The Context & Interpretation
Matthew 18:19-20 is often quoted in reference to church and prayer meetings.
19 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
This is one of the most quoted verses for used in declaring that Jesus hears the prayers of His people when they are gathered together. When we examine the context a little more closely we find that this verse really isn’t talking about prayer meetings or church gatherings, at least in the realm that most people believe it to be.
The immediate context of our passage goes back to verse 15.
“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.” (emphasis are mine)
Surprised by Context
Jesus’ address is to one who has sinned within the Church. Verse 15 starts by Him telling the disciples how to handle one who sins. They are to approach the individual alone and confront the person’s sin. If the person refuses to acknowledge and repent of his sin then the first person is to take two or three other brothers with him as witnesses. This practice goes all the way back to Jewish law of having a testimony firmly established.
Deuteronomy 19:15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. (emphasis mine)
This is where we need to start reading a little more closely. Note what Jesus is saying. He is instructing the disciples how to perform Church discipline correctly by quoting the law from Deuteronomy 19.
At this point some may object that Jesus is not at all speaking about the Church but only about those sinning against others in a personal manner. However, the fact that Jesus uses the word ‘church’ when speaking to His disciples is evidence that Church discipline is indeed in view at this point. Further, the same law also carries over into the epistles as Paul instructs Timothy not to entertain any accusations brought against another elder unless there are at least two or three witnesses. (1Timothy 1:19). For this reason it is a safe bet to state that the outline of discipline that Jesus gives is specifically for Church discipline. Let’s move on to the actual interpretation of the passage.
What Is Matthew 18 Referencing?
Now that we have examined the context in full it’s time to start interpreting the text as to what it really means. I find the best way to do this is to ask questions of the text. Personally, I love the 5W-H method (who, what, when, where, why, & how). Not all of these elements will be present in all the texts you consider but there will always be enough of them to help interpret a passage correctly.
When we consider the full context of the passage, the first thing we should ask is who are the two or three gathered together in Jesus’ Name? Given the use of Jesus’ quotation of Deuteronomy we must conclude from the context that the two or three are those witnesses first mentioned in verse 16. You will note that I have bolded several portions including every time where the two or three or mentioned. This is to show how they are traced throughout the passage. Understanding the ‘who’ of the passage often aids in understanding the ‘what.’
The next thing to be considered is the ‘what.’ Jesus tells His disciples that if the unrepentant person will not listen to the first or the witnesses that he has taken then that person must be brought before the Church. The entire congregation is to implore his repentance and upon that refusal the instructions are to excommunicate the said individual and treat him as a tax collector and sinner. It is at this point that Jesus makes the mysterious remark about binding and loosing. This is the second part of the ‘what’ question that must be answered.
What exactly is loosing and binding in this context? This requires us to look into the original language to get the answer. The two words, δέω (deō) and λύω (luō) connote an authoritative use. According to the Mishnah, a Rabbinical commentary on the Law of Moses, the interpretations were in fact binding on the people. However, a person could be loosed or even bound under certain circumstances, especially with particular vows made. Consider a small portion of the Mishnah:
He who vows [abstinence] from meat may eat broth and meat sediment. But Rabbi Judah prohibits. Rabbi Judah said: it once happened that Rabbi Tarfon prohibited me from eating [even the] eggs boiled [with the meat]. They replied: That is so. When is this true? When he says “This meat is prohibited to me.” For if one vows [to abstain] from something, and it is mixed up with another thing, if there is a sufficient [amount of the prohibited food] to impart its taste [to the other] it is forbidden.Mishnah Nedarim 6:6
Jesus uses this same idea of binding and loosing when He gives the apostles the authority to enact discipline on a wayward believer. The idea is that the apostles would “ask in Jesus’ Name” and the discipline of the sinner would be bound (authoritative) on Earth and have the backing of the authority of Heaven. Therefore, if two or three ask in Jesus’ Name He is there in the midst of them with His authority.
How then do we apply this Scripture? It can only be applied by the leaders of the Church universal. That is, as ordained ministers chosen by God they must engage in church discipline whenever the need is presented. This verse cannot be applied in a personal manner or as a promise for Jesus to show up in your prayer meeting.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us always examine Scripture closely that we may be able to apply it in the proper manner. May the LORD continue to bless you as you seek to understand and apply the Truth of His Word.