Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
THE FATHER DOES NOT WISH A SINGLE LITTLE ONE TO PERISH.
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ!
"It is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish." With those words, our Lord Jesus Christ exposes the heart of what mutual discipline amongst Christians is all about. The Father: no little child of His should perish . The Father: He loves His little children . And that's why the children are given the opportunity and the obligation to be their brother's keeper.
I need today, brothers and sisters, to begin a brief series of sermons about the word of our Lord on mutual discipline. I need to do so because evidence indicates that this matter of discipline is not our strong point. The marks of the true church include that "it practises the pure preaching of the gospel" and that "it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them"; it includes also that "it exercises Church discipline for correcting and punishing sins." If we may confess that the Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott is, by God's grace, His church, then all three marks must be present. That includes the third, that mark about Church discipline, actively being the brother's keeper.
But we know how it goes. Actually go to your brother to tell him his fault? Happily welcome into your house the brother who has come to tell you your fault? Truly, we find the command to speak to a brother or sister about a sin we've seen a difficult command to carry out. Who am I, we say, that I should speak about his faults?! I've got my hands full with myself . And when somebody comes to tell us about our faults, well, we think the other person ought to mind his own business, and he'd best pull the beam out of his own eye before he comments on the speck in my eye . When all is said and done, we don't feel so comfortable with the so-called "Rule of Mt 18".
Let it be fixed in our minds, congregation, that Church discipline does not begin or end with the work of the elders; Church discipline begins and ends with the members themselves. If the membership of the Church does not exercise discipline among each other, the elders are not able to exercise discipline effectively either. If the membership does not see to it that God's little ones in our midst do not perish, we cannot rightfully call ourselves a church of Jesus Christ.
We begin this brief series with listening today to Mt 18. We do so because this chapter is commonly understood to give us some basic principles of Church discipline. As we hope to see, Mt 18 lays responsibility for discipline not on officebearers, but on the individual members of the congregation. More, this chapter outlines the attitude that is to drive our mutual discipline.
The theme of the sermon may be summarised as follows:
THE FATHER DOES NOT WISH A SINGLE LITTLE ONE TO PERISH. In developing this point, I ask your attention for:
1. what a 'little one' is
2. how you help a little one
3. how you help one who hinders a little one
1. From the section of Mt 18 we read together, it is particularly the vss 15-17 that are familiar to us, that are known amongst us as referring to Church discipline. In fact, it's the vss 15-17 that we know as "the Rule of Mt 18". Yet I have chosen as text not these three verses (or even one of them), but instead vs 14.
I have various reasons for choosing vs 14 as text, and most of
these reasons I'll keep to myself. But one reason I want to share
with you. That is this: vss 15-17 do not stand by themselves,
are not a separate word from the Lord Jesus spoken without a context.
If we are to understand the thrust of vss 15-17, we need to understand
when Jesus spoke them, to whom He spoke them, why
He spoke them. By using vs 14 as the window to look into the
entire chapter, these couple of well-known verses on Church discipline
will also appear in a richer and more comforting light than we
normally perceive them. And that will be beneficial in our efforts
to come to grips with the Lord's will for us in our chapter.
Our text tells us of the "will of your Father who is in heaven." The Father's will, says Jesus, is that not a single "one of these little ones should perish."
Who are the "little ones" of whom Jesus speaks? Actually, the previous verses had mentioned these "little ones" various times (vs 6, 10; cf 2, 4 , 5). In fact, the notion of "these little ones" is the thread tying these verses together. Let my try to high light this thread for you.
I read in vs 2 that Jesus -He was standing there talking with His disciples- "called a little child to Him" and "set [the little child] in the midst" of the circle. He did so in reaction to a question from His disciples in vs 1. That question was this: "Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" That question in turn had been prompted by the event concerning the tax in 17:24-27, for there Peter had been favoured among the twelve. That is: of all possible disciples, the tax collectors approached Peter with their question, and Peter was allowed to catch the fish with the golden coin in its mouth, and the Lord let Peter take half that money to pay for himself while the other eleven had to pay the tax from their own pockets. That's favouritism, they thought, and so asked the question of 18:1: "Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Given the events of chap 17, Jesus must surely have designated Peter as the greatest in His kingdom . The disciples wanted confirmation, they wanted to know the pecking order in Jesus' kingdom. Hence their question: "Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
In reply to that question, Jesus placed a child on the centre of the stage. Then Jesus says: the question should not be who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, whether Peter or Andrew or John or Thaddeus. Says Jesus: there's a question that you disciples have to deal with before you come to the one about the pecking order, and that's the question of who gets into the kingdom in the first place. Says Jesus to His disciples: if you're thinking in terms of which of you will be the greatest in that kingdom, your mind is totally on the wrong track for then you won't even get in to begin with.
