I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned before, but Matthew’s gospel contains five blocks of teaching. So, Matthew gives us a section of narrative in which he describes what happened; and then that is followed by a block of teaching. And then there’s more narrative, followed by more teaching; and so on, through the gospel. The first block of teaching was the Sermon on the Mount from 5:1 to 7:29. The second block of teaching contained instructions to his disciples about their mission and that was from 10:5 to 11:1. The third block of teaching was 13:1 to 53 and contained various parables about the kingdom. And today’s passage is the beginning of the fourth block of teaching which runs from 18:1 to 19:1. And the teaching in this block is about how we should relate to one another.
Verses 1 to 4
It begins with the disciples who came to the Lord Jesus with a question. And this is the kind of question we ask which later embarrasses us. And later, when we’re wiser, and we’ve learnt a thing or two, we wonder how could we have ever thought such a thing, let alone say it out loud. The disciples came to the Lord Jesus to ask him who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
Mark, in his gospel, tells us that they were arguing among themselves over which one of them was the greatest. So, they weren’t asking which of all of God’s people is the greatest. Might it be Moses? Might it be Elijah? Might it be David? No, they were arguing about which of them was the greatest? Which disciple was the greatest? And we can imagine each one of the twelve making the case that it was he who was the greatest. And no doubt, years later, when they remembered what they had asked and what they had been discussing, they were embarrassed and ashamed, especially when they recalled the Lord’s response.
How did the Lord respond? He called a little child and had him stand among them as a kind of visual aid. You see, children in those days were unimportant. That’s not to say that parents didn’t love their children; but it is to say that children were lowly and unimportant and insignificant in society. Their parents loved them, but they didn’t contribute anything to society. They weren’t leaders. They weren’t business people. They weren’t farmers. They weren’t soldiers. And no one went to a child for advice. And, of course, a child was to be obedient to his or her parents. Instead of getting his own way, he was to do what his parents wanted. And so, while parents loved their children, children weren’t important or significant in society. They were lowly.
And the Lord chose a child to serve as a visual aid for his disciples, because he wanted to make clear to his disciples that unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. So, they were discussing who would be the greatest in the kingdom. And he responded by saying to them that you won’t even be in the kingdom, let alone be the greatest in the kingdom, unless you become like a little child.
And then he added in verse 4 that whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And so, that’s the quality which is necessary. That’s the quality which he wants to highlight. By discussing who was the greatest, they were displaying pride. They were exalting themselves. But what the Lord’s disciples need is humility. The members of his kingdom are to be known, not for being proud, but for being humble. We are to regard ourselves as unimportant and as insignificant and as lowly as a child. God’s people are to be little people. And the greatest person in the kingdom of heaven is the one who is humble.
And, of course, this kind of person is following the example of the Lord Jesus, because he’s the one who, having appeared on earth as one of us, humbled himself and became obedient to death — even to death on a cross. The proud person insists on his own way, whereas the humble person is obedient to his Heavenly Father.
So, how are we to relate to one another? We’re not to be proud, but we’re to be humble, like our Saviour. And that means we need the help of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us and to renew us in the likeness of our Saviour.
Verses 5 to 9
Let’s move on to verses 5 to 9 where the Lord talks about welcoming a little child. However, he’s not really talking about welcoming little children; he’s talking about welcoming believers. We know that because he’s just said that his people should become like little children; and in verse 6 he refers to ‘these little ones who believe in me’. The little ones who believe in him are believers. They are Christ’s little people, who are not proud, but humble.
And so, whoever welcomes one of his people ‘in his name’ or because of him welcomes him. So, here’s a believer. This person is not great in the sight of the world. This person is not important or influential or rich. But what does that matter? This person is a believer and therefore belongs to Christ. And so, though this person is nothing in the sight of the world, I will welcome him because he’s a believer who belongs to Christ. And by welcoming this believer, it’s as if I’m welcoming Christ himself. When this person approaches me, it’s as if Christ himself is approaching me. I’m to regard this person as if it’s the Lord Jesus in disguise. That’s how we’re to regard one another.
James, in his New Testament letter, warns us about welcoming the man who wears fine clothes and disregarding the man in shabby clothes. And he tells us that we’re not to show favouritism. And so, we’re to welcome rich and poor and the high and the mighty. The important thing is not who a person is, but to whom a person belongs. Does this person belong to Christ? Is this person a believer? Then we should welcome him or her.
