Being a member of a small church in the past as well as in the present, I have often heard allusions to or quotations of Matthew 18:20 about the two or three witnesses. The phrase often, if not always, is understood to convey to the little gathering that despite their small size Jesus is with them for does he not say “there am I in the midst of them”? (vs. 20).
Though I have no desire to wrest assurances of Jesus’ presence from those who worship in smaller congregations, this is not really the meaning of this text. Though perhaps it may be applied in this way, I am concerned that our focus is (again) misapplied which results in us missing the purpose of this scripture as it applies to and in the life of the church. The consequence of this could be rather grave, considering what Christ is actually saying to his church: how the sheep should be shepherded and when the church (and particularly its officers) may exercise its authority given by him to correct those who stray.
Chapter 18 opens with the disciples coming to Jesus asking “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (vs. 1) Jesus gently but firmly tells his disciples that they should be focused on entering in the kingdom, not being first (vs. 3). Only when they have learned to be as children, humble and teachable, converted, can they consider themselves to be the greatest. Our Lord then goes on to teach them about how to live with one another in the kingdom of God.
And it would be my contention that this is what ties the entire chapter together. Ever lesson and parable that follows illustrates that Christ’s disciples are a covenant people. They live together and must live for each other. So they must not offend other believers (vs. 6), nor despise them (vs. 10). Since the Son of Man has come to save his people (vs. 11ff.). then the disciples too are to find (as well as care for) the lost sheep. Coming to the immediate context of our text (vs. 15), our Lord tells his disciples what responsibility they have in confronting each when another brother has sin. He details not only the purpose or goal, which is reconciliation, but also the steps that must be taken to ensure that reconciliation has taken place.
Should a brother refuse to hear another privately, then we have the responsibility to take one or more with us so that reconciliation can proceed (Matthew 18:16). Here we must take note of the fact that Jesus refers to “two or three witnesses,” also noting that this phrase is used in our text as well. This is a reference to the Mosaic law which required multiple witnesses to testify to the violation of God’s statutes: Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15. Strikingly, these texts are not about violations of the ceremonial law, such as ritual impurifications but, as we see in the first two texts, literally regarding matters of life and death. The law required multiple witnesses not only because sins against the sixth commandment are a gross violation of life and liberty but also because an accusation would result in the loss of these for the accused. The law teaches and so does Jesus (more broadly) that when life is on the line, the greatest care must be taken to preserve the holiness of the covenant community but also the individual’s good. Hence Jesus’ repetition of the theme of not offending fellow believers and his comforting statement concerning the shepherd who has come to save his sheep.
The third text (Deuteronomy 19:15) is also instructive concerning what Jesus is saying about the importance of witnesses since, in context, it references something Jesus spoke of earlier. What we see is that not only multiple witnesses were required to establish “the matter” (vs. 15) but also in the following verses we see that false witnesses must receive the punishment that is due to them when it is discovered that he has lied about “his brother” (vs. 18). The final and familiar verse of Deuteronomy 19 states and summarises: “And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (vs. 21). Probably most of us think immediately of Matthew 5:38, where it seems that Christ overturns this commandment but have we given thought to how these words are applied in Matthew 18:8-9? There Jesus tells us we must be ruthless with sin in our own lives, so much so that it is better to go to heaven maimed than into hell whole and well. So cut off your own hand and foot, your own eye, lest you kill yourself and, for that matter, end up killing someone else (cf. Romans 14:15).
Putting aside the question about how much of the law the Lord seeks to apply in the church of the apostolic age, the reality is that there is a principle(s) that is being followed. In truth, all sin is so gross and heinous that it involves death: death to the transgressor of the law as a punishment for sin (Romans 6:23) and sometimes death to the one being transgressed against, even if their body or physical self is not in jeopardy. In some sense, then, the warnings in Matthew 18 are far more serious than those contained in the law. The law required physical death, but violations of these laws require eternal death (Matthew 18:8-9).
Therefore what is being required of us is the exercise of self-discipline. Our Lord requires us to examine our own hearts, our own motivations, our own actions. Provided we can do so and strive to be reconciled as much as lies within us, we are free from judgment or censure.
The witnesses have been brought forth and the accused is conceptually -if not in court but in the eyes of others- found guilty. But now, what if the transgressor does not want to listen? What if they refuse to see or acknowledge the harm done to a brother? Jesus says: “if they shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church” (Matthew 18:17). Now the greater body of believers must decide the case. Though initially the conflict only pertained to two individuals, it has grown to include a wider community of believers.
