Chapter 2: The Local Church and its Constitution
by James B. Currie, Japan
The importance and pervasiveness of doctrine concerning the local congregation of Christians is often ignored or misinterpreted by many expositors. Yet these important matters may be ascertained by two easily discerned facts. Firstly, there is the unusual means whereby the Holy Spirit introduces the readers of the Divine Word to the subject and, secondly, the number of times it is referred to in the writings of the various authors inspired by Him.
Its First Mention in the New Testament
Matthew’s Gospel, the one best suited to the Jewish reader of the first century, is the platform chosen by the Spirit of God to present kernel truths central to the subject of the Church. Yet it will be taught ultimately that the distinctive differences between Jew and Gentile cannot exist in the Church, Col.3.11. In tracing the events leading up to the eventual establishment of the ‘kingdom on earth’ Matthew first introduces the King in all His legal, universal, Divine and moral fitness, chapters 1-4. The expected character, conduct and concerns of His citizens are delineated in what is called ‘the Sermon on the Mount’, chapters 5-7. Chapters 8-10 that follow, show the authority wielded by the King over the physical, natural, spirit and nether worlds in the ten miracles recorded in this section of the Gospel. All the evidences of His ample qualifications go for naught as the Nation, at the prompting of their leaders, reject the claims of the King. They contemptuously dismiss Him as "a man gluttonous and a winebibber", chapters 11 and 12. When the great multitude was gathered to Him the Lord "spake many things unto them in parables" 13.3, not to enlighten but with hidden truths, to confirm the hardness of their hearts and their unbelief. The explanation given to the disciples enables later generations of believers to appreciate the character of this present age when the Kingdom is expressed in its mystery form, chapter 13. What marks the following climactic chapters, 14–18, are the repeated departures of the Lord Jesus. Note chapters 13.53 and 16.4 as the Lord visits Tyre and Sidon, leaving the nation no other word than the warning sign of Jonah the prophet.
The present purpose and program of the Lord in the building of His Church is subsequently made known in the first mention of this glorious subject. The perfect, eternal edifice, called "the church which is His body" Eph.1.22-23, will not be constructed without a price being paid. So, at this point, the disciples are told in a decisive manner how the Lord must suffer before He enters into His glory. A preview of that intrinsic glory is given to Peter, James and John as it shines forth on the Mount of Transfiguration. We are then brought face to face with what ensues during the absence of the King and what will maintain His rights in the midst of "a faithless and perverse generation" 17.7. It is "where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them" 18.20. There the mandate of heaven regarding "binding and loosing" is acknowledged and accepted. This is what will be developed later in the historical and doctrinal settings of the Acts and the Epistles.
Its Pervasiveness Throughout the New Testament
From its first mention in Matthew chapter 16 the word "church", (usually rendered ‘assembly’ by J.N.D.), appears about 106 times in the New Testament. Of these, three occasions have to do with either Israel in the wilderness as a called out and redeemed company, or with regard to municipal gatherings of no religious connotation, Acts 7.38; 19.39,41. Seven times the word refers to the Church which the Lord Himself builds and in which all believers of every age, from Pentecost to the Rapture, have a part, Matt.16.18; Eph.1.22,23; 3.10,21; Col.1.18,24. The subject of "the church which is His body" has been dealt with in fuller detail in the previous chapter of this book.
The remaining 96 occasions where the word "church" (ekklesia) appears, are directly related to the local gathering of the saints that is called among other things, "the church of God". Significantly, this term also appears seven times in the New Testament. We are thus assured that both aspects of truth concerning "the Church" share a notable place in the Divine revelation. These simple statistics, together with the earlier development of the subject as introduced by the Lord, show that neither of its facets can be overestimated.
