1. — Its Nature

In many ways the name "Church" is misleading, partly because of a certain historical but unscriptural meaning attached to it, and partly because the word is used in so many different ways. For instance, a building where religious meetings are held is called a church; the persons meeting there form a church; the denomination with which they are connected is a church. Similarly, we have the Church of England, or Scotland — meaning the established form of religion in those countries. To the Romanist "the Church" means the Papal system, and to the ritualist something very similar. TheEvangelical will tell us that the word has a twofold significance, designating respectively the visible and the invisible Church. Thus all professing Christendom forms the visible Church; while only the true believers form the invisible.

It is therefore necessary, as well as refreshing, to turn from these discordant definitions to the simple word of God, and gather from it the truths as to this important subject.

As may be inferred from what we have already said, it is a subject on which various and unscriptural views are held. Indeed, we might go further, and say that perhaps fewer persons understand the teaching of Scripture as to the Church than any other of its prominent doctrines. The effect of this is but too apparent. Satan is always at work where there is ignorance; and the various systems of error founded upon wrong teaching on this subject show the immense importance of being clear as to it.

And the revival of other precious truths, such as Assurance, the Lord's Coming, etc., has not been accompanied by an awakening upon this theme. Sad it is to hear men devoted in the gospel, clear expounders of the word of God, telling us that they do not trouble themselves about Church doctrine; that salvation is the all-important theme, and the establishment of Christians in the fundamentals all that is necessary. We see men giving chapter and verse for every statement, and dwelling upon the authority of the word of God, quietly closing their eyes to its teachings upon the Church, and apparently contented to have others do the same.

We can praise God for the revival of gospel preaching, for the spread of Scripture teaching; but in this neglect of Church truth we see only cause for apprehension. May we not call upon those who love the word of God to take up this neglected truth, and seek by the Lord's grace to learn His mind regarding that which is as dear to Him as His own body? Surely, blessing would result from it.

The word "Church" in our ordinary versions is not a translation of the Greek word ecclesia, the word used in the New Testament. "Assembly", or "gathering," would give us the meaning; which is at once seen to be a very general term. In fact, it is used not only for the New Testament thought of the Assembly, but, in Acts 7:38, for the congregation of Israel; and later, in the same book, for a heathen mob at Ephesus (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). Mark this last passage. To those who include in the Church believers of all dispensations, we will have to give a word of explanation later, when the contrast between Israel and the Church is brought out.

We must therefore look for some passage in Scripture to settle the meaning and use of the word "assembly"; we find one which has all the clearness of a definition: "And hath made Him head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:22-23). We are in this part of Ephesians occupied with a risen and glorified Christ. He has been raised from the dead in proof of an accomplished redemption, and, exalted to the right hand of God, all things being put beneath His feet. He occupies that position not merely as the witness of eternal redemption — that God has accepted His work on the cross not merely as the representative of His people before God, the measure of their acceptance and their righteousness — but He is there as Head of the Church, which is His Body. This is figurative language, no doubt, but clear none the less. It suggests not only Lordship over His people, but declares for them the closest connection, the same life, the same interests, and the same prospects as His own. "The fulness of Him that filleth all in all" shows that through grace the Church is the complement of Christ. As at the beginning, when God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a help meet for him" (Gen. 2:18), so God now likens the Church in its relation to Christ to a wife in relation to the husband — the complement, the rounding out (amazing thought!) of the second Adam (Eph. 5:22-33). We would not for a moment hint that our adorable Lord needed the Church to add anything to the worth, dignity, or beauty of His peerless person, either as Son of God or Son of Man. In grace, however, He has taken her into fellowship with Himself, and to all eternity she will be the vessel in which His grace, love, power, and blessing, will be displayed.

The Church, then, is the Body of Christ. But how and of what is this Body formed? Again Scripture answers with the distinctness of a definition: "By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13). "We all" means those who have the Spirit, and His baptism marks the beginning of the Church. When did this take place? "This spake He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified" (John 7:39). "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you" (John 16:7). "For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence" (Acts 1:5). "And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:4).

These passages show us that as long as the Lord Jesus was upon earth — until He was glorified, after His death — the Holy Ghost did not come. After His resurrection He reminded His disciples of the promise — and uses this very word "baptize" — of the descent of the Spirit; and in Acts 2, at Pentecost, we have the promised baptism. Is it not clear, then, that the Church was begun at Pentecost, not before? And does not this accord beautifully with the definition we have been looking at? It is the Body of Christ glorified; and when glorified He sent down the Holy Ghost to form this Body.

Let it not be thought for a moment that we mean that the Holy Spirit did not act upon earth before this. Scripture is plain as to this. At creation, He brooded upon the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2). Before the flood He strove with men (Gen. 6:3). He came upon men for prophecy or for power (Num. 11:25-26; Judges 14:6). From the beginning new birth was His work, to which our Lord refers in His conversation with Nicodemus as a thing which ought to have been familiar to a teacher in Israel (John 3:10 with Ezek. 36:25-26). But none of these is the baptism of the Spirit, uniting believers to a glorified Christ and to one another. This, as we have seen, took place at Pentecost.*

