Matthew 18:15-20 (NIV) 15 “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. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven. 19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Baaaaah. AHEM! Baaaaaaah.
Just wanted to get that off my chest. You see, I am a sheep. Many of you are too. Often in the Bible, Jesus compares believers to sheep. Actually, right before our text for today Jesus tells a parable which relates us to sheep. We create one giant flock of believers. Now domestic sheep have a reputation for being extremely stupid and useless, and that is not completely fair. After all, sheep have great recognition skills and a range of emotions and can sometimes be quite intelligent for animals. However, sheep certainly have their stupid moments. Sheep can easily be led astray by other sheep. I read a story from a while ago telling of how 1 sheep wandered off a cliff and 1,499 other sheep just walked right off after it like a terrible game of follow the leader. Many of them died. Sheep also wander. When left on their own, they will eventually leave even a safe place and wander into dangerous territory. Which brings us to our last point about sheep. Sheep are pretty much defenseless on their own. Domestic sheep are not fierce. They don’t have sharp claws. They are not fast. If a wolf attacks them they are likely a goner. The entire flock can be prey to a single predator. After all, when is the last time you saw a bunch of sheep gang up on a predator and take turns beating on it? It just doesn’t happen. These are all problems a sheep needs to address or it can mean death. They need a shepherd to protect them. This is why we are a lot like sheep. For spiritual matters we have plenty of stupid moments. We follow people we are not supposed to. We sometimes wander from the one true faith or at least part of it. And we cannot protect ourselves spiritual enemies or sin when left to our own devices. We need a shepherd.
The Bible tells us Jesus is our good shepherd and he cares for all. He cares for the sheep in his flock (Jo 10:14), the sheep not yet of his flock (Jo 10:16), and the sheep who are wandering from his flock (Mt 18:12-14). And Jesus wants our help in keeping people in the fold. He tells us how we can help address believers straying from the flock. He doesn’t give us this huge manual, but instead gives us 6 simple verses on what we can do.
In the first three verses Jesus outlines 4 steps that can be taken for someone wandering from the faith. He says, “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. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Let’s just run through those four steps one more time to make sure we have a good idea of what the process looks like. And I want you to picture someone you know who you can apply this to. Do you know of someone in the flock who has sinned against the Lord and doesn’t know or care about the sin? Run through this process with them in mind to make it more real for yourself.
Step one is to address someone privately. If it’s a private sin, nobody else needs to know about the sin and bring shame on that person or have them be the topic of gossip. That is not going to help anyone. And remember, Scripture is saying you are talking to a brother or sister in Christ, so you don’t want to just be screaming at them. Point out the fault gently and help the offender understand what they did wrong and why it was wrong. Step two is to bring some well-respected individuals into the process. The offender may not listen to you, but maybe they might listen to someone they deem wiser than yourself. Sometimes it is just good to hear a message from multiple people. You will also have a witness with you that you are doing everything possible to bring a person back into the flock of Jesus and that the person is not repenting despite being shown from Scripture what that person is doing is sinful. Step 3 is to bring the matter to the attention of the church, that is, the local congregation we are a part of. The church has a type of authority to bind and loose sins. In other words, God has given us the authority to distribute and withhold forgiveness. This is all within God’s own authority of course. We can’t overrule him. In step three, the church leaders or we as a church body, as a family, approach the offender with this authority in love and with the Word. This may work to snap the person back to their senses and repent of their sin. If that doesn’t work, we progress to the final and somewhat sad step. We treat the offender as a pagan or a tax collector. I want you to hear this next sentence very carefully. This does not give us the right to be jerks to unbelievers. That is not what this means. We do not get to go stone anyone because of their sin. What this means is that we treat them as an unbeliever. Show them love, but they are no longer a part of our family. They don’t get to receive the blessings of being a part of a church. They don’t get the fellowship or the assurance of forgiveness anymore. You simply can’t treat them as if they are still Christians when they have shown themselves not to be.