Seen in the Historical Record
The authoritative character of the New Testament congregation of believers becomes evident very early in the historical record. While a period of transition existed at the beginning, Acts chapter 2 shows that the early gatherings of the believers were marked by both order and authority. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was given in fulfilment of the promise of the Lord Jesus, and the disciples ceased to be merely individual believers but became corporately, as the result of the "baptism in the Spirit", one body. "For in one Spirit were we all baptised into one body" 1 Cor.12.13. The result of Peter’s preaching is noted, "they that gladly believed his (Peter’s) word were baptised: and the same day there were added unto them three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine …" Acts 2.41–42. The words "there were added unto them" show that no matter how embryonic the Jerusalem congregation might have been, there was an entity, the Church, to which these three thousand believers were added and of which they became an essential part. As the early chapters of the Acts proceed this congregation came to be called "the Church". Years later Paul relates that, "I persecuted the church of God and wasted it" Gal.1.13. The close proximity of the two phrases already referred to, "there were added unto them" and "they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine", point to authority exercised with regard to additions to the company. This is further stressed in a negative fashion, when after the incident of Ananias and Sapphira, it is stated "great fear came upon all the church … and of the rest durst no man join himself to them" Acts 5.11,13. At that time "the church which is His body" and "the church of God in Jerusalem" were co-extensive but that state of affairs would change when another assembly was formed. The authority of the assembly in Jerusalem is further revealed when the attempt to impose some unwarranted conditions by one or more legalisers from its midst, is brought up short in the edict of freedom from the Law which was recognised in Acts chapter 15.
Acknowledged in the Doctrinal Explanation
While the Acts of the Apostles traces the establishment and extension of the work of planting such assemblies from Jerusalem to Rome, the Epistles, specially those of Paul, tell of the source from whence this authority arises. It soon becomes clear that the authority exercised by the local assembly is indeed awesome. But even before any of the epistles were written, the words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew chapter 18, make it crystal clear that the assembly must act authoritatively and when it does it is carrying out the heavenly mandate given to it by the Lord Himself. The truth conveyed here by the Lord has often been misunderstood. The immediate context is that of a brother transgressing. This teaches the means whereby brethren can adjust their differences in a godly manner. It is when obstinacy marks one or the other that the problem gets out of hand and becomes a matter for church discipline, and the local assembly acts with all the authority of heaven behind it. "Whatsoever it binds (retains as being punishable) is to be that which heaven retains; whatsoever it looses (acts upon as being forgivable) is to be that which already has been loosed in heaven." It is not to be expected that heaven will add its imprimatur to the actions of the assembly but, acting in complete accord with the Word of God, the assembly carries out the discipline which heaven imposes. In Matthew chapter 16 the same principle is at work in the preaching of the Gospel. It is solemn to realise that the Gospel preacher is to some "a savour of life" and to others "a savour of death" 2 Cor.2.16.
The authority of the assembly goes beyond even the implication of the facts already mentioned. In 1 Corinthians chapter 5 Paul lists six moral evils that are punishable by expulsion from the company. While dealing directly with "a brother who is called a fornicator" Paul says that anyone guilty of any of these six evils is to be "put away from among yourselves" as a wicked person, 5.13. There can be no room for argument as to what this entails. It is a putting away from the fellowship of the assembly. In calling upon the assembly to carry out this most unenviable duty, he reminds them that to do so is to "deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh" 5.5. The assembly is privileged to be under the protective power of God. Each believer walking in obedience to the Word of God has that assurance, but beyond the pale of the assembly there is a vast society owning allegiance to Satan alone. Anyone put away from the assembly of the saints for any of the reasons specified above is delivered to that sphere where the enemy of souls is energetically active. The reason for this discipline is given: it is "for the destruction of the flesh". It is that the works of the flesh in the person concerned might be brought to naught and a work of restoration induced. Doctrinal evil is also included in these instructions. The apostle John speaks of that in 2 John 10.
This authority of the local gathering, whether looked at from the historical or doctrinal viewpoint, when exercised in a truly Scriptural manner must be recognised as God given, and so demands both respect and obedience from each brother and sister, as well as recognition by all other assemblies.
The character of the local assembly is expressed in the various titles used to describe it, four of which are notable. As mentioned above, the title "church of God" is used seven times. In their first usage these words carry a very significant import. Paul reminds the elders of the Ephesian assembly that they are to "feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood"; (perhaps better "with the blood of His own") Acts 20.28. The term speaks of a possession that was purchased by a vast price. Every child of God has been "redeemed by the precious blood of Christ" 1 Pet.1.18-19, but the only corporate body on earth that may be said to have been purchased by God by the death of His Son is the local assembly of believers. That there is Divine jealousy with regard to it is not to be wondered at, 2 Cor.11.2
A second title used in connection with the local assembly is that of "churches of Christ" Rom.16.16. These words are used once and are not so easily categorised. Still, it is suggestive that in writing to the believers in the city of Rome, (where apparently there were a few assemblies, Rom.16.5,14,15), from Achaia, where there was also a plurality of assemblies, he should say "the churches of Christ salute you". Perhaps he has in mind the fraternity of believers of the various gatherings, which in spite of the independent status of each assembly, is precious and is to be cherished. All the members of such an assembly are said to be "sanctified in Christ Jesus and called saints." This ‘set apart’ position and standing as holy ones is shared "with all them that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours" 1 Cor.1.2. With regard to the gathering of the believers in Corinth, Paul exhorted "give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God" 10.32. Thus a local company is one that has been set apart by God and has a distinct existence.
