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Matthew 18:10-35 – Seeking the Lost

There are three sections or stories in Matthew 18:10-35. Taken together, they speak of how God desires His people to do as the Good Shepherd does, and seek those who are lost.

Seeking Straying Sheep (18:10-14)

See that you do not look down on one of these little ones.

Jesus told a similar parable in Luke 15:3-7. There, He told it because the Pharisees were scornful of the tax collectors and sinners who gathered around Jesus (15:1-2). The motivation for this parable in Matthew 18 is similar. The purpose is that disciples of Jesus not “look down on” any other person, especially not on any other disciple.

In the parable a man with 100 sheep has one that has wandered away. He leaves the 99 on the hills (not safely lying” in the shelter of the fold” as the beautiful song has it), to go search for the one that was lost. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off” (v. 13).

Jesus concludes this story by adding:

In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost. – v. 14

Seeking Sinning Siblings (18:15-20)

The next section of teaching is application of the parable He has just told.

God is not willing for any of His little ones to be lost. When a brother sins against you, how you respond can determine if this brother (or sister) will be found (as by the good shepherd who looked for the lost sheep), or if she will continue to be lost, perhaps eternally.

Too many times we study these verses as a procedure to follow in excommunicating someone from the fellowship of the church. Jesus intends it to be a procedure to win the errant child of God back to a place in the family.

First, we are to go to him alone. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding that can be cleared with no one the wiser beyond the two of you. Jesus said it this way:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. – Matthew 18:15

How am I to go in such a case? Paul’s caution in Galatians 6:1-2 is instructive:

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

“The law of Christ” is that we love one another as Christ has loved us (John 13:34), which is the same way as the Father has loved the Christ (John 15:9). Note the different elements in this, all of which parallel what Jesus says as well.

  • You who are spiritual: the spiritual person will seek restoration of the erring brother. If I begin telling everyone else, I show that I am not spiritual.
  • Restore him: the object in going to him to show him his fault is his restoration, not his humiliation or degradation. Go to lift him up, not to beat him up or push him down.
  • With a spirit of gentleness: this demands humility (another mark of a spiritual person) on the part of the person seeking the lost.
  • Watching yourself lest you be tempted: how easy it is to become self-righteous or to get upset with the person you seek to win back if he does not immediately respond to your oh, so gentle rebuke!
  • Help him: by carrying one another’s burdens you not only fulfill the law of Christ, but you draw that person closer to the heart of the Master.

Many times, the right approach will “save a soul from death and hide a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).

If he does not respond favorably, do not give up.

But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. – Matthew 18:16

Keep the number involved small. Take one or two, not a multitude. This is a time when less is more – productive, that is! Follow the same principles outlined above. Seek understanding through gentle persuasion, not by overpowering argument.

The mere fact you have returned with a person as compassionately gentle as you were in your first approach may win him over. If not, you still do not need to give up.

How many times should you talk to someone alone before you bring in someone else? The Lord does not say. It is when it is evident he will not listen. How many times should you go with 1 or 2 others? Again, the Lord does not say, but is a time when he will either listen or make it evident that further talk between the few of you is unfruitful.

When that time comes, tell it to the church. Here is where the testimony of two or three witnesses will be important. At this time, if it were you alone it could easily devolve into a “he said; she said” matter where no one can have a clear idea of what has happened. Having people along who can verify the tone and tenor of the conversation is vital when you want to involve the church.

How do you tell the church? Presumably, there will be opportunity for the “witnesses” to tell what they have witnessed. This is not a matter that can be handled by simply reading a statement from the elders. It may well be that the church will have to be gathered in a special convocation where sensitive matters can be discussed. Hopefully, this special assembly of the church will have much prayer and many tears as the rift between brothers or the sin observed in one of them is aired in at least a semi-public way.

But telling the church is not the purpose. The purpose is restoration. When you tell the church, the church also has a responsibility to speak. How does the church speak? We are not told. I doubt that what we have in view here is a vote by the church as to which story to believe – and if you vote against the brother who has sinned, then he is supposed to accept it.

The implication is that the individuals in the church will begin to approach this person. This is a time when “you who are spiritual” need to step up. Only those people who can go in a gentle way should go. But be assured that “gentle” does not mean be so tactful that there is no contact where sin is involved! It is the balance between loving the sinner while hating the sin that we need all along – and especially here when the church is going.

If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. – Matthew 18:17

How is that? Remember that Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners around Him. Paul does say in 1 Corinthians 5:11 that we are not even to eat with certain who call themselves our brethren, but persist in flagrant sinful behavior. Presumably that would apply here as well.

The Unmerciful Servant

Having just heard what Jesus said about winning your brother back, Peter had a question: “How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” How much Peter was just like us! We want to have a legal limit when it comes to things like this.

Jesus turned this question on its head by telling the parable of the servant who would not forgive his fellow servant a small debt after the master had forgiven him an unspeakably large debt. That parable ended by the unforgiving servant being turned over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay all he owed (Matthew 18:34). Jesus comment after the parable is chilling:

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart. – Matthew 18:35

Forgiveness must come from the heart. None of this forced “kiss and say you’re sorry” stuff we pulled on our kids – when we knew they didn’t mean a word of it! Our Father knows, even better than we did as parents (or than our parents knew us!). We cannot fool Him. What He wants from us is that we be as eager to forgive others as He is to forgive us.

Do you see the progression here? The good shepherd seeks the lost sheep. We are to go and do likewise – or the heavenly Father will not forgive us.


  1. Why is this section introduced by Jesus saying, “Do not look down on one of these little ones?
  2. As a shepherd, would you leave 99 on the hills to go look for 1 that wandered away? Discuss. How is this applicable in the church? How long do you look for the lost one before you endanger the others?
  3. Contrast the presentation of vv. 15-18 above with the way this passage is usually practiced (if it is practiced) in the church.
  4. Why do you think Peter asked how many times he should forgive his brother who sinned against him?
  5. How much difference is there in 10,000 talents and100 denarii? (Note: a talent is 75 pounds while it takes 80 denarii to make 1 pound of silver.)
  6. What is the point Jesus is making about the vast difference between the debt of the two servants in the story?
  7. What is the significance of 18:34-35?

NEXT: FAMILY VALUES – Matthew 19:1-15



One Response

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