And what if they even refuse to heed the wise counsel of their fellow Christians? “Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (vs. 17). Call it what you will, the unrepentant brother is excommunicated or unfellowshipped. This does not mean that he or she is not spoken to but rather treated as an unbeliever or, as we must see all men through the call of the gospel, a potential convert. But they can no longer be treated or received as a brother.
I trust you see, then, all the weight that is bearing down on our text, that falls at the end of the next section, vss. 18-20. Notice, after all, that vs. 18 uses judicial or courtroom language. In some sense, no final judgment has been passed as long as your brother is willing to listen to you or others, but when the church passes sentence on the matter, there is not only a real and life changing effect on the individual, but a real authority being exercised in the act of church discipline. George Gillespie compares vs. 18 with Isaiah 40:2: “her iniquity is pardoned.” In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek for pardoned is lelutai or “loosed” (the same Greek verb used in Matthew 18:18). In this verse, God says he forgives or looses Israel from the condemnation of sin. Gillespie notes a similar theme in binding and loosing with reference to sin in the following texts: “Proverbs 5:22 “holden with the cords of his sins,” Acts 8:23 “bond of iniquity” & Matthew 13:4 “they bind heavy burdens… on men’s shoulders.” The offending party ought to, then, consider themselves bound to their sin until they are reconciled to their brother(s.).
In this portion of Matthew 18, Jesus also speaks collectively. You can see this in the Authorized Version by contrasting the singular “thy” & “thee” of vss. 15-17 with the plural “you” and “ye” of vss. 18-20. Not only is the body of Christ involved in this juridical process of reconciliation, but specifically its public representatives. We, as individual Christians, have a responsibility to attempt to be reconciled to other brothers in the Lord. When we try and fail, we may apply for help amongst our brethren, and these will pass sentence on the offender on our behalf. I think in this sense, the apostolic judgment was to function something along the lines of the Old Testament elders judgment at the gates of the city. Therefore “the church” in vs. 17 may or may not refer to every believer, but it definitely and primarily includes those whom Christ has appointed to be his messengers, including those who occupied the office of elder, which continued after the passing of the apostolic age (Hebrews 13:7,17; 1 Peter 5:5).
The plural in vs. 18&19 reminds us that such a sentence cannot be passed by an individual. If this was true of the apostles, directly appointed by Christ, how much more those who hold the office of authority in our time? Thus what care, what caution, what constraint ought to be exercised. All of what Jesus spoke earlier in Matthew 18 comes to bear in this text as well. These are his little children, those whom we must not offend, those whom he has come to save.
But there is safety in numbers and in a “multitude of counsellors” (Proverbs 15:22). So if two or more have come together and agree, they can be sure that their “my Father which is in heaven” will do it for them (Matthew 19:19). We might think this applies to our prayers but I do not think the context will allow it. Rather I think it is flowing right along with the themes we have already discovered in Matthew 18, particularly that which is in the forefront: church discipline. And we see an example of such in at least two places of scripture: Acts 1:15-26 & 1 Corinthians 5. In the former, the disciples are gathered together and Peter informs them that the falling away or judgment of Judas was ordained of God and that a man must take his place. When they pray (vs. 24) or ask their heavenly father, they not only request for God to show which of the two might be chosen but, specifically, as one who will occupy the place of the transgressor (vs. 25). God mercifully answers and Matthias takes his place among the twelve.
In the latter example, not only do we come closer to the context of Matthew 18:19 but to the language of our text. Paul rebukes the Corinthians for failing to remove the offender in their midst. Nevertheless Paul says that he has judged the man already, though he is “absent in body” but “present in spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:3). Therefore, he urges them to gather together with “my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan…” (vs. 4-5). I do not understand Paul to be saying that mystically or supernaturally he is present out of the body, but in terms of agreement and consensus, he with the Corinthian church, denounces this man and remove him from the visible body of Christ. Paul’s description, after all, is very similar to that of Jesus in our text: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ… with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (1 Corinthians 5:4) “gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Paul is really only present insofar as Christ is present, for it is not Paul’s power (dunamis) but Christ’s (1 Corinthians 5:4). As such, when done in the Lord’s name, and done in his presence, we can expect that this judicial act is binding, because there Jesus is “in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
Indeed, note the consistent thread that we find in scripture whenever this “two or three” principle is raised: they all have to do with some form of judgment and discernment (distinguishing between right and wrong). There is nothing in this phrase about the comfort that we might receive by knowing that Jesus is always with us (despite the fact that our congregation does not fill a stadium or theatre). This is a worthy subject and there is a text for that but it is found in the last verse of Matthew’s gospel, not here. Instead, we have a text and a chapter where our Lord shows his concern for how his disciples treat one another and how some must be disciplined because of their failure to treat others the way that he has commanded them. Instead of being concerned about feeling right, our text is about doing right by each other. May Christ give us the strength to do so.
