15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
18 “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34 And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
35 “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
When you hear the phrase “church discipline” what does it make you think of? Does it conjure up images of the Spanish Inquisition or an Amish shunning? A lot of people reject the very idea of it, because it doesn’t seem very nice, and after all, what is the Christian religion if not “just be nice to everyone.” “Kicking someone out of church because they won’t repent of sin? That doesn’t seem very Christlike.” This is the attitude many Christians today have, and largely because they are ignorant of God’s Word. Our passage today is one that gets skipped over by many Bible teachers for no apparent reason at all. This is a great disservice to the body of Christ, and because we believe the Bible is God’s Word, we are not going to skip over anything because it might offend our sensibilities. Instead, our job is to bring our sensibilities in line with what God has said.
Jesus’ Plan for Church Discipline (v. 15-20)
In this passage Jesus is speaking to the disciples about the nature of the church. Just a few chapters ago, He already revealed quite a bit about what the church is, that it is the assembly of citizens of the kingdom of God, that it governs the world under the authority of the king, Jesus Christ. Here Jesus shows how life inside this assembly of citizens operates. To begin with, you are to treat everyone in it as family. But even within families, there are conflicts between brothers. And when conflict arises, Jesus tells us what to do: first you are to go to that brother tell him his fault, and if he hears you, he is restored. This first step is surprisingly difficult for many people. It is much easier to go tell many other people your brother’s sin, or to publish it on Facebook. But Jesus says, no, to begin with, you keep it between you and him.
But if he does not listen, you are to take one or two others with you, because the standard of God’s Law is two or three witnesses establishing the truth of a matter. Remember the nature of the church, it is a ruling council, it is as much a judicial and political body as it is a religious one. The Apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth that they will judge the world and even angels:
2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life?
The church is a people who are being trained to rule and to govern. Just stop for a moment and think about that. To begin with, everyone always behaves as though “judging” is bad. “Judge not” is the very everybody knows. But Paul tells us the end, the goal, the thing that we are striving towards is being a body of kings who exercise judgment. So Paul’s whole point in explaining this is to show them that they should not go to outside authorities to settle conflicts in the church, the church itself is this governing body. And this is the same point that Jesus is making. You bring witnesses, and if he still refuses to hear you, then you escalate it to the church. Presumably before the elders of the church, and there, if he will not hear them, he is no longer to be treated as a brother, but as an unbeliever or as a traitorous tax gatherer.
And it is here that people can get confused, this does not mean that all contact with this person is cut off and they are erased from existence. It means that this person is one you must now work to evangelize. To pray for and to show kindness to. It does not mean you are now free to despise them.
Jesus goes on, explaining the nature of the church further, what is bound on earth by the church is bound in heaven. This is a massive statement. The church is not some big, heavily marketed body selling some consumeristic religious experience. Come see your rock band light show and pump you up motivational TedTalk. That is not what the church is. It is Christ’s people who have been given authority, His authority, to bind and loose like Him. It is a terrifying thing, and of course, because the church has this authority does not mean it has and will always exercise it faithfully. The history of the church is not without episodes where the authority to bind and loose was wielded by very fallible men. But it is authority that Christ has given, nonetheless.
What’s more, Jesus tells us that when His people are gathered in His name, even two or three, He is present with us. This is why when we gather together to worship, we are not doing it because we have come to see an impressive show, we are gathering into the presence of God Himself, a presence that is no different than the glory cloud on Mount Sinai or in the Holy of Holies in the temple. When we gather together for worship, we are gathering before the very face of God. Because you are Christ’s people, you are granted a privilege your fathers could not even have imagined.
Unlimited Forgiveness (v. 21-35)
On the heels of discussing how discipline works in His church, Peter comes to Jesus with a question. So when we confront that brother in his sin, and he hears you and asks for forgiveness, is there a limit to it? Like, after seven times, then I can keep holding it against him, right? And Jesus says, no, not seven times, seventy times seven. That Jesus uses this particular number is almost certainly not coincidental. There is exactly one other place where not just 490 is referenced, but literally seventy times seven. In Daniel chapter 9, Daniel is told that in seventy weeks of years the Messiah would come and put an end to sin. And all of Israel knew about this. When Herod attempted to murder Jesus as a baby, he knew exactly Who he was trying to kill. The Jews were full of messianic expectation. Jesus’s coming should not have been a surprise to them. And for most it was not. But the point of the seventy weeks was to bring forgiveness to God’s people. To put an end to sin. This should form the backdrop of everything Jesus is saying here:
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like, a king comes to settle accounts with his slaves. And one slave owed him the equivalent in the current day of an aircraft carrier. We are talking billions of dollars. An amount no man could ever hope to earn in dozens of lifetimes. And he begs and pleads with the king and the king… forgives him. Then that same slave goes to another slave who owes him a few days wages, and he starts choking him demanding to be paid. The slave who owes his fellow slave asks to just have some more time, but the first slave throws him in prison instead. The rest of the slaves hear this and tell the king, and the king is furious. He asks him why the compassion he showed him was not extended to his fellow slaves, and he was taken away to be tortured until he could pay back ten billion dollars. That is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
You are guilty of treason against a perfect, just, holy God. This God is infinite, and your sin against Him cannot be paid for in ten thousand lifetimes. There is nothing you can do to repay him. You are hopeless like that first slave. Your only hope is that this God will forgive you. And in forgiving you, He is the one that pays what you owe. How could we ever hold onto the sin of others who have sinned against us? We are finite creatures, the worst sin someone could do to us, cannot compare to all that we have been forgiven of by Almighty God. We have been forgiven billions, but so often we refuse to forgive pocket change. God hates this. He desires mercy and not sacrifice. Every week we pray that our sins would be forgiven in the same manner we forgive others. Do you ever think about that? We are asking God, please forgive me like I forgive other people. If you hold grudges, if you refuse to forgive when you are asked to, what exactly are you asking God to do when you say the Lord’s Prayer?
This is what Jesus is building in his church. A new people. A new city. A city not built on top of the blood of the other like Cain’s city, or Romulus’s city, or all our modern cities. His city is built atop his own blood shed for the other. That is why Peter has the objection he does to what Jesus says about church discipline. Peter is not like modern men. We hear “church discipline” and we recoil. “That doesn’t sound very nice.” “That’s not very tolerant. We are supposed to love everybody.” All bodies have borders. All bodies draw lines of who is in and who is out. The human body is this way, too. Some things are allowed in and some things must be repelled. If you are incapable of repelling things that are harmful, you have immunodeficiency. The most commonly known of these is called AIDS. A church that refuses to discipline itself is a church that has AIDS. It is a church that will die. But Peter’s issue is not with the fact of discipline itself, but how patient and long-suffering Jesus’s commands for discipline are. “So if the guy sins against you, you just forgive him?!” “Surely there’s a limit, right Jesus?” What is shocking about Jesus commands for church discipline should not be that He makes provision for excommunication, but rather how easy it is to avoid that fate. Admit your sin and ask for forgiveness and you are fully restored. That is what shocks Peter, and that is what should shock us.
That is the type of people Jesus wants us to be. A people who will forgive one another freely. Even when that forgiveness comes at great cost to us, as forgiveness often does. You are a people who are being matured into kingship. If you are in the kingdom of God, you are on a path from slavery to kingship. You serve that king but are being trained to be a king like Him. He has forgiven you billions, and your job is to emulate Him and forgive your tens and hundreds and thousands. That is the kind of people He is making. That is what He is training you to become. A people that rule the world through forgiveness and mercy. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!