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The Kingdom Principle: The Least is the Greatest, Part 4: Discipling the Brethren

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 18.  As we have looked at this chapter we have seen that it is all tied together, a very similar theme runs throughout.  The focus of Jesus’ whole instruction throughout the chapter is our relationship with one another in the Church. What are the proper relationships between members between citizens of the kingdom of heaven?  You remember the chapter opens with the disciples asking Jesus who is greatest, and the first verses of this chapter are devoted to answering that question from Jesus’ perspective.  In fact, I’d like you to look over the three various sections of this chapter that we’ve already looked at.

In verses 1 through 6, if you’ll cast your eyes there, you’ll see Jesus defining kingdom greatness in a way very different from worldly greatness.  Jesus makes it clear that you can be great in the eyes of the world and not even be part of the kingdom, but that you can be small in the eyes of the world, and yet be great in the kingdom.  And He makes it clear that true humility defines kingdom greatness.  A willingness to serve others, a willingness to look out for the needs of others, that is true greatness in the kingdom, so our greatness is manifested, Jesus says, in our humble attitude towards others in verses 1 through 6.

And then if you’ll look at verses 7 through 11, there Jesus went ahead and extended this consideration. He says, furthermore, if you’re really going to be great in My kingdom, you need to look out for others, in the sense of not causing them to stumble in their walk of faith.  You need to live your life in such a way, that it is not an impediment to their living the Christian life.

You need to make sure that you are not throwing up obstacles in front of other believers as they attempt to grow in grace.  In other words, it’s not good enough to just think about what is good for you, or what is expedient for you, because you are now part of a family, the family of the Lord Jesus Christ, by grace.  Now you must think about the needs of the whole family, not just your individual needs, but what is in the best interest of the whole family.

And then in verses 12 though 14, you’ll remember that He reminds us that God the Father is like a shepherd who cares even for one wandering sheep, though comparatively that one sheep may seem far less valuable than the 99 that are still in the pen. The Father so loves every member in His kingdom, He so values and cares for them, that He reaches out in reclaiming love even to those who are wandering. 

And the Lord Jesus basically says to His disciples in verses 12 through 13, you need to be like your heavenly Father. I want you to have a heart like your heavenly Father.  Though that wandering sheep may not seem very valuable in the eyes of the world, my Father wants to reclaim even that small wandering sheep, and I want you to have a heart like the Father, so when you see your brothers and sisters wandering, you have a heart like the heavenly Father, and you seek to reclaim them. 

Now that sets us up perfectly for the discussion that we see here in Matthew 18:15 through 20.  Very often this passage, which is a hard passage, is studied in abstraction from the rest of the chapter. Because it is, we miss the connection and it has been one of the blessings of being able to go through this passage together that we see the connection between what Jesus says in verses 15 through 20 and what goes before.  So let’s hear God’s holy and inspired word beginning in verse 15. 

Matthew 18:15-20 

Our Father, we thank You for this word, we pray that You would by the grace of the Holy Spirit, enable us to bow our hearts to its authority.  We pray as well, O Lord, that we would willingly seek the best for others, even when they have offended. We ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.  

Jesus has been talking about how we are to treat little ones in this passage, how we are to treat those who are weak in faith and life, how we are to reach out to them and care for them and be concerned for them.  In this passage He changes His metaphor.  In verses 12 through 14 He has spoken of the little ones as sheep.  The picture was of the Father, and of course, Himself, the Lord Jesus, the Good Shepherd seeking after that one wandering sheep, and so the little ones were considered as though who were perhaps straying or wandering and needed to be brought back into the fold.  The metaphor that He picks up here in verse 15 is just as lively and hits home just as well, and in fact, it may be a little bit harder a metaphor.  He changes the metaphor.  Little ones are not just sheep; here, they are brothers. 

Now, its one thing to love a wandering sheep, but it is another thing to love a brother who has offended you.  If you’ve grown up in homes where there were multiple brothers, perhaps you have witnessed the fights that brothers can have.  Even if your siblings, whatever sex they may be, get into contests at home, you have seen with your own eyes the kind of rivalry and offence giving that can go on in the home. But especially brothers are good at this, and Jesus changes the metaphor and He says, once again, ‘The way I want you to live with one another, is seeing one another as brothers, and even when your brother offends you, I want you to seek his best interests.’ 

