Each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) records a private exchange between Jesus and the disciples. It began with a question for which the disciples have often been criticized. In Matthew 18:1 the disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Part of the problem we have in understanding Scriptures is that we read and discuss it in small snippets, often dividing a single discourse or account into multiple parts. Each part is then treated as a distinct morality tale. In order to create separate, single-themed moral lessons, it is often necessary to not only over-simplify the Word itself, but to characterize the context in order to match the presumed moral lesson. One of the ways this is done is to read motives into the story which we can then condemn as sinful. If that ascribed motive is incorrect, however, we have missed the point of the account altogether.
The word for great in Matthew 18:1 can imply a literal or figurative meaning. It can refer to size but here it likely refers to age, figuratively then, an elder, or leader. Many commentators see this question as prideful. It is noteworthy that Jesus never reprimanded the disciples for the question. If pride was the motive for the question, then we can understand the teaching on humility, but Jesus specifically addresses the question of both greatness in the Kingdom (Matt. 18:4) and leadership (by the analogy of the shepherd in Matt 18:11–13), indicating the legitimacy of the question.
A “Good Question”?
Why might the disciples bring up the issue of greatness or leadership in the Kingdom? Assuming pride and self-exaltation was the motive neglects the context that Matthew himself gives: Jesus had just spoken of His death (Matt. 17:22–23). Previously, He had Himself spoken of the greatness of those in the Kingdom (Matt. 11:11) and noted there would be those who were both great in it as well as least based on their regard for His law (Matt. 5:19).
The disciples could not ignore Christ’s reference to His death. It was not prideful to wonder how they were to operate without the Lord, and Jesus never reprimanded them for the question. The disciples did not understand something important and asked the Lord. The exact nature of the Kingdom was not clear; they probably assumed a civil manifestation, with some form of a political structure. If Jesus was not going to be there as the king, it was logical to ask: “Who will be in charge? If it is us, what will the organizational flow chart look like?”
Rabbinical Views of the Kingdom
It is important to remember that all Jews believed in a messianic Kingdom. The rabbinical writings had speculated on the nature of that Kingdom. They often focused on the material blessings and prosperity of a revived Jewish state, but the certainty of a Kingdom was not questioned.
The rabbinical teachings also included a system of rank in the Kingdom, which is not hard to understand given the elevation of religious orders over the common people. Alfred Edersheim noted that one rabbinical example compared God’s favorites to spoiled children who could get anything they wanted from Him merely by asking. Another rabbinical story Edersheim relates concerned a rabbi who prayed for the sick child of another rabbi. When the child revived, the father of the healed child told his wife not to consider the praying rabbi as any greater than he, because the praying rabbi was like a servant of God whose immediate access gave him more opportunities to ask, whereas he was, as a lord, without such opportunity.[i]
If it was not the rabbinical views that were their frame of reference, then the analogy of a Kingdom itself conveyed a structure and chain of command. Without Jesus, how would that leadership, even among the disciples, look? It was an obvious question, and the answer about service and servanthood did speak to the nature of leadership (different than the religious leadership they knew).
Mark adds a detail of interest. This question was discussed by the disciples as they traveled (Matt. 9:33ff.). Again, they were not reprimanded, as if their conversation had been inappropriate in any way. Mark says that Jesus sat down and called the twelve around Him, then explained, “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.”
All three of the synoptic gospels record what Jesus then did. He set a small child amongst their small group. Matthew then quotes Jesus as saying, in part,
Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 18:3–4)
The conversion here spoken of is not that religious conversion for which we use the term, but rather the core meaning of conversion, which is a turning around, a reversal. Jesus was saying they had to completely change their thinking about the Kingdom itself. And, regarding “greatness,” or eldership, a humbling was necessary. The humbling was not primarily contrasted to a demeanor of pride Jesus saw in the disciples, however, but from the existing example of religious leadership to that of a new model for the Kingdom of God.
All the examples of religious leadership then known represented an ostentatious formality, an expectation of deference. All the religious orders dressed distinctively, they were known to all from a distance. Jesus was telling the disciples to change their thinking about leadership.
Sitting on the ground is perfectly normal for a child. They do not have any ideas about forms or being shown deference, such as being given preferred seats (compare Luke 14:7–11). He then went beyond using the child as an illustration of the demeanor of leadership and used him as a directive of behavior:
And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged around his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matt. 18:5–6)
To receive meant literally to “take by the hand,” which implies a helpfulness in any number of ways. To offend can mean to cause to sin or fall away or to distrust those they should be able to trust. This refers to children, of course, but includes all the “little ones” in the ecclesia, all who are part of the Kingdom. The primary context is the leaders of the church who, having completely changed their conception of leadership, were willing to take others by the hand and help them wherever necessary. The great offense is taking advantage of that position of service. The millstone was not a Biblical punishment but a particularly harsh Greek penalty that is used to convey the harshness of judgment on those who abuse their position in the church. As such it is a warning against the antinomian readiness to “forgive and forget” abuses by the clergy in the name of love.
