Having viewed the Church in its relation to God, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Ghost, and having also seen how the Body is formed, we would next direct the reader’s attention to the way in which the work of God is carried on during this dispensation. The assembly of the living God is the pillar and ground of the truth. (1 Tim. 3:15.) Outside of it God’s truth has no resting-place on earth. In it only can be found the truth of which that passage speaks. And it is only by the ministry of the Word, in some form or other, that the work of God upon earth can make progress, and the number of His children be increased. Now when God was dealing with His chosen people Israel, He raised up prophets to speak to their consciences, and to acquaint them with the purposes of His heart. To the nation of Israel they for the most part exclusively addressed themselves, having for their audience those who were of the seed of Jacob. In so far as their ministry took effect on souls, its then present purpose was accomplished. But all the labours of the prophets, however successful they might have been, could not have increased by one single soul the number of God’s earthly people. Their service was to act upon God’s people already in existence upon earth by the process of natural generation.
With the rejection by the Jews of the testimony of the Lord a new work commenced; viz., the forming of a company upon earth whom God could regard as His children, and as His people. Into this family none could find an entrance on the ground of earthly ties, or by the effort of human will. In it relationship by birth was acknowledged, but blood-relationship was unknown. To become children of God souls must be born of God. (John 1:12, 13.) Hence this mighty change could only be effected by the will of God. Of God’s will in the matter James writes (1:18); of the instrumentality of the Word that same apostle, in common with Peter, (1 Peter 1:23,) makes distinct mention. And it seems fitting that these two of the apostolic college, whose work lay especially amongst God’s ancient people, should insist on the truth of a new birth, when writing to those who had been regarded as children of the kingdom on the ground of their Abrahamic descent.
In the synagogue service, after the reading of the law and of the prophets, there was room for exhortation (Acts 13:15) to press home on the hearts of those present the lessons to be deduced from the Scriptures. But more than this, it became evident, was required, if the number of God’s children could only be increased by the action of the divine Word upon the soul, and if some from amongst Gentiles were to become children in common with some from amongst Jews. A ministry therefore which could first convert, and then build up the converts, was called for. How well did Paul at Antioch understand this, who when invited to exhort the congregation, preached the gospel of the grace of God instead. (Acts 13:15-42.)
Now this God provided, and the Lord in the parable of the sower indicated. For God was not about any longer to seek fruit from those who were His people on the ground of their descent from Abraham; He was henceforth going to beget children by water and the Spirit, who should be able to be fruitful for Him. Not that the exercise of quickening power by the Word was anything new in itself in the ways of God for every saint, from Abel downward, had been born of God; but those whom He would now own as really His people, would only be such as were in truth His children. Hence God commenced to work afresh, and the Lord appeared in the character of the sower. Now a field till sown can manifestly produce no good crop. The ground may have been all prepared for the seed, but unless the seed is sown no good results can be expected. To sow then indicates the commencement of a work, and the place of the parable of the sower in the three synoptic gospels agrees with this.
In Matthew, who gives us dispensational teaching, the parable only comes in when the ground has been cleared by the Lord’s judgment of the cities where He had worked (11), and of the nation amongst whom He was labouring, (12) Then, declaring the character of the relationship of Himself which He would henceforth acknowledge, even that of the new birth, evidenced by the individual doing the will of His Father who is in the heavens, He left the house, and sat by the sea-side, and there, with multitudes collected from various parts of the land (Luke 8:4), He gave utterance to the parable of the sower, His very action, and place of teaching, both harmonizing with the work which God was commencing. In Mark the parable is given us in the fourth chapter of his gospel, as forming part, and the commencing part, of the Lord’s instruction to His disciples ere He sent them forth to preach. For the reader may observe that, though chosen in chapter 3:14-19, they are not sent forth to preach till chapter 6:7; the intervening part of the gospel being occupied with instructing them in what God was doing, in order to fit them to do their work for God, and for the Lord. In Luke the same parable appears (chapter 8), in common with several things which are characteristic features of the kingdom.
With this ministry of the Lord then a fresh beginning was made. He sowed the word of the kingdom, the word of God, and thus taught us how the kingdom, during His rejection, can be really advanced. Going about from town to town, and from village to village, He preached and showed the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. (Luke 8:1.) In this He was followed by the twelve, when sent forth by Him on their special mission to Israel. (Luke 9:2, 6.) After He rose, the field of labour became enlarged, reaching even to the utmost bounds of the earth; so that wherever there should be a soul to hear, and a messenger to carry the Word, there was a sphere in which God’s servant could work in accordance with the divine mind.
