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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I Want My Bible Back #2

We're continuing in a series of posts on Bible verses used out of context.

#2 Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them (NIV).”

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them (KJV).”

I have heard this verse quoted out-of-context perhaps more often than any verse in scripture.

A typical quotable situation is : : :

• when the prayer team needs more people to join and sends out a plea for more to come to the weekly prayer meeting so "two or more are gathered."
• Or, when an email is circulated to pray for a health need or a need overseas.
• Or, as a sign-off at the end of an email that tells you to forward that email to as many people as you can to prove that you believe in prayer and love Jesus and want a special blessing
• Or, when someone is hosting a special prayer gathering and they tell me I need to be there as the pastor because, you know, where two or three are gathered God is there.

Scripture is full of many promises about prayer and many passages encouraging God’s people to gather together and pray.

This is not one of them.

Quite frankly, the passage really doesn’t have anything to do with prayer—or God somehow “showing up” when the magic number is reached. And, it is certainly not a recipe for how to pray and get God to answer.

Now, even if we didn’t know the context of this passage, shouldn’t we find it odd that God would somehow be “in the midst” of a group more so than in the presence of an individual? And why 2? Or is it 3? Can God make up His mind? How about 4?

Still, this verse gets tossed around in churched circles as if it were the secret handshake and recipe for the magic clubhouse prayer gathering.

But, we really don’t need a secret decoder ring to interpret this passage and understand the context.

The immediate context of this verse is found in about a five verse passage in Matthew 18 where the subject is how to treat one another in conflict resolution situations. This passage comes immediately after the parable of the lost sheep where Jesus talks about the Father’s love for individuals. That parable follows on the heels of passages on humility, servanthood and how we should treat one another as believers.

Most likely, this agreement between two or three is in regard to judicial matters where an offender and the offended agree to settle their dispute in the presence of witnesses so that, if the matter where to come before the whole church or be made public, there would be witnesses as to the agreement that was made.

The presence of two or three witnesses shows up only a couple of verses earlier when Jesus urges brothers to handle their conflicts between one another. But, if there is no agreement and the offender will not listen the offended party is urged to take one or two others along so there is the testimony of two or three witnesses.

This kind of conflict resolution—agreement between brothers and sisters in the presence of other brothers and sisters—is God honoring. He blesses it, condones it, authored it, and is in the midst of it. This is kingdom living.

This passage, and the larger part of Chapter 18 all flow out of the disciples’ silly question about who will “be the greatest” in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, tenderly and through story after story, slaps us upside the head about kingdom living as He encourages us to live lives in harmony and humility.

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