Matthew 18(15–35)


I said last week that the block of teaching in chapter 18 is to do with how we relate to one another. And from verses 1 to 14 — which we studied last week — we learned that instead of being proud and instead of exalting ourselves over our fellow believers, we’re to be humble and lowly like a little child. And we’re to be careful that we don’t cause anyone to stumble and fall into sin. And we’re to be careful that we don’t cause anyone to go astray from God. And so, we’re to watch ourselves carefully and chase our sins away. That was last week.

Having said that, we all know that we’re sinners; and though God is sanctifying us by his Spirit, the process will not be completed in this life and we’ll continue to sin against one another throughout this life. We know we shouldn’t sin and with the help of the Lord, we’ll do what we can to resist it. Nevertheless, none of us will ever be sinless until we’re glorified in the presence of the Lord.

And so, bearing that in mind, how should we relate to one another when we sin. What should we do? That’s what today’s passage is about.

Verses 15 to 18

The Lord tells us in verse 15 that if your brother in the Lord sins against you, you should go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. So, we’re not to huff and not speak to that person again. We’re not to huff and never go back to church. And we’re not to go around telling others what this person has done to you. That’s often how we respond when someone sins against us. But that’s not what we’re to do. We’re to go and speak to the person. But we’re not going to give off to the other person. We’re not going to attack this person and to give him or her a piece of my mind. We’re going, says the Lord, in order to win our brother over. So, the intention is to win back what was lost. What has been lost? The person’s relationship to you and the person’s relationship to the Lord. Their relationship to the Lord and to you has been spoiled because of their sin. And so, we want this person to confess their sin and to turn from it and to receive forgiveness from the Lord and from you so that this sin will no longer come between you. And since we’re trying to win this person over, and restore a relationship which has been spoiled, then the way we approach the other person and the words we use and the tone of voice we use should correspond with our aim.

If our brother or sister will not listen, then take one or two others along with you. The Lord quotes from Deuteronomy 19:15 which is about how every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. And in the situation which the Lord is describing, the witnesses are witnessing what you have done to try to sort things out with the other person. They are there to witness your efforts to win your brother or sister over. And the hope is that their presence may help to convince the person that what he or she did was wrong. And the aim is still to win this person over so that their relationship to you and to the Lord will be restored.

If the person still refuses to listen, then you should tell it to the church. And the hope is that if this person now knows that the whole church has agreed that what he or she did is wrong, then the person will at last be ready to repent. And still the aim is to win this person over.

But if the person will not listen even to the whole church, then they should treat him or her as you would a pagan or a tax collector. In other words, you should treat this person, not as a fellow believer, but as an unbeliever who needs to be evangelised. Their refusal to confess their sin and repent is a sign that whatever profession of faith they might have made in the past may not be real. And so, treat them as an unbeliever.

And using the same language as he did back in chapter 16, when he spoke to Peter about the keys of the kingdom, the Lord goes on in verse 18 to refer to binding and loosing. The keys of the kingdom are the reading and preaching of God’s word and church discipline. And by means of these two keys, the kingdom is bound or closed to some and it is loosed or opened to others. When God’s word is preached, some hear and believe and the kingdom is opened to them. But when God’s word is preached, others hear and do not believe and the kingdom is closed to them. And when church discipline is practiced, some repent and the kingdom is opened to them. So, we can say to them that their sins are forgiven and they can look forward to eternal life in God’s presence. But when church discipline is practiced, there will be some who do not repent and the kingdom is closed to them. We can say to them that their sins are not forgiven, because they would not repent, and they can therefore have no assurance of eternal life.

And what happens on earth matches what happens in heaven, because in heaven God has promised that whoever repents and believes receives forgiveness and eternal life in the presence of God; and he has warned that whoever does not repent and believe will be condemned and shut out of the presence of God forever.

Verses 19 and 20

And then the Lord goes on in verses 19 and 20 to speak about two of us agreeing about some matter. We often take these two verses out of context and assume the Lord is talking about prayer. So, when two believers agree on what to pray for, it will be done — bearing in mind what the rest of the Bible says about prayer and how it has to be according to God’s will and so on.

But when we pay attention to the context, we’ll see that the verses are concerned with church discipline. So, when two believers — or perhaps when two leaders in the church — agree about anything in regard to binding and loosing or opening and closing the kingdom, it will be done. And that means that church discipline matters and members of the church who face church discipline should not treat is as something unimportant and inconsequential. Church discipline matters and should be taken seriously, because when even a few members of the church come together to decide some matter, the Lord Jesus is present with them by his Spirit.

People think: ‘Who do you think you are? Who gave you authority to discipline me?’ Well, the Lord Jesus, the Head and King of the church, has given his authority to his church to exercise church discipline in his name when necessary. And so, we should listen to the church.

Verses 21 to 35

So, if someone sins against us, this is what we should do to win the person over and to restore the person’s broken relationship to the Lord and to us.

