What would you say stops us being a better fellowship? Have a moment to think. I came up with two main problem areas. Me. And the rest of you. Because although we who trust in Jesus are saved sinners, we're still saved sinners. Which means we still sin. Sometimes in the form of a serious wander from the Lord. More usually just in our regular failures. And this morning's passage is about how to deal with those two things in a Christian fellowship – the serious wanders and the regular failures. And heading one is about the serious wander:
First, WE'RE TO HELP EACH OTHER'S REPENTANCE (v15-10)
By which I mean we're to help one another in turning from sin to what pleases God.
15If your brother sins [the footnote says 'against you' may not be part of the original, and I agree. This verse may include your brother sinning against you, but it's more general than that], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.,/i>
So, v15 again: 'If your brother sins…' Is Jesus talking here about any sin? The context suggests not. Look back up to v12:
12"What do you think? If a man [who stands for God] owns a hundred sheep [which stand for those who profess to be Christians], and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
The context suggests that this is about when professing Christians take a serious wander away from the Lord. Eg, I think of someone – I'll call him John. He professed faith, got stuck into a fellowship and then after a bit suddenly moved in with his girlfriend. It's that kind of serious wander that Jesus has in mind here. But obviously it also applies to how we pick each other up for other, more regular failures. So what do we do if a Christian we know goes for a serious wander?
"If your brother sins [against you], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. (v15)
Now the word 'your' is singular. This is about when a Christian wanders from the Lord and you singular or I singular may be the only Christian close to them, aware of it and in a position to help. What do we do? The British thing, of course, is to do nothing. 'It's none of my business. I couldn't possibly say anything. After all, am I my brother's keeper?' Well, Jesus says: yes you are. If you're a member of God's family, and they're a member of God's family, then you're brothers and/or sisters, and responsible for one another's welfare. And this is said to all of us who are believers. Not just staff, or group leaders. Each of us has brothers or sisters in Christ to whom we're closer than anyone else. And we are to look out for them. And vice-versa.
But then you might say, 'It just doesn't seem very loving.' But that's exactly what it is. I remember my parents confronting me when they found me as a kid playing with matches or the bread knife and it never seemed very loving. But that's exactly what it was. And it was loving when a Christian friend of that guy John (who'd moved in with his girlfriend) went to talk to him and ask him gently whether he couldn't see the inconsistency of what he was doing. It's indifference that's unloving in a situation like that. But our attitude in doing something will be vital. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus said this:
1"Do not judge [ie, don't be judgmental, don't condemn], or you too will be judged… 3Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." (Matthew 5.1-5)
We can only help each other's repentance if we're working at our own. Only then will our attitude be right. Only then will we come alongside a sinner as a fellow-sinner, not as a superior or a judge. And only if I'm working at turning away from my own sins will I have any integrity in encouraging a brother to turn away from his. We've got to have the right attitude. And we've got to have the right aim – end of v15:
If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
Not over to your side like it's some victory for you. But over to repentance – over to getting unstuck from sin and getting going again – which is a great thing to do for a fellow-Christian. We need the right attitude to be on the giving end in that situation.
can I also say we need the right attitude to be on the receiving end. It may be that right now a faithful Christian is trying to say some hard things to you. It's certain that from time to time in our future Christian lives we'll need faithful brothers and sisters to do that for us. And can I say we need the right attitude to be on the receiving end. It's so easy to react with indignation or wounded pride and forget that Proverb: 'Faithful are the wounds of a friend' (Proverbs 27.6). We need to listen. We need to humble ourselves. We need to be grateful that they care enough about us to do it, and that God cares enough about us to send them our way.
And the bottom line of v15 is: we need close Christian friendships, so that these things can be said - and said way before any serious wander has even begun. Eg, a Christian friend of mine was weighing up whether to buy a house. And he shared his thoughts and I asked him, 'What's your biggest reservation?' And he said, 'Materialism. It could eat up a lot of my time and energy and money.' And I said, 'That's OK – I'll tell you if I think that's happening.' And he says similar things to me. We need Christian friendship that operates at that level. And if you don't reckon you've got one, then seek to develop one.
Back to v16. What if this brother won't listen?
But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'
That adds weight to what is being said. And v17:
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church
Which in our context, would mean getting the church leadership involved. (I'm sorry that time doesn't permit spelling out how each of these steps would work in practice.) Verse 17 again:
and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector [who were proverbial for people you don't associate with].
If, sadly, there's no sign, yet, of repentance, the final step is for a fellowship to dissociate itself from the person. Which sounds harsh - as if the fellowship has given up on them. But the aim is still the same: to bring them to their senses. But there's also the aim of the welfare of the 99 sheep who haven't wandered (v12). They need to see the Bible's line between sin and obedience faithfully upheld for the sake of their ongoing repentance. And there's also the aim of sending a clear message to those who are not yet believers – who've not yet even joined the flock. If the fellowship is no different from the world, they won't give us or our message a second thought. So vv15-17 are about what we do.
Verse 18 then explains how God will use what we do - either one way or the other. Look at v18:
I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Notice the little 'd's in that verse. That tells you to look to the bottom of the page to the footnote. And the little 'd' down there says, 'or have been'. And what I've read on your behalf convinces me that the footnote is the better translation. So re-read v18:
I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.
Hang on in there. Jesus is saying: whatever the outcome of your doing what vv15-17 say, it will already have been planned in heaven by God. Eg, take the negative outcome of the person being 'bound' as v18 puts it. That is a judgement word. Like we talk about a prisoner being 'bound' or 'bound over'. Jesus is saying, 'It may be that you go through the process of vv15-17 and at the end of the day, sadly, the person is 'bound over' to being put out of the fellowship.
