"Presence in Judgment"
Matthew 18:20, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
This morning, many things in our culture become accepted simply through repetition of use. This type of acceptance is how many legends and urban myths become commonly accepted without thinking. As the classic line of an old John Ford/John Wayne movie says, "When the fact becomes legend, print the legend." Sadly, this type of acceptance can also affect our Biblical study as well. How many times has someone said, "I think this because that's what I've heard my pastor say" or "My mama and daddy believed this, so I do too"? Though we should have great respect for our natural parents and the undershepherds that God has placed here, we should not accept something as fact simply by its frequency of usage. The truth will stand on its own whether accepted or not. That is the glory of truth: it needs no prop.
Our study verse is one that has developed a commonly accepted meaning from frequency of usage. I was asked about this verse recently, and then asked to write about it accordingly. The common application for this verse is not erroneous, but it is not the intent of the language. People will often reference this verse to encourage a small congregation not to lose heart or give up. The thought expressed is generally, "We have more than 2 or 3 here today, so we should trust He'll be with us." The Lord can bless with many or few, but this text does not need to be molded in this fashion to validate the concept: the Bible is replete with examples of Him blessing just a few. Our study verse actually teaches us something profound that has gotten mostly lost in the shuffle of the politically correct culture that we live in.
The context of this verse deals primarily with offenses. When something becomes a "Matthew 18 situation" wherein someone offends another, the Lord has authorized steps to take. One thing to remember about "offenses" or "offended" the way the Bible talks about it is not like we commonly use the word "offend" today. Today, the word offend can be as simple as hurting someone else's feelings. However, we need to remember when reading the Bible that the word is much deeper in application and intent than that. It literally can be rendered "to cause to stumble" or "to entice to sin." To be offended in the Biblical sense is to see someone living in such a way that encourages others to likewise go contrary to God's dictates.
So, the process in this context starts when someone has offended us by their sinful attitude, erroneous beliefs, or something that would cause others to be led away in a similar error. The first step is to go by ourselves, and perhaps it need not go further as the brother who has offended sees his error and repents from it. If it is so, we have gained our brother back. If this step proves unsuccessful, then we are to go again with 1 or 2 more. Again, if this step proves successful, then can rejoice at having gained our brother back. However, if success is still not found, we are to take the case to the church. If he will not hear the church, then you must step away and not have fellowship with him in his error.
This being the context for our study verse, notice some specific language in verse 16 and verses 18-19. We see the concept of "2 or 3" coming up again and again. Verse 16 shows why we should take one or two with us on the second visit. There is a general principle of Scripture that 2 or 3 witnesses are sufficient for a point to be made or judgment rendered. As a side note, sometimes a preacher will try to grab all 128 proof texts for his point or subject when all he needs is two or three witnesses. As an old cliché states, "More isn't always better. Sometimes it's just more." Christ says that proper judgment can be established in this way. It was thus established under the Mosaic code, and it should be employed in our dealings and judgments today.
Verses 18-19 show just how powerful these 2 or 3 witnesses can be. If people are following in the ways of the Lord, He promises to honour and bless our efforts and decisions. Wait! He who knows everything says He will honour our decisions? Wow! What we bind or loose in judgment, heaven will thus honour as well. Does this mean that He will honour something that is not right? No, verse 19 clears that up. When we enter this process prayerfully, seeking His face for our every direction, He is basically promising us that our conclusion and end will be in accord with His pleasure. What a blessing! Our end result will be in keeping with God's will.
All of this flows right into our study verse. The idea of having 2 or 3 witnesses and the Lord honouring judgment when we prayerfully seek His guidance are ideas found again in our verse. Who are the 2 or 3? They are the witnesses in this lesson of offenses. What is meeting in His name? When we prayerfully seek His guidance about the proper course and the decision to go forward in the process. What is the promise? If we honour Him, He will honour us. (I Samuel 2:30) Many times we say, "Well I just don't know if the Lord will bless or not." While we should not ever claim to know the full mind of God, He has promised to bless those that diligently seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6) Therefore, it we are doing it God's way, we should expect His presence with us in making judgments in this life. That is the blessed promise of this verse and lesson.
Friends, I do not overly cringe when I hear this text used in its common fashion as the thought is a good one (the Lord does bless little flocks). However, the power of this lesson sometimes is overwhelming when I think about it. To know that if we follow this step by step procedure He will bless and honour us is quite awesome and humbling to consider. Also it shows us how much stock we should put in our brethren's thoughts when they are seeking to do it God's way. As a minister from my youth used to say, "If I stand in a place that is in opposition to 100 people in the world, I'm probably standing where I should as the world is no friend to God. However, if I stand in a place that is in opposition to 100 people in the church, I should really evaluate what I'm doing." Though all of us make mistakes, we should be keen on our brethren's thoughts when they are prayerfully seeking to go in the Lord's direction. This mindset of valuing our brethren's decorum will prevent offenses from coming and also help us repent of our offenses when they are made known to us.