Running The Race Together Part 4
Topic: Love For One Another Passage: Matthew 18:16–18:16, Deuteronomy 17:2–17:7
RUNNING THE RACE TOGETHER PART 4–
WHEN A WAYWARD RUNNER REFUSES CORRECTION
An Exposition of Matthew 18:16
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: July 14, 2019
Series: Running The Race Together
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Let’s begin with a little call and response:
“Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is” – “good”! (Psalm 107:1)
God is good – all the time!
All the time – God is good!
“When life is unfair” – “God is good!”
“When life is scary” – “God is good!”
“When life changes” – “God is good!”
“When life is sad” – “God is good!”
“When life is good” – “God is good!”
And, when you get stuck in sin – God is good!
That’s right: when get stuck in sin, God is good! Because if you are His, He’s coming after you! He disciplines those He loves! (Hebrews 12:6) The Good Shepherd seeks after the straying sheep! (Matthew 18:12-14) He sends a straight-shooter like Nathan to a wayward man like David! (2 Samuel 12:1) When you are ‘the Nathan’ sent to speak a sober word, God is good! He is involving you in His work of restoration. When you are ‘the David’ who needs a sober talking to, God is good! He is rescuing you from the muck and mire of your own foolishness.
So you, being a faithful disciple who loves Jesus and who loves Jesus’ church, want to follow all of Jesus’ instruction. One day you find yourself particularly troubled because Eric, your dear friend and fellow churchgoer, has just informed you that he has just gotten engaged to Jennifer, a non-Christian. This troubles you not only because it strikes you as an act of poor judgment, but also and especially because it is contrary to the biblical teaching that Christians must only marry “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). Then you read the words of Jesus: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” (Matthew 18:15)
As I explained in last week’s sermon, this instruction applies not only to sins that are directly against you, but also to sins that are indirectly against you. When a brother or sister sins, he or she sins as a member-of-the-church-family, and that sin – if left unchecked – will negatively affect the church. So, you “go and tell him his fault.” He is your brother and friend, and the two of you had agreed to meet on Thursday at Applebee’s for dinner. For over an hour you asked questions, listened well, shared concerns, and showed him some passages and principles from the Bible. He didn’t resent your compassionate confrontation, and he said that he would think about what you said. You reiterated the fact that what he really should be thinking about is what God has said, and the two of you agreed to meet again in just over two weeks.
Two weeks fly by, and the next meeting is at Eric’s apartment on a Sunday afternoon. He said he isn’t convinced, and besides – it feels right. ‘Of course it feels right, Eric, you’re in love. But it isn’t right. Can’t you see what Scripture says?’ You pray with Eric and, after a somewhat awkward goodbye, you leave in the early evening with a heavy heart. Now what?
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
This sermon is focused on Matthew 18:16, but let me read verses 15-17 in order to keep the full picture in front of us. Our Lord Jesus Christ says:
“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. 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. 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.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
“IF HE DOES NOT LISTEN”: WHEN A FELLOW RUNNER REFUSES CORRECTION
A doctor is not being unkind when he tells the patient that the patient is sick. A correct diagnosis of the problem is a necessary part of treating the problem and restoring the patient to good health. The same logic is at work when it comes to spiritual confrontation: we show a brother his sin for the express purpose of treating that sin, for leading them out of that sin, and for renewing their spiritual vitality. And yet, the diagnosis of a moral defect is a greater blow to our pride than the diagnosis of a merely physical defect. So, we would seldom be ungrateful to a doctor for telling us the truth. But we may be most ungrateful, and even combative, when a fellow Christian tells us the truth about our sin.
Be that as it may, the best of us are frail runners, prone to wander, and susceptible to setbacks. Instead of running, we may grow weary and feel like giving up. Instead of running, we may find ourselves distracted by what is happening off the field, and before you know it our feet are off the track, past the gate, and into the darkness beyond. Instead of running forward, we may turn around and start heading the wrong way.
In such instances, we are running alongside our fellow Christians – we are running together, side by side; we are keeping in step with the Spirit and through the Spirit with one another; we are growing together and making progress together. But then a fellow runner like Eric starts to lose his way or pull back or turn around. At such times, we who are Eric’s fellow runners have a solemn duty to help Eric recover his footing. If he needs comfort, we comfort him with the mercies of God. If he needs instruction, we teach him God’s Word. If he needs support against the enemy, we fortify him with God’s promises. If he needs to be rescued from the deceitfulness of sin, we “tell him his fault” – we reprove and correct him, and we show him the path of righteousness. All of this, we do with love – with a steady word, and a gentle hand.