To illustrate, then, the requirements for entry into the kingdom,
Jesus summoned that little boy playing over there. And He said
to the disciples: if you want to get into the kingdom of heaven,
you need to become like this little child. That is: you need
to change your attitude, need to be transformed from your self-sufficient,
independent somebodies into dependent, obedient, humble
children. Not thoughts of a pecking order (with yourself
on top, of course) need to busy your minds, nor thoughts of what's
in it for you, or what do others think of you. But thoughts of
being little, humble as this child -I called, and he came, he
didn't ask questions- humble as this little child; that's what
you need to be like to get into the kingdom of heaven,
and that's what you need to be like to be greatest inside that
I don't, brothers and sisters, know any adult who likes to be a little child again. Sure, we all have our times in which we express envy for the care-freeness that belongs to little children. But actually be a little child again: No. For we adults rather like the notion of being able to look after ourselves. To have another tie our shoe laces, or do our personal hygiene for us - we find that offensive. We want to be people in our own right, acknowledged as persons who can think for ourselves, look after ourselves. "Humble as this little child"? Just do what we're told? Quietly accept care from another? No, we don't like that; that's to make ourselves vulnerable to all sorts of hurt. Persons in our families who have received a handicap later in life know just how difficult it can be just to have to accept help.
Jesus knows that. For that reason Jesus adds the words of vss 5-9. He knows very well that to be humble like a little child is to be vulnerable, is to be wide open to feeling belittled, wide open even to being hurt, abused. So Jesus speaks about the attitude one needs to take to such a "little child", the attitude one is to take towards the adult who has become as a little child, the self-sufficient, independent adult who has set aside his self-sufficiency and independence, and is willing to be helped, is willing to come when he's called, willing to do what he's told - like this little child. Says Jesus in vs 5: "Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me." That is to say: Jesus is busy in the life of this person, Jesus is busy bringing this adult into the kingdom of heaven, and so this adult has humbled himself, is willing to seek help and salvation from the Lord Jesus because he knows that he can't save himself. To receive such a person, then, and to help him in his wanting to be helped, is to receive Jesus Himself, is to receive the Jesus who is busy bringing this helpless adult to salvation.
I need to give this a bit more colour. What kind of persons are
we to think of? Who concretely are the 'little ones'? In vs
6 Jesus describes them as "who believe in Me". That
is: these are the ones who entrust themselves to Jesus, come to
Him for help. Like that little child: as he came when he was
called, and didn't stay at a distance, so those who believe in
Jesus come when they are called, and entrust themselves to Jesus
as their Help, their Guide, their Refuge - these are the "little
ones". Already the disciples had seen many such persons
in the course of their time with Jesus, many who had heeded the
preaching of Jesus and come to Jesus for healing of their sick,
raising of their dead, etc. They couldn't help themselves -in
the face of the sickness of their loved one, they knew
they couldn't help themselves- and so they came to Jesus with
outstretched hands, ready to receive help. These are the "little
children" in whom Jesus was working, bringing them into His
2. Now, how should the disciples respond when such an adult came to Jesus crying for help for his sick daughter? Second point: how do you help him?
We understand: when a "little one" comes to Jesus crying for help, you receive that person, you help him along, you bring him to Jesus, you encourage him to make that final request. 'Yes,' you say to Jairus, 'go to the Lord, tell Him of your sick daughter, ask Him please to come and heal!' Such a 'little one' who comes empty handed to Jesus to ask for help: the last thing he needs is to be pushed to the back of the row, the last thing he needs is to be told by the disciples that Jesus hasn't time for him, to be told that he's not good enough for Jesus, to be told that he isn't dressed nice enough for Jesus or hasn't learned to say the right words. When such a man who is humble in heart comes looking for help from the Saviour of the world, it's for the disciples to receive that man with open arms and not to lay a stumbling block on the path of that vulnerable man. God is busy in the life of that person, God has worked in him a longing to receive help, and so any who in some way gives cause to that vulnerable man to sin must face the wrath of holy God Himself; it would be better for such a disciple to have a millstone hung around his neck and be dropped into the depths of the deepest Trench in the Pacific Ocean - yet even there God's wrath shall find him.
