Let's Get Contextual: Matthew 18:20
Welcome to the second installment of Let's Get Contextual, where we walk through commonly misused verses to find the original context and pull application for our current life.
This verse is one I was confused about until I got to seminary. I remember when I really dissected the text for the first time and felt a wave of relief because the major question I had was finally answered.
Matthew 18:20 - "For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst."
How do we normally see this verse used? I know when I've heard this verse it was normally in one of two settings:
1) Less people showed up to a church function than anticipated and the leader said "That's okay! The Bible says where 2 or more are gathered He's there!"
2) It's Sunday morning and the pastor has just gone through the "God is good. All the time." mantra, and follows it up with a rendition of this verse as to why it's a great day to be in the house of the Lord.
This ALWAYS left me perplexed and a little scared. If God was only there when I had company, did He hear my prayers when I was alone? Was He with me when I was hurting alone or happy alone? Or did I need someone to be with me?
Needless to say, it's highly discouraged to communicate that the omnipresent God is not so "omni."
So, let's set the scene to see if we can find out what is truly being said.
Author: Matthew (This is debated, but accepted because Matthew is the only gospel account that actually refers to himself as Matthew instead of Levi as the others do). Though Matthew is the Author, Jesus is the one actually saying these words.
Recipients: If you go back to verse 1-2, you'll see that Jesus is talking to the disciples after they asked him the initial question "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
Setting: They are in Capernaum (Matthew 17:34). This is another pro-Matthew argument as this is the only gospel account that has this account of the temple tax collector. Matthew was a tax collector before he became a disciple, so it seems fitting he would remember an episode of tax collection.
Bigger Picture (verses before and after): Matthew 18:15-20 (This paragraph is normally separated by headings)
Original/Historical meaning: Just like in our own present day language, context in the surrounding sentences is key. In verse 16, we see a reference to Deuteronomy 19:15, saying that to prevent a miscarriage of justice, two or three witnesses must be present to establish a testimony. In this particular instance that Jesus is talking about, a brother/sister in Christ is in habitual sin. First, of course Jesus says that one person should rebuke him in private. But, the second step involves bringing in those two or three to hear every side and basically have a mini-Christian intervention.
Because the words "two or three" are used a second time in this passage, they should be seen as a connected thought. So, in verse 20, we establish that this gathering is for the purpose of restoring a Christian brother/sister in the church. Right before that in verse 19, Jesus is talking about the prayer portion of restoration. Remember, New Testament Jesus is super into heart motivation and intentions. If this group intentionally prays for restoration of this fellow believer and seek God's leadership in the situation, Jesus promises those prayers to be answered. He promises this BECAUSE when those two or three who have INTENTIONALLY gathered IN HIS NAME, He is AMONG THEM answering their prayers.
Bridge to Now: How can we apply this to our lives right now? Well, the Church SHOULD have a process in place that we call "Restorative Discipline." Where we essentially practice this formal process of loving, private rebuking, then bringing in mediators for accountability, perspective, and (most importantly) prayer. Then, if that doesn't work, church leadership needs to be involved. From my experience, we do only half of that phrase well. We either "restore" the person by ignoring or pushing aside their sin and never acknowledging its harm. OR we "discipline" the person by acting in a condescending, demeaning nature, forgetting that grace is a thing.
Jesus is all about the heart. He wants us to be incredibly intentional, kind, and loving when dealing with sin. But, he also wants us to acknowledge that sin puts a rift in our relationship with our Father.
He also wants you to remember that He is always with you (Romans 8:9)! Even when you're alone.