Matthew 18
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
Jesus Christ not only resorted to parables in order to make his teaching vivid; sometimes he made use of object lessons. Thus he answered the question as to who was greatest in the kingdom of heaven by pointing to the little child whom he had called to himself, and set up in the midst of his disciples. The child himself was a visible embodiment of the reply our Lord wished his questioners to receive.

I. THE TYPE OF THE KINGDOM. The kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of the childlike. When we look on a little child we see a typical citizen of that glorious kingdom. Let us consider what there is in childlikeness to be thus representative. We must approach this subject from the ground from which Christ and his disciples came to it. The question of primacy being in the minds of the disciples some contrast to their feelings and dispositions is vividly suggested by the sight of the simple, unconscious, unworldly child.

1. Unambitious simplicity. This would be the first impression produced by the sight of the child, when suddenly he was called by Jesus to confront self-seeking ambition. Even if we may believe that there was no self-seeking in the minds of the disciples, and that their inquiry was general, not personal, still the spirit of ambition was roused by it. But the little child does not possess ambition. The subtle calculations by which men scheme for pre-eminence are all unknown to him. He is pre-eminent without knowing it. They are the least of their own sanctity.

2. Unworldliness highest saints who think The little child is quite unconventional. He knows nothing of the ways of the world. Of course, it is not desirable to imitate his defects, to go back to childish ignorance. But knowledge is dearly bought when it is acquired at the cost of spirituality. Wordsworth tells us that heaven lies about us in our childhood.

3. Trustfulness. The child came to Jesus as soon as he was called. A look of the Saviour was enough to dispel fear. We need the innocent confidence of the child to come into right relations with Christ.


1. The entrance. The disciples had forgotten this. Busying themselves about the rank of those who were in the kingdom, they neglected to consider how to enter it. Yet this is the first question, and all else is unpractical till this step has been taken. But when it has been taken, all else becomes unimportant. It is everything to be privileged to enter the kingdom, even though in its lowest region. Moreover, the true citizen of the kingdom will have lost the ambition that busies itself about questions of pre-eminence.

2. The turning. We are all selfish and self-seeking until we learn to repent and take a better course. No one can enter the kingdom of lleaven while he remains worldly and ambitious. The very spirit which seeks a first place in the kingdom excludes from the kingdom. We need grace to turn back to childlikeness. We must be converted into little children. The greed and ambition must be taken out of our hearts, and the simplicity, unworldliness, and trust of the child received in place of those ugly attributes. - W.F.A.

To discuss in the abstract the question who shall be greatest in the kingdom of heaven, is a profitable employment. But when discussed with personal reference, and in view of present competing claims, there must inevitably be jealousies and rivalries, vanity and hatred. That his reply might lodge in their minds, and be audible to all generations, our Lord gives it dramatically. He calls a little child to him, perhaps one of Peter's children. "Here," says he, "is the one excellence on which my kingdom is founded, and by which alone it can be extended - the excellence of not knowing you have any excellence at all." It was, in short, a true humility - an humility that did not know itself to be humility, and. was thereby humble. To become humble is a change that must be wrought upon you while yourself unconscious; it is like a new birth. A man feels that of all things this is beyond him. We cannot humble ourselves to serve a purpose; if we do so our humility cannot be genuine. Look at one or two instructive features of childhood.

1. What delights us in children is very much their inability to conceal their thoughts, their artless love, their general simplicity. "They are naked, and not ashamed;" assume no disguise, because they are unconscious of the need of any.

2. Their ready belief in everything they are told. The child hears of the world and its wonders with a reverential awe. As we grow older we clothe ourselves in scepticism, and guard ourselves against deception, till, as the climax of wisdom and safety, we believe nothing, and are like the heavy-mailed knights of old, stifled in our own armour. We train our spirits to believe in nothing but the most obvious commonplace physical things, which by their own nature are destined to decay. And the end is, we cannot, if we would, believe in the most tremendous realities. Well may we pray that God would dip us in the waters of his regeneration, that so the hard, foul crust in which this world encases us may drop off, and our flesh become soft and fresh as a child's again.

3. Their readiness to receive instruction, information, gifts. The whole life of a child is reception. He takes gifts naturally, and without distressing himself as to his right to them. He is to be fed because he is hungry, made happy because his nature craves it. Whereas we must ever be trying to give to God what will satisfy him. But God sells nothing. The highest and best things he has to give we must accept at his hand, simply because we need them, and he is willing to give. In Christ's own life we see this childlike dependence beautifully exemplified. Clearly apprehending his own position and work, he was yet as one under age. Carrying into manhood the faith of the child, he lived as one who was well cared for, and on whom the care of providing for himself did not rest.

4. It is, above all, the child's unconsciousness that he has anything to commend him that makes him our model. The production of this humility is an invariable and essential accompaniment of conversion. Formerly a man lived on his own strength and for himself. Now he feels he is not his own, but God's; born of God, kept by God, for God's uses, beginning from God and ending in God. In presence of that Being, glorious in holiness and love, he abhors his own sensual and selfish life, and abases himself utterly. He has no claims to urge, no promises to make, no pretensions, nothing at all to show. What this child seemed to say to these helpless disciples, he says to all - You must turn, you must strive with your whole souls, you must pray, but convert yourselves you cannot; it is God only can give you a new heart. Have you been brought to a true dependence on God, so feeling the guilt of your past life and the evil of your natural character that you can but leave yourself in the hand of God and his grace for pardon and renewal? - D.

As they journeyed to Capernaum the disciples of Jesus, like their countrymen, ever disposed to regard the kingdom of Messiah as secular, reasoned and disputed together as to which of them should be the greater in that kingdom (cf. Mark 9:33, 34). The knowledge of this contention probably influenced the conduct of Jesus in the matter of the tribute, in which he astonished them with an exemplification of supreme greatness in submission (see Matthew 17:22-27). A similar lesson is embodied in the discourse now before us. Note -


1. This was assumed in their reasoning.

(1) It was the basis of that reasoning and the stimulus of the ambition which prompted it.

(2) It was itself based upon the analogy of secular kingdoms in general, in which there are princes and nobles, ministers of state and civic magnates.

2. The fact was not disputed by the Lord.

(1) He did not say they were mistaken, much less assert that all saints in light stand upon an equal platform.

(2) The arguments urged in favour of this view are far from being satisfactory. There is no relevancy in the inference from the fact that every Hebrew gathered an omer of manna, neither more nor less. Every labourer receiving exactly a penny, whether he had worked one hour or had borne the burden and heat of the day, looks more like an argument; yet this element was introduced into the parable for another purpose, viz. to evince the absolute sovereignty of God.

3. On the contrary, he recognized it.

(1) For he asserted it, though in a sense very different from that in which the disciples had conceived of it.

(2) It is the very doctrine of the parable of the talents. Christ, like David, his type, has worthies of various grades of merit.

(3) The anticipations of the great judgment make this very clear (cf. Daniel 12:3; 1 Corinthians 15:41, 42).


1. They were influenced by secular ideas, in which goodness has little to do with greatness.

(1) In the kingdoms of this world some are born to greatness. So Simon and Jude may have based their hopes of future distinction upon their near relationship to Christ.

(2) Some have promotion through length of service. So Andrew, the first called to the discipleship of the kingdom, might have hoped for precedency on the ground of that priority.

(3) Some have greatness thrust upon them. So the natural covetousness of Judas may have led him to exaggerate the importance of his money trust, as keeper of the bag. Much of the greatness of this world is imaginary. Peter had the keys, and may have rested his contention for greatness upon that distinction. His fellows, however, were unwilling to accept that as conferring permanent dignity, much less supremacy.

(4) James and John sought the chief place in the kingdom by petition and influence, after the custom of the world. The ten were displeased with them, probably because they cherished the same desire to be superior (see Matthew 20:20-24). It is unworthy in those to contend for privileges who shrink from work and suffering.

2. Jesus humbled them before the greatness of a little child.

(1) Jesus taught, like the ancient prophets, impressively by signs. His lesson here was the greatness of humility. The lesson was difficult, for the world sees no greatness in lowliness. The teaching must be impressive.

(2) The great Teacher sought not his symbol of greatness in the warrior, like Caesar, to make whom great millions of men must die. His sign was not the statesman, the philosopher, the poet, or even the theologian. It was the infant. How original was his teaching!

(3) Great men should not disdain the company of children. They may receive instruction from infants. Whenever we look upon a little child we may remember the teaching of Jesus.

