Jesus teaches us in Matthew 18:15-35 how to respond when we are sinned against by a Christian brother or sister. We are taught the process for holding each other accountable and, through the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor, to always offer forgiveness.
Welcome to Walking in the Word – the biblical teaching arm of the Women World Leaders’ podcast. My name is Julie Jenkins, and I’m so glad that you have joined us for our Wednesday edition!
I had the pleasure of spending this last weekend at the beach. I am a worker-bee, and to keep balance in my life, I have to intentionally step away from work periodically. It sounds crazy, but that is a really difficult thing for me to do. Some friends of ours graciously shared their 8th floor beach condo with us for the weekend, so we took off for three days with no agenda except to NOT work. My mornings were spent sitting in the surf, while my afternoons were spent sitting on the shaded balcony overlooking the water. Let me tell you, you can see a LONG way from an 8th floor balcony. And as I looked out over the water, it was striking to me how big God must be if He created an ocean that was so big it mesmerized me. Have you ever thought about that?
And then, when I contemplated the beauty and majesty of the ocean even more deeply, I thought about God looking down – He said in Genesis that His creation was good, but He said that the children He created were VERY good. When God looks at the earth, despite His amazing view, which is far better than that from an 8th floor balcony, it isn’t the majesty of the ocean He focuses on – it is the majesty of you and me. His children.
I want us to keep that in mind as we study today’s scripture: the majesty of God’s people. Today we are talking about holding our brothers and sisters in Christ accountable for their sin against us. Yet even as we hold them accountable, we are to forgive them and work purposefully to bring them into restoration with the community of Christ rather than to condemn them. Because they, like us, are God’s treasured creation. Together, WE are God’s treasured creation – His masterpiece – and we are here at this time in this space to hold each other up and love each other, even WHILE we hold each other accountable.
With that in mind, let’s pray before we delve into today’s Scripture, Matthew 18:15-35…
Dear Most Holy and Amazing Creator God! We come to you in awe of you as we think about your majestic creation. God – with the power of your voice, you created the universe and everything in it; and yet you are a personal God who cares for each of us with a depth and focus we can’t even begin to understand. You never give up teaching us and helping us grow into the people you have created us to be. Father, forgive us and cleanse us as we delve into your Word. Holy Spirit, enlighten us with understanding and wisdom as we read and study. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.
We are currently walking through the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John chronologically, in an effort to not miss a single moment of Jesus’ teaching as He walked the earth. We recently heard Jesus teach the disciples that humility leads to greatness in the Kingdom of God and that we have a responsibility to newer believers.
We can all attest to the fact that living in community can be difficult, and you’d better believe that the disciples knew this struggle well. Although they were all devout followers of Jesus, they all had very different backgrounds and personalities – and they were not without sin. Just as we are not without sin. And even as we soul-search and ask God to reveal our own sin AGAINST others, we each also experience being sinned against BY others. So it is in this vein that Jesus now teaches His community of believers what to do when a fellow Christian sins against us.
Allow me to read Jesus’ words beginning in Matthew 18:15 from the New Living Translation…
15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.
What a great place to begin! Plain and simple – go to the individual who has wronged you – have a conversation. Tell him or her that you are hurt and why. We ALL mess up…and when we do…how beautiful it is to be spoken to and respected on an individual level!
16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses.
Jesus instructs us to widen the circle when the first conversation doesn’t go well. While ganging up on someone is not the point, working together to uncover the root of sin is. When we are dealing with sin that could influence and spread in a Christian community, it is important to not let that sin fester and spread.
We have a fruit bowl that we keep on our kitchen counter, and I am always so bummed when I pick up an apple with a rotten spot – because usually, that means that the rot has spread to the other fruit. It is the same within our communities. If you are wronged by an individual, chances are that you aren’t the only one who was wronged, and it is the responsibility of each of us to make sure that sin’s rottenness doesn’t spread throughout the Christian community.
17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
This is a hard verse to digest – but just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we should gloss over it. If a Christian brother or sister’s heart is so hard that he or she refuses to take guidance that was offered with prayer and biblical wisdom, it is time for tough love. For the good of the whole.
19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
It’s important that we read these two verses in tandem with each other…Jesus is telling us that when we come to Him in communion with other believers, seeking His will and guidance, He will be there and will not lead us astray. And when we act with the wisdom that God alone can grant, we can trust that we are acting in accordance with the laws of heaven. Let me read verses 18 and 19 one more time…this time from the ERV…
18 “I can assure you that when you speak judgment here on earth, it will be God’s judgment. And when you promise forgiveness here on earth, it will be God’s forgiveness.[a] 19 To say it another way, if two of you on earth agree on anything you pray for, my Father in heaven will do what you ask.
