Four Nonnegotiables of Church Life III (Matthew 18:5-9)

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Previously, we began a study of Matthew 18 because of my pastoral constraint that BBC needs a refresher course concerning some fundamentals of what it means to be a member of the church of Jesus Christ. With some healthy church growth over the years it is good for newer members to understand BBC’s pursuit of a biblical ethos of church life. We have never desired to be merely a “bunch,” but rather an active body. And so I deemed it prudent for us to study the relational aspects of what it means to be a member of Christ’s church. I trust that these studies will be of help to non-BBC members too.

We who have been at BBC for a long period need to be reminded of some truths. It is all too easy to get into a rut and to assume that we are doing well when in fact we could be doing better—much better.

When Christo, a fellow elder, first came to BBC I asked him to look around our premises and identify physical improvements that needed to be made. He had fresh eyes; he had not yet grown accustomed to the mould growing on the bricks (we assumed it was an aesthetic piece of garden art!), or to the holes in the Sunday School walls (we boasted about the extra ventilation!), or to the peeling paint (which we thought simply gave a nice rustic atmosphere to the place!). I knew that, with time, his eyes would become accustomed to the broken glass panes and that the danger of being decapitated by a falling piece of glass would just be assumed to be part and parcel of worshipping at BBC! After all, the wonderful congregational and special singing was worth the risk of being sliced!

The same temptation holds true when it comes to being a long term member and the issue of the relational responsibilities of such church membership. We run the risk of taking for granted that all is in good condition when in fact we are in need of some home improvements. Peter wrote and reminded believers of their privileges and responsibilities in light of the gospel and even made the point that he planned to continue to remind them of the basics as long as he was alive (see 2 Peter 1:12-15). And such is my burden in this series. May the Lord use it to clarify our thinking and to reaffirm our commitment to loving Christ and His sheep.

Matthew 18 highlights what Jesus Christ expects from the church which He is building. In this chapter we see four nonnegotiables of every one who claims membership in it. Such members must humble themselves (vv. 1-4), honour others (vv. 5-14), help others in holiness (vv. 15-20) and live in harmony with others (vv. 21-35).

In this study we will consider vv. 5-9 with a view to seeing what it means to honour others.

Be Hospitable

Jesus spoke in this text about “receiving” fellow believers—described here as “little ones.” The exhortation is to hospitality, to accepting those who are converted.

Accepting the Converted

Since all who are converted by God’s gracious power are equally “great” (v. 4)—and we don’t know it!—it stands to reason that no one is to be excluded from our love. The Lord tells us this in v. 5: “Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.”

The word “receives” means “to accept.” Further, it speaks of welcoming, of showing hospitality. John MacArthur notes that the word “was often used of welcoming honored guests and meeting their needs with special attention and kindness.” The context of this statement therefore makes it abundantly clear that “no matter how lowly, unsophisticated, immature, or weak a believer is, he must be treated as the precious child of God he truly is.”

Quite clearly the Lord was highlighting the responsibility of the believer to embrace in the heart every one of the humble, that is, every believer. We are to treat every believer as great. We are to be hospitable to them.

Don Carson notes that “mere hospitality is not in view but hospitality given because of the ‘little ones’’ link with Jesus. . . . They are not welcomed because they are great, wise, or mighty, but because they come in Jesus’ name, i.e. they belong to Him.”

If we are obedient, we will honour them and be hospitable fellow believers because they too have been humbled by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Our attitude toward fellow saints will be: “You too are a trophy of grace! Don’t we have a wonderful Saviour!”

Alexander Maclaren writes concerning this exhortation, “To ‘receive one such little child in My name’ is just to have a sympathetic appreciation of, and to be ready to welcome to heart and home, those who are lowly in their own . . . estimate. . . . There is no surer way of securing Him for our own than the loving reception of His children. [He] who lodges the King’s favourites will not be left unvisited by the King.”

