The Church sits atop Christ’s chief interests. At His return He will find it spotless and pure. Christ has blessed His Church immensely: this divine institution has received the most benefits from His hand and is made up of a people called out from the world who are to live holy and separated lives, in the same manner that Christ had mirrored God`s holiness to us. As His Bride, God`s people still are too blemished and spotted to be thought of as anywhere near the perfection found in the bridegroom, with seemingly little hope of reaching that place anytime soon. However, the comments of R.C. Sproul are worth noting “Holiness is not so much what the church is at any given moment in her history, but what she will be.”1. At some point in history, the fullness of that holiness in the church will be achieved at His glorious return. In the meantime sin threatens to disrupt and usurp the process already begun in saints But as always Christ never leaves believers alone to find their own way but promotes spiritual wellness in the body. Just as health warnings deal with our physical state, so on a spiritual plane Christ keeps a close watch over His flock. With a firm hand the Shepherd pronounces three judgments to prevent sin from gaining a foothold in His Church and corrupting the whole. The three caveats are to be found in a block of teaching from Matthew 18:1-35.
In the first of these three warnings, the unrepentant offender who leads others into sin is promised in graphic terms a fate worse than having a millstone tied to his neck and drowned in the sea (Matt. 18:6). In similar tones, Jesus warned elsewhere in Matt. 25: 34-46 that whether you help or hurt a believer is as though you had done it to Christ Himself. Mistreatment against a believer is the sane as mistreating Christ and be sure that the consequences already described will follow. Believers should be advised that being responsible for causing a Christian to sin is not restrictive to overt acts alone, but can also be caused by failing to lead them into righteousness2. Put simply, it is not enough to refrain from corrupting others with our sins; but if we remain impassive to our brothers’ needs then it is no better as we become stumbling blocks to their development.
A second indictment is found at the end of the reconciliation process, Matt 18:17. If the sinner fails to repent after the first two steps are taken, then in the third step the entire church becomes involved. The individual runs the risk of being excommunicated and to be thought of as a non-believer until he repents. The point to this process is to restore the sinner to God and to the offended party. It is meant to keep the church pure and obedient to Christ., that its members work in harmony with each other in the bond of peace and love; whereas if an individual adamantly refuses to be held accountable for his sin, this final phase of expulsion then becomes needful. This declaration against the non-repentant is a pronouncement of unusual importance: I tell you the truth vv 19. While actions to bring the sinner to repentance are to be executed with love, diplomacy, and proper motive, the administration and final resolution reached in this process is spoken of as already having received approval beforehand in eternity vv. 18.
The third divine caveat is found at the end of the parable of the unmerciful servant vv. 21-35. Here, the unmerciful servant is forgiven a great debt, some estimate a little more than what it cost to build Solomon`s temple. Yet, this selfsame servant afterwards refuses to forgive another his debt which was considerably less. When the master heard of it, he rendered his unmerciful servant his just punishment until all was paid back that was originally owed to him. Since this servant demonstrated no real remorse, forgiveness was withheld. In the book of James this truth receives similar treatment: “Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy.”(James 2:13). Even a casual reading with an eye toward these ominous warnings, should tell us that God is quite serious about repentance and reconciliation.
Christ is incredibly wise to build His Church in the manner that He did and continues to do. Three judicial warnings are given to prevent sin and unrepentance from taking up residence in the church. Even the thought of having to face these hard facts helps us maintain a keen sense of our duty to each other and to God. Though it is inevitable that sin will continue (Mat.18:7), believers must steer clear of it and measure the impact of their behavior and actions on fellow believers. Divine wisdom does not enlighten the believer with a thousand and one ways on how to manage Christians’ relationships, but speaks clearly about brotherly love and the repercussions that loom over us if indeed we throw our support behind sin instead of upholding our responsibility to our brethren. By way of analogy, Ottawa alone has in their planning and municipal act 876 pages of by-laws to regulate living arrangements within society. Try reading through some of these and the words ambivalence and incomprehensible may come to mind. But God issues three warnings for the local church assembly to live by to maintain peace and holiness that even someone like the apostle Peter can understand. In vv 21 he attempts to adjust the Christian standards a bit by suggesting his own version on the number of times a person may forgive. Christ corrects him and adjusts his reasoning to think along heavenly lines; to forgive as many times as is required.
Do ask yourself how holy is your church? Does it take hell fire seriously; does your Pastor speak about a real punishment for those who remain in their lost state? Is judgment some ancient teaching left in the past and only accentuated now and again, to be brought out for viewing and discussion when all else fails to move the audience and spoken of in almost apologetic tones? Does this happen regularly with those who frequent your circle? Worse yet, do Christ’s words and warnings only mean something when it is directed to the very vile and corrupt found in society? Chapter eighteen of Matthew is a single discourse designed on maintaining purity in the Church; so how can any think that God, who has dealt so forthrightly with His Bride, would then spare you if you remain in your sins? Real repentance is marked by sorrow. William Barclay tells the story of an old man on his deathbed who was terribly distraught. When asked what was bothering him he replied, “When we were boys at play, one day at a crossroads we reversed a signpost, and I`ve never ceased to wonder how many people were sent in the wrong direction by what we did.3” What have we been responsible for in our lifetime; how many have we turned away from Christ due to our speech and behavior? Has your life so far misled others of what being a Christian is really all about? What version of Christianity do you teach? Someone once objected that the church has hypocrites. But do not let this distract any of us since there is always room for one more. Let us admit that we have been somewhat shallow and maybe much more so at one point or another in our lives.. Yet, there is grace for the repentant soul who comes to Christ.
To recap then, the three divine judgments are closely connected in thought for they are designed to hedge in the redeemed people of God from unrepentant sinners who seek to lead them into sin, or directed to those who fail to live in harmony with the rest of God`s redeemed people and in essence have become a stumbling block in the church. Consequently, by means of these pronouncements how we manage to get along with each other in the church is not accomplished by weighty bureaucracy with its countless regulations but through a healthy fear of divine judgment. After reading this Scriptural portion from Mathew`s gospel, no one can say that they are impervious of God`s intentions if we do cross the yellow taped line that God has set out for our good. Christ’s love, protection and care for His church can be seen through these restraining measures.