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The term "greatest" is actually "greater" in the Greek, but the meaning is the same. The apostles had been disputing among themselves concerning preeminence and places of honor in the approaching kingdom. The events of the last chapter had revived their hopes of an earthly kingdom; and the prospect of Jesus' death (they seemed continually blinded to the repeated promises of his resurrection) accentuated their concern over who would be head man afterwards! A great proportion of earth's sorrows flow directly from the vain ambitions of men for preferment and advantage. Barker related how:
Someone once asked George Bernard Shaw in which age he would most have enjoyed living. The witty Irishman flashed, "The age of Napoleon." "Why?" he was asked. "Because," replied Shaw, "then there was only one man who thought he was Napoleon!" The Napoleon problem was present even among the apostles. They too were infected with the "I deserve to be first" virus. F1
That little child was possibly Peters', since the Lord was a guest in Peter's house. Dummelow noted the tradition that "It was Ignatius the Martyr, afterwards the Bishop of Antioch." F2 All innocent young children manifest the same wonderful qualities, and the identity of the child is irrelevant.
Benjamin Franklin, the great Restoration preacher, found in this text one of a triad on the subject of conversion. The expression "turn" or "turn again" is translated "be converted" in the KJV. The other two texts are Acts 3:19 and Acts 28:27. The three texts represent instruction directed to three different classes of persons, depending upon their spiritual development. These are: (1) believers who needed to repent (Matthew 18:3), (2) unbelievers (Acts 28:27), and (3) believers whose repentance was anticipated (Acts 3:19). From these three texts it is clear that Biblical conversion has three phases - faith, repentance, and something additional (baptism) - these separate phases being accomplished by obedience to the gospel and involving three distinct changes in the individual. Franklin taught that the three changes are: (1) a change of mind; (2) a change of will; and (3) a change of state or status. Thus, faith was appointed to change the mind, repentance to change the will, and baptism to change the status. Significantly, these also sustain a certain relation to time, past, present, and future. Thus, faith changes the present, repentance changes the future, and baptism changes the past.
In the case here, need for repentance by the believing apostles sprang from their sin of worldly pride and ambition, as attested by their striving for position and preeminence in the approaching kingdom.
The particular qualities of little children commended by Jesus are humility, freedom from prejudice, teachableness, lovableness, trustfulness, faith, freedom from anxiety, and innocence. Receiving a little child in Jesus' name refers to complete acceptance of a child-like believer because of his innocent and unrestrained trust in the Lord.
The warning in this passage applies specifically to one who causes the loss of a human soul. Such a sinner shall suffer a fate worse than death. "The great millstone" in this place means literally "a millstone turned by an ass," and contrasts with the smaller millstones turned by hand (see the margin of the English Revised Version (1885)). Why is the fate of such an offender worse than death by drowning? Because eternal death will be his reward.
The divine plan calls for man to be tried, tested, and tempted. Satan and the forbidden tree were in Eden BEFORE sin entered. God desires the love of his children; and true love requires that there be freedom of the will and opportunity to make a choice. The opportunity for temptation does not reduce the guilt of sinners, nor does the necessity for temptation mitigate the guilt of those through whom temptation comes.
The expression "must needs be" speaks of a heavenly compulsion upon all things. The great issues of time and eternity proceed from God, and no appeal (or escape) from his total authority is possible. That heavenly compulsion was laid even upon Christ while he was in the form of man. He MUST be about the Father's business (Luke 2:49), MUST preach the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43), MUST put new wine in new flasks (Mark 2:22), MUST work the works of God (John 9:4), MUST suffer death (Mark 8:31), and MUST reign until all enemies are put under foot (1 Corinthians 15:25).
There MUST be heresies (1 Corinthians 11:19), MUST be wars (Mark 13:7), MUST be tribulations (Acts 14:21,22), MUST be offenses (above), MUST be separation from the visible presence of Christ (Acts 3:21), and Satan MUST be loosed for a little season (Revelation 20:3).
This sovereign MUST overshadows the Bible. The Scriptures MUST be fulfilled (Luke 22:37), and they MUST be preached (Mark 13:10). The apostles found this heavenly MUST written against them also (Acts 1:21,22); elders MUST be blameless (1 Timothy 3:8); preachers MUST forbear striving (2 Timothy 2:24-26); all worshipers MUST worship in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24); all who desire salvation MUST believe (Hebrews 11:6), MUST be saved in the name of Christ (Acts 4:12), MUST repent (Luke 13:3), and MUST be baptized (John 3:7). In death, there is an exception. Not all MUST die (1 Corinthians 15:51), but all MUST put on immortality and all MUST stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). This is quite different from the old proverb about nothing's being certain except death and taxes, death being one of the few things not certain!
