The Holy Spirit's Work In The Church
(Ephesians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 3:9; 1 Corinthians 12:1)
Since our subject is the action of the Holy Spirit in connection with the church, we must first enquire, 'What is the church?'
In any large city there are numerous companies of believers, taking different names. The persons connected with those bodies all in some way or other speak of themselves as members of this church or that church. Our enquiry on this occasion will be an enquiry which will help us to see that such a conception of the church of God is entirely foreign to the truth. There is only one church, and we desire to get help from God to enable us to see the glory and the dignity of belonging to such a church. I have no doubt in my mind that the persons who profess to belong to such a church do so in sincerity, but in dealing with the things of God, we must be guided by the Word of God, not what man thinks. No matter how sincere he may be, no matter how ancient and venerable the institutions are, there is no criterion that what he professes to hold and what he believes is the truth. It may seem a presumptuous thing to say, but we believe that it is the truth. We must be guided by the Word of God.
The Scriptures have used figures to help us to understand the truth of the church. If we think of it in relation to Christ, one figure employed is that of a body. We all know the human body expresses the person; what the person thinks and feels and desires is expressed through his or her body. So it is that Scripture has employed this figure, the body of Christ. It also uses the figure of a bride, to help us to understand how much Christ thinks of His assembly, the love that He has for it, the beauty that He sees in it, to understand something of the response of the assembly to Christ and her affection for Him. "The Spirit and the bride say, Come." The figure of a pearl is also used to show the value of the assembly to Christ, how precious it is. It was so precious that He gave His all to obtain it. The figure of a treasure is used, once again to show the value and the variety of beauty that is to be found in the assembly for the pleasure of Christ. When we come to God, the house is used. It enables us to understand that God is dwelling in the midst of His people. God finds delight to dwell in the midst of His people. Then the figure of a temple is used, showing where God is dwelling in all His holiness and glory, and persons are privileged to come into His presence and worship Him. The figure of a city is used, the grand finality, we may say, when all that is of God is gathered up into this great expression of His glory and administration of the world to come.
All those figures help us to understand the truth of the assembly, or the church. I think it is better to use the expression "the assembly"; we have become so accustomed to the word "church", that it conjures up in our minds the thought of a building, something great, imposing, something ornate to look at in the architectural sense. Generally speaking I think that is the idea that we associate with a church. But the New Translation refers to the assembly. I believe the word is excellent to set out what we understand by the one church, the one assembly, simply meaning persons who are called out from the course of this world's movements and desires and ambitions, to form a people for God, where He can centre His interests and where He can dwell. Just as Abram was called out from Ur of the Chaldees to be the father of many families, just as Israel is called out from Egypt to become the favoured nation of God and to occupy the land of Israel, the land of promise, so today, people are being called out.
Ever since Pentecost people have been called out from this world's course, from this world's ambition, from this world's desire, to be governed by the will of God, and to be by the Spirit united into one assembly in which God could find His delight and pleasure.
Now this is all very simple in so many terms, but I know that when we come to study the detail of this matter, we find that complications have crept in, and yet we would seek to understand this great and glorious truth. It was all clear enough at the beginning. There were Jews; there were pagans; and from those two classes of people, God by the gospel called out to Himself, one here and one there. Through one common object, faith in Christ, through one united power, the power of the Spirit, He formed them into one united company, having the same object, the same desire, the same affection, the same nature, for we are all partakers of the divine nature. He formed His assembly. And in spite of all the complications, all the opposition, all that has been against it, the assembly, the house of God abides; it is here today; it remains, in virtue of the power and presence of the Spirit of God. We cannot enjoy the presence of God if we are worried about our sins; we cannot enjoy the presence of God if we are torn asunder by enmities or national or social distinctions; it all has to go in the death of Christ and we only find our true place in the presence of God because we have one common object, Jesus our Saviour, our glorified Lord; we have one common power, the Spirit of God. In that way God uses His material for His building by bringing in persons who are entirely set free from guilt, from national distinctions, from social distinctions. Everything goes by the death of Christ, and persons are fitted in carefully, one here and one there, all put in together to form this wonderful structure.
