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While preparing a thesis paper on Judaism in the New Testament, a thought began to develop in my mind which is now taking substance in this thread. Occasionally, I will post a series called “Context is Everything,” where we will take an in-depth look into various scriptural concepts that we may or may not be teaching properly and, because of this, may be missing the powerful understanding that Scripture intends to impart to its readers. Therefore, let us begin…

You have heard it preached, discussed, taught, and attached to just about every apostolic concept known to man. It has been connected to casting out a devil, producing the power of the Holy Ghost, and to the dynamics of church growth. However, is Matthew 18:20 presenting the church with a principle that deals with apostolic power and Divine visitation or something completely different? Context, my friend, is everything.

Matthew 18:20 (KJV)
20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

We have looked out over “small congregations,” or the small group of participating saints and we have declared words of encouragement (whether they are for us or them is still to be decided). We shook our fist in the hair, hammered on the pulpit or, with a determined look on our face, declared, “Where two or three are gathered together; God is in the midst of them!”

Sadly, this concept, as it is applied in many of our churches, is flawed in several fundamental ways. First, regardless of the number of individuals present, unity remains a key environment for God to operate within our houses of worship. Thus, if you have 300 people and all 300 of those people are disconnected from the purpose and vision of that service, suddenly the mainstream ideology behind “where 2 or 3 are gathered together” becomes pointless.

The second point, and this is perhaps the most important, is that when Jesus made this statement (where 2 or 3 are gathered together), He was not speaking of “2 or 3” in relation to the power and demonstration of His Spirit. Unfortunately, how we often use His words is anything but contextual. So what did Jesus mean?

It is clear from reading the surrounding text that Jesus was speaking about judgment among brethren of the church. Now, it is important to understand that Matthew is the only Gospel writer that used the word “church.” What is also interesting is that, of all the Gospels, Matthew’s is the most Jewish in its content. Based on this, not only do you have the “church” being discussed, but also the backdrop of the writings are extremely Jewish.

Understanding this,  we find that Jesus refers to the trespass of one brother against another. It is to be noted, that Jesus dealt with trespass among brethren extensively. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus stated, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Jesus then went on to explain the intricate link between our forgiveness of one another and His forgiveness towards us.

Matthew 6:14-15 (KJV)
14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

This is again seen in the question of Peter when he asked Jesus, “How often should I forgive my brother if he keeps sinning against me; Seven times?”(Matt. 18:21). Jesus then responded, “seventy times seven” (vs. 22), which of course speaks of a principle rather than a specific number.

Now, the question remains, “What if I approach my brother that has offended me or sinned against me and attempt to work it out between ourselves and he will not hear me?” Great question, because this is the question that Jesus addressed in the text we are focusing on in this article. Let’s take a look…

Matthew 18:15-20 (KJV)
15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

If the “trespasser” refuses to hear the “trespassed” and the “fault” remains unresolved then, according to Jesus, the “trespassed” was to take “one or two more [men]” and  attempt to address the matter with the trespasser. Why is this important for the process or conflict resolution in regards to a brother that trespasses? Jesus explains this in the next part of vs. 16, “That in the mouth of two or three witness every word may be established.”

When Jesus makes this statement, He is drawing immediately from a judicial precedent of “two or three witnesses” that is found in Deuteronomy 17:6. Jesus is giving us a keen insight, in that, He agrees with the Jewish practice of private rebuke, the nature of witnesses and, if repentance and resolution does not occur, the right and practice of judicial assembly. This is important that we follow the steps involved.

If the trespasser refuses to make things right (1) after a personal attempt and (2) a party attempt, it would then dictate that the matter be brought before the entire assembly. If still the man refused to repent of his trespass, Christ told them: “Let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.” In other words, let him be excommunicated! To bring this point home, remember the shock of the Pharisees when they see Jesus sitting with the heathens and the publicans? They were astounded that Jesus associated with those two classes of people. To the Jewish individual listening to the finality of unresolved trespass (let him be like a heathen and publican), this would resonate loudly! Essentially, Jesus was declaring that the unrepentant man, having brought division and strife into the body, is to no longer be associated with (vs. 17). However, this only happens after a long judicial proceeding as outlined above.

Now let’s look at the verses which follow:

18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

In Josephus (Wars of the Jews 1:5:2) he writes: “The power of binding and loosing was always claimed by the Pharisees. Under Queen Alexandra, the Pharisees “became the administrators of all public affairs so as to be empowered to banish and readmit who they pleased, as well as to loose and to bind.”

Talmudic sources weigh in on the subject: “The various schools had the power to bind and to loose;” that is the power to forbid and to permit. (Talmud: Ta’anit 12a). This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age or in the Sanhedrin, received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of justice” (Sifra, Emor, ix; Talmud: Makkot 23b).

Remember that Jesus speaks of this same “binding and loosing” elsewhere in scripture and the same principle is being applied in that instance also.

Matthew 16:19 (KJV)
19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Alfred Edersheim discussed the concepts of “binding and loosing” in his classic work, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.

