William Kelly Major Works Commentary
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?Matthew Chapter 18
In Matthew 16 we had two subjects connected with the revelation of the Lord's person to Simon Peter: one of them, the Church, entirely new, or for the first time divulged; the other, the familiar subject of the kingdom of heaven. We shall find in the chapter before us these two things again brought together - not confounded or identified. We are called to see the kingdom and the Church in their practical bearing. We have already learned that the Lord was to build the Church. "Upon this rock" (the confession of His person) "I will build My Church." Afterward, He promised to give the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter.
Now we find (connected, I think, with the principle which actuated Himself) the consciousness of glory, and of the absolute command of all that He had made. He was the Lord of heaven and earth - if, in grace, He paid the tribute of the temple; for grace gives up its rights; at least, it does not seek to claim and exercise them for the present. And in the very consciousness of the possession of all glory, it can bow in this evil world. But, then, carefully observe that the soul is never to yield God's rights, but our own. We must be as unbending as a flint wherever God is in question. Grace never surrenders the true holiness, the claim, or will, of God; in fact, it is what strengthens the soul to value them and walk in them. There is often a practical difficulty that people do not understand. While we are called upon to walk in grace, it is a misuse of grace to suppose it to be an allowance of evil or indifference to it in our relations with God. Grace, while it meets us in our ruin, imparts a power we had not before, because it reveals Christ, strengthens the soul, gives a new life, and acts upon that life so as to carry us forward in the obedience as well as in the enjoyment of Christ. Our Lord shows that this ought to govern everything.
But first we have the spirit that befits us. "At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" This furnishes opportunity for our Lord to indicate the spirit that becomes the kingdom of heaven: "Jesus called a little child unto Him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (ver. 3). Now this is what is wrought in a soul when it is converted: there is a new life given, even Christ. Hence there is much more than a change. That would be very far short of the truth as to a Christian. Of course the Christian is a changed man; but then the change is because of something still deeper. A Christian is a man born again, possessing a life now that he possessed not before. I do not mean merely that he lives after a new sort, but that he has a, new life given to him which he had not before. It is in this way that he becomes a little child. Then this new life has to be cultivated and strengthened. Our natural life as men develops, or it may be checked and hindered by various circumstances. So it is with the spiritual life.
Our Lord shows here what is the characteristic moral feature that suits the kingdom of heaven; and this in opposition to Jewish thoughts of greatness. They were still thinking of the kingdom according to certain Old Testament delineations of it. When David came to the kingdom, his followers that had been faithful before were exalted according to their previous worth. You have the three great chiefs, and then thirty other warriors, and so on; all of them having their place determined by the way in which they had carried themselves in the day of trial. The disciples came with similar thoughts to our Lord, full of what they had done and suffered. The same spirit broke out on many occasions, even at the last supper. Our Lord here uses it to show that the spirit He loves in His disciples is to be nothing - to be without a thought of self, in a spirit of lowliness, dependence, and trust, that does not think about itself. This is the natural feeling of a little one. In the spiritual child this self-forgetfulness is exactly the right feeling. The little child is the standing witness of true greatness in the kingdom of heaven. In our Lord Himself this was shown, fully. The wonder was that He who knew everything, who had all power and might, could take the place of a little child; yet He did. And, indeed, you may be sure that the lowliness of a child is in no wise incompatible with a person being deeply taught in the things of God. It is not a lowliness that shows itself in phrases or forms, but the reality of meekness that confides not in itself, but in the living God; and this has the respect which God Himself loves there should be toward those around it. Perfect humility was just as much a feature of our Lord Jesus as the consciousness of His glory. The two things may go well together; and you cannot have becoming Christian humility unless there be the consciousness of glory. To behave ourselves lowlily, as children of God, is the beautiful thing the Lord is here putting before us.
"Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (ver. 4). It is not merely the becoming like little children as begotten of God, but there, is the practical humbling of ourselves. And not only the humbling of ourselves, but how we feel toward others: "Whosoever shall receive one such little child in My name receiveth Me." Whatever may be the lowliness of the Christian, he should be viewed with all the glory of Christ, which is meant by receiving him in the name of Christ. It is a person that does not defend his rights, nor assert his own glory, but is willing to bend and make way for any one, while conscious of the glory that rests upon him. There may be the very opposite of this - "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me." What is meant by this? Anything calculated to shake their confidence in Christ, to put a stumbling-block in their way. It does not mean anything said in faithful love to their soul. People may take offence at this; but it is not what is spoken of here., It is what tends to shake the confidence of the little one in God Himself. "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones that believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." These things are constantly occurring in the world. Therefore, says the Lord, "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." What is to be done? The Lord shows in two forms the way to guard against these stumbling-blocks. The first is this - I must begin with myself. This is the most important means of not stumbling another. "Wherefore, if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off and cast them from thee." It may be in one's service, or in one's walk; but if thy hand or foot become the occasion of stumbling (something in which the enemy takes advantage against God), deal resolutely at once with the evil thing. "It is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire" (vers. 6-8).
The Lord always puts the full result of evil before the soul. In speaking of the kingdom of heaven, He takes into account that there may be persons in it false as well as true. He therefore speaks generally. He does not pronounce upon them; for some may be truly born of God and others not. The Lord solemnly puts before them that such as are indifferent about sin are not of God. It is impossible for a soul to be regenerate and habitually careless about that which grieves the Holy Ghost. Therefore He puts before them the certainty of such being cast into everlasting fire. Of no one who is born of God could this be said. But as there may be in the kingdom of heaven a false profession as well as a true, the believer is to look well to it, that he do not allow sin in any of his members. "And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell-fire." It may cost ever so much, but God is not a hard Master; none is so tender and loving. And yet it is God giving us His mind by the Lord Jesus, showing us that this is the only way of dealing with that which may become an occasion of sin. (Compare Ephesians 5:5-6).
The first great source of offense to others, and which must be first removed, is that which is a stumbling-block to our own souls. We must begin with self-judgment. But there is also the despising the little ones that belong to God. "Take heed," says our Lord, "that ye despise not one of these little ones: for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven.* For the Son of Man is come to save that which was lost" (vers. 10, 11). A beautiful word, especially as it is so broadly stated by our Lord as to take in literally a little child as well as the little ones that believe in Him. I believe this chapter was meant to give encouragement touching little ones. The plea on which our Lord goes is, not that they were innocent (which is the way in which they are so often spoken of among men), but that the Son of Man came to save that which was lost. It supposes the taint of sin, but that the Son of Man came to meet it: so that we are entitled to have confidence in the Lord, not for our own souls only, but for the little ones too.
* What our Lord calls here "their angels" seem to be the spirits of children now in heaven - the spirit representing the person in the present state until the resurrection. Compare Acts 12:15; Hebrews 12:23, and Revelation 1:20 - this last representing the assembly. A "guardian angel," of which some speak as the meaning here, does not seem to give a good reason for the Lord's warning; nor is it anywhere mentioned in Scripture. Ed.
But our Lord goes further. "How think ye? If a man have a hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it; verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish" (vers. 12-14). No doubt we can embrace all those that are saved on the same principle. The Gospel of Luke shows us (Luke 15) this very parable applied to any sinner. But here the Lord is taking it up in connection with the foregoing, namely, right feelings for one who belongs to the kingdom of heaven. Starting from' a little child whom He sets in the midst, He carries the thought of the little one all through this part of His discourse. And now He closes with the proof, in His own mission, of the interest which the Father takes in these little ones.
