The Ministry of the Word in the Assembly

I have the impression that the coming together of the children of God on the first day of the week occupied in apostolic days an even more prominent place than it does among us.

Read Heb. 10:24, 25. “Let us consider one another to provoke [or ‘for a provocation,’ i.e., not to others but to ourselves] unto love and to good works; not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as ye see the day approaching.”

Now compare this with 1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, also chap. 14:23. To “come together in the Church” does not mean in a building called a church, but “in Church capacity.” These passages I read in order to place before you the divine thought of the whole Church coming together, and that, when the Church was not split up into different denominations and sects, and when it was separate from the world. Such a coming together of the whole Church was possible under those conditions. This “coming together,” which the believers were exhorted “not to forsake,” answered many important ends. In the passage we have read in Heb. 10 it is connected with “considering one another.” It is the occasion above all others when the saints have opportunity to see one another and to meet with one another, and if they neither see nor meet each other there is little likelihood of their considering one another. In this respect alone, therefore, it fulfils an important function.

In the first instance it was the occasion of their observing the Lord’s Supper, or “breaking bread “together in remembrance of Him. Connected with this there was necessarily worship, praise, thanksgiving—all which was fitting and edifying. But it was also an occasion upon which the Word of God was ministered.

I do not know that we have much information in the Scriptures as to the coming together of the saints for the ministry of the Word on other occasions. I do not say that they did not come together at other times for that purpose; but in Corinthians and in Hebrews it is in all probability the coming together on the first day of the week that is referred to.

From the very beginning of the Church’s history on through the whole age the first day of the week has been kept as a sacred day, and it is our happy privilege so to observe it. It is not a legal enactment, but it is one of our most blessed privileges.

I am glad to find that in the assemblies which have reverted to the first principles of the Scriptures for guidance, there is an effort made by most to come together on the first day of the week, and I don’t think we can be too much exhorted to abide by this scriptural and healthful practice habitually. Circumstances may often arise to hinder, especially those who serve in family life; but to allow trifles to prevent, or to be absent through carelessness or indifference, is to incur serious loss, and indicates a condition of soul far from that which is pleasing to God.

But in apostolic days, and as a matter of fact still, many are with us on the first day of the week who cannot get any other time, hence the immense importance of the little time that may be spent together being utilized according to the wisdom of God.

Now, I would not say a single word to detract from the importance of that which forms the central thought in the gathering. It is a gathering on the Lord’s Day around the Lord’s table to eat the Lord’s Supper. These three things seem to me to have an obvious and significant connection. We gather around the Lord Himself or unto His name to do that which He commanded us to do. The fact that this command of our Lord’s, first given on “the same night on which He was betrayed,” was afterwards by the direct injunction of the ascended Lord repeated and confirmed to the Churches of the Gentiles by the Apostle Paul, gives it a very special claim upon us.

This gathering together, then, is a time of “communion” or “fellowship.” They are the same word in the original. But communion is two-sided. It includes the worship, praise, thanksgiving, and prayers which ascend by Christ Jesus from us to God. But it also implies that God has opportunity of speaking to us.

In Ex. 25:22, God said to Moses concerning the mercy-seat, “There will I meet with thee and I will commune with thee.” And in Num. 7:89 we read that when Moses went into the tabernacle to speak with God, “then he heard the voice of One speaking unto him from off the mercy-seat” Thus we see that communion is two-sided, and that service which consists only of prayer and praise cannot properly be called communion. The other side, the divine side, is the hearing of the Bridegroom’s voice. That is the side upon which I desire now to dwell for a little.

I will ask you to look at a word in 1 Pet. 4:10, 11. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God.” That word “oracles” only occurs four times in the New Testament. Stephen speaks of the “lively oracles” received by the fathers. Paul, in Rom. 3:2, enumerates as one of the chief advantages of the Jews that unto them were committed the oracles of God. In Heb. 5:12 those who for the time ought to have been teachers required to be taught again the very first principles of the oracles of God. Comparing the four passages together I think the term “oracles” refers clearly to that which God has spoken, and which is given to us in the Scriptures.

