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Scripture in Context: Matthew 18:20
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Scripture in Context: Matthew 18:20

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Words by Dr. Glenn Jago // Image by Dianne Jago
We love the way our favorite Bible passages and verses sound. But do we understand what they mean? When reading any scripture, we should look at its context—from the chapter, to the book, to the grand and overarching story of the Bible, which is the story of God and his people. Considering the historical time period and setting, we ask questions like, “To whom was this written, and why?” We are then able to better understand what the passage means, what it tells us about God, and how we can apply that truth to our lives. If you missed previous posts in the Scripture in Context series, find them here: Part One: Jeremiah 29:11Part Two:1 Corinthians 13, and Part Three: Philippians 4:13.  
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For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20) 

No Scripture enlists the emotions of believers more than Matthew 18:20. Shouts of “amen” descend upon the room as the fledgling group of believers come to pray and then rejoice that the Lord will show up because more than two attendHowever, it is unfortunate that no one takes the time to consider what would happen if one person went into their closet to pray as Jesus suggested: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt. 6:6). Does God only show up and answer prayer when he has an audience? Before we ever consider praying, should we find two or three more believersAlternatively, is it possible that the passage has nothing to do with the gathering of believers for a worship service? If not, then what is the primary teaching of the passage? 

THE CONTEXT 

The first approach to accuracy is identifying immediate context. The context of this verse begins in verse 15. The text starts with a conditional if-then clause, which presents the condition which, if met, will reveal the result. Each of the nine conditional sentences between verses 15–19, disclose the unity and progression of thought. These naturally control the theme and location for the context of verse 20.  

The second approach to accuracy is to draw out the intended meaning of the author. The first clause in verse 15 unfolds the condition by describing the potential of a brother sinning. In light of this possibility, it becomes necessary in that situation for somone to go and correct the sinning brother. The obedience to go and correct does not take place unless the brother meets the condition of sinning. The outcome of this prerequisite can have a positive result if he hearsand you see the restoration of your brother. Since the first clause has nothing to do with meeting for worship service or gathering for prayer, it is not likely to be found in the rest of the paragraph. 

In verse 16, the progression continues by answering the outcome if the brother in sin does not listenThe answer is to call one or two witnesses and go to him again to establish the evidence. Here, Matthew connects the Jewish mindset to the standards of the Old Testament by referring to the Old Testament counterpart in Deuteronomy 19:15–21. Jesus, however, focuses specifically on verse 15 of this passage, which says, “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.” Interestingly, Jesus uses the same Greek word for “established” in Matthew 18:16, as the Septuagint (Old Testament in Greek rather than Hebrew), which means “to stand firm, remain stable, hold one’s ground.” The reason God put this law into effect is to allow two or three witnesses to make firm the accusation and avoid false statements that would irreparably damage the innocent  

Next, in verse 17, Jesus commands them to tell the whole church. The outcome is harsh: “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The Jewish mindset viewed Gentiles as dogs—not the man’s best friend kind of animal, but one that is disgusting. Tax collectors were traitors to the Jews and considered worse than sinners. Therefore, when Jesus tells them to reject the offender and cast him out of their midst, he is speaking boldly. This string of connections, once again, does not suggest a worship service setting. However, the question raised is in a disciplined setting that asks, “By whose authority should we accomplish this rejection?”  

The next sequence of verses, 18–20, answers the question of authority. In verse 18, Jesus declares that followers of God have God’s authorization to fulfill this disciplineThe “if-then” clause of verse 18 states the outcome of Jesus’ teaching: (if) whatever you may bind or loose on earth(then) it will be bound or loosed in heaven. 

The conclusion comes in verses 19–20, connecting the witnesses of verse 16 with the “witnesses” of verses 19 and 20; especially with the relational adverb “again” at the beginning of verse 19. Jesus provides the final two “if-then” clauses by stating the following conditions: if two out of your number are of one mind concerning a matter of any kind, and if they may ask, then it will be done by my Father. Verse 20 concludes with the explanatory basis of the transferred authority by stating, “For where there are (no longer the “if-then” clause but a true state) two or three gathered in the context of church discipline, there is the absolute certainty of authority because Jesus Christ is among them.  

Therefore, the immediate context in the unified and progressive paragraph demands the interpretation that Christ’s teaching refers to the transfer of authority from God to the church for exercising church discipline. The identity of the gathered community is only when the church hears about the sinning brother (v. 17). 

THE BROADER CONTEXT OF MATTHEW 

Matthew writes to the Jewish mindset and teaches that all authority belongs to Jesus (28:18), who fulfilled the whole law (5:17), and who gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven as a result of Peter’s confession of Christ (16:19). Now, our present passage reveals that Jesus transferred the authority to his disciples. Commentators identify five teaching sections of Jesus throughout the gospel of Matthew, and each serves to instruct the proper thinking among those who believe and follow Jesus Christ.  

APPLICATION & CONCLUSION

Did the Apostles follow the teaching of Christ? Paul writes his first letter to the believers in Corinth and learns that a young man was living in sin, and the church did not apply the authority of Christ in the matter until Paul wrote and said, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor. 5:2b). Now notice the transfer of authority as taught in Matthew 18. Paul demanded that “with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh … ” (5:5). By whose authority? Jesus!

So we plainly see from the context of Matthew 18:20 that this popular verse is not about the guarantee of God's special presence at a prayer meeting or corporate worship gathering—though we can be confident of his presence when we gather. Rather, it is an affirmation of Jesus' deity and of his presence among the apostles and leaders in the Church seeking unity in decision-making on matters of sin and discipline. Let us pray for our local church leaders as they seek to obey Christ's instructions and shepherd faithfully.