Q: #470. Is (Mt 18:19-20) speaking about agreement in prayer when it says "where two or three are gathered, I am in the midst?"
A: These two verses in (Mt 18:19-20) are the classic go to verses for Christians to use when they are speaking about the power of prayer that happens when people unite together and pray a specific petition to God. Need healing? Need help with finances? Need comfort? If you can get “two or three” to “gather” together to pray in agreement about it, then Jesus will be in the “midst,” and there is power in that. Is this true? Is this what these verses are speaking about? Let’s look at this.
First, is it true that there is power when Christians join together to pray about something? Yes, I believe there can be. I discuss this, and share examples here. Secondly, is this what (Mt 18:19-20) is speaking about? No.
I must admit, in the past, I have been guilty of using these verses to say this just as many others have. However, one key to good Biblical exegesis is to look at Bible verses in context. This is part of what Paul is speaking about in (2 Tim 2:15) when he says that we should be “rightly dividing the word of truth.” (I explain this in detail here). In other words, when we see verses like (Mt 18:19-20), in order to determine what they mean, one thing we need to do is look at what the verses before and / or after them say.
When we do this with (Mt 18:19-20), we must first look at Matthew Chapter 18 as a whole. The heading for this chapter in my Believer’s Bible Commentary says, “Chapter 18 has been called the discourse on greatness and forgiveness. It outlines principles of conduct that are suitable for those who claim to be subjects of Christ the King.” This chapter can loosely be broken down into 4 sections: instructions on humility (Mt 18:1-5), instructions on punishing offenders (Mt 18:7-14), instructions for disciplining a believer who has sinned against you, (Mt 18:15-20), and instructions on forgiveness (Mt 18:21-35).
Looking specifically at verses 15-20, we see that the first three verses are outlining the steps that should be taken when a person has committed a sin against you. Let’s take these verse by verse.
(Mt 18:15) 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.
If a person has sinned against you, the first step you are to take is to go to him and tell him the sin he has committed against you. If he admits that and apologizes, that is the end of it. However, if he does not, you are to move to step two.
(Mt 18:16) 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.
This verse is the key to understanding these 6 verses. What Jesus says here goes back to (Deut 19:15) in the Old Testament. In (Deut 19:15), we see that God tells the Israelites that no man can be convicted of a crime unless “two or three witnesses” can affirm it. Therefore, tying (Deut 19:15) to this verse, since step one has failed, the one offended is to take two or three witnesses with him and confront the offender. However, it appears that in this instance, the “two or three witnesses” may not be “eye”witnesses (as in Deut), but rather as my Nelson’s NKJV Study Bible says, “Evidently they witness that the offended brother is acting in good faith and the right spirit in attempting to work out a reconciliation. They would also be witnesses to any agreement.”
If the offender admits his guilt, and apologizes after this second step, that is the end of it. However, if he will still not admit his guilt, a third and final step is to be taken.
(Mt 18:17) And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
The man is to be taken before the church and confronted. If he still refuses to admit his guilt and apologize, then he is to be viewed as a “heathen and publican” (two of the most despised people amongst the Jews in Bible times). What this means is that the offender is to be removed from the church. (We see examples of this in action in 1 Cor 5:1-5,11, 2 Th 3:6,14,15, 1 Tim 1:20, 1 Tim 5:20). The following three verses then go on to explain the God-given authority of the church to carry out this discipline.
(Mt 18:18) 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 explaining this, I am going to copy a section from a study I did related to this. “The meaning of this verse, along with (Mt 16:19) has been a source of debate over the centuries, but the interpretation I am giving is pretty common. The “binding and loosing” in these verses is referring to Jesus giving both Peter and the other disciples the authority to forbid (bind) or permit (loose) certain matters, practices, or behavior, based on what God has already bound or loosed in Heaven (Mt 6:10).
This authority is expressed in two different ways in these verses. In (Mt 16:19), Jesus is speaking to Peter specifically, saying he would be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. In this instance, I believe that the keys given to Peter were to “build God’s church” (Mt 16:18) by proclaiming the Gospel to 3 different groups of people: first the Jews (Acts 2:14), second the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-25), third the Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48). Through Peter’s proclamation of the Gospel to each of these groups, the door to the kingdom of Heaven was opened to them. As Christians today, we can also proclaim the same Gospel to others, and “loose” or open the door to the kingdom of Heaven, or our message can be rejected, and therefore the person is “bound.”
In (Mt 18:18), the disciples were given the ability to bind and loose in a different area. In this instance, if we look at the text surrounding the verse, we can see that the “binding and loosing” is referring to God granting the disciples the authority to make decisions in matters of church discipline. God has given the church today the same authority to “bind and loose” in the area of discipline within the body of believers. When the church, as a body prays, uses God’s word to guide it, and is in accordance with God’s will, that decision is ratified in Heaven.”
Finally, we come to (Mt 18:19-20).
(Mt 18:19-20) 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. (20) For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Again, Jesus goes back to (Deut 19:15). If two or three witnesses were “in agreement” about the man’s guilt, then he was found guilty. In relation to our verses here in Matthew, when “two or three were in agreement” about the guilt of a man, God ratified their decision. Jesus was “in the midst of them.” The “church” and it’s leaders have the God-given right to carry out discipline on those who are in unrepentant sin. When they follow God’s direction in doing so, the “Father which is in Heaven” ratifies that decision.
This concept of having “two or three witnesses” is found in a number of places in the Bible (Num 35:30)(Deut 17:6-7)(Jn 8:17)(2 Cor 13:1)(1 Tim 5:19-20)(Heb 10:28).
Again, therefore, these verses are not speaking about the power of people praying in groups, but rather, they are speaking about carrying out church discipline.