The Spirit of God is our special subject and we must now endeavour to show some of the ways in which the Spirit of God is connected with the assembly.
The first indication of the house of God was when Jacob was away from his home and had the dream. He said: "This is none other than the house of God," and he anointed the stone that he had for a pillow. I believe we have there the figure of the anointing of the Holy Spirit to indicate to us the importance of the Holy Spirit in connection with the house of God.
When we come to the tabernacle we find it set up in all its structure according to the mind of God, every part fitting together, every part according to the instructions from God Himself, and after it was set up the whole structure was anointed with the anointing oil, again I believe a reference to the Holy Spirit. In connection with the temple we find great stress laid upon the olive wood, the tree from which olive oil is obtained. Quotations from the New Testament will show us how the anointing oil speaks of the Holy Spirit. When Peter was preaching in Cornelius' house he said that Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. John writing to the saints in his letters says "ye have an unction" or an anointing. I believe those scriptures show us that anointing involves the Person and power of the Holy Spirit.
Two thousand years ago the assembly was formed by the descent of the Holy Spirit. As we shall see in Corinthians, in the power of one Spirit we were all baptised into one body. Now after two thousand years what can we say? Does the house of God abide? Does the body of Christ abide? Is there such a thing in this world as the bride of Christ? Is there such a thing as the temple of God? The presence and power of the Holy Spirit is the divine guarantee that the house of God abides, that the body of Christ abides. No matter what the destruction and havoc that have been caused by the infidelity and the unfaithfulness of man, the presence of the Holy Spirit here is the divine guarantee that the house abides. If it had been dependent upon the faithfulness of man, long ago the saints would have been overthrown by the power of the enemy, and Satan would have been successful in obliterating the name of Christ and testimony for God; but the Spirit of God, a divine Person, is here in the assembly, a divine guarantee that it will be kept until the very end. The promise of Christ has been maintained to the end: "He shall abide with you forever."
At the end of Ephesians 2 there are two important references to the Spirit of God in the church. Firstly, the apostle shows that all national distinctions and enmity between Jew and Gentile have been removed in the death of Jesus. Every person who enters into the presence of God known as Father must do so in the power of one Spirit. The Spirit delights to empower those who wish to approach the Father through Christ. There remains no need for earthly or heavenly mediators, no need for ceremony or any other arrangement of man. There is direct access to the Father through Christ, and the Spirit gives the power. Never let us think of this privilege with familiarity. Let us be ever impressed that the Son and the Spirit are at our side to enable us with due reverence, liberty and affection to approach God in worship, prayer and communion.
In verse 22 (of Ephesians 2) Paul sets out a wonderful truth. God is dwelling in the midst of His people by His Spirit. Peter, in his first letter, speaks of a spiritual house, and this is the impression we gather from this verse. God is a Spirit. Solomon said He did not dwell in temples made with hands. But He does dwell in this house, which is composed of persons who are likened to living stones. Every person who has trusted Jesus as Saviour and has the gift of the Holy Spirit is a stone in this wonderful structure. This aspect of the church is a universal one and is true at any given moment on the earth. God could never dwell amidst the moral filth of this world, but He does dwell where Christ is known and enjoyed and where the Spirit alone is the recognised power for worship and testimony. The reference to the habitation of God in the Spirit is the guarantee we have mentioned that no efforts of Satan will ever destroy this house. What has been committed to men in responsibility always fails, but when Scripture states that things and persons are in Christ and in the Spirit, this is to indicate the divine ideal and it is good for us to receive an impression of the dignity of this wonderful position of blessing.
Now when we come to 1 Corinthians, we find a different aspect of the assembly. We find Paul speaking to a company of believers in a particular place, Corinth. He addresses his letter to them in this way: "The assembly of God which is at Corinth." Now if this letter had been written to Ripon, it would have caused a tremendous amount of confusion. The postman would have great difficulty in knowing where to deliver this letter. I suppose the first place would be the cathedral and then he might have thought somewhere else, and so on. You see the havoc that Satan has caused, introducing many companies, all claiming to be churches in some way or other and this presents confusion in many minds, and makes it so hard for us to understand the simple truth that there is one assembly of God, one house of God. How are we to arrive at the truth? Again I say, let us look to the word of God.
