You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Discipleship Discourse’ tag.

Jesus commands his followers not to despise, or “look down on” the little ones. Although this seems fairly straight forward, there are several issues with this saying.

First, what happened to Matthew 18:11? In the King James Version the verse reads “For the Son of Man came to save the lost.” At some point a copiest added Luke 19:10 in order to enhance the connection between verse 10 and verses 12-14 (Morris, Matthew, 464). Most modern translations do not include the verse.

Second, the verb καταφρονέω has a wide range of meanings, such as “not to be concerned with.” But Luz points out it is not synonymous with σκανδαλίζω, the verb used in the previous passage (cause to sin). He considers this verb “much weaker” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 440, note 27). There is therefore a shift away from causing a child to sin to simply ignoring children as unimportant.

Third, are the “little ones” in this paragraph the children from verse 5?  Jesus used a word which means child in v. 5 (παιδία) but on verses 5-6 he uses a more generic term (μικροί). It appears Jesus has actual children in mind in this saying rather than his disciples.

Eh….No.

The reason no one should despise a little one is that they have an angel before the father. Does Jesus imply children have guardian angels? One problem with Christian thinking about angels is we are more influence by popular culture than the Bible. In the Bible, angels are in fact concerned for the believer, but they never are portrayed as “Harold the Angel” who is trying to earn his wings.

There is some hint of “angels as guardians” in the Old Testament and the literature of the Second Temple period. In Psalm 91:11-13, for example, angels guard every way of the psalmist. This is the verse Satan himself quotes during Jesus’s temptation. There are several stories in the Old Testament in which people see angels (Jacob in Gen 24:7, 24:40, 48:16). There are a number of Second Temple allusions to something like a guarding angel. In Tobit 5:4-22, Tobit sees the angel Raphael, Raphael then travels with him and protects his on several occasions.

Most modern discussions of angels range from sober recognition of the protection of God to new age psychobabble. For example, Ulrich Luz concludes guardian angels are part of an outdated worldview. “I am of the opinion that a modern interpretation of Matt 18:10 can simply try to take seriously the substance of the concern expressed in the language of an earlier age.”  He therefore abandons “the concrete idea of guardian angels, since it is no longer self-evident to the modern mind.”  But he also observes that even Martin Luther believed “it is proper and necessary to preach about the good guardian angel of children who wears a white robe and sits at the child’s crib” (Matthew 8-20, 440, note 28). This verse is sometime used to defend infant baptism, although that is a particularly theological reading of this difficult verse.

Most modern discussions of angels sounds more like new age psychobabble. In modern new age, mystical Christianity the guardian angel idea has grown into a wild eco-system of demi-gods who allegedly can be contacted, evoked and manipulated into giving you good fortune and wealth. “Guardian angels watch over you throughout your lifetime. Guardian angels provide protection, guidance and encouragement. Your guardian angel is praying for you and delivering the answers to your prayers. Your guardian angel also keeps a record of the choices you have made in your lifetime.

This is not at all what Jesus is saying! He says that the little ones have an advocate before God’s throne. By using a small child as an illustration in Matthew 18, Jesus is making a lesser-to-greater argument. If even a child receives justice before God, how much more the follower of Jesus. If there are “angels in heaven” pleading the case of little children, how much more should the true disciple of Jesus care for the lowest in their society?

This is a particularly important principle for global Christianity. In the west, there is a general sense that children are vulnerable and need to be protected, including proper health care and education. Even where this is woefully inadequate, most western countries understand the need to care for children. But in countries where care for children is not an important cultural value Christianity must take the lead and care for the child, especially those who are orphaned or have special needs.

What does Jesus mean when he says “if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” in Matthew 18:8?

One of the more disturbing sayings in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus’s command to his disciples to cut off a hand, foot or eye is better than being sent to hell. Also has already said it is better to pluck out an eye (5:29-30) than to enter hell with two good eyes. In that context I suggested Jesus meant “don’t let your eyes make you sin.” Jesus’s command to “cut off your hand” is an intentionally shocking saying by Jesus, although most modern readers take these commands to maim oneself as warnings intended to catch the reader off-guard and shock them.

