For Christians, it’s really important to get together as Christians. But right now, we all need to do our bit to slow the spread of COVID19. So what does Jesus mean in Matthew 18:20?
‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’
Back in Matthew 1:23 Jesus is described as Immanuel – God with us, in fulfilment of Isaiah 7. So in the Old Testament, what does it mean for God to be with people? One clear example is in Joshua 1:1-9, where God commissions Joshua.
After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant: 2 ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the River Jordan into the land I am about to give to them – to the Israelites. 3 I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. 4 Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. 5 No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.
7 ‘Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’
God promises to be with Joshua. (v5, 9) God promises this to reassure Joshua he will succeed. (v3, 5, 6). However this is not a promise that Joshua will succeed in whatever he feels like doing. Rather it is a promise Joshua will succeed in God’s plan. (v2, 4, 6) Consequently, God working his plan through Joshua requires Joshua to follow God’s plan. (v7-8) This is what it means for God to be with Joshua.
God is assuring Joshua that he will be with him, so he can take courage. He doesn’t need to be scared what challenges he will face. He doesn’t need to worry whether he will succeed. But because God is working his plan through Joshua, it is absolutely essential that Joshua follows God’s plan. When the people did not follow God’s instructions, God was not with them.
The same principles are present when Jesus commissions his disciples in Matthew 28:16-20.
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
Jesus rose from the dead as the beginning of God’s new world of eternal life, love, peace and joy. He promised to come back to make the world new at the end of this age. In the meantime, he commissioned his first disciples, to spread his teaching, to make more disciples who will do the same thing. This is so that everyone can be invited to be part of making the world new.
And in this context, Jesus promised to be with his disciples. (v20) He’s not saying, ‘I’ll be with you now, but once the job is done I won’t be with you anymore’! He’s promising his disciples that they will succeed in carrying out his plan, because he will be doing his plan through them. And once again it is Jesus’ plan, so his disciples have to follow his plan. He doesn’t say, ‘Pass on my teaching to my disciples so they can decide what to do with it’! He says to teach them to obey everything he has commanded them. Jesus promises to be with his disciples, working his plan through them, so that requires them to follow his plan.
So why does Jesus promise to be with his disciples when two or three are gathered together?
Because following Jesus’ teaching is not something that you snap your fingers and overnight you understand and do everything perfectly. Rather disciples keep growing in following Jesus over the rest of this life. So that means we need each other’s help. We need each other’s encouragement. We need to remind each other. Jesus said where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. In that context, he’s talking about us needing to hold each other accountable.
‘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. 16 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.” 17 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.
18 ‘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.
19 ‘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. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’
Matthew 18:15-20 (NIV)
We need someone we trust to tell us when we’re out of line, or on the wrong track, or deceiving ourselves. If I need you to hold me accountable like that, it’s going to be much better for both of us, to do that in person. But we can make it work other ways temporarily.
It’s not the same, not being able to gather in person physically for church like normal. We can’t hug or shake hands. We can’t feel the energy of a group of people around us. We can’t look each other in the eye.
But we can still follow Jesus’s plan together. Some of us live with other people who are following Jesus. We can have church at home. You only need two or three! We can meet online or over the phone, to read the Bible together, to pray for the world, and to encourage each other and hold each other accountable to love others as Jesus commands.
As we do that, Jesus is with us. We don’t need to be scared of the challenges we face. We don’t need to worry whether we will succeed. Because Jesus is with us, working his plan through us.