There is a word with which Greeks, Jews, and Christians were well acquainted, though each attached to it a different meaning. That word, which in Greek is ecclesia, is rendered into English by church or assembly.
The town-clerk of Ephesus made use of it when he attempted, and with success, to calm the excited crowd in the theatre of the city, which prided itself on being the temple-keeper of Artemis the Great. “If Demetrius,” he said, “and the craftsmen which are with him, have a matter against any man, the law is open” (rather the law courts are being held), “and there are deputies (or proconsuls): let them implead one another. But if ye enquire anything concerning other matters, it shall be determined in a lawful assembly (ecclesia).” (Acts 19:38, 39.)
Had a Jew been interrogated about the ecclesia, the thought that would have been uppermost in his mind would have been the congregation of the Lord, a privileged body called out from the rest of the nations, membership of which by birth belonged exclusively to the children of Israel. Of this assembly Stephen made mention in his memorable speech before the sanhedrim on the day of his martyrdom. (Acts 7:38.) Into this assembly no Ammonite or Moabite could enter, even to their tenth generation for ever; and the children of an Edomite, though descendants of Abraham, could only form part of it in the third generation. (Deut. 23:3-8.) It was a privileged company indeed; for it was Jehovah’s assembly, and is styled the congregation of the Lord. He had a right therefore to limit it nationally to Israel, and to determine under what circumstances, and at what time, any, who were not of the race of Israel after the flesh, should be numbered amongst it, as well as to declare who those were, not of the seed of Jacob, who must abandon all hopes of ever forming part of it. And how many in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah learnt, surely to their sorrow, that the congregation of the Lord was limited in extent, and was composed of a privileged company, of which they did not, and could not, form part! (Ezra 10; Neh. 13) In that assembly we too have not, nor ever will have, a part.
But Scripture teaches us about another assembly, called the assembly of the living God (1 Tim. 3:15), and which the Lord Jesus Christ has been graciously pleased to call His own. (Matt. 16:18.) It is with this that Christians are familiar, and of which they form part. It is of this, too, that they speak, when the word church falls from their lips. Very frequently do we meet with ecclesia applied to the Christian assembly in the pages of the New Testament. All the apostolic writers but Jude refer to it, and Mark is the only other New Testament penman who was not led of the Holy Ghost to take notice of it. But the first who applied the word ecclesia to that assembly, to which we in an ordinary way restrict it, was the Lord Jesus Christ, who spoke of it as something new, and not then even in existence. “I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell (or hades) shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18.) An assembly peculiar in its formation, and imperishable in its nature—such are the characteristics of it, as here set forth by the Lord; and as He is the first in the sacred volume who speaks of it, so is He the last. In Matthew He speaks of it viewed as a whole. In Revelation He sends His angel to testify to His saints in the churches, speaking that well-known word in the plural, because viewing the Church in its local aspect, each local company being called the assembly. (Rev. 22:16.)
There was a time, then, when the Church, in the sense in which the Lord used the term, did not exist. The assembly, or congregation of the Lord, had been on earth, and could point to its history of about fifteen centuries’ duration, before the assembly to which Christians belong had been once mentioned, or called into being. Yet all that time, and for a far longer period than that, the Church of which the Lord first spoke had a definite place in God’s thoughts, and, moreover, had always formed part, and a very important part, of that wonderful plan which God is working out to the display of His own glory, and that of His Son.
Of these facts we become cognizant through the writings of the apostle Paul, who alone of the sacred writers treats at length of the Church of God.
That the Church formed part of the wonderful plan of God we learn from the epistle to the Colossians, in which the apostle tells those saints, that it was given to him, as the minister by whom the mystery was revealed, to fulfil (or complete) the word of God. (Col. 1:25.) Now, by this he did not mean that no further revelations on the part of God, beyond those already vouchsafed to him, were to be made. He makes provision indeed for giving a due place to fresh revelations in 1 Cor. 14:30. St. Paul was not writing of what we call the canon of Scripture. That was not complete when he died; for John did not lay aside his pen, if indeed he had commenced to use it, till after the departure of the apostle of the Gentiles to be with Christ. Many things were revealed to John in Patmos, for which we should search in vain in the epistles of Paul. In what sense then was it given to the latter to fulfil the word of God? He, the only apostle who had persecuted the Church of God, was the honoured instrument selected to reveal the dispensation or economy of the mystery of the Christ. The mystery, when thus revealed, completed the range of subjects of which it has pleased the divine Being in His word to treat. Creation, the fall of man, the atonement, and the kingdom, had been declared by other instruments. By Paul was made known the mystery— Christ the Head, and His people the members of His body, the two making up the mystic man called the Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12; Eph. 3:4.) Thenceforth God’s counsels, as far as He has been pleased to disclose them, stood all revealed, and the word of God was fulfilled, or completed.
