The Principles of the Kingdom in Mystery
Matthew 18:1 – 20:28
Matthew 18:1 – 20:28
Having introduced the kingdom of heaven in its “mystery” form in ch.13-17, we now get the principles that belong specifically to the kingdom in mystery. If you recall the sermon on the mount, there the Lord gave principles of the kingdom of heaven as well, but they were very broad, and not limited to the kingdom in mystery. Now that the symbolical rejection of the King has occurred (ch.11-12) and the dispensational changes laid out (ch.13-17), these additional principles are given. The themes are grace, holiness, humility, and contentment. This section of Matthew can be divided as follows:
O U T L I N E
Having Grace in Our Interactions with Others
Matthew 18. The theme of this chapter is grace; the spirit of putting the interest of others before the interests of self. Also, from a dispensational standpoint we have a change from ch.17. In the previous chapter we had the coming kingdom in glory, something that is still future. In ch.18 we return to the twofold subject of ch.16; the church and the kingdom of heaven. In this chapter we get the practical “intersection” of the kingdom and the assembly!
- Humility and Gentleness to Characterize Disciples in the Kingdom (18:1-14)
- Brotherly Restoration: the Assembly as a Resource (18:15-20)
- The Importance of Personal Forgiveness (18:21-35)
Humility and Gentleness to Characterize Disciples in the Kingdom (18:1-14)
Children. It can be a little difficult to follow the Lord’s use of the word “children” in the following verses, so I will try to make it clear. In vv.1-5 the Lord speaks about children in the sense that all believers are to humble themselves fitting to the character of grace. Here, all believers are to be “children” regardless of their age or spiritual maturity. The Lord refers to them as “one such little child”. Later, in vv.6-9 He speaks about children in the sense of young believers. The Lord refers to them as “these little ones who believe in me”. The exhortations in vv.8-9 can also be applied to those who are young in the faith, as in 1 John 2:13. Then in vv.10-14 He speaks of children in the sense of literal children, regardless of faith; those who are under the age of responsibility (vv.10-11), and those who are over the age of responsibility (vv.12-14). He refers to them as “one of these little ones”. To summarize: the Lord uses the word “children” to describe all believers in vv.1-5, young believers in vv.6-9, and young children in vv.10-14.
Child-like Humility to Characterize all Believers in the Kingdom (vv.1-5)
¶ In that hour the disciples came to Jesus saying, Who then is greatest in the kingdom of the heavens? v.1 This question concerning greatness in the kingdom comes up “in the same hour” as the Lord had been declaring the children of the kingdom free (Matt. 17:24-27). As children of the kingdom we have a lofty position, but we are also to have a lowly attitude. The way we maintain a lowly attitude is by having our thoughts on Christ. The disciples did not manifest this spirit because their thoughts were occupied with the kingdom, not the king. In this chapter we have the very same grace and lowliness exemplified by our Lord in Matt. 17:24-27 now declared to be the characteristic virtues of every disciple in the kingdom of heaven. The Lord would not insist on His rights as the king, but rather paid the temple tax so as to not give offense.
2 And Jesus having called a little child to him, set it in their midst, 3 and said, Verily I say to you, Unless ye are converted and become as little children, ye will not at all enter into the kingdom of the heavens. vv.2-3 The Lord used a variety of teaching styles. Sometimes He taught by example, sometimes He taught from the scriptures, and sometimes He used an object lesson! Sometimes purely verbal approaches are not effective, and a demonstration is more useful. This is an effective way to teach, but it shouldn’t be done for entertainment purposes. Notice that the Lord spoke to affect their consciences. They needed to be “converted” to become childlike in their spirit. Conversion means to have a change of heart toward God. By contrast, repentance is a change of mind toward God. Initially, a person is converted when they are born again and receive a new life from God with a new nature. That new nature is a complete contrast to the old nature, the flesh. Upon being quickened, immediately a person is converted, because they are given a new nature! Without an initial conversion, a person cannot be saved to “enter into the kingdom of heaven”. However, conversion is not synonymous with new birth, because conversion may happen multiple times in a person’s life! In Luke 22:32 the Lord told Peter, “when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” Peter’s original conversion happened in Luke 5:8, but after he betrayed the Lord it needed to happen again! It is very possible for a believer to need another conversion if they “err from the truth” (Jam. 5:19-20). The Lord wants us to be like “little children” not in the sense of spiritual growth (1 Cor. 3:1, etc.), but in the sense of a guileless, humble, unpretending, unoffending attitude. For example: children don’t care how they look or what their reputation is. We likewise are to have no thoughts of ourselves, and in that way become as little children. The Lord said unto Baruch, “seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not” (Jer. 45:5).
4 Whoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, “he” is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens; v.4 Not only is conversion to childlikeness necessary for salvation (v.3) but it is the measure of greatness in the kingdom after a person is saved! The Lord Himself is the perfect example of this. The scripture says of Him, “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory” (Matt. 12:20). If we want to be truly great in God’s sight, we need to get our eyes off of self, and onto Christ. With our eyes on Christ there will be no room for pride.
5 and whosoever shall receive one such little child in my name, receives me. v.5 Furthermore, when we interact with our fellow-believers who have humbled themselves and become childlike, we are not to take advantage of their humility and step on them. We are to receive every child of the kingdom as if we were receiving Christ Himself. Christ identifies His glorious Person with all who trust Him.
