Questions About the Greatest, 1-9

18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 18:2 He called a child, had him stand among them, 18:3 and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! 18:4 Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 18:5 And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me.
Mt 18:1–5 = Mk 9:33–37; Lk 9:46–48

He called a child – ‘From the context we know they are back in Capernaum (17:24), so they could have been in Peter’s home with Peter’s child.’ (Osborne)

Whoever…humbles himself like this little child – It is clear that Jesus is not speaking of children per se, but of those who adopt the attitude and status of a child.  A child is at the bottom of the pecking order, and we should be satisfied to be in the same position.

We are puzzled by this reference to a child as ‘humble’. We do not think of children as humble, but as headstrong and proud. But Jesus is not so much think of the character or conduct of children, as of their status. They are dependent on their parents for everything. So, the ‘greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ is the one who depends on God for everything. Specifically, understanding is given to those who depend on God in this way, Mt 11:25; as is eternal life, Mk 10:13-16; and holiness, Jn 15:5.

‘This humility cannot be a subjective attitude (children rarely act humbly) but an objective state (children do depend almost entirely on the adult world for their protection and provision).’ (Blomberg)

Many commentators seem to struggle with this saying.  France is helpful: ‘The ‘child’ of vv. 2–4 represents the ‘little ones’ (insignificant believers) of vv. 6, 10, 14, and in this verse the transition has already begun. One such child therefore is not a reference to children as such, but to those who as Jesus’ followers (in my name), whether young or adult, have accepted the child’s status. The ‘greatness’ of such ‘children’ (v. 4) lies in their relationship to Jesus. (Cf. 25:31–46 for the principle of receiving Jesus in receiving his ‘little ones’.)’

Hagner similarly: ‘The first main part of chap. 18 (vv 1–14) is about disciples, not children. Even the reference to the παιδίον, “little child,” in vv 1–4 is only for the purpose of encouraging childlikeness in the disciples. Thus v. 5 too is not about receiving children (pace Gundry, Davies-Allison), as is the case in Mt 19:13–15, but about welcoming the disciple of Jesus, who for the moment in this transitional verse is referred to as ἓν παιδίον τοιοῦτο, “one such child” (thus correctly Thompson, Matthew’s Advice, 105), the disciple who has become childlike. The later equivalent of the phrase understood in this sense is ἕνα τῶν μικρῶν τούτων, “one of these little ones” (vv 6, 10, 14). Thus the real parallel to the present verse is in 10:40 (where just a few lines later the disciple is also referred to as “one of these little ones” [10:42]). Receiving a disciple here, as there (where the same verb, δέχεται, “receive,” is used), apparently means showing hospitality and consideration to disciples in pursuit of their calling, and hence especially in missionary work. This reception of the disciple is to be ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου, “in my name,” says Jesus (a fundamental characteristic of discipleship in Matthew is acting in the name of Jesus; cf. v. 20; 28:19). To give hospitable reception to a childlike disciple is furthermore to receive Jesus himself (cf. Mt 10:40; exactly along the same line is Mt 25:40, 45).’

Carson (EBC) and Morris are essentially of the same opinion.  Morris observes that in v6 those spoken of are those ‘who believe in me’.

18:6 “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea. 18:7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! It is necessary that stumbling blocks come, but woe to the person through whom they come.

Mounce cites Beare to the effect that to ’cause to sin’ (’cause to stumble’) virtually means ‘to lead into apostasy’.

Instone-Brewer’s (The Jesus Scandals) rather idiosyncratic view is that Jesus is referring to sexual abuse of children.  But although sexual temptations and sins were sometimes referred to using the word ‘stumble’, the context weighs strongly against such an interpretation in the present passage.

A large millstone – The milling of grain was done by grinding it between two stones, each about 18 in (46 cm) in diameter and 3-4 in (7.6-10.2 cm) thick. The upper millstone was turned by a donkey walking in a circle.

18:8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 18:9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into fiery hell.

Here in v8f, writes Jonathan Leeman (in his book Church Discipline, quoted by Jared Wilson), is a good test of real repentance: is the penitent willing to do whatever it takes to fight the sin?  Leeman adds: ‘Repenting people, typically, are zealous about casting off their sin. That’s what God’s Spirit does inside of them. When this happens, one can expect to see a willingness to accept outside counsel. A willingness to inconvenience their schedules. A willingness to confess embarrassing things. A willingness to make financial sacrifices or lose friends or end relationships.’

The Parable of the Lost Sheep, 10-14

18:10 “See that you do not disdain one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. 18:12 What do you think? If someone owns a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go look for the one that went astray? 18:13 And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. 18:14 In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that one of these little ones be lost.
What about guardian angels?

