Church: The Good, The Bad, and The Beautiful

Church is an amazing thing—created by Jesus, yet made up of sinful humans. It’s easy to overlook the essence of Church, especially when things aren’t “working” like we want it to. So, let’s step back for a few minutes and consider what an Amazing thing this is.

The Good: Jesus Christ Builds the church

The Greek word for “church” only occurs in two places in the Gospels: Matthew 16 and Matthew 18. In Matthew 16, we read,

He asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matt. 16:13-14 CSB)

Certainly a worthy group of people for Jesus to be included. But Jesus presses them for their own thoughts about who he is:

“But you,” he asked them, “who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:15-16 CSB)

Peter moves beyond the accolades of the crowds, to confess who Jesus really is, the Messiah [Christ], the Son of the living God. Jesus accepts Peter’s confession, while adding further to it.

Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven. (Matt. 16:17 CSB)

That is, for someone to realize who Jesus is means that only God could reveal it. On our own any evaluation of Jesus will fall short. We miss who Jesus really is, and we miss what that confession really is.

Jesus not only acknowledges Peter’s confession and shows him the basis for his confession, he extends it to be the basis of church.

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock [your confession] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Matt. 16:18 CSB)

That is amazing, the good.

The Bad: Church is made up of sinners

The reality of the church is that church consists of sinners, only sinners. It doesn’t take us long to be in a church to come to that realization: we are all sinners. We can mess things up in church.

Sinners do sinful things, and it may be easy to spot the sin and sinner. The spotlight helps us identify the sinner, or at least we think it does. If only we could get rid of “those sinners” then church would be acceptable.

Jesus builds the church, and he knows exactly who the people of the church are: sinners. So, he is not surprised by it. Amazingly Jesus still works in and through the church. Jesus does not advocate for the latest and greatest leadership practice, nor the latest conference. Rather because sin is a persistent problem with sinners, even in the church, Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom to the Church to deal with sin (Matt. 16:19).

Jesus does not leave the church to fend for itself. He builds the church and he cares for the church. Sin does not surprise Jesus. Rather, he anticipates that people in the church, sinners, will sin. Thus, in the other mention of “church” in the Gospels, Jesus provides the remedy for the church to continue to be the church.

[Jesus said:] 15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he won’t listen, take one or two others with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he doesn’t pay attention to them, tell the church. 17 If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven. (Matt. 18:15-18 CSB)

Sadly this process of dealing with sin is often ignored in the church. The church either thinks the sin will go away, or it hopes that it won’t be noticed, “We don’t want to ruffle feathers.” Or even worse, “church rules” become the basis for getting rid of people, especially those who question church organization leadership. Jesus knows that sin can only be dealt with by confronting the sin and forgiving the sin.

By following these steps, the church can only do one of two things: bind the sin or loose  (forgive) the sin. Note that in v. 18, in either case, the church declares what God has already declared: “whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.”

In other words, this is not the church acting as an independent organization for its own good. Rather, the declaration regarding sin is something that God has already determined, and the church speaks that (which will have been already bound/loosed in heaven). The church is not arbitrary in the announcement, but follows the lead of the One who builds the church.

The Beautiful: The Church Lives in Unity

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, chapter 4:

1 Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to live worthy of the calling you have received, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

He emphasizes that the church living together is not marked by a laundry list of things to do. Rather the church exhibits the character of Christ: humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. Elsewhere Paul describes these as “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).

It’s is amazing when the church begins to live out that reality. Humility means the other person is more important than me. Gentleness means we treat those who have been wounded, abused, shaken by sin not with indifference or judgment, ridicule, “discipline.” Rather we treat them with the same gentleness Jesus demonstrated to people: the woman at the well (John 4), the one caught in adultery (John 8), even Peter who rightly confessed who Jesus is, and yet who also denied Jesus. Bearing with one another in love means walking with another, who struggles, who lives in fear, doubt, anger.

The life of the church is guided by the one who built it. Note in Eph. 4:3 the church “makes every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.” The church does not establish unity, only the Spirit can do that. But the church does strive to maintain what the Spirit established. Note how this is the outcome of the church rightly dealing with sin.

In our eyes, we see the church: battered, torn, weak, divisive. From that perspective it is tempting to walk away from the church.

In Christ’s eyes, he sees the church: forgiven, restored, and his voice in the world.

Walking away from church is not the answer. Being the church, as Jesus creates and sees the church means that we stay in the church. Broken sinners, forgiven. Weak yet strong in love, bruised, but not abandoned. That’s how Jesus intended the church to be.

