This title introduces a new series of expositional articles. What is the meaning of our title? There are a number of cases in Scripture where “the new” is set against “the old”, such as “the new covenant” being contrasted with “the old”. Generally “the old” relates to the prophetic forecasts and foreshadowings of Messiah found in the Old Testament, whereas “the new” concerns the Lord Jesus Christ and the surpassing blessings made available through him and these are revealed in the New Testament. Expositors of the Word have to relate “the new” to “the old” and show how Scripture has been fulfilled and vindicated. Jesus made reference to this when teaching his disciples when he asked them: “Have ye understood all these things?” They replied, “Yea, Lord”. Then he said unto them: “Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old” (Matt 13:52). This is essentially what this series of articles aims to do.

It will be seen that the Lord and the apostles, when quoting or citing from the Old Testament, take context into account. Often there are additional words and phrases taken from the context of direct Old Testament quotations which show their complete knowledge of Old Testament Scriptures and how appropriate or apposite the reference was. For example you will notice that Jude quotes directly from Zechariah 3:2: “The Lord rebuke thee” (Jude 9). But later in verse 23 he says: “And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh”. Significantly these words are drawn from Zechariah 3:2–3! Clearly Zechariah chapter 3 was in Jude’s mind as he warned believers in his day of the perils they were facing.

These linkages between the Old and New Testament demonstrate the unity of the Scriptures. They also provide the surest guidelines for interpreting Scripture. The Spirit’s comment about an Old Testament passage in the New Testament provides us with an infallible guide as we seek to rightly divide the Word of Truth.

“Woe to the Idol Shepherd”

  Following the transfiguration, the Lord made his way with the disciples south, eventually reaching Capernaum. He was conscious of a private dispute taking place between the twelve. He had been deliberately excluded from their wranglings, at least so they thought. When “in the house” however, he asked an embarrassing question: “What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?” (Mark 9:33). They were silent, fearing that he had perceived the issue in which they had been so passionately, albeit secretly, involved. They had disputed among themselves who should be the greatest. In the Lord’s eyes this was a capital issue which could not be ignored. He made special preparations for his answer so that the danger lurking in their attitudes and the lessons to be learned might be driven home. He did not answer immediately. Rather he sat down and assembled the whole of the twelve disciples. His actions and his words were deliberate: “If any man desire to be first, the same (in italics, and can be omitted, showing the solemn emphasis) shall be last of all, and servant of all”(v34–35). By this statement he demonstrated his knowledge of their disputings as well as his condemnation of their attitudes.

He Shall Gather the Lambs with his Arm

Further, he illustrates the point he is about to make with actions. He took a child and set him in their midst. This done, he raised the child “in his arms” and spoke some salient words. His actions were highly significant, because they connect “the new” with “the old”. His action associates him with Messiah of Isaiah 40:9–10 where the good news is proclaimed to Zion: the Lord Yahweh would come with a strong hand and his arm would rule for him. Moreover this one, the Messiah, would administer his affairs and kingdom with the compassion of a shepherd: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (v11).

The taking of the little child up into his arms was an unmistakable allusion to Isaiah, and also taught that the disposition of Messiah’s reign would be one of gentleness, sacrifice and grace; self-seeking and pride would be excluded.

The Lesson of the “Little Children”

In Matthew’s account of this incident the Lord continued his instruction, telling the twelve that unless they were converted they would not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:3). Rather than being full of self-importance they had to humble themselves “as a little child”, if they would be great in the kingdom. Then he identified “little children” with himself, saying that in receiving such they would be receiving him!! What salutary lessons were being brought home to them and how ashamed they must have felt.

The Lord treated this issue so seriously because he could see the awful potential in such attitudes. Also he knew that self-seeking among believers would lead to the development of the great apostasy headed by “the man of sin”. Prophecy had foretold this. It was inevitable, but he would do what he could to forestall it.

“Woe to the World because of Offences”

In his following comments the Lord issues a warning. The great apostasy would develop and many would be caused to stumble as a result. His words are particularly interesting because of the numerous allusions to the Old Testament prognostications about the Papacy. As this is our theme in this series of articles we shall take note of these references in his words as well as heed the personal lessons.

First of all he says: “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea”. This statement shows how much the Lord would hate any who caused his little ones to stumble. The judgment pronounced is horrendous: “It were better for him that a millstone… ”. These words are interesting and significant because they are drawn from the Old Testament and a most significant context, namely Jeremiah 51:63. There the fate of Babylon is revealed. Jeremiah chapters 50 and 51 detail the sins of Babylon and the fate she would suffer for destroying Yahweh’s Temple and people. These words of Jeremiah were written in a scroll and taken to Babylon by Seraiah, a quiet prince of Judah, who was to read them there. After this he was to bind a stone to the book and cast it into the midst of the River Euphrates, in a gesture which demonstrated the fall of Babylon.

The connection with these events in the Lord’s words is apparent. He knew that the attitude of self-exaltation among believers would lead to the elevation of one who would persecute those who did not bow the knee and worship him. This religious system he would rule would be known in the Apocalypse as “Great Babylon”, and appropriately so, for as Babylon of old had destroyed God’s people and their Temple, even so this new power would stifle Truth and persecute and destroy the saints of the Most High. The parallel, if on a grander scale, was clear. Thus significantly we find in the Apocalypse the third use of this figure of the millstone to describe the fate of Babylon: “And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all” (Rev 18:21).

“Woe to that Man”

In his words the Lord makes it clear that the religious system which would cause so many to stumble would be headed by an individual when he said: “Woe to that man by whom the offence (cause for stumbling) cometh!” (Matt 18:7). The Lord knew that such an individual would at length emerge from among the churches which would have become apostate. Paul, also making reference to Old Testament Scripture, forecast the same apostasy when he said: “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalted himself above all… ” (2 Thess 2:3–4, see also Dan 11:36). Time proved these forecasts to be divine and correct. The Bishop of Rome, Il Papa, the Pope, was exalted to primacy over a false religious system, Roman Catholicism, which has caused millions to stumble and slain and persecuted others.

The Idol Shepherd

But Zechariah had also foretold the raising up of an idol shepherd following the cutting off of the “three shepherds” of the land (Zech 11:16, 8). This shepherd would have no care for those in need, being totally consumed with his own importance and glory. “For, lo, I will raise up a shepherd in the land, which shall not visit those that be cut off, neither shall seek the young one, nor heal that that is broken, nor feed that that standeth still: but he shall eat the flesh of the fat, and tear their claws in pieces.”

As in the Lord’s words a “Woe” is pronounced against this shepherd: “Woe to the idol shepherd that leaveth the flock!” (v17). Then the judgment is detailed. The sword is to come down on his arm, which had not been used to care and protect the sheep, causing it to be clean dried up (as in the case of the false shepherd, King Jeroboam 1 Kings 13:4). And also his right eye, which had not been used to “seek the young one… ”, would be smitten and become “utterly darkened”.

Now, significantly in his words that follow, Jesus calls upon his disciples, soon to beleaders and shepherds in the ecclesia, to exercise vigorous self-discipline. The power that would be theirs as his apostles could be used properly or it could be abused. So he warns them: “Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee.” The “hand” speaks of power and action. The disciples would have to use care in the exercise of these.

Then again using the same symbols as Zechariah, he makes reference to the “eye”, which was to be plucked out if it was the cause of offence. Better to enter into life with one eye than to be cast into hell fire with two eyes.

The “eye” is synonymous with desire and vanity. The love of pre-eminence and wealth and outward show, was a significant factor in the emergence of the “idol shepherd”, the Papacy. Failure to discipline, to “cut off” these desires by those who succeeded the apostles, led to the development of the Papal system. One has only to visit the Vatican and view the extravagance, opulence and wealth to see how true these words have proved (cp Rev 17:4).

With what amazing insight the Lord spoke of future things and he saw in the attitudes of his disciples the germ that could lead, if unchecked, to the apostasy.

In his words which follow the Lord continues with the theme of the shepherd. But now he comes to the positive side. He warns those who might cause others to stumble by reminding them that his little ones are represented in heaven: “Their angels do always behold the face of my Father, which is in heaven” (Matt 18:10). Not only that, but the very purpose of his coming was to save the lost (v11), the very opposite purpose to that of the idol shepherd. And then finally he speaks from human experience, how that a shepherd will seek the one sheep that has gone astray (unlike the idol shepherd of Zechariah 11:16) and rejoice more over that sheep (v12–13). In his concluding comment he reveals what the will of his Father in heaven is that not one of these little ones should perish (v14).

Who would dare to counter the will of the God of heaven!?

Thus we can see from this incident, which began so innocently with the disciples disputing as to who would be the greatest, the very grave consequence such a disposition could and would lead to.

We have seen the amazing linkage between Old Testament forecast and New Testament fulfilment reaching down through the history of Gentile times. For us there is the concluding exhortation to care for Christ’s “little ones” and to be careful not to cause them to stumble. So might we then work in harmony with the Father’s will, “that not one of these little ones should perish”.