Further we are authorized in stating that the Church, which was not made known in other ages unto the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to God’s holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, was nevertheless no afterthought of His; for from the beginning of the world it had been hid in God, who created all things. (Eph. 3:9.) The One who had planned the whole work of creation, and by His divine power had carried out His purpose, had all along kept hidden in the recesses of His bosom that wonderful secret, so closely connected with His glory and His counsels about His Son. Of this Paul was singled out from all intelligent creatures to be the first exponent.
Revealed first to a man, it concerns men, and, as the apostle declared, it was a service given to him to enlighten all as to the dispensation of the mystery. To no Christian therefore should God’s teaching about the Church be uninteresting. None can say that it does not concern them. But further, angelic beings are instructed by the disclosure of this secret; for not only are all to be enlightened as to the dispensation of the mystery, but the manifold wisdom of God is now by the Church made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenlies. (Eph. 3:9, 10.)
Formed, then, so late in the world’s history as the Church was, is it destined, it may be asked, to possess a mere ephemeral existence? By no means. For the epistle, which tells us that the mystery had been hid in God from the beginning of the ages, states clearly that the Church will ever abide. “Unto God,” writes the apostle, “be glory in the Church in (or, and in) Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.” (Eph. 3:21.) The first heaven and the first earth will pass away; national distinctions, it would seem, will cease; but the Church will throughout eternity exist as something marked and distinct from every one and everything which does not form part of it.
The mystery therefore, we learn, was hidden in God from the beginning of the world, but was not spoken of till the Lord Jesus announced that He would build His assembly; yet we may well believe that it was ever present to the divine mind, though, as God has not stated that, we as creatures are not in a position dogmatically to affirm it. Remembering, however, in what terms it is described in the New Testament, we seem to have adequate grounds to conclude that it was so. For it is the Body of Christ, and will by-and-by be openly owned as His Bride. It is also the building which grows to an holy temple in the Lord.
Surely, then, when God acted in creative power, and brought man upon this scene, a creature so different from all the others which He created and made, we may well believe that He had in His mind that man, of which our frame, as we learn, is a figure. Again, when He provided for Adam the helpmeet, formed her out of the man, and brought her to him, is it too much to suppose that other thoughts than those simply of providing the man with a wife were in the divine mind, even thoughts about that Bride which His Son would die to possess, and would sanctify to present her to Himself for His own joy for ever? And when Solomon’s temple was erected, the pattern of which God had given to David (1 Chron. 28:19), and Jehovah graciously and openly took possession of it by the cloud of glory which filled the house, we may well believe that He looked on to that temple which He would build, formed not of material stones, however large and costly, but of stones infinitely more precious to Him, even living stones, believers on the Lord Jesus Christ.
But if any think that by such remarks we are travelling beyond the bounds of sober thought, and entering the realms of airy speculation, such must certainly acknowledge that there was a moment in the life of the Lord Jesus on earth, when the beauty of His Church, His Bride, came within the scope of His vision. For in the house with His disciples He spake that parable of the kingdom, which tells of a merchantman, who, seeking goodly pearls, was satisfied when he had found just one pearl of great price. None at that time could have understood of what He was speaking. Afterwards they must have discerned the purport of His teaching. The one pearl of great price, its value and its beauty acknowledged by the merchantman, left him nothing to desire but to possess it. At what a cost was that done!
What then His disciples could not have understood at the first, some in these days have had opened up to them, and when reading that parable know who is intended by the merchantman, how he gave up all he possessed to acquire the pearl, and of what that one pearl is a figure.
In future papers we hope to enter more at length into this subject of the Church of God.