A Bible Lesson on Matthew 18:10-35

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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

Jesus is speaking in endearing terms about His people, these little ones. They are all precious to Him. And they are precious to the Father.

11 [For the Son of Man came to save the lost.]

It couldn’t be said any more plainly. Jesus, the Son, came to earth not to be a teacher or an inspiration or an example, but to save fallen humanity, to save a people.

12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?

We don’t get all details in a parable and this story is about the shepherd and the one, not the 99. But there is no need to assume that the shepherd leaves the 99 in any danger. Shepherds of the time often worked together, and this guy could well have left the rest in the care of a partner.

We could talk at length about the legendary stupidity, waywardness, and helplessness of sheep. A sheep that wanders off is in real danger, and is not capable of finding its own way home. But the point is that the shepherd will go to substantial trouble to retrieve his possession. Where the sheep can’t get home by itself, the shepherd goes searching for the sheep. (That’s one the Pharisees would have had a hard time swallowing … a righteous God seeking out the wayward sheep.)

This is a wonderful picture of the Son of God tenderly doing for you and I what we are not capable of doing for ourselves. We are in mortal danger, can’t find our way home, but He seeks us out and carries us home. And what’s more, when the shepherd has retrieved what belongs to him, it gives him great joy.

13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.

This ought to be read as hyperbole. Jesus is not stating a preference for outrageous wrongdoers who finally decide to go straight, over soft hearts who humbly, patiently and consistently strive to please God. He is, instead, rebuking the hard hearts of the Pharisees. They think that they can establish their own righteousness and don’t need to repent, that they are by birth part of the flock. They fail to understand that we are all in the category of the wayward sheep. There is more rejoicing in heaven over one that does repent than 99 that don’t think they need to. Scripture is clear that in and of ourselves there isn’t one of us who can be described as righteous.

14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

Jesus, the great Shepherd of His sheep came from the Father, at the will of the Father to save these little ones. They are all, every one of them, precious. In the spirit of verse 10, they are all to be conserved. They are individually ones that the Shepherd has sought and rescued.

It is in this context that Jesus gives the famous instructions about handling wrongs among Christians. It is unfortunate that these are often extracted and treated as if they were a manual for “confrontation,” a set of rules to be followed so that one can be within boundaries of righteousness and get one’s “well-deserved” justice. They are not that, but rather a set of cautions to proceed humbly and gently in preservation of all Christ’s people.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

Don’t blab offenses around publicly. Don’t be ready to seek redress in a way that ensures that everyone knows what has happened. What real long term good does it do for me to make sure the whole world knows how grievously you’ve wronged me? How does that preserve the flock? Wrongs addressed and corrected privately with humility all around are those handled for the good of the Christ’s people. Notice, too that this is “if your brother sins against you.” The context is real moral wrong, not hurt feelings and personal disputes.

16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

In the context where one Christian is genuinely seriously harmed by another and it cannot simply be overlooked, and private approach fails to bring restoration, it’s still not appropriate to blab it about in public. Rather (in a still limited way) the matter can be handled gently and humbly by the church. A very small number of believers should come with the one who has been harmed to plead with the offender to yield. The “two or three witnesses” is not some kind of preparation of a later case for a civil or ecclesiastical court, but testimony to the offender that “really, what you’ve done is wrong … we agree with your brother.”

17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

If this fails to bring restoration, only then is any kind of public handling of the offense appropriate. The “public” is not the civil court, but the church. The context is real sin/serious harm of a brother and stubborn refusal to yield when shown the wrong. That behavior puts one outside the bounds of church, the flock of God, the assembly of Christ’s little ones. Of course it does. It means that the one harmed has acted in a way consistent with verse 10 and the offender has not. He has despised a little one. The one harmed has behaved in a way consistent with the Shepherd’s love and the Father’s love. The offender is of a different mind. He’s not a real sheep.

18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

This may have meaning beyond the present context, but it at least says that the judgment of the church (both in miniature as it seeks to bring an offender to his senses and if necessary as a whole) is a serious matter. It is not to be treated as inconsequential.

19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.

This means at least that the two or three that look for restoration of the wrong-doer do so in the will of the Father and before His face. They go as His representatives.

20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

This is true in general, but the specific application here concerns those who would go to try to appeal to a Christian who has seriously sinned against another. He is among them.

Jesus now tells the parable of the unforgiving servant. It’s not accidental that it follows here this material aimed at the preservation of one who has done wrong in harming an innocent believer. Jesus has commanded a gentle approach in the light of the fact that He doesn’t want the offender lost. This parable concerns the heart attitude of one harmed.

