Passion Predictions and Fourth Discourse (Matthew 16:21-18:35)

Initial Predictions of Death and Resurrection and The Fourth Discourse (Matthew 16:21-18:35)

If as many think the initial words of 16:21 introduce the third and final segment of Matthew’s narrative, then the references to the journey to Jerusalem and consequent sufferings which also occur in that verse would seem to set forth the major themes Matthew will elaborate in the remaining chapters. Matthew incorporates four discussions about the passion that Jesus has with all or some of his disciples:

16:21-23; 17:9-13; 17:22-23; 20:17-19.

Beginning with 21:1 Jesus enters Jerusalem. Another significant discourse occurs in chapter 18. We will need to explore how its contents relate to this larger theme of the passion.

The materials in 16:21 – 17:27 include the following:

16:21-28 – First passion prediction and implications for discipleship

17:1-13 – Transfiguration and second passion prediction

17:14-20 – Disciples inability to exorcise a demon

17:22-23 – Third passion prediction

17:24-27 – Miraculous provision of the Temple Tax

Each passion discussion is linked with an interchange between Jesus and Peter, primarily because Peter has misunderstood the implications of Jesus’ teaching or actions. These dialogues stand in sharp contrast with the one that has occurred in 16:13-20 where Peter had confessed Jesus as Messiah, Jesus had affirmed this was a revelation from God, and had prophesied about the future role of Peter in the establishment of his messianic assembly. The inability of the disciples to deal with a demon in 17:14-20 draws the other disciples into this problem of “small faith” which Peter also struggles with (17:20).


16:21-28 First Passion Prediction and Implications for Discipleship

Matthew tells us that at this point “Jesus began to show (deiknuein (δεικνύειν)) his disciples that it was necessary for him to go away to Jerusalem and to suffer many things.” Matthew does not use the verb “teach” here, but “show” (cf. 4:8 Satan shows Jesus the kingdoms; 8:4 Jesus tells the healed leper to show himself to the priest). I wonder if he is emphasizing the idea of ‘reveal’, or perhaps Jesus communicates this information by example as well as by word. This is not philosophical or moral teaching, but rather is a revealing by the Son of God how his mission will now unfold. Similarly the term dei (δεῖ it is necessary) marks these events as a required part of God’s program. The Kingdom cannot come any other way. Jerusalem will be the context for his final acts.

Regularly in the literature scholars speak of three passion predictions. However, as I count them in Mark and Matthew, there are four. The passion prediction integrated with the Transfiguration account regularly is not regarded as a passion prediction. While it is not as fully formed as the other three, Jesus nevertheless speaks clearly about the suffering of the Son of Man (17:12) and resurrection (17:9), linking his suffering with that which John the Baptist experienced.

Despite the reference to Jerusalem in Matthew 16:21, the activities of Jesus in Matthew 16-18 remain firmly in the region of Galilee. Only in 19:1ff do we begin to see him move geographically towards Jerusalem. In 20:17-18 Jesus specifically says “We are going up to Jerusalem.” So again we need to be careful not to presume that this section is “on the way to Jerusalem.” Matthew does not indicate this. All that 16:21 indicates is that at some time it is necessary for Jesus to go away to Jerusalem, but not when. Of course, “to go up to Jerusalem” could mean to participate in the feasts or something quite general.

In the context of Jerusalem the Messiah will “suffer, be killed, and be raised” and the agents who will initiate these events are “the elders and high priests and scribes”, i.e., those who form the Sanhedrin and oversee Jewish religious affairs. Herod the Great had consulted with the high priests and scribes regarding the prophesied birthplace of the Messiah (2:4), and this resulted in his efforts to kill the baby Jesus. Now they finally will succeed because Jesus allows it.

Matthew has been foreshadowing these events by noting the conspiracy of the religious leaders (12:14) and Jesus’ own statements comparing him to the bridegroom (9:15) and his definition of discipleship as cross-bearing (10:38). However, note that Jesus does not reveal the nature of his death until the final prediction in 20:18-19. While the hostility of the religious leaders which has been escalating and the actions of Herod Antipas to execute John the Baptist might have led Jesus to conclude that his death was quite probable, the notion of resurrection and his expectation that this would occur, was not something he could assume, humanly speaking.

