Jesus used parables (stories) to teach His hearers something; He made a point by using everyday situations His listeners would have understood. But what point was He making in Matthew 18? The first thing we have to examine when looking for the point is the context. So let’s back up a bit to Matthew 18:15-23. Remember, we’re looking to better understand the parable of the debtor-slave and his master.
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly; and if he refuses to listen even to the assembly, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
21 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
23 “For this reason [because of Peter’s question in response to the previous teaching about forgiveness] the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves…”
For this reason … because Peter lived in a debt/repayment paradigm – he was still keeping score – and Peter wondered what the debt limit might be.
For this reason … because deep down Peter suspected that God’s forgiveness has limits and ours should to.
For this reason … because Jesus knew Peter needed to know what God’s forgiveness looks like and what happens to us when we keep score with others.
Think about it. Peter was being quite generous in his willingness to forgive (maybe the same sin?): 7 times. The ‘accepted’ number of times a Jew would forgive a particular sin was 3. Peter more than doubled the accepted number. Wow! I can almost hear Peter’s jaw hit the floor when Jesus blew his number out of the water. I certainly don’t think Jesus was saying, “No, Peter, the limit on forgiving sins is not 7 but 490, so keep counting! When you get to 491, then you can stop forgiving your brother.”
I think to really understand the scope of what Jesus was saying in this chapter, we have to unpack the whole “binding and loosing” section…
Over the years I’ve heard this passage applied in all kinds of crazy ways from casting out demons to churches being able to send people to hell. Nothing I have ever heard on binding and loosing from an American Bible teacher has ever made any sense … precisely because the speaker completely ignored the context and historical background. [Note to self: Take care that you do not make the text say whatever you want it to. It’s so easy to do – don’t do it!] A simple search online netted me the Jewish understanding of binding and loosing in Jesus’ day and the answer to a question we should be asking ourselves all the time (especially when looking at the parables):
What did Jesus’ hearers understand Him to mean?
“Binding” and “loosing” were common terms used by the Rabbis in biblical times. When the rabbis “bound” something, they “forbade” it, and when they “loosed” something, they “permitted” it.
From the many examples of “bind” and “loose” in the Jewish writings, we can see that they referred to “forbidding” or “permitting” something, and they were used of things, such as rules and regulations, not of people. The rabbis did not bind or loose people. “Binding” (forbidding) and “loosing” (permitting) were necessary because the Law of Moses could not contain all the regulations necessary to govern a congregation and society. Therefore, the religious leaders were required to “bind” and “loose” activities in the congregation that were not specifically included in the Law of Moses. Source
So, in this context, I understand Jesus to be saying that each particular assembly has the authority to decide whether a specific action will be called ‘sin’ or not. Those who join that assembly are then bound by what the assembly has agreed to both forbid (bind) and allow (loose). One possible application: Let’s say your denomination/church/group says that drinking alcohol is okay. According to Jesus, this group has “loosed” or permits drinking alcohol. You as a member, then, are not authorized to condemn a fellow-member for drinking alcohol. And, since “what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven”, God also does not consider drinking alcohol a sin to these members.
Likewise, if the group you are a part of has “bound” (forbidden) drinking alcohol, then, as a member of that group, if you drink alcohol, you will be committing a sin. Do you see what Jesus is saying? At the very least, “heaven” honors what the assembly decides, so if you break the rules of your assembly, then you are engaging in sin on some level, even if that action is not named a sin the Bible. Considering this, it kinda makes you want to be careful what group you join, doesn’t it? I mean, I’m pretty sure He might be saying that God holds us accountable to abide by the rules of our group.
Now, why would Jesus throw this in the middle of a passage on forgiveness? I can think of a couple of possible reasons:
1. Could it be that He’s saying we can’t go around willy-nilly holding folks who are not part of our assembly accountable to what we consider sin(s)? Maybe, just maybe, Jesus is setting the limits, not of forgiveness, but of what standard we can hold others to in the first place. If someone is not a part of my group or congregation, then they have not agreed to submit to my group’s particular rules, and therefore cannot be held accountable to those rules. In that case, someone outside of my assembly who does not live according to the assembly’s standards could not be accused of sinning against me. (While a case could be made that the 10 commandments fall outside of this example, I would say that even the commandments were given to the community of God, the Jews, and so cannot be brought to bear upon people who do not subscribe to a faith in the God of the Bible. But that’s just me.)
