Iâ€™ve discovered how slow to understand I must be. Weâ€™ve been remarking that when Chris or Fred teach, they get large amounts of text to cover. Chris had the entire Beatitudes plus half of the New Testament to teach in 30 minutes. Fred gets, like, the entire Old Testament when he teaches. And when I teach, Got assigns me an entire sentence. Todayâ€™s no exception; weâ€™re going to study Matthew 18 today.
At this point in the ministry of Jesus, the time of His death and resurrection was approaching rapidly, and Jesusâ€™ teaching begins to focus on preparing His disciples to carry on after His crucifixion. Last week, Fred showed us how Jesus taught about the qualities of the church and how we worship and serve Him in unity and obedience; this week, Jesus teaches about interpersonal relationships and how we are to treat one another within the church.
I. Christian Humility (v. 1-9)
Who is the greatest person in America? George Bush? Hillary Clinton? And what makes a person great in America?
The qualities that make a person great in our society are different than the qualities that make a person great in the eyes of the Lord. In fact, sometimes the qualities are the exact opposite. “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
I read a story about Billy Graham, a man who has consistently demonstrated the light of Christ publicly without wavering. In his early ministry years, he was scheduled to preach in a small town and needed to mail a letter. He asked a young boy where the local post office was. The boy told him, Billy Graham thanked him, and then told the boy, â€œIf you come to the Baptist Church this evening, you can hear me preach about how to get to heaven.â€ The boy answered, â€œI donâ€™t think Iâ€™ll come. You donâ€™t even know how to get to the post office.â€
Letâ€™s look at Matthew 18:1-4
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
What quality makes a person, not just great, but the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Humility. Probably the biggest sin in the bible is pride, because so many sins originate in pride. Pride tells us how important we are, how infallible we are. Pride tells us that we donâ€™t need God.
Humility is the opposite of pride. Humility tells us that we need God. Humility tells us that everything we are, everything we have, and everything we are ever going to be comes from God. Humility helps us recognize that we have not been placed on this earth so that others may serve us, but for us to serve others.
Matthew 18:7 tells us that our world is a sinful place, full of pride and arrogance and independence from God. Thereâ€™s no avoiding it; you donâ€™t fill a glass full of mud and expect to drink fine champagne out of it. You donâ€™t fill a world with sinful people and expect paradise on earth. â€œWoe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!â€ As Christians, as Jesusâ€™ church on earth, we should be diligent about making sure we are not the cause of a brotherâ€™s sin. Jesus goes so far as to say that if your foot causes sin, cut it off and throw it away.
Why does this warning come right after Jesusâ€™ admonition to be humble? What does â€œhumility like a childâ€ have to do with worldly sin?
I think itâ€™s related to the pride that is in all of us. None of us are too good to sin. Our human nature leads us to sin constantly. Disobedience to what we know God wants us to do. Gossip. Lust. The only one strong enough to resist the constant temptation in our world is the Holy Spirit that lives in us, and when we lean on the power of God, we can resist all temptation. When we try to do it on our own, we will most certainly fall. Humility helps us recognize the power of the Lord working within us, and not our own work.
II. Christian Attention (v. 10-14)
Humility also helps us see the importance of others. When we are within the church, we are spiritually strengthened. We can encourage and we can be encouraged. But what about those outside of the church? What about those inside the church but spiritually weak?
The human tendency is to see ourselves better than others, to pump ourselves up. Our church is better than that church, our family is better than that family, our country is better than that country. As a follower of Jesus practicing humility, we are instructed to continue to lift others up. See how in verse 10 Jesus says, â€œSee that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.â€ Since this phrase â€œlittle onesâ€ comes so soon after the instruction about being like a child, â€œlittle onesâ€ could mean a child, but it can also mean weak or marginal people. Every person in the Christian community is considered important to Jesus, and those who come to faith have a guardian angel that always sees the face of God. Hebrews 1:14 describes these angels as â€œministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.â€ If these â€œlittle onesâ€ are considered so important to God that they have their own angel, shouldnâ€™t they also be important to us? We should take special care to look out for those who need looking out for most. For verse 11 says, â€œFor the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.â€
[As an aside, sometimes when Iâ€™m studying, I come across â€œrabbit trails;â€ interesting tidbits of information that have little or no bearing on the lesson that the Holy Spirit is directing. Verse 11 was a particularly enticing rabbit trail; I discovered that the NIV doesnâ€™t have verse 11 in it. We can talk about it at lunch, but after following this rabbit trail for too much time, Iâ€™ve decided that verse 11 should be in there.]
Jesus continues with a mini-parable about lost sheep in verse 12-14 â€“
Look at it this way. If someone has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off, doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine and go after the one? And if he finds it, doesn’t he make far more over it than over the ninety-nine who stay put? Your Father in heaven feels the same way. He doesn’t want to lose even one of these simple believers.
