Matthew 18:15–20

Gentle Restoration

Laura Miguélez Quay

Linebrook Church

September 3, 2017

 

Our passage this morning makes absolutely no sense unless we understand and believe ourselves to be each other’s brothers and sisters, together sons and daughters of our loving and heavenly Father, called to live according to his will and ways through the giving of Christ’s Holy Spirit who indwells us individually and unites us corporately, because of and through the work of our Savior, Lord, and brother, Jesus Christ. For if we believe in Christ and seek, as we learned last week, to deny ourselves; if we have sought to put aside self-will and embrace God’s-will as the highest priority of our lives, then we have not only mysteriously and wonderfully and powerfully been united to Christ but just as mysteriously and wonderfully and powerfully been united to each other. We belong to each other as much as we belong to Christ. We are one with each other as much as we are one with Christ. And because we belong to Christ, together we seek to know and apply his teaching to our lives.

But the Word we are presented with isn’t always an easy one. This week we are challenged for what Jesus is teaching in this passage goes completely against the grain of one of the most prized tenets of our western culture, namely tolerance or acceptance of any behavior that doesn’t appear to cause harm to others. Though society may agree with Scripture’s teaching on a number of matters—for example, that we ought not kill others or steal from them or lie to them since these behaviors harm others and break down the fabric of society— there are many teachings in God’s Word with which society would disagree. And not only would our society disagree with Scripture about the acceptability or unacceptability of many behaviors, but it would also disagree with how—or even whether—such behaviors should be confronted. For by and large our culture rejects the language of sin or the notion that in his Word God has disclosed to us certain attitudes and behaviors that are to be sought and implemented in our lives and other attitudes and behaviors that are to be avoided and confronted since they’re a violation of his will for us.

So I want to begin by considering some attitudes and behaviors that are Scripturally defined as sin or as being from the flesh. I do so because our passage this morning focuses on confronting sin in the life another so if we are called to do so it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we are dealing with actual sin and not simply trying to impose our own ideas or preferences upon others about how we’d like them to behave. The book of Galatians[1] provides a representative list of sins of the flesh. According to the apostle Paul, “19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” There are at least four broad categories of sin that can be identified here:

1) Sexual sins that address both actions and attitudes—sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery (v. 19);

2) Religious sins that place trust in something other than God—idolatry and witchcraft (v. 20);

3) Sins that disrupt our oneness with each other—hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy (vv. 20–21);

4) And sins that deal with behavior that is excessive and out of control—drunkenness, orgies, and the like (v. 21).

Part of what the Fall did to us, part of what inheriting a sinful nature does to us, is to damage both our judgment and discernment. In his mercy and kindness, starting in the Old Testament God provides us his law because his law teaches us what love for God and love for neighbor look like in practice. So even if were to limit ourselves to the Ten Commandments,[2] the first articles deal with our love for God; the latter with our love for neighbor. What does it mean to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength? It means Commandment 1: “You shall have no other gods before—or besides—me” (v. 3); And Commandment 2: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” (vv. 4–5); And Commandment 3: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (v. 7). And Commandment 4: You shall “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.” (vv. 8–9). These commandments highlight the fact that our greatest loyalty is ever and always due to God. If we put anything else above him, this is sin for it will harm our relationship with him; it will keep us from the fellowship with him for which he created us.

And what does it mean to love my neighbor? It means you will Commandment 5: “Honor your father and your mother” (v. 12); And You shall not: Commandment 6: “murder” (v. 13); Nor Commandment 7: “commit adultery” (v. 14). Nor Commandment 8: “steal” (v. 15); Nor Commandment 9: “give false testimony against your neighbor” (v. 16); Nor Commandment 10: “covet your neighbor’s house… [or] your wife, or servant, [or] ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (v. 17). In each of these commandments we are called to treat our neighbor with respect for both them and their family and property. We are to hold our neighbor in such high regard that we neither harm them nor try to take away—or even desire to take away—anything that is theirs. And if we’re ever unclear about the permissibility of a particular behavior, we can always turn to the Golden Rule[3] as a check on our behavior and ask ourselves if we would like it if someone did to us the behavior we’re considering doing to them.

I take the time to review some of these familiar teachings about sinful behavior to be avoided and commandments to be obeyed because it’s easy to take them for granted and forget that there was a time when we needed to be taught them. Godly behavior doesn’t always come naturally to us. In turning to our passage, Jesus begins by presenting the core principle of church discipline in verse 15: “If your brother or sister sins”—and some manuscripts add “against you”—“go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” Right from the get-go, doesn’t this teaching make us feel a little uncomfortable? Haven’t we been so ingrained with the notion that we ought to mind our own business that the very thought of confronting someone we know to be involved in a sinful behavior causes us to feel ill at ease? I always smile to myself when I hear someone say, “I just don’t like confrontation.” Well, who does? I certainly don’t! Better to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, live with things as they are even if they’re less than ideal. But this reaction is the very reason Jesus has to instruct us. For if we genuinely love one another—and if we genuinely believe Scripture is God’s communication to us about how we can best live before him and others—and if we genuinely believe Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, then we are bound to live according to Scripture’s teaching— we are bound to live according to Christ’s teaching.

