It seems to be my preference to write about topics or passages that are misunderstood or misapplied or both. This particular passage fits both categories. It is an important passage because it gives us guidance for action in a particular situation, guidelines that are spelled out nowhere else in the scriptures.
Jesus answers His apostles’ question about who among them would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven by telling them they need to become like children. He warns against offenses and urges being rid of a member that causes one to stumble. He, then, proffers the parable of the lost sheep. Directly after showing the importance of the restoration of one who was lost, he gives the guidelines about which we speak here. This progression should establish in our minds that the goal of verses 15 and following is the restoration of a brother who is “lost.”
In verse 15 Jesus says, “If your brother sins”. Some translations add the words “against you.” I believe they make this addition for what is, in their minds, clarification’s sake. “If” indicates a condition, the condition that a brother sins. The question really arises as to what “sin” means. Is Jesus merely making a broad statement? Is the consideration, here, of any and every sin a brother commits, or is this sin qualified in some way? We know that the matter is not just one of a mere dispute over doubtful things (NKJ) or opinions (NAS), Romans 14:1, but over a sin.
The fact that Jesus says that the one who is aware of the sin must go to the sinner alone means that the sin committed is a private matter or is not generally known. So as I see it, we have two qualifications of the sin under consideration here. First, the sin is a privately-committed and privately-witnessed sin. For example, if I were to drive by a bar, see the car of a brother there, enter the bar, and see my brother drunk and disorderly, his sin would be known by me alone (among the brethren, anyway). I alone, become aware of a sin that my brother has committed. Second, my brother acts in a way that directly impacts me alone. For example, a brother, whom I have invited for dinner and who develops a liking for a small keepsake I have decides to take it home with him, steal it, in essence. In that manner, he has sinned “against me.” Those who add these two words assume correctly that the sin is a private matter, but they incorrectly, I believe, limit it to those sins directly committed against another person. So, Jesus says, basically, if the situation is that your brother commits a sin of which you, alone, become aware or that your brother commits a sin directly against you, then follow these guidelines.
Let’s bring in 1 Corinthians 6 here. This chapter deals with the idea that two Christians having a dispute submit the resolution of that dispute to the judgment of heathen. Paul’s reaction to such a thing is disgust. Is there no one among the brethren who can resolve such a dispute? In verse 7, Paul says, “Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?” How does this verse relate to the discussion of Matthew 18? If the brother takes my keepsake, could we apply what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6? Could I simply “accept wrong” and let myself “be cheated?” The answer, in that situation, is no. If I were to say to myself the brother can keep the painting, I may be fine. It is within my prerogative to allow the transgression. The problem is not with me but with my brother. He has committed a sin, stolen what does not belong to him. If I merely ignore the theft, he may not suffer godly sorrow and repent of the crime. He is, therefore, in sin. Jesus’ admonition is that I must go to him and tell him his fault. This admonition is akin to Matthew 5:23-4 “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Go to your brother. Whether you have aught against your brother or he has aught against you, go to him.
The cornerstone of these verses to me is Jesus’ qualification that one go to talk to the other who sinned. In fact, Jesus says this with much added stress by the words “tell him”, “between you and him”, and “alone.” Is this so hard to understand? So much trouble in the kingdom could be avoided by heeding this simple command. Go to him only by yourself. Only later are others to be brought into the discussion. In fact, bringing others in at this point is contrary to the command and is sin. Yet, what is the reaction all too often by brethren? Sadly, when someone is wronged, he goes to a third person and begins talking about what happened. This action is called GOSSIP. Proverbs 11:13 says, “A talebearer reveals secrets, But he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter.” Whether the tale being borne is true or not is of no importance. There is no Biblical authority to discuss the matter with a third person! We do not go to the elders. We do not talk to a third person because we are “concerned” about someone. We do go directly and only to the person who sinned. Jesus commands it here.
Jesus makes clear that the purpose of this action is to restore the brother when He says, “If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” If you, yourself alone, go to him only and tell him about his transgression with the goal of helping him to see his sin and repent of it; and if he does listen to you and repents of his sin, you have helped your brother to be restored. See Galatians 6:1 and James 5:20. What would we, as Christians, rather see? Would it be that our brother continue in his sin or repent of it and be restored? Restoration should be our goal. Restoration will not be achieved by going to a third party and spreading the matter to others. This action is inconsistent with what Jesus teaches here.