Matthew 18:20 (NAS): 20 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
This is very likely the most misused passage in all of scripture. Other than a classroom, I have yet to hear it used in it’s biblical context. I have even heard it misused by those who know it’s meaning, as if the accepted misuse has no consequences.
I’ve chosen to write about this for three reasons. First, to demonstrate the vital importance of context to meaning. Second, because not knowing this passage in it’s context may actually lead to choosing to stand apart from Christ. And lastly, although not as important, I’ve heard is used incorrectly one too many times.
The Misuse of Matthew 18:20
It’s when church attendance is down. When the small group is really small, or when our gathering is limited by virus to ten. When we want to feel better about people not showing up the way we would have hoped for an event. Then there are the times when only a hand full of people agree with us on an issue. That’s when we reach for the comfort of this passage, albeit in misuse. We reach for the assurance that, though we are few in number, Jesus is with us, even with as few as two or three. By it we are encouraged, but sadly we have misused it.
The Context of Matthew 18:20
Context is determined by asking and answering the question, “what is the author talking about.” The answer to the question will limit the meaning of what is said. The meaning must be kept within the context. In our passage, the author is talking about Jesus’ teaching regarding the communities responsibility when a brother sins. Jesus teaches that you should show your brother his fault in private.
However, if your brother does not listen to you, then you are to take one or two more with you to show him his fault. You and the one or two more will stand as a witness against the brother in sin, because it’s by the witness of two or three that a matter is confirmed. If the brother will not listen to the witnesses or later the entire church, then by the witness of the two or three, we are to consider our brother as a tax collector and a Gentile.
Here’s where the passage gets interesting. Jesus teaches that the decision the church makes regarding the brother on earth will likewise be made in heaven.
Matthew 18:18 (NAS): 18 “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
If the church agrees that the brother will not listen and he is considered as a tax collector and a Gentile, it shall also be done in heaven. This is indeed the case because where the two or three are standing, in this process, Jesus says that He is standing with them— in their midst.
The Meaning of Matthew 18:20
The passage does not mean that where any two or three Christians gather Jesus is in their midst. The context limits the meaning of the two or three to the witnesses in the process of dealing with a brother in sin. In the sense that the passage is too often used, we don’t need two or three for Jesus to be with us. He is with us even when we are alone. But in this context we must stand with the two or three for Jesus to be in our midst.
In this passage Jesus is letting his disciples know on whose side He will stand in the process he has laid out. Jesus will be in the midst of the two or three— the witnesses against the brother who sins.
Herein is the potential danger of the passage’s misuse. If there are two or three who decide to stand with the brother against the church, they will find themselves standing apart from Jesus. The lack of knowledge of the context may lead to a choice which puts us in opposition to Christ. Context matters.
The significance of a passage is not what it says, but what it means. And the meaning is always limited by the context.Tweet