Matthew: The Kingdom Principle: The Least is the Greatest, Part 5: Discipling the Brethren, Part 2

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on December 15, 1998

Matthew 18:15-20

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 18, as we continue our study of this great passage together.  I’d invite you to look back to the very first of the chapter and scan along the passage itself leading up to Matthew 18, verses 15 through 20.  You know that the whole of this passage is concerned with how we live as a family, as part of God’s church; with how we relate together as children of the living God in His earthly institution, the kingdom of God as it is manifest on earth in the institutional form of the church.  Jesus is telling us how we ought to get along with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. 

It helps us to remember that Matthew is writing to a body of Christians who are undergoing severe persecution.  And even though there is much pressure on them from the world around them, there is also pressure in terms of getting along with one another.  There are squabbles.  Even in Matthew, chapter 17 and the beginning of Matthew 18, we’ve seen the disciples squabbling amongst themselves as to who was most important.  Who was greatest?  Who was the leader? 

And this passage, in fact, opens in verses 1 through 6, with Jesus teaching His disciples that greatness in His kingdom is not manifested by the one who asserts himself and asserts his right and claims priority, but by the one who serves, by the one who’s humble.  And so He teaches His disciples immediately that greatness in His kingdom is determined by your attitude towards your brother.  An attitude which says, I’m going to look out for your best interests. I want to serve you in humility, recognizing that I am not my own.  I’ve been bought with a price, and now I exist for the people of God and not just for my own pleasure and enjoyment. 

In verses 7 through 11, the Lord Jesus extends that concern for others even to the issue of our own behavior.  And He says look, your decisions about personal behavior don’t just impact you and those to whom you are immediately related, they impact the church, and, therefore, don’t take an action which will cause fellow believers to stumble in the faith.  He’s saying, you’ve got to ask more than simply is this expedient for me to do?  He’s saying, you’ve got to ask what is the impact of this on the people of God as a whole? 

Do we think in those terms?  Do we think in terms in our decision-making process, especially in those most important decisions of what impact is this going to have on the church of the Lord Jesus Christ?  I remember how I was struck by this when an officer in a church that I had the privilege to serve in St. Louis was wrestling through a decision.  He had been approached a couple of times by the major corporation for which he worked, and he had been asked to move up to a higher, a more prominent and a much higher paying position.  But he had been settled in this local congregation for many years, and the place that they wanted to move him did not have a strong, evangelical Bible-believing church in the area. And here was this dilemma:  “If I pass up this promotion, they will not come back to me again because I’ve passed up two other promotions.  And my chance of advancement in this company is done.  But if I take it, do I put my family in a situation where they are not going to be able to be ministered to as they are being ministered to in our church, and do I put myself in a position where I am not able to minister in an evangelical, a Bible-believing church?” That man chose not to take that promotion, knowing what it meant for the rest of his career, because he felt that he had a responsibility both to the family and to the church to think of their needs.  That truly rebuked me, because here I was, a ministerial student, and I had never thought in those categories, and I was supposedly preparing for the gospel ministry.  And here was a layman who was thinking far more biblically, far more spiritually, far more churchly than I was thinking.  What a testimony that was to me.  The Lord Jesus is saying we’ve got to think that way.  We’ve got to think about the impact of our actions on our brothers and sisters. 

And then in verses 12 through 14, He tells us about the attitude of the heavenly Father towards those who are wandering.  You can imagine in a church that was persecuted that there were going to be a lot of people who wandered from the faith for various reasons under the external pressure of an antagonistic society and government.  I mean, the Jews were not real happy about what these Christians were teaching.  They were sheep stealing, as far as the Jews were concerned.  And the Romans were not real happy about what they were doing.  They considered Christianity an illegal religion, and they persecuted it as such.  And so there would have been a lot of pressure on a lot of people to sort of wander away from their commitment to Christ.  And you can imagine that people who had had to put their lives on the in the church for their profession might be less than forgiving towards those who were straying. 

