The Life of the Lord Jesus Christ

By Johann Peter Lange

Edited by Rev. Marcus Dods






Section XXVIII

Christ receiving publicans and sinners. the communion existing among the disciples of christ

(Mat 18:12-35. Luk 15:1-17:10)

The severe requirement which Jesus had made of His followers hindered not that especially many publicans and sinners, who in part had no doubt already for some while regarded Him with reverence, now associated themselves with His avowed followers. For among them were many who, through the distress and curse brought upon them by their former course of life, had in a right sense become poor, and therefore were able to follow the Redeemer with a spirit of true self-surrender. But if the Pharisees had previously censured the intercourse which Jesus held with publicans and sinners, they would be sure to seize with avidity this opportunity of blackening Him to the populace more than ever. A great train of publicans and sinners,—that was what appeared to them to be the main constituent of His spiritual gains, the Church which He was founding. The Pharisees could not help whispering against Him behind His back, as He travelled through the country attended by such a following, and was seen eating and drinking with them. These were the savoury elements (as they might perhaps express themselves) out of which He appeared to be forming His new kingdom of heaven! It is these ill-natured criticisms that we have to thank for those noble parables, in which Jesus illustrated the power of divine grace seeking the recovery of sinners.

Stroke after stroke these parables followed one another, for the purpose of beating down to the very dust the spirit of self-righteousness, of spiritual haughtiness, and of unloving contempt for sinners; and of unveiling from every side the glory of redeeming grace. First, Jesus set forth the parable of the lost sheep, then that of the lost piece of silver, and lastly, that of the lost son. These great exhibitions of redeeming mercy we have considered already.

These parables, however, were not merely directed against the uncompassionate spirit of the Pharisees in itself, but also against the way in which they, in this spirit, carried out church discipline,—the way in which they loaded for ever fallen sinners, publicans and such like people, at least with the excommunication of contempt and of exclusion from all intercourse in private life. And as these representations were designed to portray the redeeming grace of God and the compassions of the great Shepherd, so were they also meant to impress upon the disciples their highest duty viewed as members of the congregation, namely, the active exercise of this compassion. The disciples were to learn to follow this spirit of compassion in carrying out the jurisdiction of the Christian society, the discipline of the Church, with a view to the salvation of souls. For verily grace will fain operate not merely outside and over the Church, but most especially also through the medium of the Church. She will, however, do her redeeming work and build her kingdom through the Church, as she does also in the leading of men’s destinies in general, in a twofold form: on the one hand, through the discipline of punishment; and on the other, through compassion which seeks to raise up the fallen. For where discipline is wanting, there compassion degenerates into carnal and corrupting indifference; and where compassion is wanting, there discipline becomes a condemning severity which works no salvation.

The Gospel of Matthew (18:12, &c.) makes it quite clear to our mind that the principles which Jesus laid down on this subject were immediately connected with the three parables above mentioned; although in Luke they appear separated from them by other matters.

Jesus, then, will not have His disciples imagine that the loving-kindness which He puts into contrast with the censorious and excommunicating spirit of Pharisaism excludes all church discipline. He therefore, immediately after those parables, indicates in a particular and distinct manner the principles of action which they should follow in such discipline. We are not, it is true, to regard these rules as definite prescriptions of law; but surely, on the other hand, we are to look upon them as outlines instinct with the spirit of life, according to which the Church has to direct its proceedings. With an utter misconception of the real circumstances under which Christ spoke these words, some have set up the view, that what is here said is in no way intended to regulate the proceedings of the Christian congregation, and that the Church to which Christ here refers is the synagogue; and that He is only directing His hearers how, as members of the synagogue, they should comport themselves in the case which is here specified. We have seen that the disciples of Christ were already forming a Church of Christ, and had already acquired a church-consciousness, namely, from the time of Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ. Further, we must not overlook the fact, that Jesus is here speaking of a new church-life, which His disciples were to actualize in contrast with that olden church-life which the Pharisees had the management of. Moreover, Jesus Himself was, beyond doubt, already labouring under the excommunication of the synagogue of the first degree; excommunication had already been threatened against His adherents in general, and been carried out in individual instances; and Jesus was even now on His way to Jerusalem with the foresight that there He should be put to death without the camp (Heb 13:13), that is, under the heaviest form of excommunication. How could it then occur to Him just now to set about pouring His new wine into the old bottle of the Jewish synagogue-system, or patching the rent garment of that old system with His regulations? But, in fact, these would be strange regulations for Christ to lay down, of which it should be said, They are adapted for the synagogue of the Jews, not for the congregation of Christians.

