In the Fulness of Time/Part 115

By: Dr. Thomas O. Figart; ©2009
To become a true disciple one must become as a little child, that is, as one of the “little ones who believe in me” (verse 6). To become a great disciple, one must become humble as a little child.

Previous Article

Christ and the Children, Matthew 18:1-14

A Lesson in Humility. Matthew 18:1-4

Mt. 18:1-4 “At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever, therefore, shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Events described in chapter 18 occur “at the same time” as chapter 17, or as the Greek has it, “in that hour.” The last thing we read about the disciples in chapter 17 is that they were exceedingly sorry about His prediction of His death and resurrection and in fact, did not understand it (Mark 9:32), and were afraid to ask. The brief account of Peter and the tribute money was at the same hour. So, the Twelve were disputing as they walked along the way, concerning who would be the greatest in His coming Kingdom (Mark 9:33-34). This question would continue into Matthew 19:27-28 and in 20:20-28 through the mother of James and John.

Whether or not you interpret the term “kingdom of heaven” in this passage as a spiritual kingdom or as the earthly, Messianic Kingdom, which, by the way, is how Lenski, the great Lutheran author takes it: “The present tense is modified by the future idea in the phrase, ‘in the kingdom of the heavens’… meaning here the great Messianic Kingdom about to be established, in the expectation of the disciples with wondrous earthly grandeur by Jesus, the Messianic King” (R.C.H. Lenski, Matthew, p. 659), there is necessity for conversion as requirement for entrance. The spiritual kingdom today is the Church, the Body of Christ, and conversion, or “turning around” (strepho-o), just as Paul used the same root word in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, “How ye turned to God from idols,” is the act of forsaking idols and serving the true God through Jesus Christ. It will be the same in the future Kingdom of Messiah, conversion to Christ in childlike faith. This is the lesson Christ was teaching here in 18:1-4; but He takes it one step farther; if they want to be great in that kingdom the same attitude of humility would have to be evidenced after they enter that Kingdom. The little child whom He had taken into His arms was the classic illustration of trust in Jesus. James 4:10 puts it this way: “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.”

A Warning Against Stumbling Blocks. Matthew 18:5-10

Mt. 18:5-10 “And whosoever shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whosoever shall offend one of these little ones who believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe unto that man by whom the offense cometh! Wherefore, if thy hand or foot offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than, having two hands or two feet, to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

This same warning was presented by the Lord in Matthew 5:29-30 in connection with the discussion on adultery and divorce. The wording there is only slightly different, specifying the right eye and right hand. Here the saying is used in connection with offending (from skandalidzo) or becoming a stumbling block or a trap to little children. But first, Jesus speaks in a positive way, that whoever receives “one such little child in my name receiveth me.” To become a true disciple one must become as a little child, that is, as one of the “little ones who believe in me” (verse 6). To become a great disciple, one must become humble as a little child. Now, to evidence such belief and humility, one must receive one such little child, because it shows that you have received Christ.

But then, to whom is Jesus speaking in verses 6-10? Certainly it could not be a true disciple; rather, it is a direct contrast to those who receive Christ. It is a person who places a stumbling block, one who tries to entrap a little child.

Quite a few commentaries try to symbolize “little child” to refer to any believer regardless of age, who has recently come to believe in Christ. Lenski, Matthew, page 667, prefers to include both the literal and the symbolic: ‘Those who eliminate children in verse 5, of course, do also here. Often this is done because of… the unwillingness to admit that little children are unable to believe. The exegesis thus becomes dogmatic. But the whole context so includes children that to include childlike adult believers requires some penetration of the thought. Children here lie on the surface as ‘the little ones,’ other believers under the surface.”

Walvoord seems to limit the interpretation to literal children: “Instead of seeking greatness in the kingdom, the disciples should be seeking how they can serve ordinary human beings, such as this child. Jesus stated that if they received a child in His name, it signified that they were in a proper relationship of faith in Christ Himself.” (Walvoord, John F., Matthew, p 135).

While it is possible to go from a literal interpretation to a symbolic application, it is also true that interpretation is one, application is many. It would seem better to interpret the little child consistently as literal, and then to take the characteristics of a little child, i.e. trust and faith, as applications. Thus, “this little child” (v. 4), “one such little child” (v. 5) and “one of these little ones” (vv. 6, 10) all refer to literal children.

This also agrees with 19:13-14: “There were brought unto him little children.… Permit little children and forbid them not to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.…” Naturally the question arises how soon in life is the child capable of belief in Christ? This differs with each child; but there are significant numbers of three and four-year olds who have genuinely come to true faith in Christ.

The passages in Isaiah 7:14-16; 8:1-4, have a local fulfillment within the experience of Isaiah and the virgin he was about to marry. For the far view fulfillment involving the birth of Christ, see the discussion on Matthew 1:21-23. For the present consideration it is sufficient to quote parts of these passages: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son…. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken by both their kings,” and: “I went in unto the prophetess and she conceived and bore a son…. For before the child shall have knowledge to cry My father and My mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away from before the king of Assyria.” Historically, this defeat was accomplished in two years after the child was born. In that instance he had not reached the state of accountability in his second year, but the expectation was that God would intervene on Judah’s behalf just a little while before the child reached that stage in his life. The conclusion therefore, is that “one of these little ones who believe in me” can certainly be taken literally, and it does not have to be interpreted to refer in any sense to recently saved older believers.

The consequences of offending or entrapping little ones is then described by Jesus in 18:6-10. No less than six times some form of skandalidzo is used. The drastic distinction of the “whosoever” of verse 5 from the “whosoever” of verse 6 should be kept in mind. It is surprising to note that a number of commentaries present this section, 18:6-10 as referring to believers causing other believers to become entrapped by sin! There seems to be a distinct aversion to taking any of these terms literally! Yet, when Christ speaks about it being better for the offender to be cast into the sea with a millstone around his neck, there is no reason to change this to a symbol of extreme punishment; it is extreme; the result is sure death! This same thing must be said about cutting off a hand or foot, or plucking out an eye. Why not take these things literally? Christ does not at all say that such mutilation would cure the sin question; what He does say is that if these members are keeping someone from receiving Him, it would be better to lose them than to suffer in hell for eternity! Whatever becomes a snare that prevents the person from entering into life is not worth holding onto (See the discussion on 5:29-30).

Matthew 18:10 returns to the specific subject of 18:7. There, Christ pronounced woe upon “the man by whom the offense cometh.” Now, He warns against despising one of these believing children. The word kataphronesete means “to look down upon,” referring to the disrespect which causes the stumbling block. The latter part of verse 10 poses a problem to some, particularly the clause: “In heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” Gaebelein interprets the “angels” as the departed spirits of infants or young children who die before the age of accountability (Gaebelein, A.C. Matthew, pp. 381-384).

However, several things militate against this view. First, these little one are described by Christ as believers; thus, they have already reached that stage in their lives. Second, there is no thought nor mention at all of little ones who have died. To the contrary, He refers to “these little ones” and “their angels.” Christ could have easily said “the angels of such little ones.” Third, there are other passages (Deuteronomy 1:39; 2 Samuel 12:22-23; Isaiah 7:14-16) which support a time period before the state of responsibility, and therefore also support the salvation of such infants who die, so it need not depend on a questionable theory about Matthew 18:10. It rather seems better to interpret “their angels” as referring to those angels God has designated to watch over little ones, as is taught in Hebrews 1:14 in a general way.

A Reminder of the Love of God. Matthew 18:11-14

Mt. 18:11-14 “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. How think ye? If a man hath an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine and goeth into the wilderness, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more over that sheep than over the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”

Many commentaries omit verse 11 as an interpolation or gloss from Luke 19:10. Burgon, however, says: “The blessed declaration, ‘The Son of man is come to save that which was lost’ has been expunged by our Revisionists from S. Math, Xviii. 11; although it is attested by every known uncial except B, Aleph, L, and every known cursive except three” (p. 92) and then he goes on to list over 20 sources which include the verse, and adds: “Why then (the reader will again ask) have the Revisionists expunged this verse? We can only answer as before,–because Drs. Westcott and Hort consign it to the limbo of their Appendix, class it among their ‘Rejected Readings’ of the most hopeless types As before, all their sentence is ‘Western and Syria.’ They add ‘Interpolated either from Luke Xix.10, or from an independent source, written or oral.’ Will the English Church suffer herself to be in this way defrauded of her priceless inheritance, –through the irreverent bungling of well-intended, but utterly misguided men?” (John William Burgon, The Revision Revised, p. 92).

In actuality, this verse provides a transition from verse 10 and the illustration of verses 12-14. Verse 10 assures us that God is so concerned with these children who believe, that He commissions certain heavenly beings to be “their angels.” Now verse 11 adds that He even sent His Son to become a man in order to save them; so great is His love! The illustration of the shepherd, then, leaves no doubt about the Father’s care that not one of these little believing ones would perish. While it is true that wandering sheep have been used in Isaiah 53:6 to depict the lost, Scripture also presents wandering sheep as saved (Ezekiel 34:11-16). Therefore, each passage must be considered independently and then related to its particular context. Here in Matthew 18:11-14 the man had 100 sheep, not 99 sheep and one goat. The “little ones” are believers (verse 6).When this context is compared with the parallel passage in Luke 15; there is evidence to interpret all three illustrations in Luke 15 as referring to the restoration of straying or “lost” believers. The sheep was lost and then found (15:6); the coin was lost and then found (15:9); the prodigal son was a son before he strayed and was recognized as a son after he strayed, even though the son thought himself unworthy to be called a son. He too, is described as lost and found (15:24). Indeed, his father described him as dead and alive again, indicating restoration of a previous condition (15:30).

The conclusion given in Matthew 18:14 as a comparison to the lost sheep: “Even so, it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.” Two strong words are used here: God’s ‘will’ (thelema) not merely His desire; and “perish” (apolummi) which can be used in either a temporal sense Romans 14:15; 1 Corinthians 8:11) or in an eternal sense (John 3:16). Jesus is saying here in Matthew 18 that God’s will does not include eternal perishing of any one of His believers. True, one may go astray, but the Father will seek to bring him back; or, if there is continued sin in the life, the Father may take him out of this world through death, as He did to some disobedient saints in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:30-32). But, “in the fulness of time,” all true believers will spend eternity with the Lord Who loves them.

Read Part 116


  1. […] Read Part 115 […]

Leave a Comment