Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

116. Saving the lost brother (Matt. 18:10-20)

Jesus had spoken very earnestly about the responsibility of exercising special care that those whom he calls his "little ones" shall not be caused to stumble. Then he broke off to enlarge on the dangers of inadequate self-examination and self-discipline. Now he returned to his original theme. It is a measure of the importance he attached to it. Apparently he had specially in mind the big responsibility which the apostles would bear as leaders of his Ecclesia after his ascension.

So he warned them: "Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones." "Little ones" and shepherding of the flock (v.12,13) come together in Zech.13 :7. "For (he went on) I say unto you that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven."

The care of angels

The Bible doctrine of angels is considerable in its scope and complex in its detail—much too big a topic for elaboration here. One thing at least is clear—a good deal more clear than modern thinking on the subject would normally allow— that one of the functions of the angels of God is the providential care of His chosen the control and guidance of their lives. Whether it be good or what men with their limited horizons deem to be "evil," all these things are committed by Almighty God to his angels."Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?" (Heb.l :14). It is a doctrine which can greatly help limited human understanding to a higher faith in God's providence. Lk.15 :7,10 has the same truth and the same emphasis.

Nevertheless, these words of Jesus are not without their difficulty. For how can angels (the highest angels for the humblest folk! Lk.1 :19) "always behold the face of the Father in heaven" and simultaneously "encamp round about them that fear him"? The seeming contradiction arises through failure to recognize that both expressions are figures of speech The one describes direct contact with the Lord in heaven, the other direct contact (though unperceived) with the "little one" who belongs to the heavenly family.

There is also this fact to take into consideration that whereas God's people on earth are necessarily creatures of a three-dimensional world, angels are outside this framework, and therefore superior to (lie limitations which are part of it.

It is perhaps not amiss here to issue a warning, in passing, against allowing the modern scientific world to impose too much of its mode of thinking. Science insists always on cause and effect and on the rigid authority of "laws of Nature." The Bible never mentions any of these, but instead always refers all happenings, big or small, normal or abnormal to the will and act of God. Laws of nature are simply the smokescreen which the scientist interposes between God and His world. By this means he seek to put God out of sight, and if possible out of action. The Bible in many places, and Jesus in this place in particular, insists that in the life of the lowliest disciple all is under God's control through the agency of His angels. And, strangely enough, it is the lowliest disciple who is usually most aware of this truth. This, as much as anything, is what makes the "little one" precious in the Lord's sight.

A lost sheep

Therefore there is special responsibility to do all in one's power to save any disciple from going astray. So Jesus told his lovely parable of the lost sheep. Here he introduced it differently from the other occasion when he told the same story (Lk.15 :4). The Greek phrase seems to imply a shepherd's responsibility falling almost unexpectedly on a man: "If a hundred sheep come (or, happen) to a man, and one of them is led astray. . ." In neither detail is this normally true to life. But the words are apt enough with reference to ecclesial responsibility and how sheep are lost from its care. This tender parable is lifted almost bodily out of the teaching of austere Ezekiel (34 :6,11,12,16). The good shepherd goes to the mountain, taking endless trouble and wearying himself, because he deems the search worthwhile. In the first century "the mountain" of the temple held the greatest danger to the flock, for the pull back to Judaism was considerable. Today it is in the city (or in the ecclesia!) where most sheep are lost.

The eager search of the shepherd, neglecting (at least, for the time being) those who are safe, is the Lord's strong imperative that whenever any are caused to stumble or to lose faith in the Truth of Christ or are lured by illicit desires, nothing should have higher priority in the ecclesia's concern than the finding and recovery of the lost sheep.

There are few ecclesias which do not have experiences of this kind. Unhappily success rarely follows. The Lord's "if so be" plainly recognizes this fact beforehand. But no situation should ever be accepted as one of final irremediable failure. Even where there is failure, contact should be maintained, or at least details carefully preserved of how contact may be renewed. From time to time every ecclesia should mount an Operation Lost Sheep. If this were done systematically by every ecclesia in the world, the results would far surpass the mightiest preaching efforts ever planned. "It is not a thing wished before your Father (by the angels; v.10) that one of these little ones should perish." What an understatement of the eagerness of the heavenly host to see the lost ones of the Lord restored to his fold! And it needs to be remembered that "the ninety-and-nine which were not led astray" are silly sheep just like the hundredth. There is little room for self-congratulation.

