When it comes to managing the many things we need to do in life, it helps to have a clearly defined list of “how to’s” – clear, step-by-step instructions that we can follow to improve our health, wealth, happiness, knowledge, wisdom, relationships and so on.
God’s ‘first covenant’ with his people was characterized by a list of “how to’s” which became known as the Ten Commandments. We could flippantly refer to them as, “How to get along with God and other people in ten easy steps”.
God’s ‘second covenant’ – the ‘new covenant’ that he establishes with us by faith in Jesus Christ our Saviour – still contains those Ten Commandments, but doesn’t begin with them. Instead, it begins with the news that our sinful nature has failed miserably in following those ‘ten easy steps’. It then shows us what Jesus has done for us by dying for our failures and offering the free gift of his perfection to all who put their trust in him. Finally, it shows us who we are in Christ. We are new people, set free from sin’s power and its penalty, set free to live in him, through him and for him. The secret of ‘managing’ our lives as children in his kingdom is not to be found in a list of “how to’s”, but in the life of Christ who now lives within us and among us.
There are still some “how to’s” involved in our new life in Christ, but they all seek to answer one question: What is my new life in Christ supposed to look like? How does my new life in Christ affect my thoughts, my words and my behaviour? Our text today is one example of this. The issue at stake is: What should I do if my brother of sister in Christ sins against me? We might sum up Jesus’ teaching as: How to be reconciled in four easy steps – or, in some cases, ‘not-so-easy steps.’
Jesus’ words, however, are not simply a list of “how to’s”. They form part of a wider context where Jesus addresses some important spiritual concerns. He talks about our concern for our fellow believers (Matt 18:4-6). Our new life in Christ is characterized, not by pride in human greatness, but by living before one another with the faith of a little child, by receiving all who come to Christ in child-like faith, and by taking care not to lead any of God’s children into sin. Next Jesus talks about having concern for our own spiritual life (Matt 18:7-9) by recognizing the temptations to sin in our own lives and allowing the Divine Physician to perform some radical surgery on us by means of his Law and Gospel. Jesus then talks about our concern for those who have strayed from the faith (Matt 18:10-14), inviting us to share his concern that the lost sheep may be found and returned to his flock with rejoicing. This section concludes with the statement, “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14). This verse serves as a ‘springboard’ for today’s text which deals with our concern for the fellow Christian who has sinned against us. There is also a broader concern; that we guard against the danger of letting the sin of another affect our own relationship with God, but that is further developed in the verses that follow our text (v. 21-35).
So what do you do if your brother or sister in Christ sins against you? Think about who you are in Christ – a sinner, forgiven by God’s grace. Think about your Saviour’s concern – that none of his little ones should be lost (v. 14); and let that motivate you to deal lovingly with the one who has sinned against you.
First, Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” (Matt 18:15). Maybe the person is not aware of how their sin has offended you – or offended God – and it is an offence which you cannot simply overlook. A kind, gentle word spoken in private may be all it takes to make them aware of the offence. There is no need to involve anybody else at this stage. Jesus goes on to say, “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” That is the ‘sole purpose’ (pun most definitely intended!) of your visit – to care for the ‘soul’ of your brother or sister in Christ.
Your concern for their spiritual wellbeing is so strong that it will not let the matter rest until it is reconciled – not just between them and you, but between them and God. If the person ‘will not listen’ to your attempts to make peace, or take responsibility for what they have done wrong, Jesus teaches us to ask others in the church to help. Again, it is not necessary to ‘go public’ about this person’s sin. Jesus says, “If [your brother] will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Matt 18:16). The person is invited to discuss the matter in the presence of ‘two or three’ other trusted and trustworthy believers. Notice they are “witnesses” called for the purpose of reconciliation, restoration and soul care, not a ‘posse’ or a ‘lynch gang.’
If the person remains unwilling to recognize or confess their sin, your care for their soul goes to another level. Jesus says, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (Matt 18:17). That does not mean that you stand up after the Sunday service and try to publicly shame your brother or sister in Christ. No, “the church” here refers to those people who have been entrusted with spiritual responsibility and soul care of church members – the spiritual shepherd (pastor), elders or deacons. These are the people who share your concern for the soul of your brother or sister and are called to publicly represent the ministry of Christ to them. Together they will pray and work with their fellow sinner toward repentance and reconciliation.
Sometimes a person’s spiritual heart becomes so numb to the seriousness and effects of their sin that even the representatives of Christ himself cannot reawaken it. It needs some spiritual shock treatment, which is just what the Divine Physician Jesus prescribes here, saying: ‘And, if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector’ (Matt 18:17). This does not mean that we should expel this person from our presence forever. Remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors – as lost souls in need of the good news! This ‘step’ is a last resort, designed to find and return a straying sheep to its fold, so that the ‘Father in heaven’ may have more cause to rejoice over this ‘found sheep’ than over the other 99 who didn’t stray at all. In order to return the straying sheep to its fold, it may for a while need to be excluded from the fellowship to be reminded that, as long as there is no repentance, heaven’s door remains locked to them.
This is why Jesus again mentions the “keys” that he gives to his church – the power to ‘bind’ or ‘lock up’ an unrepentant person in the knowledge of their damnation and to ‘loose’, or ‘set free’, the repentant sinner in the knowledge of their salvation. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 18).
The purpose is to restore all sinners to unhindered prayer and worship, which is why Jesus concluded: “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (v. 19-20). Jesus is present with the “two” as one of them shares how the other has offended them. Jesus is present with the “two or three” witnesses who “agree in prayer” for their unrepentant friend and to give witness to the need for reconciliation. Jesus is present with the “two or three” representatives of the church as they also pray and counsel toward reconciliation. Jesus is present with those same “two or three” as they kneel in prayer for the unrepentant sinner and use Christ’s power to announce that heaven’s door remains locked to them. Jesus is present with those “two or three” who will, hopefully, again kneel in joyful prayer with a repentant sinner and have the privilege announcing heaven’s door is once more unlocked to them. Jesus is present in the company of all the believers, “gathered in his name”, as they “rejoice” over this one lost sheep that has returned to the flock.
Jesus is also present in us and among us as we gather in his name; giving us his new life, calling us to live in his reconciling love and to seek to live at peace with one another. What should we do if our brother or sister in Christ sins against us? Jesus’ ‘four steps to reconciliation’ simply teach us how to be a ‘little Christ’ to them. Amen!
And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
This message by Pastor Vince Gerhardy.is brought to you by Grace Lutheran Church, Web and Park Street, Mountain View, Arkansas. For prayer or more information, contact Pastor Kenneth Taglauer by email: [email protected] A Pass it On Project , You can read more at [email protected]