Does this mean that we are then free to go to all the other church members and tell them all of the offender's infraction? No, of course not! Doing such a thing would likely precipitate an unpleasant and unnecessary split in the congregation.
It is interesting to note that, at the time that Jesus gave these instructions to the disciples, the church per se did not yet exist! His disciples were, of course, the nucleus of His future church. Yet, even they sometimes had jealousies and disagreements between themselves—yes, even after the coming of the Holy Spirit. We see a few examples of these disagreements in the gospel accounts and the epistles.
The idea that Jesus is getting at here anticipates the establishment of His church and its leadership. It is to that leadership—the church ministry—that the offended person is to go in the event of the failure of Step Number Two.
So Step Number Three is the appropriate time for the ministry to become involved. Again, we must avoid the temptation to jump the gun by trying to involve the ministry before we have completed the first two steps.
Moreover, we should not use the involvement of the ministry as a threat! Doing so will almost certainly inflame the problem. It is vital that we also understand that there are no absolute guarantees that the involvement of the ministry will definitely resolve the problem. Jesus' words in the second half of verse 17 show this possibility clearly. The offending member might not recognize the authority or experience of the minister who is brought in to intervene, or he may adamantly refuse to admit that he did anything wrong. Whatever the reason, there is still the possibility that Step Number Three might also fail. If it does, then we go on to Step Number Four.
Continuing in verse 17, Jesus says finally, "But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector."
If the problem gets this far, and assuming from the beginning that our case is a fair and valid one, we are within our rights at this point to treat the offender as the Jews of Jesus' time would have treated the most despised people, both of their own people (the tax collectors) and of the Gentiles (the heathen).
Jesus implies that, if negotiations fail even after the involvement of "the church" (the ministry), then the offender's unwillingness might cause him to be officially treated henceforth by the church and its leadership as a non-member—maybe even to the point of disfellowshipment or even marking. The apostle Paul comments on this in Romans 16:17-18:
Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.
Paul says here that the church leadership is to "note" those who cause offenses. In the King James Version, the term "note those" is given as "mark those." Paul is telling church leaders to mark or name before the church, those who cause division or offense.
"Marking" is the extreme form of disfellowshipment from the church. If a person is disfellowshipped, it is done privately. But if he is "marked," he has done something so serious that it must be announced to the entire congregation. This illustrates what a serious sin the giving of offense can be if not properly resolved.
Islands and Offenses
Understanding our frame, God leans toward mercy. Three times He repeats, "I will have mercy and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7).
He gets personal about it as well. In Matthew 5:7, Jesus names mercy as one of the primary beatitudes, or "attitudes to be in": "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." Here, in a very personal and positive setting, we begin to see mercy's cause-and-effect principle: Show mercy and you will obtain mercy.
Christ drew this principle from the attitude the unchangeable God has always maintained. Speaking of Him, the twin quotes from Psalm 18:25 and II Samuel 22:26 echo the beatitude: "With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful."
Not only is God of the mind to be merciful, He expects it of us, even requires it of us. Notice how the tenor of Micah 6:8 becomes more intense, though remaining positive: "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" This moves from a simple cause-and-effect principle to an absolute requirement.
We need to examine Matthew 18 in this light. With mercy and forgiveness in mind, Christ outlines His instruction on how to deal with those who sin against us. We show mercy by not escalating the problem beyond the sinning individual, if possible. Discuss it with him alone! We are not to bandy about anyone's sins. Doing so only makes it more difficult for the offender to swallow his pride and repent, for, by admitting his wrong, he is "losing face" with many who know the story. The object—never forget—is to gain our brother, not to gain vengeance or vindication for ourselves.
If the offender does not listen, then we are to take one or two other witnesses. Again, if at all possible, we should keep the situation from escalating beyond that. Do we like our transgressions spread all over the church? Only in extreme intransigence should we take the problem to the whole brotherhood, or to the ministry as their administrative representatives.
After this step-by-step instruction, Christ underlines the thought by showing that we should forgive—show mercy and extend grace—even up to 490 times a day to the same person (verses 21-22)! In other words, like God, our mercy should endure forever, since 490 times a day suggests "infinitely." It is almost impossible to offend that many times in such a limited period, especially if connected with real repentance.
Jesus then relates the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who, though forgiven of enormous debt, threw a fellow servant in jail for not repaying a pittance. Christ then gives a stern warning: If you are merciless to your brother, expect like treatment from your heavenly Father. So, not only is mercy a good idea, God requires it, and severe penalties will fall upon us if we refuse to extend it.
James makes it even more emphatic! "For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13). The apostle links the fair and impartial judgment of God directly with mercy or grace, for one without the other spells death for every sinner.
Frequently, we may state our willingness to forgive a brother or sister—but "only if they apologize!" What magnanimous largesse! What unassailable righteousness! "If they grovel, I will deign to forgive." No, what sickening, superior patronization! Mercy or grace need not always be contingent on the offender's apology or repentance.
Did not Christ ask His Father to forgive his assassins, "for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34)? This was not some minor social infraction or everyday offense in life, but the crime of the ages! They were certainly of no mind to repent or feel any remorse, yet He willingly turned the other cheek, taking every despicable sin of all mankind on Himself in abject humility without a whisper of protest!
The Weightier Matters (Part 3): Mercy
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 18:17:
1 Corinthians 10:32