The First Gentile Assembly
Notes of an address in Sydney on Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-4; 14:36-28
We have in these Scriptures a description of the first Christian assembly formed by the Spirit of God amongst the Gentiles, and as it seems to be God’s way, when commencing anything new, to give us at the very beginning a pattern of what He intends that new thing to be, we might well study the characteristics of this assembly to see whether we bear them in this present day. I hope, before I come to the end of the address, that you may clearly see what I mean by the word “assembly.” The SPIRIT OF GOD came down from THE RISEN LORD JESUS CHRIST at Pentecost. There is a Man upon the throne of God in glory, and God the Holy Ghost is on earth. We shall never understand the truth of the assembly of God unless we see these two things. It was the exalted Christ, who shed His blood upon Calvary to redeem His people, that sent from the glory the Holy Spirit, and He, coming down upon those 120 gathered together in the upper room in Jerusalem, formed them into one body. The truth as to the one body was not immediately revealed, and there had first to be witness borne to the Jews as to the exaltation of Christ. It was consequent upon their refusal of this witness, the proof of which was the stoning of Stephen, that the truth of the one body was revealed. Nevertheless Pentecost was the beginning; that was the church’s birthday.
This assembly of God in Jerusalem was most delightful to God, for He looked down from heaven, and saw there reproduced in the members of the body of Christ the very life of Christ, for the assembly is something formed upon earth by the Holy Ghost in the life of a risen Christ. The devil never received a greater defeat or got a greater surprise in his existence than he did then; he thought when he had got rid of Christ, that there was an end of Him as far as this earth was concerned. To his astonishment, on the day of Pentecost he found Christ was still here; not Christ personally, but Christ in the members of His body; the life of the risen Head making itself manifest in the members of His body upon the earth. That made the devil angry, he was full of wrath, and he sought by a great persecution to crush out that which God in His transcendent wisdom had brought about. He thought to scatter the members of the body of Christ and so destroy it. Of course he was outwitted. The only result of the persecution was that those who were scattered by it carried the glad tidings everywhere, and in that way God’s purpose was fulfilled. God made the devil subserve His will. The Lord Jesus told His disciples to preach the Gospel amongst all nations, and instead of doing that they remained in Jerusalem, but the persecution that arose about Stephen scattered them, and then the will of the Lord was fulfilled, for they went everywhere preaching the Gospel. So the fame of Jesus was spread, it was carried as far as to Antioch and preached for the first time to Grecians, and the result of the preaching was the formation of this first assembly amongst the Gentiles.
WHAT THEY PREACHED
They preached the Lord Jesus. Do not imagine that when the Spirit of God wrote the Scriptures, He used the titles He gives the Lord Jesus in a haphazard or chance sort of way. No, each name and title has its own significance. Here it was the Lord Jesus that they preached. It was not Jesus Christ, or Jesus, but the Lord Jesus. What have we to learn from this? Well, we all know what Jesus means.
“There is a Name I love to hear,
I love to sing its worth,
It sounds like music in my ear,
The sweetest Name on earth.”
What has made that name so sweet to us? Why, the mention of that name carries us to Calvary, and we think of Him as our Saviour, as the One who laid down His life to redeem us; we think of His lowly life on earth; we think of all the love, the patience, the tenderness, the mercy, the meekness that was made manifest in Him. That name encircles every grace, and He carried that name to the Cross. When Pilate, the judge, had to write the superscription to be fastened over that cross, he little knew how truly he wrote. The Spirit of God was behind that writing. He sat down and wrote, “THIS IS JESUS.” Which? The thorn-crowned, crucified, suffering Man of sorrows, making that wondrous sacrifice in His infinite love, that men might be saved. This is Jesus.
