“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:20
I’ve been a pastor for 12+ years and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard this verse read in church. Where two or more are gathered is most commonly said to give legitimacy to a small gathering at church. Meaning that even though there might only be a few people gathered God is still with them.
But that ignores the context in which this verse is written. The meaning of Matthew 18:20 has nothing to do with God’s presence in small gatherings. To be clear, God is present that’s just not what this passage is talking about.
Matthew 18:20 deserves a closer look. It’s one of the most misquoted and abused passages in the entire Bible. That’s a shame because it’s actually a powerful and practical passage of Scripture that can really benefit us in our lives today.
So, I want to take a deeper look at the Matthew 18:20 meaning and see how we should apply “where two or three are gathered in my name” to our lives.
How Matthew 18:20 Is Commonly Misused
Really it’s not just Matthew 18:20 that gets abused, but also Matthew 18:19.
In full it says: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:19-20
Here’s how this passage is often taken out of context.
1. To Say That When Two Are In Agreement, Whatever They Ask Will Be Done
This is less common, but I still hear this used from time to time. Some will take Matthew 18:19 to mean that when two or three agree on something, then whatever they ask will be done.
In other words, when two or three pray the same prayer God will answer it.
Not only is that not in the context of this verse, but it’s also not accurate theology. In fact, it can be a very dangerous theology that can lead to spiritual abuse.
God listens to our prayers whether we are alone or not. Being with others doesn’t increase the likelihood of God hearing and responding to our prayers.
This interpretation of Matthew 18:19 simply isn’t true and twists Jesus’ words to say something He never said.
2. To Say That When Two Or More Are Gathered, God Is With Them
This is the most common misuse of Matthew 18:20. Often quoted by church leaders in a prayer at a church service or gathering that is dwindling and has less than expected attenders. This interpretation is used to assure church members that Jesus’ presence is still there despite their small gathering.
Typically it sounds something like this: God we thank you that where two or more are gathered in your name you are with us.
That sounds nice. But when you start to actually think about what this actually means it quickly falls apart.
If God is only present when two or three are gathered, what about when we pray alone? If there were only one person present God would not be there? Certainly, no one believes that (I hope). But when we twist this passage this way that’s what it implies.
Most people who use Matthew 18:20 mean no harm. But when we ignore the context we can unintentionally cause harm. This verse is not talking about God’s presence at small gatherings.
When we use this verse this way we can inadvertently imply things we don’t mean. Not only that but we also miss out on the incredible, and practical, true meaning of Matthew 18:20.
The Context Of Matthew 18:20
When we ignore the context in which a passage of the Bible is written we can quite literally make it say anything. Just look at how we’ve misused Matthew 18:20…
One of the simplest and most important things we should do when reading the Bible is to look at it in its original context. Read the verses before and after.
The Matthew 18:20 becomes blatantly obvious when we do this. The problem is most people skip this step and end up misusing the entire passage.
Let’s take a look what is said before “where two or more are gathered in my name.”
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. 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. ’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 18:15-17
Did you catch the topic that Jesus is actually talking about? It’s not about God’s presence in all church gatherings. Jesus is giving instructions about how to handle conflicts with others.
The context of Matthew 18:15-20 is how to handle church discipline. This passage gives us clear and very practical steps we should take in difficult situations.
Matthew 18:19-20 is the encouragement that comes at the end of these instructions. Essentially Jesus is saying you follow these steps and leave the consequences up to me.
Matthew’s original audience would have likely known immediately that this passage was about church discipline. They were primarily Jewish believers and the terminology of this passage would have reminded them of Deuteronomy 19:15-19.
In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus is borrowing language from this Old Testament passage. Deuteronomy 19 says that two or three witnesses must agree in order to bring a legally binding charge against someone.
In essence what this Old Testament law did was protect the individual. You needed more than one witness to bring a charge; one person could fabricate a lie. Jesus is bringing part of this old law under the new law. He’s showing His people how to handle conflict so that His church can be bound together.
