29 Mar 2016

Two or Three Gathered in My Name: God’s Shekinah, the Temple & Rabbi Jesus

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Church, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Jewish Backgrounds, Lord's Supper, Matthew, Worship

2 or 3Most western Christians are, thankfully, much more aware today than half a century ago of the importance of the Hebrew Bible for our faith.  Even if we have not integrated the concept into our thinking we all know that Jesus is a Jewish Rabbi.  What we often do not recognize however is that not only has Judaism shaped what we believe but has molded Christian worship from the very beginning.

Both the Temple and the Synagogue cast huge shadows on the development of our faith and practice.  The more we recognize this today the better we will understand the first century Way.  In this short note I want to look at one famous text in the Gospel of Matthew that is deeply – very deeply – rooted in Judaism but we often do not recognize it.  Christian liturgy is weaved out of the tapestry of Temple worship and Synagogue worship.

God’s Shekinah and the Temple

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among you” (Matthew 18.20, NRSV)

“Shekhinah” is a feminine abstract noun that is used in Judaism to speak of the glorious indwelling Presence of God.  The noun does not occur in the Hebrew Bible, but the verb form, shakhan occurs frequently in reference to Yahweh’s presence in the tabernacle or temple.  Two wondrous occasions of God’s glory filling the sanctuary are near and dear to the heart of the people of God in the Hebrew Bible.  At the conclusion of Exodus we read that God’s glory now fills the tabernacle and is among Israel in a way that hearkens back to Eden.

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon its, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle …” (Exodus 40.34ff; See 2 Chronicles 5.13-14; 7.1-2)

In the days of the Maccabees we note the prayer of the priests,

Then the priests stretched out their hands toward heaven and called upon the constant Defender of our nation, in these words, ‘O Lord of all, though you have no need of nothing, you were pleased that there should be a temple for your dwelling/habitation among us …” (2 Macc 14.34-35)

So in the Hebrew Bible, and the Judaism of Rabbi Jesus’ day, was fully convinced that Yahweh graciously dwelled among his people and the temple was the visible symbol of that presence.  The Temple is the place where “heaven and earth” come together in the same “spot” … sacred space it is called … where humans and the Creator God can be together.

Shekinah gloryGod’s Shekhinah and the Torah Study

But this wonderful notion of God’s dwelling, his shekhinah, was not limited to the Holy of Holies in the days of Jesus.  In early rabbinic literature Shekhinah came to signify all modes of God’s presence in the past, the present and even in the eschatological future.  It became a virtual name for God and his nearness to his people.  An early midrash on Exodus 20.24 gives this interpretation of “in every place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you” …

Where I reveal myself to you, that is, in the Temple … In connection with this passage the sages said: Wherever ten persons assemble in a synagogue the Shekhinah is with them, as it is said ‘God standeth in the congregation of God’ (Ps 82, 1). And how do we know that he is also with three people holding court? … It is said: ‘in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come unto thee and bless thee.”

In the Mishnah tractate Aboth we encounter two references to God’s Shekhinah.  The first attributed to Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon.  I will quote the passage.

If two sit together and the words between them are not of the Torah, then that is a session of scorners, as it is said, Nor hath sat in the seat of the scornful. But if two sit together and the words between them are of Torah, then the Shekhinah is in their midst, as it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke on with another; and the Lord hearkened, and heard and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that fear the Lord and that thought upon his name (Mal 3,16).

Later in the same tractate we read …

When three eat at one table and do speak the words of Torah there, it is as though they have eaten from the table of God.

We see that Jews in the days of Jesus understood that God’s holy presence was somehow manifested in the temple.  His presence, his shekhinah, is so powerful and so glorious that even Moses was unable to enter the sanctuary.  And each year only one human was ever allowed to enter into the presence of God on the Day of Atonement.  What a holy and wonderful place the temple was in the Bible and and time of Jesus.

However, by the time of Jesus this notion of glorious presence was believed to also extend to gatherings in which the study of God’s word took place – a gathering of even two or three invoking the “name” of the Lord.  We see this theology clearly in the passages quoted just above.  The sacred space of the Holy of Holies has become the atmosphere of synagogue worship!

