By Peter Amsterdam
July 7, 2020
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught His disciples what to do when one disciple/believer sins against another. In any community of believers, there will be times when one believer wrongs another. It is inevitable, given that believers are human beings and thus we are all sinners. Because of this inevitability, Jesus gave instruction to His disciples, and thus to us all, on what to do in such circumstances.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.1
The Greek word adelphos, translated as brother, means both brother and sister; thus Jesus was referring to both male and female disciples. Some Bible versions translate this as If another believer sins against you (NLT), while one states If a brother or sister sins (TNIV).
Jesus gives this instruction in the context of a body of believers, a church. He addresses the scenario in which one member sins against another. When this happens, the offended member is instructed to speak with the offender. The focus is on actual sin which has been committed, and not just a difference of opinion. The initial discussion should be held privately, with the goal of trying to help the offender to understand what they have done wrong. The purpose of speaking with the person privately is to keep it between the two of them so that there is minimal exposure and embarrassment. Others don’t need to be involved.
The message given in such a private meeting of just two people is meant to be loving while at the same time direct. The Greek word used to express tell him his fault is related to the idea of bringing wrong to the light, trying to help a person to see how they are in the wrong. There shouldn’t be a harsh attitude when giving the correction, but neither should it be done lightly. It should be presented lovingly, but honestly.
If the offending person listens to you, meaning that he or she accepts the correction and repents and asks for forgiveness, then you have gained your brother. The brotherly relationship which was disrupted because of sin can be restored by repentance and forgiveness.
Of course, that isn’t always the outcome. Jesus goes on to say,
But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.2
Jesus was paraphrasing Deuteronomy 19:15, which states:
A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.
When the offending believer does not accept the correction and continues with his wrong behavior, the one who has been sinned against is to try a second time, with the purpose of winning the errant brother back again. He is to take a small group of others with him this time, with the idea that the matter is still kept relatively private. There is the possibility that the offender might be convinced of his errors when hearing from others, especially if the others are respected. While there is hope that the additional numbers will help convince the person of his misdeeds, a second reason for bringing others along is so that there are others present who will witness what was said and how it was presented.
No one in Israel was convicted of a crime on the testimony of only one person; there had to be two or three witnesses. New Testament writings also require the testimony of two or three witnesses when people are charged with wrongdoing.
This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.3
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.4
Jesus then instructs the disciples on what to do if the errant person doesn’t accept the correction of the group of two or three.
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.5
After admonishing the offender in a private one-on-one meeting, and then doing so again with a small group, if the offender still refuses to listen and repent, the last resort is to bring the matter to the members of the church. To tell it to the church points to a public statement when the body of believers is gathered together. The purpose of bringing the matter to the whole body is to help the offending member to repent and change so that they can remain in fellowship with their Christian brothers and sisters.
Speaking with the offender privately, then with two or three others, followed by bringing the matter before the whole body of the church are all steps designed to result in repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. When the whole community agrees that the offender did wrong, the offender should understand that this is not just the opinion of the one who was offended, but that the whole body of believers disapproves of his actions.
If the offender refuses to accept the judgment of the church, he has then cut himself off from the body of believers. The relationship between the offender and the believers is ruptured, and fellowship has ceased. The offender is then considered to be an unbeliever; from the Jewish point of view at that time, a nonbeliever was considered to be a Gentile. Some Bible translations render this as let him be like an unbeliever (CSB), a heathen man (KJV), or a pagan (NIV).
Tax collectors were a group of people who were not accepted within the fellowship of Jews (believers) in Jesus’ time. Both tax collectors and Gentiles were to be avoided, as they were considered to be rebellious against God. Jesus used this terminology of “Gentile” and “tax collector” to illustrate how in a situation when a brother who sins against another refuses to listen—to the one offended, two or three others, and to the body of believers—he loses his place within the believing community, and disciples are to suspend normal fellowship with him.
The passage continues,
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.6
Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus had said these words to the apostle Peter when He told him that He would build His church on the rock of Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ.7 Now Jesus speaks to the church. The “binding” and “loosing” is understood to mean declaring what is forbidden or allowed, and in this context it is the church which, as the last resort, has the responsibility and authority to say whether what the offender did was forbidden or permitted. It is understood that the church is to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and therefore will make decisions which are in alignment with God’s will.
This Gospel now moves on to a short section about prayer, which is not found in the other Gospels. Jesus states,
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.8
Jesus is speaking of united prayer, in which a small group of disciples make their requests on some matter known to God through prayer. He says that in such instances, the prayer will be answered by God.
From personal experience, we know that not all prayers prayed by a group of two or three people get answered. Leon Morris explains:
Of course there is a problem in that we do not always receive the answers we expect to our prayers, whether corporate or individual. We must bear in mind that there are other conditions, such as praying in faith, praying in the name [of Jesus], praying in accordance with the divine will, and so on. Jesus is not putting in all the qualifications that apply to praying, but simply making it clear that God is always ready to hear the united prayers of even two of his little ones. Prayer is effective, not because of the power of the number of the praying people, but because the answer is given by “my Father who is in heaven.”9
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.10
The idea expressed here is that even when the smallest possible group comes together in Jesus’ name, He is present with them. In my name may mean “with me as their reason for assembling” or “calling on my name.”11 When we, as believers, gather for the purpose of worshiping Jesus, He is present. He is in our midst. What a wonderful privilege and blessing.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 18:15.
2 Matthew 18:16.
3 2 Corinthians 13:1.
4 1 Timothy 5:19.
5 Matthew 18:17.
6 Matthew 18:18.
7 Matthew 16:19.
8 Matthew 18:19.
9 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 470.
10 Matthew 18:20.
11 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 470.