Another appellation is found in 1 Cor.14.33, "the churches of the saints". In a context calling for clarity of thought, understanding and expression, the apostle says that "God is not the author of confusion" as it appeared to be in the Corinthian assembly. Rather, God is the "God of peace (of harmony) as in all the churches of the saints." All believers are called saints. They are expected to behave in a way in keeping with their calling, thus in assembly gatherings, peace and harmony should reign. This is to be desired, aimed at and worked for. Anyone who disrupts such in the assembly is inviting God’s discipline, since He will not tolerate those who desire to upset His people. This is particularly true where there are saints consistently praying for the well-being of the assembly.
Finally, there is the phrase "all the churches of the Gentiles" Rom.16.4. Priscilla and Aquila were co-workers highly valued by the apostle. They first appear as exiles from Claudius Caesar’s persecution of the Jews, which obviously involved Jewish Christians. They possibly were among those who "took joyfully the spoiling of their goods" Heb.10.34. They fled to Corinth where Paul for practical reasons, dwelt with them for a time. They travelled with him to Syria and on to Ephesus where after Paul’s departure, they were able to instruct Apollos in the ways of the Lord: see Acts chapter 18. Paul and the "churches of the Gentiles" gave thanks for this outstanding couple who "laid down their lives" to save Paul. The ‘when, where and how’ of this incident are not revealed but Gentile churches, recognising that they were made fellow-partakers of spiritual things with the Jews, not only ministered to the material needs in Jerusalem, but also gave thanks for such integrity as seen in these two Jewish companions of the apostle. Whether "churches of the Gentiles" or "churches of Judea" they shared together in the same blessings and bounties their position in Christ afforded. There are also five designations that link the local churches with specific geographic areas. These need no explanations, except to note that there is no basis for adopting the designation ‘the church of’ a geographical location. The church is "of" as to its heavenly origin, but "in" as to its location.
The first and foremost requirement for any one to be ‘added’ to such an assembly is that of "repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" Acts 20.21. Luke records the earliest example of this practice in Acts 2.41,42. There were some who had "crept in unawares" Jude v.4, and some who "went out from us but they were not of us" 1 Jn.2.19, but they were exceptions to what was normal and are to be regretted. These occurrences only go to show the exclusiveness of the assembly membership and the need for care when any have a desire to be received. The very nature of the case would demand that only those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord in a simple confession of faith in Him for salvation be deemed suitable for reception to the assembly. Yet in the sphere of Christian profession sometimes called ‘Christendom’, that whole structure is riddled with men and women who not only do not believe the Biblical teachings concerning Christ, but deny them most vehemently. To any unbeliever assaying to join himself to a company of believers gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus, be they high born or low, be they young or old, related to some in fellowship or not, Peter’s words "thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter" Acts 8.21, must be applied in a firm but kindly way.
There are further conditions to be taken into consideration with regard to those who desire to be received. It will be readily apparent that there is an order in the words quoted from Acts chapter 2, which has not been amended or rescinded anywhere in the New Testament. It simply states that those who heard the Word preached, believed it and were then baptised. The words of vv.41,42 immediately emphasise two things in a negative fashion. Baptism is not a means whereby a person becomes a believer nor does it mysteriously open the door to enter the Christian community. It is a basic step of confession for the believer who recognises in it a picture of his own death, burial and resurrection with Christ. The death of the Lord Jesus on the cross is reckoned by God to be the death of the believer. In the Divine reckoning those who were once linked to Adam and were liable for all that is inferred by that link, stand positionally "in Christ". They are seen as having died, been buried and raised with Him. Now experientially and in the power of this resurrection, they walk in newness of life. The words of Scripture elucidating these truths are found in Romans chapter 6, "Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptised into Jesus Christ were baptised into His death? Therefore we (were) buried with Him by baptism into death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection" vv.4,5. In baptism there is no thought of a cleansing rite. Peter makes that clear when he says, "it is not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God" 1 Pet.3.21. Baptism as an institution was commanded by the Lord Himself, Matt.28.19; practised by the early churches, Acts 8.38; 10.47,48, and its meaning explained in the letters of the Apostles. Those who constitute the fellowship of a local assembly are therefore people who have believed in the Lord Jesus for salvation and subsequently have gone into the immersing waters of baptism to proclaim to all their association with the Lord Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection.