Was mutilation used as a punishment in the Second Temple Period? Josephus refers to the amputation of hands for forgery: “Galileans had cut off his brother’s hands on a charge of forging letters prior to the outbreak of hostilities” (Life, 177). Rather than execute a man for treason, Josephus substituted cutting off a hand: “To his urgent request to spare him one hand I grudgingly consented; at which, to save himself the loss of both, he gladly drew his sword and struck off his left hand” ((Life, 34, 173, cf. JW 2.21.10; see Morna Hooker, Mark, 233).

Anyone in the Jewish audience would have been shocked at the suggestion one ought to mutilate themselves in order to avoid sin. Although there is an “eye for an eye” principle in the Law, it was not intended for self-control. Given what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount about the source of sin, would cutting off a hand or foot actually control the thoughts and desires which motive one to steal or physically harm another person?

Why the hand, foot and eye? Nolland suggests these are the three body parts which mediate our contact with the world (Matthew, 739). The ear could be included, since it hears; the tongue is the source of much sin in the Wisdom lit, but it shows what is inside a person.

Jesus says it is better to be maimed that enter into hell, where “the fire never goes out and the worms never die.”Gehenna refers to the valley (ge in Hebrew) of Hinnom.  Manasseh used this valley to sacrifice human to Moloch. Josiah destroyed these altars and turned the valley into a garbage dump (2 Kings 23:10). Because fires burned continually, it became a metaphor for hell. The fire in verse 44 is “unquenchable” (ἄσβεστος), the same word used in Matthew 25:41 for the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. John the Baptist described the messiah has having his winnowing fork ready to gather the wheat into his barn and the chaff to the unquenchable fire.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24, the final line of the book describe a scene of apocalyptic judgment. The metaphor appears in Judith 16:17 (probably quoting Isaiah and applying it to judgment on Assyria) and Sirach 7:17 (the ultimate punishment of the ungodly). Like all metaphors for hell, it is difficult to know how literal the image of constantly burning flesh should be taken.

Isaiah 66:24 (NRSV) And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

Judith 16:17 (NRSV) Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the Day of Judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.

Sirach 7:17 (NRSV) Humble yourself to the utmost, for the punishment of the ungodly is fire and worms.

This gruesome metaphor is a vivid contrast to the goodness of entering into the life of the kingdom of God. But “the work of a physician who may have to amputate parts of a body” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 436).

This is a radical call to holiness; how ought it work out in the life of the believer today? Sometimes we need to separate from a particular behavior because it may cause us to sin. Some of these are very obvious and most Christians have enough sense to know to avoid the “big sins.” It is possible some behavior is socially acceptable and popular, but it puts us in a place where we sin. When I talk with tends or college age people, I talk quite a bit about entertainment choices. Most Christians have the sense to stay away from the obvious sins on the internet, but if your use of social media leads to mean-spirit talk, gossip, materialism, etc. the perhaps your phone needs to be amputated from your hand!

Sometimes it is necessary to voluntarily separate from other people because they may lead you into sin. A classic example: a person who struggles with alcoholism should not hang out with friends at a bar. But if you have a friend who constantly encourages gossip, maybe it is time to amputate that person from your life.

The disciples of Jesus are going to face temptations. In fact, in Matthew 18:7 he says that it is necessary for temptations to come. The word translated “temptation” in the ESV (σκάνδαλον) is the same as “cause to sin” in 18:6. The NIV 2011 renders the phrase “the things that cause people to stumble” and the NRSV has “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks.”

In Matthew 18:1-9 the noun σκάνδαλον refers to putting something in the way of another person to cause them to stumble. Leviticus 19:14 is a command not to place a stumbling block (מִכְשׁוֹל, LXX σκάνδαλον) in front of the blind causing them to trip. By way of illustration, a football player to throws himself at the feet of another player to cause him to trip. Causing someone to sin may not be as intentional as this, but the result is the same, a person is led into some sin by some circumstance in this world.

In Matthew13 the same word is used in the Parable of the Sower. The seed falling on the rocky ground has no roots so it withers up when persecution comes. This is the person who hears the gospel and seems to accept it, but something happens which causes them to fall away before they have produced fruit. Their faith is “tripped up” by trouble in this world Does this imply the person who “trips up” another is in danger of damnation? The true disciple of Jesus is careful how they live their lives so that they do not cause another to sin. As Craig Blomberg said, “a life-style characterized by causing others to sin is incompatible with true discipleship” (Matthew, 274).  

