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Matthew 18:1-14 - Homiletics

The little ones.


1 . The question of the apostles . They had not yet learned the great lesson of humility. Perhaps the favour shown to Peter, James, and John had excited jealousies among them. On their way to Capernaum they had disputed who should be the greatest. After all the Lord's teaching they did not yet understand the spiritual nature of his kingdom. There are rivalries and animosities in earthly states; there should be none in that kingdom where the lowliest are the highest. But this is a hard lesson to learn, and the apostles were long in learning it. At Capernaum they asked Christ, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Who should be greater (the words literally mean) than others? Who should stand above others in the hierarchy of the Church that should be built upon the Rock? Who should be nearer than others to the King in the kingdom which Christ had come to establish?

2 . The little child . The Lord's estimate of greatness differed wholly from that current among men. He had said once before that of all that had been born of women there had never risen a greater than John the Baptist. He put the holy martyr above all the monarchs, warriors, and statesmen of ancient times. But he had then said, "He that is the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." And now, in answer to the question who should be greater than others in that kingdom, he called a little child unto him. The little one came willingly, drawn by the gentle words, the loving looks, of the Master. The Lord set him in the midst, in the place of honour; he took him in his arms, St. Mark tells us. The Lord always loved the little children; he bade them come to him; he watched their innocent play with kindly interest, and drew spiritual lessons from it ( Matthew 11:16 , Matthew 11:17 ). Now the little one lay, restful and happy, in the Lord's embrace, Thither we would lead our children—to the Lord, to share his love and tenderness. And, ah! if he should call them away from our sight, we must learn to trust them in faith, though it cannot be without tears, to those everlasting arms. "He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom." Happy child! we know not whether he grew up, as a late and doubtful tradition says, to be the famous Bishop Ignatius. That holy martyr bore God in his heart, as the name Theophorus imports; doubtless he was borne up in his sufferings by the gracious help of God. We know not whether in his infancy he was borne in the arms of Christ. That child was greatly blessed. He would never forget, one thinks, the encircling arms of Christ. But doth not the Scripture say to us, "The eternal God is thy Refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms"? and, alas! how often we forget the gracious presence of God in our unbelief and selfish fears! Now, the Lord called the attention of the apostles to the little one.

3 . The Lord ' s answer : the lowliest are the greatest .


1 . The blessing of receiving them . Christ loved the little children; he proposes their character to his followers as a model for imitation. His words shed a new dignity, a new glory, on innocent childhood. He was thinking probably not only of children in years, but also of the childlike in heart and mind. He deigns to regard such as, in some sense, representatives of himself. Those who care for little children because Christ cared for them, in his name and for his sake, care for Christ. These words give a very holy meaning to single-hearted work in Sunday schools; they shed a blessing upon orphanages, upon all Christian work done for children's sake, all Christian love and thought for little children. And they pronounce a blessing upon all those who in Christ's name receive into their affections or into their homes true Christian men who have learned of Christ the childlike simplicity and lowliness which he exalts so highly. These who receive such receive Christ, as Abraham received angels unawares. Let us love and cherish Christian-minded friends; they bring a precious blessing to our houses, for they bring the gracious presence of Christ.

2 . The guilt of causing them to stumble . A heathen poet tells us that the greatest reverence is due to childhood; he bids us exclude carefully from the sight of children everything that is coarse and evil. The Lord enforces the same duty under more awful sanctions. The simplicity, the receptivity, of little children expose them to evil influences. In Christian homes they are taught to believe in Christ. Among their companions, in their schools, they are sometimes exposed to manifold temptations. But woe to those who purposely set stumbling blocks in their way! Woe to those, schoolfellows or others, who try to entrap the innocent and simple hearted into profanity and neglect of their souls! Such are acting the part of the devil; they are doing his work; they are the enemies of Christ, the murderers of souls for which Christ died. Better that they had died before they came to this pitch of guilt. For souls are very precious in the sight of Christ; he shed his precious blood for them. How must he regard those who entice them to ruin and death?

3 . There must be offences . Human nature being what it is, the power of the devil being what it is, there must be always in the world men who set an evil example, who are as stumbling blocks, as snares. It is a necessity, part of the great mystery of the existence of evil. This necessity is not absolute; it follows from the existence of sin; and sin is voluntary, or it would not be sin. Sin is voluntary in individuals; but while the world remains as it is, there must, as a fact, be sin in the world, as there must be heresies ( 1 Corinthians 11:19 ); and where there is sin there must be offences. But woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! The guilt of sin is increased by its contagious character. The sinner sins against his own soul; he sins also against the souls of others; for his sin becomes a centre of evil influence, spreading its foul attractions among hearts rendered only too susceptible by the inherited corruption of human nature. None can tell the mass of moral disease which may spring from one source of infection. Then woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! He knows not what fearful mischief may follow from his wicked or thoughtless act. He may repent, thank God; but his repentance must be deep, his sorrow great; he may be saved, yet so as by fire. "The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin."

