Divine Mercy Points the Way Back for Erring Ones
“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who have no need of repentance.”—Luke 15:7.
1, 2. How are Jehovah God’s qualities harmoniously balanced, and how is this seen in the disfellowshiping arrangement?
JEHOVAH is a God of love, a merciful God. All his arrangements and instructions are for the good of those loving righteousness; they never have a selfish or harmful purpose. (Ex. 34:6; 1 John 4:8) He is also a God of righteousness and justice; he does not condone or ‘wink at’ wrongdoing. (Ps. 33:4, 5; 50:16-21) There is, however, no disharmony among these divine qualities. Genuine love, in fact, requires a holding to, and insisting on, righteousness.
2 Thus, among the arrangements found in God’s Word is that of disfellowshiping, that is, removing or expelling from the congregation persons who, though claiming to be Christians, engage in serious wrongdoing and who fail to show a genuinely repentant attitude. Their being put out is for the good of the congregation to maintain its purity and to protect its members, loved by God, from contamination through such a ‘leavening’ influence as the wrongdoers represent.
3, 4. What instructions does the apostle Paul give as to disfellowshiping, and what questions need to be answered?
3 For this reason, the inspired apostle Paul instructed Christians in Corinth to “quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man. . . . ‘Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.’”—1 Cor. 5:6, 7, 11-13.
4 Does this, however, rule out thereafter the taking of any positive action toward such disfellowshiped ones, action that could contribute toward their repenting, turning around, returning and being restored as approved, clean members of the congregation? Must all positive action wait until such time as the individual formally expresses repentance to the congregation elders, making direct request for reinstatement? Would any giving whatsoever of exhortation to such a one to ‘turn around’ and seek restoration constitute a “mixing in company” with him and an engaging in spiritual fellowship with him? Let us see the answer the Bible indicates.
THE EXAMPLE OF THE CHIEF ELDER
5, 6. (a) What special relationship did the nation of Israel at one time enjoy with Jehovah God? (b) What course, however, did they take, and with what grave results?
5 Consider the example of Jehovah God’s dealings with those who were once his name people, Israel. They alone of all the peoples on earth were in a covenant relationship with him and they only had been given his word and law. (Ps. 147:19, 20; Rom. 3:1, 2) They frequently proved unfaithful to him, however, and eventually reached the state described in the prayer recorded at Daniel 9:4-19: “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled; and there has been a turning aside from your commandments and from your judicial decisions. And we have not listened to your servants the prophets, who have spoken in your name to our kings, our princes and our forefathers and to all the people of the land.”
6 Because of this turning aside and gross disobedience, Daniel says that Jehovah “poured out upon us the curse and the sworn oath that is written in the law of Moses the servant of the true God . . . bringing upon us great calamity, such as was not done under the whole heavens.” Yes, God took strong judicial action against them, casting first the northern tribes and then the southern tribes out of their land into exile, finally allowing the whole national structure to be overthrown by Babylon. Jehovah, in effect, ‘divorced’ himself from the national organization as if it were a “wife” of his and the “mother” of the individual members of the nation.—Compare Isaiah 50:1; 54:5, 6; Jeremiah 3:8.
7. After cutting Israel off from his favor, did Jehovah thereafter maintain a strictly negative attitude toward them? Give evidence.
7 Having taken this strong judicial action against them, did Jehovah thereafter refuse to do anything whatsoever that might contribute toward their being restored to his favor? No, but, instead, he directed words of reproof to them, exhorting them to abandon the wrong course that had led to their disaster. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God said, evidently to those of the rejected northern kingdom of Israel: “Do return, O renegade Israel, . . . I shall not stay resentful to time indefinite. Only take note of your error, for it is against Jehovah your God that you have transgressed. . . . Return, you renegade sons. I shall heal your renegade condition.”—Jer. 3:12, 13, 22; compare Lamentations 3:31-33; Isaiah 57:16-18.
8. How did Jehovah reveal his attitude toward erring ones by means of the prophet Ezekiel?
8 This expression harmonizes with Jehovah’s statement through the prophet Ezekiel, where he expresses his attitude toward those who still show possibility of repentance: “Do I take any delight at all in the death of someone wicked, . . . and not in that he should turn back from his ways and actually keep living? . . . Throw off from yourselves all your transgressions in which you have transgressed and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, for why should you die, O house of Israel? For I do not take any delight in the death of someone dying . . . So cause a turning back and keep living, O you people.”—Ezek. 18:23, 30-32.
9. By such exhortation, was Jehovah God having spiritual fellowship with wrongdoers?
9 By exhorting these wrongdoers in this way, was Jehovah God having spiritual fellowship with them, a “sharing” of spiritual good things together as among friends? (Compare 1 John 1:3, 6, 7.) To the contrary, as Jehovah had earlier told them by the prophet Isaiah, if they wanted his friendship again they would have to change. He would not lower himself to walk in their wrong ways and adopt their wrong thoughts. He said: “Search for Jehovah, you people, . . . Let the wicked man leave his way, and the harmful man his thoughts; and let him return to Jehovah, who will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will forgive in a large way. ‘For the thoughts of you people are not my thoughts, nor are my ways your ways,’ is the utterance of Jehovah. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” (Isa. 55:6-9) To enjoy sweet fellowship with God again, they would have to raise their thoughts and ways back up to the righteous levels to which God adheres and which his Word teaches. Thus they would heed his urging to ‘come and let us set matters straight between us,’ so that their gross sins might be viewed by him as blotted out.—Isa. 1:18, 19.
10, 11. What qualities of Jehovah are exemplified by the parable of the prodigal son, and how?
10 The parable of the prodigal son provides further insight into Jehovah’s admirable attitude of mercy and considerateness. (Luke 15:11-32) The reaction of the father in the parable upon the return of his wayward son exemplifies in a very appealing way what the heavenly Father, Jehovah, is like. In the parable, the son had left home, gone far off and squandered his time and money in a debauched life, including keeping company with harlots. He came into poverty and hunger and, jolted to his senses, he decided to return to his father. Note, now, what the parable says: “While he was yet a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was moved with pity, and he ran and fell upon his neck and tenderly kissed him.”—Luke 15:20.
11 Thus, when catching sight of his son in the distance, the father did not say: ‘I am not going to move an inch or say one word until that sinner comes right to my feet and formally requests to be accepted back.’ No, but seeing his son heading toward him and, in effect, discerning what was in his son’s mind, the father went to meet him. It was—not before—but after this fatherly expression of pity that the son’s formal asking of forgiveness took place.
12. By what means does Jehovah draw repentant wrongdoers back? How does Hosea’s prophecy illustrate this?
12 This calls to mind the apostle Paul’s reference to “the kindly quality of God [that] is trying to lead you to repentance.” (Rom. 2:4) Yes, Jehovah God expresses righteous anger at wrongdoing. But he does not remain angry forever if the wrongdoing ceases. He knows that warm mercy has marvelous drawing qualities to bring repentant wrongdoers back to the point where they can be healed.—Hos. 6:1; 14:1, 2, 4.
13. (a) Why should we not imitate the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son? (b) To whom should all those serving as elders, overseers and shepherds look as their example in dealing with erring ones? (c) What do the Psalms show as regards the example of this Chief Elder?
13 We today therefore do not want to be like the elder brother of the parable who at first was not at all happy with the way his errant brother was received back. (Luke 15:25-32) Rather, we will seek to ‘prove ourselves sons of our heavenly Father’ by imitating Jehovah’s compassionate example. (Matt. 5:44-48) He, as the God of eternity and the “Ancient of Days,” is the Chief Elder, the Great Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. (1 Pet. 2:25) His example is always the right one to follow. We will see later in our discussion how that example can guide us in many practical ways.—Ps. 77:7-9; 103:9, 10, 13.
ONE’S BEING VIEWED AS “A MAN OF THE NATIONS AND AS A TAX COLLECTOR”
14. What earlier basis did the apostle Paul have for his instructions on disfellowshiping?
14 Paul when writing his apostolic counsel to Corinth regarding disfellowshiping, had earlier inspired information on which to base his instructions. Christ Jesus himself had supplied this. Matthew 18:15-17 records his instructions for handling sins (clearly not just petty trespasses but sins of genuine gravity) committed against individuals. He set out the possibility of a disfellowshiping action where no repentance was manifested on the part of the sinning one. After describing progressive efforts made to ‘gain’ such a one through getting him to acknowledge his wrong and repent of it, Jesus said: “If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.”
15. (a) To what “congregation” was Jesus referring at Matthew 18:17? (b) Why, then, are his words of concern to us in the Christian congregation?
15 At this time (32 C.E.) the Christian congregation had not been formed and so the “congregation” referred to by Jesus must relate to the Jewish arrangement then existing, with its bodies of elders, including those serving as judges and representing the congregation locally in such capacity. (Ezra 10:14; Luke 7:3) Nevertheless, Jesus’ instructions certainly provided a guiding principle that would aid the future Christian congregation. Of particular interest to us is knowing what the unrepentant sinner’s being viewed “as a man of the nations and as a tax collector” would imply. To find out we need to consider how such ones were properly viewed by the Jewish congregation. This will aid us to understand better the apostle’s instructions at 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 as to how Christians should view those disfellowshiped by the Christian congregation.
