Where And How Should Christians Gather?
- The Israelites in the wilderness
- The Isrealites in the Land of Canaan
- After the Babylonian Captivity
- The New Testament
- Gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ
- Worship in Spirit and in truth
- Gathering in times of ruin and apostasy
Many Christians lack discernment as to the believer's call on earth. They think that everything is settled when a sinner has come to God with confession of guilt and then knows that his sins are forgiven on the basis of the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ. As to the Gospel, they adhere emphatically to the Word of God, but give less consideration to that which concerns life after conversion, not considering the fact that in this also the Bible is to be our sole guide.
1 Thess.1: 9-state that:"ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" Conversion comes first, for the natural man cannot serve God (Rom.3: 10-12), but service for God follows. It is not conversion then, which is God's purpose for man, but conversion is the indespensable means for reaching that purpose, namely,"to serve the living and true God"
We find this also in the epistle to the Romans. After an exact description in the first eleven chapters of the way in which a sinner can draw near to God, we read in chapter 12:1,that it is our reasonable or intelligent service to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God. And in verse 2 we are exhorted to prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
It is an undeniable truth that the"will of God" is only to be found in the "Word of God" and that therefore we must examine the Word of God if we want to know how, according to His will, we should serve the "living and true God". The Psalmist says.(Ps.119: 99, 105) "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet,and a light unto my path" and "I have more understanding than all my teachers; for thy testimonies are my meditation."
When we think of God's service we must first of all occupy ourselves with the gathering place for believers, since it is there that they mutually come into direct contact with God, whether it be in the worship service where they offer Him thanks for what He has done, in the prayers meeting where they ask Him for what they need, or in the ministry of the word where He comes to them to instruct them. In all of these gatherings he wants to be in their midst (1 Cor.14: 25 and Matt. 18:20).
We therefore find in the Bible that instructions with regard to gathering have an important place in the Old as well as in the New Testament. How much for example, is spoken in Exodus and Leviticus about the Tabernacle of the congregation (tent of meeting) and the service thereof! Also in the New Testament, after the epistle to the Romans which develops the doctrine of salvation, we find the Epistles to the Corinthians which contain the divine principles dealing with the gathering of believers.
It is therefore astonishing that in no other sphere does there exist such diversity of opinion as precisely about this point. One is of the opinion that he must gather only with those who think exactly as he dose with reference to a part or several parts of the truth, another with such as form a State or National church. A third thinks he must stay where, in his own opinion, he receives the most blessing. Does the Word of God then speak with so little clarity on this point, or does no definite instruction exist? Let us examine this important matter and at the same time bear in mind that"obedience is better than sacrifice" (1Sam .15:22.
First of all, a remark about the value to us the Old Testament teachings. In 2 Tim.2: 16 it is written, "every scripture is divinely inspired, and profitable for teaching, for conviction, for correction, for instruction in righteousness". In 1 Cori.10: 11 we are told that all that Israel encountered in the wilderness served them as types and happened for our admonitions. Finally, in Heb.9: 23 we are informed that the visible things in the Old Testament are images of the heavenly and spiritual things of which the New Testament speaks. In the Old Testament we thus find God's thoughts on heavenly things expressed in visible pictures. So the sacrifices in the Old Testament are types of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus, and the Tabernacle and Temple, the House of God on earth, give for the natural eye visible representations of the spiritual House of god, about which the New Testament speaks (1Pet.2: 5; Eph.2: 20-22 and 1 cori.3: 16). The Apostle Paul also shows us in 1 Cor.9: 9 that the simplest material instructions have a spiritual meaning. Let us therefore consider the Old Testament in this light.
In Genesis the gathering of believers is not spoken of. There we always see only a single person serving God, surrounded by men who are godless. But it is noteworthy that as soon as God begins to separate a people for Himself, He gives indications that He wants to dwell in the midst of His people and that His people should draw nigh to Him there. As soon as Abram arrives in Canaan, he calls on the Name of Jehovah at Bethel (House of God). The word of God uses the name Bethel here, although the place was at that time called Luz and it was only 162 years later that it was named Bethel by Jacob. And the moving away from Bethel brings hunger and hardship, which soon disappear when Abraham turns back to Bethel and the Altar which was located there.
In chapter 28, God appears to Jacob at the same place as the latter is on his way to Haran where his sons are to be born and the beginning of the nation seen. God promised him at Bethel that it is to be the great nation. In chap.35 we see that God brings Jacob there again, and reveals Himself to him in that very place.
All of these are but indications. The real treatment of the subject we find from Exodus 19 onward.it is true, that Moses speaks in the presence of Pharaoh about the people offering sacrifices in a collective way. But these cannot be offered in Egypt. First, the Passover-lamb must be slain (Cha.12), the people must be redeemed, and all connection with the Egyptians be broken off (Chap.14). It is then, when God has declared that Israel is His people, he can dwell in the midst of them and have a place there where the people gather with him."And they shall make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them "(25:8) and from chap.25 -40 we find, almost exclusively, instructions and commandments pertaining to the Tabernacle and its service. The tabernacle is called:
1. - a habitation - (Exodus 25:9. See New Translation Margin)
2. - the tent of meeting - (Exodus 29:42. New trans)
3. - the tent of the testimony - (Numbers 17:7, New trans)
These names clearly indicate the meaning. It was (1) the House of God -, the habitation. - (Chap.25: 8-9), the place where god dwelt in the midst of His people. But in the habitation the people (2) met together, with God. And furthermore it was (3) God's testimony on earth. Here God was seen in His holiness, but also in His love and grace.
It was to that place that all men had to come three times a year, and there it was that the first fruits had to be taken (34:23 and 26). To that place the offerings were brought (Leviticus 1-7) and there the priest were ordained (8and 9). Yes, even all animals that were slaughtered to be eaten had to be brought there first (17:4).
Should there have been any doubt in the mind of an Israelite who knew the Word of God as to the gathering place? What joy it must have been for God to have a people who had heard His instructions, and because of this came with a willing heart and a voluntary spirit to follow them (Exodus 35). God did not demand, but expected a joyful sacrifice. And what a glorious answer the people gave! No one was missing but all came with a willing heart to give to God the best they had. Women gave their jewels and mirrors (38:8), men their precious material, gold and silver. No selfishness no fear of dishonor from men, no craving after profit could even for one instant hold them back from acting according to God's mind. Not everybody could give the same. Some women who had a wise heart could do more than others. But all came to give with a willing heart what they had! Does that not make us think of the first period of the Assembly as described in Acts 2:42,47?
And what answer did God in His goodness give to this sentiment? As soon as the tabernacle had been set up according to God's mind, He came in a manner visible to all into the midst of His people in order to dwell there (Exodus 40), and from His habitation He talked to them and communicated to them all His wonderful thoughts.
He taught them how they could approach Him and have fellowship with Him in eating of the same sacrifice (Leviticus 3:11 and 7:19); how Aaron's sons were to attend to the Lord's charge at the entrance of the tent of meeting (8:35) and help with the work of atonement (9:9). They were instructed how each one could preserve his purity (Chap.11), and how a person having become unclean could be cleansed again (Chap.12-15).He taught them the feasts which they were to celebrate(Chap.23) and He gave them instructions which made it impossible for one to lose his inheritance (Chap.25).He gave each one his place and service in the midst of the people, so that the whole became a well-fitting unit where all was done in an orderly way (Num.1-4). And what wonderful things He revealed to them besides in the seven weeks between Exodus 40:1 and Numbers 10:11!
Sadly enough the people did not stay long in this good condition. God complains in Amos 5:25 and 26 that they did not sacrifice to Him in the wilderness but that they took up the tabernacle of Moloch. They forgot the one gathering place and went to other place where God was not.
In Deuteronomy we find new teachings. At the end of the 40-year march through the wilderness, the people have arrived at the Jordan in order to enter the promised land, and God gives them instructions as to how they should behave themselves.
The divisions of this book are clearly understandable. The first eleven chapters pass in review the people's history and God's ways of grace with them. Chapter 12 begins the "statutes and judgments" (or "ordinances") that have were to observe, while Chaps, 30-34 give a prophetic vision of the people driven from the land, as a result of their disobedience.
As already said, the first 11 chapters pass in the review the wilderness journey. But it is not merely a repetition of what we find in Exodus and Numbers. Above all it is demonstrated that God's love and faithfulness have kept them, and that all hardship, yea, the whole 39 year trip "through all the great and terrible wilderness" were but the consequences of their disobedience. If they had hearkened to God's commandment they would have reached the land after an 11 day journey (Deut. 1: 2). This part ends with Chap. 11 where once again great emphasis is laid on the fact that only full dependence on and obedience to God's Word can keep them in the blessings of the inheritance which God wanted to give them.
After their hearts have thus become willing to listen, God, in Chaps. 12-29, presents to them His statutes and judgments. And as always, here too the first point in the gathering of the people to serve God. The people were entering a land where all spoke of idolatry, that is, demon worship (1 Cor. 10: 20). The human heart is inclined to adapt itself to its surroundings; we see that in the later history of the people and alas, just as clearly in the history of Christendom. That is why God from the very beginning clearly declares to them the fact that divine worship is incompatible with demon worship, both as to the object and t the manner in which it is conducted. There are many demons and that is why the heathen adore many gods in many places; on the high mountains, on the hills and under every green tree! In contrast, the principal thought of the Old Testament is The Lord (Jehovah) our God is one Lord (Jehovah) (Deut. 6: 4). They knew Him as the creator God, the Almighty and as Jehovah (Yahweh). That is why there can be only one place of adoration, only one manner in which to render divine service. There can be no accord with idol worship. Extra stress is laid upon this in Chap. 12: 2 - 7, yes, even in the whole of Chap. 12 and in many other places in the following chapters.
The one God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth the Almighty, Jehovah, Israel's God of the covenant, claims the right to determine where and in what way His people, who live in His land, can approach Him. That is why we find that six times in this chapter the place is spoken of, which "the Lord your God shall choose" and also further on, in chapter 14-17, 18, 26 and 31, in all, a total of 21 times. Does that not give an overwhelming impression of God's supremacy, and also of the value He attributes to the place in which his people gather?
God wants His people to be ONE practically, as He at all times sees them as one in the twelve cakes or loaves of show bread in the Holy Place (Lev. 24: 5), and in the two onyx stones of the shoulder piece, and the twelve stones on the breast-plate of the high priest's robes (Exodus 28: 9-11). We see the same unity symbolized later in the twelve stones get up after the crossing of the Jordan (Josh 4: 1-10), and in Ezra's day by the twelve he-goats offered as a sin-offering for ALL Israel (6: 17).
This practical unity is formed through the possession of a common goal, a mutual object of worship and through oneness of thought (see 1 Cor. 1:10). The name of our God possesses a wonderfully unifying power. Statan knows this and fears nothing so much as this power. That is why he constantly endeavors to destroy the unity. Many believers do not see this. Godless Jeroboam saw it very well. He knew that common worship connected with "the Name of the Lord" would irrevocable annual the dissension. That is why he established a worship separated from "the place which the Lord had chosen to place his name there" (Kings 12).
