Continuing sharing discussion notes from my senior theology classes on our memory verses, here are the notes spliced and merged from four class discussions on reading Matthew 18:20 in context.
Matthew 18:20 – “Where two or three are gathered in my name there I am with you?”
What’s the context in which we usually hear this verse applied?
- Gathered for worship.
- Gathered for Bible Study.
- Gathered for prayer.
What’s the context of this verse in Matthew 18:15-20?
- Context: How to address someone who sins against you (Matthew 18:15-20)
If someone sins against you, bring it up between yourselves privately. If they do not listen, take some other people with you so that you have testimony against that person with others. If they again do not listen, go to the church, and if there is still no response, treat the person like a “pagan or tax collector.” (15-17) Like Jesus, we should still respect them and treat them with kindness, valuing their existence despite sin. (Don’t pretend there is fellowship when there is not.)
God is with you. It can be a difficult and scary thing to approach someone for correction, but when we do so in God’s name through his Word, Christ is with us, and we are not doing it based upon our authority, but Christ’s. Approach the person with love, with kindness and respect for the other. Use the Word to bring truth, with the intention to bring the other person to salvation/repentance.
Questions that we discussed in the various classes?
- Is it the loving thing to do to bring the person in front of the church congregation and call them out publicly for their sins?
- Have you ever seen this played out in a church setting before?
- When someone sins against you, what is your initial response, how do you usually respond?
- Does this verse apply just to those who sin against you, or also to those you know who are living in some sort of sin that appears externally to us to be unrepented sin?
- Is there a difference between someone upsetting you vs. sinning against you?
A lot of the classes struggled with this passage in context. The struggle was the concept that we are not to judge others. But in this case, it appears that we are. Any thoughts on helping make this concept of how to judge and when to judge more clear to us. We played it out in discussion for a very long time in class, and not everyone came to the same conclusion. Maybe some food for thought from some outsiders will be helpful. Please respond to the five questions or any other points.
6 thoughts on “Matthew 18:20 – Context.”
There is an article titled, “A Short Treatise Concerning a True and Orderly Gospel Church”
by Benjamin Griffith, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1743, which my lecturer posted in our moodle for my Baptist History class (goodle search the article). This is with regards to church discipline from Matt 18:15-20 And recently I had a dialogue with my Great Commission lecturer and he was not in favor of excommunication if the person who sin refuses to repent even before the church. I happen to attend a church who enforce church discipline on a member who committed adultery. The member who repented will come before the church to seek forgiveness before members of the church only.
According to Matt 18:15-20, this guideline is only for Christians and it is a sin committed to an individual and it is dealt within the church and not in the community at large. The purpose is to reconcile and resolve disagreement or sinning against each other, so that Christians will live in harmony and unity instead of gossiping, bearing grudges, hatred or resentment which is sinning against God. This approach is very healthy to our soul where our relationship with God and our neighbors is concerned. Another reconciliation passages is seen in MAtt 5: 23-24, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” For God said if anyone is angry with his brother, he/she is committing sin of being a murder. When someone wrong us, we usually respond in an ungodly manner by either gossiping or storing anger against them in our hearts. We are reminded to go and be reconciled with the person who wrong us in a loving manner.
Every Sunday I say these words, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This invocation is a declaration that the Triune God is among us . This is tied closely to the use of the Keys (binding and loosing). Public confession followed by the pastor’s use of the Keys in absolution is, in my opinion, directly tied to the invocation of the Name of God (See Isaiah 6:5ff). My point, this is about performing the Keys which are publicly utilized every Sunday (Law and Gospel). Gathering is not about people just getting together but gathering around the Keys.
Awesome comments Caxie and Anonymous. Thank you both for connecting this passage to service settings, with reconciliation amongst the brethren before communion and with “binding and loosing.”
Anonymous, one class asked what it actually means, “binding and loosing.” No notes were posted about our conversation on that and we read Matthew 16 where this is also addressed to Peter. We made a Law and Gospel application with it, saying that if someone is convicted of their sins and repentant that we must declare Gospel, loosing them, absolving them of their sins on account of what Christ has done for us, and if a person is not repentant, the sin must not be absolved. Maybe you can elaborate more on that as a pastor (I assume you are a pastor from your post).
The common understanding of binding and loosing today concerns sin although the verse is not explicit here about what is bound or loosed besides “whatever”. So if sins are bound on earth due to unrepentance then they are bound in heaven and vice versa. This is the understanding we have in the Divine Service where the pastor by the authority of Christ looses sins (some older liturgies also include binding them).
