You and a friend are passing a coffee shop in the Balkan nations, particularly Greece or Bulgaria. You ask if your companion wants coffee. He shakes his head from side to side, so you keep walking. After a few steps you notice that he has stopped. You took his gesture to mean the negative. In context of location, though, he was answering in the affirmative. A head shake means yes, and raising the head in the start of a nod means no.
A particular word now has an opposite meaning in different contexts. If you see that a movie is “featuring” Tom Hanks, you can assume he has a major role. If you see a song is “featuring” James Taylor, he may sing one or two lines. In recent years in the music industry, “featuring” has taken the opposite of its traditional meaning.
Many times we take scriptures out of context, and face the same problems. One that is popularly taken out of context is Matthew 18:20, which says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
More commonly, this is even misquoted as saying “where two or more are gathered.” As we shall see, there was a reason Jesus specified “two or three” rather than more. It is probably that those who misquote the passage this way do so exactly because it is taken out of context and used to mean something Jesus did not intend
Even worse than the misquote, though, is an implication. The preceding verse says, “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.” The logical, and erroneous, conclusion of these two verses would be that God would not answer the prayers of individuals. For God to answer a prayer, it would appear, two Christians have to agree on the request, because where two or more are gathered, Jesus is there. Does this mean Jesus is not with us when we pray alone, but only in an assembly? That would make him a liar when he says to pray in secret and God will reward you openly. (Matt 6:6) No, he is not saying we have to agree in prayer for it to be answered. Then what is he saying.
One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established. (Deut 19:15)
This is the established reason Jesus spoke of “two or three” rather than more. He is speaking in a legal context. The paragraph, which begins in Matthew 18:15, concerns legal torts. “If thy brother shall trespass against thee….” The first recourse in such a case should always be a private attempt at reconciliation or restitution. If that doesn’t work, take witnesses (two or three) who can establish the matter at hand. Today we tend to think of witnesses only in terms of testifying to the facts, without any other direct involvement in the judicial decision. This is a relatively recent modification to the justice system. At other times, a jury consisted of the witnesses. These are not witnesses to the actual injustice, however; they are witnesses to the proceedings. They witness the discussion between the two litigants, and then make a decision on the rights of the case. That way, if the case must go to the whole assembly (the church, in the King James Version), these people can testify that the one has previously refused to take blame or make restitution. Then, when the assembly makes a decision it is based on the testimony of the required two or three witnesses that a reasonable attempt at reconciliation was first made. They are first testifying as to what was said between the parties, but also that it is not a frivolous use of the assembly’s time.
In context, then, Jesus is saying that where two or three are gathered for a judicial procedure, he is there. If two or three gather by his authority to pass judgement on a brother, he acknowledges the righteousness of the process. He would be party to a proper proceeding, but not to a kangaroo court.
Certainly Jesus is with us when two or more are gathered in his name, just as he is with us when we are by ourselves. We just have to take care not to ignore the context of this particular statement about his authority.