Matthew 18: Humility, Forgiveness, and the Church

sheep_in_norwegian_mountainJesus spent a lot of his time on earth highlighting the differences between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of the earth. In Matthew 17 & 18, Jesus gives us a foretaste, a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven will look like after he ascends and the Holy Spirit comes. In other words, Jesus tells us what life in the church will look like.

From Jesus, we know that the kingdom of heaven looks nothing like the kingdoms of the earth, we know that ethics in the kingdom are simultaneously simpler and harder than any other code of ethics in the world. We know that it’s not a geographic kingdom, we know that it not just waiting for you to die, we know that it’s not about harps and clouds, but about loving God and loving others.

And, frankly, none of that even raises an eyebrow in Christian circles. Why? Because we are used to assuming that the kingdom of heaven is primarily about us, how we respond to the gospel, how we live out the good news, where we go when we die. Our understanding of the kingdom centers around ourselves.

So did the disciples’.

Jesus has to show them, and us, that’s not how it works…

In earthly kingdoms, having connections means freedom from responsibility. In the kingdom of heaven, having connections means humble submission.

17:24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” [25] He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” [26] And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. [27] However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

This statement isn’t saying the same thing as the “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” passage, although there is a similar premise. In order to understand what Jesus is saying, we need to ask exactly what the two-drachma tax was.

It wasn’t a Roman tax, but a Jewish one. This fact is important. These tax collectors were fellow Jews, like Matthew. They were tax-collectors, like Matthew. But unlike Matthew, they were collecting for the temple, not the enemy Romans. The tax here was for temple maintenance, supplies, etc. Those asking whether or not Jesus paid it are likely testing, not Jesus’ submission to Roman rule, but his support for Jewish religious observance.

Jesus’ answer is instructive. In political kingdoms, the king’s family and close friends could be exempted from taxation. In religious kingdoms, priests and temple servant could be exempted from taxation. So when Jesus says, “the sons are free”, he is implying that true Jews, true sons of Abraham, would be exempt from paying the temple tax. And he is further implying that he and Peter, by that logic, should be exempt from paying.

But this is a Jewish tax! Wouldn’t Jesus’ argument here mean that none of the Jews should be taxed? Not at all! He’s saying that those outside the family should bear the burden of temple support. On one hand, Jesus could be arguing that Gentiles are the only ones who should have to pay this tax. But Jesus knows that this tax is only leveraged against Jews. So he’s saying that even among the Jews, some are true sons of Abraham and some are not.

I believe that Jesus is pointing us towards the same truth that the Old Testament prophets hinted at, that the division of the nation into two kingdoms (Judah and Israel) foreshadowed, that Paul would later address in his letter to the Romans:

Romans 9:6-8

 [6] But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, [7] and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” [8] This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

What Jesus is saying is good news for us! You don’t have to have impressive ancestry, know the right people, or be a toady to get into the kingdom of heaven. You just have to follow Jesus. Jesus, and what you do with him, provides the identity for those who are truly sons. Faith in him marks the boundaries of the kingdom of heaven. There’s no entrance fee, no special rites, just faith. It’s not like the kingdoms of this earth where privileges are for those who can pay! Everyone is invited into the kingdom. You just have to understand that once you are in, you aren’t freed from responsibility, but freed for selfless service. You are free to submit to Christ by serving others.

And the church should be where that truth is seen and lived out. The church is meant to be a picture of the kingdom, a foretaste of the goodness of God in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Do we live life together, do we function as a church for selfish reasons or do we gather together to lay aside our ambitions and our pride to serve one another and our community? What kind of kingdom are we bearing witness to?

The disciples got some of what Jesus was saying to Peter, something clicked: ah, Jesus is saying that this community of disciples is the kingdom of heaven, this gathering is where the kingdom is seen.

But they don’t understand everything. They still don’t get that…

In earthly kingdoms, greatness is measured by self-serving power. In the kingdom of heaven, greatness is measured by self-denying obedience.

            [1] At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” [2] And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them [3] and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [4] Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. [5] “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, [6] but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

The disciples, on their best days, were following Jesus because they thought he would make the world better. On their worst days, they were following Jesus because they thought that he would make their lot in life better.

