Why is Christianity different to any other religion? We don’t need endless reincarnations, never attaining sinless perfection, working to reach nirvana. We believe in forgiveness, not to avoid forgiveness or to kill and terrorize. Christian history repeatedly fails this ideal, but no other religion offers a free pardon for our sins. We don’t earn our way into God’s favor. Forgiveness is completely undeserved, given to those who ask and are learning to forgive. We are not Christians because we are perfect like Christ. We are Christians because we participate in God’s kingdom of forgiveness and we are learning to be like Jesus and forgiving from the heart because we are forgiven.
What is a rare gift that we give others and ourselves? It’s the gift of forgiveness. It is hard to find this gift. Most people hold unhealthy grudges and refuse to let them go. We preserve resentment like a precious treasure. It’s not a treasure. It’s a stinking carcass that we safeguard and bow down to and kiss as we remember the past. It’s our egos and hurt feelings, and we refuse to let go of them. Instead of forgiving and getting over it, we imprison ourselves in bitterness and inward anger. Jesus said to forgive from the heart, because only by doing so will our hearts experience freedom and healing.
Are some people loners because they are deeply hurt and haven’t learned forgiveness? A healthy local church is the ideal place to heal and learn to love. Forgiveness does not mean trust. It is foolish to trust any human being, even ourselves (Psalms 118:8; Micah 7:5; Jeremiah 17:5; Psalms 118:9; Psalms 118:8-9). We must learn to trust the only One who is completely trustworthy, God. What we need to learn in church life is forgiveness. How wonderful it is when we are among a group of Christians where there is forgiveness. Human trustworthiness is an unrealistic expectation. Alone we don’t learn forgiveness. Forgiving churches are wonderful.
What if we refuse to forgive? God doesn’t give us that option. In Matthew 18:35 Jesus says, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” Peter wanted a mathematical count for forgiveness, like seven times and then no more forgiveness. With hyperbolic language, 70x7, Jesus taught that compassion and mercy must last a long, long time from the heart. There is no room for lack of mercy. We confess our sins, remembering the great debt we owe God, and forgive those who trespass against us. Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.
What does the parable of the unforgiving servant teach us? A king’s servant borrowed a huge fortune (Matthew 18:23-34) and lost it all placing his whole family in slavery to debt. He asked for debt forgiveness. The king had compassion and forgave the astronomical debt. That servant then violently confronted a fellow servant, who owed him a very small amount, and had him thrown into prison. The king was angry at this lack of compassion. The king jailed his unforgiving servant and let him be tortured. This parable informs us how important compassion and mercy are to God. He demands that we, the forgiven, must also compassionately and mercifully forgive.
What’s Jesus’ answer to how often we must forgive? In Matthew 18:22 Peter was given an answer. “Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Forgiveness often accompanies deep personal pain, but we can’t change the past. It’s a choice, despite pain and despite lack of trust. Holding grudges hurts us deep in our souls. Forgiving blesses us forever. Jesus' answer, 70x7, means hyperbolically don’t keep count of how many times we forgive. If we track the number of times we gave someone forgiveness, then perhaps we have not really forgiven at all. True forgiveness sets no limits.
How often must we forgive people? Are we expected to be gullible victims? Jesus taught about forgiveness, but how often must we be abused and bruised by others and still forgive? That is essentially Peter's question in Matthew 18:21, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Ancient Jewish teaching could have suggested with forgiveness, 3 strikes and you're out. So, Peter's suggestion of 7 times, may have seemed quite generous to him. A question in response to Peter might be, how often ought we imitate God's forgiveness? If the answer is only 7 times, then we are all in trouble.
A Literal Perspective
In Matthew 18:19-20 Jesus said that, “if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.” He also added that, “where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Does that mean that God is obligated to answer a prayer agreed to by at least two Christians? What if we have two Catholics, two Orthodox and two Protestants praying contradictory prayers? What does the context of Jesus’ remarks tell us? It’s talking about solving offenses in the church, and God’s blessing on the witnesses in such a dispute.
A Spiritual Perspective
Matthew 18:19-20 is often misused to support exaggerated views of A Spiritual Perspective warfare, group prayer, or husbands and wives praying together. The difference between a mature and immature Christian church is not an absence of conflict, but how it is handled. Jesus gives us three broad principles of conflict resolution. Coupled with prayer for wisdom from heaven this can go along way to working through some very sticky interpersonal situations. It may not be a successful formula in situations outside the church, where prayer may not be a factor. However, among brothers and sisters who are anxious to live together in harmony, it can be very helpful in solving many conflicts.
