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The Church is One

 

John 17 “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (v. 11b).

Our study of Matthew 18 now complete, we have seen how the church is to exhibit pastoral concern, guard the church’s holiness, and readmit to communion all those who, though they have broken fellowship, turn from their sins and seek restoration. Before returning to Matthew’s gospel, however, we need to look at the nature of the church in order to understand why discipline and forgiveness are needed to preserve the purity of the church. Dr. R.C. Sproul will guide our study through this subject with his teaching series The Bride of Christ.

John 17, which records the longest prayer in the New Testament, provides some of the most important teaching on the church. As we can see in this chapter, Jesus is concerned with the unity of His people, praying for His disciples and all those who come after them to be one in purpose and mission even as He and His Father are one (vv. 11b, 22–23). It is therefore regrettable that the church of Jesus Christ in our day evidences little visible unity. In the United States alone, there are hundreds of different Protestant denominations, including dozens of varieties each of Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, and so on.

Faced with this scandalous reality, there has been a tendency in the twentieth century and now, in the twenty-first century, to try and correct this problem. As a result of the ecumenical movement, many new denominations have formed through the mergers of old ones, and there has been a push for believers to affirm what unites them over and against what divides them. This is laudable when those professing unity agree on the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith, but such is not often the case. Many times those seeking “unity” are those who are most eager to jettison any real adherence to the confessional standards of the church. Such unity is merely visible, and cracks begin to show when Bible-believers in the church begin to rightly protest the excesses of the liberal wings of their denominations.

If unity is to mean anything, Jesus also affirms in John 17, it must be a unity grounded in the truth (vv. 17–19). Unity is meaningless when church members do not confess the same Lord and Savior.

Coram deo: Living before the face of God

Consider today the importance of true Christian unity, one that is a unity of faith and not only an organizational unity. What type of unity is your particular church concerned to promote? What type of unity is your passion? Take time today to pray for your particular church and denomination that they would seek to be one with other Christians, but not at the expense of the faith once given to the saints. Do what you can to promote such unity with other believers.

For further study:  Amos 3:3

The Bible in a year:  Psalms 68–69

For the weekend:  Psalms 70–72

INTO the WORD daily Bible studies from TableTalk Magazine, Matthew Studies. Copyright © 2008 by Ligonier Ministries.

 

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Unlimited Forgiveness

 

Matthew 18:21–35 “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35).

A discussion of church discipline must recognize two errors often made in the interpretation of Matthew 18:15–20. First, we err if we divorce the church’s authority from its biblical basis, since this inevitably exalts church tradition above Scripture and binds people to confess many unbiblical doctrines. Yet as the Westminster Confession of Faith aptly states, church authority is inseparable from the Word of God, which alone binds the conscience absolutely (1.10). Scripture, and the events it records, establishes the church; therefore, Scripture stands in authority over the church. Church decisions bind only when they are biblical; to violate God’s Word for tradition’s sake is evil (Matt. 15:1–9).

The second error thinks 18:20 guarantees Jesus’ approval of anything two or more believers agree upon in prayer. However, the verse’s context refutes this view. Indeed, Jesus is present when believers congregate, but verse 20 promises that He backs up the church’s authority when it makes decisions in accord with the Bible, not that He will do whatever a group of Christians asks of Him.

Forgiveness and the restoration of relationship is the goal of discipline — from the first step to the last step of excommunication. Peter understands this partly; he will forgive a person up to seven times, more than the three times the rabbis prescribe in his day (v. 21). That Peter’s comprehension is incomplete is revealed in the Savior’s command to forgive “seventy times seven” (v. 22). According to some Reformed New Testament scholars Jesus really says, “seventy-seven times,” but the precise number is unimportant. Either way, as seen in the parable that follows, Christ is actually teaching that forgiveness must be unlimited.

Ten thousand talents is upwards of a trillion dollars in modern currency. It is an amount the servant could never repay; only by the king’s grace can this debt be canceled (vv. 23–27). As imitators of the true King, we, the recipients of grace, must show mercy, for Jesus will condemn all who are unmerciful toward their debtors (vv. 28–35). Believers, collectively as the church and individually, must always forgive penitent people. How can we possibly be Christians if we, whose unpayable debt has been erased, refuse to pardon those who have wronged us?