But what does the Lord Jesus say?  You have the attitude of the heavenly Father towards those who are wandering.  The heavenly Father wants to see those wandering sheep not exterminated, not eradicated, but He wants to see them restored.  He wants to see them in fellowship.  In fact, He’s ready to go to the far country to bring them back.  Now you have that attitude.  Can you imagine what a tremendous command that is to a church in the midst of persecution?  My family has been impacted by persecution.  I’ve lost my brother, I’ve lost my mother, and I’ve lost a child to persecution.  You’re telling me that you want me to love that brother who has strayed from the faith?  Yes, I want you to love him, and I want you to desire to see him won back into the fold.  These are tremendous things that Jesus is teaching us.  He’s teaching us how we ought to relate in the context of the family. 

And in verses 15 through 20, He goes one step further and He says, furthermore, here’s how I want you to relate to people who have sinned against you.  Not just people who are wandering from the faith, but people who have hurt you. And we breathe such a great sigh of relief when we see the utter realism of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus knows that when He gathers his people into the Church we’re not going to be a perfect collection of people.  We’re going to sin against one another.  There are going to be times when we need one another, and where we fail one another in those times of need.  There are going to be times of need when we really need someone to hug us, to call us, to help us and that call doesn’t come.  And there are going to be times when we need some godly counsel and help, and we get stabbed in the back by someone who shares some information to someone else that really, really embarrasses us.  And we’re going to be disappointed by the choices that people make.  And we’re going to run into believers hurting us.  It’s going to be deeply disappointing, but remember friends, 2,000 years ago the Lord Jesus told you it was going to happen.  And He told you what to do when it happened. 

Last week we learned that the first thing we need to do is we need to have a forgiving spirit towards that brother.  That’s the very first thing.  We have to have a forgiving spirit.  Peter got that message.  We’ll see that next week when we look at verses 21 to the end of the chapter.  We need to have a forgiving spirit.  We need to be ready to forgive that brother.  That’s hard, and Jesus tells you how you can do that next week. 

But the second thing He says is, that having already cultivated a forgiving spirit, you also have to be spiritually concerned about that brother’s well being, because that sin that that brother did against you could come between that brother or sister and God.  And you’ve got to be so concerned about their spiritual welfare that you do everything in your power to encourage that brother to repentance and back into fellowship with God.  That is a tall order, I know.  But that’s what being a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ means.  Now having given that very long introduction, let’s go back and read Matthew 18, beginning in verse 15:  

Matthew 18:15-20


Our Father, this is a hard word, not just because there are phrases in it that are difficult to understand, but because the truth that it calls us to is so hard to do.  In fact, it’s impossible in our flesh.  By the grace of the Holy Spirit we pray that You would make us willing doers of your truth, for Christ’s sake, Amen 

I. The Church must draw strength from Christ’s presence.
Friends, I want to concentrate for just a few minutes with you on verses 18 through 20.  And the central truth of verses 18 through 20 is that the church must draw strength from Christ’s presence.  We learn in verses 18 through 22 that Jesus stresses that He, Himself, is spiritually present with His people, no matter how difficult the task that He calls them to.  In fact, He says especially when you are called to the difficult work of keeping peace and purity in the body of Christ, I am especially with you.  Jesus is present with His people when they are gathered as His people.  And we must draw strength from that.  And there are just two or three things I’d like you to see in this passage. 

The first you’ll see in verse 18.  In verse 18, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”  We learn there that the church is the instrument, the earthly instrument for Christ’s heavenly rule.  Christ has appointed His church, and especially the officers of His church, to spiritually shepherd His people on earth.  And so they are the administrators of His rule in the hearts of His people.  And when believers take vows to join the church, they acknowledge that.  When we take vows to join the church, we acknowledge the spiritual authority of the church, we acknowledge its importance, we acknowledge its authority, and in particular we especially acknowledge the spiritual authority of the elders.  That is one reason why your voting on elders and deacons is one of the most important things you do as a body of believers because you are voting on those who you are going to willingly acknowledge as the spiritual shepherds in this congregation.  And so when we take those vows and join the church, we are willingly acknowledging, we are voluntarily acknowledging the spiritual authority of the eldership. 

