This is a question raised in many hearts by that which is passing around us—a question of the deepest interest in itself, even though circumstances did not make one feel the need of a clear and satisfactory answer. But the state of the professing world, now so much agitated on the question of the Church in every form, and in which a multiplicity of movements (in general only creating more perplexity and questions in most souls) present themselves as the reply to the need which is felt of finding the truth on this point—this state of things, I say, will render a serious examination of what the word of God says on the subject useful to many. Enlightened by that only true light, they may, by learning at the fountain of light, while putting themselves in possession of the light itself, be able to judge calmly and soundly of all that presents itself as such, and, as a consequence, claims submission, or at least adherence, to the course which is proposed, as being according to it.
But this is not all. I doubt not but that God has not only permitted, but that it has been His will, that this question should be raised, in order that His children may learn what is the extent, and what are the thoughts of His love; and that they may take morally, and with true Christian devotedness, a position practically answering to His infinite goodness. For the question of the Church, seen as presented in the Bible, is one eminently practical. The position in which the Christian is placed by the very fact that he is a member of the Church of God, governs the affections, and forms the character. This consideration makes still more opportune a work which views the Church in the light of God’s word. As a matter of fact, the question of the Church is generally presented as a question of the organization of some new body amongst Christians—a question of which the heart gets wearied. Hence it follows that many persons discard the subject altogether, as injurious to sanctification, and seek, and induce others to seek, spirituality by setting aside a point of which, after all, it is evident that the New Testament is full, and of which it treats in terms which attach to such a point great practical importance. In fine, if, as many serious Christians think, we are in the last times, although circumstances can add nothing to the essential importance of truth, the fact that we find ourselves to be near the end of the age, makes its practical importance to be more felt. The obligation under which the wise virgins were, to watch and to keep their lamps ready at all times, became an imperative duty, when the cry had gone forth at midnight, “Behold, the Bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.”
The considerations I have just presented will have clearly pointed out to the reader the object of this paper, namely, an examination of the teaching of the word of God on the subject of the Church, and of the practical results for our souls which flow thence. My aim is not to examine the basis of individual salvation, although the teaching of the word on the Church throws much light on this point. It is even of consequence to understand that they are distinct things; for God never passes by our individual responsibility, whatever privileges may be conferred upon us by being joined to an assembly. We are saved as individuals, although God may, if He sees fit, gather into one body those whom He saves. Salvation is a thing which, though complete in Christ, supposes in the heart of the person enjoying it, personal exercises, which go on necessarily and exclusively in his own conscience, and which bring his soul into immediate connection with God, and without which all relationship with Him—all happiness—the very existence of spiritual life—would be impossible. The intercourse between God and an intelligent and responsible soul, which before was in sin, necessarily supposes that consequent on the establishment of this new relationship many things pass within which are for that soul alone. The special form which the relationship takes may add much—may give special character to it; and this is the case; but this does not do away with personal relationship. This is one of the essential differences between the truth of the word and the idea of the Church as it is viewed by the Romanist; who, making ordinances a means of salvation, attaches salvation to being of the Church, instead of making the Church the assembly of those who are saved. If but one individual were saved, his salvation would be equally perfect and sure, but he would not be the Church. This (the Church) includes an additional thought, an additional relationship, to that of the saved individual. What is this thought? Let us lay aside human definitions, and cleave to the word.
The Church is something infinitely precious to Christ. He “loved the Church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word; that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish.” This is a revelation that makes us feel the importance which God attaches to what He calls the Church. What an object of the affections of Christ—of His care; and how glorious will be the accomplishment of the counsels of God respecting this Church! What a privilege to be part of it! This passage teaches us, moreover, that there is, in the union of Christ and the Church all the intimacy80 that exists between a husband and a wife beloved—a feeble figure after all of the reality of this great mystery—that we are thus members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones; that the Church holds to Christ the place which Eve held with regard to Adam—the figure of Him that was to come; who was associated with Adam in the enjoyment of all that had been conferred on him by God. This last thought, it is true, is only suggested here by the analogy of the position of Eve, used by the apostle to represent that of the Church; but it is taught as a doctrine elsewhere. It is natural to suppose, that what holds so prominent a place in the mind of God should be found more than once in the word; and such we shall find to be the case in passages, the bearing of which we will presently consider. At the same time, it will be easily understood, by the nature of the thing itself, that this position is quite peculiar; that such an association with Christ is a special object of the counsels and purposes of God; for the place of a bride, like that of Eve, is a very special one. She is not the inheritance; she is more than a child, however dear, as a child, she may be to the father. It is a higher thing than being God’s people, though both may be true at the same time. It is difficult to imagine anything more closely linked with self than one’s own wife, one’s own body. “No man,” says the apostle to express it, “ever yet hated his own flesh.” It is one’s self. It must be evident to the reader, that from such a relationship must flow immensely practical consequences; because it is connected at the same time, with the closest affections, and the most absolute duties. The Lord Himself expresses the force of the position of His Church, the first time He speaks of it in a formal manner after the commencement of its existence, when He says, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
Let us notice the three chief points presented by Ephesians 5 which has suggested these reflections. First, Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it. It is redeemed at the cost of His blood, of His life, of Himself. Having thus purchased it exclusively for Himself, He begins, secondly, to fashion it, to sanctify it, that it may be according to His own heart’s desire; that He may, in the third place, present it to Himself a glorious Church, without the least thing unbecoming the glory, or that might offend the eye or the heart of her divine Bridegroom. There is here a testimony to the divinity of Jesus, so much the more remarkable as it is only by the way; and the allusion is made as to a known truth. God, having formed Eve, presented her to the first Adam; but Christ Himself presents the Church to Himself; because if He be the Second Adam, He is at the same time the One who can present it to Himself as being the author of its existence, of its beauty, and of the perfection in which it must appear in heaven, to be worthy of such a Bridegroom, and of the glory that is there.
We will consider its history farther on: but we may already observe here, that whatever may be the circumstances through which the Church is called to pass, she is always considered as a whole, as much while she is being purified by the word upon earth, as when she is presented glorious to her Bridegroom in heaven. The redemption of this body by the blood of the cross was made upon earth. Her purification through the word, by the Spirit, also takes place on earth. The glorious result, at the return of Christ, will take place in heaven, for which place she will have been made ready. Although the marriage has not yet taken place, the relationship has always existed as to its rights. I do not speak merely as regards the eternal counsels of God, but in fact as to the knowledge and the duties of those who were called. Since Christ purchased the Church to Himself (I speak of the fact, and historically now, always allowing time for the communication of the truth as to this, by the Holy Ghost), the Church has been His, as regards the conscience of those who were called to the enjoyment of this position. The relationship exists; and as Christ has always been faithful, the Church ought to have been so also. Her purification, on the part of Christ, had necessarily reference to this relationship, as this passage formally proves. It ought to have been viewed in the same light by Christians, by those who, alas! may fail in this relationship as in all others. But their responsibility is in connection with the obligations that flow from it.
The manner in which this truth must act upon the knowledge of an accomplished salvation, and upon sanctification, as well as upon the joy of hope, is plain. For with regard to the first, the existence of the Church is based on the fact that Christ has loved it, and given Himself for it. So that its purchase, its salvation, and the gracious, perfect love of Him who redeemed it, with the end in view, which cannot fail, of presenting it in glory to Himself, form the basis of its whole life—of its everyday relations.
It is not a people put to the test, by a rule given. The Church is the object of a perfect work, through which Christ purchased it to Himself, when it was enslaved to Satan, defiled, and guilty. It has no other responsibility, as the Church, but that which is based on its being the purchase of Christ. This tells her, no doubt, that she ought to be entirely His; but if she ought to be His, it is because she is so already. The Christian, instructed of God in this doctrine, has the peaceful assurance (an assurance which gives a calmness that is the basis of the sweetest affections) that he belongs to Christ, according to God’s perfect love, and the efficacy of a work in which Christ—that His heart might have satisfaction in the object which the Father had given Him—could not fail.