Those who are biblically humble are committed to serving others. In the words of Paul, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

It follows that if we esteem another in such a way then we will be committed to serving them; we will have their best interest at heart; they will be in our hearts. We will not compete with them but will rather be committed to them being honoured. The church is the community of the contrite and thus it is the household of the humble. The church is not a congregation of competitive individuals, but is instead called to be the community of those committed to help others to win! For when others win, we all win.

I recently came across a news story of a famous and talented sportsman who is considering leaving his team because they cannot seem to win a championship. Shame on him! Clearly, this man does not understand the team mentality involved in professional sports. And yet how often do we approach church life in the same manner!

Note that if you truly receive others in your heart then you will have them in your home. I am not suggesting that to be a faithful member of the church that you are expected to have everyone over for a meal. But if you refuse to have a member then you are in violation of this teaching and may in fact be facing the condemning woe of the Lord.

If we receive others, we will work at getting to know them. (And this means we probably will have others over for meals! Consider the early church in Jerusalem who shared meals from house to house [Acts 2:46].) The church is communal. It is relational. It is a family!

Further, we will greet those whom we have received. We will care for them. We will show them practical hospitality. We will seek to meet their needs.

But note that Jesus here was specific about those whom we are to receive: those who also have the regenerate mark of humility.

We must beware of the very present temptation of consumerism that pervades not only our society but also the church. Church shopping is a very active pursuit in our day. People often are looking for a church that will serve them rather than coming to a church looking to serve. They assume that the church exists to meet their needs and they shop around for the best bargain. This is so unbiblical that you would think that the average eldership and local church would decry this. But on the contrary, the majority actually cater to this nonsense. When was the last time that you saw a church advertising the need for servants to join their fellowship?

Imagine the following advert in your local community newspaper.

Are you searching for a church where you can learn to put others first? Are you a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ who, humbled by the grace of God, is looking for a church where you will not be encouraged to be chief but rather will be discipled into seeing yourself as the chief of sinners? Are you looking for a local congregation where the church life will not revolve around you but rather where you will be expected to die to your own ambitions so as to help others to achieve theirs? Are you looking to join a body of believers who will be tireless in enriching the life of others to your own impoverishment? If you are looking for a church where you will be loved and yet you will not be the centre of attention; if you are looking for a church where you will have burdens placed upon you, then this is the church for you.

How many would be interested in joining such a church? I suspect more than you might think. You see, what I have just described is biblical church life. And the real deal, those humbled by the grace of God, will find such a church attractive. Do you find such a congregational church life uninviting and unappealing? Then perhaps you need to return to vv. 1-4 and examine whether you have yet been humbled by the grace of God to enter His kingdom.

Selfish ambition is the mark of the worldling, not the characteristic of the worshipper. And without this quality being sought and exercised in the church, conflicts will be perpetual and ugly and the church will lose its influence.

This quality of humility is absolutely necessary for harmony in the church. After all, what kind of harmony was being experienced and expressed by the disciples as they disputed continually about who was the greatest? Not much! How inclined were they to serve one another as they argued over who would rule whom? How much selfless sacrifice was being practiced and promoted as they fought over whom would be most prominent in the history books?

A pastor recently preached a conference at our church, and at one point related his early ministry experience in his local church. He returned to the church fresh from Bible College, ready to take on the world. He expected to be appointed immediately as a pastor of some church somewhere and begin his teaching ministry. But that is not what happened. Instead, his pastors first appointed him to the ministry of setting the chairs straight for Sunday worship. At first, he remembers feeling somewhat indignant. That was not what he had studied for. But he soon came to realise the wisdom of his pastors in teaching him humility and hospitality before appointing him to lead sheep.

Examine yourself. Are you easily offended? Do you have a chip on your shoulder? Are you looking for opportunities to serve? Rather, are you creating opportunities to serve? Do you complain that your needs are not being met? Are you critical about the church and its members, or do you see how you can improve it?

Someone recently commented to a member of our church that he should “tell your pastor to greet his visitors!” Whilst I appreciate what the person was trying to say, the truth is that we are at a point in our church life where there are just too many visitors each week for me to find and personally greet. I therefore appreciate the attitude of another young couple who, upon visiting the church, came to me after the service and introduced themselves. They could have waited for me to notice them and gotten upset if I didn’t. But their attitude was different. They understood the ethos of our text.