But what happens when our fellow runner refuses correction? What do we do “if he does not listen”? If he had listened to us, heeded God’s Word, and realigned his life with God’s will, then we would “have gained [our] brother.” But suppose he doesn’t listen. Suppose he digs in his heels. Then what? A two- or three-person rescue team, that’s what.
THE IMPORTANCE OF VERSE 16
What Jesus teaches us in verse 16 should matter a great deal to all of us.
If you’re the confronter of verse 15 whose confrontation has gone unheeded (and who knows when you’ll be in this situation?), then it is your responsibility to initiate the next step by involving “one or two others” in the process. You need to know what you’re about to get into.
If you’re not the confronter of verse 15 but you are one of the “one or two others” whom the initial confronter is taking along (and who knows when you’ll be called upon to do this?), then you need to know what you’re about to get into.
If you’re neither the confronter of verse 15 nor one of the “one or two others” of verse 16, but you’re part of “the church” of verse 17 (and that’s most of you sitting in this sanctuary today), then you need to know that the “two or three witnesses” of verse 16 have done their job well. Before you can join with the rest of your church family and do your job well (in v. 17), you need to know that the two- or three-person rescue team did what they were supposed to do (in v. 16) and that they did it well.
If you’re an elder, then you and your fellow elders have spiritual oversight of the church family. Though you might not have been involved in the confrontation of verses 15-16, if and when the confrontation process reaches the whole church (as it does in v. 17), part of your job as an overseer is to make sure that the whole process is being conducted with integrity and grace. Elders must oversee the verse 17 dynamic. So, pay attention to what comes before it in verse 16.
Finally, although we are unapologetically focused on the process of compassionately confronting a sinning brother or sister within the church family, discerning minds will understand that the principles of Matthew 18:16 are able to be wisely applied in a number of other settings. We ought to embody God’s righteousness in our families, in our workplaces, and in our wider relationships. So learn the Word. Learn the principles of sound judgment. Learn what it means to be an agent of righteousness and an ambassador of grace. Let your light shine wherever you go.
We all need to know what verse 16 is all about.
AN OVERVIEW OF VERSE 16
So let’s begin with an overview of verse 16. Notice three things.
First, notice the situation of a wayward runner who is not accepting correction. Verse 16 begins: “But if he does not listen.” In other words, if the sinning brother of verse 15 is still wayward, still off track, still racing headlong in overt and obstinate sin, still refusing to repent, then you’ve got to keep reading for further instructions.
The Formation of a Rescue Team
Second, this situation calls for the formation of a rescue team: “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you” (italics added). You need one or two people to collaborate with you in the ongoing compassionate confrontation process. Remember, this compassionate confrontation process is nothing less than a rescue operation – you are actually attempting to get the sinning brother or sister to turn back to the Lord – and at this point, we need a rescue team! Two or three people. Obviously you’re looking for more than a warm body. The “one or two others” are fellow Christians – generally speaking, they should be fellow Christians who are part of the same local church family. Further, these “one or two others” ought to have the insight necessary to the situation – for instance, they may know the brother or sister who is sinning, or they may have knowledge of the situation or experience with situations like this. Further, they should have a level head and a discerning eye that can weigh the evidence; they should be able to explain and apply God’s Word with wisdom; and they should be demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in their everyday life (Galatians 5:22–6:1).
The Responsibilities of the Rescue Team
Third, the rescue team always has two, and sometimes three, responsibilities.
RESPONSIBILITY #1: Establish the facts of the case. This is stated explicitly in verse 16: “that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Establishing the facts of the case involves at least two things. First, the witnesses must seek to get an accurate read on the brother’s or sister’s conduct. A credible charge requires a clearly agreed-upon infraction. Second, the witnesses must make sure that they are rightly understanding and applying God’s Word. In other words, a credible charge requires a clearly agreed-upon standard. The standard that we must agree on is not a standard of our own making, but the standard of righteousness that God has revealed to us in His Word. We must make sure that we are rightly reading that standard and wisely applying it to the case at hand. It is conceivable that you could agree on what God’s Word says, but not agree on whether the person disobeyed it. Or to look at it from another angle, it is conceivable that you could agree on the person’s conduct, but not agree on whether that conduct rises to the level of disobedience. Your job is to sort all this out and to agree together on a faithful judgment.
