Malankara World

Sermon on Matthew 18:1-14

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

4th Sunday after Shunoyo - 4th Sunday after the Festival of Assumption

by Matt Heerema

Gospel: St. Matthew 18:1-14

> Matthew 18:1
> At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'

Why would they have asked such a question? First a little background: 'At that time…' What time? We need to back up a bit into the previous chapter to set this up.

> Matthew 17:24-27
> When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, 'Does your teacher not pay the tax?' He said, 'Yes.' And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, 'What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?' And when he said, 'From others,' Jesus said to him, 'Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.'

'The tax' here is the the 'temple tax' paid by all members of the Jewish nation for the upkeep of the temple. It was a matter of national pride and was a act that they believed showed their participation in the Jewish community.

Jesus identifies himself here as the son of the owner of the temple: (namely, God), and thus he is exempt from paying the tax, and that the disciples, as followers of Jesus, are also now considered sons of God, and so are exempt also. We have a little hint at freedom from the regulations of The Law: that participation in God's family does not have to do with keeping the rules, it has to do with your familial relationship with God, through faith in Jesus.

Noteworthy is Jesus' whole stance on going along with the law: do it, so as not to give unnecessary offense. Jesus statement here is: no, you don't have to, but do it anyway. Also noteworthy is Jesus' supernaturally providing the means to keep the law. Lots packed up in here that we don't have time for.

For our purposes today, the disciples just saw that they have special privileges, and a special relationship to God, through Jesus, that no one else (yet) has. And I think that this, combined with a few other of the recent past events set up this question:

> Matthew 18:1
> At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

## An illustration from my daughter

If I may for a moment become the cliche young preacher who uses his cute young children in every sermon: my daughter Elena is not only beautiful, but she's also a genius. (My kid, of course, but she is pretty sharp!) I tell her often how proud of her I am for various things and how smart I think she is. One day in the car as we were driving, I hear from the back seat after a bit of driving silence:

'Daddy… I think I might be the smartest girl in the whole world!'

Yes, yes, cute. But it also makes you cringe a bit, doesn't it? Why?

BECAUSE SHE's FOUR! She's a little girl! Of course she's not the smartest girl in the whole world! Oh the naivet wrapped up in a statement like that! The horrible roots of pride and arrogance beginning to bud in this young Pharisee! Okay, that's a little extreme, her world is pretty small, but do you see where I'm going here?

> Matthew 18:1
> 'At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'

Jesus' answer teaches us several important truths, and I'd like to work through Jesus' response and dig out four of them with you this morning.

> Matthew 18:2-3
> And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.'

He says 'YOU'RE FOUR! YOU'RE A LITTLE CHILD! You're not great at all!, you're actually very small! You're naive, your world is very small, your perspective is way off!' It's a bit like that.

Actually I think he goes a bit sharper, I think he says more. He says something like: 'Some of you might not even be in the kingdom, in order to enter The Kingdom, you must first turn and become like children.

Almost every other major English translation has the phrase 'be converted' for 'turn' in this statement, which I think makes things a bit more clear. Basically: your frame of mind must be changed such that you realize that you are actually like little children, and not so much like kings and governors of a kingdom that you're imagining. Your thinking on your place in the kingdom must be transformed. Your perspective must turn from the high and lofty to the lowly.

## So, Truth 1: We are like little children

God, the all powerful, the all wise, all good, perfectly right, God, is asking us to see ourselves in relationship to Him, not relative to each other.

> Matthew 18:4-5
> Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me…

What is the path to the greatness they seek? To humble themselves, and become like this child. It is important here to get a clear definition of 'humble'. We aren't talking about a low self-image, a self-degrading demeanor, or sort of a bashful timidity.

He is talking about political and societal position. These disciples were seeking political rank, social bigness, perks and power that come from being buddies with the king. They were wondering about the org chart.

Where does a toddler rank in the political world? They don't. What kind of power does a child have in corporate America? None.

So humbleness is neediness, low rank, dependance on those who are in high position, just like a child is needy, helpless to provide for themselves and totally dependent on their father to provide for them.

Jesus' message is this: 'If you want to be great in God's eyes, put yourself in the lowest position.' The parallel passage in Mark's Gospel makes this explicit: 'If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.'

