In commencing the study of any subject, it is well to know its beginnings — the original intention or plan, and the first step in its history. These we have in the clearest, fullest way, as to the church, in holy scripture. There we have not only the original intention, but the plans and specifications of the great Builder, and the early history of the work under His own hand. The foundation had been laid, and the work was going on; but the Lord Himself was still the only Builder: therefore, up to this time all was real and perfect.
At the close of the Jewish dispensation the Lord added the saved remnant of Israel to the newly formed church: but, at the close of the present or Christian dispensation, He will take all who believe in His name up to heaven in glorified bodies. Not one belonging to the church will be added to the congregation of millennial saints.
"For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." (1Th 4:16-17.)
This will be the happy close of the history of the church on earth — the true spouse of Christ: the dead raised, the living changed, and all, in their bodies of glory, caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we have the entire limits of the church defined, and the whole period of her history before us. But we return to the dawn of her day on the earth.
Under the figure of a building the Lord first introduces the subject of the church. And so infinitely precious are His words, that we may adopt them as the text or motto of its whole history. They have sustained the hearts and the hopes of His people in all ages, and in all circumstances; and they will ever be the stronghold of faith. What can be more blessed, more assuring, more peace-giving, than these words? — "UPON THIS ROCK I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH; AND THE GATES OF HELL SHALL NOT PREVAIL AGAINST IT."
In Matthew 16 the Lord questions His disciples as to the sayings of men concerning Himself. This leads to the confession of Peter, and also to the gracious revelation of the Lord concerning His church. It may be well to transfer the whole conversation to our pages — it all bears so directly on our subject.
"When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that Thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven. And I also say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Mt 16:13-18.)
Here we have the two main things connected with the proposed building — the Rock-foundation, and the divine Builder. "Upon this rock I will build My church." But who is, or what is, "this rock"? some may inquire. Clearly, we answer, the confession of Peter; not Peter himself, as the apostasy teaches. True, he was a stone — a living stone in the new temple; "Thou art Peter" — thou art a stone. But the Father's revelation, by Peter, of the glory of the Person of His Son, is the foundation on which the church is built — "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." But the glory of the Person of the Son in resurrection is the unveiled truth here. "Flesh and blood hath not revealed this unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven." Immediately on the confession by Peter, the Lord intimates His intention to build His church, and asserts its eternal security. "Upon this Rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
He Himself, the fountain of life, could not be conquered by death; but, in dying as the great Substitute for sinners, He triumphed over death and the grave, and is alive for evermore, as He said to His apostle John after His resurrection:
"I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death." (Re 1:18.)
What majestic, what triumphant words are these! They are the words of a conqueror — of One who has power; but of power over the gates of hades — the place of separate spirits. The keys — symbol of authority and power — hang at His girdle. The stroke of death may fall upon a Christian, but the sting is gone. It comes as a messenger of peace to conduct the weary pilgrim home to eternal rest. Death is no longer the master, but the servant of the Christian.
"For all things are yours; whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours: and ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's." (1Co 3:21-23.)
The Person of Christ, then, the Son of the living God — in His resurrection-glory — is the foundation, the solid and imperishable foundation, on which the church is built. As alive from the dead He communicates life in resurrection to all who are built on Him as the true foundation-stone. This is plain from what Peter says in his first Epistle. "To whom coming, as unto a living stone... ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house." And further down in the same chapter he says, "Unto you therefore which believe, He is precious," or "an honor." (See margin.) May both reader and writer note well these two most precious truths in connection with our "Rock-foundation" — divine life and divine preciousness. These are communicated to, and become the possession of, all who put their trust in Christ. "To whom coming," not to what coming; it is the Person of Christ we come to, and have to do with. His life — life in resurrection — becomes ours. From that moment He is our life. "To whom coming, as unto a living stone... ye also, as lively [living] stones, are built up a spiritual house." Christ's own life, as the risen Man, and all that He is heir to is ours. Oh, wondrous, marvellous, blessed truth! Who would not desire, above all things, this life, and this life beyond the power of death — the gates of hades? Eternal victory is stamped on the risen life of Christ, it can never more be tested, and this is the believer's life.
But there is more than life for every living stone in this spiritual temple. There is also Christ's preciousness. "Unto you therefore which believe He is precious;" literally, "the preciousness." That is, just as the life of Christ becomes ours when we believe in Him, so does His preciousness. The principle in both is the same. The life may be viewed as our capacity to enjoy; and the preciousness, as our title to possess our inheritance on high. His honors, titles, dignities, privileges, possessions, glories, are ours — all ours in Him. "To them that believe He is the preciousness." O wondrous thought! "He loved the church and gave Himself for it." Such then is our Rock-foundation, and such the blessedness of all who are on the Rock. Like Jacob of old, when a pilgrim and a stranger he rested on the stone in the desert, the whole panorama of heaven's riches in grace and glory passed before him. (Genesis 28.)
But Christ is also the Builder of His church. The building against which no craft or power of the enemy can ever prevail is Christ's own work, though we read of other builders. "Upon this Rock I will build My church." It is well to be clear on this point, so that we may not confound what man builds with what Christ builds. There must be the greatest confusion of mind, both as to the truth of God, and the present state of Christendom, unless this distinction is seen. Nothing is more important to note here than that Christ is the only Builder of His church; though Paul and Apollos, and all true evangelists, are preachers by whom sinners believe. The Lord's work in the souls of believers is perfect. It is a real, spiritual, personal work. Through His grace in their hearts they come to Himself, as unto a living stone, and are built upon Him who is risen from among the dead. They have tasted that the Lord is gracious. Such are the living stones with which the Lord builds His holy temple; and the gates of hell can never prevail against it. Thus Peter himself, and all the apostles, and all true believers, are built up a spiritual house. When Peter speaks of this building in his First Epistle, he says nothing of himself as a builder. Here Christ is the Builder. It is His work, and His only . "I will build My church," He says.
Let us now see from the word of God what man builds, what materials he uses, and the way he goes to work. In 1 Corinthians 3 and 2 Timothy 2 we have these things brought before us. "A great house" is raised by human instrumentality: which, in a certain sense, is also the church, and the house of God: as in 1Ti 3:15 we read of "the house of God, which is the church of the living God." It is also spoken of as Christ's house in Hebrews 3, "whose house we are." But the house soon became sadly corrupted through human infirmity and positive wickedness. The authority of God's word by many was set aside, and man's will became supreme. The effect of human philosophy on the simple institutions of Christ was soon painfully manifest. But wood, hay, and stubble, can never be "fitly framed together" with gold, silver, and precious stones. The house became great in the world; like the mustard tree, in the branches of which many find a convenient lodging. Connection with the "great house" gives man a status in the world, in place of being like the Master, despised and rejected. The archbishop stands next to royalty. But the professing church is not only outwardly great, it is most pretentious, and seeks to put the stamp of God on its own unhallowed work. This is its greatest wickedness, and the source of its blindness, confusion, and worldliness.
Paul, as one chosen of the Lord to do His work, laid the foundation of "God's building" in Corinth, and others built upon it. But they did not all build with divine materials. The right foundation was laid, and every man was to take heed how he builded thereon. In connection with the true foundation, some might build gold, silver, and precious stones, and others wood, hay, and stubble. That is, some might teach sound doctrine, and look for living faith in all who applied for communion: others might teach unsound doctrine, and receive into the fellowship of the church persons in whom was no faith — the mere outward observance of ordinances taking the place of faith and eternal life. Here man's instrumentality, responsibility, and failure came in. Nevertheless, the builder himself may be saved, having faith in Christ, though his work is destroyed.
But there is another and a worse class of builders, who corrupt the temple of the Lord, and are themselves destroyed. We give, for the convenience of the reader, the entire passage. Nothing can be plainer.
"According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master-builder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire... If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy." (Verses 10-17.)
We may further observe on the Lord's words, "upon this Rock I will build My church," that He had not begun to build it yet: He is telling them what He is going to do. He does not say, I have built it, or I am building it, but I will build it; and this He began to do at Pentecost.
But there is another truth most intimately connected with the history of the church, and linked up with its condition and character, on the earth, that we must notice, before proceeding with its actual history. We refer to the truth contained in the expression,
This leads to the "great house" — already referred to — of outward profession. At the same time we must bear in mind, that though intimately connected, the kingdom of heaven and the great house are quite distinct. In title the world belongs to the King. "The field is the world." His servants are to go on sowing. In result we have "a great house," or Christendom. But when all that which is merely nominal in Christendom shall be swept away by judgment, the kingdom will be established in power and glory. This will be the millennium.