The believers in the city of Antioch appear to have received at an early stage what some may have considered as a nickname. However it is probable that God overruled in this name, as suggested by Acts 11.26, "The disciples were called (oracularly, Newberry) Christians first in Antioch." The believers did not refuse this appellation but rather bore it with a deep sense of responsibility as being that "worthy name by the which they were called" Jms.2.7. In bearing the Name of Christ there was a mutual expectation that it would be accompanied by a Christ-like mien so that their good conversation in Christ would put to shame any who would falsely accuse them, 1 Pet.3.6.
In like manner, and with similar effect they were also "called saints". This was a Divinely given title reflecting their standing as ‘holy ones’. The generally accepted view that a select few outstandingly godly men and women are beatified by some ecclesiastic organisation and are then worthy to be spoken of as "saints", finds no place in the God breathed Scriptures. In spite of the fact that the belief finds support in the teachings or practices of various religious organisations, it does despite to the simplicity of the teaching in both Old and New Testaments. As far as the Divine record goes no one of any era is ever called a ‘saint’ by virtue of their own achievements. ‘Sainthood’ is a standing conferred by God on each individual who is "in Christ".
While the titles thus far considered are of individual application, one that Peter uses in his first epistle, "the brotherhood" 2.17, must be seen to be corporate. It has been thought of as having a worldwide connection, since some think that the assembly refers to all the believers in the world, but there is no such use of it in Scripture. Those who comprise any local assembly, then, are "believers"; "Christians"; "saints" and form part of "the brotherhood" that binds them together in fraternal love and friendship. Only those who have come into the good of these titles by conversion to God, ought to be added to the local assembly. It should be noted here that the words "him that is weak in the faith receive ye" Rom.14.1 and "receive ye one another, as Christ also received us" Rom.15.7, are in no way linked to the subject of reception to a local assembly even though at times these are quoted with reception in mind. The section of the epistle bracketed by the two verses referred to has to do with the eating of meats, the keeping or not keeping of "holy days", and the resultant impact on other believers already in the fellowship of the assemblies in Rome.
Without question, the most outstanding statement concerning the local assembly is found in 1 Tim.3.14-16. Such are the tremendous inferences of Paul’s words in these verses that, more often than not they are applied to "the church which is His body". However, the context will not allow such an interpretation. Firstly, in 1 Timothy chapter 2 there is the background of public prayers, and the participation or lack of it by both brothers and sisters in public gatherings. This leads on to the laying down of necessary qualifications for all who lead and all who serve in the assembly.
The reason for writing the epistle is brought into focus in the last verses of chapter 3. "These things write I unto thee … that [all] may know how [they] ought to behave [themselves] in house of God, which is church of the living God, pillar and ground of the truth" 3.15. That any local gathering of Christians could claim to be "house of God, a church of the God Who is living, pillar and stay of the truth" appears to go beyond the bounds of common sense but Paul’s words allow for no other explanation.
What are the principles for which the assembly stands? These are inseparably linked with the full-orbed body of truth concerning our Lord Jesus Christ. In 3.16 the apostle explains what these are: "and without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in flesh, justified in the spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory." The inexplicably great mystery of godliness is that of the incarnation, "God manifest in flesh"; "justified in the spirit" (this is variously interpreted as referring to either His own Spirit or the Holy Spirit); "witnessed by angels" (in every step of His humanity); "preached unto the Gentiles" (as the record of Acts shows); "believed on in the world" (the Ephesian assembly itself was proof of this); and, forty days after His resurrection triumphantly "received up in glory". The burden of responsibility each assembly bears is to maintain and proclaim such a body of doctrine.