Jesus says the origin of this kind of temptation is “the world” not the disciple of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus will encounter all sorts of things in the world which may cause them to stumble. The neuter plural σκάνδαλα can be translated “things that cause stumbling.” What are “these things” Jesus has in mind? Certainly these could include the typical sins on offer in any culture, but the phrase as Jesus uses it may allude to a particular passage in the Old Testament.

In Ezekiel 14 the elders of Jerusalem have put “stumbling blocks in front of the people” by worshiping idols. The possible intertext is mentioned by Keener (Matthew, 449). I have developed it beyond what Keener does in his commentary, even if the LXX does not use σκάνδαλον. The Hebrew word translated as “stumbling block” (מִכְשׁוֹל) is a noun built from the verb כשׁל, to reel, stagger or stumble, but it is often used to describe the result of bad leaders. In Malachi 2:8, for example, the prophet rebukes bad priests who have “have caused many to stumble by your instruction.”

Similarly, in the context of Ezekiel 14 it is the religious aristocracy in charge of the Temple who are accused of consulting idols rather than God. As a result the Lord will “set his face against them” and no longer guide them at all. He will cut off the one who is leading the people astray “from the midst of my people.” If Jesus has a text like Ezekiel 14 in mind, then he may have in mind leaders who cause people under their leadership to sin. Just as the priests in Ezekiel 14 were leading God’s people into the extreme offense of idolatry, so too it is possible some leaders in Matthew’s community were leading their congregations into behaviors or beliefs which prevent them from actually hearing the Gospel.

Like a Hebrew prophet, Jesus pronounces “woe” on those who cause the stumbling of a little one. “Woe” expresses anguish or distress, like the old English use of the word “Alas!” It appears in Hebrew as הוֹי or  אוֹי and is used in the prophets frequently in the context of judgment. The one who causes others to sin face serious judgment (looking ahead to the hand or foot which causes one to sin).

It is easy enough to draw the analogy to later theological aberrations which understood Jesus in a way which could prevent someone from a full understanding of the Gospel, or a later behavioral aberration which is offensive to God. In a modern context, it is very easy point out examples of pastors and teachers who have been so utterly hypocritical that their congregations may never hear the simple Gospel of Jesus.

Jesus warns his disciples they are responsible for the flocks assigned to them and they will be held responsible for their well-being.

“Whoever receives a child, receives Jesus” refers to showing basic hospitality towards those who are in need.  Jesus says something similar in Matthew 10:40-2 where the “little ones” are the disciples and 25:35-40 where the “least of these” are given hospitality by the “sheep.” In this saying in Matthew 18:5-6 Jesus is warning his disciples that causing one of these “little ones” to sin is a very grave offense.

Millstone, Ancient, Israel, CapernaumTo “cause someone to sin” is a single word (σκανδαλίζω) often associated with being offended, or causing someone to stumble (the weaker and stronger brothers in Romans 14-15). The verb refers to putting something in the way of another person to cause them to stumble (think of a football player to throws himself at the feet of another player to cause him to trip). In Matthew 11:6 Jesus used the word to describe those who doubt who he really is, they are “offended” on account of Jesus.

The verb is also used in the parable of the sower for some of the seed that falls on the rocky ground. Because the plant had no roots, it withers up when persecution comes. I suggest this is the kind of person who hears the gospel and seems to accept it, but something happens which causes them to fall away before they have produced fruit. If the Parable of the Sower is a valid guide, then this is more than causing a child to sin. Someone is preventing a child from hearing the gospel and coming to a saving faith.

Jesus says it is better for the one who prevents a child coming to saving faith to never have existed. In the context, this refers to the disciples who were preventing children from coming to Jesus! “There are hardly suitable translations for the verse’s keywords, the verb σκανδαλίζειν and the substantive σκάνδαλον” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 432).

This person would be better off to have a heavy millstone hung around their neck and tossed into the sea! Even small millstones used by women to bring wheat were very heavy, but this is the kind of millstone turned by a donkey. An “ass’s millstone” (μύλος ὀνικὸς) refers to the upper stone of a stone mill, heavy enough that it must be turned by a donkey, horse, or slave. It would result in a quick and inescapable death. “Drowning was apparently used by the Romans as a form of capital punishment and was presumably known as such in Palestine” (Hooker, Mark, 232). Keener cites Livy 1.51.9, a person was stuffed in a crate of stones and tossed into the sea (Keener, Matthew, 449).

