The Local Assembly - by JT, Sr.
THE LOCAL ASSEMBLY
Acts 18 : 5-11 ; 1 Corinthians 11 : 18, 19 ; 2 Corinthians 7:11; Acts 11 : 17
I have in mind this evening, dear brethren, to speak about the assembly in its local setting, though one can scarcely speak of it in this connection without having the universal setting in mind, otherwise the tendency would be to independency, at least in thought. Detachment in thought in a locality from what is general or universal is always to be avoided. I would beg of the brethren to be assured that what I have to say is intended for general help; for what I have in mind is the truth governing the subject before us. I do not intend to confine my remarks to current local conditions, but hope that we shall all be drawn to the divine side through the ministry of the word and so be better able to look at any given current local conditions from that moral altitude of mind, as I may call it.
Paul, in dealing with the low condition of things, as at Corinth, tells us that he was caught up to, or, as far as, the third heaven, as if he was to prove by experience what heaven is and what spiritual altitude is. The point in this reference is not so much entrance into the sphere, to stay there, but to go as far as that. Jesus went further; we are told He " ascended up above all the heavens," Eph. 4 : 10. Paul did not go beyond all the heavens; he only went as far as the third, and thus had opportunity to prove by experience what heaven is ; he went past the first and the second, and reached as far as the third heaven. He says, " whether in the body or out of the body I know not, God knows." Nevertheless it was reached, and he knew that. He could count; he was conscious enough, he was in his senses. And then he goes on to say, such a one "whether in the body or out of the body I know not, God knows" ; that he was caught up into paradise.
Now that is a matter to be noted in dealing with low conditions—and let it be observed, brethren, that there are very few conditions other than low in Christendom [i.e., moral and assembly conditions in general in Christendom - due to immense breakdown and confusion - tend towards being at a lower level - Editor]. We cannot say very much ; the position at best is extremely weak, and we do well to bear that in mind. In dealing with a low state of things, the apostle brings forward at a suitable time, that he went as far as the third heaven, and he went into paradise; that word, as is well known, meaning the place of delight. One can understand what moral power that afforded to the apostle during all those fourteen years, and how, in dealing with the most distressing circumstances, he could always look down —he could always take up that altitude in his soul, that exaltation, having proved that a creature can go as far as the third heaven. He was caught up, of course—he did not ascend in his own power.
This is important, dear brethren, because we are bound to come to it; it is a question of the purpose of God, and the purpose of God is going through. If I hover below the clouds and content myself there, I am simply putting off what is in the mind of God for me. I may do that, but normally I am bound to come to it. Divine love will bring us there, the purpose of God regarding us cannot be stopped, it will go through, and we can only deal effectively with the harrowing things here below by taking up that spiritual altitude. In that way we are superior to what we are dealing with, and so able, in our little measure, to deal with it as God deals with it. The Spirit being here, as He is, ensures that everything is known in a first-hand way, just as it is and where it is, because the Spirit is come down and searches, as we are told. He searches us so that everything is known first-hand, and well known and handled in infinite superiority to the conditions down here in which the conflict may be.
Now with these thoughts before us, I want to speak about the assembly in its local setting—first as to its initial features, as to which the Spirit of God gives us the approach to the subject in Acts 18. The approach is carefully laid out so that as drawing near to this great subject we may arrive at it, and be in it, and serve in it according to God. One thing to be noted is that Paul, the great architect of it, as in this city of Corinth, is first of all occupied in it with ordinary toil and as a tradesman. That is not a mere incident to be passed over, but it is to call attention to what is essential to a local setting, what the everyday life and occupation of the inhabitants may be, because their occupation is pretty sure to affect them, and God takes this into account when taking us up in relation to what He is doing. So the apostle is seen at the very outset working as a tent-maker. He could tell you something about the life and work and experience of an ordinary workman; he would hear at his trade what passed from the ordinary tent-maker, and then, moreover, he lodged with two persons who were of the same trade; their conversation would naturally turn on what they did during the day, not that it would not rise far above this ; he and Aquila and Priscilla would have communion as to the things of God, but they were of the same trade, we are told, and he lodged with them because they were of the same trade, not because they were Christians; so they were in a position to understand the circumstances of persons of that status. Now that is the idea. I mention it because it is important to bear in mind what the general working conditions are in any given city, and Paul takes account of them as used of God in forming the assembly in that city.
