In treating of the assembly of God, we must remember the work of the Holy Ghost in connection with it. But how different are the relations of the Holy Ghost to the assembly from those of God, and of Christ! It is God’s assembly, it is Christ’s body, but in no sense does it bear the Holy Ghost’s name; yet without the Spirit’s work, and that not only in converting power, the assembly, or Church, would have no existence. To understand, then, Scripture teaching about the Church, we must acknowledge the Scripture doctrine of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; three persons, yet but one God. For the assembly, which is the Church of the living God, is in God the Father (1 Thess. 1:1); has for its foundation the truth of the person of Christ as the Son of the living God (Matt, 16:18) j and is indwelt by the Holy Ghost, thereby becoming the habitation of God. (Eph. 2:22.) God in the person of the Holy Ghost has by His indwelling presence made it His temple. (1 Cor. 3:16.)
Further, the presence of the Holy Ghost in the assembly is constant and unconditional. Till the Lord Jesus Christ went on high to the Father, the Holy Ghost could not come thus to abide on earth. (John 16:7.) After Christ had ascended, the Holy Ghost came on the day of Pentecost, and has ever since dwelt in the assembly of God here below. Ananias and Sapphira learnt the reality of His presence when Peter, charging home on them their sin, told the man that he had lied to the Holy Ghost, and asked the woman why they had agreed to tempt the Spirit of the Lord. (Acts 5:3, 9.) The assembly at Antioch proved the truth of His presence, when He told them to separate unto Him Barnabas and Saul for the work to which He had called them. (Acts 13:2.) The Lord too had announced beforehand that, when the Holy Ghost came, He would abide with the disciples for ever (John 14:16); and the Spirit’s response, with that of the bride, to the Lord’s announcement that He is the Morning Star, demonstrates that the divine prediction has indeed come to pass. The Spirit is with the assembly for ever; so that it will never, whilst on earth, be deprived of His presence. He dwells, it is true, in each believer; but He dwells in the whole assembly as well.
These truths are quite distinct. They must not be confounded; nor should the one be held without the other. The difference too between them is very marked; for the Holy Ghost, as dwelling in each believer, makes that saint’s body His temple. But as dwelling in the assembly, the assembly becomes the temple of God. A temple of the Holy Ghost is the body of each believer; a temple of God is the assembly of God upon earth. “Whilst stating all this, it should, however, be clearly understood that the Spirit of God had been, throughout all ages since man was created, working upon earth. From the commencement of the book of Genesis to the close of that of Revelation, the Holy Ghost is seen having to do with earth and with men. Yet never, till the last time that the feast of Pentecost was observed according to God’s mind, did the Spirit take up His abode on earth as the third person of the Godhead, forming a habitation, a temple in which He dwells. This is Christian truth, and distinctive Christian truth; for as He did not dwell on earth before the cross, so He will not dwell on it after the rapture. Constantly working before the cross, He will as certainly work on earth after the rapture of the saints; but will not dwell here as He does now To be poured upon all flesh is one thing; to dwell on earth is another.
Till after the exodus of Israel from Egypt, God never dwelt upon earth. He first dwelt in the tabernacle. He dwelt too in the temple, until Nebuchadnezzar came to destroy it. From that time God did not dwell on earth till the Lord Jesus Christ entered this world as a babe, at the hour when men for the most part were wrapt in slumber. “In Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” (Col. 2:9.) Created things, animate and inanimate, acknowledged His presence and power by obeying His word. The fishes in the sea, the wind and the waves, were subservient to His will. But His presence here was but for a time, and that a very limited one. He died, and left earth, no longer to be found dwelling upon it.
For a very brief period it was again true, that God was not dwelling on this globe. But when the day of Pentecost had fully come, this earth became once more a dwelling-place for God in the person of the Holy Ghost, who has never been absent from it for a single moment since that sound as of a rushing mighty wind was heard, which filled all the house in which the disciples of Christ were sitting in Jerusalem. (Acts 2:2.) God had come to earth to dwell on it for the third time in the world’s history. How favoured is this earth! A globe so small, yet God’s habitation is found on it!
For the fact noticed about the Spirit’s coming is instructive and significant. He filled all the house, but He did not fill all Jerusalem. He was upon earth, but He did not then dwell in every part of it. In that house He was that morning, but He was not in the temple on mount Moriah. The building, which the Lord entered as God’s house at Jerusalem, was never part of God’s habitation in the Spirit. The majestic structure of the temple never received as its occupant God the Holy Ghost; and though He came that morning to dwell on earth, He did not fill the world with His presence. In like manner the habitation of God, as it at present exists, though reaching far beyond the bounds of the nation of Israel, has nevertheless limits which fall considerably short of the boundaries of this terrestrial globe. It had limits on that day, when the Holy Ghost filled the house, but did not fill Jerusalem. It had limits in apostolic times; it has limits still. It is true that no individual upon earth need remain outside of them, on either natural or moral grounds, if the grace of God reaches the heart, and the conscience is dealt with. Souls from amongst the Hottentots and the Esquimaux, the South Sea Islanders and the Red Indians, as well as from amongst the most refined and intellectual members of civilised society, can each and all form part of God’s habitation in the Spirit; for God now commands all men everywhere to repent; and if any man enters in by Christ (the door) he is saved (John 10:9), and finds himself a member of the assembly of God.
