Commentary on Matthew 18:15-35

by Dr. Knox Chamblin

V. THE ERRING BROTHER. 18:15-20.

A. Addressing the Brother. 18:15-17.

1. The sin, 18:15. The passage presupposes that actual sin has been committed. Moreover, it is a sin committed by a brother (adelphos), i.e. another Christian. For Matthew's earlier use of adelphos in this sense, see 5:22-24; 7:3-5; 12:48-50. No specific sin is described; the teaching covers a host of offenses (v. 18, "as many things as"). But Jesus does indicate that he is speaking specifically of sins against fellow-believers. It is a sin committed "against you," i.e., against the one whom Jesus here instructs to "go and show him his fault."

The words "against you," v. 15a, are in some doubt textually (see NIV and NIV mg.). In my judgment, the instructions of v. 15b, together with Peter's question in v. 21, favor their inclusion. On this showing, their later omission was "either deliberate (in order to render the passage applicable to sin in general) or accidental" (Metzger, TC, 45). The sin's enormity is evident from the introductory words of 18:14, "In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones [who believe in Jesus, v. 6] should be lost." So intense is the church's fellowship, that sin against a brother is taken with utmost seriousness. The erring brother is threatened with damnation (the verb in v. 14b is apollymi, the one used in Jn 3:16, "should not perish"). Thus the offended brother is called upon to win him back, to draw him back from the brink of judgment (cf. v. 15b). "The gaining of one's brother includes far more than personal reconciliation, then; it means winning back to the church a professing disciple who stands in danger of forfeiting salvation through sin against a fellow disciple" (Gundry, 368).

2. The response, 18:15-17. In 5:23-24 Jesus placed the burden of responsibility on the offending brother. Here, as a counterpart to that earlier teaching, the command is given to the offended party - whose action is to reflect the initiative of the gracious God in dealing with sin (18:10-14). Jesus prescribes a fourfold procedure for responding to such sins.

Step 1: "Go and show him his fault, just between the two of you."

Step 2: "But if he will not listen, take one or two others along [in accord with Deut 19:15]." There is no indication that these others have witnessed the original offense. They go, not to establish the original charge, but to join the offended party in the effort to move the brother to repentance (Gundry, 368; cf. v. 17a, "If he refuses to listen to them") and also to qualify them as witnesses before the church court in the event of a second refusal (Carson, 403).

Step 3: "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church." The noun ekklssia here means the church universal (as in 16:18) in its local manifestation.

Step 4: "And if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector," i.e., a non-believer - a signal of excommunication. As the church of our day possesses the whole NT canon, we must respond to such sins according to the directives of Mt 18 together with those of Mt 7:1-5, 1 Cor 5 and other pertinent passages. This means that excommunication would never be the first resort but only the last. Moreover, "even ostracism aims at restoration" (Gundry, 368); cf. 1 Cor 5:5. For a serious and careful attempt to honor the entirety of the relevant Biblical evidence, see The Book of Church Order of the PCA, "The Rules of Discipline" (chs. 27-46).

B. Pronouncing the Judgment. 18:18.

This verse directly relates to Step 4 of the procedure, as set forth in v. 17b. By the solemn pronouncement of the Lord of the Church ("I tell you the truth," v. 18a), the authority earlier vested in Simon Peter (16:19) is now committed to the entire church assembly (all the "you's" of 18:18 are plural, just as all those of 16:19 were singular). The exercise of that authority (in the present context, as in that of ch. 16), rests upon awareness of and submission to God's revealed truth - whether communicated through Moses and the other OT writers or through Jesus and the apostles (this passage, like many others in Mt, combines the authoritative commands of Moses and Jesus), whether in its indicative or in its imperative form. Otherwise the church has no right to exercise judgment, and no basis for doing so. Here, as in 16:19, the judgment of the earthly court rests upon the prior judgment of heaven (except for the shift from the singular to the plural, the Greek of 18:18 is virtually identical to that of 16:19).

C. Addressing the Father. 18:19-20.

1. The relation of these verses to the foregoing context. Verses 19-20 are integral to the section beginning in v. 15. The "two" of v. 19 and the "two or three" of v. 20 answer to the instructions of v. 16, "take one or two others along."

But the larger context of the preceding chapters is in view as well. Clearly, those who pray according to vv. 19-20 are Christians. They alone have the right to make requests of the Father (cf. 6:9; 7:7-11). The disciples' habitual use of the Lord's Prayer is presupposed - including its petitions, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors," and "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one" (6:12-13). In other words, the prayers of 18:19-20 (i) presuppose forgiveness of the erring brother, by those whom he has sinned against (again note 6:12b, "as we also have forgiven our debtors"), and (ii) are offered in a spirit of alertness and wariness, lest involvement with the erring brother should cause one to be attracted to or snared by the very sin that he has committed.

