Redemptive Discipline in Matthew 18
by David Huston
The theme of Matthew 18 is the Lord’s answer to the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (verse 1). His answer was, “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (verse 4). This answer sets the tone for the balance of the passage. The entire chapter is Christ’s explanation as to what constitutes true humility.
The Bible teaches us that we must be like a child (Ephesians 5:1); we must receive our brothers and sisters in Christ (Philippians 2:25-29); we must be careful not to offend them (I Corinthians 8:11-13). If one sins against us, we must not be stubborn and say, “I’ll forgive him when he comes and apologizes”; we must take the initiative and humbly attempt to bring about a reconciliation.
If things are made right but the brother sins against us again, we must continue to forgive him seventy times seven times (verse 22); in other words, it is always incumbent upon us to forgive. Concerning the brother who has trespassed, this is another matter altogether.
The Bible says that we are to confess our faults one to another and pray for one another (James 5:16). It says we are to be at peace among ourselves (Hebrews 12:14). We are told that we should love each other with a pure heart fervently (I Peter 1:22). If we wrong a member of the body or commit sin that defiles the body and refuse to confess our fault, then we will not be at peace and will not be able to love. Such conduct breaks our spiritual union with both God and His body. If we do not repent and make things right, we show that we are not humble and we alienate ourselves from Christ. This happens in the spiritual realm (in heaven) whether we recognize it on earth or not. Therefore, Jesus instructs, “If thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee” (verse 8).
Speaking of the body of Christ, Paul wrote, “For the body is not one member but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” (I Corinthians 12:14-15). In Matthew 18, Jesus also spoke of the body of believers in terms similar to Paul’s. If members of the body transgress or bring an offense, then “cut them off.” It is better to go to heaven missing one member than for the entire body to go to hell.
He then went on to admonish, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones,” one of these humble ones. In other words, even though offenses must come along, we had better make sure we are not the one who brings the offense. Why? Because “in heaven” their angels behold the Father on a continual basis. Here He related what takes place on earth to what takes place in heaven.
One of the Lord’s purposes in this passage is to give us a glimpse into the spiritual realm. To function properly on earth, we must have an understanding of what is going on in heaven (in the spiritual realm). Our purpose is to accurately reflect on earth the reality of heaven. This is why we are to pray, “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6: 10).
Why must we be careful not to offend those in Christ’s body? Because, says Jesus, “the Son of man is come to save that which was lost’ (verse 11). To bring offenses or sins into the body of Christ flies in the face of the very purpose of God’s coming in the flesh. He came to bring salvation. It is a serious matter to act in opposition to Christ’s desire to save the lost. Paul wrote that no man should ‘put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.’ To do this is to risk destroying one “for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:13, 15). He also wrote, ‘When ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ” (I Corinthians 8:12). Who would dare to knowingly sin against Christ?
All of what Christ said concerning humility, avoiding offenses, cutting off the offending member, and His desire to save the lost leads up to the passage in question, Matthew 18:15-20. After instructing the disciples first to have a one-on-one encounter with an offending brother, He then told them that if the offender will not hear, they must go back to him in a group of two or three. The purpose of this is twofold: First, perhaps the other brethren will be able to convince the offending brother to acknowledge his transgression. The goal of these encounters must always be redemptive. As Paul instructed, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness” (Galatians 6:1). Second, if the offender will not hear, then the presence of the other brethren provides additional witnesses of his impenitence. Paul told the Corinthians that he was coming to visit them and was concerned about the reports of improper conduct among some. He told them that each report had to be substantiated by the testimony of two or three witnesses (II Corinthians 12:20-13:2).
Next, the Lord instructed the disciples that the matter must be brought before the entire assembly. If the offender will not heed the admonitions of the church body, then he is to be treated as though he were no longer a part of the body of Christ.
Jesus then said, ‘Whatever you bind on the earth shall occur, being bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on the earth shall occur, being loosed in heaven” (verse 18). This rendering of the original Greek by Jay P. Green Sr. shows clearly that the Lord was not affirming that He would stand behind every decision of the church, but that the church, which is on earth, must stand behind what He has already decided in heaven. If a person transgresses and will not respond to the entreaties of the entire church, we are to interpret this as meaning he has cut himself off so severely from God that he must likewise be cut off from the body, lest the body become defiled.
According to Thayer’s lexicon, the word “bind” means “to forbid, prohibit, declare illicit.’ It also means “to tie, fasten, or place in
bonds.’ (See Matthew 13:30; 22:13.) In other words, it means to deprive of liberty. The word translated ‘whatsoever,’ however, can also be translated “whosoever,” as it is many times in the New Testament. The way it is translated has to do with the context. If the translator believes this verse is referring to evil spirits or church-made laws, then he will translate it “whatsoever.” If it is referring to people, however, then it ought to be “whosoever.” To paraphrase the first half of Christ’s statement: “Whosoever you (as an assembly on earth) declare to be acting illicitly and therefore prohibit from continued fellowship (according to the procedure just described) shall presently be seen to be in spiritual bondage, having already been deprived of spiritual liberty in the heavenlies.” In other words, Jesus is telling us that if we stand behind Him, He will stand behind us.
