Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #799 -- June 20, 2020
"A few honest men are better than numbers."
Oliver Cromwell {1599-1658}

Where Two-or-Three are Gathered
The Messiah's Message in Matthew 18:20

A passage in the gospel account of Matthew where this disciple records a well-known statement by Jesus during His public ministry has long been used to validate the worth of very small gatherings of believers, and to affirm the acceptance of such by the Lord Himself, thus indicating that even where only two or three saints are gathered together in His name they nevertheless constitute a legitimate assembly of the Lord's church. That passage is found in Matthew 18:20, which reads, "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them." This is the wording of the King James Version and the American Standard Version. This is one of the more familiar pronouncements of our Savior. We've all heard it many times, and most often as a supporting text for the view that Jesus is just as accepting of a tiny assembly of believers as He is of a large assembly. Those congregations with very few members find great comfort in these words, for they see them as proof Jesus loves them, and values their worship and work, just as much as He does the worship and work of those who are part of much larger gatherings.

Dr. Daniel Denison Whedon (1808-1885), a prominent American pastor, theologian and author with the Methodist church, as well as one of the great defenders of Wesleyan-Arminian theology, wrote the following about the above declaration by Jesus: "Thus does the Savior for all ages encourage the smallest meeting of His followers. If there be two, lo, there shall be a third. If there be the faith-offered prayer, it shall be heard." In other words, size (numbers) is of no relevance to our Redeemer. Not only is He with and within the individual believer, but He is also with and within all corporate gatherings of His people, even if that assembly is no more than a couple of individuals. The Lord hears and responds to their prayers also. His only condition is that these gatherings be "in My name." Christ Jesus is not interested in gatherings (regardless of size) where the primary purpose of such assemblies is to promote some sectarian tradition or tenet. The world is filled with such religious gatherings. Rather, He is looking for an intimate relationship with His disciples, and that can not only be realized one-on-one, but also wherever two-or-three (or even more) are gathered in union with Him as Lord of their lives. The Expositor's Greek Testament, in commenting on this passage, states: "Jesus deals in small numbers" [vol. 1, p. 241]. He also deals in large numbers. There is no gathering of disciples in His name too large or too small. All receive the full blessing of His full presence among them. There is an old "patristic axiom" which states: "Ubi tres, ibi Ekklesia" ("Where three are, there is a church"). Thus, "the strength of the Christian society was not to be measured by a numerical standard, but by its fulfillment of the true conditions of its life. The presence of Christ was just as true and mighty, His communion with His church just as real, when His followers were but a remnant as when they were gathered in the great congregation" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 113].

There is little disagreement among biblical scholars that our Lord's statement in Matthew 18:20, at least in principle, can be (and most often is) used to convey to smaller congregations of believers that they too are just as valued in the sight of the Lord as larger ones. It is a guiding principle bolstering an eternal truth: God is with and within ALL who are in Him (both individually and corporately). Numbers do not affect this fact. The ancient Jewish rabbis had a saying about "the presence of the Divine Majesty, or the Shechinah: If two sat at table and conversed about the Law of God, the Shechinah rested upon them" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, part 2, p. 213]. "An ancient Jewish saying promised God's presence not only for ten males (the minimum prerequisite for a synagogue), but for even two or three gathered to study His Law" [Dr. Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 455]. "The Jews, though they say there is no congregation less than ten, yet own that the Divine Presence may be with a lesser number, even as small as one" [Dr. John Gill, Exposition of the Bible, e-Sword]. In Revelation 1:13 we are informed that Jesus is in the midst of the seven golden lampstands, and we know from His analysis of the "seven churches of Asia Minor" (found in Revelation 2-3) that some were not very powerful or influential; indeed, some were weak and afflicted. Yet, whether strong or weak, large or small, influential or not, Jesus was "in their midst." That is an assuring truth to all such gatherings of His people, but it is especially uplifting and encouraging to those who might be tempted to perceive themselves small and insignificant, and thereby inadequate and ineffective. Thus, whether it be one or two or three precious souls ... or ten thousand ... He is with us and He is within us!

