The Real Meaning of ‘When Two or Three are Gathered’ in the Bible

"I am there in the midst of them." Matthew 18:20

"The Real Meaning of 'When Two or Three are Gathered' in the Bible" by Steppes of Faith

“I am there in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20

It’s a common Bible verse that you’ve probably heard or even said many times— “When two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” We find it in Matthew 18:20, and people often use this verse when they want to agree with someone in prayer. Unfortunately, that’s not what this verse is about at all.

So, what was Jesus talking about if it wasn’t about prayer?

Jesus often talked about Jewish laws and cultural norms of the time and put an extra spin on them that better reflects the kingdom of God. In Matthew 18, He’s doing it again. Here, He’s referring to an important part of Old Testament law, the part about church discipline.

How to Handle Unruly Church Members

Beginning in Matthew 18:15, Jesus is explaining to the people how to handle disputes among church members.

“Moreover, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more that by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”

Jesus is explaining that if you have an issue with someone in the church…

  1. Talk to him (or her) privately about it.
  2. If he refuses to repent, grab two or three friends—people you trust—who will back you up when you talk to him a second time.
  3. If he still refuses to say sorry, take your friends with you and speak to the church about the issue.
  4. If the church confronts him and he still refuses to apologize or make things right, then you have permission to have a bad opinion of him and never to have anything to do with him again. In other words, you can symbolically kick him out of the church.

Two men talking about an issue as Jesus tells us to do it.Notice that Jesus gives the offender four chances to make amends. That’s far more opportunities than most of us would give. But this is the protocol you follow when you have a problem with someone in the church.

Solving disputes within the church is an important part of Jesus’ ministry. His church must be able to work together harmoniously or else the Good News gets lost, and we become unable to share it with others.

Gathering Two or Three

Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20 reflect what every Jewish man (and many women) knows from the Torah, specifically the book of Deuteronomy which talks about disputes within the church. Since all Jewish men were required to memorize the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, and yes, all of it), they would have instantly understood what Jesus was referring to.

“Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” Deuteronomy 17:6

“One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses, the matter shall be established.” Deuteronomy 19:15

How to convict someone of wrongdoing is a standard of practice they are all very familiar with—you should have two or three people with you to testify on your behalf. They don’t necessarily have to be a witness to the crime, just a witness to your integrity.

The difference, in this case concerning Matthew 18, is Jesus isn’t talking about bringing the offender before earthly church leaders to argue the case. His emphasis is more on the spiritual aspect of it. He amends the Jewish law to remind us that He will be there with them through the process.

“…I am there in the midst of them.”

The ESV Study Bible says,

“Jesus affirms that he will be divinely present among his disciples as they seek unity in rendering decisions, which is rightly understood also as an affirmation of omnipresence and therefore of deity. “

What this all means is not only is Jesus with you as you deal with the wrongdoer, He also becomes a witness to your integrity and purity of heart.

Jesus becomes of one our "two or three" as a witness to our integrity and purity of heart.

Restore, Reconcile, and Forgive

It’s important to notice how Matthew 18:20 fits into the theme of the entire chapter. The process of church discipline comes immediately after he tells the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14) and before the parable of the master who forgave his unrepentant servant for being unable to pay his debts (Matthew 18:22-35).

Jesus is instructing the people about restoring someone who has gone astray (a lost sheep), assigning justice to the matter, forgiveness (as the master did for his unrepentant servant), and reconciliation. God assures us that as we go through the process of bringing our brother or sister in Christ back into the fold of the church, God will be a part of it and bless us for it.

Dr. Eric Bargerhuff, pastor and author of The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, puts it this way:

Jesus is saying that whenever the church is pursuing and is involved in a reconciliation process with someone who has refused to repent, they can rest assured that God’s blessing is with them in their efforts. In other words, as the church renders the judicial decisions on matters of right and wrong that are based on the truth of God’s Word, they should be confident that they are doing the right thing and that Christ himself is right there with them, spiritually present in their midst.”