1. As texts have one meaning but have many applications.
2. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the practice of church discipline is largely ignored in the west when we focus so myopically on the scriptures.
3. It would be my contention that this is what ties the entire chapter together. Ever lesson and parable that follows illustrates that Christ’s disciples are a covenant people. So they must not offend other believers (vs. 6), nor despise them (vs. 10). Since the Son of Man has come to save his people (vs. 11ff.). then the disciples too are to find (as well as care for) the lost sheep.
4. It is worth noting that “brother” is not an entirely new concept for the apostles but one that is rooted in the community and covenantal identity of Israel. The law required Israelites to not only treat each fairly and justly but in a brotherly fashion, just as we see reflected in our Lord’s teaching as well as in the letters of the apostles.
5. I say “seems” because Christ is, as throughout the sermon of the mount, challenging the interpretation of Jewish tradition not the law itself, as we can see plainly his repetition of the phrase “Ye have heard it said” and not “It is written.” Moreover, Matthew 5:17 tells us that Jesus has not come to destroy the law but to fulfil it. This is seen later on in the sermon of the mount when Jesus applies this principle of equity (tit for tat – i.e. justice not revenge) to the words of judgment that proceed from our hearts and mouths: Matthew 7:1ff.
6. By this I mean the question of whether or not nations are bound to uphold the sanctions and punishments of the Mosaic law.
7. “To them [ed. the people of Israel] also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof doth require.” Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.4.
8. James 3:6-10.
9. cf. Hebrews 10:28-29 “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, and unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (emphasis mine).
10. If I may cite myself, I have often remarked that church discipline is a response to a failure to self-discipline. If we would consistently do the latter, then church discipline would not be, or ever be, a necessity.
11. Which may require a request for and the giving of forgiveness: Matthew 18:21ff.
12. One wonders how one can practice this if they don’t belong, in some formal sense, to a local, church body. This text, along with many others pertaining to the fellowship and life of the church, assume church membership.
13. That would seem to apply only to those who persist in sin but have not yet been removed from the covenant community and yet, even then, he is treated as a brother and admonished (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 cf. 1 Corinthians 5:11).
14. By “final” I do not mean the judgment of the living and dead when Jesus returns again but rather the final step in the threefold process that our Lord outlines in this text. The church’s judgment is always fallible and subject to her Lord’s approval, as indicated in other texts: John 9:34 compared with vss. 39-41; 3 John 9-10.
15. Gillespie, George. “Aaron’s Rod Blossoming.” Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1985, page 190.
16. Gillespie, page 196.
17. As also noted in Matthew 18:35. If we refuse to forgive others, we are still held accountable for our trespasses.
18. See Deuteronomy 21:19, 22:15; Ruth 4:11.
19. See, however, 1 Corinthians 5:4. Paul, addressing the congregation says: “when ye are gathered together… vs. 5 “to deliver such an one unto Satan.”
20. Again note the limitations to the church’s power: “This binding and loosing being also in the plural number, “Whatsover ye bind,” &c., not in the singular, as the phrase is, Matt. xvi. 19, “Whatsoever thou shalt bind,” &c. One minister may bind doctrinally, but one alone cannot bind juridically.” Gillespie, page 196. Note also Westminster Confession of Faith, 29.4: “For the better attaining of these ends , the officers of the Church are to proceed…” [emphasis mine]
21. Note how Paul speaks of coming in “the spirit of meekness” (1 Corinthians 4:21). This is not a spatial orientation, but a dispositional one.
22. Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:5; 2 Kings 9:32; Matthew 18:16; 1 Corinthians 14:27, 29; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19; Hebrews 10:28.