Matthew 18:15-20 – “CROSS ME AND YOU’LL REGRET IT?”
She came to me, tears streaming down her face and in obvious distress. It was Sunday and I was walking across from our house to our small Church building to take the service. The morning was beautiful, her confession was not.
For around three years she had been the bursar of the Christian School that our Church had started and that morning she blurted out that she had stolen money on a number of occasions and was not able to pay it back. She knew that eventually it would be discovered.
Thanking her for her courage in telling me, I encouraged her to wait until I was able to speak to our leaders and I went to the Sunday Service with my mind spinning and a heavy heart.
Jesus speaks about the importance of keeping Church relationships healthy in Matthew 18:15. He says “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.”
If our bursar had sinned against me the matter would have been easy to solve but the criminal act she had committed affected the whole Church. Matthew 18:15 encourages us to limit the interaction with only those involved in the offense.
“But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16 NLT).
Our leaders meeting that week was awash with prayer and a genuine desire to deal with the situation well. Could this matter that affected our whole Church be kept in-house and dealt with by the leaders alone? Would the whole Church in some way need to be involved? Did we need to let the police know? She would be charged and have a police record for the rest of her life. There are times when this is totally appropriate. Was this one of those times? What did the Bible say? …
Luke 17:3-4 (NLT) says “So watch yourselves! “If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.”
Galatians 6:1 (NLT) says, “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself.”
It seems that the Bible regards repairing a relationship with a person who has wronged you as being even more important than their sinful actions. Confront the person without malice with the view to repentance, forgiveness and a new start. There may be restitution and other consequences but restoring the broken relationship is the most important. It’s not “Cross me and you’ll regret it!” That’s a barbed wire threat that damages relationships. It’s “The Cross allows room for me to forgive!” Jesus with hands reached out said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NLT).
“If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector” (Matthew 18:17 NLT).
This sounds so prescriptive and legalistic at first. But to treat a person as someone who is not a follower of Christ is still an opportunity to show them the love of Christ. Fortunately for us the person hadn’t refused to listen. Just the opposite. She had admitted to me privately of a public sin. If it had just been against the leaders we could have dealt with the matter in-house, but we needed to deal with this as a Church.
As I remember it, the Church service the next week gave followers of Christ a reminder of the guts of forgiveness. We began our service with worship and praise but I informed our Church that we had a difficult situation to work through.
I had previously encouraged the lady to come and share with the Church, with my help, what had happened. I was amazed at her bravery.
That day we had an opportunity to show hard-hearted malice and unforgiveness, but as I remember it, each member came forward personally and putting their arms around her said, “I forgive you.” Each person expressed their love for her. There were many tears that day as we prayed for her and we knew the presence and approval of God. Followers of Christ have a responsibility to reconcile but it’s nice to see it in action. It doesn’t always happen that way.
Many could have withdrawn from this lady who stole money from us, gossipped to others about the wrong things she had done, or even tried to get revenge. Instead, because of her genuine admission and contrition for the wrong she had done against us as a Church, we took up an offering that morning for her. She had lost her job because of her theft and needed all the help she could get to re-establish herself.
The Church paid for her debt. Justice had been accomplished through forgiveness. I was humbled and grateful to God. The invitation of this passage is to restore lost relationships. Not “Don’t Cross me or you’ll regret it!” but “Because of the Cross, there is room for me to forgive.”
LETTING HARRY LOOSE! A Parable.
He comes into the concert hall late, dishevelled, unshaven, and a little drunk, stumbles his way to the stage and pushes his way up the stairs to the little ensemble.
“Where have you been? We are almost about to start” says one of the other musicians, obviously annoyed. Harry does not answer. His breath is stale and he tries to tune his violin in the last few minutes, but fails.
The other musicians have no idea how much their role in unifying the string quartet, setting the tempo and shaping the sound of the ensemble will be severely challenged. This music especially created for the Ballet tonight is called the “Symphony of Agreement.”