Matthew 18:10 “See that you do not disdain one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

John G. Paton, a missionary in the New Hebrides Islands, experienced the protective care of angels. Hostile natives surrounded his mission headquarters one night, intent on burning the Patons’ out and killing them. John Paton and his wife prayed all night that God would deliver them. When daylight came they were amazed to see the attackers unaccountably leave. They thanked God for delivering them. A year later, the chief of the tribe was converted to Jesus Christ, and Paton, remembering what had happened, asked the chief what had kept him and his men from burning down the house and killing them. The chief replied in surprise, ‘Who were all those men you had with you there?’ The missionary answered, ‘There were no men there; just my wife and I’ The chief argued that they had seen many men standing guard-hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords in their hands. They seemed to circle the mission station so that the natives were afraid to attack. Only then did Paton realize that God had sent his angels to protect them. The chief agreed that there was no other explanation.

This account is one of a number that can be cited both from within and outside of Scripture to support the belief that God sometimes sends angels to protect people.

On the question of guardian angels, some relevant passages are:-

Gen 48:15f – the parallelism here indicates that this Angel was equal with God. There are good reasons for thinking that this ‘Angel of the Lord’ was none other than the pre-incarnate Christ himself.

Psa 91:11 ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways’ – There is nothing here about a permanently-assigned angel.

Mt 18:10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” – The context indicates that Jesus is speaking of childlike believers, rather than of children per se. Angels certainly minister to believers, though not on a permanently-assigned one-to-one basis. It is certainly a wonderful to know that the same angels who minister to us also have access to the throne of God in heaven.

Ac 12:6-15 When people think that they have seen Peter’s ‘angel’ there is no indication that the writer (Luke) endorses this or regards it as other than superstitious.

See also Ps 34:7; 91:11-12; Dan 6:22; Acts 12:15, Heb 1:14.

Some of the earlier Christian thinkers, such as Basil the Great, Origen, Chrysostom, Aquinas, held a belief in guardian angels – that is, belief that each person is permanently assigned a good angel whose role is to protect that person from harm.  Roman Catholicism generally teaches the same.

For example, Basil wrote: ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.’

Calvin, followed by most protestants, denied that there is any clear support for this belief in Scripture: ‘Whether or not each believer has a single angel assigned to him for his defence, I dare not positively affirm.’

France observes that angels are found in Dan 10 and Dan 12:1 as the representatives of nations, and in Rev 1:20 are representatives of the churches.  So ‘here even individuals have their heavenly representatives.’

Hendriksen, however, is more doubtful, noting that, ‘Passages to which an appeal has been made do not really confirm the theory. So, for example, Gen. 48:16 does not refer to a created angel (see the context, verse 15). Dan. 3:28 must be explained in the light of 3:25. As far as text and context are concerned this “angel” or “son of the gods” who had been sent for the protection and encouragement of Daniel’s friends remains a sublime mystery, and for that very reason can render no service in defense of the above-mentioned theory. The “angel” who was with Daniel in the lions’ den (Dan. 6:22) is said to have been God’s angel (an angel sent by God), not Daniel’s in the sense of being an angel who remained with and took care of the prophet at all times. And as to Acts 12:15, the apostles’ outcry—“It is his angel”—at the appearance of Peter, who had been imprisoned and securely guarded, but now suddenly stood before them no longer bound, must probably be ascribed to overwhelming amazement coupled with a measure of superstitious fear. In Heb. 1:14 the service which angels render to God’s children is ascribed in very general terms. Not a word is said about each believer having his own guardian angel.’

One implication of the mistaken belief in guardian angels is that it encourages the idea that we can develop relationships with angels. So, Eileen Elias Freeman says, ‘Angels want to be our friends. They are companions on the journey of life on this planet, ancient fellow travelers, whose love and light and wisdom can enrich our lives immeasurably.’ And Terry Lynn Taylor says, ‘I’m suggesting that you become best friends with your guardian angel! Pretend you have an invisible best friend who witnesses everything you experience and with whom you can share insights.’ But such a belief in an imaginary friend, while normal in small children, is false and misleading in adults. Moreover, since most people have never had any contact with an angel, the techniques used to bring them into contact with their ‘guardian angels’ are very dubious, and may involve forms of occultism. The beliefs and practices of Doreen Virtue, whose books include “Healing with the Angels,” “Divine Guidance,” “Angel Therapy,” and “Archangels & Ascended Masters”, look very much like spiritualism.

Another implication of belief in guardian angels is that it sets up a false expectation of constant protection. This can lead either to rashness, or to disappointment or even irrational guilt if accidental injury occurs.

We can thank God, then, for the ministry of angels.  But we believe that the idea that each person has one or more guardian angels permanently assigned to them is fanciful and unwarranted from Scripture.