And then the Lord warns us in verse 6 about causing one of his people to sin. The word translated ‘sin’ really means ‘to cause someone to stumble’. So, we’re being warned not to cause anyone to stumble. So, here’s a believer who is walking in the ways of the Lord, seeking to do God’s will and to follow the Lord Jesus. And along comes someone else; and this other person causes the believer to stumble. The believer is tripped up and falls into sin because of what this other person has done. Well, causing a believer to sin is so serious, that the Lord says it would be better for us to have a large millstone hung around our necks and to be drowned in the depths of the sea than to cause another believer to stumble into sin. That’s how serious this is.
And so, woe to the world because of the things in the world which cause people to sin. And there are plenty of things in the world which cause people to sin. But woe to the man through whom they come. Woe to the man or woman who causes another person to stumble and fall into sin.
And so, how are we to relate to one another? We’re to be careful that we do not do anything which might cause one another to stumble and fall into sin. We’re to watch what we say and what we do. We’re to put a guard on our mouths and we’re to restrain our hands to keep us from saying or doing anything which would cause another person, and especially a fellow believer, to sin.
Eric Alexander — who was a great Scottish preacher who died just last week — preached on this passage; and he said we can either be stumbling stones or stepping stones. We can either lead people away from Christ by the things we say and do; or we can lead people towards Christ by the things we say and do. And so, we’re to strive to be stepping stones and not stumbling stones.
In view of the seriousness of what the Lord says in verse 6 about how it would be better for us if we were drowned in the sea, I should reassure you that the Lord is always ready to forgive whoever confesses their sin before him and asks for forgiveness. What he says in verse 6 is to persuade us of the seriousness of causing another person to sin. It’s like a warning sign by the edge of a cliff which warns us of danger: Danger! Keep back! And in a similar way, the Lord is warning us not to sin in this way. But if any of us does sin in this way, we know from everything else we read in the Bible that God is willing to forgive his people who confess their sins and ask for his forgiveness.
And having warned us about how we’re to treat one another, the Lord goes on in verses 8 and 9 to say how we’re to treat ourselves. And as I said when I preached on Mark’s version of this passage, we’re to be ruthless with ourselves. Is your hand causing you to sin? Is your foot causing you to sin? Cut it off! Is your eye causing you to sin? Gouge it out!
The Lord, of course, is using hyperbole. He’s exaggerating for effect. He doesn’t mean we’re literally to cut off our hands and feet. He doesn’t mean we’re literally to gouge out our eyes. If that were the case, none of us would have hands or feet or eyes, because we all sin in many ways. And even if we had no hands or feet or eyes, we’d still sin, because our hearts are full of sinful thoughts and desires and inclinations and attitudes. But the Lord means we’re to be ruthless with ourselves and we’re to fight against sin in our lives and we’re to remove from our lives whatever causes us to sin.
There’s a woman in the church who lets the neighbour’s cats come into her house. So, when I visit her, these two cats are usually sleeping on her chairs in the living room. And sometimes we can treat sin like that. We let it come into our lives and we don’t do anything to stop it. But the Lord is teaching us that we’re to chase our sins away.
Verses 10 to 14
And in the final part of today’s passage, the Lord tells us not to look down on one of these little ones. And he’s probably still referring to believers. Christians are his litte ones, because we’re to be humble and lowly like little children. But we’re not to look down on one another. We’re not to despise one another and treat one another with contempt. And the Lord goes on to say that their angels in heaven always see the face of the Father in heaven. This verse is often used to teach the idea that we all have a guardian angel who is watching over us. However, it’s more likely that the Lord is simply saying that the angels watch over the whole church and they report to the Father on what is happening to his people on earth and how they’re being treated. And the point is: Don’t despise God’s people, because God the Father will know about it.
And what is God the Father like? He’s like a shepherd who cares so much for each of his sheep that he’ll do what is necessary to find the one who went astray. Instead of thinking it’s only one and I’ve got 99 left, the shepherd will look for the lost one until he finds it. And in the same way, God the Father is not willing that any of his people should be lost. So, don’t do anything or say anything which might cause one of God’s people to stumble or stray. Don’t do anything to make them fall into sin or to fall away from the Father.
And so, how are we to relate to one another? Instead of being proud and exalting ourselves over our fellow believers, we’re to be humble and lowly like a little child and like our Saviour. And we’re to be careful that we don’t cause anyone to stumble and fall into sin. And we’re to be careful that we don’t cause anyone to go astray from God. And so, we’re to watch ourselves and we’re to chase sin out of our lives. And that means we need to look to the Holy Spirit and depend on him to help us to become more and more like our Saviour.