The five charges Paul lays upon Timothy are calculated to give weight to the principles for which the assembly stands. These are in keeping with the body of truth already outlined. No other doctrine was to be countenanced, 1.3: Timothy was called upon to "war a good warfare; holding [the] faith and a good conscience" 1.18,19. Solemnly, all the things Paul taught were to be observed without partiality and "that before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels" 5.21. Timothy is further called upon to "keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ" 6.14, while calling upon the rich in the fellowship not to rely on their riches, rather to do good with them and, by doing so, to lay up "for themselves a good foundation against the time to come" 6.17-19. What the assembly maintains and proclaims demands from each brother and sister a standard of behaviour that is marked by "righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness" 1 Tim.6.11. It is incumbent upon all who have the privilege of being in assembly fellowship, to have the principles involved in such a godly walk worked out in our lives.
If there is one thing above the others which characterises the assembly of God it is that of order or harmony. The concept in relation to the local assembly, finds a prominent place in Paul’s writings. With regard to the correction of abuses at the Breaking of Bread in Corinth he says "the rest will I set in order when I come" 1 Cor.11.34. In the context of the exercise of gift in the assembly he further states "let all things be done decently and in order" 1. Cor.14.40. To Titus, in connection with the assignment he gave him for the recognition of overseers, he writes "I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting" 1.5. Order in the New Testament assembly comes about by the expedient of simple obedience to the Word of God on the part of each brother and sister. A further reference to the words of Acts 2.41-42 will illustrate the correctness of this statement. Those who received the Word and were baptised were also added to the assembly. Thereupon they had responsibilities to shoulder and privileges to enjoy. The first of these responsibilities was "continuing in the apostles’ doctrine (or teaching)", which is absolutely imperative. The privilege this bestows is a full participation in the fellowship, which entails a full partnership in the things of God with all concerned. In the chapters dealing with spiritual gifts in the assembly, the basic illustration employed is that of the physical body. The assembly is like the human body and those gifted by the Holy Spirit likened to the different members of the body. None is without its appropriate place nor can it be despised or set aside without damage being done to the body. "God hath tempered the [physical] body together" and "so also is [the] Christ" 1 Cor.12.12,24. This latter statement, while having a broader meaning may be applied to the local assembly.
Overseeing brethren are often challenged concerning some desiring to take part with the saints at the Breaking of Bread meeting. The words quite often used are akin to, "this is the Lord’s Table and I belong to the Lord; therefore I have a right to partake." To interpret the phrase "the Lord’s Table" 1 Cor.10.21, as indicating the bread and wine of the Lord’s supper is debatable. As far as the assembly is concerned each of us is granted many privileges to enjoy and responsibilities to fulfil: we have no ‘rights’ at all. Our place among the saints is by abounding grace alone. The privileges granted may only be enjoyed as the Word of God is obeyed. The plain teaching of Scripture is our only guide. What the Word of God says it means and our part is to bow to it in obedience.
The essentialness of this statement may be appreciated when it is remembered that from the days of Adam and Eve to the present, the world about us has been characterised by rank disobedience to God and a complete indifference to His will. In such an ungodly environment all that results from this rebellion is reversed in the assembly of Christians where the knee is bowed in willing obedience and confession is made that "Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father" Phil.2.11. These features are displayed in symbolic form by the different roles undertaken by brothers and sisters during assembly activities. The brothers participate audibly in teaching and praying, while the silence maintained by the sisters in conjunction with their head coverings and long hair, gives to the host of observing angels a vivid illustration of God’s saving grace at work in the lives of His people. When it is brought to mind that disobedience in the garden of Eden is the background to all the destruction and disruption brought about by sinful men, the joyful obedience manifest in an assembly of believers is seen for what it is: a paean of praise to the God of our salvation.
The figures of the local assembly and the wider aspect of the Church which is His body are many. Those relating to the latter have been outlined in chapter 1. The seven descriptions indicated in the following paragraphs have to do with the local assembly and will indicate the purpose for which an assembly of Christians exists. None of them is without significance or importance.
A Dwelling Place - 1 Tim.3.15
God’s desire to have a dwelling place with man is implicit in the Divine decree regarding His creation, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" Gen.1.26, and in the activities that followed. God had planted the Garden of Eden, put Adam and Eve therein and He is described as walking in the garden and conversing with man, Gen.3.8. On a later occasion it is written "Enoch walked with God" Gen.5.22. The corollary to that is God walking with Enoch. The first of many direct references to God’s house is found in Genesis chapter 28 where, in v.17 Jacob names a place "Bethel" because it was, said he, "the house of God" even though at the beginning he knew it not. It was to him "a dreadful place, the very gate of heaven" and, at a later time, he is commanded to "go up to Bethel and dwell there" Gen.35.1. Consequently, Jacob’s experiences with His God cause him to change the name of the place to "El-Bethel", meaning "God of His Own house". What a sense of reverential awe engulfed Jacob as the result of the revelation concerning God’s dwelling place.