RESPONSIBILITY #2: On the basis of the established facts, plead with the sinning brother to repent. Although this is not stated explicitly in verse 16, it is clearly implied in verse 17, which begins: “If he [the sinning brother] refuses to listen to them.” Which means that the members of the rescue team have spoken to him and appealed to him. After the “two or three” members of the rescue team have settled on the facts of the case, then – assuming that they are in agreement that the sinning brother has indeed sinned – they must admonish the sinning brother and urge him to return to the ways of the Lord.
The members of the “two or three” person rescue team always have these two responsibilities. And if the sinning brother or sister listens to the rescue team and repents, then the rescue team’s work is complete, and they have gained their brother or sister. Sometimes, however, there will be a third responsibility, which is also implied in verses 16-17, because sometimes the sinning brother or sister will not listen.
RESPONSIBILITY #3: On the basis of the established facts and the sinning brother’s refusal to receive correction, testify about it to the congregation: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (v. 17). This is what witnesses do – they bear witness, they testify. The logic of the passage is that the “two or three witnesses” must be ready to bear reliable witness to the church family. While it stands to reason that the initial confronter of verse 15 will probably take the lead in making the report to the congregation, the “one or two others” must stand in agreement with him and must function as public witnesses who go on the record, because the congregation must know that at least two reliable witnesses are in full agreement regarding the guilt of the sinning brother. The congregation must have confidence that the witnesses are influencing it to make a sound decision – and having two or three credible witnesses united in their testimony helps to build such confidence.
ADDITIONAL INSIGHT ON THE DUTIES OF THE TWO- OR THREE-PERSON RESCUE TEAM
Now at this point I want to draw additional insight on the duties of this two- or three-person rescue team by looking at a passage from the Old Testament. There are a number of passages in the Old Testament that are foundational to the New Testament’s teaching about compassionate confrontation and church discipline.
Deuteronomy 17:2-7 is one such passage: it teaches us that the whole congregation must be ready to stand together against an unrepentant member (which corresponds to Matthew 18:17), and it also teaches us the importance of having two or three witnesses (which corresponds to Matthew 18:16).
The passage instructs:
“If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones. On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 17:2-7)
In verse 2, a member of the covenant community has done “what is evil in the sight of the LORD” – or at least is suspected of having done so. In verse 7, the entire town joins together and purges the evil from their midst by putting the convicted offender to death. At the center of this pursuit of justice is a process that involves two or three witnesses. So, if you would be a faithful Christian who obeys our Lord’s instruction in Matthew 18:15-17, then you ought to pay close attention to a passage like Deuteronomy 17:2-7, for it shows you importance principles related to the pursuit of justice – and it shows you a process that protects the integrity of that pursuit.
First, notice the instruction that “you shall inquire diligently” (v. 4). We live in a culture that too often handles accusations in a careless manner. Accusations can be made, publicized, and given prominent attention in the media. The damage is immediately done, and the bad news of alleged misconduct spreads quickly, and people begin to form opinions about the story and the people involved. Small congregations like South Paris Baptist Church are capable of doing the same thing on a miniature scale through gossip. Passions and prejudices can run far ahead of reason and sound judgment, and who cares about injured reputations and all the collateral damage? Answer: God cares!
Therefore, if you are one of the two or three, be sure to “inquire diligently.” Don’t assume. Don’t believe everything you hear. Don’t judge by appearances. Keep perspective: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (Proverbs 18:17) Be patient. Reserve judgment until a faithful and fair-minded inquiry has taken place.
Second, notice the words “true and certain” (v. 4). Judgment cannot be enacted against the offender unless a diligent inquiry results in a determination that the charge against him is certainly true. It is not enough for the determination to be true; it must be “true and certain” (italics added). Probably true but not certainly so, isn’t good enough. Knowing that you know that you know, but being unable to prove it to others, isn’t good enough. The two or three witness must be able to commend their determination to the entire town (or, in Matthew 18, to the entire congregation), and all the townspeople (or the whole congregation) will be required to participate in the act of judgment against the offender. It is imperative that the townspeople (or members of the church) be convinced that the man or woman is guilty, otherwise they would be taking action against someone who in their minds is not necessarily guilty. If the two or three witnesses can only say ‘It might be so, but we cannot say for sure,’ then the judgment cannot proceed. The standard is high. The presumption of innocence is correct: the alleged offender must be regarded as ‘innocent until proven guilty’.
