The Authority for Discipline
Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst. (18:18–20)
To emphasize the absolute trustworthiness of what He was about to say, Jesus declared, “Truly I say to you.” That phrase, which the Lord often used, should always be noted with special care, because it introduces a teaching of unusual importance.
The work of discipline should be undertaken with the greatest care. Done in the wrong way or in the wrong spirit it can do great damage by fostering self-righteousness and legalism, just as discipline not done at all causes great damage by allowing sin’s influence to spread like leaven.
Jesus’ promises in verses 18 and 19 have suffered serious misinterpretation throughout the history of the church, the most extreme being the Roman Catholic doctrine that the church has the divine authority to forgive sin. Many charismatics use these promises—along with others, such as those of Matthew 7:7 and 21:22—to claim from God every imaginable blessing and privilege just for the asking.
But in light of the context of what Jesus had just said, in the light of common rabbinical expressions of that day, and in light of the grammatical construction of the text, it is clear that He was not teaching that God’s power can be bent to men’s will. He was not saying that men can force heaven to do things. Quite to the contrary, His promise was that when His people bend their wills to His, He will endorse and empower their act of obedience. (See comments on Matthew 16:19, in chapter 4 of this volume.)
Jesus was here continuing His instruction about church discipline. He was not speaking about petitioning God for special blessings or privileges, and even less was He teaching that the church or any of its leaders has power to absolve the sins of its members. He was declaring that the church has a divine mandate to discipline its members when they refuse to repent.
The rabbis sometimes spoke of a principle or action as being bound in heaven or loosed in heaven to indicate, respectively, that it was forbidden or permitted in light of God’s revealed Word. A Jew of that day would have understood that Jesus did not mean that men could bend heaven’s will to their own but that God (here called heaven, a common Jewish substitute for God’s covenant name, Yahweh, or Jehovah) had an expressed principle with which the church must conform.
The grammatical construction in the passage also clarifies its meaning. As in Matthew 16:19, shall be bound and shall be loosed translate future perfect passives and are more accurately rendered “will have been bound” and “will have been loosed.” The idea is not that God is compelled to conform to the church’s decisions but that, when the church follows Christ’s pattern for discipline, it conforms its decisions to what God has already done and thereby receives heaven’s approval and authority.
Perfect passives are also used in John 20:23 in regard to forgiving or retaining sins. Believers have authority to declare that sins are either forgiven or not forgiven when that declaration is based on the teaching of God’s Word. If a person has received Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, the church can tell him with perfect confidence that his sins are loosed, that is, forgiven, because he has met God’s condition for forgiveness, namely, trust in His Son. If, on the other hand, a person refuses to receive Christ as Savior and acknowledge Him as Lord, the church can tell him with equal confidence that his sins are bound, that is, not forgiven, because he has not met God’s condition for forgiveness.
Some years ago a man told me he believed he was going to heaven because he was following the religious system prescribed by a popular cult. Because the bizarre beliefs of that group were utterly contrary to the gospel, I told him that he was lost, was still in his sins, and could not possibly be destined for heaven. On the basis of his own confession matched against God’s Word, the man could not have been saved. To tell him that he was still bound in his sins was not to judge his heart supernaturally nor sovereignly condemn him but simply to affirm what God’s own Word clearly says about him and about every person who hopes to come to God by any other path than trust in His Son.
Obviously, this is a serious ministry in the church and one that may be approached with great reluctance. “Who are we to do such work?” we ask. “What authority do we have for such strong dealings with fellow believers? We’re sinful, too.” But when the church administers discipline according to the pattern of Matthew 18:15–17, it can have perfect confidence that it acts in the authority and power of heaven, as promised in verses 18–20.
The Lord gives no command without giving the necessary power and authority to obey it. In these three climaxing verses in Jesus’ instruction about church discipline we learn that, when the Lord’s people sincerely seek to purify His church in His way, they have the energy, approval, and authority both of the Father and of the Son.
Jesus first assures His people that the Father acts with them when they work to purify the church: Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth (referring back to the two witnesses of v. 16) about anything that they may ask (in seeking the purity of the church) it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. When the church acts in God’s behalf and in accordance with His Word in matters dealing with sin, He acts in their behalf by confirming and empowering their faithful decisions and actions.
Agree is from sumphōneō, which literally means to sound together and is the term from which we get symphony. If even two of Jesus’ followers are in agreement with each other that a sinning believer has either repented or refused to repent, they can be sure they are also in agreement with the Father who is in heaven.
As already mentioned, to interpret this verse as promising believers a blank check for anything they might agree to ask God for not only does not fit the context of church discipline but does violence to the rest of Scripture. Such an interpretation is tantamount to magic, in which God is automatically bound to grant the most foolish or sinful request, simply because two of His children conspire to ask Him for it. The idea flies in the face of God’s sovereignty and completely undercuts the countless scriptural commands for believers’ obedient submission to His will.
Jesus also assures His people that He Himself acts with them when they work to purify the church: For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst. Not only does the Father confirm discipline when it is administered according to His Word, but the Son adds His own divine confirmation.
This verse is also frequently misinterpreted, though not with such serious error as in the misinterpretations of the two previous verses. To use this statement to claim the Lord’s presence at a small worship service or prayer meeting does not fit the context of church discipline and is superfluous. Christ is always present with His people, even with a lone believer totally separated from fellow Christians by prison walls or by hundreds of miles.
The context demands that the two or three are witnesses in the process of discipline. To ask or to do anything in God’s name is not to utter His name but to ask and to work according to His divine will and character. For the witnesses to have gathered in His name is therefore for them to have faithfully performed their work of verifying the repentance or impenitence of a sinning brother or sister on the Lord’s behalf. When the church gathers in the Lord’s name and for His cause and glory, it must be engaged in self-purifying ministry under His power and authority, and with His heavenly confirmation and partnership.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian of rather liberal persuasion who was caught in the terrors of Nazi Germany, wrote a book entitled Life Together. In it he gives some profound insights into the need for restoring a sinning brother to the fellowship of the church.
Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession, the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted, but God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107:16).
Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother. The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder. Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother. He is no longer alone with his evil for he has cast off his sin from him. Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God and the cross of Jesus Christ.… The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him define true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ. ([New York: Harper & Row, 1954], 112–13)
20 In v. 19 prayer was expressed as a direct transaction between the two on earth and God in heaven. But now a third party is introduced into the scene. The wording makes sense only as a forward look to the presence of the risen Christ among his earthly followers. Its thrust is thus similar to that of 28:20, but whereas there the presence of Jesus “with you” is expressed in relation to the new post-Easter situation, here it is, remarkably, already in the present. The perspective is thus that of Matthew’s church rather than of the disciple group during Jesus’ ministry. The saying is linked to v. 19 with a “for,” which indicates that this is the basis for expecting united prayer to be answered: it is not just the prayer of the two who agree, but also that of Jesus who is “among them” because they have come together “in his name,” that is as his disciples representing him (cf. on v. 5, and cf. 10:40–42). While Jesus is on earth his disciples are his brothers and sisters (12:49–50) but even when he is no longer on earth he remains spiritually present as the focus of their unity.
This verse and 28:20 give fuller expression to the idea which we have seen to be probably implicit in Matthew’s adoption (and translation) of the title Immanuel, “God with us”, in 1:23. See above, p. 49, for this theme of being “with you” as a significant element in Matthew’s christology and ecclesiology. It echoes the OT theme of God dwelling among his people (cf. Ezek 43:7; Joel 2:27; Zech 2:10–11). When Jesus is the subject, it depends on the expectation, already firmly set before us in 16:21; 17:9, 23, that his mission will not finish with his earthly death but will be continued through his resurrection. The disciple community will continue even after that to be not merely the followers but also the companions of Jesus. His spiritual presence among them 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.13
This saying is regularly compared to a rabbinic motif found especially in a saying from the early second century ad in m. ʾAbot 3:2 (cf. 3:6): “If two sit together and words of the Law are between them, the Shekinah rests between them” (i.e. God is present with them). W. D. Davies, Setting 225, therefore calls Matt 18:20 “a Christified bit of rabbinism.” The idea of spiritual presence is similar, and may represent a tradition of thought already present at the time of Jesus, but what makes the present saying remarkable by comparison is that the one present is not the more abstract concepts of the Law or the Shekinah, but the human figure of Jesus.15
The Mediator (18:20)
‘For [gar] where two or three come together in my name, there am I in their midst.’ These ‘two or three’ are the witnesses of 18:16b. The reason they gather is to pray to the Father (the gar links verse 20 to 19) concerning the sinful brother. Moreover, they assemble in Jesus’ name (eis to emon onoma). This means that they acknowledge his presence: they believe 1:23 (‘Immanuel … God with us’) and 28:20 (‘I am with you all the days’). Jesus assures such people that he is indeed ‘there’ (ekei), ‘in their midst’ (en mesō autōn). Gathered as they are in his ‘name’, and knowing that the Father has enthroned him at his own right hand and granted him universal authority (22:44; 26:64; 28:18), they ask him to voice their requests to the Father (John 16:23–24; Heb. 4:14–16). That Jesus meets with them for this very purpose is clear from the flow of Matthew 18:19b–20: ‘it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together … there am I in their midst.’ The disciples ask that Jesus, having heard their prayers ‘on earth’ (18:18–19a), speak on their behalf to his ‘Father in heaven’; and that Father and Son, having concurred in their judgment (how could it be otherwise?), will cause their will to be done on earth as in heaven.
The promises of 18:19–20 are related more directly to the issues of sin, repentance and forgiveness addressed in 18:15–18 and again in 18:21–35. But Jesus’ assuring words have a broader application, as is clear from verse 19a: ‘concerning any matter about which they ask.’ They may pray, for example, that persons be healed through Jesus’ name (Acts 4:30), or that demons be expelled in his name (Acts 16:18), or that non-believers be saved by that same name (Acts 4:12). And if the Father grants a request on which two or three disciples agree, how might he respond to a whole congregation that has prayed ‘with one accord’ (homothymadon) for the sinful brother or about another matter embraced by the promises of Matthew 18:19–20?
18:18–20 / Verses 18–20 are quite often included in the previous paragraph. Gundry says that Matthew composed verses 16–20 as an expansion of the saying in verse 15 (p. 370). They extend to the church the power of “binding and loosing” that was earlier given to Peter at Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:19). In the current context, prohibiting would refer to bringing judgment against the one who sinned against a fellow Christian and permitting would be pronouncing in favor of the accused. The final outcome would be excommunication or absolution. Whatever decision the church makes, it will be sanctioned in heaven.
Though verses 19 and 20 appear to be speaking of corporate prayer, the context suggests that the agreement reached with its heavenly sanction relates to the matter of church discipline mentioned in verse 17. The Greek text of verse 19 opens with the connective palin (“again”). That which two or three come to agree on (symphōneō means “to produce a sound together,” cf. the English “symphony”) has to do with the decision concerning an unrepentant member of the believing community. God will answer the united concern of praying people. In fact, wherever two or three come together earnestly desiring to know the will of God, he himself will be “right there with them” (Williams).
18:20 where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. The “two or three” draws from the language of Deuteronomy 19:15 but also reflects the nature of Matthew 18 as providing community regulation and teaching. As such, it is not simply a cap to the “church discipline” section (18:15–20) but provides a culminating word for the first half of the Community Discourse. “At the thematic center of the Community Discourse, Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ presence with his people as the hope for their common life” (1:23; 28:20).
THE POWER OF THE PRESENCE
‘Again, I tell you, that if two of you agree upon earth upon any matter for which you are praying, you will receive it from my Father who is in heaven. Where two or three are assembled together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’
Here is one of these sayings of Jesus whose meaning we need to probe, or else we will be left with heartbreak and great disappointment. Jesus says that if two upon earth agree upon any matter for which they are praying, they will receive it from God. If that is to be taken literally, and without any qualification, it is manifestly untrue. On countless occasions, two people have agreed to pray for the physical or the spiritual welfare of a loved one—and their prayer has not, in the literal sense, been answered. Time after time, God’s people have agreed to pray for the conversion of their own land or the conversion of unbelievers and the coming of the kingdom, and even today that prayer is far from being fully answered. People agree to pray—and pray desperately—and do not receive that for which they pray. There is no point in refusing to face the facts of the situation, and nothing but harm can result from teaching people to expect what does not happen. But when we come to see what this saying means, there is a precious depth in it.
(1) First and foremost, it means that prayer must never be selfish and that selfish prayer cannot find an answer. We are not meant to pray only for our own needs, thinking of nothing and no one but ourselves; we are meant to pray as members of a fellowship, in agreement, remembering that life and the world are arranged not for us as individuals but for the fellowship as a whole. It would often happen that if our prayers were answered, the prayers of someone else would be disappointed. Often, our prayers for our success would necessarily involve someone else’s failure. Effective prayer must be the prayer of agreement, from which the element of selfish concentration on our own needs and desires has been quite cleansed away.