2. The relation of these verses to the following context. In keeping with the point just made concerning the fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer, it is very significant that the present passage is followed immediately by Jesus' teaching on forgiveness' longsuffering (18:21-22) and by his parable about the unmerciful debtor (vv. 23-35). As we shall see, this parable speaks both of sin and of responses to sin - and especially of the latter, more particularly of an unforgiving response (see v. 35). Warnings are thus issued to those with the responsibility of addressing a sinful brother.

3. The relation to these verses to Matthew's portrait of Christ. Verse 20 speaks both of Jesus' authority (those who come together to pray to the Father, do so "in my [Jesus'] name") and of his presence ("there am I with them"). Both these aspects are illuminated by 28:18-20. Jesus says "All authority [exousia] in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (18). Note the reference to heaven as well as to earth: this indicates that Jesus exercises authority at the very time and in the very place where his people are praying to the Father. Jesus goes on to say, "And surely I am with you always, to the very close of the age" (20). This forms an inclusio with Mt 1:23, "Immanuel, which means God with us." Mt 18:20 is a particular manifestation of his holy presence.

4. The immediate application. Given the context, the promise is first directed to the situation of dealing with the erring brother.

a. Relating 18:19-20 to 18:15-17. The whole procedure is undergirded by prayer, especially (it appears) beginning with Stage 2 (where the offended party invites "one or two others" to join him for a visit to the erring brother). They pray for special love and sensitivity to the brother, and for his repentance and restoration. They also pray in the knowledge of the Father's loving concern for the erring brother (18:10-14). The subsequent teaching of vv. 21-35 urges disciples to show the same compassion and mercy to the brother that the heavenly Father has shown to them. The intensity and costliness of that compassion (revealed ultimately in the cross), and its reflection in the conduct of the offended party and his associates, itself provides a most powerful incentive for the sinner's repentance.

b. Relating 18:19-20 to 18:18. On the one hand, the two or three who gather invoke the divine forgiveness upon the brother who, at some stage of the process described in vv. 15-17, has repented of his sins and been restored to fellowship. He is "loosed" from his sins on the basis of God's revealed Word and saving action: "it will be done for you by my Father in heaven" (v. 19b), confirming what is obliquely stated in the passive verbs of v. 18. On the other hand, the brother may have steadfastly refused to repent (v. 17b). In this case, the two or three are "asking the Father" to judge the person, and to pronounce his sins "bound," i.e., retained, unforgiven.

5. The larger application. That the promise of vv. 19-20 was to be applied more generally than specifically to the sort of situation described here, is suggested by the phrase "about anything you ask for" (v. 19). This need not be limited to issues of sin and forgiveness and judgment. If this larger application of the promise is valid, it underscores the importance of the community of which the individual disciples are members (6:9-13). It seems that corporate prayer is much more than a collection of individual prayers, and a more effective instrument than the same number of prayers each being offered individually and separately.

VI. THE PARABLE OF THE UNFORGIVING SLAVE. 18:21-35.

A. The Introduction. 18:21-22.

1. Peter's question. Jesus' teaching in vv. 15-20, prompts Peter to ask (on the disciples' behalf): "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me [cf. v. 15]? Up to seven times?" Peter is to be credited for recognizing the need to forgive his sinful brother (and not merely to restore him), and for his willingness to forgive repeatedly (he asks not whether he should forgive again, but "how often"). More than that, his (implied) willingness to forgive as many as seven times is most generous. ("In rabbinic discussion the consensus was that a brother might be forgiven a repeated sin three times; on the fourth, there is no forgiveness," Carson 405.) Indeed, Peter's question recalls Jesus' own teaching in Lk 17:3-4 (words peculiar to Lk, and an important supplement to Mt 18:15-22): "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him." On the Bible's use of "seven" and its multiples as signs of fullness and completeness, see K. H. Rengstorf, TDNT 2: 627-35.

2. Jesus' response. "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times" (NIV); other versions (KJV, RSV, NEB) translate the latter (hebdomskontakis hepta) "seventy times seven."

a. An OT allusion. Jesus' words recall Gen 4. There it is said of Cain, "But the LORD said to him, 'Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over'" (v. 15). Then comes the boastful song of Cain's descendant Lamech: "I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times" (4:23-24). (The LXX translates the closing words hebdomskontakis hepta, the very words used in Mt 18:22.) Jesus does not merely forbid a vengeful spirit; he transposes a cry of revenge into a call for forgiveness. To say simply "Avenge not yourselves," would accord with the negative formulation of the Golden Rule. To say in addition "Forgive the offender," accords with the positive formulation of the Rule (see comments on 7:12 and 5:43-48). Cf. Rom 12:17-21, which begins with a prohibition against vengeance (vv. 17-19) and concludes with a command to help one's enemy and to "overcome evil with good" (vv. 20-21).

b. A call to radical forgiveness. Whether Jesus says to forgive "up to 77 times" or "up to 490 times" (the first figure is likely but not certain), his words are the reductio ad absurdum of a calculating, quantitative approach to forgiveness (Rengstorf, 632). This is true of Lk 17:4 as well, with its "seven times in a day." Radical discipleship within the community of the Last Days, "is expressed by an indefatigable capacity to forgive the brethren" (Jeremias, NT Theology, 221), a forgiveness that is the more meaningful because it is real, not just imagined, evil that is being forgiven (5:43-48). (For an assault upon a quantitative approach to neighborliness, see the parable of Lk 10:25-37.)

