Out of Context: Matthew 18:20 – Where Two or More Are Gathered

carpool_sign_500To continue our series looking at commonly taken out of context verses, I wanted to take aim at one of the most famous of them all, Matthew 18:20.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Typically, I’ve heard it quoted in church services by pastors and worship leaders praying in front of the congregation: “Lord, thank you so much that You are here with us right now as we worship. Your Word says, ‘Where two or more are gathered, there I am also.’ We have at least three hundred here just to be safe, so we know for sure you’re here.” I’ve also heard it in small prayer meetings: “God we know you can hear our prayers right now because Sebastian and Helga are praying with me.”

It’s used as an encouragement to the others listening that God approves of their worship. We know something really extra-special and spiritual is going down because God is actually here with us.

I’m definitely not innocent in my use of this verse. This verse is so commonly used that it’s become another prayer-ism that people naturally say along with “Heavenly Father,” “Place a hedge of protection,” “Bless this food to our bodies” (Because you know, of course, nutrients only travel through your bloodstream if you pray—especially fast-food), and “In Jesus’ name.” Sometimes we don’t even think about it. We just say it.

This is a public service announcement to not take all our Christian-ese as given truth. We need to think through what we say and do in the Christian life, even if it’s been said or done by pastors, and see if what we’re doing is actually founded on the Bible. If it is, then that’s great! If not, then we need to reevaluate our spiritual habits.

(1 + 2 = God) is an equation we really don’t need.

THE CONTEXT

Here’s the context to Matthew 18:20. It’s a little long, but stick with me.

15 “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.”

Jesus here is teaching His disciples how things are to work in His kingdom, in His church. He has just finished teaching the disciples about true greatness (18:1-6), how to fight sin (18:7-9), and God’s heart for the lost (18:10-14). Then in verse 15 (our context), Jesus transitions to talk about how we deal with others who sin against us. Justice is not found in taking matters into our own hands but in an orderly system of checks and balances, and in restoration. Jesus gives the disciples four steps to follow in such a situation.

1. Talk about it

Jesus tells His disciples that if they’ve been wronged by someone else in the church, first and foremost they are supposed to confront that person one-on-one (18:15). Not gossip. Not put passive-aggressive statuses on Facebook. Lovingly face-to-face. The goal in all of this is restoration and redemption.

2. Take one or two witnesses with you

If for some reason the perpetrator does not believe you or is not sorry for their sin, you must take one or two people to again confront them (18:16). This shows the person proof that the accusations are not the result of a grudge but in reality seen by multiple people. Jesus says, “every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (18:16). Does that number sound familiar?

3. Have the leadership confront them

If the perpetrator again rejects your loving correction, Jesus says you and the witnesses are to bring it before the “church” (18:17). I don’t have time to explain it all, but I take this to mean the church leadership and not the entire congregation. Hopefully having all the pastors confront the person will make them see the severity of their sin.

4. Send them out of the church

If they still won’t repent, even after multiple confrontations, the church is to send the person out because they are willfully rebelling against God’s Word (18:17). They will bring others down if you don’t (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Timothy 2:16-19; Titus 3:10-11).

Then Jesus ends this sermonette with a reassurance, “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. 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” (18:18-19). He’s saying, if you go through this process correctly then God agrees with you. This is encouraging because proper church discipline is not a fun deal for anyone.

As a part of His encouragement Jesus ends saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (18:20). Remember that number? It’s the same amount of witnesses needed to properly confront a person in sin. Jesus isn’t saying you need two or three people praying to Him to have Him present. Jesus is encouraging believers that if they go through this process of church discipline properly then He supports their decision.

It’s almost hilarious how different this is from the common misinterpretation of this verse.

IMPLICATIONS

So, is Jesus present when two or more gather in His name? Yes.

He is also present when only one gathers in His name. Or none. God is always with you (Psalm 139) and you can call out to Him at anytime or anyplace. He wants you to. He’s not waiting for a magical number of people to appear.

If that were the case, then what do you do if you have two people gathered but one secretly and nefariously has not gathered in Jesus’ name? Is fellowship broken? No.

Instead, we can come to Jesus at any time, knowing that He is ready and excited to hear from us.

Other Out of Context posts:
Philippians 4:13 – Can I do all things through Christ?
How to take a verse out of context

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Out of Context: Philippians 4:13 – Can I do all things through Christ?

As a followup to my tutorial on how to take a verse out of context, I thought it would be beneficial to show and not just tell. I wanted to take a look at some of the most commonly taken out of context verses and place them back into their proper place. You’ll be able to see the implications of taking a verse out of its context and how it really does change the meaning.

Unfortunately for Christians, many of the favorite verses we quote are actually taken out of context. It’s usually not heresy, that takes some real skill, but what happens is we often take a belief that is consistent with American culture and force it into a verse (tip of the day: American doesn’t always equal Christian). I want to look at such an example today.

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, ESV).

This is a verse I’ve quoted to myself many times over the years. On the surface, the meaning seems pretty straightforward: “When insurmountable situations occur, I can rely on Christ’s strength to help me accomplish it.” Whenever I hit a hard test in school, I remember quoting this to myself (because I didn’t study) and it always gave me that extra boost of confidence for the test. In college, Tim Tebow used to wear this verse on his eye black during football games, carrying him to a national championship and Heisman trophy. I’ve heard of other believers using this verse to encourage themselves to ask that girl out, apply for that job, audition for American Idol, and countless other random things.

It’s the American dream with Jesus steroids.

The logic flows like this. Can Jesus do all things? Why, of course He can. He is God after all. If I’m saved, doesn’t Jesus live in me? Yes, right again. Then by the transitive property, I can do all things.

It sounds nice and I understand why people believe it, including myself years ago, but—and I hate being a wet blanket—this understanding of the verse is incorrect. It takes Philippians 4:13 out of its context.

THE CONTEXT

Here’s the immediate context of the verse:

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Alright, let’s unpack this to discover the correct meaning.

To give you some background, Paul is writing from prison to the Philippians. Paul had a good relationship with the Christians in Philippi, so naturally they were concerned for their imprisoned pastor (4:10). The problem was that although the Philippians were worried for Paul, they had no opportunity to express that concern through more gifts (they had previously given Paul a gift, 4:18, but wished to do more). Paul, sensing their concern, sought to reassure the Philippians that he did not need another gift. He writes, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (4:11-12).

What Paul? Aren’t you in prison? How can you be content with that? It’s because he knows the secret to being content—and he reveals that secret in the next verse.

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

THE IMPLICATIONS

Paul says, the secret to being content is Christ. In any situation, even if you are alone in a dark Roman prison, you can be content through Christ’s strength. That’s what Philippians means by doing “all things through Him.” It’s about finding complete satisfaction in Jesus Christ, even in the middle of the valley of the shadow of death.

So Philippians 4:13 is not talking about accomplishing anything through Christ. Can we do great things with Christ, things only possible with His strength? Of course. But Jesus is not Siri, waiting for us to give Him requests to fulfill.

I think such a belief can be subtly dangerous. It gives a whiff of the Prosperity Gospel—the idea that Jesus’ work on the cross accomplished for me not only spiritual victory over sin but physical victory over sickness, poverty, and hardship. It says, if I believe hard enough and take hold of that victory, Jesus will make me healthy, wealthy, accomplish my dreams, give me a hot spouse and kids that behave, and I’ll die at an old age peacefully in my sleep.

It’s about using Jesus as a genie to get more stuff.

This idea is profoundly unhelpful. What happens if you don’t accomplish that goal you were pining for? You fail the test. You don’t get the job. You lose the game. Your mortgage goes belly-up. What went wrong? By the old logic of Philippians 4:13, either you didn’t believe Jesus could do it or Jesus can’t do it. Tell that to someone who just found out that their cancer came back and you’ll quickly see how this interpretation falls apart.