This warning is aimed at the one who prevents the little one from coming to saving faith, a common theme in Matthew (11:6; 13:57; 15:12; 26:31, 33) and apostasy (13:21; 24:10). That he is thinking here also of leading people into apostasy is obvious.

Who are these little ones, and who are leading them astray? In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus may have the child from 18:2 in mind (assuming he is still standing there). However, as I said above, Jesus calls his disciples “little ones” several times in Matthew (10:42, for example). This is a warning to those who are leading the disciples after the resurrection to be very careful about how they present Jesus’s teaching to the growing church.

Does this have an application to Matthew’s original audience? Although it is far from certain, a common suggestion is that Matthew wrote his Gospel in the context of the church a Syrian Antioch. If this is the case, the “stumbling blocks” may be individuals in those churches who are teaching something other than what Jesus taught his disciples. This may be variation in theology or practice, and at that point in history it may not be a major heresy. But anything which leads the true disciples of Jesus into sin is extremely dangerous.

This ought to be convicting to anyone involved in ministry. It is obvious that what you teach and preach can drive people away from the Gospel, but how you interact with people and how you behave is equally offensive. I am not talking here about dropping key doctrines of the faith because they are strange to the modern listener. Something like, “since people do not understand the Trinity anymore I am going to drop Trinity from the church doctrinal statement.” Pick any given study of why people are leaving the church, the reason given is hypocrisy of leaders of the church. Although this might sometimes be a perception rather than a reality, there are plenty of examples of pastors failing morally while demanding their congregations avoid those very sins. There are several recent examples of big name pastors who support politicians who are objectively immoral to please their constituency.

If this is the case, we are going to need a lot more millstones.

In America, asking a child to do some basic chore around the house is likely to generate a serious protest: “am I a slave?” Kids tend to think being told to some something around the house is equivalent to Cinderella scrubbing the floors for the wicked step-mother. But this is the opposite of the world of Jesus (or most of the world), children did a great deal of hard work and obeyed their parents without question. Is this what Jesus is talking about? What can we know about children in the Second Temple period?

Children were far less important in most ancient cultures than in the modern world. As Ulrich Luz observes, that “the words παῖς and παιδίον can also mean ‘slave’ says a great deal about the legal standing of children, who were subject to the unlimited authority of their fathers” (Matthew 8-20, 428). In the Roman pursuit of honor, serving a child did not bring any honor and likely would be seen as a shameful thing. But to a Greek, humility was not a virtue. After a list of “various kinds of shameful behavior” Aristotle said these were “signs of littleness of soul and baseness” (μικροψυχίας καὶ ταπεινότητος σημεῖα, NIDNTEE, 4:449). The word was used to describe a weak state after a military defeat (Isocr. Paneg. 118, NIDNTEE, 4:449).

In Jewish culture children were certainly loved, but they did have a low status socially. One did not stop and talk to a child, or consider the opinions of a child particularly valuable. This is perhaps why Jesus talking with the rabbis when he was twelve is an important story, he was worthy of respect even as a child (Luke 2:4150). However, as Oepke observes, the idea of an “innocent child” is not found in the Old Testament (TDNT 6:646). The focus of the metaphor may not be “become innocent like a child” or have “child-like wonder.”

It is likely Jesus is already interacting with children in a socially shameful way. Jesus is able to call to a child to stand among the disciples indicates the child was nearby, perhaps even listening to Jesus teach. Like his association with tac-collectors and other sinners, Jesus was crossing over a social boundary which a typical rabbi might avoid (or simply never consider as important).

Jesus says the true disciple will become humble (ταπεινόω) like a child (v. 4). This view of children is found elsewhere in the Gospels. Jesus takes the time to bless children in (Matt 19:14) and in John 3:3 he says one cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless they are “born again,” which may be a similar idea to this “become like a child.”

Although this seems clear to the modern reader, to “be humble” can mean “little” or “low.” Luz, “In a general sense, to become low voluntarily is to reverse completely one’s previous standards of thought and action and to orient one’s life to a different order and to new standards” (Matthew 8-20, 429).

It is critically important to understand humility in the context of the Greco-Roman world. The word does not mean “low self-esteem” or self-abasement. Jesus himself is the model of humility (Matthew 20:28, Philippians 2:5-11), yet he can claim to be the Son of Man, Messiah, Son of God, the one who will return to the Father, etc.