Peter’s response is both emphatic and surprising. He grabs hold of Jesus and rebukes him! Perhaps his words might best be rendered “May God have mercy on you for suggesting such a thing! This shall never happen to you!” It reveals how shocking and utterly contrary Jesus’ notions of Messiah were to the first century Jewish mindset. If Jesus’ most intimate disciples could scarcely grasp the reality of a suffering Messiah, no wonder the Jewish religious leaders rejected him. What created the greatest affront to Peter — the suffering of the Messiah or that the Jewish religious leaders would be responsible for their Messiah’s death?

Jesus uses equally strong language to reject Peter’s exclamations. They represent Satan’s words and ideas, a trap for the Messiah, and do not in any way reflect “the things of God.” They have their source purely in human speculation (v. 23). Instead of being the stone on which Jesus will build his messianic community, Peter is now functioning as the “stumbling-stone (skandalon (σκάνδαλον),” preventing the Messiah from accomplishing the very thing that was essential for the formation of the messianic community. Such perversity could only originate with Satan and Jesus turns his back on such suggestions.

Having ‘shown’ how the Messiah’s mission will be accomplished, Jesus then explains the implications for those who follow him (vv. 24-28). Jesus states the essential principle in v. 24 and then follows it by three explanations (vv. 25-27). He concludes with an ‘amen’ saying. In 10:38 Jesus stated negatively what he now expresses positively in v. 24. In 10:38 the setting was the costliness of discipleship in terms of family and other social relationships.  Here, however, he explains what “taking up a cross” means by adding the idea of “denying self.” He then proceeds to explain what self-denial requires. The formation aparneisthai (ἀπαρνεῖσθαι to deny) signifies “to renounce, refuse or deny knowledge of, commitment to or acquaintance with something or someone.” Given the other metaphor used here of taking up the cross bar, i.e., being willing to accept a criminal’s death by execution, the emphasis would seem to be on renouncing any commitment to self and giving full and total allegiance to Jesus, no matter what the cost. Again, we have to remember that in the flow of the narrative, the disciples do not yet know that Jesus will be crucified. They have no basis yet for connecting this metaphor with the suffering Jesus will soon experience. Their only reference point would be the Jewish-Roman context of political and criminal justice. Following Jesus requires a willingness to be condemned to death by Rome and executed on a cross. Of course, the disciples would probably know some stories of previous Jewish men who claimed to be Messiah and how the Roman officials dealt with them and their followers.

Given the absoluteness of his demand, Jesus provides some rationale for any human being to make this choice. First, he promises that “losing one’s life” in this way, i.e., giving up all claims to it, in fact will result in its preservation (v. 25). Second, he argues that the value of a person’s life far outweighs all the wealth and power that the world might offer. There is no currency worth exchanging one’s life for. Every option results in incredible loss, other than the option of following Jesus. The commercial terminology Jesus incorporates into v.26 is noteworthy. Finally, he warns them that each person will have to render an account of “his deeds/actions” (kata tēn praxin autou (κατὰ τὴν πρᾶξιν αὐτοῦ)) to the Son of Man when he returns in glory. The presumption is that if our actions are contrary to those commanded by the Son of Man, then our accounting will be inadequate.[1]

