Receiving & Keeping the Little Ones
Passage: Matthew 18:1–14
I’ve mentioned this before. Matthew’s Gospel is known to revolve around five blocks of extended teaching where Jesus explains the kingdom of heaven. Block one was the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus explains the fulfillment of the kingdom. All that was anticipated by the Law and the Prophets comes to fruition in Jesus and the people shaped by his reign.
Block two was chapter 10—expect opposition for preaching the kingdom. Not everyone will welcome Jesus’ reign. Many will oppose it by persecuting his messengers. Nevertheless, do not fear. Jesus is greater. Then there were the parables in chapter 13—those parables helped us understand the nature of the kingdom. Instead of immediate political takeover, the kingdom advances more like the slow growth of a mustard seed, or the way leaven works through flour. From the outside, it seems shot through with evil and that our efforts get thwarted. But in the end, Jesus’ kingdom will prevail.
Today, we start chapter 18, which is block four: Jesus explains the communal life of those within his kingdom. Many of you won’t be surprised by that. We often appeal to Matthew 18 in discussions about the church, especially our mutual concern for one another in the process of corrective discipline. We’ll look at that more closely next time. Today is the backdrop for that mutual concern. The first part of Matthew 18 clarifies why we would take responsibility for each other at all.
But more than that, Matthew 18 paints a beautiful portrait of the communal life marked by Jesus’ reign. If you asked, “What characterizes the community belonging to Jesus?” Jesus outlines several important aspects in Matthew 18—things like humility, a high regard of one another, a hatred for sin and its damaging effects, an embodiment of God’s special care for his own, the presence of Jesus guiding the church, forgiveness. We won’t cover all those today. But let’s read verses 1-14 and take a look at the first few…
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10 See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
Humble Yourselves Like Children
What characterizes the community belonging to Jesus’ kingdom? Or we could phrase it this way: what characterizes the church when we submit to Jesus’ rule? I ask it that way because Jesus already anticipates building his church. In 16:18, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” He’ll mention the church again in 18:17. There, it’s in the context of an identifiable assembly committed to one another beneath the authority of Jesus. That’s the community anticipated in Jesus’ teaching here. So, what characterizes that community? What should characterize us, the church?
In verses 1-14, at least four characteristics stand out. First, those who belong to Jesus’ kingdom humble themselves like children. Verse 1, “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” Does it surprise you that the disciples ask this when they did? Three times Jesus shows them how he must go to Jerusalem and die. Three times they hear him describe his own path of humility. Yet they’re still concerned with their own status in the kingdom. They haven’t yet got it, have they? Jesus points this out, too, with an enacted parable of sorts.
In verse 2, Jesus calls to him a child—same word used when Jesus called his disciples to himself earlier in the Gospel. Jesus puts the child in the midst of them and says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Did you notice where Jesus starts? The disciples want to know how they will rank in the kingdom. Jesus basically says, “With that attitude, let’s not start with the assumption that you’re in the kingdom.”
“Unless you turn,” he says, “and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” You, disciples, need to experience an inward change.[i] The NASB translates this, “unless you are converted.” The disciples need a new moral outlook on what Jesus’ kingdom is about. It’s not about who ranks the highest. He then illustrates that with a child. It’s clear from Mark’s Gospel that the child is small enough for Jesus to pick him up and set him in his lap.
Now, let’s be careful; it’s possible to read all sorts of things into Jesus’ use of this child. “It must be the child’s innocence,” some will say. Or “It must be the boy’s “helplessness,” others will say. But I think the context provides a few clues that point us in a better direction. One is to note how the disciples are concerned with rank: “Who is the greatest?” Everywhere this question appears in the Gospels, Jesus responds with a point about choosing the lower position. Mark 9:35, also using a child to illustrate; Jesus says, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Little children didn’t have power or rank in society. That seems to be what Jesus is hinting at: lowliness.