The influence of this truth in the conscience is equally great as regards sanctification; for it is the purification of that which already belongs to Christ in an absolute manner, in order that it may be fit to live with Him for ever, a purification which extends consequently to the thoughts, the affections, and the manner of viewing things in all respects. Being wholly His, the Church has to do with Him in each movement of the heart, in each sentiment; if not, she fails in her relationship with Him, in every circumstance in which it is not so. As to the result which He has in view, He will certainly no more fail in that, thanks be unto God, than He has with regard to the redemption. He will present the Church to Himself without spot or wrinkle. But the heart of the Christian ought to respond to that work.
The influence of the relationship of the Church with Christ upon her hope, is no less great. She is outside the judgments which the coming of the Lord will bring upon the world— outside the course of the prophetic events which will take place in a world of which she forms no longer part. She awaits the happy moment when the Lord will call her, taking her to Himself to realize the glory and the joy of the relationship which she already knows by grace.
Such is the position of the Church, and her relationship with Christ. But there is a consequence resulting from these, the figure of which we have seen in the connection in which Eve was placed with the creation, but on which I will make a few more remarks by the way. Christ says, the apostle, in Ephesians 1, is the Head of the Church, “which is his body, the fulness of [or that which makes complete] him that filleth all in all “\ that is to say, Christ is the Head, and the Church the body; and as the body is the complement of the head to make up a man, so it is with Christ and the Church: He as Head directing, exercising all authority over the Church, His body—but the Church, as the body, rendering complete the mystical man, according to the eternal counsels of God. For it is evident that this is no question about the divine Person of Christ, but in the counsels of God, Christ, as Head, would not have been complete without the Church.
Let us remark by the way, that it is this thought which was completely hid (hid in God) under the old covenant; and which is not found in the whole of the Old Testament. The idea of a Christ not perfect, simply in His own Person, as an individual, would have been unintelligible to the most advanced saint of the Old Testament. There was to be blessing under His government—but the being a part of the Christ, as a member of His body would have been incomprehensible. The union between Jew and Gentile, which flows from it, will come before us afterwards. Now the effect of such a union of the Church with Christ, has been to associate the Church in His dominion over all things and with all His glory, such as He received it as Mediator from His Father. And such is the force even of Ephesians 1:21, 22, which we have just quoted. That is why he sets forth the members of the Church as a new creation; as being the fruit of that same power which placed Christ there (chap. 1:19 to 2:7). And that is connected with the whole of chapter 1, where the apostle has revealed the fixed purpose of God, as to the administration of the fulness of times; which is, that He will gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth, in Him, in whom also we have obtained an inheritance. In the meantime, God has given us, who have believed before the manifestation of Christ, His Spirit, as the earnest until the redemption of the inheritance itself. Therefore the apostle shews, that, in order that we might enjoy the inheritance with Christ, we are the objects of the exercise of the same power which placed Him above all things, when He was in grace in our state; and that in Him we are in His state. If it be asked how such things can be, chapter 2:7 tells us the reason. But numerous declarations confirm the consequences to us of this union. We speak here only of the consequences. “The glory,” says the Lord, “which thou gavest me, I have given them, that the world may know that thou hast loved them as thou hast loved me.” “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ,” Rom. 8. “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? Know ye not that we shall judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:2, 3). I do not speak of these things, as being all exclusively characteristic of the Church; but as of things which to us are the consequence of our belonging to it.
After this short review of the position of the Church with regard to Christ, and the whole creation which will be subjected to Him, we will consider, in a more consecutive manner, the doctrine of the word respecting the Church itself, and then the position it holds historically in those ways of God, the course of which is given to us in detail in the Bible.
The fixed purpose of God, as it is expressly revealed to us in Ephesians 1, is to gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are in earth. The Church will be associated with Him as His body—His bride—at that time (Eph. 1:22, 23, 27). But all things are not yet put under Him. God has not yet put them all, as a footstool, under His feet; nor is the Church as yet presented in glory to Christ, who as yet is sitting on the right hand of God (Heb. 2:8). It is needless to quote passages to prove that the Church is not yet glorified nor raised. We are, dear Christian reader (you and I), proofs of it81—happy to be so—waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.
Whilst waiting, then, for the happy moment of our meeting with Jesus, is there still a Church? Did it enter into the thoughts of God, that there should be a Church upon earth, till the final accomplishment of His magnificent designs respecting her glory in heaven? There can be no doubt about it to one that is subject to the word. Let us examine the word on this point. Christ Himself is the first to announce the commencement of the Church:82 “Upon this rock I will build my Church.” The declaration, that the gates of hell should not prevail against it, shews plainly that it is not a question of the Church already presented in glory. It is upon earth.
I would notice a few important points which are revealed by this passage. The Church was yet to begin. Christ recognized as Son of the living God, was to form the foundation of a new work upon the earth. The fact that there are believers upon the earth, and even believers acknowledging Jesus to be the Christ, does not constitute the Church. It was so when Jesus spoke, and yet the Church was still to be builded. This was a work to be done as regarded the children of God; which thought is confirmed by a declaration of John respecting the involuntary prophecy of Caiaphas, that Jesus should die for the Jewish nation; “and not for that nation only,” adds the apostle, “but that he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.” There were already children of God, but they were scattered abroad—isolated. Christ by His death was to gather them together; not merely to save them, so that they might be together in heaven (since they were children of God, that was done already), but He was to gather them together in one. They were believers already; but the Church83 was yet to be builded by the gathering together of these believers, and that upon the earth. We know that this has now taken place as a fact, through the word of Jesus, and through the power of the Holy Ghost come down from heaven. We may cite here the request of Jesus, that not only those already manifested, but those also who should believe through their word, might be one that the world might believe. Before passing on to the epistles, we may remark by the way, that the Lord, besides the general idea of the Church which He was about to build, gives us an insight into the practical operation of the assembly in detail (Matt. 18); attaching to it, at the same time, the efficacy of this operation, and the authority of heaven itself—though but two or three should thus form the assembly—provided it was really in His name they were thus met. How precious the light that the word affords for times of darkness!
