Limits of study
Obviously it is difficult to jump into the middle of a text without understanding the context. Our text comes at the end of the fourth discourse, which describes the ekklesia (church), i.e. the New Messianic people of God (13:54–19:1). There are two parts in this discourse.
The previous section (13:54–17:27) focused on the deeds as Jesus separates Himself and His disciples from the first century Jewish understanding of what it means to be God’s people. In other words, the former way of living (under the old covenant) is passing away, and Jesus begins to contrast what the new covenant [testament] means for living. This separation begins with the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth (13:54-58). The death of John (14:1-12) highlights that the prophetic preparation for the Messiah has been completed.
Then follows a series of miracles that demonstrate particular aspects of the Messiah’s work and what they means for His disciples. The feeding of the 5,000 highlights not only Jesus’ power and authority, but even more the heart of God— “He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them“ (14:14). Rather than the “shepherds” of Israel who saw the crowds as ones to be manipulated, used, and exploited, Jesus saw the people as they were, people in need.
In addition to the feeding miracle Jesus walks on the water, which only His disciples see, then heals the sick in Gennesaret. These miracles demonstrate his authority over all creation, extending compassion as needed. Yet, even then the disciples face the reality of their lack of faith. Contrast that with the two “outsiders” who are commended for their faith (Matthew 8:10-11; 15:28).
The conflict between Jesus and the rulers of the Jews increases as we move into chapter 15. The old way was to examine the externals as the measure of law-keeping, and obedience to God. The tradition of the elders is exposed when Jesus points to Word, namely Isaiah, to condemn them (Matthew 15:8-9). It isn’t what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out, comes out of the heart (15:10-20).
Jesus ventures into another Gentile area, Tyre and Sidon. Note that while Jesus came to Israel, it is also true that Jesus was preparing for Matthew 28:16-20 by His own extension of the message beyond Israel. In this case the Canaanite woman reveals true faith. Two more miracles follow this story. Again, note the divine characteristic in 15:32, “And Jesus called His disciples to Him, and said, ‘I feel compassion for the people.’ ”
Yet remarkably in Matthew 16:1-4 the Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign. They see, but do not see. The contrast for the new people of God is that seeing comes from faith. After explaining the real problem of these leaders, Jesus now asks the disciples who He is—the context and object of faith. Peter gets the identification correct: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The source is not Peter’s deduction, but the revealing work of God. Sadly, in 16:21-23, Peter also exposes how little he knows what his confession really meant. Peter wants a Savior of his own making. He gets much more in Jesus.
Jesus explains more about what this confession Peter made when He said: “I also say to you that you are Peter (Πέτρος masculine referring to Peter), and upon this rock (πέτρᾳ feminine referring to his confession, not to Peter) I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” This confession also leads to the issue of forgiveness of sins, a theme that is central in our main text, 18:15-35.
But the confession also includes Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus, thus, contradicts one of the major expectations of the Jewish people: the Messiah would lead them to victory over the Romans. Such a confession includes the disciples to deny themselves and follow Jesus, cross language that will be fully evident in chapters 26-28.
Chapter 17 adds to the disciples’ confusion. Jesus, the one who will be killed, is not transfigured in front of three disciples. Then He follows that with another prophecy of His death and resurrection. It’s like the disciples have been given a puzzle with many pieces, yet the pieces seem to come from many different puzzles.
This text provides the immediate background and transition to our text of interest. The question in 18:1 reveals how the disciples are still thinking in the old paradigm. “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus clearly refutes such thinking when he uses a child (“a child, normally below the age of puberty” BDAG). In other words, the wisdom and superiority of an adult perception of greatness are not in the mix. It is an issue of faith, something the disciples have missed repeatedly.
In 18:5-9 Jesus goes even further. It is not a matter of (self-imagined) greatness, but rather how do the new people of God treat the “least” in the kingdom. Leading one of the least into sin has great consequences.
[Jesus said:] “…whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! (Matthew 18:6-7 NAS)
The least includes the lost among them, those who go astray (18:10-14). Notice, too, that the finding of the lost is critical, but also the the resulting rejoicing. God desires that not one be lost.
With this background we see that Jesus will usher in a new kingdom, the church (ἐκκλησία). It will be far different than what the people had experienced under the old covenant. Relationships will reflect God’s perfect love and compassion. Anything that interferes with the relationship of the church is to be dealt with following the pattern of greatness in the new kingdom.
This then leads us into the text of 18:15-35.