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Matthew 18 -- How to Treat a Little One
Copyright © 1993, 1996, 2003 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth and Jane E. Booth

MATTHEW 18 -- How to Treat A Little One
(cf. Mark 9:33-50, Luke 9:46-48)

Original Date of Writing: 11/4/1993
First Revision Date: 2/20/1996
Second Revision Date: 11/17/2003


Matthew 18 was considered to be a single unit of thought when someone assigned this body of text to be a "chapter" in our modern Bible. Over time, fewer and fewer men have taught this passage as a single, united body of work. Now, almost no one thinks of putting the various segments of the chapter together as if it was one continuous and intentional thought.

In this short study, we will purposely put the chapter together, all the thoughts flowing from one "segment" to the next. Once this is done, some of the confusion and misconceptions of the passage fade away, and a brighter image of the church as a community of Godís little children emerges.

We are this community of children. Chapter 18 teaches us how to care for and discipline this group of children. This is why we call Matthew 18 the chapter about "How to Treat a Little One."

General Outline

Matthew 18 has been heavily segmented over the years. These segments can be titled so long as we keep the concept in front of us that these segments are all part of the same thought. Here is a general outline of the chapter using sub-titles with the focus on Godís children:

1. Recognize them for who they are (Mt. 18: 1-4)
2. Receive them in the name of the Lord (Mt 18: 5)
3. Do not cause them to stumble into sin (Mt. 18:6-11)
4. Correct those that do sin and urge them to repentance, even using discipline (Mt. 18: 12-20)
5. Forgive them (Mt. 18: 21-35)

I. Recognize the little ones for who they are. vs. 1-4

A. Vs. 1-4: Greatest Rank in the Kingdom goes to the most humble on earth.
Jesus and the disciples had come back to Capernaum and were staying in a house. On the way to Capernaum, they had been discussing who would be greatest in the kingdom. According to Mark and Luke, the discussion had actually been an argument or dispute. Just previous to this Jesus had told them He would soon be killed. Perhaps they were worried about who would lead them now. They did not understand or perhaps believe what Jesus had said about the Resurrection. In Mark it says that Jesus asked them what they had been discussing and they wouldn't answer, perhaps out of embarrassment. In Luke it says that Jesus knew what they had been reasoning anyway, and finally, in Matthew it says that they came and asked Him right out who would be the greatest.

This question "who is the greatest" takes on many variations. Today we would be arguing, "who is the most spiritual," or, "who has the greater spiritual gift," or, "who is the most mature Christian," or, "who is the holiest," or, "who prays the the longest." (In 1 Corinthians 3:4 we see another example where the church broke into factions over who was for Paul, who was for Apollos, who for Cephas, and the answer is again the same. Vs. 11 "For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ".) The disciples were looking at their own works to see which was the greatest, and Jesus was trying to focus them back to Himself and their need for humility before God, and their need to care for one another as the servants of their brothers.

B. Vs. 2, 3, 4 Becoming like children/conversion.
Jesus responded to the question "Who is greatest?" by refocusing them on the real question, "who is qualified to enter the kingdom at all?" And His answer was, one who would be truly converted and become like a little child. This reference to a child is somewhat reminiscent of John 3 where Jesus says you must be born again in your spirit and become like a baby. Unless we are converted we cannot enter the kingdom at all. And the one who will be greatest there will be humble as a child is here.

C. Characteristics of a child:
humble, forgiving, eager to learn, curious, trusting, not considered important, no power, no money, no position, dependent. Jesus is not saying that children are outstanding examples of humility, but that we can only be humble enough to enter heaven if we are prepared to be insignificant, as little children were in the ordinary affairs of the world. In the world's eyes, wealth is power. A child has no power or money of his own. Why would you not let a child become president? Not enough training, not educated, inexperienced. You need all these things to become a worthy president (not to mention money and power). But Jesus says we need no works at all to enter heaven, we must come in as little children, having nothing of our own, totally dependent on Him and dependent soley on what He has done to save us.

