The Authority for Discipline
Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 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, there I am in their midst. (18:18–20)
To emphasize the absolute trustworthiness of what He was about to say, Jesus declared, “Truly I say to you.” That phrase, which the Lord often used, should always be noted with special care, because it introduces a teaching of unusual importance.
The work of discipline should be undertaken with the greatest care. Done in the wrong way or in the wrong spirit it can do great damage by fostering self-righteousness and legalism, just as discipline not done at all causes great damage by allowing sin’s influence to spread like leaven.
Jesus’ promises in verses 18 and 19 have suffered serious misinterpretation throughout the history of the church, the most extreme being the Roman Catholic doctrine that the church has the divine authority to forgive sin. Many charismatics use these promises—along with others, such as those of Matthew 7:7 and 21:22—to claim from God every imaginable blessing and privilege just for the asking.
But in light of the context of what Jesus had just said, in the light of common rabbinical expressions of that day, and in light of the grammatical construction of the text, it is clear that He was not teaching that God’s power can be bent to men’s will. He was not saying that men can force heaven to do things. Quite to the contrary, His promise was that when His people bend their wills to His, He will endorse and empower their act of obedience. (See comments on Matthew 16:19, in chapter 4 of this volume.)
Jesus was here continuing His instruction about church discipline. He was not speaking about petitioning God for special blessings or privileges, and even less was He teaching that the church or any of its leaders has power to absolve the sins of its members. He was declaring that the church has a divine mandate to discipline its members when they refuse to repent.
The rabbis sometimes spoke of a principle or action as being bound in heaven or loosed in heaven to indicate, respectively, that it was forbidden or permitted in light of God’s revealed Word. A Jew of that day would have understood that Jesus did not mean that men could bend heaven’s will to their own but that God (here called heaven, a common Jewish substitute for God’s covenant name, Yahweh, or Jehovah) had an expressed principle with which the church must conform.
The grammatical construction in the passage also clarifies its meaning. As in Matthew 16:19, shall be bound and shall be loosed translate future perfect passives and are more accurately rendered “will have been bound” and “will have been loosed.” The idea is not that God is compelled to conform to the church’s decisions but that, when the church follows Christ’s pattern for discipline, it conforms its decisions to what God has already done and thereby receives heaven’s approval and authority.
Perfect passives are also used in John 20:23 in regard to forgiving or retaining sins. Believers have authority to declare that sins are either forgiven or not forgiven when that declaration is based on the teaching of God’s Word. If a person has received Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, the church can tell him with perfect confidence that his sins are loosed, that is, forgiven, because he has met God’s condition for forgiveness, namely, trust in His Son. If, on the other hand, a person refuses to receive Christ as Savior and acknowledge Him as Lord, the church can tell him with equal confidence that his sins are bound, that is, not forgiven, because he has not met God’s condition for forgiveness.
Some years ago a man told me he believed he was going to heaven because he was following the religious system prescribed by a popular cult. Because the bizarre beliefs of that group were utterly contrary to the gospel, I told him that he was lost, was still in his sins, and could not possibly be destined for heaven. On the basis of his own confession matched against God’s Word, the man could not have been saved. To tell him that he was still bound in his sins was not to judge his heart supernaturally nor sovereignly condemn him but simply to affirm what God’s own Word clearly says about him and about every person who hopes to come to God by any other path than trust in His Son.
Obviously, this is a serious ministry in the church and one that may be approached with great reluctance. “Who are we to do such work?” we ask. “What authority do we have for such strong dealings with fellow believers? We’re sinful, too.” But when the church administers discipline according to the pattern of Matthew 18:15–17, it can have perfect confidence that it acts in the authority and power of heaven, as promised in verses 18–20.
The Lord gives no command without giving the necessary power and authority to obey it. In these three climaxing verses in Jesus’ instruction about church discipline we learn that, when the Lord’s people sincerely seek to purify His church in His way, they have the energy, approval, and authority both of the Father and of the Son.
Jesus first assures His people that the Father acts with them when they work to purify the church: Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth (referring back to the two witnesses of v. 16) about anything that they may ask (in seeking the purity of the church) it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. When the church acts in God’s behalf and in accordance with His Word in matters dealing with sin, He acts in their behalf by confirming and empowering their faithful decisions and actions.
Agree is from sumphōneō, which literally means to sound together and is the term from which we get symphony. If even two of Jesus’ followers are in agreement with each other that a sinning believer has either repented or refused to repent, they can be sure they are also in agreement with the Father who is in heaven.
As already mentioned, to interpret this verse as promising believers a blank check for anything they might agree to ask God for not only does not fit the context of church discipline but does violence to the rest of Scripture. Such an interpretation is tantamount to magic, in which God is automatically bound to grant the most foolish or sinful request, simply because two of His children conspire to ask Him for it. The idea flies in the face of God’s sovereignty and completely undercuts the countless scriptural commands for believers’ obedient submission to His will.
Jesus also assures His people that He Himself acts with them when they work to purify the church: For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst. Not only does the Father confirm discipline when it is administered according to His Word, but the Son adds His own divine confirmation.
This verse is also frequently misinterpreted, though not with such serious error as in the misinterpretations of the two previous verses. To use this statement to claim the Lord’s presence at a small worship service or prayer meeting does not fit the context of church discipline and is superfluous. Christ is always present with His people, even with a lone believer totally separated from fellow Christians by prison walls or by hundreds of miles.
The context demands that the two or three are witnesses in the process of discipline. To ask or to do anything in God’s name is not to utter His name but to ask and to work according to His divine will and character. For the witnesses to have gathered in His name is therefore for them to have faithfully performed their work of verifying the repentance or impenitence of a sinning brother or sister on the Lord’s behalf. When the church gathers in the Lord’s name and for His cause and glory, it must be engaged in self-purifying ministry under His power and authority, and with His heavenly confirmation and partnership.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian of rather liberal persuasion who was caught in the terrors of Nazi Germany, wrote a book entitled Life Together. In it he gives some profound insights into the need for restoring a sinning brother to the fellowship of the church.
Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession, the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted, but God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107:16).
Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother. The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder. Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother. He is no longer alone with his evil for he has cast off his sin from him. Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God and the cross of Jesus Christ.… The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him define true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ. ([New York: Harper & Row, 1954], 112–13)
20 Derrett (“Where two or three”) suggests that the “two or three” [judges] reflect known Jewish legal practice. Each of the disputing parties would nominate his own “judge,” a layman known to be impartial, and these two would try to settle the problem. If this effort failed, they would approach a third, unconnected with the disputants, who worked with the others either along the lines of arbitration or adjudication. The parallel is very neat and nicely accounts for Jesus’ “two or three.” My chief hesitation comes from the fact that Jesus has just told the complainant to “tell it to the church” (v. 17), not to judges appointed by the disputants. Here the Dead Sea Scrolls (referred to above) may offer a closer parallel. Moreover, Derrett assumes that the “two” in v. 19 and the “two or three” in v. 20 are not the same individuals but disputants and judges respectively. But these points are not decisive. We have as parallels not only 1 Corinthians 5, where the entire church meets on an issue, but also 1 Corinthians 6:4, where the church becomes involved through appointed judges. Matthew 18:19–20 remains difficult; at this point we must be content with a balance of probabilities.
18:18–20 / Verses 18–20 are quite often included in the previous paragraph. Gundry says that Matthew composed verses 16–20 as an expansion of the saying in verse 15 (p. 370). They extend to the church the power of “binding and loosing” that was earlier given to Peter at Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:19). In the current context, prohibiting would refer to bringing judgment against the one who sinned against a fellow Christian and permitting would be pronouncing in favor of the accused. The final outcome would be excommunication or absolution. Whatever decision the church makes, it will be sanctioned in heaven.
