For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
— Jesus, Matthew 18:20
This passage has been quoted a lot in the past few days in reference to brethren staying home and away from the assembly out of a desire to stop the spread of COVID-19. Some are quoting it as a way of saying that Jesus is with them as they are at home worshiping with their families. Others take issue with that, pointing out that in its context it is referring to the withdrawing of fellowship from an unrepentant Christian rather than to a worship assembly.
Context is always good to take into consideration when wanting to determine the meaning and proper application of any biblical text. One should always remember, however, that both immediate AND overall contexts must be taken into account. Obviously the immediate context should first be considered, because it helps identify the divinely inspired author’s intent as to the meaning and purpose of the text in question. Overall context must also be considered because the topic(s) the text touches upon might be further elaborated on elsewhere in Scripture. The Psalmist wrote, “The entirety of Your word is truth…” (Ps. 119:160); thus all of what the Bible says about any particular matter must be taken into account if one wishes to come to the complete truth concerning it.
Concerning Matthew 18:20, it is true that the immediate context of the verse is about church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). Jesus tells his disciples that they are to go to a brother who sins against them and tell him his fault privately (v. 15). If he refuses to listen, “take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (v. 16). (Some hold to the view that the “two or three” which “are gathered in my name” in Matthew 18:20 refers to the brother who was sinned against and the one or two others he had taken along with him as witnesses to his brother’s sin against him in verse 16.) If the sinning brother refuses to listen to both his wronged brother and the witnesses, the wronged brother (and the witnesses, presumably) are to present the matter to the church. Should the sinning brother refuse to listen even to the church, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17). Since Jesus was speaking to his Jewish apostles and the Jews as a whole wanted to have nothing to do with Gentiles and tax collectors, Jesus was instructing the withdrawing of fellowship against the sinning brother at that point (cf. 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Tit. 3:10-11; 2 John 9-11).
Jesus then makes a statement similar to what he had given to Peter back in Matthew 16:19: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:18-19). The Greek rendering shows this to refer to binding or loosing on earth whatever had already been bound or loosed in heaven, showing that this passage should not be taken to mean that God is a genie in a bottle just waiting to grant you anything you wish so long as someone else makes the request with you. By agreeing among themselves to withdraw from the sinning Christian, the church has done what God had already authorized them to do and thus has received Heaven’s approval. It should be noted that since Jesus was speaking to his apostles, many consider this passage and the similar statements to the apostles in Matthew 16:19 and John 20:23 to refer to the apostolic authority found in their Spirit-inspired teaching in the early church (cf. John 14:15-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:12-15; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 2:10-13; Eph. 3:3-5; 1 Thess. 2:6; Philemon 8). While that is true, the immediate context of this verse shows that it also has broader application to the congregational action of withdrawing fellowship from the unrepentant brother. This is an excellent example of the need to take into account both the immediate and overall context of a passage in order to ascertain the full truth of its message. We will see how this also applies to Matthew 18:20 below.
So it is within this context of discussing congregational withdrawing of fellowship that Jesus now makes the statement under consideration: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). As already mentioned, some conclude the “two or three” to refer to the wronged brother and his witnesses (v. 16). Yet when one considers that Jesus then spoke of the whole church withdrawing from the unrepentant brother rather than just the wronged brother and his accompanying witnesses (vs. 17-18), a better conclusion is that Jesus is using the figure of speech known as synecdoche, in which a part is made to represent the whole, when he speaks of the “two of you (who) agree” and the “two or three (who) are gathered in my name” (vs. 19-20). Basically, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 18:20 is him reiterating the point he was making in verses 18-19, that the church’s agreed upon action of withdrawing fellowship from the sinning brother is approved by the Godhead in heaven.
Since it is now established that Matthew 18:20’s immediate context shows that it is talking about congregational withdrawing of fellowship from the unrepentant among them, the question now before us is whether it is correct to use the passage as proof of the notion that Christ is present (and gives his approval) wherever Christians of any number meet to worship. This is where examining the overall context of Scripture proves useful.