While still speaking to Peter about the church, the Lord added, "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven." The church as built by Christ, and the kingdom of heaven as opened by Peter, are widely different things. It is one of the great but common mistakes of Christendom, to use the terms interchangeably as if they meant the same thing. And theological writers in all ages, from assuming as a basis that they are the same, have written in the most confused way, both as to the church and the kingdom. The expression is dispensational, just as the similar phrase, "the kingdom of God," is moral. But unless we have some acquaintance with the dispensational ways of God, we can never rightly divide His word. That which Christ Himself builds, and that which man instrumentally, by means, it may be, of preaching and baptizing, must not be confounded. The church which is Christ's body is built upon the confession that He is the Son of the living God, glorified in resurrection. Every truly converted soul has to do with Christ Himself before it can have anything to say to the church. The kingdom is a wider thing, and takes in every baptized person — the whole scene of Christian profession, whether true or false.
Christ does not say to Peter that He will give him the keys of the church or the keys of heaven. Had He done so, there might have been some show of reason for the evil system of popery. But He merely says, "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven" — i.e. of the new dispensation. Keys, it has been said, are not for building temples, but for opening doors; and the Lord honored Peter to open the door of the kingdom, first to the Jews, and then to the Gentiles. (Acts 2.) But the language of Christ about His church is of another order. It is simple, beautiful, emphatic, and unmistakable. "My church." What depth, what fullness there is in these words: "My church!" When the heart is in fellowship with, Christ about His church, there will be an apprehension of His-affections towards it, which we have no power of expressing. As it is, we love to linger over these two words, 'My church!' but who can speak of the measure of Christ's heart that is therein revealed? Again, think of these other two words, "This rock." As if He had said, The glory of My Person, and the power of My life in resurrection, form the solid foundation of "My church." And again, "I will build." Thus we see in these seven words, that everything is in Christ's own hands, as "to the church which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all."
The administration of the kingdom the Lord, in an especial manner, committed to Peter, as we see in the early chapters of the Acts. The term is taken from the Old Testament. (See Daniel 2 & 7.) In chapter 2 we have the kingdom; in chapter 7 we have the King. The phrase, kingdom of heaven, occurs only in the Gospel of Matthew, where the evangelist writes chiefly for Israel.
The bringing in of the kingdom of heaven in power and glory on the earth, in the Person of the Messiah, was the natural expectation of every godly Jew. John the Baptist, as the Lord's forerunner, came preaching, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. But, in place of the Jews receiving their Messiah, they rejected and crucified Him; consequently the kingdom, according to Jewish expectations, was set aside. Nevertheless, it was introduced in another form. When the rejected Messiah ascended to heaven, and took His place at God's right hand, triumphant over every foe, the kingdom of heaven began. Now the king is in heaven, and as Daniel says, "the heavens do rule," though not openly. And from the time that He ascended until He return, it is the kingdom in mystery. (Matthew 13.) When He comes back again in power and great glory, it will be the kingdom in manifestation.
The new economy. Peter was privileged to open to both Jew and Gentile. This he did in his address to the Jews, Acts 2, and in his address to the Gentiles, Acts 10. But again we would draw attention to the fact, that the church, or the assembly of God, and the kingdom of heaven, are not the same thing. Let us be clear, in starting, as to this fundamental point. The identifying the two things has produced great confusion of thought and may be viewed as the origin of Puseyism, popery, and every human system in Christendom. The following remarks on "the tare-field," from a recent publication, bear directly on this subject, though they refer to a later period than the early chapters of the Acts.2
"Mt 13:24-25. 'Another parable put He forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way'
exactly what is become of the profession of Christ. There are two things necessary for the inroad of evil among Christians. The first is the unwatchfulness of the Christians themselves. They get into a careless state, they sleep, and the enemy comes and sows tares. This began at an early epoch in Christendom. We find the germs even in the Acts of the Apostles, and still more so in the Epistles. 1 Thessalonians is the first inspired Epistle that the Apostle Paul wrote; and the second was written shortly after. And yet he tells them that the mystery of iniquity was already at work; that there were other things to follow, such as the apostasy and the man of sin, and that when the lawlessness should be fully manifest, (instead of working secretly), then the Lord would put an end to the lawless one and all concerned. The mystery of iniquity seems akin to the sowing of tares spoken of here. Some time after 'when the blade was sprung up and brought forth fruit' — when Christianity began to make rapid strides in the earth — 'then appeared the tares also.'