One of the recurring debates amongst the disciples was who was the greatest in the kingdom. They were already looking ahead to the time when Jesus was on the throne and they were his trusted assistants, not equal with Jesus, but certainly his right-hand men. They were jockeying for position in every comment and question and action. A couple weeks ago, we looked at them being unable to cast out a demon. They weren’t concerned for the boy but wanted to know what they had missed. They wanted to impress Jesus with their abilities and instead he showed them up.

Why did they want to impress Jesus? For the same reason that employees kiss up to bosses, soldiers flatter CO’s, and students bring presents to their teachers – to gain personal freedom or advancement.

So Jesus interrupts their prideful ambitions. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” Jesus beckons a child to come over. He doesn’t explain anything, he doesn’t give the kid ten reasons why he should come over, he doesn’t have to: the child just obeys. And that’s what Jesus needed his disciples, needs us to see: the kingdom of heaven doesn’t measure greatness in your ability to command respect, or your powerful presence, or your ability to get what you want. No, the kingdom of heaven measures greatness by how willing you are to obey the king.

The disciples aren’t told to become like little children because children are innocent, perfect little angels: if you think that, I’ll let you hang out with mine for a day. They’re great, I love my kids, but let’s just say I didn’t have to teach them how to sin. They figured it out all on their own.

The disciples aren’t told to become like little children because children are weak. Children can be the exceedingly strong-willed.

No, the disciples are told to be like little children because, like the child Jesus called, obedience to the king is the passport of a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.

Remember, Jesus is teaching us about ourselves, but he’s also teaching us about the church. So, how are we doing in this regard? Do we view church as a place to exercise self-serving power or do we view it as a place to practice self-denying service?

Are we willing to obey the king, without question, without demanding a reason, but simply to obey? To say, “Yes, Lord” no matter what Jesus says to do?

That is hard. It requires something of us. It requires us to ignore our natural desires for power and place and submit those desires to an ultimate desire to please our king, Jesus…

In earthly kingdoms, you are expected to satisfy your desires. In the kingdom of heaven, you are expected to submit your desires to Christ’s authority.

            [7] “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! [8] And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. [9] And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

This has to be one of the most-ignored passages in the New Testament. And for good reason – sin, temptation, self-mutilation: this isn’t the kind of stuff that fills buildings and sells books! But this is important.

It’s also important to recognize that Jesus isn’t literally advocating cutting off limbs or gouging out eyes. One of the church fathers, I believe it was Origen, took this literally. His struggle with lust led him to castrate himself in response to these verses.

That’s not what I am advocating this morning!

But let’s not run from what Jesus’ hyperbole is pointing to, though. Too often, we take sin lightly in the American church. Remember, this section of Scripture is Jesus telling us what life in community, what life in the kingdom, what life in the church looks like. If we didn’t know before, we know now that God takes sin seriously.

And we should too.

In our personal life, what desires are we allowing to rule over us and cause us to sin? Jesus says we should submit those desires so fully to him, obeying his commands to purity and wholeness, that we’d be willing to lose a limb rather than offend the Lord who has offered us salvation.

In our corporate life, we need to recognize the imagery of Scripture here. The body is a frequent metaphor for the church. Different gifts, different people, different parts, and yet, unified. Jesus is saying that if a part of the body, the church, is causing the rest of the body to suffer, we should be willing to see that part cut off rather than the whole church go down in flames. The mission of the church is too great for us to allow it to be compromised by a single, selfish, sinning, member.

Personally and corporately, we have to take sin seriously. We have to fight it, we have to hate it, and we have to work together to make sure it has no place among us. Why? So that we can be free to obey the Lord’s commands.

That requires a mindset shift…

In earthly kingdoms, you protect what you have. In the kingdom of heaven, you focus on seeking and saving what is lost.

            [10] “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. [12] What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? [13] And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. [14] So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

I’m not a shepherd, but this seems like terrible advice. If it read, “leaves the 99 in the sheepfold” it’d make sense. “Walls, protection, now I’ll go looking for the lost one.”

