In Matthew 18:20 (NIV), Jesus says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” If you start or stop there and stay there, you can easily miss what Jesus is saying. By these words alone, you might easily reach three different conclusions:
- Jesus isn’t present when we’re alone.
- Jesus isn’t present with four or more people.
- Jesus is present when we pray in groups of two or three.
You may want to pause here and read Matthew 18:15-20. The previous five verses clarify that verse 20 isn’t about prayer at all. Yet I’ve heard pastors and speakers lead into prayer time by telling the group, “Where two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus, he is there. Let’s pray and meet with Jesus.”
Whenever that happens, I cringe. Is Jesus with us? Yes! (In Matthew 1:23 we learn that the name Immanuel means God with us, and in Matthew 28:20 Jesus promises his spiritual presence to the disciples.) But is Matthew 18:20 about Jesus being with us in prayer? No! How do we know that? Context!
If we reach any of the three conclusions listed above, we miss what Jesus is saying. This part of Matthew 18 is about Jesus being with believers who follow his instructions about church discipline.
As followers of Jesus and teachers of his Word, we need to understand the entire story, not simply underscore a Bible verse because it proves our point. I’m not against teaching a single verse if it’s taught accurately, in context, not carelessly pasted into an outline. The Bible is primarily a narrative—a ripping story—and when we pick and choose without understanding context, we reduce Scripture to something that looks like religious life hacks or a pious Twitter account.
Gain better context with these three tips:
- Read it! If you’re planning to use Matthew 18:20, read the entire chapter. Better yet, read all of Matthew. By reading any book in one sitting, you gain an instant overview because it’s easier to spot themes, emphases, and the book’s message. Did Jesus feed 5,000 or 4,000 people? Is that the same story told by different writers? Without a larger context, you might miss that these similar scenes are in different chapters of the same book (Matthew 14 and 15).
- Listen to it! No, this isn’t cheating. I’ve heard that an average person can read the entire Bible in 72 hours. Various plans and strategies help readers get through the Bible in a year. But according to studies, if you didn’t sleep or take breaks, you could do it in three days straight.
- Study it!
- Find a good study Bible (Group’s Jesus-Centered Bible has been the #1 study Bible since it was released in the fall of 2015). Purchase Bible software (such as Logos.com) and buy a commentary to help you.
- Use webtools such as Precept Austin. Free online resources aren’t always my “go to,” but they can be helpful and are free.
- The Bible Project offers a grand, visually pleasing overview of Bible books. These videos, which are embedded in the Read Scripture app, are great to share with teenagers
As you prepare to teach Scripture, commit to observing and interpreting it in a clear way and in context so your listeners can become more attached to the real Jesus.