While the above teaching and understanding of the text is certainly, and verifiably (based on other biblical texts), true in principle, we still must ask: Is this application of Jesus' statement really and truly what He was seeking to convey on that occasion? Is this how His audience that day would have understood His words? Further, is it consistent with what Matthew sought to convey ("authorial intent") to his readers? What is the context of this statement by Jesus, and does that context support our understanding and application of His message? These are important questions, yet they are often never asked. Why? Because too often we fear the answers; we are afraid that our deeper study may reveal our cherished conclusions may not be consistent with what was actually being taught that day. Yes, we can (and rightly so) insist that in principle our view is valid, but can we declare that our view is what Jesus originally intended? Have we accepted something that is true at the expense of that which constitutes greater Truth?! While I would most certainly not classify the above view as being "soul damning," it is nevertheless troubling that we could perhaps be settling for "lesser truths" (if I may use that phrase) because they fit more comfortably with our own cherished conclusions. Just because we have understood and applied a passage a particular way for generations does not ipso facto make those understandings and applications valid for that particular occasion. Something which may in itself be generally true (that Jesus values quality far more than quantity), may also NOT be the specific Truth Jesus sought to convey to that audience at that time. If that is the case here, wouldn't you want to know it, even if it meant having to surrender a beloved "proof-text"?

Let's go back to the passage in question in Matthew's gospel account. Verse 20 of chapter 18 falls about halfway through a powerful chapter on our relationships with one another and the challenges to those healthy relationships that often face us. I think the online Forerunner Commentary has done a good job of summarizing the context of Matthew 18: "The chapter begins with Jesus teaching about our need for humility (vs. 1-5). He uses the analogy of body parts to show the importance of not offending little ones (vs. 6-10). He then gives the Parable of the Lost Sheep to show His concern for every sheep (vs. 11-14). He instructs about how we should deal with offenses among us (vs. 15-20). The context of the entire chapter is interpersonal relations and offenses, not church administration. Peter understood this, for he immediately asks how often one should forgive a brother (vs. 21). God requires two or three witnesses lest injustice come from one man's word against another (vs. 16; cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). He will honor the decision based on the judgment of two or three along with the accuser. If the offender will not listen to them, the offense should be taken to a larger forum - the church. The very context assumes the existence of a larger group. God prefers, however, that matters be handled privately in a smaller group whom He will be among rather than escalating every personal problem to the attention of the whole church." I have tried to deal with the context of this chapter rather extensively in Reflections #237 ("Binding and Loosing: Reflection on the Question: Does Heaven Defer to Human Decree?"). I would urge you to read that article so as to better understand this present study. I would especially urge the reader to focus on the "Legislative View" and the "Judicial View" in the latter part of that article, both of which impact our understanding of Matthew 18:20. Indeed, some scholars feel the phrase "two or three" may indicate those responsible leaders or members of the congregation selected to judge a situation, and that they met to pray and consider how the Lord would have them render judgment. This phrase in this passage, then, "reflects known Jewish legal practice" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 404]. Further, "if this passage deals with prayer at all, it is restricted by the context and by the phrase in vs. 19 'about anything,' which should be rendered 'about any judicial matter' - the Greek word used ('pragma') often has that sense (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:1 - a sense nicely fitting the argument in Matthew 18)" [ibid, p. 403].

When brethren come together to consider a matter, and when they do so under submission to the will of their Lord, the latter has promised to be there with them in that gathering (regardless of its size), and He further has promised to ratify the decision they make with the help of His leading and guidance. One can't help but think of the leaders at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) who, after they had made their judgment, shared that decision with these words: "For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: ..." (Acts 15:28). Wherever and whenever such persons gather together in His name, to consider His will for the One Body, His presence is promised and felt. Yes, our Lord indwells His people, and He does so both individually and corporately, and with respect to the latter, there is no mandatory minimum numerically. He is with both me and you (singular and plural). When a thousand gather together in His name, He is there in their midst. When only two or three gather together in His name, regardless of the purpose of that gathering (as long as it glorifies God and edifies man), He is there in their midst. That gathering may be judicial in nature; that gathering may be worshipful in nature; and both may be prayerful in nature. And in each case, He is there!