Another clue is the verb Jesus uses in verse 4: “whoever humbles himself like this child.” The point isn’t that children are inherently humble in attitude, but that putting oneself in a position like this child takes humility. It’s the same verb that appears in Philippians 2:8, “being found in human form, [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.” He didn’t cling to his status. He chose the lower position.
The phrase “little ones” in verse 6 also seems to indicate those who, for Jesus’ sake, take a position that looks weak and insignificant to the world.
Maybe the broadest clue comes from Jesus’ own sonship throughout Matthew’s Gospel. Repeatedly, Jesus willingly takes the lower position in submission to his Father’s will. In the end, then, I think the focus is the child’s lowly position. He’s not on top. He’s one in submission to others. Trustful reliance may also be part of the picture. That’s what the “little ones” do in verse 6—they believe, or trust, in Jesus. But wherever that trustful reliance is present, it will produce a willingness in Jesus’ disciple to choose the lower place in submission to the Father’s will. Maybe we should call it a trustful obedience that, for Jesus’ sake, chooses the path of lowliness.
Doesn’t this fit the pattern we find elsewhere in Scripture? Like in Psalm 8:2 when God silences mighty enemies by establishing praise in the mouth of little children. Or 1 Corinthians 1:27—God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. Jesus’ disciples must be willing to walk that path of humility.
What about you? Do you find yourself concerned with status? Are you disappointed when others don’t recognize your gifts, or when they don’t put you forward, or assign you that title? At your job, is there ever a sense of entitlement like, “I deserve this more than he does!” Such attitudes run contrary to the humility Jesus calls us to in his kingdom. We must turn from those ways. Entering the kingdom requires humility.
Then, once you’re in the kingdom, that doesn’t go away. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Continuing in the kingdom requires humility as well. This is subversive to the world’s way of thinking. The world says, “Shoot for the stars!” “Be anything you want!” The world yearns for popularity. It values fame, power, wealth, status. The culture says, “Assert yourself! Rise up! Take control by any means necessary.” But Jesus measures greatness by those who choose the path of humility. It’s in this path that we show the world what he did for us.
Jesus is rich, but he became poor for our sake. Jesus is God, but he took the form of a servant. Jesus is first, but he became last of all. Jesus triumphs not by taking up arms but by taking up the humiliation of a cross. For those in the kingdom, there’s no other way. Kingdom people must reflect the humility of the King. Lowliness is the way. Trustful obedience in submission to our Father’s will, is the way. For the church to abandon humility is for the church to abandon Jesus. Pride is not welcomed in Jesus’ kingdom; God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Pray for the Lord to make us humble, to make us like children before him.
Receive Each Other as You Would Jesus
Second, those who belong to Jesus’ kingdom receive each other as they would Jesus. Verse 5, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” “One such child” is the same as “the one who humbled himself like this child” in verse 4. We’re not dealing with literal children, in other words. But disciples who’ve become like children. That may include some who are actual children, but the point is disciples. We also know this from the “little ones” of verse 6. They are “little ones who believe in me.”
Receiving disciples of Jesus is in view. Jesus made a similar point in 10:40 and 42. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me…And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” Notice, they receive them not because of who they are in themselves, but for the expressed purpose of who they represent: they are disciples of Jesus. Same in 18:5—their reception occurs in Jesus’ name. The reception occurs because the disciple “represents Jesus.”[ii]
Isn’t that an amazing honor. He just said that his disciples must humble themselves; they must choose the path of lowliness. But when they do, they become his emissaries. To receive them is to receive Jesus. What an incredible honor!
This fits what the New Testament develops elsewhere. Like when Jesus will later commend people for feeding him when he was hungry, giving him drink when he was thirsty, clothing him when he was naked. The righteous then ask, “When did we do these things?” Jesus says, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). Or when Paul is persecuting Christians. Jesus comes to him and says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
Being a Christian means you are so united to Jesus, that to persecute you is to persecute Jesus. Or, to receive you is to receive Jesus. That union with Jesus shapes how we should regard each other. In Jesus’ kingdom, one class can’t despise the other. The rich can’t despise the poor and vice versa. The older can’t spurn the younger or vice versa. No race can look down on the other. The strong can’t treat the weak like they’re unimportant. Because we share the same allegiance to Jesus’ name, we welcome one another as we would welcome him. We hold each other with the same regard that he holds us. Is that how you regard the members of this church?
Jesus’ kingdom is not yet fully on earth as it is in heaven. But each disciple who is like an ambassador of heaven. How would you treat an ambassador from another country? How would you expect someone to treat an ambassador from your own country? There are protocols for this, you know? The United States has an official 37-page document detailing introductions—it’s Mr. or Madam Ambassador—how to welcome, expectations for phone calls, culturally appropriate gifts, entertaining them, and on and on. We honor ambassadors of earthly rulers.
How much more those who represent the King of Kings. How much more those who’ve been entrusted with a message from heaven. Now, that illustration wasn’t meant to say we pamper one another. But only to point out a reality that every little one in Jesus’ kingdom is to be treated with special regard because of who they represent. No matter how young you think they are. No matter how feeble their faith. No matter their excesses or background. No matter their role in the church. We receive one another as we would Jesus—that includes how we think about them, talk about them, serve them.
Share a Hatred for Sin and Its Damaging Effects
In that light, Jesus also brings up something else that should characterize his people. Those who belong to Jesus’ kingdom share a hatred for sin and its damaging effects. Look at verses 6-7: “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!”
There’s a word that appears repeatedly here and links verses 6-9. It’s harder to discern in the ESV. But it’s more apparent in the NASB when it says, “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble,” or “Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks!” The ESV has “causes to sin” or “temptations to sin.” But the picture is a stumbling block, something in the path that causes their downfall.
The same word appeared in 5:29, “if your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away.” That’s better than being thrown into hell. We find it again in 13:21, the seed sown on rocky soil. He hears the word, receives it with joy. He endures for a while. But then “tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word,” and “immediately he falls away [or stumbles away].” That’s not a Christian losing reward; that’s a person who once claimed to follow Jesus and no longer does.
Paul uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 8:13, in a context where some of the Christians were eating food sacrificed to idols and doing it in a way that was destroying the faith of the weaker Christians. Paul says, “by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” The stumbling in view is a stumbling unto destruction.
In other words, whether it’s stumbling to fall away or a stumbling block that destroys someone’s faith, weighty, eternal things are at stake in our lives together. When Jesus says, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble,” he wants us to recognize that sin is no joke. Your sin can have very damaging effects on others. Stumbling blocks of all kinds will come in a fallen, broken world. That’s to be expected. But don’t be the cause of them. You’re better off dead. Meaning, you deserve a punishment worse than death.
We need to feel that kind of gravity when it comes to sin. You need to sense the weight of Jesus’ warning. He’s warning disciples about their treatment of other disciples; and true disciples will heed the warning. There are ways that your sin can damage the faith of others in the community; and you need to take that seriously. That’s why our Church Covenant encourages us “to seek God’s help in abstaining from practices that bring unwarranted harm to the body or jeopardize our own or another’s faith.”
Instead of putting stumbling blocks before others, we must be vigilant to rid ourselves of them altogether. That’s why Jesus continues with verse 8: “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin/stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin/stumble, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher when it comes to putting away our sin. There’s no way you can hear Jesus’ words and walk away with slight thoughts about your sin.
Now, there have been people in church history who’ve taken Jesus literally and mutilated their bodies—only to find out that hand or that eye wasn’t the real source of the problem. Jesus’ point lies elsewhere. The point is that we must take radical measures to deal with sin. The Old Testament often used the hand or the foot or the eye to describe the state of our soul. The “works of our hands” often referred to the idols we create and depend on. The feet could turn to the right or to the left instead of staying on the path of God’s law. The eye shaped someone’s thought-life. “The eye is the lamp of the body,” Jesus said, “So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.”
So, when Jesus says to cut off a hand or foot, to gouge out an eye, he’s calling us to vigilant moral self-denial—renounce those things in your life that would cause you or someone else to stumble.
John Stott puts it this way: “[Jesus’ point is not] mutilation but mortification…[which] means to reject sinful practices so resolutely that we die to them or put them to death…If your eye causes you to sin because temptation comes to you through your eyes (objects you see), then pluck out your eyes. That is, don’t look! Behave as if you had actually plucked out your eyes and flung them away, and were now blind and so could not see the objects which previously caused you to sin. Again, if your hand or foot causes you to sin because temptation comes to you through your hands (things you do) or your feet (places you visit), then cut them off. That is, don’t do it! Don’t go! Behave as if you had actually cut off your hands and feet, and had flung them away, and were now crippled and so could not do the things or visit the places which previously caused you to sin.”[iii]
Emulate God’s Care for His Own
A fourth characteristic of the community in Jesus’ kingdom, and it’ll be the last we consider today: we emulate God’s care for his own. We find this in verses 10-14. Verse 10 says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. Again, who are the “little ones”? According to verse 6, those who believe in Jesus. We must not despise any of Jesus’ disciples. Why? He goes on, “For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”
“Their angels”—some might understand that to show how each disciple of Jesus has a guardian angel. But that wouldn’t be saying enough, really. Hebrews 1:14 says about the angels, “are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” Meaning, there’s not just one per person. Jesus has many who represent his disciples. What’s stunning is that it’s for the “little ones.” The ones who seem little before others receive the greatest attention by God. They’re represented before the face of God—that’s how important they are.
Then verse 12 adds to the picture: “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
The shepherd searching for the sheep that wandered away is meant to portray what God the Father is like. He searches for us when we go astray. It’s not that he doesn’t know where we’ve gone—any more than he didn’t know where our first parents were hiding when he said, “Adam, where are you?” He knows. But using these actions of a shepherd he condescends to help us understand his relationship to us. He’s not aloof and disinterested. Our Father desires to have us. He’s concerned for us. He wants to keep us. He draws near to take us back to where we belong.
Soon we will come to instructions about confronting a fellow disciple when they sin. If they refuse to listen, taking a few others. If they refuse to listen still, bringing matters before the church. But all that follows the picture of God the Father we find here. He doesn’t want any of his little ones to perish. Our efforts to correct are the outworking of the concern God himself has for us. We pursue each other’s well-being in the church because this is the way our God pursues us. He is a good Shepherd who searches for the one that went astray and rejoices when he finds you.
So many times, we encounter this imagery in the Old Testament. Ezekiel 34:11, 16, “I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” Isaiah 40:11, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” Zechariah 9:16, “On that day the LORD their God will save them, as the flock of his people; for like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land.”
Of course, the true embodiment of this shepherd-like care for us is seen in Jesus, God incarnate. John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” If there was ever a moment when God demonstrated his desire that none of his little ones perish, it was at the cross of Jesus Christ where he took away our sins. This is how great a concern he has for each member of this church.
This is how great a concern the Lord has for each of you. Look around the room and “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” Crucial to the health of our church is valuing one another as the Father values us. A couple weeks ago, I met for lunch with some pastors in the area. And one of them was asking how we deal with people who neglect to assemble with the church. In that moment, I was so encouraged as your pastor to say, “Our people don’t let that happen.” You recognize when people go missing. You care enough to pursue them and keep them in the fold. It reminds me of the care our Father has for each of us. Pray the Lord preserves such a spirit in our church. Pray that wherever we need further growth in this area, that God would help us.
[i] BDAG, s.v. strephw.
[ii] France, Matthew, 679.
[iii] Stott, Sermon on the Mount, 89.