Sermon for Sunday, December 19th, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Exo 27:9-19 ESV] 9 “You shall make the court of the tabernacle. On the south side the court shall have hangings of fine twined linen a hundred cubits long for one side. 10 Its twenty pillars and their twenty bases shall be of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be of silver. 11 And likewise for its length on the north side there shall be hangings a hundred cubits long, its pillars twenty and their bases twenty, of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be of silver. 12 And for the breadth of the court on the west side there shall be hangings for fifty cubits, with ten pillars and ten bases. 13 The breadth of the court on the front to the east shall be fifty cubits. 14 The hangings for the one side of the gate shall be fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and three bases. 15 On the other side the hangings shall be fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and three bases. 16 For the gate of the court there shall be a screen twenty cubits long, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework. It shall have four pillars and with them four bases. 17 All the pillars around the court shall be filleted with silver. Their hooks shall be of silver, and their bases of bronze. 18 The length of the court shall be a hundred cubits, the breadth fifty, and the height five cubits, with hangings of fine twined linen and bases of bronze. 19 All the utensils of the tabernacle for every use, and all its pegs and all the pegs of the court, shall be of bronze.
New Testament reading:
[Eph 4:25-32 ESV] 25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
[Mat 18:15-20 ESV] 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
I’ve been thinking for some time about preaching on this text which I have chosen for today. It is from Matthew chapter 18. And those of you who have gone through my new members class in the past may recall me talking about this passage.
Matthew 18 is synonymous with “Dealing with a sinning brother.” These verses are, as I’ve titled the sermon, “directions for correction.”
If you are looking for a practical text, this is it. All texts of Scripture are doctrinal; they all teach us something. But as for putting something into practice, this is an essential text.
And where these directions for correction are followed much grief and turmoil can be prevented.
There is a three-stage procedure for dealing with a Christian who has sinned against you. While the text is in the context of dealing with a Christian brother, there is much wisdom here that can be applied to our relationships in the world as well. While you can’t take an unbeliever to the court of the church, you can talk with him personally if he has sinned against.
So what is the three-stage procedure.
As we see in the text, it is as follows. When someone has sinned against you:
First, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
Second, if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you
and Third, if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church
Someone has sinned against you. What are you to do?
The directions for correcting this situation tell us to “go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” This is called “private admonition.”
And it is REQUIRED. It is not optional. The text does not say “you may go to your brother.” It is says “go.” Do it! Don’t leave your brother thinking that his sin was acceptable; don’t leave him ignorant of his sin. “Go and tell him his fault.”
And, of great importance, is that you do this “between you and him alone.” You should not bring the sin to the attention of others unless you’ve first spoken to the one who has sinned against you and they refuse to listen. You should not overwhelm the person or ambush them with a group of people showing up at their door. You are not gossip about the sin, or seek to the embarrass the person who has sinned. You are to go to them alone. This may be very hard for some of us or all of us, but it is cowardice and it is immoral to hand over the rebuking to another. For if you have been sinned against, YOU are to confront the one who has sinned against you.
And when this is done, it is to be done in love. You are going to your Christian “brother” whom you are called to love. The sin may be so grievous that it is difficult for you to go to them in love. But the Lord has loved us and called us friends though we were enemies of him. And we pray in the lords prayer not only that God will forgives us our debts and trespasses, but that we will forgive others their debts and trespasses against us.
So you must go to your brother and seek reconciliation and give forgiveness. If you do this, and he listens, the texts says “you have gained your brother.” How wonderful a result that is. You have gained your brother.
From the perspective of the one who has sinned, you should be thankful that your brother has come to you first that you may ask forgiveness to him whom you have sinned against. Be thankful that your Christian brother did not shirk his responsibility and leave you in sin. Be thankful that your Christian brother did not spread knowledge of your sin to others, gossiping about you.
