Commentary on Matthew 18:1-14

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



A.The Opening Question. 18:1.

Jesus' preceding question about "the kings of the earth" and his ensuing lesson about the royal sons in God's kingdom (17:25-27), prompts the disciples to ask, "Who then [ara, an inferential particle] is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

B. The Theme of the Chapter.

This is the fourth of Matthew's five great dominical discourses (note the characteristic closing, "When Jesus had finished saying these things...," 19:1). As in the previous discourses (chs. 5-7, 10, and 13), this material is built around a common theme. Jesus' subject is life in the Christian community or, to be more exact, matters that are vital for the new community's health and growth.

Throughout the discourse, he is fundamentally concerned with the character and the attitudes of the persons comprising the church, leaders and members alike. Attentive to his Master's teaching, Matthew has skillfully woven the parts of the chapter together, with the disciples' opening question always in view. His intention is that each of the parts should be read in close conjunction with the others. When we do so, the effect is powerful indeed - so much so that no Christian reader can easily escape conviction.


A. The Model.

"He called a little child and had him stand among them" (v. 2). Jesus deliberately chooses a little child (paidion, the diminutive of pais; in ch. 2 paidion is used of Jesus nine times and pais only once). Accordingly, only paidion (never pais) appears in 18:3-5.

B. The Addressees.

Jesus addresses disciples (v. 1), not members of the crowd. As the discourse will make plain, one may be a disciple in pretense or in truth. Nonetheless, Jesus is speaking specifically to the members of the new community - as it exists both now (as newly established about his person) and hereafter (in the "church" he will build; note the ekklssia of 18:17, cf. 16:18). Thus, v. 3 is not to be taken as an appeal to non-disciples to enter the new community. Instead, it is a solemn warning to professing disciples, that unless they evidence a particular character and adopt a particular pattern of conduct, their future entry into the kingdom of heaven is in jeopardy. Jesus sounds a similar warning to disciples in 5:20 (the Greek of 5:20b is identical to that of 18:3b).

C. The Lesson.

In vv. 4-5 Jesus both answers the question of v. 1 ("Who is the greatest...?") and explains the words of v. 3 ("unless you change and become like little children....").

1. Being like a child. "Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (v. 4). Jesus is not speaking literally of "little children." Rather, he is using a simile; he calls upon adult disciples to become like children. The words "humbles himself," v. 4, identify the special quality that Jesus wants his followers to demonstrate. In 11:25-27 the child's teachability was in view; here it is his lowliness. "In contrast with their position in contemporary western culture, children occupied a low estate in the ancient world" (Gundry, 361), a state to which the physical smallness of the paidion contributed. The status of the child under Jewish law is reflected in the common rabbinic triad "deaf and dumb, weak-minded, under age" (cited by Jeremias, NT Theology, 227, n. 2). (On the status of children in the ancient world generally, see A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 398-402, together with the literature he cites.) Jesus directs his words to disciples comprehensively; no members of the new community are excluded. In using a little child as his model, Jesus calls upon his followers to become the lowliest of the lowly. In doing so, disciples shall be following the example of the Lord himself - the heavenly King who himself became the lowliest of the lowly by being born a human being, identifying with sin, and dying for sinners (see 11:28-30; 20:24-28); cf. 18:5, "And whoever welcomes a little child...welcomes me." The consequences of heeding - and of rejecting - this warning, will become clear as we proceed through the chapter.

2. Receiving a child. "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me" (v. 5, NIV). In my judgment, this translation is rather misleading, for it suggests that Jesus is directing attention especially to the little child whom he has used as his model. The Greek would be better rendered, "Whoever welcomes one such [for hen toiouto] little child...," i.e., such as is described in 18:3-4 (and again in v. 6). This is not to exclude actual little children from the blessings of Jesus or to question their capacity to believe in him (see below on 19:13-15). It is however to deny that this passage concerns Jesus' acceptance of actual paidia as such, and to affirm that the singular theme of 18:2-5 is the childlikeness - i.e. the lowliness - of believing disciples of whatever age.