The effects of the sower’s labours the parable describes. The seed was pure; it was the word of God. Of its germinating power there could be no doubt; for that Word liveth and abideth (1 Peter 1:23); so the only hindrance to a full crop, wherever it fell, would arise from the condition of the ground, in other words, the man’s heart to whom it might come. Men might think of blaming the Word for the apparent failure of the work. Against such thoughts the Lord would warn us, and the continued going on of God’s work should guard us. For as the seed is the word of God (Luke 8:11), the word of the kingdom, as Matthew (13:19) describes it, the lack of full results must evidently arise from other causes than the character of the Word, and to these the parable directs us. In saying this, however, it must be borne in mind that we are only treating of the seed, and not of any instrument by whom in these days the seed may be scattered. Through admixture of rubbish with the seed, from a want of a right apprehension as to what the seed is, much labour may be in vain, and efforts be found to be fruitless. But where the real seed is sown, the want of a crop will not arise from lack of its germinating power. It is the living word of God. We do well to remember this, that all who preach or teach may make sure that it is the word of God they are using, and count on its sufficiency, as applied by the Holy Ghost, to effect a divine work in the hearts and consciences of men.
The causes which hinder a fruitful crop are three. First, some men do not desire the Word, in which case the devil takes it away. Secondly, the conscience has not been reached by the Word, so the apparent work is but ephemeral, and dies away. Thirdly, the attraction of, or occupation with surrounding things, choke the Word, and it becomes unfruitful. For those only are fruitful who hear the Word, understand it (Matt. 13:23), receive it (Mark 4:20), and keep it. (Luke 8:15.) Two important things then are manifested by this way of working: the first is the condition of man’s heart by nature, and the second is the positive need for God to work in it, if fruit, which He can acknowledge as such, is to be produced at all. The wisdom too of this way of working becomes apparent. For what penal restrictions could not accomplish (Gen. 8:21), nor law effect, God does by His word, winning souls to Himself, and making them willing servants of Christ. And Satan, by taking away the seed sown where he can, or by imitating God’s method of working, and becoming a sower himself, as the parable of the tares and the wheat teaches us, attests the wisdom of God in thus working by His word. For he, who imitates the work of another, confesses that he has nothing better to suggest, and knows no plan more effectual to work by. But here a distinction should be noted. In the parable of the sower it is the commencement of a fresh work to which attention is directed, and God’s word is the seed which acts on men, and alone can make them fruitful. It is the sowing that we there read of. In the parable of the tares, on the other hand, a parable of the kingdom of the heavens, which the former parable is not, we have presented the results evident to the outward eyes of the sower’s labours. So persons are mentioned as being in the field. It is the growing crop to which attention is directed, and the efforts of the enemy to counteract God’s work. For the explanation given us of the parable tells us, that the children of the kingdom are the fruit of the good seed, and the children of the wicked one are the fruit of the enemy’s work. Till the Lord came, the Jews looked on themselves as the sons of the kingdom. (Matt. 8:12.) In this parable we are taught who such really are (13:38); for publicans and harlots justified God by entering into the kingdom through really receiving the seed, the word of God, whilst Pharisees, scribes, the self-righteous, and the indifferent shut themselves out of it.
After the Lord rose, the full extent of the field, in which His people were to work by the instrumentality of the Word, was clearly defined. Repentance and remission of sins was to be preached among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47), and unto the uttermost part of the earth were the disciples to be witnesses to Christ (Acts 1:8); but first they must be endued with power from on high by the coming on them of the Holy Ghost. But could the preaching of the word of God really deal in power with hearts? Peter’s address on the day of Pentecost proved what it could do, as three thousand of his hearers were pricked to the heart by his words, and, implicitly obeying his directions, were numbered henceforth as disciples in truth of the despised and crucified Nazarene.
In the very town, then, where the Lord had been so lately crucified, the work commenced of adding together such as should be saved (Acts 2:47); and this was effected by the instrumentality of the Word. The movement did not originate in some obscure village of Galilee, and, when it could boast of numbers, display itself to the world; but, just six weeks after the crucifixion of the Lord, and in the very centre of Judaism, in the metropolitan city Jerusalem, under the shadow, as it were, of the temple, the words of life were spoken, which bowed hearts to confess the crucified One as their Saviour and their Lord. The work thus commenced nothing could stop. Peter and John were arrested, and put in ward; but many who heard their word believed, and the number of the men now swelled to about five thousand souls. (Acts 4:4.) At a little later date, when the opposition of the sanhedrin became more marked, the sacred historian acquaints us with the onward march of the work. “The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” (6:7.) Like the waters of Ezekiel (47), each time the stream is, as it were, measured, it is only to tell of its expansion in breadth, as well as of its ceaseless flow. And resembling that river in another character, the movement, as it spread over the land of Israel, and reached even to Gentiles, disseminated life to all who profited by it.