Carefulness about Stumbling Young Believers (vv.6-9)
6 But whosoever shall offend one of these little ones who believe in me, it were profitable for him that a great millstone had been hanged upon his neck and he be sunk in the depths of the sea. v.6 The Lord now begins to speak about offending literal children who have faith in Christ. What is an offense to a young believer? Mr. Kelly said that an offense to a young believer is “anything that tends to shake their confidence in God.” The most common way we could offend a young believer would be by having a practice that differs from our doctrine. Seeing that contradiction, a young believer will be confused about our message, and could be turned out of the path. As an individual, it would be better to suffer a sudden, traumatic, gruesome death then to offend a little one and suffer the eternal consequences. While this section (vv.6-9) is referring to believers who are literally young in age, we can certainly apply them to believers of any age who are young in faith (e.g. 1 John 2:13). We need to be careful not to stumble a 50-year-old ‘young person’ as well as a 15-year-old ‘young person’!
A dispensational application of this verse has to do with believers in Christ (the faithful remnant) being described as little children of faith. The apostate Jews persecuted the new converts extensively in the early years of the Christian testimony (2 Thess. 1:6). Even while Christ was on earth we see them attacking and in some cases (John 9) excommunicating those who had faith in Christ. The millstone would represent the judgment of God that fell on the nation of Israel and sunk them to the depths of the sea; the sea being a picture of the Gentiles. The dispersion of the Jews among the Gentiles was the governmental judgment of God on them for offending the little Jewish remnant. But at the end of the tribulation, that discipline will have its fruit and there will once again be a purged and restored nation of Israel brought into blessing. So it is “better” for Israel to suffer the governmental consequences of their offense, than it is for God to let them go unpunished and un-restored.
7 Woe to the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; yet woe to that man by whom the offence comes! v.7 Young believers are constantly being harmed in the world, because the world has no love for anyone who does not serve self. Think of the spiritual and moral harm that is being done by the corruption in public education, and in the media. You might say, “the world is an harsh, evil place; these things are just going to happen.” That is true. Offenses “must needs” come, to fill up the measure of this world’s iniquity. But lest we take a nonchalant attitude about offenses against the defenseless; “Woe to that man by whom the offense cometh”. The point is that the Lord views offenses against weak or helpless believers very seriously. We had better not be involved in these offenses.
Two Things that Guard Against Offenses. In the following verses we have two things that we must have so as to guard against offending a little one with faith in Christ. First, we must take heed to ourselves that there is nothing in our lives that might stumble a young believer (vv.8-9). Secondly, we must have an understanding of God’s value for children (vv.10-14). The order is important. Dealing with self comes first.
8 And if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee; it is good for thee to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into eternal fire. v.8 Judging our habits. If “hands” speak of what we do, and “feet” speak of where we go, together they picture our day-to-day conduct. What habits have we formed that might stumble a young believer? Is there some inconsistency in our life that might send them a mixed message? If there is, we are to “cut it off” through self-judgment, and “cast it aside” by forming good habits. The judgment of unbelievers is brought in to warn believers here (see Eph. 5:5-7). Remember, in the kingdom of heaven there may be false professors. A believer will never be “cast into eternal fire”, but in considering the end of the pathway for unbelievers whose lives are characterized by the lack of self-judgment, who live how they want to live without a care for others, we are duly warned. How much better it had been for them to deny the flesh now, and be spared the eternal fire!
9 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee; it is good for thee to enter into life one-eyed, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire. v.9 Judging our motives. It isn’t just our habits, but our motives also that can stumble others. The eye looks to what the heart desires. The habits are just the outward manifestation of our inward desires. “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Gal. 5:24). When we think it hard to deny our fleshly lusts, we ought to consider how much harder it will be for those without faith who will lie forever in “Gehenna” that burns with fire and brimstone.
10 See that ye do not despise one of these little ones; for I say unto you that their angels in the heavens continually behold the face of my Father who is in the heavens. v.10 The Lord now gives good reasons not to despise little children, or to be careless about harming them. Notice that it is simply “one of these little ones”. The words “that believeth on me” are omitted! He is now speaking of very young children and infants. Often this verse is applied to the concept of “guardian angels” but that is not really the thought. It doesn’t fit with the warning the Lord gives in this verse. However, the idea of guardian angels is a right one, although they are not limited to children, but to believers at all ages, even before they are saved (Heb. 1:13)! The difficulty with understanding this verse has to do with the expression “their angels”. First, understand that angels are mentioned in three ways in scripture:
- Conventional angels are created intelligences that serve God, as in Heb. 1:13
- A disembodied spirit, as in Acts 12:15, Heb. 12:23
- Men set in a place of authority & responsibility on earth, as in Ecc. 5:6, Mal. 2:7, Rev. 1-3.
