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Matthew 18:15-20 Biblical Commentary:
Matthew 18: THE CONTEXT
This passage makes us uncomfortable, because it prescribes:
(1) A confrontational process for dealing with conflict within the church and
(2) A harsh penalty for those who refuse to listen.
It helps to remember that the goal is reconciliation. It also helps to look at the rest of the chapter. Our text is bracketed by parables and teachings of forgiveness:
• Verses 6-7 warn that, if we cause little ones to stumble, our punishment will be harsh indeed.
• Verses 10-14 tell the parable of the ninety-nine sheep and the one that went astray, emphasizing the importance of the individual person to God. Nobody is expendable.
• In verses 21-22 (following our text), Jesus tells Peter that the requirement for forgiveness is beyond calculation.
• Verses 23-35 continue the theme of forgiveness with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, which makes the point that the God from whom we have received forgiveness expects us to extend that forgiveness to others.
It is instructive to remember the situation when this Gospel was written late in the first century. The church was suffering persecution from without and growing pains from within—the growing pains expressing themselves in various tensions and disputes. In this chapter, Matthew recalls sayings of Jesus that emphasize the importance of Christians living together in harmony. While there is concern for the individual, the welfare of the ekklesia—the church—the community of faith—is paramount.
That principle sets us apart from the secular world, where people are more inclined to emphasize individual rights than our responsibilities to each other. In today’s world, people often walk away from relationships quickly and easily. Rather than allowing us to just walk away, Jesus calls us to explore possibilities that might lead to reconciliation. He outlines a deliberate, intentional process. He will not let us easily off the hook, but requires us to take the initiative.
It is instructive to remember that Jesus, who established very high ethical principles in the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), also said in that sermon, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but don’t consider the beam that is in your own eye?” (7:1-3).
Also, in the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat (13:24-30; 36-43), Jesus dealt with the problem of evil among the good. He warned against trying to separate the weeds (evil) and wheat (good), saying,“No, lest perhaps while you gather up the darnel weeds, you root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and in the harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘First, gather up the darnel weeds, and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn'” (13:29-30).
It also helps to remember that Jesus tended to treat sinners generously. However, those accounts tend to be found mostly in the Gospels of Luke and John. For instance, Luke tells us that one of the thieves crucified with Jesus asked for mercy, which Jesus granted (Luke 23:42-43), but Matthew says that both thieves taunted Jesus (Matthew 27:44). However, Matthew reports that Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector, to be his disciple—and sat at table with tax collectors and sinners (9:9-13).
Matthew 18:15. IF YOUR BROTHER SINS AGAINST YOU
15“If your brother sins against you (Greek: sou—you singular), show him his fault between you and him (Greek: sou—you singular) alone. If he listens (Greek: akouse—he hears) to you(Greek: sou—you singular), you have gained back your brother (Greek: ton adelphon sou).
“your brother” (ho adelphos sou—your brother). (v. 15a). Christians are brothers and sisters—not just members of the same organization. People value family relationships more highly than relationships with school classmates or members of the Rotary club—and Jesus calls us to value relationships with Christian brothers and sisters as highly as blood kin—even if our Christian brothers and sisters are guilty of an offense. A well-known father whose daughter was arrested for drug-possession commented that the family was saddened by the daughter’s choices, but they loved her and would pray for her recovery. That is exactly that kind of love and loyalty to which Jesus calls us when he speaks of Christians as brothers and sisters.
“sins against you” (sou—you singular). (v. 15a). The words, “against you,” are not found in some of the better (older, more reliable) manuscripts. If we drop “against you,” the focus is on the other person’s sins. If we include those words, the emphasis is on the personal nature of the offense—sin committed against our self. Either way, Jesus’ words make sense. If we become aware of sin, whether or not directed against us, we have a responsibility to initiate action and, if possible, to effect a remedy. We are not to gossip or sulk, but to confront.
“show him his fault” (v. 15b). The goal is to regain the offender—to help the sinner in his/her struggle against sin. That implies a confrontation designed to win the offender back instead of driving him/her farther away. As Paul says, “If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Greek: praiotes—gentleness, meekness, humility) (Galatians 6:1). Unless done in a spirit of praiotes, the confrontation is likely to do more harm than good—to become another occasion for sin.
It is not easy to love an offensive person, so this is a situation where we must pray for grace before beginning the intervention. We cannot expect to deal effectively with the offender until we have first invited God to deal with us. Just as we would expect a surgeon to study X-rays in preparation for a difficult surgery, so we have a responsibility to plan this intervention carefully and to invite the Spirit’s help. It will not do to go off half-cocked.
“show him his fault between you and him (sou—you singular) alone” (v. 15b). This is the most discreet and least threatening possible intervention. It protects the offender against unnecessary embarrassment, permitting correction before the offense becomes general knowledge. Even if the remedy requires that the offense become more widely known, the offender can be seen as taking corrective action rather than as suffering public exposure. If there is any hope for the offender to retain his/her dignity, this first step makes it possible.
What kinds of sins warrant this remedy? Surely Jesus has in mind serious sins, or this three-step process, potentially resulting in the expulsion of a brother/sister, is overkill. Some will protest that all sin is serious, because it separates us from God—and that is true. Some sins, however, have more potential than others to discredit the church and to damage our relationships with each other. Just consider how deeply we would wound a brother or sister by committing adultery with his/her spouse.
Certain sins, especially if committed by pastors or other church leaders, are especially likely to injure the cause of Christ. The apostle Paul offers very specific guidance, “(Do not) associate with anyone who is called a brother who is a sexual sinner, or covetous, or an idolater, or a slanderer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner. Don’t even eat with such a person” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
If, then, the offense is against us, does Jesus call us to confront the offender only for gross offenses? Are we constrained from trying to resolve lesser offenses by confronting the offender? Surely not! Earlier, Matthew recorded these words of Jesus: “If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (5:23-24). This is the reverse situation, where we are the one who have given offense, but there is no suggestion that we should take initiative only when guilty of a major offense. We are to take the initiative whenever our brother or sister has something against us—with or without justification. In other words, we might not be guilty of any offense, but our brother or sister is offended—and Jesus expects us to take the initiative to resolve the situation.
It would therefore seem appropriate that we go to our brother or sister if we are offended, even if the offense is minor. As noted above, we must go in a spirit of praiotes (gentleness)—having carefully invited the Spirit to prepare us to go in love. It would not seem appropriate, however, to involve the church in a formal disciplinary process for a minor or strictly personal offense.
Both Old and New Testaments call us to confront sin with the hope of restoring the sinner to spiritual health and to membership in the holy community:
• “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh” (Leviticus 19:17-18).
• “So you, son of man, I have set you a watchman to the house of Israel; therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I tell the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you don’t speak to warn the wicked from his way; that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at your hand” (Ezekiel 33:7-8).
• In a situation involving gross sexual immorality, Paul counseled the church “to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus… ‘Put away the wicked man from among yourselves'” (1 Corinthians 5:5, 13).
• In a situation involving freeloaders, Paul counseled Christians “that you withdraw yourselves from every brother who walks in rebellion, and not after the tradition which they received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
• “Avoid a factious man after a first and second warning” (Titus 3:10).
The hope, in each of these instances, was that spiritual discipline would bring the sinner to repentance.
Matthew 18:16. TAKE ONE OR TWO MORE WITH YOU
16“But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you (Greek: sou—you singular), that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.”
“But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you” (sou—you singular) (v. 16a). The first step was to confront the Christian brother/sister individually. The second step is to take one or two witnesses for another face-to-face confrontation. While the text does not specify that the “one or two others” should be fellow-Christians, it stands to reason that they should be. If things go badly, they will need to appear before the church as witnesses against the offender (v. 17). It would not be appropriate to use people outside the faith community to serve as witnesses to the faith community in behalf of one Christian against another Christian. But there is no mention here of church officers—apostles or elders or deacons. Any faithful adult Christian could serve as a witness.
“that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (v. 16b). The requirement for two or three witnesses comes from Torah law: “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sins: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15). This protects people against unfair accusations, and is echoed in 1 Timothy 5:19: “Don’t receive an accusation against an elder, except at the word of two or three witnesses.” The church is to be deliberate, careful, and fair in its discipline.
The requirement in Deuteronomy is that the two or three have witnessed the offense. However, Jesus does not require that “one or two others” have witnessed the original offense. Instead, they go with the offended party to serve as witnesses to the intervention—to verify that the intervention took place and followed proper procedure. They also add a measure of wisdom—two or three heads are better than one—and lend a measure of gravitas—it is easier to dismiss the opinion of one person than the counsel of two or three. It is also possible that they will help the offended party to see the offense in a less harsh light. They might even discover that the offended party is the true offender. In any event, the goal is not to fix blame but rather to remove the sin and to restore the sinner.
If the conflict cannot be resolved during this second intervention, the “one or two others” will serve as witnesses before the church. Their testimony will help the church to understand the problem and to establish a remedy.
Matthew 18:17. TELL IT TO THE ASSEMBLY
17“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly (Greek: ekklesia—assembly—church). If he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you (Greek: soi—you singular)as a Gentile or a tax collector.”
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly” (ekklesia—assembly—church) (v. 17a). Assembly (ekklesia) can refer to the church-at-large or the local congregation. In this context, it almost certainly refers to the local congregation.
“let him be to you (soi—you singular) as a Gentile or a tax collector” (v. 17b). The language sounds strange coming from Jesus, whom this Gospel portrays as ministering to Gentiles and tax collectors (8:5-13; 11:16-19), even calling a tax collector to become one of the Twelve (9:9-13). However, elsewhere in this Gospel, Jesus uses “Gentiles” and “tax collectors” as “code words for nonbelievers or outsiders…. (see, e.g., 5:47; 6:7, 32, 9:10; 10:18, 11:19; 20:19)” (Senior, 209-210).
“You” is singular in this verse, so Jesus is calling the offended person to treat the unrepentant sinner as an unbeliever and an outsider. The unrepentant sinner is no longer a brother or sister—no longer a member of the church, the community of believers. The offended person is, where possible, to avoid contact with the unrepentant sinner.
Paul commanded the Thessalonian Christians to observe this principle, saying, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother who walks in rebellion” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). The church is to relate to the rebellious person as an outsider—a person of no faith—spiritually dead.
Again, the object is to use discipline to restore the sinner to the faith and practice of the church. When Paul counseled the Corinthian church to “deliver (the unrepentant sinner) to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” it was in the hope that “the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5). In the service of that goal, Paul says, “Put away the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Corinthians 5:13; see also 2 Corinthians 13:1-3).
While such discipline is harsh (and will thus be offensive to some), we should note that the discipline outlined in the New Testament is much less harsh than the beatings, amputations, and executions imposed by some religious faiths today.
While it appears that the church is forcing the offender outside its circle, it is, in reality, only acknowledging publicly that the offender has already placed him/herself outside its circle. The hope is that the offender, finding him/herself outside the fold, will be motivated to take steps to regain membership inside the fold. While the church regards the offender as a Gentile or tax collector, Matthew’s church regards Gentiles and tax collectors as a mission field.
In a case of sexual immorality, Paul ordered the Corinthian church “to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).
Discipline is not a popular concept these days. We have a live-and-let-live attitude that is uncomfortable with the idea that anyone has a right—much less a responsibility—to discipline anyone else. Parents feel that they should be encouragers rather than rebukers. We have stripped teachers of their disciplining authority. We resent encroachments on our freedom. We say, “Who are we to judge?”
But the early church understood the deadly consequences of tolerating sin. Not only would such toleration lessen the chances that the sinner might repent, but it would also tarnish the reputation of the church itself—and the ability of the church to call others to repentance. The church was to treat the unrepentant sin of each sinner as a spiritual cancer that had the potential to destroy the whole body.
Discipline, performed rightly, is necessary. Children without discipline not only fail to reach their potential but also become dangerous to themselves and others. We would not want our family to travel on highways with no rules-of-the-road. We would not want to live in a community where there were no protections against violence or theft. If we were all angels, discipline would be unnecessary—but we are not angels. Even the Apostle Paul confessed that he often found himself doing what he knew to be wrong and failing to do what he knew to be right (Romans 7:15-20).
Just as discipline is necessary in civil society, it is also necessary in the church. Today, churches, especially mainline Protestant churches, seldom practice any form of serious church discipline. One problem is that the multiplicity of denominations gives the offender the option of going to another church. The “gaining” church is usually thrilled to have a new member, and often fails to ask the “losing” church about the person’s conduct.
However, even if the disciplined party refuses to repent, church discipline serves a secondary purpose by demonstrating to its members and to the world that the church takes seriously its standards of faith and conduct. Without a disciplinary process for dealing with immorality and heresy, the church will soon find its witness to Christ compromised. The world likes to accuse the church of hypocrisy, and too often finds plenty of evidence.
The televangelist scandals of a few years ago and the more recent child abuse scandals are high-profile examples of misconduct, but many of us know of a preacher who turned out to be an adulterer or a church treasurer who absconded with church funds. Denominational fights over doctrinal issues also compromise our witness. Church discipline is like a surgeon’s knife, excising diseased tissue so that healthy tissue might live. The process is painful and costly, but the alternative is to die.
“let him be to you (soi—you singular) as a Gentile or a tax collector” (v. 17b). But Richard France sees this differently, based on the fact that when Jesus says, “let him be to you,” the word “you” is singular (addressing the offended person), not plural (as it would be if addressing the church). France believes that, while the church might decide to treat the unrepentant sinner as a Gentile and a tax collector, verse 17b is given for the benefit of the offended person rather than to the church-at-large (France, 691). In this understanding, when Jesus says, “let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector,” he is telling the aggrieved person to avoid contact with the offender where possible.
