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Sermon Message


"The 'Immune' System"

Matthew 18:15-20
Theme: Jesus instructs His church in how to deal lovingly with the sin of a wandering member.

(Delivered Sunday, October 21, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

The Bible describes the church of Jesus Christ—that is, the full assembly of His redeemed people—through many metaphors. And one of the most beautiful of these metaphors is that of a body.

The Bible teaches us that, just like a physical body, the church is a body constituted of many parts. It has a "head"—that is, Jesus Christ; who gives leadership and identity to the body (Ephesians 4:16). It also has many members—which would be you and me; each one of us gifted in a unique way to serve the needs of the others (1 Corinthians 12). We have what we might call a 'life-principle' that runs through the body—that is, the Holy Spirit; who joins the body together into one and gives it power for living (Ephesians 4:4). And there are many other ways we could justifiably expand on that metaphor—saying that we have 'daily food' for the body in the form of the holy Scriptures; and 'oxygen' for the body in the form of prayer.

One of the most vital aspects of any physical body is its "immune system". An immune system is the set of mechanisms within a living body that allows it to identify and effectively deal with things that will cause it harm. Without it, all sorts of harmful things would invade and infect a body—bringing about weakness, or sickness, or even death.

This morning, we come to a passage of Scripture that describes to us the "immune system" of the body of Christ. It's found in Matthew 18:15-20; where the Lord Jesus—the Head of the body—says;

“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:15-20).

* * * * * * * * * *

This is a remarkable passage of Scripture for a number of reasons.

For one thing, the Lord gives more authority in this passage to His people, in the obedience of a specific command, than in any other passage of Scripture I know of. He says, in regard to the keeping of this command, that "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven". He also says that if two or three agree concerning what they ask in this regard, "it will be done for them by My Father in heaven". He concludes by affirming, in this context, that "where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them". In giving this specific instruction to His church, He also gives the church the highest possible authority in the keeping of it

For another thing, this passage is remarkable because of its seriousness. Anytime the Son of God speaks, what He says is of the greatest possible importance. But whenever He prefaces what He says with the phrase "Assuredly, I say to you . . .", He is particularly underscoring the seriousness of what He is about to say. And here, in this passage, He uses that very phrase—not just once but twice! In verse 18, He says (literally), "Amen (or "Truly"), I say to you . . ." And then, in the very next verse, He says, "Again, I say to you . . ." I know of no other passage in which Jesus repeats that phrase, twice in a row, as He does here. Jesus, the divine Head of the church, is letting His church know that what He is saying in this passage is very, very serious.

Another reason this passage is so remarkable is because in it, Jesus issues a surprising number of clearly stated "commands" in rapid succession. The main verbs of this passage are given in what are grammatically referred to as the imperative mood; and the imperative is the mood of 'command'. There are no less than five "imperatives" in just three verses in this passage. In verse 15, He says, "Go"; and that's in the form of a command. And immediately afterwards, He says, "tell him his fault"; and that too is in the form of a command. In verse 16, He says, "take with you one or two more"; and that also is in the form of a command. In verse 17, He says, "tell it to the church"; and that again is a command. And finally, in verse 17, He says, "let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector"; and that, once again, is a command. Think of it! Five direct "command" statements—one after another—in just three verses. Clearly, He means for us, as His followers, to take action with respect to what He tells us in this passage.

And finally, I have to state my personal conviction. I know of no other passage—no other word of instruction from our Lord to His church—that the neglect of which has resulted in more harm and loss to the church than this passage. In modern times, the failure on the part of the church to do as its Lord here clearly commands it to do has resulted in more wreckage within the church—more broken Christian homes and destroyed Christian marriages; more congregational fights and church splits; more false doctrines and dangerously deluding theologies slipping into the church; more public shame from fallen church leaders and pastors; more financial scandals with church funds; more moral compromises of its individual members; more entrenchment of sin in its congregation; more hypocritical worldliness on the part of the church; and more embarrassment to the cause of Christ and destruction of the church's witness to the world—than anything I can think of.

Those are strong words, I know. But we all know such things are happening. And I sincerely believe that many of those shameful things could have been prevented from going as far as they did in the church, if this word of instruction from our Lord had been more faithfully obeyed by its members. This passage provides the necessary "immune system" to the body that is absolutely essential to its health and effectiveness in this world—helping it to deal with the little sin problems that are found in its midst before they become big and destructive.

