Friday, March 04, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: How Do You Read It? (2)

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

We had a good time with this last week, so Immanuel Can and I have agreed to revisit our growing list of commonly misinterpreted Bible verses and discuss three more examples.

Tom: How about this one?

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

How do you read that, IC?

Two or Three

Immanuel Can: I think the first question has to be “two or three whats”, or “two or three of whom”?

Tom: Two or three of the Lord’s Jewish disciples. The verse right before says “If two of you agree”, meaning the disciples immediately or perhaps more generally. But the situation is Jewish, not Christian. You can see that in the Lord’s statement, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” two verses prior. That doesn’t make sense in anything but a Jewish environment. I know that in some English translations it talks about refusing to listen to “the church” in the context, but the Greek word they have translated “church” simply means “assembly” or “gathering”. The Lord’s disciples would have understood it to mean those who attended their local synagogue, I suppose.

That’s the background. We obviously apply it to the church, but it is only legitimate to do so if we take the idea of “two or three” gathering in Jesus’ name in the most general way.

IC: Right, I agree. Now, a second question we might want to ask is, “gathering for what purpose?”

The way I hear the quotation thrown around, it’s invariably supposed to refer to ordinary Christians, and any two or three ordinary Christians, who happen to gather together for any purpose that can remotely be construed as compatible with their being Christians. Would you accept that, Tom?

Tom: Well, if we accept that it is legitimate for instructions that arise in one situation in scripture to occasionally be applied more broadly, I suppose we might stretch it that far, but it’s not what the verse is saying.

Contextually, the Lord Jesus is talking about two or three of his followers gathering for judgment, for what he calls “binding” and “loosing”. If two or three disciples agree about “anything they ask”, and the Lord says the Father will do it. But that “anything” is contextually limited. It’s not some universal truism. In context, it has to do with the judgment of an unrepentant offender. And it’s further limited by the words “gathered in my name”, if we’re talking about the presence of Christ.

IC: I’m glad you brought up that phrase. “In my name” means something very specific (see John 5:43-44). It doesn’t mean merely “to do Christian stuff”.

Maybe I can illustrate it this way. If I go to the bank and try to withdraw your money, Tom, they’re going to want to know something. They’re going to want to know if I’m doing it because I want to steal your money, or I’m doing it in your name — that is, they want to know I’m acting as your legitimate executor, taking your money out for your purposes and with your explicit permission. If I have no letter or cheque from you proving that I am doing your actual will, they will give me nothing.

Tom: So it’s like a power of attorney.

IC: That’s what “in my name” implies: it means acting on behalf of Christ, in a way that he wants, for his interests and not my own. When a person does that, the Lord is invested in that situation and involves himself. And even though we might be nominally Christians, when we act in some way we ourselves prefer, the Lord is not with us on that. We must be gathered to do his work, his way. Only then are we acting “in his name”. And only then is he with us.

Tom: In your mind, can we extend this principle of gathering in the name of Jesus Christ to regular church meetings intended for worship and edification? Is it always true there?

IC: No. And that’s what I’m trying to emphasize here: the promise that the Lord will be “there” is not given when we aren’t acting on his behalf, according to his will, and for his purposes. What’s more, we often speak as if this being “in the midst” is a nice bonus. But we need to realize that it has a very ominous flip side. Can you imagine what it is, Tom?

Tom: I think Ananias and Sapphira found out. And some of the Corinthians who ate the bread and drank the cup of the Lord without appropriate self-examination. And possibly the church in Ephesus.

IC: Right. That’s what I was thinking too. When the Head of the Church speaks of being “in the midst”, sometimes it’s to support — but sometimes it’s to judge. And I think that the context actually bears out the latter more than the former, doesn’t it?

Tom: Agreed. Have you got one for me?

I Can Do All Things

IC: Another verse we need to read carefully? Okay, how about Philippians 4:13:

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

How does that work for you?

Tom: Well, when I read “all” in scripture or even in an email from my mom, I remind myself that there is almost always a contextual limitation involved. That’s not a cheat; it’s simply the way human beings speak to each other. Rarely does anybody say or write “all”, meaning by it, “every single one in the universe at every point in history”. What we usually mean is “all the ones we’ve just been talking about”.

So Paul is probably not saying, “I could beat the New England Patriots singlehandedly”.

IC: With fully inflated footballs, or not?

Tom: Patriot footballs are always inflated to league standards, of course.

But I think my point stands: Paul is not suggesting he can fit a certain number of angels on the head of a pin, or lift a rock bigger than he is, or perform some despicably wicked act. “All” is limited here not just by context, but also by character. Paul can do “all things” one would expect a faithful servant of Christ to do in the course of being obedient to his Master.

So to appropriate a line like this and use it to suggest a Christian can do “anything” through Christ is to misuse the verse.

IC: Yes. Or to suggest that it promises that any Christian can become proficient in any realm whatsoever is an abuse of the passage. Paul had learned how to be rich and poor, to be generous in prosperity and react to deprivation with grace, and above all, to suffer faithfully; in whatever circumstance God had placed him, Paul knew there was a Christian way to be while you were in it, and in his own life, Paul had proved that. But there’s no promise there that Christians can be universally awesome.

Tom: Sad, but true.

Not Neglecting to Meet Together

Got another one for you:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

When I was growing up, if you weren’t present for a Sunday meeting or two, somebody was bound to quote this. Is it a sin to miss a church meeting?

IC: It doesn’t really say that, does it?

Tom: No. And at least it doesn’t use the word “all” again.

Other translations use the words, “giving up”, “forsaking” or “abandoning”, which suggest that it’s a more permanent abandonment of Christian fellowship that’s in view. The writer to the Hebrews is saying, “Don’t give up meeting with your fellow believers; there’s value in it.”

But that does bring up a question: Is it reasonable to expect Christians to be involved in every meeting on a church’s schedule? Some Christians definitely feel that’s a mark of commitment.

IC: I don’t see why. Meetings can be well-conceived and functional, or merely traditional and not particularly useful. Bodily presence is not some sort of a moral requirement simply because somebody in the local church thought they wanted to see a meeting happen. But I agree that we are being encouraged by this passage to do all we can to assure that we are regularly involved with other Christians in meaningful corporate contexts.

Tom: Well, and some people are simply enamored of routine. But I think, as you say, “meaningful corporate contexts” is important. We are to not abandon the practice of gathering with believers. That may be the local church, but it may involve other sorts of gathering, and the more meaningful, the better. And I think it’s unfortunate when we develop a false sense of who’s in the “core” of a local church on the basis of simply showing up. It’s as if there are two churches: the one at 11:00 a.m. Sunday and the other, smaller “church” that gets together more often. And that may be a reflection of commitment, or it may be a reflection of other things entirely.

IC: Indeed. In fact, one way of “forsaking the assembling of ourselves” is to meet together, but only in scheduled or traditional ways … not in ways that truly edify or build up the local body.


  1. This may provide some relevant information. As a Catholic I am obliged to attend Sunday mass and a deliberate failure to do so is considered a mortal sin (not if you are unable to attend). This is based on the Third Commandment as explained in the link below. Naturally there is a fuzzy boundary here since the word unable might mean different things to different people. If that's the case it can be discussed in the confessional with the priest.

  2. Yes, I can see where that might be a bit open to interpretation: "Deliberate failure to do this ..."

    I note it's a "grave sin" in Catholicism by making the "Lord's Day" some kind of analogy to the Sabbath. And yet no such obligation is laid on Gentiles by the apostles in Acts 15:28-29.

  3. That's why this point is interesting. The apostles clearly made a decision at that time to suggest to this fledgling community a minimum of rules given the importance of the Ten Commandments. That should not preclude the fact that additional decisions can be made or even changed later on by them or by their successors, especially if they make sense. I belief in the three RRRs here, Revelation and Right Reason and do not think that they can be separated.

    1. Hmmm...but what does appear when we actually look at what the "Revelation" part says, Q?

      We then find that the apostles *didn't* impose the Ten Commandments on the Church at all. Quite the contrary: see Acts 15:

      ("Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are"....and...."For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well." )

      Now, as a philosopher, while I do believe in "reason," the problem is that there are two types. One is just a "wisdom of the world" (1 Cor. 1:21) which is misleading on spiritual truth, and which in fact knows nothing at all about spiritual things. So it's not really "right," though it does appeal to any unbelieving people as being "reasonable" as they look at it from their particular suppositions. And since there are two types, "Right Reason" must be precisely defined if we are to understand what it really is.

      It is true what you say, that Revelation goes together with *spiritual* reasons, yes: but we also read that the natural man does not comprehend those reasons. So it's not the general human kind of reason that's being encouraged at all. It's not some kind of "common sense," or even sound human philosophical "Reason" accessible to normal humans, but rather a *special* understanding and perspective on truth that one can only have when one is has been spiritually renewed by the Lord. Absent spiritual suppositions and the power of the Holy Spirit, there's no promise at all that anyone even has "Right Reason."

      How do we know what is "Right Reason," and what is merely the "common sense" of men? Only by its conformity to the truth of Scripture. If the new "wisdom" denies the truth of the revelation in the Word of God, it's simply got to be wrong.

      So as when "Reason" is in conflict with the "Revelation" of God, then it's simply not "Right Reason" at all anymore. (1 Cor. 1:18-20) In fact, it is perhaps a kind of "wisdom" from the world's perspective, but so far as the Lord and Christians are concerned, it's simply "Wrong Reason."

    2. The government can impose things on us but when you introduce a religion you act as an instructor only. So they are not imposing. Conveying adherence to the 10 Commandments is a valid instruction even and especially today I would say. I don't think what you quoted was meant to diminish that. What I suggested was that they used reason as an instructor would in getting their material across. And subsequently, using reason, they can get the remainder across as well. I have heard people say that Revelation must go hand in hand with Reason but to me it must be Right Reason since reason can be perverted. So your interpretation of right reason is mine as well.