The passage is straightforward. There’s nothing here beyond understanding for any of us. But frail and sinful that we are, it is natural for us to suppress/forget the force of this passage.

We need to keep carefully in mind that the teaching here is about individual forgiveness/relationships between individuals. Jesus is not addressing matters of church discipline nor the proper role of civil authority. Some moderns wrongly want to take passages like this out of context and use them to make “soft/compassionate” public policy that in the end fails to restrain fallen human beings and leads to chaos. This is directed at you and me, day to day, where we live, as we interact with specific people who genuinely wrong us.

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”

Barclay has a nice line about Peter. He says that we owe him a great debt for being quick of tongue. He wears his fallen human heart on his sleeve. Many of us would have been thinking the same things, but would not have come out with it.

The rabbis held that one was required to forgive another person only 3 times. The 4th was not required. This sad teaching was apparently based on a bad exegesis of the first 2 chapters of Amos. There God says that “for the 3 sins of _____ even for 4” He will bring judgment. Their reasoning seems to be that man should not be more gracious than God, so in human relationships it should be 4 strikes and you’re out. Peter was clearly hoping that Jesus would pat him on the back for his enlightened position here. The “up to seven” times is more than twice as many times as he understood was required. Peter is pretty clearly thinking of forgiveness between people as a legal matter, a formula or a requirement that Jesus was laying down, not as the proper reaction to grace. He’s missed the point.

22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

I do not say to you (in contrast to the rabbis). Jesus refers back to the Old Testament, but turns the reference on its ear. The seventy-seven times recalls Genesis 4:24. There Lamech brags of being avenged 77 times. The notion is that his revenge was without measure. Jesus turns it around and tells Peter that his forgiveness should be without measure. The 77 is not a number to be counted up to. Rather, it is an indication that “Peter, you don’t even have the right order of magnitude! Any limit you would dream up would be far too small! There should be no bounds to your personal forgiveness.” Paul puts it this way in 1Cor 13:5 “(love) keeps no record of wrongs” Jesus begins a parable intended to make this clear.

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.

24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.

The king begins to settle accounts with his servants. These are bondservants or slaves. He owns these guys. They are not their own to begin with. The guy who owes him 10 thousand talents has been using (as a steward) the king’s resources. He’s not just borrowed a few bucks from the local bank; he’s been responsible for using his master’s money.

It is essential to get a handle on how much money the servant has bungled/wasted. This was enough to hire 1000 soldiers for 100 years. The annual revenue for the province of Galilee was only 300 talents. A laborer would be 20 years earning 1 talent. This was a huge/astronomical figure, perhaps a billion dollars or more, the equivalent of the pay for 60 million work days of a laborer. It is more than a king’s ransom! It is a figure that no servant had the slightest chance of ever paying off.

25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.

Of course he can’t pay! The debt is simply too great. This fellow is totally hopeless. We need to have it straight here, that this fellow is not just slightly in debt to the loan company (who gave him only a small part of its resources in line with his ability to repay). Simply working hard for a while is not going to fix what’s wrong. He is utterly and hopelessly in debt.

Although it would certainly be the king’s right to do so, selling this guy, his family and his stuff (which presumably the king already owns anyway), is not going to come close to evening the score. The most valuable slave was worth at most a single talent. But at least getting rid of the servant will keep him from further mischief.

26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’

Like a true fallen human being, the servant can’t see his situation clearly. He has deluded himself and has no appreciation of the fix that he’s in. There is simply no way that by means of his own efforts he’s going to come up with the cash to repay the king. Yet he’s silly enough to be telling the king that given a little time, he’ll be able to make up the shortage in the royal treasury.

27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

Not every detail of a parable is meant to correspond to reality, and we should not make anything of the fact that the king doesn’t require the servant to be done with his fantasy of repaying the debt before granting him clemency. What is to be emphasized is the king’s tremendous kindness. If the debt was going to be dealt with, only the king could do it. He lost a bundle in the process. This forgiveness that he gave was not cheap, nor was it in any way owed or earned. It was grace pure and simple. He simply canceled the debt, took the loss Himself and was ready to put it in the past.

The king doesn’t give the servant the luxury of pretending to work off the debt. He cancels it. What he gives the servant is far beyond the man’s (absurd) request for more time. He isn’t given time, he is completely forgiven.

28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’

Now we move from the vertical to the horizontal. This is a “fellow servant.” Whether the first man recognizes it or not, this second man is his peer. The first man is not the peer of the king, but this fellow is his peer. And the guy owes him 100 denarii. This is 100 day’s wages for a common laborer. This is a large debt, but it is not an impossible debt. It certainly pales in comparison to what the first man owed. It is on the order of 1/600,000th of that.