Though verses 19 and 20 appear to be speaking of corporate prayer, the context suggests that the agreement reached with its heavenly sanction relates to the matter of church discipline mentioned in verse 17. The Greek text of verse 19 opens with the connective palin (“again”). That which two or three come to agree on (symphōneō means “to produce a sound together,” cf. the English “symphony”) has to do with the decision concerning an unrepentant member of the believing community. God will answer the united concern of praying people. In fact, wherever two or three come together earnestly desiring to know the will of God, he himself will be “right there with them” (Williams).
18:19–20. These two verses are among the most misunderstood in the Bible. They are traditionally taken to mean that God pays special attention to the prayers of believers when two or more gather or agree together. But such an interpretation is wrong for two reasons: (1) it takes the statements out of the context of church discipline and the pursuit of the straying brother; and (2) the conclusions that it leads to regarding prayer is contrary to Scripture.
Nowhere in the Bible does God imply that he listens any differently to one person praying than he does to two, ten, or five hundred. If he does hear two or more people better than he hears one, then we must assume that Jesus’ prayers lacked effectiveness when he went off alone to pray (14:23; 26:36–44). James made the point that the prayer of a single righteous person is powerful enough to heal a sick person by drawing on the power of the God who listens to each of his children, together or individually (Jas. 5:14–18).
This promise guarantees guidance for the two or three (actually a figure of speech recognizing the part for the whole) who confront a straying believer. This is also a promise to the church to claim wisdom and act with authority in the restoration process toward the sinning person. In other words, when this process is pursued as Christ outlined it, his presence and power are assured.
Agree is from sumphoneo (literally, “sound out together”), meaning “harmonize.” Anything you ask for in this context means an appeal to God for support of the witnesses’ actions to restore the sinning brother or to excommunicate him.
By his reference back to a few details from 18:15–17, Jesus was implying a reference to all of the details. So, in this “if” clause, Jesus was saying, “The condition upon which God will base his endorsement of your disciplinary activity is your pursuit of your brother, with the zealous love of the Father in your hearts, and with careful attention to the guidelines I have given.” If we follow these guidelines, the fulfillment of God’s will concerning the sinning brother will be done for you by my Father in heaven.
By his promise to be present with them, Jesus claimed a role belonging only to the Almighty (cf. Joel 2:27; Zech. 2:10–11). His promise was another claim to deity.
20. For where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them. The expression “two or three” is a development of “two” in the preceding verse. The Lord again assures his disciples that the gathering of believers for prayer and worship need not be one of “crowding worshipers.” Even two or three will receive a blessing as long as they gather in his name, that is, in close fellowship with him; hence, with his atoning work as the basis of their approach to God, at his direction, and in harmony with that which he has revealed concerning himself. For the concept “name” see also on 6:9; 7:22; 10:22, 41, 42; 12:21; 18:5.
The promise is, “There am I in the midst of them.” The expression “Jehovah (“God” or “I”) in the midst of you (“her,” “us”)” is in Scripture generally associated with the impartation of strength, direction, protection, and consolation: “to help, to comfort, and to bless.” See such passages as Ps. 46:5; Isa. 12:6; Jer. 14:9; Hos. 11:9; Zeph. 3:5, 15, 17; Zech. 2:10. Similar is “I am (“will be”) with you” (Gen. 28:15; Deut. 31:6; Josh. 1:5; Judg. 6:16, etc.). We can safely conclude therefore that in the present passage the meaning is the same. It is in that favorable sense that Jesus is spiritually in the midst of his people gathered for prayer and worship.
Most comforting is also the fact that Jehovah—and this holds also for Jesus Christ—though great and infinite, in his tender love condescends to that which is small, weak, humble, and by the world generally despised (Judg. 6:15, 16; 7:7; Ps. 20:7; Isa. 1:8, 9; 57:15; Zeph. 3:12; Matt. 18:10; Luke 12:32; 1 Cor. 4:11–13). This explains “where two or three are gathered, etc.” See also on Matt. 1:23, p. 141.
