by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Part VII

Verses 19-20: “To say it another way, if two of you on earth agree on anything you’ve prayed over, my Father in heaven will accept your decision. Yes, if two or three people are unified in their belief in what I’ve taught them, I will join them in their approval.

According to Jewish tradition, the study of God’s Word for guidance, especially when rendering a decision, was often done in groups. Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chanania taught: Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them, as is stated: ‘Elohim stands in the divine assembly.1 And from where do we know that such is also the case with five? From the verse, ‘He established His storeroom on earth.”2 And three? From the verse, ‘He renders judgment in the midst of the tribunal.’3 And two? From the verse, ‘Then the God-fearing conversed with one another, and the LORD listened and heard.4 And from where do we know that such is the case even with a single individual? From the verse, ‘In every place where I have My name mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.’56

Early church scholar Origen gives us his interpretation of what he feels is the harmony between earth and heaven in the matters of church discipline. He writes: “Harmony occurs in two kinds: first, in agreement of thought, when two minds think the same ideas (as the apostle called it) and have the same thoughts. Second, in agreement of wills, in living similar lives. But since He says ‘If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask,’ it is clear that the two here on earth are not in harmony. The reason why we do not achieve our desires and prayers is our own fault: we do not agree either in our thoughts or in our way of life. Besides, if we are the body of Christ and ‘God arranged the members in the body, each one of them … so that the members may have the care for one another, and if one member suffers all suffer together; if one member is honored all rejoice together,’7 then we must practice the harmony that comes from God’s music, so that when we are gathered in Christ’s name, Christ may be in our midst, who is God’s word and wisdom and power.”8

It could be that Jesus was using this to let His followers know that when people meet to discuss matters related to the congregation of believers and offer prayers for guidance, even two or three are enough for Him to join and help guide them to a decision. However, these words have no doubt become some of the most misused and misunderstood that the church still struggles with since its beginning. Only God can forgive sins against Him, no man has that authority. What He is talking about here are mistakes and misdeeds done against the teachings of Jesus, or the community of believers, which is the body of Christ, for which the individual has repented and received forgiveness from God. He made this statement before He died on the cross, and He was speaking to His disciples so that they could pass it on. It was no doubt instructions for future cooperation among the leaders as the number of believers grew and grew.

Early church scholar Chromatius gives us His thinking: How important a place the unanimity and harmony of brothers hold with God! We can know from this very fact that the Lord has clearly said that when two or three pray in unanimity, the Father affirms everything from heaven. For with God nothing is more pleasing than brotherly peace, nothing better than unanimity and harmony, according to what is written: ‘Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.’9 And again: ‘There is great peace among those who love your name, and there is no stumbling block for them.’10 And in another place: ‘The God who makes us live in harmony in the house.’11 So Isaiah also testified: ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘our God, give us peace. For you have given us everything.’12 That this harmony of brothers is pleasing to God, the Holy Spirit declared through Solomon, saying, ‘There are three things which are pleasing to God and men: harmony of brothers, love of one’s neighbors and the union of man and woman.’13 So quite rightly the Lord in this passage testifies that when two or three come together on earth, whatever they ask for, all is granted by the Father.”14

This gives a clearer picture of how we should approach what is said next in reply to Peter’s inquiry, especially since he did not ask about how to handle wrongdoings or transgressions against God, but against himself. That’s why believers must stay focused on the fact that this authority does not involve making demands of God for things that only satisfy oneself. Rather, these are requests for guidance and understanding in maintaining harmony and cooperation among the community of believers.

Another early church father sees a difference between private prayer for such things and concert prayer involving the whole body of believers. He says: There are those who presume that the congregation of the church can be disregarded. They assert that private prayers should be preferred to those of an honorable assembly. But if Jesus denies nothing to so small a group as two or three, will he refuse those who ask for it in the assemblies and congregation of the church? This is what the prophet believed and what he exults over having obtained when he states, ‘I will confess to you, O Lord, with my whole heart, in the council and congregation of the righteous.’15 A man ‘confesses with his whole heart’ when in the council of the saints he hears that everything which he has asked will be granted him.”16

Chrysologus then goes on: Some, however, endeavor to excuse under an appearance of faith the idleness that prompts their contempt for assemblies. They omit participation in the fervor of the assembled congregation and pretend that they have devoted to prayer the time they have expended upon their household cares. While they give themselves up to their own desires, they scorn and despise the divine service. These are the people who destroy the body of Christ. They scatter its members. They do not permit the full form of its Christ-like appearance to develop to its abundant beauty—that form which the prophet saw and then sang about: ‘You are beautiful in form above the sons of men.’1718

He then concludes: “Individual members do indeed have their own duty of personal prayer, but they will not be able to fulfill it if they come to the beauty of that perfect body wrapped up in themselves. There is this difference between the glorious fullness of the congregation and the vanity of separation that springs out of ignorance or negligence: in salvation and honor the beauty of the whole body is found in the unity of the members.”19 It is important that these words of Jesus granting authority to His followers, once He is gone away to the Father, be understood in context.