16. Why can we not rely implicitly on Jewish rabbinical writings as to the Jewish attitude toward Gentiles, and where do we find the needed information?
16 In considering the Jewish attitude toward those of the nations, we cannot be guided entirely by rabbinical writings that were composed after the time Jesus was on earth. Some of these writings display an extreme attitude, one of virtual hatred and contempt toward “Gentiles,” people of the nations. Some rabbinical writings held that a Jew should not come to the rescue of a Gentile even when such a one was in peril of death. (Maimonides, Rozeach. iv, 12; McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia, Vol. III, p. 789) Rather, we can find reliable information in God’s inspired Scriptures to guide us in ascertaining the attitude of first-century Jews.
17. What do the Scriptures show was the Jewish attitude toward ‘men of the nations’ in the first century, and why did this attitude prevail?
17 When sent to the home of the Gentile Cornelius in Caesarea, the apostle Peter said to those there gathered: “You well know how unlawful it is for a Jew to join himself to or approach a man of another race; and yet God has shown me I should call no man defiled or unclean.” (Acts 10:27, 28) When Peter later went to Jerusalem, supporters of circumcision in the Christian congregation there contended with him, “saying he had gone into the house of men that were not circumcised and had eaten with them.” (Acts 11:2, 3) Thus, the basic position of the Jews was that they were not to fraternize with the Gentiles, viewing them as spiritually unclean. They were such due to being “alienated from the state of Israel and strangers to the covenants of the promise,” hence having no real standing or approved relationship with Jehovah God. (Eph. 2:11, 12) To fraternize with them, entering their homes and eating with them, would bring spiritual defilement on the Jews.—Compare John 18:28; Galatians 2:11-14.
18. What evidence do we have that Jesus did not conform to the extreme view toward Gentiles expressed in some rabbinical writings?
18 Jesus Christ adhered to this basic rule of refraining from fraternizing with people of the nations. And he instructed his disciples that in their preaching activity they should “not go off into the road of the nations [Gentiles], and do not enter into a Samaritan city; but, instead, go continually to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5, 6) Yet, notwithstanding all of this, Jesus showed no approval of, or conformity to, the extreme view found in rabbinical writings that counted all Gentiles as enemies to be treated with virtual contempt—even as he did not let such attitudes control his dealings with Samaritans. (John 4:4-40) Far from this, Jesus cited his Father’s prophetic Word to show that people of the nations would accept the Messiah, that the temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations, and that the Messiah would prove to be a light to the nations. (Matt. 12:18, 21; Mark 11:17; compare Luke 2:27-32; Acts 13:47.) When a Gentile army officer, who had shown great kindness to the Jews, asked Jesus to heal a sick slave, Jesus did so. (Luke 7:2-10) So, while never going contrary to the admonition of the Mosaic law concerning fraternizing with those not of God’s congregation (Gentiles), Jesus did not become unbalanced, extreme or rigidly hard, adopting an antagonistic attitude toward these. He wisely discerned the principles contained in God’s instructions and was guided by them.
19. (a) How were tax collectors viewed by Jews generally? (b) How did Jesus manifest proper balance in his dealings with them?
19 So, too, with the tax collectors, usually not Gentiles but Jews. Because they were so often dishonest, tax collectors were generally viewed by their fellow Jews as persons of bad reputation, to be classed with known sinners and harlots. (Matt. 9:10, 11; 21:31, 32) While not condoning their wrong ways, Jesus did not hold back from helping such ones when they showed an inclination toward righteousness, as did such tax collectors as Matthew Levi and Zacchaeus. Because he aided such to make spiritual progress, Jesus was falsely accused of being a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” There was a difference, however, between friendship and Jesus’ efforts to heal those who were spiritually sick and to direct them to repentance and into the path of righteousness.—Matt. 11:19; Luke 5:27-36; 19:2-10.
20. How does this information regarding the proper Jewish view toward ‘men of the nations and tax collectors’ aid us to understand better the apostle’s instructions on disfellowshiping, and to what conclusions does it lead?
