At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 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. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him 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.
“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.
Understanding And Applying the Text
From the other Gospels, we learn the disciples did not come to Christ on their own. Christ knew they were arguing and asked them about it. Matthew’s account is not inconsistent. He only hastens to Christ’s reply. He passes over the reason why they came to Jesus. It is a summary of the account.
The disciples were jockeying for position. Christ had told them He was going to die. Well, who was going to carry on the work. There had to be a succession plan. It had to be one of them. So, who was it? Selfish ambition overrode their grief of knowing Christ was going to die.
Christ gave them an object lesson. He placed a child in the middle of the group. Then He told them they must be like that child. I have heard some take this to mean to be like children is every way. They take this to mean we are to be childish. That ignores the context of Christ’s teaching.
Christ did not mean to be children in every way. He reasons from contraries. It is humility that exalts us. Children are sinners like the rest of us. They are self-centered. Jesus did not say children are innocent. They are not. But they are dependent upon others. They accept from others what they cannot provide for themselves.
Paul tells us to be children, in malice, not understanding. (1 Corinthians 14:20) He also tells us to strive to reach the state of a perfect man. (Ephesians 4:13.) Children do not worry about one preference one over another. Christ wants this ambition extinguished from the minds of his followers.
Christ’s teaching is this. Those who strive to rise over others are so far off they do not even deserve to occupy the lowest corner of the kingdom.
Christ gave a short definition of humility. We are humble if we neither claim any personal merit nor think of ourselves as better than others. Rather we are to be thankful they are members of Christ’s body. And we are to want nothing more than to exalt Christ alone.
Jesus told His disciple, that whoever receives a child receives Him. But Jesus’ followers are to become “like children.” So, the “child” represents a disciple. How we treat Christ’s disciples is how we treat Jesus Himself. Causing a disciple to sin is a serious offense.
Christ said it was necessary that we suffer temptations. But that was not an excuse or allowance to cause temptation. Temptations need to come but we are not to cause the temptation.
We can understand this in two ways. We may understand It in an active sense. That is, Christ pronounces a curse on those who create offenses. And by the term world, He refers to all unbelievers. Or we may understand it in a passive sense. That is Christ deplores the evils which He sees coming as a result of the offenses. The latter meaning is more appropriate. Jesus states there is nothing more serious than offenses. That is causing someone’s sin. We are to fear it above all. Christ intended to strike his disciples with terror if they are the cause of someone’s sin. We are not to be indifferent. We must learn to study and apply ourselves so we do not teach something that is incorrect. Or lead someone astray.
Temptations must come. But that fact does not excuse anyone or anything. There is nothing we can do to avoid temptation. Temptations will come. It is part of living in this world. We cannot avoid evil. No Christian, or even the church at large, can escape evil.
Temptations are necessary. But Jesus does not give a reason why. But in the letter to the Corinthians Paul does. When talking about heresies, Paul says that they exist so good may be made result (1 Corinthians 11:19.). The Church defined most, if not all, major doctrines as a result of heresies. The council of Nicaea defined the canon as a result of the Marcionism heresy.
This is a fixed principle. God’s will is to leave his people exposed to temptation so they may exercise their faith. It separates believers. It separates the chaff from the wheat.
But woe to anyone who creates the temptation. God uses evil to separate the wheat from the chaff. But that does not mean those who do evil are doing God’s will. A dreadful end awaits those whose sin causes another to sin.
Judas betrayed Christ. That was God’s will. If not, he could not have done it. But that did not excuse Judas. Judas chose to betray Christ. Judas’ evil deed resulted in the most wonderful event in human history. But that does not excuse Judas.
Jesus then spoke in hyperbole about cutting off body parts to avoid sin. This is not a literal command to self-mutilation. A simple examination of the language reveals this truth. “if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, …” The cause of sin is not a body part. The cause of our sin is our mind, our will, our very being. Our entire being is sinful. Our body is only an instrument of our will. It is not a cause. But the meaning is clear. It states the seriousness of sin. We are to be so zealous in opposing sin, that we would rather cut off our hands than give in to sin.
Jesus warns His disciple not to despise “these little ones.” As we have already seen, The child represented believers in Christ. It would be a strange thing that we, mere mortals, would treat with no regard that God holds in high esteem. Jesus underlines this fact by pointing out that God appointed angels to watch over them. And these angels enjoy the intimate presence of God. We ought to take care of another believer’s salvation. God has commissioned angels to advance their salvation.
Some claim this teaches us we each have a personal guardian angel. This understanding stands on shaky grounds. Christ did not say a single angel’s sole occupation was to guard any one person. That idea is inconsistent with the rest of Scripture. Scripture teaches angels encamp around the godly. (Psalm 34:7) Not one angel but many angels guard every one of God’s children.
You may ask if angels rank below us since they are to minister to us. That question misses the point of Christ’s teaching. If that is your question re-read Christ’s answer to the disciples. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” It is the one who serves another. Angels rank above us.
The parable of the lost sheep shows God’s concern for the individual, not only the group. The concern for one is not at the expense of the rest. But it shows God’s commitment to each one of us. God elects, seeks out, and preserves not only His church as a whole but each individual within the church. (Ezekiel 34:11-16).