“Their angels” – Whatever the precise position we taken on ‘their angels’ the key point here is that ‘each follower is special to God, and there is no place for disdain on the part of anyone.’ (Osborne)

“Always see the face” = are in the immediate presence.  This is ‘a phrase derived from courtly language for personal access to the king. So even the least of the ‘little ones’ enjoys constant personal access to God.’ (France)

“Little ones” (perhaps childlike believers rather than children as such) have guardian angels who dwell in God’s presence… The language is drawn from the context of a royal court and concerns access to the king. Angels with such access to God are particularly important in Jewish thought, being called “angels of the Presence” Le 3:4-8. Since the “little ones” are served by such angels who actually look on God’s face – a privilege not normally belonging even to the angels closely associated with God’s throne – it is clear that God has great concern for them.’ (DJG)

‘According to Mt 18:10 children (and presumably everyone) have angels that have direct access to God himself. They are usually called “guardian” angels, although we do not know if they guard anyone, just that they represent them before God. This “guarding” (if there is any) may be similar to what Jacob described as “the Angel who has delivered me from all harm” (Ge 48:16) -if this expresses a belief in a given angel accompanying him and caring for him. Protection through an angel also appears in Dan 3:28 and Dan 6:22, although it seems that these angels come for momentary deliverance rather than for continuous protection as in the Genesis account.’ (HSB)

JFB comment is as follows: ‘A difficult verse; but perhaps the following may be more than an illustration:-Among men, those who nurse and rear the royal children, however humble in themselves, are allowed free entrance with their charge, and a degree of familiarity which even the highest state ministers dare not assume. Probably our Lord means that, in virtue of their charge over his disciples, (Heb 1:13 Jn 1:51) the angels have errands to the throne, a welcome there, and a dear familiarity in dealing with “His Father which is in heaven,” which on their own matters they could not assume.’

‘Jewish readers would generally recognize here the concept of the guardian angel; it was typically believed that every Jewish person had one. Further, angels received their orders from God’s throne; but unlike lower angels and mortals, only the highest angels regularly saw God’s glory. Those who mistreated these “little ones” would hence be reported directly to God by the greatest angels, and the report would stand them in bad stead in the day of judgment.’ (IVP NT Background Commentary)

‘Angels are special guardians. Our concern for children must match God’s treatment of them. Certain angels are assigned to watch over children, and they have direct access to God. These words ring out sharply in cultures where children are taken lightly, ignored, or aborted. If their angels have constant access to God, the least we can do is to allow children to approach us easily in spite of our far too busy schedules.’ (Handbook of Bible Application)

Blomberg thinks that this verse ‘may or may not imply the idea of guardian angels.’

A minority view is taken by Carson, ‘these “angels” are best interpreted as the spirit of believers after death, and they always see the heavenly Father’s face. Can the word “angel” be pressed into this interpretation? Yes, for Jesus teaches that God’s people in the Resurrection “will be like the angels in heaven” as to marriage (Mt 22:30) and immortality (Lk 20:36).’  This view was proposed by B.B. Warfield.  One problem with this view (as Osborne notes) is that the present, rather than the future, tense use used.

Osborne notes that ‘little ones’ in Matthew always refers to disciples.  The context indicates that Jesus is speaking of childlike believers, rather than of children per se.  Angels certainly minister to believers, though not on a permanently-assigned one-to-one basis. It is certainly a wonderful thing to know that the same angels who minister to us also have access to the throne of God in heaven.

[Mt 18:11 “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” (NIV) – This verse is absent in many of the ancient manuscripts.  It is thought to have been ‘borrowed’ from the parallel passage in Lk 19:10.]

Mt 18:12–14 = Lk 15:4–7

So can God’s will be thwarted? ‘The fact that it is not God’s will that any perish does not mean that none perish. It is not God’s will that any sin either, but we do sin.’ (Handbook of Apologetics)

Matthew’s version of the parable of the Lost Sheep differs markedly from Luke’s.  It is often supposed that the former has radically altered the latter’s (earlier) version.  But, as Blomberg comments: ‘Isn’t it historically far more probable that Jesus would have retold this story dozens, if not hundreds of times, because it so wonderfully epitomizes the heart of his ministry— to seek and save the lost (Luke 19: 10)? The same is true with Matthew’s parable of the talents (Matt 25: 14– 30) and Luke’s pounds (Luke 19: 11– 27 NRSV), and with Matthew’s wedding banquet (Matt 22: 1– 14) and Luke’s great supper (Luke 14: 16– 24).’ (The Historical Reliability of the New Testament)

Restoring Christian Relationships, 15-22

18:15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 18:16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 18:17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.

In verses 15-18, the following procedure is outlined with respect to Church discipline in the case of a brother who ‘sins against you’:-

1. Private reproof
2. Private conference
3. Public announcement
4. Public exclusion

The purpose is restoration (to win ‘your brother over’).

