Jesus is giving His disciples some instructions on how to pursue reconciliation when they have been wronged by a fellow believer.
Matthew 18:15-17 “If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you.
For these future church-leaders, a situation like this – where it may be necessary to excommunicate someone from their assembly – would be quite difficult. Knowing this, Jesus encourages them that God would be supporting them through that difficult process:
Matthew 18:18 I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.
Based upon the word Whatever, this verse has been misquoted many times. People have prayed that God will bind or loose literally whatever good or bad thing they happen to bring up at the moment…whether it be “binding” Satan, “binding” a marriage, “loosing” God’s will in their life. However, it is a very dangerous practice to rip a verse out of context and then miss-apply what Jesus was actually talking about.
When I take my sons to an ice cream shop, I tell them that they can have whatever ice cream they want. They understand that my use of the term “whatever” is limited by their current context of where they are. I am not giving them permission to have “whatever” ice cream they want, whenever they feel like having it. Even on this smaller scale…if either of my boys get into the ice cream at home at 3:00am, claiming that I gave them permission to do so when I previously said they could have “whatever” ice cream they wanted…there would be consequences to them taking my directions out of context and over-stepping their authority.
In verse 18, Jesus is telling the disciples that God has their back when they, as church-leaders, make decisions that permit or remove fellowship with a fellow believer who refuses to repent of their sin. As if that idea wasn’t mind-blowing enough, Jesus goes one step further:
Matthew 18:19-20 Again I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.
Within the context of this teaching, namely what to do if your brother sins against you, who are the two of you on earth agree[ing] in prayer? Who are the two or three gathered together?
Clearly, they are the two or three witnesses that come to the offending brother long before the matter is turned over to the church leadership. This, too, is a sensitive situation. Their job is to ensure that every fact may be established, so that any accusation of sin is an accurate one. Jesus expects these two or three to gather ahead of time to pray about the upcoming discussion, that they have reviewed the facts and agree on the potential courses of action, depending upon the response of the brother committing sin against another believer.
Jesus is promising here that My Father in heaven will be with them as they navigate the discussion, just like He will back up the church leaders in their fellowship decisions.
Even in the messy parts of life – and dealing with a situation where we have been wrong by a fellow believer is one of the messier situations we encounter – from these verses, we find that we have Jesus’ word that God the Father and Jesus Himself are with us as we seek the reconciliation of the relationship.
That promise is more fantastic than how we have previously miss-applied these verses. And much more practical too.