“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.
Our passage today is one that most of us would probably rather just leave on the printed page. No one relishes confrontation … even if it is well-meaning or intended to be constructive. It is simply uncomfortable to most of us … and we are vulnerable to being misunderstood or accusations of being “holier than thou”. We know that we too are sinners saved by grace. So what gives us the right to point out the fault of another … the sin of another … when we struggle with our own issues and strongholds?
Well, let’s review this passage in a larger context to perhaps bring some clarity. Jesus is teaching here, and He shares a parable about sheep who leave the flock and go astray. Of course, we can relate that the shepherd in this story is Jesus (that great Shepherd of the Sheep – Hebrews 13:20), and it expresses His deep concern for those who stray and need to be returned to the safety of the flock and the Shepherd. The metaphor of sheep here indicate that He is speaking about His followers … believers. Recall His words, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” (Cf. John 10:27). So I think this parable should be interpreted within the framework of a believer who has strayed from the faith and the need to seek them out:
Matthew 18:12-17 (NKJV)
12 “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? 13 And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. 14 Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. 15 “Moreover if your brother or sister 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.
I think the context of the preceding parable sheds some light on why Jesus taught us to confront a person who is strays into sin and disrupts fellowship with another believer. Jesus cares deeply for the one who loses sight and wants them to return … to be reconciled … to be restored to fellowship. His heart is that no one should perish. So it follows that chasing the one who sins … pursuing the one who goes astray … is an act of kindness and grace. The purpose is not to act superior to the offender; rather, the purpose is to gain their heart for the glory of the Father! Further, note that in the parable, the shepherd leaves the flock (gathered believers) to look for the wayward individual. Again, to me, this is a clear picture that Jesus is teaching His followers. The concept of taking action to seek out and to return those who become lost in sin is the objective. And so the lesson of the parable is for the Church … which I believe makes Verses 15-17 that follow connected to it.
If a brother or sister has committed an offense (sinned against you), you and I are to seek out the offender. That generally would mean that we are to confront them regarding the offense. We are to do so privately. If necessary, another believer or two might join you to address the matter so that truth is established over feelings and emotions. Ultimately, the sinful offense should be taken to the Church if it cannot otherwise be handled in a private manner. Paul addresses the necessity of this process at length in 1 Corinthians 6. So, I encourage you to read the full chapter to evaluate his instruction regarding the role of the church in discipline. Further, the context for Chapter 6 follows an exhortation from Paul in Chapter 5 – dealing with the sin of a member in the church at Corinth. I have reprinted an excerpt for your reference below:
1 Corinthians 5:9-13 (NIV)
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. Therefore, “put away the wicked person from among you.”
Therefore, it is clear that we as a body of believers must deal with the sin that occurs in and among ourselves. It is required of us the church just as it was required of the Israelites to correct sin among ourselves for the glory of God and His Name. We need to seek the one among us who strays and restore them in love. We need to confront the one among us who sins against the commandments of God. I think the point that Paul is making here is that those who claim to be Christians yet live like unbelievers in the world must be confronted because of the disrespect and reproach they bring upon the name of Jesus Christ. If believers continue to conduct themselves like unbelievers, they have not separated themselves from the world … and therefore are not truly part of the church (called out ones) they profess to be. The “hypocrisy” provokes contempt for the Body of Christ among unbelievers … and incites those outside the church to blaspheme the name of Jesus and the holiness of God to which we have been called….
Romans 2:17-24 (NIV)
17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know His will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed (profaned) among the Gentiles because of you.” (Cf. Isaiah 52:5; Ezekiel 36:20-23)
Yet, as we judge sin within the church, we are to approach our “responsibility” with the heart of God. Yes, we are to be firm and steadfast in the truth and His revealed will. God is holy and we are to be holy as well! But we are admonished to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ Jesus – God forgave each of us. (Cf. Ephesians 4:32) Even those outside of the church … those in the world who live in sin and darkness … we are to engage with the same love, grace, and compassion as one seeking a sheep who has strayed. Our Lord Jesus died for us because of our sin. (Cf. Romans 5:8) He died to take away the sin of the whole world. (Cf. John 1:29) Our response to His sacrifice and atonement is to pursue the righteousness and holiness for which He died. Let those who claim to be Christian … live worthy of that name! And when we fail, let us gratefully receive the correction of one another in humility and in reverence for our Savior. (Cf. Ephesians 5:21) “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.” (Cf. 2 Corinthians 7:10)
I’m not sure how well I have articulated my thoughts here, but I hope this meditation and reflection will encourage you to read further and to study these concepts presented in the Word for yourselves. There were numerous cross-references that I did not begin to share here due to the scope of the subject, but perhaps this start will inspire you to pursue self-discipline and holiness in your walk with Christ Jesus … considering the impact it has not only upon the church, but also the influence it has upon the culture around us. As the Apostle Peter instructed, “Live such good lives among the pagans that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good works and glorify God in the day of visitation. (Cf. 1 Peter 2:12) I believe Jesus desires that we build fellowship within the church and relationships outside the church in order to continue His salvific work in these last days.