"We be brethren"

Jesus next moved on to the problem of reconciliation of brethren between whom fellowship has broken down.The Lord's idealism was not so finely drawn that he lacked the realism to recognize the inevitability of discord among his disciples. He knew what was in man! And throughout his ministry had not the twelve time and again given him reminders enough?

The ideal reaction to any personal offence is a steady determination not to be offended. If the one whose susceptibilities would normally be injured by some thoughtless or offensive action is not susceptible, then no breach of fellowship ensues. If, in spite of sustained provocation, this policy is patiently persisted in, then in due course the offender ceases to offend. He is gained as a brother in the true sense of the term.

This hard road to the healing of bad personal relationships is by far the best, when it can be made to work. But there are those not to be won even by such gracious methods. Those who can pocket pride and put up with continued provocation, the while maintaining a tolerant unresentful attitude are a very rare breed.

So when one's spirit is tried to the point where offences are not to be shrugged off, even with the help of prayer and self-discipline, then a resolving of the strained situation must be sought through personal encounter of the right, not the wrong, sort, for a continuing enmity is a dead loss to both parties.

Jesus couched his instruction in plain unambiguous terms: "If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone" (cp.Pr.25:9). There can be little doubt that the two words "against thee," omitted by some of the modern versions really belong to this place. Quite apart from the preponderant textual evidence, the parallel passage in Luke 17 :3 is unambiguous and emphatic on this. The context in Matthew (see v.21) points to the same conclusion.

The spirit in which this reproof of the offending brother is to be undertaken is clearly seen from the words: "If he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." Breach of harmony means that a brother has been lost, no matter how technically correct the fellowship position between the two may be. The whole purpose, then, of any attempt to "talk it out", must be reconciliation, and not "getting it off my chest" or "giving him a piece of my mind."

In the precept of Moses on which this wisdom of Christ is built, there is a slightly different but comparable emphasis: "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbour, and not bear sin because of him. Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Lev.19 :17,18). Here is the important reminder that when two brethren in Christ are at odds, there is sin in the heart of at least one of them, a sin not to be resentfully cherished but to be expurgated by reconciliation. The motive of "gaining thy brother" must be paramount.

Thus the words: "Go tell him his fault", carry no hint of an angry tit for tat. Rather they suggest a persuasive attempt to present facts in a different light—to convict the offender of his fault.

"If he hear thee'—in the sense of 'give heed—'thou hast gained thy brother." This means more than mere reconciliation, highly desirable though that is in itself. A brother offending or a brother smouldering with resentment is in a false position before God. For this higher reason there must be reconciliation.

But "a brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and contentions are like the bars of a castle" (Pr.18 :19). So it may well turn out that, with the best will in the world, there is no progress towards mutual understanding.

Then, "if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." The mere presence of others may serve to import a better spirit into the discussion. The insertion of a few questions as to the facts of the case may do much to elucidate a tangled .situation.

Again, the principle of having "two or three witnesses" was that of the Law of Moses. But, so far as one can discover, no one has yet come up with an explanation of why two or three. If two witnesses are sufficient why should it be necessary ever to specify three? Is it possible that three witnesses were to be insisted on when one of them happened to be a relation of the protagonist or had some close personal involvement in the problem?

If it should prove that even with witnesses present there is no progress towards agreement, the next step is an appeal to the ecclesia, that through its elders the community may offer a balanced opinion not lightly to be set aside. The individual who will stubbornly assert the correctness of his own judgement against that of the ecclesia is a rarity. Indeed it is difficult to envisage such situations arising at all in the early church, when ecclesial leaders were guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Today, even though the counsel of a completed New Testament is available, it is conceivable that ecclesial misjudgements may happen and under present ecclesial organization there is then no further court of appeal.

What has just been written envisages a distinctly unusual situation. More likely is the other which Jesus went on to legislate for: “lf he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee .as a heathen man and a publican." Even when not convinced that the ecclesia's pronouncement, is the best possible, the individual who refuses to.' accept it demonstrates very plainly that he is too wilful to accept the Lord's authority either—for in this discourse Jesus plainly makes the ecclesia's judgement final. Even when not content with the attitude adopted by the ecclesia, a man should have the meekness to accept it, willing to persuade himself that his own judgement may be untrustworthy.