Another thought could be that the binding and loosing is not sin but rather a person. In this regard, it would be better to be bound instead! I certainly want to be bound to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Regarding questions 1&2, the answer is yes. My church does this at the quarterly member’s meeting. Usually the person entangled in unrepentant sin is not there (when someone is living in sin, the last place they want to be is among the people of God), but the issue is brought before the congregation so that we can pray for the person and if we know them very well, we should also question them regarding what they are involved in.
Question 4…a good example is a young couple with two young children in my church. The husband had an affair. His wife brought it to the attention of the elders. They confronted him. He admitted that it was sinful, but was unwilling to repent & reconcile with his wife. The matter was brought to the attention of the members. Others confronted him also, but he remained determined to end his marriage and to stay with the other woman. He was removed from the membership roles and our church began to meet the needs of his wife & children. His sin did not have to be against me personally for me to vote to remove him from our membership.
Question 5…There can be a difference. Often when some one “upsets” us, they have actually exposed a sin in our own life.
Regarding “bind & loosing…I found the following article to be very interesting. It speaks to how “binding & loosing” has been interpreted throughout the history of the church vs how it is primarily used today.
Binding and Loosing
In Messianic Perspective
By Dr. Joseph B Fuiten
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
“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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
These two passages have caused considerable discussion in every era of the church. However, in recent years some have applied a new way of thinking about these passages that had not previously existed in the church. Which way of thinking is correct? It seems to me that applying a Hebraic way of understanding these terms would bring the maximum amount of light to the subject.
The Torah which God gave on Mt. Sinai formed the basis of the relationship with Israel. It was both a simple and complex relationship. On the one hand the Torah was simple. Yet in daily life it often became complex. In the earliest days, Moses himself both instructed the people in the Torah and decided complicated matters of law for them. Moses said, “Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and laws.” In time this became too much for Moses alone and he appointed assistants.
His father-in-law, Jethro, gave this advice: “But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest—gain and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide for themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.”
In time, this group of assistants in the Torah became an institution in their own right. Authority soon rested among the rabbi’s to interpret the meaning of the Torah. They would consider the principles of the Torah, and decide issues. The decisions which they made had the force of the original Torah itself. Over the centuries, rabbinical expansion of the principles of the Torah took place in all areas of community life.
The Rabbis were constantly called upon by their community to interpret scriptural commands. Was such-and-such an action permitted? Was such-and-such a thing or person ritually clean? The Bible, for example, forbids working on Saturday, but it does not define “work”. As a result, the Rabbis were called upon to declare what an individual was and was not permitted to do on the Sabbath. They bound (prohibited) certain activities, and loosened (allowed) other activities.
In the Hebrew way of thinking, binding and loosing is the interpretation of the Torah. Anyone who acted in this capacity was sitting in the “seat of Moses”. It is easy to see why they used that term.
Since Moses had acted in this way when he was still alive, interpreting the Torah, and since they were carrying on that tradition, they were sitting in his seat. Jesus himself acknowledged the authority that resided in the teachers of the Torah and among the Pharisees. Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you— but not what do. For they preach, but do not practice”. Matthew 23:2-3
The early church recognized this authority and what it meant. Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in the mid-fourth century said, “The Scribes & Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat; for it signifies not his wooden seat, but the authority of his teaching.” This authority found its highest expression in the Sanhedrin. Yet it existed down to the local town and synagogue level. Outside the gates of the excavated ruins of ancient Dan, I have had the opportunity to sit in a seat where once such decisions were made. There, the city elders gathered to “sit in Moses’ seat.” Proverbs 31:23 gives us a sense for this: “Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land.”
I believe it is in this context and with this meaning, that Jesus spoke the words which Matthew
records. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This is an important moment in the history of Judaism and the Church. Here is Jesus, the Son of God, investing the power of Moses into the hands of his disciples. They now become the ones responsible for interpreting the Torah. This is decisive for it represents the imposition of spiritual authority. It places within the context of the church the authority held by those who sit in the seat of Moses.