Christ’s Church is amazing and beautiful

Context of Matthew 18:15-35

Limits of study

Obviously it is difficult to jump into the middle of a text without understanding the context. Our text comes at the end of the fourth discourse, which describes the ekklesia (church), i.e. the New Messianic people of God (13:54–19:1). There are two parts in this discourse.

The previous section (13:54–17:27) focused on the deeds as Jesus separates Himself and His disciples from the first century Jewish understanding of what it means to be God’s people. In other words, the former way of living (under the old covenant) is passing away, and Jesus begins to contrast what the new covenant [testament] means for living. This separation begins with the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth (13:54-58). The death of John (14:1-12) highlights that the prophetic preparation for the Messiah has been completed.

Then follows a series of miracles that demonstrate particular aspects of the Messiah’s work and what they means for His disciples. The feeding of the 5,000 highlights not only Jesus’ power and authority, but even more the heart of God— “He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them“ (14:14). Rather than the “shepherds” of Israel who saw the crowds as ones to be manipulated, used, and exploited, Jesus saw the people as they were, people in need.

In addition to the feeding miracle Jesus walks on the water, which only His disciples see, then heals the sick in Gennesaret. These miracles demonstrate his authority over all creation, extending compassion as needed. Yet, even then the disciples face the reality of their lack of faith. Contrast that with the two “outsiders” who are commended for their faith (Matthew 8:10-11; 15:28).

The conflict between Jesus and the rulers of the Jews increases as we move into chapter 15. The old way was to examine the externals as the measure of law-keeping, and obedience to God. The tradition of the elders is exposed when Jesus points to Word, namely Isaiah, to condemn them (Matthew 15:8-9). It isn’t what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out, comes out of the heart (15:10-20).

Jesus ventures into another Gentile area, Tyre and Sidon. Note that while Jesus came to Israel, it is also true that Jesus was preparing for Matthew 28:16-20 by His own extension of the message beyond Israel. In this case the Canaanite woman reveals true faith. Two more miracles follow this story. Again, note the divine characteristic in 15:32, “And Jesus called His disciples to Him, and said, ‘I feel compassion for the people.’ ”

Yet remarkably in Matthew 16:1-4 the Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign. They see, but do not see. The contrast for the new people of God is that seeing comes from faith. After explaining the real problem of these leaders, Jesus now asks the disciples who He is—the context and object of faith. Peter gets the identification correct: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The source is not Peter’s deduction, but the revealing work of God. Sadly, in 16:21-23, Peter also exposes how little he knows what his confession really meant. Peter wants a Savior of his own making. He gets much more in Jesus.

Jesus explains more about what this confession Peter made when He said: “I also say to you that you are Peter (Πέτρος masculine referring to Peter), and upon this rock (πέτρᾳ feminine referring to his confession, not to Peter) I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” This confession also leads to the issue of forgiveness of sins, a theme that is central in our main text, 18:15-35.

But the confession also includes Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus, thus, contradicts one of the major expectations of the Jewish people: the Messiah would lead them to victory over the Romans. Such a confession includes the disciples to deny themselves and follow Jesus, cross language that will be fully evident in chapters 26-28.

Chapter 17 adds to the disciples’ confusion. Jesus, the one who will be killed, is not transfigured in front of three disciples. Then He follows that with another prophecy of His death and resurrection. It’s like the disciples have been given a puzzle with many pieces, yet the pieces seem to come from many different puzzles.

Chapter 18:1-14

This text provides the immediate background and transition to our text of interest. The question in 18:1 reveals how the disciples are still thinking in the old paradigm. “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus clearly refutes such thinking when he uses a child (“a child, normally below the age of puberty” BDAG). In other words, the wisdom and superiority of an adult perception of greatness are not in the mix. It is an issue of faith, something the disciples have missed repeatedly.

In 18:5-9 Jesus goes even further. It is not a matter of (self-imagined) greatness, but rather how do the new people of God treat the “least” in the kingdom. Leading one of the least into sin has great consequences.

[Jesus said:] “…whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! (Matthew 18:6-7 NAS)

The least includes the lost among them, those who go astray (18:10-14). Notice, too, that the finding of the lost is critical, but also the the resulting rejoicing. God desires that not one be lost.

With this background we see that Jesus will usher in a new kingdom, the church (ἐκκλησία). It will be far different than what the people had experienced under the old covenant. Relationships will reflect God’s perfect love and compassion. Anything that interferes with the relationship of the church is to be dealt with following the pattern of greatness in the new kingdom.

This then leads us into the text of 18:15-35.