NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 16: “But if they refuse to listen, go to them again and take one or two people with you. Then there will be two or three people who will be able to tell all that happened.”
We must remind ourselves at this point, that Jesus has been conversing about how young believers, like an innocent child, can so easily be led astray by people with ulterior motives and lack of character. But like an errant sheep, don’t dismiss them as being hopelessly lost. Go in search of them, find them, and persuade them to return to the fold. However, if they resist don’t walk away and count them as unworthy of your time. Go and get some help.
Here our Lord repeats a ruling that everyone in the crowd no doubt knew about.1 According to Jewish tradition, Rabbis taught: “When do we know that if a man sees something indecent in his neighbor, he is obliged to admonish him? Because it is said: You are obligated to rebuke.2 If he rebuked him and he did not accept it, when do we know that he must rebuke him again? The text states: ‘surely rebuke’ all ways. One might assume this to be obligatory even though his face turned pale, therefore, the text states: ‘You should not tolerate sin because of him’.”3
We find this same admonition in the writings of a venerable Rabbi who said: “A person who rebukes a colleague – whether because of a wrong committed against him or because of a matter between his colleague and God – should rebuke him privately. He should speak to him patiently and gently, informing him that he is only making these statements for his colleague’s own welfare, to allow him to merit the life of the world to come. If he accepts the rebuke, it is good; if not, he should rebuke him a second and third time. Indeed, one is obligated to rebuke a colleague who does wrong until the latter strikes him and tells him: ‘I will not listen.’ Whoever has the possibility of rebuking [sinners] and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke the [sinners].”4
British theologian John Gill5 shares that Johannes Buxtorf (1564-1629), Jewish professor of Hebrew at the university in Basel, Switzerland, found this passage among many of the Jewish manuscripts he examined: “The wise man says, if your friend injures you, admonish him privately: if he listens, you have already gained; if he does not listen, speak to him in the presence of one or two, who may hear the matter, and if he still will not listen consider him a ‘friend not worth keeping’.’”6 The point here is that Jesus was not teaching some new radical theology, but reinforcing what the Law and prophets already said. This certainly indicates that when God spoke to Abraham, Moses, and the others in the past, He did not misspeak and now would have to correct Himself through His Son. Whatever God said the first time will be exactly what He says again.
These guidelines from the Master were as much for the protection of the errant individual as it was for the mentor. After taking these extra steps, there cannot be this alibi of why it didn’t work: “I said, he said.” Think about this: Everything you say to God is heard by both the Son and Holy Spirit. That way, when the Holy Spirit convicts you of some wrong doing and you go to God for forgiveness and His Son nods in approval, it’s because all three know what happened and what action needs to be taken. So what works in heaven should work here on earth. Jesus was talking about reconciliation with the whole flock, not just the shepherd.
Verse 17: “If they refuse to listen to them, tell the congregation. And if they refuse to listen to the congregation, treat them as you would an unrepentant sinner or someone who is openly dishonest.”
This would constitute a third attempt at offering the errant individual forgiveness if they will only repent and return to the fold. If they still refused, then as friends you and the other elders have done your best, and there would be no further obligation on your part. Again, our Lord reinforces what was already taught by the Rabbis. In their writings, we read: “If his colleague does not desire to forgive him, he should bring a group of three of his friends and approach him with them and request forgiveness. If the wronged party is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time. If he still does not want to forgive him, he may let him alone and need not pursue the matter further. On the contrary, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is the one considered as the sinner.”7
This is good advice for every Pastor to pass on to his elders and church council. This way, it won’t be just your story that the individual was unwilling to participate in reconciliation, but also that of the witnesses. Then Jesus echoes what God the Father told Ezekiel about such unrepentant backsliders, “Then you will know that I am the LORD. It was my law that you broke. You did not obey my commands. You decided to live like the nations around you.”8 It is important that we take what Jesus is about to say in context with what He just said, otherwise it can easily be misinterpreted.
On the subject of excommunication, Augustine has this to add: “Don’t consider him now in the number of your brothers. However, should his salvation be neglected? For even the heathen, that is, the Gentiles and pagans, we do not consider in the number of our brothers, yet we constantly pray for their salvation.”9 In other words, we have the right to remove them as an influence from the congregation, but we have no right to remove them from being potential recipients of God’s grace and mercy.
Verse 18: “I can assure you that whatever you determine to be wrong here on earth, it will be wrong with God. And whatever you determine to be right here on earth, it will be right with God.”
First, we must recall what Jesus is talking about before He makes this critical statement. He has been talking about those disobedient members of the congregation who refuse to repent for things that they have done wrong, especially if it involved in leading a weaker member of the community into sin and disobedience. Even after they have been given several opportunities to make things right with God and with the congregation. This is to insure that the Body of Christ is kept holy and reverent before the Lord. Therefore, any decision that the leaders, elders, and community of believers make concerning such people will be honored by God.
