New interpretation of Matthew 18:18-20: reconciliation and the repentance discourse
Larson, Paul Daniel
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Matthew 18:18-20 is an important section of the discourse of Matthew 18 and one of the most important passages for Matthew's theology. The near identical wording of Mt. 18:18 to Mt. 16:19b-c gives this section even further importance. Mt. 16:17-19 has long been a source of disagreement about the place of Peter or the structure of the church in early Christianity, so the connection of Mt. 18:18 to Mt. 16:19b-c closely ties one important passage of Matthew to another. This thesis proposes a new interpretation for Mt. 18:18-20 and also for Mt. 16:19b-c, though the primary aim of the thesis is directed to the new interpretation of Mt. 18:18-20. The entire section of Mt. 18:18-20 is an expression of a central and repeated emphasis of Matthew's theology, his emphasis on divine causation in human behavior. The heaven-first order of binding and loosing in Mt. 18:18 expresses the conviction that God causes a person to repent (which does not deny there also being human causation). When the sinner of Mt. 18:15 looses his sin from himself through repentance, and when disciples respond by treating him as if his sin were loosed, such loosing has already occurred in heaven because God caused the person to repent. When the sinner holds fast to his sin and thus is treated by disciples in kind as if his sin were indeed bound to him, this is so because of the absence of such divine influence to repentance or because of the withdrawal of such influence in cases where the sinner has resisted it. It is thus appropriate to say that what has been loosed or bound on earth has already been loosed or bound in heaven. This explains the periphrastic future perfect verbal forms of Mt. 16:19b-c and 18:18. Matthew moves from the focus primarily on sin in Mt. 18:18 to a focus on conflict in Mt. 18:19. When two persons reconcile and thus resolve conflict, such reconciliation will have been divinely caused. The apodosis of Mt. 18:19 gives information about the cause of the event of the protasis. Something similar happens in Mt. 18:20, where the presence of the exalted Jesus mediates the presence of God, who works together with the exalted Jesus to bring reconciliation for the name of Jesus. Such an interpretation is the basis for renaming the discourse. It is a repentance discourse. This proposal for Mt. 18:18-20 avoids problems that have plagued previous interpretations of these verses. It does justice to the periphrastic future verbal forms and respects the linguistic evidence of Mt. 18:18-20. It also allows the interpreter to find a triad of triads structure that aligns the repentance discourse with the structure of the preceding discourses and with Matthew's use of triads in non-discourse material. Further, though this proposal is defensible on its own, it is also in continuity with Matthew's emphases on reconciliation and divine causation prior to Mt. 18. The results of this study are significant for source and redaction critical assessment of Mt. 18, for understanding Matthew's theology, and for understanding his conception of righteousness.