The Divine Assembly
As I was growing up, worshipping with a relatively small congregation, preachers would often encourage us by quoting Matthew 18:20, which says, "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them." However, through the years, I have heard others question this usage since it is not directly found in the context of the verse. They conclude that the passage does not warrant an application to the worship assemblies of the saints. Can the verse be related to our assemblies for worship? I believe that it can if we carefully examine what the context says.
Starting in verse 1 of chapter 18, Jesus begins the discourse by talking about the purity of little children and our need to become like them to please God. In verse 7 He then discusses the nature of offenses and how they can be harmful to those who have become like little children, telling the parable of the ninety and nine to illustrate the importance of these precious souls in God's sight. Based on this, He says that we should be concerned if a brother has trespasses against us and that it is our responsibility to work at straightening out the matter in verses 15-17, including action by the whole church if necessary.
Now, in verse 18, Jesus gives all the apostles the same power to bind and loose what heaven has already bound and loosed that He had given Peter in Matthew 16:18. How do we know this? Notice in verse 1 that it is the disciples (the twelve, Mark 9:35-37) who ask Jesus the question, and the rest of the chapter is His response to them: "...Set him in the midst of THEM....Verily I say to YOU" (emphasis mine, WSW). He is still speaking to this same group in verse 18.
Again, addressing the same people in verse 19, He states, "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" (emphasis mine, WSW).
This appears to teach that in those days before the written word was completed
these individuals who have a difference may come to the apostles for a
settlement. And if two of the apostles reach a decision upon it, no doubt
inspired by the Spirit, Jesus would be with them as they bind and loose. (Since
we do not have living apostles today, what Jesus here reveals would be true of
the word that they left us.) Upon what basis did Jesus say that He would be with
even two of the apostles in their decisions? Why was that true? "For where two
or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them."
This is not addressed directly to the apostles (i.e., "two or three OF YOU"),
but is a general statement of truth used to establish truth in a particular
situation. The specific application involved a gathering of two or three of the
apostles to reach a decision. Since there are no longer living apostles, this
situation no longer applies. Therefore, we must make whatever application is in
force today. I am convinced that Jesus' promise is true not only of an apostolic
meeting in the first
century, but of our assemblies for Bible study and worship today as well. The divine place is indicated by the phrase, "For where," meaning
wherever. In times past, God specified the place to worship. The only place where the Hebrew people could worship God acceptably on the feast
days of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles was in Jerusalem, because that was the place where God had put His name. However, this is not true
in our age as Jesus taught that it is the attitude of worship ("in spirit and in truth") that is important while the place is unimportant (John 4:20-24).
The divine congregation may consist of just "two or three." The Lord's congregation in the universal sense includes all the saved (Hebrews 12:23). However, Jesus is here evidently speaking of a smaller group, the local church (1 Corinthians 1:2). From a purely human standpoint, there may be something uplifting and moving about being part of a large crowd who is worshipping and praising God together. Yet, Jesus here intimates that it does not necessarily take large numbers to please God (cf. Noah, 1 Peter 3:20).
The divine assembling means that they "are gathered together." It is true that we are specifically told that in the first century the disciples gathered on the first day of the week to break bread (Acts 20:7). However, from Acts 2:42-47 we learn that the early Christians met daily for a while, thus indicating that our gathering together is not necessarily limited to the first day of the week. In Hebrews 10:24-25 we learn that the Lord wants His people to be in the habit of assembling with the saints. Why do some of us think that "once a week" is enough? We miss so many blessings that way!
The divine reason for assembling is "in my name." Doing something "in the name of Jesus" is more than just saying "in the name of Jesus" whenever we happen to do something that we think is good; rather, it is doing the will of the Father in heaven who speaks to us through His Son Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:21-23, Hebrews 1:1-2). The name of Jesus is a symbol of His authority (Matthew 28:18, Colossians 3:17). One of the reasons why Christians are to assemble for worship and Bible study is that the inspired word of God says that our Lord and Savior wants us to do so.
The divine presence is shown by the fact that Christ promises "I am there." Omnipresence is a characteristic of deity; and since Christ is divine, His presence is able to be anywhere and everywhere. In fact He has said that He will be with all His followers wherever they are as they go about doing His will (Matthew 28:20). There is a sense in which all men are in God's presence at all times since God knows and sees all that we do. There is a sense in Christians are always in God's presence because He cares for us and acknowledges us as His own. But there is evidently a special sense in which we come into God's presence when we are assembled in obedience to His commands (Acts 10:33).
The divine relationship mentioned is "in the midst of them." Even when Christ was on earth, He liked to be in the midst of His disciples (John 20:19). Of course, we understand that the person of Jesus is in heaven, sitting on His throne at the right hand of the Father. Therefore, He cannot physically be in our midst. However, Christ's being spiritually in our midst today represents the access to God that we have through Him (Romans 5:1-2, Hebrews 4:15). It symbolizes the fellowship that we have with Him and with the Father (1 John 1.4-7).
God has not intended that His people live completely as individuals and try to make it through this life to heaven wholly on their own. Therefore, He has ordained that they gather together so that in expressing their praise and devotion to Him through worship, they can also strengthen and encourage one another. When we assemble as a local congregation, we edify ourselves through our singing, praying, Bible study, and fellowship with the saints. It is unfortunate that a goodly number of professing Christians do not avail themselves of the benefits to be obtained from the divine assembly.
By Wayne S. Walker
From Expository Files 12.3; March 2005