When the Lord Jesus Christ was upon earth He spake of His assembly as then non-existent. He had not yet built it. (Matt. 16:18.) Till the Holy Ghost came, consequent on His ascension, it was not, and could not be formed. The Spirit’s presence, however, inaugurated a new era; for by the baptism of the Holy Ghost the body of Christ was called into being. (1 Cor. 12:13.) No Old Testament saint then could have been a member of the Church, or assembly of God, which is the body of Christ. In the kingdom of God every one of them will be found, when the Lord Jesus Christ comes in power and great glory. But part of the Church of God they never were, nor, we can add, ever will be; for in heaven, as well as upon earth, the Church is viewed as distinct from the worthies of old.
This we are taught in the epistle to the Hebrews, and the point is an important one to keep before the mind; for unless the great landmarks of Scripture are known, and dispensational teaching is apprehended, we cannot rightly divide the word of truth. (2 Tim. 2:15.) How such a thought should make one careful in the putting forth of truth, as well as diligent in acquiring an understanding of it! The word of truth should be rightly divided. The apostle gently intimates by this remark to his child in the faith, that unless the workman was careful he might fail to do it. With Paul, then, the unfolding of Scripture was not the giving out of man’s opinion upon it. It could be rightly divided; yet, unless Timothy was careful, that might not always be the case.
Now, important as it is for us to be taught correctly about the Church of God, it was of all importance for those in apostolic times, who, formerly Jews, were such no longer, in order that they should clearly see how distinct was their proper Christian position from that which they had previously prized, and with which they had been associated. To such Paul wrote in Hebrews [12:22-24. Going forth to Christ without the camp, they would surrender much which they had previously valued, and valued very highly. Would they be losers thereby? To answer such a question he introduces his readers to a millennial scene, and lays open to their gaze the court of heaven, arranged, so to speak, in the order of precedence, and shows the connection between the earthly seat of the kingdom and the real metropolis of the universe: “Ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, a general assembly, and to the Church of the first-born, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel” (rather, better than Abel). To all this had they then come, though in spirit only as yet. Thus, that to which the Jews in millennial days never will attain, what the earthly people never can have, was theirs, who from amongst them had confessed the Lord Jesus, theirs really, though not then enjoyed. All that they had come to the apostle enumerates, but marks off each thing distinctly from the rest by the conjunction “and.” The position therefore of the Church in heaven this passage points out. The assembly of the first-born ones (prwtotovkwn), as the Holy Ghost here designates them, is seen next to God on His one hand, and the Old Testament saints—the spirits of just men made perfect—are seen as equally near to Him on the other; but two distinct companies never amalgamated. Both are equally near to God (that we must ever remember); but the Church of the first-born ones and the Old Testament saints are described as separated companies in heaven, each having their own proper position on high.
Who then, it may be asked, form the Church of the first-born ones? Some formerly Jews, and some formerly Gentiles; for the Scripture recognizes three classes as at present existing upon earth—the Jews, the Gentiles, and the Church of God. (1 Cor. 10:32.) Before the cross there were but two classes—the Jews and the Gentiles. By-and-by there will again be but two upon earth, when the word by Moses shall have its accomplishment: “Rejoice, O ye nations, with His people.” (Deut. 32:43.) At present there exists also the third—the Church of God.
To this company the Lord made reference in John 10:10, when He announced the formation of the one flock under the care and the guardianship of the one Shepherd; for the reader should mark the Lord’s language. One flock He speaks of, (poivmnh), to be composed of the sheep in Israel, whom He was about to lead out of the fold, (aujlhV), and of the sheep from amongst the Gentiles, who were never in it. This flock then was something quite new, and unthought of, till the Lord taught men about it. Observe, that to make the one flock, He first leads out of the fold those which had been in it. It was not the bringing those formerly Gentiles on to Jewish ground that He had here in view. That in its full sense never was done, and never will be done. It was not making proselytes to Judaism of Gentiles who hearkened to His teaching. That the Lord never did. The time too for that, in accordance with God’s thoughts, was then passing away. What the Lord treats of is the getting the two companies, who were to form the one flock, on to new ground altogether. The flock therefore of which He speaks could not be formed, till God dealt with Gentiles in grace equally with Jews. From the days of Abraham to the cross God was acting in a different manner. None therefore, who died before the cross, could form part of the one flock, the assembly, or Church of God.
