The Old Paths
from 'Truth and Testimony'
"Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls" (Jer. 6: 16).
"But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them" (2 Tim. 3: 14)
We live in the last days and the perilous times are manifest to any who walk with God. Ignorance and disobedience, not always wilful, rob many of the great blessing of assembly privileges. Where saints do that which is right in their own eyes there is inevitably neglect of the testimony entrusted to the assembly on earth and with it the loss of the Lord's hand in blessing and enrichment (Judges 21:25; 1 Tim. 3:15).
These few lines remind us of some of the things which we have learned, and are written with the desire that they may lead us to walk together in the old paths for the rest of our souls and the joy of Christ.
1. The Authority of the Word of God
The inspired Word is the complete expression of God's thoughts. It has absolute authority. It is the rule of personal Christian life as well as of assembly life. It is the Word of God's grace, through which God builds us up (Acts 20: 32).
Obedience to the Word is the only path to blessing. While one formal Scripture may not give the answer to a particular circumstance, the mind of the Lord is always learned through the heart and conscience, in submission to His Word (Prov. 2: 10).
2. The Believer and the Two Natures
Every human creature born in this world is a lost sinner (Rom. 5:12; Ps. 51:5). The evil is neither in the matter itself nor in the human nature (and its faculties) as such. Coming from the hand of the Creator it was pronounced "very good" (Gen. 1:31). However, in man, as a descendant of Adam fallen, all is misery and defilement (Isa. 1:6; Rom. 3:10-18). God has declared this state as hopeless (Isa. 2:22; Eph. 2:12).
Through faith in Christ and His work, the believer receives from God the gift of eternal life, Christ Himself (1 John 5:11,20). Having put off the old man, the believer puts on the new man (Eph. 4:22-24). He becomes a child of God, and as such is brought into the Father's family (John 1:12). From that moment the believer (spirit, soul and body), with all his faculties, becomes the dwelling place of two natures: one which is "spirit" and the other which is "flesh" (John 3: 6).
The coexistence of these two natures in the believer results in an inner conflict between flesh and Spirit. A negligent believer may produce "the works of the flesh", rather than "the fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5: 19, 23).
3. The House of God on Earth and the Body of Christ
Every believer (born again and sealed by the Holy Spirit) is a living stone in the house of God on earth, and also a member of the body of Christ (1 Peter 2: 5; Rom. 12: 5). The body of Christ is not subject to failure or breakdown. In contrast to this, God's initial thoughts concerning His house on earth have been lost through man's unfaithfulness. Christendom has become a great house where only "The Lord knoweth them that are His" (2 Tim. 2: 19).
The first characteristic of God's house, the temple of the Holy Spirit, is holiness (1 Cor. 3:16; Ps. 93:5; 1 Peter 1:15-16). Now, that which is holy will not take away uncleanness, and uncleanness will always defile that which is holy (Haggai 2:12-13). Leaven (a type of moral or doctrinal evil) corrupts the whole lump (1 Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9).
Therefore, Christians who desire to be faithful to their Lord are called upon, not only to go forth unto Him without the camp, but also to separate themselves from vessels to dishonour (Heb. 13:13; 2 Tim. 2:19-22). As well as separation from evil teachers, this also involves separation from those who are defiled by association with them. Those who call upon the Lord out of a pure heart will then find themselves together, with His promise to be in the midst of them (Matt. 18:20).
4. The Local Assembly; its Nature and Responsibilities
In a locality those Christians (two or three or more) separated from iniquity and gathered to the Lord's Name, are (if they realize God's thoughts relative to His assembly) the local expression of the assembly, the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12,27). Such gatherings of believers are not independent of each other: their unity is that of Christ's body, represented locally by each one of these gatherings.
Christ is the source of all life and activity of the saints, through the operation of the Holy Spirit, for the edification of the body, the assembly. All believers are members one of another and are exhorted to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4: 3).
The local assembly is the sphere of the collective life of the saints. There, the Father is worshipped, and there the prayer of the assembly is presented. There also Christ's spiritual food for His body is received (through the gifts). No activity carried on in a spirit of independence with regard to the assembly will bring lasting blessing, although it may seem useful for a time.
The assembly is also entrusted with the prerogative of binding and loosing on earth (Matt. 18:18). An assembly decision, taken in the Lord's Name in one place by those gathered to His Name, is ratified in heaven. All assemblies representing Christ's body prima facie acknowledge it. This consistency of practice on the part of the assemblies is an essential truth. It proceeds from their very existence.
5. The Two Ministries of the Gospel and of the Assembly
During the present period of grace, God is taking out of the world a people for His Name (Acts 15:14). Christ's purpose is to build up His body. To this end, every member (each one) has received grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ (Eph. 4:7). In particular there are the evangelists, who bring souls into the assembly, and pastors and teachers who work for the perfecting of the saints (Eph. 4:11-12). And finally there is the self-building up of the body in love (Eph. 4: 16- J.N.D. trans.).
