Matthew 18:20 is often used to give legitimacy to a small prayer meeting or church service. The pastor might say something like “There are just a few of us here tonight, but we are glad that we don’t have to have a huge crowd for God to listen to us. After all, Jesus promises, ‘Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there.’” This sounds comforting until it is analyzed and taken to its logical conclusion. What if there are not two? What if there is only one who is praying in isolation? Does that mean Jesus is not there? If the answer is “no,” then we come back to asking, “What does Matthew 18:20 really mean?”
We will take a look at the context of “where two or three are gathered.” The NIV groups Matthew 18:15–20 together as one paragraph. The paragraph divisions, of course, are not an inspired part of the text, as the originals were written without any spaces. However, the NIV paragraph division is based on the content of the passage and seems to be right on target in this case.
Matthew 18:15–17 tells how to deal with sin in the church; it is a passage on what is commonly called “church discipline”: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Verse 18 then gives assurance that, when this process is followed, God is working in it: “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.”
And then, verses 19–20 give a final assurance: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
The context of “where two or three are gathered together in my name” (Matthew 18:20, KJV) has to do with church discipline and the confrontation of the wayward sinner. In verse 16, the principle has been invoked of needing “two or three witnesses” in making an accusation (cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). It seems that the mention of “two or three” in verse 20 echoes that principle; the “two or three” are confronting sin in the church.
Jesus cites the Old Testament Law that said an accusation from a single individual is insufficient to bring action in a criminal case. However, two or three witnesses who agree are sufficient to establish a matter. The law in Deuteronomy regulated a human court. Jesus applies this to the “heavenly court.” When the erring brother or sister in the church is confronted by “two or three witnesses” and refuses to repent, these witnesses bring the matter before the church. Jesus assures us that, when this happens, it is not just the witnesses who are bringing action against the wrongdoer, but He is there with them. Church discipline is sanctioned by both the Father and the Son. This is important because we live in an age when it is not fashionable to confront or “judge” anyone’s lifestyle as sinful. Those who do step forward to call out sin in the church can take heart in the fact that they are not acting alone; Christ is with them in the endeavor.
The process of church discipline calls for “two or three,” and this seems to be the best application for this verse. The two or three who gather in Jesus’ name are not coming together in a prayer meeting or a worship service but in a matter of church discipline. The two or three witnesses have confronted the sinner in a spirit of humility (see Galatians 6:1), and the sinner has not repented. So the two or three take the matter to the Lord in prayer and then confidently move forward with the process outlined in Scripture, knowing that they are not being bullies or busybodies, for God endorses their efforts—Jesus is “with them.”