Forgiving Brothers


Do Mathew 18:15-17, and verse 21-22 of the same chapter contradict each other?


Good observation! I always wonder why more people don’t discuss this type of discrepancy. Matthew 18:15-17 seems to set out a very logical, systematic way of dealing with disagreements, but this whole approach can possibly end with us breaking with our brothers. This doesn't mesh with Jesus’s teaching in general, which is to give and forgive without expecting anything in return. Matthew 21-22 is one example of his general approach, forgiving without limit, but Jesus’ entire body of work teaches us to “let go” of the missteps of others.

Resolving this clear contradiction is somewhat simple, especially since the contradiction is so obvious. The answer:

  1. A slight change in punctuation in translating the last line in the first set of verses, and
  2. Looking more closely at the verses in between these two sets of verses.

The original Greek from which we translate Jesus’s words has no punctuation. Punctuation was invented several hundred years later and added to the text. Mistakes have been clearly made in this process, not just here, but throughout the Gospels. Often the mistakes do not matter, but in places like this, where there is clearly a problem (unless you just close your eyes to it or add stuff that isn’t there), changing the punctuation can clarify meaning in profound ways.

No punctuation means that we cannot tell what is a question and what is a statement. In most verses, this is not a problem, but when there are clear conflicts, as there is here, not only with general teaching but the immediate following verses, good translation requires that we try other ways of punctuating to see if there resolve the problems.

Consider the following version with one slight change (I worked with the KJV, but any version works):

  • Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
  • Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
  • And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, must he be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican? (See this article for an explanation of the Greek).

This last line becomes a question. Jesus is asking “Is this really what you want?” This is the law, but his job is completing the law.

  • Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

This becomes a warning about breaking with your brother on earth: it is a decision that last forever.

  • Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
  • For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

This is the solution to the division, agreeing on any one thing, leaving the rest to the Father to heal the breach within the presence of the Son within us.

Where did the contradiction go? It was never there. Certainly, Peter, when he asked his question, didn’t think he was being instructed to forsake his brother. He heard this as forgiving his brother. This is the way we should hear it.