Early church fathers give us their understanding of what Jesus was teaching here. For instance, Origen states: “Therefore when a person like this has been constrained and condemned by someone, they remain constrained insofar as none of those in heaven rescinds the judgment of the man by whom he was constrained. So too the man who has once been warned and does things worthy of being won back is released through the warning of the one who wins him back. He is no longer bound by the bonds of his errors for which he was warned and constrained; he will be judged by those in heaven as having been set free.”10 In other words, God through the Holy Spirit will not overrule the decision made concerning an errant and disobedient member by those in leadership after much prayer and consultation.
Then Augustine has this to say: “So the very moment you begin to hold your brother as an outsider to the covenant community, ‘you bind him on earth.’ But see to it that you bind him justly. For unjust bonds will by justice soon be burst apart.… When you have admonished him and have been ‘reconciled to your brother,’ you have thereby ‘loosed him on earth.’ And when ‘you shall have loosed him on earth, he shall be loosed in heaven’ also. So this is a weighty matter. You do this not for yourself but for him. For the harm he has done is not primarily to you but to himself.”11
This is followed by early church scholar Theodore of Mopsuestia who opines: “Since Jesus shows that if they loose those who repent, their action has power since the church in heaven and on earth is one. Anyone who does not want to be loosed from the bond of his sin but draws it to himself by the alienation of the saints is alienated also from the church in heaven and accordingly is also bound by it. Hence, if one is earnest about being loosed and receives the loosing of the saints when they ‘ratify their love for him,’ as Paul teaches, he will belong in the heavenly church and be loosed from the bondage of the judgment.”12
Early church preacher Chrysostom then adds his insight to this discussion: “Jesus did not say to the leader of the church, ‘bind him’ but ‘if you bind him,’ leaving the whole entire decision to the one aggrieved. Only after a due process do the bonds remain unbreakable, and so he will suffer the worst fate. It is not the one who has called for accountability that is to blame but the one who had not been willing to be persuaded. Do you see how Christ has bound him with a twofold constraint, both by the chastisement here and by the punishment hereafter? He threatens the one punishment to prevent the other from happening. Thus, by fearing both rejection from the church and the threat of being bound in heaven, he may become better behaved. And knowing these things, if not at the beginning, at any rate through so many judgments he will put off his anger. For this reason, Jesus set up a first and a second and a third judging. He does not immediately cut him down, so that if he does not obey the first, he may still yield to the second. But if he rejects that too, he may still respect the third. But if he takes no account of this third danger, let him be terrified of future punishment, of God’s sentence and vengeance.”13
We have seen where the terms “loose and loosen” as well as “bind and bound” are synonyms for the decision by the authorities to either remove the need for punishment of an individual who has repented, or maintain the need for punishment for one who refuses to listen, after they were confronted with the evidence, counseled, and offered the opportunity to repent of errors made against the body of believers. It must be kept in that context. However, it must also be inclusive of those who repent of their errors to God and receive His forgiveness. This means, that the rules by which the body of Christ operate here on earth must not conflict with the rules by which the body of Christ is operated from heaven. Those rules have been clearly outlined in the message brought by God’s Son, to be delivered personally to all who believe in Him as their Messiah, their Savior, and their Redeemer.
Therefore, any rules of conduct made by various communities of believers here on earth that cannot be confirmed by what Jesus taught, may determine the eligibility of members of such groups, but will not be binding on their fellowship with God the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit. These are the things that have divided believers in the Christian faith over the centuries. But in the end, God will be the final judge.
3Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Kodashim, Masekhet Arachin, folio 16b
4Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Madda, Tractate De’ot, Ch. 6, Halacha 7
5John Gills Exposition of the Bible Commentary, loc. cit.
6Florilegium Hebraicum: continens elegantes Sententias Proverbia, Apophthegmata, Similitudines: ex optimis quibusque, maxime vero priscis, Hebraeorum scriptoribus collectum, et secondum locos communes ordine Alphabetico dispositum. Basil 1648 [Selected Hebrew: An elegant collection containing the Proverbs, Sayings, and Similitudes: from the best of men, and above all the ancient Jewish writers, is collected, and alphabetically listed in order according to common dialects.]
7Moses Maimonides, op., cit., Sefer Madda, Tractate Teshuvah, Ch. 2, Halacha 9
8 Ezekiel 11:12
9 Augustine: Sermon 82.7
10 Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 13:31
11 Augustine: Sermon 82.7
12 Theodore of Mopsuestia: Commentary fragment 96
13 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 60.2