Summary of the Text
There are a number of passages in God’s Word, both in the Old and New Testaments in which the original context no longer bears much resemblance to our own. In those cases, preachers must make interpretive leaps, from the original context to our own to find suitable application of the eternal principles within the text.
For example, the last time I went down to my local Safeway, Ralphs, or Whole Foods, I didn’t come across any meat with the label (sacrificed to Apollo on July 5th). That situation no longer exists in at least most contexts of modern Christianity. That’s not a problem with our passage today.
Matthew 18 continues to offer wisdom to the church today. Every single day, there are opportunities in our local church for us to approach sin and the sinner with grace and truth. It’s also not so difficult for us to know how to approach these situations. The problem, it seems, is a failure of nerve. At least in the U.S., though undoubtedly other countries as well, tolerance, and staying out of other people’s business has been elevated to a sacred code that, when violated, often leads to social ostracism. Most of us in the West have been so culturally conditioned to avoid “judging” others’ actions, that the mere thought of doing so would require an Abrahamic-like faith, akin to being willing to sacrifice our own child.
And so, passages like Matthew 18, in which Jesus explicitly calls us to confront our brother or sister who has sinned, sounds like Jesus asking us to walk on hot coals for a few hours. “What would you rather do, walk on hot coals or confront someone you love about a sin in their life? Hmm, I think I’ll take the hot coals.”
The good news is, oftentimes this passage is applied so fast and loosely that we mistake its original purpose. But a close reading of the text makes it clear that confronting someone in their sin is only to be carried out in certain situations. And I would argue, much of the labels that are applied to Christians by those outside the church (as being judgmental, bigoted, etc.) are because folks in the church have not followed a close reading of the text.
They have assumed that if “Jesus said it, then you ought to do it, never mind the fact that you are not a Christian.” We see this especially up close in politics. Conservative Christians have often assumed that, because Jesus teaches certain principles, those principles have to be followed by everyone. But, both Jesus and Paul make clear that the higher standard that we are taught to follow is meant to be upheld only among the faithful followers of Jesus. So, of course we can vote according to our deepest held convictions about faith and life, but we should not assume or expect that those without a Christian faith will agree with us. So with that said, what does Jesus teach us in Matthew 18 that can keep our communities alive and flourishing?
When you read Matthew 18 as a whole, it is clear Jesus is teaching this group how to treat each other as part of the community centered on his gospel. Jesus begins by describing how one is supposed to deal with sin within the community. Why do we believe this? Again, this entire section is about how the Jesus community is meant to relate to one another. Jesus describes the one who is to be confronted as a “brother or sister,” members of the ekklesia (translated “church,” though it would have initially been translated “assembly”). Nevertheless, the point Jesus is making is within the community of faith, this is how you ought to behave.
Jesus begins by keeping the conflict as small as possible…the one who has experienced the sin is to confront the brother or sister in private. This is to keep the issue as small as possible. It also demonstrates the goal of the confrontation: to restore the member to community. It’s never to shame or exclude the offending brother or sister.
But Jesus understands just how broken we are, and how easy it is for us to twist the truth and to keep others at arm’s length. What do we do if the offender doesn’t accept their part? Here, Jesus is practical: bring along one or two witnesses so that it’s no longer one person’s word against another. If the person continues to refuse to take responsibility, they are to be thrown out. Jesus’ language here may come across as particularly ruthless, but again, the brother or sister has had every opportunity to repent and be restored to relationship.
Finally, I’d like to conclude with a few words about the goal of this text. As scholars have noted, Jesus is very careful, and quite selective in giving specific advice to his followers. He seems far more likely to tell a parable than to give commands. But clearly he saw what I think we see today: that without the truth reigning within the faith community, the community will become lukewarm, neither hot, nor cold.
When we are willing to do the hard work, when necessary, of discipling someone in the flock, it is done to preserve the integrity-the integration between what we say we believe as Christ’s church, with how we actually live it out in the real, messy world. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion once stated that the true Church exists wherever the Word of God is proclaimed and the sacraments rightly administered.
Since his writing, the Reformed tradition added a third mark–faithful exercise of Chrsitian discipline. While I recognize many who read these words do not come from a Reformed tradition, there should be something each of us can gain from taking church discipline, and Matthew 18, seriously. In order for any community to thrive, it must be able to maintain integrity between what it says and how it lives. When we ignore discipline, we diminish the ability for the church to flourish in all circumstances. That doesn’t mean we need to live like the “church lady” popularized by Dana Carvey on SNL, nor Angela from the TV show The Office. We can practice discipline in the way Jesus teaches us right here in Matthew 18.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
Barbara Brown Taylor
Neither the language of medicine nor of law is adequate substitute for the language of [sin.] Contrary to the medical model, we are not entirely at the mercy of our maladies. The choice is to enter into the process of repentance. Contrary to the legal model, the essence of sin is not [primarily] the violation of laws but a wrecked relationship with God, one another, and the whole created order. “All sins are attempts to fill voids,” wrote Simone Weil. Because we cannot stand the God-shaped hole inside of us, we try stuffing it full of all sorts of things, but only God may fill [it].
What’s wrong with me is me. Somebody needs to pull me from the raging waters I call “me.”
Oscar A. Romero
The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.
Key Sermon Illustrations
We have a serious problem:
All of us think we’re good people.
But Jesus says we’re not.
Sincerely, Brant P. Hansen
…PS. IF YOU THINK I’M WRONG—about how we think we’re good people—I offer this challenge: Go ahead and ask someone. Seriously, if you’re reading this at a coffee shop, ask the stranger sitting at the next table, “So, are you a good person? Would you say you’re more moral than the average person?”
Given my studies in this area, I can predict their response with 98 percent confidence, and it’s “I’m calling the police.” But while the authorities are being dispatched, try to get a serious answer.
If they give you their honest take, you’ll hear something like, “Why, yes, I do think I’m more moral than the average person.” This is predictable because social scientists have asked these questions for decades, and the result is the same: We all think we’re more moral than average. It’s remarkable how good we are. Just ask us, and we’ll tell you about it.
The Center of Our Own World
He may have been the hardest person I ever counseled. He was self-assured and controlling. He argued for the rightfulness of everything he had ever done. He acted like the victim when in fact he was the victimizer. He had crushed his marriage and alienated his children. He loved himself and had a wonderful plan for his life. It was his will in his way at his time. He made everyone a slave to his plan or he drove them out of his life.
He made incredible sacrifices to get what he wanted but chafed against the sacrifices God called him to make. But in a moment of grace I will never forget, he quit fighting, controlling, and defending. He asked me to stop talking and said: “Paul, I get it. I have been so busy being God that I have had little time or interest in serving God.” It was one of the most accurate moments of self-diagnosis I had ever experienced. He was right.
No sooner had the words come out of his mouth than he began to weep like I had never seen a man weep. His body shook with grief as grace began its work of freeing him from his bondage to himself. But my friend was not unique. If you’re a parent, you know that your children are collections of self-sovereignty. All a child really wants is his own way. He doesn’t want to be told what to eat, what to wear, when to go to bed, how to steward his possessions, or how to treat others. He wants to be in the center of his own little world and to write his own set of rules.
And he is surprised that you have the audacity to tell him what to do. But it isn’t just children. Sin causes this self-sovereignty to live in all of us. We tend to want more control than we are wise enough or strong enough to handle. We want people to follow our way and stay out of our way. But when we wish for these things, we are forgetting who we are, who God is, and what grace has blessed us with. We are always either mourning the fact that we aren’t getting our way or celebrating that grace welcomes us to a new and better way.