Category Archives: Bible Study

The Inception of a Gathering


Question: what is the minimum number of people required to constitute a church or gathering of God’s people (ekklesia)?

It may be tempting to start answering this question by assuming this group must begin with a pastor/preacher, perhaps a plurality of elders – at least 3 for voting purposes, maybe a couple deacons, then expand to the congregation and say maybe 8-10 families?  So 20-30 people minimum?  Some people ask this question by placing it in the context of church planting and then ask what is the magic number for a launch team?  Or…what’s the maximum number of people a sending church could afford to lose and still provide a minimum number of people to sufficiently form a new church?

These are all questions that have been asked before, wrestled over, and then attempted to be biblically answered by many faithful servants of the Lord.  Generally speaking, a heavy dose of human wisdom is usually involved in the decision on how this question is answered.  That doesn’t make it wrong, or sinful, but it does make it subjective and situational.  Our aim here is to ask if Scripture bears any burden for answering these questions.

In Matthew 18, a passage well known for our Lord’s mention of ekklesia as the final stop of confrontation of a sinning brother, also provides for us the answer to these questions, though for some reason it often gets overlooked, confused, or downplayed, particularly when discussions of “church-planting” are taking place.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

It’s uncontroversial to assert that the context for this passage is clearly revolving around the concept of “church”, or as we have seen more accurately termed a gathering or assembly of God’s people (ekklesia).  The opening for this passage involves a scenario created by our Lord to explain how to regard a sinning brother.  Here we have 2 brothers (in Christ), one who sins against the other.  Jesus instructs His disciples that the offended brother should go and tell the offending brother his fault.  If he doesn’t listen, go to him with one or two others, and if he still doesn’t listen tell the matter to the church.  Remember that the use and meaning of church (ekklesia) already had meaning and significance in its everyday use (The Old Testament use of Ekklesia).  Jesus wasn’t inventing a brand new word.  However, to this point in Matthew we have only seen the promise of Christ building His church, from Matthew 16.

In our passage cited above, there are three important features that we will focus on in this post, a gathering of two or three of God’s people, gathering is in the name of Christ, and that when this gathering takes place, Christ is among them.

First, we see in verse 20 above that our Lord sets the minimum parameters for a gathering of His people as where, two or three are gathered.  This is key to answering some of our questions posed above and we already know that the context of this passage has to do with church discipline of a recalcitrant brother.  Notice that this small number of believers is mentioned throughout this passage

  • take one or two others along with you
  • that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 
  • If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 
  • For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

This idea of two or three recalls a passage from the Old Testament, where two or three witnesses are necessary for conviction of a crime (see Deuteronomy 19:15; also 2 Cor. 13:1).  While this mention of two or three occurs throughout the passage, as we’ll see, this last mention carries with it a distinction.

Next, this assembly of two or three is a gathering in Christ’s name.    The word translated as “gather” is verbal form of the Greek word synagogue.  In another post, we looked at the semantic overlap between ekklesia and synagogue as well as the relationship between church and synagogue.  Here we want to simply point out that this gathering is not a random gathering of believers for a ball game or to discuss the weather.  It has intentionality and purpose.  It is a gathering in the name of Christ.  This distinction is critically important for understanding these minimum requirements for a gathering are not limited to where a small number of believers gather, but where they gather in the name of Christ.

We might at this point ask, how does one gather in the name of Christ?  Is it simply a declarative statement, “We come together in the name of Christ”?  Is it an internal posture of the heart?  How can one be sure that this small group is gathering in the name of Christ?

It is where believer’s gather under the authority of Christ, i.e. His Lordship, for the open proclamation and profession of His Word.  Commenting on this passage in his New Testament commentary, Hendriksen clarifies this gathering in Christ’s name as, “in close fellowship with him; hence, with his atoning work as the basis of their approach to God, at his direction, and in harmony with that which he has revealed concerning himself.” (pg. 703)

Third, and finally, we see that this gathering of two or three in the name of Christ has a special promise attached to it, namely the presence of Christ in their midst.  This promise of our Lord’s special presence, in the midst of the gathering of His people, is not the same as His omnipresence.  It is a special presence of Christ in the midst of those who gather in His name.  It is here where Christ dwells in His temple (2 Cor. 6:16).

