Misused Verses: “Where 2 or 3 are Gathered?”
If you have ever shown up to a sparsely attended Bible study, populated only by a faithful few, you have probably heard Matthew 18:20 quoted:
Matthew 18:20 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The idea being conveyed in that specific setting provides an immediate encouragement to the present participants: Jesus is present among us even when so few others are. Some take this interpretation further, using this verse to develop a doctrine of the church that essentially claims whenever 2 or 3 people are gathered “in Jesus’ name” a “church” is formed.
But is this what Jesus was communicating in Matthew 18:20? Is Jesus’ telling us what constitutes a local church? Is He uniquely present with any 2 or 3 people when they gather “in His name”?
Well, as is quite usual with misused and misunderstood verses, there is an element of truth that can be found in most interpretations, even if the ultimate meaning of the text is different. To put it differently, someone may use a verse to say something that is, at least partially biblically accurate, while still missing the point of the verse at hand. This appears to be the case with Matthew 18:20. Is it true that Jesus is present in a unique way when His people gather, even if it is only 2 or 3? Well, yes. But in order to have a fuller understanding of the verse one must define who are those who have “gathered” in “His name”. In order to unlock the meaning of the verse, it must be understood within its proper context. What is Jesus talking about in Matthew 18?
Matthew 18, as a chapter is thematically concerned with “life in the Kingdom”. The entire chapter is filled with parables and exhortations that provide a practical and moral framework for how Christians will interact with one another within the context of the local church. Even more, the chapter tells us how Jesus Himself interacts with His covenant people within the polity structure of the local church.
Specifically, verse 20 occurs at the tail end of a section of teaching on church discipline.
Matthew 18:15-20 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.”
A good rule of Bible study is this: anytime you see a “for” or a “therefore” you should stop and ask what is it “there for”. Usually the answer is found in the verses proceeding the one in question. So what does an examination of context tell us about this verse? Quite a bit actually.
What is Jesus saying here?
Jesus promises He will be present with His church when the restorative discipline of unrepentant members is being lovingly and faithfully administered. His presence implies both his authority and fellowship and are shared with that local church.
Again, how do we know this is what Jesus was communicating to his listeners and the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel? Well, for starters we know that the original readers of Matthew’s Gospel were Jewish-Christian converts. There is no question that Jesus’ words here in Matthew 18 would have immediately caused them to consider the OT parallels of Deuteronomy 17 and 19 which provide legal precedence concerning accusations brought against another member of the Jewish community. Two or three witnesses were necessary in order to establish a charge in any legal case.
DA Carson writes on the connection between Matthew 18 and Deut. 19: “Evidence of two or three witnesses follows the guidelines of Deut. 19:15, and refers to the witnesses of the subsequent confrontation described in this verse, not necessarily eyewitnesses to the original offense. And in Matthew 18:20, Jesus affirms that He will be divinely present among his disciples as they seek unity in rendering decisions, which is rightly understood also as an affirmation of omnipresence and therefore deity”.
So where does this leave us?
Based on the context of Matthew 18:20 we can summarize the meaning of the verse this way: Jesus promises his unique presence (authority + fellowship) with specific local churches when they have gathered “in His name” to protect the testimony of Christ and the teachings of the Gospel through the restorative, loving act of calling unrepentant sinners back to Christ and removing from fellowship those who do not.
Does this verse deny the presence of Jesus with any collection of 2 or 3 Christians who gather to pray, study the Bible, share the Gospel with non-Christians or serve the poor together? No. Jesus, by His spirit, is always present with us individually and certainly, there is a particular power when any group of born-again Christ-followers come together.
But when is Jesus “present” in the same way He is present here in Matthew 18:20? Only when, his covenant people, gathered in the authority of His name, assembled by the preached Gospel and participation in the sacraments, led by biblical leaders meet to fulfill their biblical obligations as members of a local church is Jesus present in a Matthew 18:20 kind of way.
He is present in his binding and loosing authority.
He is present in his comforting fellowship as sinners are called back to Him.
It can be 2 or 3 hundred. It can be 2 or 3 thousand.
Or it can be 2 or 3.