Then the Lord applies it to our practical conduct. Supposing your brother does you wrong; an evil word, perhaps, or an unkind action done against you - something that you feel deeply as a real personal trespass against you; it is a sin, of course. Nobody knows it, probably, but himself and you. What are you to do? At once this great principle is applied: When you were ruined and far from God, what met your case? Did God wait till you put away your sin? He sent His own Son to seek you, to save you. "The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost." This is the principle for you to act upon. You belong to God; you are a child of God. Your brother has wronged you? Go you to him, and seek to set him right., It is the activity of love which the Lord Jesus presses upon His disciples. We are to seek the deliverance, in the power of divine love, of those who have wandered from God. The flesh feels and resents wrong done against itself. But grace does not shroud itself up in its own dignity, waiting for the offender to come and humble himself and own his wrong. The Son of Man came to seek the lost. I want you, He says, to be walking after the same principle, to be vessels of the same love - to be characterized by grace, going out after that which has sinned against God. This is a great difficulty, unless the soul is fresh in the love of God, and enjoying what God is for him. How does God feel about the child that has done wrong? His loving desire is to have him right. When the child is near enough to know the Father's heart he goes out to do the Father's will. A wrong may have been done against him, but he does not think about that. It is his brother who has slipped into evil, and the desire of his heart is to have the brother righted who had gone astray - not to vindicate self, but that his soul may be restored to the Lord.
"Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone" (ver. 15). It is not here the case of a sin known to a great many, but some personal trespass only known to you two. Go, then, to him, and tell him his fault between you and him alone. "If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." Love is bent on gaining the brother. So it is to him that understands and feels with Christ. It is not the offender, but thy brother that is the thought before the heart: "Thou hast gained thy brother."*
*Forgiveness is necessarily based on the "hearing," - "if he shall hear thee" - which shows the heart is not continuing in the wrong. Ed.
"But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." Is it possible he may resist one or two who come to him, witnesses of the love of Christ? He has refused Christ pleading by one; can he refuse Christ now that He pleads by more? It may be, alas, that he will. "And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church." The Church means the assembly of God in the place to which these all belong. "If he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church; but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican" (ver. 17). The assembly, then, is told of the guilty person's fault. The thing has been investigated and pressed home. The Church warns and entreats this man, but he refuses to hear; and the consequence is - "Let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican." A most solemn issue! A man who is called a brother in the verse before is to me as a heathen man and a publican now. We are not to suppose the man to be a drunkard or a thief; but showing the hardness of self-will and a spirit of self-justification. It may arise out of small circumstances; but this unbending pride about himself and his own fault is that on which he may, according to the Lord, be regarded as a heathen man and a publican - no more to acknowledge him in his impenitent state. And yet it may spring mainly from the spirit of justifying oneself. In the case of open sin or wickedness, the duty of the Church is clear: the person is put away. Nor would there be reason in such a case for going one at a time, and then one or two more. But the Lord shows here how the end of this personal trespass might be that the Church has finally to hear it - and it may lead to something more.
"Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven." It is not a mere question of agreement, but of what is done in the name of the Lord. (See 1 Corinthians 5:4.) "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, That if two of you shall agree on the earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together unto My name, there am I in the midst of them." Whether for discipline or for making requests of God, the Lord lays down this great principle, that where two or three are gathered together unto His name, He is in the midst of them. Nothing could be more sweet and encouraging. And I am persuaded that the Lord had in view the present ruin of the Church, when there might be ever so few gathered aright, assembled in obedience to the word of God, and carrying it out according to the will of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But a person may ask, Are any upon that ground? I can only say that the Christians who fall back on Scripture, owning the faithful presence of the Spirit in the assembly on earth, are taking an immense deal of trouble for a delusion if they are not. They are very foolish in acting as they do unless they are sure that it is according to the mind of God. Ought you to have more doubt how Christians should meet together for worship or mutual edification than about any other directions in the word of God? If we are not restrained by human rules, if the word of God alone is followed, there is entire liberty to carry out its directions. But while speaking thus confidently, on the other hand ought we not to take a very low place? When members of Christ's body are scattered here and there, humiliation alone becomes us; not only because of others' ways, but our own. For what have we been to Christ and the Church? It would be very wrong to call ourselves the Church; but if we were only two or three meeting in the name of Christ, we should have the same sanction and Christ's presence as if we had the twelve apostles with us. If through unbelief and weakness the Church at large were broken up and scattered, and if, in all this confusion, there were only two or three who had faith to act upon the Lord's will, for them the word would still be true, "Where two or three are gathered together unto My name, there am I in the midst of them." It is the presence of Christ and obedience to Him that give sanction to their acts. If the Church has fallen into ruin, the business of those who feel this is to depart from known evil - "Cease to do evil; learn to do well." We always have to come back to first principles when things get astray. This is the obligation of a Christian man.
