I don’t have anything new to say today, so I will share something old. I wrote this for use in a small group I was in a few years ago. I’m going to be sharing it in church today. If you’ve been to the BBT site within the week you may have already seen it. I have adapted the text below for the actual sermon today, but I still feel I’m missing something, so maybe this is God’s way of getting me to find it.
Matthew 18:15-17 is often quoted as the proper procedure for dealing with someone who wrongs us. This is an appropriate use of the passage. However, reading it in context adds a great deal of depth to Jesus’ words. Everything in chapter eighteen fits together. That helps explain why these verses were written. After all, doesn’t Paul say in 1 Corinthians 13:5 that love does not take into account a wrong suffered? Why would this seemingly contradictory procedure be explained by Jesus Himself?
Beginning in verse 1, Jesus’ disciples ask him who will be greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. A similar account in Mark chapter nine suggests that they may have just been arguing about which of them would be greatest. Their intent was self-serving. This sets the stage for the remainder of chapter eighteen, which drives our attention toward putting the welfare of the least among us ahead of our own. Even in the case of one who sins against us, our approach is to be redemptive. We are to give every opportunity to the one who is sinning to repent. Excommunication is the last resort, reserved for those unwilling to repent. Furthermore, we are instructed that we must forgive. Beginning in verse 22, Jesus illustrates the dyer consequences of unforgiveness.
Jesus expounds upon His message from several angles, beginning with the example of a small child. The child exemplifies faith, trust, humility, and vulnerability. Without that child-like faith and trust in our Heavenly Father, we cannot know Him. We must recognize His lordship and come to Him as children to a loving father (v. 3-4.)
Jesus places great value on this tender and trusting heart. He promises a strong judgment to anyone who causes damage to that special relationship (v. 5-7.) It is interesting that this is the context in which we find the often-quoted verses concerning the cutting off of offending body parts. Is it possible that there is a deeper meaning here related to the body of Christ? Perhaps god will not even spare members of His own who turn and cause the week to stumble. There is also a judgment for a body that will not cut off those offending members (v. 8-9.)
It is important to remember that the theme of this chapter is redemptive in nature. Following the difficult words in verses five through nine, Jesus again expresses how important the Father’s children are to Him (v. 10.) “… their angels always see the face of My Father …” The theme continues with the illustration of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go find the one that is lost. He rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that had not gone astray (v. 11-14.)
Now, we come to the verses we set out to explore. Note that verse fifteen begins with “moreover.” This is not a filler word, inserted by translators to improve English readability. Jesus is still speaking, and is still on the same subject. That is the context in which we should read these verses. Remember that this teaching began when the disciples wanted to know who was greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus tells them that they must be like children, and then explains the value of children to the Father and the judgment for causing them to stumble. One might ask why verse fifteen is attached to this teaching. Jesus obviously intended for us to consider this passage in light of what He has just said. When we come to our brother who has sinned against us, we are to keep in mind that Jesus came to “save that which was lost.” The purpose of confronting him is not to right the wrong done to you, but to restore your brother to a right relationship with Jesus and the body (“…you have won your brother.” V. 15) It is not for your benefit that you seek his repentance, but for his.
By bringing one or two witnesses, we confirm that there is a problem. There is another good reason for bringing in additional witnesses. By so doing, you may convince him that he needs to repent. On the other hand, you may discover that the real problem is you. Choose your witnesses carefully. Be willing to accept that you may be the one who needs to repent. These witnesses provide another layer of protection for the one who is accused. They may help him to repent, or they may protect him from being needlessly wounded, or caused to stumble.
In verse seventeen, the matter is not in doubt, and it has come before the church. We see again the opportunity for repentance given. This is not a crusade to destroy the guilty. It is a rescue mission, with every available means of salvation extended to the fallen brother. Why, then, are we finally told, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector?” Jesus is speaking to Jews, for whom these groups of people were not to be associated with.
There is a punishment involved. Read I Corinthians 5:1-6 and I Timothy 1:19-20. Note that in these passages the end is still redemptive. The protection of the rest of the body must be considered. See also Revelations 2:18-23. The one who will not repent of his sin may cause others to fall away. This is the man we are not to permit in our midst. In I Corinthians chapter 5, Paul speaks against the toleration of flagrant sin in the church.
When I read verses eighteen through twenty, I hear, “Wait! Don’t give up on him yet! Your prayers have power. If you will pray together in unity, your requests will be granted. You will yet have your brother back!” There is no indication of a break between verses seventeen and eighteen. He is still on the same subject.
There may have been some time between twenty and twenty-one. However, it appears that Peter is asking a question based on the teaching Jesus had just completed. This indicates that Peter understood that forgiveness was a key component of the lesson. In the remainder of the chapter, Jesus drives home His point with the story of the king who forgave his servant a large debt, which he could not possibly repay. He then went out and found a fellow servant who owed him a relatively small amount and threw him into prison until the debt could be repaid. This angered the king. The first servant was sentenced to torture until he could repay the debt. At this sentencing, it was really too late. He could not repay the debt, so it was a life sentence. When Jesus later died on the cross, he paid for our sins. When we asked Him, He forgave us everything, and gave us eternal life. He has told us that we cannot have His forgiveness unless we are willing to forgive one another.
Around the verses so often cited as a way to deal with sin in the church or a way to deal with a personal conflict is a pattern of redemption. Jesus came to save the sinner. We have all been forgiven much and must come to Him in the faith and humility of a child. We are to put others, even those who have wronged us, ahead of ourselves. Our goals are always to be forgiveness and reconciliation. This is what Jesus modeled for us (Rom 5:8.)