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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

What I’ve Learned as a New Parent So Far

Real Men Change DiapersIt’s been eight weeks from yesterday since I became a new parent.

While Rebecca was pregnant with Madeline, the number one thing, by far, other parents told me was, “everything is going to change” (Even total strangers would say this to me, no joke). At the time, I had no idea why they felt this was profound wisdom. I knew things would change—it’s simple math that two is different than three—but I had no idea to what degree that change would be.

Right away when Madeline was born, it hit me: There’s no return receipt. She’s here in your arms. You’ve taken out a lease on a human for the next eighteen years. Hope you’re ready, Dad, because it’s happening anyways.

That sounds kind of scary (It was and sometimes still is) but I would never change it for the world. Now, almost two months into this game of parenthood, I’ve realized that the changes never stop and neither do the lessons. I by no means am an expert at parenting—not even close—but I’m learning tons of things through taking care of this little bundle of joy and diapers.

Here’s just a snapshot, in no particular order.

The Love of a Parent Is Different
That’s really the best way I can put it. Different.

It’s not the same kind of love I have for my wife. The love Rebecca and I have in our marriage is work (more on that later), and it was cultivated over a long period of time. I showed up at her house one evening and kept bugging her for two years until she married me. We have ups and we have downs. It’s beautiful and it’s terrifying. Our relationship has to be continually nurtured. If we were to completely ignore each other, our love would grow cold and stale. It’s hard but it’s amazing. That’s marriage.

But the love I have for Madeline is completely different. The second she arrived on this earth, I loved her. I was tired, she was slimy and screaming, but I loved her. We don’t really have a relationship yet because she doesn’t know English. She hasn’t contributed anything to our family except human waste. She hasn’t done anything to earn my love. But I love her. I delight in her. I could stare at her for hours while she just kicks her feet. I want to protect her and give her everything she needs. She doesn’t need to give me anything.

I imagine that’s similar to how the Father loves us. We are poop-covered, crying babies, and God looks at us with loving eyes—delighting in us. That’s grace.

It’s Easy to Neglect Your Marriage When a Parent
I’d heard this one before and seen it happen to other couples, but it was another thing to experience it.

Before Madeline was born, it was fairly simple to find quality time with my wife. It was only the two of us at home and so it would just organically and spontaneously happen. But with the baby here, we’ve been on a continuous three hour loop: feed the baby, change the baby’s diaper, play with the baby, put the baby to sleep, take a deep breath, rinse and repeat. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day but you get older and more sleepy.

On top of that cycle, I have full-time work at Ekklesia and my wife is also trying to take care of the apartment. Oh yes, and we have to do these things called eating and sleeping. Add all of that up and what you get is two really tired spouses who love watching TV and sitting on the couch.

It took us about seven and a half weeks to realize that wasn’t working very well. One day we actually talked (What a novel concept!) and it felt like being with an old friend who had just returned from a long trip. We’d spent hours upon hours together and yet it felt like we hadn’t seen each other for weeks.

It’s easy to fall into the routine of just coexisting in marriage. Kids can easily dominate your relationship and dictate everything. I don’t want to send Madeline off to college and then return home, look at my wife and say, “Who are you?”

Pray Continuously
As I’ve shared earlier, I’m prone to worry and control-freaking. Having a newborn is just one more chance for me to spaz out.

I have to continuously pray because it reminds me that although I am not in control, God is. He loves Madeline far more than I ever could. He has a plan for her far better than I could ever create.

Prayer allows me to place Madeline into God’s hands and feel okay about it. It’s actually a freeing thing to know you are not in control.

Prayer also reminds me Who this is all for. I am not a parent in order to fix my deep identity issues or validate myself as a man. I am a parent to glorify God, exemplify the love of the Father, and point Madeline to the Gospel.

These are lessons I am still learning and will continually learn. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

To Whet Your Appetite: 06/05/12

How are we in June already?!

