Imitate God’s Mercy Today
“Let us fall, please, into the hand of Jehovah, for many are his mercies.”—2 SAMUEL 24:14.
1. How did David feel about God’s mercy, and why?
KING DAVID knew from experience that Jehovah is more merciful than humans are. Confident that God’s ways, or paths, are best, David desired to learn His ways and to walk in His truth. (1 Chronicles 21:13; Psalm 25:4, 5) Do you feel as David did?
2. What advice did Jesus give at Matthew 18:15-17 about handling serious sin?
2 The Bible offers us insight into God’s thinking, even on such matters as what we should do if someone sins against us. Jesus told his apostles, who would later be Christian overseers: “If your brother commits a sin, go lay bare his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” The wrong involved here was not a mere personal slight but a serious sin, such as fraud or slander. Jesus said that if this step does not resolve the matter and if witnesses are available, the one sinned against should take them along to prove that there was a wrong. Is this the step of last resort? No. “If [the sinner] does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. 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.”—Matthew 18:15-17.
3. What did Jesus mean in saying that an unrepentant wrongdoer was to be “as a man of the nations and as a tax collector”?
3 Being Jews, the apostles would understand what it meant to treat a sinner “as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.” Jews avoided association with people of the nations, and they despised Jews who worked as Roman tax collectors.* (John 4:9; Acts 10:28) Hence, Jesus was advising the disciples that if the congregation rejected a sinner, they were to cease associating with him. How, though, does that harmonize with Jesus’ being with tax collectors at times?
4. In view of his words at Matthew 18:17, why could Jesus have dealings with some tax collectors and sinners?
4 Luke 15:1 says: “All the tax collectors and the sinners kept drawing near to him to hear him.” Not every tax collector or sinner was there, but “all” in the sense of many. (Compare Luke 4:40.) Which ones? Those who were interested in having their sins forgiven. Some such were earlier drawn to John the Baptizer’s message of repentance. (Luke 3:12; 7:29) So when others came to Jesus, his preaching to them did not violate his counsel at Matthew 18:17. Observe that “many tax collectors and sinners [heard Jesus] and they began following him.” (Mark 2:15) These were not ones who wished to continue in a bad way of life, refusing any help. Rather, they heard Jesus’ message and their hearts were touched. Even if they were still sinning, though likely trying to make changes, “the fine shepherd” by his preaching to them was imitating his merciful Father.—John 10:14.
Forgiveness, a Christian Obligation
5. What is God’s basic position as to forgiveness?
5 We have these warm assurances of our Father’s willingness to forgive: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous so as to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” “I am writing you these things that you may not commit a sin. And yet, if anyone does commit a sin, we have a helper with the Father, Jesus Christ, a righteous one.” (1 John 1:9; 2:1) Is forgiveness possible for a disfellowshipped person?
6. How can a disfellowshipped person be forgiven and reinstated?
6 Yes. At the time of disfellowshipping someone for unrepentant sin, elders who represent the congregation explain to him that it is possible for him to repent and receive God’s forgiveness. He may attend meetings at the Kingdom Hall, where he can hear Bible instruction that may help him to repent. (Compare 1 Corinthians 14:23-25.) In time he may seek reinstatement in the clean congregation. When elders then meet with him, they will try to determine whether he has repented and left his sinful course. (Matthew 18:18) If that is the case, he may be reinstated, in line with the pattern at 2 Corinthians 2:5-8. In the event that he had been disfellowshipped for many years, he will need to make a concerted effort to progress. He may also need considerable help thereafter to build up his Bible knowledge and appreciation so that he becomes a spiritually strong Christian.
Returning to Jehovah
7, 8. What pattern did God set in connection with his exiled people?
7 But may the elders themselves take any initiative in approaching a disfellowshipped person? Yes. The Bible shows that mercy is expressed not simply by a negative holding back of punishment but often by positive acts. We have Jehovah’s example. Before he sent his unfaithful people into exile, he prophetically held out the prospect of their returning: “Remember these things, O Jacob, and you, O Israel, because you are my servant. . . . I will wipe out your transgressions just as with a cloud, and your sins just as with a cloud mass. Do return to me, for I will repurchase you.”—Isaiah 44:21, 22.
8 Then, during the exile, Jehovah took further steps, acting in a positive way. He sent prophets, his representatives, to invite Israel to ‘seek him and find him.’ (Jeremiah 29:1, 10-14) At Ezekiel 34:16, he likened himself to a shepherd and the people of the nation of Israel to lost sheep: “The lost one I shall search for, and the dispersed one I shall bring back.” At Jeremiah 31:10, Jehovah also used the imagery of his being a shepherd of the Israelites. No, he did not depict himself as a shepherd at the sheepfold waiting for the lost one to come back; rather, he showed himself as a shepherd searching for the lost ones. Note that even while the people in general were unrepentant and exiled, God initiated efforts to seek their return. And in line with Malachi 3:6, God would not change his way of dealing in the Christian arrangement.