B. The Parable Itself. 18:23-35.

Jesus here continues his answer to Peter, as shown by the opening "therefore" (dia touto), 18:23.

1. The first debtor.

a. The debt, 18:24. The first slave owes the king "ten thousand talents" (myri©n talant©n), i.e. "several million dollars" (NIV mg.). The figure may be even higher - namely "tens of thousands of talents, which because of the indefinite plural of the highest number used in reckoning cannot be calculated and therefore means 'zillions'" (Gundry, 373; cf. Jeremias, Parables, 210). It is therefore preferable to regard Jesus' figure as hyperbolic rather than realistic. That is, he speaks of a sum which exceeds that which anyone would owe in an actual situation in the ancient world, not of a debt which a provincial governor might actually owe to the king of a huge colonial empire. (Gundry and Jeremias favor the first view; Carson, 406, considers both to be possible.)

b. The judgment, v. 25. "Since the average value of a slave was about 500 to 2,000 dinars, the amount realized from the sale of the family bore no relation whatever to the monstrous debt of 100 million dinars [based on Josephus' reckoning of one talent as 10,000 dinars]. Hence the king's orders in v. 25 must be understood in the main as an expression of his wrath" (Jeremias, ibid., 211).

c. The forgiveness, vv. 26-27. Given the enormity of his debt, the slave's promise to "pay back everything" is absurdly unrealistic. The king responds in sheer grace. Instead of merely postponing or reducing the debt, he cancels it. His action is indeed a response to the slave's pleading ("prostration ...is the most urgent form of plea there is," ibid.); cf. v. 32, "I canceled all that debt...because you begged me to." Yet the fundamental cause of the response lies not in the slave (who is depicted as neither competent nor incompetent, as neither deserving nor undeserving), but in the heart of the master (who "took pity on him"; the verb is splagchnizomai). (Given the impossibility of repayment, the king cannot be said to respond to what the slave would have done had he been given the time.)

2. The second debtor.

a. The debt, v. 28a: "a hundred denarii" (about $20).

b. The judgment, v. 28b. "He grabbed him and began to choke him," to make it impossible for the debtor to escape. "If he does not pay on the spot, he will be thrown into prison, or an order issued for his arrest [v. 30; 5:25-26]" (Jeremias, 212).

c. The refusal, vv. 29-30. This slave's plea is virtually identical to that of v. 26. The difference is that this promise could be fulfilled (though probably with difficulty), while the other one could not. "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt."

d. The judgment of the king, vv. 31-34. The reason for the judgment is clear: "Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" Because the slave did not show mercy, "in anger his master turned him over to the jailers until he should pay back all he owed." Even if the debt were much smaller, it would be very difficult for a prisoner to repay it. The size of the debt being what it is, repayment would be impossible even in the best of circumstances. The man will suffer imprisonment for the rest of his life.

C. The Meaning of the Parable.

1. The experience of forgiveness. The king represents God the Father (see v. 35). The hugeness of the debt incurred by the first slave, and the impossibility of its ever being repaid, point to the enormity of the sin that God forgives. "The impossibility of paying God that debt achieves fine irony in the absurdity of the command to sell the first slave, his wife, his children, and all his possessions.... The impossibility of paying God one's debt of sin achieves even greater irony in the absurdity of the first slave's promise to pay all" (Gundry, 374).

The king's cancellation of the debt points to the forgiveness of sins by God's mighty grace. Just as here the first slave is identified as a "debtor" (opheiletss), so disciples are to pray, "Forgive us our debts" (opheilsmata). Jesus' identification of his followers as debtors who deserve punishment, who cannot possibly avoid it through actions of their own, and who must therefore depend utterly upon God's grace, is a most important truth, given the emphasis in Mt upon the necessity of disciples' radical obedience to the law. The two go together, but the order is vital: the disciple does not obey the law to earn God's forgiveness; rather he or she obeys the law in grateful acknowledgment of and response to God's forgiveness. This brings us to the next point.

2. The effects of forgiveness. The burden of the parable is not disciples' experience of God's forgiveness, but the effects of that experience in their relationships with other believers (the subject of Peter's original question, v. 21). Thus Jesus concludes: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart" (v. 35). Precisely because they have all been forgiven incalculable debts, mutual forgiveness among members of the church (none of whose debts to each other could compare with those which God has cancelled) is to be expected. Failure to forgive a brother, demonstrates that one has never really understood the divine forgiveness.

3. The threat of judgment. As the judgment threatening the offending brother is real and final (vv. 14-20), the offended brother too is threatened with judgment - one equally real and final (the "dreadfully ironic impossibility" of v. 34b points to the Last Judgment; thus Gundry, 374) - unless he "forgives his brother from his heart" (i.e. genuinely and not just apparently). Failure to do so exposes him as one who has never really received God's forgiveness.

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