If we want to understand what Jesus was teaching in Matthew 18:15-20, we must begin by studying the context. This is true of any passage of Scripture – and any book for that matter. It damages the intention of the author and the text to rip any word, sentence, paragraph, or section out of the surrounding context. And, much damage has been done in the name of being “scriptural” or “biblical” by ripping a passage out of context.
First, remember the passage under consideration:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 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. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20 ESV)
In what context did Jesus begin speaking about a sinning brother or sister? In Matthew 18:1, some unnamed disciples asked Jesus, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Perhaps this question was prompted by the event that we call “the transfiguration”, when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up onto a mountain to witness his communion with God the Father, Moses, and Elijah (Matthew 17:1-13). But, whatever prompted the question, Jesus immediately turned the disciples attention to a small child and the topic of sin. In direct answer to their question, Jesus says, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4 ESV).
After this statement, Jesus immediately begins to warn them about causing “one of these little ones who believe in me” to sin. After a discussion about the devastating effects of sin, Jesus says, “See that you do not despise on of these little ones” (Matthew 18:10 ESV). This statement is followed by a parable of a farmer who loses one sheep and leaves ninety-nine other sheep to find that one lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-13). This story is followed by this statement: “So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14). This statement is immediately followed by the passage about the sinning brother, which we are studying – Matthew 18:15-20.
After our focal passage, Peter asks Jesus a question, perhaps in response to his story about the sinning brother: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21) Of course, Jesus answers that seven times is not enough, but instead Peter should forgive “70 times 7″ times. I do not think that Jesus expected Peter to forgive his brother 490 times, but instead he was teaching Peter that one of his followers should always forgive a brother who sins. This statement is followed by a story about a servant who is forgiven of a large debt, but then refuses to forgive a small debt. At the end of this story, Jesus makes it clear that the Father expects all of those who are forgiven to forgive likewise.
Thus, our focal passage is found in the middle of a longer section about humility, sin, and forgiveness. In fact, Matthew 18:15-20 connects two stories about forgiveness. It seems that we should understand this story as teaching us about forgiveness in spite of sin.
The opening statement of Matthew 18:15-20 verifies that this is the setting: “If your brother sins against you…” (Matthew 18:15 ESV). Furthermore, the desired outcome of this story also indicates that it is about forgiveness in spite of sin: “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15 ESV).
So, as we examine Matthew 18:15-20, we should remember its context: Jesus is teaching about forgiveness in spite of the seriousness of sin. If we rip this passage out of that context, then we will probably miss Jesus’ and Matthew’s intentions.