Priorities, Offenses and Forgiveness
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (Matthew 18:1 NKJV)
Greatest - larger (literally or figuratively, specially, in age):--elder, greater(-est), more.
Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:2-4 NKJV)
Converted – strepho - strengthened from the base of trope; to twist, i.e. turn quite around or reverse (literally or figuratively):--convert, turn (again, back again, self, self about).
Trope - a turn ("trope"), i.e. revolution (figuratively, variation):--turning.
Humbles - tapeinoo, tap-i-no'-o – from tapeinos; to depress; figuratively, to humiliate (in condition or heart):--abase, bring low, humble (self).
Tapeinos - depressed, i.e. (figuratively) humiliated (in circumstances or disposition):--base, cast down, humble, of low degree (estate), lowly.
Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1-8)
This is the Jesus whom the disciples were hanging around during the very time everything in the above verses was taking place. They had before them in flesh and blood the most compelling demonstration of humility every displayed, and yet
they were so consumed with desire to advance themselves and look out for their own position and interest that they often failed to notice the sharp contrast between their attitudes and the spirit of Jesus.
What was happening inside the disciples as they sought to establish who was the greatest? It seems natural to believe that at least some of them if not all, were taking offense as others tried to assert themselves as being more important in the group. And with all the known references in the Bible that mentions the disciples arguing over who was the greatest along with all the times it wasn't mentioned, very likely there were a lot of hurt feelings, a lot of shame being shoved around and
a lot of offenses being cherished in their hearts. So it should be no surprise that in addressing their question about which of them was the greatest in His opinion, that Jesus would seek to draw their attention to the underlying problem beneath their desire to be viewed as more important than others. The issue of offense is possibly the greatest obstacle preventing many from entering into the real kingdom of heaven.
Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:5-6 NKJV)
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me.... (KJV)
Offend – skandalizo - from skandalon; to entrap, i.e. trip up (figuratively, stumble (transitively) or entice to sin, apostasy or displeasure):--(make to) offend.
Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh! (Matthew 18:7 KJV)
Offenses - skandalon, skan'-dal-on – ("scandal;" probably from a derivative of kampto; a trap-stick (bent sapling), i.e. snare (figuratively, cause of displeasure or sin):--occasion to fall (of stumbling), offense, thing that offends, stumblingblock.
kampto, kamp'-to – apparently a primary verb; to bend:--bow.
Woe – ouai - a primary exclamation of grief; "woe":--alas, woe.
It must needs – anagke - from ana (through) and the base of agkale; constraint (literally or figuratively); by implication, distress:--distress, must needs, (of) necessity(-sary), needeth, needful.
Agkale - from agkos (a bend, "ache"); an arm (as curved):--arm.
I see in this last definition an interesting clue. The thought that offenses are inevitable is linked to the idea of distress linked to the analogy of an aching arm. Those who cause offenses may or may not be motivated by intentions to make life miserable for others but but sometimes may simply be reacting to distresses in their own hearts or pains they are suffering. In their distress they do or say things that cause offenses for others and create even more grief (woe). Or the offense may not be connected to anything at all but an innocent mistake or blunder but one that bumps into someone else's woundedness creating an assumption of evil. But either way more grief (woe) is brought into their own lives.
Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. (Matthew 18:8-9 KJV)
Everlasting fire – refers to a perpetual fire.
Hell fire – refers to geenna fire, a literal valley just outside Jerusalem where fires perpetually burned in the garbage/trash dump.
In these verses Jesus contrasts the values we are accustomed to holding
with the kind of priorities those will have who choose to live in God's family.
We tend to think of our hands, feet and eyes as vitally necessary and are not ready to live without them until the cost of keeping them becomes too expensive for us, maybe even life-threatening.
Here Jesus may be suggesting that
the things we view the most valuable to us may
well be endangering our experiencing superior life without us realizing it.
What we consider most important may at times become the obstacles preventing us from entering into the kind of kingdom that God is setting up that will last forever.
Unless we are willing to rearrange our priorities and accept seriously these principles Jesus taught, we will not be able to survive the coming fire that will consume everything that is out of harmony with this eternal kind of life.