It’s Not About the Math

It is interesting how in the middle of Jesus explaining this whole idea of restoration and forgiveness Peter suddenly speaks up and says, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

It’s like Peter is saying, “Wait, what? Hey, Jesus, can You repeat that? I have to forgive how often? Well…I can forgive up to seven times. That’s pretty good, don’t You think?”

In Jewish culture, to forgive someone seven times would be extraordinary. That would require an amazing amount of forgiveness as far they’re concerned. But Jesus lovingly looks at Peter and says, “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”

Jesus tells us to forgive 70x7 times before we need to take two or three friends with us to the church leadership to settle disputes.

Jesus isn’t intending to throw out a math problem here. The answer doesn’t matter. What Jesus is saying is that we are to love as He loves and forgives as He forgives. How many times does God forgive our sins? Lamentations 3:22-23 tells us His mercy is new every morning, and His faithfulness never fails, which means He’s willing to forgive us every single day.

So, ask yourself…how many times has He forgiven you? Probably more than seventy times seven. If He has forgiven us that much, then how often should we forgive the people around us who push our buttons, outright offend us, or just plain annoy us?

You can do the math if you like, but Jesus’ point is to forgive and keep forgiving for as long as it takes until the offender is restored to Him.

But, if they are unrepentant, grab your spouse or a friend or two and settle the matter as quickly as possible knowing God’s presence will be among you, and His blessing goes with you.

What About When We Pray?

Many of us thought Matthew 18:20 was talking about God’s presence when we pray, so what does it mean for our prayer life? Does God still hear us when we pray, or do we need a prayer partner? Does it count at all if we pray alone?

We need to be clear…God always hears us when we pray. Whether you’re sitting alone in the car, on your knees next to your bed, or joining your congregation at church, God always hears us. The Bible confirms this fact multiple times.

God always hears us when we pray whether we are alone or with two or three others.

“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” 1 Peter 3:12

“And if we know that He hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of Him.” 1 John 5:15

“Then you will call on Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:12-13

“I cried out to Him with my mouth; His praise was on my tongue. If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and has heard my prayer. Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld His love from me!” Psalm 66:17-20

God’s love and faithfulness are eternal, and His mercy is new every day. Let us love as He loves, forgives as He forgives, seek justice and love mercy, and enjoy His many blessings when we handle things the Lord’s way. His way is always the best way.

And, if you can take two or three friends with you along the way, all the better.

Further Reading"The Most Misused Verses in the Bible" by Dr. Eric Bargerhuff

Dr. Bargerhuff’s The Most Misused Verses in the Bible is a great read for anyone curious about the Bible or concerned about the misuse of God’s words. Christianbook has it on sale right now for $10.99 if you’d like to check it out. (Not an affiliate link. Hopefully that will change one day.)

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8 Replies to “The Real Meaning of ‘When Two or Three are Gathered’ in the Bible”

    • It is important to pray individually and corporately. God hears each prayer no matter how many people are in the room. But I believe praying corporately not only unifies the church, but also presents a unified message to the Lord. It’s not necessarily to say there is more power when we pray corporately, but that it’s perhaps more attention getting. The apostle Paul always encouraged the church to pray together in order to strengthen their faith. It is a very important thing to do. But praying individually is also a necessary discipline. Thanks for reading and God bless.