3. He preached an impressive sermon from his text.

(1) He insisted upon the necessity of conversion: "Except ye turn," etc. (ver. 3). Note: Conversion makes men like little children.

(a) Not foolish, nor fickle, nor sportive, but

(b) innocent, humble, and docile.

(2) To become like little children, sinners must be born anew. The love of dominion, which led the disciples to contend for the higher places in the kingdom, unfitted them even for the lower. The new man is exalted upon the humiliation of the old.

(3) Heaven most intimately dwells in innocency. All heavenly virtues crystallize round innocency.. The Lord so dwells in innocency that whoever receives a little child receives him.

(4) As innocency is the essence, so is humility the soil of every grace. True humility is the only way to advancement in the kingdom of Christ (cf. Luke 14:11). "Climbing is performed in the same posture as creeping" (Swift).

(5) As the world sees no greatness in lowliness, so are those who do see it greater than the world. The humble are therefore fittingly honoured with the rewards of greatness.

(6) They have the special care of Christ. The best men have often the worst treatment from the world. But Christ promises recompense to those who show kindness to him in his humble followers, and retribution to those who refuse it. - J.A.M.

We treat this as an abstract question. What is true greatness? Who is the truly great man? But the disciples asked a practical question, bearing immediate relation to their temporal expectations. They, and their conversations, can never be understood unless we keep in mind their earthly ideas of their Lord's mission. Judas, with the grasping disposition, was anticipating his chances in the new kingdom; and even James and John were scheming to secure a promise of the right and left hand places in the new court. Over the expected offices in the new kingdom those disciples quarrelled, until at last they brought their dispute to Jesus, for him to decide it by his authority. When they asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" they meant, "Who is to have the principal office in the new Davidic kingdom which thou art about to set up?" Their question was childish; it would have been framed very differently if it had been childlike. As Christ corrected false notions, we h)ok at those false notions first.

I. MEN'S IDEAS OF GREATNESS. "The things that men deem glorious were of no account with Christ. He did not measure a man's eminence by the height of the pedestal on which he stood, nor by the stars that shone on his breast; he had no admiration for purple and gold, for the flash of jewels, for lofty titles, or any of the thousand things that dazzle the eye and impose on the carnal heart." "Does true greatness belong to the lion hearted, to the righteous, to the martyr, to the ascetic, to the saint? Is Thomas on the way to it, with his strong, logical intellect that will take nothing on credit without evidence and his sturdy fidelity of purpose?;' Greatness must associate either with

(1) class;

(2) office;

(3) wealth;

(4) intellect;

(5) genius; or

(6) success, in order to be appreciated by men.

II. CHRIST'S IDEA OF GREATNESS. Here our Lord is not dealing with all greatness; only with that greatness which is relative to the ideas then in the minds of disciples. Their greatness meant "being served," guilefully watching for the attention conceived to be their due; self-assertion. His greatness meant "serving", guilelessly watching for the opportunity of doing something kind; meekness that is the opposite of self-assertion. Of this a chill is the type. A man ought not to be in everything like a child. Experience of life makes it impossible for hint to be a child. What was needed by the disciples, and what is needed by us, is that "they should turn from their self-seeking ambition, and regain, in this respect, the relative blamelessness of children." - R.T.

As this little child. "We shall miss Christ's meaning if we set about thinking of children in general - of their trustfulness, teachableness, humility, unassuming disposition, 'sweet simplicity,' and kindred things. The truth is, there is human nature (and a good deal of it too) in children as well as in men and women. Winsome as childhood is, and often rarely beautiful, with many a wile and witchery, even the fondest mother cannot help seeing in the child she loves best some tokens of waywardness, self-will, temper, caprice, and other things prophetic of ill. Jesus did not mean the disciples to think of children in general; it was not any child, taken indiscriminately and at random, that would have suited his purpose." It is this child, one who left his play, and came forward at once when Jesus called, this child who could put self aside, who illustrates the true dignity.

I. HUMBLING THE SELF IS NOT MAKING FALSE ESTIMATES OF OUR CHARACTER. Good people often think that it is. Saying, thinking, and writing bitter things against themselves, that are untrue and unfelt, is often confounded with humility. True "humility" always goes hand in hand with "truth;" and demands expression which precisely represents feeling. Two schools of religion are in special peril of failing into this mistake.

1. Those who make much of "experiences." There is always a tendency towards the manufacture of experiences.

2. Those who make much of "confessions." There is always the peril of getting credit for humility by exaggerating the confession. What is true of false estimates is in measure true of all imperfect estimates.

II. HUMBLING THE SELF IS REFUSING TO ALLOW OUR LIFE TO BE GUIDED BY SELF-PLEASING CONSIDERATIONS. This is the point in our text. The disciples were scheming to advance their self-interests. The little child promptly and cheerfully gave up his self-interests when Jesus called him. Those disciples had been called by Jesus, but they could not put away the self. In this sense, "humbling the self" will include

(1) giving up your personal opinion in order to accept Christ's revealed truth;

(2) putting aside your own preferences when they conflict with Christ's will;

(3) giving up what may mean your own profit or advantage, when you are called to engage in Christ's work. Self-humbling means Christ-exalting. - R.T.

To stumble is so to trip as to be hindered in faith or to be turned out of the way (cf. Matthew 5:29, 30; Matthew 11:6; Matthew 13:21; Matthew 15:12; Matthew 24:10; Matthew 26:31, 33; John 6:61, 62, 66; John 16:1). Occasions of stumbling are evil influences - allurements, persuasions, temptations, bad example, calumnies, insults, persecutions. The text teaches -

I. THAT CHRIST HOLDS THE WICKED RESPONSIBLE FOR THE INJURY THEY MAY OCCASION TO THE GOOD. The addition of the words, "which believe on me," shows that Christ is here speaking, not of "little ones" in age. but of his disciples, who are of a humble spirit. Observe:

1. There is no infallible final perseverance of the saints.

(1) The recognition of this truth is the very inspiration of this pathetic discourse. These woes would never have been denounced upon men for the doing of what, otherwise, would be impossible.

(2) Let not the believer in Christ be high-minded. Let him fear. Let him watch. Let him pray.

2. "It must needs be that the occasions come."

(1) They are permitted as part of the necessary discipline of our probation. They come from the abuse of free agency.

(2) To the faithful they prove blessed means of grace. They educate passive virtues. The habit of resisting temptation makes a strong character.

3. The instigator to evil is still responsible.

(1) Where he succeeds in causing the saint to stumble he will have to answer for the soul damaged or ruined. There is no impunity for those who turn the simple from their integrity by teaching them to imbibe sentiments subversive of the doctrines of genuine truth, or to indulge in evil practices which destroy or injure the capacity for receiving the graces of the kingdom.

(2) Where the tempter fails he is still responsible for his wickedness.

4. These things need to be emphasized.

(1) Because the wicked are too apt to transfer the blame of their irreligion to the account of the good, by accusing them of apathy and negligence. The good are undoubtedly responsible for the faithfulness of their testimony. They are not, however, beyond this, responsible for results. Noah's testimony was at once his own justification and the condemnation of the world.

(2) Because the wicked are too slow to recognize their responsibility, not only for their own non-reception of Christ, but for the injury they do in hindering others, and especially for damaging the good. To offend the innocent is to offend innocence.


1. The sufferings of antichristian nations are admonitory. "Woe unto the world because of occasions of stumbling!"

(1) The Jews filled up the measure of their iniquity in crucifying Christ and persecuting his disciples, and wrath came upon them to the uttermost.

(2) Degradation and ruin have overtaken or are pursuing those nations which have persecuted the witnesses for Christ. The atheism of France, with its horrors and the decadence of that nation, are the reaction of the superstition and wickedness of earlier persecutions. Prosperity smiles upon the nations that have accepted the Reformation. They have been enriched by industries brought to them by Protestant refugees.

(3) All antichristian nations are doomed in the anticipations of prophecy. "Woe" hangs over "the world" in the larger sense.

2. Individuals also are admonished. "Woe to that man through whom the occasion cometh!"

(1) The retribution upon those who offend the disciples of Christ is worse than death. Jerome says that Christ here speaks according to the custom of the province in punishing the greatest criminals with drowning. The woe here denounced is worse (ver. 6).

(2) The retribution is as crushing as it is sudden. The culprit had no strength to release himself from the weight of the "great millstone," to turn which, supported in position, required the strength of an ass. "It seems to have grown into a proverb with the Jews for total ruin" (Doddridge).