  1. 28 offers its own set of challenges. The first section seems clear. “Tasting death” would normally mean “have died” and “some of those standing here” would include some of Jesus’ disciples. So Jesus is forecasting that some disciples will still be alive when some event occurs. It is the second part that creates difficulty. Jesus says that some disciples will still be living and will see “the son of man coming (present participle) in his kingdom.” To what is Jesus referring? A similar statement had been made in 10:21-23 relative to the disciples’ mission to Israel. Blomberg opts for the explanation that Jesus is talking about his glory that is foreshadowed in the Transfiguration.[2] In other words Jesus in Matthew 16:27-28 refers first to his second coming (v.27) and then to his current “coming” that results in his transfiguration (and resurrection?) (v.28). The Transfiguration is the next event in Matthew’s narrative. Blomberg seeks confirmation for this proposal in passages such as 2 Peter 1:16-18. Others consider v.28 a reference to the power of God’s rule that is expressed in the resurrection of Jesus and the establishment of the messianic assembly at Pentecost, which I think is most likely. Still others assert that Jesus refers to his second coming, but got the timing wrong. This language comes from Daniel 7 with the figure described as “like son of man” is given power and eternal authority and the kingdom by the Ancient of Days. The call to discipleship followed by the prophecy about the return of “the son of man in the glory of his father” indicates that Jesus is preparing his followers for a time that will follow his passion, but will precede his second coming.

17:1-13  The Transformation of Jesus

A week after his first passion prediction Jesus experiences a remarkable transformation, witnessed by three of his disciples – Peter, James and John. Jesus is quite deliberate about choosing these three to participate with him in this event. This has to be one of the most significant and mysterious incidents in Jesus’ ministry. I wonder how it relates to his use of ‘parables’ as the way he communicates and reveals himself to the crowds and the disciples?

For whom did this event occur? Was this something God did in order to encourage Jesus in his mission, one of the special revelations that expressed the intimate relationship between Jesus and his Father in heaven? Or was this something that Jesus orchestrated in order to help key leaders among his followers know clearly that he was Messiah, the Son of God, despite his prophecies about suffering and death?

Matthew describes the actual event in vv. 2-3:

  • Jesus is transformed in front of them
  • His face shines like the sun
  • His clothing becomes white as light
  • Moses and Elijah appear and have a conversation with Jesus.

In the OT God is associated with light. When Moses interacts with God on Sinai his face shines to such an extent that fellow Israelites cannot look at him (Exodus 34:29, 30, 35; cf. 2 Corinthians 3). In 13:43 Matthew has included Jesus’ statement that after the judgment “the righteous shall shine like the sun,” sharing in and reflecting God’s glory. For Jesus this shining luminescence or radiance reveals his essential glory. These three disciples experience Jesus’ divine nature.

Seeing these amazing things, Peter tells Jesus that this experience is good. Whom does he include in the pronoun ‘us’? Are Moses and Elijah included? Is Jesus? Then he says, “If you are willing, I will make here three tents/tabernacles – one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” What is Peter desiring – to prolong this experience? Does he see it as the initial stage of Jesus’ eschatological plan for the Kingdom? Does he sense that Moses and Elijah have come to assist Israel and require some shelter during their ministry, perhaps fulfilling Malachi 4? Before Jesus can answer “a bright cloud envelopes them” and a voice from the cloud says “This is my son, the beloved, in him I am well-pleased – listen to him!” This repeats the statement made at Jesus’ baptism (3:17). Clouds in the OT often are associated with theophanies (cf. Exodus 19). The response of the three disciples is to “fall on their faces and become very afraid,” i.e., they knew God had appeared. Only when Jesus taps them on the shoulder do they emerge from their fear. When they open their eyes, only Jesus remains present. Only here and in 28:18 does Matthew have Jesus “draw near.” The command “to listen to him” implies that he speaks for the deity.

What does this event do in Jesus’ ministry?

  • Emphasizes that Jesus’ definition of Messiah, including suffering and death, is the way God has designed things. God endorses Jesus as suffering Messiah.
  • Indicates that all that Jesus says and does carries forward what God revealed through Moses and the Prophets in the OT.
  • Reveals something of Jesus that the disciples had only seen dimly – his divine essence.

As they descend from this mountain, Jesus commands these three to say nothing about this experience to anyone “until the son of man has been raised from the dead” (v. 9).  This is the second injunction to silence (cf. 16:20). Perhaps their possession of this knowledge and refusal to share it with the other nine disciples leads to some of the controversy about who is first that follows. Jesus calls this experience a ‘vision’ (horama (ὅραμα)). This term is used 21x in Daniel, often to describe his apocalyptic visions, as well as visions God gave to Abraham and the spectacle of the burning bush in Ex. 3. Nolland also suggests that there is some linkage between Daniel’s experience in Daniel 10:9-10 and that of the disciples here.[3] Does the Transfiguration “replace” visionary experiences that previous men of God saw (e.g., Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah), but now it occurs in real space and time? We should consider carefully the similarities between this event and the post-resurrection event narrated in 28:16-20. It suggests that the Transfiguration is in some sense a pre-resurrection revelation of the glorified Jesus.

The commands to silence are often linked to something called the Messianic Secret. In Mark’s Gospel particularly we find several occasions on which Jesus enjoins people who have experienced miracles not to reveal them to others, but they cannot help themselves. At times he also commands the disciples not to share things he has revealed. Some speculate that this is a Markan creation, designed to explain why Jesus was not acclaimed as Messiah prior to the resurrection. Others see this as a deliberate strategy by Jesus to prevent premature and ill-advised responses to him that would interfere with his ability to carry out his mission. I would connect this with the Matthew citation of Isaiah 42 in chapter 12.

The reason why the disciples ask about the prophecy regarding Elijah’s appearance is unclear. Some think that the Elijah’s appearance in the recent ‘vision’ leads them to consider Malachi 3:23 (ET.4:5) “God will send Elijah before the great and terrible day of Yahweh.” The Jewish religious leaders linked Elijah into God’s eschatological program. His appearance would signal its inauguration in some sense.[4] So when they see Elijah talking with Jesus, they suspect that the day of Yahweh is about to begin. Others connect their question to Jesus’ prophecy that “the son of Man will be raised from the dead.” They probably thought that the resurrection should follow the appearance of Elijah. So if the Son of Man, i.e., Jesus, is Messiah, then how and in what way does Elijah fit into this scheme, particularly in relation to resurrection? I am not sure we have to choose between these two. It may well be that the combination of both of them leads to the question raised by the disciples. However, their question highlights the differences that existed within the eschatological scenarios proposed by the Jewish leaders and that revealed by Jesus. Here is another distinction between Jesus and the Jewish leaders that probably caused considerable debate and misunderstanding.

Jesus affirms once more (cf. 11: 14) that John is the Elijah. “He has already come and they did not recognize him, but they did with him what they desired” (v. 12). This is exactly what is happening with Jesus. So Jesus’ eschatological program is not out of sequence with that of Malachi’s. Rather, it is the failure of the disciples to recognize what God is doing that produces their problem. John came, he fulfilled his role in announcing the kingdom and identifying Jesus, and then he was executed. Jesus now follows. “The son of man is going to suffer under them” (v. 12).  Jesus iterates his imminent suffering, death and resurrection in this interchange with his disciples. This I consider another passion prediction, bringing clarity to how his suffering and death relates to that of John and fits into the eschatological schedule partially revealed in the OT. Matthew specifies that “the disciples understood that he spoke to them concerning John the Baptist.”

17:14-20  Disciples’ Inability to Exorcise a Demon

Jesus encounters a dramatic failure of the remaining disciples when he returns to them. For some reason they cannot carry out the mandate Jesus had conferred in chapter 10. In some ways Jesus’ descent and encounter with failure reminds us of Moses’ experience with Israel’s defection around the Golden Calf as he descended from Sinai with the Law (Ex. 32). However, Matthew does not seem to take any specific narrative advantage of this potential parallel. Rather, he has a condensed version of the story that Mark recounts.

According to Matthew’s description the boy suffers from epileptic-like seizures (selēniazetai (σεληνιάζεται); cf. 4:24), which are triggered by demonic interference. These episodes endanger his life, exposing him to burning and drowning. The father had brought his son to the disciples for healing, but “they were unable to heal him.” No reason is given for their failure. However, Jesus diagnoses it as due to “faithlessness and perversity (diestrammenē διεστραμμένη)).” Jesus criticizes his followers for the same spiritual attitude that their Jewish contemporaries had been displaying to Jesus. Their failure to help the “ruined sheep of Israel” puts them in the same category as the contemporary religious leaders. Jesus’ language here reflects perhaps Deuteronomy 32:5 and Israel’s failure during the Exodus. Moses’ similarly complained to God about having to bear with the Israelites (Num. 11:12). Jesus’ rhetorical question implies an imminent absence, but we are given no details.

Jesus responds to the father’s plea and heals the boy. The disciples privately question “Why we were unable to cast it out?” (v.19) Their failure is a concern to them. Obviously it differs from their more recent experiences. Jesus analyses their problem as “little faith.” Their unbelief is similar to their contemporaries, but Jesus does acknowledge that they have responded to some degree. Yet, even in this response, more is required. He compares their “little faith” to something smaller than a grain of mustard seed. Perhaps, as Nolland suggests, the problem is that they have some faith, but are failing to exercise it as they should.[5] Jesus assures them that mustard-sized faith is sufficient to move a mountain. The contrast is striking. The principle is clear – with God nothing is impossible. Just as Jesus prophesied to Peter that what he bound on earth would be bound in heaven, so now he carries forward the same principle. God will accomplish his powerful work through the people who rely on him in true faith.[6]

17:22-23 – Third Passion Prediction

Matthew’s initial language suggests that the incidents related to the confession of Peter, the statements about discipleship, the transfiguration and the exorcism all happened in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi (16:13). Now “they gathered together in Galilee,” presumably relocating to the vicinity of Capernaum as v. 24 indicates.

In the first prediction, the passion experience is not linked with the Son of Man. However, in his comments about the passion after the Transfiguration and again in this prediction, Jesus identifies the Son of Man as the person who will experience these terrible things. Jesus affirms that this person “is going to be handed over into the hands of people” (v. 22). What the specific nuance of the Greek verb here is can be debated – betrayed is certainly one option (cf. Isa. 53:6, 12; Daniel 7:25 and its use of the Son of Man terminology. There the “saints of the Most High” are handed over to the fourth beast.). Here the Son of Man will experience humiliation through human agency. In 16:21 Jesus had specified the “elders, chief priests and scribes.” Here he is more generic in his description. They will kill him, but he shall be raised on the third day.

The reaction of grief expressed by the disciples indicates they have accepted this outcome, even though it saddens them and they do not understand how it integrates with their eschatology.

17:24-17  Payment of the Temple Tax

This story is unusual for several reasons. First, how does it fit into the narrative sequence and what does it contribute to the story at this point? Second, Matthew does not tell us whether Peter went and did what Jesus said. It is presumed. Third, this is another story where the focus is on Peter. Perhaps Peter responds too quickly to the question posed and Jesus, through his exchange, teaches Peter a more nuanced understanding of this issue.

The practice had emerged by the time of Jesus for every Jewish male throughout the Roman empire to pay an annual levy of two-drachmae, roughly equivalent to two days’ wages, to support the general sacrificial rituals conducted daily and on special occasions in the temple. Only those who regarded the current temple and its cult as polluted would not participate (i.e., those in the Qumran community). While Jesus argues that “the sons of the king/kingdom” should not have to pay such a tax and so he and his followers should be exempt, he realizes that to withhold payment would be interpreted as a rejection of the temple. He was not ready to make this declaration yet. So he empowers Peter to find the money to pay the tax, presumably for himself and for Peter (4 drachmae would need to be found).

I wonder what Jesus would have done if the question had been addressed directly to him, rather than to Peter? The form of the question expects a positive answer. Peter’s response indicates that he has every expectation that Jesus would comply with the normal responsibilities of a Jewish male. However, there is some evidence that rabbis and priests were exempt. So would Jesus claim exemption because of quasi-rabbinical status? Does Jesus’ concern about not causing offence prepare us as readers for the discussion about giving offence in the following discourse (Matt. 18)? Perhaps Jesus is emphasizing his basic commitment to the OT Law and his desire to honour God and the Jewish sacrificial system?

