Are You a Berean?
If you want to get the most out of this article I suggest you read it with your Bible open to the chapters I reference. Let’s talk about a particular verse in the book of Matthew. It’s a popular verse amongst believers I’ve quoted many times over the almost four decades I’ve been a believer. You will immediately recognize it when you see it. There’s a good chance you know it by heart and have quoted it lots of times yourself. However, I want to challenge both you and myself. Have we misunderstood this verse? Have we pulled it out of context and thereby skewed its meaning?
What I’m about to share with you may be a new thought about this famously familiar verse. If you are like me you get uncomfortable when someone challenges your long-held Biblical conclusions. You adopt a defensive posture willing to fight for what you believe. Maybe you feel like changing how you’ve always understood a given passage of the Bible will rock your convictions and threaten to unravel the very fabric of your faith.
Before we look at the verse I’m talking about, consider Acts 17:10-11.
Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews.
11 These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.
Sometimes we think we are modern-day Bereans if we come to church with our Bibles. We glance down at our laps to see if the Pastor quoted the verse accurately, then pat ourselves on the back for being Bereans!
Remember, the Bereans didn’t have the New Testament. They weren’t looking to see if Paul was quoting the Old Testament accurately. They were searching the Law and the prophets to see if the new ideas and principles Paul was proclaiming were supported in the only Bible available in their time. This took a significant amount of work, which they gladly did every day Paul preached.
This is the kind of Berean I want to be, what about you? Let’s be this type of Berean with Matthew 18:20, shall we? Here’s the verse.
20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
Have you used this as a proof text concerning prayer? If you and I are gathered in Jesus’ name it is the quorum necessary for Jesus showing up in our midst, right? What about just one person being gathered in Jesus name? How about if we use our most powerful Bible Study tool to see if we can confirm this popular conclusion. What is our most powerful Bible Study tool? Context, Context, Context of course.
Maybe the first step in understanding context is to realize that chapter/verse numbers do not identify individual truths for our consumption. They are merely there to help us navigate our way through the Bible. I feel like I should shout this next sentence, ok, I will. THE CHAPTER AND VERSE MARKINGS ARE NOT INSPIRED!
They [chapter/verse] were then inserted into Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in the 16th century. Robert Estienne (Robert Stephanus) was the first to number the verses within each chapter, his verse numbers entering printed editions in 1551 (New Testament) and 1571 (Hebrew Bible). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapters_and_verses_of_the_Bible)
Why is this important to our study today? Well, because the first word of Matthew 18:20 uses the conjunction for, telling us that verse 20 is connected to, and more accurately an explanation of, an idea in the previous verse. Ok, so now we need to consider verse 19 if we want to accurately understand verse 20.
Matthew 18:19 has the word ask in it. Maybe that indicates prayer? Maybe, let’s keep gathering clues. The first phrase is Jesus saying, “Again I say unto you…” If Jesus is repeating something, we need to see what it is He is repeating, so we keep moving backward in the text.
Conjunctions make it easy for us to know when verses are connected, but they aren’t the only way we know. Watch for an unbroken flow of thought or the continuation of a theme, or additional detail explaining a truth or concept. One more thing I should point out about conjunctions is they are not always conveniently the first word of a verse.
I’ve gone through and done the work to determine the logical discourse or cohesive unit. It would take a longer work than I can repeat here. But if you spend some time with your Bible you’ll be able to see how I’ve reached my conclusion. In order to understand Matthew 18:20 you need to keep it in context with Matthew 18:1 all the way through Matthew 18:35, which is all of Matthew chapter 18. The chapter division, in this case, is a good one.
Matthew 18:1 is connected to the previous verse, but only chronologically, “at this time”, not in content. In the same way, Matthew 18:35 is connected to Matthew 19:1 only in establishing the sequence of events. Matthew 19:1 starts, “Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings…”
Matthew 18:1 sets the context for Matthew 18:20, “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” Jesus corrects their thinking and spends the rest of the chapter in a detailed explanation of how each member of the body of Christ should relate to one another.
Let me say it another way, the theme of Matthew 18:20 is relationship, not prayer. The immediate context for 18:20 is “if your brother sins against you…”
Matthew 18:15 through the end of the chapter describes how you should relate to a brother (a believer) who has sinned against you. It describes a time when it is ok before God to break fellowship with the offending, non-repentant brother. Matthew 18:20 is an encouragement to those believers engaged in the very difficult process of removing a brother from fellowship. Jesus’ encouragement is to do it the right way, follow these steps and I will be right there in the midst of two or more of you who are following my prescribed steps.
This encouragement “I am there in the midst of them”, is not available to the individual because at this point in the process there must be two or more brothers involved. Matthew 18:20 is not about prayer, but rather the right time and the right way to break fellowship with another believer.
This is one of the longest devotional posts I’ve written and yet I’ve only scratched the surface on the topic of Matthew 18:20. I tried to give you enough information to encourage you to be a Berean alongside me on this subject. Sit down with your Bible. Read and re-read Matthew 17:27-19:1. See all of the connecting words and thoughts, zoom in, zoom out, really look at the whole passage. I believe it will be well worth your while.
God’s Word truly is alive and powerful as Hebrews 4:12 proclaims. If you want it to be powerful in your life you must spend qualitative as well as quantitative time in it. Allow the Holy Spirit to form and re-form your conclusions as you spend time studying God’s Most Holy Word.
All Scripture Quotations from The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.