D. Charting Greatness in the Kingdom

World's idea of the greatest:

God's greatest:

1. Rich (Job 1:3)

1. Poor in spirit (Mt. 5:3)

2. Powerful

2. Dependent on Him

3. First of all

3. Last of all (Mk 9:35)

4. Master

4. Servant (Mk 9:35, Mt. 20:26, 22:24, 23:11)

5. Rabbi/Teacher (Mt. 23:2-7)

5. Brother (Mt. 23:8)

6. Father (Mt 23:9)

6. Brother (Mt. 23:8,9)

7. Leader (Mt. 23:10)

7. Follower

8. Exalted (Mt 23:6,12)

8. Humble (Mt. 18:4, 23:12)

9. Place of Honor (Mt. 23:6)

9. Lowest seat / servant

II. Receive the little ones (Mt. 18:5, Mk. 9:37, Lk. 9:48)

A. Receive: in Greek, dechomai, accept or take.
Why did the disciples have a problem with the youngsters? They were annoying, disruptive, attention grabbers. But Jesus rebuked them for turning the children away. Read Mk 10:13-16. Verse 15 says essentially the same thing as Matthew, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all." But later in the chapter we begin to realize that Jesus is using the word child as a metaphor for us, believers, especially young believers. We are to receive any child or any one who humbles himself before God and is converted into the fellowship. We are not to keep any one such child or believer away. If we receive them into fellowship in His name, we are receiving Christ, and if we are receiving Christ, we are receiving the Father. "In His name" probably means "for His sake." Jesus regarded children and young believers and insignificant people in the world with the same importance He gave to the rich and powerful.

III. Don't cause the little ones to stumble. vs. 6-11

A. What "cause to stumble" means.
The expression "to cause to stumble" literally means "to set a snare or leg trap". It is a hunting expression, meaning to snare by the foot, thus, to cause someone to stumble is to cause them to sin or to become trapped in sin. Possible ways to cause a young believer to become ensnared in sin are:

1. To purposely entice them to sin.
2. To dissuade them from their faith in Christ.
3. To sin in front of them without thought to their welfare (being an uncaring example).
4. Uninformed and thoughtless use of liberties (being an unwitting and uncaring example).

The first two ways would be used only by an unbeliever, hopefully. The last two are more probably used by believers. The area of using your liberties thoughtlessly has to do with causing weaker believers to stumble by doing something in front of them that you know is a biblically acceptable activity, but which the youngsters think is a sin. They do it anyway, following your example, and thus violate their own consciences, because they are doing something they believe is wrong! Romans 14 goes into this more fully, but suffice it to say that God views very seriously the sin of causing young believers or children to stumble. How seriously?

B. Cutting off your hands and feet.
I have heard many explanations of this passage and none of them satisfy me fully. Taken "literally" and just a bit out of context, this passage would seem to leave a lot of us walking around crippled and lame and blind, because we all sin with our hands and our feet and our eyes.

But Jesus says if your hand causes you to sin, not if you sin with it. How can your hand cause you to sin? It's not your hand or foot or eyes that sin, it is your mind and heart. (In James 1: 14 it says "each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust, Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin..." )

The point of Matthew 18:8 is that it would be better to be mutilated than to be cast into hell. However much a believer sins he cannot be cast into hell, because Christ has paid for our sins and saved us from eternal punishment. The context of the verse is speaking about how to enter the kingdom, and you will notice that the word enter is in the verse. " It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to be cast into the lake of fire." So Jesus could be saying that it's better to cut off your sins and repent and enter into new life even if it feels crippling to do so. There are some sins that we want to cling to, that we feel we can't live without, but it's better to be saved and feel weak than it is to be condemned.

However, keeping with the context of Matthew 18 as a whole thought, I do have an alternate explanation. Jesus is actually using these verses as a metaphor of church discipline. We will return to these verses in just a little while, after we discuss the next point, and I think you might see what I have in mind.