(3) The more terrible punishment is described as a "Gehenna of fire," in allusion to the sufferings of the victims of Moloch (cf. 2 Chronicles 33:6). Burning there is more dreadful than drowning in the Lake of Galilee hard by (cf. Revelation 19:20). Those who play the devil in tempting saints may tremble with the devils.

3. But there is yet space for repentance.

(1) The offending hand must be cut off. Wrong doing must cease. However useful as the right hand. However dear.

(2) The offending foot must be cut off. Wrong going must cease. However natural it may have become through habit as the use of the right foot.

(3) The offending eye must be plucked out. Illicit desire must cease, whether instigated by covetousness, envy, pride, or passion (see Mark 7:22).

(4) These must be cast away. The hand or foot or eye refer to those sins of honour, interest, or pleasure, which men are prone to spare. The godly in this world are lame, deaf, dumb, blind, both to themselves and to others (see Psalm 38:14). The members most mortified here will shine with the greater lustre hereafter. - J.A.M.

A moment's reflection will convince us that these stern sentences of Christ's are unanswerable. If the alternative lay between losing a limb and losing his life, who would hesitate with his decision? "All that a man hath will he give for his life."

I. IT IS POSSIBLE FOR WHAT IS VERY NEAR TO US TO BE FATALLY HURTFUL TO US. It would be a mistake to suppose that our Lord meant that under any circumstances self-mutilation would be a duty. The causes of stumbling are not bodily, although the body may be the instrument of temptation; they are in the thoughts and desires of the heart (James 1:14, 15). But there may be things precious as parts of our very selves, or friends dear as the apple of the eye, or useful as the right hand, and yet spiritually hurtful to us. Our own daily occupation, to which we have grown until it has become as a part of ourselves, may be a source of temptation and danger. Our habits, which are our second nature, may be a very bad second nature.

II. IT IS IMPORTANT NOT TO LET LOWER INTERESTS BLIND US TO OUR HIGHEST GOOD. Eyes, hands, and feet are good and useful things in themselves. A maimed creature who has lost any of these valuable organs and limbs is certainly a pitiable object. Naturally and rightly we desire to keep our body sound and whole. Many possessions, though less intimately connected with our persons, are still justly valued when considered by themselves. But this valuation only touches a part of life, and that the lower part. If the enemy can seize the outworks and turn them against the citadel, it is desirable to demolish them, excellent as they may be in form and structure, because the principal object is to keep the citadel. The great necessity in spiritual things is to guard the very life of God within. If anything threatens this it threatens our highest interest. Selfish people are their own worst enemies, because, while pandering to the outer self, they starve and poison the true self.

III. IT IS WISE TO MAKE ANY SACRIFICE TO SAVE THE TRUE LIFE. We admit this in bodily disease. The shattered limb must be amputated to preserve the patient's life. The same principle applies in spiritual regions. The pain of losing what is very near and dear to us may be great. But we dare not be cowardly. A greater evil is the alternative. We may spare our friendship, our wealth, our pleasure, and yet destroy our souls. Then at best these things can but decorate the tomb of the dead spiritual nature. We have to rise to the stern severity of life. Sin is so terrible that it cannot be laid aside as one would put off a superfluous garment. It has eaten its way like a cancer into our very being. We shrink from the knife, but we must submit to it if we would live. Desperate efforts are needed - or rather a patient submission to the great Deliverer of souls who sometimes saves by terrible means. Yet he does save! - W.F.A.

Cutting off a right hand and plucking out a right eye are extreme measures, types of the severest dealing with one's self. They bring into thought those cases of disease in which signs of mortification are shown, and the limb must be promptly surrendered or the life will be lost. Our Lord's counsel rests upon the recognized fact that bodily organs are the agents of sin. The palate is the agency of drunkenness and gluttony, the eye of sensuality, and the hand of dishonesty. We do not really cure a moral evil by merely removing the agency through which, it gains expression, but resolute dealing with the organ that is the agent shows that we are dealing with the inner evil, weakening it by taking away its food and exercise. See some of the things which account for spiritual discipline taking such severe forms.

I. BIAS TO SPECIAL EVILS IN NATURAL DISPOSITIONS. This bias belongs to the mystery of hereditary influences. Through a deteriorated bodily organization, a man is born with a bias in favour of drink, cheating, pride, sensuality. The members of one royal family are all born gluttons. Possibly, some bias to evil is found in every disposition, and the life problem is - What will the man do with just that tendency influencing all relations? Acquired evils may be effectually dealt with. Evils that belong to our bodily constitution make the moral struggle of a whole life.

II. WEAKNESS OF WILL IN NATURAL DISPOSITIONS. This is the real cause of the necessary severity of spiritual discipline. The man is not strong enough to get and to hold the mastery over his evil self, and so he is worried and worn by a struggle which has to be continually kept up, because he is not strong enough to make any victory decisive. The hardest moral lives are lived by the weak willed.

III. INDULGENCE OF THE EVIL BIAS UNTIL IT GROWS MASTERFUL. This may be illustrated by the difference in the tone of the moral struggle in the case of a man converted in youth, and of a man converted in advanced life. In the one case the bias is a mere tendency, and can be easily checked; in the other it has become a fixed habit, and must be dug out. When a man in middle life has vigorously taken in hand his conduct and relations, and wisely reshaped them, he often has the bitter lesson to learn that the evil in him remains untouched. - R.T.

The "little ones" here are childlike followers of Christ (cf. ver. 6). Reference to the infants to whom humble Christians are likened is not excluded. The infant seed of the faithful are of the family of Jesus. Neither the disciple nor the infant must be despised.


1. The universe is dual, having material and spiritual complements.

(1) Matter has characteristic properties. The properties of spirit are no less characteristic and distinct.

(2) Between the complements subsist mutual relations and interactions. The conflicts of the moral and invisible are propagated outward into the physical and visible. So contrariwise.

2. In this system holy angels have special relations to good men.

(1) Angels have a commission of guardianship (cf. Psalm 34:7; Psalm 91:11; Hebrews 1:14). Probably they see the countenance of the Father in the countenance of the children. Note: Evil angels sustain corresponding relations to bad men.

(2) The ancient notion may have countenance here, viz. that each individual has a peculiar guardian angel. Corresponding to the holy guardian is the "familiar spirit" of the wicked.

3. They cannot with impunity be despised whose guardians are so influential.

(1) Special favourites only, according to Oriental custom, came into a monarch's presence (cf. 1 Kings 10:8; 1 Kings 12:6; Esther 1:14; Psalm 103:21; Jeremiah 2:15; Tobit 12:15; Luke 1:19).

(2) It is perilous to be at enmity with those who are so attended. "Angels that excel in strength." The stronger angels have charge of the weaker saints. Those who would not offend the holy angels should imitate them in their care of little ones.


1. Those who have the angels of God for their angels have the God of angels for their God. This honour is superlative.

2. Some interpret the "angels of the little ones to be the disembodied spirits of the sailors, which do always behold the face of the Father which is in heaven."

(1) They argue that guardian angels cannot" always" be "in heaven" and yet ministering to their charge on earth.

(2) What the disciples in John Mark's prayer meeting thought to be Peter's spirit, they called "his angel" (Acts 12:15).

(3) The reason why we should not despise the little ones, viz. that their angels see God, reminds us that the pure in heart alone can see God.

(4) In this view the" angels of God," in whose presence" there is joy over one sinner that repenteth" (Luke 15:10), will be "the spirits of just men made perfect." For the context in Luke shows that this is a parallel case.

3. Those whose disembodied spirits would be honoured with the vision of God cannot be despised with impunity.

(1) The little ones of Christ are despised by corrupting them. By failing to edify them. They are despised when innocency and simplicity are treated as weaknesses.

(2) Those guilty of despising them will encounter the resistance of the will of God. "It is not the will," etc. (cf. ver. 14; Ezekiel 18:23). If there be joy in heaven for the finding of one of the little ones turned out of the way, there is wrath in heaven for the offending of them.

(3) "As God wilt be displeased with the enemies of his Church if they wrong any of the members of it, so he is displeased with the great ones of the Church if they despise the little ones" (Henry).


1. The flock.

(1) Holy angels are included in its unity (cf. Hebrews 12:22). These are by some accounted to be the "ninety and nine who went not astray."

