7 September 2014

Matthew 18:15-20

“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (vv. 17-18)


Matthew's Gospel is the most 'Jewish' of the four New Testament Gospels, and it reminds us that some of the earliest Christians stayed as practicing Jews who believed in Jesus as their Messiah, but rejected Paul's radical conviction that the death and resurrection of Jesus had created a new humanity (Galatians 3:28), where the distinctions between 'Jew' and 'Gentile' (non-Jew), (and 'male' and 'female') as defined in the Jewish Law (Torah), were no longer relevant. For Jewish Christians, such distinctions remained central to their identity. Matthew's Gospel (the only Gospel where the word 'church' appears) is addressed to the members of just such a Jewish church and confirms that Torah is still binding. So traditional Jewish synagogue rules about conflict resolution, for example, still apply, as does the traditional Jewish belief that 'Gentiles and tax-collectors' were 'unclean' and thus to be avoided.

Verse 18, probably, needs to be understood in this context - whether the church decides to embrace or exclude the offending church member, God will endorse their decision. And verse 19 simply emphasises the point (although it is often taken out of context as a promise that God will do anything we want, if enough of us ask him - a rather alarming prospect!). First century synagogues, from which Gentiles were excluded and where women were segregated, had a form of democratic self-government, based on applying the commandments as interpreted by the study of Torah. And Matthew's church was essentially a Christian synagogue. Indeed, the familiar phrase "where two or three are gathered in my name..." (often quoted in dwindling congregations) is, in fact, based on a familiar Jewish 'synagogue saying': "But when two sit together and words of the Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them". Matthew's Gospel has simply paraphrased it and turned it into a saying of Jesus.

To Ponder

  • The early Church decided to include Matthew's Gospel in the 'canon' of Scripture. How do we decide which bits of teaching for a 1st- century Christian synagogue might still be useful for Christians today?
  • Do you agree that the idea that, if enough of us ask, God will do what we want, is 'a rather alarming prospect'? Why?
  • It's reassuring to think that Jesus could have said "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them". But what might that actually mean?

Bible notes author

The Revd David Rhymer

The Revd David Rhymer has done a number of things over the last 40-odd years - including teaching (science), publishing (theology), full-time ministry (Baptist and Methodist) and national Methodist Team work (training & development officer for Cornwall). More recently he has been responsible for a part-time theology degree course at Exeter University, and until 2017, was involved with teaching students preparing for ministry in the south-west.