Barclay gives the illustration that if paid in English sixpence (of Barclay’s day) the 100 denarii would fit in one man’s pocket. The first man’s debt also paid in sixpence would have filled 8,600 sacks each holding sixty pounds of coins. If carried by soldiers marching single file and spaced a yard apart, the line of them would have been 5 miles long. The comparison here is completely and utterly outlandish. There simply is no comparison between the magnitudes of the two debts.

29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’

The request here is worded in almost exactly the same terms as that of the first servant. But here it is not an absurd and meaningless promise. Here it is within the realm of possibility. But even the use of his own words doesn’t move the first man. Instead, he demands his rights in regard to his peer.

30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.

Instead of imitating the king, the first guy executes on his fellow servant the judgment that he rightly had coming from the king. It’s not so clear that this 2nd guy will ever get out of jail. The only hope that is that somehow his family will be able to raise the cash.

The crux of this story is that God’s people have seen Him, experienced His mercy, and ought to be like Him. If they aren’t, then they aren’t truly His.

31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.

I’m not entirely sure how far to push this analogy, but will remark that the other servants don’t take things into their own hands, but instead appeal to the king, to the one with the right and power to deal with the situation.

32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.

33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’

“You wicked servant!” The servant’s action is both legal and within his rights, humanly speaking. But the fact is that what may be within one’s rights by human standards can be wicked in the light of the Gospel. We do not march to the world’s drummer nor according to its standards. The king doesn’t address the servant on the basis of what was legal, but rather on the basis of mercy.

Again, verse 33 is the crux of the matter. God’s children ought to imitate their Father in their own limited realms. You and I don’t want God’s justice for our own sin, we want His mercy, which He richly gives us. That being the case, we must in turn be generous, merciful and gracious as well.

34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.

“… until he should pay back all” Again, this is a complete impossibility. This guy is simply going to rot in jail. And the “jailers” is really more literally “torturers.”

There is no inconsistency in the revocation of the pardon. There is no contradiction in God, at His own great expense, offering generous personal pardon and yet at the same time exacting judicial fury. The man was punished not for the debt, but for despising forgiveness. The man had been given grace, but in regard to his peers, preferred the law. Now he was simply to reap what he had sown.

35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

We simply have no grounds upon which to withhold personal forgiveness from any other human being. It is not some kind of tit for tat, where by forgiving we somehow make up a part of a debt we owe to God. The parable makes it clear that our situation with respect to our Father is infinitely more desperate than anything between us human beings. The debts aren’t close to comparable. If we fail to forgive, we reveal that we do not appreciate what He’s given us. Our forgiving others doesn’t merit the forgiveness of God, but if it’s lacking, that is evidence that we don’t really know Him.

We would do well to also reflect on how we extend forgiveness when we need to do so. The master’s forgiveness did not ignore the wrong or minimize it. Instead, he took on himself the cost of the servant’s wrong. Sometimes, even though how we harm each other is minor in comparison to our offense of God, it is nevertheless genuinely serious. Even so, we are to absorb the cost and genuinely cancel the debt, not put the other person on a payment plan.

Ryle wrote, “… There will be no forgiveness in that day for unforgiving people. Such people would be unfit for heaven: they would not be able to value a dwelling-place to which ‘mercy’ is the only title and in which ‘mercy’ is the eternal subject of song. Surely if we mean to stand at the right hand, when Jesus sits on the throne of His glory, we must learn, while we are on earth, to forgive.

Let these truths sink down deeply into our hearts. It is a melancholy fact that there are few Christian duties so little practised as that of forgiveness: it is sad to see how much bitterness, unmercifulness, spite, hardness, and unkindness there is among men. Yet there are few duties so strongly enforced in the New Testament Scriptures as this duty is, and few the neglect of which so clearly shuts a man out of the kingdom of God.

Would we give proof that we are at peace with God, washed in Christ’s blood, born of the Spirit, and made God’s children by adoption and grace? Let us remember this passage: like our father in heaven, let us be forgiving. Has any man injured us? Let us this day forgive him. As Leighton says, “We ought to forgive ourselves little, and others much.”

Would we do good to the world? Would we have any influence on others, and make them see the beauty of true religion? Let us remember this passage. Men who care not for doctrines can understand a forgiving temper.

Would we grow in grace ourselves, and become more holy in all our ways, words, and works? Let us remember this passage.–Nothing so grieves the Holy Spirit, and brings spiritual darkness over the soul, as giving way to a quarrelsome and unforgiving temper. (Ephes. iv. 30-32.)”

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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