The actual paidia who believe in Jesus, must - no less than adults - "change and become like little children" in the sense Jesus indicates. More precisely, v. 5 enjoins church leaders to deal gently and lovingly with the "little children" under their care (cf. Gundry, 361), and to consider the children's faith in Jesus ("in my name," cf. v. 6, "who believe in me") to be sufficient basis for acceptance. The next section (vv. 6-9) grows directly out of v. 5.


A. Terminology.

The noun skandalon occurs three times in this paragraph (all in v. 7), as does the verb skandaliz© (vv. 6, 8, 9). A skandalon is a "trap" or "stumbling-block" or "offense," in this case a temptation or enticement to sin. Skandaliz© describes the act which causes someone to be ensnared by sin or to fall into sin.

B. Threats from Others. 18:6-7.

1. The source of the threats. These vv. speak of external pressures upon the "little ones." Such threats may come from outside the church (the language of v. 7 is very general) or from within (v. 5). There are, however, three reasons to think that the latter threat is Jesus' main concern at this point: (i) the chapter is dominated and unified by the theme of life within the church; (ii) the warning of v. 6 is a negative counterpart to the positive injunction of v. 5, interpreted above as an address to church leaders; and (iii) the drowning described in v. 6 is better than eternal damnation (the consequence of offending a little one) - a warning better suited for professing disciples (whose drowning would prevent their committing a sin worthy of eternal death) than for non-believers (whose drowning would be the gateway to eternal death).

2. A warning to leaders. V. 6 sounds a solemn warning to church leaders: Let them beware lest by precept or example, they cause one of the "little ones" under their care to fall into sin. Let them beware of regarding themselves as spiritually superior to their charges (cf. 6:1-18), or of assuming a domineering attitude toward those over whom they have been given authority, or of propagating falsehood - such as an antinomian brand of Christianity which might easily lead a person into sin (especially someone formerly controlled by the limits of law); cf. Gundry, 362, also Jesus' warning in 7:15-20 against "false prophets" who seek to deter listeners from the "narrow way" of life under law as expounded in 5:17-48. Let the leaders remember that they too - or they especially - are to "become like little children" and "humble themselves" (18:3-4), from which posture alone they can effectively lead and teach. One of the apostles who heard these words later echoed the lesson: "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers...eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (1 Pet 5:2-3).

3. The millstone, v. 6. "A large millstone" translates mylos onikos, literally "a millstone worked by donkey-power." As such a millstone would not fit around a person's neck, the words "be hung" imply the use of a rope. That Jesus speaks of such a huge millstone (one large enough to require the use of an animal), "emphasizes that there is no hope of escape" (Gundry, 361). Yet there is something yet worse! He who causes "one of these little ones" to fall into sin will experience final judgment and eternal death. Cf. 7:21-23 ("Away from me, you evildoers!"), right after the warning against false prophets, 7:15-20.

4. Inevitability and responsibility, v. 7. Such offenses "must come," says Jesus (cf. Rom 5:20-21). But this does not lessen the personal responsibility or the guilt of the offenders (cf. Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).

C. Threats from Oneself. 18:8-9.

Jesus now addresses the "little children" themselves (church leaders and members alike), and alerts them to threats from within themselves. They are not merely threatened victims of sin; as fallen human beings, they may become active agents of sin (cf. Carson, 399). They must not think (1) that all the threats are external (as church members are human, they too are capable of being proud or contemptuous toward other believers or non-believers - an attitude that might easily arise from the very awareness of one's lowliness!, or (2) that pressure from without, relieves them of their own responsibility or excuses their own disobedience to God, or (3) that an attitude of lowliness toward others somehow protects them from all dangers from within. The warnings of 18:8-9 echo v. 6: i.e., better one kind of judgment (such as cutting off a hand or gouging out an eye) than another (the fire of hell). Cf. comments on 5:29-30. In my judgment the above interpretation of 18:8-9 is much to be preferred over the view that "cutting off" hand and foot, signals the "excommunication" of offending members from the church (see Hill, 274, for the suggestion). For the whole of Mt 18 lays emphasis (1) on taking seriously the responsibility of facing and dealing with one's own sin, and especially (2) on forgiving and restoring sinners - with excommunication being the last resort (see below on vv. 15-20).


A. The Context.

As observed, all the sections of this chapter are interrelated. Thus vv. 10-14, like vv. 2-9, speak of "these little ones" (this very expression occurs in vv. 6, 10, 14), i.e., of the "little children." As in vv. 2-9 God the Son expressed his loving concern for the little people in his church, so here he speaks of the active and protective love of God the Father (vv. 10, 14). Furthermore, as we shall see, vv. 10-14 prepare well for the passage about the erring brother (vv. 15-20).

B. The Angels. 18:10.

The angeloi are described not as protectors of the children, but as intercessors for the children before the throne of God. The angels possess no independent authority; and the only delegated authority of which this verse speaks, is not for mediating power but for invoking it. Jesus represents the Father - and him alone - as the source of protection for members of the church. "The idiom 'see the face of' [blepousi to pros©pon] here connotes access to a sovereign.... The addition 'always' indicates unrestricted access" (Gundry, 364). The link between v. 10b and v. 10a (note the connecting gar, "for") indicates that the angels' task is to invoke the Father's protecting care upon those very members who are under attack from others in the church. This link may also suggest that the angels invoke judgment upon those guilty of offending the "little ones."

The above does not exclude the idea of angels as protectors. It is true that Mt never speaks expressly of "guardian angels" for believers. Yet the fact that Jesus speaks of "their angels," suggests the inclusion of this function (cf. 4:11; 26:53). The fact remains that angels best protect those under their care by invoking the aid of the sovereign God.

C. The Parable of the Lost Sheep. 18:12-14.

1. The context. With the NIV, we omit v. 11, "The Son of Man came to save what was lost" (cf. Lk 19:10). The reason for the later insertion of the verse was apparently to link v. 10 to vv. 12-14 (Metzger, TC, 45). Yet even without v. 11, there is a noteworthy connection between v. 10 and vv. 12-14. The parable illustrates God's gracious initiative, in response to the angels' appeals. Not limited to working through angelic mediators, the Father himself goes forth to act; such is his care for his children. (The interpolation of v. 11 reflects the fact, affirmed in Lk 19:10, that the Father acts by the agency of his Son.)

2. The parable itself; cf. Lk 15:3-7. The animal wanders away from the sheepfold and the shepherd. Once it becomes known that this sheep is missing, the shepherd leaves the other 99 (having left them in safe keeping, it is implied) and goes "to look for the one that wandered off." But then we observe a difference between the two versions of the parable: Whereas in Lk the shepherd searches until he finds the sheep, in Mt it is left uncertain whether the sheep is found. Cf. Lk 15:5 ("And when he finds it...") to Mt 18:13 ("And if he finds it...").

3. The meaning of the parable. We now observe a further difference between the two parables (which explains the differences already noted). The lost sheep in Lk represents a sinner who stands outside the community of faith, and who is now - by the Father's initiative - being drawn, for the first time, into that community. But in Mt the lost sheep represents a member of the church who has drifted into sin. The verb plana©, "wander," not used at all in the Lukan parable, is found three times in Mt 18:12-13. To this wandering sheep the Father is now reaching out in order to restore him to the community of believers. Luke speaks of lost persons who have never been saved, Matthew of (at least ostensibly) saved persons who are in danger of being lost again. That the parable in Mt leaves it uncertain whether the sheep is found, underscores the extreme gravity of the situation, and the real possibility of apostasy. (Is not the condition of the wandering disciple even more perilous than that of the unbeliever — precisely because the former has partaken of the blessings of the New Age and participated in the life of its people? Cf. Heb 6:4-6; 2 Pet 2:21.) Jesus concludes: "In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost" (v. 14). In other words, the Father wills that those who wander (or are driven) from the church, not be abandoned, but that every effort be made to restore them in love. In the following section Jesus commands his disciples to follow his Father's example; by doing so they shall fulfill his Father's will.