Here in Matt. 18:10, “angels” are the spirits of children now in heaven; the disembodied spirits of children who have died. The Lord’s point is that the Father’s care for children is such that He takes them to heaven and seats them before His own throne that they might enjoy His presence. It is similar to the way kings of old would surround their throne with seats for favored family members, etc. If a child is offended, even after they die, the issue of their being offended is remembered by the Father. It is a warning against despising or discounting little children, and assuming an injury against them as “acceptable” collateral damage. On a positive note, this verse is directly teaching that children who die go to heaven, regardless of their faith! We can be so thankful for this verse, especially with abortion being widely accepted today. The leading reason for abortion in the United States is inconvenience (93% ~ 2500 per day). People want to live in sin and do not want to accept the responsibility of a child. Their solution? Murder the child. All of these unborn children go immediately to heaven to behold the face of the Father. But He doesn’t forget those who heartlessly murdered them.
11 For the Son of man has come to save that which was lost. v.11 How could the spirits of little children be taken to heaven? Children still need to be saved, and the work of the cross was required to save them. It required the coming of the Son of Man to “save that which was lost”. If we compare this with a similar expression in Luke 19:10 (the salvation of Zacchaeus), we see that in the case of an adult, “the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Here in Matthew the word “seek” is left out. Little children before the age of responsibility still need to be “saved”, because they are in the sinful condition, but not “sought” because they have not expressed their will against God in the same way an older person has. It isn’t that children are innocent. The only ones we read of as innocent were Adam and Eve. Not only does the Father value little children, but also the Son of man looks upon them with affection. In vv.10-11 we have children under the age of responsibility, in vv.12-14 we have those over the age of responsibility.
12 What think ye? If a certain man should have a hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, does he not, leaving the ninety and nine on the mountains, go and seek the one that has gone astray? 13 And if it should come to pass that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoices more because of it than because of the ninety and nine not gone astray. vv.12-13 The parable of the Lost Sheep is found here in Matthew and also in Luke 15 (compare), and a striking difference is noted between the two occurrences. In Luke the lost sheep is a grown up sinner, but in Matthew it is a wayward child. Here a certain man has one hundred sheep, representing 100 children. Ninety-nine of them went not astray, picturing children who have not expressed their wills against God, being below the age of responsibility. But one was off on the hills astray, and the man immediately leaves the ninety-nine to seek to lost one. The lost one is a child who has gone astray by rebelling against God. As soon as a child reaches this point of “going astray” the Lord begins His work of seeking the child. What a comfort to Christian parents! This is why so many young children believe the gospel; because the Lord is making a special effort to seek them the moment they stray. But He doesn’t necessarily find it; it says “if it come to pass that he should find it”. It brings the Lord much joy over one wayward child brought back to Himself, more joy than over those ninety-nine who remained under the age of responsibly and never needed to be “sought”.
14 So it is not the will of your Father who is in the heavens that one of these little ones should perish. v.14 This gives the key to the preceding parable. The wayward sheep was in danger of “perishing”, which refers not to physical death, but to the second death (2 Pet. 3:9; John 3:16). In vv.10-11 we had the Father’s care for those children who are under the age of responsibility and in vv.12-14 His care over those children who have gone astray. It is not the Father’s will that even one child should go into a lost eternity, therefore He is active in His love to seek them that He might save them. In the following verses we will see how this pattern is applied to the relationship between brethren. When one brother has gone a distance from God, the offended brother is to be active in his love to restore that offender to the Lord!
What is the “age of responsibility”? It probably varies with each person. Those who have more exposure to the light of God are responsible at an earlier age, and the converse is true as well. Those who are mentally handicapped live their whole lives in an un-responsible condition. It is interesting that those of Israel who were under twenty years of age were not held responsible for Israel’s murmuring in the wilderness, and therefore were not sentenced to death in the forty years of wandering (Num. 14:29). They were not held responsible for the signs they had seen the Lord do in the land of Egypt, but the older ones were. Those who were twenty years old and upward were fit for active service (Num. 1) because they had all their mental and physical faculties. Perhaps twenty years old is the number, or perhaps it is younger (12 or 15 years), especially in the case of children raised in Christian homes. We can rest assured that “the Lord knows them that are His” (2 Tim. 2:19).
Brotherly Restoration: the Assembly as a Resource (18:15-20)
The intersection of the kingdom of heaven and the assembly. Matthew is a dispensational book, and yet twice the assembly is brought in. Dispensations have to do with the earth, but the assembly is a heavenly thing formed outside the scope of dispensations. It can be viewed as a heavenly parenthesis within the timeline of dispensations. The Lord in Matthew has been unfolding the new earthly dispensation that would commence when He returned to the Father. That new dispensation was “the kingdom of heaven”. He also brings in “the assembly” in ch.16 to show that Christ was going to build something new and distinct from the kingdom of heaven. Aside from the kingdom being earthly and the assembly heavenly, the kingdom and assembly also have different start and end dates (see notes on the kingdom of heaven). But what is the connection between the two? Why bring the assembly into Matthew’s gospel? Notice the context of the assembly in ch.18. It is to do with resolving personal disputes between brethren in the kingdom of heaven. Then at the close of the chapter, the 7th similitude of the kingdom of heaven is given. The truth about the assembly is “sandwiched” in the middle of teaching on the kingdom of heaven. The Lord is saying to His disciples, you will be in a kingdom, and issues will come up. The king will be absent in heaven, that’s why its called the kingdom of heaven. Will you be left helpless because the king is not present? No, the king will be absent, but His authority can still be appealed to. His authority is going to be conferred to the local assembly! The intersection of these two great things: (1) the kingdom and (2) the assembly, is over the matter of authority. In the time of the kingdom of heaven, the absent King will invest His authority in the local assembly.
vv.15-20 are verses that have been wrongly used and prescribed many times. Several misconceptions about the procedure described in the following verses are listed below, followed by what I believe is the proper application.
