To continue our series looking at commonly taken out of context verses, I wanted to take aim at one of the most famous of them all, Matthew 18:20.
"For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Typically, I've heard it quoted in church services by pastors and worship leaders praying in front of the congregation: "Lord, thank you so much that You are here with us right now as we worship. Your Word says, 'Where two or more are gathered, there I am also.' We have at least three hundred here just to be safe, so we know for sure you're here." I've also heard it in small prayer meetings: "God we know you can hear our prayers right now because Sebastian and Helga are praying with me."
It's used as an encouragement to the others listening that God approves of their worship. We know something really extra-special and spiritual is going down because God is actually here with us.
I'm definitely not innocent in my use of this verse. This verse is so commonly used that it's become another prayer-ism that people naturally say along with "Heavenly Father," "Place a hedge of protection," "Bless this food to our bodies" (Because you know, of course, nutrients only travel through your bloodstream if you pray—especially fast-food), and "In Jesus' name." Sometimes we don't even think about it. We just say it.
This is a public service announcement to not take all our Christian-ese as given truth. We need to think through what we say and do in the Christian life, even if it's been said or done by pastors, and see if what we're doing is actually founded on the Bible. If it is, then that's great! If not, then we need to reevaluate our spiritual habits.
(1 + 2 = God) is an equation we really don't need.
Here's the context to Matthew 18:20. It's a little long, but stick with me.
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.”
Jesus here is teaching His disciples how things are to work in His kingdom, in His church. He has just finished teaching the disciples about true greatness (18:1-6), how to fight sin (18:7-9), and God's heart for the lost (18:10-14). Then in verse 15 (our context), Jesus transitions to talk about how we deal with others who sin against us. Justice is not found in taking matters into our own hands but in an orderly system of checks and balances, and in restoration. Jesus gives the disciples four steps to follow in such a situation.
1. Talk about it
Jesus tells His disciples that if they've been wronged by someone else in the church, first and foremost they are supposed to confront that person one-on-one (18:15). Not gossip. Not put passive-aggressive statuses on Facebook. Lovingly face-to-face. The goal in all of this is restoration and redemption.
2. Take one or two witnesses with you
If for some reason the perpetrator does not believe you or is not sorry for their sin, you must take one or two people to again confront them (18:16). This shows the person proof that the accusations are not the result of a grudge but in reality seen by multiple people. Jesus says, "every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses" (18:16). Does that number sound familiar?
3. Have the leadership confront them
If the perpetrator again rejects your loving correction, Jesus says you and the witnesses are to bring it before the "church" (18:17). I don't have time to explain it all, but I take this to mean the church leadership and not the entire congregation. Hopefully having all the pastors confront the person will make them see the severity of their sin.
4. Send them out of the church
If they still won't repent, even after multiple confrontations, the church is to send the person out because they are willfully rebelling against God's Word (18:17). They will bring others down if you don't (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Timothy 2:16-19; Titus 3:10-11).
Then Jesus ends this sermonette with a reassurance, "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. 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" (18:18-19). He's saying, if you go through this process correctly then God agrees with you. This is encouraging because proper church discipline is not a fun deal for anyone.
As a part of His encouragement Jesus ends saying, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" (18:20). Remember that number? It's the same amount of witnesses needed to properly confront a person in sin. Jesus isn't saying you need two or three people praying to Him to have Him present. Jesus is encouraging believers that if they go through this process of church discipline properly then He supports their decision.
It's almost hilarious how different this is from the common misinterpretation of this verse.
So, is Jesus present when two or more gather in His name? Yes.
He is also present when only one gathers in His name. Or none. God is always with you (Psalm 139) and you can call out to Him at anytime or anyplace. He wants you to. He's not waiting for a magical number of people to appear.
If that were the case, then what do you do if you have two people gathered but one secretly and nefariously has not gathered in Jesus' name? Is fellowship broken? No.
Instead, we can come to Jesus at any time, knowing that He is ready and excited to hear from us.
Other Out of Context posts: Philippians 4:13 - Can I do all things through Christ? How to take a verse out of context