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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
– Matthew 18:19-20
I was joking and making fun of myself after Sunday’s message on “Biblical Faith” because I had more questions afterward on what I had not preached about than what I preached; this was perfectly understandable since I made a statement about God’s promises (or not) and did not explain the rationale for it. So I thought I would do it on my blog this week since it will illustrate how important our interaction is between the Old and New Testaments.
My claim on Sunday was that these verses (above) in Matthew 18:19-20 are often misused as a method or formula for prayer if we really want God to something, or to encourage a discouraged leader when no one shows up for a meeting by being reminded that if only two or three are gathered, Jesus is still with us. In order to understand why I made this statement let me show you the 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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Matthew 18:15-20)
Notice three important things about this text:
1. The context shows us the issue here is about how to deal with someone who has sinned against another (v. 15).There is a process of reconciliation that is to be followed: go to them personally to resolve it (15); if the person does not listen to you take on or two othersto objectively confirm the charge (16); if the person still does not listen to these people the person is to be brought before the church to confront and hopefully reconcile the issue; if this person still refuses to listen, the church is to treat him as a Gentile or tax gatherer; basically an unsaved person (17).
2. Church discipline is that action of the church to deal with unrepentant sin with love and godly discipline. If this person ignores the facts from the two or three witness and the church, they have the right to “bind and loose” this person – in other words they can restrict this person from privileges and priorities of being involved in the Body. The church has the right to restrict this person to serve in ministry, take the ordinances and / or continue in leadership if they refuse to repent and reconcile. The two or three witnessesare to confirm the charge and agree on the facts of the moral indiscretion. This does not mean collaboration or conspiracy but objectively upholding justice in this process.
3. Verse 19-20 are simply parenthetical principles that have already been explained previously. Matthew starts by saying, “again” which means he is repeating himself. So they questions are – who are the two or three? What are they agreeing about and to what will “be done for them by my Father in heaven”?
To answer this we need to remember the context, the Old Testament and the intent of these principles:
The two or three are witnesses are for the purpose of “establishing that the charge is based on facts not just personal hearsay.If the charge is not reconciled and it comes to the church the two or three must agreeabout any or every (legal) thing (issue) concerning the sin between two parties. If the church needs to restrain (bind) that person from privileges of fellowship then God supports the action of the church towards this unrepentant brother (it shall be done for them by my Father in heaven). When two or three are gathered in this manner before the church for the purpose of making sure that the objective facts are confirmed and things are done justly and fairly, then God is supportive of that action.
Verse sixteen actually quotesDeuteronomy 19:15when Matthew introduces the “two or three others” in Matthew 18:16 – here is the text:
A single witness may not testify against another person for any trespass or sin that he commits. A matter may be legallyestablished only on the testimony of two or three witnesses
– Deuteronomy 19:15
There are other verses in the Old and New Testaments that affirm the same requirement for carrying out discipline or justice in a moral or legal breach of Law:
“Whoever kills any person, the murderer must be put to death by the testimonyof witnesses, but one witness cannottestify against any person to cause him to be put to death
– Numbers 35:30
Suppose a man or woman is discovered among you – in one of your villagesthat the Lordyour God is giving you – who sins before the Lord your Godand breaks his covenant by serving other gods and worshiping them – the sun,moon, or any other heavenly bodies which I have not permitted you to worship.When it is reported to you and you hear about it, you must investigate carefully. If it is indeed true that such a disgraceful thingis being done in Israel, you must bring to your city gatesthat man or woman who has done this wicked thing – that very man or woman – and you must stone that person to death. At the testimony of two or three witnesses they must be executed. They cannot be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.The witnessesmust be first to begin the execution, and then all the peopleare to join in afterward. In this way you will purge evil from among you
– Deuteronomy 17:2-7
We actually see the same principle stated in the New Testament when it comes to a charge against an elder in 1 Timothy 5:19-20.
Do not accept an accusation against an elder unless it can be confirmed by two or three witnesses.Those guilty of sinmust be rebukedbefore all,as a warning to the rest.
The purpose of the two or three witness is to help with the investigation and present the facts of the indiscretion so that justice and reconciliation is done by God’s people in a way that is right (one might say legally) and in keeping with their covenant relationship with God. These verses have nothing to do with a prayer meeting or finding some hope in a disappointing turn out to some meeting; there is no comfort here that Jesus is present with us even if no one else shows up. These witnessesmay, during this process, certainly pray and ask God for wisdom but that is not what these verses are talking about in Matthew 18. The witnesses are asking the Elders and / or the church to bind or restrict the unrepentant sinner from fellowship in the Body of Christ.
This is another reason why the Old Testament is so valuable to us. When it is quoted or we see statements in the New Testament that are not quite clear to us, then the Old Testament can bring great clarity to the mystery of certain kinds of statements we see in the New Testament. This is a perfect example of clarifying something that has been misused and misquoted and applied to many situations with Christians that it simply does not speak to. This is what we call eisegesis(reading our own ideas into a verse or text) and it is NOT a promise from God about prayer or bad attendance at a meeting of any kind. Much of this can be solved just be paying attention to the context but since Matthew quotes the Old Testament it is profoundly clear the real intent of these verses is about dealing with an unrepentant brother; it is not about a special mode of prayer.
Sincerely in Christ