Most commentators, ancient and modern, make Christ's word here a metaphor applicable to the individual who should give up the most cherished friendship, indulgence; or habit, if such hinders spiritual life. It is also applied to the church itself which should put away evil members, even of the highest positions, lest the whole body of the church be contaminated. Thus, Dummelow has, "This giving up of what is pleasant and lawful, because to us personally it is a spiritual peril, is what our Lord means by plucking out the right eye and cutting off the right hand." F3 Tertullian said that these words were uttered "by way of similitude. F4 Irenaeus wrote, "Those who led vicious lives and put other people astray, were condemned and cast out, so also, even now, the offending eye is plucked out, and the foot and the hand, lest the rest of the body perish in like manner." F5
In the physical realm, amputations of various kinds daily illustrate the validity of our Lord's words. Removal of a mortally infected member is required for the preservation of life. The use of strong metaphor, as in the case here, frequently marked the teachings of Christ. Another example is "This is my body!" (See also under Matthew 5:29,30).
See on Matt. 18:8, above. The lesson is identical in these cases and is repeated for emphasis. Special attention is directed to the Saviour's teaching on eternal punishment. See notes on Matthew 25:41. See under Matt. 5:29,30.
The subject of worldly ambition was still under consideration. Seeking for prominence and chief seats always leads to despising the poor, the lowly, and the humble; but Christ made it emphatically clear that in his kingdom such persons, described as "one of these little ones," are of the most transcending importance, and that the highest ranking angels in glory are charged with watching on their behalf. See more on angels under Matthew 1:20. In 2 Kings 25:19, certain ministers were spoken of as being "in the king's presence," an example of Oriental monarchies in which so-called "ministers of the face" held higher rank than others.
THE PARABLE OF THE LOST SHEEP
Christ spoke this parable twice, evidently for a different purpose on each occasion. In this instance, it stands for the infinite love and solicitude the Lord has for the very least of his human children; but in Luke's account of it, it appears to have been spoken as an argument against the Pharisees who would go to a lot of trouble for a lost animal but had no regard for a lost man. The parables are the same, but they are spoken with significant variations (Luke 15:3-7).
In the Scriptures, goats are used to represent sinners, and sheep represent Christians. The lost sheep, therefore, represents a child of God who has become a backslider, who is separated from the fold, and from the Shepherd.
Note these facts about a lost sheep: (1) It is absolutely defenseless, having no weapon of any kind, no gift of speed in flight, no cunning, no means of deception, its very cries being only a signal for the enemy to close in for the kill. Let every backslider behold here his helplessness apart from Christ. (2) The sheep has no sense of direction. A carrier pigeon would surely be able to return to its nest; a dog might find its way home, but a sheep? Never! (3) A lost sheep is surrounded by enemies, even the elemental forces of nature being hostile and often fatal to him when separated from the fold.
The parable suggests the earthly mission of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who left the joys of heaven to wander amid the bleak scenes of earth to recover lost and sinful people. It also has an application to the church, or flock of God, in that the true place for every sheep is in the fold. There is no safety for the sheep separated from the Shepherd and the fold.
The rejoicing of the Shepherd is stressed in this case; but in Luke's account, the rejoicing in heaven is emphasized.
Matthew 18:11 omitted in the English Revised Version (1885), appeared in many of the ancient versions and certainly bears some relevance in this context: "For the Son of man came to save that which was lost."
ANALOGIES IN THE PARABLE
The man with one hundred sheep is God.
The ninety-nine sheep are the faithful ones.
The one that went astray is the backslider.
The seeking for the lost is God's search for the unsaved.
The rejoicing represents God's pleasure over those who repent.
The fold (not mentioned, but implied) is the church, or fellowship with God.
The mountains stand for the dangers to backsliders.
