The Fellowship of the Church, Matt. 18. 15-35
J. M. Davies, Canada
As already noted, Matthew 18. 17 is the second and last reference to the church in the recorded ministry of the Lord and it is quite evidently complementary in character to the former reference, 16. 18. Here the word ekklesia is used with regard to a local gathering of believers, and instruction is given with regard to its harmonious fellowship.
In the book of the Acts the word ekklesia is used in three passages which have no reference to the church or to a Christian assembly. In 7. 38 it is used of Israel at Mount Sinai or at Horeb. It was the congregation of the Lord, and serves as an illustration of the church in its entirety as in Matthew 16.18. In Acts 19. 32 the word is used of an unruly mob that had gathered to demonstrate against Paul and his teaching. It was a confused assembly with the majority not knowing for what purpose they had gathered! It would be very sad if such a statement could be made of any Christian assembly.
I n contrast to this confused assembly the officer at the conclusion of his remarks referred to a lawful assembly. That was a reference to a properly constituted assembly made up of responsible citizens gathered together to administer the affairs of the city. It was a representative body of citizens of honest report, men whose character was unimpeachable.
The passage in Matthew 18 fits into this Greek background of the meaning of the word ekklesia. Believers gathered to exercise their responsibilities as members of the assembly. The truth relative to the church as spoken of in Matthew 16 is further and fully developed in the Epistle to the Ephesians, and the truth relative to the church in its local character is expanded for us in the first Epistle to the Corinthians and in the Epistles of Paul to Timothy and Titus.
In 1 Timothy 3. 1 5 the apostle refers to the Christian assembly as "the house of God" and as the base and pillar of the truth. These metaphors are very instructive. As Christ is the "Son over his own house", Heb. 3. 6, the instruction given in these Epistles relative to the Christian's walk, witness and worship must be accepted as authoritative and final. The purpose of the base and pillar is not to draw attention to itself, but to hold up or elevate the statue, which in this instance is the truth relative to the personal and redemptive glories of Christ which are summarized in the following verse, "And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit. . . received up into glory". This is the all-important truth to be floodlit by the witness of the church, not some minor special point of doctrine. All its ministry must be subordinated and related to the maxim: Among all things He is to have the pre-eminence. The six statements in the verse may have been six strophies in a stanza of a Christian hymn or they may represent a public confession of faith made by the assembled congregation.
(a) The Fellowship is a Christ -centred Fellowship. The company envisaged by the Lord is a company gathered unto His name, a company recognizing His Lordship and authority, Matt. 18. 20. The words are an echo of what is stated by Jeremiah with regard to the Messianic kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Jer. 3. 17. Then Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord. His word and rule will be absolute and authoritative. And all nations shall be gathered to the name of the Lord to Jerusalem. This does not mean that they will live there permanently, but in accordance with the prophecy of Zechariah will gather there periodically, Zech. 14. 16.
At the present time we are told that God is visiting the Gentiles "to take out of them a people for his name". Acts 15. 14. While in the future all nations will be gathered unto the name of the Lord, today, it is only individuals who are thus gathered out. This out-gathering, like the out-calling, must of necessity include every believer. In Corinth some said, "I am of Paul", some said "I am of..." and some said "I am of Christ". They used the name of Christ in a sectarian way. It was the most reprehensible of the four parties castigated by the apostle.
Being gathered unto the name of the Lord means that the gathering is Christ-centred. Christ is the magnet which draws them together. Consequently the apostle speaks of the Christians in Corinth as having been "called into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord", 1 Cor. 1. 9 r.v. And the fellowship of the table in chapter 10 is based upon a common redemption by the blood and a common membership in the body, vv. 16, 17. Faith in Christ leads to love for all saints, and we are to apprehend with a//saints the four-dimensional mystery, and we are to pray for a/1 saints. The apostle's confession that he considered himself "less than the least of all saints" is a smooth stone, but enough to bring down any Philistine Goliath of spiritual pride. See Ephesians 3. 8, 18; 6. 18; Col. 4.2, 3, 12.
(b) The Fellowship is to be a Spiritual Fellowship, a Christ-patterned Fellowship, Matt. 18. 2-35. The whole of Matthew 18 is one discourse and should be considered as such. It was given in answer to the question of the disciples, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven ?". It stemmed from the incident in the home of Peter after the customs officer had asked him regarding the temple or tribute money. The fact that the officer had asked Peter led the disciples to think that he evidently had considered Peter to be the chief one among them. Desirous of having this matter settled they asked the question. The Lord's parabolic action in taking the little child and stating, "Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven", clearly indicates that the Lord Himself is the greatest, for no other person ever humbled himself to become a little child. The parable is an illustration of the words, "Who, being in the form of God . . . took upon him the form of a servant", Phil. 2. 5-12. The whole discourse gives the Lord's evaluation of reception, Matt. 18. 5, 6, (cf. Philem. 17); restoration, vv. 10-14; and reconciliation, vv. 15-35.
The Philippian assembly was passing through a turbulence somewhat similar to that envisaged by the Lord in Matthew 18. 15-35. To them the apostle writes, "If there be ... any fellowship of the Spirit . . . fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded ... let nothing be done through strife or vainglory ... let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus . . .", 2. 1-5. The fellowship is begotten of the Spirit and can only be maintained by the Spirit. It is only by the Spirit's enabling that the Christian can walk worthy of his calling, "with all lowliness and meekness", Eph. 4. 1, 2.
The Atlantic has its severe storms and small bodies of water their squalls. Seemingly calm waters may have their strong under-currents which can take a boat off its course. And assemblies of Christians are not immune or insured against such winds and waves, any more than the individual Christian is.
Along with this passage in Matthew 18 we should read Ephesians 4. 1-6, and also 4. 32 to 5. 2. Longsuffering, forbearance and forgiveness are some of the beautiful graces, or flowers which the Lord delights to see growing in His garden. The assembly then is a training ground for the development of these graces which are the fruit of the Spirit. Bringing a matter before the assembly is surely the last resort. This is the thrust of the parable told by the Lord in answer to Peter's question in Matthew 18. 21. Do we forgive as Christ has forgiven us? and as God has in Christ forgiven us? See Ephesians 4. 32; Colossians 3. 13. Is our fellowship a Christ-patterned fellowship?
(c) It is a Family Fellowship, a Christ-controlled Fellowship. It is the family or household of God, of which all believers irrespective of all racial differences are members. As Christ is the Son over His own house, the confession "Jesus is Lord" must be accorded more than a mere lip-service. In this connection the fact that the title "Lord" occurs nearly 100 times in the two letters to the church at Corinth is noteworthy.
The apostle John wrote his first letter to the family of God. His desire is that we should continue in the apostles' fellowship, "that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ", 1 John 1. 3. In that family there are the children, the young men and the fathers. The children were the babes in Christ, those newly born of God into the family, and doubtless they were young in years as well. The young men had made progress in their knowledge of the Word of God and had learned to overcome the wicked one. The fathers however were mature Christians who had an intimate personal fellowship with the Lord, a personal knowledge of the Lord. The fellowship was then not a senior-citizens' fellowship nor was it a youth fellowship. This fellowship is a trans-national, trans-racial, and trans-natural one. It includes brethren and sisters. And moreover it is a trans-age group. There should be no age or generation gap. It is a happy situation, when the older with their experience and the younger with their energy and vision can work together. It is the divine ideal.