Matthew 18:15-20 NIV’84
15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.
19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
The Practical Side of the Kingdom of Heaven
Has anyone in church ever offended you? Or have you ever made a fellow church member mad? Or hurt their feelings? Or said something unkind? Or have you ever done something that could have reflected poorly on the congregation of which you were a member if that deed were known?
Probably the answer to most of those questions is at least a qualified, “Yes.” After all, the most effective program Baptists have for starting new churches is a church split. We are not called “the battling Baptists” for nothing. As a matter of fact, disagreement to the point of separation is in our DNA as a denomination. Southern Baptists got their start by disagreeing with their Northern counterparts of the unlikely issue of slavery and missions.
Northern Baptists would not appoint Southern slaveholders as missionaries, and so in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, splitting the ranks of Baptists in the United States over the issue of slavery.
So, we know a little about church fights, and we know at least one way to settle them. But in our look at the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has repeatedly told us that life is different in the Kingdom of Heaven. The conventional wisdom and common practice by which most people lead their lives — including both Jews in the first century, and Christians in the 21st century – gets stood on its head as Jesus reinterprets the Law, and illuminates what life in God’s Kingdom should be like.
So today we come to a very practical bit of instruction from Jesus about divisions within those who are seeking the Kingdom.
An Unfortunate Translation
Let me first deal with an issue here that creates a problem for some people. In the text we read today, Jesus uses the term “church.” Of course, the “church” as we know it today did not exist at this point in Jesus’ ministry. The “church” as we know her would not be born until the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost. As we know from our own observance of Pentecost (we all wear something red, which is the liturgical color for Pentecost Sunday), Pentecost is referred to as the birthday of the church.
Because English versions of the Bible have used the word “church,” some have questioned whether this is an authentic saying of Jesus, or whether it was inserted later after the birth of the church during the apostolic age.
Let’s have a quick and simple lesson in New Testament Greek. The word translated “church” is the Greek word ekklesia. This word is compiled from two words: ek meaning out of, and klesis meaning called. In other words, an ekklesia is an assembly of the “called out ones.”
The original ekklesia, about 500 years before Christ, was an assembly of all male citizens to conduct the affairs of the city. And, attendance at the ekklesia was expected. Slaves were dispatched throughout the city carrying a rope soaked with a red dye or stain. When they say an eligible male who obviously had not taken time or interest in attending the ekklesia, the slave struck the male citizen, staining his garment with red dye. Those so identified and marked were forbidden from conducting business while the ekklesia was in session.
Later in the first century, the word ekklesia is used specifically to refer to the church. Here, however, I think a better translation would be “the assembly.” Because in the first century a gathering of the nation of Israel, or a representative gathering was called an ekklesia.
So, what is my point in telling you all of this? First, I think the translation of ekklesia into church is probably unfortunate here. Clearly, there is no New Testament church yet. The disciples would have had no idea what Jesus was talking about because Pentecost had not come, the Spirit had not come upon each believer, and the apostles had not been empowered yet.
But, the disciples would have understood that Jesus was talking about “the assembly of Israel.” They would have understood that Jesus was speaking of those who were following Jesus, listening to Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, and who gathered with Jesus and the disciples on several occasions.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes that Jesus appeared to over 500 after his resurrection. After Jesus ascension into heaven, 120 were in the upper room with the apostles. So the number of those who followed Jesus was larger than the 12 disciples, and on many occasions ran into the hundreds.
Jesus would have considered these followers an assembly of the new Israel. After all, his ministry symbolically reconstituted the 12 tribes of Israel in the 12 disciples, reinterpreted the Law of Israel, satisfied the requirements of Temple sacrifice, and inaugurated the Kingdom of God with Jesus as the Messiah of God.
So, we can easily imagine Jesus saying to his disciples, “17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly; and if he refuses to listen even to the assembly, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Okay, now that we have that behind us, let’s look at what Jesus said about this business of division and reconciliation.
Sin In The Camp
In the Old Testament book of Joshua, there is a strange story of “sin in the camp.” Joshua had been leading Israel from victory to victory as they conquered the Land of Promise, but when they attempted to take the city of Ai, they were defeated. To make a long story short, it was discovered that one man, Achan, had disobeyed God and had kept some of the spoils of previous battles for himself. This one man’s sin affected the entire nation, and until that sin was dealt with and made right, the nation was under God’s judgment.
Now bring that same story forward about 1200 years or so. Jesus had come proclaiming a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God. Many have begun to follow Jesus, with the 12 disciples forming the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.
The disciples have increasing responsibility for the newer followers. You may remember that we looked at the feeding of the 5,000, which demonstrated that in the Kingdom of God there was always an abundance. Before Jesus fed the crowd that day with a little boy’s lunch, he told the disciples to feed the crowd. That was Jesus’ way of saying that the disciples had an increasing responsibility for caring for Jesus’ followers.
So, 18 chapters into Matthew’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus, Jesus gives the disciples instruction for what to do when there is a problem of sin within the assembly of those who are following Jesus.
Jesus has just finished telling the story of the shepherd who has 100 sheep. When the shepherd discovers just one missing, he searches diligently until he finds the lost sheep and returns it to the flock within the fold. The lesson there is that everyone one of God’s sheep, those whom God has created, are valuable to God and God’s Kingdom. None should be written off as lost and without hope of redemption.
Then Jesus says the same thing in a slightly different way: 15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”
This saying takes the search for a lost sheep, and makes it a quest for a restored relationship. In both cases something fundamentally wrong has happened to disrupt the way things should be. In the case of the lost sheep, he is separated from the flock and the shepherd. In the case of a member of the assembly of Jesus’ followers who sins, they have separated themselves from the followers of Jesus by their actions.
It is interesting to note that although the NIV translation from 1984 has the phrase “If your brother sins against you…” – the 2010 NIV translation drops the two words “against you.” The reason is that the words “against you” are not found in the oldest manuscripts, and also Luke’s account of this same teaching of Jesus does not use that phrase either.
But any sin of one within the assembly is a sin against all members of the assembly, and a sin against God as well.
The very word “sin” brings us to another tricky question – What sins qualify for someone in the assembly to go to someone else and point out the mistake they have made?
This is exactly where church discipline in the past has focused. Obviously some sins were more public, and more serious, than other sins. I think I have told you about Zion Hope Baptist Church in Tifton, Georgia where I was pastor long years ago. For the church’s centennial celebration, we brought out the old church minutes from the late 1800s. It was not unusual for the congregation to “church” someone for the sin of dancing. Nor was it unusual for them to reinstate that same individual the next Sunday after they had made an appropriate act of repentance.
That’s how the church historically has treated this passage. Christians have focused on the “sin” part of Jesus’ teaching. The Roman Catholic Church has categorized sin into either “venial” or “mortal” sins. Venial sins are slight sins that can be corrected or rectified by applying love and loving action, such as an apology, restitution, or other act of contrition and correction. Mortal sins are serious, have a total disregard for love of self, others, or God, and lead to spiritual death if not dealt with, and repented of.
But, focusing on how big the sin has to be before someone seeks to correct another is to miss the point. Jesus could very well have focused on various sins. He could have said, “If someone sins by committing adultery…” and so on. But, he didn’t. The reason Jesus didn’t focus on the sin is because he was focused on the relationship.
That’s the same reason the shepherd goes after the lost sheep. The shepherd isn’t concerned how the sheep got lost. He doesn’t blame the sheep for being stupid, careless, or willful. No, the shepherd goes after the sheep as soon as he realizes that the sheep is missing. And he does so because the main point is that the sheep has strayed, it is no longer in the fold, it needs finding and it needs finding quickly.
That’s why most attempts at church discipline have failed. Either the church has narrowly defined what it considers sin – such as wearing jewelry, cutting your hair if you are a woman, or wearing pants instead of a skirt or dress, again, if you are a woman. (Note that a lot of church discipline applies to women, not so much to men.) I actually had a revival preacher I invited to preach at our church in Lilburn, Georgia spend an entire sermon on women wearing pants to church. He thought he was doing me a favor. I think Debbie had on pants that night. But, you get my point.
Church discipline has largely failed because we have singled out individuals to straighten them out, but usually based on our ideas, not theirs.
No, Jesus didn’t focus on the sin here. He just focused on the fact that a member of the assembly, a person who at one time had embraced the Kingdom of God, had turned aside, had gone astray, had offended either God or a brother or sister in the faith, or both.
In other words, the relationship within the community had been damaged. Jesus concern is not just that one person has gone astray. His concern is that a member of the community, the assembly, has gone astray. And if one is missing, either physically or spiritually, then their life affects the entire community.
The Process for Reconciliation
The process for reconciliation is pretty simple. First, the person who is aware of this person’s mistake goes to him or her privately. If the sin was against the individual, then there’s no reason to involve others at this point. And, Jesus says, if they listen to you, you have won your brother. Case closed. Things are again as they should be. One person reaches out in love, the other listens, and takes appropriate action. Relationships are healed, wrongs are made right, things are as they should be again.