When it comes to sin, the church is suffering from an "immunodeficiency disorder" today. And yet, here, our Lord gives us the cure.

* * * * * * * * * *

Let's consider our passage in detail. First, I ask that you notice . . .


Jesus begins by giving us the situation. He says, "Moreover, if your brother sins against you . . ." Or as some of your translations have it, simply, "If your brother sins . . ."1

People who read of this passage sometimes ask, "When should I follow this process? Should I do it for every sin that is committed? After all, we're all sinners. If we did this for every little sin, I'll be doing nothing else all day for the rest my our life!"

Thankfully, the Bible also tells us that "love will cover a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8; see also Proverbs 10:12). There are some offenses that our brother or sister may commit that are best overlooked in love. The vast majority of our faults toward one another can legitimately fall into this category.

But there are other sins that it would be wrong to throw 'a cover of love' over. In fact, there are some sins that to ignore would not be loving at all. When someone is engaged in a practice that is in clear disobedience to God's word, or that is itself an unloving and thoughtless act toward another brother or sister, or when it is a matter that clearly causes harm to the body of Christ or to the testimony of His gospel, then it something that must be dealt with as Jesus commands.

So then; whenever it comes to our attention that our brother or sister in Christ has some sin in his or her life, what should we do? Sadly, what people often do at this point is say, "Well, it's really not any of my business. And besides; I'm not sure it would do any good to say anything anyway. To each his own." To do that would be to disobey the Lord; because the very first command that He gives is "Go!"

We are not to ignore the matter. We are not to just simply say, "It's none of my business. We are—truly—to 'mind our own business'; but according to the Lord, our 'business' is to go to the person and ask about it!

* * * * * * * * * *

The first step that the Lord gives us with respect to our sinning fellow believer is to "go and tell him his fault between you and him alone" (v. 15). Notice that Jesus is telling us that we are go to them privately. No one else is to be involved. It is to be a conversation between ourselves and that sinning brother.

Jesus tells us that we are to "tell" that sinning brother—or as the New American Standard translation has it, "show" that brother—"his fault". This assumes the best about our sinning brother; because on the one hand, our sinning brother may not even be aware that his fault is a sin at all. And what's more, it may be that we ourselves are seeing something incorrectly—thinking our brother or sister is guilty of sin when, in fact, we have not correctly interpreted the situation.

A policy I have adopted is that I should first come to my brother or sister and say something like this: "Listen; I've noticed something in your life that concerns me. But I want to make sure that I'm seeing things correctly. Is what I see correct?" This gives them the chance to correct me if I'm in error. It may be that they can tell me, "Oh no. That's not what's happening at all." And if that's the case, I can thank them and move on.

If, on the other hand, they say, "Yeah. You see it correctly. Is that a problem?", then you can open up the Scriptures and "show" them their fault. I believe this should be done with great love and care. It should be done in the same manner in which you would want someone to approach you if you were involved in sin. And it may even be necessary to approach this brother or sister more than just one time; because we all need a little time to let things sink in.

Now; before I depart from this first step in the process, let me just point out one more thing. People in church sometimes think to themselves, "This isn't something for me to do. This is something best left to 'the professionals'. I'll wait for the pastor to do it." And yet, do you see anywhere in this passage where Jesus says anything to pastors? This isn't a command for "pastors only". This is a command from the Lord for every believer in His church to "Go".

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; that first step is the most important—and I would dare to say, the most neglected—of them all. But let's assume that, in obedience, you have approached a brother or sister who is engaged in some sinful practice. Let's suppose that you have come to them lovingly and clearly about the matter, have determined that you were correct—that there truly is a matter of sin in their life, and that you have shown them their fault.

And let's further suppose that they "heard" you. They realized that they had sinned and they took immediate steps to make things right. If that happens, then praise God! It worked! Jesus says, "If he hears you, you have gained your brother" (v. 15). That, after all, is the goal of this whole process—to win back a wandering brother! It was done in private; and so there's no need to tell anyone else. You certainly don't need to blab it to others and say, "Hey; praise God with me! I confronted 'So and so' about his sin; and he repented!" No one but you, that brother, and God, ever needs to know anything further about it. I can tell you in all honesty that there are more 'sin issues' that have occurred in our church family than you could imagine—issues so serious that they would curl your toes! But you'll never hear about them. You'll never need to. They were dealt with at this level, repentance occurred, and the matter is over and done with!

