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Greatness and Humility

Matthew 18

Lesson audio

In my youth there was a boxer named Muhammad Ali. He was an excellent boxer, probably the best of his time. But his time is gone; where he once proclaimed “I am the greatest!” he is now old and feeble, his brain damaged by his boxing. God humbles the proud. As we shall see, His instructions to His children are quite different.

Who is the Greatest?

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, "Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. "Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. "And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. "Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. "If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. "See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven. ["For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.] "What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? "If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. "So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.

(Mat 18:1-14 NASB)[1]

You should remember that this takes place just after Christ’s instruction to Peter on how to pay his taxes. The disciples took this as a sign of Christ favoring Peter, and therefore desire to know who will be the big shots in the kingdom of God.

Christ’s reply is startling to them: he takes a child, an infant, places him before the disciples and tells them they must be converted (“turned around”) to be like the little child. It is an object lesson; every time they see a child, they should see the kingdom of heaven.

Humility in the Kingdom

It is not the age of the child to which Christ refers, but the characteristics of a child:

  • Innocence. The child has done no wrong, and the innocence of babes is always before us.
  • In that day, the social position of the child was the lowest possible, teaching us that the kingdom treasures the humble.
  • Trust. An infant has complete trust in his parents, as we should have for our Father in heaven.
  • Purity of mind. As we often find out, what the child is thinking is what the child is saying. Much humor is thereby created; this too is an aid to humility.

Indeed, the example of humility in the kingdom is Christ Himself. To those outside the kingdom He is the Judge; to those inside, the one who humbled Himself for our salvation. What you see is often determined by how you look.

Indeed, to make the point clear, the humble are always to be welcomed in the church and treated with affection. Christ goes so far as to say that if you do so for one of these little children, you do it for Him.

Offences must come

It must not be thought that the Christian is promised a path strewn with rose petals before an adoring church. On the contrary, “stumbling blocks” are inevitable. Sin, pain and death are inevitable; even Christ was tempted; He was in pain and died on the Cross. So it’s going to happen.

This sometimes gives rise to the idea that, after all, the more sin there is, the more God’s grace abounds, so let’s all give Him something more to forgive![2] It is absurd. So it is that the sin of putting a stumbling block in front of someone else is sin also, no matter how cleverly disguised.

But if this is done to ensnare the little children – whether children in age or in age as a Christian – this offends Christ Himself. The rule of thumb therefore is to give offense to no one, but always forgive offense given to you. The younger heart should have no offense, lest it become a stumbling block; the mature heart should take no offense.

We have said that the stumbling blocks of life are inevitable, but we should not be the ones providing the masonry. Indeed, we are to get rid of whatever stands between us and Christ – and if he would have you pluck out your eye, how much more does this apply to friends who are stumbling blocks to us?

Permit me an obvious example: approximately one of every four pregnancies in the US today ends with an abortion.[3] Yet the evangelical church, as a whole, has almost dropped its opposition. Perhaps we need to remember that the angels of these little ones are before the face of God.

We have seen the offence; we must now deal with the offender.

Church Discipline

"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. "But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. "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. "Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. "Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst."

(Mat 18:15-20 NASB)

Do Something

It must be noted: this is not a section of suggestion or technique but of command. The offended are not permitted to do nothing about it.

  • It is a command: forgive.
  • It is a command: correct your brother’s fault
  • It is a command: seek help in correcting your brother’s fault
  • It is a command: take it to the church if need be.

Is it not a sin to refuse the Lord’s commands? So why do we fail to do these things? Reconciliation is costly – to the reconciler. As Christ demonstrated at the Cross.

In private

Let’s be clear about this: church discipline is not about your pain, but your brother’s fault. If you approach your brother to complain of the damage he has done, you miss the mark. You are to approach him about his sin, not the damage it caused you. And you are to do this in private; why?