Once the church was established by Jesus, we find that this authority continued on. In the beginning of the church, it was the apostles themselves who sat in the seat of Moses for the church. The church which took shape had a foundation. “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” Ephesians 2:17-21
God gave the Levites as a gift to the tabernacle. “And behold, I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the people of Israel. They are a gift to you, given to the LORD, to do the service of the tent of meeting. And you and your sons with you shall guard your priesthood for all that concerns the altar and that is within the veil; and you shall serve. I give your priesthood as a gift, and any outsider who comes near shall be put to death.” Numbers 18:6-7
When Paul wrote Ephesians, he drew upon this concept for the various roles in the church. He
described these workers in the church as gifts. To them, a primary role was assigned. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the
saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:11-16
The apostles stepped into their role and took charge of the church. We see their authority in the instructions to Titus especially, and to Timothy. Paul told Titus to “straighten out what was left unfinished”. Then he proceeded to instruct Titus on what to say to the older men, the older women, the younger women and the young men. He told Titus to “remind the people” of certain truths, which of course sets that truth on a higher priority level than some other truth.
We also see apostolic authority being exercised in the Acts 15 council. On that occasion, they met to discuss the requirements for the Gentiles. The question was, “how was the Torah to be applied to them? What was necessary for their salvation?” After hearing various sides of the question, James said, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.”
What gave James the right to have a “judgment” in the first place? He was exercising the authority of the seat of Moses. Indeed, this was clearly more than just their opinions, for when they sent the letter out it was under the authority of what “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” They were laying claim to divine authority as well as their own. Tertullian summarized the events of Acts 15:
“When first the gospel thundered and shook the old system to its base, when dispute was being held on the question of retaining or not the Law; this is the first rule which the apostles, on the authority of the Holy Spirit, sent out to those who were already beginning to be gathered to their side out of the nations: “It has seemed good,” say they” to the Holy Spirit and to us to cast upon you no ampler weight that that of those things from which it is necessary that abstinence be observed; from sacrifices, and from fornications, and from blood: by abstaining from which ye act rightly, the Holy Spirit carrying you”.”
In making the Acts 15 decision, the apostles and elders were sitting in the seat of Moses, using the power of “binding and loosing.” If they did not have this power, then what difference would their opinions make? However, the church has always recognized this authority. Once again, we turn to Tertullian, the Father of Latin Christianity, for his commentary on the authority of the apostles and elders to make this decision.
Moreover, in that dispute about the observance or non-observance of the law, Peter was the first of all to be endued with the Spirit, and, after making preface touching the calling of the nations, to say, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” This sentence “loosed” those parts of the law which were “abandoned” and “bound” those which were “reserved.” Hence the power of “loosing and of binding” committed to Peter had nothing to do with the capital sins of believers; and if the Lord had given him a precept that he must grant pardon to a brother sinning against him even “seventy time seven-fold,” of course He would have commanded him to “bind”- that is to “retain” nothing subsequently, unless perchance such sins committed against the Lord, not against a brother. For the forgiveness of sins committed in the case of a man is a prejudgment against the remission of sins against God.
For Tertullian this is evidence of “binding and loosing.” Again and again, we find the apostles and elders acting in the authority of Moses. In effect, the New Testament is the apostolic application of the principles found in the Torah. The church has always accepted the right of the twelve apostles to do this and gave to their writings the same force as what we call the Old Testament scripture. In the same sense that Torah formed the basis of the covenant with God, so the New Testament now forms the basis of our covenant with God and we are thereby formed into people of God.
Has this authority ceased in the church? We say that the church today has the right to apply the scripture to issues that are not mentioned directly in scripture, following the practices of “binding and loosing,” and sitting in the seat of Moses. That this power can be abused is evident in twenty centuries of church history. We have seen what happens when this authority is assumed by ever narrower aspects of the church. The term “ex cathedra” means “from the chair.” Using this expression is an attempt by Roman Catholics to claim that the church is infallible when it speaks “ex cathedra” because it is speaking from the “seat of Moses.” But the seat of Moses was not for purposes of adding to the scripture, but to give an official interpretation on areas that were not clearly spelled out.
In modern evangelical understanding, “binding and loosing” has nothing to do with the authority of the church except as it might relate to spiritual warfare. This error in thinking springs from a fundamental error in understanding about the gospel of Matthew. What many today do now understand is that the gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew.
That Matthew was originally written in Hebrew is the unanimous view of the church fathers. Papias said, “Matthew put together the oracles of the Lord in the Hebrew language.” Irenaeus said Matthew was written to the Jews: “The gospel according to Matthew was written to the Jews. For they laid particular stress upon the fact that Christ should be of the seed of David.” Cyril of Jerusalem also noted: “Matthew, who wrote the gospel, wrote it in the Hebrew tongue.” These are not obscure figures. Rather, they form the mainstream of the early church.
