Matthew Bible Study (The Gospel of the King and the Kingdom of Heaven)

Matthew 18:1-20, Understanding Jesus’ Humility


Jesus has used the temple tax as a teaching moment to explain how the life of a disciple is one of submission. Jesus will submit himself to death by the Jewish leaders. Jesus will submit to the temple tax, even though he is free from it, because he does not want cause an obstacle to the gospel. Chapter 18 continues from this discussion. The disciples now have a question for Jesus. “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (18:1 NASB). This is a rather curious question based on what Jesus has just taught about himself and submission. So Jesus must use this as an opportunity to talk about the need for humility.

The Picture Of Humility (18:1-5)

Jesus calls for a child to stand in the midst of them to use as a teaching illustration. Jesus tells his disciples that they must turn and become like children or they will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Now there are two aspects we need to consider as Jesus gives this teaching. First, the disciples need to turn. Their concern for greatness is wrong. You will never enter the kingdom of heaven if greatness is your concern. Please notice that the disciples were not talking about greatness in the world. They want to be great in the kingdom of heaven. Yet Jesus still says that you need to turn from that kind of thinking. If you want to be important in the kingdom, then you are not going to be in the kingdom.

Second, Jesus says that they need to become like children. This has led to all kinds of curious explanations. But there is one big point when you say that you need to be like children in the Greco-Roman world. This is a picture of insignificance. Children did not have status in the first century world. Even in our culture, children are consider minors and do not full rights until they reach adulthood. To become like a child has nothing to do with morality, but has to do with significance. Jesus is teaching his disciples that they must lower themselves. You will notice that this is exactly what Jesus says in verse 4.

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:4 ESV)

I believe the NIV accurately represents the idea in its translation:

Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:4 NIV)

Jesus says that we need to make ourselves low. In fact, we are to lower ourselves in such a way so that we would welcome a child (18:5). Consider the nature of this humble thinking. It is easy to be dismissive of children. It was easy to do then and it is easy to do today. But Jesus says that we would lower our thinking about ourselves to such a level that we would receive and welcome children, rather than be dismissive of them.

In short, there needs to be a life turn and that life turn is toward humility. The change of life is in how we think about ourselves. In last week’s lesson we saw Jesus putting the interests of others ahead of his own. Jesus was elevating their needs and desires. Now Jesus is teaching his disciples to lower the way they think about themselves.

When I was a kid, it was always fun to go to McDonalds and such places to be able to go play on their playgrounds. But there is a characteristic about these play areas. They all have low doorways. It is no problem for children to enter the play area and enter the play equipment because the doorway is their height. Children do not have to bend down to enter. They just run in. However, parents have to stoop. Adults are being prevented from entering the equipment. Jesus is picturing the kingdom of heaven as a very low doorway in which the only way to enter is if you lower yourself. Thinking about self will not let you in. Thinking about how important you are will keep you out. Turning and lowering yourself is the only way to get in.

Humility Not To Cause Others To Sin (18:6-7)

Now Jesus is going to give a serious teaching in verses 6-7 that might seem out of place to this discussion. But it is a very important way of thinking that Jesus wants us to consider. Jesus says that if we cause a little one to sin, it would be better to have a large millstone put around your neck and drowned in the depths of the sea. You see that “little ones” becomes a metaphor for those who believe in Jesus in verse 6. Jesus says causing someone who believes in him to stumble so as to sin and fall away is disastrous. To harm another person spiritually is a very serious circumstance.

Why does Jesus say this right here? I submit to you that the reason this fits right here is because one of the primary ways we can cause people to fall away is because we are thinking about ourselves and not the other person. Listen to how Jesus says this in verse 7. There are all kinds of stumbling blocks and temptations in the world. But woe to us if we are the reason for the temptation and stumbling. Jesus is telling us that is it bad enough that there are so many ways to be tripped up spiritually in the world today. So make sure you are not one of those reasons. Make sure you are not making things spiritually worse for a person.

In short, this is another picture of humility. Disciples think about the spiritual welfare of others. They do not think about their own welfare first. Disciples make sure to speak and act in such a way so that they are not a cause for temptation and falling away. It is hard to read these words. It is hard to think about how many people have been harmed because people were concerned about their power, their authority, their greatness, and their significance. How many divisions have occurred because people needed to be in charge? How many people have been lost because other sheep were not considered in the decisions that shepherds, preachers, teachers, leaders, and others of a congregation made? Jesus’ words should be terrifying. It would be better to be drowned in the sea than cause one of Jesus’ little ones to fall away. Causing people to walk away or fall away because of our lack of humility receives a frightening and serious condemnation.

Humility To Cut Off Stumbling Blocks (18:8-9)

Now think about this context as you read what Jesus says next in verses 8-9. If you have grown up on the pews, you have heard this teaching. If your hand or foot or eye causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to get rid of a cause for stumbling and enter eternal life than be thrown into eternal fire. Not only are we to have the humility to not be a stumbling block in the lives of others, we need to have the humility to identify stumbling blocks in our own lives and cut them off.

