Reconciliation Before Worship

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there re­memberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be rec­onciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Matthew 5:23-24

True religion is more than just external cer­emonies and observances. True religion is a matter of the heart. The heart-centered character of true religion is evident with something like the sixth commandment, which Jesus addresses in His sermon on the mount just prior to the words we consider. Those who truly love God and their neighbor will not merely avoid outward murder, they will also seek to avoid the anger and hatred in the heart that leads to murder.

But Jesus goes even further. Those who truly love God and their neighbor, He says, will also seek recon­ciliation. If we want to worship God sincerely, we will address the sin that divides us before we go to worship. In the way of seeking peace, we will also know the bless­ing of God.

Are we peacemakers?

True peacemakers recognize their own sins and sin­fulness.

When God works in our hearts to give us true faith, He causes us to recognize our sins and sinful­ness. “Therefore, if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee . . .” (Matt. 5:23). We remember that we have sinned against our brother. Significantly, the man who remembers his sin is in the process of bringing his gift to the altar—probably a trespass or guilt offering. This was a particular type of sin offering for sins that involved not only God, but also one’s neighbor. By bringing the offering to the altar, the man was making a confession that he needed to have his sins covered by the blood of the sacrifice. As such, the offering was made while seeking God’s grace to cover over the guilt of sin. Every trespass offering, therefore, was meant to point to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as an offering for sin (cf. Is. 53:10).

If the one bringing the offering was sincerely sorry for his sin and truly looking to God to cover his guilt by means of the sacrifice, he might very well think to himself, “How wonderful that God has provided a sacrifice to cover my guilt!” And then, in thankfulness for that grace, he might add, “God has been so good to me; surely I should show kindness to my brother.” But suddenly he remembers he has lately sinned against his brother. Maybe he failed to forgive the brother even though an apology was offered and forgiveness sought. Or maybe he spread a false and damaging rumor concerning his brother. Now he realizes that his relationship with brother or sister so-and-so is not what it should be. “At the very least, so-and-so thinks that he has reason to be upset with me.” Bringing his offering to the temple would serve as an impetus for an examination of sin in his heart.

Sadly, many people simply go through the motions of bringing the trespass offering, without thinking about their sins and sinfulness. Those who have no knowledge of their sins and sinfulness cannot be peace­makers.

For example, the Pharisees and Sadducees said the right things with their lips and performed all kinds of ceremonies with their hands, but Jesus says, “their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8). Jesus points out their hypocrisy, saying, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matt. 23:23). True faith, however, doesn’t merely go through the motions of offering outward sacrifices. True faith involves a heart that hates sin and wants to root it out of our lives. True faith wants to walk uprightly before God in thankfulness.

No doubt a person approaching the altar with his trespass offering—if he was sincere—would be doing so because he saw his sins and sinfulness. He would have seen that he deserved to be cursed for his sins. Ap­proaching the altar shows a hatred for sin and a faith in God, who provides a way out through the sacrifice of the lamb.

This man would know that he should not expect for­giveness if he did not approach the altar in true sorrow. That’s because a lack of sorrow for sin gives evidence that one is not a child of God. And only God’s children can be assured of forgiveness on the basis of the sacrifice.

Do we confess that we have forgiveness only through the shedding of Christ’s precious blood? Do we honest­ly hate our sins and sinfulness? Does a brother or sister have ought against us? Then Jesus’ instruction applies to us: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”

Jesus would have us seek reconciliation as peacemak­ers.

Significantly, when a man comes to the altar and rec­ognizes his sin against a brother, Jesus would have him leave his gift there and seek peace with his brother be­fore making an offering: “Go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” To be reconciled means literally to bring about a transition from one state to another. In other words, we must not allow a bad relationship to remain a bad relationship; we must seek a transition to a right relationship. For that, we need to go to the brother and confess our faults. Do that before offering your trespass offering.

Why does Jesus say that? Is He saying that you must do something to earn your forgiveness before God will accept your sacrifice? Not at all. Our sins are forgiven only for Christ’s sake, according to the riches of His grace (cf. Eph. 1:7). The reason one must be reconciled first before offering his trespass offering is this: some­one who has no interest in reconciling with his brother gives proof that he is not a child of God.