“Two or three witnesses” – cf. Deut 19:15

“The church” – It has been suggested that Jesus is referring to the synagogue here. F.F. Bruce (Answers to Questions, p52) says that the Aramaic word which probably underlies Gk ekklesia here and in Mt 16:18 is kenishta, which at the time could refer to (a) Israel as a whole, or (b) a local community or synagogue of the Jews.  But see note on Mt 16:18 for a different view.

‘When an individual did not respond to warning(s) or committed a serious offense, it became necessary to effect social isolation. The expressions used in the New Testament to convey this idea do not specify what is meant. Mt 18:17 commands the community to treat the offender “as a pagan or a tax collector.” Rom 16:17 tells believers to “watch out” for wrongdoers; 1 Cor 5:11 and 2 Thess 3:14 enjoin, “do not associate” with offenders; 2 Thess 3:6 commands, “keep away from” the disobedient. First Corinthians 5:11 is more specific in instructing believers not to eat with those under discipline. (cf. 2Jo 10-11) This recollects the Pharisaic ban, under which the offender was cut off socially from all but his immediate family. As in the case of the ban, the individual feels ashamed (2 Thess 3:14) and, when proven repentant (it is not clear how), is welcomed back “as a brother” (2 Thess 3:15; cf. 2 Cor 2:5-11 Gal 6:1).’ (EDBT)

Hagner (WBC) remarks that today’s church cannot really apply the same procedure today, because ostracism and excommunication do not have the same effect.  In Matthew’s day, an excommunicated Christian would have nowhere else to go; today he would simply walk down the road to the next church.  Church discipline is still important.  In fact, it is more important than we often suppose, in our individualistic age.  But we will need to find out what it means for an individual to be accountable to the community and its appointed leaders.

18:18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 18:19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 18:20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.”
'Where two or three are gathered...'

Matthew 18:20 “Where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.”

Christians regularly appeal to this saying in order to reassure themselves that, no matter how few their numbers when they gather for public worship or for prayer, Jesus himself will be present.

Matthew Henry: ‘Every believer has the presence of Christ with him; but the promise here refers to the meetings where two or three are gathered in his name, not only for discipline, but for religious worship, or any act of Christian communion.’

Ryle: ‘There is comfort in these words for all who love to meet together for religious purposes. At every assembly for public worship,—at every gathering for prayer and praise,—at every missionary meeting,—at every Bible reading, the King of kings is present,—Christ Himself attends. We may be often disheartened by the small number who are present on such occasions, compared to those who meet for worldly ends…But we have no reason for despondency. We may boldly fall back on these words of Jesus. At all such meetings we have the company of Christ Himself.’

Hendriksen: ‘The Lord again assures his disciples that the gathering of believers for prayer and worship need not be one of “crowding worshipers.” Even two or three will receive a blessing as long as they gather in his name, that is, in close fellowship with him; hence, with his atoning work as the basis of their approach to God, at his direction, and in harmony with that which he has revealed concerning himself.’

There is, of course, nothing heretical about this, and it may even be a reasonable implication of the passage.

There is, indeed, great reassurance in the knowledge that our great God has promised to be with even small, weak and humble gatherings of his believing people. See Jud 6:15,16; 7:7; Ps 20:7; Isa 1:8,9; 57:15; Zep 3:12; Mt 18:10; Lk 12:32; 1 Cor 4:11-13.

But is this really what this passage is all about?

According to the interpretation just outlined, verses 19 and 20 begin a new section (so Morris), and contain precious promises concerning answered prayer (“It will be done…There am I with them”).

The context, however, determines that the main situation in mind is that of disagreements amongst believers. To be sure, as Green remarks, such things should be bathed in prayer, especially because such disagreements can be spiritual battles, not merely human misunderstandings.

It should be noted, however, that in this passage Jesus, is not talking primarily about prayer.  He is talking about discipline.  Blomberg notes that v19 is a simple restatement of v18.  The expression “in my name” refers to authority, rather than to petition.  The context has to do with confronting a brother with his sin: Jesus is saying that the decision of two or more representatives of the church will be ratified in heaven.

Osborne remarks that, in context, this saying ‘refers mainly to the decision of a church regarding a discipline situation. The “two or three” as in vv. 16, 19 are the witnesses confronting the guilty person. As they make their decision, certainly while in prayer, Jesus wants them to understand that he is with them, and the “heavenly Father” is guiding their verdict.’

Harry L. Reeder: ‘The intention of this text is to assure the gathered assembly of the Lord’s presence as it biblically implements the redemptive steps of discipline in the life of an impenitent sinner. It reveals the Christ-given blessing of the Holy Spirit, who superintends redemptive discipline in the church as the church seeks three gracious blessings: the reclamation of the impenitent sinner, the sanctification of the church, and the effective witness of Christ to the world through His church.’

Jesus’ teaching here, then, would seem to be closely mirrored by that of Paul, in 1 Cor 5:4 – ‘When you gather together in the name of our Lord Jesus, and I am with you in spirit, along with the power of our Lord Jesus,.’

