We Need to Talk (Matthew 18:15-17)
In college, we always had a nice, fancy Valentine’s banquet. We single guys would all get dates and go as a group. The year that I remember so well, the banquet was on Friday evening. To this banquet I took a girl I was really interested in. We had a nice steak dinner, and we waited for the evening’s entertainment. One of the professors separated some of the married folks into teams to play a version of the “Newlywed Game.” I don’t remember how all this worked–whether the guys or gals went first, the questions that were asked, or which couple won. What I remember very clearly is that some of the answers were becoming quite risqué. My friends and I left; we couldn’t take it anymore. We were all very embarrassed that we had brought dates and that the evening ended the way it did.
On Monday morning, just before class, a friend who had not attended the banquet asked me how things had gone as she was walking to the cafeteria where she worked. I spilled the beans. I named names. I told the questions that were asked and the answers each person had given. Well, later that morning, Carolyn was telling someone else in the cafeteria about what had transpired, and the two of them were laughing about it. Guess who walked into the cafeteria at just the right time? The ringleader of everything Friday night, whom I will call Heather. Heather was crushed, humiliated, and angry.
When the bell rang for break, I headed to the cafeteria with a throng of other folks. Heather saw me in the hallway and said, “Justin, we need to talk.” She told me how hurt, humiliated, and angry she was over what I had done. She reminded me of Jesus’ words we’ll study this morning, how that I was to go to her, and how she would have been happy apologize for embarrassing me and my date. She was so very right, and I knew it. There was nothing for me to do except to apologize. I pray to God that I learned an invaluable life lesson that day.
Maybe you’ve had a similar encounter. Maybe you spoke out of turn and inappropriately about someone, and it came back to haunt you. Maybe you gossiped about someone, and he/she never found out what you said. Maybe someone came to you because you had offended him/her. Maybe you found out through the grapevine that someone had a grievance against you; instead of coming to you, someone had gone to several friends and told them what you had done.
That is not the way of Jesus. Jesus knew that “family” is messy. He ought to–He made us. He knew that offenses were sure to come: “It is impossible that no offenses should come” (Lk 17:1). Because the Lord knew that offenses were sure to come, He taught His disciples how to deal with them. Jesus teaches an important principle to His disciples, i.e., “Christians seek reconciliation.”
Let’s see how that principle works in this text.
Text (Matthew 18:15-17)
If your brother sins against you. I think it’s telling that Jesus uses the word sin in this text. He used a different term in Luke 17:1. The idea seems to be that these are bigger than offenses. It’s wise to let the little things go: “Hatred stirs up strife, But love covers all sins” (Prov 10:12). You know how easy it is to have little offenses along the way. Someone sits in the pew you’ve sat in for years. Someone forgets to sign your birthday card sitting on the table in the fellowship hall. Someone didn’t ask how you’re feeling when you’ve been in the hospital.
I am convinced that the idea in this text is intent. Sin is a decision we make. Sin is giving in to my desires (Js 1:14-15). Sin is breaking the law; “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (1 Jn 3:4). Therefore, when Jesus talks about sinning against a brother, He speaks about transgressing the law against that brother.
When that occurs, we’re to go to that brother alone. This was what was practiced by the Jews of Jesus’ day. The Dead Sea scrolls and rabbis taught that a person should begin with a private rebuke. Publicly shaming someone unnecessarily was considered sinful.
Why would Jesus instruct His disciples to take care of these offenses privately? If you have done wrong, do you want everyone and his cousin to know what you have done? If you go and blab about what I’ve done, I have another layer to work through. Not only do I need to make things right with you, but you and I have another issue, and I might need to make things right with others. The whole purpose of what Jesus says here is to bring reconciliation between brethren, it’s not shaming them.
If he hears you, you have gained your brother. That’s the whole purpose of going to your brother in the first place. God has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus, and He expects us to be reconciled to one another.
“If he will not hear . . . .” Jesus envisions situations where a private rebuke will not work. Because He created us, the Lord knew that we can be stubborn, refuse to listen, and refuse to repent.