Coram deo: Living before the face of God

It is not as if unforgiving people lose their salvation, Matthew Henry says, for “those who do not forgive their brother’s trespasses, did never truly repent of their own, and therefore that which is taken away is only what they seemed to have.” Henry also gives a great principle for the Christian life: “God multiplies his pardons, and so should we. We should make it our constant practice to forgive injuries, and should accustom ourselves to it until it becomes habitual.”

For further study:  Genesis 45:1–24

The Bible in a year:  Psalms 65–67

INTO the WORD daily Bible studies from TableTalk Magazine, Matthew Studies. Copyright © 2008 by Ligonier Ministries.

 

Church Authority

 

Matthew 18:18–20 “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” (v. 18).

In our day, respect for church authority has all but vanished. Many professing Christians think their “private lives” are no business of the church. Excommunication from a local body is hardly ever taken seriously since it rarely prevents someone from joining the church next door with no questions asked.

Several phenomena explain this sad reality. The church’s fragmentation makes it easy to move from one denomination to another. Many church leaders exalt numerical growth and will not ask hard questions of the people in the pews for fear of learning a fact that would bar someone from membership. Furthermore, individualism and the way our culture falsely divides our private and personal lives makes it hard to honor the authority of Christ’s church.

Yet our “private sins” are the church’s business, and her judgments, when they conform to Scripture, are divinely authorized. We see this in today’s passage as Jesus in Matthew 18:18–19 gives to the apostles primarily, and the church derivatively, the keys of the kingdom first given to Peter (see Matt. 16:18–19; John 20:19–23). Matthew Henry writes, “If the censures of the church duly follow the institution of Christ, his judgments will follow the censures of the church, for Christ will not allow his own ordinances to be trampled on.”

Church discipline decides whether or not a person is a member in good standing of Christ’s church, and such decisions have weight only if they agree with God’s Word. The keys belong first to the apostles, making their inspired writings determinative. Moreover, the curse on the self-proclaimed “prophets” who denied the Word (Jer. 23:9–15) teaches the church to make decisions according to Scripture. Augustine warns that unbiblical verdicts are null and void. In discipline, the church must “bind [people] justly. For unjust bonds justice doth burst asunder” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 6, p. 359).

Safety resides in an abundance of counselors (Prov. 11:14), and a decision church elders make corporately is more likely to be biblical than if made by one man alone. Thus, Jesus assures us of His approving presence when two or more gather in His name to make decisions according to His will (Matt. 18:19–20).

Coram deo: Living before the face of God

The church’s ability to liberate people, says John Calvin, is not limited to the restoration of disciplined members to full participation in the congregation. Such liberation is also discharged when elders, according to Scripture, assure repentant people of pardon after sin is confessed. This “awakens in the godly no ordinary confidence, when they hear that their sins are blotted out before God and angels, as soon as they have obtained forgiveness from the Church.”

For further study:  Numbers 11:16–30

The Bible in a year:  Psalms 62–64

INTO the WORD daily Bible studies from TableTalk Magazine, Matthew Studies. Copyright © 2008 by Ligonier Ministries.

 

Redemptive Discipline

Matthew 18:15–17 “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” (v. 15).

James M. Boice’s comments on Matthew 18:13 remind sinners that “everything God has done is for your salvation, and no one in all the universe will be happier at your repentance than God” (The Gospel of Matthew: An Expositional Commentary, vol. 2, p. 388). If the Father rejoices to see errant sinners return, we must also desire transgressors to be restored, no matter their offenses. This principle undergirds today’s passage, the classic text on church discipline.

Discipline necessarily means confrontation and is established in Christ’s call for us to care for the spiritual growth of one another (Matt. 18:10–14). We are required to intervene when Christian friends and family go astray, otherwise sin might destroy that person. In a real sense, we are our brother’s keeper.

