For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. – Matthew 18:20 KJV
Have you ever experienced a time when something took place and at that very moment you knew it would become a lifetime memory?
Many people remember where they were when Princess Diana was killed in 1997, or when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, ow where they were during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. On the more positive side, memories like your first kiss, high school graduation, your wedding day, or the birth of your first child are all significant moments that are quickly and easily burned into our minds.
What are some lifetime memories you have?
But sometimes lifetime memories are made of simple things – nothing traumatic or dramatic. Like conversations with kids. Simple, honest and thought provoking, such as the following conversation.
“Dad, where is God?”
“Well, he’s everywhere, Joshua,” I said.
“Then why can’t I see him?”
“Well, God’s here on earth and God is also in heaven, but you can’t really see him until you get to heaven. But he’s still here with us now. In fact, he’s all around us.”
“Is God up in the trees?”
“Yes, if you go up in a tree, God is there.”
“Is he in the sky?”
“Yes, he’s in the sky.”
“Is he in the clouds?”
“Yes, Joshua, God is in the clouds.” (I sure could tell his little mind was going.)
“I want to see God come out of the clouds.”
“So do I, Joshua, so do I … one day we will.”
A simple inquisitive conversation had turned into a moment of worship, all from the mind of a young boy who desired to understand.
So it begins at an early age with simple questions: Where is God? Is God with us? Why can’t we see him? Of course, we adult Christians know that God is spirit and that God is invisible. We know that the Bible teaches us that he is omnipresent. In other words, God (in his entire being) is present everywhere within his creation (yet is fully distinct from it). He is not limited by space and time. This is the implication of what David said in Psalm 139:7-10, when he wrote:
7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. – Psalm 139:7-10 NIV
David believed that God was every where at all times. He couldn’t escape his presence.
But this is not the only way the Bible speaks of God’s presence. Perhaps the most dramatic way God reveals his presence is in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the miracle known as the incarnation, the moment when God entered into human history and took on human flesh so as to redeem those who believe in his life, death, and resurrection from the dead.
In a much different way, we also know the Spirit of God (fully God himself) has chosen to reside in the hearts of those who trust in Christ for their salvation. Those who believe in Christ received the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit and experience God in a very real and personal way. He not only lives with us but he also lives within us.
So it’s fair to say that God does indeed manifest his presence in ways that are truly knowable and discernible. And most often when we read of God’s presence in the Bible, it is accompanied with the idea that wherever he is, there is blessing.
All of this brings us to a verse that is often recited in Christian circles – one that is widely taken out of context and misused. How many times have you been to a prayer meeting or a worship service and heard Jesus’ words from Matthew 18:20?
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. – Matthew 18:20 KJV
What are some insights and feelings you get when you hear that verse declared?
It is a great promise, to be sure. Christ communicates to us that when the church has gathered, they can rest assured he is spiritually present with them. But the question is this: In the context of Matthew 18, for what purpose is the church gathering? Is it for prayer? For worship? For fellowship? It might surprise you to realize that it is for none of the above.
Now, let’s be fair here. Certainly when Christians gather for prayer, worship, fellowship, or even evangelism, they can take courage and have confidence in the promise of Christ that he would always be with them, even “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). So in general, we have every reason to believe that he is with us and an individual sense and in a corporate sense.
But the passage in Matthew 18 has a specific nuance to it. It is not talking about prayer meetings. It is not talking about worship. In fact, it is not talking about generic Christian fellowship either. Jesus is talking about church discipline.
In Matthew 18, Jesus is instructing the disciples on how they and all who will follow him should handle situations of interpersonal sin and conflict. His instructions about this immediately following his parable about the lost sheep (which emphasizes restoring someone who has gone astray) and precedes the parable of the unmerciful servant (which is about being willing to cancel and forgive an outstanding debit).
Therefore, the themes that are present in this context are forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation with a brother or sister who has sinned against you or who has gone astray. Jesus lists several practical steps that should be taken to reconcile or restore a broken relationship, a relationship breached or shattered because of sin.
