Where two or three are gathered – Matthew 18:20
I’ve always been a bit bothered but what some people say that Matthew 18:20 means, a verse that reads,
“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them (NIV).”
My first exposure to this verse occurred nearly four decades ago. I was involved in a ministry to servicemen at the time and every Sunday the leaders of the ministry would gather as a group in our small prayer room to pray for the ministry and for each other. There were typically about ten to fifteen of us who gathered for prayer and the head of the ministry, our pastor, would invariably begin our prayer time by quoting this verse from Matthew and than reminding us that we could pray with confidence knowing that Jesus was in our midst.
Is it about praying in groups?
At first I thought this was pretty neat. Jesus was with us as we prayed and that was a pretty big deal. And why was He with us? According to our pastor, it was because we were gathered as a group praying in Jesus’ name. But at some point I began to question how our pastor was using this verse. It seemed that he was saying that because we were praying in a group that our prayers had more power than if we were praying for the same things individually. “if Jesus is only around when I’m praying in a group,” I thought as I considered this, “where is He the rest of the time? And if Jesus bestows some special blessing on those participating in sessions of group prayer, does that mean that when I pray alone that my prayers are less effective or that Jesus might not even be with me?”
I then remembered that Jesus said this regarding personal prayer:
“When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done is secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6).”
This verse seemed to indicate that when I prayed, I ought to find a private place where I could commune with God and that I could expect to be rewarded for doing so. This contradicted what our pastor was saying; that it’s when we pray as a group that we are assured of Jesus’ presence and any special blessings that come with it.
Is it about church discipline?
I came to a different understanding of what Matthew 18:20 means a number of years later when I went to a Christian conference on how to resolve interpersonal conflicts and heard the speaker explain what he thought the context of this verse was. He said that it was intended to be the capstone of a set of instructions given in Matthew 18:15-17 regarding how to deal with individuals in our churches who have sinned against us. These verses read,
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony 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, threat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
The speaker said that if a brother in Christ sins against us, we are first to try to resolve it privately. If that doesn’t work, we should bring in one or two others who can confirm that this person sinned and are willing to confront that person with their sin. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, the person should be brought before the entire church and the issue explained so that the whole assembly can confirm who is at fault. If the errant party still refuses to repent, they should be asked to leave the church. The congregation is then to have nothing to do with the one who sinned. They are to treat this person like a non-believer, a pagan, or like tax collectors, who were hated by the Jews in Jesus’ day. The speaker concluded by saying that when two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name to confront a brother with his sin, that is where Jesus will be, overseeing and endorsing a process that could result in throwing an unrepentant sinner out of the church.
Is it about forgiving others?
I initially thought that what this speaker said about Matthew 18:20 made sense. I had even seen it become the written policy of some congregations if they found a need to discipline a member of their church. But I was a bit troubled by this understanding of the passage. For one thing, when I did see it applied this way, it rarely if ever resulted in the person repenting. It just humiliated them. It seemed to contract Paul’s statement in Romans 2:4 as well, a verse that says that it’s God’s kindness that leads sinners to repentance, not His harsh treatment of them. It also failed to take into consideration Peter’s question following Jesus’ instructions,
“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times (Matthew 18:21)?”
Peter seemed to be responding directly to Jesus guidance regarding how to deal with a brother who has sinned against a fellow believer. If this is so, then the outcome if that person refuses to repent is not to sever our relationship with them or to ostracize them but is to forgive them. Perhaps it’s when we’re willing to forgive a brother for his sins even if he refuses to repent where we’ll find Jesus in our midst blessing what we’re doing.
Is it about protecting the rights of the accused?
As I thought about this a bit more, I began to think that Jesus’ statement that He is with us when we’re dealing with the sins of a brother could be more of a warning than the endorsement of a process for confronting and disciplining those who have sinned. What Jesus may have been saying is that we need to tread lightly if our brother has sinned against us and we think we need to confront them with their sin. Matthew 18:15 indicates that this needs to initially be done discretely.The purpose of involving more people in the process is not to increase the number accusing the errant party, however, but is perhaps to make sure we’re on firm footing when doing so.
This makes sense when you consider Jesus’ reference in verse 16 to a principle established at the time of Moses; that when accusing a brother of something, it must be confirmed by two witnesses. According to instructions given to Moses by God, no one could be put to death for murder on the word of one witness alone (Numbers 35:30) and no one could be convicted of any crime or offense unless at least two witnesses confirmed it (Deuteronomy 19:15). The purpose of this was to protect people from unsubstantiated accusations against them. The passage in Deuteronomy continues in verses 16-21 by describing a process of escalation, one very similar to the one Jesus proposed, where the matter could be taken before the priests and judges in office at the time. The purpose of this was make sure that the accuser was telling the truth, however, not to lay further blame on the accused. If it was found that the one making the accusation was lying, those judging the issue were told,
“Do to him [the accuser] as he intended to do to his brother [the accused]. You must purge the evil from among you (vs. 19).”
