What did Jesus mean in Matthew 18:10 when he said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven”? He meant: Let the magnificence of every unimpressive Christian’s entourage of angels silence our scorn and awaken awe at the simplest children of God.
To see this, let’s clarify, first, who “these little ones” are.
Who Are “These Little Ones”?
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” They are true believers in Jesus, viewed from the standpoint of their childlike trust in God. They are the heaven-bound children of God. We know this because of the immediate and wider context of the Gospel of Matthew.
This section in Matthew 18 began with the disciples asking, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). Jesus answers, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3–4). In other words, the text is not about children. It is about those who become like children, and thus enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s about true disciples of Jesus.
This is confirmed in Matthew 18:6 where Jesus says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” The “little ones” are those “who believe” in Jesus.
In the wider context, we see the same language with the same meaning. For example, in Matthew 10:42, Jesus says, “Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” The “little ones” are “disciples.”
Similarly, in the famous, and often misquoted, picture of the final judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus says, “The King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40; compare with Matthew 11:11). The “least of these” are the “brothers” of Jesus. The “brothers” of Jesus are those who do the will of God (Matthew 12:50), and those who do the will of God are those who “enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Therefore, in Matthew 18:10, when Jesus refers to “these little ones” whose angels see the face of God, he is talking about his disciples — those who will enter the kingdom of heaven — not people in general. Whether humans in general have good or evil angels assigned to them (by God or the devil) is not addressed in the Bible as far as I can see. We would do well not to speculate about it. Such speculations appeal to untethered curiosities and can create distractions from vastly more sure and more important realities.
One Angel for Each Christian?
“Everything angels do, everywhere in the world, at all times, is for the good of Christians.”
So, our question now is this: What does Jesus mean when he says that we should not despise his childlike followers? And how is it an argument for this, when he refers to “their angels” seeing God? “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For (= because) I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”
It is possible that “their angels” refers to a specific angel assigned to each disciple. There is one other text that some think points in this direction. When the praying believers in Acts 12 could not believe that Peter was knocking at the gate, since he was supposed to be in prison, they said, “It is his angel!” (Acts 12:15). That may or may not imply that all believers have an angel assigned to them. It may only imply that in that situation God had commissioned an angel to use Peter’s voice (Acts 12:14), and perhaps awaken even more urgent prayer for him.
It is even more difficult here in Matthew 18:10 to infer that each believer has an angel assigned to him. What it says is, “In heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” The word “their” certainly implies that these angels have a special personal role to play in relation to Jesus’s disciples. But the plural “angels” may simply mean that all believers have numerous angels assigned to serve them, not just one.
Calvin’s Careful Observation
I think John Calvin’s careful observation about this text is exactly right:
The interpretation given to this passage by some commentators, as if God assigned to each believer his own angel, does not rest on solid grounds. For the words of Christ do not mean that a single angel is continually occupied with this or the other person; and such an idea is inconsistent with the whole doctrine of Scripture, which declares that the angels encamp around (Psalm 34:7) the godly, and that not one angel only, but many, have been commissioned to guard every one of the faithful. Away, then, with the fanciful notion of a good and evil angel, and let us rest satisfied with holding that the care of the whole Church is committed to angels, to assist each member as his necessities shall require. (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, on Matthew 18:10)
Old-Covenant Ministry of Angels
“The care of the whole Church is committed to angels.” This is not a new idea. Angels are active throughout the Old Testament for the sake of God’s people. For example,
He [Jacob] dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! (Genesis 28:12)
The angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son.” (Judges 13:3)
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. (Psalm 34:7)
He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. (Psalm 91:11)
Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will! (Psalm 103:20–21)
“My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.” (Daniel 6:22)
All Angels, All Christians, All the Time
And more important than these Old Testament references to angels, Hebrews 1:14 makes it clear that God sends angels to minister for the sake of the people of Christ. In the context of Hebrews 1, the writer is arguing that the Son of God is infinitely greater than angels. One of his arguments is that God never said to any angel, “Sit at my right hand” as he did to Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:13). Instead, angels are simply God’s servants who do his bidding for the sake of those who are on their way to heaven.
To which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:13–14)
The promise here is better than the tradition that every saint has one personal guardian angel. What Hebrews 1:14 says is that all the angels — all of them — are specifically sent “for ministry” (Greek eis diakonian) — not ministry “to” Christians, but ministry “for the sake of” Christians (Greek dia tous mellontas kleronomein soterian).
This means that everything angels do, everywhere in the world, at all times, is for the good of Christians. An angel who does something by God’s assignment anywhere in the world is fulfilling the promise that God will work all things for the good of all Christians — everywhere. This is a sweeping and stunning promise. All angels serve for the good of all Christians all the time. They are agents of Romans 8:28.
The Wonder That Eminent Angels Serve Others
But as amazing as that is, it’s not the point of Matthew 18:10. The jolting point of Matthew 18:10 is not the wonder that angels serve us, but the wonder that angels serve others. Remember, the context is about how we treat other believers: “these little ones.” “See that you do not despise one of these little ones” (Matthew 18:10).
The argument Jesus gives for why we should not treat other believers in belittling ways is because “in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” The point of saying that these angels “see the face of my Father” is that they have the immeasurable rank and privilege to be in the immediate presence of God. You can see that meaning in Esther 1:14 and Revelation 22:4.
Having Angels Does Not Increase Our Safety or Dignity
“An angel working anywhere in the world fulfills God’s promise to work all things for the good of all Christians.”
So, how are we to be motivated to honor the lowliest Christian (Matthew 11:11) because the angels who attend them have immeasurably high rank and privilege?
I would suggest this: Ponder first that every Christian has the Creator of the universe as his Father (Romans 8:16–17), and has the Lord of the universe as his elder brother (Romans 8:29). You cannot have a safer, more exalted position as a human being than to have God as your all-caring, all-providing Father (Matthew 6:32–33; Luke 12:30–32), and Jesus as your all-authoritative Lord (Matthew 28:18).
Having a hundred or a thousand of the highest ranking angels serving you does not increase your safety or your dignity. How, then, does the argument work? How are we motivated to treat all ordinary Christians with deep respect “because” they are served by many high-ranking angels?
The Entourage of Titans Reminds You Whom You Are Dealing With
Suppose you were going to receive the son of the greatest king this afternoon. You know that he is the son of a king. He might arrive at your estate walking with two guards. In that case, he would be worthy of the greatest respect — simply because he is a king’s son. But in fact, he is going to arrive with one hundred terrifying titans of greatest strength and beauty surrounding him on every side. These beings are the elite guard and agents of the king.
When you see this entourage, the point is not that this entourage gives the king’s son a greater glory than he already had simply by being the king’s son. Rather this is a reminder of what it is like to be the king’s son.
I think this is what Jesus wants us to think when the least impressive disciple of Jesus walks into a room. “The angels of this disciple always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” There is no counting these angels, since more or less every angel in the world serves “for the sake of” this disciple (Hebrews 1:14). And these angels always see God’s face — they have a rank and dignity corresponding to direct access to God.
Hold Every Christian in Highest Esteem
Therefore (!), don’t despise this simple, unimpressive disciple of Jesus! Let his angelic entourage remind you whose son he is. Let this angelic entourage remind you who his older brother is. Put your hand over your critical mouth, and show great esteem (Philippians 2:3) to all ordinary, childlike disciples. If having God as their Father, and Jesus as their Lord does not cause you to exchange your derision for deference, then let the terrifying advocacy and rank of their magnificent angels wake you from your stupor.
Or as Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”