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Does Discipline Divide?
Deut. 19:18, 19: The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you.
If youve been here on Sunday mornings the last few weeks, you know weve been working through a study of Pauls first letter to the church in Corinth. Even though weve already covered a lot of ground, theres one theme thats still ringing in my ears, and thats the importance that Paul places on the unity of the church. Thats how he starts the letter. After a brief greeting to the church, Paul immediately launches into a long discourse on how vital it is for the church to be one, warning them against division. And he begins and ends that discourse by reminding them that whats at stake is nothing less than the reputation of Christ himself.
Basically, his argument is this. The church is the body of Christ, and Christ is one. Christ is not divided. And the problem is that if the church is divided, it misrepresents Christ and says he is divided. In other words, according to Paul, a divided church is a liar about God. Paul cares about unity in the church. And thats why I was so struck this morning when we heard these words from Chapter 5 of Pauls letter: Expel the evil man from among you.
All of a sudden, Paul, who has labored to encourage unity, seems to be telling the church to divide. And this isnt just a casual suggestion. Paul commands the church to expel one of its members. Why does Paul, who cares so much about the unity of the church, command separation?
The passage we have tonight will help us answer that. Its Deut. 19, verses 18 and 19. I think well see that although it might sound strange for Paul to call for unity on the one hand and separation on the other, theres no contradiction in what hes saying, because in each case, he wants Christians to honor the name of Christ.
The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you.
The context is a criminal trial in OT Israel, conducted according to the Law of Moses. You probably know that the Law, and especially the civil law that God gave to the nation of Israel, provided some very harsh penalties, including the death penalty, even for offenses that we might think are somewhat minor.
You can imagine the problems that might cause. In theory, at least, it made it easy to get rid of someone you didnt like. All you would have to do would be accuse them of a serious crime, and they could be facing the death penalty. But not really; because as harsh as the law could be, it also provided a series of safeguards.
And this is one of them. Because according to this same law, any witness who lied about someone else could suffer the same fate of the person they accused. In other words, you could only gamble with someone elses life by gambling with your own.
This is important for us because all of us are like these false witnesses, but in a much more serious way. The Bible says God created us for one purpose to bear testimony about him. The Bible says God made us in his image, and that in that sense, we exist to represent God. Everything we do says something about who God is.
The problem is that weve lied about God. Were false witnesses. We sin, and when we do that, we send a message that theres something wrong with God. We also have to face the fact that there is no way out of this. The Bible says that if we deny the fact of our sin, were saying that God himself is a liar. And so if we ignore the problem, we only make it worse.
If you want to know the penalty for lying about God, look at the Cross. The Bible says Jesus came to die and take the punishment we deserve because of our sin. If you think sin isnt a problem, ask yourself why the Lord died the way he did. And his death is the only hope we have. We cant, as this verse commands, purge the evil among us. Only Christ can do that by dying for us. The good news is that if we face up to our sin, and trust in Christ as the only one who can save us from the judgment that we deserve for lying about God, God will forgive our sin and give us what he made us to have, an endless life with him.
Lessons for the Church
How does this apply to us as a church? How do we apply this portion of the Law, and especially that phrase: You must purge the evil from among you. Maybe the question is easier if we phrase it in a different way: how do we fulfill this part of the Law? The answer may be easier if we think about it in those terms. Fulfillment of the Law is accomplished not by us, but by Christ. Over and over, the Bible tells us that God gives the Law to point us to Christ, the one in whom the Law would be satisfied. And even today, and even especially today, the Law does for us what it always has. It points us to Christ.
In terms of this passage, the Law points us to Christ in at least two ways. First, it teaches us to honor the reputation of Christ, and, secondly, it teaches us to trust Christs reputation. Well use those two ideas as our outline as we think about this passage.
Honoring the Reputation of Christ
As we saw this morning, Paul applies this passage from Deuteronomy 19 to the church in Corinth. Paul tells believers there to exclude a man involved in public, ongoing, unrepentant sin because he sees the common theme between the Old Testament situation and that of the New Testament.
In each case, the goal is to guard the reputation of someone whos blameless. In the Old Testament situation, which we see in Deuteronomy 19, the point is to protect an ordinary person who, though innocent, is being defamed. We find the same focus in 1 Corinthians Chapter 5, but this time with a different twist. Now, because the church is the body of Christ, the focus is the Lords own name and his reputation.
Thats why Paul, who cares so much about unity, tells the church to expel this man. Paul knows that if the church stands by and does nothing, it ratifies and gives its approval to public and unrepentant wrongdoing, and sends the message that Christ himself is unholy and doesnt care about sin. If the church does nothing, then the church which God established to tell the world the truth about him becomes a false witness and a liar about God.
Thats why, from time to time, we have, as a congregation, voted to expel (discipline) some of our members. By Gods grace, we dont have to do that very much, and we are glad for the hope we have from the Bible that they might be restored to fellowship with us. But when were faced with these kinds of hard decisions, we have to remember whats at stake, and that is the reputation of Christ himself. We do not have the liberty as a church to lie about Christ.
Trusting in the Reputation of Christ
Thats not to say these are easy decisions. You must purge the evil from among you. Those are hard words, and sometimes we have real doubts. Even if we understand in a theological sense that the might and power and majesty of God himself stands behind these words, they can seem heartless and cruel. They can seem like the commands of an impersonal sovereign who doesnt know or care how these decisions affect the members of our church.
But just the opposite is true, and we know that because of Christs own reputation. The majesty of Christ commands our respect, but his suffering ignites our trust. The Christ who commands us to sometimes expel a member is not a deity who is removed and aloof and untouched by the consequences of those commands. The God who requires this of us, and the Christ whose name we bear, has taken on himself not only the burden of the Law, but the burden of its violation. He was made sin for us. And he has proven that in the most public way, on the Cross.
This faithful witness has come to save liars like us. And this one who could have expelled us from his presence forever was expelled for us and made an outcast that we might be brought into the kingdom we were lying about. Thats a reputation we can trust when we face hard decisions, and thats the hope we have. No matter how much we care about each other, Christ cares more, and he has proven that he cares more.
I liked what Mark Dever said in the sermon this morning: "God cares about what you do with your body because it belongs to him." Thats true of us as well. God cares what we do with this body, the church, because we belong to him.
And if we get nervous about applying difficult passages like this command to purge the evil from among us, we should remember that we can trust the Lord to care for his own body. His reputation proves it. Thats how we apply this text from Deuteronomy 19. We apply it just as Paul does, in the light of the Gospel. We apply this passage to uphold and honor the reputation of Christ, and we do that trusting in the reputation of this Servant who suffered for us.
We do all of this for the name of the one who worshipped God with his body on the cross so that his body might worship him.