The apostle Paul was a minister of the gospel and a minister of the assembly (Col. 1:23,25). His two ministries were accomplished in harmony to fulfil God's purpose. Now, we are invited to co-operate together in the twofold aspect of this work, "according to the effectual working in the measure of every part" (Eph. 4: 16).
6. Discipline in the Assembly
Assembly responsibility is exercised in the sphere called "within" by the Word, where the Lord's rights are effectively acknowledged (1 Cor. 5:12). The solemn authority entrusted by the Lord to His assembly on earth must be exercised with fear, searching the Lord's mind and with the deep conviction of His approval.
The assembly is not infallible and a decision, even taken "of many" (2 Cor. 2:6), may be wrong. He who believes he is wrongly treated should commit his way in confidence to the Lord (Ps. 37:5-6). Humility, patience and a spirit of meekness are necessary in all. The Lord cannot fail to answer after our obedience is fulfilled (2 Cor. 10:6).
An assembly which refuses to judge evil (through discipline) would lose its character as an assembly of God. On the other hand, grace only may win souls and raise up again from a fall; and discipline (which always has as its purpose the healing of wounds) is precisely the prerogative of love.
The Word directs us to be moderate in our judgments. In so far as a believer is concerned, the term "wicked person" is only used for one who persists in a serious moral or doctrinal evil. The table of devils characterises idolatry and cannot be applied to any Christian gathering (1 Cor. 10: 21). The expression is used by the apostle (about things sacrificed to idols) to illustrate an important general principle: to participate in a table establishes fellowship with all that which is in relation with this table. Thus, many godly believers are ecclesiastically identified with errors, without presenting the character of wicked persons, and even less of participating in a table of devils. Nevertheless, we cannot have fellowship with them at the Lord's table.
7. The Lord's Supper and the Table of the Lord
The Lord's supper is the precious memorial of His death for the time of His absence (1 Cor. 11:26). Every believer's heart should answer to the touching invitation of his Saviour. At the same time, to partake of the one loaf (an image of Christ's death, as a man, in His body given for us) is the expression on earth of the unity of the (spiritual) body of Christ (1 Cor. 10: 17).
The Lord's supper (the remembrance) and the Lord's table (the communion) are distinguished by the Scriptures, although they are inseparably linked. Answering the Lord's desire (by partaking of His supper) implies the acknowledgement of His rights over the believer's personal life (1 Cor. 11:27-32), and in the assembly (at the Lord's table). There, the believers are subject to assembly discipline in its various forms; in practice, they submit "one to another in the fear of God" (Eph. 5: 21).
8. The Lord's Table and the Unity of the Spirit
To take part at the Lord's supper while gathered at His table is a collective act, accomplished by saints gathered in assembly, realizing consciously that they are a local expression of the whole body of Christ.
The Lord therefore invites us to receive at His table every believer who is sound in his walk and in the doctrine of Christ. He who desires to break bread should, however, be conscious of the path he embarks upon and of the character of the collective testimony. By breaking bread he enters the sphere of assembly discipline.
This same truth of the unity of the body has other practical consequences:
- No believer may partake of the Lord's supper on the basis of his individual responsibility alone, as if he were the sole judge of his state. He is not free to break bread independently, with any Christian company of his choice. One brother, on his own, does not have the authority to decide about who are those who may partake at the Lord's supper.
- A local gathering must decide with great care, whether or not to receive a believer occasionally at the Lord's table, in the deep conviction of involving the conscience of the whole assembly. It may never be the deliberate sanction of a state of independence in someone who desires to have liberty to go where he pleases.
- Finally, an assembly gathered in the Lord's Name cannot receive a person to the breaking of bread who presents himself on his own testimony. The letter of commendation is the Scriptural means to maintain practically the fellowship between assemblies (2 Cor. 3:1).
9. The Well-being of the Lord's Flock
In times of spiritual decline, separation from evil remains the divine principle of unity realised around Christ. There was need for gates as well as walls around the city of Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah. The watchmen were upon the walls (Isa. 62: 6). But while endeavouring to realise this separation with sorrow and humiliation, let us think about the well-being of the Lord's flock. May we preach grace, which brings our hearts near to Christ, and directs the desire of our souls to Him, in the expectation of His return.
10. A Call to our Hearts
Beloved brethren, the Lord has revealed His thoughts to us, not only concerning the heavenly destiny of His church, but also as to the walk and testimony of the church on earth. We are charged together with the keeping of these truths (2 Tim. 1:14). Despite what was expressed at the time of the prophet Malachi, it is not vain to serve God in fearing Him and in walking mournfully before Him (Mal. 3:14).
Have we left our "first love" for Christ (Rev. 2:4)? He calls us to repent, in order to "strengthen the things which remain", in keeping His Word and not denying His Name (Rev. 3: 2,8).
Together, let us hearken to His voice, with a tender heart, and with a broken and contrite heart (2 Chr. 34:27; Ps. 51:17). Let us be confident in the resources of the Lord's grace and in the all-sufficiency of His Name.
"Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set" (Prov. 22: 28).
"If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Ps. 11: 3).