Years after we get this truth of the component parts of the flock affirmed by different apostles. James, in the council at Jerusalem, endorsed Peter’s statement, that God had visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for His name. (Acts15:14.) Later on, Paul, writing to the Romans, bore witness that there was, from amongst Israel, “a remnant according to the election of grace.” (Rom. 11:5.) The apostle of the circumcision spoke of believers from amongst the Gentiles. The apostle of the Gentiles acknowledged the presence in the assembly of some who had once been Jews. But, both Peter and Paul distinctly pointed out, that it was only an election from the one and from the other. Those from the Gentiles did not become Jews; those from amongst the Jews did not become part of the one flock by virtue of their descent according to the flesh. Yet there is but one flock, one assembly—“God’s flock,” as Peter calls it (1 Peter 5:2, 3), “God’s Church,” as Paul designates it. (Acts 20:28.) Both terms, it will be seen, are instructive, attesting to whom those comprising the flock and the assembly belong, even God, but without referring to their former condition, whether moral or dispensational.
The truth, therefore, was owned by Peter as well as by Paul, though it is only in the writings of the latter that we find it dwelt on, and treated of doctrinally.
At the end of the first chapter of the Ephesians, Paul introduces the subject of the Church of God, when writing of the present place on high of Him who is its Head. In the second chapter he developes the subject, and shows us who those are that compose it; first setting forth what they had been morally (vv. 1-10), and then what had been their condition dispensationally, (vv. 11-22.) Morally, nothing could have been more hopeless; spiritually dead, they had required quickening power to be1 put forth on their behalf by God for them to live. How wholly were they, one and all, dependent on the love, and mercy, and favour of God! For if they needed quickening power to be put forth by God that they should live, the putting forth of that power depended solely on the activity of God in grace. But what a comfort to remember the class of persons morally on whose behalf He thus acts. Dispensationally, the Jews had been nigh, and the Gentiles had been far off. The former had thus occupied a vantage-ground, which the latter had not. For the Church that vantage-ground has disappeared; for those, once far off, are in Christ made nigh by His blood, and those, once Jews, with those once Gentiles, are created one new man in Christ. A new kind of man (kainoVn), such as had never existed before, the twain made one in Christ. Learning this, we should not, it is clear, look to the Old Testament for instruction as to the formation of the Church, nor for guidance us to its worship. It did not exist in those days, nor was there anything like it ever called into being. Nothing analogous to it can be traced in the pages of the Hebrew writers. Any incorporation then of Jewish practices with Christian worship should have been sedulously guarded against, and that which the New Testament teaches about the Church, the new man, the body of Christ, should have been sought out and conformed to. Has this been generally done?
But is there not, some may ask, anything in the Old Testament which refers to the Church? Surely there is. For, although its then future existence was not made known, we can trace in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures typical teaching about it, both as the bride of Christ, and as formed of believers from Jews and from Gentiles. There are personages in the Old Testament history who shadow forth in some way or other the Lord Jesus Christ. Of these we would here mention but two, Isaac and Solomon; the former, the type of the Lord as the risen one, and the heir of all things that belong to His Father; the latter as King of peace, and the King’s Son who sits upon the throne of David. To Isaac Rebekah was brought as his bride, but not till Abraham had received him back, as it were, from the dead. Solomon had a bride—Pharaoh’s daughter—connected in the closest way with the king, yet distinct from Israel, and who lived in a house prepared for her by her husband. She had part with him, yet was apart from Israel. Isaac with his wife, and Solomon with his, are both typical of Christ and the Church. The former shadows out that it is, as risen, Christ has His Bride. The latter delineates the King’s Son in His royal state in connection with Israel, yet in the closest possible way connected also with one, who has no part with the earthly people of God.