Verse 18 is a perplexing verse though.  I had many people ask me after the service last week, “Are you going to talk about verse 18?  I don’t understand what he’s saying in verse 18.”  Well, we are indeed going to talk about verse 18.  Verse 18 refers to the elders’ authority of admitting members into the church and excluding people from the church.  It refers to the elders’ authority over admission to and exclusion from the fellowship of the believers.  One of the most important things that the elders of the church do is admit members and dismiss members.  That’s one of the most important spiritual functions that they have.  And that is why it is vital for us to understand this passage.  This passage is actually the basis of that authority.  It reminds us that they have the power of binding and loosing. 

Now binding and loosing is a wonderful natural metaphor drawn from the law court.  Binding referring to the idea of condemning.  Loosing referring to the idea of acquitting.  You get the picture.  A prisoner who is bound, who is not yet freed, is still at least still under the suspicion of the court, if not under the open condemnation of the court, but a prisoner who is loosed is considered innocent and free in light of the court.  And so the language of binding and loosing refers to the action of the officers of the church when they admit members into the fellowship and when they very sadly and regretfully have to dismiss members from the fellowship of the leaders. 

The ancient synagogue was not only a place of Bible study and prayer and fellowship and worship, it was also a place where the elders of the community administered spiritual discipline.  And Jesus is saying to His disciples that they, too, as elders of His church must administer spiritual discipline.

Now the next question, of course, that jumps out at us after we have determined what binding and loosing means is, “What does it mean that what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven?” It sounds like whatever the local church officers are doing is actually determining what God does in heaven.  It sounds almost sacramental.  It sounds almost mystical.  What in the world does this mean?  But look friends, the tense of the verbs here let you know that it is not the earthly action that causes the heavenly action.  In fact the heavenly action comes first.  Notice the strict reading of the passages.  “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven.”  There is a sense in which the heavenly judgment comes first.  The church’s goal, however, is to as best as it can, according to God’s revealed will, render a judgment that would be seen with favor by God Himself.  In other words, the church knows that it cannot see the heart of a sinner.  But the church can see the words and the actions of a sinner.  So the church must act on what it sees outwardly even though it can’t see the heart. 

Now, will the church make mistakes?  Yes.  Sometimes the church will administratively give forgiveness when the person hasn’t truly been repentant in their heart.  And sometimes the church may be moved to exclude when the person is in fact repentant in the heart.  But the church has to act on the actions that it sees.  For instance, if a person commits a grave crime, perhaps they commit the crime of murder.  And they come to you and over a period of time sincerely express repentance, and there is a change of life and a willingness to face the consequences of that.  In fact, one might say over a period of time of observing them, that you had seen visible evidence that that person had truly repented.  But if a person comes to you feeling great remorse, having committed such a heinous crime, and then continues to commit the crime, you’ve got a good evidence that the heart has not changed. 

Now the church can’t look at the heart, but it sure can look at the action.  If a liar comes to you with great remorse and says, “I’m sorry that I lied,” but continues to lie over and over again, then you have good evidence to believe that that liar is not repentant.  And the church’s business is not to try and figure out what is going on in his heart, the point is to determine what his actions say about his heart. 

