By Christopher VanDusen
All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Ed.)

Vss. 12-14) Jesus now illustrates the Father’s love and care for His humble children led into sin with a comparable situation from the everyday life of the Jews. He reminds His disciples of the extent to which a shepherd will go to find a wandering sheep. If he has a large group of them — which Jesus describes as “a hundred” — but only one of them leaves the flock to wander into unsuitable land, he’ll leave all the rest to search for the straying sheep. He places so much value on each and every sheep, that he’ll almost forget about the rest to restore the straying one to the flock. Then, if he finds it, he’ll get more joy from finding it than from knowing that the rest haven’t gone astray. 

Jesus says that this is the way in which the disciples’ heavenly Father thinks about the most vulnerable, weak, and needy of His children. Just as the shepherd does whatever’s necessary to find a wandering sheep, the Father’s “will”, or desire, is that none of His humblest children “perish” spiritually. This perishing is the type of destruction that can happen if one of their fellow disciples make them “stumble”, or fall into a sinful habit. This description of the Father’s will ought to motivate the disciples to avoid doing anything that would cause the weakest believer to sin.

Vss. 15-17) In these verses, Jesus explains how the knowledge that the Father doesn’t want His humble children to perish should affect how the disciples help each other with their sins. The topic is that of when one of their “brothers” in God’s family “sins”, or clearly falls short of Christ’s will and example of love. 

If they find out that one of them has sinned, or is sinning, then they are to confront them privately, and “show him his fault”. If the sinning brother “listens”, or agrees that they’ve sinned, and shows signs of repentance, they’ve “won” him back to the fellowship of the church. However, if he refuses to listen, they must bring two or three more disciples to the offender, and confront him again. Jesus’s reason for this procedure is taken from Deuteronomy 19:15, which defines what is an acceptable amount of testimony to establish the truthfulness of a charge of guilt. The acceptable number of witnesses for establishing the validity of the accuser’s charge is at least two, and at the most three. The purpose of bringing these witnesses to the confrontation is to make certain that the accuser’s charge of sin is valid, and he’s not mistaken, or lying about the brother’s sin. Jesus puts a limit on the amount of witnesses so that the situation doesn’t become a concern to the rest of the believers in their community, and might be resolved without becoming a huge issue.

However, if the offender is found by the witnesses to be guilty, and refuses to repent, then his sin must be made known to what Jesus calls “the church”. The Greek word is ekklesia, which was used in the common speech of that day to refer to a “gathering”, or “assembly”. Also, it was used by Jews to refer to “the assembly” of Israel in the wilderness, as Stephen does in Acts 7. In Jesus’s teaching here, it refers to the local community of His followers. When the accuser and witnesses of the brother’s sin bring the charge before the church gathering, the church again needs to reaffirm the charge against him, and urge him to repent. If he refuses, then Jesus requires His disciples to consider him to be “a Gentile and a tax collector”.

By treating the offender as “a Gentile”, or a non-Jew, the church would be considering him to be outside of God’s family, and therefore an enemy of God. Similarly, the tax collectors in Israel at that time were rightly despised. The reason for this was that they were Jews who demanded more money than they were required by the Roman Empire when collecting taxes from their fellow Jews, thus stealing from their countrymen. They were considered to be traitors, thieves, and helpers in Rome’s oppression of the Jews. Hence, Jesus tells the disciples to treat a sinning member of their community who refuses to obey the church’s call to repent as a cursed traitor. Contrary to the common way in which the Jews treated such people, however, Jesus elsewhere taught that they were to do whatever possible to continue to call such a person to repentance and faith in Him, warning the person that he had revealed that he was actually acting like an enemy of God and Christ.

