This passage is unique to Matthew in the context in which it was spoken. Both Mark and Luke have already ended the discourse with a previous verse (Luke with Mtw 18:5, Mark with Mtw 18:9), even though the former includes a couple of other statements made by Jesus that Matthew omits (Mark 9:48-50).
Some would see Luke 15:3-7 as being a parallel passage to Mtw 18:12-14 but, although Jesus here speaks about the going after of the one that is lost, the context is wholly different seeing as it was spoken in the context of the griping statement of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus was eating with sinners and receiving them. His conclusion is that the principle given by the parable is that He will always go after those who need to repent rather than those who are supposed to be in a right relationship with God and need to do nothing to be restored back to Him (Luke 15:7).
Jesus isn’t saying that the scribes and Pharisees were men who needed not to repent but is using their own beliefs to show them the groundlessness of their accusations and murmuring, showing up the hypocrisy of their own religion that would condemn others without offering them the help they needed to bring them back into a restored relationship with God.
Mtw 18:12-14, however, speaks about the importance of the ‘little believer’ and of God’s concern for even the smallest and insignificance of believers. Though the parable is the same, therefore, it’s used to teach something different in the two places where Jesus uses it.
Little needs to be said about this passage in general but it should be expected that, as we come to one of the more difficult NT passages to interpret (Mtw 18:10), that Jesus’ continued teaching regarding the importance of the little believer would continue rather than He would change tack and introduce a wholly different point which was unrelated to the preceding and following verses.
One final point needs to be made about the omission of Mtw 18:11 in most of the modern manuscripts and which I shall be following here.
Mathag simply states that the verse has been added and notes the manuscripts which are lacking the verse as being the ones considered to be the more reliable. His statement, however, that the verse was
‘...borrowed from Luke 19:10...’
is difficult to accept seeing as it appears to be impossible to understand why a copyist should ever have thought that the Lukan verse warranted inclusion here when it stands as a conclusion to a one verse statement which is far removed from Luke 19:1-9. His other point about it being added so that Mtw 18:10 might be linked more closely with 18:12-14 is more plausible but it still doesn’t satisfactorily answer the question as to why this verse - rather than any others - was inserted.
That the verse is virtually ignored as being original is obvious from Matfran’s total omission of a comment on the verse - even a short one line statement that he doesn’t accept it as being original - but, on the other hand, Mattask’s unequivocal
‘This verse is rightly left out by RV and RSV’
is too sweeping a statement when the only explanation of why this should be so is the one mentioned earlier about a copyist borrowing the statement from Luke 19:10. I may be slow of understanding here but I really don’t see how any copyist would have suddenly and deliberately grabbed at a Scripture from a manuscript that he wasn’t working on and included it here when that other verse isn’t related to Luke’s ‘parallel’ passage in 15:3-7.
Why it should be included here, then, is shrouded in mystery - and will probably always be so. My reason for not including it in this commentary is twofold, however. Firstly, the manuscript evidence forces upon the commentator a decision - which, in itself, is not a reason for my decision at all! - and, secondly, the inclusion of this verse seems to make the passage disjointed and difficult to follow.
If the verse were included, the participle ‘for’ which opens the verse links it as a conclusion to the preceding one which speaks about the angels of the little believers. But, if this is the case, I can’t understand the sense. Why, the question seems to be, would the command not to despise a little believer (Mtw 18:10a) with the reason being of their unique relationship with the Father (Mtw 18:10b) be concluded with a statement that Jesus had come to save the lost? Especially when He isn’t talking about the lost at all but the saved who have gone astray?
Therefore, although I can give no realistic reason why the verse should be omitted, it’s inclusion seems unwarranted. This, then, is my sole reason for excluding it. If a believer were able to show why it stood as a perfect outworking of the previous verse, then it would be necessary to include it - simply because it appears to be more possible that it was inadvertently omitted by a copyist rather than included from a place which doesn’t even contain the following verses (Mtw 18:12-14).
