Updated: Feb 3
“Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”’
This is the Gospel reading that a priest will read aloud in church on Sunday, September 10, 2017. That Sunday will be Proper 18, the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, as listed in the episcopal Lectionary schedule. It is the Word of the Lord spoken by Jesus, defining what a church truly is and is therefore very important to understand deeply.
If one looks up these verses from Matthew’s Gospel, one can find a summary title in some versions of the Holy Bible. For example, one title says these verses are about “A Brother who Sins.” Other titles say they are “Dealing With Sin in the Church” or “Reproving Another Who Sins.” These titles influence the reader to think of that summary before reading the verses, when a title was never offered by Matthew. Therefore, the title is an outside opinion that usually is not the only correct summary.
To get the context of this element of Matthew’s Gospel, one needs to go back to chapter 17. At the beginning of that chapter, Jesus had transfigured before Peter, James, and John on the high mountain, Mount Hermon, in the northern reaches of Gaulanitis, beyond Caesarea Philippi, and actually into Phoenicia. By the end of the chapter, Matthew wrote: “When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” That says the group following Jesus had traveled south, reaching the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This was where Jesus gave lessons to the disciple, prior to them leaving Galilee and going to “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” (as stated in the next chapter, Matthew 19:1b).
In this big picture view, one can fully grasp how chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel is a remembrance of Jesus giving personal guidance to the disciples in Capernaum. It may be that Jesus sat them all down and then rattled off everything in chapter 18; but it might rather be that these lessons and parables were told to them over a period of time, while the group was basically back home by the sea.
It then becomes easier to see a group of devout Jews together, all of whom saw Jesus as their rabbi (or as John wrote in John 20:16b: “in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).” The lessons of Matthew 18 then might have been given on a Shabbat (or multiple Sabbaths), in a house that acted as a synagogue. The lessons might have been brought on due to readings from the scrolls, which then led to questions and discussion, which were memorable.
The element of “church,” at that time, was absolutely nothing like a modern mind tends to think. The disciples, at that time, were not Christians. In fact, the Greek words that begin this selected Gospel reading can most clearly be translated as saying, “If a brother of you sins against you, go reprove him, between you and him alone.” (Bible Hub Interlinear Bible). The translation that will be read aloud, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” can then be seen like a title that influences you to make conclusion about this reading that may be incomplete or incorrect.
In actuality, Jesus was restating Deuteronomy 19:15-21, which gives strength to the notion that Matthew 18:15-20 was a clarification that Jesus made, relative to that text from the Torah, about “witnesses to a crime” (another one of those titles). That would mean Matthew wrote about how Jesus related ancient Scripture to his modern times. As such, the scroll reading (if translated into English) would have been this:
Deuteronomy 19:15 – “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. 16 If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, 17 the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. 18 The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, 19 then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. 20 The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. 21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (NIV)
Seeing this parallel means the focus placed on “fellow Israelite,” who were all that were in the wilderness with Moses (no Gentiles involved in this instruction), is relative to the identifying word “adelphos,” meaning “a brother, member of the same religious community, especially a fellow-Christian.” (Strong’s) The New International Version (NIV) makes the leap from Israelite in a wilderness tent, and Jew in a Capernaum synagogue, to “member of the church.” There was no “church” then, at least not one as most Christians think of when they read the word “church.”
When the translation read aloud gets down to the point where the priest says, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church,” the Greek word actually written is “ekklēsia,” which means, “an assembly, congregation, church; the Church, the whole body of Christian believers.” (Strong’s) Certainly, since the New Testament and the four Gospels lay the foundation of what has since become identified as “the Church” of Christianity, and this Scripture naturally is applicable to that translation, one cannot overlook how Jesus was discussing Jewish LAW with Jewish disciples that were not yet Apostles. Thus, it is more appropriate to grasp “the assembly” as the intent, more than something that can be as misleading as “the church.”
Keep in mind that God was dictating the LAW to Moses, so Moses could make a list of “must and mustn’t do’s” that an exclusive group of people – “the assembly” of Israelites – had to follow. Hopefully, when the Deuteronomy verses above were read, one noticed how Moses (speaking for God, just as Jesus spoke for the Father) wrote, “You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:19b-21)
This means this particular LAW was not about some nitpicking arguing Israelites taking revenge on others who enjoyed back-biting or spreading gossip or generally bad-mouthing someone. It was about purging “the assembly” of all evil-doers. End of story.
