The Truth About Matthew 18
What should we do when someone offends us? Many point to the instruction in Matthew 18 and advise that we go to our brother, or sister to resolve the issue directly. Others say we should just forgive them. Matthew 18 mentions both options - so which one should we use? To find the answer we need to look at what Matthew wrote in context.
Dealing with Offences
The first part of the chapter sets the scene for the instruction. The disciples who obviously thought rank counted in the Kingdom of Heaven asked Christ for His opinion on the subject, “At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.” (Matthew 18:1-5). Christ said that unless they were converted and humbled themselves they would not even enter the Kingdom.
Importance of a Humble Attitude
He went on to explain how God values the humble and is against those who offend them, “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 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.” (Matthew 18:6-9). The Greek word translated ‘offend’ (skandalon) means to cause to stumble, or sin through apostasy. Christ is warning about those who put a stumbling block in front of the humble by teaching apostasy.
The humble are not to be despised and teaching them is a serious responsibility because God does not want any one of them to perish, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:10-14).
Dealing with Apostasy
If a brother is seen trespassing, or sinning by promoting apostasy it is to be dealt with quickly, “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. 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. 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 an heathen man and a publican.” (Matthew 18:15-17).
It seems to be widely accepted that the Matthew 18:15-17 process is to be used when dealing with personal problems between brethren. But is that what Christ was really talking about? Closer examination of Matthew 18:15 shows that the words ‘against thee’ were not in some of the early and most respected manuscripts on which the New Testament is based (i.e. the Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, and Unicial 0281). Nine of the fifty-two English translations we examined omit the word ‘against thee’. On examining Luke’s version of the same incident (Luke 17:3) we see that seventeen of the fifty-two translations also omit the words ‘against thee’. These omissions are enough to question the accuracy of the other translations. The New Bible Commentary (3rd Edition) concluded that this passage refers to ‘any kind of sin’ rather than a sin ‘against us’. This seems to confirm that Christ was instructing His disciples about dealing with those who put the stumbling block of apostasy before others. It was not a way of resolving personal grievances as so many seem to interpret.
In the next verse Christ indicates that apostasy is anything that differs from what God has already established as doctrine, “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.” (Matthew 18:18). He has determined what is to be bound, or loosed on earth by what has already been bound, or loosed in Heaven and has conveyed that doctrine through the teachings of Christ. Unfortunately, many seem to quote this verse out of context when they take authority to themselves to change doctrine. Ironically they are themselves putting the stumbling block of apostasy in the path of brethren when they do this. Those who are converted and who have humbled themselves would not want to, or dare to, change what God has already bound, or loosed.
When someone sins by teaching apostasy it is to be quickly nipped in the bud. But it is to be done in an attitude of love and they must be given the chance to repent. The first step is to confront the perpetrator on a personal basis. If this doesn’t work then they are to include witnesses and finally the whole congregation. If the only solution is to put the person concerned out of the congregation then Christ and His Father will support the decision, “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:19-20). This is not about changing doctrine, but about supporting the decision of the elders concerning those who promote apostasy.
Dealing with Personal Grievances
Having instructed the disciples on how to deal with those who promote apostasy He then went on to give instruction about how they should deal with personal grievances between brethren. Peter asked what they should do if someone does sin against them personally and the answer was that they are to forgive them, not once, but until seventy times seven, “Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22). Seventy times seven symbolises infinity.
In this case all fifty-two versions of the New Testament examined did include the words ‘against me’ or similar wording by both Matthew (Matthew 18:21) and Luke (Luke 17:4) confirming that this passage definitely is about personal grievances and how to deal with them. The simple answer is that we are to forgive a brother or sister and not take them to task as we would someone trying to introduce apostasy.
With the use of a parable Christ emphasises the need to forgive a brother just as God has forgiven us, “Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.” (Matthew 18:23-35).
Did God confront us with witnesses and demand an apology, or cast us out of His Kingdom because we sinned? No! We are to pray that God will forgive us as we forgive others, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12). If not, then we will not be forgiven, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Look at Christ’s own example when people were reviling, abusing and hitting Him, He prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). He prayed for their forgiveness without waiting for them to repent, or apologise. He tells us to pray for those who sin against us, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:44-45).
Christ did not say we are to be selective as to whom we forgive, or what offences we should forgive. He said we are to love our enemies, “…Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,” (Luke 6:27). And, “But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.” (Luke 6:35). If we are to love our enemies, how much more so are we to love our own brethren? We show our love by forgiving all those who sin against us.
In Matthew 18 Christ admonishes His disciples for their focus about rank in the Kingdom. He points out that their concerns should be more about having a humble attitude. He expounds on the importance of humility to God and speaks about the fate of those who despise it by trying to entice others into apostasy. When we see attempts to change the doctrines established by God through Christ we are to quickly nip it in the bud by confronting the perpetrator initially on a personal basis. If this doesn’t work then we are to include witnesses and finally the whole congregation. God will support us in any decisions made by the congregation concerning these people who teach apostasy.
Christ then instructs his disciples how to deal with personal grievances. The instruction in dealing with personal grievances is quite simple and plain – we are to forgive those who offend us. The implication is that being offended is not acceptable! To take offence is against Christ’s teaching! If we are striving to follow God’s way of loving our neighbour, we should neither offend them, nor be offended by them. If a brother, or sister, does something that may offend us we are to forgive them. We are to forgive them in the same way God forgives us. If we don’t follow this practice then we cannot expect God to forgive us.
When following the instruction in Matthew 18 we need to determine the nature of the offence. Are we dealing with the sin of apostasy that is causing God’s little ones to stumble, or is it a personal grievance we have against a brother, or that they have against us? If it is a case of apostasy being promoted then there is a set procedure to follow, but if we are offended on some personal matter then we need to exercise forgiveness without taking offence.
Promoting apostasy is an offence against the congregation that God wants dealt with directly, and if necessary by the congregation, so the perpetrator does not cause anyone to stumble. But personal issues between individuals are to be forgiven without offence being taken so we don’t cause ourselves to stumble.