(2) When prayer is unselfish, it is always answered. But here, as everywhere, we must remember the basic law of prayer—that law is that in prayer we receive not the answer which we desire, but the answer which God in his wisdom and his love knows to be best. Simply because we are human beings, with human hearts and fears and hopes and desires, most of our prayers are prayers for escape. We pray to be saved from some trial, some sorrow, some disappointment, some hurting and difficult situation. And always God’s answer is the offer not of escape, but of victory. God does not give us escape from a human situation; he enables us to accept what we cannot understand; he enables us to endure what without him would be unendurable; he enables us to face what without him would be beyond all facing. The perfect example of all this is Jesus in Gethsemane. He prayed to be released from the fearful situation which confronted him. He was not released from it; but he was given power to meet it, to endure it and to conquer it. When we pray unselfishly, God sends his answer—but the answer is always his answer and not necessarily ours.
(3) Jesus goes on to say that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there in the midst of them. The Jews themselves had a saying: ‘Where two sit and are occupied with the study of the law, the glory of God is among them.’ We may take this great promise of Jesus into two spheres.
(a) We may take it into the sphere of the Church. Jesus is just as much present in the little congregation as in the great mass meeting. He is just as much present at the prayer meeting or the Bible study circle with their handful of people as in the crowded arena. He is not the slave of numbers. He is there wherever faithful hearts meet, however few they may be; for he gives all of himself to each individual person.
(b) We may take it into the sphere of the home. One of the earliest interpretations of this saying of Jesus was that the two or three are father, mother and child, and that it means that Jesus is there, the unseen guest in every home.
There are those who never give of their best except on the so-called great occasion; but, for Jesus Christ, every occasion where even two or three are gathered in his name is a great occasion.
Ver. 20.—The promise is applied to the public prayer of the congregation, as we see in what is called “the prayer of St. Chrysostom” in the English Prayer-book. Are gathered together. For the purpose of worship. It is a simpler form of the word used in Heb. 10:25, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.” In my Name (εἰς τὸ ἐμὸν ὄνομα); literally, into my Name; i.e. with love to me, yearning for union with me, and acting for my glory. This would imply decent and orderly meeting for the highest ends. There am I in the midst of them. Christ promises a real, actual presence, though invisible, as true as when he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, as true as when the Shechinah shone in tabernacle or temple. The rabbis had a saying that if two sat at table and conversed about the Law of God, the Shechinah rested upon them. The promise in the text, of course, implies Christ’s omnipresence and omniscience. This is his blessing on united, congregational prayer.
20. For where two or three are assembled in my name. This promise is more extensive than the former; for the Lord declares that he will be present, wherever two or three are met together in his name, to guide them by his counsel, (Ps. 73:24,) and to conduct to a prosperous result whatever they shall undertake. There is therefore no reason to doubt that those who give themselves up to his direction will derive most desirable advantage from his presence. And since it is an invaluable blessing to have Christ for our director in all our affairs, to bless our deliberations and their results; and since, on the other hand, nothing can be more miserable than to be deprived of his grace, this promise ought to add no small excitement to us to unite with each other in piety and holiness. For whoever either disregards the holy assemblies, or separates himself from brethren, and takes little interest in the cultivation of unity, by this alone makes it evident that he sets no value on the presence of Christ.
But we must take care, first of all, that those who are desirous to have Christ present with them shall assemble in his name; and we must likewise understand what is the meaning of this expression; for we perceive how ungodly men falsely and impudently, as well as wickedly, cover their conspiracies with his sacred name. If therefore we do not wish to expose Christ to their ridicule, and at the same time to overturn what he has here promised, we must know first of all what is meant by this phrase. It means that those who are assembled together, laying aside every thing that hinders them from approaching to Christ, shall sincerely raise their desires to him, shall yield obedience to his word, and allow themselves to be governed by the Spirit. Where this simplicity prevails, there is no reason to fear that Christ will not make it manifest that it was not in vain for the assembly to meet in his name.