C. Parable of the Sheep

This parable, too, is an introduction to the next subject, the point of which is correcting little ones and the use of church discipline. I always thought this parable referred to salvation, and how much God cares for one little lost soul; but the parable is about sheep, and that is a classic symbol for a believer. God is willing to leave the ninety-nine believing and obedient sheep grazing while He goes off and searches for the one sheep that has gone astray. The sheep hasn't become lost, he's just strayed off the right path into sin. Directly after this parable Christ goes into explicit detail on how to correct a brother who is sinning. He not only goes after them, but He expects us to go after them, too.

In other words, the wandering sheep is a believer in our church who strays into sin. Christ exepcts us, the undershepherds and keepers of our brothers, to leave our own comfort and chase after the straying youngster, to bring him back to the safety of the fold. How? How do you chase down a sinning brother to convince him to stop sinning and return?

IV. Correct them and urge them to repentance (Mt. 18:12-20)

A. Reproving your brother

These verses are often only used in the context of church discipline, that is, only practiced by the pastor or elders in the church, and not by any one believer in particular. Not many believers are happy faced with the command to go and reprove someone who is sinning. First of all, we often feel hypocritical, because we are sinners ourselves! It is true that Jesus said to take the log out of our own eye before we try to take the speck out of another's eye. But read Matt 7: 1-5. He did not say "do not to take the speck out of the brother's eye at all!" He said to first cleanse ourselves, and then we can see clearly to help our brother.

Another reason we do not want to confront is because we are afraid of the person's reaction. When confronted with sin, a person's first impulse is to excuse it or attack back, and we do not want to be rejected or find ourselves accused by the sinner.

Thirdly, we may genuinely like a person so much that we do not want to hurt them in any way, but of course, true love wants what is best for another, and often a brother may have to be hurt in order to become whole again. If your brother listens to you, there is no need to take the other steps of church discipline. This first step of confrontation is the least practiced by laymen today, and it greatly cripples the church as a body.

Other verses which teach reproof or confrontation include Gal. 6:1, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. James 5:20, turn a sinner from the error of his way and you may save his soul.

B. Take one or two with you

This verse can be confusing to obey, because in order to take someone with you to reprove your brother yet a second time, you have to tell that other person what is going on. In this context, the information should not be regarded as gossip, since they are hearing this only in order to fulfill the steps of discipline, and your purpose is not to hurt your brother, but to win him to repentance. It certainly should not be considered slander, since slander is always referred to in the scripture as lies told about someone.

It might be wise to take someone older in the Lord with you, or someone with more authority in the church, but this is not listed as a requirement. This step is necessary to obey the verse, which is a quote from Deut. 19:15, "By the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed." Also in verses 18-20, it speaks of two believers agreeing on a matter (of discipline according to the context) and they have authority to act on the earth and God will sanction it from heaven.

C. Tell it to the church

If a brother has been confronted twice and still does not respond, the final step is to publicly tell it to the church. This step is necessary so that the believers in the church can respond appropriately, that is, not to associate with the brother until he fully repents. The Corinthian church was rebuked for not following this course of action (1 Cor. 5:1,2, 9-13 and also 2 Thes. 3:14,15). A church has the authority to bind and loose things on the earth, that is, to keep someone in the church or set them loose/cut them off, verses 18-20.

D. Cut him off

Now we see why Jesus spoke of cutting off hands and feet. Perhaps He was using the body in these verses as a metaphor for the church. This metaphor is used elsewhere (I Cor 12:12-31). Even if someone in the church as important as a right hand or a foot causes the church to stumble by their public and continued sinning, we must cut it (him) off and throw it (him) from us. Better for the church to go on crippled or lame than to keep the sin in its midst.