When this passage is often discussed in the context of defining the minimum gathering of God’s people, many have objected to it and denied that such a small group, two or three, could constitute a gathering of God’s people.  But that is precisely what our Lord is communicating.  We have no need for dozens to be sent out, nor does the institutional church with her hundreds meeting at once constitute a gathering anymore than two or three who gather in the name of Christ.

Writing in his classic work on the doctrine of the Church, Edmund Clowney offers the following affirmation, “Not only do we come to the assembly where our risen Lord is; he comes by his Spirit to the assembly where we are.  Where two or three gather in his name, there he is.  Because the Lord’s true assembly is in heaven, it appears in many ways on earth: in house churches, in city churches, in the church universal.  Even two or three gathered in his name may claim his power, for he is there.” pg. 31-32

This discussion brings up one additional question.  If this minimum group, of two or three, gathered in Christ’s name constitutes a “church”, when has the “universal church” ever been gathered together in the name of Christ?

Answer: they haven’t…yet.

Beware of Leaven


At the conclusion of the Book of Revelation, our Lord Jesus Christ offers a strong warning against all who would add or subtract from His words of prophecy just given to the Apostle John.  This warning promises that should one venture to add, then the accompanying plagues of the prophecy will be added to them.  If one ventures to subtract, then God will ‘subtract’ his share in the tree of life and the holy city.

18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. Rev. 22:18-19

An equally forceful warning  accompanies the Law or Torah section (First 5 Books) of the Old Testament, specifically in Deuteronomy 4:2.  Here Moses is reviewing the details of God’s giving His law to Israel and precedes it with this sharp warning,  You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.”

A similar warning is given in Deuteronomy 12:32, as Moses recounts God’s commands for worship and against idolatry, “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.”

One final passage, similar in nature by establishing the sufficiency of Scripture against the errors of adding to and subtracting from the Word of God, occurs in the Wisdom portion of Scripture,

Every word of God proves true;
    he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
    lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.” Proverbs 30:5-6

Collectively, these passages (and others) offer strict prohibition and warning against tampering with the Word of God regardless of the book.  While the warning occurs in specific books and historical contexts, due to the pervasiveness of the warning it establishes a principal to guard against adding or subtracting from any of God’s Word.

Sometimes we weigh this warning more heavily against adding to God’s Word, as in the case of those who believe God’s revelation continues in the form charismatic gifts.  However, we must remember that equally important is that we do not subtract from it either, as with those who pick and choose what they want to believe.

This biblical principle establishes Scripture’s divine authority, it’s sufficiency, and it’s completeness.  It is simply not an option to add to or subtract from God’s Word.

In practice, we not only are guilty of violating this when we pick and choose doctrines to believe, but also when we allow tradition or preferences to supersede the Word of God.

In the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry, we find two clear examples for the violation of this biblical prohibition, the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Two distinct religious groups existing in first century Israel, each guilty of adding and subtracting to the Word of God, respectively.  The Pharisees were well known for the addition of tradition and their own additional commandments to the Word of God.  Conversely, the Sadducees were well known for the subtraction of God’s Word, holding only to the Torah, while denying such crucial doctrines as the resurrection, angels, and spirit (Acts 23:8).  Though they were often antagonistic against each other, we need to be reminded that they found a common enemy in Christ our Lord and conspired to murder Him.

With the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry we are introduced to these two groups with the familiar, stinging rebuke, But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Matthew 3:7-10

While John paves the way for the hostility that pure and undefiled religion would have towards the false systems of the Pharisees and Sadducees, throughout Christ’s earthly ministry, these two groups, along with the scribes, also draw His ire and attention.  Passage after passage we see them continually attempting to provoke and question Christ while He limits their understanding and often follows up discussions with them with a rebuke.  One such rebuke occurs in chapter 16 of Matthew.  While the latter half of the chapter often garners the most attention, its the first half that sets the context out of which Peter’s confession and our Lord’s pronouncement to build the church becomes striking.

In the opening verses of the chapter, once again the Pharisees and Sadducees come together in order to test Jesus.  As was His custom, Jesus rebukes them with a piercing indictment, An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.” Matthew 16:4

As He and His disciples arrive on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples realize that they have forgotten to bring bread.  This simple statement in Matthew 16:5 is profound.  First, because Jesus had literally just fed the four thousand and the five thousand before them (Matt. 16:9-10).  Second, because Jesus would take their lack of bread and use it for an analogy to warn against the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:6).  Third, because they actually did forget the bread and were showing their lack of faith (Matt. 16:8).  Fourth, leaven has a significant meaning in the history of Israel (Exodus 12:7-12).