At present, no original copy of Matthew has ever been found in the Hebrew. However, if these early fathers are correct, what exists in Greek is a translation of the Hebrew. As such, it is subject to certain weaknesses. Translations of this period often did not translate the sense of a passage, rather they tended to follow the actual or literal words. In particular, Hebrew idioms did not always make the transition intact. We know when someone says “his eyes fell to the floor,” not to take that literally. But consider the problem of a translator. What is an idiom, and what should be taken literally? We see this weakness reflected in the translation of the term “good eyes” in Matthew. This is a Hebrew idiom for a generous person. But that is not
particularly clear in the Greek.
What about “binding and loosing” as spiritual warfare? The idea of “binding and loosing” has risen to the forefront in some current teaching on spiritual warfare. What is interesting is the absence of these two ideas in the spiritual warfare that is mentioned in the Bible. If it were to be such an important part of warfare, one would expect to find it more prominently mentioned in scripture. In fact, it is most noticeable for its absence. At best, it is only a minor weapon among many weapons.
More likely, it doesn’t even exist as a weapon of spiritual warfare. Why do some believe that “binding and loosing” are aspects of our spiritual warfare? Surprisingly, this is a new concept that has almost no history in the church. The belief that demons can be “bound” or that angels can be “loosed” is based upon a new interpretation of Matthew 16:10 and 18:18. These passages are interpreted to apply to spirit beings because of the phrases “bound in
heaven” or “loosed in heaven.” As the logic goes, since spirit beings exist in heaven, this passage must apply to them. It is not clear how the passage could apply to demons which are not generally associated with heaven.
What I call the “bind-loose theology” is heavily based upon a special interpretation of the “strong man” passages in Matthew 12:29, Mark 3:27, & Luke 11. In these passages, Jesus is showing that only a superior power can drive out demons. He then uses the example of a well armed strong man who defends his house until someone stronger “attacks and overpowers” him, robbing him of his goods.
Luke’s account emphasizes that the strong man is “attacked and overpowered,” not mentioning
anything about tying him up (binding). Matthew says the strong man must first be tied up before his house can be robbed. Mark, like Matthew, mentions that the strong man must first be tied up before the attacker can rob the house.
If Jesus meant to give this story as an illustration of “binding,” Luke missed the point entirely and is leading us astray from the message. Luke’s failure to mention “binding” is not misleading, however, because the point of the passage is not about “binding,” but about the effect of superior power.
This is the emphasis which Tertullian gave to it. Notice that Tertullian, following Luke, retains the concept of superior power without getting into “binding.” “Well, therefore, did He connect with the parable of the ‘strong man armed,’ whom ‘a stronger man still overcame,’ the prince of demons, whom He had already called Beelzebub and Satan; signifying that it was he who was overcome by the finger of God, and not that the Creator had been subdued by another God.”
Unfortunately, “binding the strongman” has become dogma in some circles. One book in my library, whose authors I respect highly for their service in missions, builds its whole spiritual warfare concept around an improper interpretation of this passage.
A better understanding is found in the historic interpretation of “binding.” I think caution regarding “binding and loosing” as spiritual warfare is in order. There are several reasons why I take this view.
First, no group or denomination in Christianity has ever interpreted these passages in this way before the last part of the 20th century. Of course, being a new doctrine or understanding does not necessarily mean the new doctrine is untrue. However, new doctrines need to be examined very carefully to see how they fit with the “whole counsel of the Bible,” and with the interpretation of that same scripture over centuries.
Second, over the centuries, the “binding and loosing” passages have been interpreted along the lines of the authority of the disciples to “sit in the seat of Moses.” This means interpreting scripture and conducting the affairs of the Church. The Catholic Encyclopedia expresses this idea when it says, “These powers, consisting of a ‘binding and loosing’ in the spiritual order on earth, that is, all powers necessary to the bell-being of the kingdom, were recognized by the apostles from the rabbinical terms for ‘binding’,” that is , of granting or forbidding, as contained in the Torah. The Catholic view, which is shared by the other branches of the historic Christian Church, has always been that ‘binding and loosing’ were part of the authority granted to the Church, and are expressed in the idea of the “power of the keys.”
Third, only Matthew records this idea, probably because he was the only one, according to Eusebius and the others we have cited, to write his original text of the Gospel in Hebrew. The passage regarding “binding and loosing” is a Jewish idiom translated word for word from the Hebrew into the Greek. Unfortunately, even though the words of the idiom were translated correctly, the meaning was clouded in such a literal translation.