Another item which I would mention as initial, is that the workman is affected by the presence of certain persons. If he is to work in a meeting in which spiritual stature is low, the mind of the saints full of the things that belong to this world, he is hampered. We are told that Paul reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath and persuaded Jews and Greeks, but that when Silas and Timotheus came to Corinth, " Paul was pressed in respect of the word " ; implying that, whatever the word is, it is urgent, it must come out unhampered; there should be conditions to make it possible for the Spirit to bring out the truth. The truth is not like ordinary matters that men deal with; the truth of God requires the Spirit to bring it out and it requires scope in order to bring it out fully. These are two great essential local features.
Then we are told that some of the Corinthians believed, and that Crispus believed ; he was the ruler of the synagogue; a great result in one person is indicated in this. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his house. Another thing we learn is, that Paul departed from the synagogue and entered into a believer's house, that of Justus; that is an important item. The state of the believers' households enters into the local situation. The synagogue refers to Judaism, an effete religion [i.e., the coming of the Lord into the world brings in Christianity which, of necessity, supercedes Judaism and makes it an effete practice to cling to it but deny the Christian estate - Editor], but it is holding on, and to-day it is simply the religious element in ourselves, using what may be right in itself, for selfish ends, and thus missing the spiritual import of it. The believer's house is a most suitable place; in fact, I do not know of a better place for a meeting than a spiritual believer's household.
Now I want to make clear here, dear brethren, that there is no information or instruction as to Corinth until we are in Corinth. There is not a word about Paul's exercises as to it until he is in Corinth, and then we get all this ; all these conditions existing, the Lord comes into the matter and what a triumph it is when He shows His hand ! Should He not come in ? Shall we not let Him in ? Is it not His matter ? Is Corinth not His matter ? Certainly ! All that had been going on was His matter, but now the time had come for Him to come in. He spoke to Paul by night, and His word was to the end that Paul might be free. He said, " Fear not, but speak and be not silent; because I am with thee, and no one shall set upon thee to injure thee." If all Rome were to come there, Caesar and all his legions, they could not hurt him. Gallio was there ; outwardly, he had power to hurt Paul, but he did not; his very carelessness was used of God to carry out the Lord's wish. " No one shall set upon thee to injure thee," the Lord said. Paul would not defend himself physically; in fact, it would be unnecessary, for the Lord said, " no one shall set upon thee." It was the Lord's decree. A decree far superior to any decree that was ever issued from Rome; far transcending any decree of man. " No one shall set upon thee," and why ? " Because I have much people in this city " ; so you see the Lord has more than the adverse conditions in mind; the local assembly conditions are before Him. There is no assembly according to God unless there is room for the Lord to come into it, to say to it, and to take charge of its matters. " No one shall set upon thee to injure thee; because I have much people in this city." Has He not also much people in this city to-day ? He has as to ownership, as to right, but how much does He get out of it ? Ministry is to make a way to clear a way for the results that the Lord intends.
Well now, I pass on. It says in the last verse I read, " And he remained there a year and six months, teaching among them the word of God." Mark that word " among " them ; all through these verses we read of what happens in Corinth; everything that happens there ; and Paul is there for eighteen months among them. It is the local setting and Paul is teaching the word of God ; he is the great architect of what is to be constructed for God, and he is opening up the mind of God. The people are there, but can they be secured ? Can they be built into this wonderful structure that God has in His mind ? Paul had the pattern. He laid hold of the Lord's mind exactly; he stayed there eighteen months, which was a good proportion of the years of his service, for he did not serve comparatively long. It does not say that the Lord told Paul to stay there for a year and a half. He did so because he knew what was in the Lord's mind ; he understood the Lord had a treasure in the place and he says, as it were, I will stay here until I get it. Anyone there could have seen Paul's manner of life, the way he went in and out the houses during those eighteen months.