  • To preserve his sense of shame. You do not want to tempt him into killing his conscience.
  • To keep him from being pressured into making a public defense of his sin. You are trying to make it easy for him to repent, not justify himself.
  • To preserve the reputation of the church. It’s better to clean your laundry before hanging it out on the line.
  • To ensure that correcting the sinner is an act of love, not an act of self-righteousness.
Two or three witnesses

If that first trip didn’t do it, get some help. Don’t bear the burden alone, but ask the church to come along side and help. Bring a couple of witnesses with you. Why?

  • First, as we see here, to establish the facts. There should be no doubt about what happened.
  • Next, because this helps prevent revenge. If the one offended is you, rejection of your reconciliation tempts to revenge. Let cooler heads prevail.
  • Also, so that the church knows you have done your part correctly, seeking to return the sinner in reconciliation. You may need some correction too!
  • Finally, so that the offender might experience some social pressure designed to produce righteousness.

And if that doesn’t work?

Tell it to the church

Perhaps the hardest part of church discipline occurs at this stage. It’s certainly not very common! Why would you tell the church?

  • First, so that the person does not continue to pretend to be a Christian while openly sinning.
  • Next, to make the matter “official.” So that there will be no doubt as to what the church teaches – as the world is watching.
  • More people, more social pressure.
  • Finally, so that the reputation of the church does not suffer from harboring a hypocrite and looking the other way.
Binding and loosing

As if to encourage this, Christ tells us not to worry about our missteps in this – He tells us that the matter will be the same in heaven as we have it on earth. This is not a promise that anything the church does, no matter how stupid or sinful, will be ratified; rather, it is His promise that the Spirit will guide each of these steps to the right result.

And that may explain why we don’t use church discipline so much these days. Perhaps we’re afraid where it will lead.

Repeat Offenders

Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus *said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. "When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. "But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. "So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.' "And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. "But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, 'Pay back what you owe.' "So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you.' "But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. "So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. "Then summoning him, his lord *said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 'Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?' "And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."

(Mat 18:21-35 NASB)


Peter responds to Christ’s teaching as he has been taught from youth; there must be a rule and regulation for this. Presuming it is in the limits of forgiveness, he asks, how many times? Peter is generous, by the standard of the time. The interpretation of the law was that three times constituted the limit.

It is one of a series of objections raised to the concept of forgiveness. “How many times” is a human concept; the limitless is a divine one. Humans are willing to pardon the repentant (sometimes) but are not willing to pardon the unrepentant.[4] We think it’s permissible to stop forgiving; we think it optional in dealing with those who will not repent.

Here we find one of the great uses of the parable. Our questions are finite; the methods of God are not. Instead of giving them times and limits, he tells them a little story.

The Kingdom of Heaven

The interpretation is, I am sure, both familiar and easy. The overwhelming mercy of God dwarfs whatever forgiveness we might be obliged to embrace. But even in this we may learn something; consider the slave’s demeanor. In the face of the Lord, he is on the ground begging for forgiveness. But to his fellow slave he is haughty and arrogant. Do you not see that failure to forgive is a form of hypocrisy?

Unexpected lessons

May I point out to you some lessons which may not have appeared at first reading?

  • First, this failure to forgive after such forgiveness “deeply grieved” his fellow slaves. Hypocrisy should be offensive.
  • Next, the slaves reported this to their lord. Do we take such things to the Lord in prayer?
  • The lord reacts with anger. What would you expect? Is it not righteous anger? Why, then, would we trifle with God’s anger?
  • This reaction is the correct one to such injustice. What do we do about injustice we see in our time?

One last: when the servant was repentant, his lord forgave. When he was not, his master called him wicked. The result?

  • At the first offense, here on earth, the slave was forgiven. Even if he had not been, he could have expected the prison. In short, this trip through the punishment for sins is light, and forgiveness is readily available.
  • But where he could have been sold, along with his family, the second time he was handed over to the torturers.

On earth, forgiveness if you forgive. In hell, no hope of forgiveness, only endless torment. Today is the day, now is the hour.

[1] Verse 11, shown in brackets, is not found in the most ancient of manuscripts.

[2] Romans 6:1-2

[3] Safe, legal and rare – words mean what I want them to mean.

[4] Yet see how David treated Saul

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