In Samaria, by the preaching of Philip, souls were evangelized, and Simon Magus found himself eclipsed. (Acts 8) The preaching of Christ had more effect he saw than his sorceries and bewitchments. Amongst the Gentiles the effects were the same. The sorcerer Bar-jesus was unable to turn away Sergius Paulus from the faith, (13:6-12.) Idolaters turned from idols to God (1 Thess. 1:9), and from such sounded out the word of the Lord; for the gospel had come to them “in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance.” Men saw, and acknowledged a force at work to which Gentiles had hitherto been strangers. God was working by His word in the power of the Holy Ghost. Ignorant heathen (Acts 14:20; 16:34) and educated heathen alike were reached by the Word. In Corinth, the seat of licentiousness; in Ephesus, a great centre of idolatry; in Rome, the metropolis of the empire, the gospel made its way. Magical books were burnt by their owners at Ephesus, and in the very household of the emperor Nero the Lord Jesus had some of His sheep. (Phil. 4:22.) Thus, from high and low, rich and poor, masters and slaves, souls were numbered amongst the disciples of Christ. For the word of God had reached them, and they had received it as His word, which effectually works in those that believe. Nor was it that one like Paul by the force of his ardour drew men along with him, for where he had not laboured the work spread, and the Word ministered wrought with like power. Of this the Colossians are an example. (Col. 1:6-8.) For as at Rome, so at Colosse, the assembly there existing was not formed by the labours of the apostle.
If such were some of the results of the ministry of the Word, what was the subject of it? It was Christ. Philip preached Christ. (Acts 8:5.) His death, His resurrection, His ascension, were freely proclaimed (Acts 2:23-34; 4:33; 1 Cor. 15:3-8), and forgiveness and justification from all things formed part of the glad tidings. (Acts 10:43; 13:38, 39.) Truth too about His person was set forth, that He is the Son of God. (Acts 9:20; Rom. 1:1-4.) As the message from God to men, it was called the gospel, or glad tidings of God. (Rom. 1:1; 1 Thess. 2:2.) As the truth about the Lord Jesus was its subject, it was called the gospel of the Christ. (Rom. 15:19; Phil. 1:27.) And as it set forth God’s ways with men in grace, it was called the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24.) Of the power of this message Paul, who had often carried it about, bears testimony. He was not ashamed of the gospel, “for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16); and from Jerusalem, round about unto Illyricum, he had fully preached the gospel of the Christ, (15:19.) In doing this he had moved among men of different minds, and nations characterized by different habits. Orientals had heard from his lips the glad tidings of salvation. Europeans too had listened to it, and received it. Led about by God in triumph in Christ, he carried from place to place the testimony with which he had been entrusted. He did not alter the message to suit the temper of his hearers; for Christ crucified, whom he preached, was both the wisdom of God, and the power of God to those who were called, whether from Jews or Greeks. (1 Cor. 1:24.) What confidence he manifested in the power and suitability of the divine Word to meet all classes and conditions of men! But besides the preaching of the gospel of the grace of God, the kingdom also was preached, and everywhere there was insisted on “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 20:20-25.)
But not only did ministering brethren preach, they also taught. Of Philip the evangelist we only read that he preached. (Acts 8:5, 12, 35, 40.) Of Barnabas we learn that he could exhort1 (Acts 11:23); and when he brought Saul to Antioch, teaching went on in that assembly (v. 26), gathered out by the preaching of those who went there upon the persecution that arose about Stephen, (vv. 19-21.) Thus by the exercise of different gifts the work was carried on. Some, as Philip, it would seem, may have been only evangelists; others, as Judas and Silas, may have been well known for their abilities as prophets to exhort (Acts 15:32); others again, as Barnabas, and preeminently Paul, were gifted to teach, and to preach, and to press home on the conscience the word of God. But each in their measure, and as gifted by the Spirit, and being themselves gifts from the ascended Christ, helped on God’s work on earth. And the Word was the weapon relied on, and used. They wanted no other; they turned to no other to deal with the conscience, and bow the heart. Moreover, they knew the character of that weapon, and its temper too; for what they relied on to bring every thought to the obedience of Christ was “the sword of the Spirit”—God’s own word. (Eph. 6:17.)
The different gifts of ministry, and the distinct lines of ministry, are marked in the Word. There was preaching and teaching, as there were evangelists, pastors, and teachers. At Jerusalem they ceased not to teach and to preach that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 5:42.) At Antioch Paul and Barnabas continued teaching and preaching the word of the Lord. (15:35.) At Ephesus (20), at Corinth (18:11; 1 Cor. 1), at Rome (28:31), and elsewhere (Col. 1:23-28), Paul continued to do both; for whilst by evangelizing the assembly is increased, there are things which form the subject of teaching, and not of preaching. Hence, if the work of God is to progress healthily, both teaching and preaching are requisite. Where simple evangelizing is all that is sought after, the saints will not be fully instructed in the truth; where that is depreciated or neglected, interest in the spread of God’s work is in danger of nagging.
1 It was perhaps from his possession of this gift of exhorting (parakalw'n), that the apostles surnamed him Barnabas, interpreted in Greek uiJoV" paraklhvsew", Son of exhortation, or consolation. (Acts 4:36.)