Why the Context of Matthew 18:20 is Important
- Liz Kanoy Editor, Crosswalk.com
- 2015 5 Nov
I’ve heard many prayers in small groups, Bible studies, offertory prayers, and so on that have used the following verse out of context:
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” – Matthew 18:20
Before I understood the verse in its rightful context, I never really noticed the abundant use of it in prayers, but now that I know the context, I cringe a little when I hear it thrown in and out of well-meaning prayers by well-meaning Christians. The problem with the misuse of this verse is that the people misusing it are not necessarily wrong in what they’re saying (that Jesus is with us when we pray and gather); they’ve just taken it out of context.
There’s no need to point fingers or break out the dunce cap; it’s an easy mistake to make when you’re not familiar with the original context. The goal of looking at misused verses is to encourage us to take a closer look at Scripture and to learn the context of what we’re reading. We are not the original audience of Matthew’s gospel, so we have to work a little harder to figure out what the details mean. What I mean by this is that we are not as familiar with the culture, the history, the style of writing, and the Old Testament cross references like someone living in Matthew's day would have been.
This is how I often hear the verse used in churches or study groups: “Lord we thank you that when 2 or more are gathered in your name you are with us...”
It sounds nice, but when you think about it you start hear the discord. If God is only with us when 2 or more believers are gathered, what about when I pray alone? We know that whenever the church fellowships and worships Christ He is there, and we know that anytime a believer prays privately He is there. So that brings the question, is this verse even about prayer?
Tim Chaffey, author and founder of Midwest Apologetics, states,
“First of all, Jesus said ‘where two or three are gathered’ in His name, so how could this apply to settings of four or more? Also, why would it take two or three believers to be gathered together for Jesus to be in their midst? Isn’t he already present in each and every individual believer? So even if one Christian prays, isn’t Jesus already there?”
To understand exactly what Jesus means in Matthew18:20 we have to look at the context, which includes the surrounding verses in the passage, the passage before and after, the background of the book and author, including the original audience. Sometimes even just the heading of a passage can help us. The heading for Matthew 18:15-20 is, “If Your Brother Sins Against You, ” or “Dealing with Sin in the Church” in another translation. Not all versions include the phrase “against you,” but either way we can gather that this passage is about sin and discipline in the Christian community, specifically the church.
Matthew’s original audience was likely comprised of mostly Jewish believers and some Gentile believers; his gospel was also an evangelistic tool for Jews who did not yet believe as well as good news for Gentiles who did not believe. The Jews reading Matthew’s gospel would have immediately known that this passage dealt with church discipline. Why? Because the passage would have reminded them of passages in Deuteronomy, concerning the law. Deuteronomy 17 and 19 speak of 2 or 3 witnesses gathered to testify in court. The witnesses were necessary to establish a case in court.
The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was Jesus’ Bible, and He used it in preaching and teaching. Jewish readers or listeners would have been all too familiar with allusions to Hebrew Bible passages; they knew their Bible well. Unlike most modern Christians, they would not have needed cross-references. This is just another reason to know God’s Word well and to study both the Old Testament and New Testament, neglecting neither.
The ESV Study Bible has this to say about Matthew 18:16:
“Evidence of two or three witnesses follows the guideline in Deut. 19:15 and refers to witnesses of the subsequent confrontation described in this verse, not necessarily eyewitnesses to the original offense.” And 18:20, “Jesus affirms that he will be divinely present among his disciples as they seek unity in rendering decisions, which is rightly understood also as an affirmation of omnipresence and therefore of deity. “
The NIV Zondervan Study Bible edited by D. A. Carson similarly states about Matthew 18:16:
“This procedure comes from Deut 19:15. Taking “one or two” people with you adds up to “two or three” witnesses. Not eyewitnesses of the sin, but those who can testify as to how the attempt at reconciliation goes.” And 18:20, “While Christ is present is even the smallest gathering of his people, his point in this context is that heaven is in accord (v.19) with believers who follow his instructions regarding church discipline.”
Matt Smethurst, managing editor for The Gospel Coalition, points out another view:
“Notice in Matthew 18:20, Jesus employs that ancient Jewish principle for testifying in court—two or three have to agree with one another—and applies this legal glue to gathering ‘in his name.’ When these two or three or three thousand get together and agree they all believe in the same Jesus, his authority is present and they are a church, capable of exercising the keys. This protects the who and what of the gospel. It doesn’t leave gospel accountability to every individual.”
This view believes that when two or more Christians get together, believing in Jesus’ authority, they are a church and can exercise the keys of the kingdom, which are church government and church discipline.
Tim Chaffey continues,
“It is with this in mind that Jesus said the Father would grant the request of two or more who gather together in Christ’s name and are in agreement. Agreement on what? On disciplining the erring brother. That’s what this passage is about and yet so many Christians use it as though Jesus promises to answer their prayers when offered in certain situations.”
This doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t hear our prayers when we pray alone or with two or three people etc. …He does. But it means that this particular verse is not talking about Jesus’ presence in prayer, it’s talking about His presence in church discipline.
Eric Bargerhuff, author of The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, also reminds us that the original audience would have been reading this passage in the context of chapter 18 of Matthew:
“In Matthew 18, Jesus is instructing the disciples on how they and all who will follow him should handle situations of interpersonal sin and conflict. His instructions about this immediately follow his parable about the lost sheep (which emphasizes restoring someone who has gone astray) and precedes the parable of the unmerciful servant (which is about being willing to cancel and forgive an outstanding debt). Therefore, the themes that are present in this context are forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation with a brother or sister who has sinned against you or who has gone astray. “
“Jesus is saying that whenever the church is pursuing and is involved in a reconciliation process with someone who has refused to repent, they can rest assured that God’s blessing is with them in their efforts. In other words, as the church renders the judicial decisions on matters of right and wrong that are based on the truth of God’s Word, they should be confident that they are doing the right thing and that Christ himself is right there with them, spiritually present in their midst.”
We’ve learned that Matthew 18:20 fits into the greater context of Matthew 18 as a whole; there is a theme running through the entire chapter, and this passage is not excluded. We learned that the original Jewish audience would have picked up on Old Testament references, which helps us connect verse 20 in the larger passage. By understanding the context, we are able to understand the full meaning of the verses as the original audience did. Jesus is present with believers always, but He is also present in the particular circumstance of church discipline when done according to God's Word and for His glory.
So next time you hear someone using this verse out of context, don’t leap in front of them with a lecture. Instead, remember how easy it is to read a verse out of context, and acknowledge that what they said was meant well. However, if you have the opportunity to lovingly share your knowledge of this verse with them please do. It is through the lens of humility that we should share the wisdom we have gained.
Liz Kanoy is an editor for Crosswalk.com.
Publication date: November 5, 2015