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“Where Two or Three Are Gathered” . . . and Other Bad Interpretations

Matthew 18:20
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

I sat quietly as a young lady led us in prayer. It was hard. I had to bite my tongue.

Wait . . . I have a confession to make: In the past, I have been hyper-critical of what people say and how they say it. I used to evaluate everything everyone said in a sermon or prayer. I think it was the residual seminary-know-it-all. Back then, if you went off even in the slightest, I would become hara (Heb. “red nosed,” “angry”). But I have learned to set aside my hara. I get it. I am not perfect. You are not perfect. Other people are not perfect. I try to be like my hero Martin Bucer, who taught that there are very few things to become hara about. Today, during public prayer, I am not so critical. (It can get kinda long and boring, but that is another subject).

So I sat there praying with this group of people, saying my “umms” and shaking my head at the appropriate times (I hope). Then something made me hara. I tried to brush it off, but it was too difficult. She said the unthinkable . . . I cannot believe she used this verse. It was manipulative, irresponsible, and downright misleading. What was her crime? She used the “where two or three are gathered in my name . . .” trick. She misused Matthew 18:20. Of course, this is tongue-in-cheek. She did not really have any ill-intentions. She was just following the folklore about this verse, which she had probably heard herself countless times in the past. We have all done it so don’t get smug. Let’s look at the verse.

Matt. 18:20
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

It happens all the time: Prayers which invoke the presence of Jesus during the gathering . . . well, so long as there are “two or three.” What does this mean? Does it mean that Christ is more likely to answer your prayer? Does it mean that Christ’s actual presence is in the middle of your prayer circle . . . a ghost, phantom, or floating entity? Maybe he is there holding our hands. And which is it, for goodness’ sake? Two, or three? The idea is this: we have to have more than one person to get this mystical real presence of Christ invoked and some people have made a sacrament out of this.

However, this is not what this verse means. And I do get somewhat red-nosed about this because it can mislead us about the power of God and our prayer life.

Matthew 18:20, like every other passage of Scripture, has a context. When we look at the context we find that the pericope (single unit of thought) in which this verse occurs starts in verse 15:

Mat 18:15
“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.”

Notice, this is the section dealing with how to engage a brother or sister in Christ who has sinned against you. The first act is to go alone and discuss the issue. It is emphatic that one does not spread the details of another’s offense before you talk with him or her one on one. Notice the numbering system here.

The passage continues:

Matt. 18:16
“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.”

Here is the second step. If your brother or sister does not repent of their sin, then you are to get some witnesses. Now, these people are not your wingmen who are coming to back you up just in case things get ruff. They are objective parties who are going to listen to both sides of the issue. But notice here the numbering: this is where the “two or three” phrase is first brought into the picture. This is a reference back to the Mosaic law:

Deut. 17:6
“On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.”

This is a system of accountability. God’s law has never allowed for the conviction of another without a “fair trial.” In Matthew, we have the same situation. There is a brother or sister who has been charged with an unnamed offense. God says if you cannot take care of it on your own, get some others to listen to each side. The final act, if the previous encounter was unfruitful, is to bring it before the church (pastors, elders, etc). If he or she is deemed guilty by the church and still does not repent, disassociation is necessary. Why? Because the case has been brought through a process that God approves of. “Two or three” have gathered in the name of Jesus (i.e., seeking his will) and Jesus was among them (placing his stamp of approval on the decision made). Now, this does not mean that we are to see this prophetically, as if the process guarantees that the outcome is always going to be true. Jesus being in their midst simply means that this is a God-ordained process.

So, to be brief, this passage has to do with church discipline and Christ’s approval of a process, not to do with some special presence of Christ in prayer gatherings.

But one of the reasons why I got hara about this the other day was because of how misleading this can be. When we say that Christ is present in our midst when we are praying with two or three others, we imply something terrible about personal prayer: that he is not present when we pray alone. This is not true. Christ’s presence cannot be any greater in one situation than another. He does not hear you better when you have others with you. He is not more inclined to listen to your cries as long as you have a couple of buddies holding your hands saying “umm” and “amen.” There is simply no way to have more of Christ’s ear than you do right now. He is in your midst now because, being omnipresent, he is always in the immediate presence of everything in all creation.

“Lord, you promised that when two or three people are gathered in your name, you will be in our midst. Well, here we are. Because of this we call upon you to bless us and answer our prayer.” This prayer is the very essence of idolatry. Now, take that statement in the context of my realization that we all commit idolatry more often than we realize. But this misunderstood prayer invokes the presence of our God through a formulaic incantation, which is empty of any power and resembles the manipulative schemes of a polytheistic system which is continually dependent on the physical presence of their gods if blessing is to occur. We are not limited to such. Our God is bigger than that. So think again before you pray in such a way.

140 Responses to ““Where Two or Three Are Gathered” . . . and Other Bad Interpretations”

  1. Great thoughts, as always. 🙂

  2. One of my pet peeves, too

  3. CMP,

    You quoted:

    “Lord, you promised that when two or three people are gathered in your name, you will be in our midst. Well, here we are. Because of this we call upon you to bless us and answer our prayer.”

    Then you concluded: “This prayer is the very essence of idolatry.”

    I submit to you that accusation is just as bad on the other side.

    I had a prayer ministry for 25 years. I never once invoked that verse as a talisman to think that several people praying together was the magic formula. I don’t anyone that does consider it that way, who is serious about prayer.

    Someone once called me a ‘professional intercessor’, and said he couldn’t pray without my intervention, as if I had the magic wand. I quickly assured him I didn’t. Wish I did. I could change the world.

    My point is we can’t automatically assume the person who brings that verse up that verse is somehow invoking a magic formula either, in favor of corporate prayer.

  4. CMP, this use of ‘two or three’ has popped up a few times recently in my mind as well and started to bug me, so I’m glad to read your take on the subject. Yes, mbaker, I agree that we cannot automatically assume that anytime someone brings up the verse that they are assuming they are drawing on some mysterious power. I suggest at least three misappropriations are taking place: First, people will parrot what they’ve heard at church or some prayer gathering because it resonates with them on some level not fully understanding the context as CMP outlined, so it becomes a flippant repetition. Second, they’ve heard it enough that they’ve meditated on it, yet not studied it, and it becomes formulaic for them because it references prayer (might be restating the first). Third, it was said by the Lord himself, so WE MUST be able to claim it for ourselves. The third, I would argue, are being serious about prayer.

  5. “She said the unthinkable . . . I cannot believe she used this verse. It was manipulative, irresponsible, and downright misleading. ”

    Michael,
    Do you think she was purposely doing this or just ignorant? Those are some pretty strong words.

  6. Debra, no. It was dramatic overstatement based on my conclusion. She was well meaning. But this does suppose that we can manipulate the Lord. Hope that makes sense.

  7. The whole concept is similar to how you need ten males to form a minyan (quorum) necessary so that a Jewish temple can meet.

  8. “I submit to you that accusation is just as bad on the other side.”

    MBaker, I take your criticism to heart. However, I don’t think it is an overstatement when we realize what the second commandment is all about. It is simply saying that we cannot control the Lord. The prayer that invokes his presence is what God is trying to prevent in the second commandment in two ways: it is twisting his arm as the physical requirements guarantee an outcome (ie his “presence” in their midst”) and it is calling upon some sort of spacial presence.

    But, I hope you see how I qualified what might seem to be an over the top statement by informing the readers that idolatry is a sin we ALL often commit, from holy water to not cursing only in churches. But this needs another post by itself!

  9. Thank you, Michael. I chose to share this with my pastor, and church page, neither of which is familiar with your typical irenic style. Of course, the dramatic overstatement is the part that stood out the most, which would easily happen to those not familiar with your writing. Having read your writings for years I suspected you were being hyperbolic, but wanted to get confirmation that indeed this was the case.

