Matthew 18:19, 20.
In connection with a recent exposition of verses 15-18* two questions have arisen concerning these verses - first, as to the "character" of the gathering; and secondly, as to the period of the fulfilment of the words, "There am I in the midst of them." It is of primary importance to notice that in this scripture the Lord's absence is presupposed. Two things show this - first, the gathering together "unto (eis) My name," the term "name" being expressive of all that He is as the Lord Jesus Christ; and also the words "Where two or three are gathered"; that is, wherever in the whole world two or three may be gathered, there Christ would be. Of necessity this refers to the time after His resurrection and ascension. The gathering consequently must be by the Spirit of God to Christ as the only Centre, and on the ground where His authority as Lord is owned, and where the truth of His person and work is maintained. Such is the condition on which alone His presence in the midst is assured. It should be observed in this connection that there is consequently a wide difference between the building in chapter 16 and the gathering here. When the Lord says, "Upon this rock I will build My church," He includes all believers from Pentecost to His return, and hence all believers at any given period are built "upon the rock," inasmuch as He regards "My church" from His own divine side, and thus in its perfection. The "gathered," on the other hand, is a much smaller circle, for it is necessarily limited to those who are on the ground above described. It is, alas! but too manifest that, while the gathering and the building should be coincident and co-extensive, many real believers meet on human ground, where man's traditions and authority are accepted; where there is not even the show of guarding the truth either of the Person or of the work of our blessed Lord, and where even the full inspiration of the Scriptures has been openly surrendered. The question as to the period of the Lord's presence in the midst of His gathered people has now to be answered. The first allusion to this special presence is undoubtedly found in the words "In the midst of the congregation will I praise Thee" (Psalm 22:22); and since this follows upon the statement "I will declare Thy name unto My brethren," we may well conclude, from the Lord's message through Mary to the disciples, that the first fulfilment of this announcement is found in John 20. So far the disciples, in the midst of whom He appeared on that first day of the week, did not form the church. Whatever the special revelation made to them of their new place and relationship in association with their risen Lord, and notwithstanding they received on that occasion the life abundantly in the power of the Holy Ghost, it was not until Pentecost that they lost their Jewish-remnant character, and were formed into the House of God, the Church. Still it must be borne in mind that the scene in John 20 has a special significance, and contains a shadowing out, in a most marked manner, of the ground of the assembly. It may well, therefore, in respect of the Lord's presence in the midst, be included in the church-period. It only remains to ask if the Lord will be in the midst of His people, as here described, in a future dispensation - in other words, will He be in the midst of the millennial saints? If we turn for a moment to Ezekiel 46 the answer, we judge, will be found. We have in this scripture the most precise regulations for what may be termed the worship of the Jewish saints when the Temple shall have been re-built and its services restored; and we read that "when the people of the land shall come before the Lord in the solemn feasts . . . . the prince in the midst of them, when they go in, shall go in; and when they go forth, shall go forth." (vv. 9, 10.) This prince is undoubtedly the Lord's representative, and not the Lord Himself, so that, whatever the special manifestations of the glorified Messiah to His millennial congregations, there will be nothing then to answer to His presence now in the midst of those gathered unto His name. We thus conclude that this scripture finds its application during the time of the Lord's absence only - in fact, to the period of the day of grace. Into the varied applications of this precious truth we do not here enter, as the object before us is simply the explanation of the two points named.
*See Scripture Notes, Matt. 9:13, Matt. 12:7, p. 306 of volume 19, 1892.
1 Peter 4:6.
To the questions forwarded concerning this scripture the answers will be given in the order in which they have been put.
1. "What is the Gospel in this passage?" Inasmuch as Peter wrote his epistle to the Jewish converts among the dispersion, especially to those who were scattered through the provinces of Asia Minor, it seems tolerably certain that in speaking of those "that are dead," he refers to Jews of former generations. If so, the "gospel" would be the glad tidings of God's promises to the Jewish nation, in connection with the advent of the Messiah and the establishment of the kingdom; and consequently it is the gospel of the kingdom. (Compare Hebrews 4:2.)
2. "Those that are dead - is this spiritual or bodily death?" The answer given to the first question shows, if correct, that it is of those who are dead as to the body that the apostle speaks. The context points also most plainly to the same conclusion, for in verse 5 Peter declares that the sinners to whom he has been alluding (verses 3, 4) "shall give account to Him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead." The two classes - the living and the dead - are here specified who will be amenable to judgment at the appearing of the Lord (see 2 Timothy 4:1), though an interval of a thousand years will separate the judgment of the latter class from that of the former; and "the dead" in verse 5 are undoubtedly "the dead" in verse 6.
3. "What is it to be 'judged according to men in the flesh,' and to 'live according to God in the spirit'?" This question is best answered by considering the object of the proclamation of the gospel. It is that men, on receiving the glad tidings, should be brought out from under the condemnation in which they lie (for "he that believeth not is condemned [judged] already"), and, through the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ, receive the forgiveness of their sins, together with a new and divine life, so that henceforward they should not be "in the flesh, but in the Spirit," if so be the Spirit of God dwells in them. (Romans 8:9.) They thus, in the language of Peter, "live according to God in the Spirit." If they, on the other hand, refuse the gospel preached to them, they are left in their condition as sinners, and remain for judgment before the great white throne, "according to men in the flesh"; that is, they will be dealt with then on the ground of their responsibility, judged "according to their works." (Rev. 20:12.) What Peter, therefore, sets forth is the consequence, on the one hand, of receiving, and the consequence, on the other hand, of rejecting the gospel. The question as to whether this twofold description could apply to one and the same person has already been answered, for those who "live according to God in the Spirit" can never be judged "according to men in the flesh."
It would be a mistake, in our judgment, to adduce this Scripture as urging importunity in prayer. It is quite true that the same exhortations are found in Luke in another connection (Luke 11:5-13), but even there they only flow out from an illustration of importunity. The difference of dispensation has also to be remembered, for since Pentecost it would not be according to truth to pray for the Holy Spirit, as in Luke, seeing that He now dwells in believers, and is bestowed upon all who receive the forgiveness of sins through faith in the efficacy of the finished work of Christ. It will be observed that in Matthew "good things" are what are sought, and not the Holy Spirit; and these "good things," we cannot doubt, especially in their application to Christians, are heavenly blessings. Taking it thus, it will be at once seen that importunity is out of the question; that it is rather the expression of an ever-increasing energetic confidence in the Father for the blessings on which, through grace, the heart is set. Knowing, that is, that it is His mind to bring us into the enjoyment of all that Christ has secured for us, the soul will wait on with purpose and energy until the prayer has been answered. There is, perhaps, even more than this as implied in the terms used; for after the exhortations and their connected promises (" Ask; and it shall be given," etc.), the Lord adds as encouragement, "For everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." Asking then for heavenly blessings, they are received, in the sense of being made good to the soul; seeking for them with true purpose of heart (compare Psalm 27:4), they are found, they are sought for and discovered, the true heavenly portion of the saint is apprehended; and, lastly, to him that knocketh it shall be opened; the heavenly door is, as it were, opened, and the soul enters into its proper sphere, the sphere where Christ is, where He is everything, and where His glory fills the scene. If, therefore, this Scripture goes down and begins with the first desires of the believer, it also rises up to and includes his most exalted blessings. It indicates, at the same time, the royal and only pathway into heavenly enjoyment.