Today we read in Matthew 18 one of the most important passages in the Bible. Here it is:
15 “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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 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.
Think about what is happening here. Jesus is alive; this is still before his entry into Jerusalem and before his death and resurrection. He is telling his Apostles about the Church they now are a part of and one day will be running. And He is specifically telling them how they will solve problems. He is establishing rules and procedures by which the Church will deal with problems. This shows that the Church is not something created by the Apostles after Jesus’ death. It is something he starts while he is alive. And it is NOT simply an invisible body of all believers. It will have structure and rules. An organization that has structure and rules will have officers and officials.
Notice how it begins, “If your brother sins against YOU…” Not if your brother sins against God, or Me (Jesus) but “you”, the Apostles. To sin is to fail to do the will of the Father. So when Jesus says, “if your brother (a fellow Christian) sins against you”, that implies a fellow Christian not doing the will of the APOSTLES. In other words, the Apostles have authority that is to be respected by fellow Christians and their will, i.e., their decisions are to be followed.
Look at the procedure Jesus laid out. First, speak with the person. If they don’t listen, take witnesses and speak to them together to make sure there are no misunderstandings. Then if he still doesn’t listen – go and tell it to the Church. Which Church? Can a Catholic go to a Baptist church to settle a dispute. Can a Baptist get a fair hearing from a Lutheran? For this to work there can only be ONE CHURCH with authority to settle disputes. Importantly, the word for Church is used only 2 places in the Bible. Here and in Matthew 16, when Jesus says he will build the Church on the rock that is Peter.
What happens to this person who has sinned against his brothers? There is no penalty when the first person talks to him. There is no penalty when the person goes with two witnesses. But notice, what happens when they go to the Church and he still doesn’t listen to the Church? Then there is a penalty, a BIG one. If they refuse to listen to the Church then they are to be treated as a Gentile and a Tax Collector. How did first century Jews treat Gentile and Tax Collectors? They were unclean and kept separate. Gentiles were not allowed to enter the inner courts of the temple. Jewish tax collectors were ostracized and kicked out. Jesus is saying, if they don’t listen to the Church then you kick them out! To be kicked out of something that thing must be visible. One cannot, in this life, be kicked out of the mystical body of believers but one can be kicked out of a visible defined Church. Thus again we see that the Church is a visible thing with rules.
Then notice, Jesus give the Church the same authority as a whole as that he gave to Peter individually in Matthew 16. He gives the Church the power to bind and loose. So when the Church meets to decide an issue and the Church decides then the Churches decision is binding.
We see this all play out in the book of Acts and the Book of Revelation. In Acts 6, seven deacons are appointed. One of them, the one listed last, is Nicholas. We are told that he is a proselyte (an adult male convert) from Antioch. This means he was circumcised as an adult, a difficult procedure to undergo with today’s modern medicine, let alone in the first century. Nicholas was obviously a man of conviction. He believed in the God of the Jews so much that he was willing to undergo circumcision as an adult to become Jewish. However, his strong convictions would ultimately do him harm.
Then we see at the end of Acts 14 and the beginning of Acts 15 that Paul and Barnabas come back from Antioch to Jerusalem to discuss the question of whether adult male converts to Christianity have to be circumcised. By inference we can tell that Nicholas is the one causing the controversy and that Paul and Barnabas are the two witnesses from the procedure Jesus describes in today’s reading. The Apostles meet in Jerusalem and decide the matter. They rule and write a letter that is distributed to all the Churches. We are told that the decision “seemed good to the Holy Spirit”. But apparently Nicholas did not accept the decision. Historically, we know that the Nicolaitans were an early sect of Christianity that was located in the region of Antioch that split from the Church and believed Christian converts still had to follow the Mosaic Law, the law of circumcision. In Revelation, we learn that Jesus himself was not happy with what they did. In Revelation 2, Jesus says,
6 Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, WHICH I ALSO HATE.
We see in these events thing happening exactly as Jesus set them up. We are even given a glimpse into heaven itself and see that Jesus means what he says, that what the Apostles bound on earth was bound in heaven.