But it is evident the tares were sown almost immediately after the good seed. No matter what the work of God is, Satan is always close upon its heels. When man was made, he listened to the serpent and fell. When God gave the law, it was broken even before it was committed into the hands of Israel. Such is always the history of human nature.
"So the mischief is done in the field, and never repaired. The tares are not for the present taken out of the field: there is no judgment of them. Does this mean that we are to have tares in the church? If the kingdom of heaven meant the church, there ought to be no discipline at all: you ought to allow uncleanness of flesh or spirit there. Here is the importance of seeing the distinction between the church and the kingdom. The Lord forbids the tares to be taken out of the kingdom of heaven: 'Let both grow together until the harvest' (ver. 30), that is, till the Lord comes in judgment. Were the kingdom of heaven the same as the church, it would, I repeat, amount to no less than this: that no evil, let it be ever so flagrant or plain, is to be put out of the church till the day of judgment. We see, then, the importance of making these distinctions, which too many despise. They are all-important for truth and holiness. Nor is there a single word of God that we can do without.
"What then is the meaning of this parable? It has nothing to do with the question of church communion. It is the 'kingdom of heaven' that is spoken of — the scene of the confession of Christ, whether true or false. Thus Greeks, Copts, Nestorians, Roman Catholics, as well as Protestants, are in the kingdom of heaven; not believers only, but also bad people professing the name of Christ. A man, who is not a Jew or a pagan, and who outwardly professes Christ's name, is in the kingdom of heaven. He may be ever so immoral or heretical; but he is not to be put out of the kingdom of heaven. But would it be right to receive him at the table of the Lord? God forbid! If a person falling into open sin were in the church, he ought to be put out of it; but you ought not to put him out of the kingdom of heaven. In fact this could only be done by taking away his life; for this is meant by the rooting up of the tares. And this is what worldly Christianity did fall into, in no very long space of time after the apostles were departed from the earth. Temporal punishments were brought in for discipline: laws were made for the purpose of handing over the refractory to the subservient civil power. If they did not honor the so-called church, they were not to be suffered to live. In this way the very evil our Lord had been guarding the disciples against came to pass; and the Emperor Constantine used the sword to repress ecclesiastical offenders. He and his successors introduced temporal punishments to deal with the tares, to try and root them up. Take the church of Rome, where you have so thoroughly the confusion of the church with the kingdom of heaven: they claim, if a man is a heretic, to hand him over to the courts of the world to be burnt, and they never confess or correct the wrong, because they pretend to be infallible. Supposing that their victims even were tares, this is to put them out of the kingdom. If you root a tare from the field, you kill it. There may be men outside profaning the name of God; but we must leave them for God to deal with.
"This does not destroy Christian responsibility towards those who surround the Lord's table. You will find instructions as to all this in what is written about the church. 'The field is the world;' the church only embraces those believed to be members of Christ's body. Take 1 Corinthians, where we have the Holy Ghost showing the true nature of ecclesiastical discipline. Supposing there are professing Christians, guilty of any sin you please; such persons are not to be owned, while they are going on in that sin, as members of Christ's body. A real saint may fall into open sin, but the church, knowing it, is bound to intervene for the purpose of expressing God's judgment about the sin. Were they deliberately to allow such a one to come to the Lord's table, they would in effect make the Lord a party to that sin. The question is not whether the person be converted or not. If unconverted, men have no business in the church; if converted, sin is not to be winked at. The guilty are not to be put out of the kingdom of heaven, they are to be put out of the church. So that the teaching of the word of God is most plain as to both these truths. It is wrong to use worldly punishments to deal with a hypocrite, even when he is detected. I may seek. the good of his soul; but this is no reason for punishing him thus. But if a Christian is guilty of sin, the church, though called to be patient in judgment, is never to suffer it; but we are to leave guilty people, who are unconverted, to be judged by the Lord at His appearing.
"This is the teaching of the parable of the tares; and it gives a very solemn view of Christianity. As sure as the Son of man sowed good seed, His enemy would sow bad, which would spring up along with the rest; and this evil cannot for the present be got rid of. There is a remedy for evil which enters the church, but not yet for evil in the world."