Although this is a difficult passage which has been given a fair amount of mileage by commentators and pressed to yield a great amount of teaching which is only inferred here rather than plainly stated and paralleled in other Scriptures elsewhere, we should approach it not as a verse devoid of its context, placed as it is in the midst of a passage which speaks of God’s care and concern for the ‘little believer’.
Jesus has just finished speaking of the deadly position a man or woman is in who leads astray any childlike disciple and that it would be better for them that they commit suicide (or be murdered - the only danger in this interpretation is that there might be some numskull out there who would take Jesus’ words as a command to do just such a thing!) than ever come to that point of being the instrument through whom the temptation comes which destroys their relationship with God (Mtw 18:6-7) and He will go on to speak of the importance of even the smallest of believers and of their safety before God (Mtw 18:12-14).
It seems, therefore, that the reason for Mtw 18:10 being spoken is to continue upon this theme of the believer’s importance and of the Father’s care, rather than to go off at a tangent with a statement that is altogether unrelated to the matter at hand.
Mtw 18:8-9 do represent an aside, however, but even here the subject matter is a logical extension of the way the disciple should deal with temptation.
Before we think of the passage as a whole and what it means, there are a few Greek words here which give a better insight into what it is that Jesus is meaning to say.
The Greek word which lies behind the English translation ‘despise’ (Strongs Greek number 2706) is a compound word which literally means ‘to think down’ and the word means something slightly different to what’s normally in the word ‘despise’ where hate for the object is normally assumed. It would appear that the word conveys more of the feeling that the person doing it is considering the object of their attentions as being of no worth or value and it will therefore be relating directly back into the self-exaltation of the disciples in Mark 9:33-34 (Pp Mtw 18:1).
There doesn’t appear to be a loathing hatred in this word but a calculated decision to consider certain others as beneath them and of a lower spiritual status - a characteristic of Pharisaic religion which couldn’t accept the way in which Jesus went out to bring back sinners into a relationship with God when they had already written them off from being admissible (Luke 15:1-2).
The words translated ‘always’ (Strongs Greek numbers 1223 and 3956 - or as the compound word 1275), according to Vines
‘...indicates that a certain thing is done frequently throughout a period, whereas “eis to dienekes” (also translated “continually” and “ever”)...stresses the unbroken continuity of what is mentioned’
The word used in Mtw 18:10, therefore, doesn’t have to mean ‘continuously without any break’ but is more in keeping with our word ‘frequently’. For example, Luke 24:53 speaks about the disciples being
‘...continually in the temple blessing God’
If we were to interpret this as meaning that they never went out of the temple after Christ’s ascension, then we have an immediate problem with such passages as Acts 1:12-13 and Acts 2:1 which show that they had an ‘upper room’ where they met. The context shows us that they were frequently in the temple but not permanently there.
Acts 10:2 also says of the centurion Cornelius that he
‘...prayed constantly to God...’
It’s certain that he prayed consistently and at many different times during the day but to have permanently been praying would have left him no time for anything else such as giving alms (Acts 10:2) and functioning as a centurion of the Italian cohort (Acts 10:1). Again, the English word ‘frequently’ appears to be the best interpretation of what this construction means.
When we come to attempt an interpretation of the passage, there are a couple of other considerations which need to be made. Firstly, the phrase
‘always behold the face’
is, according to Matfran
‘...a phrase derived from courtly language for personal access to the king’
To ‘behold the face’ is to come near enough to someone to recognise them and, therefore, to hear what is said. When many subjects of the king in ancient times were banished from the inner court of the king’s palace, it was a high honour to have freedom of access directly into his presence (I Kings 10:8, Esther 4:16).
We should also note that, in Hebrew, the word for ‘presence’ and ‘face’ are one and the same and that the phrase in Is 63:9 which speaks of the angel who saved Israel could be equally well rendered as being the one ‘of His presence’ as he ‘of His face’. That is, what we’re looking at in Mtw 18:10 is not some mystical looking upon God so much as direct access into His presence. It’s certain that some angels do have direct access into the presence of God (Luke 1:19) and, from here, are sent to speak His word to mankind - this may not be the reason for the statement in our passage, however, but it does show that angels do have access to God.
