Question: Hi Bob, Could you explain exactly what Matthew18:19 means? I seem to be getting different views on what it means that prayer is answered when "two agree".
Response : This verse is consistent with everything else our Lord in particular and scripture in general say about prayer. I believe that every righteous prayer is heard, but that there are some things which can accelerate and intensify prayer. This may seem inconsistent, but, like many things in scripture, really is not. When Jesus' disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray, He responded with "the Lord's prayer", and that prayer is a perfect model of what we are talking about here:
1) it looks forward to ultimate deliverance rather than to solutions for our present problems ("Thy Kingdom come"); now it is certainly not wrong to seek answers and help for problems this side of the kingdom, but Jesus' beginning makes it clear that if we were perfect, we would long most of all for the day when our Lord returns, and when all of these fleshly problems with which we wrestle are de facto dissolved in resurrection and glory.
2) it focuses on what God wants rather than on what we want ("Thy will be done"). Paul says in 1st Thessalonians 5:17-18 that we are to keep praying continually, but quickly adds that we are to give thanks in all circumstances because "this (i.e., whatever one is facing) is God's will for you in Jesus Christ".
3) until that day of kingdom come and God's will universally done on the new earth, it asks only for what is essential for us to persevere in the particular struggle to which we have been called, "bread" to sustain our lives in this world, "forgiveness" from our sins to sustain our fellowship with Him in this world, and "deliverance" from the pressures of this world which may be greater than we can bear. These are all things that our weak flesh absolutely needs (rather than things we think we need).
Though they may not express it in these exact terms, many Christians are of the impression that prayer is a means of getting things from God, and if you pray, you get what you want, and if you don't, you don't. But I don't see it in precisely this way. From my reading of scripture, prayer is God's way of helping us understand, appreciate, and accept His will. It is a conversation between us and our heavenly Father whereby we come to know Him better. After all, there are plenty of verses (like the one you ask about) that are often taken to mean that whatever we ask for we automatically get - again, like God is asleep or is like a vending machine or something. But on the other hand there are verses, like James 4:3, that clearly teach that not all prayer is answered. Again, this is not inconsistent, but it does show that prayer is often misunderstood. When Jesus prayed to His Father before Lazarus was raised from the dead, He made it clear that He knew ahead of time with complete confidence and faith that the Father would empower this miracle - but He offered the prayer "for the sake of those" who were listening (Jn.11:41-44). Ideally, this is what prayer should be:
1) offered in complete faith and confidence;
2) offered as something which requests what is entirely God's will and understood ahead of time as such;
3) offered as a response to God rather than as a an effort to get God to respond.
To my mind, the reason why this verse you ask about and similar "prayer promise" verses trouble us (and at one point or another they troubles most Christians who read the Bible), is that they put the true issues of prayer in such stark relief that they magnify our inadequacy. That is, if there is any imperfection or irresolution in our faith in prayer (and lack of faith hinders prayer: Jas.1:6-7), if there is any aspect of our desire in prayer which is really known to us not to be in God's will (and selfishness hinders prayer: Jas.4:3), if there is any impatience with God's timing or way of answering (and we cannot know all the cosmic facts: cf. the book of Job), then the straight-forward promise of these verses and their like - all the places where God promises He will answer us - can easily cut us to the quick. Instead, the lesson I think we all should try to take from these promises is not that there is any deficiency in God (He cannot lie and His promises are always honored), but if there is any deficiency it is in us. Once we accept this principle, then much of the problem of "unanswered prayer" disappears immediately. Jesus told us that if we had faith the size of a grain of mustard seed we could tell the fig tree to plant itself in the sea and the mountain to move aside and they would do so. Yet we do not see Jesus giving either of these commands. Why? Not because God would not answer, but because Jesus would never ask anything that was not in the will of God.
That brings me to the last point about this and similar verses. Namely, that even though we know the will of God generally, and for our lives particularly, better and better as we advance in the Christian life, there will always be things we do not know and things occurring in the conflict beyond our eyes which we cannot see. Therefore there will always be times and circumstances, situations and difficulties for which and about which we pray wherein we cannot really say what God's will is as far as the outcome is concerned. That does not mean that we cannot pray for a specific outcome, but I believe that it is very important to have the proper mind-set before offering any prayer:
1) God loves me and already knows what I need before I ask Him; He will take care of me, and will do so not because of my prayer but because of who He is;
2) I have complete confidence in Him and faith in Him to work everything out for me for what is truly His good, whether I can see clearly what that is or not; I know He will do that even irrespective of my prayers;
3) it is a privilege to be able to offer my requests to my Father directly; I know that doing so is for my good, for my edification, for my reassurance and encouragement, rather than a mechanical means of producing something from God. I need to talk to Him - that is the way He made me.
Prayer really is for our good in many ways. It reminds us of our loving Father's concern for us. It draws us closer to Him. It lets us unload our cares upon Him. It gives us a chance to share the load with our fellow believers and vice versa to take up the load for whoever needs help. It lets us participate in this grand invisible struggle that glorifies God, and to do so in a wonderful and important way. And it makes clear to angels and men that we are trusting in God rather than in ourselves, that we are looking to Him for our solutions and not to the strength of our own flesh.
So joining together with other believers to pray should not be an occasion to doubt about the value of individual prayer, and is not at all about the mechanics of "how to pray". Corporate prayer, where at least "two are joined together", is rather an opportunity to show solidarity of faith, of care, of concern, and of unity in appreciating and looking to the grace of God in the accomplishment of His will. The better we pray, the more we pray, the more attuned we are to the will of God when we pray, the closer we are to God, the more of us who pray (Matt.18:19) -- all of these things do indeed accentuate and accelerate prayer. This does not at all mean that prayer which may lack some or all of these accelerating attributes is ineffective or unwelcome. God hears everything we pray. The question really is, do we really hear what we're praying?
For more on prayer, please see the following links:
The Lord's Prayer
Jesus' Prayers in Gethsemane (part of Bible Basics 4A: Christology)
Can Prayer Be Offered From Heaven?
Prayer as an Element of Spiritual Growth (part of Peter lesson #17)
The value of cumulative prayer.
Prayer for Failing Faith
Holding up Holy Hands in Prayer
Prayer Offered in Jesus' Name
Praying for Wisdom: James 1:5
Blessing, Cursing, Prayer and the Will of God
Prayer Access to the Father and Christ's Intercession on our behalf.
Yours in Him who answers our prayers before the words even come to our lips, the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.