Get off Your High Horse
Jesus used another illustration of leadership, one more familiar to the disciples, that of the shepherd caring for his flock (Matt. 18:1–14). The analogy is of a shepherd searching out a single lost sheep. A solitary sheep is not only an easy target for predators; it can die from the panic of finding itself alone. Failure to go help a wayward member of the flock was to abandon it to a likely death.
My father witnessed the contempt of cattlemen for both sheep and sheepherding while living in a remote area of Nevada in the 1940s and 50s. The Indians took to cattle ranching because it involved herding cows by horse. The cattleman was aloof from the herd, could leave it when necessary, and merely had to move the herd mounted on a horse as needed. The shepherd worked on foot and had to live very close to his sheep, often handling them to doctor or birth them. It was a round-the-clock job; the sheep were wholly dependent on the work ethic of the shepherd. The lanolin in the wool attracted dirt, so the shepherd was covered in a greasy film not unlike that which accumulates on a stove top or hood. The shepherd smelled like his sheep and was held in contempt by the cattlemen. A standing indictment of a cattleman to a misbehaving boy was the claim that he would never amount to more than a lowdown sheepherder. Cattlemen act as lords over their herds, while shepherds had to live amongst their flock and get dirty. This was the difference Jesus spoke of. If He was speaking to Western ranchers, He might have said, “Don’t be like the religious leaders you see; get down off your high horse and help the people of God like a shepherd.”
John obviously realized Jesus was talking about offending more than children. He brought up something that had recently occurred (Mark 9:38, c.f. Luke 9:49). John related that he and other disciples had reprimanded a man for casting out demons in the name of Jesus. John obviously was concerned that he had offended this man. Jesus confirmed this conviction by saying they ought not to have done so because “he that is not against us, is for us.”
That is the only rebuke of the Lord in this account, and John invited it by questioning his own recent behavior. What John questioned was not his demeanor (proud or humble) but his behavior, whether he had “lorded” it over this man and offended him by an improper assertion of authority and jurisdiction.
Faith and Action
Throughout the prophets, when Israel and Judah devolved into blatant idolatry, the charges against them were largely two-fold: apostasy for having violated the covenant, and disobedience, the measure of abandoning the covenant. Obedience, not theology, was the reoccurring demand. Too many Christians emphasize theology for the wrong reason. They want to discuss it endlessly with others who do so, or to point out the errors in the theology of others. Theology, in its plainest meaning, is “God words,” and our understanding of God is never to be primarily academic or used as a polemic but should be the basis for sanctification, a growth in grace which is characterized by obedience to God’s Word. John’s reaction was not his understanding of what Jesus said, but whether his actions had violated those command words.
“The Matthew 18 Principle”
It was out of this discussion of a leadership that more resembled a shepherd getting down and helping his flock in very practical matters that Jesus brought forth what is often referred to as “the Matthew 18 principle” or just as “Matthew 18.” Unfortunately, it is often referred to in a vacuum, transcending all other factors. But God’s Word to us is meant to be practical, not abstract, which is why Jesus used such concrete examples as a child and a shepherd.
It is one thing to say humble yourselves and serve others, even the weakest. That is a reference to our own behavior. But what if those brothers are not very easy to serve? What if that person, in fact, creates a problem? How do you get through that?
The reference of Matthew 18:15 is to a brother who “trespasses” against us. That word is hamartia, which means a missing of the mark. It refers to a personal offense against you, not a sin against God, so it does not refer to a crime against God’s law such as murder or theft.
A few years ago, a woman at a Christian college accused a man of rape. She was ordered by the school to forgive him because he was repentant. “Matthew 18” was specifically invoked, and she was threatened with discipline if she refused to forgive and drop the charge. Those were the only options offered her by the school. This type of misuse of Matthew 18 is, unfortunately, very common. In reality, the bullying of this woman was a blatant example of the misuse of power that all of Matthew 18 addresses. The resolution process Jesus outlines was meant to address personal problems with others in the family of God, not to negate the justice of God.
The model of leadership in the church of our Lord’s day was a false one. On another occasion Jesus would describe those men as locked out of the Kingdom of God (Luke 13:24–30). To follow their model was to follow error. The leaders of the church would be those who took others by the hand, who got off their high horse and cared for the flock, even if it meant acquiring some of the unpleasant dirt and stink of real-life problems.
[i] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book IV, Chapter III.