But what if that sinning brother or sister will not "hear" you? What if they say, "Mind your own business. I'm not doing anything to hurt you. I don't really believe it's a sin anyway." It would be tempting in such a case to drop it. But that would not be functioning as a part of the body's "immune system". Once again, Jesus issues a command to take things to the next step—a step that helps to clearly determine whether it really is a serious 'sin issues' or not. He says, "But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established'" (v. 16).

Bringing one or two other believers into the matter is important for three practical reasons. First, it may be that I myself—as the one bringing up the issue—am out of line. I may be making a serious "sin" out of something that is best simply covered with love; and I need the objectivity that another one or two believers may provide. It may be that, after hearing my concern, and then after hearing the response of the one I'm approaching, they can tell me that I'm in error and need to drop the matter. And if that's the case, then that's what I'd better do. It's not about winning an argument, remember. It's about winning a brother.

And secondly, it is important for the practical reason that, if it in fact is a matter of sin, and if that sinning brother truly is refusing to hear me, the admonition of another one or two Christians may be what God uses to bring that sinning brother to repentance.

Thirdly, it's important for the practical reason that, if that sinning brother will not hear the combined admonition of myself and the two I bring with me, then those other two serve as a witness to every word that is said. This is in keeping with the Scripture; because our Lord quotes the Old Testament command from Deuteronomy 19:15; “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established."

* * * * * * * * * *

Now it may be that, over the passage of a few days, the sinning brother begins to feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit, begins to see the error of his ways, and then tells me and the others I brought with me, "You know what? You're right. I have sinned; and I repent before the Lord. Would you all pray for me and help me to know what the Lord would have me do to make things right?"

And again, if that happens, praise God! It worked! You have won your brother; and there's no need for it to go any further than that. No one else needs to know. (Can you see, by the way, how this would utterly defeat "gossip" in the church?)

But let's suppose that the sinning brother first refused to hear the one who approached him, and then refuses to hear the one or two others that were also brought in to the matter. Once again, it would be tempting to drop the matter. But the Lord will not allow us to do so. Each time the matter moves up to the next stage, it becomes more serious. And so, Jesus next commands, "And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church" (v. 17).

Because the Bible teaches that the Lord has established leaders to watch over and protect His church (Ephesians 4:11-12), and because the Bible commands that the role of those leaders be honored (Hebrews 13:17), I believe that the matter must first be brought to those leaders of the church. They need to speak to the one who is not hearing the admonition of these few individuals; and the leaders need to officially endorse that admonition, and lovingly and prayerfully add their own admonition to it. This would be, I believe, a necessary first step in 'telling it to the church', because it honors the role of the properly appointed church leaders.

And again, it may be that the sinning brother will hear the admonition of the leaders of the church and repent. And if that's the case, praise God! It worked; and the restoration of a wandering brother can begin. But if he will not hear the leaders of the church, it's the duty of the leaders to inform the church family at large. It had been kept private up to that point; but now, it must be made public. Every detail doesn't need to be shared. Only those things need to be shared that are necessary to accurately explain the nature of the sin, to show that private admonitions have not to this point been "heard" by the sinning brother, and that the church family at large must now call this individual to repentance.

* * * * * * * * * *

Again, it may be that the Holy Spirit would use the loving but resolute admonition of the church family at large to move the sinning brother to clear, public repentance. And again, if that happens, praise God! A brother has been won! A wandering sheep has been restored to the fold. The matter can then be considered over; and the healing process can begin.

But if, as sadly sometimes happens, the sinning person refuses to hear even the church, then there is one more step that must be taken. It ceases at that point to be a matter of calling a sinning brother to repentance; and now becomes a matter of protecting the spiritual health and moral purity of the church body. Jesus says, "And if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector" (v. 17).

The word translated "heathen" is the same as the word for "gentile". To the Jewish disciples to whom Jesus spoke, this would speak of someone who was 'outside' of the relationship that God has with His covenant people. This would mean that this person would have to be considered, at that point, to be "unsaved" and outside of Jesus' saving grace. But then, Jesus goes on to say that this person is to be considered as "a tax collector"; and in the Jewish mind, this would mean more than just a common, garden-variety sinner. In the Jewish mind, a tax collector would be someone who was a very notorious sinner—a traitor to his own people who collected taxes from them to give to the Roman government. This suggests that, when someone makes the profession to be a follower of Jesus, but who refuses to turn away from sin even when the church calls them to, then they have placed themselves in a category of sinfulness that is very sinful and very dangerous to the body.

