Two or Three Witnesses

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Matthew 18:20

I’m curious how this verse ever came to be routinely invoked in the context of a prayer meeting. That was certainly the first context in which I heard it uttered so many years ago. And it’s typically the only context in which I hear it invoked to this day. Perhaps it just seems catchy, exciting, or encouraging to someone in the moment when we enter into prayer together.

But is that really what this verse is about? And if the verse is not situated in a context of prayer, can it find application in the context of prayer? Well, to answer succinctly: no and yes, respectively.

Firstly, we should all be reassured that it does not require a fellow believer in our midst for the Lord to be with us. When walking alone through the most difficult of circumstances, the Lord is with each of us.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

Here is the verse situated in its context:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Matthew 18:15-20

The context is one of rebuke and admonition, community discipline within the assembly of the saints. There is a patient process of approaching and entreating the brother who has wronged another — first privately one-on-one, then with one or two others if necessary to confirm the charge of wrongdoing. A final court of appeal is the church, the assembly of the saints, whether directly or by representation in the leadership. Recalcitrance results in being put out of the assembly of the saints — disfellowshipped, excommunicated. In this context, the Lord is among the two or three witnesses, supporting the truth of the verdict, permitting or forbidding (“binding or loosing”) justly in heaven as his people do on earth.

The Lord Jesus invokes a principle in the Old Covenant regarding witnesses:

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 17:6-7

And again:

A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 19:15-18

Under the Old Covenant, the word of two or three witnesses (not merely two or three accusers) was required to find guilt in someone. The standard hasn’t gotten any lower for the people of God under the New Covenant. There is much mercy built into this as people are fallible, and extra protections are put in place by our God to confirm the truth before rendering judgment. We see the possibility of error, and especially malicious intent, addressed under the mediation of Moses.

As an important aside regarding imperfect witnesses and rulings in the assembly of the believers, we should also rest assured that just because two witnesses agree on earth, doesn’t mean they have made a perfect judgment in the eyes of the Lord. We have the added reassurance that our Lord’s judgment over his people is grounded in something deeper than the word of the inhabitants of the earth.

. . . He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth . . .

Isaiah 11:3-4

Even our Lord Jesus Christ adhered to the rule of two or three witnesses to establish the validity of his own public ministry and claims of authority:

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.”

John 8:12-18

We see the rule of two or three witnesses reflected in the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian believers regarding a recalcitrant practitioner of incest in the assembly of the saints:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 5:1-5

The apostle continues his explanation and closes with the admonition to “purge the evil from among you” (v. 13) just as we’ve seen it cited in Deuteronomy 17:7 and 19:18. And here we see from Paul the same as we did from Jesus in Matthew 18. That which was a death sentence under the Old Covenant is now excommunication (ritual communal death) under the New Covenant.

The Apostle Paul commands that “every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” among the believers (2 Cor. 13:1) and toward elders in particular (1 Tim. 5:19).

Intriguingly, Paul also seems to be invoking the rule of two or three witnesses in his ordering of public worship when he limits the number of words spoken in tongues (1 Cor. 14:27) with interpretation and the number of prophecies uttered (1 Cor. 14:29) with discernment to “only two or at the most three” people. Two or three are sufficient to establish the truth; no further departure from the “well-fashioned ordering” of public worship is necessary (1 Cor. 14:40).

This brings us full-circle to the application of the rule of two or three witnesses to the issue of prayer. In group prayer or public worship, the prayers for any given matter could be limited to “only two or at the most three” people, which is sufficient to establish the public truth of the matter for the assembly and keeps everything running “decently and in order” as an assembly.