In pursuing this subject I want to show clearly what relates to the local assembly, so that we may have that in mind. After Paul left, alas ! the breakdown happened. One of the first complaints he makes in the letter is that " there exist divisions among you," and he gives a list of the parties there. That was what heavily weighed on his heart; but still there was another condition equally bad; there was an incestuous person there ; immorality of the worst kind, and not only in one person, but we learn there were others who were guilty of this kind of thing, and, added to that, there were personal enemies of the apostle. His faithfulness drew out the enemies who were there ; they were inside. What existed there in Corinth served to bring out what the Lord had in His mind, and the apostle opens his epistle with this: " to the assembly of God which is in Corinth." What a dignified title that is ! As Paul was writing the epistle he would be touched with the Lord's thought about His people in Corinth, in spite of all that had come in. He addresses " the assembly of God which is in Corinth." You may say that some there were not of it at all, and that is true, but the Lord does not refer to them, nor does it affect the title given.
The address, " the assembly of God which is in Corinth," is the assertion of divine ownership, not in regard of the saints viewed in heavenly places, but divine ownership of something here in this world that would stand against all that is opposed ; that is what is in the mind of God. Think of the greatness of having part in that ! You may say that it does not apply now ; but it does ; that is just what I want to point out; it applies in this very city where we are gathered to-day, and the saints, with others in this city, all belong to God. There is in this city what pleases God, and He takes account of it in His own way. He is entitled to ! If He cannot speak of the assembly in the concrete, He will speak of it in the abstract; He will, if there is one overcomer in the place. God will speak of things in relation to that person ! So much is the thought of ownership in His mind, that whatever the kind of property it may be, He will not relinquish it. If there is one, in any sense an overcomer, God will stand by him ; He will come to him where he is. God loves His people, He loves His property, He asserts His right to it and He comes to look after it. Can we deny Him ? Can we forbid Him ? Can anyone keep Him away ? The apostle had to bring out what kind of property there was in Corinth and he called it by this most dignified name, and then God works through him to bring every member into accord with His mind. That is what the two epistles are for. That is what God is doing ; let not anyone think otherwise, for as Christians we are bound to come round to the truth applying to God's property, and, if there be only one overcomer, God will stand by him, as I said, and He will carry out His mind in relation to that overcomer, see John 14: 21-23.
Now in the verse read in chapter 11, you will observe that the apostle comes back again to the idea of parties ; he had spoken of that at the beginning, those who were saying, " I am of Paul, and I of Apollos," and so on. He spoke of it in that way, but now he goes back to it as about to open up the subject of the Lord's supper. You can see, dear brethren, as you think of what was in the Lord's heart, that He had to do with every word of this epistle, every letter of it, and when he comes to chapter 11, think of what was in the Lord's heart ! Let us try to get alongside of Him—think of what was in His heart. He is taking up what He had in Corinth ; what treasure there was and what He would get out of it; and He speaks through the apostle Paul of something about which He could not praise them. There may be that, but He is not turning aside because of it. He is going to remove what He does not like; but think of what was in His heart when those words were penned ! He says, "When ye come together in assembly"—one of the finest phrases you can get. The Lord had referred to it as " My assembly," and now He is dealing with it, penning a letter to it; it is a letter of love, beloved brethren, but it is the faithfulness of love. The apostle says, " When ye come therefore together into one place, it is not to eat the Lord's supper." He does not go so far as to deny that the Lord's supper was there, he is condemning their conduct as gathered professedly to eat of it. He is lingering there, and holding to the thought abstractly, with a view to the full recovery of the supper in its proper setting and import amongst them, and there can be no doubt that his faithful letter effected this.