In Deuteronomy 12 everything is arranged so as to strengthen and to realize the practical unity of the people. God knew the richness of the inheritance that He wanted to give to His people. And He expected and desired that His people with thankful heart should return some of this wealth to the Giver. That is why there are named here so many free-will offerings. Only the tithes and the offering of the first fruits were obligatory sacrifices. God wants everything that is consecrated to Him through voluntary, thankful and obedient hearts to be brought to that place where He Himself is. He wants, so to speak, to receive it personally from their hands and collectively enjoy it with them. A part of the sacrifices was to be His "food" (or "bread" as it can also be translated) (Leviticus 3: 11 and 16) and the remainder was for His people, with their sons, and daughters, man-servants and maid-servants and the Levites, as they gathered with a glad heart before His face (Deut 12: 7, 12, 18). Was a more wonderful service thinkable, for an earthly people, than that presented to us here? Yet it was only for hearts in which abided the love of God and therefore valued communion with Him. The elder son in Luke 15 attached no value to happiness in communion with his father. He wanted to be gay with his friends without the presence of his father. That was practically idolatry. What a contrast to Isaiah 26: 8 where it is said that "the desire of our soul is to Thy name, and to the remembrance of Thee" and to Deuteronomy 18:6 where a Levite is spoken of who shall "come with all the desire of his mind unto the place with the LORD shall choose."
From the following chapters of Deuteronomy we see the important we see the important place which the divinely chosen location occupied in the life of the people. That cannot be otherwise. The life of god's people must be dominated by the fact that God dwells in their midst. In chapters 14 and 15 we find the eating of the tithes and the first fruits. Chap. 16 speaks of the sacrifice of the Passover, the Feast of the Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. In chapter 17 the setting of all difficult differences is dealth with, and in the 18th chapter the service of the Levites finds its place. In chap. 26 the basket with the fruits is brought before God and in chap. 31:11 the command is finally given that each year of the jubilee (year of pardon) the law should be read in the presence of all Israel.
From 1 Kings 11:36 we know that the place referred to in Deuteronomy was Jerusalem. Psalm 78:68 shows us that God chose Mount Zion, which He loved, to place His Sanctuary there. Farther on we se (verse 7) that God made this place known in connection with His servant David, the type of the Son of David who in Matt. 18:20 speaks about the place connected with His Name, where He wants to be in the midst of His own.
Psalm 132 lets us see that David already in his youth had searched for the place where God desired to dwell. He found it first where Caleb found his inheritance (Josh. 14:17), and where the sons of Korah found smoothed ways in the desert (Psalm 84:5), that is, hi his heart. And if we do not find it there first, that is to say, if we do not accept God's words concerning this place by faith and in full dependance, and thereby our hearts know this place, then we shall never find it. But only after a humiliating experience did David learn to know Mount Zion as that place, which god had chosen. In 1 Chron. 21 and 22 we find that God's judgment had first to fall on his pride, and only after he had paid the full price did God reveal to him the place for the Lord's house. If always costs something and calls for sacrifice to look away from all natural things and to act solely according to God's thoughts.
Unfortunately, Israel did not obey these commandments of the Lord. As soon as the eyewitnesses of God's great works had died, the people rapidly turned away and served idols (Judges 2:7-13). And in Hosea4: 13 God complains that they sacrificed on the tops of the mountains and burnt incense on the hills, under the oaks and poplars and terebinths; doing precisely what God had strictly prohibited in Deuteronomy 12. Even a Godfearing man like Solomon burnt incense on the high places, until God gave him "a wise and understanding heart" (1 King 3), and against nearly all the kings, as God-fearing as they may have been in other respects, God had to direct this same complaint. As always, in this also, man has spoiled what God has entrusted to him.
In Ezra and Nehemiah we find a new period in Israel's history. As a consequence of the people's unfaithfulness, the terribleness of which Ezekiel 8 gives us a picture, the Glory of the God of Israel had left Jerusalem. Jerusalem was "the place which the Lord had chosen to cause His Name do dwell there". In it was "the throne of the Lord" (1 Chron. 29:23). Nevertheless, it is now called by God an "adulterous wife" and a "harlot" (Ezekiel 16:32 and 35). The ten tribes had been led to Assyria into captivity by Shalmaneser. 134 years later the kingdom of Judah was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the inhabitants of Judea were led into captivity, the majority of Babylon.
But in grace God remembered the faithful remnant and moved the heart of Cyrus, the king of Persia, to allow the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem after the seventy years' captivity, as Isaiah had prophesied 150-200 years before (Isa. 45). Only a small part of Judah and Benjamin made use of this opportunity. According to Ezra 2:64 there were some 42000 who returned with Zerubbabel. If we take into consideration that there were times when Judah and Israel together had an army of 1 200 000 men (2 Chron. 13:3), we can see how small the returning remnant was. The majority had no longing for the God-given land nor for Jerusalem where the temple had stood. Others (like Daniel) were hindered by their position or age from going along.
But God was with the small remnant. He encouraged and strengthened them. He protected them from their enemies and bestowed His help and favour upon them. Not that God restored them to the same position that Israel had taken before: God is not indifferent to any unfaithfulness and does not operate any restoration to a situation that man through his sin and unfaithfulness has lost. God did not restore Adam to the paradise of Eden. Even Christians to whom the value of Christ's work is imputed: a work through which God is infinitely more glorified than Adam and all his descendants have dishonoured Him, even they will not be transplanted into the paradise of Eden again, although their place is infinitely higher and more glorious. This remnant must do without the visible presence of the Lord. The throne of God is no longer in Jerusalem. A Zerubbabel, the prince coming from the kingly race of David does ascend the throne, but is only a governor for the Persian world-rulers. God has withdrawn His glory from Jerusalem, and given the direct government of the world to the Gentile nations (see Joshua 3:11; 1 Chron. 29:23; Dan. 2:28; Isaiah 45:1). God recognizes the sovereign rights of the heathen empires. The dates in the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah are indicated according to the reigning years of the heathen kings. God works in favour of His people, not in destroying their masters, but in that He instills in the hearts of these kings a good disposition toward the Jews.
If the remnant had spoken as so many do today, they would surely not have returned to Judea. Over 1000 years had passed away since Moses had made known the "statutes and judgements" in which God had established the only place of worship for all the twelve tribes and in which the priestly functions were expressly determined. Five long centuries had gone since Solomon had built his magnificent temple and arranged everything according to Gods thoughts, as revealed to David. Never had unbelief more reason to excuse disobedience to God's Word. Was it now necessary after one thousand years, now that the circumstances were so different, to still act according to what God had laid down in the books of Moses?
Had not God Himself abandoned Jerusalem and permitted the temple and city to be burnt? Had He not blessed the Jews who lived in Babylon and other lands? Let us think only of Daniel and his friends, of Esther and Mordecai. Was that not proof that those who stayed in Babylon were on the right way? And should they now return to Palestine, devastated and inhabited mostly by enemies; to Jerusalem, where no liveable house stood any more, where there was no alter for the sacrifices, no temple for worship, and no wall of defence against the enemies; and for the exclusion of evil? It was utterly impossible to reinstate the old situation.
Was it not necessary to take consideration the teachings of history? Throughout the centuries actually only two tribes had served God in Jerusalem. In the last seventy years everything had changed, and under God's government a completely different situation had come about. And now only a handful from Judah and Benjamin, with a few priests and Levites were going back. Was this little group the only one to know it? Did the more than 90% who were not returning, among who were people like Daniel, all act wrongly?
Without a shadow of doubt many must have spoken that way. In no other way can it be explained that the Scriptures tell us that only 42000 men, hardly 5% of the total, returned to Jerusalem.
But faith does not let itself be guided by considerations, as reasonable and correct as they may appear to be. It does not look at their circumstances. It does not judge the accuracy of a course entered upon according to the apparent results. It does not count upon the number of people making common cause with it. It does not let godly instructions be judged by history, but judges history according to obedience towards God's commandments. It is concerned only with what the Word of God says, without reckoning on their things. God's Word had said that Palestine was the promised land, that Jerusalem was the place that "He had chosen to cause His Name to dwell there"; that His house, in which His people could approach Him was there. And thus, as soon as they had heard God's message, the believing remnant went to Jerusalem. Certainly there were dangers on the way. The enmity of the people that lived around Jerusalem was great enough, but they didn't take them into account, they were not even mentioned. And what zeal they developed when they arrived!
First a test was made to see if their descent as Israelites, or eventually as priests, could be proven. In normal times that had not been necessary, as it was known who was an Israelite, a priest or a stranger, and it was not necessary to establish an inquiry as to descent. But in times of disorder and ruin this is necessary. In Babylon a stranger could easily slip in. And through their dispersion among the peoples, and unfortunately even their mixture with them, as well as also through the fact that strangers lived in the land, it was possible for a stranger to pass himself off as an Israelite, and that a priest was not of pure descent. The mere claim of descent by the person in question was not sufficient. In times of ruin somone who lays claim to a title must prove his right to it. Not that Zerubbabel questioned the claim. That, he left to God. "The Lord knoweth them that are His" (2 Tim. 2:19). But the could only decide on clear evidence. If later a high priest should be raised up with the Urim and Thummim (Lights and Perfections), then the final decision as to their claims was to be made according to the knowledge of the Omniscient God (Ezra 2:63).
But as soon as it was established who belonged to God's people and who could exercise the priesthood, the first thing was to gather for worship. There existed no doubt as to where they had to gather. They "gathered themselves together as one man to Jerusalem" (Ezra 3:1). There was no differenc of opinion as to what was to be done. Surely, the instructions of the Word of God are of inestimable value and in Nehemiah 8: 2-13 we find how great a place they occupy with the remnant. The first act of this people delivered and restored by the Lord is to sacrifice to God, to praise Him and to worship Him.
There was not even the slightest doubt entertained by the people as to where this worship must take place. There was but one place "that the Lord had chosen to cause His Name to dwell therein", and that was Jerusalem; only one altar on which according to God's will they could sacrifice: the altar at the threshingfloor or Ornan, in the porch of the House of God, the temple.
Of course the temple was no longer standing, but the ruin still existed. The altar no longer stood there, but the spot which it had occupied remained. There they rebuilt the altar, and this altar in the old place, on the old spot, is called by Malachi "The Lord's Table". There on the Lord's altar, in the outer court of the Temple ruins, they offered burnt offerings "as written in the law of Moses, the man of God". There they celebrated the feast of the Tabernacles "as it is written" and brought the prescribed offerings for this feast "according to the instructions". Could anything whatsoever exist more inclining the heart to act only according to the Word of God than worship in the place where the Lord's Name dwells, in His house?
Now, after they have obedient in everything, God gives them more light and greater willingness. They can no longer contemplate the ruins of the Temple without feeling a strong urge to build. Certainly the Temple is devastated and no more to be established in its old glory. Those having seen the first House wept as the foundation of the new one was being laid. They could not forget that the ark of the covenant with the tables of the law and with the pot of manna no longer existed; nor that the propitiatory or mercy seat was no longer there, on which, every year, on the great day of atonement the high priest had to sprinkle the blood (Lev. 16), nor that there were also no cherubims between which the Glory of Jehovah abided; nor that the Urim and the Thummim no longer existed, also, with their small number, and in their poverty, the surely could not build the Temple with the same magnificence with which Solomon had built it.
But as weak as their efforts may have been, as miserable and different the edifice may have appeared in the eyes of men, in God's eyes it was wonderful. He saw the feelings of the hearts. He noted the obedience toward His Word in their hearts, and that was wellpleasing to Him. That is why He encourages them indicating to them that in His eyes it is the same Temple as that built by Solomon; and that the final glory of this House would be greater than the first. Solomon's temple, Zerubbabel's temple, Herod's temple and the temple in the Millennium (Ezek. 40-43), in His eye are one and the same. There is only one House of God. "The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, saith Jehovah of hosts" (Hag. 2:9, New Trans.).
Not that the remnant in itself was better than their brethren who had stayed in Babylon. They belonged to the same people that had merited God's wrath. We read in Ezra and Nehemiah of so much weakness and so much sin, that we can only wonder that God did not destroy them in judgment. God had to complain through the prophet Haggai that they lived in ceiled houses and did not think about the building of the Temple. In not less than four chapters we find that, in complete disobedience to God's Word, they had mixed with strange people (Ezra 9 and 10; Nehemiah 9 and 13:3 and 23), and that the high priest Eliashib had taken the lead in this. We see that the nobles oppressed the poor and even sold them as slaves. Perhaps in some things their practical conditions was worse than that of many in Babylon or in Persia; we need only to think of Mordecai. Nevertheless God sees them alone as the representatives of His people. He lets their history be taken down and raises up kings to help them. To them He sends His prophets and gives His promises. The others are only spoken of in-so-far as their circumstances are in connection with the remnant, as for example, in Esther, where it is a question of warding off the destruction of the entire people as well as that the remnant. In them God finds, in spite of all the weakness and defects, a principle of obedience. They inquire, (although even this they sometimes forget to do), as to God's mind, how they were to act and how they could serve God according to His thoughts. That was the principle on which they acted, and by which they reached the one place of gathering according to His mind, the place "that the Lord had chosen of cause His Name to dwell therein." For all times the saying holds true: "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Sam. 15: 22).
As every attentive reader will confirm, the Lord Jesus is presented in Matthew's Gospel as the King who comes to His people Israel in order to set up His Kingdom. In the genealogical table His descent from King David is emphasized, and in chapter two we find the homage which the wise men of the East pay to Him as King.
The kingdom is called here "the kingdom of Heaven", in that, although on earth, it is to be governed by heavenly principles. In chapter 4: 17-25 we find the powerful message of the Lord "Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand..." When as a result of His miracles great multitudes follow Him, the Lord, in the sermon on the mount (Chaps. 5, 6 and 7), gives the fundamental law, the principles of the kingdom, or to be more exact, the character of those who are to partake thereof. But these principles were opposed to the proud thoughts of the Jews, and in chapters 8 to 12 we find His rejection by the people. Then, in chapter 13, we have the new character of the kingdom: a kingdom whose king is absent, where tares are sown among the wheat, and the meal becomes throughly levened by the leaven (compare 1 Cor. 5: 6-8), but that is not restricted to the Jews alone: the field is the world. In chapter 16 we then have the completely new thing that is to come: the Church or Assembly, which is to be built by Christ.
This is an important point. Peter confesses Christ not only as the Son of God, but the Son of the living God, of whom and in whom is life and life-giving power. Christ, who at His resurrection broke through the gates of Hades, and was thus declared to be the Son of God with power (Rom. 1: 4), builds the Assembly of the living God (1 Tim. 3:15) on Himself as the Son of the living God. Hereby an entirely new situation is introduced. Not that Israel is rejected for good. Chapter 17 shows us that the Son of Man will some day set up His kingdom in glory. But for the time being the Assembly has taken the place of Israel as God's testimony on earth.
In chapter 18 we find this more fully developed. The decision in disciplinary question no longer rsides with the synagogue (John 9:22, 34) but with the Assembly. And the authority of the Assembly rests on the fact that she is gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus and that He Himself is in her midst.
It is clear that the Lord here speaks of the time after His ascension. When He was the earth He decided all questions. In Chap. 16 we have also seen that the Assembly did not exist, but was to be built. 1 Co. 12:13 and other passages teach us that the Lord began to do this on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
Matt. 18: 20 is the only place in the New Testament where the Lord promises to be in the midst of His own. It is true that He had promised since the days of yore to be with each believer. But that is something completely different. Here He wants to as one of them in their midst, as He has prophetically stated in Psalm 22: 23, "In the midst of the congregation will I praise Thee." That is why, as a preliminary condition for His presence, it is said here that they are gathered to His name. He promises His disciples who gather as the Assembly that He will be in their midst if they are gathered to His Name.
As this text is sometimes erroneously construed, it will be good to emphasize the correctness of the above -written. We must keep in mind the fact that we can only grasp the true meaning of a text, if we read it in connection with the passage in which it appears. A text removed from its context is but a pretext. Otherwise I should be able to "prove?" all I wish, and, alas, this is often done.
In the whole chapter the Lord teaches us that we should act in a spirit of humility and grace. From verse 15 onward He applies this to the case in which a brother should sin against me. But what must I do if my action in grace is without result? To whom should i turn? There is a resource: The Assembly which was built by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself on Himself has the authority to give judgment in all questions between brethren. If she, on earth, makes a decision, binds or unbinds, it is recognized in Heaven. And if on earth she will act in dependence and grace, the Father in Heaven will give here what she asks. And so that it should be clear and understandable to the disciples, on what this promise rests, the Lord adds, "Where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them." If the Assembly is gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus, He is in her midst and her decisions are clothed with His authority (See 1 Cor. 5: 4, 5).*
If two or more believers live in different localities, and agree to pray at an appointed hour about a definte matter, verse 19 cannot be applied to this. Certainly God, who hears the prayer of each believer, will also hear them! But that has nothing to do with this verse. And if two or more believers gather for a spiritual purpose, be it for worship, for the preaching of the Word, for prayer or whatever other character the gathering may have, this with nothing more is not a gathering where the Lord Jesus is in the midst. For that, it is necessary that the Assembly be gathered to His Name. Only thus does the Lord give this promise that He will be in their midst.
We find for this two preliminary conditions:
a) That the Assembly gathers as such. In verse 17 is not written "an" but "the" Assembly. Chapter 16 also speaks of "the" Assembly. There is but one Assembly, the Assembly of the living God (1 Tim. 3:15). All true believers who live in a given locality are the local expression of the unity of that one Assembly, yes, they are for me, the Assembly. That is why the apostle Paul writes to "the Assembly of the Thessalonians", "the Assembly of God which is in Corinth," etc.
The Scriptures do not recognize the existence of two or more Assemblies (apart from the local gathering which are to expressions of the whole). There is but one body of Christ. That is why it is an absolute preliminary condition for the presence of the Lord in the midst of the two or three, that they gather on the basis of the one Assembly. Perhaps not all who belong to the Assembly are present. Some may be ill or weak, or may be hindered for other reasons. Many may stay away in order to gather on another ground than that of the one Assembly. They find the ground too narrow, and add to the belonging to the one Assembly other conditions. But the two or three are gathered at the place where all believers belong. And even if their hearts are grieved "because few appear", their eyes of faith, in spite of it, see them all together as members of the one body of Christ. They are gathered as the Assembly.
b) The second conditions is that they are gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. His Name must be the sole centre, the only thing that characterizes them. They are gathered unto this name. This Name is the Host. But that means everything is regulated through Jesus' name, and that it is not the gathered who determine how the course of the gathering should be, which gatherings should take place, how the worship should be practiced, in short, how everything in connection with the gathering should be regulated. The Lord Jesus should regulate everything, and the two or three gathered to His Name alone should do nothing else but ask, "Lord, what wilt Thou have us to do?" They should carefully study His Word, and, without personal thoughts and without criticism they should seek to put into practice His "statuts and judgments". (Deuteronomy 12). "Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves" (James 1: 21-22).
If believers are thus gathered, even if it be only two or three, then they are gathered to His Name,and He is in their midst. What blessed place and what a privilege thus to be the guests of the Lord Jesus Christ! But also what a responsibility for each believer, as to what he does, whether he occupies this place close to the Lord Jesus, or another place which he has chosen himself, where however the Lord Jesus is not in the midst of His own.
Does not Matt. 18: 20 immediately remind us of the "place which the Lord your God will choose to cause His Name to dwell there" (Deuteronomy12)? Here also we find "the Name" as the gathering place. The Son of the living God who transforms dead sinners into living stones, and with them, builds His Assembly (Matt. 16: 18; 1 Peter 2: 4, 5), wants His Assembly to gather in (or better "to" or "unto") His Name and binds His presence to it. Here then we have the only place of gathering for all who belong to the Lord Jesus.
Comparing Matt. 18:20 with Deut. 12, the question might be raised as to whether in both cases the same place is referred to. In Deuteronomy a geographically designated place is named, that is, Jerusalem. Is it so also in Matt. 18: 20? John 4: 20-26 gives the answer.
The Samaritan woman had seen, through the saying in which the Lord Jesus revealed her moral conditions, that He was a prophet. She asks what He thinks about the great controversy between Jews and Samaritans: Is Mount Zion or Mount Gerizim the place where God must be adored? Naturally the Lord answers the controversial question in the spirit of the Word of God. Jerusalem is "the place".
But now beginning with the Old Testament worship. He proceeds to show that through His coming to earth, everything is to be changed. Since Israel has rejected Him and thus lost the present fulfilment of the promised earthly blessings, the Lord extends His field of activity to the whole world (Matt. 13:38), and out of it gathers His assembly (Matt. 16: 18). The blessings of the latter are not earthly (material) but spiritual. It is itself a heavenly and a spiritual body, founded on Jesus Christ who died on earth but who is now risen and glorified and in which God the Holy Spirit dwells (1 Cor. 3:16). Those Who belong to the Assembly, not only know God as LORD (Jehovah), but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is their God and Father. They also have the spirit of sonship through which they cry "Abba, Father"! (Eph. 1:17; 3: 14; John 20:17; Rom. 8:15). Therefore their worship also should be an entirely different character: they should worship the Father in spirit and in truth.
"In spirit" indicates the changed character. It was not any more to be in an earthly manner, adapted to the natural thoughts of man on earth: a locally designated place; a temple built out of the most precious materials that are found on earth; sacrifices from all that the earth produces; a service in which man can give the best and the highest that he possesses in wonderful music and costly vestments; in short, a service in which earthly man approaches God as if His thoughts also were earthly.
Henceforth the true worshipers should draw nigh unto God in the full knowledge of who and what God is, "God is a spirit" and the true worshipper is able to approach Him in the power of the new life which he has received at new birth (John 3: 5-8). This is done, not now with external means, which at best are but figures of the heavenly (Heb. 9: 23, 24), but in a spiritual way.
"In truth" means in conformity with the way in which God has revealed Himself. Thus, it is no longer as the Israelite standing before Jehovah, the God of the covenant: "to the mount that might be touched and was all on fire, and to obscurity, and darkness, and tempest, and trumpet's sound, and voice of words; which they that heard, excusing themselves, declined the word being addressed to them any more..." (Heb. 12:18:21, New Trans.), but as a child standing in relationship to his father; "The Father seeketh such to worship Him" (John 4: 23; Rom. 8:15; 1 John 3:1).
This change is also stressed in Heb. 13: 10-16). The whole epistle deals with the difference and the relation between the law and the worship united with it, and the Person of the Lord Jesus as the substance and centre of Christian worship. And the result is that in each chapter, the old, which at best is an earthly type of the Heavenly Lord and His service, disappears, and the Lord Jesus alone remains, as we see at he close of the epistle in chapter 13: 18, "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever."
That is where the inference in chapter 13:10 is drawn from: those who serve the Tabernacle, a service by which access to God was not revealed (Chap 9:8), have no right to eat from the Christian altar. Only such can eat from it as have "boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus" (Chap. 10:19). Whoever wants to be with Jesus, and the Holy Spirit accepts this as a foregone conclusion in every Christian, must either be actually in heaven (9:12) or "go forth unto Him without the camp," that is, outside the system of earthly worship. In Chap. 13:12 all doubt is excluded that for the believing Jews, to whom the epistle was addressed, "the camp" was Jerusalem, the city which under the old economy was "The place the Lord had chosen to cause His Name to dwell there". The Lord Jesus is now the centre around which all His own gather, in separation from all that is called worship which is performed in an Old Testament spirit.
In Heb. 13:10 the Holy refers to the portion of the offering, that if it were a sin - or meat-offering it could be eaten only by the priest and eventually his family, but if it were a peace-offering it could be eaten, provided he were clean, by each Israelite (Lev. 6:8 to 7:38). A part of the peace-offering was for God and is called "Jehovah's food (or bread)" (3:11). The rest was for the one sacrificing and the sacrificing priest, yea, for each Israelite who was clean. And the altar on which the offering was brought was called "the Lord's Table" (Malachi 1: 7-14).
The Christian altar is also called "the Lord's Table" (1 Cor. 10:21). This is not arbitrary. There is no type in the Old Testament which corresponds to the Lord's Supper as presented in 1 Cor. 10 more than the peace-offering and the burnt-offering connected with it (Ex. 29: 19-33; Lev. 8:31).
In 1 Cor. 11 the Lord's Supper is seen in its first meaning which the Lord revealed concerning it, namely, a simple memorial meal of a Saviour who has died: "This do in remembrance of Me". That is why here everything is personal and the emphasis is laid on the personal condition and the responsibility of the individual.
In 1 Cor. 10: 16-22, however, a very different aspect of the Lord's Supper is presented. Here we see Christ on the Altar as the Saviour who has died and the offered nourishing himself from Him, having fellowship therein with all his fellow believers and also with God Himself. The blood is mentioned first here, and absolutely only here, in order to show that the accomplished work of atonement is the only basis on which this fellowship could come into being. Thus communion (fellowship) comes entirely to the front and all that is personal disappears.
In verse 16 we see that when we drink from the cup we have communion with the blood of Christ. Not I alone have this, but "we", all the believers, and so it is also with the bread. It is the cup which we bless and the bread which we break. All believers who celebrate the Lord's Supper have fellowship with it and with one another. In verse 17 this is again emphatically established: "We, being many, are one loaf, one body for we all partake of that one loaf". (New Trans). When therefore we celebrate the Lord's Supper collectively, we clearly express that we have fellowship with the blood and the body of the Lord, and that we form with all believers, one bread, one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13).
In the following verses it is explained that it is possible to bring those holy things into contact with what is unholy. Taking the Jewish and Heathen altars as examples, the apostle notes that those who eat of the offerings have fellowship with the altar, yea, with the God to whom the sacrifices are brought. And he adds the serious word of admonition: "Ye cannot drink the Lord's cup and the cup of demons: ye cannot partake of the Lord's cup and the cup of demons: ye cannot partake of the Lord's table, and the table of demons. Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?" (1 Cor. 10: 17-22 New Tans). Solemn words that should fill us with holy respect and that we might realize how important the holiness of the Lord's Table is for God!
In this part we have seen that the Lord's Supper must be celebrated in the consciousness that we are one with all believers, yea, that we, through the partaking of the cup and bread, clearly express that we all together from the body of Christ, and that it must be celebrated at the Lord's Table, in separation from all that is not an agreement with it. It is not the one congregation that gathers at the Lord's Table the same as in Matt. 18: 20? Here also the believers gather on the ground of the unity of the Assembly, at the Lord's Table, where the Lord is host and determines who may partake there and how things should be done, and where He Himself is the centre and the object of the heart of the Assembly. There is, therefore, only one gathering-place or the Assembly, not only for the celebration of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 10: 16-22 and 11:18, 20), but also for the ministry of the Word (14: 23).
The Assembly, the House of God, has been built by the Lord Jesus out of living stones (Matt. 16: 18, 1 Peter 2: 4-7) and is without any defect. How could the hands of the divine Builder produce a defective construction?
In 1 Cor. 3: 9-17, however, where the House of God is also spoken of, we do not find the Lord as the master-builder, but Paul. He has laid the foundation and it is a good foundation. But others are to build after him and have to take heed how they do it. It is God's house entrusted to man's responsibility, and they just give an account of their work. By fire, the divine means of testing, their work will be tried. We see the result of this building in Christendom, a construction not only built of living stones (believers born of the Holy Spirit), but for the most part of dead material (nominal or false Christians). Some builders have attacked the foundation and tried to spoil it. As always, even here, man has failed and spoiled what God has entrusted to him.
The Holy Spirit warns them through the apostle Paul: "But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon." As a wise architect he has laid the good foundation: Jesus Christ. But now others are to come and build on this foundation, and that can be done in three ways:
- It can occur with good material, "gold, silver, precious stones" materials that can withstand trial by fire. The builder who builds with this will receive a reward.
- It can also occur with unsuitable material, "wood, hay, stubble"; at the testing they will burn and that which is built will be destroyed; it has been useless construction and the good building is hindered by it. The builder shall have no reward but will himself be saved "yet so as by (or through) the fire." His service was worthless and he will stand with empty hands before God.
- But the third kind of building is much worse. By it the foundation is attacked, the building as a whole is spoiled, including the good that had already been built. A terrible judgement of God will befall these builders: "If anyone defiles (corrupts) the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are".
In the first epistle to Timothy we see the House of God still in its first glory as it was built by Paul and other faithful workers. Although danger menaces and the apostasy is prophetically announced (1 Tim.4: 1), it is still called "the pillar and ground of the truth," and instructions are given as to how a believer is to act in it (3:15).
On the other hand, in the second epistle to Timothy, the last written by Paul, the situation is very different. God has permitted the evil to become already so developed, that instructions are given how the individual believer is to act in these circumstances. The corrupting builders of 1 Cor.3 are already found here (2 tim.2: 6-18); nominal Christians have entered (3:5). All in Asia have turned away from Paul (1:15), and in his first defence as a prisoner all have abandoned him (4:16).
In Acts 2:42-47 we have a beautiful picture of the new-born Church where "all that believed were together," and according to Chap.5: 13, "of the rest durst no man join himself to them. "It was known of each one if he were a believer or not. Everyone who confessed the faith was a Christian. When Paul wrote his second epistle to Timothy that was no longer so. How should a believer who lives in the midst of ruin discern who really belongs to the Lord?
