Matthew 18:20 In Its Context
In honor of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses and his overarching emphasis on the need to go back to the Bible to make sure we understand it rightly, I thought I would take the last few posts of 2017 (I’ll start looking at the Canons of Dort in 2018) to look at some popular Bible passages within their context to see what they mean and make sure we understand their original meaning. The goal in looking at this passages is not to criticize how these passages are used but to make sure that we don’t forget the original intention and meaning of the passage; hopefully we appreciate the passage more and are able to see new meaning in it and value for our lives by looking at the passage in its context.
The first one that I will look at is Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (ESV). You often hear this passage cited or referred to when there is a small gathering of people, showing that even if a gathering is small, God is still there. It just takes two or three. This is certainly true, but this was not the original context for this saying. Here it is within its context:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”(ESV)
Jesus did not speak about the context of a small prayer gathering, but rather in the context of rebuking a sister or brother in the faith and even exercising church discipline. The two or three that have gathered are for the sake of confronting someone when they are in their sin; the idea is that there are two or three witnesses and/or people who are saying that a person is sinning and needs to repent and turn from sin. If we see agreement in people that what we are doing is sinful and wrongful, we are wise to heed that. Of course, there are groups of people who can agree about things even though they are wrong, but we should pause when we see agreement and examine ourselves and the Scriptures. Even more so, if we have church leaders (elders) coming up to us with concerns, we are wise to pay attention, as we recognize that God works and acts through his people being in agreement. Who two or three are gathered and in agreement, we need to pay attention.
Does that mean that we can’t cite this in regards to reminding us that God is present and uses even small gathering? No, that is still true (of course, God is also with us when it is just us praying!), but it should remind us that there is power in the agreement of church leaders as they administer discipline, with the idea that their agreement on earth reflects heavenly realities. We should be encouraged whenever we gather with other believers (few or many), as we know God delights when his people get together, but we also need to be reminded of our need for instruction and accountability through the work of church leaders
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