Be joyful in HOPE,
patient in affliction,
faithful in prayer.
Share with the Lord’s
people who are in need.
Romans 12:12-13

Trinity 14 – 2023

Sermon Text: Matthew 18:12-20

Prayer: By this Word of Your truth that we hear today, we ask that You would truly make us Your Church, to want nothing but to be found You and to want nothing for each other than that we all be Your children and loved ones together, brought back by grace and rejoicing together forever in heaven. Amen!

Dear people loved by God in Christ, who is in the midst of His people to speak His forgiveness to them and thus place them on His shoulders: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In Matthew 18, Jesus is teaching what His Church is. What happens in His Church? In the catechism, we learn to say: “In this Christian Church He daily and richly forgives me and all believers all our sins.”

So what’s His Church is for? The forgiving of sins. What surprises us in Matthew 18 is that Jesus not only says that forgiving sins happens in His Church; He also says that not-forgiving sins happens. In both cases, it’s by God’s command. He commands His Church to forgive the sins of repenting sinners –and He also commands His Church to not forgive the sins of unrepenting sinners as long as they don’t repent.

How can we understand this? Does God have a good side and a bad side? No. He has one heart. We heard Him say in the Ezekiel reading: “As I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” This is an emotional verse. It’s God loving every person with a whole heart. When He says, “Turn back, turn back!” – it means: “turn back to Me!” That’s what repentance is: to turn around, turn back, to return.

This is how God wants us to think of the forgiving and not-forgiving. We think of it is as a transaction, something you get, something you obtain, or else you fail to obtain it. But God doesn’t think of it in this cold way.

The Lord Jesus pictures it a few different ways here. (1) In the first verses of Matthew 18 (verses 1-11), He pictures it all in terms of His “little ones.” That refers not just to children but everyone. You are His little one. You’re His child, because He baptized you.

So His forgiveness is pictured as a child sitting in His lap. That’s you. If you aren’t repenting, not receiving His forgiveness, you’re a child who hasn’t found the way back to the lap of your Father in heaven. The point isn’t that God is eager to punish the unrepentant, but instead: your place is in His lap!

(2) Jesus pictures it in terms of the lost sheep and the seeking shepherd. “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” So Jesus doesn’t depersonalize the unrepentant person, the person living in sin who doesn’t care about God or the call to repent. Instead, Jesus calls him/her “the one that went astray.”

And, so different from us! Jesus isn’t pessimistic about that person turning around; He assumes the person being found and only talks about that! “And if he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the 99 that never went astray.” What’s happened in the meantime, how has this finding come to be? Somehow the person has come to repent, they confessed their sin, but that’s not all; that’s just the first part, that we confess our sins. The second part is to believe the forgiveness, to believe their sins are all gone.

So secondly, God’s forgiveness is pictured as a worn-out sheep being firmly held and carried on Jesus’ shoulders. That’s you. You’re His sheep, the one He cares about so much that all He could think of was finding you. If you’re not repenting, you’re “the one who went astray,” which makes you the one Jesus goes after! The point isn’t that God is eager to punish you when you go astray, but instead: Your place is on His shoulder!

(3) So we come to the third picture, but we have to be shown what it is. Most of this last part, especially in verses 15-17, is about a person who is not repenting of sin, and the efforts to bring him back. Sometimes these are called the “steps of Christian discipline.” But from Jesus’ point of view, it’s more about how to restore someone who is straying. It’s about bringing them back.

Here Jesus speaks about someone who’s living in unrepentance. They’re going against God’s commandments willfully, and not caring what God – through His Church – says about it. The Lord’s goal is repentance. Repentance happens through the Word. But outside the church service, fellow Christians have an important role: to reach the person through love.

Jesus outlines three steps or stages in which an individual, and then two or three, and then the church speak with the person – out of love – about his/her sin and the need to repent and be forgiven. During this time, if there is no repentance, the person is unable to receive the Lord’s Supper because if there’s no repentance there’s no forgiveness. However, the person is always encouraged to come hear the Word! Repentance happens through the Word.

The final step is the one we really notice: “But if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This is excommunication. A Gentile and a tax collector would be excluded, kept outside, from the worshipping assembly of God’s people – and Matthew knew this, since he had been a tax collector before becoming Jesus’ disciple. Excommunication is officially recognizing and declaring that – because of unrepentance – a person is outside the Christian Church, and if nothing changes they will not be in heaven either. God doesn’t want that for them!

We’re commanded by Christ to speak this judgment ahead of time while there’s still time for it to change, for them to repent, so God won’t have to say it on Judgment Day. It’s actually the final appeal to someone to repent. Remember Jesus’ pictures? – Of the little one whom Jesus wants to sit in His lap. Of the sheep that went astray and needs to be on His shoulder. That’s Jesus’ goal with the person who is not caring about repentance.

We struggle to see it this way. We see a person who’s committed to a sinful choice. We see a person who’s stubbornly resisting what God says. We see a person who doesn’t care about the church family, is living for the moment and not for eternity, and stubbornly goes their own way. Maybe at times that person is the one you see in the mirror. So Jesus has one more picture.

Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” He is repeating what He said to the disciples in chapter 16, where He called this “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

This is Jesus’ picture: You’re sitting in prison because you’re guilty. The record of your guilt is long. You’re locked up. But over in the courthouse, unknown and unprompted by you, someone came to the judge and showed unmistakable evidence that someone else confessed “guilty” to what you were charged with. Someone else paid the full price. You’re now sitting in jail with no evidence to convict you. The judge sends over the bailiff. You hear a key in the door. The door swings open and you just walk out into freedom!

This is what the “keys of the kingdom” are. Jesus made it so He would be the guilty one instead of you. He took away from you all your sin, all the evidence that you’re guilty. He paid the full price for you. He died for you. When He rose from the dead, He opened the door to heaven for you to go in.

But it’s the public ministry of the Word that brings this to you! If a person responds to it by rejecting Jesus and not repenting, or think they need no forgiveness, they stay in the prison of their guilt. The “binding” or locking key declares this. Eventually that’s the prison of hell. God doesn’t want that!

So He tirelessly sends His Church – represented by the pastor – with the message of repentance and remission of sins, and Jesus tells His Church to make every effort, not only in the preaching of the Word, but also by brotherly love that reflects Jesus’ patience. When a person repents and believes the word of forgiveness, this is the Church – but really it’s Jesus – putting the key in the door, so it swings open and you walk free.

That’s what the Church is for: bringing us back. Back to God. Through the “loosing” or unlocking key of God’s forgiveness, He puts you in His lap like a contented child, and on His shoulder as His rescued sheep. We gather in His name, and He is in the midst of us, and we find we’re part of a multitude that’s rejoicing for being brought back so often, and carried home safe. And we’ll find that Jesus’ voice is loudest, rejoicing over you and over every sheep He rescues, every little one who believes in Him and does not perish. Amen!