The disciples ask who the greatest is. The passage about cutting off hand or gouging out eye (so to speak) is included. The Parable of the Lost Sheep is told. If your brother sins against you seven times, forgive him seventy times (or seventy times seventy). Church discipline is taught in restoring someone. Binding and loosing is repeated here. Finally the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is told.
As I write in the introduction to every chapter:
This translation and commentary is offered for free, gratis, across the worldwide web to Christians in oppressive (persecuting) or developing countries, who cannot afford printed commentaries or Study Bibles, though everyone can use the commentary and entire website, of course.
The commentary has a practical application (GrowApp) at the end of each section, for discipleship.
The Greek terms with brief definitions can be looked up at biblehub.com. However, I hope to bring different nuances to the few words I focus on. And I keep things nontechnical.
The translation is mine. I wrote it to learn what the Greek text really says. The translation tends to be literal, but complete literalism and readability are impossible, so adjustments had to be made. If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.
Links are provided for further study.
Who Is the Greatest? (Matthew 18:1-5)
1 At that moment, the disciples approached Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 Calling for a little child, he stood him in the middle of them 3 and said, “I tell you the truth: unless you turn and become as children, you will in no way enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever will humble himself as this little child—this person is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
One quick point that is a little outside the main teaching here. Yes, we are initially to welcome or receive Jesus and enter his kingdom as if we had the simple faith of children, but we must not remain children (1 Cor. 13:11). The point to this living illustration is that as children are at the mercy of the adults, so grown disciples should throw themselves on the mercy of their loving heavenly Father.
The issue of who is the greatest will come up again (20:20-28). Here the context may the greatest in the here and now, but in 20:20-28, it is greatest in the eschatological kingdom. Apparently, this issue of the greatest was a live issue among the disciples. It seems to be a live issue for us today.
“disciples”: the noun is mathētēs (pronounced mah-they-tayss). and it is used 261 times in the NT, though many of them are duplicates in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. BDAG is considered by many to be the authoritative Greek lexicon of the NT, and it says of the noun (1) “one who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice”; (2) “one who is rather constantly associated with someone who has a pedagogical reputation or a particular set of views, disciple, adherent.”
“kingdom of heaven”: Matthew substitutes “heaven” (literally heavens or plural) nearly every time (except for 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43, where he uses kingdom of God). Why? Four possible reasons: (1) Maybe some extra-pious Jews preferred the circumlocution or the roundabout way of speaking, but this answer is not always the right one, for Matthew does use the phrase “kingdom of God” four times; (2) the phrase “kingdom of heaven” points to Christ’s post-resurrection authority; God’s sovereignty in heaven and earth (beginning with Jesus’s ministry) is now mediated through Jesus (28:18); (3) “kingdom of God” makes God the king (26:29) and leaves less room to ascribe the kingdom to Jesus (16:28; 25:31, 34, 40; 27:42), but the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” leaves more room to say Jesus is the king Messiah. (4) It may be a stylistic variation that has no deeper reasoning behind it (France). In my view the third option shows the close connection to the doctrine of the Trinity; the Father and Son share authority, after the Father gives it to him. The kingdom of heaven is both the kingdom of the Father and the kingdom of the Messiah (Carson). And, since I like streamlined interpretations, the fourth one also appeals to me.
Now let’s go for a general consideration of the kingdom of heaven / God. As noted in other verses that mention the kingdom in this commentary, the kingdom is God’s power, authority, rule, reign and sovereignty. He exerts all those things over all the universe but more specifically over the lives of people. It is his invisible realm, and throughout the Gospels Jesus is explaining and demonstrating what it looks like before their very eyes and ears. It is gradually being manifested from the realm of faith to the visible realm, but it is not political in the human sense. It is a secret kingdom because it does not enter humanity with trumpets blaring and full power and glory. This grand display will happen when Jesus comes back. In his first coming, it woos people to surrender to it. We can enter God’s kingdom by being born again (John 3:3, 5), by repenting (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:5), by having the faith of children (Matt. 18:4; Mark 10:14-15), by being transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son whom God loves (Col. 1:13), and by seeing their own poverty and need for the kingdom (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20; Jas. 2:5). The kingdom has already come in part at his First Coming, but not yet with full manifestation and glory and power until his Second Coming.
1 Introducing the Kingdom of God (begin a ten-part series)
“child”: it is the noun paidion (pronounced pye-dee-on). It can be translated as (1) “very young child, infant” or (2) “child.” The Shorter Lexicon suggests the second definition. Then it can even mean a figurative child, as we find in v. 3. We are supposed to enter the kingdom as a little child and then keep the childlike faith, without complications.
“him”: grammatically it could be “it” because the word for child is neuter, but I went with him.
A child must have been nearby. Was it a boy or girl? Let’s say a boy. Did he belong to one of the disciples? What about one of the women’s child? Recall that women were following Jesus (Luke 8:1-3). Or was he a child from the crowd? We don’t know, but it is fun to speculate. Mark 9:33 says that Jesus entered “the house,” which most likely means Peter’s house. It would be wonderful to think this child was Peter’s son Mark (1 Pet. 5:13).
Jesus stood the child next to him. He was to be a living object lesson. Sweet scene.
In his comments on Luke 9:47, the parallel verse, commentator Darrell L. Bock cites a passage from the Mishnah (completed in about AD 200, but reflecting earlier traditions) showing that it was a waste of time to chat with children: “Morning sleep, midday wine, chattering with children, and tarrying [dawdling] in places where men of the common people assemble destroy a man (Luke 1:1-9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Baker, 1992], p. 895, m. ‘Abot 3.11). Jesus was overturning the cultural prejudice among the extra-devout.
It is imperative to welcome a child in the name of Jesus. When we welcome the least child, we welcome Jesus. When we welcome Jesus, we welcome the Father who sent him. So we have a ladder of authority, and only the Father and Jesus can occupy the top rungs. If the disciples want to be great, they must occupy the rung that the child stands on. To be great, one must become least.
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). In first-century thought children were often very little esteemed. Jesus ascribes to them great value, but here his more immediate point is that would-be disciples must share their condition of utter dependence, in this case, on God. Without a recognition of one’s fundamental inability to save oneself and without a subsequent complete reliance on God’s mercy, no one can enter the kingdom of heaven. (comment on 18:2-4)
A paradox is defined as placing seemingly contradictory ideas side by side (see also v. 23). Here are two possible paradoxes, but only one really is:
1.. To be great, you must use all your willpower and ambition and drive.
2.. To be great, you must become like a child, the least of all.
The paradox is the second statement. Everyone follows the first one, but the way of the kingdom leads to the second one. In the world, the paradox (no. 2) makes no sense. In the kingdom, God lifts you up. In the kingdom, you must become like a child.
“name”: this noun stands in for the person—a living, real person. Let’s develop this thought, so it can apply to you. What’s in a name?