It is perfectly clear, both from scripture and history, that the great mistake into which the professing body fell was the confounding of these two things — tares with wheat; or, those who were admitted by the administration of baptism to all the official and temporal privileges of the professing church, with those who were truly converted and taught of God. But the vast difference between what we may call the sacramental and the vital systems, must be clearly understood and carefully distinguished, if we would study church history aright.
Another mistake, equally serious, followed as a consequence. The great outward or professing body became, in the eyes and in the language of men — the church. Godly men were drawn into this snare, so that the distinction between the church and the kingdom was early lost sight of. All the most sacred places and privileges, in the professing body, were thus held in common by godly and ungodly men. The Reformation utterly failed to clear the church of this sad mixture. It has been handed down to us in the Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian systems, as the form of baptism and admission clearly shows. In our own day, the sacramental system prevails to an alarming extent, and is rapidly on the increase. The real and the formal, the living and the dead, are undistinguished in the various forms of Protestantism. But alas! most solemn reflection! there are many in the professing church — in the kingdom of heaven — who will never be in heaven itself. Here we find tares as well as wheat, evil servants as well as faithful ones, and foolish virgins as well as wise ones. Though all who have been baptized are reckoned in the kingdom of heaven, only those who are quickened and sealed with the Holy Ghost belong to the church of God.
But there is another thing connected with the professing church which demands a brief notice here. We refer to
Not only did the Lord give the keys to Peter that he might open the doors of the new dispensation, but He intrusted to him its internal administration. This principle is all-important in its bearing on the church of God. The words of the commission are these, "And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." The question is, What do they mean? Clearly, we believe, authority and power from the Lord, to be exercised in and by the church, but limited, in result, to this world. There is no thought in the Lord's words about the church deciding anything as to heaven. This is the false interpretation and the deceiving power of the apostasy. The church on earth can have nothing to say or do with what is done in heaven as to binding or loosing. The sphere of its action is within its own limits, and, when it so acts according to the commission of Christ, it has the promise of ratification in heaven.
Neither is there any thought here, we may add, of the church, or of any of its officials, coming in between the soul and God, as to eternal forgiveness or eternal judgment. This is the daring blasphemy of Rome. "Who can forgive sins but God only? " He reserves this power to Himself alone. Besides, the subjects of church government are pardoned, or, at least, are on that ground. "Do not ye judge them that are within? " It will only apply to them that are within the pale of the church. "But them that are without God judgeth." Of every believer in the wide field of Christendom it is said,
"For by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified." (Hebrews 10.)
Hence, the retaining or the remission of sins by the church is only for the present time, and strictly administrative in its character. It is the divine principle of receiving persons into the assembly of God, on the ground of adequate testimony to their conversion, soundness in doctrine, and holiness of life; and also of putting away impenitent offenders until restored by true repentance.
But some of our readers may have the common impression, that this power was only given to Peter and the rest of the apostles, and consequently ceased with them. This is a mistake. True, it was given to Peter only in the first instance, as we have seen; and no doubt greater power was exercised during the days of the apostles than has been since, but not greater authority. The church has the same authority now as then as to discipline in the assembly, though it lacks the power. The word of the Lord remains unchanged. Only an apostle, we believe, could speak as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 5.
"In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus."
This was spiritual power in an individual, not the judgment of the church. The same apostle, in reference to the same case, says to the assembly, "Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person." The act of putting away was the act, not merely of the apostle, but of the whole assembly. In this case, and in this way, the excommunicated person's sins were retained, though evidently a converted man. In the Second Epistle, chapter 2, we find him fully restored. His repentance is accepted by the assembly — his sins are remitted. The overflowing of the apostle's heart on this occasion, and his exhortations to the church, are valuable lessons for all who have to do with church government, and are intended to remove that cold suspicion with which an erring brother is too often received back to the privileges of the assembly. "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment [or censure] which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore, I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him." Here we have a case in point, illustrative of the government of the assembly according to the will of Christ. "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
But "how can these principles be carried out now? " is still the question and difficulty with many. Well, we must just go back to the word of God. We ought to be able and willing to say,
"We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth." (2Co 13:8.)