Church growth gurus offer all sorts of advice on making the church seeker-friendly. They tell us that a visitor to the church will decide in the first three minutes whether or not he will ever return to the church, and place great pressure on ministers to ensure that their church—welcomers, brochures, appearance, songs, sermons, etc.—is attention-grabbing enough to ensure a second visit.

I must admit that I have little time for such “food critics.” God grants growth to churches that take Him and His Word seriously. It is startling to read the accounts in Acts when the church expanded. Whenever Luke records an instance of church growth, it is almost always immediately after an event that contemporary church growth gurus would strongly decry. The church, for example, grew in Acts 5 immediately after two church members were struck dead by God for lying about their stewardship. It would be interesting to see that advice being passed around by contemporary experts!

Note that the believer is not to be unambitious (see 6:19-21). Rather, he is called to be ambitious for the right things as he stops pursuing the wrong things. The believer is ambitious for the welfare of others. And this will require self-denial. For a local church to be healthy requires sacrificial self-denial. Let me give you a positive example of this.

Recently, we held a funeral for the sister of one of our members. Very few church members knew the deceased and her brother had been in the church only for about a year. Many did not know him. We sent a message out telling the church of the funeral, which would take place on Friday. Assistance was sought for the serving of tea afterwards.

On Friday morning several of our members attended, and several served the tea. Most of those serving neither knew the young lady who had died or the young church member who was grieving. But their service “received” him. What a blessing! This is a practical demonstration of this principle in Matthew 18. Because this young man was a brother in Christ, connected to other spiritual family members of BBC, Jesus was honoured. He was “received” by the hospitable service of others.

Let me appeal to you to be sensitive and not selfish when it comes to the grief of others—as well as their joys. Grieve with others at funerals. Rejoice with them at weddings and other joyous occasions. Join fellowship meetings in the church—even when the theme of the meeting is not your particular cup of tea. Your faithfulness to such fellowship is a ministry to others in itself—regardless of your interest level.

I believe that there is a danger in many church of overemphasising the particularisation of spiritual gifts. In other words, in many cases I fear that people discern their contribution to the body and confine their involvement to that one area of personal interest. Hence, the exercise of a spiritual gift may in fact be nothing but an exercise in self-gratification!

Jesus came to die and yet he was involved in a food ministry, healing ministry, teaching ministry, training ministry, etc. Paul made tents, organised charitable gifts, gave private counsel, public preaching, discipled, evangelised, etc. We must be on guard against consumerism! The church is not a spiritual smorgasbord! At the end of the day our calling is to serve, not be served.

Accepting All the Converted

Biblical hospitality demands a multi-ethnic church. Certainly the church should have a single “culture,” a single worldview and purpose. But this can and should exist even where there is diversity of culture. Some church growth experts and pastors often speak of the need for a homogenous membership. That is, the membership should be confined largely to a single race, socioeconomic class, etc. The Bible knows nothing of such counsel.

In a Pauline parallel passage we have the same theme addressed again. This time it was not addressed to the Twelve but to the church at Rome (see Romans 14-15). There were members of that congregation who were so spiritually “together” that they frankly could not be bothered with those who were immature. (The passage also seems to suggest that there was an ethnic issue here.) The more “mature” and ethnically “superior” element in the church let the rest know what they thought of their silly scruples. They behaved in such a way that “immature” members were rejected.

Particularly the problem was that some of the Jewish members (see vv. 9-12, 14ff) had certain scruples concerning eating meat which had presumably been offered to idols and others were committed to observing the Old Testament special feast days. They felt that if they did not withhold themselves from meat and if they did not observe these feasts then they were sinning against God. They were not legalists in this, for clearly Paul had no patience with any teaching or practice that minimised or challenged the sufficiency of the gospel of the grace of God. Rather, these believers believed that they were bound by Scripture to such behaviour when in fact they were bound by their conscience not to Scripture.