Will the church make mistakes?  Certainly.  This, by the way, is one of the great differences between the Protestant and the Roman Catholic traditions.  We Protestants willingly admit that the church can make mistakes in this area.  We do our best not to, but we can make mistakes.  The church is not infallible in that sense.  But we attempt to act in accordance with God’s word.  But this passage speaking of the elders’ authority of binding and loosing, of admitting and dismissing is a two-fold lesson for us.  It’s a warning for sinners.  It’s a warning for sinners that the church has the authority to call you to accountability, and it is an encouragement to those in authority that the spiritual authority that you wield is given not from man, but from God Himself.  In fact the very phrase, whatever you bind in earth shall have been bound in heaven, shows the risen Lord’s commitment to the peace and purity of His church.  When we in our membership vows respond in answer to the question, “Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the church?” you are saying at least two things.  First of all, you are saying, “Yes, I recognize the spiritual authority of the church, and I willingly submit to it.”  And secondly you’re saying, “I recognize the spiritual authority of the elders of this church, and I am determined to live as a Christian ought.”  That’s one of our vows, too.  I will live in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit in a way that reflects the lordship of Christ in my life.  I will endeavor to live as becomes a believer of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And that is absolutely vital because every society has the right to determine the nature and bounds of its membership. 

And the Lord Jesus is saying here of the church, the church not only has that right, it has that responsibility.  Those who profess to be believers and join themselves to the church, must live lives befitting believers.  And they are accountable to the church if they don’t live those lives in accord with the truth of God’s word.  This is very, very solemn stuff. 

I know many of you watched with interest a few years back, perhaps ten years ago when there was an interesting court case in New York State.  A woman was suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York State because she had been excommunicated.  She was a director of Planned Parenthood and had been very involved in the pro-abortion movement.  And finally after many years of imploring her to leave that, the Roman Catholic Church hesitantly and regretfully excommunicated her, and she was protesting that this was unfair, and there was a great human cry from the liberal media.  How horrible it was that this poor woman would be victimized and attacked by her own church, which ought to have been a place of refuge for her.  But think about it friends.  The Roman Catholic Church was on record as to where it stood on the issue of pro-life and pro-choice.  And the Roman Catholic Church had made it very clear that it expected all its members to be supportive of that view of pro-life.  And here is a woman who is saying, I want to be within the bounds of the church, and I want to fight with all my breath against the church.  And the church finally reluctantly said you can no longer do that within our bounds.  That is perfectly appropriate. 

If someone, having taken the vow that you believe the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of sinners, begins to vehemently attack that truth, and you’re at First Presbyterian Church, I can assure you that the elders would want to speak with you because that’s a vow that you’ve taken. You believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of sinners.  And to want to attack that within the bounds of the church, is that consistent with your profession and vow?   No.  That’s all that church discipline is, my friends.  It is the church moving to encourage one another to be faithful to the commitments that we have willingly made.  And so we learn from this passage.

II. Christians need to be aware of the special benefits of corporate prayer.
Look with me then at verse 19.  The second thing I would want you to see is that Christians need to be aware of the special benefits of corporate prayer.  Especially corporate prayer for the church.  The Lord Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they may be asked, it shall be done for them by my Father, who is in heaven.”  Jesus is not giving us a magical incantation whereby we can get anything we want.  He is giving us a precious promise here.  This symphonious asking, this asking of the Lord together, gathered as His people about concerns for the church relates explicitly in this passage to the matters about which Jesus has been talking.  He’s been talking about church discipline.  Surely, this is among the hardest things that we have to talk about and deal with in the church.  And He says, look when you gather to lift up before Me serious matters about the peace and the purity of the church, I want to assure you this.  First of all, I’m going to be there.  He tells you that in verse 20.  But second of all, I want you to know that your heavenly Father will hear you when you pray in accordance with His will with a desire for the good of His church, He will hear you.  What a tremendous encouragement when we have to go about the difficult work of dealing with those who are straying from the faith and denying it. 

Let me tell you one very interesting thing about this passage.  Notice that Jesus relates this verse, verse 19, directly to verse 16.  He says wherever, “If two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask.”  That goes right back to what?  The two or three witnesses that he had spoken about in verse 16.  Well, that verse goes all the way back to Deuteronomy 17, verse 7.  Do you remember the function of the witnesses in a trial.  The witnesses confirm the facts, but in the Old Testament if you had served as a witness to confirm the facts in a capital case, what was one of your responsibilities?  To be the first to execute the penalty for that crime. 

