Chapter 2 -- Its Present Relation To God.

When God had brought Israel through the Bed Sea as a people redeemed by power, they celebrated His goodness in song, and declared their wish to prepare for Him a habitation. (Exod. 15:2.) The thought they expressed as the desire of their heart was a new one, but a right one; for their redemption having been accomplished, God could thus dwell, and, as we learn afterwards (Exod. 25:8), He would thus dwell amongst them. And those who shared in that redemption were privileged to provide the materials, a willing offering from grateful hearts made glad by the exercise of delivering power on their behalf.

In the wilderness God dwelt in the tabernacle, in the land His abode was the House; both habitations erected after patterns expressly given to Moses and to David, and from materials offered by His people on the first occasion, and by David on the second. Of course, whatever they brought must have borne in one way or another the impress of the Creator’s hand; for they could only bring of that with which their God had enriched them. Creation, both animate and inanimate, was laid under tribute to yield what was wanted for Jehovah’s habitation. Things useful, things costly, things precious, things beautiful, were provided in profusion for the tabernacle in the wilderness, and the willingness of the people to offer was only checked by the announcement, that nothing more was required. (Exod. 36:5-7.)

The tabernacle gave place to the temple. God, who had dwelt in the former, dwelt in the latter, till the bright cloud of glory, the Shechinah, departed from the house, as seen in vision by Bzekiel (10), loth to go, yet unable to stay because of the iniquities of the children of Israel. From that time to the present God has never dwelt in His house at Jerusalem. It was His house when rebuilt; the Lord acknowledged it as such, and He graced it by His presence as God’s house. His house, on the occasion of His triumphal entry into the doomed city and temple. By-and-by, as Ezekiel shows, the Lord Jehovah will return to it, never again to leave it, the place of His throne, and the place of the soles of His feet, where He will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel for ever. (Ezek. 43:7.)

In Jerusalem then He does not now dwell. Their house was left to the Jews desolate; that was its condition when God ceased to inhabit it. To outward eyes it looked grand and imposing. In His eyes, whose house it was, it was even then desolate; and that condition cannot alter till the Jews shall see Him, and welcome His return, saying, “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.” (Matt. 23:38, 39.) Has God then now no habitation upon earth? A Jew would surely say that He has not. A Christian should answer that He has; a habitation however, different in character, and formed of materials unlike any that Israel, Solomon, or men could provide. For redemption having been accomplished, redemption by the blood of God’s Lamb, and the exaltation of the Lord Jesus to heaven having been effected, God has formed for Himself by the Holy Ghost a habitation upon earth. Of old men built for God His dwelling-place, now He has built one for Himself; a building to which His people cannot by their offerings contribute, yet without whom it could never have been made. And as the tabernacle and the temple were severally composed of materials provided in their natural state by the Creator of the universe, so God’s present habitation bears the marks of the Creator’s handiwork; for in creative power in grace God has acted, and formed for Himself the stones, living stones (1 Peter 2:5), those who are a new creation in Christ Jesus, even believers on His name; and this habitation of God has several names, each one of course appropriate and expressive. It is the house of God, the temple of God, and the assembly of the living God. Of all these terms, when speaking of it, does the apostle Paul make use. Let us look a little into them.

A habitation of God. This teaches us that God can still dwell upon earth, though the tabernacle has been for ages non-existent, and the temple at Jerusalem has been for centuries laid low.