Yes, over the centuries there have been those who have misunderstood and misused (and even abused) this passage. It was employed as a proof-text, for example, in the battles waged hundreds of years ago between the Roman Catholics and the growing number of Protestant reformers. George Haydock, in the Catholic Bible Commentary, used Matthew 18:20 to authorize and to validate the decisions of the various ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church: "Hence we may see what confidence we may place in an ecumenical council lawfully assembled." In contrast, Philip Schaff, in his Popular Commentary on the New Testament, wrote, "This passage, despite the abuse of it, remains a justification of Protestantism." I think both views are a bit of a stretch. There are other views as well. Some see the passage as a brief treatise on the power of prayer, especially when that prayer is offered up by only a handful of righteous men and/or women. "United prayer brings to their help the almighty power of God. ... The strength of the church lies in prayer, and the strength of prayer lies in the presence of Christ. The union of only two Christians in real earnest prayer represents the church" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, part 2, p. 222]. Again, we most certainly do not discount the power of prayer when offered up by hearts genuinely focused on Him and His will (even when such prayers are offered by only a handful).

Matthew Henry (1662-1714) wrote, "Every believer has the presence of Christ with him; but the promise here refers to the meetings where two or three are gathered in His name, not only for discipline, but for religious worship, or any act of Christian communion. Assemblies of Christians for holy purposes are hereby appointed, directed, and encouraged" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Most certainly, the presence of the Lord is indeed experienced in all such gatherings where true believers come together in His name to focus on His will for them. However, to suggest that all such gatherings, for a host of various purposes, "are hereby (in Matthew 18:20) appointed, directed and encouraged" is stating far more than the context of that passage warrants. This in no way suggests that all such gatherings are wrong or in some way unauthorized. Far from it. We simply need to be careful that we don't make such passages proof-texts for doing something not in the original intent of the author to his audience. In principle, yes ... the principle may indeed affirm a wider application; original intent, however, is another matter. Let's be more careful students of the Word.

With regard to valid principles inherent within such passages, we can all agree that a vital aspect of Jesus' statement that day is that when it comes to our heartfelt prayers to the Father, "we are not heard based on our numerical strength. In listening to prayer, God does not count heads; He weighs hearts. One Elijah stands for more in prayer than a cathedral full of listless worshippers. The ideal church is not the large church, but the Christlike church. The church of but two members is not weak if those two members are united in prayer. Further, the value of a prayer meeting cannot be measured by the numbers that attend it. It is foolish, therefore, to despair of such a meeting because it is sparsely attended. The prayer meeting of but two is here commended by Christ" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, part 2, p. 227].

As previously noted, there are those who find in our Lord's statement a "justification" for avoiding all interaction with other disciples in their local community. "Many stay-at-home members use this verse to justify not fellowshipping with a larger organization, and on the surface it seems to support their argument" [Forerunner Commentary]. On June 15 I received the following email from one of my readers: "Brother Maxey, let me start off by saying how much I have learned and continue to learn from your Reflections. I also have read all of your books, of which I am most appreciative. My question involves Matthew 18:20. During this COVID pandemic, with churches suspending their services, I have heard many Christians use this passage as their authorization to worship and partake of the Lord's Supper at home. While I don't have any issues with Christians doing this under these circumstances, I think perhaps this verse has been lifted from its context. My understanding is that Christians are receiving an assurance or confirmation that during the most challenging and difficult process of church discipline, the Lord is right there with us. I would so appreciate your insight on this verse. Thank you!"

Let me hasten to say that I firmly believe an individual, or even "two or three," may find spiritual nourishment away from "the crowd" (even when that "crowd" may be one's own spiritual siblings). Jesus often went off to be alone with His thoughts and with His Father (one-on-one). Jesus even encouraged His disciples, on occasion, to get away by themselves to a quiet place so that they might find spiritual renewal and refreshment. Is our Lord there with us on such occasions? Yes, I believe He is. On the other hand, the Scriptures teach us there is tremendous benefit from being together with one's brothers and sisters in Christ. Hebrews 10:24-25 is one such passage that suggests this truth (and it is also a text, like Matthew 18:20, that has been ripped from its context to "prove" a point the author never intended). I would urge a careful reading of my following two studies: "Abandoning Our Assembling: Reflective Analysis of Hebrews 10:25" (Reflections #174) and "Our Purpose for Assembling: Are Christians Failing to Perceive the Divine Design for their Gatherings?" (Reflections #471). While "alone" time and "together" time are both important to our growth and development as blood-bought believers, it is my studied conviction that the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20, when examined within their context, are not "laying down the law" with respect to church "policy" and institutional "precepts and parameters" in either of those cases. In all such matters of daily living, we are "governed" by LOVE, not by LAW. Help us, dear Lord, to learn that lesson ... and then to live it.


All of my materials (books, CDs, etc. - a full listing
of which can be found on my Web Site) may now
be ordered using PayPal. Just click the box above
and enter my account #:

Readers' Reflections


I have a dear friend and brother-in-Christ by the name of Stanley W. Paher. Stan is an author and publisher with whom I have been acquainted for a good many years. He and I hung out a lot at the annual Tulsa Workshop. He is the owner of "Nevada Publications" in Reno, Nevada. Stan recently authored volume one of a trilogy in which he writes about "things most surely believed" (Luke 1:1, KJV). The title of this first volume, which is 269 pages in length, is "Expressions of Faith, Available Light and Salvation." He sent me an autographed copy a few weeks ago and I have had a chance to look through its 38 chapters, each of which is a reasoned examination of some aspect of the Faith we all hold dear (as well as some of the cherished beliefs and practices we should probably invest some personal time in reexamining in light of God's Word). Stan has done a tremendous job of presenting this material, and I highly recommend this book to each of you. In a letter he wrote to me (which he sent along with the signed copy of this book) he said, "Al, I think you will enjoy this new book. It's hot off the press. Jim Albert of California thought that Part 3 of this book (my chapters on legalism and patternism - chapters 15-23) was about the best he had ever seen on those topics. Al, if you mention this new book to your readers, and some of them would like to purchase a copy (which retails for $19.95), I will offer it to any of them who mention they heard about it from you at a reduced price of $12 (plus $3.25 shipping). Let's talk soon, Al. Meanwhile, I am heading for the desert for a long weekend of camping. All the best, brother! Stan." For those who are interested, Stan can be reached at You can also order this book through his publishing company. The address is: Nevada Publications, 4135 Badger Circle, Reno, Nevada 89519.

From a Pastor in Ottawa, Canada:

Al, please keep up the good work that our God and Father has given you to do. Becoming a man/woman after God's own heart is what we all should be striving to achieve. And we can achieve that by the indwelling power of Yehovah's Spirit working in us and through us. May all those who are members of the Ekklesia - the called-out Assembly; the Body of the Lord Messiah - so strive! I deeply appreciate you, brother, and all that you do!

From a Reader in Georgia:

I'm stealing that Seneca the Younger quote you gave at the beginning of your last Reflections ("The worst evil of all is to leave the ranks of the living before one dies"). Also, I really appreciate the "look on the brighter side" that you provided us in your last article: "Pastoral Pandemic Perspective: Reflecting on Reactions to a Rogue Virus" (Reflections #798). I totally 100% agree with you that God causes us to be quarantined at times so that we may be better able to reflect on what we have, what has been taken away, and what is about to change. I'm always entertained by the divergent views of those who portend divine calamity and those who see God stepping in to change things for the better. Keep at it, brother!

From a Reader in Texas:

Oh, the encouragement you have been to me for so long, and again this morning as I read your article titled "Pastoral Pandemic Perspective: Reflecting on Reactions to a Rogue Virus." You had my attention from your beginning quote. In your article you mentioned how many have become more and more aware, as a result of our present circumstances, of who and what the "church" actually was/is. Your mention of the passage from Malachi 1:10 reminded me of my time with the saints this past Sunday. I don't know how many years ago it was, but at some point I came to realize that God never returned to the temple, and I can't imagine what the priests must have thought as they entered that physical temple to perform their acts of service without God actually being present as He had in the past. I came to realize that God had entered the true temple (His people) with flames of fire on the day of Pentecost. For me this was eye-opening, and as I greeted each of my brethren on Sunday, I sensed that Fire within them burning brightly for all to see! God is STILL in His holy temple today! I love you, brother, and hope to see you soon.

From a Reader in Arizona:

Thank you for your Reflections on the pandemic. I believe God does things to wake people up. Christians and non-Christians. We live in a country that has murdered millions and millions of unborn babies, and in some cases has even sold their body parts for profit, and "we the people" have done nothing to stop it! Brethren in the Lord's Church say they are "pro-life," but then vote for Democrat candidates who favor the murder of the unborn. I come from a congregation where most are Democrats. I said something about the hypocrisy of people on this issue, and was told to "shut up about it" by an elder who is a Democrat. I can see why our nation is in such a mess! What must God think of such people, and elders, who preach pro-life and then vote pro-abortion?! If people who say they are pro-life voted that way, then the murder of the unborn would be stopped. So yes, we are in a mess. We need a loving God to step in and help us. We as a nation need to have "bleeding knees" as we pray to God to have mercy on us.

From a Minister in Florida:

Al, this was an excellent idea on your part: to allow your readers to reflect, react, and reevaluate, and to verbalize, whatever it is that is on their hearts during this most unusual time in our history. The past three months have rudely taught me to make some personal adjustments so as to live, as best as I can, a more meaningful life. Here are some thoughts: (1) The loneliness this situation has generated is, in my opinion, incalculable. These feelings of emptiness speak loudly to our emotional and spiritual need to be in the presence of God, His people, and others around us. "No man is an island." God said it is not good to be alone. We all desperately need quality human interaction on a regular basis. (2) With a great deal of personal concern I have watched, listened, and tried to be sensitive to the positive and negative ways in which others have dealt with this period of isolation. I have observed all manner of emotions in others as well as in myself: anger against interrupted lives, fear in those whose physical conditions are already compromised, bewilderment over the unknown, etc. Personally, I have tried to navigate a course of moderation through all this. However, it has not been objectively easy to do at times, because I have not been sick and did not lose a job. My family is healthy, and for that I am eternally grateful. (3) Along with the rest of the world I have watched in sadness the extreme measures that have been unselfishly offered by frontline medical workers as they try to help as many people as possible. I also feel a deep sense of helplessness and compassion for those who have suffered greatly. (4) One of my favorite sections of the biblical text is Romans 8:18-25. The events of this first half of 2020 must serve as a reminder that we all are very much part of the greater creation of God, daily struggling for final and eternal deliverance. It is so deceptive for us to see ourselves in daily activities, and then to totally forget the temporary nature of whatever life we have. Of course, the remainder of Romans 8 gives us so much hope, for it speaks of the impossibility of anything separating us from the God who made and loves us as His children!

From a Reader in New Mexico:

I've learned many things from being "socially distanced" here at home. We watch our church services online, and I have come to like it better than being there. We belong to a charismatic church, and during worship many people, particularly younger men and women, like to go to the front and "physically" worship. A few women will even run through the aisles "dancing" or doing slow ballet-type moves with their hands in the air. Even the preacher walks around singing, and walks back and forth across the stage as he preaches. All of this I find quite distracting. I'm 84 years old and can't stand up as long as the younger people do, or physically move about as they do, so I have to sit down after a little while. When I'm at home, though, the camera follows the preacher, so I'm not constantly having to move my head back and forth to follow him. I can even listen to the sermon with my eyes closed without people thinking I have fallen asleep. Honestly, I love being in a service where the Holy Spirit is given full rein, but I have to admit that I don't like the present-day music of the younger members. In the building it is very loud, and I can't turn it down. At home I can. Frankly, I get so much more out of home worship. We also belong to some small life groups, and we "meet" with them on Zoom. When all this is over, and the church meets at the building again, we may or may not choose to return to the building. I just don't know yet. Al, thanks so much for your insights in your article "Pastoral Pandemic Perspective," and for requesting our input on this.

From a Reader in Hawaii:

Since 1975 it has been noted here in Hawaii that if a major problem of any kind arises, there will be a run on toilet paper. That begs the question: As a Christian, does one participate in "the madness" or do we simply buy a little here and a little there and wait it out? During this pandemic many items flew off the shelves, but we had maintained a sufficient stock of these items prior to the madness, so we have not run out. We now are waiting patiently for this to be over. We have also noticed that many people here, including Christians, seem to have lost faith in God and are trusting in things (possessions) as being most necessary to "riding out the storm." What I see as a greater need than "things" is for those around us to get to know God and trust in Him. I also see a great need for people to stop and think (use some common sense) prior to executing their plans outside of their homes. Selfishness reigns supreme in times such as these. Thanks for letting me share.

If you would like to be added to or removed from this
mailing list, Contact Me and I'll immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may
all be obtained on a special CD. Check the Archives
for details and all past issues of these Reflections at: