Forgiveness and Church Discipline
Expository Bible Studies
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In response to another question about forgiveness, today we will look at Matthew 18. Like so many other passages, we need to see how Jesus answered questions in parts, and how those parts relate to one another. If we were standing before Jesus, we would have heard His entire answer without paragraph breaks and subheadings, which are in many Bibles and may break up the flow of the answer. So, we will look at the entire chapter of Matthew 18 so that we may understand the full answer of Jesus. Rather than verse by verse analysis, this structural analysis of Matthew 18 focuses upon how the paragraphs in Matthew 18 relate to one another.
Introduction: Who Is the Greatest?
One day the disciples asked Jesus: “Who then is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” (Matthew 18:1–see The Pastoral Heresy). Jesus had just instructed Peter to pay the poll tax by finding a fish and taking the coin out out of its mouth to pay the tax. Jesus had taught Peter and the other disciples that sons are exempt from paying the poll tax, but to avoid offending the tax collectors, Jesus said pay them from the coin in the mouth of the fish (Matthew 17:24-27). In light of being sons of the Kingdom of Heaven, the disciples asked a question about who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus answered that question in five parts in Matthew 18. In order to understand His complete answer, we must understand each part of the answer.
Part One: Conversion and Humility
Many people misunderstand this chapter because they miss the crucial distinction made in Matthew 18:3. Unless a person is converted and becomes like a child, that person will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, throughout Matthew 18:1-19, please keep in mind that the children suffer the attacks from men (not children) putting stumbling blocks in their way. It would be better for a man putting a stumbling block in front of a child (saint) to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
converted and becomes like a child
♦ You must be converted and become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of God.
♦ Some men put stumbling blocks in front of little children and would be better off drowned.
People gain humility by first being converted and becoming like children. Therefore, the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a humble child who serves saints.
Part Two: Do Not Despise One of These Little Ones
Jesus pronounced woe upon men through whom stumbling blocks come (Matthew 18:7-10). Remember that men, not children, set stumbling blocks in front of the saints, described as little children. It would be better for the men putting stumbling blocks before the little children to cut off their body parts, like feet, hands, or eyes, than to enter eternal fire with two feet, two hands, or two eyes (see see Afterlife). So, we know that born-again believers (saints) do not go to Hell. Therefore, Jesus was talking about unbelievers who put stumbling blocks before little children (saints). The “your” of Matthew 18:8 refers to the men who put stumbling blocks before the little children. So, not only will men who put stumbling bocks before saints have the millstone problem in Matthew 18:6, they also face eternal fire in Hell as punishment.
Do not despise these little ones
♦ Better for men to cut off body parts than to enter Hell two eyes, two feet, and two hands
♦ Believers (little children) have their own angels who continually see the face of God the Father in heaven.
Unbelievers set stumbling blocks before believers. At times, even believers like Peter become stumbling blocks (Matthew 16:23), but in Matthew 18 Jesus addressed the unbelievers who set stumbling blocks in front of little children (saints). Jesus said stumbling blocks are inevitable. Yet, those people who cause little children to stumble should cut off body parts to avoid causing them to stumble than to be cast into Hell. People must not despise the little children, for their angels in heaven continually behold the face of God the Father in heaven. Jesus maintains the closest relationship with all of His sheep.
Part Three: God Searches for Stray Sheep
Jesus then explained that sheep stray and the Good Shepherd seeks the straying sheep. The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the flock and searches for the lost sheep. If He finds the lost sheep, He rejoices over it more than the ninety nine which have not gone astray (Matthew 18:12-13). So, God the Father in heaven does not will that one of the sheep would perish.
The Good Shepherd searches for straying sheep because God the Father does not want the straying sheep to perish.
♦ The Good Shepherd always searches for the lost sheep.
♦ God the Father does not want even one straying sheep to perish.
Sheep stray. Jesus loves the sheep and seeks to return strays to the flock. At times, stumbling blocks arise for little children, and like sheep, they stray away from the flock of believers. So, when believers stray, Jesus always seeks them out.
Part Four: Separating from Stubborn Sinners
Jesus commanded saints to separate from stubborn sinners as a last resort. Jesus explained a four-part process of church discipline. First, when a brother sins, another brother goes privately and shows him his fault. If he listens to you, then you have won your brother. Second, if your brother will not listen to you, then take two or three witnesses. Three, if the brother will not listen to them, then tell it to the church. Four, if he refuses to listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matthew 18:15-17; see 1 Corinthians 9-13). Whatever the church binds, so it has been bound in heaven. What the church agrees upon, and asks for according to the Scriptures, God will give to them who are gathered together in the name of Jesus, and He will be in their midst. Therefore, we know that church discipline must be practiced in prayer, seeking God’s leading and blessing as the church applies the Scriptures to stubborn straying sheep.
If he refuses to listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
♦ If your brother sins, go and show him his fault. If he listens to you, you have won your brother.
♦ If he will not listen to you, then take two or more witness with you, to establish every fact through two or three witnesses.
♦ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.
♦ If he refuses to to listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.
Church discipline concerns little children who do not want to be found by Jesus and returned to the flock. They refuse to humble themselves and forsake their sin. Those stubborn little children cling to their sin and refuse to listen to believers sharing the Scriptures with them. The stubborn, sinful sheep must be separated from the flock of sheep until the sheep listens to the Scriptures and returns to fellowship. All church discipline starts with the Good Shepherd seeking the lost, stubborn sheep and ends with with repentance and restoration. Until repentance comes from the stubborn sheep, restoration to the flock remains impossible.
Part Five: Forgive Sinners like God Forgives You
Related to the first question, Peter asked a second question: How often should I forgive my brother who sins against me? Jesus answered seventy times seven and then told a parable about a king. The king forgave a slave who owed 10,000 talents, but that wicked slave refused to forgive another slave that owed him a hundred denarii, a much smaller debt. Jesus followed the same teaching He gave earlier: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors (Matthew 6:12). If people refuse to forgive others, then God will not forgive them (Matthew 6:14-15). Therefore, all believers should forgive every other believer, without limitations. Jesus used the number “seventy time seven” to emphasize that total forgiveness for all sins. The forgiveness must be from the heart (Matthew 18:35).
Believers must forgive brothers who sin against them
Forgiveness must come from the heart
♦ As God forgives believers, so also believers should forgive each other from the heart.
All believers must forgive other believers. In matters of church discipline, the believers forgive the stubborn sinner immediately, but that does not change church discipline. Until the stubborn sinner repents and changes his behavior, they cannot be restored to fellowship. Believers must also forgive all people who put stumbling blocks before them. Believers should never hold grudges in marriage, relationships, business, or other matters. Unforgiveness harms believers and interferes with fellowship. In marriage, unforgiveness can also cause a hard heart and lead to divorce (Matthew 19:1-9–see Divorce and Remarriage).
God loves sinners. Matthew 18 provides answers about conversion, humility, stumbling blocks, shepherding, church discipline and forgiveness. Each of those answers is related to the other answers. God loves sinners and does not want anyone to perish. Unless we receive Jesus as Savior, and practice His teachings, we will not live the abundant life He intends for each believer. I urge you to have Peace With God.