We have, therefore, here outlines of the Christian church-system. First and foremost, a healthy church-life must be based upon pure brotherly fidelity subsisting among Christians in their private intercourse. The Christian is to ‘rebuke his brother who has sinned against him;’ that is, in any sin of his brother which especially gives him offence, he must exercise faithfulness towards him by calling him to account when no one else is present; and be sincerely glad if by these means he rescues him, if he again gains the brother in him. But if the other will not remove the offence, then a second measure must be adopted: he must rebuke him before one or two witnesses. And not till the offender has also shown his contempt for these witnesses of his bad conduct, is information thereof to be laid before the Church. The matter is therefore to be kept for a long while as a painful secret among small parties of brethren, and only in the third instance to be brought before the Church. The Church itself, further, shall not at once exclude the offending member, but shall first give him a hearing and exhort him: not till he has also despised the voice of the Church is he to be excluded. He is to be excluded by having church privileges withdrawn from him, and by being put into the category of heathens and publicans; that is, no doubt, in the present case, of those who have not yet been received into the communion, and of those who have again been excluded from it. The congregation’s sense of its own honour, and its honour itself, require that it shall not tolerate in the midst of its members and fellowship an insolent gainsaying of its doctrines, principles, and morals; and this is required likewise by love and faithfulness towards him who is guilty of this gainsaying; and therefore, if he persists in his course, he must be excommunicated. But the love of the congregation also requires that one who is separated from it shall not be degraded further than by being put into that class out of which he was originally taken; out of which proselytes are always gladly received; out of which he himself will also be gladly received if he repents. Above all things, however, righteousness requires that in this position without the Church he shall be left alone, and not be interfered with, just as the publican and the heathen man is. Therewith every kind of civil disqualification or ill-usage of the excluded man, on the part of the Christian congregation, is decidedly condemned.1 That the words of Christ refer to church discipline is made further plain by the addition, ‘Verily I say unto you, Whatever ye shall bind upon earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever ye shall loose upon earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ We have already seen the meaning of these words; here we learn that the authority which Peter first received as being the first confessor of the Church’s faith, Jesus has imparted to all of His disciples. Nay, He seems here almost to mark it as a necessary requirement for true church discipline, that it shall be carried through by a number of persons acting in one spirit, since He goes on to say how His Father in heaven will grant anything for which two of them shall pray with complete oneness of heart. Jesus foresaw in spirit that the power of church discipline which He was imparting to His disciples might very possibly in future times, by less spiritually-minded administrators of the congregation, be very greatly misunderstood, might be taken away from the congregation, and be misused in a hierarchical spirit. Therefore, against the external order of the congregation viewed in its possible one-sidedness, He created a counterpoise by constituting the highest freedom for the congregation, in the words already mentioned: ‘Again I say unto you, If two of you in perfect agreement shall become one’ (therefore form a society in this oneness) ‘in relation to any matter which they shall pray for, it shall be done for them by My Father which is in heaven.’

Perfect unanimity in two persons is a proof that they have become one in their relations to the eternal world. This perfect certainty of Christ, that it is only in what is eternal that two hearts can completely embrace each other, gives evidence of how He on this point also viewed life to its very deepest bottom. His eye discerns, therefore, in all uniting together of bad men, and in all uniting together of men in what is bad, or what even is only vain or fanatical, a lurking disunion. It may be so, that in activities connected with some association, one man acts for thousands, and that thousands seem to be acting with him, while yet there shall not be even two individuals who are at bottom working together in the oneness of the spirit of prayer or of the will of Christ. But where perfectly pure union really is established between two or three in the name of Christ, ‘there also is Christ really in the midst of them;’ for it is only in pure organic relation to Him, in the spirit of His life, that they could thus have become one. Every Christian union, therefore, which would fain effect some object worthy of Christian desire for which it can pray, has the assurance given to it that it shall attain its object. Nay, not only shall free independent associations admit of being formed in this sense; even every church shall be capable of exhibiting itself as a little union of two or three believers. If only they are really gathered together in His name, in the living recognition of His personality, and if only they have really the true union impulse (the genuine sentiment of catholicity) which belongs to genuine disciples, impelling them to enlarge their number from twos to threes, and not the morose, separatists impulse to split themselves up from threes into twos, and so on indefinitely, then Christ will be in their midst. And if He is in their midst, then there is wanting to them neither the High Priest, nor the Bishop, nor the Preacher: He Himself is all that to them in the highest sense. Thus He makes the catholicity of true disciple-hearts, that is, their oneness manifesting itself socially, under the impulse of prayer for the realization of objects connected with His kingdom, to be the most characteristic distinction of His Church. And in this way Christ has appointed over against the spiritual guardians of His nascent Church an everlasting counterpoise of guardianship, in the liberty which He has given to the genuine children of His Spirit, whenever their fidelity to Him, or the deliverance of their souls in the keeping of a good conscience, is at stake, to meet together in His name, though it be only in twos or in threes.