But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says the 99 are still on the mountain. The mountain where lions and tigers and bears (oh my) could come and destroy them. The mountain where more could wander off and get lost. The mountain where nights are cold and winds are strong.

Again, I’ve never been a shepherd, but I don’t think Jesus is giving shepherding advice.

He’s giving church advice.

There is a natural tendency for the church, for the Christian for that matter, to turn inward over time. To shift from bolding charging the gates of hell to passively sitting still for another Bible study. To shift from offense to defense. To let the pressures of this world drive us from the public square and into our whitewashed fortresses. To protect and preserve our traditions and expectations of what church should be instead of mobilizing everything that we have and everything that we are to engage a lost and dying world with the gospel.

Jesus says “Quit it.” Stop focusing on protecting what you have and start seeking and saving what is lost. The church doesn’t exist so that we can get together and sing Kumbaya around the warm glow of our smug, self-satisfied, self-serving, Sunday morning traditions. The church exists to glorify God by loving him, loving others, and making disciples.

We do those things inside these walls, undoubtedly, but we dare not stop there. It is too easy for our focus to turn inward. It is too easy for us to focus on what we already have. We need to go in our making of disciples.

Shame on us, church, shame on us, if we are more focused on keeping one another happy than on rescuing others who have wandered. Jesus says our task is to leave the 99, who aren’t wandering, to go seek the one who is wandering, who is lost. That’s our marching orders. It’s terrible advice for shepherding, but radically important advice for the church.

To focus on those who have wandered. To extend forgiveness to those who need it…

In earthly kingdoms, your brother should come to you for forgiveness. In the kingdom of heaven, you go to him offering it.

            [15] “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. [16] But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. [17] If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. [18] Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. [19] Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. [20] For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

This passage has been interpreted for years as a statement on “church discipline.” And while that’s there, we need to back up a little bit and understand that saying this is a passage on church discipline is like saying Moby Dick is a book about a boat: it’s there, but that’s certainly not the focus.

Consider what Jesus is saying. Remember, he just talked about the 99 and 1 sheep. He says seek and save what is lost. He says if your brother sins against you, go to him and tell him his fault.

And that’s where we get it twisted. Because Jesus isn’t just saying “go tell him what a horrible person he is.” No, in context, there’s something else. “Go, tell him his fault” and offer your forgiveness. When you make him aware of his sin, do so with a desire to forgive him for it. Give him the opportunity to repent and then you can forgive.

This would be better called church reconciliation than church discipline. It’s not a witch hunt, it’s an invitation to restored fellowship.

And it mirrors what God did for us. “We all like sheep have gone astray. We have turned, each one, to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” We went astray, we turned, but God saved us by laying our sin on his Son. God sought us, not to punish us, but to offer us forgiveness.

Jesus says, be like God, be like me. Don’t wait for your brother to come to you. He probably doesn’t even know he sinned. Go to him, share with him, offer forgiveness if he will repent. That’s what God does for us.

So let’s walk this out:

Imagine two Christians: Fred and Frank

Frank comes over to Fred’s house to visit. As he’s leaving, he backs over Fred’s prize tulip bed. Fred sees it and yells at Frank that he’s a good-for-nothing so-and-so. When Frank jumps out, apologizes, and offers to do whatever it takes to clean up the mess, Fred tells him just to leave. Frank leaves. But the comments keep burrowing into his brain. So Frank goes to Fred and says, “Fred, I’m so sorry that I backed over your prize tulips and I beg you to forgive me. But, I also need to tell you that the language you used was very hurtful and not in keeping with our shared faith. I want to forgive you as well if you’ll let me.”

If Fred listens to Frank, he’ll say, “Frank, I accept your apology and forgive you for running over my prize tulip bed. And I feel terrible about what I said and for losing my temper like that. Will you forgive me?”

Done. Frank and Fred are reconciled, the gospel is demonstrated in their relationship.

But, Jesus knows this isn’t a perfect world. What if Fred had responded to Frank’s offer of forgiveness by refusing to apologize and cursing him out again?

Then Jesus says you pursue forgiveness again. “take one or two others with you.” This is for accountability to the gospel. Fred can cuss out Frank if he’s still hot enough, but two or three brothers in Christ? He’ll think twice. Hopefully.

Let’s say Frank goes back to Fred, this time with Fabio along too. Frank again says to Fred, “Fred, I’m so sorry that I backed over your prize tulips and I beg you to forgive me. But, I also need to tell you that the language you used was very hurtful and not in keeping with our shared faith. I want to forgive you as well if you’ll let me and I brought Fabio along to remind both of us of how important this is that we be reconciled.”

And Fabio says, “Fred, Frank told me what happened and told me that he has asked for and offered forgiveness to you. As a Christian, you should forgive Frank and the two of you be reconciled.”

If Fred listens, he’ll say, “Frank and Fabio, I am so sorry it’s taken me this long to see my sinful words and temper, but now I repent and ask you to forgive me.”

Done. Reconciliation has been accomplished.

But what if Fred won’t listen and won’t repent?

Jesus says, “take it to the church.” Tell the whole body what happened, the process that had been followed, and ask the church to beg Fred to repent and be reconciled.

And if he does, done deal. Reconciliation has happened!

But if he doesn’t, and this is the hard part, he can’t be a part of the church anymore. Why? Because the church is meant to be a picture of the kingdom of heaven. And citizens in the kingdom of heaven, are those who have repented and asked God for forgiveness. If they won’t repent and ask one another for forgiveness, they never really asked or understood God’s forgiveness. So to let such a person continue representing the church would be to tell a lie about the kingdom, to tell a lie about God.

That’s what the whole binding and loosing conversation is about. The church has authority to say, “This person exhibits the characteristics and is bearing testimony to the truth of the gospel. We accept their profession of faith as genuine.” But they also have the authority to say, “This person claims to know Christ, but by their lack of repentance for clear sin, they are not bearing testimony to the gospel. We reject their profession of faith as counterfeit.”

As harsh as that may sound, Jesus says he’s with us on it. “Wherever two or three are gathered” isn’t about worship, it’s about these hard decisions. It is more important for the body of Christ to bear witness to the truth of the gospel than for individual members to be comfortable. Remember the discussion of cutting off limbs and gouging out eyes? Jesus takes sin in his church seriously. But even if church reconciliation fails and church discipline ensues, there’s always the hope of repentance and reconciliation.

But Jesus isn’t just concerned with your brother’s repentance; he’s concerned with your forgiveness.

In earthly kingdoms, forgiveness has an expiration date. In the kingdom of heaven, forgiveness is always available.

            [21] Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” [22] Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Jesus is saying, “forgive others as many times as I forgive you – a whole bunch.” It’s not a tally card here. Jesus isn’t saying “77 times. But feel free to hold a grudge and not forgive the 78th time.”

If your brother sins and repents, even 78 times, forgive him.

People get the idea of forgiveness all wrong. Remember, God’s forgiveness is the model of forgiveness for us. God doesn’t unilaterally forgive all sin, does he? If he did, then everyone goes to heaven, Pol Pot, Mao, Hitler, and Stalin. No, God only forgives sin for those who repent and confess Jesus as Lord. Repentance is essential. I hear people all the time talk about needing to forgive someone who hasn’t repented and I think “how?” Forgiveness is a transactional term. Forgiveness requires repentance. This isn’t to say that you can carry a grudge against someone, you should always be ready to forgive, which means having a merciful heart. But forgiveness requires repentance.

If repentance is made, forgiveness is required.

            [23] “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. [24] When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. [25] And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. [26] So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ [27] And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. [28] But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ [29] So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ [30] He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. [31] When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. [32] Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. [33] And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ [34] And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. [35] So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Whatever sins your brother has committed against you pale in comparison to what you’ve committed against God. If God can forgive you, after you repent, you must forgive your brother after he repents. If you cannot, Scripture is quite clear.

Forgiveness is not optional in the church: it is essential and the consequences of withholding it are eternal. Why? Because the church bears witness, both to the holiness and the mercy of God. To refuse to repent is to lie about God’s holiness. To refuse to forgive is to lie about God’s mercy. Neither are options for the believer or for the church.

Be quick to repent and quick to forgive.

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