An Article from Pastor Paul Boutan
“For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
“Wherever two or more are gathered, there He is in the midst of them.” What does that phrase really mean? I need to confess that this is a personal pet peeve of mine. Recently, we asked you to send us your Bible questions, so that I could address them in a future article. Well, no one submitted any questions, so I thought I would address one of my pet peeves. For whatever reason, whenever I hear someone say, “Wherever two or more are gathered, the Lord's in our midst,” it makes my skin crawl. I have attended small worship gatherings of a handful or less and heard the praise leader use this phrase as a form of encouragement. Sort of implying that although there are only but a few of us, take heart because the Lord Himself is in our midst. Which of course is obviously true. I have also been to church services that typically draw larger crowds, but for whatever reason on this occasion only a faithful few show up. In a moment of prayer, the pastor leading the service prays, “Lord we know that wherever two or more are gathered, you’re in our midst.” Again, that is very true. However, is that the principle that Jesus was really teaching in Matthew 18, when He originally spoke those words? Was this passage intended to be the “life-verse” for every small group gathering? Or did Jesus have in mind another purpose? While it is indeed true that each of us is filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Bible says,“we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit” (1Cor 3:16). Therefore, we can take comfort knowing that no matter how many or how few are in attendance, the Lord is most definitely in our midst. I suggest, however, that Jesus had an entirely different reason for saying in Matthew 18:20, “where there are two or three gathered in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
When we are interpreting difficult passages, the primary principle to remember is “Context Is King”. When you take a passage of Scripture out of its intended context, you can make the Bible say pretty much anything you want. You have probably heard the story of the guy who opened his Bible, set it next to an open window and said,“Lord, show me what passage you want me to read.” Suddenly, the wind blew, and a few pages turned. Then, he looked at the passage that was open which read,“Judas hanged himself.” He prayed again and said, “Lord, show me how to apply that to my life.” Suddenly, the wind blew again and a few more pages turned. This time the passage that he read said, “Go and do likewise.” We would do well to remember that taking a Biblical passage out of context can have dangerous consequences.
So what is the context of this passage in Matthew chapter 18? Well, you may be surprised to hear that the context has nothing to do with a worship gathering led by a team of musicians. In fact, the context has absolutely nothing to do with a church service with several in attendance or a select few in attendance.
Actually, the context is “church discipline.” In fact, the backdrop of Matthew 18 is found in Deuteronomy chapter 19. Which is an Old Testament passage where Moses outlines how the Jewish community was to handle legal offenses against one another. In Deut. 19:15 it says,"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.” The original audience Jesus was speaking to, happened to be a group of Jewish people who were well versed in the book of Deuteronomy and would know the principles to which Jesus was referring.
Jesus, drawing from Deuteronomy, tells his listeners that if someone has wronged them rather than suing them and bringing them to court, instead go to your brother one on one, face to face. Tell them what they have done,“if he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matt 18:15). The word hears, akouō in the Greek, can be translated,“to listen and respond.” It does not mean that they simply acknowledge the words coming out of your mouth. But more than that it implies a willingness on their part to RESOLVE this issue and make it right. However, Jesus goes on to say, “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” (Matt 18:16). What does it mean to “take with you one or two witnesses”? Years ago, my cousin was having an issue with another believer who was a mutual friend of ours. He wanted to confront this person’s behavior and asked me to come along as a “witness” referring to this passage. While his intentions were good, that is not really what this section of Scripture was teaching. There are a couple of ways to apply “take with you one or two witnesses.” The first application would be that if this person really wronged you, then chances are there were “eye-witnesses.” Or, perhaps there are others, who were not there when this happened to you, but they have personally witnessed the same behavior in the life of this person. If so, take them with you and go and confront him again. If they listen and respond, if they accept what you say and try to make things right, then you’ve won a brother.
But what if they still refuse to accept what you’re saying? Well, then you bring them to court and sue their pants off. What Matthew 18:17 actually says is, “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.” This is talking about being “disfellowshipped.” The picture here is of a person who has somehow hurt someone else in the same church, and their problem with each other is now hurting the whole church. If the one who started the whole thing refuses to change their behavior, eventually the only resort that might be left is to kick this person out of fellowship for the sake of the whole church. Remove them before people pick sides and fight over who was right and who was wrong. Titus 3:10 says,“Cast the divisive man out after the first and second warning.” In order, to maintain the unity of the body, the one causing division needs to be removed.
Now, it’s in that context Jesus says in Matthew 18:20,“For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” In the setting of “church discipline” Jesus is saying that if you’ve exhausted all other avenues. If you’ve gone to them privately and they refuse to change their behavior. If you have even brought one or two others who have also witnessed this behavior, and they still refuse to accept what you’re saying. If the issue finally gets to the point where this person must be “disfellowshipped” or asked to leave, Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Effectively, He’s telling the stubborn person who refuses to repent and has now been kicked out of fellowship that they were not only rejecting the correction of a fellow believer, and the rebuke of two or three witnesses or even the leadership of the church. But they are actually rejecting correction from Jesus Himself. Jesus is letting the one in sin know that He stands with the church, He is in their midst. The line was drawn in the sand, and on this issue, He is not standing on the side of the one in sin.
Therefore, considering the actual context, the picture being painted in this passage, is not a warm fuzzy scene of two or three believers huddled around a cozy little campfire singing, “Kumbaya My Lord, Kumbaya.” Rather, it’s the picture of someone being kicked out of the camp, and Lord is standing on the side of the ones who did the kicking. This is why my skin crawls when I hear people who have the best intentions take this passage out of context.
Hopefully, some of you will begin to submit questions for me to answer in upcoming articles, because I only have a handful of “pet peeves.”