I had some great interactions with the youth group at my church recently while teaching them how to read the Bible in context. They were surprisingly well engaged. One of the verses I mentioned was this one:
Matthew 18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
It is typically used to note that if we are gathered to pray or whatever, He is there with us. Then I ask a simple question: So if two of us are there together and one leaves, does that mean Jesus goes away? Of course not. So that isn’t what the verse means.
As always, we don’t want to read just one verse. Verse 20 is at the end of a passage on sinning against each other and how church discipline works. Jesus is basically saying that if you do it his way, you can be confident in the decision — as if He is there with you.
Matthew 18:15–20 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
We should use appropriate verses to make those points, like these:
Hebrews 10:24–25 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Hebrews 13:5–6 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
When people misuse Matthew 18:20, bad things happen. I have only seen one church in my life use church discipline, and it is my current one. It isn’t easy or fun for the elders to do it, but when they do things Jesus’ way it turns out really well. Go figure! They have had to use it on a couple people who were pursuing un-biblical divorces. In the first case the guy left anyway, but his wife felt very loved and supported by the church. And it is easy to see how it could prevent others from going down the same path. The elders did it with discretion and love, but they had the guts to obey Jesus. Praise God for that!
Side note: A guy I used to attend church with uses verse 20 out of context on a regular basis. It is the guy’s life verse, and he gets it wrong. He’s a very committed Christian, but not open to correction on this. I’ve seen him use it at prison ministry events but didn’t want to embarrass him in front of others. Then he used it on my Facebook page when I posted a different verse. I could have corrected him there, but I chose to send him a very gracious personal message, appealing to 2 Timothy 2:15* and offering to have him correct me if he thought I was wrong.
Here was his response: [Crickets chirping]
Nothing at all. It was very disappointing.
*2 Timothy 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.