You carry your earthly father’s name. If he is dysfunctional, his name is a disadvantage. If he is functional and impacting society for the better, then his name is an advantage. In Jesus’s case, he has the highest status in the universe, next to the Father (Col. 1:15-20). He is exalted above every principality and power (Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:20-23; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8). His character is perfection itself. His authority and power are absolute, under the Father. In his name you are seated in the heavenly places with Christ (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). Now down here on earth you walk and live as an ambassador in his name, in his stead, for he is no longer living on earth, so you have to represent him down here. We are his ambassadors who stand in for his name (2 Cor. 5:20). The good news is that he did not leave you without power and authority. He gave you his. Now you represent him in his name—his person, power and authority. Therefore, under his authority we have his full authority to preach the gospel and set people free from bondages and satanic spirits and heal them of diseases.
“I tell you the truth”: Matthew uses this expression thirty times in his Gospel. “Truth” comes from the word amēn (pronounced ah-main and comes into English as amen). It expresses the authority of the one who utters it. The Hebrew root ’mn means faithfulness, reliability and certainty. It could be translated as “truly I tell you” or I tell you with certainty.” Jesus’s faith in his own words is remarkable and points to his unique calling. In the OT and later Jewish writings is indicates a solemn pronouncement, but Jesus’ “introductory uses of amēn to confirm his own words is unique” (France at his comment on 5:18). The authoritative formula emphasizes pronouncements which are noteworthy and will be surprising or uncomfortable to the listener.
See my post about truth:
“turn”: it is another word for repentance, but it has the clear physical meaning of turn, at its root as in going one direction and turning, and then going in the opposite direction.
GrowApp for Matt. 18:1-5
A.. Are you an anxious over-thinker, or do you have the faith of a child? Tell your story.
Deal Harshly with Temptation to Sin (Matt. 18:6-9)
6 “But whoever causes one of these little ones who trust in me to stumble, it would be better for him to hang a great millstone around his neck and drowned in the depths of the sea! 7 Woe to the world which causes stumbling! For stumbling blocks must come; however, woe to the person through whom the stumbling block comes!
8 If your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off from you and toss it from you. It is better for you to enter life deformed or lame than having two hands or two feet and be thrown into the everlasting fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, take it out and toss it from you. It is better to enter into life one-eyed than having two eyes and be thrown into fiery Gehenna.”
Followers of Jesus must learn to read the Bible on its own terms, without their wearing monochrome glasses, in which every word appears the same literal color in different contexts. Yes, much of it can be taken literally, like the histories or the commands of the Torah and Epistles. But in significant sections of Scripture, the Bible is not a “flat,” one-dimensional book, on one simplistic level. It is multi-layered. And vv. 6-9 is a case in point. These verses are not to be interpreted literally and simplistically.
Judaism prohibited self-mutilation (Deut. 14:1; 1 Kings 18:28; Zech. 13:6), so Jesus is teaching us a different lesson (David E. Garland, Mark: NIV Application Bible [Zondervan, 1996], p. 369). It is to deal ruthlessly with sin.
Please note that some interpreters say the “little ones” are weak disciples (see v. 10, below), perhaps as we find in Rom. 14. Their conscience is so weak that they cannot eat various foods, or they have to keep some days as holy (Rom. 14:5-7). Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (v. 5). Everyone with their different practices and convictions about food “should make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19).
However, I like to think that children can trust in the Lord, and it is a very bad idea to talk them out of their belief. Remember—this is spoken in a Jewish culture, and anyone who converts to Jesus may be in trouble. But you may certainly see this passage as shifting the focus from children to weak disciples, if you wish.
“trust in me” could be translated as “believe in me.” John often uses the phrase.
Excellent saying (as I note many times):
Forsaking All, I Trust Him
Then what does causing them to stumble mean (or it could be translated as “causing someone to sin”)?
“stumbling stones”: The Greek noun for the stumbling block or stone is skandalon (pronounced scan-dah-lon), and it is clear we get our word scandal from it, but the meaning back then is not quite the same. The noun means, depending on the context: (1) “trap (symbolically)”; (2) “temptation to sin, enticement”; (3) “that which gives offense or causes revulsion, that which causes opposition, an object of anger or disapproval.”
We are supposed to get angry at and feel revulsion for a skandalon.
“stumble”: some translations say, “causes to sin.” The Greek language adds the suffix –izō to a noun and changes it into a verb. We do that too: modern – modernize. So the noun becomes skandalizō (pronounced scan-dah-lee-zoh). And it means, depending on the context, (1) “cause to be caught … to fall, i.e. cause to sin” a. … Passive: “be led into sin … fall away”; b. “be led into sin or repelled by someone, take offense at someone”; (2) give offense to, anger, shock.”
Let’s apply the idea that Jesus is talking about literal children. Jesus does not specify what a skandalon or skandalizō are in this context, but it must be turning children away from believing in him. What would do that? Hypocrisy (talking one way but living another)? Dysfunction and fighting in the household? Meanness? What is your household like?
“great millstone”: the Greek indicates that it is worked by a donkey. At first I translated the phrase as “a millstone worked by a donkey.” Or I could have written “a donkey millstone,” but either one of those seemed awkward. So I went with what Grammarian Olmstead suggested. In any case, the stone had to be big to be worked by a donkey (too big for an ordinary human).
“Execution by drowning was a frequent punishment and was terrifying because there could be no burial and therefore no peaceful afterlife (in a Hellenistic sense). Jesus’ point is that this would be preferable to the punishment God would render such a person” (Osborne, comment on 18:6).
In v. 7, “Jesus is saying that divine judgment will fall on the world because its system is the true source of the stumbling that will destroy the faith of too many ‘little ones.’ This also means that the false teachers and others who cause such spiritual catastrophes are truly of the world” (Osborne, comment on 18:7).
“life”: It is the noun zoē (pronounced zoh-ay, and girls are named after it, e.g. Zoey) and is very versatile. BDAG, considered ny many to be the authoritative lexicon, says that it has two senses, depending on the context: a physical life (e.g. life and breath) and a transcendent life. By physical life the editors mean the period from birth to death, human activity, a way or manner of living, a period of usefulness, earning a living. By transcendent life the lexicographers mean these four elements: first, God himself is life and offers us everlasting life. Second, Christ is life, who received life from God, and now we can receive life from Christ. Third, it is new life of holiness and righteousness and grace. God’s life filling us through Christ changes our behavior. Fourth, zoē means life in the age to come, or eschatological life. So our new life now will continue into the next age, which God fully and finally ushers in when Christ returns. We will never experience mere existence or death, but we will be fully and eternally alive in God.
Jesus is not talking about going into heaven but entering new life in Christ in the here and now. It is about entering his kingdom right now.
“everlasting”: It is used in the context of fire. The adjective “everlasting” is the translation of the Greek adjective aiōnios (pronounced eye-oh-nee-oss and used 71 times). The basic meaning is “age-long”; in some contexts it can mean “everlasting” or “eternal” (e.g. God is eternal), but the basic meaning is “age.” So why then did I translate it as “everlasting”? To be traditional, but if you wish to dig further into “an age,” and translate it like that, then go for it.
“Gehenna”: Matthew uses it in 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 23:33. The term comes from the Valley of Sons of Hinnom (= Gehenna), a ravine south and west of Jerusalem that was a trash heap where refuse and dead criminals were discarded and burned. At this dump wicked kings of Israel / Judea worshipped Baal-Molech, including offering children in fiery sacrifices—they put children to the flames (2 Kings 16:3; 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Is. 66:24; Jer. 7:31-32; 19:4-6; 32:34-35). So it is apt to say that Gehenna is the place where people go who have done wicked deeds and are not saved, after final judgment.
