What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them’ (Matthew 18:20 English Standard Version)?
An emailed question
I received an email the other day from an old friend. It read:
‘I have a question . . . re. Matthew 18:20. I recall that, commenting on this verse . . . many, many, many years ago, you made the point that . . . the Greek for ”are gathered” would be more accurately rendered as ”having been gathered” . . . If that is so, then it begs the question as to who has been instrumental in activating the “gathering”? The answer has to be the Lord himself.’
Why was the enquirer raising the subject with me? He continued: ‘I’m finding many [who are] searching for a more authentic expression of ekklesia [Greek = literally those “called out”] as different from what has become “church” for them [namely]: “Let’s just get together in a lounge, [for] Matthew 18:20 tells us that the Lord will show up and approve, and away we go!” While I realise that as true believers, we have the indwelling Christ . . . therefore, when believers assemble, there is an expression of Christ there. . . . However, I’ve noticed that if there is a clear joining of God, initiated by the Spirit, that assembly will prosper.’ As an example of longevity he quoted the church of which he had been an elder from its inception about half-a-century ago and in which I had played a formative role as a regular visiting prophet-teacher.
He ended: ‘I find these days I am aligning Matthew 18:20 with Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.”’
My emailed reply
‘Yes, you are quite right. The Greek of the New Testament has a pluperfect tense in the passive voice. That is clearly translated in the Interlinear Greek English New Testament of Matthew 18:20, in its word-for-word rendering into English as: “. . . where are two or three having been assembled in my name, there I am in midst of them.”’
Then I quoted a former colleague from those exciting days in a previous millennium who conveyed the idea that ‘if I met you and [your wife] in the supermarket and we drew aside to the cafeteria area and had . . . coffee, Jesus spontaneously then did church with us for those twenty minutes we were spending in fellowship together. But what [would have happened] if we had burst out in songs of praise and had travailed in intercession . . .? And if we had appointed elders and deacons . . .! Actually, the last time [that friend] made contact with me, he boasted that he hadn’t opened his Bible in over twenty years! Enough said!’
It has often been observed that we only have on record two occasions when Jesus mentioned church [Greek ekklesia] – Matthew 16:13-19 (see verse 18 with reference to the church across the world and through the centuries) and Mathew 18:1-35 (see verse 17 where obviously the local church is in view – because we are not expected to refer all one-on-one disputes to a convened council of Christians worldwide, even if that is now slightly more feasible by video link!).
Having an epiphany or what nowadays we’d call ‘a light bulb moment’, Peter confessed to Jesus, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ and Jesus had replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [Petros = a piece of rock], and on this rock [Petra = The Rock of Christ’s deity, see Deuteronomy 32:4, 15, 31; Psalm 18:2, 31, 46; and 28:1 etc] I will build my church.’ (Matthew 16:13-19).
Matthew 18:15-20 is in the context of a very specific issue about a deep dispute between two disciples. ‘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 is he does not listen, take one or two others along with you‘ (verses 15-16). Now, if you do the maths you’ll agree that they total ‘two or three’. Then, take a sneak look ahead to verse 20: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name [to sort out this dispute], there am I among them.’ Then, hopefully, you won’t need to raise the aggravating issue with ‘the [local] church’ (verse 17).
Since Jesus is meeting with those ‘two or three’ as he stands among them, we realise that they can resolve the problem as certainly as when Jesus walked ‘in the midst of the lampstands’ that ‘are the seven churches’ of Asia Minor in Revelation 1:13 and 20) dressed in High Priestly garments. In Hebrews 2:12 Jesus testifies that ‘in the midst of the assembly [ekklesia] I will sing praise to’ God!
P.S. I recall from my school days that, presented with a geometry exercise, the correct answer in our text books carried the initials Q.E.D. for the Latin phrase Quad Erat Demonstrandum, meaning ‘what we set out to demonstrate’. We schoolboys preferred to think of the meaning as Quite Easily Done!
To sum up what Jesus taught and signified: Involving the church would only need to be done at Stage Three of the problematic relationship. But if we can resolve any issue at Stages One or Two, then we don’t need to involve the church at all! Q.E.D!