One primary purpose of the gospel records is to furnish us with how Jesus overcame temptation and sin, in order to ultimately “save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Besides that, Jesus gives us vignettes of a time afterwards where many people would come to believe and be saved through the words of the Apostles (John 17:20-21). Yet, even in this it would be the Lord Jesus who would work through his believers (John 10:16). The principle verse in this regards is
”And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).
The Lord Jesus reveals that the events in the Acts would be a very personal and intimate expression of his work to build his church. This word church in the Greek is “ecclesia” meaning, “an assembly of called ones”[i]. This is the first use of the word ecclesia in the New Testament, and surprisingly its only other usage in the Gospels is Matthew 18:17. Based on this scarcity, we would assert that Matthew 18 is Jesus’ core teaching for us concerning how to govern and conduct ourselves in his ecclesia.
Of course, there are many principles in Jesus’ teachings that apply to ecclesial life, but we are searching to find any direct guidance for ecclesial practice and administration. The intent of this study is to draw any practical value we can from Matthew 16:18-19 and 18:15-20. We will see that his teaching is not new but is based on an Old Testament foundation. These echoes will further elaborate the intent of his instruction. We will also explore the enigmatic statement that links the two passages together ¾ “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18)
The Context of Matthew 18
Matthew 18 is a complete discourse that Jesus gives to his disciples (v. 1). In the middle of this is the mention of the future ecclesia (v. 17). Any consideration must include the overall context of the chapter. As many commentators draw out, the main thrust of the chapter is the restoration and forgiveness of those offended.
- V. 6: “whoso shall offend one of these little ones…”
- V. 12-14: “the parable of the lost sheep”
- V. 21-22: “Peter’s question about how many times to forgive”
- V. 23-35: “the parable of the unforgiving servant”
The key verse would seem to be verse 11, “For the son of man is come to save that which was lost.” The implication is that this should be our purpose too.
That being said, there is also an aspect of “cutting off” those that do offend. In this context, it would seem that verse 7-9 could also apply to the ecclesia,
“Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.”
Could this also be referring to disfellowship in the body of Christ? The members and body are the same words used of the ecclesia in 1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12:4-5 and James 3:2, 6. “Cut off” is the phrase used for excommunication under the law (e.g., Lev 20:17, 18). Cutting off members from the ecclesia is sometimes a necessary, if unsavory, task but, as this chapter indicates, the purpose behind it is twofold. It is firstly for drawing repentance from the offender, and secondly for the safety of the little ones ¾ the ecclesia.
It is in this context that Jesus says,
“Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.”
The only motive for this confrontation is love. If the intent is to seek after that which is lost then it cannot be done out of spite, anger, revenge or malice. Jesus’ teaching seems to have a direct connection from Leviticus,
“Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:17-18).
One of the greatest of commandments “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39) is built on the principle of reproving the sins of your brother. The phrase “not suffer sin upon him” is an obscure Hebrew phrase. Most modern translations have something like the NET translation, “You must surely reprove your fellow citizen so that you do not incur sin on account of him.”[ii] The implication is that you sin if you do not call out the sin in the manner Jesus prescribes in Matthew 18. To ignore it is wrong.
The beautiful principles of our Lord Jesus are the best way to deal with transgressions. This teaching is in Proverbs 10:12, “Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all sins.” (Peter quotes this in 1 Peter 4:8)
There is another like it: “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends” (Prov 17:9).
To cover a transgression does not mean to sweep it under the rug and forget about it, for the Proverbs state repeatedly that sins have to be openly confessed to be forgiven. The true meaning of the proverb is in Matthew 18. This is how love handles transgressions. Hate would broadcast your brother’s sins to others that do not need to be involved. Love covers them over. It is between you, them and God: these are the only parties that really need to know. Many bad feelings and unnecessary hurts are caused when we do not follow this pattern set out by Christ in Matthew 18. (See also James 5:20).
In the case of a brother’s transgression being real and he is unrelenting to your reproof, Jesus prescribes the next step,
“But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.”
This is a quote taken directly from Deuteronomy 19:15. That Jesus would quote the words directly from the Law of Moses is very interesting. Of course, we know the Law to be just and good with many principles that would later be adopted by the Apostles as recorded in Acts. Jesus directly draws our attention to the context of this passage:
“One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established. If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you” (Deut 19:15-20).