9. How was God’s example followed in the Christian congregation?
9 Does this not suggest that there could be a reason for initiating steps toward some who are disfellowshipped and who may now be repentant? Remember that the apostle Paul gave direction to remove the wicked man from the Corinthian congregation. Later he exhorted the congregation to confirm their love toward the man because of his repentance, leading to his subsequent reinstatement in the congregation.—1 Corinthians 5:9-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11.
10. (a) What motive should prompt any efforts to contact some disfellowshipped persons? (b) Why would Christian relatives not be the ones to initiate contact?
10 The encyclopedia quoted earlier said: ‘The basic rationale for excommunication was to protect the standards of the group: “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). This motive is clear in most biblical and extracanonical passages, but concern for the individual, even after expulsion, was the basis of Paul’s plea in 2 Cor. 2:7-10.’ (Italics ours.) Hence, concern of this kind should logically be shown today by the shepherds of the flock. (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2) Former friends and relatives might hope that a disfellowshipped one would return; yet out of respect for the command at 1 Corinthians 5:11, they do not associate with an expelled person.* They leave it to the appointed shepherds to take the initiative to see if such a one is interested in returning.
11, 12. What sort of expelled ones would even elders not want to contact, but what sort might they visit?
11 It would not be fitting even for elders to take the initiative toward certain expelled ones, such as apostates, who ‘speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.’ These are ‘false teachers who are trying to bring in destructive sects and to exploit the congregation with counterfeit words.’ (Acts 20:30; 2 Peter 2:1, 3) The Bible also does not provide any basis for searching out disfellowshipped ones who are belligerent or who actively encourage wrongdoing.—2 Thessalonians 2:3; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 John 9-11; Jude 4, 11.
12 However, many expelled ones are not like that. One may have ceased the serious wrongdoing for which he was disfellowshipped. Another may have been using tobacco, or he may in the past have been overdrinking, but he is not now trying to lead others into wrongdoing. Recall that even before exiled Israel turned to God, he sent representatives urging them to come back. Whether Paul or the elders in the Corinth congregation took some initiative to check on the disfellowshipped man, the Bible does not say. When that man had repented and ended his immorality, Paul directed the congregation to reinstate him.
13, 14. (a) What indicates that some expelled ones might respond to merciful initiatives? (b) How can the body of elders arrange for contact to be made?
13 In recent times there have been cases in which an elder happened to meet a disfellowshipped person.* Where appropriate, the shepherd briefly outlined the steps to be taken for reinstatement. Some persons like this repented and were reinstated. Such joyful outcomes indicate that there may be disfellowshipped or disassociated ones who would respond to a merciful approach made by the shepherds. But how might the elders handle this matter? Once a year at most, the body of elders should consider whether there are such persons living in their territory.* The elders would focus on those who have been expelled for over a year. According to the circumstances, if it is appropriate, they would assign two elders (hopefully ones familiar with the situation) to visit such an individual. No visit would be made on any who evidence a critical, dangerous attitude or who have made it known that they want no help.—Romans 16:17, 18; 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 2:16-18.
14 The two shepherds could telephone to ask about making a brief visit, or they could stop by at a suitable time. During the visit, they need not be stern or even cool but should warmly reflect their merciful concern. Instead of reviewing the past case, they could discuss Bible texts such as Isaiah 1:18 and Isa 55:6, 7 and James 5:20. If the person is interested in returning to God’s flock, they could kindly explain what steps he should take, such as reading the Bible and publications of the Watch Tower Society and attending meetings at the Kingdom Hall.
15. What should be kept in mind by elders making contact with a disfellowshipped person?
15 These elders will need wisdom and discernment to determine whether there is indication of repentance and whether a follow-up visit would be advisable. They should bear in mind, of course, that some disfellowshipped persons will never be ‘revived to repentance.’ (Hebrews 6:4-6; 2 Peter 2:20-22) After the visit, the two would give a brief oral report to the Congregation Service Committee. They, in turn, would inform the body of elders at their next meeting. The elders’ merciful initiative will have reflected God’s view: “‘Return to me, and I will return to you,’ Jehovah of armies has said.”—Malachi 3:7.
Other Merciful Help
16, 17. How should we view Christian relatives of someone who is disfellowshipped?
16 What of those of us who are not overseers and will not be taking such initiatives toward disfellowshipped persons? What can we do consistent with this arrangement and in imitation of Jehovah?
