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Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15–20 are so important that I used to recommend to my seminary students that they preach on this text and its context every year in their churches. Why is this text so important? Because what happens after “if your brother sins against you” will determine if your church is a place of peace and harmony or a place of tension and discord (v. 15). The problem is that when someone sins against us, what usually follows is a conversation with someone else and not with the offender. “You should have heard what Harry said to me.” Of course, that’s not where the information usually stops, and thus the peace of the church is disturbed. How does Jesus complete the sentence? If someone sins against you, Jesus said, “go and tell him his fault.” Let’s unpack this into some practical steps.

1. Before you go, be sure that you have been “sinned against.” Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you.” A “sin” is a violation of God’s law, not a violation of your preferences or sensibilities. An example of a sin would be if someone lies to you or about you (ninth commandment) or takes something that rightfully belongs to you (eighth commandment). Of course, there are related principles that apply. But it might not be a “sin” if someone makes a comment that you don’t like about what you are wearing or a political comment you do not agree with. If you are convinced that you have been sinned against, take the next step. (Before moving on to the next step, it must be noted that Jesus is speaking about personal offenses. Sometimes, if the sin is of a public nature, church leaders may need to be the first to be told. Another exception would be if there is a violation of the civil law, which would then require the notification of the civil authorities.)

2. Jesus said, “Go!” I used an exclamation point because “go” is in the imperative mood. In other words, don’t sit and seethe. It is important for you to reach out to the person and have the conversation. This is also related to the previous point, since being required to “go” makes you consider whether the matter is important enough to bring up to the other person in the first place. Jesus also makes it clear that this is to be a one-on-one conversation. He says, “between you and him alone.” This is not the time for piling on but for a personal meeting between the two of you. Elsewhere, Paul makes it clear how we should go: “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). Your attitude in the approach is very impor­tant for the success of the conversation. Go humbly and not with a “holier than thou” attitude.

The ultimate goal is not just reconciliation with you, but your brother’s reconciliation with the Lord.

3. “Tell him his fault.” The word literally means to “shed light” on his fault. Perhaps this is a blind spot for the person, or perhaps you misunderstood what he said or what she did. Oftentimes, the person might not even know he offended you, which could lead to a quick apology or a clarification of what was intended by the offending comment or action. Nonetheless, the goal is to shed the light of truth on the alleged offense.

4. There are two possible results of the conversation that Jesus describes. The first is the desired outcome. “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” If he “listens to you” means that he has “heard” you not merely with his ears but with his heart, that he agrees with your assessment, and that he asks for your forgiveness. The result is that you “have gained your brother,” that is, you are reconciled to one another. The Lord desires that His family be a family of loving unity. Of course, the other side of your brother’s repentance is your willingness to forgive him. It’s no coincidence that the parable that follows these steps of discipline is the parable of the unforgiving servant (vv. 21–35). The basic story is that a man was forgiven a great debt (think $1 million) but failed to forgive a puny debt (think $10). The key words are spoken by the king who forgave the original debt. “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (v. 33). As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). When we go to someone, we should go expecting success and be ready to forgive.

We are told about the second outcome in Matthew 18:16. “But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “If he does not listen, drop it.” No, our Lord’s desire is for the purity and peace of the church, and the following verses describe the ongoing process.

Finally, the preceding context is very important for understanding the big picture of what is happening in verse 15. These verses have come to be known as the parable of the lost sheep (vv. 10–14). When one sheep strays, the good shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one who went astray. In providing the immediate context, Jesus is showing us that seeking the stray is what He does all the time, and this is how we are involved. As always, the Scriptures expand the perspective of our relationships to include the Lord’s view. After all, if the person has sinned against you, he has also sinned against the Lord. The ultimate goal is not just reconciliation with you, but your brother’s reconciliation with the Lord. If you think someone has sinned against you, please don’t sit and seethe; go and speak to him.

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From the August 2020 Issue
Aug 2020 Issue