The exclusive reference of the words of this verse to PRIVATE offenses only, and the rejection of their application to so-called PUBLIC offenses is without doubt an error, ably supported, widely received, and skillfully advocated by some of the great minds in the church of all ages, but still an error. It is God, not men, that should be obeyed. Macknight wrote, "Such are the rules which our Lord would have us observe in matters of private offense." F6 McGarvey stated that "This rule of procedure is given only for cases of personal offense, where one individual has sinned against another." F7 Many other examples of the prevailing view could be cited; but "upon what authority" is such a bold limitation grounded? It is significant that the view, when stated, is not supported by the Scriptures; and in some cases where Scriptures are cited, they simply do not apply. Thus, Macknight quoted 1 Timothy 5:20, "Them that sin, rebuke before all, that others may fear." But where is the authority in that for omitting the first and second admonitions? That the first and second admonitions do actually apply to "public" sins as well as private ones, appears from Paul's words to Titus, "A factious man, after a first and second admonition, refuse" (Titus 3:10). A factious man is a leader or promoter of a faction, an offense which, by its very nature, has to be PUBLIC! Yet Paul's instructions to Titus prove that our Lord's method, including the first and second admonitions, was honored even in cases like that.
Another passage sometimes cited as a release of our Lord's instruction here is that of Paul's public rebuke of Elymas (Acts 13:9,10); and yet it simply cannot be that the conduct of that inspired, Spirit-moved apostle is license for some preacher to sound off in public about the sins of any person of his acquaintance or in his congregation. Even Paul's withstanding Peter to his face, and the stern words publicly addressed to Peter on that occasion (Galatians 2:11), come under the category of Spirit-inspired utterances, essentially unique, and not intended as a repeal of the Lord's method outlined in the passage under consideration here.
Let it be remembered that Paul acted under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, under the immediate authority and commission of God himself, that he sustained absolutely no danger of being mistaken, and that he was not in either case dealing with an ordinary brother. Peter was a fellow apostle; Elymas was a notorious child of the devil, enjoying the status of a prime minister.
The view advocated here does not in any sense exclude the necessity of ULTIMATELY exposing wrong-doers before the whole church publicly, but we believe it is our duty to affirm that this can be done Scripturally, only after the first and second admonitions. In some 35 years of the ministry, countless cases have been observed by this writer in which the FIRST effort to correct some alleged sin or error has been an ugly blast from a pulpit or in some religious paper, always justified, of course, on the basis that the alleged wrong-doing was a "public" matter, and therefore requiring no private confrontation with the "wrong-doer"! A careful study of Matthew 5:23,24; Matthew 18:15-17 and Galatians 6:1 will prove that there are no exceptions to Christ's injunction requiring spiritual persons to go to the offender first alone. That some people do not obey this injunction cannot remove it. It is the solemn conviction of this expositor that many of the divisions and sorrows that have come upon the church of our generation would have been prevented by a due regard to our Lord's words in this and related verses. When Christ's plan is tried, the usual result is gaining the offending brother; but when Christ's plan is thwarted, when public condemnations have been sounded abroad, it is then often too late to redeem the offending brother. His pride, feelings, and reputation, already compromised, make it exceedingly more difficult to effect an humble admission of his wrong and a penitent return to the truth.
Yes, these words were spoken before Pentecost, but they are nevertheless binding upon the church and Christians of all ages. They were uttered specifically for the purpose of outlining procedures for discipline in "the church," as attested by the use of such terminology by the Saviour. See the following verse.
The mention of "the church," or "the congregation" as it is in the Greek, shows that this rule was propounded by Christ for observance on the part of his followers in all ages. And how is the rule usually observed? By its gross and unfeeling violation! When one feels wronged by another in the church, the temptation is for him to seek out some personal friend or confidant, and to elaborate the real or fancied wrong by embellishing it with every possible coloring and emphasis, thus spreading hate against the offending party. Telling the elders, the deacons, or the preacher, or anyone else, of the evil detected in another is wrong (until after the first admonition); and even after the first admonition, the greatest number to be acquainted with it is two others (see 18:16).
Go to the offender first!
That is God's commandment! Those who depart from it, preferring some other way, do so at their eternal peril.
All of the apostles, not merely Peter alone, were included in this promise. See under Matthew 16:19. Its mention in this context appears to make the action of a church in the rejection of an offending member a matter of the utmost consequences, now and eternally. See under Matt. 16:19.
The greater efficacy of multiple prayers is indicated here. It cannot be understood how prayers of two persons may be more efficacious with God than the prayers of only one, but the fact is affirmed by Christ. Note that Jesus invariably said, "MY Father," whereas he always taught his disciples to pray, "OUR Father"! The uniqueness of Christ is seen in this observance. With himself, Christ's unique relationship to God was always in view.