This is the great point that Jesus wants to drive home in this passage.  His purpose is to exhort us to brotherly love, even in the face of personal offences. And I think it is interesting that He chooses the term, brother, because our tendency, especially when we are offended, is to view one another, not as family, but as someone who is out to hurt, someone who is alien and alienated from us.  And Jesus says, I specifically want to look at those who are part of the Church, who profess My name, and yet have offended you, I want you to look at them as brothers, who you ultimately can’t be severed from. You can’t be severed from your brother’s blood.  No matter how your brother behaves, he is still your brother.  And sometimes that embarrasses us, if we have a family member that acts in a certain way.  But you never ever they never cease to be your blood kin.   Sometimes you may wish they did cease to be your kin, but they never ever do.  And the Lord Jesus in the same way spiritually is saying, if you look at these professing believers, who have sinned against you, I want you to do everything you can to keep family unity in the body of Christ.  Brotherly love is what He is exhorting us to even in the name of personal sin.

What we are going to do is look at verses 15, 16 and 17 because these verses are so rich.  And let me say right now, let me give you a disclaimer, we’re not even going to cover everything that can be said about verses 15, 16 and 17.   One of the things we have learned in this survey of Matthew is that even if we spent three times the time studying this passage, there would be so much more that we had left unsaid, that we could study it for a lot, lot longer and still continue to find the riches of God’s word.   And that’s a wonderful lesson to learn. It reminds us of one of the qualities of God’s word; it is inexhaustible in its truth, it is absolutely inexhaustible.  You and I could study Matthew from now until kingdom come, and we wouldn’t have learned everything there is to learn in Matthew. But let’s at least hit the highpoints in these three great verses today.

In verses 15, 16 and 17, Jesus is teaching us how to deal with serious private sins against ourselves.  In these verses He is teaching His disciples how He wants them to react when you have been sinned against in a serious matter in a private context.   And He teaches us as He walks us through this matter, that Christians must seek the good of the brethren even when we are offended. Now that is a hard lesson.

Do you hear what Jesus is saying?  He is saying that when a professing Christian, a member of your congregation offends you, seriously, the first thing you have to do is think about that person’s spiritual well-being.  Now that is a difficult pill to swallow.  It was so difficult, that the only reaction that Peter had to what Jesus said here in verses 15 through 20 (glance down in verse 21), Peter’s only question to Jesus is, ‘All right, I have to do this how many times?’   This is hard stuff.   But the Lord is concerned that we relate to one another as brothers and sisters, and that family unity, the peace and the purity of the church be protected. So let’s see what Jesus teaches us here. There are a number of important lessons in these few words in verses 15 through 17.  Let me point you to five lessons that we learn here in these three verses. 

I. Sin against brothers is a reality even among Christians.
First of all, look at Jesus’ words in verse 15, if your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private, if he listens to you, you have won your brother.  The first thing that we learn in this passage is that Christians must expect to be hurt by other Christians, and must expect sin to be a continuing reality even in the fellowship of believers.  In the course of my years of ministry, I have met many Christians, especially young Christians, in the flush of their first commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, in the flush of their first commitment to Christ in the realization of what the gospel means, in their zeal to be like Christ and to serve Christ, I have met so many Christians who have been offended, who have been sinned against by older believers, established believers, and they have been absolutely shocked and surprised by it.  They can’t believe that a Christian would have done that to them, and they think, “Well, maybe this is all just a farce. Maybe it’s all just a charade, I mean, if a Christian is gonna act like that, maybe I oughta just pack it in and go somewhere else on Sunday.”   And Jesus is warning us in this very instruction that we must expect to be sinned against, even by other Christians in this life.  “Faith does not lift us above the possibility of sin,” Larry Richards reminds us.  He says that “Even with men of faith, sin will intrude with all its hurts and pains to break the fellowship of the family.”  Such failings are not to destroy family unity.  A brotherly desire for reconciliation can keep God’s little ones from turning away from Him. 

