First published 30 April 2011
So, where next in our tour? It started with a question from a passage in James, which expanded into studying a number of New Testament passages that make bold statements about prayer and faith. There are three more left to share with you.
This time, God willing, I would like to share my thoughts on Matthew 18:19-20, “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
So, God will grant anything we ask if we come to him with a united request with at least one other person? That would seem to include every public prayer that we say “Amen!” to in a prayer meeting, or in church, or with our kids at bedtime. But is Jesus really making such a general and sweeping watertight promise?
We find in this case that the context is critical in understanding the scope of what Jesus is saying in these verses. We need to look at the whole of chapter 18 of Matthew, and see that Jesus is teaching here about the way that we should treat people within the church, and in particular the way that we should be disciplined and guided to follow Christ.
In verses 1 to 4, Jesus is asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He replies by calling a little child among them as an illustration of the kind of humility required in the kingdom. “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (v3) We are to have a humble, learning, attitude, knowing our weakness and our need of help and instruction. We are not to go around using our standing in the church to lord it over others, thinking that we are better or wiser or more holy than others. A patronising, judgmental spirit has no place in the church, and those who display such attitudes will have no place in the kingdom of heaven.
In verses 5 and 6, Jesus pushes further to tell us what our attitude to the humble and weak should be. He says, “whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” If we welcome among us those who humbly accept their need to change, their need of forgiveness, their need to know Christ more, then we welcome Christ. And if we are humble ourselves likewise as little children, we will see that we, in Christ, are here to help each other. And Jesus condemns those who through their actions cause any believer to sin, including those arrogant people who call themselves Christians but who place burdens on the weak and cause them to fall away.
This context, in fact, gives more weight to the familiar saying in verses 8 and 9, “If you hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” The weight comes from the way Jesus introduces this in verse 7: “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” It appears to me that when Jesus speaks of hands, feet and eyes that cause sin, he is first of all talking about people. He has been talking about the acceptance of humble people within the church, and he goes on to talk about our treatment of them in verse 10. Hence, I think primarily Jesus is asking us to be careful who we keep within the church. If people cause ordinary, weak and humble, genuine believers to sin, to give up or to fall away, then they should be cut out of the church. People and attitudes, for instance, that turn people away from Christ because they do not feel good enough to get into heaven, are absolutely not to be tolerated. Of course, the individualistic and personal way in which we normally see these verses is not wrong. Jesus is saying that we ought to take all sin seriously and eliminate from our lives as well as our churches those things that cause people, even ourselves, to sin, even if it causes us temporary disadvantage.
In verses 10 to 14, Jesus switches from negative to positive reinforcement of his point. We should not look down on other believers (“these little ones”) because they are personally known and cared for by God the Father. In fact he is happier when one of these is brought back and nurtured than about ninety-nine who do no get lost in the first place. “… your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (v14) If He cares for all of His children, even the meekest, weakest and humblest, then so should we. We should go after them, protect them, care for them, ensure that they are well taught and that they grow in their knowledge of Jesus. We are not to play percentages, as if keeping the majority is the best strategy. No, expending disproportionate time and effort to hold on to the weakest and the most problematic is what we are to do.
Verses 15 to 18 give an example of a disciplinary process, which both builds up the weak and weeds out the proud. In the case where one of our brothers or sisters wrongs us we are to show them their fault. This aims at helping them to grow and change in the way that we all have to. “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” (v15) Winning him is our aim. If he doesn’t listen we should get one or two others to back us up, so that he knows that it is not just a matter of opinion. After that we should take it before the church, by which I think Jesus means the elders of the church, rather than the whole congregation. If the person still does not listen then they have proven themselves to be too proud to listen and change, and therefore they are not showing the humility required of a believer, and they should be put out. “Treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (v17) In our day, perhaps we’d say, “treat them as you would an atheist or a drug dealer.” In other words, they cannot be part of the church until they show repentance.
The point isn’t a one-size-fits-all disciplinary policy. The point is that our first priority should be winning our brother, but also that the church should be kept pure.
Verse 18 is what gives the church, in particular the eldership, the responsibility and authority to make these judgments. “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” When the church makes a judgment in line with God’s will, as revealed and correctly understood from His Word, that judgment is binding in heaven as well as on earth. God will back it up.
And that is what gives the immediate context for the verses we are particularly interested in. “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For when two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (vv19-20) Why does the church have authority and responsibility with regard to discipline? Because Jesus gives them this authority. Because when we gather together as the church He is with us.
But it is not just worldly authority. It is only authoritative and binding in a heavenly sense if it is done “in my name” (v20). We’ve discussed those three important words before in this series (Parts 6, 7 and 8). In that sense, the church is only authorised to teach, discipline and pray within what God has revealed through His Word. We have authority in the church only because Jesus meets with us in the church. He is present with us as we make these judgments and ask for His blessing in doing His work. In other words, the authority of the church is always under the authority of Jesus, in doing the work of Jesus. And we find Jesus’ teaching in the Bible.
Nevertheless, whilst the context shows that this is not an open-ended promise to guarantee anything we want, it is a great comfort to us that we when we come together and submit to Christ and His Word He is there with us, hearing us, supporting us.
First, that Jesus is with us in a special way when we meet together in His name. When we meet with childlike humility, seeking to honour Him, seeking to learn from Him how we can best serve Him in pursuing His kingdom, He is present with us to grant our requests according to His will. He will give us the help that we need. What a great assurance that is.
Second, that we should not neglect the assembly of Christian brothers and sisters, signifying our submission to Him. He has given us the gift of the church, brought us into it, for our good, for our growth in knowledge and holiness, for the pursuit of His kingdom. Within the church we are built up and edified. Within the church we are corrected and nurtured. Within the church we meet with Christ.
We can and should pray privately, following the example of the likes of David, Daniel, Moses, Paul and the apostles and prophets. But we should all the more pray with the gathered church as we seek to support each other humbly in doing God’s will and preaching the good news of His kingdom.
To finish with a quote from John Calvin (emphasis is mine):
“There is therefore no reason to doubt that those who give themselves up to his direction will derive most desirable advantage from his presence. And since it is an invaluable blessing to have Christ for our director in all our affairs, to bless our deliberations and their results; and since, on the other hand, nothing can be more miserable than to be deprived of his grace, this promise ought to add no small excitement to us to unite with each other in piety and holiness. For whoever either disregards the holy assemblies, or separates himself from brethren, and takes little interest in the cultivation of unity, by this alone makes it evident that he sets no value on the presence of Christ.” (Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke, Vol. 2.)