Matthew 18 is one of the most misunderstood chapters in Scripture. It is also one of the most dangerous passages to misunderstand.
Things usually work out that way.
Many people think of it as the “church discipline” chapter, the place to which churches go to deal with unrepentant people in the congregation. This is not inaccurate. It is, however, extremely limiting to focus only on the issue of church discipline without looking at the rest of the passage.
The whole chapter centers on the issues of temptations, sin, forgiveness, and restoration.
The first few verses center around receiving the kingdom of God like a child (i.e. with faith) and the dangers of leading those with childlike faith into temptation. (1-6).
Jesus then continues by exhorting his disciples to flee from their own temptations to sin. (7-9)
In verses 10-14, Jesus explains that the Father will go to any lengths to restore His children who wander away like sheep.
And after all of this, Jesus puts forth a practical way to seek restoration in the lives of brothers and sisters who have fallen into sin, especially when that sin is against you. This passage, verses 15-20, is what we normally refer to as the “church discipline” passage. But in context, it is really a method for forgiving and restoring those who have sinned against you by modeling the way that God forgives us after we have sinned against Him.
The thrust of this passage is to see wandering men and women return to the family of God.
So coming to them on your own (vs. 15) is a means of forgiving someone who has done you wrong. Bringing along witnesses (vs.16) is a way to display love and care for this person by showing them that you are not alone in your desire to see them return to the Lord. Telling the church (vs.17) is not a way to “air out” someones dirty laundry, but a way to bring the family together in prayer for this person’s soul. And finally, treating this person as a “Gentile or tax collector” (vs. 17) is not an encouragement to shun the offender, but a means of recognizing that they are likely not a true follower of Christ and must therefor be lifted up in prayer that they may be saved.
It’s all about seeing someone restored to the flock of God.
In the final verses of Matthew 18, Jesus explains in parable form that God’s forgiveness of our sins was inestimably costly, and that if we do not forgive with the same sacrificial love, we will prove ourselves to be deserving of divine judgement rather than grace.
God forgave us of not only our sinful actions, but of our sinful hearts. He gives us new hearts and restores us to His family. And He is calling us to do the same. Matthew 18 exists to encourage a forgiving heart among God’s people, for God has so graciously forgiven us. Let us take up that call and in all circumstances forgive those who sin against us, that they might see the love of Christ and return to the arms of their Maker.