2. This binding and loosing thing appears within the context of how you go about restoring relationship with a brother who has sinned against you; however, Jesus makes it clear that the assembly binds and looses, not individual people. At the very least, Jesus is not talking about petty interpersonal grievances, nor can we hold people accountable to our own personal idea of what may or may not be a sin. The implication overall is that the assembly must first agree with you that your brother has sinned. Second, it is in the assembly’s authority to restore the repentant brother or to discipline him. Again, not an individual activity.
In terms of the assembly’s power to bind and loose, when properly understood, the resulting treatment of an unrepentant brother “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” makes perfect sense! In other words, if someone in your assembly will not submit to the rules established by that assembly, let him go, release him to his own conscience. Even a worldly organization does that! My employee handbook states precisely what is and is not allowed by my company’s employees. If you break the rules, you are fired. Too simple. The rules of my workplace, however, do not necessarily apply to other work environments, and vice versa.
But what does it mean to treat a brother (fellow-Jew) as a Gentile or tax collector? I’m glad you asked. To the Jew of Jesus’ day, a Gentile (who was not a convert to Judaism) would have been considered an outsider to the community of God, and if they were Roman, they would be outright enemies (since Rome occupied Israel at that time). The tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman government collecting taxes from their fellow Israelites. A tax collector often engaged in the practice of exacting more than the government’s share and keeping the surplus for himself. Many tax collectors were nothing more or less than common thieves protected by a government oppressing their own people. As Jewish ‘traitors’ they were likely hated as much as – or more than – the Roman occupiers of the day.
Peter, being a Jew, would have applied the eye for an eye sort of justice to his enemies. But Jesus had something quite different in mind. Matthew 5:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 18 “17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly; and if he refuses to listen even to the assembly, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jesus laid one responsibility on us with regards to Gentiles and tax collectors: love. Imagine that!
The brother you were unable to restore is now to be treated as an enemy: loved, blessed, and prayed for.
This would be a great place to check our motives for confronting our brother in the first place. How many of us confront others to justify ourselves rather than to restore a relationship? Do we really understand the destructive nature of sin – to the sinner, I mean? If we did, we would be seeking to rescue and restore everyone who stumbles in our midst; but, admit it, the church is more often guilty of gossiping about a fallen comrade’s sins than she is of loving them back in to fellowship.
Notice, too, that Jesus said nothing about restitution. Community forbearance is only dependent on the assembly member’s attitude of repentance. No mention is made of the sin never being committed again, either (thus the admonishment to forgive 70 X 7). Obviously, some of us a slow learners (or slow changers 😉 ).
So, Jesus’ point(s)?
- Learn to live outside the confines of the debt/repayment paradigm.
- Show that you have understood and incorporated God’s great forgiveness by giving the same forgiveness to those around you, and be like your heavenly Father in love for those outside of your fellowship.
- Be generous in your forgiving, and when someone has crossed a line in your assembly and refuses to repent, treat them with lavish love!
In an effort to pull Peter (and the rest of His disciples) out of their debt/repayment theology, Jesus told a parable about a slave committing a terrible crime against his master. When the master acquitted that slave without any punishment or payback, the slave went out and refused to give mercy to his fellow. As a result, the full weight of his debt was brought upon him again. Don’t sacrifice the compassion and forgiveness God has given you by refusing to give the same away to others.
The Kingdom according to Jesus works this way:
‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’
So, what about your kingdom? If Jesus has ‘paid God off’ for you, then there is no forgiveness (on God’s side) for you to imitate. If you believe that the Gospel begins at the point of God’s wrath and ends when Jesus appeased Him by being punished in your place, then you will forever be trapped in the cycle of debt/repayment. You haven’t been forgiven, Jesus paid God off for you.