Vine’s Dictionary says “the application of the rabbinical sense of forbidding is questionable.”
However, prior to expressing that conclusion, Vine does give this passage its classical “spiritual
authority” slant when he says, “The Lord’s words to the Apostle Peter in Matthew 16:19, as to
‘binding,’ and to all the disciples in 18:18, signify, in the former case, that the Apostle, by his ministry of the Word of Life, would keep unbelievers outside of the kingdom of God, and admit those who believed. So with regard to 18:18, including the exercise of disciplinary measures in the sphere of the local church; the application if the rabbinical sense of forbidding is questionable.”
Notwithstanding the questions raised by Vine, Dr. Roy Blizzard takes the historic view held by
Catholics and Orthodox, but for a different reason. He cites Jewish texts to show that “binding and loosing” were the terms applied to the work of the rabbi’s in interpreting scripture, and allowing some things but denying others based on their interpretation of the meaning of the Torah. So if the rabbi said you were not allowed t walk more than a few hundred yards on the Sabbath, he was ‘binding’ certain behavior. Although Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, he did require his disciples to obey their interpretations. We have already shown Jesus saying, “The Teachers of the Torah and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.”
Fourth, of the any passages dealing with spiritual warfare, there is a noticeable absence of any
teaching regarding “binding and loosing.” In my book, Hedges, I demonstrated that there is a great deal in the Bible about spiritual warfare, examining every passage in the Bible on the topic of the relationship between humans and spiritual entities. In light of the extensive Bible passages, why does Paul omit “binding and loosing” in his classic passage in Ephesians 6?
Why does James only talk about resisting the devil, stopping far short of the idea of “binding?” Why only resist, when you could “bind?” Indeed, why is there no plain statement linking “binding and loosing” with any part of spiritual warfare?
The answer is that “binding and loosing,” the way it is being taught in some quarters of the Church, is not adequately rooted in Biblical teachings of spiritual warfare. What the Bible does say is that Satan will be “bound and loosed.” However, the reference is to Satan being “bound” in the future. No one is “binding” him today.
“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.” Revelation 20:1-3 The future tense is the only proper application of the concept to spiritual warfare.
Fifth, if Satan is being “bound” as often as people are saying the words, their binding certainly does not last very long. If the “bind the devil people” are indeed “binding” the devil, somebody needs to figure out how long their “binding of the devil” lasts. Then, they could line up people all over the world on a 24-hour bind chain to keep “binding” Satan, so that he never gets “loosed” again.
Some might suggest that only demons are being “bound,” not Satan himself. Is it possible, then, that we might eventually come to a point where all the demons are “bound” in chains of darkness and none are free to roam the earth? Would this leave only Satan alone to do all the evil work?
One problem with using “binding and loosing” as if it were a new aspect of spiritual warfare is we are totally without support for just what it means to “bind” the devil. Who knows what it means? What can Satan do when he is “bound?” Unlike God, Satan is not omni-present. There is only one of him, and he is limited to one place at a time. According to this new interpretation of “binding,” when one person has “bound” Satan, is he prohibited from doing anything to anyone else?
The further one probes this new idea of “binding,” the more questions are raised. I am suggesting the reason all this becomes so imprecise when the details are exposed, is because the whole notion is without Biblical foundation. Jesus had many contacts with the devil and demons, but He is never described as “binding” the demons. No New Testament writer ever describes anyone “binding” the devil.
In Luke 13, the sick woman was freed from her infirmity. It is plain enough that Jesus was involved in a physical healing because he laid his hands upon her, something which is never done with someone under the power of a demon. It is unfortunate that the old King James uses the phrase “spirit of infirmity” because some have suggested this was a demon of infirmity. However, would Jesus “loose” a demon? Would not “bind-loose theology” say the demon should have been “bound” rather than “loosed?” The Luke 13 passage would not support the “bind-loose theology.” Indeed, the passage would have to be explained away because of Jesus “loosing” the woman from her infirmity.
In some respects, I am reluctant to speak against the current usage of “binding” because I hesitate to undermine anyone engaging in spiritual warfare. However, if there is no authority in the Bible for this “binding,” it is better to stop now than to continue building on sand. It is better to get back to biblical warfare than to continue in a fool’s paradise. In war, firing blanks doesn’t kill the enemy. We need effective warfare with live ammunition.
“No New Testament writer ever describes anyone “binding” the devil.”
Revelation 20:2 uses the same verb (dew) as Matthew 12:29; 16:19; 18:18; Mark 3:27.