- Main Text: Matthew 18:15-35
- Accompanying text: Psalm 32:1-2
What this passage means to us
Many churches and denominations use this section of Matthew as a framework for settling church disputes and for disciplinary procedures. Verse 15 clearly points to the aim of such processes. It’s not to correct, but to “gain a brother”. Galatians 6:1 expounds it more, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently”. The gain is restoration to fellowship and to sound relationships. We don’t correct for the sake of the perceived wrong, but out of loving concern for the person(s) involved.
If the offender will not engage in listening personally to you, or he or she will not take part in having others join you in presenting the issue to him or her, Jesus says to take it to the church. It’s of interest to us, as we see the progression of Matthew’s gospel account, that Christ does not tell the disciples that they should go to find resolution in the synagogue, as they might have expected him to say. This is a clear shift in authority from the Jewish leaders to Christ and his newly appointed structure. Jesus had first used the term “church” in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it”. This is a change, a separation, a move from one society to a new one that is formed of those whom Jesus calls out to follow him. In Matthew and throughout the New Testament the Greek word “ecclesia” is translated as “church”, and it is not to be confused with synagogue meetings. The literal translation of “ecclesia” is “the called-out ones”. We are called out to be together in Christ, and meeting at church is our expression of togetherness in him. The English word “church” is derived from a different Greek word, which is “Kyriakos” meaning “Lord”, and thus denoted a place where the Lord was worshipped. “Ecclesia”, however, describes an activity more than a place. “Ecclesia” was used in a non-religious sense for when citizens were summoned to a central meeting. Historical examples include the “ecclesia” of Athens. Those called to hear the message assembled from all across the town and from the suburbs. Jesus and the New Testament writers adopted this term “ecclesia” to signify the coming together of believers from the various quarters of a region or community to hear the Word, and to enjoy the benefits of fellowship, one of which would be the relative safety of church dispute and discipline processes when compared to the litigious scenario described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:1-7. It is within this context that Jesus repeats what he said previously to Peter concerning binding and loosing. The meaning of this is widely debated, but the safest interpretation seems to be that Peter, the rest of the disciples and the church Jesus builds through them would open the gates of heaven to more people by preaching the gospel. When rabbis spoke of “binding” and “loosing”, they were talking about their judicial decisions and about which commandments were required for the kingdom as they understood it. Jesus had already challenged their thinking and their authority, and he had explained that it is his sayings have the force of commandments for those whom he calls. In Matthew 18:18 Jesus expands this concept of “binding and loosing” to the apostles, and in so doing, makes their future collective decisions (e.g. Acts 15:6-21) and their teachings into authoritative guides for us (as we can see more clearly in the NT epistles).
Matthew shifts the focus from the offender to the offended. It’s intentional, and it needs to be seen within the continuity structure of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew had already outlined how Jesus preached turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, treating others with mercy and love in the way you’d like to be treated, etc. So, if someone offends you, should your reactions not be based on those ideas? We may think we’re entitled to apologies, explanations, and a fair hearing, but forgiveness demands none of those things. Just as God forgives us and does not count our sins against us (Psalm 32:1-2), so we bless others by showing the grace he has granted us to them. When Peter asks about forgiving up to seven times, he’s saying something about himself. The common practice preached in the synagogue was to pardon up to three offences, but here Peter is suggesting that he’s better and more liberal than that. But no, Jesus says, you need to go above the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, and to go far beyond their standards. “Seventy times seven” is a phrase to do with limitless forgiving. As we participate in Jesus’ righteousness there are no bounds to the abundance of his mercy. In fact, as the parable of the unforgiving servant implies, if we don’t forgive, we become an offence, both to ourselves and to others, and, what’s more, there’s no room for resentment and gracelessness in the kingdom. The followers of Jesus must become the forgiving forgiven. Forgiveness is “an act that removes anger, bitterness, and the desire for revenge from our hearts and helps us to reclaim our human dignity. We cannot force those we want to forgive into accepting our forgiveness. They might not be able or willing do so. They may not even know or feel that they have wounded us. The only people we can really change are ourselves. Forgiving others is first and foremost healing our own hearts” .
Context and Story-line
After the Transfiguration Jesus went to Capernaum and it is there that the disciples ask about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Maybe some of them had wondered about why Jesus had taken Peter, James and John up the mountain without them. Was there rivalry? Jesus explains that they should take the lowly position of a little child. There’s no need to be offended in any way. In fact, concentrate more on not offending anyone. Everyone is of consequence to Jesus, as is clear in the parable of the wandering sheep. “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14).
So, what if someone offends you? Jesus suggests a plan of action that initially would have been familiar to his disciples, but he changes it by referring to the church, which, at that point, was not fully in existence. Forgiveness is central to this church, and his followers should exemplify it in their day to day living. Jesus then expounds the parable of the unmerciful servant (a story peculiar to Matthew). “When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there” (Matthew 19:1).
- 1 Corinthians 6:1-7
- Galatians 6:1-2
Other GCI resources