17 As long as someone is disfellowshipped or disassociated, we need to follow the instruction: “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.” (1 Corinthians 5:11) But this Biblical directive should not affect our view of Christian family members who live with the disfellowshipped person. Ancient Jews reacted so strongly to tax collectors that their hatred was extended even to the family of the tax collector. Jesus did not endorse that. He said that a sinner who refused help was to be treated “just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector”; he did not say that Christian family members were to be so treated.—Matthew 18:17.
18, 19. What are some ways in which we can display our Christianity toward faithful relatives of an expelled person?
18 We ought to be especially supportive of the family members who are faithful Christians. They may already face pain and obstacles because of living at home with an expelled person who may actually discourage their spiritual pursuits. He may prefer not to have Christians visit the home; or if they do come to see the loyal family members, he may not have the courtesy to keep away from the visitors. He may also impede the family’s efforts to go to all Christian meetings and assemblies. (Compare Matthew 23:13.) Christians thus disadvantaged truly deserve our mercy.—2 Corinthians 1:3, 4.
19 One way we can show tender mercy is by ‘speaking consolingly’ and having encouraging conversations with such faithful ones in the household. (1 Thessalonians 5:14) There are also fine opportunities to give support before and after meetings, while in field service, or when together at other times. We need not mention disfellowshipping but can discuss many upbuilding things. (Proverbs 25:11; Colossians 1:2-4) While the elders will continue to shepherd the Christians in the family, we might find that we too can visit without having dealings with the expelled person. If the disfellowshipped one happens to answer when we visit or telephone, we can simply ask for the Christian relative that we are seeking. Sometimes the Christian family members may be able to accept an invitation to our home for association. The point is: They—young and old—are our fellow servants, beloved members of God’s congregation, not to be isolated.—Psalm 10:14.
20, 21. How should we feel and act if one is reinstated?
20 Another area for showing mercy opens when an expelled one is reinstated. Jesus’ illustrations highlight the joy in heaven when ‘one sinner repents.’ (Luke 15:7, 10) Paul wrote to the Corinthians regarding the man that had been disfellowshipped: “You should kindly forgive and comfort him, that somehow such a man may not be swallowed up by his being overly sad. Therefore I exhort you to confirm your love for him.” (2 Corinthians 2:7, 8) Let us apply that advice soberly and lovingly in the days and weeks after a person is reinstated.
21 Jesus’ illustration of the prodigal son brings up a danger that we need to avoid. The older brother did not rejoice at the prodigal’s return but was resentful. May we not be like that, harboring ill will over a past wrong or begrudging a person’s being reinstated. Rather, our goal is to be like the father, who illustrated Jehovah’s response. The father was happy that his son, who was lost and seemed as good as dead, was found, or came to life. (Luke 15:25-32) Accordingly, we will freely speak to the reinstated brother and otherwise encourage him. Yes, we should make it evident that we are showing mercy, as our forgiving and merciful heavenly Father does.—Matthew 5:7.
22. What is involved in our imitating Jehovah God?
22 There is no question that if we want to imitate our God, we must show mercy in harmony with his commands and his justice. The psalmist describes him this way: “Jehovah is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and great in loving-kindness. Jehovah is good to all, and his mercies are over all his works.” (Psalm 145:8, 9) What a loving pattern for Christians to copy!
“Tax collectors were especially despised by the Jewish population of Palestine for several reasons: (1) they collected money for the foreign power that occupied the land of Israel, thus indirectly giving support to this outrage; (2) they were notoriously unscrupulous, growing wealthy at the expense of others of their own people; and (3) their work involved them in regular contact with Gentiles, rendering them ritually unclean. Contempt for tax collectors is found both in the N[ew] T[estament] and the rabbinic literature . . . According to the latter, hatred was to be extended even to the family of the tax collector.”—The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
If in a Christian’s household there is a disfellowshipped relative, that one would still be part of the normal, day-to-day household dealings and activities. This could include being present when spiritual material is considered as a family.—See The Watchtower of November 15, 1988, pages 19-20.
If any Witness, in the house-to-house preaching or in another way, learns of a disfellowshipped person living in the territory, he should give that information to the elders.
Did You Note These Points?
□ How did Jews treat tax collectors and sinners, but why did Jesus have dealings with some of such?
□ What Scriptural basis is there for merciful initiative being taken toward many lost ones?
□ How can bodies of elders take such initiative, and toward whom?
□ How should we show mercy toward reinstated ones and toward the families of disfellowshipped ones?
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Anyone who was once part of God’s clean and happy congregation but is now disfellowshipped or disassociated need not remain in such a state. Rather, that one can repent and take the initiative to communicate with the elders of the congregation. The way back is open.
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