“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
For generations this verse has been a great comfort to many believers, for it provides confirmation that as they come together, the Lord is in their midst. Sadly, the verse sometimes gets abused and misused, especially when it is taken out of its context and turned into a proof-text. Nevertheless, in context, Jesus’ statement is a poignant reminder about what much of Christianity is all about and the challenge we face in obtaining godliness.
It is not as if God is not present if there are not at least two believers together, for in God we live, move, and have our being, as Paul affirms in Acts 17:27-28. While this message certainly applies to the assembly of believers, and even small groups of believers, we should not assume that somehow the Lord is only in our midst when together. Yes, the church as a whole is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, with Christ as its Head (1 Corinthians 3:9, 16-17, Ephesians 5:22-32); yet this remains true when the church is dispersed and its individual members strive to serve the Lord in their lives as much as when they come together to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Hebrews 10:24-25).
In order to appreciate Jesus’ emphasis we must turn to the context of this verse. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus has made a powerful case for Christians to be reconciled to one another when transgression has separated them. He then confirms the authority that He is granting to the Apostles as a group in Matthew 18:18– what they bind and loose on earth will have been bound and loosed in Heaven. And then, in Matthew 18:19, Jesus declares that when believers pray in accord and agreement, God grants their request.
The substance of these verses is not as disparate as it might seem. All of the issues surround one of the greatest issues in Christianity– the imperative of unity among believers.
This unity certainly includes doctrinal unity but goes far beyond it. In order to be one and to work together, believers must be on the same page about what God has taught and what God wants them to do (1 Corinthians 1:10). Yet, as anyone who has ever worked closely with others in a relationship knows well, just because there is agreement on what is true and what must be done does not necessitate that there will be unity. Unity is something for which believers must work. Unity demands reconciliation when transgressions take place (Matthew 18:15-17). Unity demands agreement on what is true and right so as to put the right into effect (Matthew 18:18).
And, ultimately, God wants to bless Christians in unity, for when Christians are truly unified– in spirit and work as much as belief– they reflect and honor the relational unity present within God. The Scriptures reveal that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), yet that there are three Persons in the Godhead– God the Father (John 8:17-18), God the Son (John 1:1, 14), and God the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). God is in three Persons, but God is one, because God is one in essence, nature, substance, will, and purpose. The unity of God is relational unity, and the Lord Jesus wants this relational unity for His followers, as He says in John 17:20-23:
“Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me. And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.”
God wants believers to be relationally unified, not only with each other, but also with Him. This is why God is so willing to grant the petitions of believers who seek the same advancement of His purposes (Matthew 18:19; yet cf. James 4:3). And this, in a profound way, is how Jesus is in the midst of two or three gathered in His name.
We should not imagine that Jesus is “in the midst of” two or three gathered together in His name in pretense only, smoldering with hostility toward one another. To be gathered together in His name demands that we are truly gathered together– that we confess Him as Lord, seek to do what He says to do, and to do so as one people, one body. The Lord is in our midst as our Head when we come together and work together as His one Body (Ephesians 4:4-6). In short, when we as believers work together as one, we also are one with God, as Jesus intended from the beginning.
Jesus is in our midst when we come together in His name and we act like it– even though we might come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, classes, etc., we ought to come together as one people in the Lord, being one as He and the Father and the Spirit are one, relationally unified with each other and therefore with God also. This takes a lot of effort– humility and reconciliation are demanded, and the spirit of Philippians 2:1-4 must prevail among us. Let us therefore seek to be one as God is one, in belief, doctrine, will, purpose, and thus practice, be one with God, and honor the Lord Jesus Christ in our midst!
Ethan R. Longhenry