So though we may not like going to a brother or sister we know has sinned, going to them is the loving thing to do for sinful behavior breaks our fellowship with God and with each other. It makes it impossible for us to love him and one another. It’s destructive to all of our relationships. And, ultimately, sinful behavior is destructive to ourselves. This is why Jesus calls us to point out the fault of a brother or sister we know is sinning.

But notice that this pointing out of fault initially is to be between you and the offending party only. “[G]o and point out their fault, just between the two of you.” This confrontation shouldn’t be a public affair. It shouldn’t be the source of gossip or talk. It shouldn’t be shared in a public prayer request. Rather restoring a brother or sister who has sinned should begin with going to them in confidence and firmly but gently pointing out their fault. Listen to how the very Paul who provided the representative list of sins I read earlier echoes Jesus’ teaching on this matter. In Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia he states, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.”[4] As members of our heavenly Father’s family through the sacrifice of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, and the bond and unity we share through the Holy Spirit he has sent to indwell us, we can assume that we all desire to live as God intended us to live according to the teaching he has left us by his written and risen Word. But we can also assume that none of us is above being tempted for we have all experienced—and succumbed— to temptation at some point in our lives. And in all likelihood we will do so again. For though we have been declared righteous by Christ’s obedience to the point of death on the cross, this side of heaven you and I will struggle with temptation and sin. Though it would seem that by Christ’s Spirit indwelling us that holiness would be easy, it isn’t for we still have desires that can be drawn to evil; and we still have an ancient foe that is ever at the ready to draw us away from our Creator and Redeemer. Knowing these things—knowing ourselves—we should be gentle in pointing out the sin of a brother or sister. And difficult though it may be to do so, it will be worth it for, “If they listen to you, you have won them over” (v. 15b). If they listen to you, their fellowship—their relationship—with Christ and his family will have been restored. What a wonderful outcome this would be! This is the goal of all confronting of sin: restoration to Christ and his family.

But what if the brother or sister doesn’t listen? Unfortunately, though we would love for Jesus to have said at this point, “Well, you did your best. If they don’t want to listen to you, that’s their business. You’ve done your part. Now they need to do theirs,” this isn’t what he says. No, if someone doesn’t listen to us one-on-one, we’re to take restoring this sibling in Christ to the next level, verse 16: “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” As he often did, Jesus is basing his instruction on the Scriptures he knew so well, our Old Testament. The book of Deuteronomy teaches, “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”[5] This is how seriously God takes sin. This is how seriously God takes holiness. If a believer who has been privately confronted with sin doesn’t agree to change their behavior, then two or three other brothers and/or sisters must be brought in to address the matter. And, verse 17, “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church.” So, again, when one of our family members chooses to live outside of the mandates prescribed in Scripture and they don’t respond to a one-on-one meeting; and they don’t respond to a meeting with a few; then we, as believers, are called to confront them as an entire church family. We forget how communal the Christian life is, don’t we? Again, because we belong to God, we also belong to each other. Because we are one with God, we are one with each other. We are God’s temple not just individually but also corporately. Therefore God calls us to take sin—and holiness—as seriously as he does. And when we don’t, we’re in danger of cheapening his grace, that merciful bestowal of Christ’s righteousness he has provided to all who seek to live for him. Again, it’s important to remember that none of us is above being tempted and yielding to that temptation. But the point here is that if we do yield, the most loving and kind thing anyone could do for us is to encourage us to stop living according to our own desires and instead return to living to how God desires for sinful desires lead to death and self-destruction, but holy desires lead to life and that eternal.

I came across an interesting example of the kindness of confrontation while reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Though this book has been rightly criticized for mischaracterizing and at times caricaturing what enslaved African Americans—as well as white northerners and southerners in the United States pre-Civil War—were like, I’m nonetheless finding this to be a compelling read. Stowe is deeply grounded in a Scriptural understanding of the value and worth of all people. There is a scene[6] in which her protagonist, Tom, confronts his master, a man usually referred to by his last name, St. Clare. Early one morning St. Clare returns home drunk. After helping him to bed, Tom stays awake throughout the night praying for him. The next morning St. Clare, notices that Tom doesn’t immediately leave him after being given his responsibilities for the day. When he asks Tom what is wrong, Tom answers that he’s upset because though his master has always been good to him, there is one to whom St. Clare hasn’t been good. Concerned, St. Clare presses Tom as to who that may be. Tom’s answer? Himself for in abusing his body by his drunkenness, St. Clare hasn’t been good to himself. Though not about church discipline, this scene gets at the heart of the intended end of church discipline—that we might take care of ourselves. And the best way we can care of ourselves is to believe God’s Word in its teaching about how we ought to live; about how God desires us to live.

