Mark D. Roberts

Yesterday, I began to consider what we should do when we privately confront someone who sinned against us but that person simply won’t listen. Though we might want to let things drop at this point, Jesus says we’re not done. Here is his specific instruction: “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matt 18:16).

In today’s post I want to consider the role and function of the “two or three witnesses.”

So That Every Word May Be Confirmed by the Evidence of Two or Three Witnesses

The background for Jesus’ advice here is the Jewish judicial process, whereby witnesses were used to confirm the testimony of a single individual. The basis for this comes in Deuteronomy 19:15, which reads, “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.” Of course Jesus is not envisioning official legal proceedings in Matthew 18. Moreover, he tells us to bring a witness or two, not for the purpose of winning a lawsuit, but in order to win back the one who has offended us.

Notice, once again, exactly what Jesus says here: “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” I find the language of this verse quite telling. Jesus does not say, “so that the witnesses can gang up on the offender” or even “so that your side of things will be supported.” Rather, he seems to envision a setting in which the witnesses carefully weigh everything that is said, not only by you, but also by the person you’re confronting. They’re to evaluate, not just your side of the story, but “every word.”

We use the word “witness” in several different senses in English. It’s important to note that not all senses are relevant here. For example, in a criminal trial, a witness speaks, often “bearing witness” to what he or she has observed, which might confirm the guilt of the person standing trial. Jesus does not envision the “two or three witnesses” playing this particular role. Rather, they are witnesses in the sense of observers. It almost seems as if they have a role that is closer to that of the judge or jury in a trial. They are present in the confrontation to listen to what is said and to weigh it in the scales of truth. (Photo: Hans Frank, the former Nazi Governor General of Poland, in the witness box at the International Military Tribunal trial of war criminals at Nuremberg. Frank bore witness by speaking to that which he had witnessed through observation.)


There is almost always another side in matters of confrontation. Even when someone has clearly done wrong to another, it’s likely that this action was itself a response to something the victim had done earlier. At least half of the time when I’ve been involved in a process of confrontation, the end result involves both parties apologizing for things they have done wrong.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to confrontation is the central value of the truth. Yes, yes, I know that people perceive truth differently, and that sometimes it’s really hard to figure out what is true and what is not. But truth still matters, and whether we’re on the confronting side or the receiving side, we should be committed to discovering what is true.

Sometimes the truth will surprise you. I remember a time years ago when I needed to confront my supervisor in ministry, a man I’ll call “John.” He had said some things that undercut my work, and I was quite angry. When I cooled down some, I went to tell John his fault, just as Jesus said. He listened attentively and calmly, thank God. At the end of my little speech he said, “Mark, I can understand why you’re upset. If my boss had said those things, I’d be angry too. But, Mark, you must believe me. I never said those things. Here’s what I did say.” John then proceeded to relate his side of the story. As I listened, I realized that he was telling me the truth. The person who told me what John had supposedly said had completely misinterpreted John’s point. What John related to me was consistent with everything I knew him to be. My anger had, in fact, been based on a misunderstanding. What I needed in this confrontation was to learn what was true and let go of my own anger. In fact, I needed to apologize for thinking poorly of John when he had done nothing to deserve it.

If what I’m saying about truth sounds simple, that’s because, well. . . it is. But if you’re looking for a little more depth, you might check out my book Dare to Be True. Here I deal with the issues of truthfulness more thoroughly.

According to Jesus, step two is taking a witness or two along with you when, once again, you initiate contact with the person who has sinned against you. Yet sometimes, I’m sad to say, even this doesn’t work. In my next post in this series I’ll move on to step three.

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