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The context of this verse deals with “elders,” men who labored for the Lord in a local church as “overseers.” They were older men who by reason of experience and godliness were qualified to lead the sheep of Christ by way of example and through teaching the Word of God. Let’s read 1 Timothy 5:17-20 which says “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The laborer is worthy of his reward. Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others may fear.”

We learn in verse 17 that these men are worthy of our honor for their blessed work in teaching the saints the Word of God and in verse 18 we see that this “honor” included the thought of financial support, which we see in the example of providing for “the ox that treadeth out the corn.” Because these men are in the public eye and valuable to the local church as divinely-chosen shepherds of Christ’s sheep, they are often a target of Satan’s attack. One of Satan’s strategies in ruining the testimony of a local church is to falsely accuse an elder of some wrong-doing, but the Spirit of God is careful to protect them against this by insisting, in verse 19, that there be “two or three witnesses” to prove that the charge is true. Unless there is such a testimony, no disciplinary action was to be taken. But an elder is not perfect and he may indeed fall into sin and need to be disciplined and thus we have those solemn words in verse 20, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.” Again, the elders were in a place of real responsibility and their work was often in the public eye, so if one were to sin openly he was to be rebuked publicly. Their sin was serious and could lead to the ruin of the testimony of the local church and thus it called for a public rebuke. This would, in turn, serve to teach all the others how serious sin is and the Lord could use that to prevent them from such a fall.

Do we have any examples of this in Scripture? Yes, we do! Let’s read, from the NKJV, Galatians 2:11-16, “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles, and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” Here was a serious case indeed!  Peter, who was an elder AND an apostle, publicly sinned by refusing to eat with the Gentiles when some of his fellow-Jews walked in. In essence his act of hypocrisy was a denial of the gospel, for by his actions he was basically returning to the Law of Moses. Paul realized the seriousness of his sin and of the influence it had on others, so he was led to rebuke Peter to his face in front of everyone, and in his rebuke he maintained the truth that “a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith of Jesus Christ.”

Dear brothers and sisters, we do well to take this lesson to heart. We are to be jealous for the truth and to be faithful if called upon to uphold the truth, even if it means having to publicly rebuke an elder who has sinned by acting contrary to the gospel. It is also “love for our brother” that would lead us to do this. Scripture tells us, in Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend”, which means that if we really love our brother who has sinned, we will tell him his faults, even though he may be hurt in the process. Hopefully this will lead to him repenting of his sin and it may serve as a deterrent to others.

I can’t close without adding that even though it’s not recorded how Peter responded to Paul’s public rebuke, we know that he must have seen his error, for he continued to serve the Lord and was inspired to write two books, 1and 2 Peter.  And it is beautiful to see that his love and respect for the apostle Paul had not diminished, for in 2 Peter 3:15 he refers to him with these precious words, “…our beloved brother Paul.” There is no doubt that Peter still held Paul in high esteem and we can surely believe that he thanked him for loving him enough to rebuke him publicly that day.  (135.4)  (DO)