Bunnies, easter eggs and baskets? Many images in the Bible convey the protecting care of God for His people, but probably no image is more greatly loved than that of the shepherd and His sheep. What Christian can consider God as a shepherd without thinking of the Twenty-third Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”? Or the tenth chapter of John, where Jesus applies the image to Himself: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”?
Yet it is not only in these well-known passages that the image occurs. A psalmist wrote, “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” Isaiah said about God, He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
The image also occurs several times in Matthew. The first was in chapter 2, which cites this prophecy from Micah: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”
In Matthew 9 we see Jesus’ compassion for the crowds “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” In chapter 26 he reports Jesus as saying, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’”
As far as the rest of the New Testament is concerned, Hebrews describes Jesus as “that great Shepherd,” and Peter calls Him the “Chief Shepherd” to whom the undershepherds (Pastors) are accountable.
The notable thing about Jesus’ use of this image in Matthew 18 is that here it is a parable. Parables were an important teaching device for Jesus. Seven of them were introduced in chapter 13, and although this is the first Jesus used since that chapter, we will encounter eight more in Matthew.
A parable is a story drawn from real life that makes a single or at most a few spiritual points. It differs from a fable, which is not drawn from real life. In Aesop’s fables, for example, animals or inanimate objects talk. Again, a parable differs from an allegory in which nearly everything stands for something else.
This parable is found again in Luke 15.3–7. Jesus answers the teachers of the law who are criticizing Him for associating with known “sinners.” Jesus uses the parable to explain that He is associating with sinners in order to save them, just as a shepherd exerts himself for a lost sheep and rejoices when he finds it. He calls the lost but found sheep a “sinner who repents.” In Matthew, Jesus is teaching His disciples, and the point He makes is that they must be like shepherds in their care for other believers, particularly the weakest ones.
At the beginning of the chapter the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus answers: (1) the one who is humble, like a little child; (2) the one who cares for the weak or lost believer; and (3) the one who forgives other people.
Howard Vos traces the progression in this way: “Disciples who wish to be great are told that first they must accept and show kindness to other believers, facilitating their Christian walk and doing everything possible to avoid being a stumbling block to them. Second, they are not to despise or show contempt for other believers but are to offer help to those who may be in danger of going astray or who may have gone astray. Third, they are taught what to do if one Christian sins against another.
This is a pattern of behavior entirely opposite of the pattern the world associates with personal greatness or success.
The first verse of this section makes clear that Jesus is talking about new or weak believers, still using the image of little children. It serves as an introduction to what He is going to say about the lost sheep. “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones,” He says. “For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
People have turned to this Bible verse above all others for the idea of guardian angels, though there is not much in the Bible elsewhere to support that idea. In Daniel the archangel Michael appears as a protector of the Jewish people. Hebrews 1.14 refers to “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.” The first three chapters of Revelation refer to the angels of the seven Churches, though it is not certain whether these are meant to be spirit beings. The “angels” may be the pastors of these Churches.
John Broadus probably has it right when he connects this to Christians as a class. “However humble in the estimation of worldly men, believers have angels as their attendants, sent forth to serve God for their benefit, and these angels of theirs enjoy in heaven the highest dignity and consideration, like persons admitted to the very presence of a monarch and allowed, not once but continually, to behold his face.” The point is that the angels have access to the presence of the Father at all times on behalf of “these little ones.”
Yet it is not the angels who are important in this passage. They may be interceding on behalf of weak or wandering Christians, an encouraging thing to know. But what is really important here is that God is compared to the shepherd who seeks and finds the lost sheep. Why should we focus on angels when God is our Savior?
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org