Third, notice the entirety of verse 6: “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.” Do you know what this means? Cases of ‘he said, she said’ should have no traction in the covenant community – they shouldn’t be fodder for gossip, and they cannot form the basis of church discipline. In terms of Matthew 18:15-17, one witness is sufficient to make the initial confrontation. Beyond that, however, if the one confronted denies the charge, and if no other witnesses are forthcoming, or if two or three witnesses are divided in their assessment, then that one witness needs to be content that there is no further public action to be taken, and therefore he must leave the matter in God’s hands. It doesn’t matter how credible and outstanding the character of the “one witness” is: one witness is insufficient to punish the evildoer in Deuteronomy 17:2-7, and likewise one witness is insufficient to take churchwide action against the sinning brother or sister in Matthew 18:15-17.
This requirement that there be at least two credible witnesses who are united in judgment encourages truth-telling, and discourages false accusations, and protects us from the drama of unsubstantiated allegations. In such a case, the lone witness must not do a runaround of God’s Word by assassinating the alleged offender’s character or by treating him as an outsider. It is not his judgment alone, or even of the two or three, but of the whole church community, that results in a person being excommunicated from the fellowship. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have genuine insight into the other person’s character – you may perhaps rightly discern that he or she is a weed among the wheats. But there is nothing to be done about it publicly – so keep your private judgment where it belongs, between you and God alone. And pray like crazy, and love that person much, and show him extraordinary kindness, and minister grace to him as often as opportunities allow.
Fourth, notice that the two or three witnesses must take a public stand: “The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people.” (v. 7) While it is important to understand that the whole town is called to act in Deuteronomy 17:2-7 and the whole congregation is called to act in Matthew 18:17, here I want you to notice that the two or three witnesses cannot hide in the shadows while they hand down a word of judgment against the offender. They’ve got to be out in front taking a public stand for righteousness and truth; they’ve got to go on the record and testify against the one who has done evil; and, in the case of Deuteronomy 17:7, they’ve got to throw the first stones. Here again, this encourages the witnesses to have integrity, because they are required to put their hand where their mouth is, and enact the judgment that they have recommended to the covenant community. The attitude of the witnesses cannot be: ‘here is our conclusion, now you deal with it’. Instead, the attitude of the witnesses must be: ‘here is our conclusion, now we all must deal with it, and we will take the lead’. That is a witness I can follow!
Fifth, notice that short little phrase back in verse 2: “his covenant.” The two or three witnesses who inquire diligently and render a faithful judgment are not acting on behalf of their own little moral program, nor are they acting as champions of a personal vendetta or an embittered faction. Instead, they are acting on behalf of “the LORD your God” (v. 2, twice) and on behalf of “his covenant” (v. 2). The initial confronter of Matthew 18:15, the one or two others who join him in Matthew 18:16, and then the whole church in Matthew 18:17, are not called to act according to their own good sense or in a way that makes them feel good or safe or well-liked, or in a way that satisfies the largest financial contributors. The Lord says: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:15)
Brothers and sisters, we are not serving ourselves! Instead, we are serving the Lord our God. As members of His covenant community who are called to honor Him, we must seek to act faithfully on His behalf in order to pursue righteousness and purge evil from our midst. We are serving the Lord and we are serving the church: the church is called to be holy, and “a little leaven [of evil] leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6). Love the church by helping her to stay true to the Lord and to keep growing in His ways.
AMBASSADORS OF GRACE
If and when you are called upon to be one of the two or three witnesses who must render and report a judgment to the wider church community, you must realize that in that moment you stand at the center of the church’s pursuit of righteousness, justice, and truth. Not many of you will be eager to join this two- or three-person rescue team when it is being formed, but this choice isn’t really yours to make. When things go down a certain way, and the Lord has set you among us as one of the most capable rescue team members in that particular situation involving that specific person, then may His Spirit give you the peace and resolve to undertake the work with all due seriousness, wisdom, and love. And when you do, you will need to remember that the Lord is calling you to be an ambassador of grace.
When some tenderhearted Christians read a passage like Matthew 18:15-17 – especially if they have had the misfortune of being tutored in the moral tolerance of our age – they are not likely to use the word ‘grace’ to capture the meaning of the passage. So you ask: Where is the gospel of God’s grace in Matthew 18:15-17? To which I reply: Where isn’t it?
Consider this: when you put verses 15-17 on the shelf and refuse to practice compassionate confrontation, you will have a graceless mess. After all, we do sin – all of us sin. So think about it: we will either have sins unaddressed, with sheep going astray until they fall of the cliff (and probably taking some kindred spirits with them), with the cancer of unaddressed sin spreading to more members of the body, and with relational rifts unhealed; or we will have gossip, slander, misinformation, false accusations, suspicions, secret judgments, unbiblical solutions (e.g., leaders negotiate a quiet exit for the sinning brother), and disgruntled folks who end up leaving – and there is the general temperature of coldness throughout the congregation because hardly anyone is actually serious about honoring God in the pursuit of holiness. And that is not what a congregation looks like when the gospel of God’s grace is transforming it.