Jesus gave a dramatic illustration of this concept when He told the story of the unforgiving servant (verses 25-35). He began by saying that this is what the kingdom of God is like, that here is what is going on in the spiritual realm. At the end of the story, the wicked servant is ‘delivered … to the tormentors.” In other words, His liberty is taken away; he is bound in a prison of torment. Jesus then concluded Matthew 18 with these words: ‘So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (verse 35). Whether it is failing to forgive, trespassing against a brother, or engaging in sinful practices, the consequence is the same: alienation from God and bondage in a prison of spiritual torment. It is the church’s responsibility to enforce on the flesh what is already true in the spirit.
In verse 19, by saying, ‘Again I say unto you,” Jesus reiterated what He had just said about binding an unrepentant church member. This phrase makes verse 19 a further explanation of verse 18. He then said, “That if two of you agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father in heaven.” In other words, if the assembly (regardless of number) is in agreement over the matter and commits to disassociating themselves from the offender on
earth, then the Father will bring to pass the spiritual bondage, all for the purpose of redemption.
The worst thing that can happen is for the assembly to go on treating the offender as though he has done nothing wrong. This inhibits the Lord from accomplishing His purpose. Our responsibility is to reflect on earth to the person what God’s attitude toward him is in heaven. Failure to do so allows the offender to rationalize away his misconduct and prevents him from recognizing his need for repentance.
This action of the church is to take place when the members have ‘gathered together” in Christ’s name (verse 20). The cutting off is not done in our name, for it is not a personal matter between mere people. All that a church does in word or deed is to be done in the name of the Lord Jesus. The church is simply bringing His heavenly will into fulfillment in earth. When His procedures are followed, He said, ‘There am I in the midst of them” (verse 20).
The Bible gives us an example of the procedure of Matthew 18 being put into action. The Corinthian church had a brother who was engaging in sexual immorality. Paul wrote to them that this man should be “taken away from among them” (I Corinthians 5:2). He said that he had already judged in this matter, probably because he had received reports of it from at least two or three sources. He instructed them, ‘In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit,
with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved” (verse 4-5). They were to gather together, they were to act in Christ’s name, and Jesus would be present in power during the proceedings. As always, the purpose was to be redemptive: ‘that the spirit may be saved.” And what were they to do? ‘Deliver such an one unto Satan.” The word “deliver” is the very same word Jesus used when he said that the king would deliver the wicked servant over to the tormentors. The word “tormentor” refers to a jailer who tests his prisoners by inflicting pain and distress. What better word to describe the work of Satan?
How was this delivering over to Satan accomplished? Through a united commitment to no longer keep company with this man. The results were twofold: (1) the offender was effectively made to see that due to his immorality, which was totally inconsistent with his profession of faith in Christ, he was no longer a welcomed part of the believers’ close-knit fellowship; and (2) the assembly was protected from any further encroachment of evil. Paul reminded them, “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (I Corinthians 5:6). When a church fails to purge itself of sin, unforgiveness, offenses, and other
disunifying forces, the evil will never go away all on its own; it will only spread and sap the church of its spiritual power.
As the Lord said to Joshua, “O Israel: thou canst not stand before thine enemies, until ye take away the accursed thing from among you” (Joshua 7:13). Therefore Paul instructed, “Put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (I Corinthians 5:13). We are not told to wait for God to do it; we must do it!
One comforting truth we can derive from this passage is the great protection from evil we enjoy by being faithful to God’s Word and to our local assembly. Apparently, Satan is greatly restricted in what he can do to those within the church. In fact, the apostle John said of anyone who is born again and keeps himself from sin that the “wicked one toucheth him not” (I John 5:19).
Going back to Matthew 18, the word ‘loose” means “to unbind, to release from bonds, to discharge from prison.” The church must not only deliver into Satan’s prison those who are unrepentant but also must receive back into fellowship those who repent. We have an example of this also in the church at Corinth. Paul wrote, “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted by the many” (II Corinthians 2:6). The New English Bible says, “The penalty on which the general meeting has agreed has met the offense well enough.” Now, said Paul, the man must be forgiven and comforted; the church members must confirm their love toward him, lest he be swallowed up in sorrow. The church was to release him from Satan’s prison by welcoming him back into fellowship. This was in response to the spiritual reality that through his repentance he had been received back into fellowship with the Lord. Having been loosed in heaven, the church was to enforce God’s will on earth.
Brother Huston is pastor of Carlisle Christian Fellow ship in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This article was written in response to a Forum article in the July-September 1993 issue of the Forward magazine entitled “Binding and Loosing: The Authority of the Church” by Rodney Shaw.
The above material was published in Hazelwood, MO by Forward magazine in April-June 1994, pgs 8-10.
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