This is one of God's most precious promises. Providential care on the part of God for his church is always available. The smallness of the church or its relative insignificance in the community is not a determining factor in God's concern for its peace and welfare. Two or three faithful disciples are enough to claim the Father's blessing. There is, however, one supremely overriding condition: that they be truly gathered together in the name of Christ. This means, by his commandment, by the authority of his will and teaching, in obedience to his specific commandments. and as his word directs. All gatherings are not covered, but only those where the full purpose is undertaken, as Jesus said, "in my name." It is, to be sure, a mystery how Christ can be present everywhere, and this mystery is set forth in Revelation 1:12,13, in which the Son of God is seen among the seven golden candlesticks (his churches, or congregations). Christ's presence is not restricted to some vague "up there," but he is in his body, the church.
This indicates that Peter had indeed made excellent progress but that he had not yet arrived at true spiritual discernment. His suggestion of forgiving seven times went considerably beyond the maxims of the rabbis who admonished forgiveness three times but not four times, basing their position upon the word of God to Amos, "For three transgressions of Damascus and for four, I will not revoke the punishment" (Amos 1:4). Even Peter's relatively magnanimous forgiveness until seven times, however, fell far short of Jesus' requirement of unlimited forgiveness (see on 6:14,15).
Christ did not mean that Christians should keep a ledger, exactly calculating a precise number such as 490, or using a variant reading, 70 times and 7. This simply means that a Christian must have the spiritual resources to keep on forgiving. Forgiveness of others was made a constant pre-condition of man's forgiveness by the Father, not only in these words of Jesus here, but upon other occasions as well. The business of forgiveness is so important that Christ immediately introduced one of his longest parables in order to reinforce the teaching and repeat the absolute necessity of forgiveness at the conclusion of it.
THE PARABLE OF THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT
There are a number of remarkable analogies in this heart-moving parable. The conduct of the unmerciful servant is so wicked as to be almost incredible.
ANALOGIES IN THE PARABLE OF THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT
(It will be noted that this is the first of the parables in which God is represented under the analogy of a king).
1. God is represented by the king in this parable.
2. All men are servants of the king.
3. The servant with the enormous debt stands for every unredeemed sinner on earth whose debt is so large that it is impossible for him to pay it.
4. The king's forgiveness, without any merit on the part of the unmerciful servant, indicates God's grace.
5. The unfeeling conduct of the unmerciful servant shows how God looks upon the refusal of his children to forgive others.
6. The king's forgiveness "because thou soughtest me" shows that sinners need only to apply (in the proper way) in order to be forgiven. They need not "pay" anything.
7. The ultimate punishment of the unmerciful servant shows that all forgiveness is contingent upon the continuing faithfulness of the redeemed. Jesus certainly taught in this that one may fall from grace.
8. Those who have received mercy must give mercy, or else have the mercy they have already received revoked.
The size of the debt is significant. The English Revised Version (1885) margin shows a talent worth about $1,000; but even that enormous sum falls short of the truth. If, as seems likely, the Hebrew gold talent is meant, the figure becomes truly astronomical. Eight thousand talents was the construction cost of Solomon's temple! (1 Chronicles 29:4-7). Barker appraises this debt thus:
To give some idea of what a colossal debt this was, the total tax income of the five provinces of Palestine (Judaea, Peraea, Idumaea, Samaria, and Galilee) was only eight hundred talents. In other words, the servant's debt was over ten times the amount of the national budget. F8
The sale of the wife and children, as a proposed partial payment, rested upon the general assumption that they were his property. The utter lack of anything with which to pay shows, as Trench said, "the utter bankruptcy of every child of Adam as he stands in the presence of a just God, and is tried by the strictness of the holy law." F9 Paul's comment relative to being "carnal, sold under sin, etc.," emphasizes the same thing (Romans 7:14).
There is a nice distinction in comparing Matt. 18:26 and Matt. 18:29. The unmerciful servant "worshipped" his lord (who stands for God in the parable), whereas his fellow-servant only "fell down and besought" his creditor. Origen hailed this parable as a real jewel, pointing out that the Scriptures are very strict in indication, always, that worship belongs only to God. The King in this place stands for God; the unmerciful servant did not; hence, his debtor does not appear worshipping him.
The fault of the unmerciful servant was his failure to realize the enormity and absolute hopelessness of his debt. His earnest promise to repay it showed that he did not have the slightest conception of how much he owed. He appeared to be blind to the fact that one hundred lifetimes would not allow him sufficient space to repay it. This blindness later ruined him. A note of self-righteousness appears in his entreaty that if only a little time should be allowed he would repay it all! So many sinners fall into the same fault; their case, so they think, is not really so bad after all; they can make amends; their debt is nothing they cannot handle if allowed a little freedom; they can get along all right if merely let alone! Oh, how utterly beyond self-redemption is the plight of sinful man. Let all unsaved persons behold in this parable the plight of every sinner. And let the saved take care to forgive others if they would not incur the whole debt again!