If God’s grace is at work in a congregation, then the folks are teaming up in a Hebrews 3:12-13 and Hebrews 10:19-25 and Hebrews 12:1-17 kind of way, and they see themselves as allies against their sin. Let’s team up, you and I, against my sin, and against your sin. And if and when I side with my sin and thereby offend the team, please love me enough to remember that I am still your teammate, and take aim at my sin. Side with me against my sin, and if I double down and continue to side with my sin, come at me doubly hard with weapons-grade compassion – for my good, and against my sin.
Where is the gospel of God’s grace in Matthew 18:15-17?
1) God loves us enough to send brothers and sisters to us to tell us the truth about our sin. He doesn’t want us to fall beyond the point of no return, but rather that we strengthen our weak knees and return to a position of strength. The faithful shepherd of Matthew 18:12-13 works through His people in order to rescue the straying sheep. Verse 14 says: “… it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14). Therefore He seeks to rescue them when they have veered off the path. That’s grace!
2) God loves us enough to give us repeated opportunities to hear and repent. In Deuteronomy 17:2-7 and in other Old Testament passages, if you were guilty, you were put to death. And it was just! But in Matthew 18:15-17, if you are guilty, you can repent and be restored to complete fellowship at any point. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:7-8) – do you remember that phrase from Hebrews 3? The Lord proclaims through the compassionate confronter as he speaks to the sinning brother (in v. 15): “Today, if you hear [my] voice.” If he doesn’t listen, then the Lord proclaims through the compassionate rescue team as they speak to the sinning brother (in v. 16): “Today, if you will hear [my] voice.” If he still doesn’t listen, then the Lord proclaims through the compassionate congregation as they speak to the sinning brother (in v. 17): “Today, if will hear [my] voice.” And even if the congregation must excommunicate the unrepentant brother or sister, we will see next week that even the act of excommunication is designed to bring about their eventual repentance (1 Corinthians 5:5) – and through the church’s disciplinary action the Lord proclaims one more time: “Today, if you hear [my] voice.” Brothers and sisters, behold the patience, mercy, and kindness of our God! He is treating you far better than you deserve! He is not sending you stewards of justice to stone you to death, but stewards of grace to save your life. He is giving you time to repent! Therefore let His kindness lead you to repentance! (Romans 2:4)
3) God loves us enough to meet us with a full forgiveness when we turn from our sin. If at any point the sinning brother “listens to you” or listens to the rescue team or listens to the congregation, then we extend a glad and heartfelt forgiveness to him – and our forgiveness is just an echo and reflection of the truth that God has gladly and freely forgives him. “If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
4) God loves us enough to have provided us with a Savior who came for the express purpose of saving us from our sins. Our sins would ruin us and, if left unchecked, would ruin others. But “God so loved the world” (John 3:16)! What does Matthew’s Gospel teach us? “[You] shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) “[The] Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6). “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”” (Matthew 26:27-28) This gospel is front and center in any church that faithfully carries out compassionate confrontation. God is leading the rescue team to put their finger on your sin – not to leave you exposed to public disgrace, but to cover you with the grace of Christ.
A Final Word
In the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35, the unforgiving servant went to his fellow servant who had sinned against him, in order to insist on strict justice – so, he locked up his fellow servant: the sin is not forgiven, and the relationship remains broken. That is a great picture of what the two- or three-person rescue team is not doing. Instead, knowing that our Master in heaven has forgiven us a staggering debt-load of sin, we go full of mercy to our sinning brother or sister, we remind them of the blood-bought covenant of grace, we urge them to forsake their sin and find God’s sweet mercy once again. ‘Tis grace all, that has planned the compassionate rescue operation of Matthew 18:15-17. It is for the sake of forgiveness, and for the sake of fellowship, that we go. We are aching for the experience of the shepherd in Matthew 18:13 to rejoice over the lost sheep who has returned home.
You are called to be: an ambassador of grace; a participant in the Lord’s work; an agent of righteousness and truth; a servant of God, of the flock, and even of the wayward sheep.
Can there be a more fitting work for a gospel-loving Christian to do?
Let us pray.
 These five statements – “When life [is unfair, is scary, changes, is sad, is good], God is good!” – were the teaching points at South Paris Baptist Church’s 2019 Vacation Bible School, held last week (July 8-12). The Vacation Bible School curriculum that we used is “Roar” from Group (a ministry resource organization).