Christ Himself in the Assemblies of His People
"For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Matthew 18:20
There are people who think that they are bestowing a great favor upon the church of God when they grace it with their presence, and the implication seems to be that they bestow a great favor on the Almighty. How reprehensible is their own self-esteem! How far removed is their thought from the humility and contrition that reflects the inestimable mercy God bestows on us in the institutions of his church.
There are also people who have such esteem for numbers that they will deign to patronize the exercises of worship only where crowds congregate. It is easy to discover the measure of such calculation. They have greater regard for the presence of people than for the presence of the Lord. If we make numbers the criterion of the Lord's presence, then we miss entirely the purport of our Lord in this text (Matt. 18:20). If only two came to a meeting for the worship of God, it would offer grave insult to the Lord of glory to suspend the service because of the fewness of those in attendance. Where there are two met in Jesus' name, there are always three, and the third is the Lord of glory. And where there are three, there are always four.
Three things may be noted regarding assembly in the Lord's name:
I. The Institution
The assembly here spoken of is plurality in unity, the plurality of at least two in the unity of faith in Jesus and obedience to his promise. How basic is this fact of plurality in unity! In the institutions which God has established in the world, we do not have detached individualism. The basic institution is the family. There is no family when there is only one"two shall be one flesh." We have his plurality on a broader scale in the social and political organisms. We have it on the highest level of all in the church of Christ. The church is the body of Christ.
What lies back of this? It is that God himself is a plurality of three in the unity of one, trinity in unity. God himself is the great archetype. He is not one who became three, nor three who became one, but one in three and three in one eternally and necessarily. It could not be otherwise. God could not be other than he eternally and unchangeably is.
God is unique. Who can be compared to him? Yet there is likeness because God made man in his image. And God constituted the church after the pattern that is uniquely true in the mystery of trinity in unity and unity in trinity.
Perhaps you will say, "This is going too far. I never heard that before and I don't like it." Well, if so, listen to the words of the same Lord: "That they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us ... that they may be one, as we are one" (John 17:21-22).
The church is an institution of redemptive grace. It is made up of a great number, but it is one body in Christ. The assemblies of God's people for worship are the divinely instituted means whereby the unity of the body of Christ is expressed and whereby God's purposes of grace are promoted and fulfilled.
We see here the great wisdom and grace of our Lord. The minimum of plurality is the condition of assembly, "two or three." He provided for the conditions that have sometimes obtained in the history of the church. For it may not be possible to find more than two or three who can come together in Jesus' name, in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace.
II. The Requirement
Several things are expressed by this simple formula "in my name." Or, at least, we are hereby reminded of several conditions which must be met if we are to fulfill the institution of Christ and claim his promise.
1. We come together by Christ's authority. This is the basic reason why we gather together. It is a note that needs to be sounded again and again that we do not come together simply because of the herd instinct coming to expression on the highest level, nor simply because we like to meet and derive stimulus and profit from meeting people of kindred mind and faith, nor even because the communion of saints is promoted thereby. It is because Christ has commanded it, and so we come with his mandate.
2. We come together in union with Christ. To believe in Jesus' name is to believe in him. The name stands for the person in all the richness of his revealed truth and grace. To gather together in his name is to gather together in him. It is because believers are united to Christ that they are united to one another as members of his body.
3. It implies unity of faith, the true confession of Jesus as the Son of God come in the flesh. "Every one that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God. And every one that confesseth not Jesus is not of God" (see 1 John 4:2-3). John the beloved disciple penned these words. And he also penned these words: "If anyone comes unto you and brings not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed" (2 John 10). What a travesty is assembly in Jesus' name when the confession is as diverse as every wind of doctrine. Oh, let us not tolerate the corruption of the confession! When we do so, we are lacerating the body of Christ, and we are making our assemblies the synagogues of Satan. We must have unity of faith in the whole counsel of God.
4. We come together to meet with Christ. The requirement is surely the counterpart of the promise, "There am I in the midst of them." Jesus never fails to keep the appointment. It is this peculiar manifestation of Jesus' presence that must come within the design and expectation of our gathering together, if we are to come in Jesus' name. If the assembly of the saints is the instituted means, so naught else is the means of expressing the unity of the body of Christ, there is surely in that assembly a presence of Christ that cannot be duplicated in any other exercise.
Under the Old Testament there was the tent of meeting. Why was it called such? There the people met with God (Ex. 29:42ff.). Jesus is now the tabernacle, and he fulfills that of which the tabernacle in Israel was both the symbol and the anticipation.
III. The Promise
"There am I in the midst of them." How is Christ present in the assemblies of his people? Do not be surprised if the question is somewhat baffling. There is much in this reality that passes knowledge and understanding. The apostle Paul speaks of the love of Christ that passes knowledge, and the peace of God that passes all understanding. It is likewise with this question. Are we not encompassed with mystery when we read the words of Jesus, "If a man love me, he will keep my words, and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him" (John 14:23; cf. John 17:21-22)? Christ's presence with his assembled people is a precious reality, but one that surpasses understanding. Yet it is to be apprehended and experienced and enjoyed with a joy that is unspeakable. And because that is so, we can say certain things about it. Christ is present by his Word and Spirit, and those in necessary conjunction.
We do well to remember the words of the two whom Jesus met on the way to Emmaus on the day of his resurrection. "Did not our heart burn within us while he talked with us by the way and while he opened to us the Scriptures?" (Luke 24:32). Christ is as really present when the Word is read and preached in the unction of the Holy Spirit as he was with the two on the way to Emmaus on that first Lord's Day. We may not forget what Jesus said to his disciples: "I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; ... he shall be in you" (John 14:16-17). The Holy Spirit is the Advocate with the church on earth, and it is his prerogative and function to take of the things of Christ and show them unto us.
Oh, my friends, do not despise the assembly of as few as two or three! Christ did not refrain from speaking to the woman of Samaria at the well. It was his meat and drink. Heaven will resound with the praises that took their origin from that meeting. The reverberations will be eternal. He did not despise the night meeting with Nicodemus, and the repercussions will be everlasting. From these meetings there began the ripples which have continued ever since in endless circles, and they break on the shores of eternity. Christ will assuredly be present in the assemblies gathered in his name, so do not miss an opportunity to meet with the firstborn from the dead and the prince of the kings of the earth.
The veracity of him who is the truth is pledged to the fulfillment of this promise. Where there are two, there are always three, and the third is the faithful witness, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. And when there are two, there are always five. "That they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee.... I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one" (John 17:21-23). "I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever" (John 14:16).
Yes, beloved, as we meet in the humble expectation of Christ's presence and as we wait upon his Word, as we pray for the unction of his Spirit and prostrate ourselves in adoration of his name, our heart will burn within us and the bells will begin to ring in the deepest depths of our spirit. We shall sing: "There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High. God is in the midst of her: she shall not be moved. God shall help her and that right early" (Ps. 46:4-5).
The author (1898-1975) was one of the "founding fathers" of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and an original faculty member at Westminster Seminary. His Bible quotations are based on the KJV. This sermon, slightly edited, is reprinted with permission from The Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 3 (published by Banner of Truth). Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2002.