However, some are disputing the everlastingness of fire. It could be punishment that lasts an age. Sincere and devout and Bible-believing Evangelicals today are shifting their focus away from the eternal, conscious torment in hades (and then the lake of fire), because the eternality of conscious torment does not carry as much weight in Scripture as they had once believed. The other two alternative scenarios in the afterlife also have strong Scriptural support, as follows.
One alternative theory says that after people are punished in hades for a duration that corresponds to their sins, they will be annihilated or “vaporized” or become nonexistent. They will not be tormented eternally, but for an age. The soul is not eternal by virtue of being a soul. Only God gives eternal life to the redeemed, not to the unredeemed.
The third theory says that unbelievers will be punished in hades to the degree of their deeds on earth; then they will be restored or reconciled to God and admitted into heaven. So hades is a purging of bad character and deeds. It is easy to imagine that a majority of people suffering eternal, conscious torment would take the deal to enter a life of relief in heaven.
Please read a three-part series, each of which has plenty of Scriptural support:
Each theory teaches punishment in the afterlife, but the debate is over the duration of punishment. It may be surprising to many traditional Christians, but the latter two theories have plenty of Scriptural support. But whichever theory you decide on, please don’t call the other theories heretical or unorthodox, particularly if you believe in eternal, conscious torment. The theory of eternal, conscious torment did not gain momentum until Augustine’s time in the fifth century. Until then, church leaders easily believed in the other theories of annihilation or restoration.
Charismatic theologian and Presbyterian minister J. Rodman Williams (d. 2008) says fire and darkness are just metaphors, which cannot be taken literally, for separation from God and punishment:
These two terms, “darkness” and “fire,” that point to the final state of the lost might seem to be opposites, because darkness, even black darkness, suggests nothing like fire or the light of a blazing fire. Thus again we must guard against identifying the particular terms with literal reality, such as a place of black darkness or of blazing fire. Rather, darkness and fire are metaphors that express the profound truth, on the one hand, of terrible estrangement and isolation from God, and on the other, the pain and misery of unrelieved punishment. It is significant that Jesus in His portrayals of darkness and fire often adds the statement “There men will weep and gnash their teeth.” This weeping and gnashing … vividly suggests both suffering and despair. So whether the metaphor is darkness or fire, the picture is indeed a grim one, even beyond the ability of any figure of speech to express.
One further word: both darkness and fire refer to the basic situation of the lost after Last Judgment. However, we have already observed that there will be degrees of punishment; hence in some sense the darkness and fire will not be wholly the same. Some punishment will be more tolerable than other punishment: some people will receive a greater condemnation, while some (to change the figure) will be “beaten with few blows” [Luke 12:48]. Thus we should not understand the overall picture of the state of the lost to exclude differences in degree of punishment. Even as for the righteous in the world to come, there will be varying rewards, so for the unrighteous, the punishment will not be the same. (Renewal Theology, vol. 3, 470-71).
For the record, Williams did not believe in annihilationism (or terminalism or conditionalism) or universal reconciliation (or restorationism).
However, if you insist on taking the darkness and the fire literally, then you may certainly do so.
Personally, I believe that the topic of punishment in the afterlife is secondary or nonessential, so I like this saying:
“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity (love).”
Give people space to choose one of these nonessential, Bible-supported theories. You can still have fellowship with them.
For the believers in Jesus, however, they immediately go into heaven after they die to await their rewards (or no rewards) at the judgment for Christians. At this judgment, no believer in Jesus will be thrown into hades, but will remain in heaven and be rewarded (or not) according to the deeds they did in their bodies or on earth.
Chopping off and gouging out:
Finally, as I wrote at Matt. 5:29-30: It is a sad fact that even modern pastors have misinterpreted these verses. I heard one say something like: “I wish Jesus hadn’t said this! I know someone who cut off his hand!” Both the preacher and the guy who mutilated himself were wrong. The latter shouldn’t have done it, and the pastor should have explained it better. Seriously wishing that Jesus didn’t say key words is a defective idea. It’s a signal that someone is misinterpreting the Scriptures.
The Bible deploys all sorts of literary techniques to get its points across, and one of them is hyperbole (pronounced hy-PER-bo-lee), which is “extravagant exaggeration” (Webster’s). (Example: “Wow! He’s really generous with the ice cream! He piled it a mile high on my cone!”) The technique is designed to startle the listener with exaggerated imagery to compel him to act. In this case, the eye and hand do not literally cause someone to sin, and everyone in the first century knew this (Matt. 5:28 says a man commits adultery in his heart or inner being, first). Instead, Jesus intends his listeners to act brutally and swiftly against sin in the heart. Gouge out the right eye (and the right eye indicates the main channel of truth and reception of facts that turn into ideas in the mind), now! Cut off the hand (most people work with their hands, so it represents the man’s strength), now! Cut out and cut off the sin growing in your heart, now! Do it long before you turn your covetousness into action!
These two verses may clarify the practical theology here:
14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it is conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (Jas. 1:14-15, ESV)
Matthew 5 (scroll down to vv. 29-30)
GrowApp for Matt. 18:6-9
A.. God calls us to sever sin from our lives. What is at least one way you can do this?
Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt. 18:10-14)
10 See to it that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I tell you, “Their angels in heaven constantly see the face of my Father who is in heaven. [11 For the Son of Man has come to save the lost.] 12 What do you think? If a man owns one hundred sheep and one of them wanders off, won’t he leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and look for the one that is wandering off? 13 And if he happens to find it, I tell you the truth: he rejoices because of it more than the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 And thus it is not the will in the sight of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones would be lost.”
Though the word parable is not used here, this passage obviously is. So what is a parable?
Literally, the word parable (parabolē in Greek) combines para– (pronounced pah-rah and means “alongside”) and bolē (pronounced boh-lay and means “put” or even “throw”). Therefore, a parable puts two or more images or ideas alongside each other to produce a clear truth. It is a story or narrative or short comparison that reveals the kingdom of God and the right way to live in it and the Father’s ways of dealing with humanity and his divine plan expressed in his kingdom and life generally. The Shorter Lexicon says that the Greek word parabolē can sometimes be translated as “symbol,” “type,” “figure,” and “illustration,” the latter term being virtually synonymous with parable. Here you must see yourself in the parable.
The first half of the verse indicates that Jesus is no longer talking about children but weaker believers who get easily stumbled.
“I tell you”: this clause also denotes a solemn and authoritative pronouncement that may surprise his listeners and make them uncomfortable.
Regarding angels, France suggests that “see the face” is an idiom that means they have special access to the Father. The point is clear, however. Don’t despise the little ones because their angels see the face of God. God is omniscient (all-knowing), but even angels can watch people. The other point is that angels have good opinions of these little ones; therefore, the little ones have dignity.
Here is a multi-part study of angels in the area of systematic theology, but first a list of the basics.
