Matthew 18 Bible Commentary

John Lightfoot’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Matthew 18)
1. At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

[Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?] It cannot be passed over without observation, that the ambitious dispute of the disciples concerning primacy, for the most part followed the mention of the death of Christ and his resurrection. See this story in Mark 9:31-33, and Luke 9:44-46: "He said to his disciples, Lay up these discourses in your ears: for the time is coming that the Son of man is delivered into the hands of men. But they knew not that saying, &c.; and there arose a contest between them, who among them should be greatest." Also Matthew 20:18-20: "He said to them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests, &c. Then came to him the mother of Zebedee's children with her sons, saying, Grant that these my two sons may sit, one on thy right hand," &c. And Luke 22:22-24; "The Son of man indeed goeth as it is determined, &c.; and there arose a contention among them, who of them should seem to be the greater."

The dream of the earthly kingdom of the Messias did so possess their minds (for they had sucked in this doctrine with their first milk), that the mention of the most vile death of the Messias, repeated over and over again, did not at all drive it thence. The image of earthly pomp was fixed at the bottom of their hearts, and there it stuck; nor by any words of Christ could it as yet be rooted out, no, not when they saw the death of Christ, when together with that they saw his resurrection: for then they also asked, "Wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" Acts 1:6.

However, after Christ had oftentimes foretold his death and resurrection, it always follows in the evangelists that "they understood not what was spoken"; yet the opinion formed in their minds by their doctors, that the resurrection should go before the kingdom of the Messias, supplied them with such an interpretation of this matter, that they lost not an ace of the opinion of a future earthly kingdom.

See more at chapter 24:3.

6. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

[It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, &c.] It is good for him, in Talmudic language.

A millstone seems to be said in distinction from those very small mills wherewith they were wont to grind the spices that were either to be applied to the wound of circumcision, or to be added to the delights of the sabbath. Hence the Gloss of R. Solomon upon Jeremiah 25:10; "The sound of mills and the light of the candle": "The sound of mills (saith he), wherewith spices were ground and bruised for the healing of circumcision."

That Christ here speaks of a kind of death, perhaps nowhere, certainly never used among the Jews; he does it either to aggravate the thing, or in allusion to drowning in the Dead sea, in which one cannot be drowned without some weight hung to him: and in which to drown any thing, by a common manner of speech, implied to devote to rejection, hatred, and execration; which we have observed elsewhere.

10. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.

[Their angels in heaven do always behold, &c.] This one may very well expound by laying to it that which is said, Hebrews 1:14, "The angels are ministering spirits, sent to minister for them who shall be heirs of the salvation to come": as if he should say, "See that ye do not despise one of these little ones, who have been received with their believing parents into the gospel-church: for I say unto you, that after that manner as the angels minister to adult believers, they minister to them also."

12. How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?

[If one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety-and-nine, &c.] A very common form of speech:--"In distributing some grapes and dates to the poor, although ninety-nine say, 'Scatter them'; and only one, 'Divide them': they hearken to him, because he speaks according to the tradition." "If ninety-nine die by an evil eye," that is, by bewitchings; "and but one by the hand of Heaven," that is, by the stroke of God, &c. "If ninety-nine die by reason of cold, but one by the hand of God," &c.

15. Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

[Tell him his fault between thee and him alone.] The reason of the precept is founded in that charitable law, Leviticus 19:17; "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; but thou shalt surely reprove him, and shalt not suffer sin in him."

Here the Talmudists speak not amiss: "The Rabbins deliver, 'Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart.' Perhaps he does not beat him, he does not pull off his hair, he does not curse him: the text saith, 'in thy heart,' speaking of hatred in the heart. But whence is it proved that he that sees his brother doing some foul action is bound to reprove him? Because it is said, In reproving, thou shalt reprove. He reproves, but he heareth not: whence is it proved he is bound to a second reproof? The text saith, 'In reproving, thou shalt reprove.'" And a little after, "How long must we reprove? Rabh saith, 'Even to blows'"; that is, until he that is reproved strikes him that reproves him: "Samuel saith, 'Until he is angry.'" See also Maimonides.

16. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

[Take with thee one or two more, &c.] The Hebrew lawyers require the same thing of him that sins against his brother: "Samuel saith, 'Whosoever sins against his brother, he must say to him, I have sinned against thee. If he hear, it is well: if not, let him bring others, and let him appease him before them. If perhaps he die, let him appease him at his sepulchre, and say, I have sinned against thee.'"

But our Saviour here requires a higher charity; namely, from him who is the offended party. In like manner, "The great Sanhedrim admonished a city lapsed to idols, by two disciples of the wise men. If they repented, well: if not, all Israel waged war against it." In like manner also, "The jealous husband warned his wife before two witnesses, 'Do not talk with N.'"

17. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.

[Tell it unto the church.] That which was incumbent upon him against whom the sin was committed was this, that he should deliver his soul by reproving his brother, and by not suffering sin in him. This was the reason that he had need of witnesses, for what else could they testify? They could not testify that the brother had sinned against him that reproved him; for this, perhaps, they were altogether ignorant of: but they might testify this, that he against whom the sin was committed used due reproof, and omitted nothing which was commanded by the law in that case, whereby he might admonish his brother, and, if possible, bring him back into the right way. The witnesses also added their friendly admonition: whom if the offender hearkened not unto, "let it be told the church."

We do not here enter upon that long dispute concerning the sense of the word church in this place. However you take it, certainly the business here is not so much concerning the censure of the person sinning, as concerning the vindication of the person reproving; that it might be known to all that he discharged his duty, and freed his soul.

It was very customary among the Jews to note those that were obstinate in this or that crime after public admonition given them in the synagogue, and to set a mark of infamy upon them.