Imagine a man stealing from another and refusing to make restitution when it was possible to do so. Then Jesus would have us seek reconciliation as peacemak­ers.

Significantly, when a man comes to the altar and rec­ognizes his sin against a brother, Jesus would have him leave his gift there and seek peace with his brother be­fore making an offering: “Go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” To be reconciled means literally to bring about a transition from one state to another. In other words, we must not allow a bad relationship to remain a bad relationship; we must seek a transition to a right relationship. For that, we need to go to the brother and confess our faults. Do that before offering your trespass offering.

Why does Jesus say that? Is He saying that you must do something to earn your forgiveness before God will accept your sacrifice? Not at all. Our sins are forgiven only for Christ’s sake, according to the riches of His grace (cf. Eph. 1:7). The reason one must be reconciled first before offering his trespass offering is this: some­one who has no interest in reconciling with his brother gives proof that he is not a child of God.

Imagine a man stealing from another and refusing to make restitution when it was possible to do so. Then consider the hypocrisy of such a man coming to the altar and offering a trespass offering seeking forgive­ness for his sin. What a sham that would be. Such a man would show he has no love for his brother. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (I John 4:20). His refusal to confess his sin and make restitution where possible shows he really doesn’t love his brother. And if he doesn’t love his brother, then neither is the love of God in his heart. Such is the case if we have sinned against a brother or sister and refuse to be reconciled through confession and restitution. We show that we really don’t love our brother or sister.

We have a wonderful example of confession and restitution in Zacchaeus: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him four­fold” (Luke 19:8). In response, Jesus declared that Zac­chaeus was a saved man: “This day is salvation come to this house . . .” (Luke 19:9). Zacchaeus’ repentance was evidence of his salvation.

So too, reconciling with a brother or sister doesn’t put us into Christ’s kingdom; rather, it gives us evidence that we are already citizens of His kingdom. If we are sincerely sorry for a particular sin, we will want to make restitution and will want to be reconciled. Of course, our old man will make all kinds of excuses for avoiding reconciliation. But our new man will truly desire and seek reconciliation.

Not that we need to go to anyone and everyone who has the smallest thing against us. Obviously, it would be impossible to get one hundred percent approval for everything we do. If someone has a legitimate gripe against us, surely we should seek to be reconciled with him. More than that, even if we think someone’s case does not seem legitimate, peacemakers will nevertheless seek after peace in the church (cf. Rom. 12:18).

Kingdom citizens are peacemakers. Do we truly want peace with our brothers and sisters?

Those who care nothing for peace are warned in the following verses: “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing” (Matt. 5:25-26). Don’t wait until you get to court before you decide to make restitution and seek reconciliation. Then it will be too late. Jesus would have us consider the judgment day, when God’s curse will rest upon all those who refused to be peacemakers. They could offer a million trespass offerings throughout their lives, but if they had no love for God and their neighbor in their hearts, which love expresses itself in seeking peace, they are condemned by God. When hypocrites offer a sacrifice to God, it is an abomination to Him (Prov. 15:8). The judgment day will be a rude awakening for many.

But those who truly seek to be reconciled with the brother or sister against whom they have sinned will know God’s blessing. Why? Because when they return to the altar to offer their sacrifice, they will be assured that God will accept it from their hand. That is to say, when a child of God seeks forgiveness in the blood of the cross, he will have already witnessed the power of the cross working in his life. The child of God who tru­ly desires and seeks peace with the brother or sister is by that very fact assured that he belongs to Christ and that His blood covers him. On the other hand, if there is no evidence of grace in our lives, as would be shown by a willingness to forgive others, then we should not expect the grace of forgiveness either (cf. Matt. 6:14-15). Similarly, if there is no desire for reconciliation and peace on our part, then we have no assurance that Christ’s sacrifice covers our sins.

Those who have received grace can rightly expect God to give more grace (cf. Matt. 13:12). Seeking reconciliation before worship is therefore not a mat­ter of earning anything. But when we earnestly seek reconciliation, it gives us powerful testimony that God has already given us grace, and that He will therefore continue to shower His grace upon us. It confirms to us that our faith is a true faith that connects us to Christ and all His benefits.

Do we have that testimony in our hearts? Do we earnestly desire peace with our brothers and sisters that leads us to seek reconciliation and peace? May God grant it. 

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