The Lord in the Midst
R. V. Court, Bristol, England
Our meditation in this article is based on Matthew 18. 15-20, We are all familiar with verse 20, and it is constantly on our tips as we come together in church fellowship, but it is likely that we do not think so frequently of the verses preceding, although clearly verse 20 is linked with them by the word 'for'. This word implies that we are not justified in treating verse 20 in isolation, and it is suggested that the Lord of the church is also graciously in the midst in verses 15-18, when matters of discipline or disruption in the church have to be considered. In verse 19 He is also in the midst when believers (if only two) gather together for specific prayer, and the lovely statement in verse 20 also leads us to the precious truth that when simple believers come together (or, to use the word in the verse 'gathered together', possibly referring to the gathering influence of the Holy Spirit) He is there in a presiding capacity.
The use of the word 'church' in verse 17 is interesting. The first use of this word was in Matthew 16. 18, where the Lord revealed His intention to build His church, which should be so firmly established that all the powers of darkness, including even Hades itself, should not be victorious against it. This promise He has kept. He did not on that occasion explain what He meant by His church, and we read of no further reference to it until we come to the passage we are considering. As now He is able to speak to them of the church without indicating by way of explanation what He is speaking about, it is reasonable to assume that in the days following Matthew 16. 18 there had been some instruction as to what He meant by the term. We can well understand that there would be some among them, especially Peter, who would ask, 'Lord, what is this church that you are going to build?'
But let us take the last verse of our portion, v. 20, first, and let us dwell upon the wonder and preciousness of what the Lord said to that little company of men whom He had chosen, and who loved Him so much. The One who was speaking was the One who could look down the ages, and who knew just what would happen to His church world-wide, and in our verse He is looking at that church in its local manifestation-a local church which is so often described as an 'assembly'. A little company of people who own Him as Lord. He knew that very often the local representation would be very small, so He speaks of 'two or three'. Sometimes persecution scatters believers and large groups are depleted. Changing industrial conditions in a locality lead to some having to move elsewhere. Sometimes error creeps into the company and division follows, leaving what Isaiah describes as 'a very small remnant', Isa. 1. 9, but still true to the Scriptures. Advancing age of members is a factor to consider, and, sometimes, just weather conditions.
Is it possible that the Lord would rather have small companies who really love Him than larger companies, if through the increase of numbers a more shallow spirituality results and a social atmosphere? He could have said 'where my people are gathered together in my name', but He emphasizes 'where two or three'. Experience over the years has proved over and over again that the small company gathering in the Lord's name (with His authority) with the desire to meet with Him, has enjoyed a sense of His nearness often missing in the larger gathering. George Goodman writes:
'Hush O our hearts, as in the sacred Name
We bow in worship and the promise claim -Where two or three are gathered there am I
Unseen, yet present to faith's opened eye. Here in our midst art Thou, O risen Lord,
Worthy O Lamb once slain, to be adored: Here in our midst to lead Thy people's praise,
And incense sweet unto the Father raise.'
It is sadly possible for a company of people known as Christians to meet together regularly without the Lord being there at all. Laodicea was known as a local church, Rev. 3. 14, but the tragic situation there was that although the church was gathering together the Lord was not 'in the midst'. He was outside the door, longing for a welcome. Inside the building they may have been going through all the normal exercises, but their Lord did not feel at home inside with them. They were not gathering 'in His name', but rather in their own, and probably they did not miss the Lord. May God keep us from this!
Let us contrast with this the experience of a company of God's people in Malachi 3. 16. It was a dark day spiritually, and undoubtedly those who 'feared the Lord' were thin on the ground. But the Spirit of God places on record their conduct in those dark days. Clearly they made opportunities to get together to talk about their Lord. Their Lord was interested and drew very near to them. Commenting on the words 'the Lord hearkened and heard', Dr. Campbell Morgan wrote-'hearkened is a word suggesting the action of a horse at the sound of his master's voice, the pricking of the ears. It is only a figure of speech. The horse is arrested by the voice it knows. "Heard" means bending over, patiently listening, that no syllable may be missed.' What a delightful picture! The end of the verse makes it clear that they are taken up with Him-they 'thought upon his name' (made an inventory of His name) and all He meant to them-how rich they were. Certainly He was 'in the midst'-He enjoyed their presence and they enjoyed His, and their hearts thrilled as their knowledge of Him deepened.
This, surely, is what the Lord is looking for today. May He so touch our hearts by His love that our gatherings together may have as their primary object a deeper desire to know more of Him, and to enjoy increasingly the sense of His nearness; not as a social gathering, but a real meeting of hearts; not looking at one another but looking at Him in the midst.
But we must not forget the remainder of our passage, which reminds vis that He still draws near in a special way when His loved ones are concerned at things that are going wrong, and they surely do! Verse 15 tells of a dissension between two brethren, something, which if allowed to continue, would spoil the spiritual enjoyment we have been thinking about. Verses 15 and 16 speak of endeavours by the two individuals concerned to set matters right by enlisting the prayerful help and advice of others, but without any success. Verse 17 points to the next step, 'tell it to the church'-not to the world. Here we remember the words of verse 20, 'where two or three are gathered together in my name there ami.' So this troublesome matter is being considered by responsible brethren in the presence of the One who knows each heart. The possibility of the failure to secure reconciliation even then is recognized (our old nature is so strong) and authority is given for the guilty party to be treated as a 'heathen man and a publican', one whose normal place would be outside the sphere of fellowship (not, however, beyond the reach of loving prayer). Verse 18 strengthens the hands of those who, reluctantly make such a decision, by indicating that the decision made on earth with the Lord 'in the midst' will be ratified in heaven.
Another, commenting concerning this passagere. the new people of God and its difference from the old, says that 'it is not under law but under grace, nevertheless, because it is a society, it must be subject to principles: and upon those called to exercise authority within it there rests not only the privilege but the duty of "binding" and "loosing", i.e. of saying what is permitted and what is disallowed. But such disciples must understand that decisions must never be arbitrary expressions of personal opinions, but convictions reached after united prayer has been offered to the heavenly Father. Only so will they have eternal sanction, vv. 18-20.' How vital to know, in such circumstances, that He is 'in the midst'.
Verse 19 takes us into the place of prayer-not necessarily in the assembly, but a small company, perhaps only two, concerned enough to come together in prayer for a specific purpose, maybe the salvation of a particular individual; or possibly some problem in the local church; some domestic problem; some health problem. The Lord assures us that the Father will deal with the matter, in His own wise way. We link verse 20 again with this, 'For where two or three are gathered'. He is in their very midst by His Spirit, giving validity and authority to their supplications.
Let us recognize the Lord's deep desire to be closely involved in all the activities of those who gather in His name, and may those gatherings give Him pleasure as, looking into the hearts of those gathered, He sees their joy in being in His presence. Let us sum up what should be our feelings as we come together, whether to enjoy verse 20 or to face the responsibilities of the preceding verses:
Here from the world we turn
Jesus to seek: Here may His loving voice
Tenderly speak. Jesus our dearest Friend
While at Thy feet we bend
O let Thy smile descend,
'Tis Thee we seek.