A Temple - 1 Cor. 3.16
As in many other instances the local assembly is seen here to bear characteristics which in their perfection, are the attributes of "the church which is Christ’s body". In the Ephesian epistle, Paul states "in Christ all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord" 2.21. It is because the Holy Spirit dwells within the saints who form the building that it is called a "temple" of God, meaning the innermost sanctuary, the holiest of holies. Such is the holy character of the assembly as "temple of God" that anyone, believer or unbeliever, who destroys or corrupts it is exposed to the judgment of the God Who dwells there. This holiness is further emphasised by the following words, "the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are" 1 Cor.3.17.
A Body - 1 Cor.12.27
The context of this figure is that of spiritual gift and its exercise in the assembly. A list of eight gifts bestowed by God to men is given in v.28. These gifts are all of a miraculous and temporary nature, even though at first glance it may not seem that this is so. They are called ‘spirituals’. Among them was even the miraculously endowed gift of ‘teacher’ who functioned at that time. In the first century these manifestations were evidences of the Holy Spirit’s power and presence among God’s people when gathered together. The gifts were varied and given to various individuals. As noted previously, Paul uses the human body to illustrate the variety of the gifts given. In summing up his application he points to the fact that "as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is [the] Christ" 12.12. The distribution of the gifts in their diversity was of the Holy Spirit. The ministry to which they were applied was under the control of the Lord Jesus and the outward results of the gifts were brought about by God, 12.4-6. Neither the diversity of gift nor the control to which they were subject, in any way disturbed the unity of the assembly as "body of Christ". Nor did the accruing results, were they many or few. Unity in diversity and harmony in variety are the principles stressed in the use of the term "body". No gift is indispensable nor is any gift without value. The assembly is "body of Christ" since each believer is a member in particular of the Body as seen in the Ephesian letter. Thus mutual care, honour and respect are to be exercised in all instances.
A Husbandry (a Ploughed Field) - 1 Cor.3.9
There are different means by which a cultivated field is caused to bring forth a harvest. There is the tilling, the sowing, the tending of the plants while they grow and, finally there is the harvesting. But, above all the blessing of heaven must attend the work of all who labour in the field. Without the rain and heat in due season there can be no harvest time. Be they ever so diligent and careful their eyes will often be raised skyward since they know that neither "is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase" 1 Cor.3.7. It is exactly so in the realm of spiritual things. With regard to the assembly in Corinth it was Paul who first did the planting in sowing the seed of the good Word of God. Apollos, who was mighty in the Scriptures as he convinced men that Jesus is indeed the Christ, watered the work by his faithful support. These men were "labourers together of God" (Newberry margin) and ministers of God’s Word. But the increase was all of God. God’s servants in the harvest field are not to vie one with the other as if in competition. They are commissioned as workers together in the heavenly Boaz’s field as depicted in Ruth chapter 2. Meanwhile they look forward to that day when "every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour" 3.8. What fathomless grace! God calls, commissions and grants increase to His servants and then promises an abundant reward in that coming Day of Review.
A Building - 1 Cor.3.9
While the ‘cultivated field’ reminds us that the servant is quite unable to bring forth fruit by his own endeavours, the assembly as "a building" brings to mind its design and construction. Generally speaking, those who lay the foundation and are engaged in the erection of a building are following the plans of someone else. The architect has the final say as to the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of the building he has designed. An assembly that is established according to the pattern of Scripture, has a foundation laid by wise masterbuilders according to the grace of God given. That foundation can be none other than the sound teaching concerning our Lord Jesus Christ. The time involved may be short or long but what follows may take several lifetimes depending upon how long the assembly may be allowed to continue. At any rate, after the foundation has been laid different men with a variety of gifts will be found building thereon. Paul warns "let every man take heed how he builds thereupon" 3.10. The apostle is concerned about the materials used in the construction. The day will come when every man’s work in this connection "shall be revealed by fire" v.13. That which comes not from the promotion of self but with a view to having Christ as Lord exalted in the midst of the saints will be as "gold, silver, precious stones" and able to stand the test of the fire. If in the work of building there is that which is self-indulgent or self-asserting it will be burnt up as "wood, hay, stubble", with nothing remaining. The faithful, self-denying servant of Christ will have the reward but, where the opposite prevails, the servant shall suffer loss while he himself is saved. Solemn words are added, which could be paraphrased thus, ‘as though he had come through a fire and lost everything’. The blessèd contrast is to be seen in Peter’s words in 2 Pet.1.11, where to the faithful servant there will be "ministered … an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ". To think that we shall share with our Lord Jesus Christ in that Day of His revealed glory as a result of a measure of faithfulness to His Name here and now, is a tremendous incentive.
