As Jesus is the cornerstone upon which the Church is built, so are his teachings the unifying cornerstone of Christian doctrine.

Jesus in Our Midst

One of the toughest decisions that a church will ever make is to disfellowship or excommunicate someone for a grievous sin. Some are so averse to this procedure that they avoid it altogether, prefering that no accusation of the brethren ever take place. Yet, this is not what Jesus instructed in Matthew 18. In fact he taught us to make the accusation but use appropriate caution, by making sure that before it was brought to the church, there were at least two or three witnesses. The demand for two or three witnesses when an accusation is to be made, was also a safety feature under the Old Testament law.

In verses 18-20 Jesus concluded the topic by stating that where those two or three witnesses would be gathered together, he will be in their midst. In another place, Jesus said that he would never leave us nor forsake us. It is especially comforting for Jesus to emphasize that he will not leave us without his help in times when very grave decisions like this have to be made. A similar statement was made to Peter in chapter 16. In this case, the church has the authority from heaven to either forbid or permit someone to attend church based upon such a gross sin.

What wonderful encouragement in times of such awful decisions! Jesus himself will be there among us to help us make the right decision. He is also concerned for the unrepentant sinner, and will be there in our midst throughout the entire disciplinary process. This does not mean that the decision will therefore be infallible, but that, given the safety measures employed, the best and fairest decision possible will be made.

A Neglected Ministry

A church that I know has what they call a reconciliation ministry. It is certainly a good cause to reconcile the races, but there is an even more important reconciliation ministry that does not seem to be on the agenda of most churches that I know. That is the ministry of leaving the 99 and chasing the lost one.

In our previous conversations, we discussed how Jesus describes the little ones, those who take the lowest positions in our churches, and who in reality are the greatest in the kingdom. In Matthew 18:11-14 there is one small addition to this topic, that of the precious "little one" who goes astray.

On a personal note, when I left a particular church after decades of service, nobody came calling to see if I was okay. I was not, and the pain of that neglect, of that seemingly "we don't really care" attitude lasted for years. So where are those among us who leave the 99 who are in safety to chase after the one who is in trouble? As the Good Shepherd, Jesus chased me, but nobody else did. I hope that there are some among us who actually follow Christ's example in this regard.

Certainly this would be a difficult ministry. It might mean dealing with depression or anger or messy sins in the lost ones. It also might mean that a church would have to face its own sins and apologize or seek forgiveness about certain issues. It would take courage and a willingness to repent. I knew of one such ministry in a Baptist church where former pastors who had been mistreated by their congregations were brought to healing and restoration. Sadly, I know of no other such formal efforts. Yet, it seems that a ministry to lost "little ones" ought to be a high priority.

A Great Compliment

We Christians have our own way of speaking. I noticed that recently on a trip to the Bible belt. It seemed that Christians were everywhere, if their language was any guide. One phrase that is a part of the in-speak of Christianity is "little ones." If I called people little ones outside of the church, somebody might punch my lights out, thinking that I was insulting them. However, in the church, it is a great compliment.

Let me conclude this discussion of Jesus describing who is the greatest. He warned us not to offend or look down on the little ones, the truly great. What a contrast! Even those who Jesus considered to be the greatest can be caused to sin or fall away from the church. Our thoughts are not God's thoughts. These people that we don't naturally recognize socially, are actually the greatest and their guardian angels are always conducting business before God in heaven.

To be called "little ones" is among the greatest of compliments. Now that is deep.

Take the Lowly Position

When Jesus took a child into his midst in Matthew 18, we often pass quickly over the words that he spoke, to humble ourselves as this little child. In our language, perhaps we miss the point that this means to take the lowly social position of a little child. I don't know about you, but I like having a good seat, or being recognized as a valuable adult, or being a part of the "in crowd." I don't like taking the place of no importance, or being treated like I'm a nobody, or being that person in the background who appears to be of no consequence. But, that's exactly who Jesus says is the greatest in the kingdom. Our "grown up" sense of self-importance puts us "out of sympathy with God's value scale." (The Gospel of Matthew New International Commentary on the New Testament, NICNT, by: R.T. France, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. / 2007)

I don't know about you, but that really speaks to me.

Causing Others to Fall Away

A familiar passage in Matthew 18:5-10 warns us not to cause little ones, humble believers in Christ to stumble. That is not refering to leading someone astray into dancing or card-playing as is sometimes preached, but genuine sin, sin that would lead someone out of the kingdom of heaven. It refers to causing someone to fall away from faith and the gospel. None of us wants to be responsible for such a grievous harm. How can we avoid it?

