The very essence and purpose of the New Testament church has been to gather unto the Lord Jesus Christ alone. The center and focus of the church has been Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ taught, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst” (Matt. 18:20). Clearly, Christ must remain forever at the heart and soul of the New Testament church. Unfortunately, as is often the case, moral causes, social issues, and religious pursuits have distracted the church from her purpose and focus. As generations have passed, sincere believers have often unknowingly replaced the doctrine of gathering unto the Lord alone with gathering unto the doctrines and traditions of the church. The doctrines about worship have taken priority over the sole object of worship. Forms of church government, controversial doctrines, and popular preachers have become the rallying points, instead of Christ. Sadly, sincere believers, even after many years of meeting together in simplicity, betray an uncertainty concerning this life-blood of the church. For so many, the church is a place where one goes to attend a service. The building and the kind of services offered in the building become all-important. Church leaders take pride in advertising to the public their variety of special services, such as “traditional Sunday services” or “contemporary Sunday services”. The church has become so much like the rest of the world—a complex well-oiled machine—where everything is humanly controlled and ordered. Yet the Bible paints a much different portrait of the church. The biblical church is wherever believers with purpose and passion are gathered unto Christ. It is His presence in our midst which is of utmost importance. All other activities and church “traditions”, new and old, pale in significance to Christ. This all-important aspect of church life must be pursued with new vigor. May the Lord raise up a new breed of believers who will resolve to esteem the Lord Jesus Christ alone at the forefront of all else in the church.
The Word “Gathering” Defined
At the heart of our examination of the church must be an interpretation of the meaning of the word “gathered”. The verb and noun forms of this word are used eight or nine times in the New Testament. In the New Testament the phrase “gathered together unto” is given for what is one word in Greek manuscripts. The verb form, “episunago”, is a compound word, composed of three parts: first, “epi”, which means “to or unto”; then, “sun”, which means “together”; and thirdly, “ago”, which means “to bring or gather”; thus the meaning “gathered together unto”. (1) A study of the various references in the New Testament is very instructive. It is noteworthy that through all of these references runs the common theme of an unyielding and undistracted focus upon Christ. The words of the Saviour in Matthew chapter 23, capture Christ’s heart desire for the Jewish nation. Christ pours out His heart as He cries, “O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them who are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together (unto Myself), even as a hen gathers chickens under her wings, and ye would not” (Matt.23:37)! When Christ desires to gather the Jewish nation, as a hen gathers her chicks, notice where He calls them—He calls them unto Himself. We discover His beauty when we come apart from the hustle and bustle of life and enter into solitary and sweet communion with the Saviour of our souls. Those who spend time near to the heart of Christ cannot help but be transformed by His presence.
The Debate Over Matthew 18:20
This verse is the very foundation and charter of the Church. Christ, the glorified, exalted, and risen Lord, is in the midst of every believing band of two or three gathered in His name. We must not miss the grandeur, wonder, and majesty of the nature of the church. Although this verse and its teaching is precious to every Christian, yet it is not without controversy. Some reject that this verse even relates to the nature of the church at all. Popular author John MacArthur writes, “This verse is frequently misinterpreted, though not with such serious error as in the previous verses. To use this statement to claim the Lord’s presence at a small worship service or a prayer meeting does not fit the context and is superfluous… the context demands that the two or three are witnesses in the process of discipline.” (2) Clearly verses 15-18 contain Christ’s teaching in regard to discipline within the yet-to-be established local church. However, to narrowly interpret Matthew 18:20 as to be confined solely to the subject of church discipline would do great disservice to the meaning of Scripture. Fortunately, Matthew 18:20 has been widely interpreted by a majority of Bible scholars to refer to the nature and constitution of the local church. Representative of this view is respected Bible teacher and author G. Campbell Morgan. He writes, “These are some of the most remarkable things that our Lord said about His Church. They have a much wider application than the application Jesus made of them at this point. We are perfectly justified in lifting them out of their setting, and using them over a wider area of thought. This is the whole ground of truth concerning the constitution and power of the Christian Church. ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My name there am I in the midst.’ That is the charter of the Church. How spacious and gracious, and wonderful it is! We have gained a temple everywhere by losing a temple in a locality. Mark the magnificence of it. It is not the temple that makes the place of worship, but the gathering ‘in My name’. There are worshiping souls in the great cathedrals, but they are not all there. On the mountain height, in some shepherd’s hut, far away from church or chapel, two shepherds are gathered in the name of the Lord. There is the church. All that is necessary is that two or three should be gathered in His name.” (3) The essence of the church is here wonderfully defined. Yet there is more to the church than simply understanding theological definitions. There is a responsibility incumbent upon each believer to work to insure that Christ never loses His rightful place in the local church.