But these disciples not only preached Jesus, but the Lord Jesus. Our thoughts are carried from the cross beyond the grave to the glory. He has been exalted at the right band of God. “God hath made this same Jesus both Lord and Christ.” He has been put in the place of authority, so that every knee must bow to Him and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. But that title “Lord” carries with it another thought other than that of authority. It does mean authority, and every creature, from the highest archangel in heaven to the meanest devil in hell, will be compelled to confess Him as Lord, but it also means administration. God has made Him to be the great Administrator, in this present day of His grace. The illustration of it in the Old Testament is Joseph. Joseph did not say to his brethren that Pharaoh had made him lord over all Egypt, but “GOD hath made me lord over all He was the lord in Egypt, and upon him the life of every Egyptian depended. He was the one who had charge of all the supplies of life, and he was the one who administered those supplies for the good of the people. The Lord Jesus Christ has been taken by God and exalted to the throne in heaven to be the administrator of His grace, and since He was thus exalted not one soul ever received any favour or blessing from God except through our Lord Jesus Christ. As Christians, we need the administration of the grace of God continually, and it is only as we are in contact with that living Lord that we receive that grace. Salvation is connected with His name as Lord. “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” And all the blessings of grace come through Him, as Romans 5 shows.
THE RESULT OF THE PREACHING
They preached the Lord Jesus. They preached the One who suffered on the cross that men might be saved, exalted now to the throne of God on high, administering from that place in glory the grace of God for the blessing of men. What was the result of that preaching? A great number believed. That was the first thing, and having believed they turned to the LORD. They believed the glad tidings that God sent them, those wonderful tidings of the full and free salvation, and the result of believing those tidings was, they turned to the LORD. A great many people profess to believe who never turn. It is not a bit of use professing to believe if you do not turn. The result of real faith is that you turn.
What was the meaning of turning to the Lord? Why, they had got an entirely new source of supply. Before, they had turned to the world, and whatever they wanted they found in the world, just as you did before you were converted. If you wanted friendship, you went to the world; if you wanted pleasure, you went to the world; if you wanted help, you went to the world; if you wanted sympathy, you went to the world. Oh! I know you went to a cistern that was broken and could hold no water, but still, with hope springing eternal in your breast, you went to the world. Having believed the glad tidings, what have you done? You have turned to the LORD, and He has become your new source of supply, and He is a Fountain of living water, perennial, free and inexhaustible. If you want friendship now, you find it in Him; if you want satisfaction now, you find it in Him, if you want help now, you find it in Him. The Lord is your new source of supply; at least, He ought to be, and your believing is not very much good if He is not. That is how it was with these disciples at Antioch. They turned to the LORD and in turning to the LORD they became the recipients of the grace of God continually.
A NECESSARY EXHORTATION
To prove that what I am saying is exactly the truth, we find that news of these things reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem and they sent Barnabas to Antioch, to see what had taken place, and when Barnabas got there, he saw “the grace of God.” Evidently the grace of God had been flowing freely down to that company of Christians. It was something he could see, and I assure you there is nothing so pleasing to Christian eyes as the grace of God. There is nothing so delightful to the hearts of those who are in sympathy with the heart of the Lord as the grace of God in this world. I wonder if the grace of God is seen in you? If the LORD has become your new source of supply, those who watch your ways will see the grace of God in you. When Barnabas saw the grace of God he was glad, and to those young converts he had only one exhortation to give. I have no doubt he spoke often to them, it may be he spoke long, but every time he spoke, and no matter how long, all he had to say was summed up in this one exhortation, “that with purpose of heart they should cleave to the LORD.”
He did not exhort them to “cleave to the Saviour,” nor “cleave to the Shepherd.” Of course the Lord is the Saviour and the Shepherd, but he did not tell them to cleave to Him in those characters. Why? Do you think you need to cleave to the Lord as the Shepherd? He is cleaving to you in that character. He says, “None shall take them out of My hand.” He is holding you. The sheep do not cleave to the Shepherd, the Shepherd cleaves to the sheep. But if we are to prosper spiritually we must cleave to the LORD. We must hold on to Him as the source of our supply, as the Administrator of the grace of God. Everybody can understand that. Here is a General at the head of a great army, he is advancing into the enemy’s country. What must he do? There is one thing absolutely necessary if he is to be victorious, and that is, he must keep in constant communication with his base. If by any means he is cut off from his base, then defeat will stare him in the face. His foe will use every kind of strategy to get between him and the base of his supply, so he must hold his lines of communication intact. We have advanced into the enemy’s country, are we keeping the line of communication intact? Who is our base? The LORD. He is the Administrator of the grace of God, the base of our supply, and if we are to be victorious we must keep in constant contact with the base of our supply. So said Barnabas, cleave to the LORD, hold on to Him, remember you have no strength in yourselves, no wisdom, and the devil is stronger than you and wiser than you, but cleave to the LORD, and as you cleave to the LORD you will be victorious over the devil, for he is not wiser than the Lord, nor stronger. So they were told to keep in constant contact with the base of their supply, and to do it with purpose of heart.
Oh! how we break down and fail here. We get an impulse, and thank God for every spiritual impulse, and for a little while we go ahead, and then we begin to droop and fall back and get slack, and we are not so careful to keep the line of our communications intact, and the result is we fail and are disappointed, and other people are disappointed too. It is purpose of heart that is needed and the Lord can give that to us. May God grant to every one of us purpose of heart to cleave to the Lord, and I would say to you young Christians very specially, for Barnabas spoke to young Christians, let the first great purpose and object in your life be to cleave to the Lord. Remember He is the base of your supply and that you have nothing in yourselves at all that can enable you to stand against the foe. They did this at Antioch, for we read much people was added to the LORD. The supplies were continuing and making themselves manifest, and the result was that the Christians at Antioch were channels of blessing to others.
THE ASSEMBLY ITSELF
Then Barnabas went to find Saul, afterwards called Paul, and he brought him down to this Gentile assembly, and it is very interesting to see that, because Paul was to be the great minister of the truth of the assembly, and Barnabas, no doubt under the special direction of the Spirit of God, went to Tarsus to find him, and he went down with Barnabas to Antioch, and they stayed there a whole year and taught much people. I want you to notice that those disciples must have been cleaving to the Lord, and that in consequence they were cleaving to one another and were ready to receive teaching by which they could make progress. They assembled themselves a whole year with the Christians at Antioch; keeping close to the Lord kept them close to one another, and they grew in the truth. The devil has always sought to divide and scatter the saints of God, and hinder them from standing perfect and complete in all the will of God, and all the divisions and the break-up in Christendom today are the work of the devil who has been able to work on the flesh in the saints of God. If every saint of God had been cleaving to the Lord from the beginning, the devil would never have got the slightest opening.
They assembled together thus a whole year. That is a perfect cycle of time, spring, summer, autumn, and winter, all the year round. I would to God we could see a great many more “all the year round” Christians. We need more such Christians in Sydney, those who can go through the drought and storm, who are happy and bright when the days are dull. But, you say, how can anybody be like that? Everyone will be like that who cleaves to the Lord with purpose of heart, for the supply is greater than the demand. The Lord, the source of supply, is above the storms, and if we are cleaving to Him we are independent of circumstances here below, and we shall be “all the year round” Christians, able to face all sorts of weather and circumstances, and bring forth leaves and fruit when all about us is a parched desert.
They taught much people, and here I come to the very heart of my subject. What do you think they taught? Would not Saul teach them that which he had himself learned from the Lord at his conversion? Two things impressed him then and specially marked him from the very, beginning to the end of his service. They were that Jesus is the Son of God, and that His body is on earth. Barnabas had instructed them and exhorted them on the line of the Lordship of Christ, and this is indispensable to all progress, it is the foundation of all, but it is not enough; no company of Christians can stand perfect and complete in all the will of God if they go no further than this. Paul’s ministry must come in—Christ must be known as the Head of His body, the church, and we the members of His body must hold the Head (Col. 2). There are many companies of Christians who have had the ministries of Barnabas and Peter, but have not Paul, and in some of them there does not seem to be room for him, hence there is a great lack in these companies. We must have Paul’s gospel, and the truth of Christ and His body of which Paul was made a minister, and by which great ministry he completed the word of God (Col. 1:25), i.e., he put the crown upon it.
He preached that Jesus is the Son of God, for so Acts 9:20 should read. This is not what He is officially, but personally. It is His personal glory, and Saul of Tarsus learned as he lay prone in the dust of the road to Damascus that Jesus was rightly in the glory of God, for He is the Son of God.
The next thing that he learned from the glory was contained in the words that were addressed to him. Jesus said to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” and he said, “Who art Thou, Lord?” and the reply was, “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.” Was Saul of Tarsus persecuting Jesus? Jesus was on the throne of God, how could he be persecuting Him? He was persecuting the members of His body, and the Lord Jesus said, “Saul, you are persecuting Me.” If my hand is injured, then I am injured, every member of my body is me; so the Lord Jesus said, “Why persecutest thou Me?” Is it possible that the Lord Jesus is looking down into this meeting this afternoon and saying, That is Me, and that is Me, and every Christian in that company is Me? Yes, that is the truth, that is the meaning of the truth of the one body. Jesus the exalted Man has got a body on earth, and every member of that body is united to Him. It is not a theory but a fact, every saint of God has His life, His nature, and is united to Him by the Holy Ghost. That is the very heart of Christian truth. I am sure Saul taught that at Antioch. It is the thing that permeates his epistles, that was ever before him. He preached the gospel of the grace of God, the glad tidings by which men are saved, but he had this in view, that every person that believed the Gospel would be indwelt by the Holy Ghost and so become a member of the body of Christ.
Jesus the glorified Man calls His members Himself. Do not think that I for a moment am going to overlook the fact that He is God. How could He sit on the throne of God if He were not God? But He is there as a Man, the risen Man. We could not be united to Him as God, we could have no share in His deity, we are united to Him as the risen Man, we share His risen humanity, in the life and nature of it now, and in bodies like His own hereafter, and this will be made manifest in the glory when by His resurrection power we are conformed to His image. The great truth for Christians in this present day is that they have a Head in heaven, they are members of the body of Christ, and that body is one. We are formed into one body by the Holy Ghost.
I have spoken of the assembly at Antioch. The saints of God in each locality are so addressed. There is the assembly in Sydney, and Melbourne, and so forth, but the assembly which is the body of Christ, is not made up of a number of assemblies but of individuals. A local assembly is the local expression of the one body on earth, but then there should be in each local assembly all those characteristics that belong to the one assembly, and each should be formed in and controlled by the truth that belongs to the whole.
Now you will not find in reading the 11th chapter of Acts in connection with this assembly one word about baptism, and I do not wonder at that at all. Paul definitely tells us in 1 Corinthians, the epistle which sets before us the truth of assembly fellowship, that he was not commissioned to baptise, as Peter had been. Baptism has its place, but its place is outside the assembly; it belongs to the individual relationship to the Lord, it is in figure the closing up of the old existence of sin, it puts us in the place of death, while the assembly is a sphere of life, it belongs to that eternal day
“Where sin, nor want, nor woe, not death can come;”
and we are in that sphere by the Holy Ghost; for we are all baptized into one body by one Spirit. Nor did they select a minister to lead and instruct them; there were in that church several prophets and teachers, serving under the Lord’s direction in the power of the Spirit. The minister of modern days is unknown in Scripture.
Is it true that the risen exalted Lord in glory, whose glory was brighter than the noon-day sun, can speak of poor Christians such as Saul persecuted, and such as you and me, as Himself? Does that risen, exalted, glorified Lord esteem us as members of His body? Yes, He does. If only we entered into the reality of this, would it not make us careful as to our associations? Would it not impress upon us the fact that we must be heavenly in character, as our Head is heavenly? I do not think anything could have a more sanctifying effect upon us than the realization of this great truth that Saul would teach these disciples at Antioch.
WHAT THE WORLD THOUGHT
What was the result? Why, the next thing we read is this, “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” They did not call them Christians amid the bright Pentecostal days, they called them Christians first in Antioch. I have no doubt the people looked at them and said, “A wonderful change has come over these people, we shalt have to give them some sort of designation.” You know people cannot bear you in this world if you do not put a label on yourself. You cannot give a tract away in a train without being asked, “What denomination do you belong to?” and if you say you do not belong to any denomination they say, “Why, you must belong to some denomination.” If you do not put a label on yourself, they will put a label on for you, but if you know the truth of the assembly of God you will refuse the labels. But the world sometimes labels us more truly than they intend. At Antioch they said, “What shall we call them?” They noticed they talked a great deal about Christ, and I am very certain of this, since they were cleaving to the Lord with purpose of heart, and growing in the truth of His Headship, they were acting in the grace of Christ, and so they said, “We must call them something, and the only name we can put upon them is Christians,” and so the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. God grant that we may be called Christians because of what we are. God grant that we may be known as Christians by the way we conduct ourselves. If that is the only label they can put upon us, happy are we.
THE PRACTICAL RESULT OF THE TRUTH
Then there came prophets from Jerusalem, and one of them named Agabus prophesied that there would be a great dearth throughout all the world. Then these Christians at Antioch proved at once that the truth of the one body was no mere doctrine to them. They did not say, “Well, if this dearth is coming we had better put by for the rainy day.” There was no such selfishness as that. They were not self-centred, self-occupied, they were not thinking about themselves. What did they do when they heard that there was to be a great dearth throughout all the earth, which of course would touch Antioch as well as Jerusalem? They said, “We must make a collection and send to the poor saints at Jerusalem.” They recognized them as members of the same body. They recognized, if they suffered at Jerusalem, the saints at Antioch would suffer as well. There was the great reality of the truth of God. It was not, there is one assembly here and another there, and we are in watertight compartments, and each must look after his own, but we are one with them, we are part of them, and they part of us, and so they treated them as they would treat themselves. “No man ever yet hateth his own flesh, but loveth it and cherisheth it, as Christ the church.” You are part of my flesh in a spiritual way, and I am part of yours, for you are a member of the body of Christ, and so am I, and Christ is the Head caring for us all, and so ought we to care for each other in the love of Christ.
Then there was something more, namely, ministry to the Lord. The assembly had become a sanctuary. They did not go there to get blessing, that was not the thought. They ministered to the Lord. It was a sanctuary where worship and adoration went up to the Lord, and where that is lacking I greatly question whether the truth of the assembly is known at all. This does not mean merely giving thanks that I am saved, or blessing the Lord that He has redeemed my soul. How did the priests of old minister to the Lord? They brought the incense and offered it upon the golden altar; they brought the sacrifices also, and these went up as a sweet savour to God. The incense and the sacrifices spoke of what Christ is to God. We cannot minister unto the Lord in the assembly until we know something of that. They ministered to the Lord, and so the assembly became the sanctuary in which worship and adoration and praise went up to God. You may be sure that was a happy spot. Those disciples were cleaving to the Lord, they were receiving constant supplies of grace from Him, they were growing in the knowledge of the truth of Christ the Head of His body, and were able to act in the truth of the one body, but not only this, they were His brethren also, a race of priests in the sanctuary, ministering to the Lord (Heb. 2:11-12).
The next thing is, the Spirit of God, being unhindered in an undivided church, could say unto them in His sovereign rights, “Separate Me Barnabas and Saul, for the work whereunto I have called them.” So the Spirit of God made Himself manifest in the assembly in that way, and these servants of the Lord are commended by the assembly. They went forth from the assembly, commended by the assembly; the assembly was the centre from which their service flowed, and back they came to it. They served the Lord in their individual responsibility to Him. They did not take their directions from the assembly, they took their directions straight from the Lord Himself, and they served the Lord in the power of the Holy Ghost and as guided by Him, but the assembly was their centre. They had found a centre on earth, and that was where the presence of the Lord was, “Where two or three are gathered together unto My Name, there am I in the midst of them,” and that became the centre of these apostles as they went forth to proclaim the glad tidings amongst the Gentiles.
There is such a thing as being used of God in the salvation of souls without the knowledge of this at all, and I say earnestly, may God prosper every servant who preaches Christ, no matter how little he knows of the truth, but you may be sure of this, it will be a blessed thing for us when we come face to face with our Lord in the glory and hear Him say to us, “You were interested in that in which I was interested; My thoughts and affections were centred on My body, the church on earth, and you in your little way sought grace to be interested in that in which I was interested.” Don’t you think that would be a blessed thing? I would like to have my Lord’s commendation in that way. Yes, I want to preach the Gospel, I want to see sinners saved, it is a constant grief to me that I see so few, but the one thing I desire above all is to receive the Lord’s commendation in regard to this when I stand face to face with Him. “You sought the good of the members of My body, you sought to gather the saints together in one, and not to scatter them, you sought to minister the word, so that those who heard it might see that I was the Centre and Source of everything, and that they might realize how precious My church is to Me”: that is the great ambition of my soul.
Oh! that it might be the ambition of every one of us here to be really caring for that which is so precious to Christ, His body on the earth, that which is so intimately connected with Himself, that He speaks of it as His own flesh, and His bones.