John Scarsbrook, Killamarsh, England
Before you read this article just STOP! – Take a moment or two, and ask yourself the following questions:-
- What does it mean to me to be in fellowship in a local assembly?
- Where does the life and activity of the assembly feature in my priorities?
- How often am I critical of the assembly, or of other believers in fellowship?
- How much genuine effort do I put in to help the work of the assembly?
- Would I be missed if I were not there?
All these, and many more questions need to challenge us in days when we deplore the apathy and indifference of unbelievers – yet we too can be guilty of the same failings with regard to the Lord’s assembly.
It is not always a healthy exercise to keep looking back to the past. However, we can and should learn lessons from previous generations. Men and women of spiritual quality, who knew their God, and their Bible, worked ambitiously and tirelessly, saw souls saved, and assemblies planted and established. They also faithfully served in their generation, and left a precious legacy of which we are the current custodians.
In the world of sales and commerce, there are some companies that operate on a principle of ‘added value’. It is a form of assessment which is applied to those in positions of responsibility. The purpose is to seek to estimate the positive contribution made by each individual and thus to enhance and benefit the whole department or company. Ours is a far greater responsibility than any earthly attainment – ‘we serve the Lord Christ’, Col. 3. 24. How much of value am I contributing to the assembly where the Lord has placed me?
With this in mind we need to consider another matter before we try to quantify our responsibilities. We will never feel the weight of our responsibilities until we appreciate the inestimable privilege of belonging to an assembly of the Lord’s people.
A local assembly is a very precious thing! A company of Christians who meet together in a manner outlined in the New Testament, owning no denominational status and giving allegiance to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is a microcosm of that great company of believers who comprise the church, which is His body. To be a part of such a living vital reality, ‘pillar and ground of the truth’, 1 Tim. 3. 15, is a privilege beyond measure. And yet there are some believers, both young and not so young, who are associated, sometimes for many years with a company, which has never grasped the delightful, simple truth of what a local assembly really is!
It is possible that children of believers, brought up within such a fellowship, may not appreciate the distinct and dignified character of a New Testament assembly. There are those who would readily claim association with ‘the Brethren’ or ‘the Brethren Church’, as compared with the Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal Church. Such thinking only serves to add a denominational tag, which finds no authority in Scripture. Praise God! We are brethren and sisters, linked together in Christ by salvation, with many other brethren who own a variety of denominational names. Yet we cannot condone nor support the position they adopt nor, in some cases, the practices they allow. The whole concept of a local church or assembly is in essence based upon New Testament teaching. There are, however, some helpful illustrations in the Old Testament which give us an understanding of the character and dignity of that to which God has called His people.
You will recall that throughout Scripture from Exodus 25 onwards, we find a number of tangible structures, which God was pleased to own as His dwelling place. There was the tabernacle in the wilderness, and the temple built by Solomon. Then there was the temple built by Zerubbabel after the captivity. This was later extended and embellished by Herod, but even so, the Lord Jesus owned it as ‘my Father’s house’, John 2. 16, until such time as His final rejection, when it became to the nation of Israel ‘your house’, Matt. 23. 38, and was pronounced ‘desolate’.
In this present day of God’s grace, there is no physical building which God owns as His house. Yet where there is a desire to be obedient to the word of God in doctrine and practice, the Lord is pleased to grace with His presence the gatherings of His people. Paul assures the believers at Corinth that both individually, 1 Cor. 6. 19, 20, and as an assembly, 1 Cor. 3. 16, 17, they were the temple (the sanctuary) of God, and, as such, His dwelling place.
In Psalm 27. 4, 5 we find four references to the place where God dwells. Although written in an Old Testament context, they illustrate beautifully what a New Testament assembly really is.
1 THE HOUSE OF THE LORD, Ps. 27. 4. As such it is His possession. It belongs to Him. At a simple, practical level, we would not expect to take liberties and behave inappropriately when dealing with that which clearly belongs to someone else. So with the local assembly which is part of, and represents that which was purchased at immeasurable cost, Acts. 20. 28. Ours is a position of stewardship for which each will be accountable in the measure in which the Lord has given opportunity and ability to fulfil His commands. Again, we can look to Old Testament illustrations which teach us that it is not within our jurisdiction to modify the word of God in relation to His house. We note that in Exodus 40, ‘the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle’ only when everything was constructed and completed ‘according to the pattern’. Remember too, when David sought to bring up the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, 2 Sam. 6, his first efforts resulted in judgement upon Uzzah who ‘died before the Lord’. David later understood the reason for what at the time seemed unduly harsh, ‘We sought him not after the due order’, 1 Chron. 15. 13. In Ezekiel 43, where the prophet is given ‘the law of the house’, he exhorts the nation to ‘measure the pattern’, v. 10, and to be ashamed at their former mishandling of that which belongs to God. Other illustrations could be given, but these will suffice to show that the assembly, of which you and I are privileged to be a part, belongs to the Lord!
2 HIS TEMPLE, Ps. 27. 4. This speaks of the place of His power, or His authority. Recall again that when Isaiah saw the vision of the Lord, ch. 6, a scene of majestic splendour and power – ‘his train filled the temple’. In Isaiah 66. 6 it is a ‘voice from the temple’ which brings judgement upon His enemies. As Malachi closes the Old Testament he announces that ‘the Lord (the One having authority) . . . shall suddenly come to his temple’.
When Paul writes to Corinth, an assembly which had many lessons to learn about the Lord’s authority, seven times in the first letter he refers to ‘the temple’. Sometimes he means the believer’s body, 1 Cor. 6. 19, 20, other times he refers to the assembly, 1 Cor. 3. 16, 17. In both the Lord should have full authority. Every time we pray, speak or act in His name, we are acknowledging submission to His authority.
3. HIS PAVILION, Ps. 27. 5. This reminds us that the assembly is the place of His protection. It speaks of a place of safety. A place where one is sheltered from so many of the enemies’ attacks, Ps. 31. 20. It was also a place of rest for soldiers engaged in a battle campaign, 1 Kgs. 20. 12; Jer. 43. 10. We cannot overemphasize this aspect of the local assembly, particularly for younger believers, when it seems that the world has so much to offer. That which first gains our attention will capture our affection if we think lightly of the safety found among the Lord’s people. Remember the salutary lesson of Lot! It was after he left the security of Abram’s company, that he started a downward pathway which ultimately cost him so dearly. Recall also the words of Boaz to Ruth, Ruth 2. 8, ‘go not to glean in another field, neither go from hence’. In the following verse her safety is assured. Maybe we will understand some day how many pitfalls and heartaches might have been avoided if we had really appreciated this aspect of the assembly.
4. HIS TABERNACLE, Ps. 27. 5. The place of His presence. In Exodus 25 the instruction given in respect of the tabernacle was for a sanctuary ‘that I may dwell among them’, v. 8. Throughout the wilderness journey the tabernacle was uniquely the place where the Lord’s presence was known. We are often reminded, too, that in John 1. 14, the Word ‘dwelt’, speaking of the presence of the Lord Jesus, is the word which means a tent or tabernacle. So it is with the assembly. How precious those occasions when we are so conscious of His presence as we gather together.
In the light of this privilege we will in future articles seek to consider our responsibilities within the local assembly.
(to be continued)