From the perspective of the church, I can you tell, if you have an issue with another person and you bring it to me I’ll first ask you, “have you spoken with them personally?” When a sin comes to the attention of the pastor or the elders it can cause much grief and frankly it can be the cause of much work as we must seek the Lord’s wisdom in His Scriptures for how to address the sin and how to address the sinner.
So it is must be, that ONE Christian first speaks to the other. And this may end the problems and prevent long-term animosity and discord. And, as Monty Python once said, “There was much rejoicing.”
But, unfortunately, it is not always the case that your brother will listen to you. Additional steps, additional directions for correction, are then outlined in our passage.
Before we look at those steps, I want to briefly mention something IMPLIED in this passage. Note that the passage speaks about Christians. And note that it speaks about sin. Therefore, we must understand that Christians do sin and this doesn’t make you not a Christian. Paul says in Romans 7 “I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate.” The Apostle Paul was not perfect, even after becoming a Christian. He was indeed credited as righteous because of the blood of Jesus Christ, but he (like all Christians) was not yet MADE righteous, for we will not be MADE righteous until we are glorified in heaven. Like Paul, John says “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Christians do sin, but as John continues, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
So it is that Christians sin, and so it is that we have given to us from God, “directions for correction.”
II. A Group
The second step then, if he does not listen, is to take one or two others along with you.
A Christian should be quick to admit sin and ask for forgiveness. But if for some reason the person does not listen to you, take along one or two others. Presumably these are others were witnesses of the sin in question. But also they are witnesses of the conversation had and witnesses or any other sin that may arise in the conversation. It is important to have witnesses so that it is not a “he said, she said” situation.”
The charge is to be establish the evidence of two or three witnesses. This is a direction in the Scriptures going back to the old testament. For example, Deuteronomy 19:15 – “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”
Again, the hope is that this is the end of the process. The sinning brother is to admit his sin, ask for forgiveness and receive forgiveness from his brother. And again, with success you have gained a brother.
Sadly, in our sinful world, obstinate we are, this sometimes is not the end of the process. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
Notice how there is an escalating scale from meeting one-on-one, to meeting in a group, to bringing the issue to the church. And again, this is not optional. This is the way it is to be done. You are not to skip these first stages and bring a sin directly to the church.
But remember throughout all of this the point is to “gain your brother.” You are not “coming after them” or “attacking them.” You are correcting them, rebuking them, in hopes that they will repent of their sin and return to the Lord.
When they do not listen, take it to the church.
III. The Church
This is a step that the non-Christian does not have at his disposal. And it is a step that the Christian without a church does not have at his disposal. This direction along is sufficient to tell us that we must have “a church.” For how could we “take it to the church” if we do not have a church! This is not a direction to take it to just any church, but to your church, your local church where you are a member.
And in the olden days it was likely that your neighbor attended your same church. And if he sinned you against you, there was one church to go as the third step in correcting a brother.
But today, there are multiple churches in any place. So, even if bother persons are Christians, it may be more complicated. In one such case when I pastored in North Carolina, I and my lead pastor from the Presbyterian went and spoke with the pastor of a Baptist church because the issue in the family we were working with expanded to both churches. And do you know what the Baptist pastor said? He said, “Have the two persons first talked one on one?” He immediately, and rightly went to Matthew 18.
So there are complications that our passage does not address and which I cannot address in one sermon or perhaps even in many sermons. Sometimes, or most of the time, the wisdom of the session is needed.
And so it is that in Presbyterianism we have multiple elders. Everyone in the New Testament we see that there is a plurality of elders. Each local church is to be led, not by one man, but by two or more. The wisdom of a group is greater than the wisdom of one man. And the plurality of elders also satisfies that clause of the need for multiple witnesses.
So it is that when sins are “brought to the church” they are brought to the elders and pastor of the church; to the representatives or leaders of the church. The sins are not to be brought to the whole church at large or to a congregational meeting. In the Jewish synagogue the sins were brought to the elders, and we have no reason to think that this changed such that the entire congregation is in view as the court of decision-making.