Now I want you think about the importance of what Jesus said. Often our problem with sin is that we think we are strong enough to fight it alone. We do not see the need to make a radical decision to cut off our stumbling blocks because we think we can succeed by our own strength. We do not have the humility to realize that we need help. We do not have the humility to realize that this temptation is always going to be a temptation and we need to completely change our lives around so that we are not ensnared. Some of the support groups for people who are trying to recover from various addictions try to emphasize that this problem will always be there to tempt you back into it. Be humble enough to know that you have to steer clear of your addiction. I believe Jesus taught this idea first. Have the humility to realize that areas of weakness must be avoided. Have the humility to know that you are not strong enough in those sin areas and make life changes.

But now I want to say something that is really hard. The context of our discussion has been people. People are causes to sin. People are stumbling blocks. Friends, we need to make those hard decisions to cut out of our lives those who are tempting us back into sin. We must break away from people who are trying to drag us away from the Lord. There are so many causes for stumbling and you do not need more of them in your life. Have the humility to see what and who are causes for sin and make changes in your life so that you can enter life.

Humility To Not Despise Others (18:10-20)

Please notice that Jesus is still using the illustration of the child that is standing in their midst while he is teaching in verse 10. Jesus teaches to not despise these little ones. This reminds us that Jesus is still talking about humility. But Jesus has used this metaphor of children or little ones to refer to those who believe in him. Now Jesus is going to show the heart of God in verses 11-14. Jesus observes that a person who is able to retrieve a lost sheep rejoices. Now listen to verse 14.

So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:14 ESV)

The Lord loves his sheep. The Lord loves his sheep equally and goes after each one. The heart of our Lord is not despise or ignore the wayward. Every person matters to the Lord. So notice the picture in verse 15. If your brother or sister sins against you, you do not dismiss them or discard them. Every sheep matters to God. Now our context continues to be very important. Are we to go to the brother or sister in Christ that sinned against us because we are so upset that they did something against us? Our context is not about thinking about ourselves. Jesus is teaching about humility. We go to the person, not because we are upset by being wronged, but we are so concerned that our brother or sister has sinned and we want that lost sheep to be rescued! Everyone matters to God. We have the humility to not be dismissive of others but are so deeply concerned about their sin that we want to be part of their spiritual rescue.

Friends, what we read in verses 15-17 has nothing to do with the fact that we have been sinned against. Verses 15-17 has everything do with have the humility to love the soul of the person who has stumbled and needing to do something about it. We will go to the person privately about a person’s sin because we do not want them to be thrown into eternal fire (cf. 18:8). Why do we get another person or two if the person refuses to acknowledge their sin? Is it because we want to be right and get this person to grovel? No, because such thinking is what Jesus is condemning. We are making ourselves low. We are counting ourselves insignificant for the sake of saving the person who is in sin. So we get one or two more people. Most likely you will bring with you spiritual leaders, like shepherds, to address the sin because God loves sheep equally. If the brother or sister in sin still refuses to listen, then we let the church know. Why? Are we trying to embarrass the person? No. Are we trying to condemn the person? No. We let the church know because we want everyone to part of the rescue effort because God loves all sheep equally and it is not his will for any to perish (18:14). At the end of verse 17 Jesus says that if the brother or sister who has sinned and rejects listening to one of us, a few of us, and all of us pleading our love to rescue them, then let them be treated as a Gentile or tax collector. Why would Jesus say that? Are we trying to be mean? No. Are we punishing the person? No. Are we trying to harm the person? No. The point is very simple. We cannot treat them as if their soul is safe. We cannot condone their sinning. We cannot pretend like they are saved when they are clearly violating what God said.

Now I want us to think about this process in humility. So do we go through all these steps in a day? Do we go through all these steps in a week? No. Clearly this is a long process of trying to save the sheep that has wandered off. This is not about us. This is about helping the sheep return to Jesus’ fold. We are walking in care and wisdom to try to extract this sheep from the stubborn sin that has engulfed them. We are going through the process of snatching the sheep from the fire (cf. Jude 23).

Please look at verses 18-20 in this context also. Jesus is not teaching that wherever two people gather, that makes a church and so you are church if you go on vacation somewhere. I do not know why this scripture has been used so often to argue this point when this is clearly not at all what Jesus is saying. What Jesus is teaching is the binding nature of the church’s actions. Jesus’ point is that what we bind and loose on earth will be bound and loosed in heaven. You might remember that Jesus said the same thing to Peter and the apostles in Matthew 16:19. Here is the point: if someone comes to you about your sin, and then a couple people come to you about your sin, and then the whole church comes to you about your sin, and you still refuse to see your sin and repent, you are not okay with God. Do not go to some other church and hide your sin. Listen to what the church is trying to do for you. Have the humility to listen to your brothers and sisters who are trying to rescue you. The Lord is with us when we are working to rescue sheep who have stumbled. This is the point of the paragraph. We are acting on the Lord’s behalf as individuals and as a church when we have to work to rescue those who have strayed away.


So Jesus gives us a beautiful picture of humility. Jesus teaches us to lower ourselves. If we do not turn and lower ourselves to the status of a child, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. So we practice humility to not cause another believer to stumble and fall away. We practice humility by cutting off everything that causes us to sin. We practice humility to reach out for lost sheep because God loves all sheep equally. We practice humility as we do not worry about how we have been wronged but that a person has sinned and needs to repent to the Lord before it is too late.

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