  • No one can argue that there is not a crisis amongst young men in the church (yes a double-negative); people are just disagreeing what the actual problem is. Perhaps the issue is not the proper definition of masculinity but just good old-fashioned maturity.
  • A 13 year-old girl wrote John Piper a letter asking him how to go deeper in her personal Bible study. Here is his response and it is relevant for those of any age looking to grow in the Word. I’m not sure which is cooler, whether it is that a 13 year-old wants to go deep in Bible study or that John Piper responded to the letter on his blog.
  • Looking for good Christian music? It is hard to find but Mars Hill in Seattle has been putting out some good beats lately. Here is The Sing Team’s adaption of Psalm 42.
  • Kevin DeYoung: “There is no sin so prevalent, so insidious, and so deep as the sin of fearing people more than we fear God.”
  • Do you get distracted during your prayer time? Here are 5 practical ways to help kill those distractions.
  • We live in a world so full of screens that it is easy to forget to experience life with our eyeballs. Here is Jon Acuff’s take on the matter, including the most hilarious stalker photo I have ever seen (Grown man. iPad. Madagascar penguins).

Does The Use of Medicine Show a Lack of Faith?

Another question came my way recently asking about particular denominations that believe receiving medical attention proves a lack of faith in God’s healing power. Along with that belief is the one that says sickness is a form of judgement from God. Think Job’s really amazing friends who encouraged him through his trials by telling him he brought them all on himself.

I’ve been hearing about this belief ever since I was growing up in Portland. There is a church in Oregon City that has been in The Oregonian multiple times because several members—mostly children—had died from illnesses that were easily treatable if medical attention were an option. Some of these incidents went to court and recently one was convicted of manslaughter. There is also a church of similar belief in the outskirts of the Eugene area.

They say that medicine is just a practice and is no guarantee to heal. True. But they also say that taking your health into your own hands is sinful; only God should have that right. Additionally, they believe healing and victory are offered to us through Christ’s atonement on the cross; like salvation, it can only be accessed through faith.

But what does the Bible actually say?

Here are some snippets of Scripture showing God’s attitude towards medicine and the like:

DOCTORS

For one, Luke (author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts) was a doctor! Nowhere do we read of Luke declaring his life of medicine as detrimental and renouncing it for a true life of dedicated faith (much like the tax collectors). Instead, the Holy Spirit actually uses Luke’s skills in medicine and anatomy to bring to life the descriptions of Jesus’ miracles.

Jesus spoke of doctors in a positive way when he compared himself to one in Mark 2:17.

SICKNESS

Being sick or plagued with disease does not mean you are lacking in faith or are enslaved to sin. Paul talked about a “bodily illness” he had (Galatians 4:13-15) and he also suffered a “thorn in the flesh” which God allowed him to retain (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). God doesn’t take away Paul’s ailment but uses it as an object lesson of God’s sustaining grace in the midst of human weakness.

God certainly allowed Job to go through a time of physical suffering even though Job was a great man of faith (Job 1-2).

It is noteworthy that on one occasion Jesus indicated that even some sickness occurs for the glory of God (John 11:4).

MEDICINE

In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul instructs Timothy to drink a little wine for medicinal purposes. Paul did not suggest that Timothy was sick because of his lack of faith. Paul just proposed a practical way to treat his illness.

Interestingly, James prescribes a combination of faith and medicine for the sick in James 5:14-16, by anointing the sick with oil and praying for them. The oil here is not special, made holy through prayer. If that were the case, could I cook my bacon in said holy oil and avoid clogged arteries? Instead, John MacArthur states that the oil here was used for medicinal purposes, especially for skin diseases. This offers a picture of trusting God to make the medicine effective.

HEALING

Neither Paul or any of the others acted as if they thought their healing was guaranteed in the atonement.

Paul couldn’t heal Timothy’s stomach problem (1 Timothy 5:23) nor could he heal Trophimus at Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20) or Epaphroditus (Philippians 3:25-27). They accepted their situations and trusted in God’s grace to carry them through.

CONCLUSION

The idea that it is wrong to use doctors and medicine for health and healing is unbiblical and can be harmful. Using such means for health does not mean you lack faith in God and his power to heal. God heals your asthma attack by giving you the means to obtain an inhaler. God takes away your flu through antibiotics. We just have to take hold of the means God has placed right in front of us.

This is not a faith issue, it is whether or not we are willing to accept His gifts.

Can God answer prayers through miraculous healings? Absolutely. He has done it on more than one occasion.

But sometimes we are the answer to our own prayers.