A Literal Perspective
In Matthew 18:18 we read, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven [Footnote: will have been bound ... will have been loosed]”. In the context of handling disputes, this expands the promise given Peter (Matthew 16:19) to all the Apostles and by extension to the whole Christian community. The church community’s decision to excommunicate, absolve of guilt or simply forbear are inspired by heaven. The antecedent to this are the Poskim of Jewish tradition whose “binding and loosing” was Halakhah (written and oral law). Jesus often criticized their traditions. What Christian traditions are inspired by heaven?
A Spiritual Perspective
Does Jesus’ statement to the Apostles in Matthew 18:18, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven...” mean that all formal or ex-cathedra dogmas are infallible? The Christian community is in remarkable consensus on Jesus’ teachings, but not in everything. Jesus’ instruction was in the context of dealing with serious personal offenses. When do offenses require a decision by the broader church? What issues are personally offensive to you? Are we quiet for the sake of peace or is our cause too important for peace? Each of us must pick our battles carefully. Should we also listen more carefully when the broader Christian community agrees on a matter?
A Literal Perspective
Jesus explained the ultimate escalation of a dispute between two church members. This is the final stage of a three stage process in major disputes. 1) Go to them alone. 2) Take two or three witnesses. 3) “if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” So, we take the dispute to the community of believers. Here, there is yet no concept of individual congregations, nor a hierarchy of church elders. There is only a diverse group of disciples, a few, a dozen, a hundred, and rarely thousands.
A Spiritual Perspective
What disputes would we call a church assembly to decide? What offenses would we escalate up through church hierarchy? Jesus concludes teaching about conflicts in Matthew 18:17 that “if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” What does that mean? Does it mean excommunication in some cases? Does it mean that we simply continue to welcome someone, while praying for the day that they repent? Does it mean a public realization that their conversion is perhaps not a reality? Should we shun such people or simply treat them as kindly as we do all our other non-Christian neighbors?
A Literal Perspective
In Matthew 18:16 we read that after talking to someone privately about a personal offense, “if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’” The principle of two or three witnesses is Jesus’ recognition a legal obligation in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15). This step escalates the situation way beyond a simple personal offense. The purpose of these extra friends or perhaps even people familiar with the situation is probably to convince a person of their fault, and even to witness their response of willingness or unwillingness to change.
A Spiritual Perspective
What kinds of offenses deserve to be taken to the next level? Personal offenses may range from a simple misunderstanding to gross sins like being swindled or defamation of character. When Jesus said, “if he will not hear, take with you one or two more”, that is not encouragement to escalate every single dispute. This is a principle, not something to apply A Literal Perspectively every single time someone disagrees with us. Mostly, we simply forgive and forget when our friends cannot understand what they have done. The offense is not worth taking any further. Most often we decide to agree to disagree and part as friends. We only escalate really bad situations.
A Literal Perspective
In Matthew 18:15 Jesus taught, “if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” The wording is softened in most English translations. The sense in the original language is much stronger, such as to “convict him of his fault.”1 Today we might say if you’ve got to berate someone, do so privately rather than castigate them in public. It’s the kind of thing we might try to do behind closed doors. It’s not talking about everyday personality conflicts. In those cases we bear with one another (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:2). In this case the offense is personal and major.
A Spiritual Perspective
Most of the time we forbear one another’s weaknesses. It’s no use creating an argument over every minor infraction. Some churches may have such an intolerably authoritarian atmosphere of fear, but that’s not how knowledgeable Bible students know church should be. Forgiveness and forbearance of each other’s faults makes a church more joyful. But does that mean that we should never say anything? There is a legitimate time to speak and Jesus seems to indicate that when a sin is directed at us, personally, then we may cautiously act. In fact, Jesus recommends going to our brother alone over a personal offense. “If he hears you, you have gained your brother.”
Let’s remember that the setting in Matthew 18:15-20 is a time when the disciples were the Church. After the resurrection, the house church became the norm. Megachurches, such as the assembly on Pentecost, were and still are rare exceptions. So, taking most disputes to the whole church is not possible in larger assemblies, but the spirit of these instructions is applicable in many wonderful ways. Conflict will always be part of church life, as long as sin exists. Sometimes we can resolve things easily and sometimes we must separate for a time, like Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15:36-39) or the universal Church and our schisms through Christian history.
Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox broadly agree on salvation. In the Bible, saving faith is evidenced by the fruit of good works (James 2:14-26; Matthew 3:10; 7:19; Matthew 21:43; Colossians 1:10; Ephesians 2:10). We can’t actually separate faith and works. Jesus said in Matthew 16:27 that God, “will reward each person according to what they have done.” We can’t take the free gift of salvation and do nothing with it. Salvation “by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone” is a convoluted way to avoid saying that Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants actually agree, that an evidence of salvation is in doing good works.
In Matthew 16:26 Jesus asks, “what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” In plain English, what are our lives worth? The Greek word translated as soul or life is the same word, meaning breath. It is used metaphorically for our life, everything that makes us ourselves. It’s a great paradox. Selfishness is a losing life. Giving of ourselves for Christ, we find true life. What good is it if we selfishly gain the whole world, when in so doing we lose ourselves? God values our worth by the death of His Son. True life is found not in narcissistic selfishness but in sharing with God and our neighbors.
In Matthew 16:25 Jesus made the strange-sounding statement that “whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” It is counter-intuitive to our natural instincts. We do a lot to preserve our lives. How can Jesus ask us to give up our lives for his sake? Each of us actually has two lives and this riddle speaks of both. Jesus asks us to willingly lose this temporal life. In so doing we gain eternal life. He did not ask us to commit suicide, but give up our self-centered ways, take up our crosses of self-sacrifice and follow him.
In Matthew 16:24 Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” Peter had confessed Christ. His acknowledgment made him a rock of the Rock, and he received the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But his public confession was not enough. Like us, he was to carry his cross. Altar calls are a public confession of Christ, popularized by Charles Finney in the 19th century. They are not always successful for this same reason. After confession of Jesus Christ is living a Christian life which includes, repentance of sin, baptism and carrying our cross and following Him.
In Matthew 16:23 Jesus told Peter, “you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” Peter went from rock of the Rock to rock of stumbling very quickly indeed. He also did worse, denying Jesus. We all experience ups and downs in our faith journey. There are times when we look at events around us and cry out, “Lord; this shall not happen!” Being crucified, at least figuratively, is something that Christians will experience. Are we too tempted to lose faith or cry out to heaven in objection? Let’s not stumble but remember that carrying our own cross of crucifixion is part of the journey.
When Peter rebuked Jesus’ regarding his prophecy of his crucifixion, Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind Me, Satan!” Satan means “adversary.” Peter was opposed to Jesus’ plans. The word for “behind” is translated in the next verse as “follow” me. Jesus wanted Peter to quit being an adversary and get behind him and follow him. When we try to take the lead from Jesus, we are adversaries. When we create church rules in opposition to Jesus, we are adversaries. When we try to be more righteous than Jesus we are in opposition to him. In this story Jesus is also saying to us, “Back me up, you who are in opposition.”
We naturally want to protect others from possible suffering. Like Peter said to Jesus, do we also say, “No way”? Jesus’ reaction was blunt, “Get behind me Satan!” Have we tried to discourage children from what we imagined to be a poor career choice, when maybe it was their life’s calling, their purpose for being. It is an evil and diabolical thing to make a young person unhappy for life, merely for the sake of family expectations. We don’t want others to suffer, and so we tend to want to baby them. Yet, such good intentions may actually do more harm than good. Like Peter, we may be benefiting the devil.
In Matthew 16:21 we read that, “Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer.” Jewish Messiahs were traditionally conquering military heroes who saved Israel from enemies. Jesus went totally against that, prophesying his crucifixion. To Peter it seemed to be admitting defeat. Peter’s immediate response was to reprimand Jesus. A Messiah was supposed to conquer, to say take up your sword and follow me, not your cross. The Church of Jesus Christ needs ongoing reformation. We constantly need to pray for and follow His direction not lean on our human traditions. In Jesus, loss is gain, defeat is victory. The cross transcends tradition.
In Matthew 16:19 we read, “Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.” As Peter opened the kingdom of heaven by his declaration of faith, so do the descendants of the faith of Peter “declare the terms under which God forgives sin and allows entrance to the kingdom.”1 This is shared by all the Apostles in Matthew 18:18. Their decisions “will have been tied up” and “will have been untied.”2 This is not divine endorsement of mere human decisions but divine guidance, enabling each to be “the faithful steward of God’s prior decisions.”3
1Michael J. Wilkins. The NIV Application Commentary. Zondervan. 2004. 578.