This is why Jesus is teaching here that we should take every measure, do everything in our power, to restore a brother or sister who has sinned—first going to them privately; then bringing a few others if they don’t respond to a private confrontation; and finally bringing in the entire church family if the person doesn’t yet respond. And, as the end of verse 17 states, “if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” In other words, if still unrepentant this person is to be kept from fellowship within the church. This is what some branches of Christianity refer to as “excommunication.” The idea is that in taking this extreme measure in breaking someone off from communal worship of God and fellowship with their church family, a person will come to their senses, see the gravity of their sin, and, like a prodigal child, leave their sin and return home to their heavenly Father and their sisters and brothers in Christ.

The sad reality is, however, that though I’m convinced we are called even today to take such actions and follow Scripture’s precepts, in an overworked, overly-committed, overly-busy and individualistically oriented society such as ours, I don’t know that such actions would have the desired effect. Look around. Our difficulty in 21st century Massachussetts, New England, and throughout the United States, is that weekly communal worship of Christ and fellowship with his family aren’t a priority for most people in the first place. Our challenge is convincing others about the importance of heeding Christ’s call to gather together as a family each week that we might be reminded about the centrality of God in our lives and learn about his holiness, goodness, and love as we together seek to worship and express our love to him and to one another. Regardless, it is because of that very love that you and I are called to confront sin not only in our own lives but in each other’s lives as well.

This is a sobering responsibility for in verse 18 we find Jesus speaking to his church the very words we saw him speak to Peter recently when he told him that he would build his church on him:[7] “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” As was the case for Peter, we as Christ’s church have been commissioned with the power of binding and loosing. In other words, in confronting sin in the life of another believer, if we have followed the steps prescribed by Jesus—first confront individually, then with two or three others, and then as the church—and our sister or brother still doesn’t repent of their sin so that we conclude that their fellowship with God and their family must be cut off, that decision is a binding one that will hold not only on earth but also in heaven. And the final determination of guilt or innocence, of binding or loosing, of the acceptability or unacceptability of a particular attitude or behavior is to come from God’s Word. Again, Peter initially, and now Christ’s church, have been commissioned by Jesus to be stewards over his family, his church, by caring for it spiritually, physically, emotionally, materially, and morally.

Jesus underscores this commissioning in verse 19 as he reiterates “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” The context here is so very important. The agreement he is speaking of isn’t that of requesting something needed, but of separating an unrepentant brother or sister from fellowship with God in Christ and Christ’s family. So, too, is the context for verse 20: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” These words point yet again to Jesus Christ’s deity for as God he is ever present with those who are his. And once he rose from death and ascended to heaven, he sent his Holy Spirit to his family, his church, his tabernacle that we might be holy as he is holy; that we might live as he lived and ever intended us to live prior to the Fall, completely dependent on the God who made us in his image and for fellowship with one another. Now though we often reference this verse when we pray with another believer as a reminder that God is ever with us, that isn’t the point of this verse even if it is true that because we are individually and corporately indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit he is ever with us.[8] But this is an example of “right doctrine, wrong verse” for what Jesus is saying is that as we make decisions of church discipline by his authority and in agreement with his Word, he will stand with us in those decisions; he will be there with us in the executing of such discipline.

Yet in all this, it’s so important that we have the right attitude and outlook. Our passage this morning follows on the heels of Jesus having taught his disciples about the importance of not causing any of his children to stumble. He then segued to a parable of a man owning a hundred sheep and, seeing that one had wandered off, being happier about finding the one over the remaining ninety-nine that didn’t wander. Jesus’ point? “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (v. 14). Brothers and sisters, God in Christ literally sacrificed everything—his life—that we might be restored to fellowship with him, the Holy Spirit, and our heavenly Father for whom we were ever intended. And having given his life for us and his Spirit to us, the one thing that can now mar that relationship—the one thing that can now break that fellowship—is a decision on our part to yield to temptation and so sin. But because our Father in heaven isn’t willing that we should perish, he calls us to be part of the means of restoring one another to return to him when we have wandered off and gone astray. And how appropriate on this Communion Sunday to be reminded that we are called to partake of the divine life by gently calling and restoring each other back to our Savior and Lord and to each other. And let us never forget the wonderful and amazing truth that if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.[9]

Let us pray.

[1] Galatians 5:19–21.

[2] Exodus 20:1–18. These commandments are restated in Deuteronomy 5:6–21.

[3] Matthew 7:12: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

[4] Galatians 6:1.

[5] Deuteronomy 19:15.

[6] This account may be found on pages 202–203 of the Bantam Classic paperback edition. It’s in the chapter 18 entitled, “Miss Ophelia’s Experiences and Opinions.”

[7] “Who Do You Say I Am?,” sermon on Matthew 16:13–20, 8/20/17.

[8] Some passages which rightly point to believers being sealed and indwelled by God’s Holy Spirit include—Sealing: Ephesians 1:13–14: 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.; Ephesians 4:30: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.2 Corinthians 1:21–22: 21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 2 Corinthians 5:5: Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.—Indwelling: 1 Corinthians 3:16: Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? I Corinthians 6:19–20: 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. Romans 8:9–11, 15:You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you…. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 2 Timothy 1:14: Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. Galatians 4:6: Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”

[9] I John 1:9.

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