[April 13, 2008] The gospel passage before us (Matthew 18:15-35) is a continuation of last week’s passage (verses 1-14). Its meaning should be very clear, yet believers have misunderstood and distorted Jesus’ words in ugly ways. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we understand them. Here Jesus is laying down the practical foundation of His church. If we do not apply this, the local church is finished as far as the kingdom is concerned. So also are we, individually.
In 16:18 Jesus revealed the church to the disciples. Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” and Jesus said, “Upon this bed-rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The existence of the church is a matter entirely of grace. We are born again into it by grace, not works—by adhering to our Lord Jesus through faith in Him. Thus we become the little ones that Jesus spoke about in Matthew 18:1-14.
There is another aspect of things we must pay attention to. This is the matter of the kingdom—the overcoming rule of God. The world has fallen away from God. Its relationship with God is radically ruptured and it has succumbed to powers that are in rebellion against God. Therefore it needs to be overcome. The church exists for the sake of the kingdom, and it lives its life in the light of the kingdom. So immediately after Jesus revealed the church, He also showed the disciples that they must deny their soul unto death—the way of the cross—and live in the power of His resurrection. He gave them a vision of the coming of the kingdom, when they saw Him transfigured on the mountain, and showed them how they need to overcome Satan on the plain.
In chapter 18 Jesus began teaching them how to live the church-life in the light of the kingdom. This teaching continued until He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. All this teaching is very practical and applies to us as much as if we were standing right there with the disciples. We are this church—the community of believers—that Jesus is talking about.
Christians have two tendencies that defeat them and deprive them of the Word. One tendency is to think that the Bible—and therefore the teachings of Jesus and the apostles—is about our individual behavior. They only see themselves as individuals. They do not see that Jesus and the apostles always place us in the context of the believing community, the church. So they fail to see why this chapter is so important. The other tendency is to apply the teaching to society; they think this chapter is about social change. But the world is under the rebellious powers and is incapable of receiving or applying this teaching. It applies only to those who are born again through faith in Christ.
How to Live the Church-Life in the Light of the Kingdom
Last week Jesus showed us how we must all humble ourselves and become like little children in relation to one another. There must be no distinctions among us. On the one hand, we must treat all others as if they are above us, as if our fellow believer were Christ. On the other hand, we must be responsible for one another. We must not cause anyone to stumble or in any way harm their relationship to Christ. Jesus warns us in the strongest possible language. We also must not despise one another. Instead, we must all be like shepherds to one another, caring for the least among us, and if anyone goes astray, it is up to us to seek them out.
This is what it means to be the church. We must love one another without making distinctions, caring for those whom we would be most tempted to despise or ignore. The warnings that Jesus attaches to these imperatives are serious, not idle. You would be better off tying a millstone to your neck and drowning yourself! This has to do with the kingdom.
The problem is that many Christians only know about grace and not about the kingdom, and so they develop in a very distorted, ugly way and imagine that their poor behavior does not make any difference. They are saved and going to heaven and that is all they care about. It is all they care about, but it is not all Christ cares about. He did not save us so that we can enjoy mansions in the sky. He saved us for His own purpose. He wants us to participate in His purpose, but to do so requires that we be faithful to Him. Otherwise, we will come under His temporary judgment.
God deals with us in this life, disciplining and training us for the life to come. It is possible for us to derail or even to wreck and become useless for the age to come. If we want to participate with Christ in the age to come, we need to deny ourselves now and take up the cross and follow Him. When Christ returns, He will judge our eligibility, our qualification, for participation in the age to come. The “age to come” is a transitional age. It is called the “kingdom,” and refers to when the kingdom of Christ becomes manifest and all things are being brought under His Headship. It is only after this age that those who rejected Christ will be resurrected for judgment. In the meantime, during the time of the kingdom, believers who were faithful will rule with Christ and those who were unfaithful will be disciplined.
You may have thought that eternity would begin immediately when Christ returns and there would be no consequences for your selfish and worldly behavior now, since you are saved by grace. This is a misunderstanding.
Jesus is teaching about our relationships to one another and insists that we must pay attention to them and take them seriously. Let us continue.
What If Your Sibling Sins Against You? (Matthew 18:15-18)
In the church we are all literally brothers and sisters to one another—siblings—without distinction of rank, because we are born of God our Father through Christ His Son. We must care for one another and do nothing to harm another’s relationship to Christ. We must not sin against another, even the one who is easiest to ignore. But what if my sibling—my fellow believer—sins against me? Something has come between us. Either I have done something and they are angry at me, or they have done something to me and I am hurt. Either way, we cannot let this situation stand.