Fortunately the other musicians start the piece with sounds like a gentle stream over the pebbles with crystal clear chords resounding throughout the concert hall.
Just then a glorious backdrop is lit and what looks like a golden ray of sunlight courses its way through the painted trees and rests on a stream. Ballet dancers appear from the wings, their movements choreographed with the musical harmonies of the string ensemble.
That’s when Harry begins to play. It is a discordant melody which rises over the other harmonies like fingernails scratching their way down a board. The audience flinches to its sound, recoiling from its intrusion. The dancers are confused momentarily but bravely continue.
Susan, one of the other musicians, plays a note as crisp and clear as a bell, to call the ensemble back to play the music as written, a pure and beautiful sound, and then a magnificent melody to invite the audience to forgive and respond.
But once again Harry’s out-of-tune notes rise like a wailing dog to destroy her attempt and none of the musicians can continue to play. The acrimonious wail echoes through the hall with jarring intensity interfering with all hopes of saving the moment.
“Will you stop playing!” Susan forcefully whispers. “You are destroying the arrangement entirely! Your contribution to this ensemble is an offense” But Harry plays on, oblivious to her pleas. Someone in the audience cries out in protest and with that Nathan, another member of the group stops playing, rips the violin away from Harry and asks him to leave. The ensemble seeks to salvage the rest of the performance.
Afterwards, the member’s of the stringed quartet are ready to string Harry up. They come with accusing fingers and strong words, offended by Harry’s actions tonight. “How could you do this to us, they say. We’ve practised for months and you go and get drunk.” Harry stands before them, tears running down his face and tries to apologise in between their angry words.
What action can they take concerning Harry?
Matthew 18:15 (NLT) says, “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.”
In the ensuing conversation, it is discovered that Harry has been keeping the wrong company, lost a lot of money gambling and with the pressure of the concert was foolishly persuaded to “drown his sorrows” at the pub with a so-called friend. After too many beers Harry suddenly remembered the String Ensemble he was meant to be leading that night.
When anger subsides, his friends gather around him, help him home, sober him up, and most importantly, as he expresses his shame, they forgive him and pray for him. It seems that harmony between Christian friends is even more important than harmony in their Stringed Quartet, despite the poor reviews.
“If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, (Greek gather together in My Name) I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:19-20 NLT)
Matthew 18:19 (NLT) says “If two of you agree…” What Jesus is saying is personal and relational not simply organisational and legalistic. Agreement speaks of harmony; moving together, being in accord with eachother like a co-written piece of music played by a group of musicians who know eachother well.
It is not Harry’s raucus, disconnected and discordant notes of half-hearted, unsynchronised relationships, but a well-orchestrated piece of music in which souls play together, hear eachother and act in unity.
Jesus says if a relationship is restored with a person who has sinned against you then you are once again in agreement (in harmony) and that agreement has heaven’s approval. It is the idea of the Lord’s prayer to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
It’s not so much a matter of knowing how best to confront the sin, but how best to restore harmony to a relationship without disregarding the discordant nature of the sin. And it is about declaring forgiveness and restoration. If this is not possible, it is about recognising an irreconcilable fracture of a relationship where forgiveness is inappropriate due to the stubbornness of the other person. Not easy.
This is not God being our genie in a bottle, and coming to do whatever we ask when we agree on something. Neither was the last part ever intended to be a favourite quote when there is poor attendance at a prayer meeting. “Well, Lord, there’s just a few here tonight but thankyou Lord, You promised where two or three are gathered in Your Name, You will be here.” NO! It’s two or three gathered together in harmony after restoring a rift in a relationship due to someone doing the wrong thing. That’s when God’s forgiveness is there personally in the midst of us along with His presence.
Matthew 18:18 (NLT) says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid (Or bind, or lock) on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit (Or loose, or open) on earth will be permitted in heaven. Can we simply disregard the context? No! Binding or forbidding is a reference to the penalty of forbidding them forgiveness because of their stubbornness, while loosing or permitting is restoring someone through forgiveness to a relationship of unity.