As Jesus taught about holding others accountable, Peter was listening and processing – he understood the need for personal forgiveness that would go along with holding a brother accountable, but he had questions…verse 21 from the NLT…
“Lord, how often should I forgive someone[f] who sins against me? Seven times?”
Seven times was generous in Peter’s mind as the rabbis taught that an individual should forgive another person who sins against him three times.
So, Jesus’ answer was probably a bit shocking…
22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!
Seven was the perfect number, so it is less about being able to do math and keep a tally of the number of times we forgive, and more about forgiving endlessly, to infinity, to perfection. As long as we live on earth and have given our lives to Christ, we can trust God’s infinite forgiveness. And as Christians, one to another, God expects us to forgive those who sin against us, as well.
Jesus breaks it down to story form…often called the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor…
23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.[h] 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
It sounds harsh – for a human life, actually several human lives, to be sold to pay a debt. When we get deep into monetary debt, we just expect extra finance charges, not to pay with our freedom. But it was an accepted practice at that time. Not only would the man be punished for his debt, but so would the man’s family! It’s no wonder that the man begged for mercy before he and his family were whisked into slavery. Verse 27…
26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27
Then the unthinkable happened…
… his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
This man was saved from a life of slavery – and so were his wife and children – all because of the generosity of another! You’d think he’d have run home in celebration and thanksgiving, but no. The story continues to unfold…
28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars.[i] He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
Jesus then gives the take away…
35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
Wow! While we can see the undeniable lack of balance in the man’s life, it may take a leap for us to apply this story to ourselves.
The man was forgiven his insurmountable debt – he and his family were let go scot-free. And then the man turned around and had another man thrown in prison for his much smaller debt.
Let’s equate this to our own lives. We are all sinners, and the price for sin is death, removal from God’s Holy presence. And yet, when we come before our Lord asking for forgiveness for our sins, God grants us forgiveness – reconciling us to Himself and saving us from shame and guilt.
And what is our response? We praise and thank God. But when another Christian, made in God’s image and DEARLY loved by God, sins against us and asks for forgiveness, we often turn away in pride.
So is Jesus saying if we don’t forgive others, all bets are off the table and He won’t forgive us?
Sort of…not forgiving is a sin, and when we have truly given our lives to Christ, He forgives us of ALL sin. Once you are sealed to Christ, nothing can rip you out of His arms or His presence.
BUT…when we TRULY give our lives to Christ, we will, by virtue of the Holy Spirit residing in us, grow as we try to become more like Christ every day. God is like a magnet, pulling us toward Him! And while messing up is unavoidable for all of us in this lifetime, simply refusing to grow in our forgiveness of others is a sign that we never really gave ourselves over to Christ in the first place.
And never giving our lives to Jesus in the first place will definitely result in eternity apart from our loving and Holy God.
So let’s look back on this teaching on what to do if a Christian sins against us…
First – go to them one on one with truth.
Then, if necessary, widen the circle, and bring of few others to also offer truth to the offender.
Then, if still necessary, involve the church. If the individual turns away, the body should also turn away from the individual, so the rot of sin doesn’t spread throughout the community.
But, this must all be done with forgiveness and for the purpose of restoring the individual rather than condemning the individual. It is NEVER up to us to judge – our job is to love. God’s job is to judge. But it is up to us to not gloss over another’s sin that affects us, but to carefully bring it into the light with a heart that is full of forgiveness.
Accountability and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. When we follow Jesus’ teaching and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, accountability and forgiveness work in tandem with each other – pulling each of us to a higher level of service to our Lord.
Remember the amazing awe with which God looks at each of us, His beautiful creations? His masterpieces? Let’s strive to look at each other with that same awe! We are all made in the image of God, and we have been placed here, in this place and time, together purposefully. To uphold each other and to grow together. Living in godly community isn’t always easy, but if we let Him, God will always be with us, guiding us through.
Dear Most Holy God – I am so thankful for the community that you have placed around me! Help me to treat each of your beautiful creations with the dignity, love, respect, and forgiveness that you offer each of us. Give us each wisdom to know when to speak and how to respond when we are spoken to. We confess that we are all sinners in need of grace, help us accept Your grace and offer that same grace to others. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.