- This procedure is not a mechanism to cope with bitterness. Often these scriptures are applied to those who have been offended and can’t forgive their brother. This procedure will be brought up as if it was a coping mechanism for hard feelings. That is not what it is. It is not an outlet to “get something off your chest”. The coping mechanism for hard feelings is forgiveness. This is found in the similitude of the unforgiving servant; i.e. think about how much God has forgiven us, and it will make our brother’s sin against us seem small indeed and easy to forgive. The second half of the chapter teaches that we are to forgive our brother from our hearts the moment we are offended by him.
- This procedure is not a mechanism to cover up impenitence. These verses are not a shield to hide behind, as if a condition could be placed on one we have knowingly offended, saying “you should come to me if you have a problem with me”. Matt. 5:24 makes it clear that, if we know we have offended someone, we are to go to them and be reconciled. When it comes to personal trespass, whether we are the offending or the offended party, the onus is always on us. The “ball” is always in “our court”.
- This procedure is not a mechanism to nag about irritation. There are other principles which bear on the subject of personal trespass. “It is [a man’s] glory to pass over a transgression” (Prov. 19:11). Our brother may have habits that are offensive to us, but we are not to be overly sensitive. If the offense was unconscious, it is to our credit if we simply overlook the transgression. Of course, there are limits to this: such as in the case where the behavior is detrimental to the assembly, or to the brother’s own walk with the Lord (the case in Matt. 18).
- This procedure is not a mechanism to lobby for self-vindication. When someone has offended us, we know they have taken advantage of us in some way. The immediate response of the flesh is to see the injustice rectified, to restore a sense of self-dignity. Sometimes this is the motivation for following the procedure in these verses; to vindicate self. “I want an apology and I will take you to the assembly ‘court’ if necessary to get it.” This is the very opposite of the spirit of lowliness that is to characterize disciples of the kingdom (vv.1-5).
- This procedure is a mechanism for brotherly restoration. These verses come into play when we discern that the offending brother is on a downward course, and we have a pastoral desire to see him restored to the Lord. Just as that man in the previous parable went out after the one sheep going astray, so we are to seek to restore our brother to the Lord when they have offended us. Love is to be active in seeking to restore one’s brother.
1st Step: Individual Reproof (18:15)
¶ 15 But if thy brother sin against thee, go, reprove him between thee and him alone. If he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. v.15 If my brother has sinned against me, it is a serious matter. Not because I have been offended, but because a breach has come in between my brother and God. It is the spiritual welfare of my brother that is to be my chief concern, not my own pride or dignity. It is self-less love for my brother that will cause me to “go to him”. It is only pride that says, “I’m will not go to him… let him come to me on my terms”. The first step is to reprove the offender in private conversation. It was not a public sin (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:1), and therefore the wisdom of scripture is to keep this private. Unfortunately, many times believers do not go to the offender and reprove him privately. So often believers are found telling others about the sin, and then others pass it on, fueling the gossip train. This can only serve to drive the offending brother away, and perhaps even necessitate a confession from the offended brother; “Debate thy cause with thy neighbour, but reveal not the secret of another; lest he that heareth it disgrace thee, and thine evil report turn not away” (Prov. 25:9-10). You know the offending brother is repenting “if he hear thee”. If he hear you, then you have “gained your brother”, because he is no longer continuing in his sin. This is the goal of going to him in the first place; gaining our brother by leading him to repentance.
Verbal Forgiveness. Once I hear an audible expression of repentance, I am obliged (and privileged) to give an audible expression of forgiveness. I have already forgiven him in my heart, so I ought to be looking forward to this point. I cannot say “I don’t think your repentance is real. See Luke 17:3-4 where the only requirement is words as simple as “I repent”, before I am obliged to express forgiveness. We may never get a confession out of the person that is satisfactory to us. But we should not extend verbal forgiveness if there is no verbal expression of repentance, because it would not be in the interest of restoring that one to the Lord.
2nd Step: Reproof By Two or Three (18:16)
16 But if he do not hear thee, take with thee one or two besides, that “every matter may stand upon the word of two witnesses or of three” [Deut. 19:15] v.16 If the offending brother is stubborn and will not “hear you”, or change his thinking on the matter, the offended brother is to carry it a step farther. This is not a response of frustration, but a response of love. Furthermore, this step is important to add weight to the testimony bearing on the offender’s conscience. The additional witnesses are important because “in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word should be established”. Also, it is possible for us to be mistaken about a perceived offense, and this step clears up any ambiguity in the mind of the offender. The witnesses should hear the case and, if they agree that an offense has occurred, they should join with the first brother in seeking to restore the offender. We get this in practice in 1 Cor. 6:4. Paul recommends choosing witnesses who are “least esteemed”; i.e. not the most popular. We should not be political when selecting witnesses. In a small gathering, no one may be popular. The point is, don’t choose someone who is easily influenced by party ties or public opinion, but one who is grounded in the Word of God.