Step 1: In private
The first step is a private one:
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. – Matthew 18:15 NIV
Essentially, Jesus is teaching that interpersonal sin and conflict should not be ignored or dismissed, because Christians in general should be committed to maintaining healthy, wholesome, and fully reconciled relationships. After all, this is ultimately why Christ died, so that we first could be reconciled with God and second, reconciled to one another. So we must guard and protect our relationships from sin, especially those relationships between believers.
How are you challenged and progressing in keeping healthy, wholesome, fully reconciled relationships? Are there some people you need to actively work on improving your relational standings?
Some bible translations omit the words “against you” so the text simply reads, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault.” This is because some ancient manuscripts don’t carry the words against you in the text. But either way, whether the sin is committed “against you” or not, it is still necessary for Christians to address the issue of sin in the church For even as Paul says in Galatians 6:1:
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. – Galatians 6:1 NIV
Therefore, Jesus prescribes an initial step of a personal and private conversation between Christians, the goal of which is forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a necessary confrontation and conversation that should be done in humility and love. Keeping the issue private and in the smallest possible community is ideal so that any misunderstanding may be cleared up, or for reconciliation to take place in a way that doesn’t allow the sin to spread to others.
Furthermore, if it is cleared up, forgiven, and settled at this level, it is unlikely to become an issue that is gossiped around or discussed in unhealthy ways among others. Ideally, this is how all interpersonal sins and conflicts should be handled so that the case can be closed in step one.
2. Go together
However, this is not always possible. Jesus stated that if things can’t be resolved at this level, it is necessary to include others. In Matthew 18:16 he says:
But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ – Matthew 18:16 NIV
There are many purposes for this. First, it adds a level of seriousness to the need for reconciliation. Second, witnesses can ensure the confrontation is handled appropriately if the matter should necessarily proceed to the next level (and this should happen only if step two fails). Third, these two or three additional believers can serve as objective third parties who could come alongside and assist in the process of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jesus is obviously teaching the unrepentant sin is a serious matter among Christians. And the apostle Paul would later warn the church in Corinth to handle sin matters quickly and expediently, lest “a little yeast (work) through the whole batch of dough” (1 Corinthians 5:6) In other words, sin that goes unchecked or ignored can be devastating to the witness of the church and can be destructive to relationships within the Christian community. In fact, it may unnecessarily influence others to sin as well!
As similarly stated before, if the incident can be resolved here at this level (step two), then those who are involved should rejoice, agree to keep it private, and promise not to bring it up again.
3. Involving the church body
In more severe cases, where forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration don’t happen, the matter must necessarily proceed to a more somber step three:
If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. – Matthew 18:17 NIV
Here is the widest circle of accountability possible. What was initially private has now become a more public issue. And here is where the spiritual maturity of the church will be put to the test. Logically, it would seem that the church leadership would be made aware of the situation first so attempts as reconciliation could be made at that level. Perhaps some of them were already involved at step two. But either way, if reconciliation is still not attained, Jesus essentially commands that the problem be brought before the membership.
Why? Because unrepentant sin is a serious matter for the one who is refusing to acknowledge and turn from it. Furthermore, it is at this level that the broadest possible efforts can be made to attempt to reach out to someone who has gone astray. Here is where everyone who has a relationship with the unrepentant can reach out to them in an attempt to “win them back.” This is where the church truly embraces what it means to be a forgiven and forgiving community.
Admittedly, not many churches today are willing to practice this step, mainly because they misunderstand its motive or confuse it with some from of inappropriate judging or punishment. But none of that is true. The church has an obligation to make moral judgments on cases of unrepentant sin within the church. Refer to 1 Corinthians 5:12)
It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. – 1 Corinthians 5:12 NLT
Moreover, none of this should be seen as punishment, since Christ already received the full punishment for our sins on the cross.
