Today at Riverfront Family Church, I preached about “the race to reconciliation when friendships break”. Jesus teaches that both parties — the offender and the offended — have specific obligations to seek reconciliation.
To the offender, he says:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
And to the offended, he says:
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:25)
Both parties are commanded to seek reconciliation. And both are told that pursuing reconciliation is the priority over worship (offering your gifts or even praying). In other words, it is a big deal — for both parties.
In my message, we then walked through how Jesus wants us to do this in Matthew 18. We often pull out sections of this chapter as if they stand alone, but the entire chapter is a well-crafted teaching about our posture (be like children… check your egos at the door) [Matthew 18:1-4], sin (it is a big deal… never minimize it!) [Matthew 18:5-9]… the Father’s heart (that none should be lost… that all would be reconciled) [Matthew 18:10-14]… confrontation and discipline (first 1-on-1, then with 2-3, etc) [Matthew 18:15-20]… and finally the primacy of forgiveness (not 7 times, but 77 times!) [Matthew 18:21-35]
All powerful stuff…
But there is an interesting section stuck in there that many people skip over that I think is important. In Matthew 18:18-20, Jesus says:
“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:18-20)
What does all this mean?
I think Jesus is saying that his followers have significant spiritual authority. Spiritual warfare — and spiritual realms, including powers and principalities — are very real. And followers of Christ are not merely spectators, but participants, in this very real battle. Our authority is derived from Christ’s Lordship and Kingship, but it is authority nonetheless (see also Matthew 28:18-20 — our mission and commission derives from His authority).
Jesus makes it clear in the parable (Matthew 18:35) that if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven. Jesus is not talking pop psychology here, but basic spiritual reality.
Equally, there is a sense, that when we withhold forgiveness from a fellow brother or sister in Christ, they are still bound to us; and when we extend forgiveness, we unbound them and set them free. From a psychological perspective, we forgive so that our hearts don’t become hardened; but from a spiritual perspective we forgive because (a) we are commanded to, and (b) we set people free.
The nature of sin is that when I sin against you, you now have a claim against me. It is a valid claim. To forgive and offer grace is to release (or loose) that claim; to not extend grace is to hold onto that claim (or bind it).
That is how it works with God — all sin is against God and when we are forgiven in Christ, we are released from the burden of sin and the valid claim God has against us.
But the same is true with other believers and with the church. When we withhold forgiveness from people (or from the institution) we hold them bound and give a serious foothold to Satan and spiritual darkness both in our own lives and in the lives of those we hold bound. Equally, when we are bound, we are not free yet to fully live in freedom.
This is why reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel and the work of Jesus. It is not merely about us having good relationships with each other, it is even more about the reality of the spiritual battles we face together as His church.
This teaching is made even more explicit — as well as its corporate implications for the church — in Matthew 16, when Peter confesses Jesus as Christ:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades [Hell] will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20)
In this passage, Peter is given the “keys to the Kingdom” and Jesus declares “His church”. In Matthew 18, the authority granted Peter is expanded to the universal church (and therefore all believers). This is remarkable! And it is why forgiveness and reconciliation within the church is so critical — indeed we are in a spiritual battle, pushing back the gates of hell — and the church will prevail!
All of this is one reason why, as I have written here, I am so committed to seeking forgiveness from and reconciliation with the church as well as with individuals. Until the church officially extends forgiveness, I am still very much bound to them because they have a valid claim against me. Public forgiveness would be both a step towards reconciliation and a release of their (rightful) claim… and only then will I be free to fully pursue ministry and purpose on behalf of the universal church.