2R. T. France. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2007. 626.
In Matthew 16:19 Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Tertullian taught that the whole Christian faith is built upon Peter being the first to confess Christ. What about the keys? Tertullian believed that, ‘(Peter) himself, therefore, was the first to unbar, in Christ's baptism, the entrance to the heavenly kingdom...’ He reasoned that Peter’s confession gave him and any others who showed this same faith, the key to the kingdom, not human politics and a succession of popes in an exclusive church. Indeed, ‘from that time forward, every number (of persons) who may have combined together into this faith is accounted "a Church"’.
reference: ANTE-NICENE FATHERS, VOLUME 4, Chapter XXI
The Apostles of Jesus Christ were scattered far and wide. How reliable was communication between the Christians of India, Ethiopia, Turkey and Spain? Is it unrealistic to claim Peter’s authority over all these lands in a time when it would have been a matter of practical impossibility? Early church fathers did not interpret Matthew 16:19 as Rome later came to. Could it simply be that wherever the right faith is to be found, there are the keys to the kingdom? How can any one person have a monopoly on that faith? Is that why Paul wrote that no other foundation than Jesus Christ can be laid (1 Corinthians 3:11)?
In Matthew 16:18 Jesus spoke of the church that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” In Greek mythology, Hades is pictured as a place with strong gates that do not permit escape. In this context, Jesus most likely used the term as a metaphor for the grave. That which overthrows all other societies will not overthrow the church. Many have tried. Roman Emperors, Zoroastrians, Jews, Persians, Middle Eastern Muslims, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Bhutanese Buddhists, Russian Communists, Mexican governments, Madagascans, Fascists, Nazis, and North Korean despots all failed to destroy the church. The grave has no power over those who know that they will rise from the dead.
Chrysostom did not believe Matthew 16:18 supported Papal succession. ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church;" that is, on the faith of his confession… He that has built His church upon Peter's confession...’ (1) Peter’s authority over all the world did not continue beyond his grave other than through those who confessed the same faith. "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ....I have preached Christ, I have delivered unto you the foundation. Take heed how you build thereon, lest haply it be in vainglory, lest haply so as to draw away the disciples unto men." (2)
References: (1) St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew(2) Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians
Augustine of Hippo wrote, ‘Christ is the rock (Petra), Peter is the Christian people. For the rock (Petra) is the original name. Therefore Peter is so called from the rock; not the rock from Peter; as Christ is not called Christ from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. "Therefore," he saith, "Thou art Peter; and upon this Rock" which thou hast confessed, upon this Rock which thou hast acknowledged, saying, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, will I build My Church;" that is upon Myself, the Son of the living God, "will I build My Church." I will build thee upon Myself, not Myself upon thee.’
Does the word “this” make Jesus’ statement “on this rock I will build My church” point away from Peter? It is a feminine Greek pronoun. If Rome’s argument about translating from Aramaic were correct, shouldn’t the meaning be made clearer not ambiguous? Why wouldn’t Jesus say, “upon you I will build my church”? Does the Greek grammar of the word “this” contradict Catholic dogma by directing our attention away from Peter as its intended meaning? What did it point to? Many early church Fathers said that “this rock” was Peter’s confession of faith, while others said it was Christ Himself. Is the grammar then clear that Peter was not the rock?
In Matthew 16:18 we read, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church.” Peter is “Petros” and rock is a feminine “Petra” in Greek. Rome says that the rock in Matthew 16:18 was the same word as Peter in Aramaic. Where is the evidence that this conversation was in Aramaic? People from Galilee commonly spoke Greek as well. Does internal linguistic evidence show Matthew was written in Greek and that Jesus most likely spoke in Greek? Are linguistic markers of a translation from an Aramaic conversation absent? Many early church Fathers did not agree with Rome’s interpretation of this.
We are called Christians because we believe in Christ. We could also be called Rocks of the Rock of our salvation, Jesus. That’s how many early Church fathers saw Peter’s faith in Jesus who is the cornerstone in the Church’s foundation of prophets and apostles (Ephesians 2:20). Jesus nicknamed Cephas as Rock (Peter) just as followers of Christ are named Christian. There is nothing in Matthew 16:18 declaring Peter as first in succession of men carrying sole authority over the entire Church. Nothing in the Bible or in early church writings universally supports the dogma of a Roman papacy as the sole Christian authority throughout the rest of Church history.
Reference: Saint Augustine, Retractions (20.1) and Sermons (vol 6, sermon 229)