Now isn’t it interesting that Jesus here says, that whereas in the Old Testament the witnesses were the first to execute the penalty as a crime, here they are the first to pray, because the desire of the church is to see the forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration of the straying sinner.  In the Old Testament, they are the first to cast the stone.  In the New Testament, they are the first to lift up prayers.  Not only that the church would be faithful, but that the wandering sheep would return to the fold.  My friends, we cannot underestimate the significance of gathering together as the people of God to pray for the people of God.  There is something enormously significant about that.  The Lord Jesus makes that clear.  The importance of our prayer meetings is highlighted by this.  Those corporate prayer meetings may be the most important things that we ever do. 

Now let me give you one example.  Think for a moment, even those of you who know the story of Daniel very well, think for a moment.  What administrative decisions as a key government leader in one of the greatest empires in world history, what administrative decisions can you name that Daniel made?  This was one of the greatest leaders of the world in his day.  We have many great people gathered in this congregation, people of great influence, and none of us had the kind of world influence that Daniel had.  But you can’t name a single administrative decision.  Now his life would have been caught up in the frantic pace of the demands of government and law, and fairness and justice, and provision.  And those would have seemed so important to the people of his day.  But what do you remember about Daniel?  Well, for one thing, you remember Daniel, chapter 9.  You remember Daniel is a man who prayed for the church.  So you don’t know a single thing that he did in his most powerful positions, but you do know that he prayed for the church.  And you also know that it was in part in answer to Daniel’s prayer of Daniel, chapter 9, that the Lord Jesus came to save your sins.  So Daniel’s prayer for the church has far outlived all the important decisions and actions that he took as an administrator in the Babylonian Empire.  Does that not speak to us, my friends?  We’re so caught up on all sorts of busyness, even busyness for the Lord, but are we gathering to pray for the church?  It may be our prayers for the church will be the most important thing that we do as members of the Lord Jesus’ kingdom. 

III. Jesus is spiritually present when His people are called upon to do hard things.
One last thing.  If you look at verse 20, Jesus promises this.  “Where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.”  Jesus is just telling us again that He is spiritually present when His people are called upon to do hard things.  You know, facing conflict squarely is one of the hardest things that we ever do.  In our families, many of you know what it is to have to deal with a prodigal child.  You don’t want to have to be tough.  You don’t want to have to enforce discipline, but you know that you have to for the sake of that child.  You know you have to for the sake of the family.  It would be easier to deny it, to pretend like it’s not there, but that person’s life will be destroyed, and the whole life of the family will be disrupted.  Discipline is hard.  It’s hard to discipline a disobedient child.  But the consequences of not doing it are even greater.  Mutual accountability is hard.  It’s hard for husbands and wives to be accountable to one another.  It’s no fun being admonished.  When I have wronged my wife, I instinctively know it, and I can feel the admonition coming thirty minutes before it comes.  It’s no fun.  But for me to ignore the wrong that I have done would not bring greater oneness and unity in the relationship.  It would build a greater wedge in the relationship which would keep us from experiencing the unity of the spirit that God wants.  The air has to be cleared for that purpose. 

It’s the same in the church.  We’re a family.  God wants us to be united, and He wants us to be pure.  And He’s not willing to be satisfied with one out of two.  And so He says, my friends, you are accountable to one another and especially to the elders of the church that the Lord has placed over you as spiritual shepherd who only want the good of your soul.  So submit yourself to them for they desire to see you stood before the throne faultless with exceeding glory and to hear the words well done.  And so when they speak to us, the quiet, passionate, prayerful, pleading word of rebuke and admonition, they do it only because they want us to be like Christ.  And they want our eternal good.  May God help us to accept that.  Let us pray. 

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for this encouragement, and we pray that we would show that mutual accountability that we ought to the brethren, seeking to grow together in the faith, for Christ’s sake, Amen.

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