Matthew 18 must be read and understood in context together. The question of greatness at the beginning leads to the warning not to cause stumbling, which itself leads to the lost sheep, the stages of reconciliation, and the forgiveness parable. When we remember that the whole chapter is connected, our interpretation of the parts becomes easier.
The point Christ makes in verses 3 and 4 is foundational. Entrance into the kingdom and greatness in the kingdom have the same qualification. Therefore, we must recognize that there is no hierarchy. There is no status ladder. There is no jockeying and conniving and manipulation that can result in one person having any more greatness, status, worth, or authority over any other person.
Because of the equal but great worth of each child of God, we must receive or treat our siblings in Christ as we do Christ himself—in humility and with deference and honor. Failure to do so, Christ tells us, is a horrific act that would rouse the full wrath of God. Verse 5 describes the arrogant act of a kingdom child toward another as equivalent to causing “to sin.” The Greek here translated is skandalizo, which has a connotation of stumbling or offending. The offense can be understood as the very real hurt and harm when one who acts in humility is stepped on or in some other way treated as low or insignificant by one who considers himself/herself superior.
Verses 7 through 9 go on to ensure we understand that even though this type of activity by the arrogant is commonplace in the world, it is not of little importance. By the ties to millstones about the neck and cutting off of hands and feet, we may see how seriously and negatively God looks upon this attitude and action.
Since we are talking about members of the kingdom, this we know: Christ is not threatening those who commit this sin with everlasting or even temporal punishment. Our activity in the kingdom is not motivated by or enforced through a legalistic system of “do this or else.” By illustrating with such dramatic pictures as millstones about the neck, Christ intends to show the disgust of God with such a sin. We of the kingdom, who are motivated by love for God and a desire for an ever-growing intimacy in our relationship with him, will avoid the sin when recognizing the displeasure of our God.
Verses 10 and 11 sum up the discussion so far. Do not treat any of God’s children as an inferior. That their angels (our angels) see the face of God is not a teaching that we each have a guardian angel. It is, again, to demonstrate the status of all who are God’s children. As Calvin put it, “it is no light matter to despise those who have angels for their companions and friends.” Note that angels do not carry out the will of God with regard to us here on earth in merely mechanical obedience. Luke 15:10 tells us that “there is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents.” Likewise passages such as Daniel 10:11-12, Luke 2:13, 1 Peter 1:12, and Revelation 5:11-12 indicate that angels take an interest in their work. Their care over the activity of the church is means much to them; thus Jesus argues that we have no right to disregard those who have the regard of the hosts of heaven.
Jesus changes focus with the beginning of verse 13. Previously, he had argued that we should understand the equality among all kingdom children. We should not think of ourselves as better so as to act in arrogance toward each other. Yet it does happen. How then do we respond to those who do sin in such a manner? Jesus begins his answer with an illustration. The fact that one sins does not mean that God ceases to love that one. That arrogant one is still also a child of God, but he/she must be rescued from the anti-kingdom mindset being displayed. Jesus likens the situation to a shepherd and his sheep. When one strays, the shepherd goes in search and rejoices when the sheep is found and brought back to the fold (to right relationship with the other sheep and the shepherd).
This is the lead-in to verses 15 through 20. If your fellow Christian sins against you, how are you to respond? The answer is in love to rescue that sinning sibling. The arrogant one is your sibling—your equal in the kingdom. You have no more right to disregard that person than he/she had right to sin against you in the first place. We as God’s children together must have love and relationship our constant focus in all our living.
If a person sins against us, we may be hurt. But the offense, we have been taught, will always be addressed by God. We need not try to find means to lift ourselves up to salve our injured pride. We need not crush the offender by word or action. We need not even march under a banner of justice to seek apology. We have been taught to live humbly and act as light and salt, not to react in meeting pride with pride.
But there is more at stake than simply a wound of pride. Our fellow Christian whom we are to love has sinned and torn at relationship among the body of Christ. That we must address. And so Christ tells us in verse 18 to go to that person alone, without fuss and drama, but with love and good will to see to reconciling for the glory of God. Perhaps we misunderstood. Perhaps the offender merely needs eyes opened.
If, however, the arrogant one continues in arrogance and disregard, we are to then bring along a couple of other to witness the discussion and either agree with us offering their own words of admonition for the erring one or perhaps even let us know that we misperceived.
If the proud continues in pride, then the wider circle of Christian fellowship is engaged. In our time, the local church fits this category. However, this is not necessarily an outline for church discipline as much as it is merely the attitude and action we should individually take when the inevitable strife of life irritates our relationships. Jesus advocates moving from just those involved to slightly more before involving our entire fellowship so that irritations may be caught and repaired without constant upheaval involving everyone.
If the arrogant one continues in arrogance to the entire Christian community, that person seems to have no interest in reconciliation and relationship—the identifying mark of the kingdom. That person is then to be regarded as someone outside the kingdom fellowship.
With repetition of the phrases concerning binding and loosing that we found first in Matthew 16, Jesus lets us know that as we act in the interest of love and relationship, this break that is demanded by the unrelenting existence of arrogance is a break that has been confirmed in heaven. And even if the fellowship of believers is not large, the decisions of even two or three when acting in kingdom focus is enough—because even there Christ is among them.