Bruner acknowledges that, in the larger context, the saying may apply to meetings that concern discipline.  But, he writes, ‘the sentence is so grand, and it is sufficiently removed from the preceding disciplinary instructions, that it should probably be interpreted as Jesus’ promise to be specially present in any group that makes his person paramount.’  This approach, however, seems to reverse the foreground and background of the saying.

A mediating position is possible: if the words of Jesus here refer to prayer for a sinning brother, then they might legitimately admit of a wider application (so NBC).  France: ‘No doubt the primary application is to their prayer for the sinner of vv. 15–17, but the principle of Jesus’ presence among his people, and therefore of the efficacy of their agreed request, can hardly be confined to that specific situation.’


‘Note, Christ has been pleased to put an honour upon, and to allow a special efficacy in, the joint-prayers of the faithful, and the common supplications they make to God. If they join in the same prayer, if they meet by appointment to come together to the throne of grace on some special errand, or, though at a distance, agree in some particular matter of prayer, they shall speed well. Besides the general regard God has to the prayers of the saints, he is particularly pleased with their union and communion in those prayers. See 2 Chron 5:13; Acts 4:31.’ (MHC)

The promise here is obviously not unconditional. As with similar promises, Mt 17:20; Jn 14:12-14, ‘it is not to be regarded as an automatic formula for success where prayers are agreed which are not compatible with the one in whose name they are uttered.’ (France)

About anything – ‘pragma‘, lit. ‘about any judicial matter’ (Carson), calling into question the usual interpretation of this passage (namely, that it is all about prayer) and supporting the alternative interpretation (namely, that it is primarily about discipline; see below).

Ask – This suggests that the passage, though it may have discipline rather than prayer as its primary focus, nevertheless includes the idea of prayer.  It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that an awareness of the Father in heaven (v19), and of coming together in Christ’s name (v20), presuppose a praying church.  In this case, the teaching that is often derived from the passage about the efficacy of prayer might then be a legitimate, if secondary application.

“Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” – The Rabbis had a saying that ‘if two sit together and words of the Law (are) between them, the Shekinah rests between them.’ Here, Jesus himself is the ‘presence’. This would have been such an encouragement to Matthew’s church, surrounded as it probably was by powerful and hostile synagogues. There is a very lofty doctrine of Christ implied in this verse.

When in the OT God is spoken of as being ‘with’ his people, it is ‘generally associated with the impartation of strength, direction, protection, and consolation: “to help, to comfort, and to bless”‘ (Hendriksen). Cf. Ps 46:5-7; Isa 12:6; Jer 14:9; Ho 11:9; Zep 3:5,15,17; Zec 2:10. See also Gen 28:15; Deut 31:6; Jos 1:5; Jud 6:16.

The rabbis taught that ‘if two sit together and words of the Law (are) between them, the Shekinah (God’s presence) rests between them.’ (Quoted by France). The divine presence here is Christ himself, cf. Mt 28:20; also Jn 20:19,26; 1 Cor 5:4. What a dignity and importance this gives to an otherwise insignificant gathering of a few disciples! No doubt, the primary application here is to the forgiveness of the sinner, vv15-17. However, ‘the principle of Jesus’ presence among his people, and therefore of the efficacy of their agreed request, can hardly be confined to that specific situation.’ (France)

18:21 Then Peter came to him and said, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me? As many as seven times?” 18:22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!

Peter – Here is the last of five places in Matthew 14-18 (the others are Mt 14:28-31; 15:15; 16:17-19; 17:24-27) where Matthew has references to Peter that are not found in the other Gospels. Peter’s question may have been prompted by the mention of the duty of forgiveness in Mt 18:15 prompting the question of how often this was to be done.

Forgive – To forgive is to treat the person as though no offence had been committed, to harbour no grudge, to consider the matter buried and forgotten. To say, as some do, “I can forgive, but I cannot forget” is as good as to say, “I cannot forgive.”

My brother – ‘Poor Andrew!’ notes Michael Green.

Forgiveness runs on the assumption that the offending person wishes to be forgiven, and in the present passage the sinner’s repentance is assumed (whereas it was not assumed in vv15-20). Is it possible to forgive a person who does not desire it? Yes, at least in so far as we will refuse to harbour malice against him, but rather seek his good.

Peter was not against forgiveness; he was for it. Like the rest of us, he takes it for granted that forgiveness is a ‘good thing’. He knows that bearing a grudge, or plotting revenge, is wrong. In any case, he knew that Jesus had already taught the necessity of forgiveness, 6:12. He just wanted to know what the limits of forgiveness might be. The rabbis said to forgive three times, so Peter thought he was being exceptionally worthy by suggesting seven times. He no doubt expected his Master’s warm approval.

‘Note, There is a proneness in our corrupt nature to stint ourselves in that which is good, and to be afraid of doing too much in religion, particularly of forgiving too much, though we have so much forgiven us.’ (MHC)

‘It was Rabbinic teaching that a man must forgive his brother three times. Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said, “He who begs forgiveness from his neighbour must not do so more than three times.” Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda said, “If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive.” The Biblical proof that this was correct was taken from Amos. In the opening chapters of Amos there is a series of condemnations on the various nations for three transgressions and for four. (Am 1:3,6,9,11,13; 2:1,4,6) From this it was deduced that God’s forgiveness extends to three offences and that he visits the sinner with punishment at the fourth. It was not to be thought that a man could be more gracious than God, so forgiveness was limited to three times.’ (DSB)

“Seventy-seven times” – i.e. an unlimited number of times; always. Some MSS read ‘seventy times seven’. Love ‘keeps no record of wrongs’, 1 Cor 13:5. Forgiveness is not a matter of calculation, but an attitude of heart.

And is this not the measure of divine forgiveness also? ‘It would tire the hands of an angel to write down all the pardons God bestows upon true penitent believers.’ (William Bates)

‘Some commentators have seen an allusion here to the war song of Lamech in Gen 4:24. Lamech was a descendant of Cain, who (surprisingly, it may be thought) was taken under God’s protection. “If any one slays Cain,” said God, “vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (RSV). Lamech boasted in his war song that no one would injure him and get away with it: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” RSV (or perhaps “seventy times sevenfold”). Over against seventy-times-sevenfold vengeance Jesus sets, as the target for his followers, seventy-times-sevenfold forgiveness.’ (HSB) The allusion to Gen 4:24 ‘neatly contrasts Lamech’s unlimited vindictiveness with the unlimited forgiveness of the disciple.’ (France)

‘This emphasis on the extravagant character of forgiveness is taken up in the parable that follows, which places the disciples forgiveness of others squarely upon the foundation of Gods forgiveness of the disciple (vv 33, 35).’ (WBC)

The Parable of the Unforgiving Slave, 23-35

18:23 “For this reason, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. 18:24 As he began settling his accounts, a man who owed ten thousand talents was brought to him. 18:25 Because he was not able to repay it, the lord ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, children, and whatever he possessed, and repayment to be made. 18:26 Then the slave threw himself to the ground before him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you everything.’ 18:27 The lord had compassion on that slave and released him, and forgave him the debt. 18:28 After he went out, that same slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed him one hundred silver coins. So he grabbed him by the throat and started to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ 18:29 Then his fellow slave threw himself down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you.’ 18:30 But he refused. Instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he repaid the debt. 18:31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were very upset and went and told their lord everything that had taken place. 18:32 Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! 18:33 Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’ 18:34 And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed. 18:35 So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.”

“For this reason” – links the parable with the exchange between Peter and Jesus, vv21f.

The gospel is a message of forgiveness. It tells of a God who forgives us freely, Mic 7:19 Jon 4:2. It is to be expected that those who have received God’s free forgiveness will show a forgiving attitude towards others. But what if they do not? This parable deals with this question.

This parable poses a question for each of us: ‘Is there someone you will not forgive?’ Is there someone who has wronged you so cruelly, so repeatedly, so hurtfully, that deep in your heart you have said, ‘That’s it. I can never forgive you.’ This parable is addressed to just such a person.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a king” – A common way of introducing a parable. The meaning is, of course, “The kingdom of God is like this: a king…”

‘The kingdom of heaven is again brought forward. We must not forget that this is the key of Matthews Gospel. In all kingdoms there must be a king, a tribunal, and a time for judgment of those under rule. The personal servants of a king must expect to give in a special account as to how they have used their lords goods.’ (Spurgeon)

“His servants” were probably high-ranking officials in the court.

The parable provides a vivid commentary on Lk 6:36.

“Ten thousand talents” – A huge sum of money, combining the highest numeral (murioi, myriad, which itself can mean ‘beyond number’) with with the highest unit of currency. Some scholars have balked at the unrealistically high figure, suggesting that Matthew has inflated an originally smaller figure: but this is silly, and demonstrates too wooden an attitude to the nature of storytelling in parables. The debt was beyond human capacity ever to repay it. The figure represents the enormity of our debt towards God.

‘A. R. S. Kennedy drew this vivid picture to contrast the debts. Suppose they were paid in sixpences. The 100 denarii debt could be carried in one pocket. The ten thousand talent debt would take to carry it an army of about 8,600 carriers, each carrying a sack of sixpences 60 lbs. in weight; and they would form, at a distance of a yard apart, a line five miles long! The contrast between the debts is staggering. The point is that nothing men can do to us can in any way compare with what we have done to God; and if God has forgiven us the debt we owe to him, we must forgive our fellow-men the debts they owe to us. Nothing that we have to forgive can even faintly or remotely compare with what we have been forgiven.’ (DSB)

The 10,000 talents was equivalent to about 2,500,0001, whereas the 110 denarii debt was equivalent to about 5.002. Based on average income, the latter sum could be repayed in about 3 months, whereas the former would take fifteen thousand years to repay.

‘Every sin we commit is a debt to God; not like a debt to an equal, contracted by buying or borrowing, but to a superior; like a debt to a prince when a recognizance is forfeited, or a penalty incurred by a breech of the law or a breach of the peace; like the debt of a servant to his master, by withholding his service, wasting his lord’s goods, breaking his indentures, and incurring the penalty. We are all debtors; we owe satisfaction, and are liable to the process of the law.’ (MHC)

No-one can sin against me as much as I have sinned against God.

“He was not able to pay” – ‘Sinners are insolvent debtors; the scripture, which concludes all under sin, is a statute of bankruptcy against us all. Silver and gold would not pay our debt, Ps 49:6,7. Sacrifice and offering would not do it; our good works are but God’s work in us, and cannot make satisfaction; we are without strength, and cannot help ourselves.’ (MHC)

“The servant fell on his knees” – he prostrated himself, as was the custom in eastern nations in the presence of a superior.

“‘Be patient with me…and I will pay back everything'” – A desperate, and totally unrealistic plea. He could not possibly pay back the debt, not in many lifetimes. The man’s claim to eventually be able to repay his master is ‘pitifully untrue, as threadbare as our own excuses and palliatives: “I will try a bit harder. I will come to church. Surely that will do?’ But it won’t. The debt is phenomenal: a thousand times the annual revenue of Galilee, Judea, Samaria and Idumea put together! Totally beyond imagining’ (Green)

‘Patience and forbearance are a great favour, but it is folly to think that these alone will save us; reprieves are not pardons. Many are borne with, who are not thereby brought to repentance, (Rom 2:4) and then their being borne with does them no kindness.’ (MHC)

‘Note, It is the folly of many who are under convictions of sin, to imagine that they can make God satisfaction for the wrong they have done him; as those who, like a compounding bankrupt, would discharge the debt, by giving their first-born for their transgressions, (Mic 6:7) who go about to establish their own righteousness, Rom 10:3. He that had nothing to pay with (Mt 18:25) fancied he could pay all. See how close pride sticks, even to awakened sinners; they are convinced, but not humbled.’ (MHC)

‘This servant-debtor thought he only needed patience, but indeed he needed forgiveness! It seems strange that he did not see this, since the debt was so great, and he had nothing wherewith to pay, but was utterly bankrupt: yet it is a well-known fact, that men do not see their true condition before the Lord God, even when they perceive that in many things they come short.’ (Spurgeon)

“The servant’s master” – This has an eschatological feel to it, especially in the light of its usage in Mt 24:50.

“Took pity on him” – Elsewhere in Matthew, (Mt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34) this expression always refers to Jesus.

“Cancelled” – The underlying word is regularly used for the forgiveness of sins. Cf. Mt 6:12, where the word for ‘sons’ is lit. ‘debts’.

‘In response to the plea of the servant for clemency in the form of the time to repay the enormous debt, the sovereign responds with nearly unimaginable grace in the full dismissal of all indebtedness. It is not difficult to hear the echo of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins in this verse.’ (WBC)

‘And the king forgives him the lot. The parallel is plain. That is what God has done to the sins of the disciple – any disciple. They have been piling up for years like debts: every day, every hour adds to them. The can never be paid. And God says, “I release you from that debt.”‘ (Green)

Ignoring the request for more time, the master has compassion on him, and cancels the enormous debt. The king’s actions illustrative the wonderful graciousness of God in forgiving sinners.

At this point in listening to the story, we might be tempted to side with the underdog, ‘That’s great. The poor man has been shown mercy by his rich and powerful master. Everything has worked out fine. End of story.’ But we side with the underdog only to find that we about about to be accused along with him! ‘One is reminded of the parable Nathan recounted to King David, culminating in the devastating accusation, “You are the man!”‘ (Green)

“A hundred denarii” – A significant sum (equivalent to 100 days’ wages), but very small (perhaps one-millionth) compared with his own debt.

“He grabbed him and began to choke him” – he resorts to physical violence. This rough treatment is comparison to the gentle behaviour of his own master.

How long had he been brooding on this debt? How quickly he had forgotten how his own debt had been wiped away!

‘Offences done to men are nothing to those which are committed against God. Dishonours done to a man like ourselves are but as pence, motes, gnats; but dishonours done to God are as talents, beams, camels.’ (MHC)

This is a near-echo of the forgiven debtor’s own words and actions, v26. But he has quickly forgotten the predicament from which he has so recently been delivered.

This is the heart of the parable. ‘We encounter here a central principle in the teaching of Jesus, which is expressed in a variety of ways. Gods forgiveness of a person must be reflected in that persons forgiveness of others. (Mt 6:12,14-15) It is the merciful that are pronounced blessed and who will themselves obtain mercy. (ejlehqhvsontai, Mt 5:7) As the disciple judges others, so will God judge the disciple; and by the measure in which the disciple gives to others, by the same measure will God give to the disciple. (Mt 7:2) Disciples, in short, are to act toward others as God has acted toward them in mercy, (cf. Lk 6:36) in forgiveness, and in love (cf. especially 1 Jn 4:11 Jas 2:13, which closely resembles the present passage).’ (WBC)

“The jailers” – lit. ‘tormentors’; ‘torturers’. There job was to put pressure on the debtor until he should pay back all he owed. Such torture was not permitted among the Jews, but was common amongst the Romans. Such treatment would make the man’s family and friends more urgent in raising the necessary money. In the present case, of course, it is impossible that the sum could be raised. ‘This is, of course, part of the scenery of the parable, and is not meant to depict God as sanctioning brutality.’

‘This verse is the close counterpart of Mt 18:30, which describes in similar language the servants imprisonment of his fellow servant until his debt was paid. It demonstrates concretely the teaching that as one treats others so also will one be treated, a point made explicit in the application of the parable in the following verse.’ (WBC)

Verse 35 makes it clear that in the parable the king stands for God and the servants stand for disciples.

On a dispensational view, the teaching of this parable is legal and pre-Christian. Such an approach would remove much else of Jesus’ ethical teaching from the church, including the Sermon on the Mount. But this is without warrant.

On the relationship between our forgiveness of others, and the Father’s forgiveness of us, see Mt 6:12,14,15. See also Pr 21:13; Mk 11:26 (a disputed verse); Lk 6:37-38; Jas 2:13.

‘He that demands mercy, and shows none, ruins the bridge over which he himself is to pass.’ (Thomas Adams) The true Christian is in union with Christ, as the branch is in union with the vine. If a branch does not bring forth the fruit of forgiveness, this is evidence that it is not really attached to Christ, the vine.

Forgiveness is to be from your heart, sincerely (and not in word or appearance only), thus avoiding therefore the calculating legalism which keeps records of how often one has forgiven the other person.

‘Once again we see how opposed Matthew rightly is to cheap grace. It will not do to claim to be forgiven and then to prove by our actions that our lives have not been changed. The pardon of God is dynamic, life-changing. We cannot go through heaven’s narrow door if our lives are bulging with resentments. Heaven is for penitent sinners only, those who know themselves freed from a debt they could never pay, and who prove their gratitude by their lives…There is no escaping this point by pious platitudes about God’s willingness to forgive us whatever we do. His forgiveness is indeed inexhaustible, but it can be received only by those who repent. And unforgiveness has to be repented of. It utterly blocks us from receiving and enjoying the forgiveness we long for. When someone says “I cannot forgive So-and-so for what he or she has done to me,” the answer is clear: “You must forgive, or you will never be forgiven by God. You will exclude yourself from his presence now and from his heaven later if you do not repent of this attitude. How can God forgive you if you will not forgive?’ (Green)

‘We are not responsible for the reaction of the other party in all this. If he or she will not accept our apology we cannot help it. We cannot do more, apart from reiterating it when appropriate. What we are responsible for is rooting out resentment in our own hearts and taking it to the cross where it belongs.’ (Green)

‘How comes it that the obligation to cherish this forgiving spirit is connected with our reception of God’s mercy? To that I reply, that all who really accept God’s pardon are at the same time renewed into his image by the power of the Holy Spirit; and so, resembling him in character, they seek to do unto others as he has done to them.’ (Taylor, The Parables of our Saviour)

To be a disciple, then, is to be both forgiven and a forgiver. The two belong together, as two sides of the same coin.

The leading theme of this whole section has been relationships within the community of Christ. These relationships have to do with

1. True greatness consists in becoming like little children, vv1-4
2. Don’t be a stumbling-block to the ‘little ones’, vv5-10
4. Pastoral care, vv10-14
5. Openness in dealing with the sins of others, vv15-20
6. Forgiveness, vv21-35.

‘The community must treat its members as God treats them. Failure in this respect creates an intolerable inconsistency at the very point where the kingdom is to manifest itself: in the community of the redeemed, living in a fallen world.’ (WBC)

A summary of the teaching of this parable:-

  1. Our sins are great. These sins are viewed as huge debts that have mounted up, such that it is utterly beyond our capacity to repay them. See Ps 49:7; Rom 3:23.
  2. God freely forgives us. This is, of course, by means of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, cf. Mt 20:28; Rom 3:24; 2 Cor 5:21.
  3. The offences committed against us by others are comparatively small.
  4. We should, therefore, freely forgive them.
  5. If we do not, God will be justly angry with us, and punish us.