Is three a magic number?

You’ve probably heard people quote these words from Matthew 18:19-20

19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

And you’ve probably heard them used to suggest a few different things. I’ve heard them used to suggest that we don’t need to worry about attending church services because we can worship and pray wherever we are and so a couple of us count as church.  I’ve also heard people pray and then announce that if we agree with their prayer to say amen in faith because “if two of you agree … it will be done.” If the thing doesn’t come to pass it is then seen as lack of faith on the part of those who prayed.

But is it okay to take the verses and apply them broadly like that? Or are we at risk of taken them out of context.  I was asked this question the other day and looking at the passage with a friend my response was along the lines of “kind of … it depends a little.” Why?

Well, when you look at the words, they are set firmly in context. Context matters and we cannot just rip words out of it.  The context here is forgiveness and restoration.  This is seen in three ways.

  1. The parable of the lost sheep points to Christ as the good shepherd who relentlessly pursues to forgive, rescue and restore.
  2. Instructions on what to do when there is a fall out between believers
  3. Jesus’ response to Peter’s question about how many times we should forgive.

Verse 19-20 complete the section on forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration in church. Note, a few things here:

  • This is primarily about when a believer has been wronged by another. This is slightly different to the public sin of 1 Corinthians 5.
  • The principle seems to be that we try and get things resolved with the smallest number of people involved possible.
  • The church can be involved in settling disputes and bringing peace.
  • There are serious consequences for those who refuse to repent and reconcile.

Jesus’ words about agreement between believers and between earth and heaven come after that solemn instruction to treat the unrepentant person s a Gentile or tax collector. In other words, you are to treat them as though they do not belong to God’s people. The point made then is that this is a godly decision that carries authority.  God gives the church body the authority to make significant decisions.

So, we cannot rip the verses out of context and use them to suggest that any little get together counts as church – that’s not their point.  Nor can we draw prosperity Gospel conclusions and suggest that a couple of us can force God’s hand.

However, I do think that the verses have wider implication. You see, as you read them, you get the feel for them, that we have here a pithy or proverbial statement. It is possible that Jesus uses it for the first and only time here but it is also probable that he uses a saying that forms part of his teaching and is potentially repeated in different situations.[1]

If the statement functions as a wise saying or Proverb, then it may have application to other situations. However, it needs then to be applied as a proverbial statement and not as a promise.  Proverbs are wise generalisations that need to be unpacked in their specific context.

So, for example, we’ve been praying much for Ukraine recently.  Not just two or three Christians but thousands upon thousands have gathered in person and online to pray earnestly for peace and justice. Does that mean that God must end the war and guarantee Putin’s defeat? Well, the evidence so far would suggest not. What then is happening.

We have a big example there but we also can think of our own personal examples such as when a few people have prayed for healing or for a job interview or whatever.  Must we then expect God to say yes?

Well, I think it is helpful to consider a couple of things here. First of all, that we see in scripture how prayer works. We know that God gives us our hearts desires when we delight in him. It’s important to pay intention there to the bit about delighting in him. This isn’t a blanket promise that we can get whatever we wish for. Rather, as I delight in God, my will becomes more in tune with his, my heart aligns with his, I want the things he wants and so I see them come to fruition. We see how Abraham learns God’s will as he wrestles in prayer about Sodom in Genesis 19.

Secondly, we know that Scripture emphasises the importance of plurality and body ministry when it comes to discernment. We seek to discern God’s will together.  So, what is happening when a few believers are praying about something? Well, I’d expect them to be listening and discerning too. There should be careful study of Scripture together, there may be wise words from experience, there could be testimony, there might sometimes be words of knowledge, prophecy, dreams, visions, pictures etc shared too.  So, the point is that when believers get together to pray, they also get together to listen, to come to agreement and to discern God’s will together. One outcome of our prayers should be that we have been moved towards being of one mind as we seek to love and honour Christ.

So, having prayed for Ukraine a lot with others over these past few weeks, I’d say that yes, we’ve seen some incredible and unimaginable answers to prayers especially in terms of protection of brothers and sisters. I do think too that the way that Putin’s forces haven’t been able to dictate the war is also an answer to prayer. However, I would much more have preferred to have seen a complete end to fighting and justice against those who seek evil already.

I’m sure I’m not alone in that desire. However, I also believe that as we’ve prayed, we’ve become more and more aware of how God might be glorified and good done even in the midst of this conflict. We have asked for an end to the fighting but we’ve also prayed more and more passionately for the faithful witness of our brothers and sisters. In that respect I think we’ve become united together and more aligned to God’s will.

So, do use Matthew 18:19-20. Don’t rip it out of context but do think carefully about what God has to say through those verses to your specific situation.

[1] See France, The Gospel of Matthew, 697.

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