“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
Matthew 18:20 NASB

20110822-100505.jpg Most Christians have heard this verse quoted at the beginning of worship on a Sunday morning or as they gather to pray. The meaning seems fairly straightforward. If we gather together, Jesus is with us. This isn’t a difficult verse to interpret properly. But, for the fun of it, let’s look at the larger passage in which it appears. Lets begin at verse 15. 5 verses should suffice to give us a sense of how this relates to worship.

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED.” (Weird capitalization courtesy of the NASB. Its to indicate that this is a quote from the Old Testament)
Matthew 18:15-16

Hmmm. Not very worshipful. Perhaps the next verse will bring us to a place of worship.

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. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
Matthew 18:17-18 NASB

Still not wanting to raise my hands and close my eyes. Well, it mentions the church. Maybe verse 19 will be about getting together for a holy hoe-down.

“Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
Matthew 18:19-20 NASB

Well, still nothing. Perhaps it’s the translation. Maybe the Message translation will fill in the blanks, or maybe not. The surrounding passages really make it sound like Jesus supports discipline in the church when it is corroborated with the appropriate number of witnesses. The problem with finding the sense of worship in verse 20 is that it really isn’t there. By itself, it seems like a great verse about worship. In context, it’s about church discipline. In fact, if we widen our look we find that the preceding bit is about how one sinner repenting results in more rejoicing than ninety-nine good guys that don’t need to repent. The following passage has Peter asking how often to forgive his brother. This passage is planted firmly in the sin and discipline area.

This brings us to the first 3 rules of Biblical interpretation. If you do nothing else with a passage, always use these rules and you will manage 99% of the time to interpret accurately. They are:

1. Context
2. Context
3. Context

I know you’re thinking that these three rules are awfully similar to each other. If you thought that, you’re right. The first three rules reflect the importance of considering a passage in its context. Of course, there are several different types of context. Here is the order of importance for considering context. (These vary, I promise.)

1. The immediate context. What do the preceding and following verses tell us about the particular passage? The more of the context you read, the better your understanding of the text will be. Sentences appear in texts because they are part of the point the author is making. This is particularly important in the New Testament because it came to us in Greek. Greek sentences can sometimes span pages (particular in Paul’s work). Every part of the sentence modifies the central statement. So, reading the context gives us a better picture.

2. The context of the book. All of the New Testament texts were written with particular intents. Understanding a book’s larger message gives us a clearer picture of what the author was up to. For example, in Romans, Paul, as an introduction of himself, is presenting a large portrait of his theology to a church he had never visited. His book deals with sin, the Jewish people and the promise, Christ’s redeeming work for us, etc. The book follows a clear logical path from beginning to end. Each of the points ties in to the previous one. Any passage in the book falls within the larger argument.

3. In the context of the scriptures as a whole. The Bible is a coherent unit that presents a particular message about God, Christ and salvation. Because of this, it is important to recognize that the passage in question stands as a part of the larger Biblical narrative. I read an article about how the book of Hebrews teaches that if we ever sin after salvation, we cannot be saved. There are passages in Hebrews that can be read out of context to the rest of the New Testament that may seem to suggest this. However, in the context of what the rest of the New Testament teaches about salvation, it seems like there may be something more to the story. (In that case, it probably refers to those who continue in their sin or a particular condition of the heart where folks won’t repent.)

Simply looking at any verse in the context it is presented gives us an easy guide as to how to understand it properly. The big problem here is that it does take a lot of work. It might involve reading a few more passages and considering the message. It’s easier to just look inside and to say “what do I think this means” or “what does this say to me?” or “how does this make me feel?” in order to pick a meaning for the passage. The work of properly discerning the meaning of a passage is far more difficult, but ultimately provides us with a clearer image of what the text is saying.

In the next installment, we will be looking at another aspect of context. It is also important. However, not as important as the first three rules.