15 “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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” – Matthew 18:15-22 ESV
Jesus has just finished talking about the danger of causing another believer to stumble in his walk by demeaning or devaluing them. Pride has no place in the family of God. There is no reason for any follower of Christ to consider themselves to be better than anyone else. And the disciples would soon learn that all are equal at the foot of the cross. We are sinners saved by grace, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). And the humility that accompanies our faith in Christ should prevent us from looking down on other believers and setting ourselves up as somehow superior and of greater value in the kingdom.
But that humility will also lead us to lovingly forgive those who sin against us, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we end up on the receiving end of someone else’s pride and arrogance, we are to approach them in humility, not anger, exposing their sin but with the goal of restoring the relationship.
One of the greatest sins we can commit against another believer is to cause them to stumble in their walk or stray from the path on which God has placed them. And if you should find yourself the victim of this kind of sin, Jesus encourages you to seek restoration, not revenge. The goal is not the exposure of the other person’s fault, but the healing of the relationship. And Jesus makes it clear that if you humbly and lovingly approach them and they repent, you will have “gained a brother.”
But, if they refuse to admit their culpability and confess their pride, you are to involve others in the fellowship who can speak to the matter from first-hand experience. Once again, the objective should be to lead them to conviction that results in restoration. This is not about making the other person feel bad. It’s not about exposing their faults before others, but about humbly seeking God’s best for them.
But if the one who has sinned against you remains unconvicted and refuses to repent, you are to bring the matter before the ekklēsia, a Greek word that eventually came to refer to the local body of believers or the local church. But at this point in Jesus’ relationship with His disciples, He had provided them with no insight or teaching regarding the coming church. So, more than likely, Jesus was referring to an assembly of believers who had been called together for an announcement. The disciples probably assumed He was talking about their own close-knit group.
Finally, Jesus told them that if the person remained stubbornly unrepentant, they were to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17 ESV). In other words, they were to exclude this individual from fellowship. If he or she remained unrepentant, they were to be unwelcome by those in the ekklēsia – the small circle of friends who had become privy to the sin. This individual would have forfeited their right to fellowship because they had refused to accept responsibility for their sin. Had they followed the advice of the apostle John, they could have been restored to fellowship and received forgiveness.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV
Again, the objective behind all of this is restoration, not merely punishment. Our motivation in confronting the guilty party is to be love. As the apostle Peter taught:
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8 ESV
In our loving confrontation of the brother or sister who has sinned against us, we are to understand that our treatment of them, when done in humility and out of love, carries weight. When the time comes for a decision to be made regarding the proper discipline of the guilty party, it should be made prayerfully and carefully. We are to see our decision as bearing the full weight of God’s authority. Jesus repeated the same words He used when speaking to Peter back in chapter 16.
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 16:19 ESV
The decision made by the local assembly would carry the same weight as if it had been made by God Himself. The binding and loosing have to do with the outward treatment of the one who has sinned against his brother or sister in Christ.
Verses 19-20, while often used as a proof text for corporate prayer, really has much more to do with the issue of one believer who has sinned against another. When the proper steps have been taken and the sinning individual has been confronted one-on-one and then with two or three witnesses, the next step is discipline. And we are to seek God’s will in the matter. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Jesus does not provide a singular prescription for discipline. We are to seek the will of God and then pronounce judgment in the name of God – fully trusting that He is intimately involved in the matter.
Finally, Peter has to get his two-cents in, following up Jesus’ words with a question that he hopes will shed light on the whole discussion. He appears to have a hard time with the idea of forgiving someone who has sinned against him. So, he asked Jesus how many times he was expected to forgive. He was looking for a limit. Surely, this would not be some undetermined number requiring unending forgiveness. But Jesus blew holes in Peter’s theory, by saying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22 ESV). The number was not the issue. It was the motivation of the heart. Jesus wanted Peter to know that the kind of forgiveness He was talking about had no time limit or date of expiration. It is the very same kind of forgiveness we have received from God.
The apostle Paul would later explain it in terms that each of us can readily understand.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32 ESV
Again, the issue is restoration, not revenge. Our goal is to be reconciliation with our brother or sister in Christ and their ultimate restoration to a right relationship with God. For the disciples, all of this sounded so far-fetched and impossible. It made no sense. But Jesus was raising the bar, just as He has done all along the way in His interactions with these men. He was enlightening them to the reality of life in the kingdom. It would not be as they expected. There would be no place for pride. There would be no room for vengeance. The kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate would be comprised of humility, unity, and love.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.