Unfortunately, many cases do not resolved themselves so easily. If the person refuses to listen, Jesus instructs the disciples to take one or two others with you to again seek to win this wayward brother over. Why? Because in Deuteronomy 19:15, the Law says –
15 “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
Jesus is following the Law, while at the same time involving others in seeking to reclaim this lost brother or sister. Hopefully, that step works, and the party who has sinned, when confronted in love by 2 or 3 people about their conduct, will see the error of their ways.
But if not, Jesus has a step three. “Tell it to the church.” Or, to use our word, “tell it to the assembly.” Get more folks involved. Maybe someone else can help. Things are now serious. The assembly, the community of Jesus’ followers, is at risk for losing one of their own. Everyone needs to know about this serious situation. Everyone needs to pray, to express their love to the estranged member, and to reach out to them with grace and care.
What definitely is not happening is that the church gets told so that it can expel the member. That is not the desired result. The member is already estranged. They are already out of the fold of fellowship. No, the idea is that the entire community will now reach out to reclaim this one who has been lost temporarily.
Failing those three steps, Jesus says something very strange – “and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Of course, this is where many church bodies have gotten their doctrine of expulsion, or shunning, or excommunication, or withdrawal of fellowship. All of those practices have the same end result: the offending member is cut off, either permanently or temporarily, from the community.
But, that’s not what Jesus means, I am convinced. Because if we are to take Jesus’ words both seriously and literally, we have to ask ourselves “How did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors?”
The tax collector question is easy to answer. All we have to do is remember a little man named Zacchaeus, himself a tax collector. You know the story, and maybe the song.
“Zacchaeus was a wee-little man, and a wee-little man was he. He climbed us in a sycamore tree, the Lord he wanted to see. And when the Lord came passing by, He looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, come down, for I’m going to your house today!”
That’s pretty much the story. Except Zacchaeus realizes the error of his ways, confesses, makes restitution, and rejoins the family of God and the nation of God. Jesus says of Zacchaeus after Zacchaeus’ confession and offer of restitution – “Today salvation has come to this house.”
That’s how Jesus treats tax collectors. With redemptive love. And so, the point of this whole passage is to redeem, reclaim, and seek reconciliation with those who started for the Kingdom, but somehow lost their way.
The Importance of the Assembly
But, that’s not all. Jesus has involved the assembly in reclaiming the life of one who has gone the wrong way. But, the assembly, no matter how small, has other important functions. Jesus continues –
18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.
19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.
It is the assembly of God’s people, now called the church, that demonstrates that what is done in heaven, can be done on earth. The binding and loosing was an old rabbinical phrase that indicated which obligations the local synagogue was to be bound by, and which they were free to be released from.
The one thing that bound the followers of Jesus most closely, and to which they themselves were bound, was reconciliation. The unrelenting pursuit of those whose lives have gone off-track, who have abandoned their place in the assembly of the Kingdom, so that they can then be reconciled to God and to the other members of the community.
But it doesn’t end there. The reconciling community is also a praying community. Jesus says — 19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”
In other words, the power of our praying is directly related to our participation in the community of faith. When we join with others, agreeing in our hearts and minds that God has this plan for us, then Jesus says, “…it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”
Of course, that is not to dimish the idea of individual prayer. But Jesus is reiterating the importance, the centrality of the community as it relates to the Kingdom of God.
This community of followers of Jesus, this assembly, is the new Israel. Not that the old Israel, the Jews, are excluded. By no means. Paul makes that abundantly clear in Romans 9-11. But, this new community lives differently. This new community follows the Messiah of God. This new community recognizes that God has raised Jesus from the dead, making both Lord and Christ. This new community is the expression of the Kingdom of God here in this place, until Christ comes again, and all things are made new.
And the reason for the importance of this new community? Because Jesus says that wherever 2 or 3 of them are gathered, he’s there in their midst. Jesus is not waiting for the crowd to grow, or the followers to increase. Two or three folks is enough for him. Two or three constitute a community gathered around Jesus for the express purpose of being a community of reconciliation.
Paul says in II Corinthians 5:18-20 –
18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
Jesus has called us to reconciliation. Whether between ourselves and someone who has offended us; or someone who has left the community of faith; or whether in prayer; or simply in gathering in his name, we are ambassadors for Christ, and the credentials we present as representatives of the King and Kingdom are credentials that seek to unite rather than divide, that seek to save rather than condemn, that seek to win rather than to lose a brother or sister.
This is the community of reconciliation gathered here today. We have that ministry according to Paul. We have the instruction given by Jesus. We have the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are on a mission to invite all who will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. The only question is, “Will we rise to the challenge?” Will we reach out to others? Will we be a force for reconciliation in our church, our community, and our world?
We have, we can, and we must continue as God’s agents of reconciliation. We are the assembly, the church, the called out ones. May we live up to that for which God has called us out of this world, and into to the Kingdom.