The kingdom of debt/repayment is built on a steady diet from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and is a works-based paradigm. Love and forgiveness do not exist in that economy, only rules & regulations, judgment, punishment, and fear. If God got paid for your sins (and demolished His beloved Son to do it! YIKES!), how do you know He won’t turn on you one day, deciding your sins have exceeded the payment, or that you haven’t lived up to the measure of Jesus’ sacrifice for you? If God’s love for His only begotten Son could be so easily turned aside to appease His wrath against ungrateful sinners, how easy would it be for Him to turn on you when you fail miserably to live up to His standards?
You want to know the worst of it? God got paid back for your sins but Jesus commanded you to forgive your fellows. God didn’t have compassion on you leading to forgiveness – He took out all of His anger on His Son and got paid. But if you fail to have compassion on and forgive others (free of payment) there is punishment coming your way. In a way, God is asking you to do something that He not only doesn’t do, but according to some Evangelicals, cannot do. If forgiveness is the “high road” does that mean God is asking me to do something better than He can do? God gets paid but you don’t – you have to forgive. Really?
Newsflash: That’s not the Gospel! At least, not according to Jesus.
The Bible does not teach that God is master of the debt/repayment paradigm; over and over the Scriptures tell us that God is master of the grace paradigm – God has completely and utterly forgiven us. Every sin you have ever committed, thought about, or will ever commit has been wiped away, even forgotten! And He didn’t have to get paid in order to do it.
How can I be certain that God forgave us instead of getting paid back for our sins? Here’s how:
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Jesus’ words on the cross give us the certainty that we have been forgiven by the Father. Jesus’ death at our hand, without retribution from the Father, gives us the certainty that the Triune God would rather die than live without us. God did not do violence to His Son, but we sure did. (In Acts 7:52, Stephen called it ‘murder’ – at our hand, not God’s.)
Apparently we are the ones who need reconciling, not God:
2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
Did you get that? God IN Christ, reconciling us. Not God outside of Christ, punishing Him instead of us. God in Christ, reconciling the world [kosmos – all of creation] to Himself. And the result? We are changed into new creatures. God does not change, we do (James 1:17).
And, finally, my personal favorite from Hosea. Through the first 10 chapters of Hosea, God proclaims His judgments and His plans to punish Israel for her sins. But in chapter 11, God basically says, “If Israel won’t repent, I will.” God begins to remember His love for His people and changes His mind. Check this out:
8 How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I surrender you, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart is turned over within Me,
All My compassions are kindled.
9 I will not execute My fierce anger;
I will not destroy Ephraim again.
For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst,
And I will not come in wrath.
And then in chapter 14:
4 I will heal their apostasy,
I will love them freely,
For My anger has turned away from them.
What turned away God’s anger? His compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. My favorite line in the whole of chapter 11:
For I am God and not man …
And I will not come in wrath.
Indeed, we are the angry ones, we are the violent ones.
God is not like us.
Experiencing the depth of the mercy, compassion, and forgiveness of God, resting in it, meditating on the truth of it in your life will give you the ability to lavishly forgive everyone around you. When I understand that I am the forgiven slave who owed such a great sin-debt to God, without any ability to pay it back in good works, then I will be able to give that same compassion to those around me. If you should find yourself in prison to the burden of your own sin-debt, first repent of your unforgiveness and then trust in His grace towards you. His grace is not a doormat to wipe our dirty feet on … His grace is the power to live a transformed life in the image of His Son.
His grace gives us the ability to live by the highest law there is: love for God, love for others.
His grace serves as our sure example, and having been changed by it, we have the power (through His Holy Spirit) to imitate our Prodigal Father.
Romans 21-11 explains the law of love this way:
Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience,
not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.
Jesus is ready to forgive you and fill you with His Spirit to enable you to live a life of love (compassion leading to forgiveness) toward all those who have sinned against you. The door to your prison stands open “70X7”. You only have to walk through it by grace, one step at a time.