Our part is to act in a just and loving way in our relationships to do everything we can to get things right. We have authority based on God’s Word to act in His name concerning these issues, heaven’s stamp of approval when we are seeking to forgive.
Jesus is NOT giving us a pattern for Church Discipline as many call it, but a pattern for returning harmony and agreement to a discordant relationship. And He is there in the midst when that happens.
To His disciples, Jesus says in John 20:23 (NLT) “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
In the end, this can only happen because of the Cross. It is only when I am confronted by the work Jesus accomplished on the Cross that I can come to a point of acknowledging my sin. It is only when I know real forgiveness that I can in turn truly forgive others.
Ephesians 4:31-32 (NLT) invites us to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behaviour. Instead, be kind to each other, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
The next night Harry leads the Stringed quartet with great humility and with a passion for recompense. The harmony is perfect. The unique melody on this night is a gift from God, and it almost seems that He has taken over Harry’s violin.
The Ballet dancers move in choreographed splendour to the voices of the instruments and keep perfectly in time with Harry’s rhythm and tempo, tones and timbres. He whispers into the ears of the audience with the soft notes and builds up the crescendos to crash upon the shores of their hearts.
God is there at the beginning and there at the finale. The Maestro and the maestro at work, playing a Symphony of Agreement, loosed in the corridors of heaven and brought to earth. The Ballet and orchestra receive a standing ovation that night and I think it was accompanied with the cheers of heaven.
Christ prompts you and me in our relationships. When we respond to Christ, admit our sin, we find forgiveness and harmony with Him and with eachother.
Lord Jesus, thank You for coming to save me. I admit that I have been out of tune with You and out of sync. I believe that You died for my sins and I want my life to be more than just about me. I hear the sound of God’s symphony of agreement and love and I accept You as my personal Lord and Saviour. Make my life Your instrument. Make me the person You designed me to be; to live my life in Harmony with You and others. Thankyou for saving me.
FORGIVENESS AND A TORN $10 NOTE
It was at Mt Austin Primary School before I was a teenager that I discovered that I was skilled in drawing and painting. It was 1966 and I decided to make a copy of the new decimal currency, a $10 note. What can say? I was young. I didn’t know it was illegal and I had no intention of using it as currency, only as an Artwork.
Meticulously, I worked for hours on my $10 note until I was fairly sure that I had a respectable representation and took it to School the next day.
One of the better artists in the class happened to see it and was impressed. He wanted to show some of his friends and so foolishly, I let him take it away. He promised to return it, which he did ... in two pieces; torn down the centre. Hours of hard work. He apologised sincerely. He said it was an accident. I forgave him and took my torn emotions and artwork home. Sticky-tape just didn’t work for me. It had been destroyed, but it had been an accident. What can you do? Move on.
Not to be deterred I decided to make an even better representation of the $10 note using all the newly discovered techniques I had mastered from the last one. Once again it took me hours to make and I hesitated on taking it to school but eventually decided I could make my artist friend feel a little better in the light of my replica.
On showing it around at School, once again my artist rival wanted to show it around to his friends and I said I would rather he didn’t, but he said he would keep it safe. Surely he would be careful this time, and my trusting nature gave way.
Lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice but my artwork came back torn in half once again and once again my friend was apologetic. I was heartbroken about my artwork and less concerned about my careless friend. I forgave him once again. To this day, I don’t know if it was his jealousy that caused the ruined artworks or his carelessness. How many times do you forgive?
Forgiving a torn artwork is trivial. What happens when the sin sears its way into your soul and brings devastation to your heart? All I know is that I have been forgiven more than I could hope for in my life and have been tested with offenses where only God’s help enabled me to forgive.
Peter once came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone (Greek my brother) who sins against me? Seven times?” (Matthew 18:21 NLT).
Good question. Is forgiveness limited? Are there circumstances when I can't or should not forgive? Do I only forgive the small things?