A Chaste Virgin - 2 Cor.11.2
Of all the metaphors used in the Scriptures to portray the local assembly of believers, that of the "Chaste Virgin" is without doubt the one with the most feeling attached to it. All the others have practical and important things to say concerning the assembly but this one goes right to the very heart of the matter. In 2 Corinthians chapter 11 Paul sees himself as the go-between in presenting the Corinthian assembly as a betrothed virgin to the one and only husband, the Lord Jesus, Who may claim her unconditional and unstinted affection and love. It is with godly jealousy that he contemplates the incursion of high-handed men whom he calls "false apostles", to so influence the saints of the assembly that they would rob the Lord Jesus of what was rightfully His. The betrothal took place when the gospel was made known to them and they accepted its conditions by bowing to the Lordship of Christ. The consequent demand upon them was "the simplicity that is in Christ" or ‘singleness of heart towards Christ’ v.3. The apostle speaks here of the assembly’s bridal character. At Jewish weddings one of the responsibilities of "the friends of the bridegroom" was to ensure or guarantee the chastity of the bride. While each local church may not be termed ‘a bride of Christ’ yet bridal purity in attachment to the Lord is what the servants of God seek in the lives of those to whom they minister the Word of the Lord. There were those in the debauched city of Corinth who would have corrupted the minds of the believers from this simplicity in Christ in the same manner as the subtle serpent when he beguiled Eve in the garden of Eden. Such is Paul’s jealousy with regard to these men that he engages in what he deems as ‘folly’ by appearing to boast in his manner of service, in his attainments and in the revelations given to him. In an age that is every bit as seductive as that of first century Corinth the practical application of the teaching in this metaphor needs ever to be had in remembrance. Two things are inherent in its use: Paul’s zeal to maintain the Lord’s portion among His people, and the need for His people to be uniquely dedicated to the Person of their Lord.
A Lampstand - Revelation Chapters 2 and 3
The New Translation (J.N.D.) renders the "candlesticks" of the A.V. as "golden lamps" which is much more accurate. A stand bearing a candle depends upon its own source of energy whereas a lamp is dependent upon an outside source enabling it to shine. The reason for the existence of the local assembly in this aspect is conveyed by the employment of this metaphor. It is to be a luminary shining in a dark place. In the words of the Lord Jesus a lamp in order to give illumination is never placed under a bed or in some other obscure place, but is set on a hill Matt.5.14,15. Thus Paul wrote, as "sons of God … in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world" Phil.2.15. The Philippian epistle was addressed to the local church in that city. The heartfelt and poignant plea for unity forms the background to the exhortation to be as luminaries. A lack of murmuring and disputing and with the mind that was in Christ Jesus characterising them, then they would be as lights shining brightly in a dark society. It is noteworthy that Israel, intended by God to be a light of the nations, Isa.51.4, ceased to be so and was discarded by God as the result of unfaithfulness. The deep division occurring in Rehoboam’s day exacerbated this state of affairs. Following this analogy the assembly in Ephesus was threatened with the removal of the "lampstand" if they did not return to the zeal of their first love, Rev.2.5. No assembly can continue for very long if affection for Christ is left, Rev.2.4, because witness becomes merely routine. To be under the scrutiny of the judicial Christ as He walks in the midst of the churches, is not to be thought of lightly. The constitution of the local church is of such a nature that the original expression made by the Lord Jesus concerning it "for where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them" Matt.18.20, has enabled the obedience of countless thousands to reflect the ancient statement, "and unto Him shall the gathering(s) of the people(s) be" Gen.49.10.