1) Be Hospitable: Jesus, gave his first clue by saying that we ought to receive the little ones, the humble people who have faith in him. I for one, am quite guilty of not doing this very thing, because I find so many such people to be totally off-putting. How about you? Do we receive someone who has a slant on Christianity that we find to be totally obnoxious or even wrong in our eyes? Do we look at their faith in Christ and receive them for that alone? Jesus gave no slant except that they are humble and believe in him.

Jesus said that if we welcome those who put their faith in him, we welcome him. Wow! What about that Catholic down the street, who prays the rosary daily? What about that over the top Pentecostal who is always naming it and claiming it? What about that Puritan who is so tight that he could turn coal into diamonds? What about that loosey goosey liberal pinko who seems to believe that just about anything goes? Many of us know people of all these descriptions who also love Jesus. Do we accept them?

2) Not Tempting: A second clue that Jesus gives is not tempting these little ones, these humble Christians to sin. Yet, none of us would surely do that would we? There are thousands of ways that any of us could cause a humble, faithful person to fall away from Christ, starting with the very smallest of offenses.

3) Don't Look Down on Them: Wow! Does that convict you like it does me? Do I look down on a number of people who believe in Jesus? Yes. Do you? I'm sure I'm not alone. Jesus is not saying that we should accept heresy, or that anything goes. What he is saying is that we ought to accept the person, even as we may reject their doctrine. Why should we not look down on even heretics or othewise wacky people who believe in Jesus? Because Jesus said that such humble believers have guardian angels and their angels are always in the presence of our heavenly Father. Wow!

Why Humility

Positive thinking coaches rarely extol humility as a key to success. They will tell you to pump yourself up and the "universe" will reward you. Nobody wants a sports star with an attitude of humility. You have to act as if you know you will win.

Imagine a politician who was humble, stating that he did not know much about economics, trade, international affairs or energy -- that nobody ever has been nor could any human being ever be really qualified to lead, but that he would seek the best advice from real experts in each field where a decision was to be made.

Imagine on "The Apprentice" telling your potential boss the absolute truth about your abilities, no exaggeration. I don't think that Donald Trump or his equivalent on the British version, Sir Alan Sugar would be impressed.

So, why is humility so important? In Matthew 18:4 Jesus said that whoever is humble like a little child is greatest in God's enterprise, the kingdom of heaven. Why is God so impressed with humility and why are business, entertainment, sports and political leaders so unimpressed with it?

Just as Jesus' disciples were so fundamentally wrong about true greatness, so is our world and so are we. A simple comparison will perhaps provide some answers. This world with its power, position and pride has hurt and destroyed. We do not need more people who walk all over others for gain. What this world needs is more people who will think in a radically different manner.

Humility is merely brutal self-honesty, a square facing of the truth that we really don't have a clue, don't have a hope, and that all our human efforts, political, religious, judicial, educational or business, only lead to failure. It is a simple facing of the reality that only God's way works and no other.

The Greatest

When it comes to our Christian experience, who would you say is the greatest? Many would pick a Billy Graham type. My heroes have always been missionaries who give up a comfortable western lifestyle to serve in some third world rubbish dump. Still others may choose a Mother Theresa type person. Many would choose their pastor or a great preacher they know. Those who are more astute may pick a quiet widow who is known as a prayer warrior.

Jesus picked none of these people, when asked who was the greatest. He picked a child. In Matthew 18:1-4 Jesus said that we must repent of our sins and become like a little child if we are to even enter the kingdom of heaven, and that whoever was humble like a little child was indeed the greatest. Wow! So, "greatness in the kingdom is a matter of humility, not power or position." (Hagner, D. A. (2002). Vol. 33B: Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary (518). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.)

Religious Tax

When we lived in Europe, paying a 6% tax was normal for those who belonged to a state church. In one country where we lived, there are about half a dozen official state churches, including Catholic and Lutheran. We belonged to a non-state church and asked for and got exemption from paying this church tax.

In a similar manner, ancient Jews were to pay a temple tax. This was a significant exception to Roman law at the time, because most often subject nations were not allowed to tax their own people, but had to pay tax to Rome. Even among the Jews, not everyone believed that the Torah supported this particular church tax.

