Matthew 18:19 and Prayer

Praying Hands by Albrecht Dürer (1508)

If a group of believers pray’s for someone to be healed of an illness, and that person dies of that illness, then how are we to take Matthew 18:19?

This question was posed to me a couple years ago. My first thought was that person, if a believer, would be immediately healed upon their death when they leave their body. Also in their glorified bodies after their resurrection they will experience no more pain and sickness. This was my first thought. And while true, I didn’t take the context of the verse into consideration. Rather, I didn’t take the time to study the context.

Matthew 18:19 says, “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.

At first glance this passage seems pretty up front. That whatever two or more believers ask of God, He will do. So if several Christians gather to pray for someone’s physical healing, we can be confident that God will heal them. Some would even say that God is “obligated” to do what’s being prayed for. That’s what many of us hear all the time anyway, especially in America.

This belief seems to be validated when we look at the verse immediately before and the verse immediately after. Verse 18 reads, “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And verse 20, “For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them.

So now we seem to have a good formula for healing in Jesus’ own words. 1) Two or three gather making Christ present, 2) touch and agree, 3) bind and loose [binding sickness or demons and releasing blessing and healing, etc] 4) God will do it.

Sounds pretty cut and dry. But, what about the last part of the question posed at the beginning. “…the person dies…” One could take this sad result several ways:

  1. Someone praying or the one being prayed for didn’t have enough faith (Jesus did just say in chapter 17 that the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon because of their lack of faith).
  2. Or, there was unrepentant sin in someone’s life. John 9:31 says that God does not listen to sinners but those that do His will.
  3. Or, it just wasn’t God’s will at that moment to heal that person (2 Corinthians 12:8). But God is true to His word, so why would there be a promise if God would only keep it sometimes?

So what are we to make of this passage?

In one of my earlier blogs on how to understand the Bible, I mention that we must read scripture in its correct context. Picking a verse out of context can, and often does, lead someone to believe something that was not intended. So let’s apply Matthew 18:18-20 to its proper context.

The words of Jesus beginning with verse 12:
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. Moreover, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

Here we have Jesus speaking of what we call “church discipline”. He begins first by speaking about a lost sheep which is, in this case, a brother in sin. Another brother should try to correct the wayward believer in private. If he doesn’t listen then one or two more should try. The reference Jesus gives comes from Deuteronomy 19:15, One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.” To call a brother out on his sinning there needed to be at least 2 witnesses. And these witnesses would work to restore their brother. If that doesn’t work, then the brother is to be brought before the assembly for the sole purpose of restoration from his sin. If after all that, he refuses to give up his sin then he is to be treated as though he is no brother at all. This is also referenced in 1 Timothy 5:20 and 2 Corinthians 5:4-5.


So what does the “binding and loosing” mean and what does Jesus mean when He says He is “there in the midst of them”?

A couple chapters before, Jesus tells Peter, ” ‘And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.‘ Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” Here we see Jesus establishing His church. His corporate body of believers which at that time consisted of Jews.

Another step of interpreting a text is understanding how the original hearers or readers would have understood the words. For example, in John 3 when Jesus told Nicodemus that he should have understood what being born again meant because he was a teacher of the law, we should ask ourselves where in the Old Testament would he have understood being “born again” to be referenced. The answer is Ezekiel 36:25-27.

So how would the Jews have understood “binding and loosing”? Matthew Henry’s commentary on Matthew 18 states, “…these, in the common speech of the Jews, at that time, signified to prohibit and permit; to teach or declare a thing to be unlawful was to bind; to be lawful, was to loose.” So once again we see a certain judicial understanding to what this passage in Matthew means.

Henry continues, “When ministers preach pardon and peace to the penitent, wrath and the curse to the impenitent, in Christ’s name, they act then pursuant to this authority of binding and loosing. The key of discipline,which is but the application of the former to particular persons, upon a right estimate of their characters and actions. It is not legislative power that is hereby conferred, but judicial; the judge doth not make the law, but only declares what is law, and upon an impartial enquiry into the merits of the cause, gives sentence accordingly.

One reference for binding and loosing is found in the Gospel of John. After Jesus resurrection, He reminds His apostles of their authority. In chapter 20, verse 23, we read, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Sound doctrine and strict disciple are the two ways church leaders remit and retain sin:

  • “By sound doctrine. They are commissioned to tell the world that salvation is to be had upon gospel terms, and no other, and they shall find God will say Amen to it; so shall their doom be.
  • By a strict discipline, applying the general rule of the gospel to particular persons. “Whom you admit into communion with you, according to the rules of the gospel, God will admit into communion with himself; and whom you cast out of communion as impenitent, and obstinate in scandalous and infectious sins, shall be bound over to the righteous judgment of God.’ ” (Henry)

So we see from reading in context what Matthew 18:19 is really about.

So am I saying that we shouldn’t pray for healing or anything else? Not at all. I’m also not saying that gathering together to pray for someone is unbiblical. What I am saying is that whether one lonely believer is praying or 100 are praying together, God hears. James 5:14-15 says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” Jesus even mentions how someone was healed through faith of just one person (Mark 5:34, Luke 17:19).

On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, sometimes God chooses not to heal. In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul writes, “And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The context here is Paul telling the Corinthians how he could boast because of his visions of heaven but he chooses not to be a “fool.” Rather, He thanks God for his infirmaries because they keep him humble. Therefore, his boasting will only ever be in Christ. Even though he prayed three times for God resolve this issue, God chose not to. In choosing to say no to Paul’s prayer, God granted Paul the greater benefit of understanding the greater depth of the sufficiency of God’s grace.

Then why should we pray? First, because we are commanded to do so. Matthew 5:44, Romans 12:12, Ephesians 6:18, Philippians 4:6, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, and 1 Timothy 2:1 are among the many commands that we have from God to pray.

We should also pray because it works. When we pray according to God’s will He hears us. The Bible is full of examples when God’s people prayed and God answered. In 1 Samuel 1, a woman named Hannah was in deep, emotional prayer by herself. She was praying for a child. God listened and blessed her with the son that would become the great prophet Samuel. In Acts 12, Peter is in prison and the church is praying for him. An angel appeared and freed Peter from his chains. Afterwards, Peter went to the house where the saints had gathered and were praying. There they were still praying when he shows up. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man (or woman) avails much. (James 5:16)

For more information on prayer, check out Focus on the Family‘s articles on the subject here.

We must also remember that sometimes we don’t see the results of our praying. As stated in Hebrews 11, some people pass on to glory before they see the results of the fruit of their faith.

Lastly, as I stated at the beginning of this blog that healing actually will come to those who place their faith in Christ. That is a promise. By His stripes we are healed. Whether in this life or in the next.

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P.S.: All that being said, there is a power in Christian unity. We are the body and when the body joins together, we become a more complete picture of Jesus. All of us as different parts working and praying together, and building each other up.

Derrick Stokes
Theologetics.org

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