(2) The ministration of angels is founded on the mediation of Christ. This is expressed in the words, "For the Son of man," etc., relegated, however, to the margin in the Revised Version. So in the vision of Jacob's ladder (cf. Genesis 28:12; John 1:51). Through Christ the holy angels are reconciled to us.

(3) The ninety and nine who went not astray may be such as the scribes and Pharisees of the better sort; not the hypocrites, but those who, like the elder brother, never left their Father's house - those whose respect for the Law kept them from committing gross offences.

2. The wanderer.

(1) The sheep sees better herbage at a distance, and wanders after it; then discovers more yet farther off; wanders by degrees further and further; mistakes the way back, and is lost in the wilderness. So the soul wanders from pleasure to pleasure, and gets lost.

(2) Now the sheep is exposed to the dangers of the lion or the wolf, the ditch or the precipice, and is in wretchedness and terror.

3. The Shepherd.

(1) He cares for those in the fold. They have his care in the provision of food, as well as shelter and protection. We should sympathize with Christ in striving to keep his sheep (see Romans 14:15; 1 Corinthians 8:11, 12). As he is the great Shepherd, having many sheep, so is he the good Shepherd, knowing each lamb.

(2) He cares especially for the wanderer. It is the shepherd's duty to look more particularly after the stray sheep than after those abiding in the fold. Jesus, who came to save a world, makes special efforts to save even one. The whole flock suffers when one sheep wanders.

(3) "if so be that he find it." The finding of a sinner is a contingent event. Grace is not irresistible. Yet the wanderer should know that the Shepherd is very near him. Are we as anxiously seeking Jesus as he is seeking us?

(4) The tender sheep is not driven, but carried by Christ. "And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders" (see Luke 15:5). He carries us and our sins.

(5) Jesus rejoices over the conversion of a sinner, as a shepherd over a recovered sheep; as a woman over a recovered piece of silver; as a father over a recovered son. The rejoicing affects heaven as well as the Church on earth. It is natural to feel uncommon joy at the fortunate accomplishment of an unexpected event.

4. The enemy. Those who would injure the sheep of Christ are special objects of his displeasure.

(1) The nations that injured Israel of old were severely reckoned with.

(2) The antichristian nations who persecuted his people are doomed to a fearful retribution.

(3) Every contemptuous son of pride will be confronted at the judgment of the last day. - J.A.M.

We may well assume that our Lord included in his term "little ones," both children and childlike disciples. "Looking to the frequency with which our Lord's words were addressed to the thoughts of his hearers, it seems likely that the faces of some at least of the disciples betrayed, as they looked on the child, some touch of half-contemptuous wonder, that called for this prompt rebuke." Limiting the reference of the expression to the children, we may notice some of the ways in which we may come to despise them.

I. WE MAY UNDERESTIMATE THEIR VARIED INFLUENCE FOR GOOD. It is a small, almost silent, influence; one that cannot be put in common earth scales and measured, or laid out on a bank counter and checked. Man is interested in big things and noisy things; but the really great forces are pervasive gravitation and silent light.

1. The child exerts a high moral and educational influence on its father and mother. Every child is a Divine testing of parental character; and may be a Divine culture of it.

2. The child is a moral power in a home. Illustrate from times of strain and sorrow.

3. The child often proves to be a minister of Christ in a neighbourhood. Illustrate from Norman McLeod's "Wee Davie;" or the more recent clever tale entitled "Bootle's Baby."

II. WE MAY FAIL TO RECOGNIZE WHAT TRAINING THEM DOES FOR US. No man who is resolutely set upon soul culture will ever make the mistake of "despising the little ones." Think of the self-restraints which training children demands. Think of the examples that must be set. Think of the practical wisdom that must be gained. Think of the perseverance that may be called for. Many a man and many a woman have been ennobled by having family life and claims grow up around them.

III. WE MAY, ONLY TOO EASILY, DO INJUSTICE TO THE LITTLE ONES. If we "despise them" we shall fail to observe or meet their peculiarities. We shall repress their strange thoughts and questionings. We shall overestimate their failings. We shall be out of sympathy with their play. Injustice to the little ones means spoiling the chances of their manhood and womanhood. It is bad if the despising takes the form of "neglect;" it is far worse if it is "moral hindering."

IV. WE MAY PUT OFF, UNTIL THE BY AND BY THAT NEVER COMES, THE INFLUENCE ON THE CHILDREN WHICH IS THE NEED OF THEIR CHILD TIME. That kind of despising the little ones is perhaps one of the grave sins of the family life of the day. - R.T.

This parable is here associated with Christ's care for little children (see vers. 10-14). But in St. Luke it is applied to the recovery of publicans and sinners (Luke 15:1, 4-7). There can be no doubt that St. Luke connects it with its most evident and general lesson. Still, there is an a fortiori argument in the use of the parable in St. Matthew. If Christ cares for the most abandoned sinners, much more will he save little children when they begin to wander, especially as this is too often the case just because the negligence or evil example of older people causes them "to stumble."


1. The hundred. We start with the picture of a complete flock. All men belong by nature to God. We begin life with God. If we sin we fall. Sin is losing our first estate, wandering from the fold.

2. The ninety and nine. Many are here represented as faithful. We might think of many worlds of angelic beings in contrast of our own fallen world, or of many members of a Church or family when contrasted with a single defaulter. A parable cannot be pressed in all its details in order to extort from it the exact statistics of a religious census. It is enough that under certain circumstances one is seen to fall away from the fidelity preserved by his companions. Now the ninety and nine are left. Absolutely Christ does not leave his true sheep. But a special care is needed to find the lost one. There is a common selfishness in religious people who would enjoy the luxuries of devotion in such a way as to hinder the work of saving the lost. Churches are filled with worshippers, who in some eases hold their pews as private possessions, so that the wayfaring man and the stranger feel that they are not welcome. Yet if the gospel is for any one, it is for them.

3. The lost sheep. There is but one. Yet it is a great trouble that one should go astray.

(1) This shows the value of an individual soul.

(2) It reveals the awful evil of sin. The lapse of but one man into so fearful a fall is enough to disarrange the whole order of the community.


1. His departure. He leaves the flock; but they are safe; for they are in the fold. Moreover, the sight of his departure to save the lost is a warning to those left at home of the evil of straying.

2. His journey. He must travel far in a waste and difficult country. Sin leads its votaries into hungry solitudes and among fearful dangers. Christ follows the wandering soul. His advent to this world was his following, and his hard life and death his journeying over wild mountains, he follows each one now. He will not leave the lost to their fate.

3. His success. He finds the lost sheep. He is a good Shepherd - energetic, persevering, self-sacrificing. Therefore he succeeds. Christ brings back souls who have wandered into the lowest abysses of sin.

4. His joy. This is proportionate

(1) to his love for the lost sheep;

(2) to its distress, danger, evil condition;

(3) to the toil and difficulty involved in finding it. The joy of Christ is the joy of saving the lost. - W.F.A.

Dr. M. Dods, writing on the parable of Luke 15., has the following suggestive passage. Each of the three parables "illustrates the fact that a more active interest in any possession is aroused by the very circumstance that it is lost. The sheep that is lost is not on that account disregarded by the shepherd, but receives for the time greater attention than those which remain in the fold. The piece of money that has gone amissing becomes on that very account of greater immediate importance to the woman than all she has safe in her jar in the cupboard. If one of a family turns out ill, it is a small mitigation that all the rest turn out well; it is after the lost the parent's heart persistently goes. So is it with God. The very circumstance that men have strayed from him evokes in him a more manifest and active solicitude in their behalf. The attitude of God and of Christ towards sinners is reduced to the great principle that anything which is lost and may be regained exercises our thought more, and calls out a more solicitous regard than a thing of equal value which rests securely in our possession."

I. MAN AS LOST. The word as applied to men is a figure. A lost sheep is one beyond the shepherd's control. A lost piece of money is one that has got out of the woman's reach. This suggests that a lost man is one who has got himself out of the Divine hands, and has taken the ordering of life into his own hands. As the sheep is the shepherd's; as the coin is the woman's; so man is God's. The sheep is lost through animal perversity; the coin is lost through accident; man is lost through moral wilfulness.

II. MAN AS RECOVERABLE. There would be no effort of shepherd, or woman, if they had no reasonable hope of regaining their lost things. And we may never conceive of men as lost in any sense that puts them beyond moral reach. There is a hardening through wilfulness; but we must never think of that save as a process. In the case of no brother-man may it be thought of as complete. The man beyond recovery does not exist.