Matthew places particular emphasis on this concept of “causing offence” (skandal – root). It occurs sixteen times in his narrative.

  • Give or cause offence – 11:6; 13:57; 15:12
  • Jesus is the cause of offence –

This concept will be a focus in the discourse that follows.


The Discourse on Life in the Royal Family of God – Matthew 18

Since the feeding miracles narrated in Matthew 14ff, the portrayal of the disciples has shifted. Their lack of faith, their inability to understand, and their inability to cast out a demon have occurred. In contrast we have the climactic event of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the God who lives, and Peter’s subsequent rebuke. In the fourth discourse the question that initiates it concerns “greatness in the kingdom” and this question comes from the disciples. In the stories that follow, leading up to the entrance into Jerusalem in chapter 21, this issue dominates. The principle that “the last will be first and the first will be last” emerges as a primary perspective. The discourse in chapter 18 explores what this means for the disciples and how it will guide behaviour in the post-resurrection messianic community.

The brief interchange that Jesus has with Peter about the Temple Tax has surfaced two issues: first, that the followers of Jesus are “sons of the king” and have privileges; second, that these privileges do not enable them to act in such a way as to cause offence to others. Just so, greatness in the kingdom does not give Jesus’ followers license to offend the “little ones” who also are in the kingdom.

The focus in this discourse is on the concept of humility:

  • 18:1-9 Jesus seeks to inspire humility in his disciples
  • 18:10-14 The Father humbles himself to save his children
  • 18:15-20 Disciples must forgive one another – problem of repentance
  • 18:21-35 Parable of unlimited forgiveness

18:1-9 Inspiring Humility

Matthew does not tell us what generates the disciples’ question about “greatness in the kingdom.” Presumably the nexus of events that have occurred in Peter’s confession, Jesus’ passion predictions, and the transfiguration experience have stirred some expectation that incredible events are soon to occur. Peter’s question in 19:27 “We have left everything to follow you. What then will there be for us?”, as well as the request from James and John to sit in the most favoured and influential places in the kingdom (20:20ff), indicate how powerfully these issues were affecting the thoughts and discourse among Jesus’ followers. Although they may not understand exactly what God is about to do in Jesus, they sense that something climactic is imminent.

Jesus takes time to teach them that priorities in the Kingdom and the way that leaders relate to followers have significantly different patterns in contrast to those modeled in the political and religious institutions most familiar to the disciples. Their concepts of ‘greatness’ have to undergo substantial renovation before they conform to the concept of greatness operating in the Kingdom reality. In the next few chapters Jesus will use various means to define and enforce these Kingdom principles. His own prediction of passion and resurrection serves as a constant foil to these discussions.

For his first lesson, Jesus defines greatness in terms of a little child. Apart from what Jesus’ teaching here establishes about the value of children, he certainly challenges the disciples’ perceptions of their status. He links entrance into the kingdom with attitudes and behaviour expressed by those claiming to be subjects of the kingdom. Just as he challenged those who claimed to be forgiven by God to then be practicing forgiveness, so here he challenges those who claim to be great in the kingdom to be demonstrating the child-like dependence upon God that they embraced when they initially entered the kingdom. This requires a “turning” or “changing” that demonstrates true repentance. Disciples cannot interpret entrance into the kingdom as a pathway to status and power. Such current categories function as expressions of self-centred ability, ambition, and accidents of birth or fortune. Within the Kingdom, complete dependence upon God, i.e., meekness, forms the essential reality. Jesus had defined this in Matthew 6 – seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. In his discussion about discipleship in Matthew 16 he had defined this as “denying self, taking up a cross beam and following Jesus.” For human beings to embrace this aspect of Kingdom living, indeed to be willing to enter the Kingdom, requires humility. We need to see humility as submission to God and submission to one another – an application of the two great commands. And once a person is in the Kingdom, humility continues to be the operative principle.

We should also note that every disciple can be “the greatest in the kingdom.” There is no suggestion of a hierarchy in the kingdom. Every disciple has the potential to be the greatest.

A significant expression of a humble attitude and behaviour requires every child to be treated as if he or she was Jesus himself (v. 5; cf. 25:35-40). I think Jesus equates “little child” with the notion of disciple. Just as it would be blasphemous to try and subvert the righteous activity of the Messiah, seeking to cause him to sin, so God regards it as equally horrendous and sinful to cause “one of these little ones who believe” in Jesus to sin.[7] This description of a disciple is noteworthy. Again, consider how Jesus deliberately and intentionally places himself centrally in this matter of Kingdom involvement. What does it mean “to believe in Jesus”? Surely it has to do with accepting his claims to be Messiah and Son of God. To act in ways that destroy a person’s confidence in Jesus and lead them to sin brings the strongest condemnation from God. This is the opposite of discipleship that results in saving one’s life.

The woe Jesus announces is severe in vv. 7-9. Jesus acknowledges the sinful contamination that is the earthly reality. Sin is part of our being and doing. However, Jesus is offering us a way to break this cycle and refuse to participate in Satan’s destructive scheme. We can enter life because Jesus has bound the strong man and is plundering his house. We are not doomed to serve Satan. Jesus has used similar language in 5:29-30 in relation to sexual sin. Here, however, the application is far broader – any sinful activity that causes others to sin. Is there a kind of sin that only has personal ramifications or does all sin infect others? The motivation that Jesus uses here is the avoidance of “the eternal fire” that is Gehenna. This is just as much a reality as eternal life.


18:10-14 The Father humbles himself to save his children

Jesus brings forward a second principle – no disciple has the right to despise another disciple. In the kingdom every believer is important to God, even the one who goes astray. The reference to angels is intriguing and probably serves to emphasize the interest and awareness that God has in the lives of each of his people. Perhaps these heavenly spiritual watchers parallel the network of human ‘shepherds’ that God gives to his church to guide and protect his people.

The parable is parallel to that found in Luke 15:3-7, but is applied in a different situation. We have to be careful in the interpretation of this parable lest we assign to God inappropriate attitudes. He has joy over each of his people – there are no favourites with God. If he goes after the wandering sheep, he does not leave the others unprotected or without care. He is God. We should not conclude that sinning and restored believers somehow generate more joy with God and thus find rationale for our sinful behaviour in such a false perception (cf. Romans 6 – sinning that grace might abound). Jesus does emphasize the initiative that God takes to restore and the lengths he will go to enable that to happen. Yet, there is no guarantee. The condition used in v. 13 (third class) may leave open the possibility that God may not find it, i.e., succeed in the restoration. There is human will involved. Finally, Jesus here does not comment on apostasy. Rather, he presumably is recognizing that a human confession of faith may prove false. We might ask how God’s pursuit of the wandering sheep defines humility.

18:15-20 Disciples must forgive one another – problem of repentance

If God is willing to go to such lengths to secure the restoration of a “lost sheep,” then it is incumbent on his assistants also to exercise similar efforts to encourage repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. Jesus recognizes that sometimes a disciple acts in a sinful way that causes another disciple to be offended. He places the onus on the offended disciple to seek reconciliation.

The sequence of interactions is designed to deal with the problems of sinful behaviour at the lowest level and to keep the issue within the smallest circle. This enables the potential problems of shame and loss of dignity to be managed appropriately. Dealing with a brother in this way may seem awkward in our society, but was normal in Jewish culture and frequently is espoused in the NT. Jesus expects that normally such an action will result in resolution and reconciliation. Is it part of our humble attitude towards one another and our pursuit of greatness in the Kingdom? How does Jesus model this with his disciples?

If there is no repentance, then at some point the entire messianic assembly will need to address the sinful attitude and action of this disciple. If this disciple refuses to listen to the voice of the messianic assembly, then the Messiah gives authority to his assembly to expel the sinful person (cf. 13:40-43, 49-50). This person’s attitude reveals that he is not really part of the Kingdom, but is in fact “a pagan and tax collector,” spiritually speaking. This person now needs to be evangelized all over again (1 Cor. 5:1-5). He obviously has not entered the Kingdom in the first place (5:43-48).

