Exposition of Matthew 18:15-20 (a)

The well-known passage from Matthew 18 which we will now consider is not always understood; it often is referred to merely as a formal, mechanical rule and norm for dealing with an offending brother without understanding its spiritual import; that it is a fundamental order in God’s church who must exercise the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. That it is a good and proper way is then understood. But that only she is the church who walks in this way is then not fully grasped; where this way of the Key-power that leads either to heaven or to hell clearly and unequivocally confessed. 

Only the church that insists that its members walk in this way has the right to call itself church. Be it then two or three who gathered in Christ’s Name, there is Christ in their midst; here Christ stands in the midst of the candlesticks. All other methods of bringing men to repentance soon reveal themselves to be shot through with worldly diplomacy, leaving the church guilty of the blood of those who perished in their sins. Thus we read in Ezekiel 3:18-21: “Son of man, I made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul. Again, when a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Nevertheless if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, because he is warned; also thou hast delivered thy soul.” 

Such was the burden of Ezekiel in his day in Israel. 

And such is also the burden upon each one, who has a brother sin against him, in the New Testament church in the world. 

For, let it be clearly understood at the outset of this essay, that it is not simply left to our discretion, whether we desire to “gain the brother” who has either sinnedin general, or more particularly against us, but such is the precept of the Lord to us; such is our high and holy calling to every one who has sinned against us. Let it be understood that we become guilty of the “blood” of such a one who has sinned—if we do not reprove and warn him of his sin! And if finally someone does notheed the warning and hardens himself in his sin and unrepentance, then it is not up to us whether such a one shall be “considered,” a heathen and a publican, but the command of Christ is, “Let him then be unto you” a heathen and publican. It has the sanction of God in Christ! 

That this is a most tender and loving and righteous task on the part of him who would seek to restore an erring brother is clearly taught in Matthew 18. And that this is difficult, that it is really the straight and narrow way is equally obvious from the text. 

Jesus begins by pointing out a definite “case.” It is the most difficult case thinkable. It is the case when a brother has sinned against me. Jesus says, “If thy brother shall trespass against thee.” This is objectively possible. It often happens. And thus Jesus states the matter. It should be noticed, first of all, that the man who sins against me is my brother in Christ. Since the Scriptures are masculine it may also mean “a sister.” It is at least one who confesses to believe in Christ, to be a believer in the Lord, a new creature in Christ, who daily must put off the old man and put on the new man. He must be daily sincerely sorry for his sins, that he has sinned against God, and have a true joy in God through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works. 

Such is the brother and sister who has sinned against us. 

There is a difference in the reading of the text which should be pointed out. It is the matter of whether we should read: “If thy brother has sinned, or “if their brother has sinned against thee.” It is quite evident from the entire Scripture that if a brother has sinned a sin—we are to restore such a one in the spirit of meekness. We are to do this irrespective of whether this was a sin against our person or not. See Gal. 6:1where we read: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness . . .” See also James 5:19, 20: “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” However, the question is what does Jesus teach us here in Matthew 18? Does he merely refer to a brother who sins, or does he refer to a brother who has sinned against us, against me

We believe that the reading followed in the King James Version, the Holland Staten Vertaling and the German translation is correct. The reading “sinned against thee” must be retained. In the first place, it seems to us, because that is the way Peter understood the expression, when he said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me (eis eme) and I forgive him?” Peter does not ask simply “how often shall my brother sin” and nothing more. In the second place, because Jesus follows through with this question, this outburst of Peter, and tells him that it must be till seventy times seven times, and illustrates the point with the beautiful and instructive parable concerning forgiveness from the heart. And, in the third place, because Jesus here really teaches what full forgiveness is. It is the acid test of real Christianity. It is the most difficult case. If one can walk this last pile of love and forgiveness, one has come to what John calls “perfected love.” Then one is perfect even as our Father in heaven is peyfect. When one can perform this act of faith and love one can do anything to restore the brother also in sins which are not committed against his person. 

The text therefore stands: If thy brother have sinned against thee! 

Another element which we must too underscore is that we must be certain that what the brother has done was indeed sin on the part of the brother! This element is rather important to be remembered. It must be, objectively considered, sin! There is a difference between giving offence and taking offence. Besides, what the brother has done “against” us must be of such a nature that it is “sin,” it must be against the law of God, and, therefore, incompatible with the end of the law, to wit, love out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience and of faith unfeigned. For the brother must not be attacked, but must be saved, he must be gained. The sin must be of such a nature, that, if not confessed he will perish in this sin! And, if finally this has been brought to the brother’s attention and the brother is “convicted” he will needs have to be accounted a “heathen and a publican”!

Such is the “case” Jesus here presents to the disciples. 

And it is intended to show who is really great in the kingdom of heaven; who is really like “this child,” having a childlike faith and love, which will believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. It is a love which is vitalized by the thought that it is not the will of the Father that one of these shall perish, and that I have a dalling toward the brother lest I be guilty of his blood when he perishes. 

Now in such a case there is one manner of procedure which has the sanction of Christ, and only one! 

If I am to gain this brother I am to “go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.” The term “tell him his fault” really should read “go and convict him between thee and him alone.” There must be aconviction of sin! It must not simply be brought to his attention that he has sinned in your opinion, but it must be shown to him that what he did toward you wasindeed sin! He must be convicted that he is guilty. It must be bound upon his sanctified conscience. He must be overcome by the “argument,” by the statement of the facts, and that too, in such a way, that should he not give heed in his own mind and conscience, he is convicted of sin by the Holy Ghost. Unless that is done—one is still guilty of such a man’s sin

And this must be done by us all alone. It must be most absolutely alone. Only the Lord may be present. And this means that not only the visit must be alone, but it must not have become the common knowledge of everyone else, if the sin is not public. And that has a good discipline in it. It is the discipline that calls for love. And, if one does not desire to go to his offending brother, one does not desire to save him from sin at all. He hates the brother even though he would like to make himself believe that his not going to see the brother who has sinned against him is love. It may be a long walk to see, the offending brother. Particularly when the flesh enters in. However, where love impels us that way is very short; the commandment to see the brother is not grievous. 

We will then be very eager to see the brother. 

It may be that we need to pray much before we go to see the brother; we will then understand the love of the shepherd who goes to find the sheep that was lost. Maybe an “eye must be pulled out” and a “hand cut off.” It is possible that, when we must go all alone that we will once more examine the facts, humble ourselves, remember the time(s) that we ourselves were guilty of the same sin, and go to the brother in the “spirit of meekness.” We will first pull the beam out of our own eye. However, then if we are fully certain that the brother has “sinned” and that if he does not confess it he will perish in his impenitence; that unless he is told by us we will be guilty of his blood, then we can go in a good conscience in the hope of winning a brother. 

Nay, not simply win a brother to ourselves, but win him first of all for the Lord, His kingdom, the church, and for his own good and free conscience to fight against sin and the devil! 

He that thus is the means for the conversion of a sinner (brother) from the error of his way has saved a soul from death and has covered a multitude of sins. 

Now there is a possibility that the brother is not “gained.” He does not at all show signs of true repentance. 

Although he is “convicted,” he will not confess that he is sincerely sorry; he will not ask for forgiveness, but continues to walk in this “sin.” Then of course the first step is really there already for his ultimate “excommunication,” that is, that he be considered by the entire church, before the face of God, as a heathen and a publican. For when “sin” is involved, actual sin, then it is a matter of life and death. 

Then the church is brought in. 

For the word must be established. And this must be thus not simply before men, but before God. For the word of two or three witnesses shall stand. 

More of this next time, D.V. 

—G.L.