III. MAN AS RECOVERED. That is the work of God in Christ; it is accomplished for the race, and it is an infinite joy to the Recoverer. That is the work of the Christ-man and of the Christian Church. They should prove what joy is found in saving the lost. - R.T.

The wise advice which our Lord here gives is rarely followed, and yet it is not at all impracticable, and if obeyed it would prevent an immense amount of distress and ill feeling. Let us consider, first the general principles of his advice, and then its special details.


1. The fact of the brother's offence is admitted. This is very important. Too often men quarrel and accuse one another without justly apportioning the faults. The innocent man is blamed by his guilty brother. We must not put in force the process indicated by Christ until we have discovered that our brother is really in the wrong.

2. The aim must be to recover the offending brother. It is not to crush and humiliate him. It is not to have our revenge on him. It is to restore him to a better condition of mind, and to bring about a reconciliation.

3. The method must be kind and generous. The slowly advancing stages show a reluctance to proceed to extreme measures. Inasmuch as our end is not to vindicate our own rights, but to recover our brother, our method must be tender and considerate.

II. SPECIAL DETAILS. It is important to observe that Christ is treating of the relation of true Christian people to one another. If either party does not recognize the claims of Christian brotherhood, the process must be different, although the generous spirit of Christ's method must be observed with all men. Let us now note the successive steps.

1. We are to see the offending brother alone. This is just the very last thing some people will do. In pride or fear they shun the very person they should seek. They refuse to speak to him, when it is their duty to be frank with him. Yet too often they spread the tale of their wrong among their neighbours. Thus a train of idle gossip is started, and vast mischief originated. He who so behaves reveals himself in an unchristian light; he becomes an offending brother, and gives the man who has offended him a just cause of complaint. Immense mischief would be stayed if Christ's method were pursued. We have to seek out the person who has wronged us, and be simple and frank with him; then very often a little quiet talk will bring us to a mutual understanding and end the quarrel.

2. If the first step fails, we are to call in the help of two or three other Christians. This is also to be private. The calm impartiality of outsiders may settle the dispute. The gravity of their advice may convince the offending brother that he is in the wrong.

3. If this process fails, we are to appeal to the Church. Christ assumes the exercise of Church discipline. With us this has fallen very much into abeyance. It can only be restored in a Christ-like spirit.

4. Finally, if all these processes fail, we must cease to regard the offender as a Christian brother. He has excommunicated himself. God does not forgive the impenitent, and he does not expect us to do so. Yet we should never hate the offender, but always desire to restore him - as we should desire to convert "the Gentile and the publican." - W.F.A.

From dealing with the offended, our Lord here passes on to the offending, and he shows us how we should deal with a guilty brother, for our own sake, for his sake, for the sake of the Church, and ultimately for the sake of the world. Christian judgment should be faithful, loving, spiritual.


1. The Christian will tell his brother his fault.

(1) "If thy brother sin against thee." By fraud, defamation, affront, contempt (see Leviticus 6:1-7).

(2) "If thy brother sin." Some ancient authorities omit "against thee" (see New Version margin; see also Leviticus 19:17).

(3) "Tell him his fault." This is fidelity to thyself, also to thy brother. How salutary to David was the reproof of Nathan!

2. He will tell it him before witnesses.

(1) Not in the first case. But he will not consider his soul clear it the offending brother be not gained by the private reproof without proceeding further.

(2) The witnesses chosen should be persons of credit and reputation. True men will not refuse to serve as witnesses in the interests of justice.

(3) This precaution is due to the Church. The courts of the Church should not be trifled with by moving them with cases which are not ripe.

3. He will tell it to the Church. This when the minor means have been tried and failed.

(1) But what is the Church? Amongst the Jews ten men were deemed sufficient to constitute a synagogue. Any number of persons met in the name or by the authority of Christ will constitute a Christian Church (see ver. 20). Tell it to the wise among the Church. Paul speaks ironically when he says, "Set them to judge who are]east esteemed in the Church."

(2) Tell it to the Church in justice to the Church, that its purity may be preserved. Scandalous persons must be separated from the Church on earth, which is the type of the purer Church in heaven.

(3) Tell it to the Church in justice to the obstinate offender, that he may be reproved before many and repent.

(4) That if he be excommunicated he may be treated as a heathen and publican. Those cast out of the kingdom of Christ belong to the kingdom of Satan. Church discipline is for Church members. The Christian is not forbidden to use civil courts against outsiders.


1. Love's reason for telling a brother his fault is to gain him.

(1) This is love's reason for going to the offender rather than waiting for him to come. "Go and tell him." It will give him opportunity for explanation. The sense of injury is often the result of sensitive self-love.

(2) This is love's reason for going to him privately. It will save him the exasperation of an unnecessary public reproach.

(3) The manner will accord with the object. The truth is told in love. The fault is not unduly magnified. There is no resentment.

2. Love's reason for calling witnesses is still to gain the brother.

(1) "Take with thee one or two more." To avoid unnecessary publicity, the smallest number required to attest evidence is called in (cf. Deuteronomy 19:15; John 8:17; 2 Corinthians 13:1).

(2) The witnesses may add persuasion. The offender may listen to the pleadings of disinterested persons.

(3) The witnesses have the double function of seeing that the reproof is administered without malignity, and that, in rejecting it, the reproved is incorrigible.

3. Love also has reasons for then telling it to the Church.

(1) The offender may hear the Church and be gained.

(2) Church courts are preferred to those of the world, as more competent to deal with offences against Christian law. The more so when civil rulers were notoriously enemies of the saints.

(3) The purity of the Christian brotherhood must be preserved, The Church that condones things scandalous transgresses the reason for its existence.

(4) A scandalous Church can be of little service to the world.


1. It recognizes the presence of God.

(1) The sanctuary of God is the assembly of his saints (cf. Exodus 40:24; 2 Chronicles 5:14; Psalm 132:14; Matthew 28:20; Revelation 2:1).

(2) That presence is here promised in relation to maintenance of discipline. God is with his Church to quicken prayer, to answer petition, to guide in counsel.

(3) "If two of you shall agree," etc. "God sometimes stands upon a number of voices for the carrying of some public mercy, because he delighteth in the harmony of many praying souls, and also because he loves to gratify and oblige many in the answer" (Flavel).

2. It recognizes his ratification.

(1) "Binding and loosing." When the Jews set apart any to be a preacher, they said, "Take thou liberty to teach what is bound and what is loose," i.e. what is binding or obligatory and what is not.

(2) Here the question has relation to discipline rather than to doctrine. It is concerned also with things rather than persons. "Whatsoever," etc. "In the primitive Church absolution meant no more than a discharge from Church censure" (Wesley, in loc.).

(3) The ratification in heaven of the decisions of the Church, in the strict sense, applied to apostolic times when plenary inspiration was with it (see John 16:24-26; Acts 9:29-31).

(4) In a qualified sense it still holds good, viz. when the rules laid down in Scripture are observed.

(5) If through error or envy any be east out of the Church, Christ will find that soul in mercy (cf. John 9:34, 35). The instructions of the text come to us with the force of law. We have no option to pursue any different course with an offender, or any different order to that here prescribed. In the whole compass of pagan ethics there is no rule at once so manly, so benevolent, so wise, so practical. - J.A.M.

This counsel seems to indicate that the dispute among the disciples as to who should be the greatest had gone a considerable length, had led to hard words, and even heart divisions. Our Lord made this the occasion for advice in relation to misunderstandings among Christians. It should be distinctly seen that his advice concerns cases of Christians, each party professing strict loyalty to Christ.

I. TALK TOGETHER. Not just at once, while there is heat of feeling; but presently, when both have had time to grow calm, and give room to those regretful feelings which are sure to come when the more difficult passages of life are reviewed. When offence is given, the evil to dread is the disposition of each to stand aloof from the other. This can soon widen into hopeless separation. In common life it is the work of friends to bring such separated ones together; in the Christian life we find Christ expects both the offended and the offender to be seeking each other. Talk in a Christian spirit will often correct misunderstandings, smooth difficulties, and put things straight. But Christ puts the chief burden of seeking reconciliation on the injured one. The one against whom the trespass is committed is to act.

II. BRING PRIVATE CHRISTIAN FRIENDS IN. There arise cases in which the judgment of one party may be blinded; and the correction may be beyond the power of the other party interested. Then it is wise to bring in independent and unprejudiced persons, who may help to unite the disputing parties. This will lead on to a consideration of the principle of "arbitration," and its possible adaptation, not only to Christian, but also to social and national disputes. For such arbitration the men of character and weight are sought. They gain power, in all phases of life, who culture character.