When examining the concept of Jesus being present wherever any group of Christians meet in his name to worship him, the entirety of Scripture proves this to be true. The Psalmist wrote:
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.
God is omnipresent (cf. Jer. 23:24). Just ask Jonah, who tried in vain to flee from God’s presence (Jon. 1:3-10). Jesus is God (John 1:1, 14; Phil. 2:6; 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). So we should not be surprised that he is present whenever and wherever we gather together to worship him.
This is made further evident when we consider other passages of Scripture that shows Jesus to be present when we congregate to worship him. While instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29, emphasis added). The church (ekklesia, assembly) is made up of Christians who are part of God’s kingdom (Col. 1:13; 1 Thess. 2:12; Heb. 12:28; Rev. 1:6, 9). Thus, Jesus is promising that he will be present wherever Christians assemble to commemorate his death by observing the Lord’s Supper.
This goes along with what the writer of Hebrews brings out. In the context of discussing how Jesus “bring(s) many sons to glory” (i.e., sanctifies his disciples) in Hebrews 2:10, the author writes:
For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
Jesus is “he who sanctifies.” Christians are “those who are sanctified.” Jesus “is not ashamed to call (us) brothers.” For this reason the writer of Hebrews quotes from one of the messianic psalms (Ps. 22:22) and cites Jesus as the one who is saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (emphasis added). Jesus is singing God’s praise. Where? “In the midst of the congregation.” Jesus is present when Christians congregate.
Keeping this in mind, it is therefore appropriate to cite Jesus’ words, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20) as scriptural proof of Jesus’ presence at any place where Christians gather to worship him. This is true even though the immediate context of Matthew 18:20 shows that Jesus was discussing congregational withdrawing of fellowship from the unrepentant brother. Indeed, let us also remember that Paul directed that the fornicating Christian was to be “deliver(ed)…to Satan” (i.e., withdrawn from fellowship) “when you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4-5), thus showing that withdrawing of fellowship was to be done when the congregation was assembled together. Thus, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 18:20, even taken within its immediate context of the discussion of church discipline, would be appropriate to cite as proof of his presence whenever Christians assemble.
So the overall context of Scripture (cf. Ps. 119:160) shows that it is not inappropriate to cite Matthew 18:20 as scriptural proof of Jesus’ presence and approval of any assembly of Christians who congregate in his name to worship and serve him. As previously mentioned, Matthew 18:18, when both immediate and overall context is considered, shows dual application towards church discipline and apostolic authority. In like manner, the immediate and overall context of Matthew 18:20 shows dual application towards church discipline and Jesus’ omnipresence whenever and wherever Christians gather in his name to worship him.
This raises one final thought, the examination of whether Matthew 18:20 is appropriately used to allow for Christians to assemble away from their local congregation’s worship assemblies. In the past, some have used this passage in an effort to permit their decision to not attend worship services in favor of secular activities in which they and their Christian biological family or friends wish to engage more than they wish to worship God with their brethren. “Hey, it’s okay that some friends from church join my family for fishing on the lake instead of coming to church because, hey, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ Jesus will be with us while we’re fishing for trout, so it’s all good.” The problem with this line of thinking is that it ignores the principle of Matthew 6:33, in which Jesus commands us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” It also ignores the principle of Hebrews 13:17, in which Christians are told concerning the elders of the local congregation to “obey your leaders and submit to them.” The shepherds and bishops of local congregations have set aside times to worship and study God’s Word. If you could attend during those times and choose not to because you’d rather be involved in secular activities which are not essential to your well-being, you show both a lack of submission to your church leaders and a heart and mindset which far more carnal than spiritual. To use Matthew 18:20 or any other passage of Scripture to justify these sins would put you among “the untaught and unstable” mentioned by Peter who “distort…the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16).