It’s this second (and fourth) point that we want to draw our focus to.  In Matthew 16:6 we read of the warning to watch or beware of the Pharisees and Sadducees leaven,

Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 

The key to understanding this verse is determining what Jesus is referring to as “leaven”. 

Using His analogy of bread, along with the historical significance of leaven, we can piece together what the implications of this strong warning are.  Historically, Israel was commanded by God to eat unleavened bread as part of the inaugural Passover meal.  Partaking in leavened bread was serious enough to warrant being cut off from the community of Israel (Exodus 12:19).  During the Exodus, later in chapter 12, we see that their escape from Egypt was so abrupt that their bread by necessity was without leaven.  Maintaining the Feast of Unleavened Bread was a reminder of God’s mercy and the haste of escaping Egypt, without delay for even bread to rise.

In the New Testament, certainly this meaning was understood, but also the principle of unleavened bread took on a spiritual component.  Sometimes, as in Matthew 13 it is used positively to  refer to the spreading and enlargement of God’s Kingdom from such a small amount.  Other times it is used negatively, as in our verse from above.  1 Corinthians 5 informs us that a little leaven, leavens the whole lump, speaking to its pervasiveness and that it’s indistinguishable from the dough.

Having seen the meaning and use of leaven, we turn now to how our Lord is applying it in the case of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Remember that both were guilty of violating the principle of adding or subtracting to and from God’s Word.  Both had influential, public ministries, and both claimed to represent true Judaism.  Herein lies the application.  Leaven refers to the doctrine of either group, or anyone really, which departs from Scripture, while on the other hand claiming to represent truth.  In doing so, it has a profoundly negative effect on the genuine truth, as leaven would to dough.  In other words, this is the height of hypocrisy (Luke 12:1-3).  There is little more dangerous than error that masks itself as truth, or half-truths.

Writing in his helpful commentary on this passage, Matthew Henry asserts that the Sadducees leaven in his day was Deism and Atheism, while the Pharisees leaven was Popery.  It may well be true that these were critical issues of the Puritanical Period, but the principle, to the heart of what leaven means, is those things which creep into orthodoxy and distort it.  In other words, our Lord’s warning to His disciples is not to be on guard against leaven from the outside, for instance the world, or false religions, but precisely how leaven functions, when its inside and joined with the true dough.  It then may spread and infect the whole lump, overtime, going virtually unnoticed.

What areas has leaven made its influence on you personally?  What about in the “church” today?  If leaven has made it in, would we be able to notice it?  The danger with leaven is that it becomes completely indistinguishable from the dough. If we could notice it, are we willing to do anything about it?

Soli Deo Gloria

The Abrahamic Tipping Point


One of the primary areas of disagreement over the interpretation of Scripture is the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and the implications that flow downstream from this,  such as: Israel vs. the Church, infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism, and the Future of ethnic Israel.  The tipping point in each of these debates, and the key to unraveling the continuity/discontinuity issue between the Old and New Covenants, is the meaning and significance of the Abrahamic Covenant.

On the one hand, finding too much continuity between the Old and the New Covenants, results in a continuation of the practices regarding infants, i.e. infant circumcision under the Old is continued under the New by means of the practice of baptism.  Additionally, this view collapses Israel and the Church and sees them as a (near) continuous unit.  On the other hand, finding too much discontinuity between the Old and the New, results in two distinct purposes and plans of redemption for the people of God, namely Israel under the Old Covenant and the Church under the New Covenant .  Historically, the distance between these two views has been approached from a variety of angles with a myriad of different solutions, each of which must reconcile what to do with the Abrahamic Covenant.

