"Respect the Little Ones"
(Delivered Sunday, October 14, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
I have often felt that God's providential hand was on us when it comes to our times together in His word. I particularly feel His providence this morning.
We're simply going through the Gospel of Matthew—passage by passage—as usual today. And yet, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect passage for us to look at together on the very morning that we celebrate the baptism of one of our precious young people. It's found in Matthew 18:10-14; and it concerns Jesus' expressed love and value for those who come to Him in the faith of a little child.
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Do you remember how the eighteenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel began?—how His disciples had been arguing over which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? They were estimating each other's worth in the way that the unbelieving people of this world do. But Jesus lets them know that, in His kingdom, greatness is not valued by this world's standards. Matthew tells us;
Jesus had set that little child in their midst as a living illustration. But I believe Jesus meant for us to understand His "little ones" to be anyone who comes to Him in the humble faith of a little child—that is, not boasting in their own righteousness, not bragging about their own capabilities, not demanding that everything be explained to their own intellectual satisfaction, or not insisting that everything be given to them on their own terms. A little child doesn't come to Jesus that way. When Jesus calls a little child to Himself, that child simply and gladly comes—loving Him, trusting Him, offering nothing to Him, but rather gladly receiving everything from Him.
When I think of this, I think of 1 Corinthians 1:26-31. I believe that it's a perfect commentary on what it means to come to Jesus in the humble faith of a little child. Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers and said,
Obviously, no one who—in this world's estimation—comes to Jesus as "foolish" or "weak" or "base" and "despised" can boast in their own greatness. But when they do come to Him on such terms, He esteems them as the greatest in His kingdom. That's what we find in the first few verses of Matthew 18.
And then, Jesus goes on to stress that those who come to Him in such child-like faith are to be treated with the utmost care. I believe that He took this small child up in His arms (Mark 9:36-37) when He spoke these sobering words:
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And that leads us to our passage this morning. In verses 10-14, Jesus lays out to us how much we are to value and respect those who come to Him in child-like humility—not only the tiniest and meekest child, but even the humblest of the old folks who believe on Him. They may not seem like much in this world's view. They may not even seem like much in our sight through the eyes of the flesh. But they are exceedingly precious and very highly regarded in the view of our Lord.
As I read that passage, something that strikes me about it is the repeated emphasis Jesus places on the word "one". In verse 10, He says that we are to take heed not to despise even "one" of these little ones. In verses12-13, He speaks of the great value placed on just that "one" sheep that wandered away over the ninety-nine that didn't. In verse 14, He stresses that it's not His Father's will that even "one" of these little ones should perish.
You get the powerful impression from this that each and every single "little one" who trusts in Jesus is of inestimable value to His Father. He views each one as uniquely precious. We may see them as a bunch of little people—just a percentage out of a group. But the Father knows each one by name. He has determined the eternal destiny of each of them. And He had each of them individually in mind when He sent His Son into this world to love them and die on the cross for them.
When it comes to those who come to Him in simple, humble, child-like faith, He makes it very clear that He places a particularly special value on them.
And we had better be sure to do the same!
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As we look at this passage, three things suggest themselves that Jesus is calling us to do when it comes to His precious little ones.
First, we see that we are to . . .
1. BE CAREFUL NOT TO LOOK DOWN ON THEM (v. 10).
He says, "Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven" (v. 10).
Now; while I believe that the main point of this verse is very clear, its way of making this point has nevertheless been variously interpreted. Some have suggested, for example, that this verse teaches that each of Jesus' "little ones" has a particular angel that watches over him or her—that is, a "guardian angel". Jesus seems to speak in very specific terms—that is, of angels that are described, in the original language of this text, as "the angels of them".
And what's more, the Scripture itself makes it abundantly clear that angels are vitally involved in the lives of the saints. In Psalm 91:11-12, for example, we're told of God's care for those who make Him their refuge;
Or in Hebrews 1:14, we're told this about the angelic beings: "Are they not all ministering spirits went forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?” Personally, I draw great comfort from knowing that these mighty spiritual beings have been sent by God to minister to the needs of those who trust in Him—especially since I myself am among those they minister to!
And if that's what Jesus means in the passage before us, then He's telling us that we'd better never despise those little ones who trust in Him. Their angels—the very angels given special charge over them—have the privileged honor in heaven of continually beholding the face of the Father Himself who is in heaven.
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But not everyone agrees that this is what our Lord means in the passage before us. Other very reliable Bible teachers and scholars have found that a passage in Acts 12 gives a better explanation of what Jesus is telling us.
In that passage, the apostle Peter had been arrested for preaching the gospel. While he slept in prison—awaiting what might well have been his own execution—the people of God were intensely praying for his life. And in answer to their prayer, in the middle of the night, an angel came to released him from his bonds and escort him out of the jail.
He went immediately to the place where the Christians were gathered together to pray for him. He knocked on the door of the gate, and a servant girl named Rhoda came and recognized him. The poor girl was so excited that she forgot to let Peter in! Instead, she ran inside and told everyone that Peter was standing at the gate. Sadly, the people didn't believe her at first. They said she was crazy. But when she kept insisting, they concluded—with what seems like a tragic tone—"It is his angel" (Acts 12:15).
Now; whatever they thought it was that was knocking at the door, they were wrong in their estimation. It was really the genuine, flesh and blood Peter! And he kept on knocking until they finally let him in! But notice what they said—that it must have been his "angel". And here, that word "angel"—which is a word that, basically, means "messenger"; and that has a variety of possible meanings—seems to be describing "a disembodied spirit" or what we might call "a ghost". They assumed that such an "angel" would look and sound like Peter.
And so, many reliable Bible teachers suggest that Jesus is using the word "angel" in this same sense—that the spirit of one of His little ones, upon death, immediately enter into a relationship with the Father in the heavenly realms that is so direct that they are said to "always see the face" of the Father. This would be like what is mentioned in Hebrews 12:23—that they are "the spirits of just men made perfect".
And again, I draw great comfort from the belief that when a tiny little one dies—and with this, I would understand the severely retarded, or those who for whatever reason could not place a conscious faith in Jesus Christ—then his or her spirit is immediately redeemed by the blood of Jesus, and is immediately in God's presence in great glory.
And, if this is what Jesus means by these words, then again, He is telling us that we'd better never despise one of these “little ones” who trust in Him. Their spirits are ushered immediately into the presence of God; and they are given a very privilege position in His glory.
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Now; which of these views is the correct one? I'm afraid I don't know. Both views have been held by godly, Christ-honoring scholars of the Bible. Both views have their merits. And both views have their difficulties. So personally, I conclude that it's probably wise not to be too dogmatic about either view. We're safe in this, I believe; because the conclusions that are drawn from both of the two views are consistent with the Scriptures as a whole.
But whichever view is the correct one; there's one thing we can be certain about what this verse says. Jesus is letting us know that we must never despise these little ones who believe in Him. We must never look down on them, or hold them in contempt, or dismiss them as unimportant and inconvenient. We must never abuse them, or ignore them, or neglect to meet their needs. Jesus lets us know this in two ways. First, He lets us know by the direct command, "Take heed . . .". And second, He lets us know by the authority of His words, "I say to you . . ."
In our church life; in our individual homes; in our social relations; in whatever context we may meet with those who are Christ's little ones by faith—whether they be one year old, or one-hundred years old—let's be very sure that we "take heed" not to despise even a single one of them. For they are clearly very highly esteemed in the courts of heaven and before the face of our heavenly Father.
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Now; a second thing that Jesus' words teach us to do with respect to His humble "little ones" is to . . .
2. DILIGENTLY SEEK THEM WHEN THEY WANDER (vv. 11-13).
Because they may be weak and vulnerable to the temptations of sin, or because they may have grown up to be easily led astray from the faith they once professed, one of Jesus' precious "little ones" may wander away from His path for them. And one of the ways that we might show that we "despise" them is by not pursuing them when they wander. We might not think that they are worth the effort. We might think that we have better things to do.
Verse 11 has Jesus saying, "For the Son of Man has come to save that which is lost"; and though this verse is of questionable authority (since many reliable ancient texts do not contain it), it nevertheless reflects something that Jesus has said elsewhere (see Luke 19:10). Just how much He values those little ones of His who wander away is shown to us when He says, "What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray" (v. 12-13).
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Perhaps those words have a familiar ring to you. They are like something that Jesus said on another occasion. He used the same sort of words to illustrate His passion for poor and needy sinners in Luke 15.
In that particular instance, Jesus was being confronted by the Pharisees and scribes because He allowed all sorts of sinful people to draw near to Him. He even "received" some of the most notorious sinners of society; and even went so far as to "eat" with them! Jesus answered this complaint by telling them this parable:
Jesus was a masterful Teacher; and He would often use the same teaching material for different purposes. In the case of the Pharisees and scribes, He was showing that He has a greater passion for those who know that they are sinners and need His forgiveness than He does for those who don't believe they were ever sinners and think themselves too righteous to need to be forgiven. But in the case of our passage this morning, Jesus was speaking to the disciples—those who already believe on Him and have accepted His forgiveness; and was teaching them that every single "little one" in His flock—no matter how "insignificant" they may seem on a merely "human" level—is so important to Him that He would have every possible effort extended to retrieve them when they wander away.
