What does Matthew chapter 18 mean?Matthew 18 begins with a question from the disciples to Jesus: Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus' surprising response becomes the foundation for the rest of the chapter.
Jesus calls a child to Him and puts that child in the middle of the group of disciples as they are talking. He tells them that unless they turn and become like children, they won't even enter the kingdom of heaven. The greatest in the kingdom will be the one who humbles himself like this child. His point is not that Christians ought to be gullible, or naïve. Rather, they need to look to God with trusting faith, and acceptance of their own limitations. Those who support and guide other spiritual "children" are serving God. Those who lead believers astray can expect harsh judgment (Matthew 18:1–6).
Temptations are necessary, not because they are sent by God (James 1:13), but because they're unavoidable parts of living in a fallen world. Using deliberate exaggeration, Jesus urges His disciples to go to extremes to avoid sin (Matthew 18:7–9).
At the same time, He warns against being overly judgmental towards those who fall into sin. Jesus reminds us that God values everyone highly. Like a shepherd when a single sheep wanders off, God will leave the rest to bring that sheep back. His will is that none of His own should die. If God values all of His children, and celebrates when one is restored, Christians ought to have the same attitude (Matthew 18:10–14).
That raises the question of what fellow believers should do when someone is caught up in sin. Jesus gives His disciples a process for confronting a sinful person. First, the one who is wronged should go to him privately to try to resolve the issue. If that is not received, the same person should go back with one or two witnesses to establish that the person is truly guilty of the sin. If he still refuses to repent, they should take the case to the church or assembly. Refusal to repent at that point should lead to that person being removed from the community and treated as an outsider. Speaking in that same context, Jesus expands His earlier words to Peter (Matthew 16:19) to all of His disciples: Anything they bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven. If two of them agree about anything on earth, it will be done for them by God the Father. Anywhere two or three of them are gathered in Jesus' name, He is present (Matthew 18:15–20).
Peter then continues this line of conversation by asking about forgiveness. He questions how many times he should forgive someone who repeatedly sins against him. He suggests seven times, which is more than double what the Judaism of his era would have suggested. Instead, Jesus implies that we ought to be ready to offer unlimited forgiveness (Matthew 18:21–22).
To illustrate this idea, Jesus tells a parable. A king is owed money by one of his servants. Each talent was roughly as much as a common worker could earn in twenty years. So, the amount of 10,000 talents is more than anyone could hope to pay back in thousands of lifetimes. When the king orders the man and his family to be sold into slavery for the debt, the servant begs the king for patience and promises to pay in time. The king takes pity on the man and forgives the full debt. This is indicative of God's patience with our sin (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), and His incredible mercy in being willing to forgive it (Matthew 18:23–27).
The servant leaves the king's presence and immediately finds another servant who owes him money. This debt is not tiny—equivalent to perhaps a few month's pay—but it's nothing compared to what the first man was freed from. That servant also cannot pay it and begs for time. The forgiven servant refuses and has the man thrown in debtor's prison. When the king hears this, he is furious that the servant who had been shown such great mercy did not also show mercy to his fellow servant. He has the man thrown into debtor's prison until all is repaid—which, as we already know, means this is a permanent sentence (Matthew 18:28–34).
Jesus warns that His Father in heaven will do the same to those who do not forgive their brothers from the heart. This means that those who do not demonstrate a forgiving heart likely don't have a forgiven relationship with Christ (John 14:15). No good things we do can earn salvation (Titus 3:5), but how we live strongly reflects our relationship with God (Matthew 18:35).