Who is the greatest in the Kingdom? Those who have had their frame of mind completely changed, those who have had their perspective turned from lofty political aspirations, and have assumed the position of a needy, dependent, servant, child. And in fact Jesus says that unless you do this, you will never enter the Kingdom. So who is the greatest in the Kingdom? All those who are in the Kingdom!

But wait! We are wondering about rank here! Who is first? We're wondering about the power, the prestige, and the position we will have! That's a rather unsatisfying response, if everyone is the greatest, then no one is! That wasn't the response I was looking for!

And that's their problem. That's our problem. We're seeking our rights and privileges and not recognizing our neediness and dependance, and Christ's desire for us to serve others the way He served us.

## Truth 2: Followers of Jesus treat each other in the way that Jesus treats them.

Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. He came to heal the sick and to love the outcast. He was a friend of tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. He performed the duties of the lowest household slave for His followers. He came to us, His undeserving enemies, and died for us. And this is how to we are live for each other.

> Matthew 18:6-9
> …but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,Β it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

This is one of several terrifying statements of Jesus found in Matthew's account of The Gospel Story. We were just talking about little children and then He goes and uses (whispered: ) the H word!.

We don't like to think about hell, do we? In fact if you are like me, by default you go rather numb at the very thought of it. Nobody likes to think about millions of people suffering eternal torment. Worse: no one likes to think about loved ones: grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, brothers or sisters, being thrown into a lake of fire at death. Almost everyone is a universalist at a funeral. It's simply not polite to not be.

(In fact it may be rather insensitive to suggest to someone in the middle of their grief that their dearly departed are currently suffering in hell. And I don't think we even need to mention the absolute lunacy of picketing at a funeral.)

However, we cannot deny the clear teaching of the Bible about hell. It is crucial to a full view of reality, crucial to our ability to follow Jesus by faith, that we understand and embrace what the Bible says about hell. Jesus teaches more about hell than any single other person in the Bible. We have a piece of it here, but if I may summarize the rest of His teaching found elsewhere even in just Matthew's Gospel account: Hell is a real place of eternal conscious torment in punishment for sin in this life.

## Truth 3: Hell is real, and teaches us many important lessons

I want to spend most of the rest of our time on this thought because there is a lot here.

I think the thing that makes it the hardest to take the idea of eternal torment in a lake of fire seriously is that it seems, according to our human idea of justice, to be a punishment that doesn't fit the crime. Eternal torture featuring the pain of the worst kind, for even a single sin (remember, Christ said we must be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect). It doesn't seem fair. Sure, perhaps some people deserve a little time in hell for the things they've done. Think Hitler, Nero, Pol Pot, etc…, but even for those guys, an eternity without escape? Really? Maybe the devil himself and demons deserve that sort of punishment, but no human being for sure, right? The way hell is described in the Bible, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy! I can totally sympathize with this line of thought, but let me offer an alternative.

This line of reasoning judges God's revelation by human standards. What if, instead, we took God's revealed truth as reality, and assessed our human wisdom by it? We would find a lot if we did. This is the reason The Scriptures exist. God has revealed Himself and a measure of His Wisdom to us in order that we may 'Be converted' in the way we think and the way we understand reality. The whole goal of life is to know God, and this is one means he has ordained for us to know Him. So let's turn our judgement around and let our thinking be judged by God's word.

## 1. Hell teaches us about ourselves

The Bible's teaching about Hell shows us that man is an eternal being, which is something that not many of us argue with, most all of us have some hunch about an afterlife, that there is some sort of existence beyond physical death. However, a Biblical understanding of Hell also shows us that not only do we exist eternally, but that our deeds in life have a bearing on the nature of that eternity.

In other words, there are eternal consequences for our actions. If this were not so, there would be no basis for morality of any kind. If there were no eternal consequences for your actions, then your best course of action is to get as much 'fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-trips-your-trigger' as you can in this life, regardless of the cost, and regardless of the effect on other people. But i digress. Suffice to say the thought of eternal consequences for your actions should give you pause and cause you to think, as we'll see in a minute.

## 2. Hell teaches us about God:

What kind of being would sentence a human being to an eternity of torment in a lake of fire for failure to live according to His decree? (Much could be said here. I will only attempt to scratch the surface and then let you to continue to ponder this question on your own. I encourage you to seek answers in the scriptures and discuss them with others.)

One who is very, very, offended by sin.
One who is full of anger and wrath toward disobedience.

One who is *infinitely worthy of total obedience*.