(a) Are messengers (in Hebrew mal’ak and in Greek angelos);
(b) Are created spirit beings;
(c) Have a beginning at their creation (not eternal);
(d) Have a beginning, but they are immortal (deathless).
(e) Have moral judgment;
(f) Have a certain measure of free will;
(g) Have high intelligence;
(h) Do not have physical bodies;
(i) But can manifest with immortal bodies before humans;
(j) Can show the emotion of joy.
This verse is omitted in the best manuscripts, and it does feel tacked on. But let’s cover some key elements, anyway.
“Son of Man”: it both means the powerful, divine Son of man (Dan. 7:13-14) and the human son of man—Ezekiel himself—in the book of Ezekiel (numerous references). Jesus was and still is in heaven both divine and human.
“save”: The verb is sōzō: Since the theology of salvation (soteriology) is so critical for our lives, let’s look more closely at the noun salvation, which is sōtēria (pronounced soh-tay-ree-ah and used 46 times) and at the verb sōzō (pronounced soh-zoh and used 106 times)
Greek is the language of the NT. BDAG defines the noun sōtēria as follows, depending on the context: (1) “deliverance, preservation” … (2) “salvation.”
The verb sōzō means “save, rescue, heal” in a variety of contexts, but mostly it is used of saving the soul. BDAG is considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, and it says that the verb means, depending on the context: (1) “to preserve or rescue from natural dangers and afflictions, save, keep from harm, preserve,” and the sub-definitions under no. 1 are as follows: save from death; bring out safely; save from disease; keep, preserve in good condition; thrive, prosper, get on well; (2) “to save or preserve from transcendent danger or destruction, save or preserve from ‘eternal’ death … “bring Messianic salvation, bring to salvation,” and in the passive it means “be saved, attain salvation”; (3) some passages in the NT say we fit under the first and second definition at the same time (Mark 8:5; Luke 9:24; Rom. 9:27; 1 Cor. 3:15).
As I have noted throughout this commentary, the noun salvation and the verb save go a lot farther than just preparing the soul for heaven. Together, they have additional benefits: keeping and preserving and rescuing from harm and dangers; saving or freeing from diseases and demonic oppression; and saving or rescuing from sin dominating us; ushering into heaven and rescuing us from final judgment. What is our response to the gift of salvation? You are grateful and then you are moved to act. When you help or rescue one man from homelessness or an orphan from his oppression, you have moved one giant step towards salvation of his soul. Sometimes feeding a hungry man and giving clothes to the naked or taking him to a medical clinic come before saving his soul.
All of it is a package called salvation and being saved.
“lost”: it is the verb apollumi (pronounced ah-pol-loo-mee), and it means, depending on the context: (1) “to cause or experience destruction (active voice) ruin, destroy”; (middle voice) “perish, be ruined”; (2) “to fail to obtain what one expects or anticipates, lose out on, lose”; (3) “to lose something that one already has or be separated from a normal connection, lose, be lost” (BDAG). The Shorter Lexicon adds “die.” In this verse and in v. 6 it means the third definition.
It was a big risk to leave behind the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness or desert to find just one sheep. What if a predator were to attack one of the ninety-nine? This shows the love and concern the shepherd has for one of his lost sheep.
“man”: it is the Greek noun anthrōpos (pronounced ahn-throw-poss), and even in the plural some interpreters say that it means “men.” However, throughout the Greek written before and during the NT, in the plural it means people in general, including womankind (except in some cases). In the singular it can mean “person.” So a “person” or “people” or “men and women” (and so on) is almost always the most accurate translation, despite what more conservative translations say. In this verse, however, the context clearly indicates a man, a male, because shepherds were usually men.
“wandered off”: This man wandered off because of stumbling blocks. He is weak, so he may be considered a “little one.” It is a bad idea to put a stumbling block in front of him.
Luke 15:5 says the shepherd placed the sheep on his shoulders, by wrapping the two pairs of legs around either shoulder and holding it by its feet. The Greco-Roman image of the boy carrying the sheep was transformed into the Good Shepherd image (please google it). Wonderful.
Some say this shepherd was irresponsible to leave the ninety-nine and look for the one sheep. But shepherds knew each other and traveled nearby. He probably left the ninety-nine under the eye of another shepherd or an under-shepherd. But this over-literal reading misses the point, anyway.
To be honest, I probably would not have searched for the one lost sheep because I’m not a shepherd, so I can’t relate. Come to think of it, I might have let the one sheep wander off and counted it as a business loss. But not so with Jesus or the Father. They love wandering sheep and want them back.
“rejoices”: The verb is chairō (pronounced khy-roh and used 74 times), and it means “to be in a state of happiness and well-being, rejoice, be glad (BDAG).
The noun chara (pronounced khah-rah and used 59 times in the NT) means “joy, rejoicing, happiness, gladness” (Zondervan’s Interlinear). BDAG says it means “the experience of gladness”; “a state of joyfulness”; “a person or thing that causes joy, joy.” It is the noun that appears in Gal. 5:22, as one of the fruit of the Spirit.
Since I’m not a shepherd, I might have said to him, “congrats!” and then moved on with my life. What’s the big deal about finding one sheep? But this shepherd lived in a community of agrarians who took agricultural matters seriously. More specifically, he lived among other shepherds. He embodied the Father’s love, which searches for the lost.
“I tell you the truth”: see v. 3 for more comments.
“lost”: see v. 11 for more comments.
Shepherds were regarded as low-grade, because they were not educated in the law. However, this man is active in his search. He looks for the sheep. The Father is looking for lost sheep. It is not his will that he would lose even one. Are you one of them?
I like how Blomberg brings in the discussion of wandering off from one’s conversion experience and possible recovery:
The reality of human existence is that greater joy often does follow the recovery of those who had previously caused greater distress. There is enough joy, however, for everybody, and ideally disciples should display a steady constancy in their walk with the Lord, even if it does not elicit as great extremes of emotion. Verse 14 considers the case of the potential apostate but leaves unaddressed questions such as: Can such a person actually be lost for eternity, or is this only temporary loss of fellowship with God? Are these “little ones” simply professing and not genuine followers? The reference to the Father’s will does not solve these problems because although God is not “willing” that any should perish (2 Pet 3:9), some do. (comment on 18:12-14)
I’m not clear about what Prof. Blomberg’s view is on “losing” one’s salvation, but I believe certain converts can wander off. It may not be the Father’s will that someone goes astray, but people have been gifted by God with a significant degree of free will (though how much in precise terms is difficult to measure), but not enough to save oneself. It is is possible for kingdom citizens and the converted to exercise their free will and act like that one sheep.
God will preserve kingdom citizens who want to be preserved. He will put roadblocks in the way of the converted who are tempted to wander away. And when they do, he will woo them back. Always remain in union with Christ. Christ is your eternal security.
GrowApp for Matt. 18:10-14
A.. It is not the Father will that one sheep be lost. Were you one of them? How did he find you? Tell your story.
B.. Has God put it on your heart to look for a lost sheep, like a family member or friend? How did it work out?
Discipline for Brothers and Sisters (Matt. 18:15-20)
15 “If your brother or sister sin against you, go and convince him, just you and him. If they listen to you, you have won your brother or sister. 16 If they do not listen to you, take with you one or two others, so that ‘out of the mouth of two or three witnesses, let every word be established.’ [Deut. 19:15] 17 If they do not listen to them, tell the church. But if they do not listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.