3rd Step: Reproof By the Assembly (18:17)
17 But if he will not listen to them, tell it to the assembly; and if also he will not listen to the assembly, let him be to thee as one of the nations and a tax-gatherer. v.17 If the first two steps fail to reach the conscience of the offender, the matter must be made known to the assembly. This is the second time that the assembly is mentioned in the Word of God. The first time it was mentioned was in Matt. 16 and there it was in the universal sense. Here it is in the local sense. The Lord is now revealing that there was something higher than the Sanhedrin (or council of the Jews) that His disciples should appeal to in His absence; the local assembly. In the following verses (vv.18-20) the Lord will explain that the local assembly would be invested with His own authority to take administrative action. Here in v.17 there is no assembly action, but a delegation from the assembly sent to make a final plea to the offending brother. If he still refuses to hear, the personal responsibility of the offended brother is fulfilled, apart from continued prayer. He is to regard the man that was called his “brother” in v.16, now as “a heathen man and a publican”. The way the Jews treated the heathen and tax-gatherers was with coolness and indifference, and that was the stance the offended brother was to take toward his unrepentant fellow. Once the assembly heard the matter and remonstrated with the offender to no avail, then the matter is finished… and NOT before! How often offended Christians write off their brothers or sisters without following these steps. The offender was not necessarily a wicked person in the sense of 1 Cor. 5; a drunkard, a fornicator, etc. Although it may have been a relatively small offense, through self-will the offender’s true state was brought to light, and he was to be given the same treatment as a wicked person by the individual.
Two or Three. A common mistake is to think that the local assembly is wherever two or three believers happen to be co-located. This is not true. Yes, as few as two or three believers in a local gathering may act on behalf of the assembly (v.20), but that is not the same as any two or three believers getting together for casual fellowship. A simple proof of this can be seen by comparing v.16 and v.17. If “the assembly” in v.17 was merely two or three believers meeting arbitrarily, how would it be any different than “taking one or two besides thee” in v.16? It would be a redundant statement. Clearly then, the local assembly is more than two or three believers co-located.
Personal Trespass vs. Collective Responsibility. “Let him be to thee (singular).” The instructions so far are for the individual only. As far as the offended brother goes, this is where the procedure ends. However, as we see in the following verses, the assembly may need to take corporate administrative action if the offender is unwilling to repent of his sin, even though it was of a personal nature. In the case of open sin (1 Cor. 5) there is no need to for this procedure, because the facts are evident.
vv.18-20 give us three great points that have been called the “Magna Carta” of the local assembly, because they immediately follow the first mention of the local assembly in scripture. They have to do the authority conferred to the local assembly to take actions in the name of Christ for His glory. Each of these three points seems somehow impossible to the natural mind, but they are absolutely true and must be accepted by faith.
- v.18… The character of the authority: assembly actions are ratified by heaven.
- v.19… The scope of the authority: is unlimited in matters of administration.
- v.20… The source for the authority: the presence of Christ in the local assembly.
18 Verily I say to you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on the earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on the earth shall be loosed in heaven. v.18 The character of the authority: assembly actions are ratified by heaven. The Lord has given the local assembly authority to bind or loose a person’s sin on this earth, and has promised to ratify those actions in heaven (see note on binding and loosing). This doesn’t mean that heaven “approves” of every action taken by the local assembly. Authority is not to be confused with infallibility. But at the same time, authority is not rendered void by fallibility. Do parents cease to have authority over their children whenever they fail? No. The authority was given to them by God, and the child is responsible to submit to it regardless of the parents’ fallibility. Certainly, the local assembly may use the Lord’s authority wrongly, and heaven could never approve of it. But heaven will stand by the action until it is made right. God may raise up prophets to speak to the assembly about wrong judgments, or send individuals from nearby assemblies to remonstrate with them. Ultimately, if the local assembly is unwilling to correct the error it becomes evil, and it will cease to be an assembly. But never in scripture do we find liberty given to individuals or other assemblies to take the matter into their own hands and rebel against the authority of Christ. A great example of this is 2 Cor. 2:6 and 10 where Paul explains that the “binding” action taken by Corinth (in response to 1 Cor. 5) was recognized by “the many”, or the body at large. Furthermore, Paul would not independently “forgive” the man’s sin until the local assembly at Corinth “forgave” it. This is important for two reasons: (1) because independency is rebellion against the authority of Christ in the local assembly, and (2) because we are to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3). See an important translational note on this verse.
