Busting Sunday School Myths, Part 5—Matthew 18:20

by Lee Anderson, Jr. —

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”

Matthew 18:20*

One of the reasons that it is so important to exercise the utmost care in the interpretation of Scripture is that the mishandling of even a single verse, inconsequential though it might seem, can gravely warp our outlook on significant theological issues.

In Matthew 18:20, Jesus promised His disciples that where two or more of them gathered in His name, He would be present with them. For centuries, Christians have drawn comfort from this verse, usually taken to mean that Christ’s presence would be with any group of believers that had gathered together to pray. In view of this understanding, it is common to find Matthew 18:20 printed adjacent to lists of prayer requests handed out at church prayer meetings. This verse also has anchored countless sermons and devotional messages on the subject of prayer.

Treasured though this verse’s promise is, the reality is that it often has been misapplied. Previously, we looked at just how important it is to pay close attention to the broader context of a biblical passage when interpreting an individual verse. In the case of Matthew 18:20, we see that, within the context of the passage as a whole, Jesus was not speaking about prayer in general, but rather was addressing very specifically the topic of discipline within the church. Those “gathered together” in Christ’s name are those convened for the purpose of sorting out a matter of personal offense or disciplinary action in the church body.** Christ’s promise to be “there in their midst” indicates His affirmation of their judgment when rendered justly and biblically.

More concerning, though, than missing the emphasis of the context and overextending Christ’s promise to encompass prayer in general is the implication that the errant interpretation holds for theology. Some Christians feel, on the basis of this verse, that they must be in prayer with other believers to enjoy the benefits of the Lord’s presence with them. Important though corporate prayer is for Christians, this perception regrettably obfuscates what the Bible plainly teaches elsewhere: God is present with every believer every moment of every day through His indwelling Holy Spirit. Consider what Paul writes in Romans 8:9–11:

However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

Similar teachings about the presence of the Holy Spirit with believers likewise are found in John 14:23; Romans 8:15; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; Galatians 4:6; 2 Timothy 1:14; and 1 John 4:13—each of which is a reminder that God’s presence is with those who belong to Jesus Christ through faith. Again, important though it is for believers to come together for prayer, praying together is not a prerequisite for having the benefits of God’s presence with us. God resides with each and every person who trusts in Christ through the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity sent in Jesus’ name to be both a comforter and a helper to all of Christ’s followers (see John 14:16–26). This is His glorious promise to each of us who knows Jesus as Savior!

What is the lesson here? Most significantly, we see from this verse how essential it is to exercise care in handling the Scriptures. If our understanding of a verse’s meaning clashes with a theological truth that is plainly established by other clear passages of Scripture, then we need to be humble enough to question our original understanding, and to carefully work our way through the steps of interpretating the verse once again, until our comprehension of the verse’s meaning consistently aligns with what is taught in the whole of God’s revealed word.

*All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, is from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

**D. A. Carson in his commentary on Matthew (in vol. 8 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gæbelein [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 403) observes on Matthew 18:19–20, “These two verses should not in this setting be taken as a promise regarding any prayer on which two or three believers agree (v.20). Scripture is rich in prayer promises ([Matthew] 21:22; John 14:13–14; 15:7–8, 16); but if this passage deals with prayer at all, it is restricted by the context and by the phrase peri pantos pragmatos (NIV, “about anything”), which should here be rendered “about any judicial matter”: the word pragma often has that sense (cf. 1 Cor[inthians] 6:1; BDAG, s.v.), a sense nicely fitting the argument in Matthew 18.” Michael J. Wilkins helps to explain this further by giving insights on the historical background of Christ’s words: “Jewish councils required a minimum of three judges to come to a decision regarding minor cases in the local community, assuming that the Shekinah remains with a just court. Likewise, when two men gathered to discuss the law, the Shekinah was present: ‘But if two sit together and words of the Law are spoken between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” (m. ’Abot 3:2). Jesus assumes the place of the divine presence among his disciples, guaranteeing that when his followers have consensus when asking in prayer for guidance in matters of discipline, his Father in heaven will guide them as they carry it out” (see “Matthew” in vol. 1 of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, edited by Clinton E. Arnold [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002], 114–115, emphasis added).

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