It looks almost as if Peter had in some measure not attended to the last words;2 for he reverts to the command of Christ, that a brother should be forgiven if, upon the first step in the manifestation of the spirit of discipline, or in one of the subsequent ones, when his fault is brought before him privately, he humbles himself to ask forgiveness. It might perhaps seem to the disciple as if this command of Christ required to be limited by some closer prescription; because else a lax and hypocritical Christian would be in a condition to abuse the placability of his injured brother by a continual renewal of his offences or errors. As Peter was to be the first administrator of these regulations which Christ was laying down, it might seem a laudable zeal on his part to ask for some more exact instructions for his guidance in administering church discipline. He asked whether it was not enough if it were laid down as a rule, that one should forgive his brother, say, up to the seventh time. He might think that in such a rule he had discovered the qualification which would make all right; that it contained an expression of the largest forgiving love, of the highest degree of kindness in the exercise of moral discipline.3 But what a look may we suppose the Lord turned upon His disciple as in this way he sought to calculate, and by exact law fix the measure of forgiveness, while He answered, ‘Not, I say unto thee, unto the seventh time, but unto the seventy times seventh time!’ In the schooling of compassionate mercy He makes a great erasure in the disciple’s figures. With Peter’s small number He contrasted a large one standing as a symbol for infinity; with a calculating love, the large spirit of boundless compassion. It is true, Peter with his number of seven had unconsciously chosen the number which might express a perfect work of the Spirit; a willingness to forgive one’s brother seven times might be an expression denoting that the reconcilable brother has at least overcome himself, that he has quelled the impulses of revenge in his bosom. But when the Lord bids us to forgive our brother seventy times seven times, He requires a victory of reconcilableness in which we are to overcome not only ourselves but also the world, or our brother in his going astray. Hereupon He gave them the parable of the servant who took his fellow-servant by the throat who owed him a hundred denarii, although his lord had remitted to him a debt of ten thousand talents, and of the retribution which fell upon this hard-hearted man; closing with the solemn words, ‘So also will My Father who is in heaven do unto you, if ye forgive not each one his brother, and that too from the heart.’