Adam Clarke says “It was a maxim among the Jews never to forgive more than thrice (three times)” Peter raises that by more than a half, but Jesus multiplies forgiveness into an eternal value. Perhaps nothing is more difficult than to forgive.
“No, not seven times,” Jesus replies, “but seventy times seven! (Matthew 18:22 NLT). Jesus says, in effect, that forgiveness is uncountable, unlimited.
Trying to count how many times I have forgiven someone in itself shows an unforgiving spirit. Forgiveness has an eternal quality and gives us a picture of the spirit of Christ. It defies counting because it comes from the heart. It’s not some scientific calculation, and it will demand grace, not reciprocity.
Can you measure how much a person has been loved or forgiven? Impossible. We can count offenses easily, but forgiveness involves leaving the offence behind, so we cannot count mercy.
To understand what Christ has accomplished in forgiving us for sins beyond count is to appreciate how much we need to forgive others without counting.
Colossians 3:13 (NLT) says “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.” The invitation is to forgive and not carry around the burden of bitterness. Do everything you can to restore the relationship.
And no, I have never drawn a $10 note again, but the skills I gained from the experience were invaluable. A torn $10 note is not worth a torn relationship. Forgiveness in a relationship transcends an enumeration of our faults?
TWO SISTERS AND THE POWER OF FORGIVENESS
He was dying and wanted most of all to see his daughters together again. Graeme (not his real name) had two daughters who were estranged from each other. He longed to see them reconciled.
One sister, a follower of Christ, was concerned. “My sister is on her way and she is a professed atheist. I know that when we meet it will only end up in unnecessary conflict”. I encouraged her to wait and see what would happen.
When the other sister arrived they both went in to see their father in a coma and the stress of years of estrangement melted as conversation ensued in their common grief. How would they communicate with their Dad now? “He is still able to hear you” I said, “and I am sure that he is pleased that you are both here. I encourage you to spend time alone with your Dad and express your love to him in whatever way you are able.”
When I offered to pray for their dad, they both accepted. I spoke to Graeme first. “Graeme, it is a beautiful day and your daughters have both arrived to see you. I’d like to pray for all of you.” I touched his hand “Graeme, you are surrounded by people who love and care for you and you are loved by God. I encourage you to reach out your hand to the Lord Jesus Christ and trust your life into His hands for the next part of your journey.” I prayed a prayer of commitment and allowed the sisters to spend time with their father.
Later, I came across the sister who believed in God. She said, “My father has died but we both spent time with him individually and together and expressed out feelings to him.”
“We could tell that Dad’s breathing was becoming weaker and my ‘atheist’ sister suddenly suggested that we pray the Lord’s prayer together. I was shocked. We cried as we prayed and the distance between us vanished. In forgiveness and agreement we stood either side of the bed, believer and so called atheist, holding hands with eachother as the strife of the years fell away and we were reunited in relationship with eachother, with God and with our dad. ”
“Our Father, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven ….Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us ... Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, Amen”.
“Then the most amazing thing happened. As we said that final Amen, we heard my Dad speak clearly out from the haze of his coma, “Amen”, in agreement with us, and then he died.”
Matthew 18:19 (NLT) says, “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. Being in Agreement with God and with each other heals relationships. Agreement speaks of harmony and unity between followers of Christ crafted delicately through prayer and forgiveness, and carries great authority.
Jesus had already told Peter in Matthew 16:19 (NLT) “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.”
Then in Matthew 18:18 (NLT) Jesus is speaking to all His disciples about restoring broken relationships. He says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.” So the same authority given to Peter to begin building the Church at Pentecost is also granted to all the disciples in sustaining the unity of relationships with eachother and God.
The invitation is to respond to the forgiveness of Christ and understand how immeasureable and vast it is in restoring us into a relationship with God. To experience such love and forgiveness as this changes us on the inside. We begin to see that relationships are of higher value than arguments and in humility we forgive others as Christ has forgiven us.
Let's pray ...