20 Thus, Jesus’ own example protects us against adopting the extreme view of certain rabbinical writers in this matter of dealing with persons as “a man of the nations and as a tax collector.” We see, too, a close similarity between the treatment accorded these and the treatment set forth in the apostle Paul’s instructions regarding those disfellowshiped from the Christian congregation, namely, not “mixing in company” with such ones nor “even eating” with them. (1 Cor. 5:11) Clearly, treating an unrepentant sinner as “a man of the nations and as a tax collector” means there should be no fraternizing with such a one. But, as Jesus’ example shows, this does not require our treating such a one as an enemy or refusing to show common courtesy and consideration. Nor does it rule out the giving of help to those who want to correct a wrong course and gain or regain God’s favor.
GETTING THE SENSE OF 2 JOHN 9-11
21. What exhortation does the apostle John give in verses 9 to 11 of his second letter, and what questions does this raise?
21 In his second letter, the apostle John gives this exhortation: “Everyone that pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God [that is, is not in union with him, has no fellowship with him; compare 1 John 1:6]. He that does remain in this teaching is the one that has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him. For he that says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works.” (2 John 9-11) Do the apostle’s words here necessarily apply to all persons who are put out of the congregation for wrongdoing? Or do they necessarily rule out any speaking of words of reproof or exhortation to a disfellowshiped person designed to move him toward repenting, turning around and being restored to the congregation? By considering the context of those words of the apostle we can have a clearer understanding of the sense of his exhortation.
22. (a) According to the context, to what kind of persons was the apostle there referring? (b) Why would a greeting to such ones be inappropriate? (c) Is there a difference in the attitude recommended toward those described by John and the attitude commonly and properly shown toward ‘a man of the nations or a tax collector’?
22 Note that in 2 Jo verse seven the apostle John says that “many deceivers have gone forth into the world, persons not confessing Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.” Then John gives the warning to be on guard and not to receive such ones into one’s home, for these are active propagandists of false teachings, deceitful advocates of wrong conduct. They should be given no foothold from which to make further infiltration. One should not even greet them, so as to avoid being a sharer in their wicked works. In this regard, we may note that the common greeting among Jews in apostolic times was an expression meaning “May you have peace.” The Christian certainly would not want to wish peace to the man who was a deceiver and an antichrist. There is, however, nothing to show that Jews with a balanced and Scriptural viewpoint would refuse to greet a “man of the nations” or a tax collector. Jesus’ counsel about greetings, in connection with his exhortation to imitate God in his undeserved kindness toward “wicked people and good,” would seem to rule against such a rigid stand.—Matt. 5:45-48.
23. To what extent or under what circumstances could 2 John 9-11 rightly be applied to a person who is disfellowshiped?
23 Are, then, all who have been disfellowshiped like the persons described in John’s second letter? At the time that they had to be disfellowshiped they were apparently following a course like such ones or at least manifesting a similar sentiment. As the publication Organization for Kingdom-preaching and Disciple-making says on page 172: “Any baptized person who deliberately pursues a course of immoral conduct is actually rejecting the teachings of the Bible, just as much so as one who teaches others contrary to what the Scriptures say about the identity of God, the provision of the ransom, the resurrection, and so forth. (Compare Titus 3:10, 11; 2 Timothy 2:16-19.)” And, if after being disfellowshiped a person tried to justify his immorality before others and sought to sway others to his perverted thinking, he certainly would fit the description given by the apostle John in his second letter.
24, 25. (a) What evidence is there that not all who undergo disfellowshiping fit the description given at 2 John 9-11? (b) What reaction should this produce in us, and what vital question will we go on to consider?
24 However, not all who are disfellowshiped thereafter follow the course of such ‘deceivers and antichrists.’ They do not all engage in actively promoting wrongdoing, opposing the truth and endeavoring to deceive others into following the wrong course that led to their disfellowshiping. This is seen by the number who repentantly seek and receive reinstatement as approved members of the congregation. Thus, in the United States (where there are now more than half a million Christian witnesses of Jehovah), during the ten-year period from 1963 to 1973, 36,671 persons had to be disfellowshiped for various kinds of serious wrongdoing. Yet, in that same period 14,508 persons were reinstated, accepted back into the congregations owing to their sincere repentance. This is nearly 40 percent of the total. Certainly we on earth should rejoice with Jehovah and his heavenly family over this fact.—Luke 15:7.
25 What, if anything, can be done to aid yet more of those who have been disfellowshiped—but who are not following the course of the ‘antichrists’ described by John—to be restored to the congregation? Let us see how the Scriptural principles considered apply in a practical way.
[Picture on page 462]
In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the father warmly received his wayward but repentant son. This calls to mind God‘s warm mercy, and sets the example for us