By having this only as a last resort we can see that the church isn’t to be all-controlling or overbearing like in a cult. The church is the third stage, and the third stage only, in the process of rebuking a brother.
And the church has steps for discipline that can be effective in gaining a brother. A visit from the elders of the church may well be enough on your conscience to admit yourself and ask for forgiveness. If that is not sufficient, the church may then suspend you from the sacraments for a time. And if the person still does not listen they may be entirely excommunicated from the church. “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
It is Presbyterian tradition for discipline cases (in certain circumstances) to be made known from the pulpit. If someone has been suspended from communion or excommunicated from the church it is to be given notice of by the pastor from the pulpit.
But note that this is the last step in the process. The person must have already rejected the appeal of the one who they sinned against, rejected the appeal of the group who came to speak with him, and rejected the appeal and discipline of the church.
But it does happen. In fact, I’m told that in our Bible Presbyterian Church in St. Paul Minnesota just this year there was a case where the pastor, from the pulpit, read to the congregation the suspension from the sacrament or excommunication of one of their members. We pray that such a situation never occurs here.
Note how through these directions for correction, gossip is held back, it is destroyed. And when the church pastor makes the pronouncement from the pulpit there can be no rumor, but the case is laid open for all to know of.
IV. Two or Three (of what?)
There are then three final verse that round out our passage:
18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Verse 18 speaks of the doctrine of the keys. This is also known as the binding or loosing.
When a person seeks to join a Presbyterian church, they come to the session of the church, and upon the session determining that they have given a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ, the person is received into membership of the church. This is the binding. And the elders including the pastor have that power.
And just as they have that power to bind a person, so that have the power to loose a person. That is, for someone to be excommunicated it is the decision of the elders and pastor, not of the congregation.
The Heidelberg Catechism answers the question “What is the Office of the Keys” in answering “The Office of the Keys is the preaching of the Holy Gospel and Christian discipline; by these two the Kingdom of Heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers.”
But recognize that the pastor and elders of a church do not create these realties (or a person joining the kingdom of God, or leaving the kingdom of God) but rather they recognize and announce them. The session of the church does not determine your salvation, but declares your salvation in Jesus Christ and warns against going with Him.
So we then come to that final verses that says “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
And coming to this verse now in context, we can understand it much better. It is in the context of church discipline.
The New Geneva Study Bible says “These verses should be taken in the larger context as still dealing with church discipline. Verse 20 states that Jesus is present to validate the judicial activity of the church.”
So the verse is not speaking of any “two or three” Christians gathering together, but is speaking of the work of the elders of the church in disciplining the sinner.
It is not saying that Christ is present only when 2 or 3 Christians are together, for we know that Christ is ALWAYS present. Even when you are alone, Christ is there with you.
Well, this is a lot already, but I want to also look at some applications, this being an eminently practical sermon.
There is, of course, the obvious application which is “follow the three steps outlined Matthew 18.”
But I want to look at three others.
Application 1: Settle things quickly.
We are commanded to go tell our brother of the sin against us. As Ephesians 4:26 tells us “be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” And if someone has sinned against you, you are likely angry about it. So settle things with them swiftly. Don’t let the sun go down. Speak to them immediately.
Application 2: Forgive one another.
Then, a second application. And for any of this process to work, we must hear this command from the Lord: forgive one another. [REPEAT: Forgive one another.] Though hard it may be, it is the Lord’s command.
[Col 3:12-13 ESV] 12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
You must forgive. Which bring us to the final application.
Application: Be Reconciled
This is especially pertinent for the holiday season. And there is nothing more difficult than reconciling with family members.
In Christ we were reconciled to God. Sinners reconciled to a Holy God. If that is possible, than brothers in the Lord can certainly be reconciled. Speak to your brother. Forgive your brother. Be reconciled.