“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
– (Matthew 18:20 NIV)
We’ve all heard this before. Someone starts a small group or prayer meeting with something like: “Dear Lord, thank You that You are here with us. For Your Word says, where two or three are gathered in Your name, there You are with us ….”
When we gather together as a body of Christ, it’s only natural that we want to affirm that God’s presence is among us and to be assured that God hears our prayers. Matthew 18:20 seems like a promise that fits situations like that perfectly. We might even feel that saying the verse will make our gathering more ‘legit’, especially if it’s only a small or informal meeting.
DOES IT MEAN THAT WHEN WE ARE NOT IN GROUPS OF TWO OR THREE, JESUS IS NOT WITH US?
This way of using the verse has become so much of a cliché that we might be doing it without much thought. But if we’re paying attention, we would realise that there are some problems with thinking about the verse like this.
Firstly, does it mean that when we are not in groups of two or three, Jesus is not with us? Of course not — Jesus is with us whether we are alone or in a big group! In fact, the gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as “God with us” (Matt 1:23, 28:20).
Secondly, do we need to state that we are gathering in Jesus’ name to make sure that He is with us? What does it even mean to gather in Jesus’ name? When we gather in His name, it means that we gather as Jesus’ followers. “In Jesus’ name” is not a magical phrase that summons Jesus — just saying the word “Jesus” in itself has no power! It is the person of Jesus who is powerful, not the string of sounds we use to refer to Him. Ultimately, we can be sure that Jesus is with us and hears our prayers because Jesus is God with us. His presence among His people is based on who He is, not what we can do to invoke it.
UNLOCKING THE CONTEXT
So what does Matthew 18:20 really mean? We need to pay attention to the context of the verse to understand it. While the section headings in our Bibles are not part of the original text but inserted by translators, they can help our understanding. The NIV and ESV section headings for Matthew 18:15–20 are “Dealing with sin in the church” and “If your brother sins against you”, respectively, which give us an accurate idea of what this section is about. In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches His disciples how the community of God’s people should treat one another. Matthew 18:20 is part of a section with Jesus’ instructions on what to do when people in the Christian community sin.
In Matthew 18:15–17, Jesus lays out a process for the church to follow when a believer confronts a fellow believer who is in sin. If possible, the two individuals should try to settle it between themselves (v. 15). Otherwise, if the believer who is in sin refuses to listen to correction, one or two other people should be brought in as witnesses to the attempt (v. 16). If this fails, the matter should be brought to the attention of the church as a whole (v. 17a), and if the person is still unrepentant at this point, they may be excluded from the fellowship and treated like “a pagan or tax collector,” which in those times meant an ungodly outsider (v. 17b).
Here, we see that church discipline is a serious matter and these decisions are not to be made lightly. Therefore, Jesus gives the church as a whole His authority to carry it out. Verse 18 is parallel in meaning to John 20:23, where Jesus says, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” In Matthew and John, Jesus is saying that when the church makes decisions about discipline and forgiveness wisely, they do so with godly authority. God is the one guiding them when they make these decisions
EACH OF US… HAS A ROLE TO PLAY IN SAFEGUARDING THE PURITY AND HOLINESS OF OUR CHURCH.
in prayer and humble submission. Even when it is just two or three believers confronting a brother or sister in sin, Jesus promises that He is with them. In this context, Matthew 18:19 is referring to prayer about an issue of discipline — the verse is not a generic promise that God will answer any prayer as long as two people agree on it.
APPLYING IT TODAY
So, Matthew 18:20 is indeed a promise that God is with us when we come together but specifically for the purpose of church discipline. Jesus has authorised His church to carry out discipline in love, with restoration and reconciliation as the end goal. To interpret and apply this verse in context, then, means that each of us, as part of the community of believers, has a role to play in safeguarding the purity and holiness of our church. And we are empowered to do so since God’s presence is with us and His Holy Spirit guides us (John 14:26; 20:22).
If you have a conflict with someone in your community, this passage of Scripture provides a model for how to gently confront them and hopefully reconcile with them. As Asians, we tend to think avoiding confrontations is a virtue, but that may not necessarily be a biblical value. In situations where we have sinned against someone or have been sinned against, a loving and gracious talk with the other person can go a long way in maintaining the health of the church and its members. Let’s take this responsibility that Jesus has given us seriously!