Do you see this point? There cannot be anything between us that ruptures our relationship to each other. Some people misinterpret this passage, lifting it out of context, and use it to say that we must watch each other’s behavior, and when someone slips below the standard, we need to go to them and correct them. Any individual or group that behaves this way is very ugly. But that is not what this says. It is about our relationships to one another. It does not say “if your brother sins,” that is, against God, but “if your brother sins against YOU.” The problem is not his relationship to God but to you.
Whatever the problem is, you must address it. Go to the individual privately and speak to them in person and deal with it. The word translated “reprove” means to show, to bring to the light. It does not mean that you are to scold or criticize, which is what “reprove” sounds like. It does not mean to put on airs of superiority or righteousness. The problem between the two of you may be just as much your fault as theirs. So go to them and bring the matter to light, because the tension between the two of you cannot continue. When the problem is resolved, there is forgiveness. You each forgive the other and forget the offense. You cannot allow a grudge to exist between the two of you. It is intolerable for any believer to hold a grudge against another.
This is so important, that if the two of you cannot resolve the problem and forgive each other from the heart, then one or both of you may be lost, like the lost sheep in the parable. You need to “gain your brother.” If you have tried and it has not worked, you need to seek help from one or two others. Find someone wise who does not gossip, someone who can be a shepherd to both of you. A third party can help both of you be more honest with yourself and with each other. This is what Jesus means when He says, “that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” By ourselves we tend to distort the situation because we only see things from our own point of view. With help we can see through the other’s eyes.
It is important to pray, and if possible to pray together, especially when a third party is involved. This matter has to do not only with your relationship with the other but with the whole church and with the kingdom of God. We need to resolve the problem before God and with God’s help.
However, if your brother or sister will not address the issue, if they stubborn and refuse to work with you, it becomes a concern for the whole church. The whole fellowship is affected by the tension between the two of you. In most churches you see this going on. Because it is intolerable, Jesus says that “you must tell it to the church.” This probably means taking it to the elders rather than making it a public matter. The elders must be willing to address the issue, or else they fail the whole body. It is not their job to condemn anyone. The point is to reconcile the two parties. The elders must not fail the church in this regard, for they must answer to Christ.
If the individual refuses to submit to the judgment of the church, they are in rebellion against Christ. They have moved from stubbornness to rebellion. It is no longer about their sin against their brother or sister but about their relationship to the church, which is far more serious. “Let him be to you just like the Gentile and the tax collector.” The Gentile is one who worships another god, and a tax collector is a non-observant Jew, a Jew without a relationship to God. In neither case is fellowship possible. This does not mean you should have nothing to do with the individual. It means that you cannot fellowship with them in the things of God. To treat them this way is simply to bring the matter to light. You are not changing anything. You are just being honest about the way things are. See how serious this is. This is what binding on the earth means. Notice the grammar—it has already happened in heaven.
To loose on the earth is to restore the brother and bring reconciliation.
Harmony on Earth (18:19-20)
Verses 19-20 are very important. If two or three of us are gathered into the name of Christ, we ought to be in harmony with each other. The word for harmony is symphony. It means more than agreement. Then Christ is present among us. The harmony is the work of the Holy Spirit among us. It is not an artificial or procedural harmony. Two or three, however, do not make the church, for in verse 17 the two or three bring the matter TO the church. In the church, though, there ought to be this harmony. If there is, then the kingdom is established among us and our prayers can be effective.
Forgiving One Another (18:21-35)
The parable that follows ought to be easy to understand in context. The ten thousand talents that the slave owes is worth more than ten million dollars. If God has forgiven us so much, how can we not forgive our brother the twenty dollars that he owes us? The slave who has been forgiven is a believer and so are the other slaves. This parable is not about eternal salvation.
When we do not forgive our fellow believer, if we hold any sort of grudge, then it grieves the whole Body of Christ. Although we are so concerned about what the other has done to us, we can be sure that God is concerned about our unwillingness to let it go and forgive them from the heart. This is more serious than their offense! Jesus is very clear that if we are not willing to let it go, if we hold on to it and do not forgive our brother from the heart—that is, to be completely reconciled to them and forget the wrong that they have done—then we will come under God’s judgment. We will be delivered to the torturers until we repay all that we owe. This is not about grace but about the kingdom. This means that while others can rule with Christ, we will be under severe discipline until we can forgive our brother or sister from the heart.
This whole chapter is about relationships among each other in the church.