It's a horrible thing to officially declare someone to be "outside of the body". But when it is necessary for the protection of the body, it something that the church must do. This is why this command from the Lord is like the "immune system" of the body. It identifies and deals with that which would, otherwise, cause untold harm to the church.

But I would add that, when it is found that this must be done, it should always be done with prayer for the one who is thus considered "outside of the body". It may still be that God would work repentance in them. And if they sincerely repent and turn back to Jesus, they should be warmly forgiven and eagerly welcomed back into the fold.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; that is the process by which a wandering member of the flock should be pursued. This leads us, lastly, to consider . . .


Jesus describes that authority in three ways. First, He speaks of the authority that He Himself gives to the church. He says, "Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (v. 18).

Jesus already spoke of this in chapter 16. He told Peter—who stood as a representative of the church—that "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19). The church has been entrusted with "keys"; and with "keys" comes authority. The church may "bind" something on earth in the matters in which the Lord has given it authority; and as the words themselves literally mean, it will "have already been bound" in heaven. Or it may "loose" something on earth in terms of that which the Lord has entrusted to it's authority, and it will "have already been loosed" in heaven. Heaven itself will endorse the the action of the church on earth; because the church's action will have been the decree that heaven had already made.

And what is it that the Lord has given authority to the church to "bind" or "loose"? Just after He arose from the dead and appeared to His disciples, He breathed on them and told them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:22-23).

In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ—the Judge of all the earth— has given the church this process to follow in determining the sins of those who are in its midst. And if sin has been found out by us in this way, the Lord says that what we "bind" (that is, the sins we have "retained") will have been bound in heaven; and what we "loose" (that is, the sins we have "forgiven") will have been loosed in heaven.

No one, then, should ever despise or turn their nose up at the careful, prayerfully determined decision of the body of Christ in this matter. Jesus has given great authority in the church; and heaven itself stands behind the decision.

* * * * * * * * * *

Jesus also expresses the authority of the church in this matter by describing the power that is behind it. He says, "Again, I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven" (v. 19).

Many people take this verse too far. They assume that anytime two or more Christians come together to ask for something, the necessary conditions are met and God is bound to do it. We know that that's not the case because the Bible tells us that it took only one man—Elijah—to pray and to move God to bring about a great drought on the land; and then again to pray and to bring the rain back. The Bible tells us that the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man—just one—avails much (James 5:16-17).

I believe that the Lord is meaning for us to understand this in the context of the process just spoken of. When two brothers or sisters in Christ come together in concern over a sinning believer who has wandered away; and when they ask for God's work in that person's life, and when they pray for wisdom in dealing with it, and for the protection of the church family and for God's gracious work in the life of the wandering one, God the Father in heaven hears them and grants them what they ask. The Father has a heart for the church—and for that wandering one too; and we would then be asking something that He is already eager to do.

* * * * * * * * * *

And finally, Jesus expresses the great authority of the church in this process by describing His own personal support and involvement. He says, "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (v. 20).

Again, Jesus isn't speaking simply of the fact that whenever two or three are gathered together in His name, He is there. Personally, I am confident that He is "there" when it's only me! But I also know that it takes more than just me for Jesus to be said to be in the "midst"; and the particular context in which He promises His presence "in the midst" is when two or three gather together in the pursuit of a wandering Christian.

And we can draw great comfort from this. The process Jesus is calling us to follow is a hard one. It is filled with pitfalls and dangers; and our own spirits are anguished in the doing of it. But He is there with us in it. He will help us; guiding us in making the right decisions, leading us to make sure that we are of the right attitude of heart, and directing us to have His own goal in the matter—that is, the winning of that wandering brother or sister.

* * * * * * * * * *

So; there's the church's "immune system". It can be a very hard and painful process to follow; but I hope you can see how very necessary it is.

And let me close with one final word of exhortation. The apostle James—the good pastor to the church of Jerusalem—closes his New Testament letter with these words;

Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).

It's a hard work our Lord calls us to do. But it's a necessary one; and a good one as well. Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, "Go"!

1The best textual evidence suggests that the words "against you" are not a part of Matthew's original text; so it's best to simply understanding Jesus to be saying, "Moreover, if your brother sins . . ."

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