The phrase ‘their angels’ has also caused some attention from commentators and there are a few who would assign an interpretation to it that sees believers as having been given an individual angel to watch over them. This has led to an interpretation of the passage being included in some translations which renders the word as ‘guardian angel’, a wholly unwarranted inclusion (the NEB makes this connection in its translation).
Matmor also mentions in a footnote that Carson interprets the phrase to mean the state of a little believer after death, that their spirits are before God’s throne as a mark of their importance. Although this may sound plausible, the word for angel is being employed here (Strongs Greek number 32) rather than that for ‘spirit’ and nowhere do we learn that, upon death, believers become angels (even though the present world seems to enjoy the analogy - where they get this and other pseudo-christian teaching from, I shudder to think). Matmor points out, however, that the main problem with this belief is the tenses of the words used, for the implication is that while the little believers are alive, their angels are in God’s presence - not that this set up is what happens at a future point when they die which would have required a future tense.
The above discussion may have now caused the reader to become totally bewildered as to what the verse could actually mean but what most commentators seem to have done as they’ve approached this verse is to deal very briefly or ignore the opening phrase of Jesus which runs
‘See that you do not despise [consider as being of lower spiritual status] one of these little ones...’
and rush on to the main problem text which begins with the word ‘for’ showing that it stands as a reason for the statement just made, before it proceeds with the assertion that
‘...in heaven their angels always behold the face of My Father who is in heaven’
All that Jesus is doing here, then, is showing the importance and worth of the most insignificant of believers and urging upon the disciples the necessity of not setting up hierarchical structures which place them as the top dog of the Kingdom of God as they were trying to do (Mark 9:33-34). Far from thinking that the representation for the little believers in Heaven would be ‘somewhere near the back by the exit door’, they’re right there before the Father Himself, a proof that their worth is being greatly undermined when such comparisons are being made.
That should suffice us as an explanation of Jesus’ words but, seeing as I haven’t explained what the teaching concerning the angels actually tells us about Heaven itself, let me make a stab at the dark - something which I only offer as a suggestion because of the lack of substantiating evidence elsewhere in the Scriptures.
God uses angels to instruct men and women (Acts 8:26, 10:3-8, Rev 1:1, 22:6-9, Daniel 10:11-12) and to minister to them in many different ways (Heb 1:14, Acts 5:19-20, 12:6-10, Mtw 4:11, Dan 6:22). But even the most insignificant of believers has angels standing in God’s presence on their behalf, ready to receive a command from God Himself to minister to or to instruct them. So the disciple shouldn’t despise those who seem to be nothing in God’s society as if they are of no consequence or importance - the Father has already provided for their total protection and guidance through His army of angels, because they are of the greatest value to Him (Mtw 18:12-14 goes on to show this).
I noted in the introduction that the parallel passage of Luke 15:1-7 was spoken in a totally different context and for a totally different reason than the one recorded for us here as a reaction to the disciples’ considerations of who was the greatest amongst them. Therefore, I shan’t be dealing with that text here.
However, there is a similarity in both texts for the Pharisees seem to despise as worthless those people to whom Jesus is bringing the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom (Luke 15:1-2) and, in Matthew chapter 18, the discussions which the disciples were having about their own greatness would be what would eventually lead them on to put down the ‘littler’ of believers beneath them which would - surprise, surprise - put them into exactly the self-same position in which the religious leaders of Israel found themselves.
In Luke, then, the parable serves as a declaration of the leaders’ unperceptive attitude concerning what was going on in their midst while in Matthew it stands as a warning to the disciples not to pursue those things which bar them entry into the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 18:3), something which they appear to have very quickly forgotten (Mtw 20:10, Luke 22:24).
The first thing to note here is the phrase ‘gone astray’ in Mtw 18:12 where Luke’s term is ‘lost’. When we think about this comparison, it’s obvious that, though Luke is primarily concerned to record Jesus’ words about the salvation of the individual represented by the lamb in question, here Matthew remembers Jesus’ words about being more concerned with its protection and well-being.
The Greek word (Strongs Greek number 4105) can mean either ‘to deceive’, ‘to wander’ or ‘to go astray’. Here it seems obvious that the latter meaning is what’s necessary and the implication is that the little believer, represented by the sheep, is seen as wandering away from the correct path - that is, wandering away from the sound teaching of Christ and into erroneous doctrine and belief which pulls them away from a dynamic relationship with the Father - and, perhaps more fundamentally, away from a relationship with God through temptation and sin in whatever form that might take (Mtw 18:6-7).
This sits as a final outworking of the temptations mentioned in Mtw 18:6-7 but, by its inclusion, we see that a little believer’s straying isn’t the final word on the matter and the emphasis shifts not to the tempter but to the work of the Father in seeking to reach out to the wandering believer to bring it back into His one fold. Therefore, it isn’t the reason that the believer has strayed that’s important but the love and care of the Father in searching out the lamb to restore it back into the flock.
God’s active rescue plan for mankind doesn’t just run to bringing men and women back into a correct relationship with Himself, but in continuing to bring a believer back into the flock if they stray away from Him. Temptation and sin are never the final words in the Kingdom of Heaven because they deny the active moving of God which negates its effects. God is actively seeking out His straying sheep because it’s not His will that even one should come to harm.
The Greek word used here which is translated ‘perish’ in Mtw 18:14 (Strongs Greek number 622) is one that can mean ‘destruction’ - or of being killed in battle or in prison - but it’s best to take the alternative meaning here to be indicative of suffering loss or of losing something. Vines notes that
‘The idea is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being but of well-being’
and the thought is one of danger and of forsaking the benefits that seeking the Kingdom of Heaven brings.
And this is all said of the little believers not those who are the ‘important’ people. No doubt the Father will seek those out as well, but Jesus’ point is that the discussions which they had been having about who was the greatest was pulling away from an appreciation and acceptance of those who they would eventually consider to be of lesser worth.
However, Jesus points out that they are of such importance to the Father that their well-being is of paramount importance - rather than for the disciples to think that their continued inclusion in the Kingdom is hardly any big deal. As Matfran comments
‘...the implication for the disciple is presumably that he must share God’s concern for each little one and not despise any...’
It would never enter the mind of the shepherd, reasons Jesus, to content himself with the knowledge that he has ninety-nine percent of his flock intact and that, in the words of Matmor, ‘he has no reason for alarm’. Rather, he leaves the safe sheep behind on the hillside and keeps looking for the stray until he finds it. Matmor comments (my italics) that the shepherd
‘...is prepared to leave the ninety-nine at some risk in order to ensure the safety of the one that strayed’
and, although it would be incorrect of us to read into the parable this implication, we may see an injection of humour into the teaching by Jesus at this point. After all, one would hardly expect a shepherd to forsake the majority of his flock simply to try and recover an insignificant proportion of his flock - but this latter action is exactly what God the Father does.
It isn’t necessary for the disciples to think about the right hierarchical structure for the safe, therefore, but to go after those who are straying away from the fold and bring them back. Position isn’t important when there are those who are in a position where they’ve removed themselves from the protection and benefits of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The parable is similar to David’s statement in I Samuel 17:34-35 where he showed that he was indignant if even one of his flock was carried off by a bear or lion and so would go in pursuit to restore the lamb to the fold by delivering it from the aggressor’s mouth. David’s love and anger were intermingled to propel him into action and, as such, is an example of the emotive power of God in Mtw 18:6-7.
Nevertheless, the principle seems worthy of acceptance here that would see it as paralleled in the heart of the Father, where, because of His great love, He is jealous over seeking out the wayward believer and of restoring Him into His Kingdom. And that, even if the believer is considered as being of less importance in the eyes of the disciples.
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