In this is displayed the gross ignorance of the Papists, who exclaim that Councils could not err, and that all ought to abide by their decisions, because, as often as two or three are assembled in the name of Christ, he is in the midst of them. But we ought first of all to inquire whether those persons, as to whose faith, and doctrine, and dispositions, we are in doubt, were assembled in the name of Christ. When the Papists leave out or perplex this matter, who does not see that they dexterously confound the distinction between holy and profane assemblies, so that the power of doing any thing is taken from the Church and conveyed to the sworn enemies of Christ? Let us therefore know that none but the pious worshippers of God, who sincerely seek Christ, are encouraged to entertain the confident hope that he will never leave them. Disregarding the bastard and abortive Councils, which out of their own head have woven a web, let Christ alone, with the doctrine of his Gospel, be always exalted amongst us.
19–20. The repeated introductory formula indicates another independent saying of Jesus, but the flow of thought is maintained not only by the two or three echoing v. 16, but also by the repetition of the promise that decisions on earth will be ratified in heaven. The promise is not confined to ‘the church’ as a whole, but extends to the agreed request of two of you, because if their gathering is in my name then Jesus himself is part of that gathering. Davies (p. 225) calls this ‘a Christified bit of rabbinism’, as it echoes a Rabbinic belief that ‘if two sit together and words of the Law (are) between them, the Shekinah (God’s presence) rests between them’ (Mishnah Aboth 3:2). But now the ‘divine presence’ is Jesus himself. The Jesus who could speak the words of 28:20, and of whom the name Emmanuel could be used (1:23), here assures his disciples that that great universal truth applies also at the personal level. And that gives a whole new dimension to an apparently insignificant gathering of two or three concerned disciples. No doubt the primary application is to their prayer for the sinner of vv. 15–17, but the principle of Jesus’ presence among his people, and therefore of the efficacy of their agreed request, can hardly be confined to that specific situation (even though, like other such promises in 17:20; John 14:12–14; etc., it is not to be regarded as an automatic formula for success where prayers are agreed which are not compatible with the one in whose name they are uttered).
Vers. 19–20. For when two or three are gathered together in My name.—
The presence of Christ in the sanctuary:—
- What is implied in this promise or the divine presence. God comes not here as to a court of assize, but to a Bethesda, to dispense mercy.
- The conditions under which the promise will be fulfilled. 1. To meet in the Saviour’s name is to seek its exaltation. 2. His name must be pleaded as the ground of approach to God. 3. The sole authority of Christ must be recognized if we would meet in His name.
III. The Jewish Church as well as the Christian had God’s gracious presence. 1. The incarnation was substituted for the Shekinah—a symbol. 2. The bodily exercises, carnal ordinances are at an end in the Christian worship. 3. We have the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. 4. Let us expect the Divine blessing. 5. If the presence of God be promised, how is it that professors are content with an occasional visit to the sanctuary? (J. S. Pearsall.)
The presence of Christ in the meetings of His people:—
- The Promise. 1. There is a sense in which it is true that Jesus is present with all men at all times. 2. But in the text He meant something different from that to which we have referred. Jacob at Bethel. 3. It implies a readiness on the part of Christ to do for His people what they ask. 4. It implies a gift of those graces which are fitted to sweeten the spiritual intercourse of the soul with Himself, and to enrich it with those Divine ornaments which shall best display the lustre of His own glory.
- That in order to realize the riches of the promise the disciples must be gathered together. Also to meet in the name of Christ. Acknowledge on our part all fulness and power in Christ. (W. Willson.)
- When the people of God meet together for religious worship it should be in the name of Christ. 1. With His authority. 2. Agreeably to His directions. 3. That our expectations of success are founded on the influence which may connect itself with His name.
- When Christians are thus gathered together they may expect their Master’s presence. 1. A large number not necessary. 2. A particular class not necessary. 3. A particular place not necessary. Christ once present.
III. The Redeemer has important ends to accomplish in connection with the vouchsafement of His presence when His disciples are assembled. (T. Bradshaw.)
Christ’s presence consecrating His Church:—
- The Speaker. 1. The beaming of His essential glory. 2. How our Lord claims to Himself omnipresence. 3. That our Lord here claims to Himself self-existence, independent existence. 4. Our Lord does not contemplate His own existence as a contingency.
- The acknowledged relation in which Christ stands to His Church. 1. Our Lord declares His headship. 2. The declaration which He here makes of His mind towards the Church (1) condescension; (2) faithfulness.