So that is the process. Steps can be repeated as many times as necessary. You might visit a person 3 times on your own (step one). That is completely fine. This process is not meant to be a hard and fast rule, but meant to be entirely out of love. The point is not to proclaim yourself right and the other person wrong, but it is to bring people to repentance and back to Jesus. We tell ourselves so often that it is loving to look past a sin, but it is not. It’s true to forgive is divine, but avoidance of sin is not even love. Think about it. We always talk about the one true faith. That means in Jesus we find the only true path that leads to salvation in heaven. If someone is straying from the faith, it is not loving to let them go. It is loving to go get that person and bring them back to the narrow path of Christ, even if they do not realize it. I hope that if I ever stray from the faith, you would do everything in you power to make sure I came back to faith in Jesus and be saved. That is real love. Our loving shepherd does not want a single sheep to wander off. Even if it is only one out of a hundred or even a million, he wants that sheep to come back to him. He wants all people to come to the faith and be saved.
In order to bring people back to our Savior we can’t avoid sin. Sin grows. It gets worse. It’s a festering wound that needs to be cut off from the rest of the body. Every evil deed has its source in sin. Those school shootings we hear about all the time. It’s the result of sin. All the selfish acts you here about on the news came from sin. When God created the world, God proclaimed the world as good. You know what ruined all that goodness? Sin. Sin is what makes us deserving of only eternal damnation in hell. Sin is too destructive to let alone. It cannot be avoided. It must be addressed.
The solution? It’s Christ. When Adam and Eve plunged the entire world into sin with their transgressions, they allowed evil to be passed on from generation to generation. It became obvious the human race was not capable of fixing the problem themselves. So the Almighty Father, in his love and mercy, sent his son Jesus to live a life without sin. He was the only one to ever do so. And then he was crucified on a cross and the sins of the entire world, past, present, and future were crucified with him. Now anyone who trusts in Jesus as their Savior and asks Jesus for forgiveness for their sins is forgiven of all their sins. When we die, we now have access to heaven instead of hell. Jesus is the only solution to the consequences of sin. This is the gospel message that all of us need to hear in order to address sin. This is the message that you hear and is imprinted on your heart every time you read your Bible or you go to church.
But offered with the solution to all sin, we still try to avoid addressing sin. We find all sorts of excuses rather than simply dealing with our sins by reading the Bible or going to church. Here are some such examples:
Reasons I never go to church/read my Bible:
- I was forced to as a child
- People who go to church/read their Bible are hypocrites. They think they are cleaner than everyone else.
- There are so many different kinds of church, I could never decide which one was right.
- I used to go to church/read my Bible, but then it got boring.
- I go to church/read my Bible on special occasions, like Easter and Christmas.
- None of my friends go to church/read the Bible.
- I’m still young. When I’m older and dirtier, I might start going to church/reading my Bible.
- I don’t really have time to go to church/read my Bible.
- People who run the church and make Bibles are only after your money.
- I work hard all week and am too tired to read my Bible or go to church.
Avoiding any problem is a terrible idea. It will usually get worse while you are trying to ignore it. Try not paying a bill for a year and see what happens. Try driving your car without any gas to work and see where you end up. How much worse is it when we try to avoid addressing sin when we have the solution of the gospel? I think deep down we know that the excuses given above are not good reasons to avoid the only solution to sin, but let me show you how ridiculous those excuses would sound in a lesser matter.
Reasons I never brush my teeth:
- I was forced to as a child
- People who brush their teeth are hypocrites. They think their teeth are cleaner than everyone else.
- There are so many different kinds of toothpaste, I could never decide which one was right.
- I used to brush my teeth, but then it got boring.
- I brush my teeth on special occasions, like Easter and Christmas.
- None of my friends brush their teeth.
- I’m still young. When my teeth are older and dirtier, I might start brushing my teeth.
- I don’t really have time to brush my teeth.
- People who make toothpaste and toothbrushes are only after your money.
- I work hard all week and am too tired to brush my teeth.
Of course we need to brush our teeth or else they will decay. More necessary is to take care of our spiritual health. No excuses. Jesus addressed our sin in a unique way, blasting through all the doubts and guilt to show you his love and forgiveness. It’s a powerful thing to have someone come to you and say they love you. You might protest and say things like, “but I’m not good enough” or, “but look at the terrible things I’ve done.” Jesus cuts you off again and again saying. “It doesn’t matter. I still love you and put that love into action to bring you into my flock.” Jesus now asks us to do the same for others. Notice how in the process we explained earlier it says to go to your brother or sister who has sinned. Go to them. Share the same love God has shown you. Address their sin with the gospel and point them back to Christ and his forgiveness. Go get that lost sheep. Our text for today leaves us with a powerful promise. He promises that you will not share his Word in vain, but God will show his hand in your work. He also promises that anytime you spread his Word you will not be alone. He is with you. Amen.