When the context of this passage is ignored you can make Matthew 18:20 say something it was never intended to be about. Which can lead to dangerous theology that can cause harm. In context we can accurately see what Jesus really meant.
Let’s dive a little further into what the Matthew 18:20 meaning really is.
The Meaning Of Matthew 18:20 (Where Two Or More Are Gathered)
Matthew 18:20 centers around how to handle conflicts within the church.
What Jesus is doing in Matthew 18:20 is He’s giving an order of process to follow when you have a conflict with a fellow believer. Here’s how it breaks down:
- Talk to them privately about the issue.
- If they refuse to repent, grab two or three people who are trusted within the church and talk to them again.
- If they still refuse to repent, bring the issue to the church leaders.
- And finally, if they still refuse to repent then it’s time to remove them from the church. With the hope, they will see the error in their way and return.
One quick note on the last step. When someone is removed from the church we are to treat them as a sinner. This step is often misunderstood. Jesus gives us CLEAR instructions on how to handle those who are not following him. We love them. This final step is a call to love, not turn a cold shoulder.
Jesus is giving incredibly practical advice. Here’s showing us how things should run in the Kingdom of God. But you don’t even need to be a Christian to appreciate it. Anyone who works in any kind of organization could benefit from following this process in times of conflict.
Just imagine how much healthier the church (or any organization) would be if we actually followed this process. This would solve SO many problems in the church, in the workplace, in our neighborhoods, and in our families, if we just followed this Biblical command.
3 Ways To Apply The Matthew 18:20 Meaning To Your Life
I want to end by summarizing what we’ve looked at into 3 practical takeaways from the meaning of Matthew 18:20. Here’s how ‘where two or more are gathered in my name’ applies to us today.
1. Follow Jesus’ Process
We should follow this process that Jesus has given us. That should seem obvious. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many churches ignore these incredibly practical instructions.
When we are faced with conflict within the body of Christ we should follow these steps. Why? So the church can remain strong and unified. When we ignore this process disunity and turmoil ensue.
This is something no church and no follower of Jesus should ignore.
2. Don’t Avoid Difficult Conversations
Most of us prefer to avoid conflict. I get it, I’m one of them. But the reality is when we avoid those whom we have conflict with we are just making the problem worse.
There’s a reason Jesus’ first step is to go talk with the person. When we ignore conflict it festers. It ends up hurting us and them more and more with each passing day. Rather than ignoring it we need to deal with it.
It’s painful, but it’s necessary. Don’t avoid those difficult conversations.
3. Trust In Jesus’ Presence
Jesus promises that when we follow His process He will be with us. We aren’t doing this alone.
It can be easy when we are entering into a difficult conversation to forget that God is with us. Taking just a few minutes to remind ourselves of that and place our trust in Him can change what happens next.
Trust in God’s process and His presence. He will provide you with what you need to get through what’s ahead of you.
Closing Thoughts On “Where Two Or More Are Gathered”
I want to end with a great summarization of what Matthew 18:20 means.
Mark Moore in The Chronological Life Of Christ says it this way, The prayer of verse 19 is not for “anything” we might plan or desire, but any judicial matter. The word pragma often indicates financial matters or legal decisions (cf. 1 Cor 6:1). And the “two or three brought together” in verse 20 is not talking about worship services. (The omnipresence of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit assure Jesus’ presence even where a Christian is alone.) The word “come together” [synegmenoi] means “united,” not merely “gathered.” So what this text promises is that God will put his stamp of approval on judicial decisions among church members who come to a mutual agreement.
This verse is not saying that God is present when there are two or three people. Or that God will give what we ask when two or more people are in agreement. Rather it’s a process for us to follow when there is conflict and a promise that God is with us while going through that process.
I always cringe when I hear this verse quoted in church. I cringe because far too often I’ve seen people twist this verse into something it’s not. And that is a dangerous practice that can have disastrous results. God’s word has some incredibly powerful truths for us today. But when we ignore the original meaning we often miss the depth of the truth of God.
Next time, pay attention to the context so that you don’t miss the beauty of passages like Matthew 18:20.
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