God is Holy, Perfectly Flawless, Totally Righteous '
(completely right in everything He does).
God is the creator of all things and all people.
He made you, knows you, cares for you, and owns you.
God is kind and merciful. He is patience and good.
The fact that you are breathing today proves this.

God has revealed Himself to us through His creation, His Word, and His Son.
God has told us everything that He requires of us.
We are without excuse.
God is totally perfect in His justice.
No wrong will go unpunished. No right will go unnoticed.
(Should he let a murderer or a rapist into eternal paradise?)
(What about thieves and liars?)

God is *infinitely worthy of total obedience*.
He is right to demand it.
He would be wrong to let disobedience go unpunished.

And this is why the consequences for sin are so vast. Any sin against an infinitely worthy person is infinitely egregious.

We worship a God who is Holy, Holy, Holy. And in two weeks of preparing this sermon I could not think of any other words to get my head around this, so we're going to leave that surface barely scratched and move on to what…

## 3. Hell teaches us about sin:

What does God's response to sin, even the small ones, tell us about how we should see our sin?

We ought to loathe it. We should not regard it lightly, as no big deal, or as something that maybe we can give up some day. We ought to see it as rebellion and hatred of our creator.

How would this affect our attitude toward sin at our accountability groups? I wonder how many of our battles against the 'usual struggles' would be greatly intensified, how many of us who are holding grudges against a brother or sister would be able to forgive, if we were told rightly that we should be careful, else we might go to hell!

Sin is a big deal. God takes it very, very seriously. You should be terrified right now, because you know that you are guilty. I know that you are guilty, the Bible tells me this too.

'Yes, yes, but Matt, don't bother me with any of that. God forgives me, I don't have to worry about it anymore. There's no condemnation now, perfect love drives out all fear. Why are you so worked up about this?'

I'm a little concerned that there are some of you out there thinking along this line right now. You're using the truth about God's grace and mercy to deflect the truth about the weight of our sin, and I think doing so leads to a rather lethargic Christian life. We need to reflect on the consequences of our sin in order to keep a full view of God's grace in mind. Because…

## 4. Hell teaches us about God's grace:

There is a passage in Luke, chapter 7, where Jesus says: 'He who has been forgiven much, loves much, and he who has been forgiven little, loves little.' (It actually is a rough parallel to the parable later on in this chapter.) Jesus' point is not that some of us have been forgiven only a little and so will only ever love Him a little, but that all of us have been forgiven much.

Reflection on the Bible's teaching on hell, and on our sin helps us grasp, in ever-increasing ways, the magnitude of forgiveness God has extended to us, and therefore increases our love for and wonder of Him.

It also reminds us of the costliness of that Grace. Every offense incurs a debt of some sort. If I break your lamp, someone has to pay for it. Either I can pay to replace it, or you could extend some mercy to me and not make me have to pay for it, and then you could either just be down a lamp, or buy yourself a new one, but at any rate, one of us is down the cost of a lamp.

That's a rather silly little illustration, but it works. If our offense against God incurred the debt of eternal torment in the lake of fire, then what cost did He have to pay in order to forgive me that debt? The answer of course is Jesus. God in the form of a man, who lived a perfect life, died a completely undeserved death, and thereby paid the debt owed to God. We have this payment credited to us by faith: Faith that we deserved the punishment that Jesus took, and faith that His taking that punishment cancels our debt. God sacrificed Himself to pay our debt.

What kind of response would you have if a branch manager at the bank decided to pay, out of his own pocket, the rest of your mortgage, simply because he liked you. How much gratitude would you have toward that man? (I suppose the gratitude would increase according to the amount of your mortgage.)

What kind of response, then, is appropriate for God having paid your eternal debt for you? He didn't simply decide not to punish you, that would be unjust, and would make Him unrighteous, which would make Him not God! He took your punishment for you! How grateful should you be?

## 5. Hell teaches us about the urgency and importance of mission and evangelism:

This one should be obvious in light of the rest. If people, are destined, as the scriptures say, to die once and afterward face judgement, and if Hell as we've been talking about it is the eternal destiny for all those who are not trusting in Christ's life, death, and resurrection as payment for their sin, and if people are dying all over the world every day, then how urgent are foreign missions, and how important is evangelism?

## Cutting off limbs and gouging out eyes

With a Biblical view of the reality and seriousness of hell in mind, Jesus' statements about cutting off hand and foot, gouging out eyes, and drowning yourself in the ocean begins to come into focus, but is Jesus actually serious that we should literally cut off our hands and feet and gouge out our eyes? Yes.

I know, I know I'm not supposed to say that, I'm supposed to say that this is just hyperbole intended as an illustration. But hear me, He is serious. If your hand and foot cause you to sin, you should cut it off. But here's the issue, if your right hand caused you to sin, and you cut it off, you would still have your left hand, and I'd wager that pretty soon your left hand would be causing that same sin. Because the problem is not your hand, the problem is your heart. YOU are causing you to sin, not your hand. External religious conformity, no matter how harsh and severe, will never cure your sin problem.

By the way as a quick practical application of the cutting off of the hand/foot/eye thing: there are many other things that are way easier to cut off than a hand or a foot and might actually go farther in the keeping you from tripping: Internet connections, Netflix subscriptions, TV shows, movie, certain types of music. You probably know what it is, if you want some personally tailored advice maybe we could talk later.

Jesus is serious here. The consequences of sin are so dire, that you should do whatever it takes to avoid it. Causing His little ones to sin (including you causing yourself to sin), is an offense He takes very seriously. This tells us a lot about how much He cares for His people.

> Matthew 18:10-14
> 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. 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? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

## Truth 4: None of God's children will perish in hell.

I used to think this passage talked about guardian angels for children, which was very exciting and very confusing and very mysterious. But if you take it with everything else he just said you see that Jesus is saying that God is watching over every one of his people, we're not just talking about kids here. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that angels are 'sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.'

Does every believer have their own individual angel looking out for them? I don't know, I don't think that's what this is talking about I think it's talking about God's close and careful concern for His people, as illustrated by Jesus' mini-parable of the lost sheep.

Interestingly, I think He's seriously asking 'what do you think?' I imagine that some shepherds, protecting a flock of 100 on a mountain might say: 'It's just one sheep. I have 99 more safe right here, I can't leave the 99 alone in danger to go find that stray sheep? That wouldn't be very smart. I can keep these 99 safe, or I can go look for one lost one. That's not a very efficient use of time. It's not a very strategic way to watch sheep.'

God is giving us a test for our heart here. 'What do you think?' Do you ever find yourself talking in terms of efficiency or strategy when it comes to caring for God's people? God doesn't.

We are to care for all of God's children and not rank them according to potential or return on investment. In the church, we do not have the option of being selective about which of God's people we care for. If one desires to grow, is repentant in regards to their sin, and honestly seeking to know God better, they are worth our time. Next week we'll get into categories where we are to not spend time on them.

Remember that at the beginning of this passage, Jesus reveals a requirement to get into the Kingdom? In Matthew 5, He told us that in order to enter The Kingdom, our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. That is, must exceed flawless adherence to the letter of the law! A little later in chapter 5 He tells us that we must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. So in chapter 5 He tells us that moral perfection is required to enter the Kingdom and now he tells us that humility is required. What does this tell us about any of our chances at entering the Kingdom? Is anyone in here morally perfect and humble like a child?

And yet here we learn that God is not willing that any of his sheep perish, and as Brad reminded us last week, God's will will be done. He is the Good Shepherd who will seek out all His sheep, and bring about the circumstances that enable them to wake up to the reality that none of us can earn entrance into His kingdom. And He will also bring about the means for us to enter The Kingdom. He tells us here that this looks like a shepherd seeking out a lost sheep, and carrying it back to the flock.

All of this was accomplished through Jesus who lived that morally perfect life of complete faith in and submission to God, but who also was fully punished like the guiltiest of sinners, thus securing entrance to The Kingdom for all His sheep.

None of us are able to enter God's Kingdom by keeping His rules, we've all already failed at that and have earned our rightful place in the eternal lake of fire. But through faith in Christ's life and work, this debt can be avoided.

So in closing, I urge you to acknowledge the reality that you are like a child and are unable to earn a place of power in the Kingdom, so stop your ladder climbing. Instead seek to serve your fellow 'little ones' just as Jesus did, by giving up your life to make a life for them. See the magnificence of God, the gravity of your sin, and the mountain of grace God has extended toward you.

Worship Him today by responding in humble gratitude, love, and affection. Show this love to him by loving each other. Show your thankfulness in the way you sing and the way you pray, and in the way you seek Him daily through study of His word.

See Also:

Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 4th Sunday after the Shunoyo Feast

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