Verse 21: Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, when someone won’t stop doing wrong to me, how many times must I forgive them? Seven times?”

Peter did not pick this question out of the air. He just heard Jesus talking about how to counsel an errant member of the body of believers and bring about reconciliation. This involved being willing to offer forgiveness to a repentant fellow believer and not hold grudges. Peter must have also known what the teachings of the scribes were on this subject. According to one Rabbi: “If a man commits a transgression, the first, second and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not forgiven, as it is said: Here is what Adonai says: ‘For Israel’s three crimes, no, four – I will not reverse it;1 and furthermore it says: ‘God will accomplish all these things twice, even three times, with a man.’23 So in Peter’s mind, since Jesus taught to go beyond the limits of the law, and since the law said forgiveness was to stop after three times, did Jesus mean to keep forgiving until the matter was finally resolved and your enemy becomes your friend. That’s what the number seven meant, completion.

Another Jewish writer says that a highly respected Rabbi passed on the same teaching to his generation by saying: “If one sins and repents and continues uprightly, he is forgiven before he stirs from the spot. But if one says, ‘I will sin and then repent,” he is forgiven up to three times, but no more.”4 To clarify this more, another noted Rabbi adds this commentary: “If a man transgressed a positive commandment and repented, he is forgiven on the spot before he has so much as stirred from his place. Of such it is said, ‘Return, you backsliding children.’5 If a man transgressed a negative commandment and repented, repentance suspends the sentence and the Day of Atonement atones. Of such it is said, ‘For on this day atonement will be made for you.’67

However, another venerable Rabbi commented: “When a person’s sins are being weighed against his merits, God does not count a sin that was committed only once or twice. A sin is only counted if it was committed three times or more… If his merits are equal to or greater than the amount of his sins committed which were committed more than three times, God forgives his sins one after the other, i.e., the third sin is forgiven because it is considered as a first sin, for the two previous sins were already forgiven. Similarly, after the third sin is forgiven, the fourth sin is considered as a ‘first’ sin and is forgiven according to the same principle. The same pattern is continued until all his sins are concluded.”8

So we can see why Peter may have been confused about what Jesus was teaching because of what he learned from the village Rabbi about forgiving another person for things they did wrong against him up until three times. So his desire to get a more specific answer from Jesus was certainly a wise move on Peter’s part. So it should be with every believer. When there is confusion among members of a congregation over a teaching they are expected to follow, go to someone who has studied God’s Word and to whom the Holy Spirit has granted the gift of discernment and see if what they share can lead to better understanding.

1 Amos 2:6

2 Job 33:29

3 Rabbi Jose ben Judah: Babylonian Talmud, op, cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Yoma, folio 86b

4 Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Eliezer in The Fathers, According to Rabbi Nathan, Ch. 40, p. 164

5 Jeremiah 3:22

6 Leviticus 16:30

7 Rabbi Nathan in The Fathers, op., cit., Ch. 29, pp. 121-122

8 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op, cit. Sefer Madda, Tractate Teshuvah, Ch. 3, Halacha 5

1 Psalm 82:1

2 Amos 9:6

3 Psalm 82:1

4 Malachi 3:16

5 Exodus 20:21

6 Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Chapter 3:6

7 1 Corinthians 12:18, 25-26

8 Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 14.1

9 Psalm 133:1

10 Ibid., 119:165

11 Ibid., 68:6

12 Isaiah 26:12

13 Sirach 25:1

14 Chromatius: Tractate on Matthew 59.1

15 Psalm 111:1

16 Peter Chrysologus: Sermon 132.4-5

17 Isaiah 52:14

18 Peter Chrysologus: Sermon 132.4-5

19 Peter Chrysologus: Sermon 132.4-5

20 Amos 2:6

21 Job 33:29

22 Rabbi Jose ben Judah: Babylonian Talmud, op, cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Yoma, folio 86b

23 Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Eliezer in The Fathers, According to Rabbi Nathan, Ch. 40, p. 164

24 Jeremiah 3:22

25 Leviticus 16:30

26 Rabbi Nathan in The Fathers, op., cit., Ch. 29, pp. 121-122

27 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op, cit. Sefer Madda, Tractate Teshuvah, Ch. 3, Halacha 5

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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