200px-ConTeXt_Unofficial_Logo.svgWhile 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,” in which we will take an in-depth look at various scriptural principles in the Word of God that we may or may not be teaching properly and thus missing the powerful understanding that Scripture meant to impart to its readers. Therefore, let us begin…

You have heard it preached, discussed, taught, and attached to just about every apostolic concept thus known to man. It has been connected to casting out a devil, producing the power of the Holy Ghost, and the dynamics of church growth. However, is Matthew 18:20 presenting the church with a principle which deals with apostolic power and Divine visitation or something else? 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 that concept, as it is applied often in our churches, is flawed in various ways. First, regardless of the number of individuals present, unity remains to be the key for a correct environment which God will operate in. If you have 300 people and all of those 300 people are somewhere else and disconnected from the purpose and vision of the service, our concept of “two or three” is pointless.

Secondly, and most important, when Jesus made this statement He was not speaking about “two or three” in relation to the POWER and DEMONSTRATION of His Spirit. In fact, how we use this scripture 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. Thus, not only do you have the “church” being discussed but also the backdrop is extremely Jewish.

Therefore, with this understanding, 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?” This question was addressed by Jesus in the text we are studying.

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 then Jesus told us that we are to take with us “one or two more” men and again attempt to address the matter. We are then presented with a statement: “That in the mouth of two or three witness every word may be established.”

This of course connects to judicial procedures found in Deuteronomy which spoke of “two or three witnesses.” Jesus is providing us an insight that He agrees with the Jewish practice of private rebuke, witnesses, and finally, if repentance and solution does not happen, judicial assembly. If the individual refuses to make things right after a personal attempt and a party attempt; now it will fall upon the entire assembly and the matter will be brought before all. If still the man refuses to repent of the trespass, Christ told them: “Let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.” In other words, excommunicated! Remember what the words of the Pharisee are when they saw Jesus sitting with the heathens and publicans? They were astounded that Jesus associated with them. Jesus is now likening the unrepentant man who has brought division and strife into the body and practically telling them that the person is to no longer be associated with! (vs. 17).

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 them with the same authority which was commonly associated with the scribes and Pharisee’s, whom Jesus before 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” which connected to the Jewish concept of a “minyan” which was a Jewish requirement which stated a quorum of ten Jewish men must gather in order for certain religious obligations occur, and primarily this dealt with public prayer in the synagogue.

Again, context is everything, and prayer is not the focus of Jesus, but rather authority and judicial functions of 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);

This is an extremely powerful series of scriptures to the group of men that were considered the first-century Jewish “judges.” They administered the law and although Psalms 82:1 refers to unrighteous men that God sent and used to “judge the nations” they had never viewed that scripture in light of what they did as a group of legislative men who had the supposed authority to “bind and loose.”

They represented God in judgment and thus (ye are 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 go through, but what a powerful concept it is!

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

Therefore…the 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