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"Tell it to the Assembly" - Matthew 18,15-20

Robert F. Wall

Matthew 18:15-20

(v. 15) But if thy brother sin against thee, go, reprove him between thee and him alone. If he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

(v. 16) But if he do not hear [thee], take with thee one or two besides, that every matter may stand upon the word of two witnesses or of three.

(v. 17) But if he will not listen to them, tell it to the assembly; and if also he will not listen to the assembly, let him be to thee as one of the nations and a tax-gatherer.

(v. 18) Verily I say to you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on the earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on the earth shall be loosed in heaven.

(v. 19) Again I say to you, that if two of you shall agree on the earth concerning any matter, whatsoever it may be that they shall ask, it shall come to them from my Father who is in [the] heavens.

(v. 20) For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them.


What is meant by "assembly"?

The assembly referred to in verse 17 is the (local) Christian assembly. It is not the Jewish synagogue (Gk. συναγωγή) but the company of called out Christian believers (Gk. ἐκκλησία). This is clearly shown by the verses themselves, the context in which they are found and the other reference to the assembly in Matthew 16:18.

Verses 15 to 20

A Jewish synagogue required a quorum of ten Jewish adults in order to function, made up of males of 13 and older. The fact that the Lord refers to two or three in verse 20 shows the greatness of His grace on the one hand and the contrast with Judaism on the other.

The Greek word translated assembly (ἐκκλησία), either in the singular or plural, occurs some 115 times in the New Testament. On only 4 occasions does it not refer to the Christian company, the exceptions all occurring in the book of Acts (ch. 7:38 and 19:32, 39 and 41). In Matthew 5:23-24 the Lord showed how difficulties among the godly in Israel were to be dealt with but in this part of Matthew 18 we are shown how problems between Christian brethren are to be addressed.

The binding and loosing referred to in verse 18 are the actions of a Christian assembly either in exercising discipline by putting away, or in receiving back again into the company. If the one who had sinned against his brother was still unrepentant after the matter had been brought before the assembly this discipline might be necessary and it is the responsibility of those who gather to the Lord’s Name to exercise it in appropriate cases.

Binding or loosing is not the act of part of a local assembly but that of the whole local assembly united in the same judgement (1 Cor. 5). The two or three referred to in verse 16, the brother sinned against and the one or two others that he was to take with him, cannot act on behalf of the assembly in such a matter. Nor can a divided company bind or loose and any attrempt to do so would not be recognised in heaven. Verse 18  refers to the whole Christian assembly including the two or three referred to in verse 16.

Verses 19 is again addressed to the whole assembly. Verse 18 begins ‘Verily I say to you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on the earth...’ and verse 19 begins, ‘Again I say to you.’ Both verses are addressed to the same company, the whole local assembly. Verse 20 explains why in verse 19 the Lord could say ‘whatsoever it may be that they shall ask, it shall come to them from my Father.’ It is because Christ is in the midst of the two or three gathered to His Name in assembly.

Prayer is of great importance: individual prayer, prayer in the Christian family and prayer on the part of those who may together be exercised about a particular matter. The prayer referred to in verse 19, however, is prayer in the local assembly. Matthew 18:20 cannot be applied to any meeting together of Christian believers. The Lord’s promise is made specifically to those who are gathered to His Name in assembly (See also 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19, 23-25).

The general context

Both at the beginning of chapter 18 and in the parable that follows in verses 23 to 34 the Lord refers to ‘the kingdom of the heavens.’ It is helpful to understand what the Lord meant by this expression. It only occurs in Matthew’s Gospel. The early references to it clearly had the kingdom as it will be established in the millennium in view (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 5:3, 10, 19, 20; 7:21; 8:11; 10:7). In order that it might be introduced in this form the people were called upon to repent and to receive and submit to Messiah then present among them. Had these conditions been met then many would have come from [the] rising and setting [sun], and lain down at table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens (Matt. 8:11). This would obviously have involved Abraham, Isaac and Jacob being raised from the dead.

The mass of the people and their leaders were unrepentant and rejected the Lord. In chapters 11 and 12 of his Gospel Matthew gathers up the evidence that proves this. The following summary of the contents of the chapters makes this clear.

Chapter 11

(v. 1-15) John the baptist, His forerunner, was in prison.

(v. 16-19) The mass of the people, now characterised as an unbelieving generation, responded neither to the ministry of John nor to the Lord’s own ministry.

(v. 20-24) The cities where He had done most of His works of power were unrepentant.

(v. 25-30) The Lord accepted this rejection, submitting to the will of His Father about it, but still called the godly labouring under the burden of the law to come to Him.

