Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The common interpretation of this passage is that Jesus is present when two or three believers have gathered and agree together in prayer concerning any matter. Even when I subscribed to this interpretation, I always had the nagging question about the implications this had for praying alone. Is God not present when you are praying by yourself? I resolved that perhaps God was present in a special way when more people were gathered. The power of unity, right?
As I began to read this verse in context, however, it became clear that Jesus isn’t talking about prayer, but church discipline:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Mt 18:15-22)
The bolded words reveal the context most clearly. The conversation is about a sinning brother from beginning to end. Jesus was instructing His disciples how they should handle disputes among Christians in which one brother sinned against another. Jesus provided a three tiered process:
- Personal confrontation – The offended brother should first confront the sinning brother privately in hopes that the brother will repent of his fault and restore the relationship.
- Group confrontation – The offended brother should take two or three other Christians with him to confront the sinning brother together. They will serve as witnesses against the sinning brother if he still refuses to repent.
- Church confrontation – The offended brother should bring the matter to the church leadership, who will hear the matter between the offended brother and the sinning brother. If he refuses to repent, he is to be treated as an unbeliever.
At this point Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” These words are also regularly taken out of context in Pentecostal circles in particular. While I’ll save a detailed analysis for the next post, notice that Jesus says this in the context of church discipline. The binding and loosing pertains to the church’s decision to forgive or excommunicate the sinning brother based on his response.
It is within this context that Jesus’ utters the words in question: “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Taken in isolation, it is understandable why these words have been interpreted to be about prayer in general. Taken in context, however, it becomes clear that we ought to understand them in a more limited sense:
- The verses that both precede and succeed verses 19-20 pertain to how we should respond to a sinning Christian. It is more natural to think that verses 19-20 are part of Jesus’ teaching on sinning Christians than it is to believe that Jesus talked about sinning Christians, changed the topic to prayer in general, and then returns to the topic of sinning Christians once again.
- Jesus begins verse 19 with “again,” signaling that what follows is a repetition and expansion of what He just said in verse 18. If verse 18 is about church discipline, then, so is verse 19. He is not changing the topic from how to deal with a sinning brother to the topic of prayer, but continuing the same topic.
- The idea of “two or three” has a precedent in the OT. Two or three witnesses were required to bring judgment against someone (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Hebrews 10:28). In fact, Jesus’ references this very OT principle in verse 16. Given the fact Jesus’ mention of two or three gathering in His name immediately follows comments regarding the judgment of a sinning Christian, and Jesus had just spoken of “two or three” in the context of judgment, it is most natural to understanding verses 19-20 to refer to church discipline rather than prayer in general.
Jesus’ point was that it only takes two or three church leaders to agree regarding the sinning brother’s judgment for that judgment to be legitimate. While this judgment involved a petitionary prayer to God (“ask”), it is a specific prayer that Jesus has in mind – not prayer in general.
Jesus said He would be among the two or three who gathered in His name. If this was about prayer in general, should we think that Jesus is not in our midst when we are praying alone? Obviously not. Jesus is present with anyone who is praying, even if they are praying alone. In fact, He’s with us even when we aren’t praying since He is omnipresent. So why even mention His presence among the two or three who gather in His name? It was Jesus’ way of assuring the apostles that they were not making a judgment on their own authority, but according to the authority and will of Christ. He would be present, concurring with their judgment because it represents His own judgment.
That ended Jesus’ teaching on how to deal with an unrepentant brother, so Peter takes the conversation a step further by asking Jesus how they should handle a brother who repents when confronted, but then commits the same sin again in the future. Peter thought he was being generous by suggesting that he be forgiven up to seven times. In typical Jesus style, He corrects Peter by suggesting that the man be forgiven 77 times. Jesus’ number was not intended to represent an upper limit like Peter’s, but to emphasize that the number of times he sins does not matter. What matters is that when he does sin, he repents.
Is any of this to deny that Jesus is present when groups of people gather to pray? Of course not. Is any of this to deny the importance of corporate prayer? No. The more prayer the better. Unity is powerful. All of this is simply to deny that this was the point Jesus was making in this passage.
Keep it in context….
While “anything they ask” could be taken to mean any prayer in general, the context makes it clear that Jesus is not referring to everything and anything, but to the church’s petition to God for judgment or forgiveness. In other words, the “anything” refers to the church’s prayer to either loose the brother or to bind the brother. Even if we didn’t have the context regarding church discipline, it’s clear that “anything” does not mean “everything.” There are some things we may ask for that God would not grant (e.g. sinful requests, selfish requests, or those outside of his will). So we already know that “anything” is not the same as “everything.” There is a more limited sense to this passage than one might gather at first read. When one combines this observation with the context, we see that the “anything” Jesus refers to is limited even more.