Besides this, we can trace out in Leviticus 23 something of the peculiar composition of the Church which we have been considering. The feasts of the Lord therein described were important elements of Judaism; and Moses, in three out of the five books which bear his name, dwells at some length on them. In Deuteronomy 16 he describes the character of each of the three great feasts, as he sets forth the spirit in which they were severally to be observed. In Numbers 28:29 the special offerings for each Jewish festival, with their number, and accompanying meat-offerings and drink-offerings, are detailed at length. From this we learn, which of the feasts had reference only to Israel, and in which of them, that which they prefigured, concerned Gentiles as well. In Leviticus 23. Moses gives to Israel what may be called their ecclesiastical calendar, specifying the order in which the different festivals were to be kept, and the months and days appointed for their observance. So if we wished to understand the spirit in which any of the three great festivals were to be observed, we should turn to Deuteronomy 16 to find out. If any enquired about the number and character of the different offerings. Numbers 28:29 would supply the answer; and Leviticus 23 would be consulted as the sacred calendar, informing all of the time, and duration of each feast throughout the year. But to this arrangement there is one remarkable exception. Certain rites and sacrifices, connected both with the morrow after the paschal sabbath, and with the feast of first-fruits, are mentioned in Leviticus, but are passed over in Numbers. Now why is this? Is the omission intentional, or is it accidental? It cannot be regarded as accidental, because, though some offerings specially appointed for the feast of first-fruits are enumerated in Numbers, where we should have looked for them, the new meat-offering, only described at length in Leviticus, is just mentioned in Numbers, though without a word being added in explanation of it. Evidently the sacred writer supposed his readers were acquainted with what had been written in Leviticus about it. He had not forgotten it, nor, from the way he introduces it, can we suppose that he was reminding his readers of it. He mentions that with which he and they were perfectly acquainted; but does not enter at length on the subject. The omission therefore of special instruction about it from that, the forty-first section of the law according to the Jewish divisions of the Pentateuch, must have been intentional. Naturally we should have expected an account of it in Numbers, whereas we only learn about it in Leviticus. Had the Pentateuch been a mere human composition, would this arrangement have been met with? Had it been written by Moses simply with an eye to Israel, and what then concerned them, would he have thus arranged it? Surely not. But, as God’s book, written under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Ghost, the subjects are treated of in God’s order, and the wisdom of the divine plan becomes apparent. A glance at Leviticus 23 will make this plain.
And first, as to the new meat-offering presented to God at the feast of first-fruits. It was composed of two wave-loaves, as they are called, baked with leaven; these two loaves typifying those from Jews and those from Gentiles, who as Christians are together presented to God, a kind of first-fruits of His creatures. (James 1:18.) It was not the oneness of the body of Christ that they portrayed, but that of which the body is composed, the two companies which together make up the one flock of John 10:Baked with leaven, we learn that they represent saints still in their bodies on earth, and in whom the flesh exists. Made from the produce of the new harvest, we understand that they typify those, who are before God as risen with Christ; for the close connection of Christians with Christ is set forth in the fact, that the instruction about these two loaves is included in the same divine communication to Moses (Lev. 23:9-22), which contains the ordinance concerning the wave-sheaf, the type of the Lord Jesus Himself as risen from the dead. Waved before the Lord, we see that the saints are claimed for God. Thus these loaves typify what a Jew, as long as he remained a Jew, never was—a man on earth, yet risen with Christ. Typifying therefore those once Jews and those once Gentiles, brought to God on common ground, they speak of something really distinct from the earthly people, even the presentation to God of souls from Jews and Gentiles whom He can receive in connection with, and by virtue of, His acceptance of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that whilst the Lo-ammi condition of Israel as a nation (Hosea 1:9) has not terminated.
But further. The feast of first-fruits was typical of the whole Christian era, which, commencing with the day of Pentecost, goes on to the rapture of which 1 Thess. 4 has apprised us. It prefigured therefore the time between the rejection of the Lord by the Jews, and their being gathered again to their land, to await His return previous to the commencement of millennial rest, of which the feast of Tabernacles is the type. As a feast of the Lord, it had its place in the sacred calendar; that is clear. But this chapter in Leviticus, besides serving as a sacred calendar for Israel, gives us in outline God’s dealings with souls from Exodus to the eternal state; hence God’s ways on earth, when Israel nationally are disowned, but the godly remnant saved, are fitly traced out in this portion of the Word. And had they been here omitted, there would have been, we can see, a gap in the prophetic outline of God’s ways. But who, at the time when Moses wrote the book, could have discovered that? God alone, we may surely say, then knew it.
The Church then, we again see, was in the mind of God before it was presented to the eye of man; and as He divided to the nations their lot on earth with reference to His future dealings with Israel, so He guided Moses in the writing of His word with reference to that subject of revelation, kept secret till revealed to Paul—the Church of the living God. (Eph. 3:3; Col. 1:25.) And when the wave-loaves were brought to Him, and waved before Him, God looked on to that of which the Jews could never bear to hear—the presentation to Him of some, once Gentiles, on common and new ground with some formerly Jews. “We may glory in this grace; yet let us remember that the thing waved was thereby publicly acknowledged as belonging to God. There is grace in being brought to God; there is responsibility in belonging to God.