September 8, 2017

The New Sanhedrin

At Caesarea-Philippi Jesus introduced the concept of his new Church:
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:17-19).”
Back home in Capernaum, after the transfiguration experience, the question of greatness in the kingdom came up. Though it came up several times as a matter of pride and establishing pecking order, this time it may have been a legitimate question of how things would work. Jesus had spoken of Peter, the rock, and keys, and binding and loosing, but had not given detail. So maybe the disciples brought this up as a matter of clarification. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt this time, anyway.

Jesus responded by calling a child to him. He cautioned the disciples that in all things they would follow the gentle, humble example of children. They were to make sure they did not become a stumbling block to others, especially children. Making them lose their faith and lessen their devotion to God would be bad.

Then Jesus described how to handle offenses within the community of believers with a process that was very familiar to them. He described going to offenders alone first to work things out. That rules out grumbling to others. If that didn’t work, the process leads to taking two or three witnesses to make note of the exchange. Two or three witnesses were what was required to establish testimony in court. The gesture of bringing witnesses indicated what to expect next if the offended did not achieve reconciliation. Finally the plaintiff could make his case before the church, the gathering.

The Jews practiced this already except that instead of the church they appealed to the Sanhedrin, which is Hebrew for people who sit together. The Hebrews established a system of Sanhedrin councils going back to Moses and his 70 elders (Numbers 11). Each town organized a Sanhedrin of at least 23 men, consisting of the heads of extended local families. In Jerusalem the Great Sanhedrin of 71 priests, elders, and scribes heard national cases. In local and national cases the respective court ruled on cases brought before them. Their rulings, taken by simple vote, were final, and considered God’s will in the matter.

In other words, Jesus clarified that the Church establish a system of justice similar to what they had experienced in Hebrew life.

The word church is rare in the gospels, occurring only in Matthew -- twice. The Greek text renders εκκλησια (ekklesia), or called-out ones. But more likely Jesus had the Hebrew word קחל (qahal) in mind. It literally means gathering the sheep to the shepherd. It is used to describe community, assembly, and congregation.

I doubt Jesus had in mind everyone airing their personal disputes before the entire church. More likely he was describing a Sanhedrin, a group of elders within the assembly who would adjudicate and pass judgment. Their word would settle the matter. The likely first Sanhedrin of the Church would be the initial bishops, the disciples-turned-apostles.

Here are some Hebraisms that clarify. Binding and loosing were legal terms for prohibiting and permitting. Pronouncing legal judgment. Jesus used the phrase at Caesarea-Philippi, and spoke it here again. Later on in John 20, in his Resurrection Day visit to frightened disciples, he said something similar. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus granted authority to the new Sanhedrin to govern the church, and they could be sure their careful deliberations resulted in God’s will. Deep humility and attention to spiritual matters is the key.

Paul echoed this idea to the church at Galatia.
“If a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For each one shall bear his own load (Galatians 6:1-5).”
The other Hebraism is the mention of Jesus present with two or three. In Hebrew life it took ten men to form a local synagogue (congregation). But absent ten men, when two or three gathered to pray or study the Torah they could count on God’s presence with them.

Sometimes we find ourselves in a place of authority in a local church. That should humble us by driving us to pray and seek the Scriptures for God’s will, so that we can make God’s decisions or carry out our own agenda.

Matthew 18:15-20 (Proper 18 A)