And how often should we be prepared to forgive someone when he sins against me? That’s the next question. So, here’s this person and he keeps sinning against me. How many times should I forgive him? The rabbis said you should forgive someone up to three times but no more. After all, you don’t want someone to take advantage of your kindness; and so you should limit your willingness to forgive. However, Peter has been learning from the Lord about being gracious and patient and kind. So, in verse 21 he suggests that we should be more forgiving than the rabbis. So, we should be prepared to forgive someone up to seven times. Right? Wrong. The Lord replies that we should be willing to forgive, not up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times. And when he says seventy-seven times, he means we should always be ready to forgive someone. We should never stop forgiving them. There should be no restriction on how often we forgive one another.

It’s possible the Lord is alluding to the stories of Cain and Lamech in Genesis 4. After the Lord pronounced his judgment on Cain for killing Abel, Cain complained that it was too much for him to bear, because whoever finds him will kill him. And the Lord said, ‘Not so. If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain to protect him. Then we read of one of Cain’s descendants called Lamech, who boasted to his wives that he had killed a young man who had wounded him. So, someone had only wounded him. They had hurt him. And he responded by killing the other person and boasting about it. And so, he was excessively vengeful. He attitude was: If you hurt me, I will kill you. And he said that if Cain is avenged seven times, then, he, Lamech, will be avenged seventy-seven times. He’s promoting excessive vengeance. And if we were all like Lamech, then we’d be living in a bloody and dangerous world where they would be no limit to what someone might do to take revenge on us. But we’re not to be like that, because, according to the Lord, instead of being excessively vengeful, we should be excessively forgiving. Instead of taking revenge, we should forgive. And there should be no limit on the number of times we’re prepared to forgive the person who sins against us and who then comes to us, asking for forgiveness. When someone asks us for forgiveness, we should give it.

And to underscore his point, the Lord told a parable about a man who owed the king a vast amount of money. He owed the king a fortune: 10,000 talents. Millions of pounds. It was an impossible amount to repay. And since he wasn’t able to repay it, the king ordered that he and his family should be sold to repay the debt. The price the king would get for them would not cover the debt, but it shows us that the man’s situation was hopeless. He owed the king a fortune which he could not pay.

The man asked the king to be patient. He says he’ll repay the debt in time. But it’s impossible. He owes the king too much. And the king presumably understands that there’s no way he can repay the debt. But instead of selling the man into slavery, he forgives him by cancelling the debt. As far as the king is concerned, this man owes him nothing.

Then the man goes out and sees a fellow-servant who owes him money. 100 denari was a lot of money, because a hired worker might get one denarius for a day’s work. So, it’s a few thousand pounds. But it’s nothing compared to the amount the first man owed the king. The man grabbed his fellow-servant and began to choke him and demanded his money. The fellow-servant did what the first man had done: he fell to his knees and asked for time to repay it. But the man refused and threw his fellow-servant into prison until he could repay the debt.

And when the other servants saw what he had done, they reported it to the king. And the king summoned him and called him a wicked servant. And he was wicked, because this was a wicked thing to do. He who had received mercy from the king should have shown mercy to his fellow-servant. He who had been forgiven so much should have been willing to forgive.

And the point of the parable is that each one of us has been forgiven by God. We owed him a life of perfect obedience; and none of us has been able to give him what we owed. And anything we might do now cannot make up for our past sin. Even if we started to do everything right from this moment on — which in itself is impossible — but say we were able to do everything right from this moment on, it would not make up for our past sins. And in fact, because we sin against God every day, then every day we’re only increasing our debt to God. And there’s nothing we can give to God to make up for our disobedience. And so, all of us were liable to God’s wrath and curse because all of us are sinners who fall short of doing his will.

I say that ‘all of us were liable to God’s wrath and curse’, because the good news of the gospel is that Christ has paid for our sins with his life and through faith in him we are pardoned. And he shares his perfect obedience with all who believe. And so, our debt is cancelled; and God treats us as if we did everything right; and we’re set free from God’s wrath and curse.

And since God has forgiven us so much, he expects us to forgive one another. But if we’re like the unmerciful servant, who refused to forgive his fellow-servant, then we can expect no forgiveness from God. That’s the Lord’s warning at the end of the parable. And he means we can have no assurance of salvation unless we forgive and show mercy to our fellow-servants. And we want to have assurance, don’t we? We want to know that we’ve been accepted by God and that we belong to him and that we’re on the narrow way that leads to life, and not on the broad road to destruction. We want assurance about these things. But the Lord Jesus won’t give the unforgiving person any assurance at all.

And a willingness to forgive our fellow-servants is a sign that we’ve been accepted by God and that we belong to him. And so, may that sign be seen in us more and more and may we become more and more willing and able to forgive one another, just as God in Christ has forgiven us.