“And here we recall, that no other terms were in more constant use in Rabbinic Canon-Law than those of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing.’ The words are the literal translation of the Hebrew equivalents Asar ( ), which means ‘to bind,’ in the sense of prohibiting, and Hittir ( , from ) which means ‘to loose,’ in the sense of permitting. For the latter the term Shera or Sheri ( , or ) is also used. But this expression is, both in Targumic and Talmudic diction, not merely the equivalent of permitting, but passes into that of remitting or pardoning. On the other hand, ‘binding and loosing’ referred simply to things or acts prohibiting or else permitting them, declaring them lawful or unlawful. This was one of the powers claimed by the Rabbis. As regards their laws (not decisions as to things or acts), it was a principle, that while in Scripture there were some that bound and some that loosed, all the laws of the Rabbis were in reference to ‘binding.’ [a Jer. Ber. 3 b; Jer. Meg. 71 a; Jer. Sanh. 30 a.] If this then represented the legislative, another pretension of the Rabbis, that of declaring ‘free’ or else ‘liable,’ i.e., guilty (Patur or Chayyabh), expressed their claim to the judicial power. By the first of these they ‘bound’ or ‘loosed’ acts or things; by the second they ‘remitted’ or ‘retained,’ declared a person free from, or liable to punishment. to compensation, or to sacrifice. These two powers, the legislative and judicial, which belonged to the Rabbinic office, Christ now transferred, and that not in their pretension, but in their relity, to His Apostles: the first here to Peter as their Representative, the second after His Resurrection to the Church” (Edersheim, 1900, p. 85).

The context of binding and loosing, especially in the text of Matthew 18, is dealing with judicial procedures. In other words, Jesus was investing His disciples with the same authority that was commonly associated with the scribes and Pharisee’s, whom Jesus prior had stated: “bind heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will not move them (loose them) with one of their fingers” (Matt. 23:2-4). Sadly, many of the early church Fathers (such as Tertullian) associated this scripture with John 20:23 and the “churches” ability to forgive men their sins. This, they felt, was the “key” of Matthew 16:18. How grossly in error they were!

19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.

Notice that Jesus declares: “Again I say unto you,” in verse 19. Jesus is reiterating what was said in verse 16, “that in the mouth of two or three witnesses.” One witness was not enough to condemn or judge a man. It had to be in the mouth of two or three. Now, notice the verbiage used by Jesus in verse 19. If “two of you shall agree on EARTH,” it shall be done for them of my Father which is in HEAVEN.”

Matthew 16:19 (KJV)
19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Now we come to your “candy-stick” scripture for which this whole treatise is about.

20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Many have assumed that Jesus is speaking of a “messianic minyan”, a Jewish concept that laid out the requirement of assembly.  According to the minyan,  a quorum of ten Jewish men was required  in order for certain religious obligations to occur-primarily dealing with public prayer in the synagogue. However, as stated before-context is everything! Prayer is not the focus of what Jesus is saying, but rather, authority and judicial function within the assembly. Look at Psalms 82:1:

Psalm 82:1 (KJV)
1 God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.

The word “gods” at the end of that scripture is the Hebrew word, “elohim,” and, in this instance, it means “judges.” Literally, “God stands in the “gathering of the god-like ones”; he judgeth among the judges”

Exodus 21:6 (KJV)
6 Then his master shall bring him unto the judges (elohim); he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.

John 10:33-35 (KJV)
33 The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.
34 Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?
35 If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken (loosed);

For those men in the first-century who would have been considered “Jewish Judges,” this is an extremely powerful set of scriptures. As men that administered the law, one doubts that they ever viewed that scripture in light of what they did as a group of legislative men who had the supposed authority to “bind and loose”, especially since Psalms 82:1 refers to “unrighteous men” that God would send and use to “judge the nations.”

However, this is exactly what they did. They represented God in judgement and, because of this, “ye are gods.” (Ps. 82:6) They were acting “as gods” and yet Jesus was being charged with blasphemy for having alluded to being the “son of God.” This is a whole different subject that would take forever to navigate, but what a powerful concept to consider! Now, when you make the following statement you will know!

20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Context is everything! This scripture is dealing with judicial procedures in the church, which will be dealt with in later times, as discussed by Paul:

Dr. Whitby says. “Though these words seem to be cited from Deuteronomy 19:15, rather than from Matthew 18:16, it being rare to find this apostle citing any thing from the New Testament, without calling it an ordinance of the Lord, yet it is probable that he here alludes to the practice there prescribed for the reclaiming of offenders. And then his first epistle being written with this introduction: Paul an apostle, and Sosthenes; his second thus: Paul and Timotheus; may pass for two or three witnesses; and his presence the third time in person, to exercise his censures on those offenders, before the body of the Church, may bear a fair resemblance to our Lord’s prescription in the above case: If thy brother offend,” etc. — Adam Clarke’s Commentary

Therefore: CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

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