Prayer: Contextualizing Matthew

Continuing our series on prayer we’ll look at a verse commonly cited by both critics and believers alike in defense of a literal prayer promise: Matthew 18:19

Matthew 18:19 says,  “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.”

This verse is often used as the centerpiece for the criticizing of prayer. Not only does it seem to guarantee the answer to any given prayer as long as there’s an agreement, it also assumes a negative view of the prayers of a single person. Is this the correct way to read this verse? As the context shows, a lot of us have separated this verse from its proper purpose. Let’s begin by looking at the entire passage, then we’ll look at each verse. Matthew 18:15-20 says,

“[15] Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. [16] But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. [17] And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. [18] Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. [19] Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. [20] For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

From the context alone we can easily draw a purpose to verse 19. This passage sits in the context of church discipline. The church, in this case, is Israel’s believing remnant, (i.e. those who have accepted Jesus as Messiah) rather than a local gathering of believers we often associate with the title.

Verses fifteen through seventeen give instruction for correcting and disciplining a believer in error. These instructions, as well as this entire passage, emphasize the mercy and forgiveness of the authority in that multiple chances are given for confession and repentance rather than an instant exclusion. Its hope is to bring back the sheep, not to exclude him.

Verse eighteen is a common metaphor of judicial authority. Keener in his social commentary of the NT notes [1] “many Jews felt that the Jewish high court acted on the authority of God’s tribunal in Heaven…..Those who judged on the basis of God’s law accurately represented His will.”

With the context being judicial authority and discipline, we now turn to verse nineteen. The “two or more” here likely references the two or more witnesses in verse sixteen, especially with its use of the phrase, “Again I say unto you.” Deuteronomy 19:15 was the standard authority for such practice in Jewish law; so this verse is limited to the context of prayers regarding the excommunicated. Whether prayers for their repentance and forgiveness or for their denunciation, if two or more witnesses agree with the authority, it shall be done. God’s presence in verse twenty confirms His agreement on the matter. It isn’t implying a negative view of a single person’s prayer but rather the seriousness of a member’s sin and heavenly status.

In conclusion, this passage cannot be used to defend a literal prayer promise that anything will be answered as long as there’s an agreement. If there’s one thing I’ve realized during my study of this passage, it’s that what’s often important to us isn’t important to God. While I may want to pray for a new pair of socks, God may want me to pray for the guidance and protection of my believing friend from falling into sin. When it comes to unanswered prayer, sometimes it’s a simple matter of asking what God wants rather than what we want.

References:

Keener, C. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. p 91

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