Perhaps as a teaching device, Jesus asked Peter in Matthew 17:24-27 what his thoughts were on paying this tax. Peter replied saying that people only tax those whom they have conquered, not their own people. The difference to our modern tax laws is remarkable. Jesus' reply indicated that as citizens of another kingdom, his followers were free from paying temple tax to a passé religion, yet Jesus was willing to pay it in order to avoid unnecessary offense.

This theme of freedom with voluntary sacrifice is common to Jesus' teachings. He voluntarily gave up a freedom so that others may benefit. Yet, Jesus' sacrifice would make that very temple totally unnecessary. This reminds me of the dozens of faithful preachers whom I know, who are well aware of the total emptiness of their own denomination's rituals, practices and traditions. Yet, these men are better than me by far. They overlook the unnecessary and use it as a platform from which they may preach the necessary, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Me, I tend to offend. These examplary people seek not to offend, that the gospel may have free course. What wonderful Christ-like people!

Betrayed into the Hands of Men

Jesus predicted his death several times during his ministry. In Matthew 17:22-23 he particularly emphasized his betrayal. His own submission to the humanity he loves is highlighted by the contasting words of the Son of Man (anthropou, ανθρωπου) being delivered into the hands of men (anthropon, ανθρωπων). His prediction ended with his resurrection but, his disciples were greatly dismayed.

Betrayal and dismay -- two very normal human experiences. Have you been betrayed -- even in the church? It's to be expected. It's even normal. It will never change. Sorry, about that! There is one thing that we can change. That is, not to be dismayed when betrayed. Like Jesus, our real hope is not this life, this church, that politics, this career, that investment, this country, or even that relationship. Ours is a living hope in this resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.


PS. On a personal note, I have been betrayed many times, often, sadly in the church. Although I have the blessing of a faithful spouse and a loving family (Wow! What a blessing that is!), I have been betrayed many times in other areas. I have been stabbed in the back by people in business and understand what a viscious world business can be. In the church, I've had many people try to steal influence over congregations from me so they could get things done their way. I'm so jaded by church politics, that I trust only one man in that regard, a dear friend who once told me that if I ever moved to town, he would step down in a minute and offer me his pastorate. I really believe he would. He pastors a small church in upstate New York.

I have been betrayed by ministry supervisors who when I was suffering through one of the worst trials of my life, couldn't even be bothered showing pastoral care. Finally I have been betrayed by denominational leaders, who did not have the guts to back me up when they found out how I had been wronged. So, if anyone wonders if this little puppy doesn't know betrayal, well, I do. My logical decision has been to forgive them all. My emotional struggle has been to do so even with a heart deeply in pain. My spiritual hope is only in one thing. There is nothing else -- no nation, no politics, no investment, no church, no relationship (even the beautiful family ones) -- nothing that compares to that eternal hope!

Where in the Bible...

Where in the Bible does it say that Peter was the first pope, that we must pray to Mary and that priests must be celibate? It doesn't! Where in the Bible does it say that we must never have a glass of beer or wine, never play cards or dance, and that we must wear strange clothes? It doesn't!

If we are interested in the traditions and rules of men, then let's follow men, but let's not call it Christianity. If we are interested in real Christianity, then let's read our Bibles. Is it any wonder that owning a Bible in our own language was once banned? I suspect that the real reason was that, in the Bible we would discover a completely different Christianity than that promulgated by men and their traditions. In the Bible we discover the Christianity of Christ.

The Jesus Paradox

Many people see their political salvation in having a Christian elected to national office. Many of the flags of Europe are decorated with the cross of Christ and testify to past Christian leadership. History shows that it did not work out so well for them and therein is a paradox. We Christians often get our focus on political leadership more than the cross of Christ. We want an "Elijah" who will restore family values.

After having revealed his glory to three of his disciples, in Matthew 17:9-13 Jesus told them to keep it a secret, to divulge it to no one. Why? The paradox of Jesus is that he was both the glorious Son of God and at the same time the suffering Son of Man.

It was the disciples' natural wish to see Jesus as a Jewish Messiah who would rescue them from Roman occupation. So too is it a natural desire of ours to see Christians in power as our political salvation. Most of us would probably vote for a Christian over a non-Christian any day, but that's not the point.

The Elijah that Jesus pointed to was not a political leader, but John the Baptist, a preacher who was put put to death because his political commentary was "inconvenient." Jesus focused the disciples' attention, not on his future glory, but back to his soon coming suffering and death. Our eternal hope rests in the resurrected Christ and his power and glory. Our present reality is in overcoming through the suffering and trials of this life. That is the paradox of life in Jesus.