To benefit most from this article, it would be good for you to first read Matthew 18 and then keep it open next to you.
Matthew 18 is a chapter about saving fellow Christians. The chapter starts with Jesus’ disciples wanting to know, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (v. 1). Their motive for the question seems to be personal glory: How can I get the spotlight onto me? How can I be the most important, the most respected, the most admired? How can they satisfy their ungodly appetite for being the greatest?
Jesus answers with a practical illustration. He calls a child into their midst. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (vv. 2–3).It seems like a contradiction: The smallest is the greatest.
The point that Jesus is making is that little children can’t make it on their own in this world. They are intensely dependent on others to survive and find satisfaction. “Independence” would destroy them. God’s grownup children are no different. We need the help of others and they need us. One particular area in which we need help with is our war against sin. Sin has the power to destroy and we could either push others towards destruction, for which there is a grave warning (v. 6), or we could save them from destruction. Saving them is what Jesus talks about next.
Christians, like children are naturally prone to do foolish things. Some of our behaviour, if not stopped, may eventually lead to our destruction. Christians, like children, need others who care enough to intervene when they pursue harmful activities.
In vv. 7–9, Jesus instructs us to deal severely with our own sin to avoid bringing ultimate harm to ourselves. However, in this grave process, we should not be alone. When fellow Christians see us sin, they should care enough to save us (v. 15). We need each other to bring us back to a place of safety (vv. 12–14).
Confrontation is painful to both those on the giving and the receiving end: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). The pain involved, sadly, often prompts us to rather preserve our own popularity than preserve the lives of others through selfless love. Exposing sin is awkward and painful, but if we can see the value of it, we will not avoid the encounter.
A further problem with Christians, like children, is that we do not always hear after the first painful confrontation. Despite the real threat that sin holds, we do not necessarily see the danger, even when someone else points it out. Love covers over a multitude of sins—but only those that have been dealt with (James 5:19–20). If there is a prideful unwillingness to confess and deal with sin then it needs to be exposed. “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). If someone does not take personal responsibility for his sin, either by downplaying it or blaming others, we need to try harder to make them hear; we need to make them feel more pain. The pain is increased by telling one or two others and taking them along to confront the sinner. We do not increase pain because we have run out of patience or our love has run dry; on the contrary, pain is a severe expression of love: “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (v. 15). Following this, if he does not want to listen, the whole congregation needs to be informed of the matter.
Should this step be unsuccessful in producing repentance, the next step must be to isolate the person from fellowship. “Isolation,” that is, withdrawal of fellowship, is the final step to inflict pain. Although this may seem harsh we need to remember that this is God’s prescription to secure the benefit of the person acknowledging his or her sin and then repenting. Such repentance results in reconciliation. But it also serves another important purpose: In the Old Testament, isolation was meant to prevent spreading of physical disease as well as “spiritual disease.” When Paul calls the Corinthian church to address those who are guilty of sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, revilement, drunkenness, or swindling, he borrows a phrase used often in Deuteronomy: “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13). The message is clear: The church should deliberately avoid conversation with unrepentant sinners—conversation, that is, which implies that all is well. We are not helping the sick by declaring them to be well.
The final step is painful but not without hope. Some believers will respond by listening and then we need to forgive them. Peter asks Jesus about this in v. 21: How often do we need to forgive? Jesus shows how quickly and comprehensively the process of discipline can come to an end: As soon as the sin is repented of, the record is wiped clean, not just seven times but seventy times seven times (or seven times in one day, according to Luke 17:4). Even if the fellow-believer sins repeatedly, if he earnestly confesses his sin, the record is clean, and the process is stopped. If the sinner humbles himself like a child and acknowledges his dependence on God and others, forgiveness is complete.
Jesus encourages His followers by fully endorsing this step: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (vv. 18–19).
To summarise then: To attain greatness, we need to humble ourselves to become like children. Children are dependent on others for their survival and joy. We need each other’s help because of our proneness to sin. Since sin is destructive and may eventually lead to our eternal condemnation, we need to deal severely with our own sin. When we see our brother sin, we need to lovingly pursue him, even if we need to go to great lengths to do so. We need to care enough to confront. If he hears us, we have all gained as he is brought back to safety. If he won’t listen, we need to take one or two others along to speak to him. If he still won’t listen then we need to tell it to the congregation. If he still won’t listen, he needs to be treated as an outsider. If, however, he at any stage repents, we need to forgive him completely. It is this God-prescribed humility that heals.