What a delight it evidently was to God to dwell amongst His people! He gathered Israel around Himself in the wilderness in an order which He was pleased to appoint (Numb. 2), and issued an injunction for the exclusion from the camp of every leper, every one that had an issue, and whosoever was defiled by the dead, “that they defile not their camps, in the midst whereof I dwell.” (Numb. 5:3.) Again, at the close of their wilderness life, God reminded them, when speaking of the land of their inheritance, upon which innocent blood was not to lie unavenged, that He the Lord dwelt among the children of Israel. (Numb. 35:34.) And as He told Moses, so He told Solomon, of His dwelling among His people. Whilst the house was building God cheered the king with the promise, that, if he was obedient, the Lord would dwell among the children of Israel, and not forsake them. (1 Kings 6:12, 13.) After it was built God re-affirmed it, when He appeared to Solomon the second time, twenty years after the king had commenced to lay the foundations of the house of the Lord. (1 Kings 9:1-3.) It is true the continuance of His presence was conditional on the king’s obedience; yet surely God did delight to dwell among His people, and to tell them of it. But not less by deed, as well as by word, did the Lord proclaim this. When Moses had finished the erection of the tabernacle, the cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exod. 40:34.) Not a day elapsed, after His earthly dwelling-place was made ready for Him, before the Lord openly and formally took possession of His habitation, to which none had invited Him, but out of which He would not consent to remain. Again, when Solomon had dedicated the house at Jerusalem, the cloud, which had rested on the tent of the congregation at Sinai, appeared afresh on mount Moriah, and filled the house; and the glory, which had prevented Moses from entering the tabernacle, prevented the priests from standing to minister; for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord. (1 Kings 8:11.) If God took a delight in dwelling in the midst of His people then, not less does He surely now, since He has made them His habitation in the Spirit.

The ideas, then, of God’s habitation, God’s house, God’s temple, God’s assembly too, are not new. Israel, in a way, could speak of them all as terms with which they were familiar, and could have turned to the written word for divine authority as to the use of them. But what was new, and is peculiar to Christian teaching, is the application of the terms “habitation,” “house,” and “temple” to the company of God’s people upon earth. God is present upon earth, though His Son has been cast out of the world. He dwells too upon earth. He possesses, He acknowledges, a habitation peculiarly, really His own. In Christ Jesus,” writes Paul, “ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.” (Eph. 2:22.) To this same building Peter refers. (1 Peter 2:5.) The apostle of the circumcision thus bears testimony to it in common with the apostle of the Gentiles, the one and the other reminding those specially under their charge of the privilege which was theirs. Those who had been formerly Gentiles, and therefore could never have entered within the enclosure of the temple set apart for the race of Israel—those too who bad been Jews, but had turned their backs on mount Zion as well as on mount Moriah, when they went forth to Christ without the camp—those both learnt how richly God had dealt with them in grace, in making them part of that which He deigns to call His habitation. Such was a privilege of those formerly Gentiles, far surpassing anything which they could have enjoyed as proselytes at Jerusalem. This too was the privilege of the believing remnant of the Jews, to which their fellow-countrymen, unless converted before the rapture of the saints, must ever remain strangers. It is, it must be, a privilege of a very high order, to form part of the habitation of God upon earth by the Spirit.

This habitation, however, is also called God’s house, Now, though to some the distinction between habitation and house may seem a trivial one, it is none the less real. A house is a habitation, but a habitation need not be a house. And though the habitation of God is said to be built, and the assembly at Corinth is called God’s building, (oijkodomhv), it is nevertheless true, that where Scripture uses the term house (oi\ko") with reference to the assembly of God, the context suggests distinctive teaching in connection with it. God’s habitation is treated of by the apostle Paul, when dwelling on the privileges of those who formed part of it. Of God’s house he writes, when reminding his readers of their responsibility in connection with it. Thus, addressing the Hebrews, he says to them, “Whose house” (God’s house) “are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.” (Heb. 3:6.) They would prove by steadfastness that they really were part of God’s house. So Peter, reminding his readers that judgment must begin at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17), adds, “And if it first begin at us,” &c.