    Just a suggestion, not everyone who reads your blog is going to be familiar with your customary style; therefore, they may take everything that you say at face value. They could easily perceive you as someone seriously lacking in grace, as in this case, when in reality you are anything but that. Maybe a caveat for your potential new readers might be helpful? at least it would be for me when I share your stuff. lol

    In answer to your question “does this suppose that we can manipulate the Lord?”, no. I’ve always felt a sense of arm twisting when that scripture was use in that fashion, but then again, I never took the initiative to look at it in context myself. A good reminder to never assume, always check context.

  10. martin roules 2012-08-11 at 1:01 am

    Thank you for making this clarification to one of the most abused verses in the NT. It is amazing how the lack of contextual reading leads to what amounts to the Christian equivalent of an “ueban legend.” Well parsed!

  11. Thanks Debra. I changed it some. Can you take a look and see if you think that the changes will take away the sting you mentioned. If not, please suggest how I might change it further. You are wonderful for thinking of others and how they may need this!

  12. Dear Michael,
    Thank you so much for writing this. I really appreciate your speaking the truth in this blog. I appreciate the way you boldly make such a strong case based on evidence with the little bit of space you have. I especially appreciate your willingness to speak so straightforwardly (with gentleness and respect) among the many who believe that any kind of disagreement with the majority of Christian beliefs is argumentative and promoting divisiveness. I am not at a place right now where I can read lengthy theologicle articles and books, yet I crave something with substance, that isn’t just fluff. I really enjoy my daily one minute dose of the Credo House blog. They really hit the spot. And if I disagee, they challenge me to search the Scriptures for myself and examine the evidence. Question: What do you believe is the right thing to do when you encounter someone praying this passage out of context in this way?

  13. I guess I see this errant belief of Matthew 18 as a need or desire to control our lives.

    I’ve recently started to recognize certain christian interests as a means for us humans to have some sense of control over our outcomes.

    Charismaticism is the fastest growing form of Christianity today. I believe its growing so fast because it seems to offer the practitioners some sense of control over physical outcomes in their lives.

    While the prosperity gospel message is still relegated to certain quarters of christianity, ‘prosperity lite,’ as it has been termed, is quickly becoming mainstream. This message, again, offers its practitioners some sense of control (through money and thought) over materialistic outcomes.

    I suppose even the heady pursuit of intellectual mastery of the gospel through theology can be an attempt by us humans to capture some form of control over God, and thus, outcomes in our lives.

    The more we can make God “known,” i.e. planned and predictable, the more we can game the system to our benefit. (And I would bet real money those who have done this have encountered the Masters ability to totally frustrate and stop our play time.)

    We so desperately want this control over outcomes because we want to manage and secure our safety. We want to feel good, not bad. We want success and not failure. We want life, not death.

    What we have been taught about God and christianity, to me, has been lacking the ability to rightly empower us spiritually. It is lacking, in my estimation, because we totally have no sense of what it means to be spiritual. We are material. Totally unlike God, right now. He is invisible. Unseen. Unheard. Untouched, if you will. If in worship we get goosebumps we might say the spirit is present. Thats our extent of contact.

    To engage God we must do so through faith. Not a mechanism given to security and stability. In this absence we search for “christian” means of control to make us feel safe.

  14. Thanks, Michael: this issue is in need of more correction across denominational lines.
    Another misused concept is from Mat. 17:20 – faith can move mountains! At its worst, this can take the form of invoking “power” from within to do one’s personal will.
    As scripture warns, witchcraft is as the sin of rebellion . . .

  15. You’re welcome, Michael. It was not easy approaching you regarding this, not because I think you unapproachable, but because I do not hold a college degree; however, I know it has always been your desire to communicate what is on your heart and to do so with complete transparency.

    I have actually asked my pastor to look at it again, since I feel his opinion would be more helpful by giving you the perspective of an outsider. That said, I think your additions are good, but it might be helpful to add as a preface to the statement in question with…”My initial reaction was it was manipulative, irresponsible…” or “My initial knee jerk reaction was… ” . I sought my husbands opinion and he says that you sound contradictory by ascribing ill motives at the start then saying later “of course she meant no ill-intentions.”

    Please know, I appreciate the real thought provoking topic of this post. I would think someone with your extensive knowledge of scripture hears verses misused all the time, and can only imagine how frustrating that is when your entire ministry is geared toward helping the layman become more theologically literate. I too would probably become “hara” at times if in your shoes.

    Thank you for being receptive my comments. It really is appreciated.

  16. Michael Patton, so, in the proper context, “there I am among them” , translates as approval? Like, “I’m authorizing this, I’m in”? Nothing to do with “here I am”? Nothing to do with Christ responding to a group effort? Is “there I am among them” literally translated “I’m approving this gathering” or is it a figure of speech? Like some might respond today with,”I hear ya, I’m with ya on that” and yet they may be miles away and not literally with us? Or do we know it simply means “I authorize” this meeting, this gathering because we know from other scriptures He is present to hear individual prayers?

  17. Exactly. It is like we would say if I were not present and I say “I’m with you” when you make a decision. Christ is “siding” with those who have gone through the process.

  18. I hope you spoke to this person about your thoughts on prayer and that verse and didn’t just blog about it. If so, I wonder how it went over. Was the person surprised, upset, embarrassed, did they disagree, etc.

  19. No, I did not. The time has to be right for such things. But the Credo House will provide many indirect ways to confront this. They may even be reading this blog. But as so many of you know, I change stories enough so as to keep people from knowing it is about them.

  20. Doug,

    i wondered the same thing. This lady must be so discouraged and embarassed reading this that she did something horribly wrong, and has been castigated publically when I’m thinking perhaps she was only trying to simply pray for everyone, and just unknowingly made a theological boo-boo at the end.

  21. MBaker. Read the last statement. You should know me better than that.

  22. Michael,

    I did read it, but my question is why did you make this one person a public example when you could have so easily expressed it objectively as theological point of view as well?

    I think we should just tell it like it is, and skip the personal stuff. Would have been so much more effective , IMHO, to say that many people do this erroneously, which I do absolutely happen to agree with you there.

  23. My pastor basically stated you could have written the entire article, made your very VALID point, and never even mentioned the woman. Emphasis his.

    I must agree at this point. Your message would have been more effective having left it out, instead some are stumbling over the example, causing you to come across as judgmental. Sorry, Michael. Sometimes drama will bite you in the butt, just ask my teen.

    As for me, it’s time to go read those passages again and let what I’ve learned here sink in, so I don’t drive someone to becoming hara myself. ;o)

  24. But, then again, as any good preaching class would teach you, you have to provide real life illustrations in order to create and substantial the need. These illustrations of this being abused abound.

    I use a real life one, as I so often do in my blogs, in order to create a narrative. This, theoretically, draws people into a story, which is very important if you want to gain their attention (which is very hard to do these day…as it is with me).

    But, the sting is taken away, I hope, by realizing that this illustration is simply an agglomeration of many many abuses, and does not have any one representative. There is absolutely no way that someone reading this would think it is about them.

  25. I’ve been reading this conversation with interest.

    Sorry, Michael, but it sounds to me like if your “real life illustration” has been changed so much that there is no way that any one could know that it is them you are talking about, it is more of a fictional story you are telling us then a real life example!

  26. What an odd place these conversations in the comments can go.

    But I do love this stuff. Rhetoric, pedagogy, didactics, and homeletics is such an important subject that rarely receives the attention it needs.

  27. So Michael, it seems like you have quite confused several people here, including me, and caused a lot of concern by telling a story as if it were actual fact when in reality it was much more fiction then a real life example or illustration.

    It seems like there must be some way to catch people’s attention that isn’t as loaded as this approach obviously is.

  28. Well, I would just keep in mind that most of the direct examples will be ipsissima vox (the very voice, idea), not ipsissima verba (the very words). Kinda like Matthew does with Christ. But rest assured that the illustrations are not made up even if, in order to keep from offending someone, these maybe be representative of real life situations I have experienced.

    Again, this is quite a tangent that does not need such extensive review. I seriously doubt that those reading it are without their own examples of the abuse that this post speaks about.

    In teaching, you must remember that often the entire lesson and argument will be built upon the historic details. But more often than not, the examples can be parabolic and representative in historic situations. A good book on this kind of stuff is Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me.

  29. Now, I could tell you the exact story that brought this blog to life. It happened two weeks ago. It was at the Credo House. And the people involved (along with the girl) do read this blog. I could also detail out the times when I have heard this statement in prayer (sometimes by a girl), but is a detailed summary necessary for the illustration or my integrity? No. If it were, only those with a photographic memory could use personal illustrations!

    But, again, this should not disturb you. And if it does, I suppose you will have a lot of trouble with the Gospel writers and their redaction of Christ words. This is turning into quite a good illustration itself for my teacher traing course!!

  30. And I won’t use any names! Might even say it was a guy and replace the blog with the classroom! Nah, that pushes it a bit far for me ( unless I come straight out and say such)

  31. We are getting to that point. But remember, 95% don’t read comments and of the 5% that do, very few read this far down (esp when the conversation
    Is so tangential).

  32. I guess some of us here are of “the old school” that figured that when something was told as factual, it was indeed factual. Unless, of course, there was some indication given that made it clear that was not the case.
    You know a, “While this account is based on fact, the names and details have been changed to protect the innocent,” kind of a thing.

  33. You know what else I’ve learned from this post? That people tend to really get “hara” over that which they are most passionate about.

    Michael, you’ve always been transparent with your own life in order to help others understand your message, even when it’s not wrapped up in a nice, spotless little package. I appreciate your efforts. You often broach troublesome subjects many dare not talk about due to the difficulties faced when doing so. I’m thankful you are willing to engage and hang in there, even when it’s tough to do so.

  34. Michael,
    You could just as easily have been talking about me, years ago, when I was praying aloud with a group. I learned the “incantation” from others praying the same way, then explaining to me that it means something about there being more power in numbers (or something). It wasn’t until I began to seriously think about that definition with what Scripture teaches, and studied it in context, that I realized they were wrong/I was wrong. I asked God for foregiveness.

    I appreciate that you used a real life example, fiction or not, to present this post. It IS more personal that way. Kind-of like including the heart, and not just the head. Similar to, explaining what athiest believe, as opposed to a conversation that my daughter had with an athiest the other day (really happened). The topic went from just being a subject, to being a person.

  35. Read that book Cheryl. You will see that even when you think you recall the facts, they are not quite so accurate. But, you can rest assured that I have heard this prayer prayed many times.

    (And please don’t jump all over the Gospel writers for agglomerating the stories of Jesus, especially the sermon on the mount. They don’t know what “old school” means) 😉

  36. No, they agglomerated the events and sayings of Christ. But let’s not go down this road any longer. It is quite silly and bordering on a sinful waste of time and energy.

  37. For two days now I have read and taken into consideration all the comments regarding you, Michael, referencing an unnamed female using scripture incorrectly in prayer. I’ve been trying really hard to put myself on both sides of the fence. I have put myself as the female in question based on the timing and all the other data presented. I squirmed a little. But was relieved that you took the hit for being “hyper-critical” and even said it was a confession. I didn’t read it as a gift. Confessions are usually about one’s flaws or sins. If you had not prefaced it as a confession, I know it would not have gone down well with me. Then it would have been condescending. You even criticized yourself saying “residual seminary-know-it-all”. Good characterization. We all have residual of something or another. Like lime deposits left by very hard water. Mostly clean except for that little bit of residue. I also love that you said “I get it. I am not perfect. You are not perfect. Other people are not perfect”. If we’re growing, we all eventually get that revelation. You even stood up for this girl, “Of course, she did not have any ill intentions. She was just following the folklore about this verse, which she had probably heard herself countless times in the past. We have all done it.” Uh oh, I see a problem. Just prior to that you accused her with “She said the unthinkable . . . I cannot believe she used this verse. It was manipulative, irresponsible, and downright misleading. What was her crime?” You used the words to describe her as manipulative, irresponsible and misleading and she’s a criminal. WOW! It’s so over the top what you describe, could that possibly have tongue in cheek? I take it that way. I take it that you were making fun of yourself and others like you that get so, I don’t know, legalistic, Pharisaical while keeping score during a prayer? I thought you were making jabs at yourself and exposing your own character flaws and less her own.
    “to…

  38. OK, so I got cut off. Carrying on…Maybe what happened was you mention at the top of your story about your former weakness of cringing at others’ misuse of scripture during prayer and that became the focal point for some. I assume you wanted for us the most was to understand scriptures that has been so taken out of context and misapplied that we weren’t getting it’s full benefit, if at all? I think your confession is a worthy topic because, I think, so many of us to that. For me it was getting over critiquing the praise team. Coming from a very musical, performing family, it was hard. Only took me a few years but I’m passed it now. Point is, that would make an excellent post. And the main theme you intended here, was concerning those scriptures you mentioned. Perhaps mixing the two cost each subject matter to get lost? Sometimes that just happens. As far as mentioning real life situations to drive home a point, I think it is only wrong if you are truly condemning the other where he/she has no way of defending his/herself or making fun of him/her. I don’t think you did either. I think the emphasis was on what a jerk you used to be. I think you mentioned she represented many of us. The hero pastors of today all use real life examples. But never in a cruel way. I can tell it bothers you that anyone might think you would be so cruel. Don’t worry about it. It was just bad writing.

  39. By the way, back to the main topic, I researched the thoughts of some other theologians on these scriptures and how they are misused. One in particular was fully in harmony with what you translated for us. He made two points, 1) the two or more witnesses method was God ordained and 2) because it IS God ordained, meaning it is His will to manage it with the two or more witnesses, and they are (the 2 or more or however many showed up) seeking to be obedient and do His will in this very important matter, He will do what is asked. That is where “there I am among them” comes into play. He is the CENTER of what they are praying about because He instructed them to handle it exactly that way. That prayer and the order in which to handle that particular matter is His idea, His concept, His commandment. He’s in the thick of it, He’s in the middle of it. His handwriting is all over it. He is with you all the way when you are doing His will. He always hears our prayers but isn’t always “with us” on it. Not every prayer flied with the assurance that it will be answered. In this case, Jesus says, you can count on Him with this one. We must be in His will not He in our will.

    The other thing that was brought out was that the two or more witnesses had to be objective witnesses to make sure that fairness was extended to the accused. Perhaps the accuser was not telling it rightly? That could happen and probably has. There are probably many church members that have targets on their backs. Thank goodness that there is a fair way to get to the bottom and both sides be heard rather than tossing someone out on their ear because of maybe some jealous deacon.

    to be continued….

  40. Lastly, the point was made that if the accused was indeed guilty, once his sins are exposed, no point in hiding out as most of us do when we’re leading guilty, unrepentant lives. Once the sin is out of the dark and into the light and you can’t run from it, you stand a good chance that you’ll be relieved it’s out and be ready to be blessed with wisdom, love and counseling. Fear and worry of being exposed it now a non issue. No more dodging others or hiding out. The monster under the bed isn’t so scary or controlling anymore. So this person pointed out how this made way for the accused to be restored. Isn’t that wonderful God made such a way?

  41. I don’t doubt Michael’s sincerity at all, and hopefully he knows that, otherwise I wouldn’t even read his site, much less bother to comment on it, but I do think, however, this article was a bit too ad hominem, despite the changes he made to it after it was called to his attention. Somehow the theological implications of the misuse of that verse by so many others in the church got lost in the comparison between his ‘red nose ‘ and the young lady.

    We don’t know her motives, whether it was a theological boo-boo or a deliberate attempt to influence God. I agree with Debra’s pastor that it was already a valid complaint bout the misuse of this verse in the first place, without using the young lady as the bad example.

    So I agree with the exegesis he presented but not about the method, because since he hasn’t talked to her personally, so we really can’t tell what her motives really were. That’s my major objection.

  42. Well, there is a real need to make sure we interpret scripture within it’s context. Using an example is how writers or speakers often help us relate. It carries more of a punch when we can identify than to merely say,”many use this scripture incorrectly. So let’s take a look and understand it’s context.” Double yawn. Funny thing is, I did wonder if that girl was me? Not literally and yet, literally….someplace else, in another small group. And funnier still, I thought about all my uh huh, yes Lord, and a little umph during others’ prayers. I do that. But is it insincere? I think I checked out OK there. It doesn’t happen until I start to really medicate on the prayer. But it was worth questioning. I don’t know who writes blogs or books that are non fictional and don’t use real life stories with real people. And many pastors wing it…meaning they suddenly think of a story/example to help listeners relate and they don’t have time to mix it up and change all the characters or town or year or anything. I think discretion has to be used. But I also say trust must be there. Do I trust my pastor to know that his example will not be about anyone who has recently visited our church or even visited our church at all. Do I trust he is confident when he uses an example that the person in question won’t be near to be offended? Yes, I trust him. I think Michael asked for that kind of trust. Was he asking too much of us? I really understand everyone’s concern. Honestly, I do. I just can’t see a writer/pastor/public speaker not using real people as real examples to be share with others. Especially when using a real person he makes himself the butt of his own joke (aka criticism). Plus, the fact that we recall these people and the circumstances means, for better or worse, they have some sort of influence on us. Still, let’s remember that Michael said “she” was a fabrication of many he’s heard misuse those scriptures. Did we need the example? How will we ever…

  43. How will we ever know for sure?

  44. I say we should pray about it. After all, when two or more are together in his name… 🙂

  45. O i have heard this used so flagrantly. You are so right. the first thing i wondered was, ‘then what about those personal times of prayer?’
    I decided to read the rest of the verses.
    It is not about prayer or prayer meetings or any sort of gatherings at all!
    OUr human hearts are so afraid we cling to any quick promise and fix…..(even in our politics say); and yes, it also smacks of idolatry – the making of God in our image to suit our needs!
    Thanks!

  46. My conclusion then is why bother to gather in weekly corporate prayer if praying alone is just as biblical and God listen just the same. Why waste the brethens’ time in gathering them together for prayer meetings since as you say there is ‘no magic’ in it. Just send the prayer items each week and let each pray in their own homes, their own way and their own time.

  47. Fern Nichols founder of Moms in Touch (now Moms in Prayer) http://www.momsintouch.org/ lists this scripture as a promise. I too seek to know the truth from scripture and have had discussions with various pastors about prayer, praying of one accord, enjoying two or three gathered together in Jesus name, etc. Truth can become an idol so I pray that God will help me to put Him first and not put being correct first. I know that God hears us if we have confessed our sins if we are the only one praying. But I remember the scriptures where many disciples are gathered together praying. A need to gather together in prayer is a good thing and picturing Jesus listening is good too. We were made for fellowship with Him and others. I love it when people all over the world are praying—we bear one another’s burdens. It is such a joy to share the answers with all those who have labored in prayer. So that scripture is in regard to church discipline but there are others that encourage gathering together and Jesus has promised He will never leave us or forsake us. He prays for us too.

  48. Thanks for an enlightening post Michael. Just FYI, I’m only an occasional reader of this blog, but I think I understood your tone and I definitely learned something useful. So, contrary to the concerns expressed by some of your readers about the manner in which you approached this subject, I thought you did a nice job with this one. I also appreciated the story because it was an effective “hook” which got me to read the post when I otherwise might not have. I didn’t think you came across as overly critical or harsh, given all your caveats (mentioned by Rebecca above). And this from a Mormon who very well could have taken offense at your use of “incantation,” “polytheistic,” and “physical presence of their gods,” but didn’t…since your use of these terms was neither central to your argument nor relevant to my faith–properly understood 🙂

  49. Brian Parker 2012-08-13 at 2:59 am

    Take your partners for dancing on the head of a pin.

  50. Thanks for the article, very informative & applies for many other scriptural verses used in a similar way.

    I have heard this verse used many times and, more often than not, it is used in a slightly different way than the author has suggested; in fact it contrasts the article (although it is still used out of context!). Let me explain …

    If a small group has gathered for public prayer when expectations have been for a greater number, the verse is often used to say ‘well, we were expecting more Lord, but you said that EVEN if 2 or 3 are gathered, you will bless.’

    In my experience, the verse is used in this context 🙂

  51. CMP, Amen and AMEN! This too is one of my hara scriptures. When people use this scripture in the way you have discussed it shows they do not read scripture. They just repeat what they have heard all their life. Also, you used the word “ruff” look it up, you should have used rough . . . but who cares its just wurds!

  52. Terry Lee Hovey 2012-08-13 at 6:03 am

    I am SO guilty of this! But, I have recently began to question what it meant/implied whenever I “invoked” the Holy Spirit like this. Thanks so much for the correction!

  53. Mary Garner 2012-08-13 at 7:49 am

    Michael, Your post made me think about how we use or misuse Scripture in prayer, and how important it is not to just know Scripture but to understand it. It also brought to mind a question I discussed recently with a friend, and that is, why do we ask elders to pray in certain situations. My question was, are the prayers of elders better than other believers? My friend and I concluded that elders could be assumed to be mature believers and therefore effective in prayer, but I wonder what your thoughts are (and please excuse me if you have written about this elsewhere–you can just direct me to it.)

    • Mary, I think you are right. James does call on us to have elders involved in such things and I think that the assumption is that the elders of the church are those who are mature in the faith. We always want wisdom being our guide.

  54. Great post. A point to consider: The sin in view here is serious enough to warrant excommunication if repentance does not occur. Also, it should be noted that this is not a commanded procedure for all offenses that might occur within the Church. Sometimes calling for a pastor’s intervention before (or without) going directly or alone to the offender is appropriate. It all depends on the circumstances.

  55. Very interesting exegesis. I’ve heard this passage mangled many times over the years, so I appreciate your clarity with this.

  56. I do agree with your analysis of the use of this scripture. I also cringe when I hear some of these quotes being misused. It also makes me drift off from the focus of the prayer because I start analysing how could God only be with us if 2 or 3 are there only, and to add insult to injury, I often hear, “….and God could you go up there to the hospital and touch so and so”….This makes me wonder if the person do not recognise God as omnipresent. I really don’t like when the scripture is misused for the persons benefit.

  57. Wonderfully written…and hara’esque’ induced satire appreciated. Alot. I love good Christian banter (it keeps levity where it should be…)

    When I was actively pastoring…I didn’t find that people wanted to know these types of things. They are happy with their folklore. We seminary types go all gaga over contextualization…and many peeps in the congregation don’t want their folklore rocked.

    My dad was visiting a “if you sin a worse thing might come upon you” type analogy last night, since there is some speculation that my elderly grandfather has maneuvered his finances away from my grandmother. While I disagree in principle, my father has no proof…but went on to tell me a story that happened when his mother (my other grandmother) was nearly outmaneuvered by her 2nd husband. He summarily had a stroke and was incapacitated for the rest of his life. Since my maternal grandfather has suffered two mini-strokes recently, this constituted “proof” of God visiting sin upon him. Then, my hara moment…my dad invoked Job as the archetype of one who has affliction due to sin. He said something about “Satan’s job” was to bring turmoil in light of sin…

    I asked my dad to go back and re-read the narrative to see who initiated the discussion about Job, that it might change his opinion.

    I once recall a “brother” chastising another by saying, “If you had the Holy Ghost in you, it would bear witness with the Holy Ghost in me.” I was aghast…here was a self-proclamation of judgment since “disagreement” had been interpreted as being “nonChristian.”

    Maybe most of my hara moments come from Pentecostals, since I was raised similarly and left that understanding when, as an undergraduate Bible college student, I had the epiphany that nearly all the scholars I was reading happened to be Baptist. My parents couldn’t help me 20 years ago with contextualization…and they don’t readily accept these tidbits now.

    What’s a contextualizing person…

  58. isn’t the heart of it all that He is with us in prayer always, also taking delight in our gathering together with Him, surely greatly so in prayer too, as His prayer is that we be one as He is One. I find special promise fulfilled–deep fellowship and communion.

  59. Glenn Shrom 2012-08-13 at 9:24 am

    Matthew 18:18-20 could be expanding the thought of verses 15-17, and using vv. 18-20 as a broader base to support the narrower application of verses 15-17. The idea I have is that it is like arguing that a dictator certainly has the power to change a line in a law, given that he has the power to strike down the whole law and create a new one. Of course the Church has the authority to disown a rebellious member, since all the powers of heaven and earth are given to the Church in Christ. It’s not just 18:20, but 18:18-20.

    Similar ideas are in Matthew 16:19, John 20:21-23, and First John 5:14-16.

  60. Glenn Shrom 2012-08-13 at 9:30 am

    James 5:14-20 may also be relevant.

  61. I have a consideration. What if, just what if the lady in question recognized that we must prayer in accordance to God’s will, whether privately or corporately? And because she DOES understand that, she uses Matthew 18:20 not because it means to her that if 2 or more are present, then God shows up but rather as affirmation that if we do pray in His accordance that Jesus will be “with them”, for them and will sign off on any requests they have petition, unlike prayers where a group might ask for more materially. Not saying a church never has material or financial needs but we’re talking about prayers that if done correctly are a “shoe in”. And their amens mean that there is a number of them that are in unison with such a the prayer. All prayers are heard but what we want are results (the support of Jesus) and we get results (the support of Jesus) if we pray in unison for the purity of the church.

    So, to me, if she were praying in the context that if we come together in prayer to Jesus that is according to His divine will and character, then He is with us. I guess it depends on her petition? And as long as she not only mentions “where two or more are gathered” but doesn’t fail to mention “if two or more are gathered in ‘Your name, in Your will’, there You will be. Right?

  62. Enjoyed this. Thanks Michael

  63. Whilst others are stating all manner of agreement with the original post, based on exegesis and hermeneutics, I am, for precisely the same reasons, NOT in agreement with the orginal post here.

    Michael speaks of context, but jumped past the verse that immediately precedes this passage:

    18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

    Since this verse is AFTER the progressive path of going to one’s brother (just between the two you), taking one or two others along, and then telling it to the church. The verse is also AFTER the step has been given to the church to treat such a one as a pagan or tax collector.

    It doesn’t follow that the verses about where ever two or more are gathered in my name should automatically associate back to the verse about taking one or two others along. In fact, most commentators historically have seen verse 19 as pretty clear evidence for the power of collective prayer to bind and restore.

    Here is what Clarke writes:
    “If two of you shall agree – ΣυμφωνηϚωσιν, symphonize, or harmonize. It is a metaphor taken from a number of musical instruments set to the same key, and playing the same tune: here, it means a perfect agreement of the hearts, desires, wishes, and voices, of two or more persons praying to God. It also intimates that as a number of musical instruments, skilfully played, in a good concert, are pleasing to the ears of men, so a number of persons united together in warm, earnest, cordial prayer, is highly pleasing in the sight and ears of the Lord. Now this conjoint prayer refers, in all probability, to the binding and loosing in the preceding verse; and thus we see what power faithful prayer has with God! It shall be done for them – What an encouragement to pray! even to two, if there be no more disposed to join in this heavenly work. “

  64. Michael, interesting concern for context, but in interpreting from the context you skip from verses 15-17 to verse 20 and make no mention of how verses 18 & 19 apply. Verses 15-17 are about reconciliation and accountability, but verses 18 and 19 seem to relate that to prayer and spiritual warfare. Parallel passages you also overlook provide further insight into how prayer, Jesus’ presence, and spiritual warfare relate to reconciliation. These include: Mt. 16:19, Jn 14:12-14, Jn 20:21-23, 2Cor 5:18, & 2Cor 10:4. I think you may have an anti-supernatural bias that’s causing you to skip an important part of the context.

  65. Nice thoughts, I agree. But the red nose isn’t really necessary. There are dozens of these little boogers in the Bible, and God still has it all under control

  66. I respectfully disagree with your substance and tone, Michael. I notice in your picture on the website that it appears to be John Calvin over your right shoulder; am I correct? Calvin thought rather highly of John Chrysostom, as do both the Eastern and Latin churches, and yet Chrysostom is well-known for a prayer using this verse that goes as follows:

    Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.

    Likewise, Wesley had the following to say about Matt 18:20 in his “Explanatory Notes on the NT”:

    Where two or three are gathered together in my name – That is, to worship me. I am in the midst of them – By my Spirit, to quicken their prayers, guide their counsels, and answer their petitions.

    In light of these (and others not cited), I am simply not persuaded by your exegesis, and wonder what is provoking this response on your part. Have you thought about why you mentioned the gender of the person who was praying so “offensively”?

  67. Chris Williams 2012-08-13 at 12:24 pm

    Michael;

    Good stuff yet again, and a good reminder of how we walk the tightrope of idolatry in many of our practices.

    It is true though, that Jesus and God are somehow “more” present when we gather together. Yes, I agree, it is not some special power on our part when we join voices in prayer, but just as the presence of God was somehow different in the Jewish Temple than his simple omnipresense, when two or more are gathered something different occurs. The additonal allusion to “in my Name” echos the OT promise that even though a temple cannot contain the Most Holy God, he will put his “Name” there – indicative of something different than his omnipresence. It is a promise that when we gather in his Name, the true temple spiritually “appears”. To put it another way, our common communion IS the temple, not a building on a mountain in the middle east.

    The Omnipresent God can be both omnipresent AND spacially present as presented in the person of Jesus. The incarnation is, at its bedrock, a clear definition of this principle. God was present in Jesus as part of the Godhead, as well as being omnipresent in the creation through which Jesus walked. As you stated in an earlier blog, this is not a contradiction, but it is a mystery.

    Therefore, we should not be annoyed when others recognize that Jesus is somehow present in a different way when we gather in his name (to administer discipline or to worship and pray). But is is equally important for all of us to remember that although he may be present in some special way we cannot explain, it does not give us special, or more power in our prayers. It is, as you say, a indication that he is present in the process.

  68. Many comments, for some reason, are very disrespectful and antagonistic. I am not sure why this is touching such a nerves, but it is. Those comments have been deleted. Please keep the tone respectful. Go out of your way to do so. Remember, these are public comments.

  69. Sorry Michael and others but I must take a radically different line. I’m not an untaught youngster but a Bible expositor of 60 years standing and author of two Bible commentaries as well as other Christian books. I am furthermore a Calvinist and non-Charismatic.

    Of course any proper exegesis of this passage recognises that the narrow context is that of church discipline (vv. 15-17) but the passage also has a wider context. We must not blame others for ignoring the context provided by vv. 15-17 while ourselves ignoring the context provided by vv. 18-19! The binding and loosing of v.18, however interpreted, implies that the authority of the gathered church goes well beyond the specific issue of church discipline (‘whatsoever’ is a strong term). Above all, v.19 can only refer to the agreement in prayer of two believers seeking God’s help and favour about ‘anything’ (again a strong term). Even if this is deemed to be hyperbole, it emphasizes the special significance of united prayer … of believers praying together in agreement (‘with one accord’ cf. Acts 1:14). It is only after the context has been widened in this way that Jesus promises his presence where two or three are gathered together in his name. Corporate prayer came naturally to the early church (Acts 4:24, 12:5,12). Finally and clearly, Christ is present among his people when they gather not in some ghostly form but in the Person of his Holy Spirit (John 16:7).

  70. Michael, I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings? When I read another’s writing partially tongue in cheek, I assume I can do the same. And sometimes I use a tad bit sarcasm to make my point. It isn’t always received well. Hope you know I had no intention of being mean spirited.

  71. Hi, please pardon my skepticism but this is the first I hear of this. Can you further elaborate on how you arrived at the conclusion that ‘there I am in the midst’ is equivalent to ‘I side with you on this’ or ‘I approve this’. The thought is so foreign to how I’ve understood this passage that I’m having difficulty understanding the flow of your logic; it just seems (not that it is) arbitrary. Can you provide other theologians that hold the same view so I can further study this? I’d like to see how the text validates this. I don’t read Hebrew or Greek, but this position seems so fringe to me (granted I don’t worship in scholarly circles). You said the pericope (unit of thought ) starts at ‘x’ but where does it end? And could you explain (or maybe blog about) how invoking God’s presence is equal to idolatry? That one flew over my head. At some point in prayer we ARE invoking the presence of the Lord, are we not? And there is a difference between ‘controlling the Lord’ and ‘the Lord letting Himself be influenced by our prayers’ isn’t there (I’m thinking Abraham, Joshua, anybody who got a direct response in scripture really). God didn’t act ‘until’ the person prayed. Wouldn’t you say that God let Himself be moved by prayer (though not controlled by it?). Ok, sorry for the rant but this is a lot to take in for me, lol.

  72. Of course you don’t even have to know the context of this particular verse to understand that when used as you describe it it’s way off base. We share the theological understanding of God’s omnipresence. Using the verse the way the lady in your example did totally ignores that understanding. What? God’s not here right now because I’m typing alone?

  73. Wow I never realized this. I feel so mislead -_- I am glad I haven’t used that in a prayer yet. Now I have to spread the word….

  74. Hi Michael,

    You have me thinking! Thanks!

    I have two concerns/questions.

    #1 – I felt like you were downplaying the special presence of Jesus when two or three are in unity in His name. I was wondering if you could comment on this quote from R.T. France. It seems to indicate that there is something special about Jesus’ presence in this situation:

    “Jesus’ spiritual presence among [his disciples] is the source of their authority to declare the will of God and to expect God to hear their prayers. And that presence is promised not to a formally convened ecclesiastical council, but to any two or three of his people who meet as his disciples.”

    #2 – You wrote, “Lord, you promised that when two or three people are gathered in your name, you will be in our midst. Well, here we are. Because of this we call upon you to bless us and answer our prayer.”

    I think this could also be taken as a very biblical prayer, not idolatry. I believe God loves to answer prayer “according to Jesus’ name.” In fact, that is our only hope in every prayer we pray! I also believe that God’s Spirit is not just an individual gift but a corporate one. In other words the Spirit unites His children to agree in prayer. When this happens it is a beautiful and powerful thing!

    I think I understand your point in general, but I am afraid you may have gone too far in downplaying Jesus’ presence and the beauty and power of corporate prayer.

    On a more personal level, I wouldn’t have believed this as strongly if I hadn’t been attending a church that really believes and lives out living in community. But I have seen something incredibly powerful about praying with others, in Jesus’s name, and in the unity of the Spirit. I would actually encourage people to pray more with other believers- for their benefit and the glory of God!

    Blessings,
    Brad

  75. Praise God for comments above by Edgar, Bill B and Bruce. Thanks, gentlemen!

  76. Paul Buschmann 2012-08-13 at 8:07 pm

    Promote better understanding of God’s Word. Someone who has the right heart and attitude will not purposefully distort the Word. Ignorance among Christians is probably the norm, as current Bible Studies and typical church sermons are obviously off center, otherwise our Christian brothers would understand what we are required and expected to understand. All this argument is an academic waste. If God’s Word is inerrant and timeless, just teach the importance of reading and really understanding the Word. Most Christians are total frauds when it comes to a real effort to understand Gods Word.

    I assume pastors are more knowledgeable, but that cannot be assumed. Focus and start on the basics. Own and read the Bble. Opinions are only important to those narcissists who have a big awakening coming.

  77. “Opinions are only important to those narcissists who have a big awakening coming.”

    Please explain yourself further.

  78. Glenn Shrom 2012-08-13 at 9:01 pm

    The feelings you describe, Michael, on seeing the way this verse was used out of context, remind me of when churches used to sing, “Lift Jesus higher, lift Jesus higher … he said if I be lifted up from the earth I will draw all men unto me, lift him up, lift him up, lift him higher …” In the context of the verse, “to lift up” meant “to crucify”, so basically all the people in church were singing “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Used to make me cringe. Of course there is a sense in which we should exalt Jesus and praise him, so their hearts were in the right place, … but why did they have to go and stick that verse in the song?!

  79. Mike (not Patton) 2012-08-13 at 9:21 pm

    Ok, Edgar convinced me, Mr. Patton, I’m going to have to admit that verse 19 especially makes it seem appropriate to use the phrase in the way you criticize. You had me going there for a while, but I can’t get around either the “any thing” or the “ask” in verse 19.

  80. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III 2012-08-13 at 9:28 pm

    Dear Michael,

    This verse, along with Rev. 3:20, are of particular nemesis in the realm of proper hermeneutics where the appplications becomes the interpretation.

    I would add that another phrase that is incorrect theolgoically speaking is “God forgets our sin.” Now, you know that God is omniscient, “all-knowing.”
    God can NOT forget, but He chooses to “not remember our sin (Jeremiah 33:33 (?) if I remember correctly.

    Maybe you can do a series on incorrect theology phrasing that isused today?

  81. Remember that verse 19 comes after verse 18. The agreement on earth cannot be disassociated from the binding and loosing which cannot be disassociated from the ciscipline of the erring brethren. “Anything” is certainly contextually based. It does not mean that if I get together with someone and agree that my mother should be healed or that we should plant such and such a church that this will be done. When one disassociates this from the context it becomes destructive and disallutioning. Hence, this blog post. Please don’t see “anything” outside the context here. Read some good exegetical commentaries. Lots of them out there for aid.

  82. On “lifting Jesus up.” If I remember correctly that context is “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” It prefigures the cross, but it’s about more than crucifixion. Moses put the serpent on a pole — in Hebrew a *ness*, from which we get the name for God, Jehovah Nissi, “the Lord my banner.” The cross with Jesus on it is our banner like the pole with the snake on it was a banner — or actually more literally like a guide-on for a military formation or battle unit. In that context the song makes sense.

  83. But Michael, I think it does mean that if I get together with someone to search out the Lord’s will in a matter about which we are praying, I am more likely to discern the Lord’s will on how to pray about the matter than if I am alone, and in that sense the guiding presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit is more manifest in a group than alone.

  84. Rebekka, i don’t know what you said in your comments. However, I think it is a good sign that you are okay since none of your comments were deleted so take cheer!

  85. Bruce, for me, all I have is this context so I cannot speak beyond it. If there is another passage which says that Christ is present only when we are in a corporate prayer gathering, I would be interested to know. However, here the “presence” of Christ is governed by the context of authority and binding and loosing in church discipline. But to invoke this passage in small prayer gatherings is, like I said, taking this verse out of context and, in my opinion, misleading and, can be, manipulative.

  86. I agree with your analysis but as many times as I’ve heard someone take this verse out of context I’ve never “supposed” that they were trying to manipulate God or assumed that if I were alone God would not be there. God is in our midst when we seek Him in prayer, God is with me when I’m alone. Why don’t you pray about those feelings of “hara” maybe that’s the bigger issue.

  87. I can’t believe it, but this post set the one day record for the most reads and the most links in the history of this blog. Tens of thousands of reads in one day! Facebook made it go completely viral. I wonder why. I can’t ever gauge these things.

  88. Can you explain or define what you mean by ‘binding and loosing’ in regards to church discipline? Also, thank you for explaining the flow of logic…it makes total sense now (i.e. you can’t disassociate ‘agreement’ from the ‘binding’ from the discipline, etc.) I have to admit I misunderstood this scripture and will have to avoid referencing it in prayer though I should hope people here don’t think this means that somehow Jesus is no longer present during corporate prayer! Perhaps what we need is a response as to how this *can* be biblically supported (off the top of my head I’m thinking book of Acts or even OT examples of the Presence in Tabernacle days. For the record, I never thought that Jesus was AWOL if it was just me praying, but it does seem silly to fall back on this scripture to somehow validate his presence now that I see it in new light. Thanks.

  89. Francisco,

    I wish that was my biggest issue. I have a LOT bigger ones than my hara here!

  90. Mike (not Patton) 2012-08-14 at 1:29 am

    Michael, I see what you are saying about the need to link verse 19 with the previous verses, but what is that link? It is clear that verses 19 and 20 are a continuation of the concept of two or three being brought together, and I think your insight about Christ being present in the sense of approving of the process is very helpful, but in verse 19 the action is asking and receiving rather than witnessing. It seems then that Christ is extending the concept from a witnessing function to an asking/receiving function. I think two other things ought to be considered from the even wider context of the New Testament. First, it is clearly not sufficient to simply invoke the name of Jesus in whatever we do, whether alone or in a group (this can clearly be misapplied, e.g. Matt 7:22-23), so what does it mean to do something properly “in his name”?