Vss. 18-20) Finally, Jesus assures His disciples that such a decision by them to remove a sinner from fellowship with them has God’s approval and authority behind it. He first describes this approval by speaking of it in terms of “binding” and “loosing”, or “securing” and “releasing”. To the Jews, to “bind” something was to forbid it, and to “loose” something was to allow it. In this case, the binding and loosing refers to the church’s decision to either keep a disciple in its fellowship, or to exclude him from it. Jesus says that whatever their decision, the decision has been made “in heaven”, or by God Himself. Therefore, they have His authority in their decision, and it ought to be respected as such.

Next, Jesus applies this principle of divine authority in the matter of the corporate prayer of disciples. He begins His statement with the word “again”, showing that He’s speaking about the authority of the church in making decisions. However, He’s applying this authority to the smallest number possible — two. Further, He doesn’t limit this promise to matters of church discipline, but to “anything they may ask”. The only requirement is that they be disciples asking “His” Father in heaven, and that they “agree” about what they’re asking. This must not be taken to be a blanket promise for all disciples of Christ in every era, since two disciples can agree about something they’re asking for, and be asking for something sinful. Rather, we must remember that this was a promise for the first disciples of Jesus, and particularly His first twelve apostles. So, if they agreed on what they were praying for, God would answer the prayer.

The reason Jesus gives for God’s decision to do this is that they represent Him when they’re gathered “in His name”, or as His representatives on earth, and to do His will. Again, He emphasizes the great authority these first disciples had by pointing out that even if a few of them are gathered for worship and prayer, He’s “there in their midst”. By this, He means that He’s represented by them, and therefore they have the approval of His Father in their agreeing prayer. In other words, the Father won’t answer their prayer simply because they pray for the same thing, but because they gather and pray with the authority of Jesus, the Father’s Son.

Application for believers:

  1. The Father delights in the weakest, humblest, and most immature believer in Christ. Therefore, He hates it when people cause them to fall into sin. He has no desire that they are spiritually destroyed, so such an end must be avoided at all costs. This means that any Christian who has strayed or wandered off the path of obedience to Jesus must be passionately sought after, so he can be restored to fellowship with the church.
  2. When we know that a brother or sister has sinned, we must wisely, carefully, thoughtfully, and compassionately let them know about it privately. This involves clearly explaining why what they did was sin, making sure they know what they ought to have done instead, and encouraging them to change their thinking about it. The ultimate goal of such confrontation isn’t humiliation or condemnation, but repentance, reconciliation, and restoration to righteousness and fellowship with the church family in its obedience to Christ. Thus, if the offender doesn’t listen, one or two witnesses must be brought to confirm the testimony of the accuser, and to also encourage him to repent. Then, the last resort is to bring the offender’s refusal to the attention of the whole church assembly, who must also encourage him to repent. If he refuses to listen to the church, then he must be treated as an unbeliever, no longer as a believer, and considered in need of salvation, since such stubborn obstinacy is an indication that he isn’t indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Again, he shouldn’t be condemned as being lost forever in at least most cases, but considered a part of the mission field, and as a potential future child of God.
  3. Although Jesus originally transferred His authority from God on His original disciples, the church acting in accordance with His teaching, and the teaching of His apostles, possesses the same authority. Hence, any such proper church body has God’s approval in making decisions in accordance with “the law of Christ”. Therefore, these decisions must be respected as divinely authorized, and acted upon as such. This is especially true with the acceptance or rejection of people’s professions of faith, as this passage deals with.
  4. In promising His disciples God’s approval of their agreeing prayers when praying for His honor, and for His purposes, Jesus laid the foundation for the principle that corporate prayer often has more significance to God than private prayer. It’s not that God doesn’t care about the prayers of individual saints, but that more often the prayers of a group of His people are in accordance with His will, and about more important things. The reason for this is that Christians usually live, think, and act more righteously in community, than alone. With more than one of us thinking about what we’re praying for, we can work together to think how best to pray, and what’s best to pray for.

5. Jesus’s last promise for His disciples can also be applied to believers today, since it’s even truer today than it was then that where more than one believer is gathered together for Him, and for His glory, He’s present among them. The biblical church community is the fullest human manifestation of Christ on earth through the power of the Holy Spirit.