Paul couldn’t get the thorn out of his flesh. Timothy couldn’t heal his stomach ailment. What was wrong with their faith? Nothing. In fact their faith was strengthened because of their trials.

Knowing what this verse means in its context should actually give us more encouragement than less.

We are not promised that hardship will avoid us. We live in a broken world and it takes its toll. But we are promised that in the middle of the hardest things life can throw at you Christ will still be sufficient for you, His power is made perfect in weakness, and you can make it through His strength.

Now that is something far more valuable than getting an “A” on the test.

How to Take a Verse Out of Context

2013-06-21 08.11.31Sometimes you just need the perfect verse.

Unfortunately, such verses are often difficult to find. You dig and dig and dig to have that special sentence pop out at you from the pages, but to no avail. Then suddenly you see it, the verse your should has been longing for. It’s like God is sending a tweet directly to you. It’s exactly what you were looking for. Just the sight of the black letters on the page is enough to make the strings of your heart play a heavenly lullaby.

Elated, you take your newfound revelation and proclaim it to those closest to you. Do you see? Can you feel it? The baby-skin-soft love of God has come and started a ballroom dance in my soul through this verse. Come and dance with us too! 

Your friend looks incredulously at the passage and shakes their head. “It doesn’t mean what you think it does. It’s about circumcision, not a promise that you will find a husband in eight days.”

Crestfallen, you drag your feet back home like Charlie Brown. You were dead certain about the interpretation. How could you be so wrong when you were so sure?

Your buzzkill friend says it’s because you took the verse out of context. They explain:

The Bible, just like any other message communicated, needs to be understood within its specific context. Each sentence is a part of a paragraph. Each paragraph is a part of a book. Each book is a part of the whole. They cannot be separated.

The Bible is not a collection of codes to be deciphered or a string of individual philosophical statements conveniently in large print. First and foremost, it is a story—the truest of stories. When you are trying to understand a specific aspect of a story, you cannot lose sight of the whole. The revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father (spoiler alert) carries no weight if you don’t know everything that had taken place previously.

It is a fact of language that anything communicated must be understood within its context. The word “love” means something different if it’s next to the word “ice cream” instead of “wife.” This is how humans communicate, and conflict usually occurs if context is not respected and understood. We don’t want people taking statements from our contracts, love letters, or instructions out of context. If I’m on a plane, I sure hope my pilot has taken every single dot of his flight manual within context. God’s Word deserves the same treatment.

But if none of that really matters to you, here are a few easy ways to continue taking verses out of context:

1. Ignore the verses surrounding your passage.

A good rule of thumb to find the context of a verse is to read the twenty verses that came before and the twenty verses that come after. “Jesus wept” (11:35), could be about your recent break-up if you don’t ready the Lazarus stuff.

2. Ignore what book of the Bible you are actually reading.

A book’s genre and overall themes really affect a verse’s meaning. Poetry is understood differently than a history book, which is understood differently than a personal letter.

3. Ignore the fact that the Bible comes from a different culture and was not originally written in English.

Americans do just about everything different compared to someone from the first century Middle East. Something that would make absolute sense in our minds would sound like lunacy in theirs.

4. Ignore the Bible as a whole.

Because the Bible is one big story, there’s an overall theme, message, and hero. If your interpretation somehow ends up elevating you and not Jesus, then it’s probably out of context.

5. Ignore all the scholars who came before you in the past two thousand years.

Color me impressed if you find a truth that none of the billions of Christians, all equally filled with the Holy Spirit, for thousands of years could think of. There are plenty of cults who have paved that road.

6. Ignore the more obvious contextual interpretation for one that aligns with your feelings.

If all else fails and you don’t like what the context says, you can always make up a new meaning for the verse.

I mean, you never know. Does that verse have to be about circumcision?