Under Jesus’ new direction, the cause is brought before the ecclesia rather than the priests and judges of the day.
There are unmistakable parallels of Deuteronomy 19:15-21 to personal cases in Deuteronomy 17:2-7 and community relations in Deuteronomy 13:12-18. The table below shows the key connections while also showing the New Testament passages that also take up these concepts. It proves that this aspect of the law was a principle that was well established and acted upon in the early ecclesia.
If thou shalt hear in the city gates
v. 2, 4, 8
2 or 3 witness
2Cor 13:1; 1Tim 5:19; Heb. 10:28
Brought before judges
Hands of witness first
Put away the evil
v. 7, 12
Learn to fear
1Tim 5:20 (cf. Acts 5:5,11; 19:17)
There are some key lessons to learn from these passages.
The phrase “if thou shalt hear” shows us that problems are to be dealt with only when brought to your attention. There is to be no seeking out false teachings based upon suspicions. The person or city does have a responsibility if it is brought to their attention. It teaches us that problems in fellowship are to be dealt with actively and not passively.
Any problem that comes to your attention should only be given serious consideration if given by two or three witnesses. Individual accusations should be suspect, especially if not following the course of Jesus in Matthew 18.
Those involved in the matter are to make “diligent inquisition”. They must resist every natural impulse for a quick and hasty decision based on human biases. Both sides of the case need to be thoroughly investigated. This was necessary under the law because the final judgment was often death, but the cause is just as serious by the ecclesia for it is a matter of life eternal (see Heb 10:28-29).
The ultimate purpose is to “put away evil” from among the ecclesia, but also it serves as an example for others so that they may “learn and fear”. There is a fine balance between being lenient and forgiving on one hand, and readiness to make an example of blatant sinners so others in the ecclesia learn to fear. The “fear” spoken of must be the fear of God (e.g. Lev 19:14, 32; 25:17) as the judgment was God’s (Deut 1:17).
The cities of Israel were autonomous in that they judged within their gates (Deut 17:2) yet this did not absolve them of dealing with problems in other cities (Deut 13:12; see also Josh 22:10-34). So it is in our day. Ecclesias have autonomy to deal with their own matters yet they also have to be ready to judge serious problems in other ecclesias if they should hear about it. Practically, this could only mean, as it did in Israel, that one ecclesia deals with another ecclesia only in their own local area, and not half way around the world.
In the Old Testament those who had a dispute stood before the priests and judges. Under Jesus’ new commandment, the case would now go to the ecclesia. It has the final say in matters of fellowship.
“And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.”
The treatment for someone who rejected the ecclesial ruling was to treat them as a heathen and a publican. Jesus did not have kind words for heathens (Matt 6:7) or publicans (Matt 5:46), yet when they were willing to listen Jesus was there to teach them (Luke 15:1 – see the following parable at v. 4ff; 18:13; 19:2). There is a tendency to treat a disfellowshipped brother or sister as the Pharisees did to publicans and sinners, but Jesus’ methods were wholly different. As the context of Matthew 18 suggests, we should be seeking for every opportunity to bring the lost sheep back into the fold.
The importance of the ecclesial decision comes in the next enigmatic yet powerful verse,
“Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”[iii]
Jesus conferred upon Peter the exact same phrase in Matthew 16:19. So, in the only two places the word ecclesia is used in the Gospels it is married with this saying. We can conclude then that this was not Peter’s alone but collectively for the whole ecclesia.
In Matthew 16:19, Peter is given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven”. The keys represent a certain knowledge or power to open and close. It is an allusion to Isaiah 22:22[iv],
“And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”
This is a similar phraseology to “binding” and “loosing”. The context of Isaiah is about Eliakim, a servant in Hezekiah’s time, who undoubtedly is a Messianic type. The keys are meant to symbolize somebody who has authority. In Old Testament times this would be the priest, judges and elders of the people. It was something the authorities of Jesus’ time and neglected and abused (Luke 11:52; Matt 23:13). These keys were now given to the apostle Peter and the ecclesia.
But what does the phrase really mean? How does an ecclesia “bind” and “loose”? Can we do it in this day and age?
The answers to these questions start in John 20:23,
“Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.”
It is hard to escape the similar cadence of words that Jesus uses here. This was said to his disciples and not just the apostles. Does the “binding” and “loosing” have something to do with the forgiveness of sins? We shall see that it does.