You can understand how the apostle felt. He says, " when ye come together " there are " divisions among you " ; meaning that there was cleavage, yea, even " sects among you " ; implying formulated religious parties. What was all this for ? Was God doing this ? No, but He was allowing it, in order to bring out " the approved . . . among you." The Lord knew well enough that there were lovers of Him at Corinth, there were many of them weeping no doubt at the way things went on, distressed because of these evil conditions ; they loved the Lord and He knew it, and He wrought to bring to light who they were : the approved are thus brought into evidence, " that the approved may become manifest among you," says the apostle. Mark how he says, " among you " ! It is all to emphasise what is in the place. In view of all this I would inquire, How am I to find out conditions in Corinth ? How am I to find out conditions here in this city ? I must come here ! The Lord comes here, and the approved are made manifest among you. I have to come here. Letters help and, of course, may be useful, but I have to come here. Now let us bow to it; I am not criticising any one, I am setting out the truth. I can now see this clearer than I ever saw it. A local setting is a local setting ; the Lord comes to the local setting, and if I am now to know, I must come to it; there I find out what is " among you."
I come now to the second letter. I cannot go into details, but what joy in heaven there was, and Paul reflects it, when the effect of the first letter was known. We learn from Luke 15 of the joy in the presence of the angels of God. What a time it was in heaven when Corinth was restored ! Yes, beloved, and what a time it will be in heaven tonight as full assembly status, in so far as it may be realised now, is restored in this city. You see that is the idea; heaven is interested in all this, and every lover of Christ here normally is interested in it. Is there one present who is not interested in it ? In the apostle's second letter he opens up his heart and tells them how he felt when Titus told him of the restored conditions at Corinth. In fact, he was so concerned that, when the Lord had opened up a work to him in Troas, he says as it were, I am so concerned about Corinth that I have no rest in my spirit; and he came away to Macedonia. So the Lord's people are concerned about this city. Are these reflections of heaven nothing to us ? These exercises of the saints are but reflections of the concern in heaven that things should be right. Why should they not be right ?
The apostle Paul wrote his letter having in mind that there were elements in Corinth that he could work upon, and he also sent Timothy there. Is Paul intermeddling ? Is Timothy intermeddling ? No, beloved, they were engaged in the work of God. They were righteously concerned about the work of God in Corinth; these men were used of God to bring about recovery, and Titus told the apostle of this recovery. Paul is full of encouragement, abounding in joy because of these tidings of the Corinthians, as he tells us in the second letter, and so, in the verse I read he says, " in every way ye have proved yourselves to be pure in the matter." He says this after having gone over the list of things that marked them. I do not think that they were clear in every matter, but they were certainly clear as to the gross sinfulness that he brought to their attention, and I believe that they were exercised about every evil condition in the assembly. They were not all clear ; there was one at least who was saying of Paul that " his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible." There were ministers of Satan there also, but if the brethren, in the main, are clear in the matter, the apostle exults over that.
Well now, I trust that the brethren will bear with me, as I seek to set out the truth as to these things. The enemy is seeking in these last days to divide us in a general way, but the Lord has preserved us wonderfully for a quarter of a century. The Lord has done it, but He is allowing one local eruption after another to happen, and it is to bring out just where we are spiritually. In each case He tests us as to what we can do as to it. The Lords allows these things, and so, dear brethren, if conditions arise among us that disturb heaven, as it were, that cause grief up there, and cause grief in those that are spiritual down here, what is to be done ? First of all, are there any approved in the place where the sorrow is ? The verse in chapter 11 says, " that the approved may become manifest among you." There is no doubt that they will be ; if there is only one, he will become manifest. And then, as approved, are they clear in the matter ? That is the second letter. Are the brethren clear ? Are there any clear ? Is there one or two or ten or a dozen, or twenty or forty ? I think heaven likes these countings, you know. One does not hesitate to count in these matters. A righteous man is of great value in heaven. If there is one righteous man in this city, God is intent on delivering that man, and making all that He can out of him.
In the conversation between Jehovah and Abraham as to Sodom, the question of the number of righteous persons there arose : Are there fifty, or forty, or thirty, or twenty, or ten ? Abraham did not go any lower. What I am speaking of, dear brethren, is the value of a righteous man. If there are those who are clear in the matter, who are approved of God, well, there is assembly status. I am not seeking to force anything on any one here. God forbid ! I am presenting what is manifestly the truth. Whatever we may have thought we must now begin to see that heaven recognises the effect of the work of God; heaven knows it and makes it known, and if they have cleared themselves in detail, they are all the more commendable.
There is only one thing left under this heading, and this the verse in Acts 11 shows, that, as the work of God comes to light it is normally fully owned by His people. That God is greater than any number of saints, we must all admit, but the ground Peter takes shows this : "If then God has given them the same gift as also to us when we had believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who indeed was I to be able to forbid God ?" The Holy Spirit was given to those Gentiles as He was given to the disciples; that is, there was a common platform between Peter and Cornelius and his company. Thus it is to-day, that in any place, if there are those approved, who are following righteousness, their level is the same as ours. It is a question of right, of their state. " Blessed are they that wash their robes, that they may have right to the tree of life, and that they should go in by the gates into the city," Rev. 22: 14; and again, " Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in," Isa. 26 : 2. God honours what is right, but in what we do full testimony is needed, and hence Peter says, " there went with me these six brethren also." Judaism again comes into evidence; those of the circumcision at Jerusalem were quick to oppose, but Peter brings forward a full testimony to what God was doing.
Paul in his communications to Corinth lays down this same principle as to testimony, saying, " In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every matter be established." How much they needed it there ! So many things were hidden ; he sees the importance of witnesses, and if you have witnesses the thing is established, it is fixed. Peter has double three, he is thus showing his great caution, and, when he saw the Spirit coming down on these very people, he says, " Can any man forbid water ? " That was baptism. There are two ordinances in Christianity ; the first is baptism—that is the one Peter is dealing with—and the other is the Lord's supper. Who can forbid it to righteous people ? No one, for as believers are following righteousness it belongs to them. At Jerusalem, " they of the circumcision contended with him," and so Peter goes over the ground. It was important. It was a fine piece of work at Caesarea, one of the finest he could get, and I have no doubt he had great pleasure in going over the ground. The triumphant result was that they glorified God after they heard it, and surely, dear brethren, it would be a suitable end, to all the sorrow that has been experienced in this city, that God is glorified.
Now, in stressing the local side, I would in no wise weaken the general side because, in truth, there is only one fellowship ; it works out locally, but it is one fellowship. The apostle refers to this in the first epistle saying, " God is faithful, by whom ye have been called into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord." One fellowship, so that the epistle is addressed " to the assembly of God which is in Corinth . . . with all that in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both theirs and ours." This includes every one of us here to-night from different countries and different cities in this country, " both theirs and ours." There is nothing less than that, and it works out locally, but it has a general aspect, and hence Deuteronomy 21 has had a great place amongst us, and God has blessed it in these matters. Indeed, it is intended for these matters ; it is intended of God, to bring out the city that is in proximity to a sorrowful condition that is public ; to an evil arising among us.
If evil arises, it will be observed simply and briefly that the passage places the initiative in the hands of the judges and elders of Israel, not any local company. I am speaking of the initiative now, the judges and elders of Israel go forth, and they have to measure. The man is in the field, remember, he is not in the city ; he is lying out in the field. The Spirit of God tells us that. Someone has committed murder, but it is not known who is guilty ; the guilt is there, and the nearest city has to clear itself; that is the point. Those in the nearest city are not clear in the matter, they have to clear themselves, and they are told what to do; they are told to take a heifer—which, I apprehend, refers to love. What has been done—the murder—is the very opposite to love ; but the heifer, I believe, refers to ardent love. Someone has committed the murder ; the man is dead out in the field ; and whoever has done it, it is due to the absence of love, and the nearest city has to acknowledge that. Has love been active in me ? They bring the heifer down to a valley which had not been sown, or a watercourse, as in the New Translation ; that is going back to first principles, or conditions, with which man has had nothing to do.