What was evil in this context was not what the accused may have done but instead was making an unsubstantiated accusation.
By referring to this principle in Matthew 18:16, Jesus may have been warning those who feel compelled to confront a brother with his sin that Jesus will be there in their midst making sure that the rights of the accused are protected. Those who are guilty of falsely accusing a brother of sin or who do so without adequate evidence will not get Jesus’ approval for their actions and could face His condemnation.
Is it about seeking and restoring the lost?
I still felt that didn’t have a complete understanding of the context of Matthew 18:20, however. I understood that I needed to be on firm ground if I felt the need to accuse a brother in Christ of sin. But with what attitude did I need to approach this?
I thought I found the answer to this in verses further back in the chapter:
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost (Matthew 18:12-14).”
If the lost in this passage includes those who have sinned against us, then Jesus may be telling us that our goal in confronting them is not to beat them up emotionally or spiritually for what they’ve done wrong or to cut them off from the flock (our churches) if they wander away. It is to continually look for ways to bring them back into fellowship with the rest of the flock. Perhaps that is where Jesus is, in those situations where we know a brother has sinned and choose a path that restores them to fellowship rather than one that drives them away.
Is it about unlimited and unconditional forgiveness?
This understanding of Matthew 18:20, that its context could be how to restore a brother who has sinned against us and the importance of forgiving them, is consistent with the parable of the unmerciful servant that follows in Matthew 18:21-35.
This passage begins with Peter asking how often he needed to forgive a brother who sinned against him. Jesus responded by saying,
“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (vs. 22).”
I don’t believe that Jesus was giving Peter a fixed number of times that he was required to forgiven someone and that when Peter had forgiven that person that many times, he could quit doing so. It’s more likely that Jesus was saying that our forgiveness of others should be limitless.
Jesus then told the story of servant who owed his master ten thousand talents, a sum equivalent today to millions of dollars. His master threatened to throw the servant and his family in jail until the debt was repaid. The servant begged to be given more time to repay the debt and his master took pity on him and canceled the entire debt.
Later, the servant encountered someone who owed him 100 denarii, equivalent today to just a few dollars. The servant grabbed and choked the one who owed him so little and demanded that the debt be repaid. The debtor asked for patience, much like the servant asked of his master, but instead of getting pity from the servant was thrown in prison. When the master heard how unforgiving the servant had been after being shown such great mercy,
“In anger, … [he] turned him [the servant] over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed (vs. 34).”
Jesus concluded with these words,
“This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart (vs. 35).”
That almost put the icing on the cake in terms of my understanding of this passage. Where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name to forgive others to the same extent that they’ve been forgiven, that is where Jesus will be.
Or is it about treating pagans, tax collectors, and sinners the way that Jesus treated them?
If this is what the passage is about, forgiving others to the same extent that we’ve been forgiven, then what did Jesus mean when He said,
“If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matthew 18:17).”
I continued to struggle with this final piece of the puzzle until I remembered how Jesus treated pagans, sinners, and tax collectors. Jesus didn’t cut himself off from them but instead deliberately sought ways to connect with them. When Jesus traveled to Jericho for example, He chose to stay at the home of a Zacchaeus, a Jew who was collecting taxes on behalf of the hated Romans (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus reminded those who objected to this that,
“The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (vs. 10).”
Jesus also invited Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of His twelve disciples (Matthew 9:9-12). Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees for doing so as well as for socializing in general with tax collectors and others the Pharisees considered “sinners” (vs. 11). The Pharisees eventually labeled Jesus as a friend of tax collectors and “sinners” (Matthew 11:19), a label Jesus willingly and gladly embraced. Jesus told those accusing Him of hanging out with the “wrong” people that,
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:12-13).”
I suspect that Matthew had Jesus’ treatment of tax collectors and “sinners” in mind when he heard and later wrote that we’re to treat those who sin in the same way that Jesus treated them.
So when is Jesus in our midst?
Jesus came to seek and save the lost, not to drive them away or to keep some space between “them” and “us”. He sought out the sinners, pagans, and tax collectors of His day and tried to connect with them. He showed them the way to the Kingdom of God not by beating them up emotionally or spiritually but by loving them and spending time with them. He socialized with those His religious culture rejected, forgave these “rejects” for their sin and tried to draw them into a relationship with Him so they could benefit from His love and forgiveness.
I believe that it’s when we treat those who have sinned against us in the same way that Jesus treated the pagans, sinners, and the tax collectors of His day that we’ll find Jesus in our midst.
That’s my understanding of Matthew 18:20, at least as I see it today.