The next verse in Matthew 18:19 must be a further elaboration on verse 18 as Jesus says “Again I say to you” and then uses the words “heaven” and “earth” again.
“Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.”
What is it that we are to be asking for? When Jesus mentions “anything” does he mean “everything” or does it still have to be in accordance with the will of God (John 15:7, 16; James 4:3; 1 John 3:22)? A similar phrase is said in Matthew 21:22 and the parallel account in Mark connects it with the forgiveness of sins.
“Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:24-26).
This is very interesting as the passage leads us once again to the forgiveness of sins just as we have all ready seen in John 20:23. Apparently, Peter understood this as he continues in Matthew 18:21ff to ask how many times we should forgive our brother (cf. v. 35 with Mark 11:25-26).
The apostle John ties the same thoughts together:
“And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him” (1John 5:14-15).
This is exactly the same phrasing that Jesus used in Matthew 18:19 and Mark 11:24. Is it any wonder then that the next verse in the epistle sounds exactly like Matthew 18?
“If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it” (1John 5:16).
The sin unto death is the lawless unrepentant sin (1John 3:4). The sin not unto death are confessed sins (1John 1:9). The “anything that we shall ask” (Matt 18:19) then is anything according to the will of God (1John 5:14) or what he is willing to do.[v] The “binding” and “loosing” has to do with forgiveness of sins. Whatsoever we forgive on earth then God will forgive us and, vice versa, whatsoever we do not forgive then God will not forgive us (Matt 6:14-15).[vi]
This section concludes with Jesus saying,
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
The “two or three” must refer back to the two or three witness of verse 16. This would suggest that the original witnesses are the responsible ones, who should either judge against or pray for forgiveness of the brother. Jesus reiterates that as he would build his church (Matt 16:18) he promises us through judgment or repentance he will be there.
In the case of the Corinthians Paul seems to have a sense of this. The word “gathered” is sunago (G4863) which is in
“For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1Cor 5:3-5).
This is the passage where Paul pleads with the Corinthians to put away (v. 13) a brother who had committed an egregious sin in marrying his father’s wife. Paul is saying he is judging as if he were present as a witness along with the presence or power of the Lord Jesus Christ. This follows with the promise of Jesus that he would be in the “midst of them”.
Of course, Paul was saying this with all the proper motives. It was so that the offender might be saved “in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Paul would have been ever looking for some sign of repentance and restoration. This comes in 2 Corinthians,
“Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him” (2Cor 2:6-8).
It is very appropriate that in the following verses Paul uses the language of forgiveness in an echo to the “binding” and “loosing” of Matthew 18.
“To whom ye forgive anything, I forgive also: for if I forgave anything, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ” (2Cor 2:10).
A further connection is established in that he forgave it “in the person (or presence) of Christ”. Thus he always felt in judgment or forgiveness that Christ was in the midst.
In typical fashion, Jesus has given us much teaching in a few verses. Firstly, we’ve seen a very wise and practical approach to problems. By following this, it decreases the need to escalate matters out of hand. Jesus firmly cements the fact that love is the chief motivator for restoration and healing. Secondly, there has been established a clear Old Testament connection, which has shown an individual and community based application relevant to Matthew 18. In the Old Testament, it was the priests and elders, but now it is the ecclesia which has the final say in determining fellowship. Finally, the matter of “binding” and “loosing” has been shown to apply to forgiveness, and is wholly applicable to our day and age.
Tim Young (Cambridge, ON)
[i] See “Ekklesia – The Church of God” in New Testament Words, William Barclay, pp. 68-72
[ii] The NET Bible footnote says, “Heb ‘and you will not lift up on him sin.’ The meaning of the line is somewhat obscure. It means either (1) that one should rebuke one’s neighbor when he sins lest one also becomes guilty, which is the way it is rendered here (see NIV, NRSV, NEB, JB; see also B. A. Levine, Leviticus [JPSTC], 129-30, and J. E. Hartley, Leviticus [WBC], 303, and the discussion on pp. 316-17), or (2) one may rebuke one’s neighbor without incurring sin just as long as he does not hate him in his heart (see the first part of the verse; cf. NASB, NAB).”
[iii] The NASB (also NET) has, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” I’m not sure if this helps us interpret the passage any better.
[iv] See also Rev 3:7-8
[v] See HAW, “Seven Short Epistles”
[vi] Could James 5:14-16 also have an application in this case?