This letter to the Corinthians was written to counteract some serious evils there, but while Paul does draw attention specifically to those evils, he also takes the opportunity to state basic truths. Those truths appropriated would cure the evils he deplored. In chapter three he uses the great truth of the church as the temple of God and the Spirit dwelling in it as a correcting truth. Their conduct was to be governed by this great truth. They were to be intelligent as to it. It was a fact and their lives should correspond to it. What wonderful dignity yet solemn responsibility: "Ye are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you." No doubt there is an allusion to their pagan temples and the evil spirits that dwelt there (10:20).The Spirit of the living God dwelt in the church, therefore their conduct must be regulated accordingly. It would seem that this is a local expression of the great truth stated in Ephesians, but the responsibility to labour in accord with this truth seems to be the force in 1 Corinthians 3. If we really apprehended the immense favour and privilege of collectively being instructed by the Spirit of God, and the holiness of the temple where God dwells and is worshipped, it would greatly help us in our service.
I just want to say one word on 1 Corinthians 12 and the way in which the Spirit's activity in the assembly is there set out. In that chapter it says that we are all baptised by one Spirit into one body. There again we have the reference to the mighty incoming of the Spirit of God at Pentecost, where not only did He come in Person, but He baptised each person into this cohesive whole, this organism, this body, and it remains in virtue of His presence and power.
Persons were accustomed to demons expressing themselves and the apostle is indicating that no demon could possibly say that Jesus is Lord, and that no person could say that Jesus is Lord except in the power of the Spirit. No person speaking in the power of the Spirit could ever say, "Curse on Jesus". The assembly is the coming together of believers, to be a sphere where Christ is glorified. With the disciples on the Emmaus road, the Lord "expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself," and their hearts burned within them as He talked with them, and opened to them the Scriptures. This is exactly what the Spirit (using the gifts) is now doing in the assembly. This has been our experience, and it is the quality of experience awaiting all who desire it. And this is what we want to see in our gatherings. We want to come together as one whole, humbly before God, that there might be liberty for the Spirit to take of Christ's things, and show them unto us, and thus glorify Him. And this happens. This is something that we know and experience. This is now not only a conception as far as we are concerned; we know it to be true. We know, thank God, that in our gatherings there is liberty for the Spirit of God to come amongst us and to glorify Jesus. In another chapter it says that if an unbeliever comes in amongst you, he will be so impressed with what he hears and sees, that he will fall down and he will say that "God is amongst you, of a truth". Let us all be exercised that this should be so.
We are all, young and old, responsible to examine ourselves in the presence of God as to how our endeavours are being directed, and to what end. If we do not see the divine objective we shall not reach it. We require to see that in every place where God has worked He desires to see expressed His own truth in relation to His assembly. He wants to see His people coming together, simply, without pretension, but definitely under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He wants them to sit down together with one mind, one desire, working together with one earnest endeavour to provide a place where the Spirit of God can make much of Christ.
Is this wonderful conception to be only an ideal? Is it only to be something beautiful seen in the pages of Scripture? Or is it going to be a glorious reality here and now? Are we not going to answer to this challenge in our day, so that in the towns and villages where God has set us, there is going to be an earnest purpose on our part to carry out the word of God in this respect also? Let us continue to preach the glorious gospel of Christ, but always having in mind that when people are converted, your aim is that they should form part of God's house. You want them to sit down with yourself in those towns and villages, part of this living structure, and to experience the fulfilment of this special promise of Christ regarding the activity of the Holy Spirit in the assembly.
In closing, let me refer to the prophet Haggai 2:5. In a day of weakness and failure akin to our own, the word of God came to the people: "The word that I covenanted with you when ye came out of Egypt, so my Spirit remaineth among you: Fear ye not."