This question about two or three being gathered is in reference to Matthew 18:20 that says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” This verse clearly says that people gathering in the Lord’s name brings the presence of the Lord, and it’s often quoted in Christian gatherings. But we must ask since we have the Holy Spirit, why do two or three need to be gathered to have Jesus in the midst of them?
Before explaining this verse in context, let’s answer the question, “Does there need to be two or three gathered together for Jesus to be present?” The answer is “no.” Jesus is present with every believer by the power of His Holy Spirit and He will never leave us (Hebrews 13:5). Therefore, Jesus is no more present when two or more are gathered than when one person is by him/herself.
So why did Jesus say, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20)?
Jesus’ words must be understood in the historical context in which He spoke them. This was during Jesus’ earthly ministry. This was before His death, burial, and resurrection and it was before the Holy Spirit was given to indwell believers. Jesus spoke these words while living a human life on earth.
It must be noted that there was no possible way for Jesus to have been in two (or more) places simultaneously. If a group of three was gathered in Jerusalem and another group of three in Bethlehem, it would have been impossible for Jesus to be present with both groups at the same time. So what was Jesus promising?
To answer this we must look at the entire passage. Let’s back up to the beginning of chapter 18 of Matthew. Jesus was answering the question the disciples asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:1). Jesus began by giving the illustration of being childlike and He said that man must humble himself in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (verses 3-5). Jesus continued by talking about sins in verses 7-10. He said it is better to cut off that which causes the offense (an eye or a hand) than to enter into hell with it. Then Jesus told that God desires none to perish and He gave the illustrations of a shepherd seeking after a lost sheep (verses 11-14).
Up to this point, Jesus was speaking about man’s sins against God and man’s need for forgiveness and salvation from God. Jesus then spoke about man’s sins against His neighbor. He laid out a clear process for the mediation of conflicts, including the need for repentance of sins and the restoration of those in conflict. Jesus said the process begins with the offended meeting with the offender to discuss the matter (Matt 18:15). If that is not successful, then the offended is to take one or two others with him. They would serve as witnesses, which was required by Levitical law (one witness was not sufficient).
Deu 19:15 One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.
Jesus clearly quoted this law, when He said, “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.'” (Mat 18:16)
In verse 17 Jesus told what was to be done if the offender refuses to listen to the witnesses. The matter was to be brought before the disciples. Jesus then spoke of the authority that He was giving to the disciples — the authority to bind and loose.
Mat 18:18 “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
This is the authority that was given to Peter in Mat 16:19. Now authority was being given to all of the disciples, along with a requirement for a due process (“two or three witnesses”). In this context, binding and loosing has a judicial meaning. Binding would be similar to declaring someone guilty. Loosing means they have been released because they are not guilty. Giving the disciples the authority to bind or loose is giving them the authority to judge.
Next, we read Jesus’ words about two who are in agreement and are petitioning God. Jesus tells that God will answer them.
Mat 18:19 “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.”
Finally, Jesus proclaims His presence among the gathering of two or three in His name.
Mat 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
Two or Three Gathered = Authority Not Presence
This verse is not about Jesus being present. It is about Him giving the disciples authority in matters of dispute. In the context of telling them the due process to administer judgment and justice according to Levitical law (two or more witnesses), then reminding them to seek God (vs 19), Jesus is telling them they will have His authority (Mat 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”)
Remember, this verse could not be about Jesus’ physical presence as it seems to read. In His humanity, Jesus was not omnipresent. He had set aside such aspects of His divine nature. It would have been impossible for him to have been in multiple places at the same time.
Now, you might be thinking, in His glorification, Jesus is omnipresent. So isn’t it correct to use it to declare Jesus’ presence when two or three gather?
The reasons for this being a misapplication of the verse is two-fold:
- Again, the context in which these words were spoken is about Jesus giving His authority to the disciples in the mediation of a conflict. Not every Christian has this same type of authority. In our time, this passage would apply to church discipline and the authority that is given to church leaders. The requiring of “two or three being gathered” is to ensure a clear understanding of the matter to resolve the matter. Jesus’ promise to be “in the midst” is a promise that He gives authority and blesses mediation when it is done according to God’s plan.
- Again, we must rightly divide the Word and rightly apply its meaning in our time. If this verse is taken out of context and applied to Christians gathering it is problematic. The verse implies a condition for Jesus being present, which can’t be true in our time under the New Covenant. Jesus is present with every believer simultaneously through the presence of His Holy Spirit indwelling forgiven sinners. There is no need for two or three to gather for Jesus is with us always (Matt 28:20b) and He “will never leave you or forsake [us]” (Heb 13:5b).
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