The unmerciful servant's pitiful plea for mercy and his acknowledgement of that monstrous debt were all that was required to obtain mercy. What an encouragement to sinful man! It is not repayment which God demands, seeing that it is impossible in the first place, but the true and righteous beholding one's self in the true light of his own worthless and bankrupt condition, that makes one an eligible claimant upon the divine mercy. The Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory finds no support here. The forgiveness the king extended to the unmerciful sinner was total, complete, and uncluttered with any penalties whatsoever. It would also have been permanent if the servant's conduct had not led to its revocation. That he later fell into condemnation was not due to any quality lacking in the full and free pardon that he received, but was due to his later conduct.
The size of the smaller debt is also significant. It was one hundred shillings, about $20, compared to $10,000,000. Christ said that "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you" (Matthew 7:2). The unmerciful servant, however, would have had it otherwise. He would receive by one measure and measure to others by a different measure. So he thought.
The spectacle of his fellow-servant falling down before him in supplication for mercy was a very similar thing to what he himself had done only a little while before. How strange it is that he felt no mercy, no little touch of pity, no forgiveness for one whose plight must surely have reminded him of his own. He could have alleviated the distress of his fellow-servant with such trifling cost to himself that one can only wonder at a heart so calloused. And yet, this outrageous occurrence is made by Jesus to stand as the true picture of all his followers who will not forgive others.
Even the worst of offenses committed by men against Christians are as nothing compared to the offenses all have committed against God. The tragedy of this heartless act was further compounded and multiplied by the fact that, failing to recognize the port in which he himself had so lately escaped shipwreck, he nevertheless dragged the unfortunate off to prison, thus unconsciously condemning himself and revoking his own pardon.
The sorrow of the lesser debtor and the sorrow of all the fellow servants at what was done shows that it is not merely in heaven that sorrow flows from a knowledge of man's sin, but on earth too. When recipients of God's mercy become themselves bitter, vindictive, and unforgiving, all who behold it, in heaven or upon earth, are shamed and grieved by it. A Christian simply does not have the right, in any case, to withhold forgiveness from others.
The rearraignment of the unmerciful servant saw him confronted with the king's sharp question, "Shouldest not thou also have had mercy on thy fellow-servant, even as I had mercy on thee?" His sin was not that, while NEEDING mercy, he refused it to another; but that while having OBTAINED mercy, he denied it to another. Those who have been forgiven must forgive.
The great problem in the parable is in the fact that after the unmerciful servant was forgiven, he yet landed in the hands of the tormentors until he should pay it all. The wise words of Richard Trench give the true explanation:
Nor may we leave out of sight that all forgiveness, short of that crowning and last act, which will find place on the day of judgment, and will be followed by a blessed impossibility of sinning any more, is conditional - in the very nature of things so conditional, that the condition in every case must be assumed, whether stated or no; that condition being that the forgiven man continues in faith and obedience ... which this unmerciful servant had failed to do. F10
Note a little further with reference to the doctrine of purgatory. Roman commentators make much of the fact that the unmerciful servant was delivered to the tormentors TILL he should have paid all the debt. How strange it is to see the same commentators who so diligently labored to show that this same word had an opposite meaning in the case of Joseph not knowing Mary "till" she had brought forth her first born son, etc. (Matthew 1:25), laboring just as diligently to deny the same meaning here; As a matter of fact, the word "till" does have two meanings, and only the context may finally determine which is intended. In the case above, the debt is hopeless, and the expression "till he should pay all" does not envision any time, however remote, at which one should be able to work out a debt so large as this, even in purgatory! Again to quote Trench:
When the Phocaeans, abandoning their city, swore they would not return till the mass of iron which they had plunged into the sea appeared once more upon the surface, this was the most emphatic form they could devise of declaring that they would never return; such an emphatic declaration is this one. F11
The sine qua non, without which no man can be saved, is a forgiving heart. The above teachings of the Master on forgiveness are the most pointedly illustrated, the most elaborately portrayed and the most urgently repeated of any of his teachings. Even if one has been forgiven (as was the unmerciful servant), even if someone does wrong him (as was done to the unmerciful servant by the one who owed him a hundred shillings) - no matter what the temptation to do otherwise, the law of the Lord is: FORGIVE, UNTIL SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN TIMES!
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.