But through the descent of the Holy Ghost, the doctrine of the Church has received a much fuller development. The fact of her existence is declared in Acts 2. “All that believed were together,84 and had all things common,” and “the number of them was “already “three thousand.” “And the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved.”85 The union and unity of the saved ones were accomplished as a fact by the presence of the Holy Ghost come down from heaven. They formed one body upon the earth—a visible body owned of God, to which all whom He called to the knowledge of Himself joined themselves, and that as led of the Lord who was working in their hearts. It was the Church of God, so far composed of Jews only. The patience of God was yet waiting in Jerusalem; and if this city owed ten thousand talents, by the death of Jesus, He was still proposing repentance by the testimony of the Holy Ghost. God was remembering mercy, and declaring that, on the repentance of the nation, guilty as they were, Jesus would return. This is the subject of Acts 3. But Jerusalem turned a deaf ear to the call; and subsequently her rulers, resisting, as always, the Holy Ghost, stoned him through whom He was testifying. From that time, though the unity of the whole was preserved by the conversion of Cornelius, a new instrument of the sovereign grace of God appears on the scene. Saul, who had been himself consenting also unto the death of Stephen—Saul the persecutor, the expression of the hatred of the Jews against the Christ, becomes the zealous witness of the faith he had sought to destroy. But this sovereign grace, whilst still mindful of the Jews, no longer goes out from Jerusalem as its starting point. It was from Antioch, a city of the Gentiles, that Paul went forth to fulfil his apostolical work. But this event was accompanied by a very remarkable development of the doctrine of the Church; or rather preceded by a revelation, which made not a new gospel (for the way of salvation is ever one and the same), but a new starting point in the preaching of this gospel as regarded the Person of Christ Himself. Up to this time, although they had preached a Christ exalted, the only Saviour, yet it was as a man known amongst the Jews by signs and miracles, as they knew, and whom God had raised and made both Lord and Christ. I need not say, that this testimony was quite according to God, and in its proper place in the midst of the Jews. “Ye also,” the Lord had said, “shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.” Peter and the other apostles, having accompanied Christ during the time of His ministry, followed Him up to the time that the cloud received Him out of their sight. They had received the testimony that He should return in like manner. The consequence was, that the relations of Christ with the Jews were always maintained on the ground of faith in Him— exalted to the right hand of God, no doubt—but whose sceptre was to go out from Sion, and who awaited the repentance of His people. But we have seen the testimony of the Holy Ghost to a glorified Christ rejected by the blinded nation; and the death of Stephen, in making this rejection signally manifest, reveals to us the Son of man in the glory of God in heaven, receiving the spirit of His servant above, instead of returning to Israel here below. This transition from the character of the Christ or Messiah to that of Son of man (suffering, and inheriting all things in heaven and on earth) is often taught by Jesus in the Gospels. See, for instance, Luke 9. It is now being accomplished as a fact (the Lord, at the same time, not losing His rights as Christ). They are reserved for the age to come. But here Paul enters on the scene, and God, whilst continuing the work at Jerusalem, begins a new one; and that by a new revelation of His Son, to him who was not to know Him personally after the flesh. Saul sees Jesus for the first time in heavenly glory, too resplendent for human sight. It is not Jesus known upon earth made Lord,86 but the Lord of glory who, as such, declares that He is Jesus. But for Paul and his ministry, where is He found on earth? In those who are His. Seen unequivocally as Lord in heaven, Saul asks, “Who art thou, Lord?” “I am,” replies the Lord, “Jesus whom thou persecutest.” The saints were Himself, His body. The conversion of Paul identifies itself with the full revelation of the union of the Lord in glory with the members of His body upon earth. His starting point, his knowledge of salvation, could not be separated from these two things. They are reproduced in his epistles. Thus (2 Cor. 4) he says, “If our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost; in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them that believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel87 of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.” This, whilst setting forth in a still more striking manner the worth of His sufferings, invested, at the same time, the preaching of the apostle with a peculiar character.
I will not enlarge on this part of the relations88 of Paul with Christ, in order that we may come to that which concerns more directly our subject—the Church. Whatever God’s way upon earth may be, it is evident that all question of Jew and Gentile was at an end when the question was about the Lord of glory and the members of His body. The relations became heavenly, and in the unity of the body of Christ thus known in heaven, there was neither Jew nor Gentile. The Church was upon earth according to this revelation of her position, for she was persecuted; but she was identified with the Lord in heaven; it was He (the Lord glorified) who was persecuted in His members.
To what precious ground does not this introduce the heart! We have (and that from the mouth and the heart of the Lord Himself) the strongest expression of our union with Him—that He considers the feeblest member of His body as a part of Himself. Let us pursue, however, our subject, that we may get the doctrine as a whole.
We will examine the epistles of Paul. Of the epistle to the Romans, the Church is not the subject. Having convicted the Gentile without law and the Jew under the law of being both guilty before God, it shews the individual justified before God, not by the law but through faith, introducing resurrection as putting him in a position quite new as regards justification, as regards life (that is, a new life outside of the dominion of sin); and as to the law, by grace the believer was justified, renewed, an heir of God, had the feelings of the Spirit, and was kept for glory by a love from which nothing could separate him. This well established, the apostle reconciles (chapters 9, 10 and 11) the admission of Jew and Gentile, without distinction, to the enjoyment of these blessings with the promises made to the Jews; and he shews that the Gentiles have been grafted in to be a continuation of the line as children of Abraham in the enjoyment of the promises.
But, although the main subject of the epistle to the Romans does not afford opportunity for teaching concerning the Church, the exhortations at the end of the epistle furnish us with an element which flows naturally from the revelation made on the way to Damascus. It is that, being members of the body of Christ, we are necessarily for that reason members one of another (chap. 12:4). “For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office; so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing,” etc.
The Church is absolutely one. It is evident here also, that the apostle speaks of what is upon earth; and even though there were members whose souls were with the Lord (thus being no longer able to glorify the Lord upon the earth, whence He had been rejected and where Satan exercised his power), he refers to those only who were still down here. The body in its practical and true sense was composed of those only.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians furnishes us with precious instructions on the point now engaging our attention. This epistle gives us details of the interior of a local and particular church, being addressed at the same time to all who call on the Lord. It teaches us that the Christians of a locality gathered in one body are the realization so far of the unity of the whole body.89 The church at Jerusalem was, at the beginning, both these two things at once; and though there were many assemblies, yet the Christians of each locality gathered together in a body, and formed the church or the assembly of God in that locality. “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth.” There was but one. It was composed of those that were sanctified in Christ Jesus, of called saints who were at Corinth. The apostle reckoned on their being confirmed to the end. They were outside the world, a body known as entirely separated from it by their profession and common walk as a body. Their individual relations with the world are discussed, and go no farther than the ordinary communications of life; but even in these the most formal and complete distinction is marked between the brethren and the world. There were those without and those within; that is to say, it was not a moral difference in the individual walk alone, but a common walk as a body, and as a body formally separated from the world. (See 1 Cor. 5:7-13; ch. 10:17, 21, 22. Compare 2 Cor. 2 j ch. 6:16, 17.) The Lord’s Supper was the external sign that gathered them together (1 Cor. 10:17). Now the presence of the Holy Ghost was found in the body—in the whole body of the Church; but it was realized and manifested in the local body according to its state.
This presence of the Holy Ghost in the body is distinguished from the presence of the Holy Ghost in the individual. The body of the individual is the temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 6:19). But the Church was also the temple (chap. 3:16, 17), because the Spirit dwelt in it.
Having gathered this scattered information, we may examine the chapter (12) which expressly treats of our subject, introduced by that of the spiritual powers which were manifested in the assembly. The demons are many. The Spirit of God is only one Spirit, whatever may be the manifestations of His presence. These manifestations of the Spirit were found in the gifts; and these were given for common use, the Holy Spirit dividing to every man severally as He will. These gifts were found very largely developed among the Corinthians. Having long been carried away by the craft of demons, they were in danger of confounding the energetic manifestations of these demons with those of the Holy Spirit, because they were looking for power rather than for grace. The apostle gives them, first, an absolute rule for discerning between the Spirit of God and the demons, in the confession that Jesus was Lord— a confession which these demons would never make. Afterwards, he takes pains to make the Corinthians understand the true doctrine of the presence of the Holy Ghost; the effect of which went much farther than to produce the confession of the Lordship of Jesus; though this confession was the touchstone of it. The Holy Ghost united all Christians in one body; and Christian service, or the exercise of gifts, was nothing more than a member of the body exercising its functions for the good of the whole body. It was that one and self-same Spirit which divided to each, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ”90—Christ; for the Church is Himself, His body. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body.” The unity of the body being thus established, all the gifts came under the idea of members of this body; that is, all exercise of ministry was the activity of the members of the body. It is well to recall here that the consequence of this truth is that the gifts have for the sphere of their exercise all the extent of the body; it is even their duty to edify it if that be given them.
But other truths of the greatest moment are revealed to us in this chapter, and particularly the means God used to produce this unity, to form this body. “By one Spirit ye are all baptized into one body.”91 Christ having fully accomplished His work, and having ascended up on high, has received the promise of the Father; that is, the Holy Ghost, and has sent Him into this world to be, on the one hand, the witness of this accomplishment, and of the personal glory of Jesus at the right hand of God; and, on the other, to unite the members of this body to Himself, and at the same time to one another, whether Jews or Gentiles; who, all distinction being lost, form but one body, united to its Head in heaven, that is, to the Lord Jesus.
