Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
This scripture in Matthew 18 is one of those references that has been egregiously taken out of context. Every time I’d hear someone say in church, bible study, or in a meeting the reference to this scripture as a reminder of God’s presence in our assembly, it would cause other questions to arise in me.
If it takes 2 or 3 people gathered together to experience the presence of God, does this mean when we are alone in prayer that His presence is absent?
We know from scripture and from experience this is just not true. The Lord doesn’t wait for believers to come together before people can have a meaningful encounter with Him.
Psalm 145:18 “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.”
So if it doesn’t take a group of people for God to be present, what is this scripture really saying?
To understand a scripture accurately, we have to look at it from a perspective the original listeners heard. The context for a thought is critical in grasping the intent of a small portion of scripture when the larger picture means something entirely different.
When Jesus was addressing the disciples, He was instructing them in matters of pride and how to deal with a sinning brother. The disciples came to Jesus concerned about who would be considered greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus recognized the sin within them and led them down a different path than they expected.
Matthew 18:2-5 “Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.”
The first step towards holiness is to humble yourself and receive God’s Word as He spoke it.
Children who recognize authority, listen to instruction.
One of my granddaughters, bless her heart, is 3 years old and watching her little mind work is one of my joys in life. I can play with her, teach her, and guide her all day long, unless anything I do conflicts with her mom’s teaching. You would think her mom hung the moon, the investment of time my daughter has placed into her life is bearing fruit. Just like my granddaughter listens to her mom’s instruction, we too should listen to our Father’s instruction and receive it.
So, what if we have someone we know in the church who disregards God’s instruction, and brings offense against others?
I may be getting a little ahead of myself. The pattern Jesus expressed is the one I want to look at here. First, we have to understand the church from God’s perspective.
God Loves People
If God loves people, we should as well.
Sometimes we forget how much He loves them and we take for granted the ferocity by which He guards them.
Matthew 18:6-7 “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!”
The image of the little boy who was sitting on Jesus’ lap is the image of a new believer. The simple faith by which someone comes to Christ is vulnerable and subject to influence. We must handle those who are new in their faith with tenderness and care, knowing the Lord will build them into the people He has so chosen.
We know Jesus isn’t just talking just of children here because of what He says soon thereafter:
vs. 11 “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.”
Yes, children have a fallen nature and that nature will lead them into sin one day, but the innocence of children isn’t what is at play here….it’s people in general. If we want to affect people for Christ, we have to learn how to live lives that exemplify Christ.
The way we ruin others is by our sin.
The next progression of thought is Jesus describing the necessity to rid ourselves of all sin.
Matthew 18:8-9 “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.”
Jesus isn’t telling us to literally cut off our limbs, He is demonstrating the determination we must have to be holy. Whether it is by what we do or what we see, the members of our body must be brought under subjection to God’s righteousness.
How much emphasis do we really take in guarding our lives from sin?
If Jesus said it was important, we should regard it as important. We can ruin others if we don’t get a handle on our own propensity to sin.
The Wandering Sheep
So, say you blew it, you drove someone off by your pride, callousness, and neglect for someone else’s position by sinning against them.
Do you know what the Lord does at that moment?
He goes and finds them. He brings them back. He restores them.
If we sin against someone and drive them away from God, maybe we should also go out of our way to rectify the situation.
Matthew 18:12-14 “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
You might be saying at the moment….”what, I thought it was up to God to search them out and find them?”
How do you think God acts in the world?
Ephesians 2:10 “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
We are God’s hands and feet in this world. If Jesus humbled Himself and washed the disciples feet, we too should humble ourselves before another. If we offend someone by our sin, we should take responsibility for rectifying the situation.
The rules in the Kingdom of God are not the rules of this world.
Now we get to the the crux of the matter; Without the foundation of context, the message would take on a completely different meaning.
Matthew 18:15-17 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
We can move from us offending another to others offending us. The offense isn’t the topic, it is the pattern of sin we see in others that must be addressed.
Remember, the idea is for restoration, not to destroy. The approach Jesus outlines is to maintain communication and gently lead the wayward sinner back to Christ.
The conflict resolution isn’t for you, it’s for them!
We would do well to remember the grace that God has shown us and measure this same grace to another.
If someone then refuses to stop sinning, a correct application of God’s truth leaves them removed from the body of believers and considered an unbeliever. The Truth of God’s Word is given to God’s people to exercise correctly, in love, and when done so the Heavenly position they have before God is expressed as if God were saying it Himself. This isn’t our Truth, it is God’s Truth which makes it all the more important to have a right understanding.
Finally, we get to the portion of scripture that has been misapplied and misspoken on numerous occasions.
Matthew 18:19-20 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
The agreement of God’s people regarding the correct understanding and application of God’s Truth is sealed by God Himself. The agreement is meant to address sin within the church, it doesn’t imply God’s presence but God’s seal of approval.
I must reiterate, the idea is for the management of God’s household and this is an endeavor that calls for strict adherence to God’s Word.
When we act in love, the way Jesus loved, we will find the church growing and strengthening like it’s supposed to be. We will see the church being a light to the nations and hopefully those walking in darkness will come to the light.