Assembly Action: Binding and Loosing. The local assembly has been invested with authority to “bind” or “loose” a person’s sin (Matt. 18:18); which means to “retain” or “remit” their sin (John 20:23). Binding and loosing are two administrative actions that are done “in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ” and are backed by His authority (1 Cor. 5:4). The authority to “bind” and “loose” with heaven’s ratification was given first to Peter (Matt. 16:19), then extended to the local assembly (Matt. 18:18). To “bind” a person’s sin upon them is to associate them with that sin in an official sense. Morally, they were associated with it the moment the sin was committed, but this is a special association of an official character. Paul does this in 1 Cor. 5:4 with the words “being such”; that is, he formally connected that man with his sin. Excommunication of the wicked person follows binding of the sin (v.5). In 1 Cor. 5 we have an example of “binding”, and in 2 Cor. 2 we have the “loosing”. Once a person has turned from their sin, and their repentance is manifest, the assembly ought to “loose” the sin, or formally disassociate the person from it. The whole assembly, wherever it may be found “on earth” is required to acknowledge an administrative action once taken, because it is bound or loosed in heaven. To continue fellowship with a person that is put away is to ignore the action taken, and to rebel against the authority of heaven. The binding or loosing would occur in a solemn meeting for judicial action; “when ye are gathered together” (v.4). It is only when the assembly is formally gathered together that the presence and “power of our Lord Jesus Christ” is there to give weight to the action. read more…
19 Again I say to you, that if two of you shall agree on the earth concerning any matter, whatsoever it may be that they shall ask, it shall come to them from my Father who is in the heavens. v.19 The scope of the authority: unlimited in matters of administration. In v.18 the Lord had already stated that the scope of what might be bound or loosed was “whatsoever”, but now He expands on the “whatsoever” here by saying “Again I say unto you.” The issues that arise in the assembly might be very serious, and the man’s wisdom might make the assembly out to be incompetent to judge in such matters. But this verse is clear; if the assembly asks, the action will be ratified in heaven. There is no “matter” that is outside the scope of the assembly’s authority… nothing exempt from this promise of heaven’s ratification. It is important to note that this is assembly prayer, but not in the sense of a prayer meeting. It is prayer in the context of administrative action.
A clever attack has recently surfaced to set aside the truth of the Lord’s authority in the assembly, and the attack is based on a wrong interpretation of this verse. By interpreting this verse as general prayer, the normal conditions of general prayer apply; such as “if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us” (1 John 5:14). By placing a condition on the prayer in this verse, they take away from the “whatsoever” not only in v.19, but also in v.18. They limit the authority of the local assembly to binding and loosing only those actions that are “according to God’s will”. Therefore, they reduce the authority here given to the assembly without condition, to be fully conditional. They render v.18 as follows: ‘whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be as a thing already bound in heaven…’. Effectively, this removes the responsibility of individuals to submit to assembly actions unconditionally, and it opens up the door to private judgments about every action taken. Essentially, it requires that “every man do what is right in his own eyes”. The simple truth is, the “whatsoever” in v.18 is unconditional, and the context of “asking” in v.19 is asking heaven to ratify administrative actions.
20 For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them. v.20 The source of the authority: the presence of Christ in the local assembly. Finally, the Lord gives the great reason why the assembly has this authority. In every gathering of believers who meet on scriptural ground, being gathered to Name of Christ, He is in the midst of such gatherings. God has chosen to make His Son the attractive center for Christians. Through His Word and by His Spirit working in their hearts, believers “are gathered together” to that Person, forsaking every other allegiance. How could there be any other center than Christ? Sadly, many Christians today gather around a denominational name, an influential leader, a constitutional list of teachings, or even a set of cultural norms. “In” or “unto” the name of the Lord Jesus Christ carries the thought of all that He is in His Person. A person’s name is expressive of their person (see John 17:26, “the Father’s name”). I cannot claim to be gathered unto the Name of the Lord Jesus if I deny His Word! I cannot claim to be gathered unto the Name of the Lord Jesus if I meet on unscriptural ground. God does not require allegiance to any name but the Name of Christ! It does not require subscription to any list of doctrines but the Living Word of God! It must be in separation from evil. The promise is “there am I“. To be clear, physically Christ is in heaven, seated on His Father’s throne, but spiritually He is in the midst of those gathered unto His name.
A Local Gathering. The New Testament clearly teaches the unity of the Church; “There is one body” (Eph. 4:4; see 1 Cor. 12:12). However, it would be impossible for every person in the universal Assembly (hundreds of millions) to meet in one physical location. Accordingly, scripture identifies local meetings of that universal Assembly; e.g. the “assembly of God which is in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2), “the assemblies of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2). We may refer to these gatherings as “local assemblies”. The local assembly in a certain place is composed of all believers in that location. In the early Church, believers met simply on the basis of what the Church is. For example, the entire assembly in Corinth was gathered “together” unto the name of Christ, in spite of other failures. But today is a day of corporate failure, when most have forsaken the scriptural ground of gathering. In one particular location, the numbers of those gathering unto the name of Christ have gotten down to three or even two (the smallest plurality). Here in Matthew 18:20 we find a beautiful encouragement for the two or three. Even though the two or three could not call themselves “the Church” in that location, yet the Lord would be present in their midst, and their administrative actions would be sanctioned by heaven! To summarize, a local gathering is not (generally) co-extensive with the local assembly, but it acts on behalf of the assembly with all the rights and privileges of the assembly.