Two truths clearly result from the teaching of this chapter; first, that the formation of the body is accomplished by the presence of the Holy Ghost come down from heaven; and, second, that this body is formed upon the earth. Its unity, such as it is presented in the word, takes place essentially upon earth, since the Holy Ghost has come down here to accomplish it. The accessory circumstances confirm this truth; for it is most evident that the gifts in question are exercised upon the earth. The disciples were the body of Christ, by the union produced among them by the presence of one Spirit; who being one was found in them all, and at the same time in the whole of the united body. It is well to recall the passages already quoted, which teach us the difference between these last two points. While 1 Corinthians 3:16 reveals to us that the whole is the temple of the Holy Ghost, chapter 6:19 shews us that each believer individually is the temple of God.
It is evident that this unity will not be lost in heaven, when all the members of the body are reunited; and that God keeps the souls of those who sleep in Jesus for that day of glory; but the manifestation of the unity of the body of Christ is now exclusively upon earth, where the Holy Ghost has come down to establish this unity. Faith knows very well that souls are preserved with Jesus for that day; but thus disunited from the body, they do not for the present enter into the account, being in a position where communion with a body on earth is no longer a possibility, any more than manifestation of unity or service for the glory of Christ.
Where the Holy Ghost has come down, and where He abides, there is the manifestation of the Church, whilst its Head is seated on the right hand of the Father. The Spirit, in speaking to the Church, addresses Himself to Christians on the earth, and to them alone. Thus it is said: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the Church; first, apostles; secondarily, prophets; thirdly, teachers; after that, miracles; then gifts of healing,” etc.
I need not stop to prove that this applies to earth.
Here, then, we are taught by God, that the Church, which is the body of Christ, is formed in unity down here upon earth by the Holy Ghost come down from heaven, and manifesting Himself by gifts in the members of this body. Let me add that this presence of the Holy Ghost is to be distinguished from the regeneration of souls, and even from His work in the hearts of the regenerate: it is His presence in the body, sent from above as truly and personally as the Son was sent of the Father, though not in the same manner. It is evident, from Acts 1:5, that the baptism of the Holy Ghost is the descent of the Holy Ghost.
The epistle to the Galatians treats of the question of justification, and of the right to the enjoyment of the inheritance, through promise, as contrasted with the law; and only touches the doctrine of the Church by the single declaration, that the Christians are all one in Christ Jesus (chap. 3:28).
But the epistle to the Ephesians treats the subject at length, and requires special attention.
Chapter 1 after having laid the foundation of sovereign grace, declares (v. 10) the fixed purpose of God; which is to “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth”; and, having pointed out the children of God as sealed with the Holy Spirit for the inheritance in the end, shews us the Church united, as His body, to Him who was constituted Head over all things.
Chapter 2 reveals the working of the power which has united the Church to Christ and the manner of this union; and shewing that the Jew by nature was a child of wrath quite as much as the Gentile, and that both were dead in trespasses and sins, presents both as quickened together with Christ, raised up together, and seated together in heavenly places in Christ. Thus the distinction was lost; God having made of the two one new man; reconciling them both in one body by the cross. Now that was the Church. That work had its accomplishment in the Church. The Christian was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (of the New Testament, compare chap. 3:5), Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. The Gentiles were builded together with the Jews to be the habitation of God through the Spirit. This chapter teaches us then (according to the word in Matthew), that the Church, by its union with its Head in heaven, was accounted as being there; and that its calling was absolutely heavenly. As Israel was separated from the nations, so was the Church from the world—it was no longer of it. Its formation on earth began after the breaking down, by the cross, of the middle wall of partition. It was as a new man: Jews and Gentiles being reconciled to God in one body. Besides, we find that instead of a temple made with hands, where Jehovah dwelt, this union of Jewish and Gentile believers in one body, formed the habitation of God upon earth; and that this habitation was by the Spirit. This latter truth gives us the true character of the Church upon earth—a character, it is evident, of the most important bearing—a character which involves the deepest responsibility; and, let me say it, a character most precious. For the responsibilities of Christians all flow from the grace which has been shewn them. This character, in fine, thanks be unto God, in spite of its unfaithfulness to this responsibility, the Church cannot lose, because it is made to depend on the grace and the promise of God, that this other Comforter, the Spirit of truth, would not go away as Christ did, but abide for ever with those that were His. It is also most plain, that it is on the earth that all this takes place; though, being on earth, our special position is to be seated in the heavenly places in our Head, and to wait for the realization of our condition when we shall be gathered unto Him.
Chapter 3, the whole of which is parenthetic, unfolds this mystery, hid through all ages, but now revealed, of which the apostle was the minister; viz., that the Gentiles should be of the same body with all saints. But I will reserve my remarks on this passage, till we come to the second part of our subject— the place which the Church holds in the ways of God.
Chapter 4 is the application of the doctrine of the second; and the apostle beseeches the saints to walk worthy of the vocation wherewith they were called; which vocation is, to be the habitation of God through the Spirit. The sense of the presence of God always produces humility; and the apostle, in pressing this point, exhorts them to keep the unity of the Spirit (that which has been set forth, chapter 2), in the bond of peace. For the doctrine in question is this, “There is one body and one Spirit.” This leads the apostle to the subject of gifts in connection with the body. Christ had gained the victory over Satan, and could confer on the Church He had redeemed the power which would be the testimony of that victory; for it was rescued from the slavery of the enemy, and could be the vessel of this power and this testimony. Christ, by means of these gifts, was nourishing and ministering to the growth of this body. The exercise of them was for the edification of the body of Christ. It is worth while quoting the verses which follow what we have just examined. “He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, who is the Head, even Christ, from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” Thus the unsearchable riches of Christ, by which He fills all things in the power of the redemption which He has accomplished— these riches, I say, form the basis of the edification of the Church of Christ, who is no longer looked at as a mere Messiah fulfilling the prophecies and the promises, but in a greatness of which no prophet had any idea, and of which no prophecy had foretold the extent—each member supplying, according to the grace given, these riches of Christ to the body. The body itself, developed in its members, grows thereby into that fulness of which Christ is the measure (the truth which reveals this fulness being the means of making the body grow up into Him, whose fulness is revealed). Thus the perfect stature of Christ is always the object and the only recognized measure.
What infinite grace! Yet it could not be otherwise; since the revelation of Christ is the means by which the Church must grow; and Christ is such, filling all things, from the dust of death up to the throne of God. Having come down in love, and gone up In righteousness, He expels for faith, from the universe which He has made His by redemption as well as by creation, the conquered enemy; as, in fact, He will expel him from it, when He accomplishes all the effects of His power. And where is this body found? Where are these gifts exercised? Where does this growth take place? Blessed be God! down here. It is that which Christ does after the accomplishment of His work, whilst He is seated on the right hand of God. It is through the Holy Ghost. It is the body—the Church—that one body which is the vessel of this ministry, and of the Spirit which accomplishes it through the members of the body; and which causes the body to grow according to the mind of God in Christ, who is the Head of it; a body, the members of which are the members of Christ. Moreover, the apostle has before him the whole body; and “the whole body” viewed upon earth. Charity necessarily embraces all the members of it, as being the members of Christ. The connection between all this and the Church, seen in the whole extent of her privileges and of the thoughts of God, is shewn in a striking manner at the end of chapter 3; where the apostle exclaims, “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”
I will not go over the infinitely precious teaching of chapter 5 again, because I have already called the attention of the reader to this portion in beginning our thesis; but it is clear that the epistle to the Ephesians treats the subject of a Church which is one body, whose Head is Christ—a body formed and developed upon earth, since the ascension of Jesus, by the Holy Ghost sent from above who makes it His habitation—a body in which the glory of God will be reflected throughout all ages—a body which is the vessel upon earth of the Spirit, which He who, having gained the victory over Satan, and established the glory of His redemption everywhere, from death up to the throne of the Father, has sent to be the testimony of the power through which He has overcome; and who associates the Church with its Head in the heavens, giving it a heavenly calling, as being seated there in Him. This body, formed in its perfection at the beginning, was to grow by the energy of the Holy Spirit which dwelt in it, just as a child, perfect in all its parts, grows through the power of the life which is in him, in order to attain to the state of manhood.