Peter then asks our Lord, "How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?" (ver. 21.) We had instruction how we were to act in the case of a personal trespass. But Peter raises another question. Supposing my brother sins against me over and over, how often am I to forgive him? The answer is, "I say not unto thee, Until seven times; but, Until seventy times seven." In the kingdom of heaven - not under the law, but under the rule of the rejected Christ - forgiveness is unlimited. How wonderful - the deeper holiness revealed in Christianity, is at the same time, that which feels with deepest love, and goes out with it to others! So we find here, "I say not unto thee, Until seven times," which was Peter's idea of the largest grace, "but, Until seventy times seven." Our Lord insists that there really was no end to forgiveness. It is always to be in the heart of the Christian.
"Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king which would take account of his servants" (ver. 23). And then we have two servants brought before us. The king forgives one of them who had been very guilty (who owed him ten thousand talents - practically, a debt that never could be paid by a servant). On his entreaty, the king forgives him. The servant then goes out and meets a fellow-servant who owes him a hundred pence - a small sum indeed in comparison with that which had just been forgiven to himself. Yet he seizes his fellow-servant by the throat, saying, "Pay me that thou owest." And the king hearing it summons the guilty man before him. What is taught by this? It is a comparison of the kingdom of heaven, and refers to a state of things established here below by God's will. While we may, and must, take the principle to ourselves, much more is taught than this.* Taken in the large way, the servant that owes the ten thousand talents represents the Jew, peculiarly favoured of God, who yet had contracted the enormous debt that he never could pay. When they had completed this debt by the death of their Messiah, a message of forgiveness was sent them - "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out." They had only to do so, and their sins would be blotted out: God would send the Messiah again, and bring in the times of refreshing. The Holy Ghost, answering the prayer of our Lord upon the cross, uses Peter to tell them, "I wot, brethren, that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers. . . . Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out," even as the Lord had said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Thus the servant had heard the sound of forgiveness to himself, yet with no real apprehension of it. He goes out and casts a fellow-servant into prison for a very small debt. This is the way in which the Jews acted toward the Gentiles. And thus all the debt that God had forgiven them became fastened upon them. The master says to the servant, "O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him" (vers. 32-34).
* While forgiveness or retension of guilt governmentally is the subject of this kingdom parable, an unforgiving, relentless spirit would show a heart untouched by God's mercy, with eternal consequences attaching. - [Ed.
I do not doubt that you may apply this to an individual who has heard the gospel, and who does not act according to it. The principle of it is true now of any mere professor of the gospel in these days, who acts like a worldly man. But taking it on the broader scale, you must bring in the dealings of God with the Jews. The day is coming when the Lord will say that Jerusalem has received of His hand double for all her sins. He will apply to them the blood of Christ, which can outweigh the ten thousand talents, and more. But the unbelieving generation of Israel are cast into prison, and will never come out: the remnant will, by the grace of God; and the Lord will make of the remnant a strong nation.
Meanwhile, for us the great principle of forgiveness is what we have need to remember. We have specially to remind our souls in the case of anything that is against ourselves. May we at once look steadfastly at what our God and Father has done for us! If we can, in the presence of such grace, be hard for some trifling thing done against ourselves, let us bethink ourselves how the Lord judges here.
May the Lord grant that His words may not be in vain for us, that we may seek to remember the exceeding grace that has abounded towards our souls, and what God looks for from us!
And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
And said, 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.
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 about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!
Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.
And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.
For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.
How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.
Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.
And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.
But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.
But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.
And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.
So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.
Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:
Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?
And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.