All that God ever did communicate to us of His word, His mind, His will, He has been pleased to communicate through Israel. The “Word made flesh,” and the written Word have alike come to us Gentiles through Israel. And it is these communications of God through holy men of old who spake moved by the Holy Spirit which are called “the oracles of God.”

When it is said, “If any man speak let him speak as the oracles of God,” it seems to me that he who so speaks ought to recognise that he is speaking for God, that for the time being he is the one by whom God is conveying a message to His people, the channel through which God is speaking to their hearts.

Now this has nothing to do with the question of “inspiration.” A man may be speaking a God-given message without any pretence to being inspired. The written Word alone is inspired (2 Tim. 3:16). That which any man receives to minister to the Church will be (like prophecy of old) to “edification, exhortation, and comfort,” but the man is not therefore infallible. Even the prophets in the early Church were not above the judgment, discernment, of their brethren (1 Cor. 14:29). Something of the man, something of the flesh, may mingle with that which is from God.

Now you see this is the Godward side of communion. I ought to expect, I do expect, that when any one stands up to read God’s Word, or to speak from it in the assembly, he is going to be the communicator to me of thoughts which God has given him for my blessing.

I am afraid that we have very little realised the deep responsibility that attaches to the ministry of the Word of God in the assembly.

Has it not been taken up without a due sense of responsibility, in a light, indifferent way, as if anything would do, as if to speak just what comes up was the divine principle of ministry? One goes with unexercised hearty saying no doubt God will give us something. Another starts up and speaks from a verse something that “did his own soul good.” And all this is said to be of the Spirit!

Ought not those who are gifted of God to teach or to exhort to be in the very secret of His presence, hearing from God that he may have to give not only that which has done his own soul good, but that which is suited to the need of the hearers? A shepherd is very careful how the flock is fed. I have seen a shepherd at a certain time of the day go out with his dog to chase the sheep from the rich pasture of the valley up to the poorer pasture of the hill tops; too long amid the clover would have hurt them. So it is for those who minister to the flock of God, with divine wisdom to know what is the present need of the saints, and getting from God to be able to meet that need.

All this, I think, and more is included in the words, “Let him speak as the oracles of God.”

It clearly implies that he speaks according to the Word of God; nothing else could be from God, seeing he has given us therein a complete revelation, “All things that are profitable for life and godliness.” We don’t require to go outside the Scriptures; all that is needed is that God by His Spirit be the guide, the instructor, the filler of the one who ministers the Word.

I am not going to contend for the clerical position, or for any formal human ordination; this subject I have recently given my mind upon plainly enough; but I do not hesitate to say that many an “ordained minister” feels deeply the responsibility of being put in charge of the congregation he ministers to, and truly seeks to get a message from God for the people; whilst, on the other hand, there are those who, without ordination, take upon themselves to minister the Word with very little sense of responsibility to God. It is this sense of responsibility to God in the ministry of His Word that I believe to be one of our deepest needs.

That a man must necessarily go to college, and pass through a certain curriculum, in order to be able to minister the Word, we do not believe. Though I can boast of little learning myself I do not disparage it; I am thankful for what little I have, and am glad to be debtor to others who know more.

But let it ever be remembered that nothing worth having is got without labour, and this specially applies to the knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures. A haphazard sort of way of ministering the Word will not permanently edify. We must bend ourselves to labour, and search and learn in some college; and the only true one for us is at the feet of the Lord Jesus—the Instructor, the Spirit of Truth. Failing diligent labour it will be poor food that we shall have to give to the flock of God.

In Proverbs 13:4 we read, “The soul of the diligent shall be made fat.” In outward things we know it is the diligent workman that “gets on,” but the same principle applies to spiritual progress.

There is such a thing as a spiritual sluggard, and there is such a thing as a diligent labourer in the Word—one who works out the vein of silver, one who digs for the jewels of truth, deep things and precious that are not obtained without labour.