The epistle to the Colossians brings before us some precious instructions on the subject we are considering. The epistle to the Ephesians has taught us that God would gather together all things in Christ, and that the Church was united to Him as His body, associated with Him in His dominion over all things. The epistle to the Colossians teaches us the same truth under another aspect. We shall also find that the idea of Christ which is presented in chapter 1 contrasts with all that He was as the hope of the Jews, according to the testimony of the prophets, as much as that which is found in the epistle to the Ephesians, but in a different manner. Let us first look at what is said of the double glory of Christ—Head over all things, and Head of the Church. In verses 15 and 16 He is presented as the First-born of every creature; and the reason if it is given—He has created all things. He who had created all things, having taken His place as a man in the midst of the creation, must at all events be the Head of it. This thought is confirmed in verse 17. The second part of the glory of Christ is declared in verse 18. He is the Head of the body, the Church; who is the beginning, the Firstborn from the dead. These are the two truths presented in Ephesians 1:22, 23; only the two things are considered separately here as two diverse glories of Christ, in whom it has pleased all the fulness to dwell. The reconciliation of all things and of the Church follows. Having made peace through the blood of His cross, the thought of God is to reconcile all things through Him, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven. This answers to verse 16. Then the apostle, addressing the Christians called at Colosse, says to them, “And you that were sometime alienated … yet now hath he reconciled.” This answers to verse 18. They were part of the Church of which Christ was the Head, and of which the reconciliation takes place now. Verses 24 and 25 present, as following this distinction of the double glory of Christ and the double reconciliation, a double ministry—the ministry of the gospel to every creature under heaven, and the ministry of the Church, which is the body of Christ. This ministry, a complement in its doctrine of all the preceding revelations, completed the teaching of the word of God (v. 24-26). The Church was a mystery which had been hid from ages and from generations—a mystery which admitted the Gentiles into all the privileges which it revealed, and spoke of a Christ, not the crown and accomplishment of the glory of the Jews, but who, in the Gentiles, or in the midst of the Gentiles, in Spirit, was the hope of glory. The presence of Jesus amongst the Jews ought to have been, and will one day be, the accomphshment of the glory which had been promised to them. But the presence of Christ in Spirit among the Gentiles was the hope of glory—of a more excellent glory—a heavenly glory. In Ephesians, Christ is considered as exalted at the right hand of God, whence He sent the Spirit to confer upon the Church the gifts which were the testimony of His victory and the manifestation of His power as man victorious over the enemy—a glorious Head of the Church which was upon earth. In Colossians, He is considered as present in the Church, securing to the Gentiles the possession of the heavenly glory into which He has Himself entered. This chapter, then, brings the Church into prominence in a very interesting manner. Christ raised is the Head—the Church is His body; its practical reconciliation takes effect now, being founded on the peace made through the blood of the cross. Gentiles belong to it quite as much as Jews; and Christ in Spirit dwells in it, the hope of glory. This last expression teaches us, without controversy, that the Church is contemplated as exclusively upon earth, though having the sure hope of a heavenly glory. Its unity is not declared as in the epistle to the Ephesians; but it is self-evident that the body of Christ can be only one.
I confine myself to the doctrine; adding that the epistle, as a whole, shews that the Colossians were in danger of losing sight of their close union with the Head of the body—Christ, in whom everything was accomplished, and they complete in Him; and of seeking, by forgetting this truth, to add something else, which was nothing but the setting aside of Him. Consequently, the epistle brings into prominence the riches and the perfection of Christ to remind the Colossians of them; whilst the Ephesians, who held fast the faith of their union with Him, were able to profit by the teaching which revealed to them the whole extent of their own privileges. The faithfulness of the one, and the unfaithfulness of the other, have both turned, in the hand of our God, to the blessing of the Church in all ages.
The first epistle to Timothy furnishes us with some precious thoughts in a short sentence: “The house,” it is said (chap. 3:15), “of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Here we stand on ground more connected with the practical character of the Church upon earth. It is the house of God—it is there that truth is found and nowhere else; there alone is it maintained in the world. Let us understand this declaration. The Church does not create the truth, but has been created by it. It adds to it neither authority nor weight. The truth is of God before it is received by the Church; but the latter possesses it. It exists because it possesses the truth, and it alone possesses it. Where, besides in the Church, is the truth found? Nowhere. The supposition that the truth is anywhere else would be the denial of the truthfulness and ways of God. The truth can be nothing but what God has said; it is the truth, independently of all church authority; of any but that of God, who is the source of it. But where the truth is, supposing a body to be constituted by its means, there is the Church; and the Church which possesses it, and subsists by possessing it, thereby manifests it to the world. The authority of the Church cannot make that which it teaches to be truth. Truth alone does not constitute the Church; that is, the meaning of the word ‘Church’ embraces other ideas. A single man holding the truth is not the Church; but the assembly of God is distinguished by the possession of the truth. An assembly which has not the truth, as the condition of its existence, is not the assembly of God. The passage under consideration, and the importance of this point must be my excuse for this little digression, which is but indirectly connected with the subject of the Church.
There is one more passage, which presents the Church in so complete a manner, as to its hope and its service, that I will quote it in closing this series of testimonies from the Bible. It is that of Revelation 22: “The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come; and whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”
In this passage we find the Spirit introduced in a very remarkable manner, somewhat analogous to Romans 8. Both passages shew how far the Holy Ghost is considered in the word of God as dwelling upon the earth since the day of Pentecost, and as identifying Himself either with the believer or with the Church. In Romans, it is “He that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit; because,” it is added, “he maketh intercession for the saints according to God.” Now it is our groanings that are spoken of there. Here in the Revelation, the Spirit and the bride say, Come. The Spirit so takes His place with the bride, that the sentiment of the Church is that which the Spirit Himself expresses. The Spirit is upon earth and animates the Church, being the true source of its thoughts. The Church, animated by these very thoughts, expresses her own affections under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Had it been only an expression of affection, one might have questioned its legitimateness; and that also of the groans spoken of in Romans 8; but since the Holy Spirit connects Himself with it, this desire of a feeble heart has the power and authority of a divine thought. This, then, is what characterises the Church, in her desires and in her hope. She desires that her Bridegroom should come. It is not a question about prophecy; it is Christ, the communicator of the prophecy, who presents Himself: “I am the bright and morning star.” The Church knows Him. She will be with Him before the great day of His manifestation comes—she will appear with Him in glory. But when He is thus presented in His Person, it awakens the earnest desire of the Bride that He should come. But there is also a testimony to be borne. It is what follows. She calls upon those who hear, but who have not understood their privilege of being of the bride, to join this cry, and to say, Come. In the meantime, she already possesses the river of living water, and, turning towards those who are athirst, she invites them to come and make a free use of it. How beautiful a position for the Church—for our hearts! The first affection of her heart is towards her Head—her Bridegroom, who is to come like the morning star, to receive her to Himself in heaven, before He is manifested to the world. Then she desires all believers to share this desire, and to reinforce her cry that He may come. In the meantime, she is the vessel and herald of grace, according to the heart of Him who has shewn grace to her.
What more blessed position could be thought of, for such poor worms as we are, than that which sovereign and creative grace has given us? If the reader examines John 17 he will find that the object of the chief part of the chapter is to place believers, beginning in a special manner with the apostles, in the same position as Jesus was; they taking His place upon the earth. We well know, that He alone, by His Spirit, can be the strength through which they can accomplish such a task.
This truth enables us to apprehend what the true position of the Church is. Christ was upon earth, but at the same time one with His Father. He was manifesting Him upon the earth. He was a man upon earth, but He was a heavenly man, displaying upon earth the spirit and sentiments of heaven, where love and holiness reign; because God is love and holiness. He says, “The Son of man which is in heaven.” He was separate from sinners and yet at the same time perfect in grace towards them. In His case, His Person was the cause of it (He being at the same time true man and acting by the power of the Holy Ghost in a dependence upon God, which constituted His perfection as man). In the case of the Church it is clear that the question is no longer of a divine person, yet she is not of the world, even as Christ was not of the world. United to her Head in heaven by the Holy Ghost come down from thence, dead and risen with Him and seated in Him in heavenly places, her character is purely heavenly. She is upon the earth, where the Holy Ghost has come down, to manifest there a heavenly walk—the motives and the mind of heaven. She lives above in Christ by the Spirit; her life is hid there with Christ in God; she seeks for nothing down here, declaring plainly that she is yet seeking her country. She is one, she knows it: it cannot be otherwise. Can her heart recognize that Christ has another bride as companion of His heavenly joys? The manner of her being necessitates her unity, as well as the character of her Bridegroom, and the unity of the Spirit. She is upon earth; she sighs after her country, but still more after the Bridegroom who will come to receive her unto Himself, that, where He is, there she may be with Him. In the meantime she bears testimony upon earth, as united into one body by the presence of the Holy Ghost. This is the place where God owns her, till Christ comes to take her to Himself. From that time she will bear testimony in the glory and by the glory to the love which has placed her there, and to the mighty redemption which has taken poor sinners and placed them in the same glory as the Son of God, and in the same relations with His Father, except that which is essentially divine—“that in the ages to come he [God] might shew the exceeding riches of his grace, in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.”
What we have already said leads us naturally to the second part of our subject—what place the Church holds in the ways of God.
The heavenly aspect of this question finds its answer in several passages which we have just examined, which treat the subject of the nature of the Church. God has willed that His Son, Ruler of all things as Son of man, should have a bride to share His glory and His dominion. Glorious position! testimony of the infinite grace of God! Such is the Church—the companion of Jesus in the heavenly glory. This will take place at the same time with the earthly glory, which will be the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. God, for the dispensation of the fulness of times, will gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in Him, as Head; whose bride and body the Church is. The Old Testament, which gives us the history of the ways of God upon earth, and in its prophetical part announces what the result will be, does not reveal to us this mystery. The Church, as such, does not come as part of the course of the ways of God upon earth. The object of the counsels of God from before the foundation of the world, she had been hid in the depths of these counsels, till Christ, having been rejected upon the earth, might become her heavenly Head; and the testimony to this glory, having also been rejected by the Jews, who, in a certain sense, had a right to the promises, the door was fully opened for the revelation of this glorious mystery—hid in all ages.
In considering a little the facts, either with regard to man or with regard to the Jews, the suitableness of these ways of God will be understood without any difficulty. Until the rejection of Christ, man had been put to the test in every way— without law, under the law, and even under grace, presented in the Person of Christ, for God was in Him reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them. Now man, by the death of Christ, has proved himself an enemy of God, an enemy who hated even His mercy, which was nevertheless his only resource, because it was of God. Christ, as new man, raised, glorified, at the right hand of God, outside the world, takes as man the place where man was to be in the counsels of God. There is a man at the right hand of God, to whom the Church can be united as His body by the Holy Ghost.
Such a heavenly standing of the saints could not possibly exist before. The body could not be before the Head, to which it was to be united, had taken His place, such as it had been prepared for Him in the counsels of God. There was not a glorified man in heaven before, to whom the Church could have been united.
If we consider the Jews, the thing is still more intelligible for other reasons. They had prophecies and promises. Christ was to be presented to them. Till they had rejected Him, God ever faithful, could not set them aside to establish anything else which denied their privileges, blotting out all distinction between Jew and Gentile—a distinction which the Jew was bound carefully to maintain. The crucifixion of Jesus has put an end to all that. No one is a Jew in heaven. But man having completely failed in his responsibility, and the Jews having rejected the one in whom the fulfilment of the promises had been presented to them, God (before fulfilling them, as He will do) has revealed the hidden mystery which was connected with the heavenly glory of the Son of man; that is, with the body united to Him, gathered during the rejection of Israel—a body which was to be manifested in glory with Him, when He should in His sovereign grace resume His dealings with Israel upon earth: for “blindness, in part, has happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.” Israel, unfaithful as men, have lost all title to the enjoyment of the promises by the rejection of Him in whom they were to have this enjoyment. They were, after all, children of wrath as others; but that will not hinder God from fulfilling His promises. He cannot be unfaithful to His promise, whatever the unfaithfulness of man may be. His gifts and calling are without repentance, and the blindness of Israel is only temporary. This is what Romans 11 teaches; as the Lord Himself said to them, “Your house is left unto you desolate … till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” But here is the perfect wisdom of God. Israel having rejected the Christ when He came to present Himself to the nation, they are without remedy. It will be the sovereign grace of God which will reinstate them as being only poor sinners in the enjoyment of the promises, according to the word. Israel, under chastening, and kept for that day, abide without the true God, and without a false god, according to the prophecy of Hosea 2; and God, during this interval, brings in the fulness of the Gentiles, displaying His multiform wisdom92 in the calling of the Church, a heavenly people, established upon more than promises, on a perfect redemption, accomplished through the act by which Israel placed themselves under condemnation. But it was not only that man and Israel had been fully tried in the history of past ages, before the accomplishment of redemption. God had also displayed His wisdom in His ways with both. His power, His patience, His mercy, His government in the hands of man and according to the conditions of His holy law, by promises, and by miraculous interventions, by chastenings and blessings, by righteous judgments, by the most tender care and the most magnificent providences, had all been displayed. Even a world swallowed up in the mighty waters had borne witness, in disappearing before His judgments, to the ways of God with man upon earth.
Angels had seen these things; they had seen the wisdom and power of God in exercise in His ways with men on the earth. The Church was to supply them with quite a fresh manifestation of the depths of the counsels and wisdom of the infinite God whom they adore.
The demonstration of the inability in which man was found, to profit by the ways of God, furnished the occasion of it. It was no longer proofs that God was governing on earth, but the care which, leaving apparently in the hands of the wicked that which was the dearest object to God upon earth, prepared it thereby for heavenly glory and joy.
There remains yet one thing to which I would call the attention of my reader. It is, that, until Christ was glorified, the Holy Ghost could not come down to earth; for the object of His testimony, the heavenly glory of Christ and the redemption accomplished by His means, were yet wanting. “The Holy Ghost was not yet93 [given], because Jesus was not yet glorified.” We shall see with what clearness the word of God presents the Church to us, as quite a new revelation of that which had no existence before, save in the eternal counsels of God, who thus predestinated for her an existence outside the course of ages.
The writings of Paul, who was chosen to bear this testimony and to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ—a ministry which was connected with these truths— are full of this doctrine; bringing into prominence this glory of Christ, which was beyond all that the prophets had spoken. Thus 1 Timothy 3:16. Having spoken of the Church, in a passage already quoted, he naturally turns to the truth of which the Church was the pillar—this mystery of godliness. A Messiah, the fulfilment of the prophecies, was not a mystery; but a Christ such as the apostle presents Him in verse 16 had never been known before: “God manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” Certain elements found here were connected with Messiah upon earth: because this same Messiah, ascended up on high, must come down again to fulfil the promises made to the Jews; but such things as a whole, had never been presented to faith.
As to the Church, the thing is true in a still more absolute manner. This is what the apostle says of it, Ephesians 3:9-11: “And to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known, by the Church, the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is impossible to get anything more absolute than “hid in God.” This mystery of the Church, hid in the depths of His counsels, did not get disclosed, nor did she exist in fact, till then. It is “now” that unto the principalities and powers is made known, by the Church, the manifold wisdom of God. They had seen His patience, His power, His government; but never a heavenly body upon the earth, united to His Son in heaven. Thus God could set aside, for the time, the course of His earthly government, to enter into relationship with a heavenly people. This passage is very clear on this point; that the Church neither existed nor was revealed before. Up to that time it was a mystery hid in God; who, having established it in His counsels, was testing man under His government, before creating a heavenly system, based upon an accomplished redemption, in union with the Second Adam in heaven. It is important that the reader should get very clearly in his mind the teaching of this passage. The object of the apostle is to shew, that the Church is a new thing. There had been other means to shew forth the wisdom and ways of God, earthly means. Now, heavenly powers saw, in the Church, a kind of wisdom quite new. Not only the Church had had, as yet, no existence; but it had not been revealed before its existence; it had been a mystery hid in God. This last point is confirmed by other passages which we will quote; but it is well to develop the first point, by the teaching of the end of chapter 2.
The truth of the union of Jews and Gentiles in one body, the Church, is established, as the consequence of the cross, in verses 14 and 15, in the most formal manner. The middle wall of partition, established by God Himself and absolutely binding, had been broken down only by the cross; and by means of this, also, they were both reconciled in one body— those who were afar off, and those who were nigh. Then, they had been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. That is, the Church could exist only after the cross had rendered possible the union of Jews and Gentiles.94 The enmity of man against God having been manifested, the enmity of his nature—Jew or Gentile—and the Jews having lost all title to the enjoyment of the promises, grace received in a sovereign manner both the one and the other, according to the eternal counsels of God, for a better inheritance. God (having been manifested in the flesh, and having set things on the footing of eternal realities outside all earthly economy or dispensation, and, received up into glory, having acquired a people which was associated to Himself according to the election of God) purposed, before the foundation of the world, that He should share this glory with His bride and His body.
To return to the revelation of this mystery. Speaking of the Church, the body of Christ (Col. 1:26), the apostle calls it “the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints; to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” For the Jew, Christ is the accomplishment of the glory; but Christ, present in Spirit, becomes the hope of heavenly glory for those in whom He dwells.
Thus, also in the epistle to the Romans—“Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest,” etc.
The more the epistles of Paul, or of Peter, are examined, the more examples we shall find of the contrast between the hopes and the election of Jews and Christians (only Peter never treats the subject of the Church), and the more we shall find the eternal election of the Church brought into light. In Ephesians 3 this mystery is called also the mystery of Christ; for indeed before it was Christ an individual man, and not Christ the Head of a body spiritually united to Him: and the apostle declares, that it was by a special revelation that it had been made known to him (v. 3-5)—the knowledge of a mystery, which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men (this mystery being, that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs of the same body).95
These passages shew sufficiently the way in which Paul presents the Church as an essential doctrine of truth; but yet as a mystery, which had never been revealed under the Old Testament, and which never had any accomplishment before the death of Jesus had closed all those relations of God with Israel, which had reference to the prophecies and promises, so far as they depended upon the faith and faithfulness of man. They shew that blindness having come upon them for a time, God, who will fulfil His promises to His earthly people, has found, in the period of their blindness, the occasion of manifesting this admirable fruit of His eternal counsels; viz., the Church which, when Israel is restored through grace to the enjoyment of the promises made to them, will shine as the bride of the Lord in the brightness in which He will Himself be manifested.
Such is her destiny! Whilst waiting, what is her place and what is her calling? We have said that the Holy Ghost, come down from heaven, gathers her upon earth. If the Bridegroom delays His coming; and if souls go to wait with Him for the moment of the assembling of all that are His, raised or changed, in His presence in the air, those of the redeemed who remain gathered down here, where the Holy Ghost the Comforter abides, always form the Church. There may be ignorance, the members may be scattered here and there, the Church may have been unfaithful and stripped of her ornaments; but it remains equally true, that until Christ calls her to meet Him in heaven, she is always the Church, always the bride of Christ. She has been espoused as a chaste virgin to Him; but it is to a heavenly Christ. Israel is His people upon earth. Whilst Christ is in heaven, the Holy Ghost is gathering the Church to be His in heaven.
However, it is not merely that the Church has a heavenly calling; this is not the whole truth as to her relations with Christ. She is also His bride and His body. When all the thoughts of God have been fulfilled, she will, as a fact, be with Him. Her thoughts and her character are (or at least they ought to be) formed after her portion, according to God. Also she is already united to Christ by the Spirit. She is one and can be one only. But she is characterized by yet other traits. When the world rejected Christ, it passed judgment and condemnation upon itself. “Now,” said the Lord, in referring to His cross, “is the judgment of this world.”
The Church was set up in grace, when the relations of God with the world, on the footing of the responsibility of man, were ended for ever by the rejection of Christ. Thus she has been called to come out of the world to be received of God. She is Christ’s alone. “Come out from among them,” says the word, “and I will receive you.” It is a peculiar people belonging only to Him. “Ye are not of the world,” says Jesus, “as I am not of the world.” And this is true, not only as regards individuals; but “that they may be one,” says the Lord, “that the world may believe.” It is a unity perceptible to the world outside itself. “What have I to do,” says the apostle, “to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? Them that are without God judgeth.” The Holy Ghost was upon earth to establish the closest and most formal union between the members of the body; they were members one of another. This unity was recognized among them. All knew that a Christian was not of the world, because he was of the Church. If one member suffer, all the members suffer with it. This unity was truly and distinctly manifested in each locality. There was the church of each place, as the very addresses of several epistles shew. But this local unity proved the universal unity. Any one member of it was thereby a member of the universal unity. Teachers, evangelists, apostles, Timothy, Titus, Paul, did not belong to one church more than another. The gifts were members of the body. The idea of a member of a church is not found in the Bible. The thought there is very different; it is that of members of the body of Christ. But these “joints and bands” which might exercise their activity in local churches, proved the unity of the whole body, and made it visible and perfectly perceptible to the world.
Christians acknowledged one another,, and were acknowledged as one body—a sole, well known, and well defined body, having common interests, and the most intimate ties, as a body apart from the world. The Holy Ghost cannot unite the Church with that world out of the midst of which He has taken her. Persons might come in unawares into the formal body, but it was a distinct body, into which they come as false brethren. It is plain that if the Church be one in the midst of the world, her duty is to glorify the Lord in that unity, and by that unity, and as a whole. For this responsibility cannot be separated from any position whatsoever in which we are placed by God.
But the motives are so much the more powerful as the grace of that position is excellent. We are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city set on a hill, the epistle96 of Christ, an epistle which ought to be read and known of all men. The body of Christ ought to reproduce, by the power of the Spirit— that power which overcomes all the separative principles which selfishness and sin have introduced into the world—the character of its Head; and thus glorify Him on the earth. The bride should manifest her attachment to the Bridegroom— that she is wholly and exclusively His!
People talk about an “invisible “church. The word says nothing about this. It is a notion which quite denies the force of the passages we have just quoted. The scattering of the children of God has hid them. Would any one venture to maintain that individuals should be invisible; that is, that they should conceal their Christianity? “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” It is clear, then, that individuals should not be invisible. Now, if that be true, to say that the Church may be invisible means nothing short of this, that these individuals ought not to be united. Yet it is certain that the Lord says that they ought to have been one, that the world might believe.
If there be divisions, they are carnal, and walk as men. If the duty of all individuals be to let their light shine before men, and if all these individuals are closely united, and form a separate body outside the world, making everywhere a profession of their union (as it was undeniably the case at the beginning), to say that this body is invisible has no sense. “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” But this in passing.
The question I am now treating is not, how far the Church realizes this position. I am speaking of the Church such as it is presented in the word.
