The way we develop character and master godly conduct is one step at a time, and the disciples were learning it – not very fast perhaps but surely. They had asked about being great in Christ’s kingdom and had been taught that greatness begins with humility, like that of a child. They had been taught to avoid sin and were warned about causing another person to sin, especially a new or weak believer. But what if the other person sins against you? The answer to that question was Jesus’ next important lesson.
The remarkable thing about Jesus’ teaching here is that although he had been stressing humility and would teach forgiveness, He did not say that sin should just be overlooked. Offenses must be dealt with. His explanation of how they must be dealt with is the classic text (Matthew 18.15-20) for how Christians are to handle discipline problems in the Church.
Dealing with Sin in the Church – The procedure for dealing with sin is both sensible and clear, as Jesus states it. It involves three steps.
First, go and talk to the person who has sinned, attempting to show him his fault. He ought to listen and correct the fault. If he does, that is the end of the matter: “You have gained your brother” (v.15).
Second, if talking about it does not achieve a correction and reconciliation, go again, this time taking one or two others with you, “so that ‘every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses’” (v.16). This is a clear reference to the primary legal statute of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 19.15.
Third, bring the matter before the Church. If the sinning brother still does not respond, he is to be treated “as you would a Gentile [pagan – unbeliever] or a tax collector” (v.17).
It is obvious from the way Jesus develops these points that a number of important principles are involved. First, upright conduct matters; sin must be dealt with. Second, accountability [discipline] is to be kept as private as possible, involving as few people as possible. If it can be worked out between two individuals, that is best. Third, the purpose of these steps is the restoration of the offender. We sometimes say that the purpose of discipline is restorative, not retributive. That is correct. Further, the final step is a function of the Church, which means that it should be an official action. The word church occurs here for only the second time in Matthew’s Gospel.
In verse 18 Jesus gives the Church the authority to bind and loose, the same authority He had given to Peter earlier. This means verse 18 has bearing on how His earlier words to Peter should be understood. It indicates that the authority He gave to Peter was not an authority given to Peter as an individual or in virtue of a special office he was to hold. Rather, He gave it to the Church as a whole in its official functions.
The final verses of this section seem to say that God will do anything that two or more Christians agree should be done. But that is not true. Actually, these verses belong with what was said in the previous verse about the binding and loosing function of the Church, and they teach that God recognizes and validates that authority. What is most remarkable, however, is verse 20, because this verse puts Jesus in the role of God. Only God can be in more than one place at the same time, and that is what Jesus says of Himself. He will be wherever two or three believers gather in His name.
Such a statement should be an encouragement to Christians, for however small the group or however insignificant we may think we are, we can know that the very God of the universe, even Jesus, is present with us. What can be more encouraging or more comforting than that?
Misusing the Steps – The most important principle in this passage is that discipline is intended for the restoration of the sinner and not for his or her condemnation, still less for the self-justification of the offended party. This is why the steps set out in verses 15-20 are followed by the parable of the unmerciful servant in verses 21-35.
It was because of foreseen abuse that the chapter continues with the parable of the unmerciful servant. The parable is about forgiveness, and it teaches that we must forgive without limits since that is how we have been forgiven by God.
The bridge to the parable is Peter’s question: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” The rabbis had been teaching that one should forgive an offense three times, but not beyond that. So Peter was probably thinking that he was going a long way toward mastering the spirit of Jesus when he suggested that one might actually forgive seven times.
We tend to look down on Peter for misreading Christ’s mind, supposing that we would do better. But Peter was at least asking the right question. He realized that it was right to forgive and that he had an obligation to do so. He was trying. But do we even try? To put it another way, do we forgive even seven times, not to mention the seventy-seven times suggested by Jesus? Can you think of anyone who, in the last week or month or year, you have consciously forgiven for the same offense as many as seven times? You may have, but you probably have not. So at least grant Peter something. He had been in Jesus’ school for only three years and had a great deal yet to learn, but he had learned this much at least.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org