Again, addressing Timothy, Paul writes to his child in the faith, to tell him how to behave himself in God’s house, which is the assembly of the living God. (1 Tim. 3:15.) The rules, the regulations, for a house are laid down by the Master, the owner of it. And since the assembly is God’s house, not man’s, Timothy was to learn how to conduct himself in it. Every one would reckon it a monstrous intrusion for another person to set about the regulating of a house, unless distinctly authorised by the master to do it. Men would naturally resent such an action on the part of their fellows, and no plea on the ground of taste or judgment would avail against their condemnation for arrogating to themselves a position and authority in a house which did not belong to them. The master, the owner, all would agree, and not a stranger, nor even an inmate, is the fitting person to say how his house is to be conducted. Shall men then be allowed their right in such a matter, and God be denied His? Now has not this been practically the case in Christendom? Christians, and in some cases those not even converted, have taken upon themselves, with the sanction of the community at large, to make rules and regulations for a house, of which, if converted, they certainly form part, but which belongs to another, even to God. And such practices are openly justified, and commended as fitting and proper. Once however let the force of the term God’s house sink into the heart, and the impropriety, as well as incongruity, of men drawing up rules for the guidance of that house will be fully apparent. Timothy even, apostolic delegate as he was, holding thereby a position, which, Titus excepted, no one else that we know of was ever called to occupy, could not make any rules himself, but received them from the apostle. Timothy surely never dreamt, the apostle never countenanced the idea of any man, or any company of men, laying down rules formed in their wisdom for the orderly government of God’s house. Should not the very term God’s house suggest to each one the propriety of learning from the Word, what are God’s rules for its guidance and government?

But this house is also called God’s temple, the shrine, as it were, of the Deity who dwells in it. Twice in the New Testament do we meet with this designation, and both times it is used by the apostle Paul when writing to the same company of Christians, those gathered unto the name of the Lord Jesus Christ at Corinth. The context helps us here also to determine the import of the term, and the reason of its selection. In the first epistle (3:16), when warning teachers to beware of what they were teaching, he writes to the whole assembly there gathered: “Know ye not that ye are God’s temple, and that the Spirit of God dwell-eth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, such (oi{tine", not which) ye are.” With the consciousness that the assembly was God’s temple, could they be indifferent to the introduction of false doctrine? Should any too, remembering this character of the assembly, be careless as to the doctrines they taught? The temple would remind all of the holy character of the assembly, and therefore of the holiness which befitted it. Again, when speaking of the general company of God’s saints on earth, and not of the local assembly merely at Corinth, the same apostle reminds them that Christians should be separate from evil, and from communion with unbelievers, on the ground that believers in the aggregate are the living God’s temple, who will dwell in them, and walk in them. (2 Cor. 6:16.) One sees at a glance, that there is a force, and a fitness in the term temple, used in this connection of thought, which no other word could so well set forth. Gentiles as well as Jews knew what the word temple would imply.

Here another thing should be pointed out. When the apostle writes of God’s habitation, or of God’s house, he knows of but one such upon earth. Where then can it be found? For it is no ideal thing, no phantom, since Timothy was to know how to behave himself in it. But where is it? Jerusalem cannot produce it; St. Peter’s at Rome cannot lay claim to be it. No cathedral, no building of wood, brick, iron, or stone, is entitled to this appellation. God does not dwell in any such at present. He dwells in His own habitation, which in Christ Jesus He has made for Himself by the Spirit. Understanding this, we have to correct our thoughts, and to change perhaps our language, which is the index to our thoughts; for we cannot go now to God’s house as those of old did, and as saints will by-and-by. (Ps. 122) We indeed who believe form part of it. If, however, we talk of going to God’s house, when we mean that we are about to assemble ourselves with God’s saints for worship or for prayer, do we not by our language show, that we have lost the right thought of what His house really is? We are attaching to a building, or a locality a term, which now belongs only to a peculiar company of people upon earth. Distinctive Christian teaching is virtually set aside, or ignored, as long as such language is accepted as correct. It was correct language for a Jew. It will be correct language for all who worship Jehovah by-and-by. (Micah 4:2.) But scriptural language is not of necessity Christian language, though Christian language—understanding by that what the Bible authorizes—must ever be scriptural, if real.

As regards the terms “temple” and “assembly,” the usage of Scripture is different. They are applied to the local gathering, as well as to the general company of Christians upon earth. (See 1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16, for the application of the term temple; and 1 Cor. 1:1, 2; Acts 20:28, for the use of the term church, or assembly.) Nor are these the only senses in which these words are used; for both the one and the other are employed when the true Church universal is the subject in hand. (Eph. 1:22; 2:21.) To a consideration of the word assembly let us now turn.