THE POWER OF THE PRESENCE
‘Again, I tell you, that if two of you agree upon earth upon any matter for which you are praying, you will receive it from my Father who is in heaven. Where two or three are assembled together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’
Here is one of these sayings of Jesus whose meaning we need to probe, or else we will be left with heartbreak and great disappointment. Jesus says that if two upon earth agree upon any matter for which they are praying, they will receive it from God. If that is to be taken literally, and without any qualification, it is manifestly untrue. On countless occasions, two people have agreed to pray for the physical or the spiritual welfare of a loved one—and their prayer has not, in the literal sense, been answered. Time after time, God’s people have agreed to pray for the conversion of their own land or the conversion of unbelievers and the coming of the kingdom, and even today that prayer is far from being fully answered. People agree to pray—and pray desperately—and do not receive that for which they pray. There is no point in refusing to face the facts of the situation, and nothing but harm can result from teaching people to expect what does not happen. But when we come to see what this saying means, there is a precious depth in it.
(1) First and foremost, it means that prayer must never be selfish and that selfish prayer cannot find an answer. We are not meant to pray only for our own needs, thinking of nothing and no one but ourselves; we are meant to pray as members of a fellowship, in agreement, remembering that life and the world are arranged not for us as individuals but for the fellowship as a whole. It would often happen that if our prayers were answered, the prayers of someone else would be disappointed. Often, our prayers for our success would necessarily involve someone else’s failure. Effective prayer must be the prayer of agreement, from which the element of selfish concentration on our own needs and desires has been quite cleansed away.
(2) When prayer is unselfish, it is always answered. But here, as everywhere, we must remember the basic law of prayer—that law is that in prayer we receive not the answer which we desire, but the answer which God in his wisdom and his love knows to be best. Simply because we are human beings, with human hearts and fears and hopes and desires, most of our prayers are prayers for escape. We pray to be saved from some trial, some sorrow, some disappointment, some hurting and difficult situation. And always God’s answer is the offer not of escape, but of victory. God does not give us escape from a human situation; he enables us to accept what we cannot understand; he enables us to endure what without him would be unendurable; he enables us to face what without him would be beyond all facing. The perfect example of all this is Jesus in Gethsemane. He prayed to be released from the fearful situation which confronted him. He was not released from it; but he was given power to meet it, to endure it and to conquer it. When we pray unselfishly, God sends his answer—but the answer is always his answer and not necessarily ours.
(3) Jesus goes on to say that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there in the midst of them. The Jews themselves had a saying: ‘Where two sit and are occupied with the study of the law, the glory of God is among them.’ We may take this great promise of Jesus into two spheres.
(a) We may take it into the sphere of the Church. Jesus is just as much present in the little congregation as in the great mass meeting. He is just as much present at the prayer meeting or the Bible study circle with their handful of people as in the crowded arena. He is not the slave of numbers. He is there wherever faithful hearts meet, however few they may be; for he gives all of himself to each individual person.
(b) We may take it into the sphere of the home. One of the earliest interpretations of this saying of Jesus was that the two or three are father, mother and child, and that it means that Jesus is there, the unseen guest in every home.
There are those who never give of their best except on the so-called great occasion; but, for Jesus Christ, every occasion where even two or three are gathered in his name is a great occasion.
18:20 Verse 20 should be interpreted in light of its context. It does not refer primarily to the composition of a NT church in its simplest form, nor to a general prayer meeting, but to a meeting where the church seeks the reconciliation of two Christians separated by some sin. It may legitimately be applied to all meetings of believers where Christ is the Center, but a specific type of meeting is in view here.
To meet “in His name” means by His authority, in acknowledgment of all that He is, and in obedience to His Word. No group can claim to be the only ones who meet in His name; if that were so, His presence would be limited to a small segment of His body on earth. Wherever two or three are gathered in recognition of Him as Lord and Savior, he is there in the midst.
18:20 — “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
The Spirit of Jesus lives in each individual Christian, but He promises to be with them in a unique and special way when they gather “in His name” for worship, service, and mutual encouragement.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1274). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Stanley, C. F. (2005). The Charles F. Stanley life principles Bible: New King James Version (Mt 18:20). Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles.