Verses in Context – Matthew 18:20

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.

Matthew 18:20

Misinterpretation

While reading this verse in isolation, some understand this verse as the presence of God is possibly drawn only if two or more people gather in a place. With this misconception, people use this verse to invite God’s presence while they come together. The whole endeavor for coming together in His presence may go in vain as it exposes the lack of knowledge of the word of God in them.

Context

To fit this verse in its context, we have to start reading from verse 15, where Jesus teaches us the ways to reconcile with our wronged brother.

If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you.

Matthew 18:15-17

The above passage laid down successive steps for reconciliation. The first step is to create a common space between the alleged innocent person and the alleged erring person to evolve, whether the mistake is purposefully committed or a mere coincidence that misleads the other person to presume it in a wrong way. If any of them realizes their mistake, then the purpose of their private meeting is counted as a success.

After the guilt is fixed, if the erring person does not accept his mistake, then Jesus advises the innocent brother to take two more persons with him, so that they will be witnesses to testify to establish the fact.

This custom prevailed in Jesus’ time. If he does not accept his mistake even in the presence of testimony, Jesus tells the innocent brother to escalate his plea to the Church and if that too does not work, Jesus advises the innocent brother to treat the offender as an unbeliever.

Why does Jesus ask the innocent brother to treat the offender as an unbeliever? Jesus nurtures His children in Godly love by allowing them to practice forgiveness and corrections among their fellow believers. If anyone fails in this exercise, God tells His children to continue this exercise among themselves keeping aside the offender. In Deuteronomy 21:18-21 the law guided the parents to handover their disobedient children to the men of the city to be stoned to death.

Paul had understood this concept clearly and explains this in the verses given below.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

1 Corinthians 5:12-13

He had also applied this concept later in his ministries. Jesus, while sending His disciples among the Jews, instructed them something similar to Matthew 18:17

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.

Matthew 10:14-15

According to Benson’s commentary, the Jews thought the land of Israel so peculiarly holy, that when they came home from any heathen country they stopped at the borders, and shook or wiped off the dust of it from their feet, that the holy land might not be polluted with it. Therefore the action here enjoined was a lively intimation, that those Jews who had rejected the gospel were holy no longer, but were on a level with heathen and idolaters.

Jesus is specific in protecting His children’s peace of mind. The reason to treat the offender as unbeliever, is mainly to retain His children’s peace of mind. For example, if we have a quarrel on a freeway with a reckless driver, that is not going to affect our peace of mind for a longer duration. Whereas, if the quarrel is occurred with a person whom we love, then we are disturbed forever.

The below passage is describing the process of God’s peace flowing through us in other’s life and it emphasizes the message that when it bounces back, our peace should not be disturbed. This can be achieved, if we love each other through God. We are united with one another by God and we have to maintain that unity through God.

If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you.

Matthew 10:13

In the below incident, the disciples by applying the above concept in their ministry, retained their peace of mind and were filled with great joy.

When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

Acts 13:48-52

Interpretation

In the context of Matthew 18:20, Jesus says even when the purpose of two or more people coming together as testimony is not enough in establishing the fact, His presence is assured as a divine testimony. Apart from this, Jesus does not mean to say that His presence is available because of the number of people gathered.

This verse may be a caution given to people who are outwardly gathering in the name of Jesus but inwardly eager to meet only with the people, leaving aside Jesus.

Even when we are alone, God is with us. The awesome provisions of God’s presence is for every single individual, irrespective of their situation which is revealed in Psalm 139.

Application

If we expect the presence of God only when two or three of us have gathered then we are denying the promise given in Joshua 1:5 and the truth revealed in 1 John 4:4.

Realizing God’s presence only in the company of others is not a healthy spiritual sign. We are seeing God’s people demonstrating the love of God not in the company of man but all alone with the company of God. (Acts 18:9-10)

We have to learn to cherish in His presence in private, wherever we are and in whatever condition we are, because nothing can separate us from His love and presence. (Romans 8:35-39)

We have to understand the truth that even though our sins may stop us from reaching out to Him, (Isaiah 59:1-2) it cannot prevent Him to reach out to us. (Romans 5:8)

When the President of a nation visits our working place, we set aside all our works whether routine or urgent till he leaves. When we come together in God’s name, we have to be cautious that we give reverence to Him. (Leviticus 19:32)

Do not quote a verse by merely hearing from others but before quoting or using a verse, understand the word of God with the context in which it was said, to derive the holistic revelation of God’s message hidden in His word. (Psalm 119:18, 130)

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people….

Ephesians 1:18

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