Verse 15 addresses offenses between two believers privately, not those against the church corporately. John Calvin wisely teaches that in certain cases we can skip this first step and right away call witnesses (vv. 16–17) and, if necessary, local authorities, if the sin is an illegal activity. Physical abuse, for example, might be a case in which this is done. Normally, however, we face those who offend us in private. Of course, we overlook peccadilloes in love, without mandating repentance for every sin (1 Peter 4:8). Nevertheless, more consequential sins demand us to go alone to the offender first, without gossiping and spreading the news to unconcerned parties (Matt. 18:15). We hope for repentance, but regardless of the initial outcome, Calvin teaches, no one may disgrace “his brother, by rashly, and without necessity, divulging secret offenses.”

If no repentance is forthcoming, the offended party must go back to the accused with one or two others (v. 16). This conforms to God’s principles for justice (Deut. 19:15); witnesses protect the offender and the offended from false accusations. Finally, if the sinner remains impenitent, he is excommunicated from the assembly (Matt. 18:17). Even then, Augustine writes, let us not neglect the offender’s salvation: “For the very heathen, that is, the Gentiles and Pagans, we do not reckon among the number of brethren; but yet are we ever seeking their salvation” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 6, p. 359).

Coram deo: Living before the face of God

In excommunication, Dr. John MacArthur writes, “the idea is not merely to punish the offender, or to shun him completely, but to remove him as a detrimental influence from the fellowship of the church, and then to regard him as an evangelistic prospect rather than as a brother” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1,158). Think of someone who has, on account of unrepentant sin, been cast out of your church. Take time today to pray for his salvation.

For further study:  Proverbs 24:28–29

The Bible in a year:  Psalms 59–61

INTO the WORD daily Bible studies from TableTalk Magazine, Matthew Studies. Copyright © 2008 by Ligonier Ministries.

The Lord’s Care for His Own

Matthew 18:10–14 “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (v. 14).

After a brief interlude in which Jesus warns us to separate ourselves from those things that tempt us, our Savior returns in today’s passage to a discussion of how the children of the kingdom must treat one another. Matthew 18:10 records His warning that we not “despise one of these little ones.” Given that chapter 18 has thus far emphasized our need for humility (vv. 1–9), Christ is telling us that we must not become puffed up with self-pride and look down on other Christians. Despising another believer means to treat him with disrespect, refusing to receive him as our equal in God’s eyes (see v. 5).

Dr. John MacArthur gives a fine summary of what we are to learn from verses 10–14, namely, that to treat “any fellow believer with contempt is extremely serious since God and the holy angels are so concerned for their well-being” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1,157). First of all, the angels in heaven dwell continually before our Creator, beholding His face (Matt. 18:10), which probably means in this context that they are attentive to the Father’s will and always ready to obey His commands. Should He release them, these angels will move at His order to minister to His children (Heb. 1:14). Fear of reprisal from these creatures should be enough to make any of us treat our fellow Christians well.

Secondly, and far more significant, God’s “care extends itself to every particular member of the flock, even the lowest” (Matthew Henry). He shepherds His people, working to keep errant believers from finally perishing (Matt. 18:12–14). Since we are called to imitate God (Eph. 5:1), to some degree we all must minister to one another. Of course, the elders of the church are the primary shepherds of the Lord’s flock (1 Peter 5:1–5). Nevertheless, we must still bear the burdens of one another (Gal. 6:2) and love wandering brothers and sisters back into the fold. Oftentimes, we will not reach out to others who are stuck in sin or who have harmed us because we think they are beyond redemption. Such an attitude betrays an arrogance that believes we who live holy lives are more deserving of God’s love than others. Such an attitude is not the mark of our Father’s humble children, who alone will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1–4).

Coram deo: Living before the face of God

God is not willing that any of His own should perish (Matt. 18:14), and so He shepherds us, using His staff to discipline us if that is what is necessary to keep us in the fold. One way in which the Lord exercises this shepherding is through the love of Christians one for another. We must all grieve when we see brothers or sisters stumble and do all that we can to rescue them. Especially if you are a church leader, do not abandon your sheep.

For further study:  2 Samuel 5:1–5

The Bible in a year:  Psalms 56–58

Coram Deo from TableTalk Magazine, Matthew Studies. Copyright © 2008 by Ligonier Ministries.