The Ground of Gathering, Part 1 of 2. How is the assembly to meet together for worship and ministry? For many, gathering together is based on ethnicity (e.g. the African or Russian church). For others, it is based on their preferred style of church government (e.g. the Presbyterian or Congregationalist model). Others rally around a human figure such as Martin Luther or John Wesley (e.g. Lutheranism or Methodism). Others align themselves because of a position on believer’s baptism (e.g. Reformed and Baptists). Still others meet on independent principles (e.g. non-denominationalism). But what does the Word of God say? Here we get part (not all) of the scriptural ground of assembly meeting. Matthew only gives us half. Matthew presents the rejection of Christ, the consequent promise of Christ to build His assembly, the promise of His presence in the local assembly, and the commissioning of the twelve to go out with the gospel to every nation. Matthew does not encompass the sending of the Holy Ghost to indwell believers and form the body of Christ. When we get to Paul’s epistles we get Part 2 of what the assembly is. The full revelation of what the Church is was given to the Apostle Paul, and so we must look at 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, etc. to find this other side. The scriptural ground of Christian gathering is very simple. It involves acting on what is true of us. We might ask: what is true of us? There are really two great principles that form the scriptural ground of gathering. One was taught by Jesus on earth, the other by the Apostle Paul.
- The Name of Christ is the attractive center for Christians meeting together as a local assembly (Matt. 18:20).
- The Body of Christ is expressed by Christians meeting together as a local assembly (1 Cor. 12:12; 27; Eph. 4:4).
A New Place of Authority on Earth. We have a striking parallel to Matt. 18:15-20 in the Old Testament (Deut. 17:8-13). When matters arose that were “too hard” to judge on an individual basis, they were to take the matter “up into the place which the LORD thy God shall choose”. They were to bring the matter “unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days”. Those leaders of Israel would investigate and give their “sentence of judgment”. The individuals involved in the dispute were to submit to the judgment, and “do according to the sentence” because it was connected with “that place which the LORD shall choose”. They were to strictly abide the decision that was made, and “the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel.” So, rebellion against the authority of Jehovah in Jerusalem was to be punished by death. But now a great dispensation change had occurred. When the fullness of time was come, Christ was sent to earth as the True Israel, possessing all the authority of heaven. The faithful remnant of disciples was gathered around His Person, and found in Him the answer to every matter or question that might arise. But now He had announced His death and resurrection. Shortly Christ would return to heaven, and His Personal presence would be gone! Were the disciples on earth going to be left without a resource? Should they go back to Old Testament practices of going to Jerusalem for judgment? No. Here in Matthew 18, the Lord is teaching that His disciples were no longer to go to Jerusalem, but to the local gathering of the assembly that He was about to build. Why? Because He would come in spirit into the midst of two or three gathered sincerely unto His Name, and confer His authority to them for administrative action. What a privilege and solemn responsibility!
The Importance of Personal Forgiveness (18:21-35)
Peter’s Question about Forgiveness (vv.21-22)
¶ 21 Then Peter came to him and said, Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? until seven times? 22 Jesus says to him, I say not to thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven. v.21-22 Peter’s question and the Lord’s response shows how little we naturally understand about forgiveness. We have already had instruction about personal trespass (vv.15-20), but what about repeated trespass? Peter was prepared to be rather gracious; “until seven times“. The rabbis taught that you should forgive three times, then cut the offender off. Peter was being generous compared to the legal backdrop! But the Lord says “until seventy times seven“, in other words, as many times as we are sinned against we are to forgive. Forgiveness is always to be in our hearts, because it is the foundation of our relationship with God.
The Unforgiving Servant. This is the seventh of the ten similitudes of the kingdom of heaven, which describe this time when Jesus is rejected. Why does the Lord give this as a similitude of the kingdom of heaven? He is bringing out a contrast with the law. In the kingdom of heaven – the rule of the rejected Christ – God’s forgiveness toward sinners is unlimited, and He expects our forgiveness toward one another to be unlimited as well. An important distinction to understand when reading this similitude is the difference between eternal and governmental forgiveness. I recommend reading this article on the five aspects of forgiveness. A similar thought is found in Eph. 4:32 with regard to eternal forgiveness. Appreciation of God’s eternal forgiveness toward us should motivate personal forgiveness toward our brother. Here in Matthew it is appreciation of God’s governmental forgiveness that motives personal forgiveness toward our brother. This parable is only found in Matthew’s gospel (compare).
The lord’s forgiveness of the very guilty servant (vv.23-27)
23 For this cause the kingdom of the heavens has become like a king who would reckon with his bondmen. 24 And having begun to reckon, one debtor of ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 But he not having anything to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and his children, and everything that he had, and that payment should be made. 26 The bondman therefore falling down did him homage, saying, Lord, have patience with me and I will pay thee all. 27 And the lord of that bondman, being moved with compassion, loosed him and forgave him the loan. vv.23-27 At a denarius a day, and at 1 talent = 6,000 denarii, this man owed 60,000,000 days’ or 164,000 years’ worth of labor. In 1600 lifetimes he could never pay this back. When the debt is called in, the king must foreclose on not only his life, but his wife and children as well; all must be sold into a life of misery. So it is with the government of God. Not only would we suffer for our sins, but if would affect our families as well. The servant fell down before his lord and promised to pay all, which was impossible. The king knew this, but was moved with compassion and forgave him the debt. Notice he did not accept the servant’s offer of repayment; instead he frankly forgave him. This is true grace. In the same way, each one of us has accrued the governmental judgment of God over a lifetime of offenses committed against Him. “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7; see 1 Peter 3:12). But He has “loosed” those sins in a governmental sense (c.p. administrative in v.18), and we can live day to day free from the consequences of them.
The servant’s refusal to forgive his less guilty fellow (vv.28-30)
28 But that bondman having gone out, found one of his fellow-bondmen who owed him a hundred denarii. And having seized him, he throttled him, saying, Pay me if thou owest anything. 29 His fellow-bondman therefore, having fallen down at his feet, besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee. 30 But he would not, but went away and cast him into prison, until he should pay what was owing. vv.28-30 At a denarius a day, this man owed three months’ worth of labor. It was a serious debt, but it wasn’t impossible to repay. The first servant apparently did not understand the concept of forgiveness. He went out to shake down those who owed him money. Finding this less-guilty debtor, he grabbed him by the neck, choking him. At the plea for mercy, he refused to have patience, and personally cast him into prison. This is what happens when a person doesn’t truly understand grace. They harbor an unforgiving spirit toward those who have offended them. When we compare the debt of our brother’s sin against us to our sin against God, it is nothing. We are to forgive as readily and an freely as we have been forgiven.
The judgment of the unforgiving servant (vv.31-34)
31 But his fellow-bondmen, having seen what had taken place, were greatly grieved, and went and recounted to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord, having called him to him, says to him, Wicked bondman! I forgave thee all that debt because thou besoughtest me; 33 shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-bondman, as “I” also had compassion on thee? 34 And his lord being angry delivered him to the tormentors till he paid all that was owing to him. vv.31-34 Those with intelligence, who had witnessed the ruthless behavior, went to their lord and recounted what had happened. Immediately, the lord changed his mind, and we find that he revoked his earlier forgiveness. This is the consequence in the kingdom of heaven for those servants who refuse to forgive their brethren. God will revoke His forgiveness. Clearly this is not eternal forgiveness then, but governmental. This passage in no way denies eternal security. He gives the key principle in v.33: we are to act in forgiveness toward our brethren in light of the forgiveness God has freely shown to us. Here in Matthew 18, appreciation of God’s governmental forgiveness motivates our personal forgiveness. In Ephesians 4:32 we get a parallel thought, that appreciation of God’s eternal forgiveness motivates our personal forgiveness. His punishment is to be “delivered to the tormentors“. An unforgiving Christian can be the most miserable person on earth. Many times a bitter, unforgiving spirit leads to anxiety, depression, and anti-social behaviors. It can ripple down into the family, infecting children and even grandchildren with the same bitterness. Compare the “prison” of v.30 to the “tormentors” of v.34. Being wronged by our brother is not nearly as painful as the consequences of forgiveness. The torment does not need to last forever, only until the forgiving spirit is manifested.
The Application (v.35)
35 Thus also my heavenly Father shall do to you if ye forgive not from your hearts every one his brother. v.35 If we withhold personal forgiveness from our brother, then God will withhold governmental forgiveness from us. It is a solemn fact that we can accrue governmental judgment in our lives. Read Luke 6:37 and Mark 11:25-26. This last reference brings in the importance of forgiving from our hearts when praying. If we don’t have a forgiving heart, God will not listen to our prayers.
Forgive vs. Forget. God can choose not to remember our sins, but we do not have the same control of our memories. But we must set aside the issue in our mind, knowing that offense has been cleared away by the blood of Christ, and go on to function graciously toward that brother or sister.
Forgive vs. Repent. In Luke 17 the condition of repentance is put before forgiveness. Here it is forgiveness “from your heart”, and there are no conditions. In Luke it is audible forgiveness, and we are to wait until they express audible repentance. If we do not wait it could be harmful to that person’s growth. God works in the one who forgives as well as in the one who repents.
A Dispensational Application. In a dispensational sense the ten-thousand talent debtor is the Nation of Israel. They committed the ultimate offense against God when they nailed the King of the Jews to the cross. The Nation of Israel stands responsible for the death of the Son of God. They had no concept of how egregious this was. On the cross, the Lord in grace said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This opened up a door of mercy for Israel. Peter preached this provisional pardon to Israel saying, “But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; … And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers. … Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord…” (Acts 3:14, 17, 19). The forgiveness was provisional, and it depended on Israel’s willingness to repent. The Gentiles are represented by the hundred-pence debtor. The Gentiles were not guilty of killing the Messiah. However, on account of having no claim to blessing, they owed a small debt to the Jews. Rather than be happy for the Gentiles coming into blessing after Pentecost, the Nation was offended at their “fellow-servant”, and begrudged them. They would have the Gentile believers in the “prison”, a place outside the blessing of God. Throughout the book of Acts, the haughty and mean-spirited activity of the Jews is documented; first in the stoning of Stephen, and then in persecuting the Apostle Paul, whom God raised up to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. On account of their unforgiving spirit, God revoked the provisional pardon offered to Israel. The Gentiles were taken out of “prison”, and the sin of Israel was “bound” on the Nation. They fell under the judgment of God both physically in A.D. 70, and spiritually in their 2000 years of blindness (Acts 28:25-27). On the other hand, “the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and they will hear it” (Acts 28:28). The Gentiles have now been brought into blessing, and Israel cast to the tormentors. But it is not forever. The torment will only last until repentance is worked in the remnant of Israel in a future day. Then Israel will be restored as the people of the Lord.