the time considered three or four times to be sufficient. They based this on their exposition of Job 33:29 and Amos 2:1.
22. not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Jesus does not speak of seventy times seven, but of ‘seventy-seven times’ (BDR 248,2; SB I, 797). It means an unlimited number of times. Unlimited forgiving contrasts with unlimited vengeance in Gen 4:24 (‘If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.’). The unlimited vengeance of man under sin has to make room for the unlimited forgiving of the believers.
23. like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. Doubtless the servants of the king were no ordinary servants, but high officials in charge of large sums of money. It is quite possible they were governors, responsible for the taxes of whole provinces. It was usual to call such people douloi (see Ezra 4:7,9,17,23 etc.).
The parable deals with judgment: the dawning of the Kingdom of God is compared to a settlement. We must see God in the king and man in the debtor.
24. a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. The man was brought to him, place apparently out of prison. We observe here too that this is not in the first place Good News (v.27), but a judgment. The debt is inconceivably large. A talent is the same as 6.000 denarii, and one denarius is about a labourer’s wages for a day’s work (Matt 20:2). The expression used in the Greek (murioi) was the greatest number used in calculations and the talent was the largest unit of currency in Asia.
25. the master ordered that he and his wife and … be sold. Slaves were sold as if they were animals or things. In Jewish law it was forbidden to sell the wife (SB I, 798), with the consequence that in this parable one has to think of the king and ministers of a heathen kingdom. The sale of wife, children and possessions would in this case only have repaid a small part of the debt. We will, in the first place, have to see the king’s order as an expression of wrath.
26. ‘Be patient with me … and I will pay back everything’. The servant throws himself at the king’s feet in total subjection and says in a pleading tone that he will repay everything. He did not ask for forgiveness, but for more time. If he had more time at his disposal, he could put right the impossible! There was in fact only one salvation for him, that is, that his master would be gracious to him.
27. The servant’s master took pity on him. The servant only asked for more time (v.26); in fact he was released from the entire debt, for that was the only thing that could save him. The lord showed the servant more goodness than he expected; he obtained much more than he had asked.
28. his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred denarii. The fellow-servant owed as much as a day-labourer earned for a hundred days’s work (20:2). In relation to the stunning sum he owed, it was nothing.
‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. He had been forgiven an unpayable debt. But although external circumstances had completely changed, from within he was the same! The feeling was different, but not the character.
29. Be patient with me, and I will pay you back. The fellow-servant used almost the same words as the merciless man had previously used himself (v.26). But this latter refused to accede to the request (v.30). And that while his request was so unreal (on account of the incredibly high sum) and this man’s was so real.
30. But he refused … and had the man thrown into prison. The king was full of mercy (v.27) as far as the servant was concerned, who owed so much. But the servant himself was hard and unmerciful. The contrast is clear.
The punishment in a private prison also suggests a foreign country, for this is not found in Jewish criminal law. The purpose was that the debt would be paid off, whether by doing forced labour, or by the ransom paid by the family.
31-33. the other servants … told their master everything that had happened. The fellow-servants were indignant, for they knew how their lord had acted.
‘You wicked servant. The man is called a wicked servant by his master, not on account of the great debt he had amassed at first, but because he did not have a forgiving disposition. The duty to forgive was not linked to normal human feelings, but to his lord’s attitude towards him (‘just as I’, v.33). Here is the point of the parable. God is inconceivably merciful, but He shows no mercy to those who are themselves unmerciful (v.35).
34. his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured. The king was at first merciful to him (v.27), but now he becomes wrathful and delivers the man over to the torturers (a heathen situation) until he has paid his debt. Since this was impossible, the punishment is endless. When the servant was forgiven his debt, it was not because he had made great promises or had achieved something. No, it was his pleading and the king’s mercy that had brought about the result. The forgiveness was received unconditionally, but the forgiveness could not be kept unconditionally. Hence we see that there are two phases to the settlement, a first (vv.24-27) and a second (32-34), which accords with the reality in the Kingdom of God: there is forgiveness now and in the future.
35. Being forgiven must lead to, yea even compels one’s acquiring a forgiving disposition. If this result is not attained, the unmerciful servant brings judgment on himself yet again (cf. Matt 6:14-15).
forgive your brother from your heart. Forgiving must take place in the heart. We must not forgive with the mouth only (cf. Matt 15:8) or under a certain provision. It must be a genuine pleasure for a believer to forgive a brother or sister who has done wrong.