Keep in mind, when we are mentioning the Abrahamic Covenant, we are referring to the progressive unfolding of the covenant that God makes with Abraham, which begins in Genesis 12 and is woven throughout Genesis until around Genesis 22.  While there are many passages which one could examine to arrive at a solid conclusion on the issue of how to interpret this covenant, one passage of particular interest occurs in John 8, within the context of Jesus’ dialogue/sermon with the Pharisees and those who claimed to believe in Him.  We pick up the debate in verse 31

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

Here, the dialogue centers around Jesus’ statement that the truth is freeing.  It’s rather obvious that He is not talking about  being in physical captivity, as the Jews assume, rather He is talking about being enslaved by sin.  The truth, says our Lord, will set one free from this enslavement.  The reply by the Jews assures us that they do not have the ears to hear what Christ is saying, because they immediately state their heritage with Abraham, followed by an affirmation of their physical freedom.

Though He certainly did not have to clarify His statements, our Lord condescends to the Jews misunderstanding with the following

34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

With this, we have a crystallizing statement that Jesus is not talking about physical slavery, rather the slavery to sin.  The contrast in the dialogue is between Jesus’ spiritual analogy of slavery and the Jews physical concept of slavery.  Next, Jesus addresses their claim to Abraham

37 I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”

Jesus affirms the statement that the Jews are the offspring of Abraham.  Remember that their statements were affirming physical realities: 1. We’ve never been enslaved 2. We have Abraham as our Father.  Remember too that Jesus was talking spiritual realities.  In verse 37, He affirms their physical relationship with Abraham, yet in verse 38, He goes back to the spiritual, “you do what you have heard from your father.”  The following verses add clarity

39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” 

Notice again that the Jews assert that Abraham is their father.  Clearly they recognize that in verse 38, Jesus is talking about a different father.  Our Lord’s next statement is the focus of our post and serves to highlight the duality with Abraham

Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.”

After previously affirming the Jews relationship with Abraham, Jesus (who we may be reminded was Himself a Jew) now questions their relationship with Abraham by focusing on their deeds, or works.  Either Jesus has forgotten what He said earlier or He’s confused right?  What gives?

Well certainly He’s neither.  How can one’s works determine whether or not you have a physical ancestor in Abraham?  Clearly, Jesus is now back to an emphasis on spiritual realities.  The works that Abraham did were the results of the “obedience of faith” (see Genesis 15:6; 22:12, 16-18; Romans 4:3ff; James2:23ff).  Again, Jesus references another father in contrast to Abraham.  Let’s finish out this section of the dialogue and then summarize what we’ve seen

They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.”42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

The above passage is an important conclusion because for the first time we see the Jews finally grasping the spiritual realities that Jesus has been discussing.  They assert that yes, Abraham is their physical ancestor, but God is their true Father.  Jesus immediately debunks this superficial claim by again looking to the fruit in their lives and seeing a lack of love for Himself.  In contrast to their claim of God as their Father, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter by stating they have the devil as their father.

Summarizing then

  • The Jews claim and Jesus affirms their physical relationship with Abraham.
  • Jesus presents a paradigm wherein the Jews do not have a spiritual relationship with Abraham.
  • The Jews claim and Jesus denies their spiritual relationship with God as their Father.
  • Jesus presents a paradigm wherein the Jews have the devil as their spiritual father.

So what does all this contribute towards understanding the Abrahamic covenant?

In the context of this dialogue, Jesus presents a duality with respect to Abraham, that he has BOTH physical AND spiritual descendants.  The physical covenant with Abraham was marked by circumcision.  The “spiritual covenant” more properly called the Covenant of Grace, was marked by faith and obedience, the evidence of a circumcised heart.  All of Abraham’s descendants were to be marked by physical circumcision, remarkably, this included both Ishmael and Isaac, as well as the servants in Abraham’s house.  All of Abraham’s spiritual descendants are marked with heart circumcision.

17th Century Baptist, Nehemiah Coxe summarizes this duality in Abraham with the following words,

“Abraham is to be considered in a double capacity: he is the father of all true believers and the father and root of the Israelite nation.”

While the physical and the spiritual seed of Abraham at times had overlap, as in Isaac not Ishmael and Jacob not Esau, and the promises to Abraham, both physical and spiritual had overlap, nevertheless recognizing and maintaing this duality is critical to understanding the relationship between the Old and New Covenants.

One final note for consideration, both the seed and the promises given to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.” Galatians 3:16  This fulfillment in Christ reaches its pinnacle through His death on the cross, shedding His own blood for the inauguration of the New Covenant*, see Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8:6-13.



(*essentially this is the fulfillment of the Covenant of Grace that we mentioned earlier).