The administrative authority and power of which we speak was given not only to Peter and the other apostles, but also to the church. In Matthew 18 we have the working out of the principle laid down in chapter 16,
"Tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven... For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them." Matthew 18
Thus we learn that the acts of the two or three, gathered together in Christ's name, have the same divine sanction as the administration of Peter. And again, in John 20, the Lord delivers the same principle of government to the disciples, not merely to the apostles, and that too on resurrection ground, where the assembly is livingly united to Christ as the risen Man. This is all important. The spirit of life in Jesus Christ makes the disciples free — every disciple free — from the law of sin and death. The church is built upon "this rock" — Christ in resurrection, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it. "Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them,
Peace be unto you. And when He had so said, He showed unto them His hands and His side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained."
Here the Lord sets up, we may say, and fairly starts, the new creation. The disciples are filled and clothed with peace, and with the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. They are to go forth as His messengers, from the resurrection side of His empty grave, bearing the blessed message of peace and eternal life to a world bowed down with sin, sorrow, and death. The principle of their own internal government is also clearly laid down: and its due administration will always give to the Christian assembly a distinctive and heavenly character, in the presence of both God and man.
But as this principle is the proper basis of all Christian congregations, it may be well to look for a moment at its operation in the days of the apostles. Surely they understood its meaning and how to apply it.
On the day of Pentecost, and for some time after, it does not appear that the young converts were subjected to any examination as to the reality of their faith, either by the apostles or others. "Then they that gladly received His word were baptized, and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls." Thus receiving the word was the ground of baptism, and fellowship; but the work was then entirely in Christ's own hands. "And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." The attempt to deceive by Ananias and Sapphira was at once detected. Peter acts in his right place, but the Holy Ghost was there in un-grieved majesty and power, and Peter owns it. Hence he says to Ananias, "Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost? "
But this virgin state of things soon passed away. Failure set in — the Holy Ghost was grieved, and it became necessary to examine the applicants, as to whether their motives, objects, and state of soul were according to the mind of Christ. We are now in the condition of things described in 2 Timothy 2. We are only to have fellowship "with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart."
After the church became so mixed with merely nominal professors, great care was necessary in receiving persons to communion. It was not enough that a person said he was converted and claimed admission into the church on the ground of his own statements: he must submit to be examined by experienced Christians. When one professes to be awakened to a sense of sin, and to be brought to repentance before God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, his confession must be examined by those who have gone through the same kind of experience themselves. And even where conversion is manifestly genuine, godly care, with tenderness, must be exercised in reception; something dishonoring to Christ, injurious to themselves, weakening to the assembly, may be entertained, even unconsciously. Herein spiritual discernment is needed. And this is the truest kindness to the applicant, and nothing more than a necessary care for the honor of Christ and the purity of communion. Christian fellowship would be at an end if persons were received on the sole ground of their own opinion of themselves.
In Acts 9 we see the practical working of this principle in the case of the great apostle himself. And surely, if he could not be accredited without adequate testimony, who need complain? True, his case was peculiar, still it may be taken as a practical illustration of our subject.
We find both Ananias at Damascus, and the church at Jerusalem questioning the reality of Saul's conversion, though it was a miraculous one. Of course he had been an open enemy to the name of Christ, and this would make the disciples still more careful. Ananias hesitates to baptize him until fully satisfied of his conversion. He consults the Lord on the subject, but after hearing His mind, he goes directly to Saul; assures him that he has been sent by the same Jesus that appeared to him on his way to Damascus; and confirms the truth of what had taken place. Saul is greatly comforted; he receives his sight, and is baptized.
Then as to the action of the church at Jerusalem we read, "And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus."
Paul is a model man to the church in many things, and in this also. He is received into the assembly — as all applicants should be received — on the ground of adequate testimony to the genuineness of his Christianity. But while all godly care must be taken that the Simon Maguses may be detected, all tenderness and patience must be exercised with the timid and doubting ones. Still, life in Christ and consistency therewith must be looked for. (See Ro 14:1; 15:1; 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians. 2.) The church's path is always a narrow one.
Popery has shown its desperate wickedness in the evil use it has made of the church's prerogative to retain or remit sins, hence all the abominations of priestly absolution. Protestantism has gone to the other extreme — probably fearing the very appearance of popery — and has well-nigh set aside discipline altogether. The path of faith is to follow the word of the Lord.
The ground being thus cleared as to the great fundamental principles of the church and kingdom, we come to the day of Pentecost — the first moment of the church's history on earth. Unless we understand the principles of Christianity, we can never understand its history.
Chapter 2 - The Day of Pentecost Fully Come