It is so important that we not be surprised or fatally discouraged when Christians fail us in their dealings with us, that we need to be ready for it. The Lord Jesus told us that this would happen, in fact, He spends a lot of time, not only here in Matthew 18 but elsewhere, teaching us how we are to respond when it does happen.  And so it is clear that Jesus expects this to happen. This doesn’t disprove Christianity, this doesn’t disprove the reality of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives, this doesn’t disprove the claims of Christ or the power of the gospel or the power of the Holy Spirit. This just says that what Jesus said was going to happen, happens, and we need to be ready to respond to it in the proper way. So that is the first lesson that we can draw from this passage, we need to expect to be hurt from time to time.

I’ve shared with you the story of that highland lady who met the minister at the door of the church.  He had just preached a beautiful communion sermon on loving one another, and she said to him in a very pious tone, “Minister, the older I grow, the more I love the Lord’s people, but the less I trust them.”  Now here was a lady who had been around, she had been hurt by the Lord’s people on a number of occasions, and she was a little bit edgy about giving herself unreservedly to the Lord’s people because the Lord’s people can hurt you from time to time.  Yes, that happens, but Jesus is saying, ‘Look My disciples, here’s what you do when the offence comes.  This is the way I want you to think, I want you to think about the needs of the one who offended you.’  Can you imagine that kind of instruction?  “But Lord Jesus, I’m hurt, I’m offended, I demand some satisfaction.”  I want you to think about the needs, the spiritual needs, of the person who offended you. This is what Jesus is speaking about.  

II. Even when offended Christians must seek the spiritual interest of the offender.
The second thing that we learn in this passage is even when personally offended, Christians must seek first the spiritual interests of our brothers and sisters, even when we are offended, even when we are the ones who have received the blow.  We must think about what is best for one another.  That is what Jesus is teaching us in this passage.  Let me say that the phrase, against you, is omitted in this passage if you are reading in the New American Standard Version. Look again at verse 15, “If your brother sins,” and then you’ll see a marginal note in most of your New American Standard Bibles, that have against you as a marginal reading, as a reading that may not have as many textual supports for it as not reading it in the passage.  But it is very clear that Jesus is talking about private sins, personal private sins against ourselves.  And let me tell you why it is very clear that He is talking about that. 

First of all, notice that Jesus urges us when we are sinned against in this manner, to go privately to the person who has offended us.  Now if that offense had been public, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to go in private to deal with the matter, because the matter would already be publicly known. But if the offense was a private offense, it makes perfect sense to go to that brother privately.  If you’ve ever seen how someone reacts when they have committed a private offence and it has been discovered and revealed publicly?  Very often, the walls come up and immediately the person is in a defensive, stone-walling, denying posture. Have you seen that recently?  Jesus is saying, ‘Look, when a Christian, a fellow Christian in your congregation sins against you privately, don’t announce that to everybody in church, don’t put it on the prayer chain, don’t get your small group to start praying about it.’  Don’t shame that Christian, go privately to him.  And we’ll talk more about why in just a moment.  So this is one reason that we see that Jesus is speaking about a private event here.  He says go privately and speak to him.

But secondly, if you’ll look down again to verse 21, it is clear that Peter understood Jesus to be speaking in this way.  Peter says in verse 21, “Lord, how often shall my brother in against me and I forgive him?”  How often shall my brother sin against me?  Peter clearly understood that what Jesus had been speaking about in the passage was sins against him, personal offence, private offences, and so his question to Jesus is,  ‘ O.K., well, how many times do I have to do it?  How often do I have to do that?’   In the parallel passage here in Matthew 18, which you’ll find in Luke chapter 17:3-4, you will find the word against me inserted here.  It is clear that Jesus is talking about personal, private offenses.  There are other passages in the New Testament which teach us how to deal with public sins, passages like Galatians chapter 2:11-14, 1 Corinthians chapter 5:1-5, and 1 Timothy chapter 5:20.  We’re not going to study those today.  We’re going to lock in on what Jesus is saying here about how we deal with personal, private offences.  Jesus says that we are to go in private why?  To prevent shaming our brother unnecessarily.  And in the interest of the best assistance at reclaiming that brother.  Two reasons.