As we grow in Christ, we should take care that we donâ€™t grow in pride. We grow in humility; we grow in service and caring, and all the more sensitive to reaching out to those who need spiritual nourishment.
III. Christian Reconciliation (v. 15-20)
Jesus next gives His church instruction on how to resolve differences among believers. In verse 15-17 â€“
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Letâ€™s make sure we know who Jesus is talking about. In the first sentence it begins, â€œif your brother sins against you,â€ this is specifically to Christians within the church, when Christians are in conflict with one another. Of course Christians are in conflict with one another. It seems that every time we forget whoâ€™s Lord of our lives, weâ€™re in conflict. The measure of our spiritual maturity is not whether weâ€™re ever in conflict, but whether we use the conflict to grow spiritually.
This is so important â€“ we have conflicts within the church, conflicts sometimes right here in this class. And perhaps, just perhaps, once or twice, weâ€™ve had a conflict with our spouse. Unresolved conflicts among Christians destroy our unity, but learning how to resolve conflicts in a Christian way can bring us closer together. This is so important; a few chapters back in Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus says,
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Leave your gift; first go and be reconciled. When you are at odds with another believer, your gift practically worthess. God doesnâ€™t want your stuff; He created it, after all. He wants you to be in unity with His church. The unity in the church is what makes the church effective; the unity in the church is what motivates God to be responsive to our prayers.
Think about that; God is responsive when we are obedient and in unity with one another. Do you ever feel your prayers are unanswered? Is there unresolved conflict between me and my spouse? Is there unresolved conflict between me and somebody in this class? These questions are related.
A. Right Attitude
First, be honest with yourself about your role in the conflict. With humility, ask God to show you how you have contributed. Remember, this is conflict with another Christian. I can almost guarantee you that when I am in conflict with another Christian, when I am in conflict with my spouse, there is some measure of disobedience in me. As Christians, we certainly donâ€™t argue because we think weâ€™re wrong. No, I argue because I think Iâ€™m right, and my Christian brother argues because he thinks heâ€™s right. If I canâ€™t see my own contribution to this conflict, then I am blinded by my own pride. Itâ€™s only with humility that enables me to see my own disobedience. If you have unanswered prayers, ask God to show you how you have been disobedient to Him. Then, leave your gift at the altar and go be reconciled with your spouse or your brother or sister.
B. Right Approach
How do we reconcile? First, we go tell everybody else about the conflict. I mean everybody. â€œYou know what so-and-so did to me? Well, let me tell you. She said this and she said that and I donâ€™t know why God doesnâ€™t send some sort of lightning strike to turn her into charcoal.â€ We should gossip to as many people as you can.
Or at least, thatâ€™s what we often end up doing. Jesus gives us different instructions, and they begin with a private conversation. Let your brother or sister know, with humility, what theyâ€™ve said or done thatâ€™s hurt you. Do it soon so that the problem doesnâ€™t fester and make you bitter; remember, your prayers are hindered as long as the conflict remains. And do it face-to-face; it says go and *show* him. Donâ€™t send a text message, donâ€™t send an email, and donâ€™t leave a voice mail.
This is the first step toward unity in our marriages and unity in our church, and we often miss this first step. Itâ€™s hard, but mostly because our own pride tells us that weâ€™re right, theyâ€™re wrong, before we ever have a conversation with them. Humility and being honest with ourselves about our own selfish motives are required before we can resolve conflict with our brother.
Because we rarely complete this private meeting, we almost never get to step two when we bring a third party. Our tendency is to bring along somebody to gang up on them, but Jesus wants us to bring a neutral party as a witness. Step three is to bring the issue to the church, a pastor. Our effectiveness as a Christian, as a married couple, and as a church depends on the unity we create by humbly resolving the differences between us.
IV. Christian Forgiveness (v. 21-35)
And finally, Jesus instructs His church on Christian forgiveness. In verse 21-22 –
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Most manuscripts say seventy times seven; Iâ€™ve worked out the math, and thatâ€™s 490 times. I recommend getting a PDA so you can keep track of the number of times youâ€™ve forgiven somebody, so that when you get to the 491st time, you know you donâ€™t have to forgive them anymore. If you donâ€™t have a PDA, try keeping a piece of paper in your pocket or purse with their name and a running tally of the number of times youâ€™ve been forced to forgive them. I know Fred keeps such a list, and so far Iâ€™m only up to 112 things he has forgiven me for. Iâ€™m hoping his version of the bible says 490 instead of 77.