But if the Church be the bride of Jesus, she ought to desire as such to glorify Him during His absence. Her heart must be given to Him—she must receive her directions from Him alone. If she be the house of God, she must seek to keep herself pure on account of the holiness of the Spirit who dwells therein. If she be the pillar and ground of the truth, she will not be able to endure anything but the truth, which is the basis of her existence; for the glorious revelation of Christ, who has accomplished her redemption (God manifested in the flesh, preached to the Gentiles, received up into glory), has given her being; and she is the witness of it.
Conscious of being the bride of the Lamb, she will have the affections proper to such a relationship; she will long for the coming of the Bridegroom to receive her to Himself. She will understand that she belongs to Him in heaven; and consequently will not mix herself up with the world, nor confound her expectation with the coming of Jesus to judge the world, while she believes it firmly.97 She knows that, when He appears, she will appear with Him in glory. Thus, separated from the world by the Spirit who is the power and earnest of this hope, she will seek to realize it as much as possible upon the earth “He that hath this hope purifieth himself, even as he is pure.”
This is also the force of the teaching of Philippians 3, which, however, has an individual for its object. I quote it because I speak of the normal effect of this truth in the heart of the Christian. He who has learnt it will have the conscience that the Church is one—can be only one. He will have the conscience that she belongs to Christ and can belong to none other. He will have the conscience that she ought to manifest this unity, and render a constant and practical testimony that she is His alone. The presence in her of the Holy Ghost, who gathers the members in one body, will be the power and life of this testimony. The path will be the path of faith; and the path of faith will be the path of sufferings, but they will be the sufferings of Christ for His body, that we may be glorified together.
80 It is well to remark that it is no question in this passage of mutual affection, nor of anything connected with fleshly imaginations. It is the love of Christ only, perfect according to His own heart before the existence even of the Church, having as the object of His labour of love the presentation of the Church to Himself without spot and glorious. All is on the side of Christ Himself, and the object perfect according to His heart.
81 I do not feel it needful specially to notice here the heresy of a handful of enthusiasts, who think that the Lord has come, and that the resurrection is past already (some avowing this latter doctrine as a necessary consequence of the other; others saying nothing about it). Revelation 22:16-21 suffices to refute this idea. It is well to bear in mind that the Revelation was written long after the destruction of Jerusalem.
82 This declaration of the Lord (Matt. 16) has a very decisive character, if we consider the circumstances under which it was uttered. In the beginning of the chapter He had pronounced the judgment of the Jewish generation, giving them His death, under the figure of Jonas, as the sign; and leaving to themselves those who were seeking a sign. Then He asked His disciples what was said of Him. Peter, on this occasion, makes the unique confession: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This latter part is only found on this occasion, and it is what gives its peculiar importance to this confession. The Son of the living God, in building His Church, would shelter it from the power of Hades and of him who had the power of death. The death of the Messiah might break the links between Israel after the flesh and the head of their blessing, whatever grace might do afterwards for that nation; but whatever was based on the power of the resurrection (and it is in resurrection that Christ has been declared the Son of God with power) was secured against him, who, at the most, had the power of death. Peter is always full of this idea of life (1 Peter 1:3, 21, 23, 24; ch. 2:4, 5). Matthew 17 adds the millennial glory of the Son of man; and towards the end, leading His disciples back to the subject of His rejection amongst the Jews, explains the ways of grace, and on this occasion introduces Church action (chap. 18:17).
83 Remark here, that what is falsely called an invisible church, was precisely the state of Israel—a body of professing Israelites, by birth and ordinances; and a certain number of isolated believers in the midst of that, enjoying through faith the goodness of God, and their common faith when they met. (See Matthew 3:16; Luke 2:38.) It is out of this state that the Lord has brought believers by “building the Church.”
84 This passage shews the futility of the objection—an objection refuted besides by a thousand experiments—that the gathering together in one is an impossibility. It may be so materially, and it was no doubt the case here. When they broke bread from house to house, they were not three thousand at once together. Yet that does not hinder, in the mind of God, their being gathered together in one place in moral and real unity. There is no question of disposition here, but of facts which demonstrated the power of the Holy Ghost.
85 The word rendered here by “should be saved” (a meaning given in other good versions) is a word used by the LXX. (and I doubt not in Luke) for the remnant of Israel, who were to escape the judgments of God. Now, what the Lord did with them was to add them to the Christian assembly.
86 An examination of the Acts of the Apostles will shew that Jesus is never preached as Son of God, before He is so by Paul after his conversion. With Peter, it is always the Man known upon earth glorified. But Paul immediately after his conversion, preaches Jesus in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. We must not think that there is any imperfection in the ways of God here; on the contrary, it is a proof of their perfection. The expression, “raised up his Son Jesus,” is quite a different word from Son of God. It would even be more correctly translated “servant.”
87 Literally and properly, “gospel of the glory.”
88 It is, however, a subject full of interest—the contrast between a Christ, object of prophecy and of promise, and a Christ revealed in the fulness of His Person, as beginning and foundation (having accomplished His work) of the new creation, its Head, filling all things, having reestablished the relationship between God and them, a relationship ruined by sin; and, at the same time, beginning, foundation, and Head of the Church, which He reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, having united it, quickened in Himself, by the Holy Ghost to Himself as His body. These two things constitute the mystery in its whole extent.
The second part is more fully treated in the word, as concerning us more particularly, and also the admission of the Gentiles which flowed from it. But what presents the highest interest in this subject is the glory of the Person of Christ Himself, which is the foundation on which the fulfilment of all these counsels of God rests.
89 People have wished to make an invisible Church of the whole body, and visible churches in which evil might be found. But it is very evident that baptism introduced not into a church, but into the Church in general upon earth, so that this way of looking at it has no support in the word. The true distinction is not between the Church and the churches, but between the Church viewed in its human responsibility, and the Church in the counsels of God—counsels which shall be infallibly accomplished. “The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” Such are the two sides of God’s medal, and not an invisible Church and visible churches.
90 The identification of the body with its Head is expressed in a remarkable manner by the use of this word.
91 The Lord’s Supper is the sign and the external centre of this unity; as the presence of the Holy Ghost is the power of it; 1 Cor. 10:17. This declaration gives a very interesting character to the Lord’s Supper.
92 [The Greek word translated all various, multifarious (Eph. 3:10) is remarkable.—Ed.]
93 The expression “was not yet,” which is the simple and exact translation of the passage, shews to what a degree the presence of the Holy Ghost upon earth, come down from heaven, and dwelling in the Church, was a reality for the apostles, and filled their mind; as being to them, the whole of the idea of the Holy Spirit; for indeed He was there. This is evidently not a question as to the existence of the Holy Ghost as a Person; but since He was now come down and His presence was upon earth, in consequence of the redemption and the glory of Christ, this presence was to them the Holy Ghost. The same expression occurs in Acts 19: “We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.” They had been told by certain disciples of John the Baptist, that the Lamb of God would baptise them with die Holy Ghost; and what they said to Paul was, that, not only had they not received Him, but that they did not know whether He was yet.
94 This union would have been a sin before the rejection of Christ, before the cross.
95 In the epistles it is Paul only who speaks of the Church; and as we see (Eph. 3:3), he speaks as of a truth which he had received by a particular revelation. He alone employs even the word in its application to the whole body. John speaks twice of a particular church. I recall the expression already quoted, “minister of the Church to fulfil [complete] the word of God.” There was yet wanting to this word something of the revelations willed of God, namely, the Church. God made use of the apostle Paul to administer this truth.
96 It is not said “epistles.” It is the whole of the Church of Corinth which was “the epistle.”
97 When it is a question of the responsibility of individuals, whether Christians or of the world, the New Testament speaks of the appearing of Jesus. For the joy and portion of the Church, according to the counsels of God in grace, it is the coming of Christ into the air, before His revelation, that the word presents to us as the object of faith and hope.