III. The view here given by Christ Himself of the Church. 1. The amount, “two or three.” The Church small in the world. 2. The unobstrusibe, humble character of the Church. 3. The special bond of the Church.
- The gracious promise which Christ here makes to the Church as thus exercised. (J. Macdonald, M.A.)
- United prayer is to those who exercise it a means of grace. 1. In recognizing this, you will get a clue to the advantages to be derived from united prayer as an agency for personal and relative spiritual advancement. 2. United prayer strongly tends to draw out the souls of those engaged therein in sympathy and care, and love for one another, and for Christians generally.
- United prayer is an instrument of service for Christ. Some phases of service to which Christians are called. The cultivation of personal spiritual life. The development and maintenance of the true nature, status, and influence of the Church of Christ. Effort to save souls.
III. How shall we, as Christians, avail ourselves to this means of grace and instrument of service for Christ? Exercise united prayer for the outpouring of God’s Holy spirit upon the Church, &c. For the conversion of men, women, and children. For the agencies employed, that they may accomplish the devout ends they have in view. (John Thomas.)
- The religion of jesus Christ is social. “Two or three.” Man is a social being. The gospel raises men to considerations of the highest nature, and to a uniting order of things. The servants of God have similarity of views; a common ground of dependence, a common relation to Christ; the same object of endeavour; oneness as to cause and interest, look for the same blessed end. We are not surprised that they “meet together.”
- Wherever they meet Christ is in the midst of them. 1. It is His word, grace, and spirit that forms the Church. 2. It is the love of Christ that prompts and influences them. 3. This subject constitutes a criterion of discipleship. 4. It may serve to encourage us when few in number. 5. It animates our thought in view of the eternal world. In heaven there will be a great gathering. (J. Birt.)
An august visitor:—
- The place. “Where,” &c. A meeting place is intended; simple; it may be lonely.
- The presence. A spiritual presence. The world sees Him not. Time was when He granted sensible tokens of His presence to man; burning bush, Jacob; Christ incarnate; now the Comforter is come.
III. The purpose. He is in the midst for (1) inspection, “His eyes are as a flame of fire;” (2) for protection; (3) direction; (4) probation. He is in the midst to try with means and mercies—(5) salvation. (J. Basley.)
Jesus present in worship:—More than the numbers stated here have thus met. Christ is here. If we had met this evening to discuss questions concerning geography, we should probably have felt ourselves honoured with the presence of such a man as Sir Roderick Murchison or Dr. Livingstone. Had the discussion related to history, to antiquity, to chemistry, with what elatedness and bated breath should we have listened to that prince of historians, the late Lord Macaulay, to the world-renowned Layard, and to the wonder-working Faraday. Had this been a congress of nations—a meeting of crowned heads—planning the course of politics, disposing of the destinies of nations, and marking the limits of empires, how important should we have deemed the occasion! Notable visitors from other climes, men of mark and might from other lands, would have attracted our observation—have riveted our attention; our interest would have risen with the occasion. But we meet with other ends in view. We come together about our souls’ affairs; our present peace, and our everlasting salvation, are the matters which concern us. Compared with these other things are temporary and trivial. (Ibid.)
Jesus present in a simple sanctuary:—“Where two or three are gathered together.” There is evidently a meeting-place intended. Proud mortals love display. When Henry of England and his neighbour monarch of France met with friendly greetings, it was amid the most gorgeous glitter on the Field of Cloth of Gold. Christ makes no demand for parade or ostentatious display. It forms no condition in the terms upon which He will visit us. We have not a tesselated pavement; we can worship God without it. We have no encaustic tiles; Christ does not want them. (Ibid.)
Jesus present to inspect:—He is Light. He is the Searcher of hearts, the great Revealer. He visits thus all His Churches. He knows them all—their constitution, their practice, their state. He visits them as the florist visits his garden, to watch the progress of choice plants and flowers. He visits them as the shepherd does his flock, to inspect the condition of his sheep. He visits them as the officer does his soldiers, to see if they are at their post, if their discipline is as it should be, and their arms in good condition. What a sight for Christ do some churches professedly Christian present! How must His holiness loathe the worldliness, selfishness, pride, and the many foul abominations that are covered with a Christian name! Christ is here for inspection. No member, no character, no practice, no thought, word, wish, or feeling, escapes the notice of His eye. Christian professor! Christ sees thee. Thou art fully and thoroughly known to Him. (Ibid.)