The Fact of His Presence
In Matthew 18:20 Jesus instructed His disciples, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst.” The purpose of God, in gathering His people together, is that they would gather around His Son. God’s great desire was to dwell in the midst of His people. From the very beginning this was God’s purpose. In the prophecy of Jacob, the desires of God’s heart were revealed, “Unto Him shall the gathering of His people be” (Gen. 49:10). It is His presence which stamps upon the assembly its unique spiritual character. Christ becomes the sole attraction to every believer. Peter expresses it this way, “To whom coming as a living stone…chosen of God and precious” (1 Pet. 2:4). It was unto the Lord Jesus Christ that every New Testament church was to come. It was not to come unto a doctrine, however important; it was not to come to a godly preacher, though he may possess wonderful spiritual gifts; but it was to come unto an exalted, risen Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ alone.
The Discernment of His Presence
It is unfortunate, and yet true, that a Christian may concede that Christ is personally present in a gathering of believers, and yet fail to discern that He is present. Yet this discernment is the very source of spiritual transformation and divine blessing. The discernment of God’s presence once gripped men and women of God with a holy fear and hushed reverence. Moses discerned that he was in the presence of God when the bush burned and was not consumed. “And Moses hid his face and was afraid to look upon God” (Ex. 3:6). Nevertheless, it is still possible to be in His presence and to remain untouched by the majesty and wonder of His person. A post-resurrection account of Christ serves as a reminder of this distressing principle. As the two disciples traveled to Emmaus, the Lord Himself walked along and talked with them. Yet they did not know that it was the Lord. “Their eyes were holden that they should not recognize Him” (Lk. 24:16). Just as a discernment of His presence powerfully impacts godly men and women, so conversely, a lack of discernment produces a spiritually negative effect. Notice what the Scriptures tell us concerning the spiritual state of these disciples. In this chapter the disciples reveal a deep “sadness” (v.17) and a dashed “hope” (v. 21) concerning the death and resurrection of Christ. However, later when their eyes were opened and they discerned that it was the Lord Jesus Christ who was in their midst, “They said one to another, ‘Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us along the way…?’ ” (v. 32). To discern the Lord personally present in our meetings is essential to gathering unto Him. The spiritual state of our meetings and our own spiritual condition will to a great degree be determined by our practice to discern the exalted, risen Saviour in our midst. After His resurrection, the disciples cowered behind closed doors for fear of the Jews; but as the Lord came into their midst and they recognized Him, they brightened with joy. “They were glad when they saw the Lord” (John 20:20). Gladness, hearts moved by God, rejoicing, praise, and worship are inseparably linked with the discernment of Christ’s presence. What effect does the discernment of Christ produce in your life and mine? How our meetings together might be wonderfully transformed if we were to make greater efforts to discern Christ’s presence in our midst! To discern His presence is of first importance, but a failure to embrace Christ alone as the sole attraction of the church is a great mistake.
The Embracing of His Presence
For many Christians, the act of simply attending church is of utmost importance. A meeting is never missed, careful attention is paid to the most mundane details, yet sadly, Christ is never truly worshiped in spirit and truth. Eloquent prayers of praise and worship ring hollow. The stirring hymns of the faith are still sung, but rarely with passion and conviction. The significance of Christ as the center and only object of all our gatherings fails to attract the attention of many. Hearts full of Christ have given way to hearts full of rival pursuits. Many may acknowledge that He is present in our midst but if we fail to embrace Christ with spiritual passion, then we will fail to gather unto Christ as He desires. The Lord alone must attract our hearts, souls, and minds in sincere worship. All that thrills my soul is Jesus” should be the anthem of our heart. Unfortunately, there is much that diverts our focus from Christ. Today the religious trappings of professional music, drama, and entertainment are in great demand by the evangelical church. However, Christ has always been able to guard the hearts of those who love Him. When Mary came with her pound of precious spikenard to anoint her Savior, Judas said, “Why was not this ointment sold?” (John 12:5). Yet she was not distracted from focusing her worship and sacrifice upon Christ. She embraced Christ alone with her worship and devotion. Nothing else was necessary. The effect of embracing Christ alone in our gatherings will result in a rich spiritual atmosphere. God’s challenge and charge is clear, but not easy. There is much in the religious world to usurp His place. Sadly, this is no more than man’s attempt to put gaudy tinsel upon fine gold. However, may all who are Christians purpose in their hearts to put all else aside and gather unto the Lord Jesus Christ alone, the centerpiece of the Church.
(1) W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of NT Words, (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1981), 142
(2) John MacArthur, New Testament Commentary:Matthew, (Chicago : Moody Press, 1988), 139
(3) G. Campbell Morgan, Gospel of Matthew, (London, GB : Oliphants Co., 1956), 233