III. LET THE CHURCH DEAL WITH THE MATTER. The point is this - do not make a public thing of private disputes save as a last extremity. There will be different opinions as to what is referred to by the term "Church." Most probably our Lord was thinking of the recognized officials of the synagogue, who formed an "ecclesia," or Church, and acted, on consultation, representatively and authoritatively. Christ says, "Do everything by brotherliness; bring in the officials only as a last resort." - R.T.

The point of this verse is in the idea of the association of two people in prayer. Elsewhere we often read of the value of prayer in general. Here a special efficacy is ascribed to the united prayer of two Christian people. Let us consider the meaning of this. Why is Christ most present to help in united prayer?

I. IT IS UNSELFISH. Two people might be plotting together for some mutual advantage of a low order. But we cannot conceive of their having a prayer meeting about it. Many of our personal prayers are shamefully selfish. They do not seek that God's will may be done; they simply demand a concession to our own will. The same fatal evil may be found in a united prayer, but it is less likely there.

II. IT IS BROTHERLY. We must be on friendly, even on brotherly terms before we can really pray together. The union of two alone in prayer implies very deep mutual confidence. They must agree together. The reason why earth is so cut off from heaven is that earth is too often a scene of discord. When there is agreement on earth, earth is more like heaven, and the wish expressed on earth may be granted in heaven.

III. IT IS DELIBERATE. The conference and agreement of the two imply a careful consideration of the subject of the prayer. Many prayers are too hasty and inconsiderate to deserve any attention. But the grave conference in prayer here described by our Lord would give the weight of deliberation to the petition. Probably it would be less foolish than many private prayers.

IV. IT HONORS THE IDEA OF THE CHURCH. Christ encouraged secret prayer in private devotion (Matthew 6:6). This should be a daily practice. But there are reasons when more is required, viz. in general public worship and in prayer for special objects. Now, while Christ deals with individual souls in the first instance, he is also interested in social religion. He did not found an order of hermits, he founded a Church. He is present in his Church in a peculiar way. This is the real secret of the answer to united prayer. It is difficult to break through the reserve which too often keeps us back from the prayer which our Lord here encourages. But it is our duty to do so.

V. IT SHOWS THE POWER OF THE PEW. We are not heard for our much speaking, our many words; neither are we heard on account of our numerical strength. In listening to prayer God does not count heads; he weighs hearts. One Elijah stands for more in prayer than a cathedral full of listless worshippers. The ideal Church is not the large Church, but the Christ-like Church. Religious statistics encourage a most unspiritual way of valuing Christian work and estimating Church progress. The Church of but two members cannot be a weak Church, if those two members are united in prayer. Further, it is to be noted that the value of a prayer meeting cannot be measured by the numbers that attend it. A small meeting may be a very real one, and if it is truly united it must have power with God. It is foolish, therefore, to despair of such a meeting because it is sparsely attended. The prayer meeting of but two is here commended by Christ. If it be a meeting at all, though reduced to the numerical minimum, it may issue in incalculable results. - W.F.A.

This verse is part of a digression from our Lord's point. Perhaps it is suggested by the disunion occasioned by the disputing of the disciples, and our Lord takes the opportunity of pressing the importance and value of preserving mutual agreement. The disunited feeling spoils everything in Christian life; it spoils even prayer. Harmony, unity, mutual trustfulness, make up the atmosphere in which everything Christian can thrive. Our Lord. makes prayer a representative of every phase of Christian life and relation. This text is, with ver. 20, a very familiar promise, often used in acts of public prayer, but almost always misquoted. (It is remarkable how many scriptural texts have non-scriptural ideas attached to them, through misquotation.) It is always right, and always best, to take God's Word as it precisely is. Ver. 19 appears to be an unconditional promise, but it is not. What we ask shall be done for us, but only if two of you, my disciples, join to ask; and only if you two are really agreed in the matter about which you ask. It will at once be seen that, simple as these conditions sound, they really are searching conditions, and were especially searching to those disputatious disciples.

I. THE AGREEMENT OF CHRISTIAN DISCIPLES. This suggests what is the primary foundation principle of Christ's Church. We know what it has developed to; it is well to see what it has sprung from. it is the voluntary union, for worship, fellowship, and prayer, of two or three. They must be disciples; they must meet together; then we may apply the term "Church" to them. They must agree on some special points of interest, if they allow large liberty of opinion in other matters. The real uniting bond must be their common love to Christ, and purpose to secure the honour of his Name. And the Divine seal set upon their fellowship will be the spiritual presence of Jesus, and all that for them, and by means of them, which his spiritual presence involves.

II. THE PRAYER POWER WHICH COMES OUT OF SUCH AGREEMENTS. It is a meeting of necessary conditions. It is a persuasion with God. Such agreement differs from personal prayer in two things:

1. It represents interest in others.

2. It indicates thoughtful consideration. Many a private prayer cannot be answered because it is only the utterance of a passing impulse, and had better not be answered. What we consult; over becomes intelligent. Well-considered prayer cannot fail to gain the Divine regard. - R.T.

There am I in the midst of them. Familiarity with this sentence, and a circle of fixed associations gathering round it, prevent our observing what a striking and revealing sentence it is. He who spoke the words was standing in the midst of the disciples, in the necessary limitations of a human body. And vet he says to them that wherever two or three are gathered together in his name, he is actually with them; in the midst of them; and this seems to imply that his presence might actually be realized and felt by them. This was a hopelessly extravagant declaration for any mere limited man to make. Already Christ could present himself as he really was, and soon manifestly would be - an unlimited spiritual presence.

I. THE FIRST CONDITION IS SINCERITY. The two or three must meet in Christ's name, distinctly as his disciples, to whom his honour is the supreme interest. The one thing that our Lord most severely rebuked was "hypocrisy." The one thing from which he turned away was "insincerity." Poverty of means or mind was no hindrance to him; but he could only show himself to the true hearted. It is the ever-working law of Christ. He comes only to the sincere.

II. THE NEXT CONDITION IS CULTURE. Precisely, the culture of the spiritual faculties and susceptibilities. This is not adequately apprehended. Our Lord put it very strongly to his select disciples, when he said to them, "The world shall not see me, but ye see me." Their spiritual culture enabled them to see. The higher faculties of the soul are quickened by personal relation to Christ "who is our Life;" but those quickened faculties need culture, then the soul breathes in a spiritual atmosphere, sees spiritual things, handles spiritual realities, and recognizes the presence of the spiritual Lord. It is suggested that the gathering together of the disciples involves their helping one another to secure this spiritual culture; those of the fuller and higher attainments inspiring and aiding their brethren.

III. THE NEXT CONDITION IS UNITY. It might seem as if unity in request were all that was necessary; but the true unity lies in the soul conditions of which the request is but an expression and illustration. And it will be found that the true unity lies in the spiritual growth and culture of each one; just as the health of a tree is found by the growth and enterprise of all the branches. - R.T.

Jesus once required forgiveness to be repeated seven times (Luke 17:4). St. Peter now asks what is to be done when these seven times of pardon are passed. Our Lord simply multiplies them by seventy. There is to be no arithmetic in the matter; there is to be no limit to forgiveness.

I. IT IS A MISTAKE TO SEARCH FOR THE MINIMUM OF DUTY. Why should St. Peter want to know what to do when he had forgiven seven times? Was there any law which he might transgress if he went too far in the generosity of pardon? His question was one that should never have been asked. It savours of rabbinical casuistry. Now, one of the great defects of casuistry is that it is too often pursued in the interest of those who wish to do no more good than is absolutely required of them. But the spirit of such a desire is immoral. He who seeks a limit to forgiveness has not really a forgiving spirit at all. He only forgives under compulsion, that is to say, he does not really forgive in his heart. So it is with all other duties. When we ask how far must we go, with how little will God be satisfied, we betray a spirit out of sympathy with our duty. If we loved it we should not anxiously search for the line of obligation, we should rather press on to the utmost with an enthusiastic desire to do our best.

II. FORGIVENESS CANNOT HAVE A LIMIT. Some duties are limited, although we are free to exceed the limit. This is the case with honesty. We have simply to pay what we owe, to give a just price for what we buy, to refrain from stealing, and we have discharged the whole of our obligation in this direction. Thus, at all events in the pecuniary world, it is possible to be absolutely honest, and hosts of people have reached the stage of absoluteness in regard to this duty. But there are other duties that run out to the infinite; we can never entirely compress them. All our spiritual education only enables us to reach towards a little more of their boundless possibilities. Of such a nature is forgiveness. We may be called at any moment to carry this further than we have yet gone.

III. THE LIMITLESS CHARACTER OF FORGIVENESS SPRINGS FROM ITS DIVINE ORIGIN. Forgiveness is God-like. It belongs to the ethics of heaven. It cannot be enforced in the law courts of earth, where Shylock is awarded his pound of flesh. In strict right and law, forgiveness cannot be enacted. Forgiveness is above law, as the sovereign who pardons in clemency is above the judge who is compelled to condemn in justice. God forgives without limit. He requires the condition of repentance, and this we have a right to demand also (see Luke 17:3). But when that is present he forgives hardened old offenders, who have grieved his Spirit many and many a time before. It is only the limitless forgiveness of God that makes it possible for us to be pardoned by him. Then it is incumbent on us to show the same spirit towards our fellow men. - W.F.A.

The form of Peter's question shows that he still considered that to forgive was not the law of the kingdom, but a tentative measure which might at any moment be revoked, that underneath the forgiveness there lies the right to revenge. We also know this feeling of Peter's, that in forgiving we are doing something more than could be demanded of us. And this feeling, wherever it exists, shows that we are living with retaliation for the law, forgiveness for the exception. It is to mark with reprobation the unforgiving and self seeking spirit that our Lord utters this parable.

I. The first result of this spirit is that IT LEADS TO DISHONOURABLE OUTLAY UPON OURSELVES OF WHAT GOD HAS GIVEN US FOR BETTER USES. The man whose great motive in life is the desire to get all the good out of it he can for himself will contract debt to God, that is, will contract real guilt, exactly in proportion to his opportunities of doing good and playing a high part in life. Whether the power be great or little, the guilt contracted is the same, if we lay out on ourselves what should in simple honesty have been laid out on God, if we habitually divert from God the revenues which truly belong to him.

II. But still more strongly does the parable point to THE HATEFULNESS OF AN UNFORGIVING SPIRIT. The man was not softened by the remission of his own great debt. So it often is with the sinner deadened by long sin. There is no deep contrition in his cry for pardon, only a desire to escape, as selfish as the desire to sin was. If the forgiving love of God does not humble, it hardens us. If we take it as a mere trifle, and are not thoroughly humbled by it, we are only too apt to show our zeal in exposing and reproving the faults of other men, or by violent and unrelenting condemnation of those who offend us. The hatefulness of this spirit is signalized by one or two added particulars.

1. The petty amount of the debt he exacts as set over against the enormity of that which had been remitted to himself. There is something almost incredibly mean as well as savage in this man's quick remembrance of the pence that are due to himself, while he so easily puts from his mind the ten thousand talents he owes. But our incredulity gives way when we think of the debt we owe God and the trifles committed against us which we find it so hard to forget. What are the causes of quarrel among men? Often a word, a look, an expression unwittingly dropped. Or measure even the deepest injury that has ever been done to you; the wrong that has darkened or obstructed your whole life with that for which you yourself need to ask forgiveness of God, and say whether you ought still to be implacable. No doubt you may detect in the injuries done to you more malice and intention to wound than in your own sins against God; but you will certainly not find more dishonoring neglect, more culpable repudiation of what was due. And what was the harm done in comparison with giving false impressions about God or counterworking his will? Is our shame for sin against God as intense and as real as our indignation at injuries done to ourselves?

2. But the chief aggravation of this man's conduct lay in the tact that he had just been forgives. He thought mercy a good thing so long as he was the object of it, but in the presence of a debtor he is deaf to the reasons that filled his own mouth immediately before. And how hard do we all find it to deal with others as God has dealt with us! We go from his presence, where we have felt it is mercy, which is the most needful gift in a world like this - it is mercy which gives us hope at all - and we go straight to our fellow servant and exact all our due. Here, then, our Lord enounces the law of unlimited forgiveness as one of the essential laws of his kingdom. Men are to be held together, not by external compulsion, but by the inward disposition of each member of the society to forgive and be on terms of brotherly kindness with every other member. We lose much of the power and practical benefit of Christ's teaching by refusing to listen to what he says about his kingdom as cordially as to what he says about individuals. We are not, perhaps, too much, but too exclusively taken up with the saving of our own souls, neglecting to consider that the Bible throughout takes to do with the Church and people of God, with the kingdom; and with the individual only as a member of the kingdom of God. And so it is not for the individual Christ legislates. To unite us individually to God he recgonizes as only half his work. Our salvation consists, not only in being brought into reconciliation with God, but in our becoming reconciled to men. The man who is content if he is sure his own soul is safe has great cause to believe it in danger, for in Christ we are knit one to another. But how are we to get into a right state of feeling towards other men; to find it natural to forgive always, not to stand on our rights and exact our dues, but to be moved by the desire to promote the interests of others? The true way to a forgiving spirit is to be forgiven, to go back again and again to God, and count over our debt to him, though the man, whose mind is filled with a true view of his own wrong doing, always feels how much more he has been forgiven than he can ever be called on to forgive. We must begin, therefore, with the truth about ourselves. - D.

Peter's question here was suggested by his Lord's doctrine concerning Christian judgment (vers. 15-20). "Then came Peter," etc. The form of Peter's question may have been suggested by the custom of the rabbins who from Amos 1:3 - "For three transgressions, and for four, I will not turn away wrath" - held that three offences were to be forgiven, and not the fourth; or, uniting the two numbers, made "seven times" the extreme limit of their forgiveness. The Lord's reply teaches us -


1. Forgiveness should never be refused when sought with repentance.

(1) That repentance is understood here is evident from the illustrative parable of the two debtors (vers. 26, 29). Also from the parallel place (see Luke 17:4).

(2) To gain a brother is more noble than to ruin him. Mercy is nobler than sacrifice.

(3) The gaining of a brother is greater than the recovery of property. Life is more than meat. How much is a man better than a sheep?

2. Forgiveness is no mercy to the impenitent.

(1) It leaves his evil nature still unchanged.

(2) It encourages and hardens him in his perversity.

(3) It offends public justice. The fellow servants of the oppressor were "exceeding sorry." They looked to their lord for his judgment upon the tyrant.


1. God's mercy is boundless.

(1) Offences against God, as compared with offences against our fellows, are as "ten thousand talents" to "one hundred pence." We should regard ourselves as debtors to God in all we have and all we are.

(2) It is folly in us to say to him, "I will pay thee all." He that goes about to establish his own righteousness is guilty of this folly of attempting with nothing to pay all (cf. ver. 25; Romans 10:3).

(3) The parable teaches that the only way to forgiveness is to acknowledge our debt and appeal only to mercy. The promise to pay may express the desire of the contrite heart to make amends.

(4) The Lord does not exact; he forgives (cf. Psalm 78:38, 40). His mercy is limited neither to "seven times" nor to "seventy times seven."

2. We must forgive as we are .forgiven.

(1) This is required (cf. Matthew 6:12; Mark 11:25, 26). It was at the close of the great Day of Atonement that the jubilee trumpet sounded a release from debts (see Leviticus 25:9).

(2) To the merciless God will show no mercy. A claim pushed to an extremity becomes a wrong. Mercilessness is great wickedness. "Thou wicked servant!" "To be beggars to God and tyrants to our brethren is the height of depravity" (Helfrich).

3. Forgiveness must be "from the heart."

(1) God's reasons of mercy are from himself. "He will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy;" "He was moved with compassion."

(2) So the wisdom which is from above, true religion, is "easy to be entreated." The returning prodigal child will find a relenting heart. The insolvent debtor, a compassionate creditor. The distressed tenant, a lenient landlord. Gratitude to God will make it so. "I am thy servant; for thou hast loosed my bonds."

(3) This is a forgiveness which leaves no pique behind, no refusal of friendship. We should keep no account of the offences of a brother, but pass them over, and so forgive and forget until it becomes a habit to do so.


1. There is a time for reckoning with the King.

(1) The King reckons with his servants when their regeneration commences. Then they reflect upon their spiritual state, and upon their liability to ruin.

(2) There are retributions and rewards in the order of God's providence in this world.