18 I tell you the truth: whatever you have bound on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you have loosed on earth will have been loosed in heaven. 19 Again I tell you that if two of you have agreed on earth about any matter which they request, it will be done for them from my Father who is in heaven, 20 for where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in the middle of them.
The context is the fledgling Christian community and a brother or sister who persistently sins and breaks the church rules. Here are the steps a Christian community can take to restore the brother or sister, if they will listen.
See my comments on 16:18-20 and binding and loosing.
“brother or sister”: it literally reads “brother,” but in this context brother stands in for both sexes. It is generic. Also, following France’s clever idea, I made the pronouns “him” into “them” and “he” into “they.” But be careful here. Usually a brother in the church should confront a brother, and a sister should confront a sister. Mixing the genders can be a bad idea in a tense situation, depending on the circumstances.
“they”: the Greek verb is singular: “he listens” or “she listens.” I changed it to “they” because I did not want to write “he or she listens.”
The context seems to be a general brother or sister confronting the persistently divisive or disruptive or sinning person. The brother or sister does not have to be an elder or other church leader. This fact takes away from the notion that Peter is so highly exalted in Matt. 16:18-20 that no one else can have a say in church guidance and governance.
The verb convince is a strong verb, which can mean “convict” or “persuade” him of his erring ways. Grammarian Olmstead translates it as “show him his fault.” So the confrontation, yes, done in love, is not easy. The idea behind going one-on-one is to keep matters private.
The good news, possibly, is that the brother or sister may have a teachable spirit and will listen to the one confronting them. If so, then so much the better because he has won a brother or sister.
Here is the OT verse behind this NT verse: “Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt” (Lev. 19:17, NIV).
‘Life Is in the Blood’ in Leviticus 17 from a NT Perspective (the post covers more topics than the title states)
“word”: The noun here is rhēma (pronounced ray-mah), and the rhē– stem is related to speaking, and the –ma suffix means “the result of.” So combined, the noun means a “spoken word” (though it does not always mean that in every context, or it is sometimes synonymous with logos). Here it means matter or issue. I translated it more literally, because I picture words being exchanged.
Here are the OT verses behind this NT verse: “On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness” (Deut. 17:6).
And this verse too: “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deut. 19:15, NIV).
The early church also used this principle of two or three witnesses to establish a matter, when church discipline was needed.
Paul writing to the Corinthians:
This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 2 I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, (2 Cor. 13:1-2, NIV)
Paul writing to his mentee or apprentice Timothy:
Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 20 But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. (1 Tim. 5:19-20, NIV)
So the church had to practice discipline in its early days, and we still do.
Here the matter must be brought before the whole church. Apparently the brother or sister persisted in their sin or unbiblical teaching that disrupted the assembly or Christian community. However, in modern society I urge church leaders to be careful about bringing a brother or sister before the congregation to rebuke them. Lawsuits may happen. Use wisdom. Pray that the matter may resolve itself before then. He or she may just leave, especially after two or three others come to tell them to stop. Sometimes people are not teachable.
“church”: it could be translated as “assembly” or “congregation” or “community.” It is the Greek noun ekklēsia (pronounced ehk-klay-see-ah). It is related to the Greek verb ekkaleō or “to call out.” It can be used of an assembly in a non-Christian context (Acts 19:39). It is the assembly or “church” in the wilderness (Acts 7:38; cf. Heb. 2:12). In Acts and the Epistles, it refers to the gathering of the people of God. It translates the Hebrew qāhāl (meeting, assembly, gathering). The Septuagint (pronounced sep-too-ah-gent) is a third-to-second-century translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It often (but not always) translates qāhāl as ekklēsia.
Warning! Some extra-enthusiastic and super-confident Renewalists say that from this definition, they can “legislate” events to happen (or something). Of course, they overstate the basic meaning of the word outside of the church context. Just because an assembly can legislate in the pagan world does not mean Christians can now do this in the Spirit world. Further, another legislative body was the Council (boulē, pronounced boo-lay), the upper chamber of the rich landowners. They had to approve of the lower chamber’s legislation. If we take the historical context too far, then where is the Council? So, to judge from the historical context, the church as the ekklēsia cannot legislate. Instead, these extra-human-centered Christians should simplify things and ask God for his intervention. Prayer to our loving Father is sufficient, without complications or convoluted trends and ideas that promote human-centered power.
Church discipline in this context, with real world facts of misbehavior before the leaders, is not the same as legislating whatever one wants to get one’s way. Today’s prophets, who like the idea legislating because it promotes their God-like authority in front of a crowd, need to cool their jets. The NT restricts them.
“Gentile or tax collector”: this phrasing is written from a Jewish point of view. The Jewish Christian community is to treat the disruptive brother or sister as an outsider. Clearly excommunication is in view here. The goal, hopefully, is to restore the wayward person. Blomberg: “To treat a person as a “pagan or a tax collector” means to treat him or her as unredeemed and outside the Christian community. Such treatment resembles the Old Testament practice of “cutting” someone “off” from the assembly of Israel (e.g., Gen 17:14; Exod 12:15, 19; 30:33, 38)” (comment on 18:17).
Here is Paul exercising his apostolic leadership to remove a brother who was sinning with his “mother” (probably a younger stepmother).
As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. 4 So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:3-5, NIV)
Good news. These verses seem to indicate that the young man repented (though some scholars say it covers a different scenario).
8 Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— 9 yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. 10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (2 Cor. 7:8-10, NIV)
Timothy is the one who should hold on to faith: Then Paul says that he “handed” two disruptive men “over to Satan.” He removed them from his Christian community and thereby they are vulnerable to demonic attack.
19 [You Timothy] holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. 20 Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. (1 Tim. 1:19-20, NIV)
The purpose was redemptive: to teach them not to blaspheme.
In the next verses, I get the impression that Matt. 18:15-20 is dealing with the same kind of context, though Paul trims the process to just two warnings, without two or three witnesses and bringing the persistently divisive person before a church.
10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. 11 You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11, NIV)
The context is the entire local Christian community, not Peter alone or even the other apostles only.
Let’s again cover a rare verb syntax (sentence structure) that Matthew chose. As I wrote about 16:19 the rare construction is as follows:
The past tense verb + future tense of verb “to be” + perfect participle of a verb.
As I have noted many times, Matthew’s nickname is the Trimmer in this commentary. He trims out a lot of small details that Mark and Luke leave in. I also note that Matthew’s Greek itself is very streamlined and gentle. In fact, it is much easier to translate than Luke’s (wordy) Greek. Matthew’s trimmed and gentle Greek must be deliberate, and so is this rare construction. He could have used another construction without the complicated syntax. So why would Matthew deploy complicated wording and a rare verb-tense combination?
Most translation go conservative and translate the latter two elements as a simple future:
Whatever you have bound on earth will be loosed in heaven, and whatever you have loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.
The nuanced meaning of this translation says that Peter initiates, and heaven follows. Is that what Matthew (and even God) intends?