To be treated as a Gentile or a publican means neither religious nor social fellowship But it also means, as Burgon has well put it, that such a brother is "one for whose repentance and conversion the church toils night and day.”' It is surely significant that Jesus said: "Let him be unto thee (not, the ecclesia) as a heathen man and a publican." This describes the attitude of the one originally offended. The words could mean that there is no official exclusion from the fellowship of the ecclesia, but that the individual offended is left to implement his own personal attitude to the offender. However, Paul's practical insistence on ecclesial discipline (2 Th.3:6,14) suggest that he gave these words of the Lord a wider reference.

Ecclesial authority.

A further conclusion from this prescribed appeal to the ecclesia is worth noting. By saying: "Let the ecclesia decide," Jesus was in effect forbidding recourse to any of the world's courts of law. Evidently this was how Paul understood his words, for in his familiar ruling to the ecclesia at Corinth he wrote with censure and scorn of brethren who invoked the processes of Gentile law (1 Cor.6 :l-6) to settle differences between one another.

Jesus rounded off his very practical precept regarding this unhappy problem with a blunt reminder that the ecclesia's assessment hostile ratification of heaven: "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." In those days synagogue decisions required, and usually got, ratification from the Sanhedrin. Behind apostolic judgements stood a higher court than that in Jerusalem.

It is not difficult to see how true these words of Jesus must be regarding decisions and actions of the apostles, for they were men consciously guided by the Lord's special authority. But to assume that the same stands true in this twentieth century is not at all easy. Yet it is even conceivable that an imperfect ecclesial judgement may be used by God as a test of the Christ-like spirit of those involved.

Nor is it easy to believe that the Lord's next words have a completely literal application today: "If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven" [cp.Dan.2:18; Acts 1:14).

The context clearly restricts this to requests helping forward the well-being of the ecclesia. But the Father only gives "good things" to His children (Mt.7:11). Therefore the things asked for must be good (contrast Jas.4 :3). And with the best will in the world this is not always the case (cp. 2 Cor. 12:7-9).

James and John agreed enthusiastically enough regarding that which they asked of Jesus (Mk.10 :35), but this was not done for them, nor will be, as Scripture plainly proves (Rev.3 :21), Even so there is a positive teaching in this Scripture which no good ecclesia will ignore today—the importance and efficacy of united prayer regarding specific needs or problems.

"Two or three gathered together"

The saying with which the Lord rounded off this part of his discourse is one of the best-known and most misapplied: "For where two or three ore gathered together in my name, there am I in tke midst of them." In the present context—a long discussion on how best to save a lost brother and how to bring reconciliation in place of discord—reference to the Breaking of Bread Service (which is the meaning most commonly assigned) is hardly possible, especially since the institution of that memorial rite only came some: six months later.

Instead, possible meaning are these:

  1. The gathering of two or three for earnest prayer regarding the needs of the ecclesia (this could follow directly from the previous verse.)
  2. The meeting of the elders of the ecclesia to decide on disciplinary action against an uncooperative brother (this goes back to verse 17).
  3. The gathering together in reconciliation of those who have been estranged. This is most likely, since the Greek expression is, strictly: "gathered together into my name." If this is accepted, then extension to the Breaking of Bread service is easy enough inasmuch as that expresses the close fellowship of brethren in Christ better than anything else.
Notes: Mt. 18:10-20

For I say unto you. Lk.l5:7, 10 has the same truth and the same emphasis.

Their angels Ps.91 :11; Lk.15 :7, 10;Acts 12 :7,23; contrast23 :8.

Always. Literally: through everything.
That which was lost. Gk. middle voice might imply 'wanted to get lost—true of not a few lost sheep in this generation also.
The little one (v.14) is now thy brother,
In 2 Cor. 13 :1 Paul refers to these words of Jesus and not to Dt.19 :15. This evident from his phrases: "the second time, the third time," precisely as in Mt. 18 :15-17.
Neglect to hear them; s.w. Is.65 :12 LXX only.

Tell it to the church. 1 Cor.5 :4,5; 6 :l-6; 1 Th.5 -.20; v.17,20 seem to imply Christ's absence. It is possible that v.15-20 were originally part of the 40 days' instruction?

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