I’ve heard Jesus’ words, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20) quoted countless times, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use these words with their original meaning. Most people apply this passage to Bible studies or worship assemblies, but that’s not really what the Lord was talking about. Here are a few thoughts on how this passage gets misused and what it’s really about.
How It’s Misused
This is usually how I hear this passage used. See if any of these statements sound familiar:
- “When we go on vacation, we don’t visit an area congregation, we just have a devotional in our hotel room. You know what the Lord said, ‘Where two or three are gathered…'”
- “My family had some conflicts with some people at church. Now we just worship as a family every week. You know what the Lord said, ‘Where two or three are gathered…'”
- “I don’t belong to a church. I just meet with some friends for a Bible study at a coffee shop. You know what the Lord said, ‘Where two or three are gathered…'”
I’ve also heard this passage quoted to justify meeting in a small congregation without elders, when these Christians could have gone a few miles down the road and merged with a congregation that had elders. Not only do statements like these reflect some other spiritual problems, they ignore the very context of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20.
“Two or Three” OR “Two or More”?
We usually interpret Jesus’ words “two or three” to mean “two or more.” It’s funny when a group of five people say, “We don’t have to meet with the church; there are five us and you know what Jesus said…” Wait. Jesus said, “Two or three,” five is not “two or three.”
If we would pay attention, we would see that verse 20 is not the only time the words “two or three” appear in the context. Matthew 18:16 says, “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.” In fact, nearly every time Scripture talks about “two or three” people, it is talking about having two or three witness to establish a charge against someone.
In both the Old and New Testaments, the Lord is very clear that His people should not entertain a charge against someone if it is just one person’s word against another. There must be two or three witnesses to “convict” someone of wrongdoing (see Deuteronomy 19:15; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19). This is precisely the context of Matthew 18:20.
What Was Jesus Talking About?
The context of Jesus’ statement is about handling situations in the church where one brother has sinned against another. Jesus said:
“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. 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. 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” (Matthew 18:15-17).
Far from excusing people from the church, Jesus is talking about the necessity of church discipline. He goes on to say that when Christians come together in agreement against someone who has sinned, they can take comfort in knowing that Jesus is in their midst in making such a difficult decision. In other words, they can know they are disciplining their brother by the authority of Jesus Christ.
Consider another passage of Scripture which will help us understand this passage. In the Corinthian church, the Christians had to apply what Jesus was talking about. They had to remove a brother from their assembly who was sleeping with his father’s wife. Paul wrote to them saying:
“When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5).
We do not discipline sinful Christians nearly enough today. And maybe one of the reasons is that we don’t understand and apply Jesus’ words in this passage. He was saying, “I will be right there beside you when you make these difficult judgements.” What wonderful comfort that would be when someone must be disciplined.
But Isn’t Jesus Still Among Us Anyway?
The next question that usually follows is, “Ok, so maybe the context is church discipline and not worship, but that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is among us when we’re in a small group setting.” My answer would be, it depends on what you mean.
Of course Jesus is always “with” His disciples (Matthew 28:20). Even when one Christian privately goes to the Lord in prayer, the Lord is with her. But this passage is all about “agreement.” It’s about the church being in agreement in prayer concerning an erring brother (Matthew 18:18-19) and Jesus being in agreement with the church (vs. 20).
If we are trying to justify avoiding the Lord’s church, then we certainly can’t take comfort in Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20. But when we’re having to discipline a brother in sin, what a comfort to know He is right there with us and we are doing it “with the power of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4).
I love you and God loves you,