When the offense has been in private, and we publicly expose it, it naturally brings up that person’s defenses to think about what, not what they have done, but what you have done to them. What have you done to them? You have embarrassed them in front of people.  Now they are thinking not about what they did to you, but about the 55 people that now know it and are going to go tell it at the country club. They cannot focus upon their own sins, because now they are focused on trying to cover that sin, and the Lord Jesus’, by saying “Go privately,” is asking you to help them in every way possible to focus on the real matter, and not get caught up in being defensive.   And that is the way that they are most able to be reclaimed. It is a very wise piece of counsel that the Lord Jesus is giving to us here in dealing with these matters.  Go privately to our brothers.  Notice also again if we look at verse 15, He says, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother.”   

III. We need to confront those who sin against us with their sin.
The third thing that we learn in this passage is that if the interest of our brother, and the church, dictated, we are to go to him and show him his sin when he has offended us.  Now that is a very unSouthern thing to do.  My Father might have accused it of being a Yankee thing to do, but Jesus is telling us this, not so we are confrontational and mean spirited and censorious with one another, He is telling us this for the good of our brethren.  The Southern way to deal with offences is usually denial.  You know, we just kind of pretend, “O.K., that didn’t happen, I’m not going to say anything about it in public, I’m not going to say anything but I’m going to boil inside, and I’m probably going to talk to a lot of other people about it.”  That is the way we deal with it.  But to go right to another person and deal with it is a very unnatural thing.  For most of us.  And yet, Jesus says this is the way that He wants us to relate to one another, because He is concerned for the peace and the purity in the family.

When serious personal offences occur, you need to consider going to that brother, and I want you to understand that Jesus is not saying go to your brother in order to get your grievance off your chest, or go to your brother so that you can dump on him and get some closure on your anger.  Jesus is saying, ‘I want you to go to your brother out of concern for his spiritual well-being.’  Jesus is not telling us to do this as a way of getting satisfaction for a personal grievance, but as a way of seeking to help one another.  Go, in this instance, may mean more than one visit, because the point is we need to look out for our brothers’ spiritual interests even when our brother has offended.

Listen to what William Hendriksen says about this passage: “Jesus means that the offended brother should in the spirit of brotherly love, go and show the sinner his faults and this not certainly most of all for the purpose of receiving satisfaction for a personal grievance, but rather in the interest of the offender that he may repent and may seek and find forgiveness.”  You see, the resolution of personal conflict is not the main point here.  That is a side effect, that’s a side benefit of this procedure.

The prime concern that Jesus says He wants you to have in your heart, is that your brother or sister not be hindered in their spiritual growth, that your brother or sister not become hardened in sin, that your brother or sister not drift away from the way of light and truth.  The main concern is with the spiritual welfare of the offender. Yes you heard Jesus right, you get offended and what do you have to do?  Think about the spiritual well being of the guy that offended you.  Now that is hard. I mean, how do you get personal resolution for what has been done to you (Jesus is going to talk about that next week, or the week after, depending on whenever we get into verses 21 and following).  Jesus addresses that issue later.  What gives you the ability to be able to love somebody like that, to put aside your concerns, your hurts, your pain, your resentment, your grief in this particular incident in this sin against you. What gives you the power to do that?  Jesus is going to tell you about that in verses 21 and following.  But right now He is saying, ‘Your prime concern when there has been this breach in fellowship, a serious sin against you, is to be concerned for the spiritual well being of the one who did it.  Because they’re brothers, they profess faith in Christ.’  That is hard medicine.  By the way, verses 18 through 20 are Jesus’ way of encouraging you in a very, very difficult thing, He knows this is difficult.  He knows this is most unnatural and the hardest thing in the world, be He encourages you. 

IV. The members of the body need to confront unrepentant Christians.
The fourth thing we learn here, my friends, is this: if the brother does not see His faults, then we are to take, if sin warrants, we are to take witnesses and speak to our brother that the case may be confirmed.

Jesus foresees a circumstance where the brother will not see his sin, he will not see his wrong, and that reconciliation will not occur after you go to speak to him.  And Jesus says, so you do this, just like the law said, you go and take two witnesses to confirm the facts.  Now those two witnesses are not people who are going to be on your side and who are going to along with you clobber the person who has done whatever you are offended about.  Those two witnesses may in fact serve to say to you, having heard your concern, and having heard your brother’s side of the story, “We think you’ve made a mountain out of a molehill.” They may say that. Or, they may say, “You know, he’s got a point there.  I think that you totally misunderstood what he was doing or saying.”  Those brothers, those witnesses, are there to confirm the facts of the matter, and the very barrier of the witnesses in this process is designed to make us think twice about entering into the process of mutual discipline.  The Lord Jesus wants us to enter into this reluctantly. His concern is for the peace and the purity of the congregation, and He does not want that peace disturbed lightly. And so we may say to ourselves, before we ever get to the step of asking someone to come along, is my case so serious that I am willing to take along two people of sound judgement, to go with me, or am I in fact making more of this than really deserves?  Jesus wants us to be careful about that particular decision, and so He instructs us, if the sin warrants it, and your brother is still unrepentant, doesn’t see it the way you see it, then you take two witnesses. 

V. Unrepentant sinners must be confronted and disciplined by the Church.
And then finally, He teaches us here, if all attempts at admonition fail, and the sin is still unrepented of, then the brother must be taken to the church, in our case to the elders of the church, who on behalf of the church deal with that situation and attempt to bring resolution.  And if even they cannot bring about a recognition of the sin committed and a repentance of it, then that brother is to be treated as you see Jesus uses the word, as a Gentileand a tax-gatherer, as a foreigner and a tax-gatherer. 

Now He doesn’t mean that in any kind of bitterness.  He is just saying that that brother can no longer be thought of as a brother if that brother is going to continue to persist in known willful disobedience.  If he is going to be recalcitrant, “I’m gonna do what I want to do, I’m not going to listen to you,” then he cannot be treated like a brother.  It doesn’t mean that you hate him.  What’s the Christian attitude towards non-brothers?  We want non-brothers to become brothers.  So it doesn’t mean that we start hating the person, but it does mean that we recognize that that person is a prospect for evangelism now, that person is a person that needs to be won to Christ, because they apparently don’t have the grace of the spirit in the heart to repent of serious sins. 

So this whole chapter, you see, is about mutual accountability.  This whole chapter is about thinking as part of a family of faith. About seeking the interests of one another.  If you review it, if you look at verses 1 through 14, they deal with self-discipline, how I need to conduct myself for the sake of the brethren.

If you look at verses 15 and 16, they deal with mutual discipline, what do brothers do when brothers get  at odds with brothers? And then when you get to verse 17, it deals with church discipline, so from self-discipline, to mutual discipline, we come to church discipline. 

And the whole point of this, is that the disciple is to look out for the spiritual interests of his brothers and sisters, even when they have offended, not only when they are weaker, wandering sheep, but when they are offending brothers.  And so verse 17 takes us reluctantly into the realm of church discipline.  John Calvin said so many years ago, but it could have been written yesterday, he said, “Christ bids us disciples to forgive one another in such a way as nevertheless to try and correct one another’s faults.”  And this is something to be considered prudently, because there is nothing more difficult than to be forgiving for sin and at the same time to confront them for their sin.  Now that is so true. 

How do you balance that? Most of us swing one way or the other.  We are very forgiving and we just never ever raise a spiritual concern with another person on the other hand.  Some of us are ready to confront, and we are not very forgiving, and Jesus in this passage is saying you have to be prepared to do both.  You need to have a forgiving spirit, but if the sin is serious enough, you need to raise that with your brother, so that he can grow in grace. This is a hard thing. Who is sufficient unto it, may God give us the grace to live with one another as a family, looking out for one another’s best interests, let’s pray.   

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your word.  And we ask you, O Lord, to make us willing to serve one another, even when we have been wounded.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name, amen.