First appears the man as slain in the field, then there is the heifer, that has not been wrought with, and whose neck is then broken. The heifer is not guilty, but she is an expiation, a sacrifice—a type of Christ. Think of how it affects the Lord ! Murder is the very opposite to Christ. There is the dead man in the field, heaven thinks of that, and the nearest city has to clear itself as to that, and it is told how to do it. And then we are told that the priests, the sons of Levi, come near. We have come here tonight, some of us, not that we assume to be anything, but you know every Christian is a priest. When you have priesthood specially stressed, it refers to spirituality, not only that you have the Spirit, but that you are spiritual—" Ye who are spiritual "—they come there. How can we know what is in this city if we do not come ?
Well now, the priests come near, and then, we are told, as also elsewhere, that they " bless in the name of the Lord." A spiritual man blesses in the name of the Lord; he thinks of God and he worships God ; until one can think for God he cannot have anything to say to these things; and then it says, " according to their word shall be every controversy and every stroke "—it is by their word. There is not a word said as to the nearest city determining anything. The priests determine the thing and then the elders of the nearest city go forward after we have the priesthood established. I beg of you, dear brethren, to bear with me, as I seek to set out the truth, a truth that I do not believe is known much amongst us. It is a question of what is priestly. The elders of the nearest city go forward, they come near and they wash their hands over the heifer, whose neck is broken in the watercourse ; it is a question of the working of the head, or man's mind, in the things contemplated. Then they speak as priests to Jehovah; they are identified with the sacrifice, they are in principle eating the sin offering, taking it home to themselves. I am not clear of the matter unless I take it home to myself. And then as accepting responsibility for the sin that was near to them and which was expiated by the death of the heifer, they speak to Jehovah for Israel, they beg of Jehovah to forgive Israel. The saints universally gladly leave such matters to the nearest local company, if the priesthood in the true sense be there, there being thus intelligence and power to deal with the difficulty. If the priesthood be not there characteristically, the application of the type to the nearest city fails, but thank God, the priests exist, they are not treated as local merely, they are universal and they are obligated in the matter. Although the priesthood in the city actually nearest to the dead man may fail, the idea of proximity must not be ignored, so a meeting or meetings relatively near have a special responsibility and rightly act in the light of the type in Deuteronomy 21. It is now a question of obligation resting upon the priesthood as represented in the city in proximity, to extend fellowship to their brethren, recognising their right to go forward. They are obligated to do so, and if they do not do it they are remiss, and heaven will so regard them.
Well, there is only one word more ; it might be said that a meeting has become so bad that brethren may have to come and break it down, as it were. A great principle was worked out in this very county about twenty-seven years ago, and we do not want to miss the gain of that. Can any nearby gathering, such as existed then, undertake to break down, to disallow, to set aside another assembly ? Scripture does not contemplate it; that is what the Lord would make plain ; and it is not contemplated now ! Leviticus 14 says nothing at all about the nearest city ; there the priest is brought forward right through. The priest goes and he examines the stones—he does or directs everything. God is God—He has His priests and He will carry out His mind through them. The nearest city, of course, has to clear itself; it has to keep its own borders clear. The scripture implies that each of us has to be concerned in such matters, and each assembly is to see that its own sphere of administrative authority is clear, but outside of that it has no authority, that I see. The priests are the priests of Jehovah, and they are universal in their bearing, so that in this chapter it is entirely a question of priesthood. Proximity is fully maintained in Deuteronomy 21, and if the nearest meeting is priestly in character, the brethren will be thankful and will under God leave the matter in their hands, praying for them as they without bias seek to serve their neighbouring brethren, but, as I said before, it is the priest throughout in Leviticus 14.