Jesus reverses common understanding of humility in both the Jewish and Roman world. Moses was considered a model of humble service who did not seek his own glory. But often humble service was offered to someone who is your social superior (Keener, Matthew, 447). In the LXX, David is “a humble man and not of high repute” (1 Sam 18:23). The Qumran community called themselves “the poor” and considered humble submission to God’s law to be one of the greatest virtues.

How does one “become like a child?” Jesus highlights a child’s status as the lowest in society. The disciple of Jesus must think of themselves as the lowest of low and serve others like the lowest imaginable person in a society, like a child.

Matthew 18 is the fourth sermon in the Gospel of Matthew. Luz calls this section “The Community Discourse” and points out it is not “church handbook” (Luz, Matthew 18-20, 421). Nolland begins the unit with 17:22 and says Matthew is concerned with the “status and behavior in the ‘royal family’” (Nolland, Matthew, 730). If the Sermon on the Mount began with a general statement of what an ideal disciple looks like (the beatitudes), this Discourse begins with the ideal model of humanity.

At the beginning of this discourse, the disciples ask Jesus a question about rank or honor in the kingdom of God. In Mark, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, Matthew they simply ask Jesus about who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. But in Matthew 19:28 Jesus promises the disciples they will sit on twelve thrones and judge the nations with the Kingdom finally comes. The twelve disciples have higher rank than those who are disciples and are not sitting on a throne.

Can someone be “the greatest” in the Kingdom of Heaven? In another context James and John request to sit next to Jesus in the kingdom, indicating their desire to be the greatest. In Matthew 8:11 “many will come from the east and west” and will sit at places of honor “at the feast,” implying there may be places of honor in the Kingdom. Jesus himself said John the Baptist was “least in the kingdom,” which could imply for the disciples a form of honor and prestige similar to a literal kingdom.

In the context of the ancient world, honor and shame were extremely important social values. A poor Galilean fisherman would be extremely low on the social ladder in the Roman Empire, so low that they may as well not exist. It is only natural for the disciples to ask about who the greatest in the Kingdom might be.

Jesus does not answer the question directly, but invites a child so stand in the middle of the group. He says the true disciple will become like a child. He tells the disciples the must change and be like a child.

The verb Matthew uses (στρέφω) has the sense of changing direction or turning around. This is not a repentance word, the disciples do not need to repent of their sins and accept Jesus as savior. They are already insiders and followers of Jesus. But at this particular moment they are acting like the rest of the word. That must change, Jesus says, if they expect to enter into the kingdom.

The disciples are to change their direction and become “like the child.” There is something about a child which is a model of proper discipleship.

Jesus has something about a child in mind, but not everything about children (ie. this does not mean “become short” or “become uneducated” in order to enter the Kingdom). Cultural and social context will help us understand what Jesus has in mind.

This is a remarkable way to illustrate a virtue. A Greco-Roman ethical writer typically use the model of a great political leader or famous philosopher as a model of virtue (Keener, Matthew, 447). Jesus instead turns to a child as the ideal disciple who enters into the Kingdom of Heaven. A quick survey of books published by evangelicals will show we too point to ideal adults who have somehow modeled spiritual discipline. No one is going to publish How to be Like Jesus if it is written by a 6 year old kid.

Yet this is exactly how Jesus described the ideal disciple: be like a child. Unfortunately, pastors and teachers (and writers of worship music) often focus on innocence or wild-eyed wonder as the focus of this metaphor. The fact that children are open to new ideas or accept the gospel easily is often preached as Jesus’s point here. But children believe many foolish things which are not real at all (Santa Claus or the tooth fairy).

But Jesus is not saying, “Be a naïve child who can be manipulated into believing anything.” What part of “be like a child” is Jesus highlighting in this metaphor?  I would suggest Jesus is using a child as a metaphor for the true disciple because the child was the lowest possible member of an ancient society. Jesus does not demand his disciples accept what their teachers tell them without question like a little child, but rather they must be as humble as a child and become the servant of all.

I will have more to say about being a child in the ancient world in the next post.

Follow Reading Acts on WordPress.com

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,159 other followers

My book Jesus the Bridegroom is now available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle


Christian Theology

%d bloggers like this: