Matthew 18 is sort of the flip side to the much loved Luke chapter 15. In that chapter Jesus speaks to those who are becoming his critics because of his willingness to receive sinners, and he lets them know that a shepherd who finds a lost sheep rejoices over it; a woman who finds a valuable piece of money which has been misplaced rejoices over it; a father who receives his lost son home from the far country rejoices and celebrates; and that chapter leaves us wondering whether an older brother will be willing to forgive and to share in his father's joy.
In this chapter, rather than speaking to his critics, Jesus is speaking to his own disciples. And in this chapter he says, instead of focusing on the joy, there is a huge value to even any single little one of us and because of that, the Father has been seeking for these little ones and that we ought to share in that search and to be willing to forgive even as he forgives.
The key phrase in chapter 18 is "one of these little ones." You might look down through the chapter and notice that phrase with me. In verse 5 he mentions "one such child" as that little one that he had sat in his presence. In verse 6 he mentions "one of these little ones who believe in me." In verse 10 he mentions again "one of these little ones" and says that they are not to be despised. And in verse 12 he mentions "one of them" again and then in verse 14 he uses the phrase another time. You might notice the statement in verse 14. The Lord says, "So it is not the will of my father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish."
That phrase, "one of these little ones," I think, is appropriate to what we are doing here at North National today. It kind of brings together two things that are on our minds right now. One is that this is the day when we have chosen to participate in a shower for our work at Fair Haven as a way for us to be involved personally and in a tangible way in helping to provide for the needs of households there. You will see a lot of evidence of that already on the tables in the foyer. Remember that if you have been planning to have a part in it, we will continue through this evening, and if you would like to help, please don't forget to do so.
This is also a day when we are looking forward to what will take place beginning next Lord's day and continuing through the following Wednesday. We are going to be involved in a special gospel series, a special "good news" series. Ron Stough will be our speaker for those few days, and it will be a time to give us a chance to be reminded of what we are here for, give us an opportunity to invite our friends and neighbors to hear the good news of what's been given to us in Christ, a time for us to encourage each other and perhaps even to renew our own zeal in our individual lives.
For those things to happen, what Jesus said about "one of these little ones" in Matthew 18 has to begin to become our spirit in our lives. I want to ask you to notice the principles in Matthew 18 that help us to see the value of even one of these little ones.
The first thing that Jesus calls attention to here is the humble dependence on God which is appropriate for the citizens of his kingdom. Mark indicates in his record of events surrounding these discussions in Mark, chapter 9, that apparently some of these disciples had been engaged in a little bit of strife or contention. They had been arguing to some degree over which one of them was greatest. They had fallen victim to the human tendency in which we share - to begin to be concerned with how I am going to look, what I am going to get out of this, what folks are going to think of me, what position I am going to be in. And that, of course, begins to make us a little jealous over how somebody else looks and what position someone else is in, and that, after a while, causes us to defend our own turf, and we begin to experience a little sadness and difficulty in our lives.
Jesus, though, took a little child and sat that little child in the midst of all of them. It is like a parable of Jesus, only this parable is not spoken. It is demonstrated, and it is demonstrated in the form of that little boy or girl that was sat in the midst of them that day. And Jesus said to them that unless they changed and became like little children, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. What needed to change, of course, was their way of thinking and their attitude and their approach to life. I know that we get involved in discussing all the different qualities of a little child that the Lord might have meant when he sat that little boy or girl in the presence of the rest of them, but if you will notice Jesus specifies in verse 4 what he is talking about. The quality of the little child that he had in mind was that little child's humble dependence on his father or his mother. "Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven," the Lord said. The pinnacle of spirituality and of growth and development in the Lord's kingdom, the one who is really to be admired and looked up to and respected, is the one who expresses the same humble dependence in the heavenly Father that a little child would show toward his own parents. Rather than being involved in how I am going to look and what folks are going to think of me and what position I'll have, Jesus is saying to me that if you are going to be like one of these little ones, you need to humble yourself before the Lord, depend on him like a little child would and be faithful to him in that way.
That type of humble dependence on God is crucial in our seeking for those that the Lord would like to receive home and rejoice over. Humble dependence on God is crucial in creating an environment and an atmosphere where people are avoiding perishing and where they are coming home to the Lord so that they can be rejoiced over. Often where we need to start in our work is not with an idea for a program or not with some project but instead with humble dependence on our heavenly Father.
A second quality that Jesus brings up in this text is a good stewardship of our influence on other people. Notice that in verse 6, Jesus said, "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." It sounds serious, doesn't it? The Lord meant for it to sound serious. What he is talking about here is involving ourselves in attitudes or actions that trip up other people and cause them to stumble and fall. This translation of whoever causes someone to be "tempted to sin" in verse 7, I think, is a little bit of an unfortunate translation. The idea that is brought up in verse 6 in causing one of them to sin really means to place a stumbling block in someone's way. Placing a stumbling block may involve attitudes and actions which are not sinful and are not even temptations to sin in and of themselves. And yet it may be because of poor stewardship of our influence and lack of concern for other people, we create obstacles to them in their walk through life and in their relationship to the Lord. That is what Jesus is talking about here. It may be in our behavior; it may be in things that we engage in in personal rights or privileges; it may be in attitudes that we show; it may even be in a lack of interest that we display in things that are really important.
Jesus says that any one of us who would cause one of these little ones who believe in him to sin (and now by this place he is not just talking about little children - he is talking about his disciples), it would be better to have a great millstone fastened around a neck and be cast in the depths of the sea. Some people have taken this and said "there is no hope for me, I might as well give up." That is not what Jesus is saying. He is saying, though, that influence is not to be taken lightly, that you and I have it within our ability to influence what other people think of the God whom we worship and the Lord whom we serve and that you and I have it within our power to influence someone in a positive direction or to influence somebody in a dangerous direction. Jesus said that influencing someone in a dangerous direction, causing someone to stumble, placing an obstacle between someone and his goal of heaven, is a serious matter. The idea of the millstone that he talks about here is a stone large enough that it would take a donkey to turn it, and obviously having that type of a millstone tied around your neck and being cast into the sea would indicate that it would be better to just be drowned than it would to be responsible for causing someone to be lost. Verses 7 and following indicate, in fact, that it would be better for us to give up even any part of our bodies than it would for us to be the source of stumbling or the occasion of someone to fall.
This teaching is difficult for us to accept in a society where we have become convinced that our own rights are our own rights no matter what. And yet, our influence and our stewardship over that influence is a matter of huge significance, obviously. All of us would want to stop and examine how we are affecting other people. In Paul's letters to the churches in the New Testament, he uses this thought to develop the idea of our managing our personal rights and liberties. In I Cor. 8, verses 9-13, he makes the point that I am not for the sake of something that I might eat or drink, "to cause a brother for whom Christ died, to perish." In I Cor. 14, as he talks about what goes on when the whole church is assembled together, he develops the idea that we ought to be concerned about what kind of a picture we are leaving of our God in the minds of some guests or visitors who might be present. In both cases, he uses our stewardship of our influence as a great factor in deciding what would be right and wrong and in motivating us along the way. There is first here a sense of humble dependence on God and second a concern for our stewardship of our influence in other people's lives.
The third thing that causes there to be an atmosphere where even one of these little ones is valued is a respect for the work of redemption. Notice in verses 10 and following there are a couple of pictures that illustrate this point. Beginning at verse 12, Jesus tells the parable and introduces the question to get us started thinking, "What do you think?" And then he says, "If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety and nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?" The answer to that is obvious to anyone who has ever taken care of animals and valued one. If you have two dogs and you go home this afternoon and one of them is missing, you will go searching. My grandpa used to keep twenty or twenty-five old cows. I can remember even when he let them run on the hillsides with no fences anywhere. It would come time for milking in the afternoon and he would count them all. If one did not come up, then we started milking while he went hunting for the other old cow. Jesus is saying in this passage that your human practices with regard to animals that you take care of are even more strongly important with God when it comes to human beings.
This parable so obviously reflects the mission of Jesus that it is impossible for us to miss. Jesus is the one God sent into the mountains and the hills in search of the one that went astray. Jesus is the one, in taking upon himself humanity and living in the flesh among us and experiencing all the temptations that we face, who has made the journey, endured the difficulties, and paid the price to find that one and then to make it possible for rejoicing because "it is not the will of his Father," he said, "that one of these little ones should perish."
Verse 10 illustrates it in another very interesting way. God's concern over even one of these little ones is such that Jesus said here, "In heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven." There is a lot of discussion that goes on over that verse and exactly what it means. Is this talking about guardian angels? There is so much emphasis and enthusiasm about the mention of angels that we forget what it was talking about. No matter what it is that the angels do, what Jesus is saying is that they care for even one of these little ones. They are before God's face angels. They are in his presence and they are there because that is the kind of interest the Father has in even one of these little ones. It is easy for us to grow more impressed with the angels than we are with the Father who uses them as ministering spirits to care for his little ones.
The Father's concern for his little ones is such that he sent his son over the mountains and over the difficulties of life to search for them, and his concern for his little ones is such that he uses his angels to pay attention, to watch over them, to be interested in them. Our task and our mission in this world is for us to translate that interest of our heavenly Father into our action in reality. I get interested in things like a special series of gospel lessons like we are going to do partly for this reason. I am not so much interested in seeing the numbers and how many people turn out but I do get very interested in the attitudes that I see among us. It amazes me at times how difficult it is to get those of us who want to claim he is our heavenly Father to share an interest in just one of these little ones. Sometimes the difficulty is such that it causes us to wonder what we are about and whether that interest can be stirred. I hope you will think it over and I hope you will join me in trying to consider my heart and whether my heart is where my Father's heart is. A respect for redemption creates an atmosphere where the little ones are cared for.
And then, in the next place, I want you to notice verse 15 and following but I will just focus on verse 15 for the point of our study today. "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother." It doesn't mention the phrase "one of these little ones" here. It uses the term "brother," but the idea is the same. The atmosphere that we are talking about where God's will gets done is where we are willing to take the initiative in seeking for a brother to be gained.
The circumstance envisioned here is a time when there has been some sort of a wrong done. One member feels that another brother in the body of Christ has sinned against him. What should happen in a case like that? It is a very human situation; it happens. So what should we do? Notice that Jesus turns our human way upside down. Our way is to withdraw, to kind of pout, to wait until that other person comes to us. The other person has a responsibility. Jesus dealt with that in Matthew 5. But notice very clearly that in this text what the Lord says is "that the one who has been offended," the one who has been sinned against, is the one who takes the initiative. It is almost as if Jesus is saying, "If you feel like you have been hurt, you ask yourself whether it is big enough to go to your brother or sister about, or you drop it and say that's life and it was no big deal." If it was big enough to be concerned about, then you take the initiative, Jesus says, not in a letter, not in a phone call, not in a visit with the elders, not in talking with somebody else about how you felt over it, but in a visit with that person. Make the visit with that person, Jesus said, occur at a time and in a manner which is consistent with the object of that visit, which is to gain your brother. It is not a visit to obtain personal satisfaction. It is not a visit to take vengeance. It is a visit to gain your brother. So, go to him privately, go to him kindly, go to him in the spirit of the shepherd seeking his sheep and you settle your personal difficulties in that manner, he says.
Now, the Lord said some things in this passage that have to do with what happens if that person doesn't listen to you then. The Lord was specific about it. He offered four steps here in these matters of personal offense. The one application that I am trying to make today is simply taking the initiative, the personal initiative, where those things exist.
Then that leads to the fifth quality that sets the tone in the life of a congregation where there is concern over one of these little ones. The fifth quality is, of course, a willingness to forgive. The parable at the end of Matthew 18 is the best known part of this passage. It is the passage where one fellow who owes such an overwhelming debt that he is clearly never going to be able to pay it off. He falls down before his master, the king to whom he owes the money, and he just begs "You let me out and I'll pay it all." Well, he never could have done that in a thousand years. The master was moved with pity and compassion for him and just freely forgave him. The guy went out and found somebody who owed him just a little bit, 1/600,000 of what he owed the other fellow. The other fellow fell down before him and asked for time - just give me a little mercy and I'll pay you off. McGarvey makes the observation that the fellow took hold of him like he was going to squeeze that change out of him, then he shook him like he was a piggy bank and he was going to shake it out of him. Then when he gained no satisfaction, he had him thrown in prison over it until he should pay it all. Everybody who saw what happened was so indignant over that fellow's behavior that they went and told the king what had happened. The king, of course, was angry and had the fellow thrown into the tormentors until he should pay the debt, and Jesus said, "So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."
Where is it where even "one of these little ones" is valued and helped toward heaven? It is where there is a humble dependence on God, a deep concern of our stewardship of influence, a respect for redemption and what goes into it, initiative taken where there has been personal offense, and a willingness to forgive.
A few years ago a camp session ended and they gave me a little reading that I appreciated and valued and it fits with what we have said about one of these little ones. "An older gentleman was walking along the seashore one day in the hot sun. As he walked, he was sweating profusely and seemed to be in a hurry and every few steps he wold bend over and pick up a starfish from the hot burning sand along the shore and throw it back out into the cold waves of the ocean. And then one after another and then one after another and then the next one. He would pick up the starfish and he would cast them into the water. Some of them, of course, would just wash right back up on the shore as the waves washed them back. After a while the most of them would go out into the deeper waters anyway. But he kept it up. A young fellow watched him for awhile and then couldn't stand it any longer and came up to him and said to the old man, "You are wasting your time. There are thousands of starfish on the sand. What difference can you possibly make? The old fellow," the story goes, "ignored the younger fellow and bent over and picked another one up and threw it into the water and moved on to the next one. And the old man turned to the boy and said to him, 'Well, it sure made a difference to that one, didn't it?'" Just one of these little ones. Let's not get so concerned about saving the whole world that we can't see one little one next to us.
How close is my heart to my Father's in this passage? It is not his will that even one of these little ones should perish. His concern for me and for you has been displayed in his desire for us to be saved. He is patient with us giving us the opportunity to repent and come to him. If you this morning believe that Jesus is God's son and if you are willing to confess that before others and if you are ready to be baptized into him for forgiveness of your sins, may we encourage you to do it? If you are somebody that made that beginning and you drifted away, won't you come home? If you are one of God's children, won't you show it in your concern for one of these little ones? If we can help you today, won't you come while we stand and sing?