A knowledge of the literary context of a particular passage opens the way to a correct understanding of its significance in several different ways. First, examining the literary context allows the reader to follow the intended flow-of-thought of the author (Cf. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Jr., p 215). Secondly, literary context helps a reader define particular words that may carry several different meanings (Cf. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Jr., p 215). Finally, literary context permits a reader to discern the relationships between different units of text within a specific section or book (Cf. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Jr., p 216). For this essay, Matthew 18:18-20 will be analyzed within its literary context in the hope of ascertaining a correct understanding of its theme.
To begin, it is necessary to assess the theme of the immediately preceding context of the specific text being examined. It seems cogent to group Matt. 18:18-20 together with Matt. 18:15-17 since this set of verses constitutes one paragraph of text. Therefore, the immediately preceding context becomes Matt. 18:10-14. Jesus presents a visual picture of a shepherd who owns one hundred sheep. One of them has gone astray, and the shepherd then begins his search to find it. After searching and finding the sheep, Jesus says that the shepherd “rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray” (Matt. 18:13). That God searches for and reconciles his sheep to himself because he does not will that any should perish (Matt. 18:14) might function as an acceptable theme for Matt. 18:10-14.
Matt. 18:15 opens the section by continuing this same theme: “If a 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.” The last part of the verse maintains the theme from the preceding section; “you have gained your brother” demonstrates language that implies bringing someone back into right relationship with God. This works very nicely with the theme of the previous section (God pursuing and bringing his people back into relationship with himself). Bringing the brother back is shown to be the goal of telling him his fault. If, however, the brother does not listen, further steps are to be taken in order to try and reconcile him (Cf. Matt. 18:16-17). This again, points back to God’s unwillingness that any of his flock should perish. If the brother rejects all the outlined approaches, the church is to treat him “as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17).
Now to Matt. 18:18-20. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” is most likely a reference to withholding the forgiveness of sins from an offender (Cf. Osborne, p 687). Thus, it seems that a certain amount of authority has been given to the church in matters of discipline for the purpose of reconciling God’s people to himself. “Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”, on the other hand, probably refers to the forgiveness of sins (Cf. Osborne, p 687). Verse nineteen continues with a parallel thought: “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” Notice that the “anything” here is most likely synonymous with “every charge” from Matt. 18:16 (Cf. Osborne, p 688). It is important to see that God, in his desire that none of his people should perish, has given some level of authority to the church in his work of reconciliation. Observe the reason why: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). This verse clearly shows that the reason the Father will do what is asked by the church is precisely because it is the Son who is behind the church’s request. The unity among the church body (v. 19) is brought about by Jesus himself (v. 20), so the church can effectively discipline with the hope of reconciliation precisely because it is the Son who is providing the unity required to accomplish the task. Therefore, an appropriate theme for Matt. 18:18-20 (and 18:15-20 more broadly) could be the necessity of church discipline in the light of God’s reconciling and redeeming work on behalf of his children.
It is also important to note the theme of the immediately following passage. Having heard Jesus’ discourse on church discipline, Peter then asks the pertinent question: “How many times should I forgive my brother who sins against me?” (Matt. 18:21, author’s translation). This illustrates an expansion of the same themes from Matt. 18:10-14 and 18:15-20. The parable of the unforgiving servant demonstrates how many times Peter should forgive his brother: “And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:33). The theme, then, for this passage could be, just as God has shown mercy to the church by reconciling them to himself, so also the church must show mercy to members who have gone astray. This also leads to a nice interplay between the “binding” and “loosing” ideas from Matt. 18:18. With this in mind, the church should probably function to “loose” or “forgive” (in the limited sense in which God has given this authority) sins just as the Father has also forgiven them.
Finally, the majority of chapter eighteen serves as an examination of the implications for the church based on Christ’s death and resurrection (Cf. Blomberg, p 145). This idea plus the themes shown from within the chapter illustrate that 1) because God is not willing that any of his children should perish, he has sent Christ to die in order for their redemption to be procured; 2) Christ’s death has shown just how relentlessly God will pursue his people until they are reconciled; 3) the church is the vehicle through which God’s work of reconciliation is usually accomplished; and 4) the church, having been shown mercy, must also be merciful as they seek to participate in this work.
One of Matthew’s overall themes, according to Blomberg, is discipleship and the church (p 149). This view fits squarely with the conclusions garnered from chapter eighteen, specifically vv. 18-20. It is important to note that this particular passage fits well within the overall context of the book in order to further Matthew’s purpose in writing the Gospel account. He is showing just how important discipleship and the church is by his treatment of it within his Gospel.
In closing, Matt. 18:18-20 shows one method of God’s reconciling work, namely, church discipline. The context determines that the church should participate in God’s work in a merciful manner, always being aware of the Spirit of Christ among them. Just a few chapters earlier, right after Peter’s confession of the Christ (Matt. 16:16), Jesus reveals, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). This language is identical to that of the specific text at hand, and it allows the reader to gain a deeper grasp of Jesus’ meaning. Binding and loosing have to do contextually with having the keys to the kingdom as well as gaining a brother back. Within its larger context, most likely Jesus is simply elaborating on the reconciling work of the Father and how the church should engage in this work. Overall, the context of the passage exhibits the reality that Christ, through the Spirit, remains with his people, even “to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20) in order to accomplish the reconciling work of the Father through such instituted means as church discipline.
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