By God’s assembly on earth is to be understood that company of people, which, professedly at least, has been gathered out from the rest of mankind unto Him. At first it was, as in glory it will really be, composed only of true Christians; for such alone at first professed to be believers on the Lord Jesus Christ. After a time the assembly of God included others besides real believers, but none who did not profess to be Christians. Now, wherever the truth has spread, members of the assembly are to be found. And in every place where a few souls professedly own the Lord Jesus Christ, there an assembly is regarded as existing. It may be like that in Laodicea, in which mere profession was the prevailing characteristic. It may be like that in Philadelphia, where faithfulness to Christ was a marked feature of it. But whatever may be the spiritual condition of the company locally gathered, if professedly called out to God, it is regarded in the Word as God’s assembly in that locality, and has responsibilities of no mean order in consequence. How little is this understood by those who only outwardly bear the name of Christ! Profession, of course, should be true; but profession of itself entails responsibility; and all who bear the name of Christ by profession declare that they are members of the assembly of God.

Dismissing at present from our consideration of the subject the assembly as it will be perfect in glory, in which none but real Christians will be found, let us confine our attention to the assembly as viewed upon earth at any one time, whether in its local or general aspect. Of God’s assembly we read in the Word, and by that we are reminded of a company of people as such, distinguished from every other assembly upon earth. In what varied lights God’s assembly is seen. If those who composed it were before the apostle’s mind, he could write of the assembly of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:1), or the assemblies of the nations. If the country in which such gatherings were was to be expressed, he makes mention of the assemblies of Galatia, or of Asia. (1 Cor. 16:1, 19.) If St. Paul was thinking of the localities in which different companies met, he writes of the church, or assembly, in the house of Nymphas (Col. 4:15), Philemon (Phil. 2), or Aquila. (Rom. 16:5.) When he thought of the spiritual condition of the members, he writes of the assemblies of the saints. (1 Cor. 14:33.) Viewing the churches in relation to Christ, Paul describes them as assemblies of Christ. (Rom. 16:16.) When remembering to whom the Church belonged, he styles it the assembly of God. And if its security is uppermost in his mind, he can write of it as in God the Father. (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1.) A glance at these different ways of describing it shows this clearly, that men’s thoughts about it are not all drawn from Scripture. They talk of a national church and of local churches. In Scripture we meet with assemblies of a country, and the assembly, or church in a town.

The assembly of God! What a thought it gives us! God connecting Himself with a company of people on earth, who had need, and professedly at least acknowledged it, of the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And now we would ask, How does this term ‘assembly of God’ strike on the ear, or impress the mind of those who hear, or read about it? There was one once who evidently felt in no light way its force. Paul has left on record, in the first epistle to the Corinthians, what it was to him; for, writing of his grievous sin before his conversion, he states that he persecuted the assembly of God. Saints they were. Believers on the Lord Jesus such had proved themselves to be. Yet he does not term them saints or believers, but writes of the assembly of God, thereby exposing his former undisguised and unmitigated hostility to the company gathered unto God. (1 Cor. 15:9.) Could he have expressed in a stronger way what he did in mistaken zeal for God? How far wrong must he have been when he was a persecutor of the assembly of the living God! Again, writing to the Corinthians to expose the grossness of their conduct at the Lord’s Supper, he pertinently asks them, Would they despise the assembly of God? (1 Cor. 11:22.) An answer to such a question should surely be prompt and unhesitating. Could any one who professed to serve God despise His assembly? To a question so pointed, so searching, surely but one answer could be given. How the need there was for such a question shows of what our wretched hearts are capable.

In conclusion, habitation of God tells us of our privilege; house of God reminds us of responsibilities; temple of God warns us of its holy character; assembly of God proclaims to whom it has been, professedly at least, gathered out.