    If a king sends a messenger in his name, that messenger is authorized to speak on behalf of the king. He is authorized to act in the name of the king, to gather in the name of the king, to witness in the name of the king, to ask in the name of the king, etc. Christ is speaking to his disciples here ultimately in preparation to send them forth into all the world to preach the gospel as his authorized servants (later they are sent two by two)–as opposed to those phoneys that he “never knew” but who try to use his name anyway. As these true witnesses are sent forth, they are told not to worry about where their next meal will come from, etc., because all that will be provided for the asking. Ask and ye shall certainly receive–if you ask only for those things for which you are authorized in the name of Jesus to ask). So these disciples are authorized both to witness and to ask in Christ’s name, or by his authority.

  91. I remember when I was in college the first time I actually heard this passage preached on (though I had read it other times and heard others reference it). The guy preached/interpreted it just as you are now and it was one of those a-ha! moments. Totally made sense.

    This is another example to show how people just don’t read their Bibles and how so many who do read it do not know how to read it.

    Thanks for rightly diving the Word of truth (did I interpret that right:)?)

  92. Re: one day post interest: Isn’t there such an interest because we greatly desire for the Spirit to lead us, together, into all truth with all scripture as encouragement and thru love of fellow body members. I’m wondering if some perceive that the tone was not all encouragement and love.

  93. Michael Patton says,”Rebekka, i don’t know what you said in your comments.” Just keeping talking. Pretend I’m not even here.

    “However, I think it is a good sign that you are okay since none of your comments were deleted so take cheer!” OK, that cheered me up. None were deleted cause they weren’t read. I feel better already. I’ll just go sit back over in the corner and watch everyone else dance.

  94. Michael, I never said Jesus was *not* present when you pray alone. I said this verse implies that his presence is more profoundly manifest when prayer is harmonious and corporate. You are probably getting too many responses to read them all carefully.

  95. Mike (not Patton) 2012-08-14 at 11:27 am

    I don’t know if Michael Patton read your comments, Rebecca, but I did. And commented on them, but I guess you didn’t notice

  96. Mike (not Patton) 2012-08-14 at 11:32 am

    (sits in the other corner)

  97. Mike (not Patton)…I did notice. I noticed you never said you hadn’t read my comments. I was dissed by our teacher. No worries. I’m a little narcissistic and need the attention like was noted by another blogger. Die to self, die to self, die to self.

  98. He should have left it at that! A needless and hyper-critical article. Needless, in that the context of Matt 18:20 is plain for all to see, and hyper-critical in that nothing the woman prayed was untrue. The verse still teaches us, despite the specifics of the context, that Christ is dwelling with His church. Whether it be during times of discipline, rebuke, group prayer or solitude – Christ is in the midst. Other scriptures we could ‘quote’ during such a prayer time might be Matt 28:20 or Rev 1:13. They all refer to the fact that Christ has informed us that He is and wants to dwell in the midst of His church. To claim that this woman “did the UNTHINKABLE” by referring to Matt 18:20 during a prayer time, to accuse her of being “manipulative, irresponsible, and downright misleading” is preposterous! Maybe this guy should be more worried about the fact that he finds group prayer times “long and boring” than whether or not others are quoting verses within the context of his interpretation of scripture.

  99. Michael,
    A few comments:

    The context of Matthew 18:20 goes back to at least v. 10 and revolves around gaining the brother who has sinned. First, the offended one goes to the brother; then two or three; then, if the situation is not resolved, the involved two or three take it to the church. All these verses relate to solving a serious problem and gaining the sinning brother and should be interpreted in that light.

    We should enjoy the Lord’s presence in our private times with Him and in corporate times with Him & other believers. Perhaps because the context of these verses deals with something unpleasant (a sinful brother and resulting damage of the sin), something sober & serious (gaining such a one), and something that may ultimately require a judgement on earth (let the sinning one be considered like a Gentile and a tax collector); there is the practical need for the reassurance of the Lord’s presence– even in dealing with such a matter.

    Another misuse of 18:20 is to say that the two or three constitute the church and that the church is defined merely by having the Lord’s presence. But v. 17 says that the two or three, if they are not heard by the sinning brother, should “tell it to the church” (probably to the leading ones in the church) showing that the two or three were members of the church but did not in themselves constitute the church.

    Thanks, Michael, for addressing this matter. I find that I once again have to apologize for coming in so late.

  100. Good word on a misunderstood and mistakenly applied verse. Can you “take on” Psalms 37:4 next.

    On a different note, I thought your reporting of the “real life” scenario was handled well. This lady in question was not “humiliated” as a “public example”, nor was she “so discouraged and embarrassed” in the course of being “castigated publicly”.

    CMP, I think that you have some readers who “look” for fault and are over sensitive. I mean really, this ain’t the “trail of tears” here. When I think that there are approxiamately 1,000 Christians martyred every day around the world, I am ashamed by that which some people choose to become upset. We American Christians lack perspective because of our relative wealth and safety. There’s a blog topic for you. Peace.

  101. Alan Lininger 2012-08-15 at 9:08 am

    In regards to the context of the passage. I have one question and that is how does verse 19, fit into the context, I may just have a mental block. The NIV reads “Again, truely I tell you that if two of you on earth agree abiout anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in Heaven.” Everything else in the passage is making great sense. I appreciate all of the deep thinking that I have been reading over the past few months. Thanks and God continue to Bless.

  102. With all due respect, Rob, (in comment above), the Lord cares deeply about every single need of every one of His beloved children. He is jealous for each and every one.

  103. Here is one of my favorite prayers. God grant my fellowship to be free from pompous pharisees that are there to critique the prayers of others.

  104. Michael your interpretation is only partial. This passage certainly deals with church discipline. The discipline is to be done through prayer. Prayer must precede the outcast of a church member. I believe the entire world is in the presence of God. However there are special manifestations of God’s presence. Old timers said He is thick in here tonight. When two brothers meet for the purpose of praying about disciplining another brother Christ promises to manifest His presence there in that meeting in a special way.

    This does not in anyway take away from private personal prayer. However, church discipline is not a personal and private matter. Christ promises us His presence in the prayer meeting about discipline. Do not skip verse 19 it is part of the passage as well. The presence is not merely God’s approval of discipline but His promised presence in the prayer meeting about discipline.

  105. I think I am following what you are saying with this, but what do we do about verse Matthew 18:19? It seems to tie to verse 20, but does not pertain verse 16, unless the two or three people that are confronting the disobedient member are now beseeching God for some action against the person.

  106. heather fry 2012-08-17 at 4:11 pm

    Forgive me if this has already been brought up. I read some comments but not all.

    I appreciate your suggestion that this verse is more in reference to verses 15-17. This quote has always bothered me because the natural conclusion is that He’s somehow not there ‘as much’ when we pray alone. BUT you completely ignored verses 18 and 19 which immediately preceded the verse in question. Don’t you think these would be just as, if not more, important to dissect?

    And I can see why people have come to this conclusion about this verse because of verses 18 and 19- which I have no idea what they mean. I have heard verses 18 and 19 quoted many times by the more ‘charismatic’ brothers and sisters, and the name it and claim it crowd.

    Do you have any comments on these verses? How do they tie into verse 20?

  107. I completely agree with your dislike of prayer that attempt to manipulate God, as if humans are should order him around. And overall, I agree with your argument that the context is legal here.

    But I thought I’d point out a different context that is quite relevant. There are a number of first-century rabbinic saying that are very related to Jesus’ words.

    For instance, “When two sit together to discuss the Scripture, the Shekinah dwells among them.”

    And, “When three gather at table to eat and exchange words of Scripture, it’s as if they’ve eaten at the table of the Lord.”