Hence the radical language of vs 8: "If your hand or foot causes you to sin" -that is to say: if you somehow let yourself, through your hand or your foot, be a stumbling block to one of these vulnerable little ones who come to Jesus for help- "if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut off [that hand or foot] and cast it from you" - lest you end up eternally in hell because you were a hindrance in the life of one whom God was busy bringing into His kingdom; you hindered that person in coming to the Saviour. In vs 9 Jesus underlines His point of vs 8: "And if your eye causes you to sin" -again, by you somehow becoming a cause for stumbling on the part of one of these vulnerable, little ones who are seeking God- "if your eye causes you sin, pluck it out and cast if from you" - lest you end up eternally in hell because you hindered a vulnerable, little one whom God was busy bringing into His kingdom. The attitude each of the disciples standing around Jesus was to have to a "little one" who came to Jesus for help had to be one of eager receiving, a keenness to help that self-effacing, vulnerable, broken person enter the kingdom of heaven. So: any word, any action, any attitude that hindered another in coming to the Lord had to be cut out of the disciples' lives. In their eagerness to help the 'little one' in his coming to Jesus, any cause for offence had to be removed - brutally, if necessary.
Again, it's that attitude of wanting-to-help, that attitude of being eager-to-receive any little one who seeks Jesus for help that is pointed up in the vss 10-13. Says Jesus: "Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones." That is: not to be eager to help, somehow to ignore such a little one, is to "despise" that little one, is to slight that little one. That's a bad thing to do, since God is working with that little one, God has His angels always reporting how that little one is going. If that adult who seeks help like a child is so very much the focus of God's attention -God even sent His only Son to save such lost ones!- how fitting is it that such little ones be the focus of the disciples' attention! The shepherd who notices one of his hundred sheep missing leaves the 99 and goes to search for that one that is lost, the one that is wide open to animals of prey, vulnerable to wolves. He does anything to find that one back. God did even more; He sent His Son to save the lost. Now those whom the Son has redeemed by the blood of the cross are coming to Jesus, one here, another one there; they're coming to Jesus in response to His call, coming with empty hands, coming for help. Like that little child: they've nothing to offer, they're not 'men' in the worldly sense of the term, they're humble, vulnerable, they know themselves sinners, they're buried under the problems and burdens of sin, and they come, come for help. Shall a disciple, then, push these away?! Shall a disciple have an attitude of not-wanting-to-help? That's highly offensive to God; He does not want "one of these little ones to perish."
Again, I need to give this some colour. Who, concretely, might be a "little one" seeking the Lord's help? Look, beloved: that's any person who comes to the Lord with the attitude of the child, empty-handed, wanting help. It's the mothers who bring their children to Jesus for His touch, it's the synagogue ruler who wants Jesus to heal his daughter, it's the woman with the flow of blood who wants to touch Jesus' hem, it's Peter on the night of Jesus' betrayal who cries out his grief for having denied the Lord, it's the Ethiopian eunuch who seeks to understand the Old Testament, it's the teenager down the road today who cries out his despair in the face of the hopelessness of today's world and so comes to church for help, it's the mother around the corner whose heart is torn because of the drunkenness of her husband and so comes to her Christian neighbour looking for help, it's the man who was convicted of sin through a Billy Graham crusade or the labours of a televangelist, it's the brother in the congregation who confesses with tears the sin of which he's become guilty. God is at work in these persons, works in them the desire to seek help in His only Son, and so this God does not wish a single one of these little ones to perish. Hence that warning of vs 6: "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."
But we know what happens, brothers and sisters. Mothers bring
their little ones to Jesus for His touch, and
hinder the mothers
. A brother in the congregation falls
into sin, realises he is guilty of sin, confesses sin, seeks forgiveness,
snicker at the fact that he fell, and look on him
for years to come as a sinner
. A stranger comes to church
in search of help from the Lord Jesus Christ, and
church we watch with our friends as he works his way through the
. Someone comes to church with us for a period of
years, and then leaves again because
the members' lives
are a stumbling block to his growth in the Lord
'little ones' are hindered by the brotherhood in coming to the
3. This brings us, brothers and sisters, to our third point: how do you help one who hinders a 'little one'. This is the specific context and place of vss 15-17. These verses are not a new topic in Jesus' speech, but flow directly on from verse 14. Altogether, says Jesus to His disciples in vs 14, you are children of your Father who is in heaven, and therefore brothers and sisters of each other. And altogether you need to be 'little', humble, vulnerable, one of these 'little children'; that's you disciples in your sinfulness. Well now, if you as a 'little one' are hindered in coming to Jesus for help, hindered by one of your own brothers, "go and tell him his fault". Why go and tell him his fault? Because of the words of vs 6: God's wrath will rest on that offender so that he will be lost. But God doesn't want His own lost; He leaves the 99 in search of the one. So also you: "if your brother sins against you," if your brother does not help but rather hinders you in your coming to Jesus in your needs, "go and tell him his fault."