  1. I often use this verse to encourage people who are working on reconciliation in the midst of conflict – and I experience the Christ is indeed present when we come together despite all the anger, hurt, self-righteousness, etc., that is driving us apart. Christ’s reconciling love is far beyond any efforts we make, it guides the divine process of reconciliation. In line with that, it is important to note that the earlier passage in Matthew 18 does not give anyone license to kick people out of church – Jesus did not kick Gentiles and Sinners out of anything – he met them and taught them where they were. A person who does not seek forgiveness for himself and won’t forgive others is not one to put in any position of authority in the church (or the world, but sadly, the world puts these people in charge and calls them “strong”). So, I think he meant don’t put those who have not yet started the journey of reconciliation in positions of authority. He did not mean not to minister to them, eat with them, pray with and for them. He did all those things with the “gentiles” and “sinners”. In fact, he scandalized the Pharisees and Saduccees by doing this. He did not put people in charge of others if they themselves were not yet able to see their own need for forgiveness clearly and surrender to forgiving, reconciling love and its transformation of relationships. That is not the same as kicking people out or ex-communicating them. Jesus did stay in relationship and continue to teach and love and guide those who were not yet ready for the journey of reconciliation. That would seem to be most all of us. As always, Christ challenges us with his Love and Truth to move past where we are comfortable and in control and into the greater Love and Truth, beyond what we yet know.

    • Please note that I said “symbolically.” Matthew 18:17-18 is specifically talking about church members: “But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” They should not be rejected or shunned, no. God desires for all people to come to Him and accept His grace. But if someone in the church outright rejects Him, the church may regard him or her as an unbelieving sinner. They again become a prospect for grace and are no longer considered a brother or sister. God still desires to save them, and so we pray for them and witness to them as we do for any sinner. In a way, it is a kind of excommunication, but it is more about discipline. I agree with you, the church should never completely reject anyone. All are welcome in God’s family, but anyone who rejects Him is in need of reconciliation before they are permitted back into the fellowship of the church or else the church may suffer from his or her ungodly influence. The apostle Paul constantly had to deal with this issue in his missionary work, and he saw the potential for destruction it can cause. While I agree with you that we should not put anyone in positions of authority in the church who are not fully surrendered to Christ, I do not believe this is what Jesus was trying to say in Matthew 18:17-18. This portion of Scripture is all about reconciling issues between church members.

    • This is correct,as a family needs to repent from throwing people out of Thier every growing congregations, this isn’t his way ,his love and forgiveness is unlimited. We have but one judge and we have a new covenant and a new command. We also have his Spirit of love to guide us . two or three he said ,that was a promise ,not a throw back to the old covenant law ,the law of sin and death. Forgiveness for all is at the very heart of our faith .

  2. I Love this Article!!
    Informative, enlightening, uplifting and just plain well written.
    Great job Babe!
    ( I’m her husband. I can call her that)

    • My brothers and sisters, we’ve heard it said in The Holy Scriptures, ” as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” In this verse, Matthew 18:20, Jesus uses the moment to explain some important things about how the church is to handle particular matters, yes, that’s true. But do you all actually believe that Jesus was “only” saying that he would “only” be in the midst of us when we come together in agreement over someone screwing up in The Church? but He won’t be in our midst if we gather together to pray for positive help for one another. Listen, if we’re trying to understand The Holy Word of GOD within the realms of the 10% of brains that the average person is capable of operating from, then we’re never going to experience the fullest understanding of The Word of Truth. It’s stated clearly, Matthew 18:20 can not be read without 18:19. So let’s read Matthew 18:19-20….. Ok, verse 20 starts out with saying “For”. This indicates that verse 20 is a continuation of verse 19 (in other words, they belong together.) So when we look at the words, we could see that Jesus is focused on bringing us towards unity, reminding us that He is joined with us all the more especially during our concerns when we’re joined together in prayer. He presence is not solely for weeding out the negativity in The Church. We are reminded here in this scripture (Matthew 18:19-20) that in unity, we could get more done. We see this in so many places throughout The Bible. GOD Bless all.

      • No one is suggesting that at all. Of course, God is always with us, and He will respond when we pray whether we are alone or in a group. What’s important to understand, though, is this verse is specifically only talking about handling church matters. I agree that God is always encouraging us as a church to be united, which is why it’s so important to have a mechanism by which we can address others should an issue arise. That’s what Matthew 18:20 is about. Matthew 18:19 is about agreeing together, but verse 20 is talking about when we don’t. It’s important to make the disctinction.