Rabbi Jesus and the Shekhinah

The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John make use of this Old Testament and Jewish notion of God’s sacred presence.  Jewish scholars and New Testament scholars have repeatedly pointed out how amazingly similar Matthew 18.20 is, not only to the ideas in the midrash and Mishnah but to the actual words of Rabbi Hananiah b. Teradyon.  The only substantive difference is Matthew has “my name” instead of “words of Torah’ and refers to Jesus instead of Shekhinah.

The context of Rabbi Jesus’ words in Mt 18 is to the “assembly.” This is of critical importance.  The words stand between teaching on reconciliation in the community (vv. 15-17) and forgiveness (vv. 21-22).  It is preceded by a promise that the prayer of two people will be answered (v. 19) and by the bestowal of power to bind and to loose.  That disciplinary action is possible in the Matthew text we will recall the idea of the assembly of judges mentioned in our quotation above too.

It seems also clear that Jesus anticipates a “Christian” gathering as he uses the phrase “are gathered in my name” (eis to emon onoma).  This can also be translated as “for my sake.” One of the rabbis stated “every assembly which is for the sake of Heaven will endure in the end.” Heaven being a substitute for the name of God much as Matthew uses “heaven” for God in his phrase “kingdom of heaven.”

When Jesus speaks to his disciples in Matthew 18, he is drawing on the deep and powerful Jewish concept of God’s shekhinah that dwells in the temple and also binds certain gatherings together in a place of the unique presence of God.  What Jews believed to be in the Holy of Holies and through grace among those gathered where the holy name was, Jesus declares is taking place in gatherings in his name. This is stunning.

A Gathered PeopleIn fact what is even more stunning is how Rabbi Jesus uses this Jewish theology.  He does two things with it.  First, he declares that assemblies that are gathered for his sake are every bit the sacred space of the temple itself.  Second, when the traditional Jewish reader would expect to see or hear that the shekhinah is there among them, Jesus declares that HE is among them.  In saying this Matthew is not denying the notion of shekhinah in the slightest.  What he is saying, what Rabbi Jesus is saying, is that the shekhinah is manifested in and through Jesus!  Jesus is God’s glorious presence dwelling among his people just as Yahweh dwelled among his people in Exodus 40. It is a Matthean theology of Incarnation!

The Jewish tradition does not deny that God can be present with just one person.  Christian theology does not deny that God can be graciously present with one person out on a tree stand either.  But Matthew records our Rabbi plunging into one of the most treasured of all Jewish hopes, saying what you hoped and dreamed for is a reality in every Christian assembly that is gathered for the sake of Jesus.   It is no longer simply a social gathering, a club, or whatever.  If the gathering is for the sake of Jesus, then a Miracle of Grace takes place, a miracle as stunning as the filling of the tabernacle and the temple … God (thru Jesus) fills that space where his people are with himself … for the purpose of dwelling among his people.

Final Thoughts

Properly understanding what is going on in the words of Rabbi Jesus in Matthew 18.20 can have a profound impact on how we conceive of the grace of gathering with our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we gather in his Name in the desert, in the park, on the beach, in a catacomb, in a pub or in a church building something awe inspiring and transcendent is happening. Recovering the Jewish roots of these words fills them with new depth.  I treasure my quiet time with God but I am zealous for gathering with his people for the sake of his Name … Pray “Open my eyes so I can see Jesus in our midst” … he will answer.

Suggestions for Bereans

You can read more about this grace of the assembly in the book we co-wrote with my friends John Mark Hicks and Johnny Melton called  A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter  (link to Amazon) where we discuss this passage among many more.   I would also like to recommend a stimulating volume edited by Eugene J. Fisher, The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy.  This work has an outstanding chapter by Joseph Sievers called “Where Two or Three … The Rabbinic Concept of Shekhinah and Matthew 18:20 (pp. 47-61).

9 Responses to “Two or Three Gathered in My Name: God’s Shekinah, the Temple & Rabbi Jesus”

  1. Profile photo of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs Says:

    I was reading tonight in Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God and he was saying the Jewish view was to be in the temple was to be in heaven due to their inextricable connection. I am not sure I have ever heard anyone make that point before. I found it interesting.