Objection: Matthew’s Greek is Koinē (common), which is substandard and degraded. So there is no way this verbiage can mean anything but a simple future.
Reply: Greek can be as sophisticated as an author intends. Again, why would Matthew the Trimmer and writer of sweet and neat Greek use the more complicated construction? It is obvious that he intends it to be the unusual future perfect tense.
Therefore, I believe the better translation is how I (and others) render it:
Whatever you have bound on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you have loosed on earth will have been loosed in heaven.
The difference in nuance is clear enough. In this translation, heaven takes the initiative and Peter follows God, not the other way around.
Maybe this expanded translation can clarify the difference between the two translations:
Whatever you have bound on earth will have (already) been bound in heaven, and whatever you have loosed on earth will have (already) been loosed in heaven.
I inserted the modifier “already.” Do you now see the difference?
God initiates and guides the church. In a Charismatic, Spirit-filled, and Spirit-guided church, they hear from God and follow him in church discipline and governance.
Is ‘Decreeing’ Biblical for Christians?
In the terms binding and loosing, Jesus is simply following the Jewish belief of permitting (loosing) and not permitting (binding). Keener expands on this idea, writing of the Jewish context both here in v. 18 and in 16:19:
In both functions—evaluating entrants and those already within the church—God’s people must evaluate on the authority of the heavenly court; the verb tenses allow the interpretation that they merely ratify the heavenly decree … Jesus’s agents were already exercising this authority in their earlier mission (10:14-15, 40) … (p. 430)
In this context Jesus is almost certainly referring to the procedures of vv. 15–17 involving the withholding or bestowing of forgiveness and fellowship. As in 16:19, “binding” and “loosing” are more likely parallel to John 20:23 than to the rabbinic maxims on permitting or prohibiting certain behavior. Verse 18 also presupposes that the church is acting according to Jesus’ guidelines given in vv. 15–17 and is generally seeking and sensitive to God’s will. Then the church’s loosing and binding—forgiving or refusing to forgive—carries the very authority of God. (comment on 18:18)
“Thus the primary meaning here likely parallels John 20:23 in terms of retaining (= ‘binding’) or forgiving (= ‘loosing’) sins. The passive verbs used here are divine passives, which means that God is behind the community’s decisions regarding forgiveness or condemnation of its wandering sheep / member. Behind this is the further aspect of church decisions as to which types of conduct are allowed and which are forbidden” (Osborne, comment on 18:18).
See this post for more information about the verb tense:
Scroll down to v. 19.
“I tell you”: see v. 10 for more comments.
The purpose in v. 19 seems to be to pray for the persistently divisive or disruptive or sinning brother or sister. Redemption is in the offing. Excellent.
“agreed”: it is verb sumphōneō (pronounced sim- or soom-phoh-neh-oh), and our word symphony is related to it (it actually comes from the Greek noun symphōnia, but you get the idea). The verb means “agree, come to an agreement, fit in with, match.” In prayer, the prayer warriors must be in harmony and agreement. Unity is the best spiritual environment.
This verse is also relevant because it deals with restoring one who is caught in sin:
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:1-2, NIV)
Osborne: “The earth / heaven contrast is pivotal. The ‘heavenly Father’ is in sovereign control of all earthly matters, and the only guarantee that earthly concerns will work out occurs when they are placed under God’s control. That is especially true in discipline issues, when God’s guidance must be behind the church’s decision. Finally, the ‘two agreeing’ refers back to the two or three witnesses of v. 16 (cf. v. 20). The agreement is the church verdict regarding the case of vv. 15-17” (comment on 18:19)
The idea of two or three gathered together in the context of church discipline comes from this verse:
15 One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deut. 19:15, NIV)
But let’s see if we can expand the theology of the presence of the Lord in a small gathering. The best promise of all is that Jesus is there in the middle of the small prayer gathering. Recall 1:23: “Look! The virgin shall be pregnant and shall give birth to a son, and you shall call his name Emmanuel!” [Is. 7:14], which interpreted means ‘God with us.’” Jesus’s earthly ministry was God with people, but here in vv. 19-20 he is referring to his resurrected and ascended status. This describes his omnipresence. However, if Jesus is talking about a small kingdom community before his resurrection and ascension, then his omnipresence in that small gathering can only be accomplished by the power of the Spirit and the will of the Father. Somehow the spirit of Jesus is also in the middle of them.
But I think this wonderful verse refers to his post-ascension.
Turner says this is high Christology. Jesus is also “associated with God’s glory in John 1:14; Heb. 1:3. The language of 1 Cor. 5:4 also speaks of the presence of Jesus with a community gathered in his name for the purpose of discipline” (comment on 18:20)
Osborne: “As there seems to be a prayer promise and in a different context would have that connotation. Yet in this context it again 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” (comment on 18:20).
Let’s expand things.
There are other promises of God’s presence, wherever we go, whether in a small prayer gathering or in big ones or by ourselves, just one person. In the context of building an altar and offering sacrifices, the author of Exodus writes:
Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. (Exod. 20:24, NIV).
Jesus is about to become the ultimate sacrifice, with his death on the cross.
The Psalmist enjoys inspired insight about God’s presence being everywhere:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (Ps. 139:7-12, NIV)
Matt. 28:20 is just as powerful and clear—if less poetic—as the ones in Ps. 139, indicating high Christology:
“And remember this: I am with you every day, until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
God through Christ is with you no matter where you go, and no matter with whom you pray. You can claim both of these promises for your daily life, in the happy and sad times.
I really like this verse and v. 19. Yes, they come in the context of church discipline, but they describe a prayer meeting, as seen in the word “request” or “ask” and how soon the heavenly Father will honor their request. Don’t let anyone—especially on youtube—tell you that the disciplinary context is so restrictive that it is not about a prayer gathering.
However, if you insist on restricting the context of a small gathering to discipline only, then you may do so.
Either way, it is an amazing truth that God is present in a small gathering either to discipline someone or to hear our prayers–or both. Evidently, God takes church discipline seriously.
GrowApp for Matt. 18:15-20
A.. This section of Scripture is about church discipline, but vv. 19-20 also describe a meeting with a persistently disruptive or sinning disciple. Are you praying for a wayward family member or church friend who needs restoration? Is a friend or family member joining you in prayerful and unified agreement?
B.. Study Ps. 139:7-12, which is a great promise for private prayer meetings or any other activity. Do you believe he will be there for you?
Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 19:21-35)
21 At that time Peter approached and said to him, “Lord, how many times will my brother sin against me and I will forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not tell you seven times, but seventy-seven times!
23 For this reason, the kingdom of heaven is like a man, a king, who wanted to settle the accounts with his servants. 24 As he began to settle them, one debtor of ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he did not have it to pay him back, the lord ordered that he and his wife and children and everything he had to be sold and that he should be paid back. 26 So then, falling down, the servant prostrated himself before him and said, ‘Be patient with me!’ I’ll pay everything back to you!’ 27 The lord of that servant was moved with compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.