I do not mean by this that one can by labour prepare a subject to be given in the Sunday morning meeting. I might do so, and might find, when in the meeting, that the Spirit of God was leading in quite another direction. But the diligent searcher of the Word in the presence of God, who does so for the nourishment of his own soul, esteeming the Word of God “more than his necessary food,” “nourished up in the words of faith and exercised unto godliness,” will “have to give to him that needeth.” “Wealth gotten by vanity shall be diminished; but he that gathereth by labour shall increase “(Prov. 13:11). See what a premium God puts upon labour! We have great talk in these days about the dignity of labour and so on, and God knows that labour is best for every man, whether it be by the hand or the head. But look beneath the surface here, and you will see that there is a man who gets his knowledge of the Word of God cheaply, like the man who makes a fortune by speculation—by a few strokes of his pen;—he gets his knowledge second-hand—by hearing addresses, by reading books—but bestows little labour in diligently searching the Word. He may be able to give it forth fluently, and be regarded as having a wonderful gift; but knowledge so gained will not increase. It will not fatten your own soul; it will not edify; it will not bless; it will not tend to form Christ in those who hear. It may puff up and develop spiritual conceit, but it will not exercise the heart and the conscience.

I think we have thus something of the sense of the Word, “He that gathereth by labour shall increase.” Though the richest of all the treasures of God’s Word are on the surface, where a babe may pick them up, yet there are many precious truths which, like the vein of silver ore, have to be dug for deep before they are reached.

I have been myself by God’s grace a “gatherer “and a digger in the mine of the Scriptures in some little measure for over thirty years. Though it is not my habit to deliver prepared sermons, nevertheless I do not speak that which I have not searched out and thought of.

I would commend to you the duty and blessed privilege of diligently searching the Scriptures. Search them for the profit of your own soul first, esteeming them as the bread for your spiritual life. Ponder them verse by verse. And if you search out a subject, search out all that bears upon the subject. Get a thorough understanding of it, and when the time comes God will enable you to bring it forth out of the treasure of your heart where you have stored it, for the good of others. The Holy Spirit of God will help your infirmities, bringing thoughts and texts to your memory as needed, and giving you “utterance “as well.

Turn with me now to 2 Cor. 3:17: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.” I am not going to expound this passage, but there is an expression current among us, “the liberty of the Spirit,” that I want to say a little about. I fear a not uncommon idea of the meaning of this is “liberty for any man to take part.” That is not what this passage teaches. I believe the meaning here is that where the Spirit of the Lord is there is access with liberty, freedom, boldness, into the immediate presence of God, without a vail between. So that if the phrase “liberty of the Spirit,” as applied to ministering in the assembly, be taken from this verse, it has no such application. Nevertheless, we learn from other Scriptures that the Spirit of God is the sovereign distributor of gifts in the assembly. Read i Cor. 12:4-11. Here is the absolute will of the Spirit in the distribution of gift.

When this is recognised, a “one-man ministry,” in the sense of setting aside the ministry of others who are gifted by the Spirit, is a thing to be entirely rejected. None but the Spirit of God can enable any man to be a teacher or an exhorter; it is a divine qualification, and he who is so qualified by the Spirit is responsible as a steward for the right and diligent use of the gift he has received * (See 1 Peter 4:10). The Spirit of God may base this fitness upon natural ability; there is such a thing as “sanctified natural ability.” If God wants a man for a special work He chooses a suitable man. He chose Saul of Tarsus, whose character, ability, and upbringing fitted him specially to be the receiver of the Spirit’s gift for special ministry, without which all would have been useless.

There are doubtless minor as well as major gifts. One man may be gifted to hold an audience in close attention to the truth he utters for an hour at a time; others with a measure of gift, if they attempted it, would utterly fail. But the one with the lesser gift might be able, by the Spirit of God, to speak “five words” (see 1 Cor. 14:19) in power, and these five words might be the very thing that was needed to lift the whole assembly out of a “slough of despond.” One may be a Boanerges, “son of thunder”; another a Barnabas, a “son of consolation.” God bestows the variety of gift in order to meet the variety of need. Thus the whole principle of clerisy is set aside when the sovereign will of the Spirit of God is owned and His presence realised. There must, therefore, be in the assembly “liberty,” not for the flesh, not for any man to do as he likes, but for God to use those whom He has qualified.