Four present, but only one visible:—When it was decided to close the prayer-meeting in a certain village, a good woman declared that she would be there if no one else was. She was true to her word, and when the next morning some one said to her rather jestingly, “Did you have a prayer-meeting last night?” “Ah! that we did,” she replied. “How many were present?” “Four,” she said. “Why,” said he, “I heard that you were there all alone.” “No,” she said; “I was the only one visible, but the Father was there, and the Son was there, and the Holy Spirit was there, and we were all agreed in prayer.” Before long there was a revival prayer-meeting and a prospering church. (Ibid.)
In My name:—I. The place which the name of Jesus occupies in Christianity. The subject of knowledge. The object of faith and love. Doctrines, duties, precepts permeated with His name. Does not imply nominality, as the name of a book; but He is the substance of the thing. He is the life of Christianity.
- On what ground does the name of Jesus occupy this place in Christianity. 1. The Father’s appointment. 2. On His own authority as Messiah. 3. His Divine nature. 4. His perfect manhood. 5. His mediatorship.
Jesus:—1. The central force of Christianity. 2. The radiating glory of Christianity. 3. The attractive power of Christianity. 4. The ultimate victory of Christianity. 5. Who then will be ashamed of the name of Jesus? (J. Bate.)
Public worship acceptable to God:—No doubt the prayers which the faithful put up to heaven from under their private roofs were very acceptable unto Him. But if a saint’s single voice in prayer be so sweet to God’s ear, much more the church choir. His saints’ prayers in consort together. A father is glad to see any one of his children, and makes him welcome when he visits him, but much more when they come together; the greatest feast is when they all meet at his house. The public praises of the Church are the emblem of heaven itself, where all the angels and saints make but one consort. There is a wonderful prevalency in the joint prayers of His people. When Peter was in prison, the Church meets and prays him out of his enemies’ hands. A prince will grant a petition subscribed by the hands of a whole city, which may be he would not at the request of a private subject, and yet love him well, too. There is an especial promise to public prayer “Where two or three,” &c. (Gurnall.)
20. For where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them. The expression “two or three” is a development of “two” in the preceding verse. The Lord again assures his disciples that the gathering of believers for prayer and worship need not be one of “crowding worshipers.” Even two or three will receive a blessing as long as they gather in his name, that is, in close fellowship with him; hence, with his atoning work as the basis of their approach to God, at his direction, and in harmony with that which he has revealed concerning himself. For the concept “name” see also on 6:9; 7:22; 10:22, 41, 42; 12:21; 18:5.
The promise is, “There am I in the midst of them.” The expression “Jehovah (“God” or “I”) in the midst of you (“her,” “us”)” is in Scripture generally associated with the impartation of strength, direction, protection, and consolation: “to help, to comfort, and to bless.” See such passages as Ps. 46:5; Isa. 12:6; Jer. 14:9; Hos. 11:9; Zeph. 3:5, 15, 17; Zech. 2:10. Similar is “I am (“will be”) with you” (Gen. 28:15; Deut. 31:6; Josh. 1:5; Judg. 6:16, etc.). We can safely conclude therefore that in the present passage the meaning is the same. It is in that favorable sense that Jesus is spiritually in the midst of his people gathered for prayer and worship.
Most comforting is also the fact that Jehovah—and this holds also for Jesus Christ—though great and infinite, in his tender love condescends to that which is small, weak, humble, and by the world generally despised (Judg. 6:15, 16; 7:7; Ps. 20:7; Isa. 1:8, 9; 57:15; Zeph. 3:12; Matt. 18:10; Luke 12:32; 1 Cor. 4:11–13). This explains “where two or three are gathered, etc.” See also on Matt. 1:23, p. 141.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 3, pp. 136–139). Chicago: Moody Press.
 France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 697–699). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.
 Chamblin, J. K. (2010). Matthew: A Mentor Commentary (pp. 897–899). Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor.
 Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew (pp. 176–177). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Brown, J. K. (2015). Matthew. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (p. 211). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 221–223). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
 Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). St. Matthew (Vol. 2, p. 213). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 2, pp. 361–362). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 France, R. T. (1985). Matthew: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 1, pp. 279–280). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Exell, J. S. (1952). The Biblical Illustrator: Matthew (pp. 407–409). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 702–703). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.