Take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” That comes from Deuteronomy 19:15: “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.” The Jews took this principle very seriously. The rabbis said that one witness was insufficient even if you found a bloody knife in a murderer’s hands–you had to have more than one witness. There is a very telling episode in Jesus’ life that demonstrates how seriously the Jewish people took witnesses. The chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony at Jesus’ trial (Matt 26:59-61). Yes, they sought false witnesses, but the Sanhedrin understood they could not condemn Jesus to death without witnesses.
The purpose of the witnesses here is to encourage repentance on the sinner’s part–the first part of verse 17 makes clear that they are to urge repentance.
If the sinner refuses to hear the witnesses, the matter is to be brought before the church. Jesus doesn’t tell us practically how that is to occur. Therefore, it would be up to the elders in a particular place to determine the best procedure.
If the sinner refuses to hear the church, he’s to be treated like a heathen and a tax collector. In the Jewish synagogue, there were several means of discipline, including beating, but the most severe was to be dismissed from the community, to be treated as a non-Jew. Imagine not being able to have contact with your aged parents or your spouse or your children. Imagine owning a shop that goes out of business because no one will come near you.
That’s what Jesus calls for now in the Christian era. Why would Jesus urge us to cut off a member of our community? There are two answers given in Scripture.
- One: To keep sin from spreading. In a context of church discipline, Paul says, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6). If members of the church see that people can get by with things, they’ll start trying them.
- Two: To keep the sinner from hell. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5. Church discipline shows great love, for it seeks to bring the sinner into fellowship with Jesus and His church.
“Christians seek reconciliation.” How does that work itself out practically? To answer that question, we need to speak to two groups: Those who have been wronged and those who have wronged another.
Those who have been wronged:
You need to determine if you’ve really been wronged.
Jesus speaks in our text about being sinned against. Does the wrong rise to that level? If not, it would be far better to suffer the wrong. In a context of taking brethren to court, Paul writes, “Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?” (1 Cor 6:7). Maybe it’s the case that it would be better, as long as it doesn’t put the other person’s soul in jeopardy, just to let it go.
Just try to step back from the situation and see if you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.
You need never gossip.
Jesus speaks of your going to the person who offended you, not to others. I know that runs against everything we want to do–when we have been wronged, we want the world to know. Yet, Jesus says to go to the offender. Gossip brings great heartache. Throughout Scripture gossip is condemned. “A talebearer reveals secrets, But he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter” (Prov 11:13). “He who covers a transgression seeks love, But he who repeats a matter separates friends” (Prov 17:9).Why would Jesus tell us to go to the offending party rather than blabbing to every and anybody about the wrong? Doing things Jesus’ way preserves the dignity of the wrongdoer–there’s no reason to embarrass. Doing things Jesus’ way makes repentance easier–The more people that know what I’ve done wrong, the more likely I am to feel the need to defend myself. Doing things Jesus’ way honors the Golden Rule–I certainly wouldn’t want someone sharing freely what I’ve done wrong.
You need to love the wrongdoer.
Jesus rebukes those He loves: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent” (Rev 3:19). If the Lord loves those He rebukes, can we do any less? The whole purpose of this procedure–from beginning to end–is to demonstrate love. This is an exercise in reconciliation.
Your whole attitude, therefore, must be bathed in love. This is not about showing how you are right and the other person is wrong. It’s about reconciliation; therefore, my tone, my mannerisms, my words, and everything else will seek to move toward reconciliation.
Those who have wronged:
You need to repent.
Repentance is neither pleasant nor easy, but our Lord calls upon us to repent. “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:3). Repentance was a key component of Paul’s preaching; he tells King Agrippa that after his conversion that he “declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20).The best thing you can do to bring harmony is to turn from your error.
You need to apologize.
Scripture urges apologies for wrongdoing. Matthew 5:23-24. “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Js 5:16). Is it the case you need to apologize to someone this morning?
You need to be grateful.
I know it sounds quite odd for me to say, “Be thankful for a rebuke,” but that’s Bible: “Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you” (Prov 9:8).Think of all the reasons you have to be thankful. A friend loves you enough to call you on sin. A friend loves you enough to work through your relationship. A friend loves you enough to urge you to become more like Jesus.
Do you have things to make right this very day? Do you need to make your relationship with God right today?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Dale Ridge church of Christ in Roanoke, Virginia.