Jesus calls us to lovingly confront our Christian brothers and sisters who have sinned so that they might repent, be reconciled to God and neighbor, and be restored to full participation in the community of faith.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand how this passage fits within chapter 18 as a whole.
Understand the three steps toward restoring a believer to the community that Jesus commands us to do.
Be encouraged to do the hard relational work of calling people to greater faithfulness to God and neighbor.
Catch Up on the Story
Chapter 18 begins when the disciples put a question to Jesus, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (18:1). Jesus' response was to bring a little child into their midst, declaring that anyone who wants to be great in the kingdom must become like one of these little children.
Of course, little children were of no account in those days. They were valued a little above property. Children are humble in the sense of their place in life and subordinate. Not only must you become like these little ones, you must also welcome them.
The rest of the chapter displays God's care and concern for little ones.
Don't lead them astray or cause them to stumble because it won't go well for you if you do! If your sin causes you to stumble and thus causes little ones to stumble, you better address the situation fast.
To cap the previous section off, Jesus tells a parable about a lost sheep that has been intentionally led astray. God, the good shepherd, will leave the rest to search out the lost little one and celebrate heartily when it's found. God is so deeply concerned for those little ones that he desires none to be lost.
Concern about the little ones doesn't stop as we approach verse 15. In fact, we must remember the previous section as we look at Jesus' instructions regarding forgiveness.
This section of Matthew 18 has been used as a road map toward reconciliation amid Christian community, and rightly so. As we consider this passage, a few things are important to remember. First, as we have already said, the context in which this passage appears should determine how it is read.
The "another member" of verse 15 can be either someone who has led one of those little ones or anyone astray, and it can refer to those who have been led astray. Both are guilty and in need of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Second, Jesus is addressing the believing community about how to deal with sin, discipline, and restoration, not necessarily our responsibility to the world. While calling the world to repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration is important to our witness, we are not to be the sin police.
So, what are these steps for confrontation and reconciliation?
If a fellow believer engages in sinful activity that is clearly and consistently contrary to the commands of Jesus, then it is to be addressed.
Most English translations included "against you" in verse 15, but those words are not there in the oldest and best manuscripts. It doesn't matter; you don't need to wait until someone sins specifically against you to exercise your Christian concern for them by confronting their behavior.
Now, as I said before, we are not to be the sin police, not in the world, and not in our believing community either.
We are not to sit by the side of the road, ready and waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting believer who passes by while committing some transgression. We aren't to be constantly out to confront others' sins. There should be no lights and no sirens.
Rather, if, in the course of our life together with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we notice behavior that is clearly and consistently against the commands of Jesus, then we are to go to that person alone.
Again, there are no lights or sirens, no radioing back to dispatch that you're in pursuit of a possible fornicator. No, we are to approach the other believer with grace and peace to share what we have seen with them. This is between you and them. I might add here that I think Jesus presumes some kind of previous relationship.
Suppose that person listens and repents. Great! There's no need to do anything else; the lost sheep has returned. If not, confront that person again a second time with one or two others along with you.
Who should you take with you? Not someone to whom you've just divulged this person's sin, but someone who, like you, has witnessed the person's behavior. It must be someone deeply concerned about the well-being of the offender.
In both of these first steps, the intention is restoration. The concern is for the one who has sinned and their privacy. It is better to deal with sin discreetly yet honestly.
If after the person is confronted by two or three, and they have repented, then great! If not, then Jesus tells us to tell it to the church.
Now, I don't think that Jesus intends us to get up in the middle of a gathering to point out another's sin. I think Jesus means that we would take the situation to the leadership of the church, the pastor, and trusted pillars of the community.
As with the other two steps, this step should be handled with grace and mercy, along with concern for the well-being and salvation of the offender. This is not a witch hunt. It is always aimed toward restoration.
Suppose the person repents; great! That person is forgiven and restored to the community. If not, Jesus tells us to treat them like a "Gentile and a tax collector."
Gentile and Tax Collector
For Jesus' audience, those are some pretty harsh words. Gentiles were outsiders. While tax collectors were usually Jews working for the Romans, they were outsiders, too.
If you were living in Israel, being either of those things put you on the very margins of society. What Jesus is driving at here is that the offender is to be treated like they do not belong to the believing community. But again, and I cannot stress this enough, the goal here is still repentance, reconciliation, and restoration to the community of faith. If Jesus' life and ministry are any indication, the offender's status as an outsider should be considered temporary, and all effort should be used to restore that person to the body. This is literally the situation where the 99 sheep are left to go in search of the one lost lamb.
Verses 19-20 often get yanked from their surrounding context by folks who want to point to the power of prayer in all manner of situations. It's a particular favorite of those who peddle a prosperity gospel. Name it and claim it! It is rather clear that Jesus is talking about the repentance, reconciliation, and restoration of believers.
As the church, specifically as small groups within the church, we are to pray for God to bring about repentance, reconciliation, and restoration. At the same time, we are to pray for wisdom and guidance in how to deal with the entire situation, especially when the offender does not repent.
Jesus has given the church the extremely tricky task of discipline within the body of believers. We cannot do that task well without soaking it in prayer.
We can't forget the purpose behind Jesus' advice when thinking about this passage. Jesus is unashamedly seeking to protect the little ones, those of no account.
We often read this passage from the vantage point of those confronting other people's sins. When we do that, it's extremely easy to become self-righteous and judgmental.
We have to view this passage as if we are the offender, as well. Actually, I think that has to be our primary vantage point. Who have we led astray, intentionally or unintentionally? Who have we neglected? Who have we hurt? Who have we rejected? How have we set ourselves up to become the greatest here and now?
If we're open to asking ourselves those kinds of questions on a regular basis, then we'll be much more open to having others confront us about our sins. We will be much more open to listening to challenges to our behavior.
God has intended the church to be a place not of judgment and condemnation but of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.
So, let us gather together to pray that we might be able to both lovingly confront the community damaging sin of others and to have our sins confronted. Jesus has promised that if we pray this way, for this is God's will, that it will be done. After all, when we are gathered together, Christ is with us.
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
How does this passage fit in with the rest of chapter 18?
Whose sins are we to confront? What makes you think that?
What are the three stages of confrontation that Jesus recommends?
Do you think these stages will work in all situations? Why or why not?
What does Jesus mean when he says in verse 17, “If a member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a wine be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector?
What is the aim of this entire process?
Have you ever had anyone confront your sin like this? How did it go?