Well, v18, Jesus says: I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will already have been bound in heaven. You haven't failed. God has used you to bring about what he'd already planned. So, eg, maybe God knew that person would only come to their senses through that final step of v17. Or maybe God knew that person wasn't really a Christian at all, and only that final step would show them that.
John, who I mentioned at the start, who moved in with his girlfriend, eventually said, 'I'm not interested in Christ any more. Sarah is my god now.' [Not her real name.] God used the whole process to show him his profession of faith hadn't been genuine.
But then take the positive outcome of the person being 'loosed' as v18 puts it. That is a salvation word. If at any stage in the process of vv15-17, this person listens and comes to their senses and is freshly forgiven, and gets going again as a Christian, well you've 'loosed' them. You've helped get them unstuck. And Jesus says, v18, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you loose on earth will already have been loosed in heaven.' Ie, God has used you to bring about what he'd already planned. And v14 tells us God's plan for those who are genuinely his sheep:
In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.
If we've genuinely turned to Christ, God isn't going to lose us. His plan is to get us safely through this life to heaven. And one of the means he'll use to help us along the way is fellow-Christians helping our repentance like vv15-17 say. And whenever we're the ones trying to do the helping, we should commit it to prayer – because it's ultimately God who works through us. That's why you get vv19-20:
19 "Again, I tell you that if two of you [I take it that's the two in v16 who are trying to help a wandering brother] on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three [ie, those in v16] come together in my name, there am I with them."
That's the message of this first section – what to do about the serious wander. We're to help each other's repentance. But then:
Secondly, WE'RE TO FORGIVE EACH OTHER'S SINS (vv21-35)
Even when we're going well as Christians (as opposed to going for a wander), we still sin. We're regular failures. And you don't have to be around a Christian fellowship long before you're sinned against; and regularly sinned against by the same people. (You don't have to be married to a Christian long to have the same experience.) Which is what Peter had on his mind in v21:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" [as if that was a really generous allowance!]
[v22:] Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Which of course does not mean literally, '77 times, and then refuse on sin number 78.' It's just a way of saying, 'As many times as you're sinned against! Unlimited forgiveness!' Verse 23:
23Therefore [ie, while we're on this subject], the kingdom of heaven is like a king [who stands for God] who wanted to settle accounts with his servants [who stand for us]. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him [in today's money, £1 billion. No way out unless he wins the lottery big time]. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26The servant fell on his knees before him. "Be patient with me," he begged, "and I will pay back everything." 27The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
And if you're just looking into Christianity right now, that's the heart of the Christian message. Morally, spiritually, we're all so badly in debt that left to ourselves, we'd have no hope. We'd be headed for God's judgment and condemnation. But God has not left us to ourselves. He's sent his Son the Lord Jesus to die on the cross and so pay off the debt, the judgment we should have faced. So that if a person turns to God as pictured in v26, they'll receive the forgiveness that's pictured in v27. The cancellation of an entire lifetime's sins. That's the heart of the gospel. Read on, v28:
28 But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [in today's money, £1; a mere £1]. He grabbed him and began to choke him. "Pay back what you owe me!" he demanded. 29 His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, "Be patient with me, and I will pay you back." 30 But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 Then the master called the servant in. "You wicked servant," he said, "I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
The message of that parable is this. If we are refusing to forgive someone right now, we are either forgiven people caught in wretched hypocrisy. Or we're not actually forgiven people at all. Because the logic of what Jesus says is this: forgiven people forgive.
Forgiven people forgive. Because they know what it is to have had a massive debt cancelled - their whole lifetime's sin, past and future, something we can't even begin to calculate - wiped out at the cross. And they know they can't receive forgiveness like that from God and at the same time deny it to people who sin against them in a way that, by comparison, is peanuts. I'm not saying that people don't hurt us and haven't hurt us – and badly. I'm not saying forgiveness is easy. I'm not saying forgiveness doesn't cost – if the cross says anything, it says how costly and painful forgiveness is. But Jesus is saying that forgiven people, when they find themselves tempted not to forgive, think to themselves, 'Where would I be if God had this attitude to me? Where would I be if God had said some sins were too big to be forgiven? Where would I be if God had said some sins are done once too often to be forgiven?'
Forgiven people forgive. And if we won't forgive, it calls into question whether we ourselves are really forgiven people. And I reckon it can be hardest of all to forgive within the fellowship – to forgive Christians. Because we expect more of them. It's hardest of all to be let down and hurt by Christians - who ought to know better. But I'm no different. You're no different. We all do our share of hurting people and letting people down in the fellowship. And God bears with us and keeps forgiving us. So who are we to do any less to one another? The Bible says:
Bear with each other (Colossians 3.13)
That's the message of this second section – what to do about the regular failure of our brothers and sisters. We're to forgive each others sins. Again and again and again and again and again. We're to help each other's repentance and forgive each other's sins.
So to end with, take a moment to answer to yourself these three questions, and resolve to do something about it:
I. Is there anyone you should help in the way v15 speaks about?
II. Is there anyone you need to forgive?
III. And is there anyone whose forgiveness you need to ask?
Other verses on 'Help each other's repentance': Matthew 7.1-5, Galatians 6.1-2, 1 Corinthians 5.1-13
Other verses on 'Forgive each other's sins': Matthew 6.12-15, Ephesians 4.1-3, 4.32-5.2, Colossians 3.12-14