Chapter 12

(v. 1-8) The Lord showed He was in rejection like David before Him, though greater than the temple and Lord of the sabbath.

(v. 9-14) He healed in the synagogue on the sabbath day and the Pharisees went out and took counsel against Him, how they might destroy Him.

(v. 15-21) The Lord did not force Himself upon the people and in this section spoke of blessing reaching the Gentiles.

(v. 22-37) He denounced the Pharisees because of their terrible and unforgivable sin in attributing the casting out of demons by Him to Beelzebub.

(v. 38-40) After all the signs that had been given the Pharisees ask a sign from Him and the Lord speaks of the sign of Jonah, pointing to His own death and resurrection. (v. 41-42) He goes on to refer to their unbelief and how others would have responded to His ministry by repenting.

(v. 43-45) The consequences for that generation in the time of ‘Jacob’s trouble’ just before His appearing are alluded to.

(v. 46-50) His mother and brethren were no longer His natural relatives but those that did the will of God.

This open rejection by the people and their leaders marked a turning point in the Lord’s dealings with them. Chapter 13 shows Him going out from the house and sitting by the sea. This really reflects the new perspective that was being taken. From this point on the remaining references to the ‘kingdom of the heavens’ in Matthew’s Gospel refer to the kingdom in its present mystery form (Matt. 13:11). This embraces the whole sphere of Christian profession: all those who, at least outwardly, acknowledge the authority of the Lord Jesus.

All the parables of the kingdom of the heavens refer to the kingdom in this form. The first occur in Matthew 13. Many of them also speak of the outcome of faithfulness or unfaithfulness during this period. The faithful will be rewarded and the unfaithful (unbelieving Christian profession) will be judged.

Chapter 18

In order to enter the kingdom in its present ‘mystery’ form in a vital way and not merely as a professor of Christ who is without life, one must become as a little child (Matt. 18:1-3). It is not the kingdom in the millennium that is being spoken about but the kingdom on earth now while (the King) our Lord is in heaven (v. 6-10). There was no kingdom of the heavens on earth until the Lord had gone back to heaven (Matt. 11:11).

In the latter part of the chapter the Lord tells a parable that makes clear how important Christian forgiveness is in the sight of God. The parable is a parable of the kingdom of the heavens and again refers to the present Christian era (18:23-34).

Both the wider context in this part of Matthew’s Gospel, and the context of the passage within the chapter, make it quite clear that verses 15 to 20 do not refer to the Jews as such at all. They refer to personal difficulties that may arise between Christian brethren and show how such difficulties are to be dealt with. The assembly referred to in Matthew 18:17 is the (local) Christian assembly.

Those gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ can count upon His promise. He is in the midst of the assembly to direct and help His own in the exercise of scriptural discipline, prayer, at His supper and in the ministry of the word. Whatever our weakness, and even if only two or three, we can look to and depend on Him.

The reference to the assembly in Matthew 16

The only other reference to the assembly (Gk. ἐκκλησία) in Matthew’s Gospel is in chapter 16[1]:

(v. 18) And *I* also, I say unto thee that *thou* art Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and hades’ gates shall not prevail against it.

(v. 19) And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of the heavens; and whatsoever thou mayest bind upon the earth shall be bound in the heavens; and whatsoever thou mayest loose on the earth shall be loosed in the heavens.

This work was yet future at the time that the Lord was speaking. He said ‘I will build’ not ‘I am building.’ The assembly would be built on Him in resurrection and the gates of hades should no more prevail against it than they prevailed against Christ. The assembly was first formed on the day of Pentecost by the coming and indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:22-23).

Here in Matthew 16 there is again reference to the kingdom of the heavens in its present mystery form and binding and loosing is committed to Peter. We see Peter ‘binding’ in Acts 5, acting in discipline in the case of Ananias and Saphira who lied to God the Holy Spirit.

Later, in John 20:23, the Lord addresses those who shortly after would form the assembly. He said to these disciples: ‘whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted to them; whose soever [sins] ye retain, they are retained.’ In this verse the order seen in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 is reversed and remission is mentioned before the retaining of sins. The binding and loosing in Matthew’s Gospel refers to those who are already within the Christian assembly whereas John 20:23 refers to those who are outside the assembly but are to be admitted into it. Assembly discipline is to be exercised in every case where necessary: ‘For what have *I* [to do] with judging those outside also? *ye*, do not ye judge them that are within?’ (1 Cor. 5:12. See also 1 Pet. 4:17). All three passages are administrative and relate to remission, not in any eternal sense, but in connection with God’s present moral government of His people.


[1] There are no references to the assembly (Gk. ἐκκλησία) in the other Gospels.