What is cutting off? It is a cutting off of fellowship. The brother is acting like an unbeliever because he is caught in a continual sin and though repeatedly rebuked, he will not repent. Therefore, the church is to treat him as an unbeliever. Many churches have taken this concept to an unbiblical extreme (called shunning). How are we to treat a believer who is cut off and is under discipline? We are to treat him as an unbeliever. And how do we treat unbelievers? We are not unkind to them. However, we are continuously calling them to repentance, and back to Christ. We must not regard him as an enemy, but continuously admonish him to come back to fellowship.

E. How to confront

1. Do not rebuke someone for their motives. We cannot judge these, only God sees their heart. (1 Cor 2:11, Prov. 16:2, 1 Cor. 4:5)

2. Listen to everyoneís accounts before you pass judgment. (Prov. 18:13)

3. It may seem right but be wrong. (Prov. 14:12) Make sure you are judging according to God's Word, and not your own standards.

4. Be slow to speak. (James 1:14)

5. Judge righteously, not by appearance. (John 7:24)

6. Clean up your own act first. (Matt 7:1-6)

7. Love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:7-11). Some things can be overlooked, or covered by love.

8. Give a gentle answer if someone is angry. (Prov. 15:1)

9. Ask questions, draw out the other person to make sure you are right. (Prov 20:5)

10. Think about how to answer them and consider carefully the right words to say. (Prov 15:28)

11. Be persuasive. Use God's Word. (Prov. 16:20, 21, 23)

F. Avoid the following during confrontation

1. Do not use your tongue as a tool to set everyone on fire as if by hell itself.(James 3:5-8)

2. Do not call your brother a fool (a fool is someone who is good for no purpose at all, not someone who has done one foolish act). (Matt 5:22)

3. Do not tattle to others not involved. (Prov 11:11-14)

4. Do not flatter them to ease their pain. (Prov 25:20)

G. Forgive and accept him back if he repents.
See 2 Cor 2:4-11 "accept him back and comfort him, and reaffirm your love for him." Also Gal. 6:1 "Restore him back in a spirit of gentleness, looking to yourselves, lest you too be tempted."

1. (Col. 3:13) Just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.
2. (Eph 4:32) Be tender hearted, forgive, just as Christ forgives you.

V. Forgive them (Mt. 18:21-35)

A. How often?
Peter was trying to be generous here, seven times is quite a lot for the same offense. I believe Hebrew tradition taught that three times was a reasonable limit, and then you no longer had to forgive. But Christ says seventy times seven! Since practically no one would actually count and track how many times somone repented, it may be assumed that we must forgive an endless amount of times.

B. What does it mean?
In Greek,"aphiemi", "to send away, leave alone" We must send away the thoughts of retribution, and leave it alone, just as God removes our own sins, casting them as far as the east is from the west. (Psalm 103:12)

C. How Much? Illustration: The Parable of the Unforgiving Slave

I do not have any better thoughts or words on forgiveness than what has already been said: God commands it; He forgives us, therefore we must forgive our brother or sister. He will give us the grace to do so if we ask for it.

I don't have any better illustration than Christís own parable. Read it. The one who is forgiven much is us, we have been forgiven all the sins we have ever committed or ever will commit, literally, an eternityís worth of sin debt. Therefore, when someone sins against us and wants to repent, we must surely be willing to forgive that person since it is such a small thing compared with how we have already been forgiven by God.


Matthew 18 is a continuous thought. It tells us that God likens us to children, because we are in fact His children. We depend completely on Him for our salvation, our training, and our daily comfort. We must treat others as both our brothers and as His children. If one of us strays into sin, the others are obligated to attempt to find him and restore him to fellowship. Sometimes that involves a form of discipline called "cutting them off" from fellowship in hopes the sinning child will see he has truly wandered off into the wrong direction and will repent and return. And when he does return, we must be willing to forgive him, for we have all experienced an abundance of forgiveness ourselves.

How do you treat a little one? As if He was Godís own dear child, and as if God were keeping His eye on the both of you.

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