Yet it is a fact that the assembly does not embrace within its limits every soul dwelling upon earth, and indeed it was never intended so to do; for God was visiting the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. (Acts 15:14.) He is saving also now a remnant according to the election of grace, in contradistinction to the saving of all Israel by-and-by. (Rom. 11:5, 26.) The conversion of all the world never was the divine purpose to be effected during the absence of Christ from earth. The gospel of the kingdom will indeed be preached in all the world before the end comes (Matt. 24:14); but that is a very different message from the gospel or glad tidings of God’s grace. The limits of the assembly therefore, within which the Holy Ghost dwells, are really very far from being coterminous with the bounds of earth, or even coincident with the habitable parts of it. There is a within and a without, as expressed in God’s word, which, when using such language, has reference to the confines of the assembly of God. “Walk in wisdom,” we are told, “toward them that are without.” (Col. 4:5.) “That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without.” (1 Thess. 4:12.) Again, writes the apostle, “What have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth.” (1 Cor. 5:12, 13.) Within, the Holy Ghost dwells; without, Satan, who is the god and prince of this world, exercises sway.
But besides dwelling in the assembly, which thus becomes God’s habitation, God’s temple, the Holy Ghost has also formed the body of Christ. “By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:13.) It is by the baptism of the Holy Ghost that the body of Christ is formed, to which we have already directed the attention of our readers. This was effected at Pentecost for those who had been Jews; and Gentiles were first brought into the body by sharing in this baptism in the house of Cornelius. And Paul, as we here read, though he was not converted on the day of Pentecost, neither was present at Cesarea when Peter visited the Roman centurion, yet shared in that baptism, as did all the Corinthian saints to whom he wrote; for saints only can share in it. Saints only can be members of the body of Christ, united to Him by the Holy Ghost, though the Spirit dwells in the assembly in which there may be some who are only professors. (1 Cor. 3:17.) He is not said however to dwell in the body, though He does dwell in every individual member of the body.
In the body of Christ so formed neither national nor social distinctions exist. Baptised by one Spirit, the unity of the Spirit of Ephesians 4:3 is called into existence. Having all been made to drink into one Spirit, the unity should be acknowledged and manifested; and the Scriptural way of manifesting it is by breaking bread as the Lord has appointed it. (L Cor. 10:17.) Whatever would practically deny the oneness of the body of Christ we are clearly to turn from; and it should be remembered, that the only divinely appointed way of showing it is by our presence at the Lord’s table. In Christ, we have said, all distinctions cease. We must however remember that this is not true of the Church. There are distinctions in the assembly. In Christ we are all one. Further, Christians should remember who have known it, or be taught if they have not hitherto understood it, what the apostle in 1 Cor. 12:14-26 writes about the body, for it is most important. Taking as his illustration the natural body, he sets forth four points of great practical value.
First, we can never, if part of the body, get out of it. “If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” The foot or the ear cannot help themselves; they are part of the body. They may deny it, they may repudiate all connection with it, but they cannot get free from it unless by amputation, which, if a loss to the body, would be death to them. The members then have no choice about it. They are in the body, they are part of the body. Just so is it with Christians and the body of Christ. They may be ignorant of it, they may refuse to learn about it, they may repudiate all connection with it; but they cannot get out of the body. For as none but true Christians are members of the body of Christ, none such can be finally lost; nor can excision of a member of the body of Christ ever take place. In the body they are, and to it they must ever belong. But the body is but one: two bodies united to one head is contrary to all order in creation. So with the body of Christ; there is one body, as there is one head. But here the common thoughts and language of Christians are at variance with God’s truth. Bodies of Christians men speak of, and approve of: one body is all that God owns, and Scripture teaches. If Scripture is to teach us, we must own only one body, and so be on true Church ground, on which all Christians, if simply in subjection to the Word, could meet; and once there, we must stay there. Thus the foot cannot get free from the body, whatever it may say about it; no more can Christians shake themselves free of their responsibility to acknowledge and maintain practically the truth of the oneness of the body of Christ.
Secondly, we must ever remember that one member does not constitute the body. “If they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body.” For one member then in the body of Christ to arrogate to itself the functions of the body must be clearly wrong. “Wherever that is done, the individual so acting, if in self-will, is wrong; if with the cordial agreement of others, is both wrong himself, and those who allow it are abetting and fostering the evil. But is this understood?
Thirdly, we cannot do without every member. “The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.” It may be, and it surely is the case, that from the disorder in the assembly of God we cannot avail ourselves of the help of every member of the body of Christ; but for our part, though deprived in a great measure of their assistance and service, we cannot without suffering loss be independent of one of them; so closely are the members of the body bound up one with another. But all this denominationalism ignores, and thereby robs, the whole Church of that which has been provided for the benefit of all. How little is this seen! The Corinthians, when split up into parties, were robbing themselves of the gifts given for them all. (1 Cor. 3:21-23.) How suicidal to the Church’s best interest is her advocacy of denominational ground!
Lastly, God sets the members in the body as it hath pleased Him. None, therefore, can choose their place, though each may have to learn what it is. But, reminded of this, all envying of another’s place, all imitation of another’s service, should be carefully guarded against. Each has his own place, each his own service, which if rightly carried out will conduce to the healthy increase of the whole body. What a busy hive the assembly at Rome must have been, judging from the remarks on individuals made by the apostle in the last chapter of his epistle to that assembly! All the service there enumerated might not be what men call great, but it was true, and accepted of God.
Most practical is the truth of the oneness of the body of Christ. Formed by the baptism of the Holy Ghost, that oneness exists now on earth. May each one who forms part of it, discovering his place, and the character of his service in the body and in the assembly, keep the one, and perform the other.