(3) The grand reckoning will be in the day of judgment at the end of the age. To this end God keeps account (see Deuteronomy 32:34). Every sin we commit is a debt to God. The aggregate is the "ten thousand talents"

2. His pardons will be retracted from the unmerciful.

(1) The same servant went out and throttled his fellow servant. "Went out." How different may be our conduct when we go out into the world from what it is when we go into our closet! Went out; not immediately, perhaps, but when by degrees the spirit of the world replaced the grateful emotion.

(2) Those who have experienced God's mercy have the greater reason to deprecate his wrath. They will find the "seventy times seven" of the mercy transformed into wrath (cf. Genesis 4:24). How serious, then, may be the consequences of the difference between the attitude of the closet and that of the world!

3. How fearful are the treasures of wrath!

(1) There are the sufferings of loss. The debtor is sold up. He forfeits wife, children, property. All ennobling excellences of his nature are removed. His talents, his trusts, are taken away (cf. Matthew 25:15, 28). "Those who sell themselves to work wickedness must be sold to make satisfaction" (Henry).

(2) The sufferings of reproach. "Thou wicked servant." This expresses a perception which God will give to the sinner of the enormity of his conduct. "I forgave thee all that debt." It is terrible to be upbraided with the mercy we have abused. "Shouldst not thou also," etc.? What a contrast is here with the mercy that is given liberally without upbraiding (James 1:5)!

(3) Torment. Eastern prisons were places of torment (cf. Matthew 25:46; 2 Peter 2:4, 17; Jude 1:6). The prison keepers are the tormentors (cf. Revelation 14:10-12). The tortures are the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched.

(4) The sufferer has no voice to reply. - J.A.M.

Until seventy times seven. This is no fixed number. It is a figurative way of saying that there is, and there can be, no limit to Christian forgiveness. To understand the point and force of St. Peter's question, it is necessary to know the rabbinical rules of forgiveness with which he would be familiar. It was a settled rule of the rabbis that forgiveness should not be extended more than three times. Edersheim says, "It was a principle of rabbinism that, even if the wrong doer had made full restoration, he would not obtain forgiveness till he had asked it of him whom he had wronged, but that it was cruelty in such circumstances to refuse pardon." It says much for St. Peter's apprehension of his Master that he was sure he would not limit forgiveness to the rabbinical "three times." From his point of view, making the three times into seven times was a splendid piece of liberality. But he could not measure the generosity and nobility of his Lord, who took the "three times" and made it "seventy times seven." "It did not occur to St. Peter that the very act of numbering offences marked an externalism which had never entered into, nor comprehended, the spirit of Christ. He had yet to learn, what we, alas! too often forget, that as Christ's forgiveness, so that of the Christian, must not be computed by numbers. It is qualitative, not quantitative. Christ forgives sin, not sins; and he who has experienced it follows in his footsteps."

I. THE ULTIMATE LIMIT IS THE DIVINE EXAMPLE OF FORGIVENESS. "As Christ forgave you, so also do ye." What do we expect from God? Can we conceive of a limit to the times when we may hope for the mercy of God? What would life be worth if we could? The fear of outstretching the limit would fill us with misery. Man can never lose the hope in God. If he does he becomes fixed in sin. "There is forgiveness with thee;" a man must be able to say that in full view of the provocations of a long life, when he comes to his dying day. To the Divine forgiveness there is no qualification of degrees or numbers.

II. THE PRACTICAL LIMIT IS OUR CHRISTLY LOVE FOR OUR BROTHER. If we are Christly, we want to do him good. It does not matter about ourselves, and injury done to us. It does matter to a Christly man that a brother has done a wrong. The Christly man is set upon his recovery from the wrong; and if that means his forgiveness over and over again, until patience is tried unto the uttermost, the Christly man will forgive and bear, if only he may win back his erring brother at last. - R.T.

This parable follows our Lord's answer to St. Peter's question about the limits of forgiveness. The great reason why we should forgive freely is that we have been freely forgiven much more than any men owe to us.

I. THE GREAT DEBT. This represents what the sinner owes to God. We pray that God will forgive us our debts (Matthew 6:12). Deficiencies of duty are like debts considered as arrears of payments. Positive transgressions are like debts, through our having wilfully appropriated what was not our own without paying for it. The accumulated omissions and offences make up the one consolidated debt of guilt.

1. Its immense size. Christ names a fabulous sum. There is no counting the accumulated sins of a lifetime.

2. Its full exposure. The miserable debtor had been postponing the evil day. Perhaps, as he had been left long to himself, he had begun to hope that he would never be called to account. But the day of reckoning came. That day will come forevery soul. Long delay means an aggravated debt.

II. THE DREADFUL PUNISHMENT. It was according to the stern legislation of antiquity, and Christ bases his parables on familiar aspects of life without thereby justifying the facts and usages that he describes. In the spiritual world great punishment is the due of great sin. A reaction against the physical horrors of the mediaeval hell has blinded our age to this fearful truth. Yet Christ frequently affirms it in calm, terrible language.

III. THE GENEROUS FORGIVENESS. In his dismay the debtor grovels at the feet of his lord, and foolishly offers to repay all if only the king will be patient and give him time. That is impossible, and the king knows it. We can never repay what we owe to God. If his mercy only took the form of staying execution, at best it would only lead to a postponement of our doom. But the king forgave the debtor - forgave him completely. God forgives freely and fully. He acts royally. He does not spoil his gift by making it but half a pardon. The great debt is completely cancelled to the penitent soul.

IV. THE SUBSEQUENT CRUELTY. The debtor's conduct was doubly odious. He had just been forgiven himself, and his debt was vastly greater than his fellow servant's. Yet he treated the poor man with brutal insistence, with cruel harshness. Nothing could be more odious than this conduct. But is it not just the conduct of every Christian who will not forgive his brother? The Christian should be melted by the sight of God's boundless clemency, by his own reception of it, and by the knowledge that God has forgiven him far more than anything he can ever have to forgive his brother.

V. THE FINAL DOOM. The king is justly angry. He recalls the pardon. He even has his wretched debtor put to torture. There are degrees of punishment in the future world, and the worse torment is reserved for those who, having accepted the mercy of God for themselves, have had no mercy on their brother-men. - W.F.A.

Upon his earnest petition, the man gains a full and free forgiveness; but the question arises - Did he deserve it? Was he in a state of mind fit to receive it? Was the forgiveness any real moral good to him? This is soon answered. The man, fresh from his great forgiveness, finds a fellow servant who owes him but a trifling sum, and his severity with him shows clearly enough that his heart was untouched. The unforgiving manifest that they are unfitted to receive God's forgiveness. The Christian limit of forgiveness is - Forgive your fellow men as freely and as fully as God has forgiven you. The Christian law of forgiveness is - Expect God to forgive you only when you are in such a penitent, humble, and sympathetic frame of mind that you can easily forgive your fellows.

I. SEE WHAT A MARVEL OF GRACE THAT DIVINE FORGIVENESS IS. Estimate it aright, and you will feel that there must be some preparedness for receiving such a blessing.

1. Think of the greatness of the sin to be forgiven us. Take Christ's figure of the immense debt. See sin as ingratitude; and as disobedience.

2. Think of the aggravations of sin. The witfulness of many sins. They are sins against light and knowledge. They are even committed after forgiveness.

3. Think what love is shown in the conditions of forgiveness. The objective ground of remission is the gift and sacrifice of God's well beloved Son.

4. Think of the freeness and fulness of God's forgiveness. There is no possibility of purchasing it; it must come to us as a gift of infinite love. It is no limited blessing. God blots out the record utterly, as a cloud is blotted from the sky, and flings our sins away into the depths of the sea.

II. SEE WHAT IS THE STATE OF MIND BEFITTING THE RECIPIENTS OF THE DIVINE FORGIVENESS. We can see plainly enough that the man introduced by our Lord was wholly unworthy of the forgiveness of that debt. It did him no sort of moral good. He was in no sense ready for the forgiveness. So there are many who cannot be forgiven because they are not in such moral states as would make forgiveness any blessing to them. A humbled, regretful, gracious spirit is necessary. Such a spirit would be tested at once by an opportunity of showing a forgiving mind. Tender, melted, kind. The feeling of being undeserving, unworthy. Christ's teaching on this point has even a severe side - even his forgiveness may be revoked, if he finds, by our behaviour after forgiveness, that we were morally unfitted to receive it. - R.T.

The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database.
Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2010 by Biblesoft, Inc.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Bible Hub
Matthew 17
Top of Page
Top of Page