{*It is interesting to note the various operations of the Spirit of God in the present dispensation: We have, first, that which has been His work from the beginning — new birth; then sealing (Eph. 1:13, Eph. 4:30), which marks the believer in Christ as belonging to God, who thus gives the earnest of the inheritance, until the day of redemption; along with this goes His indwelling, uniting us to Christ in glory. At the same time we have been baptized by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), which puts us into the Church. This last is corporate; the others are individual. Of course, it is not to be understood that these various operations occur at different times. The act of new birth is distinct in character from the rest, but the element of time does not enter in. There is an order, however; the man is first born again, then sealed; but it would not be right to say there must be any length of time between the two acts. As to the rest — baptism and sealing — they are different parts of the same act. The Spirit abides always, never leaving those whom He has sealed. Dwelling in the individual and the Church, He also operates in the varied functions of the one Body. But of this we shall speak at greater length later on.}

Confirmatory of the statement that the Church did not exist before Pentecost, is the familiar passage in Matt. 16:18: "Upon this rock I will build my church." Christ's person is the rock*, the foundation, and upon that He says He will, as a future thing, build His Church. This being the case, it follows that believers before Pentecost did not form part of the Body of Christ; but, lest there should be any doubt here, Scripture expressly states that the Church was a mystery, hid in God, not known in other ages (Eph. 3:1-11).

{*How foolish and worse is the teaching that Peter was the Rock upon which the church was built. This would indeed be a foundation of sand. Only a few verses below this declaration of our Lord, He is obliged to say to Peter, "Get thee behind Me, Satan."}

Until God called out Israel, He dealt with His people individually and in families. After the nation came into existence, He recognized that as the responsible body, in connection with which all earthly blessings were promised on condition of obedience. The Gentiles were to be blessed in connection with Israel (Ps. 22:23-28), not independently of them (Deut. 32:8-9 with Ps. 72:8-11). A simple examination of the Prophets in contrast with the Epistles will make this perfectly clear.

God does not confound His dispensational dealings. When He took up an earthly people He made all to center about them (Deut. 32:8). He did not forsake them, in spite of their mournful departures from Him, as shown in the history of the times of the Judges and the Kings, but sent them prophets and righteous witnesses, one after another, "until there was no remedy" (2 Chr. 36:14-21). Even after the world-power had passed over to the Gentiles, under Nebuchadnezzar, God restored a remnant of His people from their captivity at Babylon, and — crowning act of love and mercy — sent them His Son. Had they but reverenced Him, received Him, all the blessings promised to the earthly people would have come upon them. But they put the cap-stone upon all their former sins by rejecting their Messiah, and delivering Him over to the Gentiles to be crucified. In that act they forfeited all claim to be considered the people of God, and all dealings with them as such, save in grace, ceased. This is strikingly set forth in the last part of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 21 — 26:2).

After Pentecost, God began an entirely new thing. Appeal He did once more to His beloved but unrepentant people, as a nation, only to be answered by their stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). Now, however, the gospel goes out to the Gentiles, and the Church has been formed. Meanwhile the dealings with His earthly people cease. They are "not my people" (Hosea 1:9) — given up (Micah 5:3). True, the gospel is still presented to them, but not as a nation; and in accepting it, they cease to be Jews (Col. 3:11), though it is an exhibition of God's grace to the remnant of His people (Rom. 11:5). As long as the Church is being gathered, Israel is set aside as a nation until after the taking up of the Church, when God again will begin to deal with them, and fulfil every word of promise recorded in the Prophets. The present or Church period is a parenthesis, an interval, in which God is acting in a peculiar and unique manner. Romans 9-11 shows the unchangeable character of God's counsels as to Israel, and distinctly announces their national restoration to divine favor and blessing. From this it will be seen how wrong it is to apply to the Church those Scriptures which relate to Israel, or vice versa.

It only remains necessary to add that all believers since Pentecost form part of the Church. For all believers receive the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13); and we have already seen that by the Spirit "we all" are baptized into one Body. There is no select class of specially privileged or intelligent believers, nor is it any special aspect of the work of Christ, but rather His person. We know that His death and resurrection are the basis on which all rests, but it is God's apprehension, not ours which avails. All who believe are "baptized into one Body."

If the Church began to be formed at Pentecost, when will it be complete? We have seen (Eph. 5) that the Church is spoken of as the bride of Christ. The marriage has not yet taken place: that will be when Christ presents her to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing. At present she is espoused as a chaste virgin to Christ (2 Cor. 11:2). In Rev. 19:7 we read that "The marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready"; and in Rev. 21:9, etc., we have the description of the "glorious Church," — complete at last. This is after the second coming of Christ, and before His millennial reign. The Lord's second coming marks the close of the Church period. The Church, then, is composed of all believers from Pentecost till the coming of the Lord.

We may well pause, and meditate upon the mercy which has thus been shown to us Gentiles, that God should visit us in grace. The whole character of His dealing has been different from that with Israel. We are not under law, we have access within veil — are all priests unto God. The Cross has made us strangers here and at home in heaven. The Heavenly Guest — the Holy Spirit — has come down to tell us of the glories of our heavenly inheritance; and as Abraham's servant of old conducted the bride whom he had won for his master Isaac away from family and former associations to her new home and her new lord, so now the Holy Spirit is conducting across the desert of this world, to her Lord in the glory, the Church bought with His precious blood and won to be His bride forever.

If, then, the Church is united to a glorified Christ as Head; if it is waiting for the Lord's coming to take it from earth to heaven, need we say that it is meant to be not an earthly but a heavenly Body? — not to "blossom and bud and fill the face of the earth with fruit;" not to reform the earth, to improve society, but to share with Christ in those heavenly glories won by Him for us. Israel will yet have blessing upon the earth, for that is her inheritance. The bride of Christ has other hopes, another destiny. Would that she realized it more fully.