  2. Profile photo of Bobby Valentine Bobby Valentine Says:

    Matt that is correct. The temple was regarded as place where heaven and earth interlocked as it were. God’s throne is represented in the temple. The temple was essentially heaven on earth. This helps explain what is going on in Rev 21-22. That is also what was going on with poor Uzzah. He did not touch a piece of furniture but rather placed his unclean hands on the presence of God himself. 🙂

  3. Andrew Swango Says:

    Great post about the presence of God. The things you said about God’s Shekinah are so wonderful!

    You said that the proper understanding of Matt 18:20 is on the assembly. However, Matthew’s context does not support this. The context is not about the assembly but about the apostles authority and/or church discipline. Cross reference Matt 16:18-19 (John 20:23) and 1Cor 5:1-5. If there was any Old Testament foundation to Matt 18:20, it is Deut 19:15-21 and Deut 17:6.

  4. Profile photo of Bobby Valentine Bobby Valentine Says:

    Andrew always glad to have your comments on my blog. And thank you. God’s Shekinah is awe inspiring indeed.

    On your second paragraph, I will have to gently disagree. I think the context demands the assembly. The word “church” in 18.17 is ekklesia which means “assembly” or “gathering.”

    To have “two or three” is by definition an assembly or gathering. Jesus uses the language of the temple to give radical meaning to a gathering that is “for his sake.”

    Blessings.

    • Andrew Swango Says:

      Yes, “assembly” is found in verse 17. But so does “alone” in verse 15. This shows that the context is more than just private conversations and assemblies. The context of 15-12 is about church discipline.

      Verse 15 is about a private matter. Verse 16 is about a private matter with witnesses. Verse 17 is about bringing this matter before the assembly. Verse 18, I believe, is given to the apostles alone (see Matt 18:19). Verse 19 is about the authority of apostles or church leaders who deal with church discipline. Verse 20 is a continuation of verse 19 about the authority of the apostles or church leaders.

      To say that verse 20 is about the assembly in general is to completely separate it from verse 19 which is about authority. But I do not believe these verses are separable. Do you have another interpretation of verse 19 in how it can apply to every assembly of God’s people?

      Thank you for your posts. I have enjoyed them since recently subscribed!

      • Profile photo of Bobby Valentine Bobby Valentine Says:

        V. 15 is “private” in the sense that two can work out a problem. However the text moves on and says if the matter cannot be resolved then “bring it to the assembly/gathering.” It is not private. Verse 19 is part of 18. If two of you … plural … where two or three are gather for my sake or in my name …

        I think the context is the assembly. But I am ok with you disagreeing with me.

        I am honored to interact with you and hope you are blessed.

        • Andrew Swango Says:

          Yes, I have made my points about the text. I’m happy to agree to disagree. Thanks for time! Blessings and so forth.

  5. Dwight Says:

    That is nice, but “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among you” has to do with witnessing, not the Temple, the church or assembly.
    The church that Jesus was speaking to was the Jewish people and not a Christian assembly. Church discipline is not even in focus here, but rather confronting your brother vs.15, then getting witnesses vs.16, then bringing it before the people (Jews) vs.17, then in vs.19-20 Jesus brings up the concept of two or three (witnesses) who express Jesus, will have Jesus among them.
    It is notable that while Jesus does refer to the congregation (the Jews) he double backs on the witnessing part in in vs. 16 in vs.19-20.
    If two or three was the congregation, then why say two or three? and then why say congregation as the next step? This exact same order of confrontation can be seen in the Old Law. Person to person, then witnesses, then the congregation (people).
    Deut.17 and 19
    Two or three was never the congregation, but those who testified on the veracity and truth of something. In this case the truth of Christ.

  6. Dwight Says:

    Just to let you know I believe the two or three could be ten or twenty, but the point wasn’t assembling, but rather agreement on and establishing what is true. This is the point of witnesses and testimony.
    In the case of Matt.18 the congregation is not even needed to witness Christ, but just a few. There is a reason why they early apostles were sent out by Jesus and often went out in groups of two.
    This witnessing can happen in an assembly, but is not limited to that, as it could only be two or three, but they must be in agreement. In this case on Christ.

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