Matthew 18:18-20. WHATEVER THINGS YOU BIND ON EARTH
18“Most certainly I tell you (Greek: humin—you plural), whatever things you bind(Greek: plural verb) on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose (Greek: plural verb) on earth will have been released in heaven. 19Again, assuredly I tell you (Greek: humin—you plural), that if two of you (Greek: humon—you plural) will agree on earth concerning anything that they will ask, it will be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.”
The “you” in these verses is plural. Jesus clearly directs the counsel of these verses to the church-at-large (France, 695).
“Most certainly I tell you” (humin—you plural) (v. 18a) adds emphasis. One of my professors used to say, “I can’t tell you what will be on the test, but when I say, ‘Teaching point!’ you should listen up!” When Jesus says, “Most certainly I tell you,” he means, “Listen up!”
“whatever things you bind (you plural) on earth will be bound (perfect tense) in heaven, and whatever things you release on earth will have been released (perfect tense) in heaven” (v. 18b). Jesus warns us that we dare not thumb our nose at the church. Here he gives to the church the authority that he previously gave to Peter (16:19). “Bind” and “release” have to do with forbidden or permitted activities. They also have to do with the church’s membership—who is and is not part of the body of Christ. The church dares not use this authority arbitrarily, as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, which follows immediately (18:23-35), will show. Nevertheless, Jesus gives the church authority to discipline, clearly expecting that they will use it, and assuring them of heaven’s concurrence.
The point is not that Jesus is giving the church the right to impose its judgment on heaven, but that God is giving the church the ability (with the help of the Holy Spirit) to discern judgments that God has already put in place in the heavenly realm (Morris, 469).
“that if two of you (humon—you plural) …where two or three are gathered together in my name” (vv. 19a, 20a). In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name—that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character. As is obvious from this verse, they also assumed that a name—at least some names—possessed something of the power of the one who wore that name. Therefore, when Jesus says, “in my name,” he is talking about people who have identified themselves with him and have gathered together under his authority.
Jewish worship requires the presence of at least ten adult Jewish males to form a minyan. The Mishnah says, “But if two sit together and words of the law are gathered between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” (Aboth 3:2). Jesus chooses this latter standard of two persons, but makes no mention of adult males. Two or three! A person can pray alone, as Jesus demonstrated, but coming together in Jesus’ name multiplies the power. Small churches should be encouraged by this minimal requirement! And prayer groups! And parents—if a father and mother gather in Jesus’ name to pray for their child, Jesus is present! And grandparents—sometimes parents make it impossible for grandparents to see their grandchildren, but nobody can stop grandparents from joining together to pray for their grandchild!
“there I am in their midst” (v. 20b). The rabbis believed that, when two men gathered to study the Torah, the Shekinah glory (Yahweh’s glory) was present with them. When Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst,” he uses this familiar saying to identify himself with God and to assume Godly prerogatives.
• In it beginning, this Gospel says, “They shall call his name Immanuel; which is, being interpreted, ‘God with us'” (1:23).
• At its ending, this Gospel will conclude with Jesus’ promise to be with us always (28:20).
• Now, in the center of the Gospel, Jesus promises to be with every group that gathers in his name—even groups with only two or three members. Thus, Jesus ends this section with a note of blessing rather than judgment (Craddock, 433).
Elsewhere Jesus deals with the opposite problem. There he tells us what to do when we realize that we have offended a Christian brother or sister. He says, “If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
So whether we are the offended or the offender, we are to take the initiative to effect reconciliation. Jesus doesn’t allow us to leave the wound untended, whether we inflicted the wound or are among those who have been wounded. He makes us the responsible agent for correcting the problem in either event.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1957)
Bergant, Dianne with Fragomeni, Richard, Preaching the New Lectionary, Year A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001)
Blomberg, Craig L., New American Commentary: Matthew, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Boring, M. Eugene, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Bruner, Frederick Dale, Matthew: Volume 2, The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Dallas: Word, 1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
France, R.T., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)
Gardner, Richard B., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Matthew (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1990)
Hagner, Donald A., Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28, Vol. 33b (Dallas: Word, 1995)
Hare, Douglas R. A., Interpretation: Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Hauerwas, Stanley, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006)
Johnson, Sherman E. and Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
Keener, Craig S., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Matthew, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
Long, Thomas G., Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Morris, Leon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992)
Senior, Donald, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Soards, Marion; Dozeman, Thomas; McCabe, Kendall, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Turner, David L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008)
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Copyright 2009, 2014, Richard Niell Donovan