4 . They must be avoided at all costs . Those who ensnare others, who cause them to stumble, have first been ensnared, have stumbled themselves. The first occasion of stumbling must be avoided. The danger is great, the consequences are fearful; better any sacrifice, any self-denial. Self-denial leads to heaven, self-indulgence to hell. We must cut off the causes, the occasions of sin, though they be as closely bound up with our life as the hand, or foot, or eye. The Lord repeats the lesson which he had already given in the sermon on the mount ( Matthew 5:29 , Matthew 5:30 ). There are some cautions which must be given again and again—enforced with all manner of illustrations, "precept upon precept, line upon line." And surely this warning of the deep necessity of real self-denial is one which needs the most constant repetition, one which must be urged again and again, even unto weariness. And it must be urged very strongly and forcibly. The hand, the foot, the eye, are very valuable to us. The loss of one such member would be very serious. To cut it off or to pluck it out would be a great sacrifice, involving much pain, requiring very stern self-denial. But any self-denial, the Lord himself tells us, is better than the risk of suffering that eternal fire which must be the end of sin and self-indulgence. Eternal fire! soften the awful words as far as you dare; say that there is a possibility, a bare possibility, that the word "eternal" may not necessarily involve that endlessness which is the proper meaning of the less correct rendering "everlasting;" say that the word "fire" is figurative, that the Lord did not mean a material fire, corporeal torments;—after all, there remains enough of most fearful meaning in the words of Christ (and let us remember that it was Christ, the most genie, the most loving Saviour, who used those words) to make us feel what must he the dreadful danger of those who entice others into sin, to make thoughtful, believing Christians willing to deny themselves in every way, if so be they may escape from the wrath to come, and save their souls alive in the great day of God.

5 . Offences come from contempt ; contempt of the little ones is a grievous sin . To despise others was characteristic of the Pharisees; it is very sinful in Christians. The Lord is loving unto every man; the Saviour died for all. Christians may not dare to despise those whom the Lord loved, for whom he gave himself to die. To speak contemptuously of those whom we think beneath us in rank, in riches, in intellect, in refinement, is sinful in the sight of God. "Honour all men," is the lesson of Holy Scripture; for all were made by God the Father; all were redeemed by God the Son; all may, if they will, come to God in faith and prayer, be sanctified by God the Holy Ghost. Men think that there is no harm in contemptuous thoughts and words; but these things are sins against the law of love, sins against God, who bids us love our neighbour as ourselves; they greatly injure the soul. Then honour all men; especially take heed that ye despise not one of the little ones, the little children whom the Lord loves, or the childlike in heart whom he commends. Despise them not, for they are dear to Almighty God; he cares for them; he giveth his angels charge over them; he assigns to them their angel guardians; "their angels," the Lord says, the angels appointed to watch over them, whose special duty it is to keep them in all their ways, who are sent forth to minister for their sake. Men may despise these little ones; but holy angels tend them—angels great in power and might, angels who are near to the throne, who stand in the presence of God, who in heaven do always behold the face of God. The Lord's words, "I say unto you," give an emphatic sanction to this sweet and blessed doctrine of the ministry of angels. As the angel Gabriel watched by God's appointment over the holy Child Jesus, so surely do the angels of God watch over the little children now; so surely do they watch over us, if we are childlike in heart, if we are among those little ones who believe in Christ. To the believer this world is still a Bethel, the house of God, the gate of heaven. The ladder which Jacob saw in the vision of the night is still set on the earth, and the top reacheth to heaven; and still do the angels of God ascend and descend, bringing help and strength, messages of peace and love to the little ones of Christ, bearing the prayers of the saints into the Divine presence, carrying the souls of the holy dead into the paradise of God.

6 . The little ones are precious in the sight of God . They must be so, for the Son of man came to save them. None are so small, so insignificant, as to be left out of the Lord's loving care; for it was to save the lost that he came—to save that which seemed utterly lost, lost beyond the power of saving ( το Ì ἀπολωλο ì ς ). (See Luke 19:10 , where the words are certainly genuine; they are of doubtful authority in this place.) It was an evil time when the Saviour came into the world. All flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth; the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life were everywhere dominant. The world seemed lost to all that was good—a mass of corruption. But to save that lost world the Son of God came down from heaven and became the Son of man. His incarnation, his sacrifice of himself upon the cross, has given a new value, a higher dignity, to human nature. None may dare to despise those souls of men which the Lord Jesus loved so dearly. The blessed angels care for Christ's little ones; they encamp around them to protect them, because they are his angels, his messengers ( Matthew 13:41 ), and they must care for those who are so very precious in the sight of their blessed Lord.

7 . Parable of the hundred sheep . One is gone astray. The shepherd leaves the ninety and nine upon the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray. Does it mean that the Lord leaves the countless host of angels on the heavenly heights, and goeth after the one lost sheep of humanity (comp. Hebrew Isaiah 2:16 )? So many have understood it. But it seems more natural to interpret the parable as intended mainly to teach the deep love of God for each individual soul. "The Son of man came to save that which was lost." His great love was not merely a general love for sinful humanity as a mass; it was an individual love for each perishing soul. If all but one had been gathered in, be would have gone after that one lost sheep, seeking on and on until he found it. Human love is limited in its range. We cannot love all mankind as we love one who is very dear to us. It is not so with the infinite Love. The love of God is all-embracing in its extent and fulness, perfect and complete in its individual affection. He loves all and each. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." The shepherd if so be that he finds the lost sheep, rejoiceth more of that one than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. The ninety and nine are precious to the shepherd; in some sense they must be more precious than one. But they are safe. They do not awaken the same emotion, the same intense longing, as the one that went astray. The joy of recovery is proportioned to the sorrow of the loss. Such would be the feelings of a human shepherd. It is an illustration (as far as Divine truths can be shadowed by human things) of the love of God for each separate human soul. It is not his will that one should perish; he willeth that all men should be saved. Then let not any Christian man dare to despise one of those whom God so greatly loved. The Lord repeats this precious parable in Luke 15:1-32 . under different circumstances, with a somewhat different application. It cannot be repeated too often or studied too deeply.


1 . Even apostles had their rivalries: how earnestly we ought to strive against envy and jealousy!

2 . A true conversion is of all blessings the greatest; seek it with all your might.

3 . There is no true conversion without a humble, childlike spirit.

4 . An evil example involves fearful guilt; avoid it at any cost.

5 . Honour all men, especially believers; each one is precious in the sight of God.

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