Therefore, we have no choice but to see this as an act of grace, a desperate attempt to reach out and restore a fallen brother or sister who has wandered astray. Remember, this follows Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep, and so this is what Jesus is saying the church should be committed to – loving the lost sheep that has gone astray by going out to look for it. The goal here is reconciliation, not punishment. Mercy not only comes to God’s people but it proceeds through God’s people as instruments of his love.
Imagine the rejoicing that would fill the church if indeed this step ended up being successful, if the unrepentant came to repentance and was fully restored to God and to his church. Like the prodigal son returning to his father, there would be rejoicing, celebration, and thanksgiving. These actions would most likely transform the church and Jesus knew this, and this might be why he prescribed it as a command.
If you have been approached in a Matthew 18 situation, what was it like? Was it handled biblical as outlined? What went right? What went wrong?
Have you taken the Matthew 18 steps before, or been involved in approaching someone as in step 2? What went well? What could have been done better?
But that which is ideal doesn’t always become a reality. And Jesus knew this too, and so he told the disciples that if the unrepentant refuses to listen or respond to the loving attempts of reconciliation that proceed from the church, then the church would have no choice but to recognize that this person has chosen to harden their heart and exclude themselves from the church due to their refusal to turn and receive forgiveness. And in Jesus’ day, this would be equivalent to seeing them as a pagan or a tax collector (tax collectors were often corrupt in the Roman system of the time). These would have been people who were clearly outside the recognized community of faith.
The church would have no choice but to formally remove them from the fellowship. This doesn’t mean that everyone who remains in the church is perfect. We’re all sinners. But that’s not the issue. The issue is about the one who hardens his or her heart toward their sin and refuses to acknowledge and turn from it. When that happens church is obligated by none other than Christ himself to dismiss them from the recognized community of faith. This is a somber and humble but necessary step.
As Christians, our goal should be never to give up on someone. So even if the church has to move to exclude someone from the fellowship, they should still be attempting to reach out to that person and win them to the Lord.
Here then is where our often misunderstood verse finds its proper context. After establishing the church’s authority and heavenly sanction to take such action, Jesus promises his presence in a unique way. Here then is the passage in its entirety.
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.” – Matthew 18:19-20 ESV
Does the context of the verse change some of the thoughts you have when you hear the verse now?
Jesus is saying that whenever the church is pursuing and is involved in a reconciliation process with someone who has refused to repent, they can rest assured that God’s blessing is with them in their efforts. In other words, as the church renders judicial decisions on matters of right and wrong that are based on the truth of God’s Word, they should be confident that they are doing the right thing and that Christ himself is right there with them, spiritually present in their midst.
After all, he is the God of reconciliation. And he is the one who has commanded them to be agents for reconciliation as well. The church is acting on God’s behalf, and therefore has divine sanction as it seeks unity and asks for God’s blessing in something that is surely difficult. This then is the true meaning and context for the phrase “where two or three are gathered.” It is all about God’s presence in judicial matters of reconciliation.
Today, when we hear Matthew 18:20 misused, we don’t need to immediately run to correct the person who said it. They usually mean well. For it is true that when two or three believers are gathered, or even when one thousand believers are gathered, our omnipresent God is there with them.
But the same can be said for someone who is seeking God’s face in private. Indeed, Jesus himself taught in his Sermon on the Mount that we should be regularly practicing prayer in the confines of our “prayer closets.” For the heavenly Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward us (Matthew 6:6). God is surely with us.
The bottom line is this: Matthew 18:15-20 is really a challenging passage to apply. Dealing with matters of sin can be tough. But for those who seek to be faithful to God in addressing it, they can count on God’s unique presence to bless their efforts.
We should all be eager to gather as believers in the presence of the Lord to worship him, pray to him, fellowship with him, and experience his grace. And to that end, let us be diligent. Indeed we are his people, and as Matthew 18 teaches, we are his agents of forgiveness and reconciliation as well.
The lesson this week is from the book: “The Most Misused verses in the Bible” by Eric J. Bargerhuff
The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 7:1–2). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.