Why such a big number? Of course, weâ€™re not supposed to keep track of our brotherâ€™s sins against us. Weâ€™re supposed to forgive every time; weâ€™re supposed to constantly forgive. Weâ€™re a lot like Peter in this scripture; if we forgive our brother, if we forgive our spouse, we think weâ€™ve done something magnificent. But we feel like there ought to be a limit, at some point, we donâ€™t have to forgive anymore. I donâ€™t deserve this, I canâ€™t take that, Iâ€™m through with this. The Jewish rabbis at the time taught that forgiving 3 times was sufficient. Peter felt that by the time he got to 7, he should win some sort of medal. Wouldnâ€™t you? We think weâ€™re showing great faith and love by forgiving 7 times, but Jesus calls us beyond faith and love; he calls us to humility and service by forgiving seventy times seven. The definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13:5 says love keeps no record of wrongs. No record at all.
This is not blind or shallow or careless forgiveness. Philippians 1:9-10 tells us that abounding love also increases our depth of insight and our discernment, so thereâ€™s no reason we have to become a doormat. If Chris gives me $100 to go buy pizza for the class, and I decide to buy lottery tickets instead, should Chris forgive me? Of course he should. Should he trust me with $100 again? I sure hope so, cuz I was *this* closing to winning it big last time.
The parable told by Jesus in Matthew 18:23-35 illustrates the importance of forgiveness between brothers and sisters.
“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.
“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’
“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.
“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”
The servant goes through 3 stages of forgiveness. In verses 23-27, the man is a debtor. He owes a lot of money, far more than he can ever pay back. But he thinks somehow that he can pay it all back, given enough time. There is a lack of repentance brought on by pride here; does the man say heâ€™s sorry and confess and repent? No, heâ€™s ashamed heâ€™s caught. In 2 Corinthians 7:10 it says, â€œGodly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.â€ Worldly sorrow is just being sorry you got caught.
This servant has no hope of paying off his debt, even if his pride tells him he can. His case is hopeless. The only thing that keeps him out of prison is the grace from the king.
In the second stage of forgiveness, the servant is also a creditor. When the servant thinks the king is out of sight, he comes across another servant that owes him pennies compared to the huge debt that the gracious king forgave. Instead of sharing with his friend the forgiveness that he has already received, the servant mistreats his friend. His friendâ€™s words were almost identical â€“ â€œI can pay it all back!â€ But instead of forgiveness, the servant mistreats his friend and demands the money is paid back. The servant was unwilling to be gracious even though he wanted others to be gracious to him.
The servant was absolutely with his legal right to demand payment, too. Nobody denies that he was owed the money. But even though he had a legal right, he didnâ€™t have a moral right.
The last phase of forgiveness is really a stage of unforgiveness. He becomes a prisoner. Through the grace of the king, the servant had been released from prison. Through his own selfish unforgiveness, the servant puts himself back in prison. In essence, the king has given the servant a choice; he can live free through grace, or he can live imprisoned through the law. Through Christ Jesus, we are free. We were so far into debt, we didnâ€™t even know how far in debt we are. We believed we could get into heaven just by paying the debt, by doing good works. But Christ freed us from our debts, and he wants us to experience not only being forgiven, but also forgiving others.
This parable was told to believers, to brothers and sisters in Christ. We have indeed received forgiveness from our Lord, but we often havenâ€™t truly experienced forgiveness. We continue to live by justice, demanding what is ours. When we live this way, demanding justice from others, we are putting ourselves in prison, the prison of the unforgiving heart. We can be just like this servant, ready to receive the forgiveness of Christ, but stingy to share it. God forgives us frequently, readily, and endlessly.
Itâ€™s not enough for us to receive this forgiveness. To truly experience forgiveness, we must learn to grant forgiveness as easily as we received it. We have received so much that we donâ€™t deserve, and all we had to do was say, â€œI accept.â€ To encourage the type of church of believers that Jesus wants us to be, let us practice forgiving others as our advocate as already shared with us, for it is with Christ Jesus that we have been set free from our prison. As it says in Ephesians 4:32, â€œBe kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.â€
edit I am reminded that holding back forgiveness is like putting the one who wronged you in jail – except you have no key to the door. You must stand there and hold the jail cell door shut. While your adversary may be in jail, you are too; you cannot go anywhere if you’re holding the door.
As Christians in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, in order to build the church that He has called us to be, we must have a humble heart, recognizing the pride that keeps us from leaning on our Creator. We must watch for our spiritually weaker and younger brothers and sisters, making them feel welcome and loved so they do not drift away, for Jesus cares for each and every one of His sheep. We must recognize our own selfishness and disobedience and the conflicts that come between us, and lay our gifts at the altar and be reconciled with our spouses, our brothers, and our sisters. And we do this by forgiving them quickly, seventy times seven times, so that we do not become imprisoned by our own unforgiveness, just as we have been forgiven by our loving and gracious Lord Jesus Christ.