The divine answer is: "The Lord knoweth them that are His" (2 Tim.2: 19-23). Man does not know them. He is not capable, in the case of all who profess, of knowing who is truly born-again. Neither is necessary. He can leave that to Him who searches the hearts and reins. What a claiming and consoling thought! If, of those who call themselves Christians, I do not know whether they are authentic, with the Lord there is no uncertainty; He forgets none.
But that is not to say that I must now act as if nothing had changed. Ruin has come in, and in my conduct I must take it into consideration. I may and must leave it to God to judge who of all professing ones belong to Him, but the Holy Spirit also says to me: "Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart (or withdraw) from iniquity" (verse 19).
The verses which follow illustrate this. The House of God on earth as found in the time of ruin is compared to a great house, in which there are not only gold and silver vessels but also wooden and earthen ones. Some vessels are to honour and some to dishonour. Leave the house I cannot. Then I would have to fall away from Christianity and become a Jew or a heathen. In the House I must cleanse myself from the vessels to dishonour so as to be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work. Outward cleansing from all impurity, followed by inward cleansing. "Flee also youthful lusts," and afterwards the uniting with all "those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart."
We must note well it is not stated here that nominal Christians are vessels to dishonour and believers vessels to honour! Of course, there are golden vessels and earthen vessels, but the only measuring-stick given me to judge whether I am a vessel to honour, is: "If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, in separating himself from them".
In 2 Tim.2 the opposition between believers and unbelievers is not the issue, but the contrast between faithful servants and unfaithful servants. See verse 2 (faithful men), verse 3 (good soldier), 4-6,11-13,15-18,etc. In the whole words chapter only twice are believers spoken of, so that it is at least understood that they are believers.
Nor, in verses 16-18 is it said that Hymenaeus and Philetus or those contaminated by them are un believers, but that their work is pernicious and therefore they are unfaithful servants who "concerning faith have made shipwreck" that is, they have abandoned fundamental Christian truth. Neither in verses 20-26 are believers or unbelievers spoken about, but faithful and unfaithful servants; vessels to honour and to dishonour.
It is not a question of what material a vessel is composed of but whether it is to honor .A vessel which is not cleansed is not to honor. A golden or silver vessel that is dirty or that has lain in a dung-heap,is not to your honor if you display it in your house, unclean. It is a dishonor to your house and you will not place it in your living room. A vessel to honor is a vessel that is cleansed. The question is not the working of the Holy Spirit in the lost sinner, but what is the responsibility of anyone calling himself a Christian. "If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, in separating himself from them," he will be a faithful servant, through whom the name of his Lord is glorified; he is a vessel to honor.
Whether among the vessels which do not cleanse themselves there are believers or not, is a matter that is not my responsibility. The Lord judges that, because,"The Lord knoweth them that are His". Our faith can be convinced that there are many believers among them and therefore thank the Lord that they are believers, lamenting on the other hand that they remain connected with the vessels to dishonor and thereby are dishonoring the Lord themselves. God may be able to use them for many a good work, but according to verse 21 only the ones who have cleansed themselves from the vessels to dishonor are prepared for every good work.
It is also noticeable that the outward cleansing is mentioned first, and only then the inward one. We are inclined to say: If inwardly we are separated from evil, the outward separation is not so very important. God, however, puts the outward cleansing in the first place.
If we think about it, the correctness of this also becomes clear. If we are not obedient as to the outward cleansing, how could we clean in an unclean environment, let alone cleanse ourselves there!"Flee also youthful lists." It is terrible to be outwardly cleansed and inwardly unclean. It is really hypocrisy.
After the cleansing we get the positive side: "Pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart" (Verse 22, New Trans.).These are wonderful things which we are exhorted to "pursue" as they are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
As we enter this narrow path of separation in obedience to the Lord, we are not to a walk it alone, but with those "that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart" Who they are should be plain from that which proecedes. They are the vessels to honor which have purified themselves from the vessels to dishonor, and ,which have also cleansed themselves inwardly! It is here that we are responsible to from a judgment. How can anyone without life from God be "prepared for every good work"? and much less can an unbeliever be cleansed outwardly and inwardly. We are responsible to judge in this way whether one has life from God or not.
There are those who deny that we are responsible to do this. Has God prescribed for His children something, which they cannot carry out? Would we dare to say so? Clearly not. Seeing we have a new life faith - which can be discerned by experienced Christian in Christ and our understanding enlightened by the Holy Spirit, we are able to clearly discern where there is life and where death.
The mere profession of faith is not sufficient proof in times of spiritual ruin. Whoever makes claim to a title in such times must prove it. Thus in Ezra's day, the priest whose name were not found in the register" were as polluted, put from the priesthood" (Ezra 2:62). "Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by works"(James 2:18). But when profession is coupled with a walk of faith - which can be determined that there, is divine life. And if, as a result of weakness, it should not be seen,"The Lord knoweth them that are His" .We cannot then presume to judge as to whether the person concerned is authentic or not, but we cannot treat him as a vessel to honor (Ezra 2:59-63).
Thus separated from all that is unclean and united with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart, we can follow the Lord's directions. We have gone forth to Him without the camp (Heb.13: 13). We can return to that which "was from the beginning "(1John 1:1; 2:7; 2:24; 2John 5,6). We can be gathered together by the Holy spirit to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and thereby enjoy His wonderful presence in our midst, even if we are only two or three (Matt.18:20). We can proclaim his death until He comes (1Cor.11:26),keep His Word and not deny His Name and keep the Word of His patience (Rev.3:8-11). And His wonderful promise reads:"I come quickly: hold fast what thou hast, that no one take thy crown"(rev.3: 11, New trans.).
Also in times of ruin it remains true that there is a place of gathering for the children of god: the place where they gather "with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart" on the basis of the one Assembly, without the camp, at the Lord's Table, where the Lord Jesus is in the midst of His own.