Witnessing and Matthew 18:20

By Mike T. Rogacs

When the Lord established His covenant with the people called Israel, He built into that covenant several precepts which were meant to insure the continuance of truth and justice among His people. One such precept was found applied in several instances in the law of Moses. The basic structure of this principle was as follows: all matters involving the necessity of testimony should be established at the mouth of two or three witnesses (or more). This was to become the general principle by which several commandments were formulated. The Israelites were told, “a murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die” (Num. 35:30). Again, anyone committing any transgression worthy of death had to be accused by two or more witnesses (Deut. 17:6). In fact, the law stated that no iniquity was to be laid to the account of any person unless it had been established by the mouth of two or more witnesses (Deut. 19:15). And so it was that bearing false witness was so strongly spoken against in the ten commandments and later in the covenant as a whole (Ex. 20:16; Deut.19:16).

It is clear to the student of the scriptures that the Lord was herein setting a precedent upon which He would function when later He would deal with this Israelite nation and then all of humanity. That is, the Lord intended to continue in the spirit of this principle and would establish anything between Himself and man by two or more witnesses. (Even before this time, it was by Moses and Aaron and the works God gave them that the message of “let my people go” was established to indeed be from God.) And so as the scriptures were written, the Lord did indeed continue in application of this principle.

To my knowledge Jesus never once during His earthly ministry directly stated that He was the Messiah. The reason for such conduct was explained in John 5:30-39. Jesus said that if He alone bore witness of Himself, His witness would be false. But He reminded those to whom he was speaking that at least three had been giving witness of His position and authority as Messiah all along. One had been John, who had baptized in the Jordan. Another, God the Father, affirmed the fact through the works He gave His Son to finish. And the scriptures, which those Jews should search, were given by the Holy Spirit unto men of old who proclaimed the Messiah. The witness of one was not to be relied upon to establish Jesus as being the Christ. Again, it was by the witness of two or more (John 1:15; 3:1-2; 20:30-31).

We are even to understand that, as Christians, the evidence of our sonship with the Father is proven not by the witness of men but by the witness of three in heaven (1 John 5:5-10). Man’s wisdom may teach many differing doctrines in the name of religion and thereby deceive many into believing that they are part of God’s family when they are not. But this is only false witnessing and is of no validity since it contradicts the witness given in heaven. It is like the denominations which encourage so-called personal witnessing of salvation. An individual stands before many and “testifies” concerning an event in his or her life which was proof to him that he had been saved. Not only is this witness of man, but it is an attempt to bear witness by the mouth of one. This violates the principle God took long pains to establish, and it is therefore to be considered “false witness” (Ex. 20:16). Our obedience of God’s patterns must be pure and all evidence of salvation which we might need is given us in the scriptures (2 John 810; 1 Peter 4:11; etc.). This is how the three in heaven bear witness that we are sons of God. If we believe we have achieved redemption through any other testimony, we have been deceived.Another Example-Misapplied

In the discussion of the principle of establishing a fact by witnesses, there is yet one more example which seems expedient to examine. But with this example, it is deemed expedient to say that it is located in a passage which brethren have sometimes misapplied. Have you even heard someone speak concerning what constitutes an assembly of Christians (worship assembly, local assembly, etc.)? We are usually instructed that Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Is it truth that Jesus was here giving a criteria by which we can define an assembly or even speaking of something else but is a passage which we can take out of context and apply it as such criteria?

With all due respect given all who have used this line of reasoning in the past (myself included), it seems that such an application of Matthew 18:20 is in error. I have heard the verse used to define assembly as mentioned above and as a proof text defining the meaning of “assembly” in James 2:2 and of “churches” in 1 Cor. 14:34. It is my understanding from a study of the words involved in these two verses that the local assembly of the saints in worship is truly meant by the two examples. But frankly, I have always had misgivings about using Matthew 18:20 as additional proof of what an assembly is. If I understand scripture correctly, anytime two or more people get together to do anything of a religious nature (sing, study, etc.) it is supposed to be in the “name of Jesus” (Col. 3:17). Yet surely we are not trying to say that every occasion is an assembly when two or more gat kler (an assembly such as James 2:2 and 1 Cor. 14:34). Hoping to clarify one step further, I do believe in an assembly such as that found in James 2:2 as being a group assembled in the name of Christ and even that Christ is among them (by faith-Eph. 3:17). But so is it also true outside of the worship assembly of the local congregation. It cannot be that Matthew 18:20 is teaching what might constitute an assembly.

In truth, what Matthew 18:20 is is another example of the witness of God for the purpose of establishing a religious fact. Read the context of verses fifteen through twenty. First, Jesus reminds the twelve apostles-the only ones to whom he is presently speaking-of the principle of establishing a fact by two or more witnesses. After drawing upon their memory of this, our Lord went on to say: “Verily I say unto you (the 12 apostles, mtr), Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be (or have been, mtr) bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be (or have been, mtr) loosed in heaven.” Here Jesus was preparing them for a change of laws: from that of the Old Covenant to the New Testament of Christ. It was to be by the work of these twelve men that this loosing of the old law and the binding of the new law of Christ would be accomplished. For such a radical change in religious emphasis, certainly the world should have a basis upon which to determine whether to believe or disbelieve any given message these men delivered. So, referring to the principle of witnessing, whenever two or three of these men—the twelve apostles–were gathered together in Jesus’ name, the world was to rest assured that Jesus was with them. That is, these men were going to do and speak only what Jesus would have them do.

Remember now, the authority of the twelve apostles was established by the testimony of the works they did by God’s power (Mark 16:16-20; John 3:2). The world must first accept this fact. But when this is established, the formula of Matthew 18:15-20 was to insure the validity of every message these men would give the world. When we examine the actions of the apostles as the years went on, the principle becomes clear. For example, Peter, by his actions, supported a false principle (Gal. 2:9-14) and caused others to follow his example. But he acted alone and was rebuked before all. On the other hand, when the subject of circumcision was discussed in Jerusalem, various people were heard, but it was by the witness of Peter and James that the truth of the matter was established (Acts 15:6-32). And so it was, whenever two or three of the apostles gathered together to bind and loose what had been determined in heaven, the Lord was with them.

So it was on this basis that the great commission was given to these men (Mark 16:15-16). It was on this basis that the promise of the baptism of the Holy Spirit was given to these twelve men (Acts 1:2-8; 1:26-2:4). The binding and loosing was through these men as the Holy Spirit was leading them into all truth (John 16:13-15). The instruction of two or three gathering together and the Lord being with them in Matthew 18:20 was refering only to the two or three of the apostles establishing truth. An additional observation is that it was here where God affirmed to all following ages that Christianity was established consistent with divine principles. This assurance was necessary because if such was not so, room for rejection of the new testament would exist.

We have presented these comments not only to correct an apparent misuse of a passage, but to present the profound import of the message of Jesus. We find that if we properly used the passage it is an important point to bring to light in a discussion with one from a Pentecostal denomination. And it is important when the inspiration of the scriptures, especially the New Testament, is being attacked by the modernist of today’s religious circles. And so, we do pray that what has been written herein will be of benefit and is correct. We invite your comments on the matter.

Truth Magazine XXI: 19, pp. 300-301
May 12, 1977