The Evangelist Luke introduces Christ’s direction, that we should be ready to forgive a brother, in another utterance which is too significant for us to regard it merely as another version of that earlier one (17:3, 4). A brother’s sin should ever be followed by faithful brotherly rebuke; and his repentance by forgiveness, even if he should need forgiveness seven times in one day. The disciples were greatly humbled by this direction. They felt that they could not forgive thus; and they therefore prayed the Lord to add to His command the gift of faith also (in which alone they would be able to fulfil it). Here certainly the thing aimed at was the eradication of a selfish desire for revenge which lies exceedingly deep in our nature; yet they should nevertheless not have despaired as to the possibility of its being eradicated. ‘If ye have faith only (says Jesus in reply) as a grain of mustard-seed, and say to this mulberry-tree, Be thou uprooted, and be thou planted in the sea, it shall obey you.’ If they will only in faith bring their heart into sincere union with God, then they shall succeed in hurling the deeply-rooted growth of irreconcilableness out of their inmost being into the sea (of kindness) in which it must expire. Next, however, He appears to mean to inform them of a very wholesome means whereby they can greatly facilitate their deliverance from all fanatical harshness in the service of the kingdom of God. They should merely make it quite clear to their own minds, how very well their heavenly Master can dispense with their work and service. They should look at the relation in which a servant in earthly service stands to his master. The servant comes home (say) from ploughing or from the pasture. He has been hard at work; but his master seems hardly to take account of it. He is far from receiving him with anything like excitement or marks of particular respect, or from inviting him in with the words, ‘Come and sit down at table.’ Rather, he forthwith uses the farm-servant as also a house-servant. The other must get his meal for him, must gird himself, and wait upon him at table; and then, when the master has himself eat and drunk, the servant may also eat and drink, without having further to expect from his master any especial thanks for his service. In these relations of earthly service is mirrored the truth, that the Eternal God receives the faithful services of His servants with heavenly calmness, as something which is their absolute duty. The disciples must look upwards to their Master in heaven, that they may be struck by the infinitely calm aspect with which He looks down upon their services. Then will the spirit of that divine aspect calm them in their work even to their innermost soul, will humble them, and purify their zeal from the unclean elements of fanaticism. The result, however, of this will be that, with the most perfect calmness of spirit, they will work on. Yet their joy in God’s service will not in consequence diminish, but be made perfect. And in the same measure as they approach the goal of doing their whole duty, will the humility increase with which they will be able to say, We are unprofitable servants! We have done that which we were bound to do! That will be the very perfection of their service, that they acknowledge how wholly all their powers belong to the Lord, how absolutely their work belongs to the very existence of their lives, and how fully He can dispense with their service, and replace it by that of others. The more, however, that they find that He can dispense with them as servants, so much the more will they gain the assurance that they are indispensable to Him as children.

But the disciples of Jesus needed, at this time, not merely to be helped forward in readiness to exercise Christian compassion, shown in receiving into their society their penitent brethren (so many of whom were now approaching them in the persons of publicans and sinners); the Lord also now found it necessary to train them in more decided terms to cheerfulness in devoting their possessions to the need of their poorer partners and companions. They now behoved to begin, in the spirit of the kingdom of heaven, to step forth out of the old stiff world of locked-up gains and possessions, and in free-hearted love to admit their brethren to share in that which the Lord had given to themselves. No doubt this transition into the new world of love could only be accomplished gradually, in a cautious following out of genuine spontaneous impulse: a community of goods enforced by law was a thing to which the Lord could not, and would not bind them; for such a community of property would necessarily, in the most glaring manner, contradict the spirit of freedom and of personal rights. Nevertheless it behoved them now to make a decided move forward towards that elevated position on which, as we learn from the Acts, they afterwards stood, when every one held all that he possessed as available for the Church in general. For as, on the one hand, through the greater numbers that were travelling in the train of Jesus, many occasions would arise requiring the use of means, so, on the other, it was necessary also that the disciples should, in some measure, be loosened from their old possessions, in order that they might be more completely girded for their apostolic wandering through the wide world. They should, therefore, in the management of their property, at once begin to be unfaithful to the old World-and-Money Lord, Mammon, whose stewards even they had more or less been,—in other words, to abandon the principle of employing their property in the interests of selfishness,—and thenceforward employ their old possessions in subserviency to the new tendency, which was prompting them fully to pass over into the kingdom of compassionate love even in their outward activities. With this meaning, Jesus delivered to them the parable of the Unjust Steward.

They themselves, as unjust stewards in the service of Mammon, the genius of worldly gain, should prove unfaithful to their master, and should begin to lay out their substance for the advantage of their poorer brethren, in order that they might be admitted by these poorer brethren to a participation in those houses which stand ready prepared for these in that other world, the new world of the kingdom of God, of love, of heaven. They should gain for themselves the privileges of citizens in the kingdom of mercifulness, and, with a view thereto, should cheerfully sacrifice any particular claims which they might possess in the kingdom of self-interest. (See above, vol. i. p. 504.)

The Lord shows to His disciples that the children of this world are, in this matter of caring for their future welfare, wiser in their way than the children of light, since they manage to secure for themselves friendships against the time of need.

And then He lays down the maxim: ‘He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is important; and he that is unrighteous in that which is least, is unrighteous in that which is important.’

This little thing in which they behove to become faithful to God, in the very act of their becoming unfaithful to Mammon, is earthly property; the thing of moment, wherein they shall thereafter prove their fidelity, is their heavenly inheritance. In two respects is earthly property as the thing which is least, put in contrast with heavenly property as that which is of moment. The former is the deceitful (‘unrighteous’) Mammon, the other is the real good (τὸ ἀληθινόν); the former is alien in character [‘another man’s,’ ἀλλότριον], not what the inner being of man can recognize as its own and suited to it, while the other is the good which answers to his being, which makes his inward being rich. These contrasts form the basis of the two great questions of Christ, which in sense run thus:

If ye do not remain faithful to God and to charity in the employment of the small change of this world, which is so deceptive in its character, how can ye be entrusted with the essential goods of the eternal world, the treasures of the kingdom of heaven? And if ye are not faithful in the application of that which is alien to your own being, and which does not at bottom affect your inward nature, how can ye be intrusted with that which answers to your most proper nature, in which your heavenly inheritance is to consist?

If selfishness misuses earthly goods in the spirit of greed, it would certainly misuse those of an essential character to gratify the greed of honour. If the property which belongs not to his own proper being he will yet morbidly and spasmodically seek to incorporate with that being, how much more will he be inclined, in reference to the things which really should constitute his most proper life—the goods of the Spirit, to have them for himself in a false way, with pride and with an unloving spirit towards his brethren, and thereby again spoil them? Therefore the avaricious man will not be entrusted with real riches: he is not recognized as a worthy child in his Father’s house; he comes not to the realization of the inheritance which was appointed for him; he does not attain to the mastery of his being in the free spirit of love, but remains set under the guardianship of coercion and censorship.

The Lord’s discourse to His disciples closes, according to the Evangelist, with the utterance which we have already contemplated (Mat 6:24), that we ‘cannot serve God and Mammon’ together. This dictum is of a kind that might well have been repeated by Christ more than once.

While Jesus was giving these exhortations there were Pharisees present; men who, as a rule, were attached to money. They thought they discovered something ridiculous in His words; and they gave indications of their contempt by signs of scorn. Without doubt, they thought they were giving the very best solution to the problem, how one can lead a holy life and at the same time carefully keep his riches, simply by making suitable payments out of his treasures in the form of temple-gifts and of alms. But not with impunity did they dare to gainsay the self-sacrificing spirit of brotherly fidelity in which Christ had been speaking. Yes, said Jesus, ‘ye are they who justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts.’ Men are dazzled by outward show; but the glances of God pierce through that show. ‘For what is highly esteemed with men is abomination before God.’ What in the eyes of the world is highly esteemed, that, as a rule, has in two ways become ripe for destruction: first, through the internal worm of pride, which has driven it so high aloft into that most unsound atmosphere of being in which it wears so dazzling an aspect, and then, because through the working of its dazzling enchantments it has become the idol of the blind multitude. Thus it was with Pharisaism; it had become ripe for judgment. And the judgment was already showing itself in the fact, that now since the days of John the Baptist the Gospel had come forth into the world. The Lord referred them to the contrast presented by the Gospel as compared with Pharisaism. The Evangelist represents Him as exhibiting, as a proof of the greatness of this contrast, the New Testament law of marriage, because it stands in such sharp opposition to theirs.4 It is very conceivable that in such a case, when Jesus was seeking to exhibit the contrast between His Gospel and the doctrine of the Pharisees, He may have adduced in proof more than one example of the kind. At last, however, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, He portrays to them the judgment which in the future world awaits the rich man who will not have compassion upon the poor.



1. Schneckenburger (p. 58) again finds in Luk 16:13, Strauss in ver. 17 of the same chapter, an instance of what is called lexical connection.

2. Stier observes that Christ’s word, that one should forgive his brother seventy times seven times, reminds us in a significant manner of Lamech’s word in Gen 4:23.



1) This prescription of Christ, by virtue of which one who is excommunicated is, as a heathen man and a publican, as a member of some other confession, religion, or irreligion, to be left alone, has been disregarded by the Roman Catholic Church in the most flagrant manner. Cp. Stier, ii. 396.

2) Cp. Stier. ii. 402.

3) ʻIn the Talmud it was determined, that a man was to be forgiven his sin up to the third time, but not to a fourth, according to Amos i. 3, ii. 6 ; Job xxxiii. 29, 30 [Hebr.]. Stier, ii. 402. [Lightfoot (Hor. Heb. in loc.) quotes, They pardon a man once that sins against another; secondly, they pardon him ; thirdly, they pardon him; fourthly, they do not pardon him. ED.]

4) On the explanations of this passage given by Olshausen and Schleiermacher, see Strauss, i. p. 609.