Context – context – context! Have you ever noticed that not paying attention to context will cause you to misunderstand a text of scripture? Take, for example, the statement Jesus made in Matthew 18:19-20 – “…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.” Do you know how many people think that verse is talking about prayer? I’ve heard it quoted most often when only two people show up for a prayer meeting. It goes something like this: “Well, Lord, we have been announcing this prayer meeting for a month, and here we are now – 20 minutes after the time to start – and my friend and I are the only ones here. But that’s OK. Your Word promises that where two or three are gathered in Your Name, that You are right there among them. And You also promise that if the two of us agree on anything, that our Heavenly Father will do whatever we ask.”
And so it continues. But have you ever really thought about the implications of that passage if it really were talking about prayer? It would eliminate the possibility of praying alone and having faith to believe your prayers would be answered. If that verse really were talking about prayer (in general), it would mean that if I could just get one other person to agree with me in prayer, then I could get that brand new silver Mercedes I’ve always wanted. Now, I’m being silly here to make a point – this verse is not about prayer and the context reveals that.
The context of this particular passage begins all the way back in 17:22 when Jesus begins to tell the disciples that the Son of Man is about to be betrayed and killed and the disciples are greatly distressed. That teaching is followed immediately by the collection of a 2 drachma tax which Jesus tells Peter to get from the mouth of a fish. (Matthew 17:27) At this point, you are probably asking yourself, “What does that have to do with two or three gathering in the name of Jesus?” And I’m glad you asked that question because there is one phrase in 17:27 that is critical to our understanding – “not to give offense to them.” You see, this segment is about dealing with offense. Matthew sets things up by warning the disciples that a very offensive act is just over the horizon – the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus. That is an event that is sure to create offense in the hearts of the disciples. Then Matthew tells us about Jesus’ desire not to cause or create offense.
Now we come to chapter 18 and Jesus teaches about causing a little one to stumble, and about being the vessel through whom temptation comes, and about it being better to cut off a hand or pluck out an eye rather than enter into “the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18:9) Each of those images is offensive. Don’t offend a little one. Don’t be the one who brings offense through temptation. Don’t let your hand or your eye offend. So Matthew is helping us to get our hearts ready for the offense of the cross by putting several offensive images before us.
He continues by introducing a second theme that goes along with the problem of offense – separation and loss. Don’t forget, Jesus is still dealing with offense, but now he has begun to include the results that come from being offended. He talks about going after lost sheep – leaving the 99 in order to go after the one wanderer. (Matthew 18:12-14) This parable is followed immediately by the story of a lost relationship – and, of course, the relationship is lost because of offense! Jesus teaches (verse 18:15), “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.” In other words, “If you are offended by something your brother has done to you, just like going after a lost sheep, go after this lost relationship.”
He gives several steps in the reconciliation process, and then Jesus makes this statement – which also has been misunderstood, “…if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Often times that verse has been seen as a license to reject – to cut off the wayward sinner. But think about that (mis)understanding.
Who is writing this Gospel? Matthew.
What was Matthew’s occupation? Tax Collector.
How was Matthew treated by Jesus? Was he rejected? Was he cut off from fellowship? Did Jesus tell everyone to have nothing to do with Matthew? Absolutely not! Jesus welcomed Matthew. Jesus built a relationship with Matthew. And as a result, Jesus won Matthew. Matthew was that one lost sheep. Matthew was that offensive heathen. But Jesus went after him.
And now we come to our verses, “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.” You have to ask the question, “Why would Jesus spend all this time talking about not being offended, about what to do if you are offended, and about how to restore a relationship that has been lost because of offense, only to throw in a verse about prayer?” It doesn’t make sense does it? That’s because this verse isn’t about prayer. It’s about reconciliation.
Jesus is telling these people that if you are offended and it looks like the relationship has come to an end and reconciliation is impossible, that’s when you bring the family of faith into the process. If the family of faith can’t bring reconciliation, then change tactics; begin to view the lost brother (or sister) as truly lost, and redouble your efforts to win him (or her) back. Take someone with you – but remember – and here is the fun part – When “you agree on earth about anything [you] ask, it will be done for [you] by my Father in heaven.” In other words, Jesus wants reconciliation more than you do. Seeking to restore a broken relationship is the heart of God! He will be on your side and see to it that things work out.
And then, Jesus adds a little motivation to do it right, “…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” In other words, Jesus is teaching, “When you go, remember that you are carrying MY Name so you had better represent me well. Do things the way I would do them because, in fact, I am right there with you. So treat this person with the same love and respect and kindness and mercy that you have received from Me.”
If you aren’t convinced by now, I have one more little contextual clue that will let you know that these verses (19-20) are about reconciliation rather than prayer. Notice the first words out of Peter’s mouth when Jesus finishes this teaching, “Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Interesting isn’t it? If verses 19-20 were about prayer, why would Peter ask a question about forgiveness? Context – context – context!