Jesus affirms that the action of his assembly represents his own action. The Messiah’s assembly is capable of discerning and expressing action that Jesus endorses. In 16:19 Jesus had applied this level of discernment to Peter. Now he extends it to the whole assembly. The one whom the entire assembly agrees is not walking in obedience with God is in fact not walking in obedience with God. There is solidarity between Jesus and his people. Jesus assures his followers that through prayer they will be able to discern God’s direction and that Jesus works with them towards achieving such discernment. Actions of discipline, following Jesus’ guidelines, will have Jesus’ endorsement. Binding and loosing plainly in this setting refer to the assemblies’ action regarding the sinning disciple.  Perhaps this reflects the action advised by Jesus in Matthew 10 when a community or household refuses to accept the gospel or those representing the gospel. Of course, such guidelines can be abused and manipulated by those in power. Note as well that v. 19 relates to decisions taken by the assembly.


18:21-35 Parable of unlimited forgiveness

Again, Peter brings forward an issue that bothers him and seeks Jesus’ direction. If the offended believer is to take the initiative, this implies a constant willingness to forgive. Peter wonders whether there are any limits to the number of times a disciple should forgive another. His suggestion of ‘seven times’ seems generous to him and I am sure to us today. However, Jesus turns the issue in a unique direction. Our willingness to forgive expresses our submission to God and our own acceptance of forgiveness from God. If we are not willing to forgive constantly, then this has more to say about our own spiritual condition, than about the spiritual condition of the one offending us. Jesus says in essence that our willingness to forgive should be unlimited – seventy times seven. In this he may be reversing Lamech’s declaration about revenge in Genesis 4:24. Jesus urges in the strongest terms a reversal of this pattern of hatred and vengeance. Jesus then offers a parable to Peter to express the logic behind his assertion.

In the parable various elements should be noted:

  • The term “debtor” occurs only elsewhere in 6:12;
  • The term “slave” (doulos (δοῦλος)) and his relationship to the human king defines kingdom relations as well;
  • The amount of the debt is beyond imagining. Herod collected 900 talents in 4 BCE in taxes from his kingdom.
  • The ability to pay the debt, while protested by the slave, is ostensibly impossible (v. 26). The king recognizes this and thus forgives the debt;
  • There is no discussion about how such a huge debt was ever incurred;
  • The subsequent action of the slave towards his “fellow slave” (v. 28) is really the focus of the parable. Having received forgiveness and experienced compassion, the slave does not extend it to his peers, despite the relatively small amounts of their debts. He is offended at the debtor and does not offer forgiveness;
  • The action of the slave constitutes him a “wicked slave” (v. 32). The master does not question the legal right of the slave to act as he has done, but does assert that the slave had the moral obligation to demonstrate mercy, having received mercy himself;
  • Jesus’ application in v. 35 reflects the principles Jesus had previously taught in 6:14-15. He shifts to the plural ‘you’, responding to Peter’s question but applying the lesson to all of the disciples who presumably were listening in. A sincere and generous forgiveness is required for greatness in the Kingdom because this demonstrates humility.

The end of the discourse is signaled by the refrain found in 19:1 “and it happened when Jesus finished these words,…”

[1] Do these three rationales relate conversely with the three temptations that Jesus experienced in Matthew 4?

[2] Blomberg, 261.

[3] Nolland, 705.

[4] Sirach 48:10. Elijah comes “in order to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury.” Is John’s message bout God’s judgment related to this perception?

[5] Nolland,  716.

[6] Other references to ‘little faith’ in Matthew include Peter (14:31); worried disciples (6:30); cowardly disciples (8:26), and distracted disciples (16:8). This term describes failure on the part of disciples to believe that God will take care of them. In this context failure has occurred because they have not believed in God’s ability to care for this man’s son. Perhaps it contrasts with the great faith of the Centurion (8) and the Syro-Phoenecian woman (15).

[7] How does this relate to Paul’s teaching about weak and strong in Romans 14?