Now I know: if your brother has hurt you, ie, has hindered you in some way to come to the Lord to seek the help you need in your circumstances, the human thing to do is ignore your brother, or even take vengeance. But the Lord said to Israel long ago:
"You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD" (Lev 19:17f).
So: do not look down your nose at your brother because he failed you, nor hold a grudge against him because of the hurt he directed against you. Rather, "rebuke" him. That's love, for -vs 6- his sin towards you will cost him his salvation. His sin against you, his insensitivity to you in your hour of need, makes him one of the lost sheep. So go, seek him out, lest he perish, tell him what he did wrong, how he offended you in your growth in the Lord. Tell him, so that he may have opportunity to repent of his wrong. If he laughs at your admonition, if he doesn't want to be 'little', one of the 'little ones' of our chapter, don't pass him off as in: 'well, that's his business'. For he shall one day then face the awful wrath of God! So: take with you a couple of brothers, persons who, with you, know their dependence on the Lord, and seek again the brother who is straying, who has taken advantage of your vulnerability and refuses to repent. The purpose is to 'find' the lost sheep, and so it's for the witnesses also to address the straying brother on his sin.
Again, if the accumulated admonitions of two or three do not produce the desired repentance, "tell it," says Jesus, "to the church." That is: tell it to the gathering of the believers. Says Jesus to the disciples around Him (and presumably the little boy is still standing there!): if one of you refuses to be humble like a child, empty-handed before God, dependent, confessing sin and so being small because of sin, then tell all the rest of the believers -why?- that more pressure may be brought to bear on the straying brother and he come to repentance. Again, "if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector." And what's it like to be a heathen and a tax collector? If you were a Pharisee, it meant that you avoided them like the plague. And if you were a disciple, you preferred to avoid them, tended to avoid them; they were, after all, considered to be low society. But if you followed the example of Jesus, you reached out to them. That is: heathen and tax collectors, people like Zaccheus, were sinners, the 'lost' ones whom the Son of Man came to save (vs 11).
You see, brothers and sisters: there's the matter of the attitude
again for the sinner. As the Father does not want a single one
of the little ones to perish, so too the children of this Father
may not wish a single one to perish. Sin gets between the sinner
and God, so that the wrath of God must settle on the sinner; that
sinner is lost. So: seek out that sinner, be a little child in
attitude, not looking for own glory, own reputation, own honour,
but give freely of time and energy, give freely in total self-denial,
to seek out the brother who doesn't have the attitude of the little
child any more. Seek him out by yourself, seek him out with the
assistance of a couple of others, seek him out with the assistance
of the whole church, seek him that he may be found! Seek him
out, even if he turns his back on the church, seek him out like
Jesus sought out Zaccheus in the sycamore tree! Seek him out,
that he may not perish everlastingly! Remember: "it is not
the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones
should perish." Never, never can you say that his sin is
his problem! As the Son of Man did not leave our sins to be our
problem, but sought us out in total denial of the Self on the
cross of Calvary, so it is for us to take the plight of the straying
brother or sister to heart, never mind the cost to the self, in
an attempt to find him, to save him. And if we don't, if we can't
be bothered to do everything possible to save that erring brother,
then we become an offence to that erring brother or sister in
their -be it sin-filled- attempt to seek the Lord and His help.
And the Lord will require his blood from our hands!
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? The greatest, beloved, is the one who is the least. The greatest is that strong, fiercely independent, self-sufficient man who becomes like the little child, who confesses his own bankruptcy and seeks help from the Lord; in his life God is busy, for such a one He gave up His only Son. The greatest is that little child who sees that his brother -another for whom Christ died- is an offence, a stumbling block in coming to the Lord. So he goes to tell him his fault - never mind the cost to the self. The greatest is the one who has no regard for the self, his own reputation, his own likes and dislikes, who has regard only for the salvation of the other, and so does whatever he can to make sure that that other one does not perish. The greatest is he who adopts for himself the attitude of the Son of God Himself; He emptied Himself, gave up the riches of heaven, so that you and I might be saved. Amen