Mat 18:20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Quoted by people in congregations around the world this particular verse is taken to mean that God is present in the midst of two or three people who are engaged in Prayer. But the context of the passage provides a different picture. At the onset I wish to say that I do not disagree that God hears the prayer of two or three people gathered in His name. But we would also agree that He also hears us when we are alone. So what then is the meaning of Yeshua‘s words in Matthew 18:20? Let’s look at the context of the passage.
Mat 18:1-4 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Our journey starts with a question that the Disciples ask. “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”. To which Messiah says that all must convert (Turn Around – Strepho – G4762) meaning repent and turn back to God as humble little children to be called great in the Kingdom of God.
Mat 18:5-7 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!
Now Christ regards a believer who has turned to God as a “little child” and speaks of not “offending” (cause to stumble / lead to sin – Scandalizo – 4624) them, meaning leading them away from God. Yeshua bemoans such people who make others stumble. So far this passage sounds eerily familiar to what He said in Matthew 5:19 “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Here He explained who would be great in the Kingdom of God. In both places warnings are set towards those who lead His Children away from His word.
Mat 18:8-10 Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.
Yeshua’s words continue in the same line of thinking. If a hand or foot meaning a fellow believer makes others stumble it is better to cut those limbs off, as otherwise the whole body could be in danger of missing everlasting life. He further explains that even if it is an eye meaning a person in leadership who is causing the body to stumble, it is better for the eye to be removed rather than the whole congregation being led away from His Kingdom. Yeshua expressly speaks to the disciples not to belittle/disesteem the new believers, calling them “little ones” as they are of great worth to God. This is an instruction from Christ to His Disciples to be vigilant of the body, so that no part or individual becomes a threat to the whole; especially those who could stumble easily. He would reconfirm this thought in verses 15-17.
Mat 18:11-14 For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
Yeshua brings the parable of the Shepherd to show how much He cares for the lone soul. He is still advising the Disciples how much they should care for even the newest of the believers – the “little ones”.
Mat 18:15-17 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
In the same thought as removing the limb or the eye, Messiah explains of how this task should be carried out. First the issue should be brought to light one on one. If the person refuses the counsel, then two or three witnesses should confirm it to the individual. If the person still refuses to change his/her ways, then it is brought forward to the whole congregation/assembly after which the person is cut off from the assembly if corrective measures are not taken. It is important to note that Paul gives the same advice to the Corinthians in two instances (1Cor 5:1-5, 2Cor 2:5-11).
Mat 18:18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Matthew 18:18 speaks of “Binding” and “Loosing” which were the terms used in First Century Judaism for “Prohibiting” and “Permitting”. The power to prohibit and permit was in the hands of the Pharisees in the first century as per the writings of Josephus:
War of the Jews Book I, Chapter 5, Section 2 …and became themselves[the pharisees] the real administrators of the public affairs: they banished and reduced whom they pleased; they bound and loosed at their pleasure….
There is further proof to say that the belief of God agreeing with earthly rulings were also prevalent in First Century Judaism as seen in the Talmud below:
Talmud Makkot 23b …There are three matters that the earthly court implemented and the heavenly court agreed with them, and these are they: Reading the Scroll of Esther on Purim, and greeting another with the name of God, and bringing the first tithe to the Temple treasury in Jerusalem…
In the case of the passage in question, Yeshua is giving this authority to His Disciples over His Congregation. They could prohibit or permit anything in the assembly according to God’s Word and it would be seen as valid before God. The greatest example for this would be Acts 15. The same teaching is seen again in the second epistle of Clement to James where it mentions that Peter had named Clement of Rome (35 – 100AD) as his successor giving him the power of binding and loosing, as seen below.
Clementine Homilies – Introduction – Epistle of Peter to James, Chapter 2 Wherefore I communicate to him the power of binding and loosing, so that with respect to everything which he shall ordain in the earth, it shall be decreed in the heavens. For he shall bind what ought to be bound, and loose what ought to be loosed, as knowing the role of the Church.
Upto this point we have seen the teaching revolving around the congregation, taking care of the new believers and how to manage believers who disrupt the assembly. Yeshua gives the authority of such decisions to the Disciples here, and moves on to say…
Mat 18:18-20 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 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. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
As we come to the verse in question, we see that Yeshua gives authority of communal life to His Disciples and says even if two of them agree on earth regarding such issues, the Lord Himself stands amongst their midst. Such requests/decisions will be agreed upon by the Father in Heaven, as they are made from the standpoint of God’s Word. The same idea can be seen again in Jewish sources:
Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 3:2 But two who are sitting together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, the Divine Presence rests with them, as it is said (Malachi 3:16): “Then those who feared the Lord spoke one with another, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for those who feared the Lord and for those who thought upon His Name.”
Talmud, B’rakhot 6a From where is it derived that three who sit in judgment, the Divine Presence is with them? It is derived from this same verse, as it is stated: “In the midst of the judges He judges,” and the minimum number of judges that comprises a court is three. From where is it derived that two who sit and engage in Torah study, the Divine Presence is with them? As it is stated: “Then they that feared the Lord spoke one with the other, and the Lord listened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that fear the Lord, and that think upon His name” (Malachi 3:16). The Divine Presence listens to any two God-fearing individuals who speak with each other.
It is for the “Binding and Loosing” (Prohibiting or Permitting) powers that Yeshua bestowed upon His Disciples that He says He will be in agreement in their presence for such matters whether two or three are gathered. Prayer or other sorts of fellowship is not part of the context of this passage.
So we see that the phrase “For wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” is speaking regarding judgement and making Godly decisions. In this sort of situation, God stands in agreement with the Disciples. The decision taken by James and agreed upon by the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 is a perfect example of this. There is no doubt that God listens to our prayers whether we are alone or with one or more in fellowship. But according to context, the passage in question is not about prayer but judgements made before God.