Matthew 18:20 - “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
How many times have we heard this verse quoted about God being in the midst of His people when they gather together for worship or prayer? Growing up in church I have heard it quoted so many times that God hears His children when they pray because “where two or three are gathered together in His name” He promises to be present and to hear their cries.
While this statement is certainly true because we know that God does hear the prayers of His people, the quoted scripture has been taken out of context. This scripture has nothing to do with God hearing the prayers of His people when they gather together.
To understand a scripture it is vitally important for a person to do several things:
First the individual scripture must be examined within the context from which it was spoken. The scriptures around a particular verse must be examined closely.
Second, the cultural setting of the scripture must be understood.
Thirdly, if the verse comes from the Brit Hadashah (The New Testament) then one should find the underlying principle of the matter from the Old Testament (TaNaKh). Contrary to popular belief, NO NEW principles/laws or teachings were set forth in the RE-Newd Covenant. EVERYTHING in the Brit Hadashah (New Testament) had its origins in the TaNaKh (Old Testament).
So, now let's examine the scripture above. Let's go through the steps that I just outlined to examine a passage for it's correct understanding.
First, examine the scripture within context by looking at the scriptures around the verse. To do this we will back up and read the scriptures just prior to this verse.
Matthew 18:15-20 “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. 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. 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.” (Bold emphasis added)
Clearly we can see that these scriptures are talking about the problem of dealing with a “brother” (fellow-believer, not a sinner outside the congregation) that has “sinned” or trespassed another believer. Proper steps are given here by Yeshua for dealing with sin in the congregation.
So, this scripture then about “where two or three or gathered in My Name” has something to do about discipline in the congregation.
Second, what is the cultural setting of the verse in question? Well, historically by examining the letter itself, we find that the Apostle Matthew wrote his letter primarily to the Jewish people. He was trying to convince them that Yeshua was the long awaited Messiah of Israel. Matthew did not see the need to explain Jewish tradition or the scriptures of the TaNaKh from which he quoted. His audience understood these things perfectly so no explanations were needed. So, the cultural setting of these passages then is that it was Jewish in nature, as with the entirety of the New Testament. Every book of the New Testament was written by a Jew. Some would argue that Luke was not a Jew but when one digs digger they will find that, in fact, Luke was a shortened name for Lucius. Luke traveled with the Apostle Paul and did much of his writing. He was a devoted companion and beloved friend. In Romans 16:11, Lucius is mentioned as being with Paul and being one of his “fellow countrymen”; which means he was a relative of the same country, clan. Luke was a Jew.
Third, where is the principle Old Testament concept derived for the saying in this verse? Well, Matthew actually records that Yeshua quoted the Old Testament verse from which he is deriving His instructions. He states in 18:16 “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established”. This verse comes from Deuteronomy 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”.
See also Deuteronomy 17:6.
Clearly this passage is referring to the disciplining of a fellow believer who has sinned and needs to be corrected by the congregation in the proper manner. The proper manner is the key here.
In Jewish understanding, it always required a panel of at least 3 men to constitute a Beit Din. A Beit Din is a house of judgment. It had to consist of at least 3 people because at least two had to agree in order for justice to be observed, and legitimate God given authority to transpire on earth. No one was ever to be judged for wrong doing by the word of only one witness.
These scriptures attest to the authority that has been given believers when they use that authority correctly. In any matter that arises, between a community of believers, at least two witnesses must agree for proper protocol.
As a side note: In John 8:17, Yeshua uses the verse from Deuteronomy to establish that two witnesses agree to the fact that He is who He claims to be. We see here the same principle, a fact has been established by at least two reliable witnesses. Further New Testament examples bearing out the context of this discussion can be seen in 2 Corinthians 13:1, I Timothy 5:9, and Hebrews 10:28.
In conclusion, after the correct examination of the verse in question, we find that the verse is clearly referring to dealing with a fellow believer who has sinned and judgment must be brought forth, but Yeshua is instructing His disciples on the proper manner under which they can handle such cases. He is further promising that when proper protocol is used that He will honor their decisions in such manners; this is what the “binding and loosing” means. Please see my lesson Binding and Loosing.
The next time you hear someone using this scripture out of context by declaring that Yeshua has promised to hear the prayers of His people when “two or three or gathered together in His Name”, you can just smile and realize that they are just quoting age old traditional interpretation of scripture that has been handed down by people long removed from the Jewish understanding of scriptures.
It doesn't require you to quickly stand up and degrade that person for their misunderstanding, but if ever given the CORRECT MOMENT AND TIME, maybe you could share with that person the true meaning of the verse. (Although, as stated in the beginning, we know that He does hear the prayers of His people when two or three are gathered together, but He also hears the prayers of a single child calling out to Him from their prayer closet).
I hope this has brought enlightenment as we seek to restore the Jewishness of Messiah, His disciples and the New Testament writings.
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All scripture is from the NKJV