28 But that servant left and found one of his fellow-servants who owed him one hundred denarii. He seized and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe!’ 29 So then his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, saying, ‘Be patient with me! I’ll repay you!’ 30 But he was unwilling. Instead, he left and threw him into prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 So then when his fellow-servants saw the things that happened, they were deeply grieved and went and reported to their lord everything that happened. 32 At that moment the lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you pleaded with me! 33 Wasn’t it required that you show mercy to your fellow servant, just as I showed you mercy?’ 34 His lord, becoming angry, handed him over to the tormentors, until he should pay back everything that was owed. 35 So also in this way my Father who is in heaven will do to you unless you, each one, forgive his brother or sister, from your hearts.”
For the meaning of a parable, see v. 10 for more comments.
The main point: “A community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community” (R. T. France, p. 702). Wow. I wish I had thought of that!
Reminder: in 19:1-12, Jesus is about to teach on divorce. Forgiveness is the background to his teaching on divorce.
Peter approached Jesus and asked him a great question. Peter thought the number seven was the perfect number, which connoted completion. For him seven must have proven generosity of soul to forgive. However, Jesus multiplied that number to seventy. Another correct translation is seventy times seven or four hundred and ninety! Neither seventy nor seventy times seven should be taken literally, for they signify an endless number of times.
“forgive”: it comes from the verb aphiēmi (pronounced ah-fee-ay-mee), and BDAG defines it with the basic meaning of letting go: (1) “dismiss or release someone or something from a place or one’s presence, let go, send away”; (2) “to release from legal or moral obligations or consequence, cancel, remit, pardon”; (3) “to move away with implication of causing a separation, leave, depart”; (4) “to leave something continue or remain in its place … let someone have something” (Matt. 4:20; 5:24; 22:22; Mark 1:18; Luke 10:30; John 14:18); (5) “leave it to someone to do something, let, let go, allow, tolerate.” The Shorter Lexicon adds “forgive.” In sum, God lets go, dismisses, releases, sends away, cancels, pardons, and forgives our sins. His work is full and final. Don’t go backwards or dwell on it. Clearly the most significant definition in this context is the second one and the Shorter Lexicon’s. It means to forgive.
In these two verses, it means to forgive. In the rest of the entire pericope or section of Scripture about monetary debt, it can be translated “cancel” a debt or “release” a debt. The same word is used when the king released or dismissed his servant just after the king forgave or cancelled or released the servant’s debt. Look for it.
Recall the verse in the Lord’s Model Prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). This is an extended parable which fills out that verse.
Matthew 6 (scroll down to v. 12)
“servants”: The word servants here comes from the noun doulos (pronounced doo-loss and singular) and could be translated as slaves, but I chose servants because in Jewish culture a Hebrew man who sold himself into servitude to his fellow Jew was like an indentured servant whose term of service had a limit; he was freed in the seventh year. But then the indentured servant could stay with his family, if he liked his owner (Exod. 21:2-6; Lev. 25:38-46; Deut. 15:12-18). So there was a lot of liberty even in servitude, in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).
It is a sure thing, however, that Matthew’s Greek-speaking audience, knowledgeable about Greek culture, would have heard “slave” in the word doulos. So if you wish to interpret it like that, then that’s your decision. But culturally at that time slavery had nothing to do with colonial or modern slavery.
In this parable, however, a king had lots of slaves (and servants), so you can definitely run with the term.
“a man, a king”: this indicates a generic or fictitious king, and a king in Jesus’s parables almost always represents God, and servants represent Israelites. Do they behave well or not?
Once again, Jesus uses a startling image: “ten thousand talents.”
BDAG writes of the talent: the value …
… differed considerably in various times and places, but was always comparatively high; it varied also with the metal involved, which might be gold, silver, or copper. In our literature only in Mt. 18:24; 25:15-28. In 18:24, at six thousand drachmas or denarii to the Tyrian talent, a day laborer would need to work 60,000,000 days to pay off the debt. Even assuming an extraordinary payback rate of 10 talents per year, the staggering amount would ensure imprisonment for at least 1,000 years. The amounts distributed in 25:15-28 are not small change, either (p. 988, slightly edited).
BDAG also suggests translating the noun by the slang: “zillions.” We are forgiven “zillions,” but we are unwilling to forgive “peanuts” (Turner).
A talent was originally a weight (probably thirty kilograms [or 66 pounds]) of metal; when used as a monetary term without specifying the metal involved, it would probably have been understood to be of silver. While the exact amount varied, a talent of silver was conventionally reckoned at six thousand denarii. If one denarius was an acceptable day’s wage for a laborer (see 20:1-15), a single talent would then represent what a laborer might hope to earn in half a lifetime. It was, at all events, a very large sum of money. Ten thousand talents (sixty million denarii; or some three hundred tons of silver!) is therefore a sum far outside any individual’s grasp. Ten thousand (myria, hence “myriad”) is the largest numeral for which a Greek term exists, and the talent is the largest known amount of money. When the two are combines, the effect is like our “zillions.” What God has forgiven his people is beyond human calculation. (p. 706).
The last sentence is the important one. His forgiveness is incalculable.
The literal number was hyperbole (pronounced hy-PER-boh-lee), which is rhetorical exaggeration for the purpose of shocking the listeners. See v. 8-9 for more comments.
The number is hyperbolic because it is doubtful that a large economy in the area could have so many talents flowing through it. And it was not possible that one servant could handle or acquire that amount. Jesus was making the surprising truth that our debt before God cannot be paid back by human means. And of course, the main truth of the parable is that we have to forgive, even if someone owes us an astronomical amount of debt.
Biblical law allowed a man who became poor to sell himself into servitude, but he must not be treated as a slave (Lev. 25:29). Also, biblical law allowed a man to sell his daughter into servitude, and it seems to be for marriage, but she shall not be as a male slave (Exod. 21:7).
However, this king was not subjected to biblical law. He intended to sell the servant and his wife and children. And even in that case the proceeds of the sale would not come anywhere near paying the amount owed. So once again, the story or illustration is build on hyperbole to illustrate our need to forgive others and our need for a Savior to save us from our sin-debt before God.
Now of course the servant did the only thing he could do. He fell down to the ground and prostrated himself before the king his lord and begged for mercy.
Before we move on to the rest of the story, let’s do an old-fashioned word study of mercy and explore the verb and the related noun more deeply. The verb is splanchnizomai (pronounced splankh-nee-zoh-my) and is used 12 times, exclusively in the Gospels. “It describes the compassion Jesus had for those he saw in difficulty” (Mounce, New Expository Dictionary, p. 128). BDAG defines the verb simply: “have pity, feel sympathy.”
BDAG further says the noun splanchnon (pronounced splankh-non) is related to the inward part of the body, especially the viscera, inward parts, entrails. But some update their translation with the noun as “heart.” So the verb is also related to the inward parts of a person. It could be translated as “He felt compassion in the depths of his heart.”
As an important side note, in Hebrew the verb raḥam (pronounced ra-kham, and used 47 times) means “to have compassion on, show mercy, take pity on and show love.” The noun raḥamim (39 times) (pronounced rakh’meem) means “compassion, mercy, pity.” Both words are related to the word for “womb,” when a woman feels close to and love for the human life growing there. It’s deep in God, too.
He went out of the king’s presence and instantly found a fellow-servant (it could be translated literally as “co-servant”) who owed him 100 denarii. A denarius was a farm laborer’s daily wage, so the amount could be paid back, with difficulty, because the second debtor had to keep back some for his own living. On the other hand, the king may have supplied the food for all of his household, and if so, then the co-servant could have paid him back in less than a year. Regardless, the detailed historical background is not the main point. Forgiveness is.
I like how the co-servants responded. They were deeply grieved. They could see that mercy was the right response from someone who had just been shown mercy. Mercy for mercy—not mercy for cruelty. The unforgiving servant was morally blind.
Now his lord heard the report about the unforgiving servant who had just been forgiven. He summoned the forgiven servant and asked the obvious, so that question was really a statement. It was required to return mercy for mercy or rather to pay mercy forward. But the obtuse forgiven servant did not extend even a small amount of mercy to his co-servant. His lord became angry and tossed the man to the prison and tormenters in prison.
The pronouns “you … “his” … “your” are like that in Greek because Jesus says, “unless you, each one, forgive …” He shifts from second person plural (“you forgive”) to third person singular (“each one”).
In any case, let’s get back to the main point.
So our Father will do the same to us. So now the question becomes: will the Father turn us over or hand us over to the tormentors? Isn’t the Father more merciful than that? He must be the one who torments, right? No, he is not the one who torments. He judges our heart and sees what is in it. He turns us over or hands us over to our own hearts, just as he turned Pharaoh over to judgment because the Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. God works with what we humans have in our hearts because he has gifted us with a large degree of free will. And if our hearts refuse to forgive, then God, in response to what is in there, hands us over to our own heart’s shriveled capacity. If our heart is generous and open, he gladly gives us wonderful gifts. If our hearts are cold and small, then he treats us accordingly.
In any case, unforgiveness is like being tormented in your soul. You must be willing to forgive and then actually forgive. It may be an act of the will, not of your emotions. But if you do not forgive your soul will be turned over to the tormenters.
Incidentally, the Greek noun for “tormenters” can be translated as “jailers.” So someone who does not forgive is either in prison of the soul or in torment of the soul.
The most challenging phrase in the whole parable is if we don’t forgive each person from our hearts. Only God’s grace can enable us to so that, and it may be a process. Pray!
Turner: “It may be difficult to reconcile the discipline process in 18:15-20 with the obligation of unlimited forgiveness in 18:21-35. Yet both are consistent with the controlling motif of the chapter: the proper treatment of the of the little ones, the brothers and sisters, the children of the heavenly Father. Disciples dare not allow this family to be disrupted by offenses, yet they cannot resolve offenses without a forgiving spirit. … If this delicate balance between discipline and forgiveness is faithfully maintained, excommunication is self-imposed exile” (p. 452).
Carson: “Jesus sees no incongruity in the actions of a heavenly Father who forgives so bountifully and punishes so ruthlessly, and neither should we. Indeed, it is precisely because he is a God of such compassion and mercy that he cannot possibly accept as his those devoid of compassion and mercy” (p. 405).
GrowApp for Matt. 18:21-35
A.. Wow. This is a very challenging parable about forgiving others, as we have been forgiven. Study Matt. 6:12. Are we willing to forgive from the heart as we have been forgiven?
B.. Tell your story of God showing you forgiveness of your astronomical sin-debt and then his requiring you to forgive a small moral debt someone else owed you.
Summary and Conclusion
The first section is about becoming great in the kingdom of heaven. An entrant into it must be like a child, and then the attitude must be unaggressive throughout his life in the kingdom. Anyone who puts an obstacle in the way of the little one to prevent him from entering the kingdom is in big trouble. He may as well tie a millstone around his neck and toss it into the sea.
Then scholars say that Jesus shifts the subject from children to weaker disciples. He uses the rhetorical device of hyperbole—deliberate exaggeration to startle the listener—and urge disciples to cut of a hand or gouge out an eye if it causes the weaker disciple to sin. In the first century they knew that neither bodily member caused anyone to sin. All throughout the OT, the heart was the cause, and Jesus said as much in Matt. 5:28. The point is to deal ruthlessly with sin.
I really like the Parable of the Lost Sheep. The shepherd leaves behind the safe ninety-nine to search high and low for the one that has wandered off. This is a picture of the Father through the Son looking for a weaker disciple that may have wandered off. It is not the will of the Father that even one would perish or remain lost. The Father is love, and his Son expresses and demonstrates it.
If an obstinate brother or sister persists in sin or disruption or bad teaching, then the one who spots it should go to him and ask him about it. If he repents, then the issue ends there. But if he does not, the one who confronts is to take one or two others to confront. If the brother even then refuses to listen, then the issue must be brought up to the church. Jesus grants authority to his people embroiled in the unpleasant confrontation to bind (not permit) or loose (permit) teachings and doctrines and attitudes and right and wrong behavior.
But caution must be shown in modern Western societies–or maybe just sue-crazy America. One can get sued if the church embarrasses one member in front of the whole church. In the first, century, in contrast, Christian communities were tight-knit, so excommunication meant something. Today, the offensive brother or sister can go to another church. It is best if correction is done privately, and the final step (public rebuke) can be avoided. I know of a case of a vicar of an Anglican church who did not allow a man to come into church because he was so disruptive. So he stood outside and bugged people who came out of the church (it was in a big city and the sidewalk or pavement was next to the exit doors). This vicar’s policy was the right way. Just disfellowship someone in private. (It was the disruptor who made it public.) Remember that those steps Jesus laid out do not have to be carried out if a solution can be found before the final step of public excommunication. (By the way, I sometimes went out after the service and banter with the disruptive man, just for fun. He liked it.)
And a wonderful promise follows. Jesus says that where two or three are gathered together in his name and agrees about anything they ask, it will be done for them by his Father in heaven. Jesus will be right in the middle of them as they pray. Yes, this is about prayer for and a council meeting about the troubled and troubling brother or sister, but we can expand to include other prayers. Other verses teach that God will answer prayers (Matt. 7:7-11; Luke 18:1-8, John 13:13-14) and his ascended Son has the capacity to be omnipresent. (He had the capacity to be omnipresent while on earth, too, but as far as I can tell, he did not exercise, with the Father’s will, this divine attribute that he imported with him at his birth.) So please be reassured that God and Jesus and the Spirit are right there for you when you pray.
Finally, Jesus told the challenging Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Wow. It is serious to think you might be led into prison or to the tormenters when you refuse to show mercy and forgive someone’s moral debt. He also said we have to forgive from the heart. Only God’s grace can accomplish this. As a converted kingdom citizen, pray for grace to infuse your soul so you can be willing to forgive. Then pray a prayer of forgiveness. If you cannot do this by yourself, ask for prayer from mature sisters or brothers.
Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: The New American Commentary. Vol. 22 (Broadman, 1992).
Carson, D. A. Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. Ed. by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 9. (Zondervan, 2010).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans 2007).
Garland, David E. Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth and Helways, 2001).
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 2014).
Keener, Craig. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Eerdmans 1999).
Olmstead, Wesley G. Matthew 15-28: A Handbook on the Greek Text. (Baylor UP, 2019).
Osborne, Grant R. Matthew: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Zondervan, 2010).
Turner, David L. Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008).