    These sayings (and many others) emphasize the importance of studying God’s Word together. The idea isn’t that some sort of magic takes place, it’s that God will bless their efforts to work together to understand the Scriptures.

  108. One the one hand, Jesus spoke about two or three in agreement, and that He was in the midst of them. This speaks to me of communion and agreement, things that we are called to practice in the body of Christ.
    On the other hand, I think the “critical mass” concept is bogus: just because I am gathered with a lot of like-minded people doesn’t guarantee that we somehow have more power or persuasion: this is, I believe, a worldly concept which has nothing to do with faith.

  109. I did not know this. thanks for sharing – a total eye opener!

  110. As many commenters have pointed out, the word “anything” in v19 certainly suggests that this principal of two or three who are in agreement asking God for something probably isn’t limited to church discipline. So maybe the girl didn’t misuse scripture.

    Michael, I think you’re right about the phrase “I am there among them” in v20. As you said in the post, it certainly cannot mean that God is not present when we pray alone.

  111. Then again…I guess “anything” could mean anything they ask relating to church discipline. Perhaps like Paul saying the church in Corinth should “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

    I wonder if the phrase “on earth” in v19 limits what the two or three carring out the discipline couldn’t ask God to do. In other words they could ask God to sick Satan on him while he’s here “on earth,” but they can’t ask God to damn this person to hell.

  112. Here’s a great article that deals with these verses (scroll about half way down).

    http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200901/200901_112_Theo_Enrichment.cfm

  113. Sherry Levin 2013-01-24 at 11:26 am

    I sincerely appreciate this. I was taught that same way and have always wondered about that… thanks so much!! It not only opened my eyes, but made me feel a lot better about praying alone!

  114. The Father and I are one. WE. I can do nothing without the Father. If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. It does not negate the power of personal prayer, as the Master said, You will leave me alone, but I am not alone because the Father is with me. Perhaps, it is to emphasize again, unity, oneness. WE. Where two or three are gathered in my name. That’s why he COULD NOT (notice it’s not DID NOT) do any miracles in his hometown and he was amazed at their lack of faith. It is WE that results in connection with God, because it is through our relationship with our brother and sister that we can have a relationship with our God. Why? Because we are ONE. The Lord thy God is ONE. That’s why when we give a glass of water to someone we do it to the Christ. Because we are ONE. When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there also, because when there is more than one, it becomes WE instead of ME, just like when WE become one with the Father, it becomes WE instead of ME. WE love you 🙂

  115. Thank you for this word. I study the Bible deeply, but this passage is not one I have studied out for myself yet. I was googling to find the exact reference so that I could misuse it myself. Thank you for stopping me just in time!

  116. I have not read all the comments, but, from the many I have read there seems to be misunderstanding of this verse. C Micheal Patton did not mention that the verse just before the one in question is all about prayer! Verse 19, “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” Thats a promise of an answer to prayer for those two agreeing “as touching anything”. Then he speaks about 2 or 3 gathered! This verse reminds me of Hebrews 10:25,
    “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is;” Two or more is a gathering!
    So, I think there’s a problem here as to saying this has nothing to do with prayer, don’t you? Why its a call to prayer!!! Let us pray.

  117. When it emphasizes “anything”, it means more than just ‘church discipline’.

  118. Excellent logic but another aspect to remember is that perhaps, hidden in the story, is a teaching that there are benefits when we relate to one another in physical presence and that once this happens, overcoming obstacles, between at least two people then the presence of Christos comes into being. Christos being a state of being. Perhaps the teaching is that we can bring that about in each other. Christ certainly taught brotherly love throughout and this would seem another illustration of it.

    The teaching seems to say there is a limit to the number of people who, at any one time, can have this experience, hence up to three. As a therapist working one-to-one with clients, by comparison with my everyday life I can say that this happens quite often in my professional work compared to experience of it in my personal life.

  119. Thank you very much for your explanation. I have been considering this topic myself recently. Here is what happened, I said this in a prayer because a lot of people say this all the time. I guess it was just a recorded thought. Also a lot of people ask me to pray for them often. Using this verse as a reason they are asking. It has been sitting with me as not correct but I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why. Thank you. I love to learn more all the time.

    Public prayer can be a daunting thing… It makes me nervous when I am asked to pray in front of a group. I worry I might say something wrong. I lean on The Holy Spirit for help. There are many who are more eloquent or theological. I will try not to be even more nervous next time. Haha! I am glad that God understands what I am trying to say and loves me anyways and I glad he can untangle my heart and words to not be a burden on someone else’s heart. I get really tongue tied.

    Also as far as someone thinking an illustration is about them. Usually I find that people are convicted on their own. If they feel guilty they think it is about them whether it is or not. Otherwise they never have a clue.

  120. Frank Pontillo 2014-08-31 at 8:37 pm

    I have heard this verse used out of context by teachers trying to make a case for dressing up for church because there was a “special” presence of God in a church service.

  121. What bothers me particularly is when this verse is used to minimize or downplay the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Table:

    “Well, he says He’s there in the midst where two or three are gathered in His name. How can He be more present when we break bread? No, the Lord’s Table is a mere remembrance, nothing special about it.”

  122. “…this passage has to do with church discipline.”

    I would say instead that the passage can be _applied_ to church discipline.

  123. HI Michael. Just stumbled on your post now and am aware it is some years old. I was just siting here and the above verse came to me regarding issues of community and how Jesus takes part in that. I’d be really curious on some deconstruction on your comment in the second para “Then something made me hara.” It seems that we all have cause to find upset at the hands of others. Perhaps you’ve already unpacked this concept in other posts. I think I’m particularly interested in the reactions and offense we take in response to others supposed transgressions of our own sacred beliefs. Thanks heaps. Cheers. Steve

  124. First, If you are, so easily, criticizing the person praying. You are not praying, yourself. Is your focus on God? Do you trust Him, to hear and understand what the person praying is trying to relate? Obviously, you don’t. You are too busy making sure that they pray in a way that is acceptable to you. Newsflash: they are not praying to you. You don’t answer their prayers. So the manner in which they address their prayers, to God, is none of your business. All that this post tells me, is someone has an overinflated sense of self-importance. The whole taking verse in context, is another example of this. When I read my Bible, I’m not trying to see what God said to this, or that, person. I am reading it to see what God has to say to me. You finish by saying “God is bigger than that.” But, apparently He needs you to read the heart of the person praying. Get over yourself.

  125. Michael, You are right, it is a verse taken out of context and it should not be used in such a way. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a power in gathering together. In fact, I would say it is the wrong verse to make the correct point.
    It isn’t the kind of power considered important or even worthwhile from a earthly point of view, but it is present. Look at all the advice given by Paul in 1 Corinthians and many of the stories in Acts. Something special happens when Christians gather together with good intent and with love in their hearts then welcome the Lord in their midst. I would even go as far as to say things the “world” would see as powerful do happen. It doesn’t make personal prayer unimportant nor does it mean Christ isn’t there in the same way when a person prays alone.
    But we are called together to an altar (or table, I don’t know your tradition) to jointly take the bread and wine. We are called to be baptised in front of witnesses. Christ loves us independently, but he wants us to be joined in the Church. There is a power we cannot understand or should we ever try to control present when the Church gathers (physically or not) in his name.

  126. This proves the necessity of exegesis when studying the Bible. I highly recommend the book “How to Read the Bible for All It’s worth”. Written by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.
    It points to a lot of misconceptions we have about what is written in the Bible and how we interpret God’s word.

    This is a great article!

  127. It is a straw man argument. It presumes the heart, and intent, of the person invoking the verse. I agree with mbaker. Most people don’t use it as some kind of talisman. This is nothing more than an attempt to show how “wise” you are. But, if you were wise, you would understand that God inspires scripture. Who are you to tell me that God didn’t say that to me, through this verse? For that matter, by your logic, God’s inspiration would be severely limited. After all, in context, the epistles were each written to a specific recipient. Therefore, they have no application, to me. The books of the law? that’s right, for Israel. No sir, this is not wisdom. This is arrogance. Putting yourself in place of God, when it comes to the inspiration of scripture.

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