All these have need of public admonition in the consistory. The business there is about some shepherds, collectors, and publicans; and it is declared how incapable they are of giving evidence in any judiciary matter; but not before public admonition is gone out against them in the consistory.

"If any deny to feed his children, they reprove him, they shame him, they urge him: if he still refuse, they make proclamation against him in the synagogue, saying, 'N. is a cruel man, and will not nourish his children: more cruel than the unclean birds themselves, for they feed their young ones,'" &c.

"A provoking wife who saith, 'I will create vexation to my husband, because he hath done thus or thus to me, or because he hath miscalled me, or because he hath chid me,' &c. The consistory by messengers send these words to her, 'Be it known unto you, if you persist in your perverseness, although your dowry be a hundred pounds, you have lost it all.' And moreover they set forth a public proclamation against her in the synagogues, and in the divinity schools every day for four sabbaths."

[Let him be to thee as a heathen and a publican.] He saith, Let him be to 'thee'; not, Let him be to 'the church': because the discourse is of peculiar and private scandal against a single man; who, after three admonitions given, and they to no purpose, is freed from the law of brotherly obligation; and he who being admonished does not repent, is not to be esteemed so much for a brother to him, as for a heathen, &c.

I. Christ does not here prescribe concerning every offender, according to the full latitude of that law, Leviticus 19:17; but of him that particularly offends against his brother; and he does particularly teach what is to be done to that brother.

II. Although he, against whom the offence is committed, had a just cause, why he should be loosed from the obligation of the office of a brother towards him, who neither would make satisfaction for the wrong done, nor be admonished of it; yet to others in the church there is not the same reason.

III. The words plainly mean this; "If, after a threefold and just reproof, he that sinned against thee still remains untractable, and neither will give thee satisfaction for the injury, nor, being admonished, doth repent, thou hast delivered thine own soul, and art free from brotherly offices towards him"; just as the Jews reckon themselves freed from friendly offices towards heathens and publicans. That of Maimonides is not much different: "A Jew that apostatizes, or breaks the sabbath presumptuously, is altogether like a heathen."

1. They reckoned not heathens for brethren or neighbours: "If any one's ox shall gore his neighbour's ox: his neighbour's, not a heathen's: when he saith neighbour's, he excludes heathens." A quotation which we produced before.

2. They reputed publicans to be by no means within religious society: A religious man, who becomes a publican, is to be driven out of the society of religion.

3. Hence they ate neither with heathens nor with publicans: concerning which thing they often quarrel [with] our Saviour. Hence that of the apostle, 1 Corinthians 5:11; "With such an one no not to eat," is the same with what is spoke here, "Let him be to thee as a heathen," &c.

"It is forbidden a Jew to be alone with a heathen, to travel with a heathen," &c.

4. They denied also brotherly offices to heathens and publicans: "It is forbidden to bring home any thing of a heathen's that is lost." "It is lawful for publicans to swear that is an oblation which is not; that you are of the king's retinue when you are not," &c. that is, publicans may deceive, and that by oath.

18. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

[Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, &c.] These words depend upon the former. He had been speaking concerning being loosed from the office of a brother in a particular case: now he speaks of the authority and power of the apostles of loosing and binding "any thing" whatsoever seemed them good, being guided in all things by the Holy Ghost. We have explained the sense of this phrase at chapter 16; and he gives the same authority in respect of this, to all the apostles here, as he did to Peter there; who were all to be partakers of the same Spirit and of the same gifts.

This power was built upon that noble and most self-sufficient foundation, John 16:13, "The Spirit of truth shall lead you into all truth." There lies an emphasis in those words, "into all truth." I deny that any one, any where, at any time, was led, or to be led, into all truth, from the ascension of Christ, unto the world's end, beside the apostles. Every holy man, certainly, is led into all truth necessary to him for salvation: but the apostles were led into all truth necessary both for themselves and the whole church; because they were to deliver a rule of faith and manners to the whole church throughout all ages. Hence, whatsoever they should confirm in the law was to be confirmed; whatsoever they should abolish was to be abolished: since they were endowed, as to all things, with a spirit of infallibility, guiding them by the hand into all truth.

19. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.

[That if two of you shall agree upon earth, &c.] And these words do closely agree with those that went before: there the speech was concerning the apostles' determination in all things respecting men; here, concerning their grace and power of obtaining things from God.

I. [Two of you.] Hence Peter and John act jointly together among the Jews, Acts 2, 3, &c., and they act jointly among the Samaritans, Acts 8:14; and Paul and Barnabas among the Gentiles, Acts 13:2. This bond being broke by Barnabas, the Spirit is doubled as it were upon Paul.

II. [Agree together.] That is, to obtain something from God; which appears also from the following words, touching any thing that they shall ask: suppose, concerning conferring the Spirit by the imposition of hands, of doing this or that miracle, &c.

20. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

[For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.] The like do the Rabbins speak of two or three sitting in judgment, that the divine presence is in the midst of them.

21. Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

[Shall I forgive him? till seven times?] This question of Peter respects the words of our Saviour, verse 15. "How far shall I forgive my brother before I proceed to the extremity? What! seven times?" He thought that he had measured out, by these words, a large charity, being, in a manner, double to that which was prescribed by the schools: "He that is wronged (say they) is forbidden to be difficult to pardon; for that is not the manner of the seed of Israel. But when the offender implores him once and again, and it appears he repents of his deed, let him pardon him: and whosoever is most ready to pardon is most praiseworthy." It is well; but there lies a snake under it; "For (say they) they pardon a man once, that sins against another; secondly, they pardon him; thirdly, they pardon him; fourthly, they do not pardon him," &c.