FORMULA FOR SUCCESS: "Where Two or Three Are Gathered"
The Bible is not Barlett's Famous Quotations. It is instead a book superintended by God the Holy Spirit and has its own message. Through the proper use of the rules of normal language usage, it can be understood, at least by anyone indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God. And usually it can be clearly understood.
I estimate that more than ninety per cent of the times I have heard Matthew 18:20 quoted, it has been quoted out of context. And being quoted out of context, it has been given a meaning other than that intended. If you have spent any time with Christians, no doubt you have also heard it, or even quoted it yourself.
What is Matthew 18:20? It is this: "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst" (All Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB).
I once heard some people discussing an issue. I don't remember the exact issue, but it was one of wide interest and concern, such as abortion. During the course of the conversation, someone suggested that we solve the problem once and for all through prayer. And then he referred to the preceding verse, Matthew 18:19, which says, "Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven."
Supposedly, if two or three gather in the name of Jesus, any request upon which they agree will be answered according to their asking.
On the face of it, I considered their proposition. Do you mean to tell me that in our community, or in our nation, or even in the whole world we cannot find two or three people who would meet together and agree in prayer regarding such an issue? There were more than that involved in the conversation! But apparently it wouldn't be done, or couldn't.
Sometimes Matthew 18:20 is quoted with the supposition of the Lord's blessing. After all, if several people who are Christians band together in an endeavor, He is in the midst of them. The verse is used frequently and for any situation in which it might seem useful.
But in what sense is Christ in the midst of these two or three that He is not with others? The Bible teaches that God is omnipresent. Everywhere is present to Him. Christ is not physically present as He was during the time of the Gospels. But the Holy Spirit is His substitute indwelling every believer. People who use the verse freely must think that Christ is present in a way other than the omnipresence of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They are probably using that expression metaphorically to mean that Christ will answer their prayer or bless their endeavor.
When in doubt, look at the context. Usually the verses before and after will be helpful in interpreting Scripture. The same is true here.
Matthew 18:15-20 is a unit. The subject is church discipline. The subject is relating to an erring church member with the goal of restoring him or her to right belief and behavior.
The method involves several steps. The person who knows about the sinning church member is to go to him privately and reprove him, again with the goal of his repentance and correction. If this does not succeed, one or two others as witnesses should go along with the original person who knows about the sinning and repeat the process. If this does not succeed, then it is to be reported to the church with the same goal. If that does not succeed, he is to be treated as an unbeliever.
It is in the context of that process that our verse appears. In fact, here is the complete text of Matthew 18:18-20, following immediately the steps for the disciplinary process:
Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered in My name, here I am in their midst.
Church discipline is an action not to be lightly and easily exercised. It is normal for those involved to wonder whether they are making the right decision, or whether they should be making a decision at all. Jesus' words here give confidence.
He is saying that if the process is followed as He gave it, and if the goal has been to restore the erring brother or sister, then He, Jesus, is involved in the decision. He would have made the same decision, had He been physically present. He is leading the process and blessing the outcome according to His good purpose.
Someone said to me on one occasion, "But the verse appears also in other contexts." The fact is, it doesn't. You will not find "where two or three are gathered" in any other setting. This is the only one.
It is interesting to note that the only other significant (in the sense of possibly being related to our subject) passages where "two or three" appears are passages describing the establishing of fact. Consider the following:
Deut. 19:15 A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.
Actually, these come very close to the subject considered in Matthew 18:20 where there is the establishment of rebellion against the Lord and against those who seek to bring restoration. The "two or three" who gather in Jesus' name serve as witnesses to establish that rebellion, when restoration does not occur.
So, there is a reason why our verse does not guarantee the prayer requests or endeavors of any group of two or three Christians. It was never intended to do that. It was spoken in the context of church discipline.
I do not glibly recommend church discipline. There are times when it should be exercised. It must be undertaken prayerfully and with Scriptural understanding. But when it is undertaken, it can be done in confidence, knowing that the Lord is guiding the process at every step.
And if you need a formula for success, the following one has never been superseded:
This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. (Joshua 1:8)
For further questions on this topic, you may contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.