Let's look at the overview of what Jesus is trying to set up here as the main issue or problem regarding the kingdom as He views it. The disciples come to Him wanting to know who is most important in God's new government. But they are bringing into the question assumptions they have from living in this world's viewpoint all their lives which is completely shaped by hierarchy, domination, control, pride, subjugation of the weak to the strong and self-interest. In their minds they want to know who among them will be the most honored when Jesus sets up His earthly kingdom rivaling the control of the Jewish leaders. But more importantly they expect Him to compete against the enormous power of the Roman Empire that is so repressive. They are confident, based on the traditions and national aspirations cherished by their culture and traditions, that the Messiah will come primarily to exalt them and put them in charge using force. They are confident that Jesus is the man sent by God to bring this dream into reality and they are eager to get the scoop on knowing which of them will have the most prominent positions of power, dominance and control in this new kingdom.
Jesus has in mind a completely different kind of kingdom that will dissolve the kingdoms of this world. (see Daniel 2:44-45)
But His kingdom does not employ force, coercion, fear or any of the other techniques that this world's kingdoms rely on to maintain itself. Rather, the kingdom Jesus is introducing is
completely upside down in nearly every respect to the sorts of kingdoms we are used to. In this passage Jesus is trying to introduce the foundational principles of this new kingdom to all who are willing to reconsider their own assumptions, who are willing to challenge their traditions
and humble themselves enough to be made useful in this completely new kind of government.
So, what are the key points that we see so far in the beginning of this chapter as Jesus unwraps the core values of His new kingdom? How does He respond to the disciple's question by indicating the kind of nature in those who will be most important or most useful in this emerging kingdom of God?
Humble, child-like spirit
First, Jesus uses a living demonstration of a simple, free-spirited, unaffected, unassuming child who is as close to a natural human as Jesus can find. A young child has not yet learned all the subtleties of adult maneuvering, exploitation, deception and hypocrisy.
This child is not concerned about how important they are in other people's opinions
but is joyful to celebrate simply being alive. This child still has a trusting, teachable spirit with confidence in his parents and is still easily impressionable. This child is like an open book with very little written in it yet and is eager to soak up all the love and life they can receive. An innocent, happy child is eager to be friendly, to interact with others and is as close as one can find to the original design for humans other than the example of Jesus Himself.
What Jesus speaks about and highlights with this child is in sharp contrast to the attitudes of the adults all around them. The contrast apparently is so stark that Jesus says the adults must experience a revolutionary transformation – conversion – in order to become more like this child if they expect to even enter the kingdom of God. The disciple's focus has been on which of them is the greatest, while this child has no such desires or thoughts. Jesus highlights this contrast and declares that unless one experiences a true conversion, a radical reversal to take on a mindset more like this child, that they will never be able to even participate in this kingdom they think they are so eager to inaugurate.
Jesus contrasts the humility of the child with the self-important ambitions of the adults and says that all this ambition and self-promotion is blocking them from being a part of the real kingdom or synchronization with how things operate in heaven. There will have to be a drastic change in one's attitude towards others before one can begin to appreciate the value system of this heavenly kingdom. Humility is one of the most important characteristics that will be evidenced in the lives of all who are important and useful in the kingdom of heaven. And to find what this humility looks like Jesus used the illustration of the little child He placed in their midst.
Notice also that Jesus called this child to Him at the beginning of His answer. I suspect that much of what Jesus was seeking to convey in His illustration maybe had more to do
with the body language and facial expressions and the tender interactions with Jesus that could be observed by those standing around than anything else.
Jesus likely hugged the child and reassured them before setting them in the middle of this group of grown men. Because we are left with only the condensed written version of this event we are likely to miss the greater part of what was communicated during that demonstration and we have to ask the Holy Spirit to fill in the blanks for us. But there are more clues that might be seen in some of the comments made by some of these very disciples years later
after they had indeed been finally converted and had experienced the kingdom kind of living Jesus was introducing in this chapter. Notice the spirit in Peter's words as he writes a letter years later –
To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)
The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. (1 John 2:10) This is the very same word that Jesus used, the Greek word skandalon.
As the kingdom continued to spread like fire, Saul, one of the fiercest opponents of this new kingdom suddenly was confronted by radical love, mercy and overwhelmed with kindness as he was on his way to destroy the followers of Jesus who advocated such confusing values from what was normal in the world. Saul had been employing the tactics of the world to try to promote religion in the name of God, but when he came face to face with the kindness of God that
amplified the agitation of his own conscience, he suddenly experienced
the true, transformational power of this new kingdom and his selfish, violent heart was melted by this amazing mercy. Later he described this principle that resonates with what Jesus had taught that counteracts the false methods of this world.
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5)
The verses that follow this detail the attitude of Jesus that must be infused into all who want to be important in the kingdom of heaven, in all those who become useful in spreading the principles of this new kingdom that is based on humility, love, gentleness and compassion rather than force, intimidation and coercion. This famous passage describes how Jesus humbled Himself over and over to the very point of giving up everything including His own life so that others might live as a result of seeing God differently. Jesus' example is the ultimate demonstration of the principles of the kingdom that must be reflected in the minds and hearts of all those who participate in His kingdom.
This chapter in Matthew is an exposé of the impact that offenses have in our lives
and how we need to learn to relate to them. This subject of offenses was a major subject in Jesus' teachings that have too long been marginalized. But we must begin to appreciate the vital importance of this topic if we want to experience for ourselves living in harmony with each other as Jesus intends for us to experience. Only as we understand this issue of offenses and how to eliminate them can we become magnets for God to draw others to come and find healing, wholeness and hope among us.
Jesus goes on to say –
Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost. (Matthew 18:10-11 NKJV)
When I read this passage recently I noticed something I had never seen before. It is one of those literary techniques used by Bible writers that is common in the Hebrew thinking but for us has to be explained. In this case it is a sequence of doubles. Through repeating doubles the Hebrew style of writing amplifies in parallels to explain things better. Let me illustrate this visually so it is easier to discern.
The first set is Jesus' direct response to the disciple's question about who was the greatest. Let me write these out side by side to see how they relate to each other.
unless you are converted and become as little childrenyou will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven
whoever humbles himself as this little childis the greatest in the kingdom of heaven
Whoever receives one little child like this in My namereceives Me
This composes the first set of doubles that opens up some interesting thoughts to ponder. We see here a parallel between conversion, humility and receiving others. On the other side we see a link between entering the kingdom, being greatest in that kingdom and receiving both children and Jesus.
Now let's look at the next set of doubles to discover more interesting implications.
whoever causes offense to one of these little ones who believe in Mebetter for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea
It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimedhaving two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire
It is better for you to enter into life with one eye having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire
do not despise one of these little onesin heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven
Here is what I find fascinating in these parallels. On the first side there is
a parallel between offense and despising. Whatever the cause of the offense, Jesus is implying that it simply is not worth it to value something we feel is as important to us as our hand, our foot or our eye above the effects of what we value may be having on the well-being of another child of God.
But even more interesting to me are the parallels on the other side.
The first one speaks of drowning in water while the next two refer to fire. But then the last of this set notes the presence of God in heaven. This should alert us of all the times throughout Scripture that God's presence is referred to in terms of fire, everlasting fire, consuming fire etc. The implication is strong here that if we do not take seriously these words of Jesus, if we allow offenses to remain that create stumbling blocks for others,
we may discover like the disciples that in our eager anticipation of the coming kingdom of heaven that the presence of God may be a dangerous fire, it may be one that
ends up consuming us rather than being the life-giving fire in which the angels of heaven thrive. And all of these issues revolve around this central problem of offenses. That makes understanding this issue and aligning our lives with the instructions and warnings of Jesus take on a whole new level of importance for any person serious about wanting to someday live in the presence of that holy fire.
As we progress through this chapter we are going to see more clearly the problems that offenses bring to us and the answers for resolving these problems. Not only does Jesus talk about the problem of offenses here but He details what we must be willing to do to resolve them when at all possible. We must also keep in mind that the primary purpose of everything we do in relation to offenses is to bring about unity, harmony, love and reconciliation so that the body of Christ can
truly reflect the sweet spirit of the kingdom of heaven. If we are unwilling to face these offenses as Jesus instructs us to do and recognize how much they infect our lives and then seriously choose to address them head-on whenever they show up, we will remain stuck in our artificial religion and will never enter into the real kingdom of heaven as Jesus wants us to experience. Only by adhering to the methods Jesus lays out in this chapter and amplified throughout the New Testament in particular can we experience the harmony, love and blessings found in kingdom living.