Considering Context – Matthew 18:19-20

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.

Application

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.

Considering Context – Jerimiah 29:11

This week’s Considering Context looks at popular verse often quoted as proof that God has a wonderful plan for every believer’s life. Jeremiah 29:11 says,

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (NIV).

(Note: I purposely quoted from the NIV because this is the version I have heard quoted the most.)

The Perceived Meaning & Actual Context

“God has a wonderful plan for your life, and this verse tells us that!”

This is the interpretation I’ve heard most. People read into this text because of words like ‘plan,’ ‘hope,’ & ‘future,’ and automatically assume that it must be talking about their own individual, personal lives. This false assumption only leads to disappointment as they cling to it, waiting for God to bring them their “breakthrough.” But what does this text actually teach? Let’s look at the full context and unpack it a little bit. The full context of Jeremiah 29:11 is below. Read carefully and pay attention to some key elements, which we will discuss.

Jeremiah 29:1–14 (NIV)

1 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said: 4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. 10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

There are some general things to be noted about this text:

  1. This is a letter from Jeremiah sent by Elasah to the already exiled Israelites (vv. 1-3). Why is this important? Because it means that this portion of Jeremiah was written to a specific group, (the exiles) at a specific time, (after Nebuchadnezzar came in and conquered Jerusalem), for a specific reason (discussed in v. 4, ff). Context needs to always take precedence when interpreting a passage.
  2. The letter’s contents are concerning the Israelites’ expectations during their captivity (vv. 4-7). Through Jeremiah God was telling His people to basically get comfortable in their new conditions because it would be 70 years before they would be going anywhere. They were told to “seek the welfare” of the nation of their captors because they would benefit from it, as well. In essence, this promise was NOT individualistic prosperity but nationalistic peace.
  3. The lying prophets would declare peace & prosperity (vv. 8-10). Just as we deal with false teachers, so the Israelites dealt with their false teachers. God had warned His people for hundreds of years that judgment was coming. Instead of repenting, false teachers came along saying, “Peace, Peace!” Yet God tells them that He did not send them and that they were lying by saying that they had had dreams and visions (v. 9). This is an important part of the overall context because these false prophets were still declaring God’s favor even after judgment had been rendered.  Jeremiah’s letter ensured his hearers that they were in Babylon for their sins. God’s favor was still on His people but it would not be experienced until the time of the exiled had come to its fruition (v. 10).
  4. The promise of verse 11 is actually a causal condition of verse 10. What does that mean? Simply speaking the word ‘for’ at the beginning of verse 11 is actually the reason or support for God’s statement in verse 10. In other words, the promise that everyone seems to think that verse 11 is based upon is actually dependent upon the seventy years of exile.
  5. The “Ater-promise” is the real promise of this text (vv. 12-14). Verse 11 is not even the centrality of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles. It is the promise of God once again being their God, dwelling with them, and bringing them back into His presence. We know this because God tells the people at that time they will begin to seek Yahweh once again. Every Israelite’s pride was being part of Yahweh’s covenant people and Jerusalem was Yahweh’s dwelling place. The reason they had been exiled was because they had failed to keep the covenant. Now they would have to endure God’s chastisement for seventy years before true fellowship could be restored. But in all their discipline God would not forsake them because He “knows the plans [He] has for them, declares the LORD…”  

Conclusion

Just like interpretation, application must be kept in its original context. Today, we cannot claim that we have been exiled from the land because of our sins. However, as a church we can recognize that (1) the Church is God’s covenant people (2) God uses his preachers to exhort us to repentance and faith in His Son, (3) He may discipline the Church if we do not heed His word, (4) even if we, the Church, experience His discipline it is not to harm us but to bring us back into fellowship with the Triune God.

What a blessed thought, Christians, that God still loves and honors His promises to His covenant people, even in the midst of our sin. Let us confess and forsake our false views of God and let us return with our whole heart to Him, seeking Him while He may be found.

Considering Context – Hebrews 10:25 & COVID 19

Note: this post was originally published on Long for Truth March 19. I still believe it is relevant at this time, though most churches are now able to meet. 

In the midst of the ongoing Coronavirus or COVID 19 as is being called by experts, some Christians have already begun taking Scripture out of context in defiance of government sanctions to restrict large gatherings. Some of the verses I’ve seen quoted out of context?

Psalm 91:10 No evil shall befall you, Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling

Amos 4:6 “Also I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities. And lack of bread in all your places; Yet you have not returned to Me,” Says the Lord.

and my personal favorite…

Hebrews 10:25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching

The latter of the three is the focus of this post. Recently, I saw a Facebook post from a popular apologist quoting Hebrews 10:25 and adding to the end of it something along the lines of, “unless a virus causes you to close church.” The quote is not exact and could not be obtained as the tweet has been removed since then.

Even though the gentleman apologized (though he stated he adamantly stands by his belief) others have taken up the mantle, using this verse to chide and rebuke other Christians for “forsaking the assembling of [themselves]. They have been accused of abandoning God’s Word in favor of fear or man’s mandate. But is that what is really happening? Are Christians who refrain from going to church temporarily forsaking the Word of God? Let’s put this verse in its full context.

Examining the Scripture in Context

Several things need to be noted about how this verse is used to support the said persons’ views of not obeying the government-mandated orders of no large gatherings.

  1. The historical context of Hebrews is to persecuted Jews. The author of Hebrews is writing to his fellow Jews and admonishing them not to return to the worthless sacrifices of the temple that can no longer cleanse sin or conscience. The entire theme of Hebrews is the superiority of Christ over the Priesthood and the Temple sacrifices. As a result of following Jesus, many Jews had lost their homes, businesses, and had been arrested. This is present just a few verses later (Hebrews 10:32-34). This context is important to keep in mind as our government is not trampling our right to meet as believers; nor or are they persecuting us simply because we are Christians. The mandate, at this point, is simply to control the spread of a deadly virus.
  2. The quoted verse comes in the middle of an exhortation. Verse 25 comes smack dab in the middle of two other exhortations. The author begins chapter 10 by reminding them that the Law was a foreshadowing of the Messiah. He begins verse 19 with the usual inferential οὖν (therefore) demonstrating the logic of the better Christ over the old priesthood. Jesus has made the once-for-all sacrifice and we may now approach God the Father without the aid of a priest. Now come the three exhortations that include our verse. (1) let us draw near, (2) let us hold fast our confession, and (3) let us consider one another. Our verse is found in the last exhortation and is subordinate to the verb, ‘consider’. The verse itself is part of a participial phrase describing the means or the way in which the main verb is carried out, or in this case the way it was not being done. Grammatically this is important because those decrying the temporary closing of churches due to the virus apply it wrongly. The forsaking of the assembling of the Jews was in light of the other two exhortations and especially the last exhortation which was imploring them to stir each other into the action of good works and love This could not be accomplished if they were not meeting together on a regular basis.
  3. The sin of the Jews was forsaking Jesus, not church. Hebrews 10:25 was not written so that we would all continue to “go to church”. The real exhortation is that of not forsaking Jesus, which was the cause of neglecting the assembling of themselves. Because of the persecution, it seems that some of the Jews had decided it would be better to return to the former way of worship and forsake the better way, Jesus, that the author had been stressing from the very beginning of the epistle.
  4. The usage of the word ‘forsake’ in other contexts. It’s important to examine the usage of the word in its other contexts. This gives us a snapshot of sorts to determine how the word is being used in our passage. A quick examination tells us that the Greek word ἐγκαταλείπω is used nine times, 6 of those being translated as ‘forsake’ or ‘forsaken.’

We see two of the occurrences as Jesus’ quote of Psalm 22:1 during his crucifixion. The last four uses indicate the word is used in a bit stronger way, especially in 2Timothy where Paul states that Demas turned his back on him and the work of the gospel for gain. 2Corinthians gives us a picture of God’s faithfulness to Paul by not turning His back on them in times of trouble and persecution. And lastly, we see our passage in Hebrews. Comparing these verses gives us a pretty good idea of what the author had in mind when writing to his Jewish audience. But another interesting thing to note is the usage of this Greek word in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. This would have been the version familiar to Jesus and His disciples, as much of the world was Hellenized at that time.

Above we have the Septuagint version along with the English translation below. This Greek word is used in Judges six times, all of them bearing the definition of complete abandonment of faith in the Living God to idols! The word is never used as a mere failure to “meet together” as many of the so-called Facebook theologians would have you to believe.

Concluding Thoughts

Those who see themselves as spiritually superior seem to be the real antagonists of this debate. We have clearly seen that the Scripture used to shame people into going to church during the time of this outbreak, Hebrews 10:25, is being misapplied. The meaning of this passage is a complete abandonment of the faith not staying away from church in order to stay healthy or keep from passing a sickness on to someone else. If the government was commanding us to stay away permanently or refusing to let Christians meet simply because we are Christians those “super saints” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like may have a cause and a case. But Christian, you are not in sin if your church decides to cancel services due to this illness, or decides to have a live stream in place of services, or even meet together online temporarily until this thing blows over. Those who would hold you to their standards only think of the good of themselves rather than the good of the entire Body.

Considering Context – Psalm 46:10

This week’s Considering Context looks at a popular meditation/peace verse.

Psalm 46:10  Be still and know that I am God.

