What Is The Church?
The assembly, or church, is composed of all the redeemed of the present dispensation - from Pentecost to the Lord's return. In this sense all the saints of this dispensation, whether they are still here below when the Lord comes or have been gathered to Himself before His coming, form part of it; but generally the Word of God considers the Assembly as being composed of all the members of Christ present on the earth at a given moment.
The assembly is the bride of Christ, whom He has loved, for whom He has given Himself 'that He might present it to Himself a glorious church.' But the assembly is also shown to us under two other characters, especially with reference to the subject that is now before us.
Firstly, the church is the body of Christ. This body was formed at Pentecost (Acts 2). At that time the Lord Jesus, having ascended to heaven and being seated at the right hand of the Father, consequent On the work of redemption, sent down the Spirit that He had received (Acts 2:33), to unite together all the redeemed upon the earth in one body together with Him, their glorified Head in heaven. At Pentecost there remained yet one entire side of this mystery to be revealed, which constitutes the special service of the apostle Paul, namely, that the 'Gentiles' were to be 'fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel' (Eph. 3:6). Acts 2 presents to us the assembly under its Jewish aspect, so to speak, according to the allusion that is made in Psalm 22:22; nevertheless, it is the assembly. That which was accomplished at Pentecost by the gift of the Holy Spirit remains, and will remain unto the coming of the Lord. Baptized by one Spirit into One body here below, all believers are eternally united by this one Spirit to their heavenly Head for the final gathering together to be with Himself in the glory. This unity - 'one body and one Spirit' (Eph. 4:4) - exists today as at the beginning; it is indestructible, and ruin cannot reach it.
Besides the principle of the assembly - that is to say, the unity of the body of Christ - the person of the Lord is the centre of it (later on we shall insist on the immense importance of this fact), and the Holy Spirit the agent of His working. He acts by means of the gifts bestowed by the risen Lord on the church (Eph. 4), or distributed by the Spirit as it pleases Him (1 Cor. 12). The expression of this gathering on earth is the table of the Lord. It is there that, besides the memorial of His death, the unity of the body is proclaimed (1 Cor. 10: 16, 17).
Secondly, in connection with the descent of the Holy Spirit to the earth, the assembly is also considered as the house of God here below, as a habitation of God by the Spirit. In the first mention that is made of the church (Matt. 16), the Lord speaks of it as a building, and not as a body. When Peter, to whom His person had been revealed by the Father, had declared that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Lord announced to him that on that rock He would build His assembly, and that the gates of hell (Hades) would not prevail against it. This building was constituted by the descent of the Holy Spirit after that the Son of the living God had been declared 'Son of God with power' by the resurrection (Rom. 1:4). It continues, and will only be completed at His coming, when that which He has built will be translated into heaven to be the city of God, the New Jerusalem, the temple to which it now grows (Eph. 2:21). This house is composed of living stones who are built on Him Who is the foundation, 'the chief cornerstone.' Such a work is perfect, because it is the work of Christ, the Son of the living God. It is as unalterable as the formation of the one body here below.
Just as with the body, the building is also considered as composed of all the redeemed in the whole world at a given moment. 'In whom,' it is said to the Ephesians, lye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit' (Eph. 2:22).
On the other hand, the assembly is not only considered as built by the Lord, but also as entrusted to man's responsibility for its edification (1 Cor. 3), and here we see everything has failed. The church has become 'like a great house where there are vessels to honour and to dishonour' (2 Tim. 2:20). If the manifestation of the unity of the body on earth has failed, and if none can recognize this unity in the manner in which the assembly presents itself today to the eyes of the world, it is because other materials have entered into the building of the house besides living stones, and in this outward respect the house has been ruined.