That said, the issue seems to be that there were a lot of well-informed church members who were so spiritual and so biblically literate and astute that they thought it was their duty to rub their superior spirituality in the noses of these unenlightened fellow members. Paul makes it clear in his writing that this was wrong and that they needed to humble themselves, take up their cross and put others first. This is what he meant by his exhortation for them to “receive one another” (v. 7). He was here echoing the teaching of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 18. And like Jesus, Paul pointed to the cross of Christ as the motivation for us to take up our Christ-appointed cross. In effect, Paul was admonishing these believers to exercise biblical hospitality, to welcome others into their lives for the purpose of honouring Christ.

Appreciating the Cross

We need to address the issue of that which produces humility (the cross) and then proceed to what humility in return produces (cross carrying—obedience to Christ’s word; hospitality, helpfulness, evangelism, etc.).

William P. Farley helpfully writes,

We obtain humility at the foot of the cross. Those who meditate on the message of the cross strive for holiness. Their efforts only make them more aware of their failings. This causes them to run to the cross for forgiveness more frequently. It causes them to need the cross more desperately. All of this happens because they feel the weight of their sin more biblically. It culminates in the peace of biblical humility. . . . None of us is adequately humble. We are all proud people trying, by the grace of God, to become increasingly humble. Hypocrisy lurks in us somewhere.

We must come to appreciate that the church of Jesus Christ is relational. This passage exposes the lie that Christianity is about “Jesus and me.” No, the cross tells us clearly that Christianity is about others. As the well-worn acronym for “joy” states, Jesus, Others, You.

Deny self and die to your desire to have your own way in order to submit yourself one to another in the fear of God for the harmony of the church and for the glory of Christ. Die to your ambitions to be served in order to serve those who would also like to be served! Die to your natural antagonism to covenantal commitment in order to strengthen the body life of the local church.

Let’s be very honest concerning our own hearts: This verse is far easier to quote than to live. We are fundamentally selfish. That is why we so appreciate the lives of those who seem to be unselfish in their giving of themselves to others. But as difficult as this seems the fact remains that the Lord calls for us to live a life of service to others, with special reference to the humble. Humble yourself for the humble!

Ask yourself the question, does humility mark my life? Ask yourself right now, am I angry about what is being said? Then run to the cross and become relationally connected with others in the church!

Just how important is it that we do so? Jesus tells in what follows: If we are not hospitable then we are harmful. If we don’t receive then we reject and we may even ruin—to our own ruin.

Don’t Be Harmful

In vv. 6-9 Jesus issued at least two warnings against harming His “little ones.”

Be Aware of the Children

J. C. Ryle wrote, “It is not enough that we wish to do good in this world: are we quite sure that we are not doing harm?” Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (v. 6).

As we come to these verses, the church member is confronted with the question of whether he or she will be a stumbling block or a stepping stone. Will we make the necessary adjustments in our life to show acceptance to the Body of Christ—all of it—or will we be particular in our hospitality? That is, will we be helpful (by being hospitable) or will we be harmful (by a lack thereof)?

But just what does it mean to “offend” someone? What does Jesus mean by “offence”? The word is the Greek word from which we derive the English “scandal,” and it carries with it the idea of “causing to stumble” or “tripping up.” It refers to causing another to fall.

John Calvin notes, “If any man through our fault either stumbles, or is drawn aside from the right course, or retarded in it, we are said to offend him.”

The context of this passage highlights that there is a particular form of “scandal” which we must avoid. Don Carson hits the nail on the head: “Causing the ‘little ones’ to stumble, does not mean that the ‘little ones’ are led into apostasy. Rather, they are not welcomed but are rejected, ignored. This causes them to stumble in their discipleship.”

William Barclay gives a helpful illustration of this point:

Someone tells of an old man who was dying; he was obviously sorely troubled. At last they got him to tell them why. “When we were boys at play,” he said, “one day at a cross-roads we reversed a signpost so that its arms were pointing in the wrong direction, and I’ve never ceased to wonder how many people were sent in the wrong direction by what we did.”

“The sin of all sins,” concludes Barclay, “is to teach another to sin.”