The Perceived Meaning of the Text

I often hear this verse interpreted as a means for quiet meditation on God in order to bring peace to oneself. To be sure, a peaceful, quiet assurance of God is certainly thematic but that is only true, partially, as we will see by examining the full context of this Psalm.

The Text in its Original Context

There are are a lot of factors that need to be considered when we interpret the Psalms. The most important factor is the type of genre one is reading. Because the Psalms are poetry they must be interpreted within the poetic genre. And Hebrew poetry is much different from  English poetry.

Hebrew poetry typically uses parallelisms and structure rather than rhyme in its composition. This may seem a bit odd to us but in an ancient context this style greatly aided in memory since many of these psalms were used during the worship at the tabernacle. When interpreting the Psalms and any type of Hebrew poetry it is a good practice to understand some of the basics. Before moving on to the the interpretation we will spend a little time looking at the basics of Hebrew poetry. For more information I would highly recommend Dr. Mark Futato’s book Interpreting the Psalms.

Parallelism is the major defining factor in Hebrew poetry. Scholars have identified several, but the three major categories are synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic. Each will be briefly discussed: 

  1. Synonymous – this parallelism has two lines of text that mean the same thing but said in different ways. Psalm 33:2 is a good example

    Ⓐ Give thanks to the Lord Ⓑ with the lyre; Ⓐ make melody to him Ⓑ with the harp of ten strings!
  2. Antithetic – this is when two lines are contrasted, showing what one is or should be and what the other should not be. Psalm 1:6 illustrates this form of parallelism

    for Ⓐ the Lord knows Ⓑ the way of the righteous, but Ⓑ the way of the wicked Ⓐ will perish.
  3. Synthetic – often times the author will make a statement and then develop or further elaborate the point. This development is known as synthetic parallelism. Psalm 147:16-17 is synthetic in nature. The explanation of line B is that no one stands before His power, which is pictured as cold and snow. 

    Ⓐ He gives snow like wool; Ⓐ he scatters frost like ashes. Ⓐ He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; Ⓑ who can stand before his cold?

Structure is also an important theme in Hebrew poetry. Like parallelism the structure is usually categorized three different ways.

Acrostic – each new line or stroph begins with the next successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 119 is an excellent example of this style. As you can see the first eight verses begin with the letter Aleph and the next eight begin with the letter Bet. This pattern will follow until the end of the Hebrew alphabet has been reached.

Chiastic – the parallels in this structure branch out to a central theme. Then the parallels are reversed until reaching the conclusion. See the screenshot below for an example.

Strophic – this is more of a thematic type of poetry where the lines are grouped together by themes to conclude to a main theme. Note the the thematic elements of the grouped lines in the below Psalm. They culminate in the Lord being the Psalmist’s refuge.

Though it seems a bit much to review all of this it is necessary when interpreting the context for our Psalm. Now, we can look at it in its entirety and interpret it correctly.

The first thing to be noted is that the Psalm is usually not quoted in its entirety. The full text of the Psalm is, “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

As you see this verse is a little bit more than simply being still and meditating on God. Our Psalm is of the chiastic structure, paralleling ideas to a central theme and then reversing the parallels. To understand the structure more fully it would be helpful to see the entire Psalm laid out.

As you can see, the Psalm peaks at verse 6: the nations rage, the kingdoms tooter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The context of the Psalm can be found in 2Chron 20:1-30, when Jehoshaphat is king and the destruction of Jerusalem seems imminent. God gave His people a remarkable deliverance and this Psalm was written as the response. The culmination at verse 6 is God winning the victory for Jerusalem. This is the theme or central portion of the Psalm, not meditating on God.

Verse 10 falls in parallel to verse 2. Looking a little closer at these two verses helps us even more with the context. verses 2 and 10 state, respectively,

2 Therefore, we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea.

10 Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. 

Examining these two verses side-by-side we quickly see how they relate to one another. Jerusalem is in danger! But the God of Jacob is our refuge, and because He is we won’t be afraid. Be silent and watch God work. He will overthrow our enemies and His Name will be exalted over all the earth.

The second part of our interpretation must deal with the type of parallelism found in verse 10. Synthetic parallels state a single point and then develop or expound upon that idea. Verse 10 is synthetic and the parallel can be seen below.

The parallels are marked with the letters ‘a’ and ‘b.’ Since synthetics expound the meaning of the original statement we must then ask what it means to be still and know the He is God. The two following lines explain the meaning. It is God’s exaltation upon the earth, plain and simple.

The Application of the Text

This might seem to be a killjoy for some because they have clung to this verse during the chaotic times of their lives. While we cannot claim a meditative peace for Psalm 46:10 we can certainly know that God watches over His people and that His deliverance of them will bring greatness to His Name throughout the entire earth.