What seems to be lost in the freeing of the Israelites is they were actually enslaved to God, as His priests. The Israelites agreed to a promise of a land to call their own forever; but more than the incubator that was Canaan (like the first delegated seminary, with Dead David and Dean Solomon), the greater promise was to be freed from earthly servitude so their souls would be released to Heaven (the true Promised Land). Their role in that bargain was to serve the LORD with all their hearts and all their minds. Therefore, God chose totally committed Israelites as His representatives on Earth, with all the unfaithful Israelites ending up freed of the obligations to God, able to come back as reincarnated non-Israelites (i.e.: they died).
Here is the biggest surprise to Christians: The Laws of Moses were never intended to be applied to common human beings. All the sins of the world – the listed crimes and allowed sins of civilizations and governments – are fully expected to be a part of the world. Murder is what human beings do. Stealing is what human beings do. Coveting is what human beings do. Lying, cheating, and tricking others so one never goes punished for sins and crimes committed is what human beings do. Lawyers love to get the guilty freed and make the victims seek revenge illegally. It is what ordinary lawyers do. However, the ways of the evil world are NOT what priestly servants of YHWH do.
Thus, the wicked are culled from the righteous. It is a necessary process that can only be that. Evil is the way of the world (as Satan’s realm). Righteous is the way of the LORD.
The saying, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link” means God does not allow common human beings to gain leadership over His flock. It is like another saying: One bad apple spoils the whole barrel. Jesus told parables about the weeds and plants that did not bear fruit. An Apostle has to be a responsible gardener.
This is the message Jesus was presenting to the disciples at that time, and it is what Jesus should be understood as saying to all human beings to heed, at all times, in particular those who are truly Christian. The element of “brothers” being two of “the assembly” means “the assembly” can only be strong when both are full-fledged Apostles, or at least truly devoted disciples who are earning their righteousness badges (100% on board). The message is that a true Christian is required to confront those caught committing crimes (sins) against the Laws and demand a return to righteousness (repentance). If the guilty party refuses to admit guilt, then denial of a crime committed means to lie before God, or to claim to possess the Holy Spirit falsely.
Matthew 11:30-32 addresses this, when Jesus said, ““Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
In essence, verse 30 says, “If you are not in Christ then you are not truly Christian.” Verse 31 says, “Repentance can mean forgiveness, but it is blasphemy to claim to be a reborn Jesus, through the Holy Spirit (say you are a true Christian), and be lying.” Verse 32 says, “You can speak against Jesus Christ and be forgiven, but you cannot claim the Holy Spirit tells you your crime is not a crime, without eternal condemnation.”
Thus, a true Christian addresses the blasphemy of professing righteousness, when one is not so. To confront one who has openly committed a sin in one’s presence is not only a required responsibility of the Apostle, confrontation is proof of Apostleship, because the Holy Spirit knows the truth, can spot a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and does not shrink in fear of confrontation. The progression of confrontation against one sinner, from one-on-one, to a small group of Apostles on one, and finally to the whole “assembly” or “congregation” confronting a sinner is totally for the purpose of gaining sincere repentance or forcing total expulsion from the flock. No half-ass professed Christians can be allowed to remain in “an assembly” of true Apostles and devoted disciples.
This has not changed one iota from when God told Moses to lay down that Law. Jesus did nothing to amend that Law.
Again, living a sin free life is not what common human beings do. The Law is not established to be like a school system, where getting a minimum percentage of things done right gains a passing grade. There can be no C- graduates sent out into ministry (with one or two D grades transferable). Again, using the Israel as a seminary analogy, that whole school eventually collapsed in utter ruin.
The Law of Apostlehood requires total subjection to the LORD, from a deep love of God. It is one’s total commitment to God’s will, which means every Law must be followed completely. To ensure that happens, God sends His Holy Spirit to lead an Apostle with the Christ Mind. While God would love the whole world to make this complete commitment to His service, the world is the place where the lure of sin is too great for everyone to make that sacrifice.
Therefore, God understands there will be MANY human beings who will choose life in a sinful world (born of death), than sacrifice everything here for eternal life (reborn in Christ).
Maybe it will help if you think of Jesus telling his disciples about the requirements demanded for a recruit to become a Navy SEAL. Half-ass does not make the grade, because the life of your fellow SEAL depends on one’s complete physical and mental competence, through total sacrifice of self, for the good of “the assembly.” You might get the point then. Like those washout standards, the world is where weak links abound and that is okay. However, weak links are not accepted by God (nor SEALs); and to pretend otherwise is not fooling God … it is the actor fooling him or herself.
Also remember, Jesus had twelve disciples, but one failed to graduate to Apostlehood (Judas Iscariot). This mean it is better to only have “two or three are gathered in my name” – two or three true Christians-Saints-Reborn Jesuses – than to have that number amid a sea of ordinary human beings prone to crimes against God. Wherever “two or three are gathered as reproductions of Jesus Christ,” there will be the true “assembly” … “the church” of God … where only His chosen priests gather together.