The words of vv. 6-9 may sound familiar and they should be, for in Matthew 5:29-30 the Lord Jesus exhorted the disciples to deal radically with their sin, with particular reference to the sin of lust in the heart. Here similar, though not exact, words are used to highlight the seriousness of the sin of not receiving one such little child. And the sin that must be radically removed is the sin of pride. Don Carson is helpful with his insight: “Perhaps the particular believer-to-believer attitude that most needs rooting out is pride. Jesus’ disciples must deal as radically with pride as they were earlier commanded to deal with lust (5:29-30).”

I wholeheartedly concur with this interpretation. Pride is at the root of all inhospitable behaviour. And the true believer, the little child, will have no time for this sin.

We are called to be aware that the “little ones” are influenced by us. They are aware of us, and we must be aware of them. How are we leading them? This was the point of Romans 14-15.

As yourself, what kind of example am I setting for those I am discipling? As an older church member, what kind of example am I setting for newer church members? As a pastor, how am I leading my flock? We do not want to cause others to stumble!

Be Aware of the Condemnation

How serious is the sin of inhospitality? According to Jesus, those characterised by an unaccepting spirit will be cast into hell. That is pretty serious!

It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offences! For offences must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.

(Matthew 18:6-9)

A “millstone” was a large rock that was dragged by a donkey. It was heavy, and a person with a millstone around his neck would not be able to stay afloat.

Jesus’ reference to drowning is significant. Drowning, of course, is a terrifying prospect for anyone, but especially for a Jew. Barclay explains: “To the Jew it was the symbol of utter destruction. . . . The very phrase to the Jew would paint a picture of utter destruction and annihilation.”

William Hendriksen captures the essence of these words when, noting that the phrase literally reads “that he be plunged into the sea, into the sea of the sea,” he writes, “With this heavy millstone round his neck, making drowning doubly sure, he be taken far away from shore to the place where the splashing waters of the turbulent sea or ocean are very deep, and that he there be plunged into this watery grave from which return is absolutely impossible.”

Jesus speaks further of the offender being cast “into hell fire.” The Greek word translated “hell fire” is gehenna, which was the Greek name for the Valley of the son of Hinnom. In the Old Testament, this was a place of the worst type of idol worship. The god Moloch (or Molech) was worshipped there. A significant part of Moloch worship was child sacrifice. The metal statue had outstretched arms, and the arms were heated until they were white hot, after which children would either be placed on the arms in sacrificed, or passed in a figure-eight shape through the arms, so closely that they would burn to death.

The valley was therefore a place associated with wrath of God. It became a place associated with the concepts of total rejection and destruction. In New Testament times, it became Jerusalem’s rubbish heap. Fires were continually kept alight there as refuse was burned, and it was known to be crawling with maggots and worms. This is the picture that Jesus used to describe hell.

But why such a serious condemnation for rejecting one of Christ’s little ones? Because, says Carson, “the really grave aspect of the rejection is that it signifies rejection of Jesus.”

Do we see the seriousness of this issue? How we choose to receive those who manifest that they have received Jesus indicates whether or not we will be received by Jesus. You cannot escape the plain New Testament teaching that those who have been converted because of the grace of God reveal this by a meaningful relationship with everyone else who has been so converted. If you have a salvific vertical relationship then you will have a salvific horizontal relationship. A saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ is manifested by a humble relationship with others who have been saved.

Be Honest

These messages will do us no good if we do not submit to the searchlight of the Spirit of God as He shines His truth into our hearts and lives. Surely there is some area in which we would admit that we need help? Surely there is one area where we need to exercise more humility in our relationships? Surely there is at least one particular, practical area where we are in need of improvement? Surely we need to do some radical amputation of pride?

So, in closing, let me ask you to examine your life today in the light of God’s Word. Has His light so shone that you see the shadow of the cross in your life? Does the cross—the cross of the Christ—loom large?

Consider that the Lord Jesus Christ humbled Himself and took upon Himself the form of a servant. And by His servanthood you were well received by Him. Will you now do the same?