It is for each one to exercise his ministry according to the nature and measure of the gift bestowed. The teacher is to wait on his teaching, the exhorter on his exhorting. (See Rom. 12:6-8.)

Now, we have accepted this principle—that gift, power, qualification for ministry, is of the Spirit of God and according to His will. It is one of the truths that have brought us into the position we occupy.

We have rejected a ministry the qualifications for which are of man. Ability that is merely the outcome of educational training, backed by the authority which human ordination may impart, we do not recognise as of God. Often has it been said of a minister, He is no preacher, but he is a good man.” So far well, but if God did not qualify him to be a minister of the Word, then he is not occupying the place in the divine membership of the body of Christ that God has given him. Rather is he in all probability hindering others whom God has qualified.

Thus have we rejected human ministry, and have come together to wait upon God. What we have expected to get is the genuine ministry which is of the Spirit. Have we got it? Beloved brethren, this is a solemn question.

Have not words been uttered in the assemblies, addresses given, and if the Spirit of God were asked, Did He indite those words, were they His message? would He not reply as of old: “I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them?” (Jer. 14:14). Oh, that God would awaken us to see the shame of our failure in this matter! Oh, that He Himself would raise up in our midst qualified men: men of spirituality and godliness and experience, who have made it their business by labour to gather out of the Word of God at the feet of the Lord Jesus: men mighty in the Scriptures, whose words when they open their lips are to edification, to exhortation, and to comfort, and every heart must own it. There is always a large proportion of the flock of God that need to be comforted, and a ministry that is not to comfort is not of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

A great part of a shepherd’s business is to see that the flock is fed. “Feed my sheep, feed my lambs,” the Lord said to Peter.

I would now call your attention to what has often been remarked, viz., the place occupied by 1 Cor. 13. As one has beautifully put it: “The gifts of chap. 12 have to be baptised in the love of chap. 13 ere they can be exercised in the power of chap, 14.” You may well make a note of that. And as bearing upon this read Prov. 12:18: “There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword; but the tongue of the wise is health.” We have heard in our day plenty of illustrations of speaking “like the piercings of a sword.” Aye, ten times have we heard it for once that we have listened to the “tongue of the wise,” that brings health to the fainting, the feeble, the sick. There was a preacher who sought to find out “acceptable words,” even “words of truth” (Ecc. 12:10). May God give us grace to covet earnestly this gift, that we may minister health to the children of God. “Sound “doctrine is “healthful “or “wholesome” doctrine. And thus if ministry were getting its true place among us we should find that backsliding would be anticipated, and Satan would not get the advantage that he often does get.

Whilst the Spirit qualifies it is the Lord that administers the gift. (See 1 Cor. 12:5.) All that is said and done, every exercise of gift is to be in subjection to the Lord. Thus will ministry be in wisdom. If it be before the breaking of bread divine wisdom would surely have it of such a nature as to help the hearts of the saints toward apprehending the person and work of the Lord Himself. It will lead to the cross, and so prepare hearts intelligently and humbly to keep the feast.

Often a long time is spent in a hymn and a prayer—a hymn and a prayer and no word from God spoken. I believe it often arises from a sort of spiritual lethargy. It is so much easier to give out a hymn than to wait on God for a suited word. At such times how often has one longed to hear a word from God—to hear the Bridegroom’s voice!

Sometimes one will rise and read a portion of Scripture that has no bearing on the meeting, and the spiritual mind is forced to judge it out of place. As God has bestowed the gift, so will He grant the wisdom, the direction, and the power to those who in conscious weakness count upon Him by faith to enable them.

Whilst I would deplore the turning of our morning meetings into mere occasions for ministry, yet I believe they might be availed of much more than they are in wisdom, in grace, in the power of the Holy Spirit for real edification.