Hebrews 10:24-25 is relevant to this question. It reads:
And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good works, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
We assemble not only to worship, but to “stimulate one another to love and good works” and “encourage one another.” The command here is not just that, but also to not “forsake” our assembling together. “Forsake” (egkataleipō) carries with it the idea of deserting, abandonment, leaving behind. The passage then mentions how this “forsaking our own assembling together” is “the habit of some,” thus showing that what is being condemned is a habitual practice. The following verse then speaks of sinning willfully which would result in losing one’s salvation (Heb. 10:26ff).
Those who might use Matthew 18:20 to attempt to justify staying home from worship assemblies in order to watch Netflix with their families might say, “Hey, it’s not like I’m never at church. I was there last Sunday. I’ll try to show up next Sunday. I just wanted a break, you know? Besides, ‘where two or more are gathered…’ My wife’s a Christian too, and she was at home with me watching Netflix. We even said a short prayer together over the popcorn and chips before turning the movie on.” Perhaps they might attend the following Sunday, the Sunday after that, and from time to time the Wednesday Bible classes. Have they the “habit” of “forsaking” (i.e., abandoning, deserting, leaving behind) the worship assemblies? Not necessarily. However, by choosing fishing or Netflix at home over assembling with their brethren to worship, they are undoubtedly guilty of violating the aforementioned principles of Matthew 6:33 and Hebrews 13:17. Also, as someone who had in my past definitely “forsaken” (abandoned, deserted, left behind) both the worship assemblies and Christianity as a whole for several years and thus fell into the category of “sinning willfully” (Heb. 10:26), I know from personal experience that choosing to stay home instead of worshiping God at church once in a while can very easily lead to full-out, habitual abandonment. For me, it started with missing a Wednesday night and a Sunday night once in a while so I could do what I wanted to do. It then grew to missing more than just once in a while. Soon I was skipping the Sunday morning Bible class too. Before long I was coming just for the morning worship service, and then it led to leaving after the Lord’s Supper and before the preacher got up to preach (because, I reasoned from misusing Acts 20:7, the early church really just gathered to partake of communion, right?) Not long after that, I stopped coming to church altogether…and at the same time I stopped trying to be a faithful Christian in other areas of my life too. It is a dangerous game, choosing to not come to church when one could in favor of the secular. Do not put God to the test (Matt. 4:7).
In recent days, some quote Matthew 18:20 as proof for the legitimacy of the decision many elderships are making in light of the COVID-19 pandemic to suspend congregational worship assemblies in favor of the families which make up those congregations meeting in their homes to worship until such time as it is safe to assemble normally again. I see a stark difference between these circumstances and the ones just examined in which a spiritually immature Christian could assemble but chooses not to in favor of the worldly over the spiritual. For one, the reason these Christians are staying home with their families on Sundays is out of a desire to contribute to both their physical well-being and the physical well-being of their families and communities by not contributing to the spread of this highly contagious and deadly virus which has killed, incapacitated, and isolated so many worldwide. It is for this same reason that many elderships have suspended services until the pandemic is over. Self-centeredness is not an issue here. Rather, what is heeded is the principle of loving God by heeding his commandments to love one’s neighbor and do good to all, especially the household of faith, at every opportunity (Gal. 6:10).
It must also pointed out that, from my observation, these families choosing to worship at home are doing just that: actually worshiping from home and studying God’s Word rather than saying, “All right! No church! It’s Netflix time!” I have no doubt that as soon as they receive word it is safe to assemble normally at the church building again, they will be there with smiles on as soon as the doors open and they will embrace their brethren and tell them how much they missed them and coming to church to worship with them. That is a far cry from the mindset that would produce the habit of abandoning assembling together and thus falling into willful sin (Heb. 10:25-26). No, that is the strong desire to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” and “encourage one another” that Hebrews 10:24-25 actually commends. With such people, Matthew 18:20’s general principle that the Christ is both present and approving of their temporary home-bound worship assemblies is very much applicable.
Think on these things, my friends. May God bless you and keep you and your loved ones safe during these uncertain times in which we live.