The greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 18:1-10
In our passage for study Matthew draws together Jesus' sayings on humility and greatness, v1-4, and the seriousness of causing "little ones" to sin, v5-10.
v1-4. The tone of this passage is set immediately by the disciples who ask, "who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Obviously it was a issue of discussion, and we can suspect that the disciples saw themselves as the greatest. Had they not left everything and followed Jesus? So, Jesus tells his disciples about true greatness. True greatness is found when a person becomes as a little child, for such a person will participate in the consummation of the kingdom. Yet, who is this child - a new convert, a young Christian? Obviously the "child" is not a disciple who is concerned with the issue of greatness! The little child is a repentant sinner, a child of grace, someone who is "poor in spirit", "humble", someone who rests on God's eternal mercy in Christ rather than their own self-worth.
v5-6. Matthew goes on to present a saying which deals with welcoming the little ones who believe in Jesus, and then a series of sayings about causing them "to sin." He is addressing established believers, particularly those with a self-righteous bent, and he warns them that they face eternal danger if they trip up a fellow believer and end up undermining their salvation.
v7. It is a sad fact, but true, that within God's beautiful creation there are now many stumbling blocks, many circumstances which undermine our standing before God. In a fallen world, this has to be, but pity help those on whose account the tripping-up occurs.
v8-9. This exhortation is taken in many ways, sometimes literally, but it is simply a warning to take drastic action or else face the consequences. The warning is addressed to those believers who are placing a stumbling-block in the way of a brother or sister.
v10. Jesus concludes by reminding established believers to be accepting of those with a child-like faith, rather than be disparaging. It's easy to look down the nose at those who have little in the way of Christian graces, theological knowledge, piety or churchmanship. Faith is what matters, not works. Jesus' mention of guardian angels is somewhat puzzling, but his point is simple enough: the little-ones always matter to God.
A friend of mine always drove to the bottle shop in the next suburb to buy the communion wine for his church so that he wouldn't be seen as "winebibber". He was worried that he might lead someone into sin! In Australia we call an outlet for alcoholic beverages the bottle shop, or bottle-o; probably just as strange to a foreign ear as the American drug shop is to our's; we call them milk bars! Anyway, I guess his piety was to be commended, but then what if a member of his congregation saw him sneaking around in the wine department all those miles from home? He would look like a closet alcoholic.
We have to be honest and admit that Jesus doesn't actually spell out what he means by this cause of sin. Actually, the word Jesus uses is stumbling-block, a cause of stumbling, a rock that sticks up out of the ground and trips up the little-ones who believe in him. So, what is it that can trip up the children of faith, the little-ones who stand great in the kingdom of heaven? One thing we can say for certain is that it's not a minor issue. Jesus is referring to something that can undermine our faith, eat away at our salvation, destroy our standing before God. This is serious!
If we were to ask the apostle Paul to define the greatest danger we face in our Christian walk he would identify a particular idea. The idea is that Jesus loves good little boys and girls. I think my mother may have used that line with me. Of course, the truth is that Jesus loves forgiven sinners. All we can ever say of ourselves is "my righteousness is but filthy rags." Throughout our Christian walk this will always be the case, but there remains this idea that if we apply ourselves to God's law, be a faithful follower of Christ, then we build up our standing before God and open ourselves to his many promised blessings. Yet, as Paul says, "no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin" Rom.3:20. "Know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ", Gal.2:16. As Paul pointedly asks the Galatian' believers who have drifted back into law-obedience for blessing, "after beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" Gal.3:3.
This type of pietism not only undermines our salvation, but if we promote it, live it, then it can easily undermine the faith of other believers as well. When I first became a believer, I was given a book called "The Way". It was filled with all the do's and don'ts of being a Christian. For years I struggled to follow its guidance on living the Christian life, but increasingly my failings, my recurrent sin, weighed me down with guilt. I actually know friends from my youth fellowship days who just gave up on the Christian faith because they felt they were not good enough for Jesus. Thankfully I discovered that my standing before God, yesterday, today and tomorrow, is "by grace through faith, and not works of the law."
Jesus does not hold back on his warnings in this passage. The Christian faith is all about receiving, not doing. Doing is simply an automatic fruit of receiving God's grace. So, if any of us here today have forgotten this fact and drifted into law-obedience for blessing, then radical surgery is required. Don't delay.
1. Who is the "child"?
2. Who is most likely to lead the little one astray, and how?
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