Think of what He's saying. A good shepherd would be so committed to the needs of his sheep that he would leave the remaining ninety-nine, go to the treacherous places where the lost sheep had wandered, and search for it. He wouldn't simply shrug and say, "Oh well; ninety-nine out of a hundred kept safe—that's not too bad a day's work." For a good shepherd, there'd be "no sheep left behind". And once he found the lost sheep, the good shepherd would actually rejoice more over the one that was found than he would over the ninety-nine that were never lost. A good shepherd has that much of a heart for each one of the individual sheep entrusted to his care.
And Jesus has stressed that He Himself is such a good shepherd! He says such things as, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep" (John 10:11). He is willing to lay down His life in order to rescue even one of His lost sheep. He said, "I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own" (v. 14). He knows where each one is. He knows their names. He makes sure that they are known by Him. He says;
And if Jesus feels that way about each one of His lost "little ones", how can we say we are His followers if we don't feel as He feels about them? How can we know that He was willing to lay down His life for His sheep; but then not even lift a finger to draw them back into the fold when they wander? How can we know that He knows each one by name; but then ourselves not even notice when they're gone? How can we know that He is so committed to keeping them; and yet not be concerned to seek out the ones that He is so committed to?
If I may, this is a great indictment to churches such as ours. Do you know of one of Jesus' poor lost "little ones" who started off with Him, but who have fallen victim to the clutches of this world? Now obviously, we need to be very discerning in this matter, as the next passage will make clear to us (vv. 15-20); because not all who "wander away" were ever really sheep at all. But we can only find that out by pursuing them. We must try to win them. We must seek them out and try to rescue them.
Have you heard the Holy Spirit's gentle call, urging you to diligently seek out one of His wandering lost ones—perhaps through a phone call, or through a card or letter, or even a personal visit? Jesus is letting us know that none of His little ones—no matter how insignificant in this world's view—is unworthy of the greatest possible effort.
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That leads us, finally, to one more thing that this passage teaches us to do with respect to our Lord's "little ones" in the faith; and that is to . . .
3. PURSUE THE FATHER'S WILL FOR THEM (v. 14).
Jesus speaks this parable concerning the effort of the good shepherd to seek out and find his lost sheep; and then adds, "Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish" (v. 14).
The word that Jesus uses for “perish” means “to destroy"; and it is not the Father's will that even one of His little ones should be destroyed in any way. I take this to mean that what the Father wants—in the positive sense—is that the opposite of "destruction" be done for them; that is, that they be strengthened, and built up, and made to stand strong in Christ.
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This, to my mind, implies a very practical call to us regarding our care in the church for those who are "little ones" in the faith. We are to extend every effort possible—even to the point of denying ourselves of our own legitimate rights and privileges—toward the far greater cause of ministering strength and nurture to those who are young or weak in the faith.
The apostle Paul spoke of this very clearly. In his letter to the believers in Rome, he urged them to be very careful that they make it their resolve not to place a "stumbling block or a cause to fall" in our weaker brother's or sister's way. They may have "rights" and "liberties", as strong and mature believers, to even eat foods that were formerly declared "unclean" in the law. But their chief concern is not to be about what they had a right to do; but rather what can be done to support and strengthen the faith of a weaker brother or sister. He wrote;
You and I have a duty to the "little ones" that Jesus entrusted to our care. They watch us carefully. They seek to imitate our walk with Christ. And we must one day give an account to the Lord for the care we have shown toward their faith. Do we make sure we set an example for them that truly pleases the Father? Do we watch out that we don't do anything that hurts their precious faith in Him? Do we give ourselves eagerly and sacrificially toward the building up of that faith; and toward the strengthening of their commitment to the One who gave Himself for them?
Do we make it our resolve to pursue the Father's will for the "little ones" in the fold—that is, their growth and nurture in a deep, loving fellowship with the One who died on the cross for them?
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Here then, we see that Jesus calls us to greatly respect and highly regard the "little ones" who believe on Him. He calls us to make very sure that we never look down on them or despise them. He calls us to diligently seek them when they wander away. And He calls us to give ourselves to the pursuit of the Father's good will for their lives.
May the Lord Jesus find us faithful in our care for His “little ones”!
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