The Soul's Preparation for the Assembly.

Matthew 11-18.

John Alfred Trench.

Article 15 of 19 from 'Truth for Believers' Volume 1.

(New and Enlarged Edition 1906.)

There is a preparation of the soul that must go before the reception of any truth in power, and this, I believe, we may find in the ways of the blessed Lord with the disciples in this gospel, going before and leading up to the revelation of His purpose as to the assembly (Matt. 16), and the practical path that should flow from it as in Mathew 18. He was preparing and educating His people for truths and a path on earth formed by them that should be wholly new to them — the consequence of His rejection as the Messiah of Israel, and, thereupon, the revelation of deeper counsels of God for His glory.

The time was not come for the full revelation of these counsels; the mystery hid in God from the beginning of the world could not be brought out. There were facts upon which the accomplishment and revelation of it depended that had yet to take place. The history of God's patient dealing in testing with the first man was not over, though the last stage of it had been reached: the judgment of the cross had not yet closed his existence for God and for faith; redemption was not yet accomplished, upon the ground of which God could take up His dwelling-place in such rich grace with men upon earth, in the assembly to be formed for this: the second Man had not taken His place as such in the glory of God, where alone saints could be united to Him as Head of His body the assembly; the Holy Ghost by whose presence here, witness to that glory, the assembly in this its double relationship to God and to Christ was to be formed, "was not yet, because that Jesus was not yet glorified." But all was tending rapidly to the moment when these things should take place and their results be brought out in the testimony that forms Christianity. And He, who knew how slow our poor hearts would be to enter into truths, that if they opened to us His glory on high, involved nothing but the cross upon earth, had ever this in view, in His perfect wisdom and grace, in the instructions He gave and the exercises through which He led the disciples while He was yet with them. What could be of deeper interest to us then, than to trace the order and progress of such instruction and exercise — sure that only by training which is analogous to it in our own souls' histories, in the same precious grace of the Lord, now that the path has fully come upon us, we can intelligently enter into and walk in it?

The turning-point of the truth, as given us in Matthew, is found in Matthew 11. The glory of the Person of the Lord Jesus there brought out becomes the basis of all that succeeds. But we must look back a little to see what has led up to this. Presented in this gospel, within the circle of Jewish promise, John the Baptist precedes the King with the testimony that the kingdom of the heavens was at hand, and of repentance in view of it. On his imprisonment the Lord Himself takes up the testimony; but it soon became apparent, as multitudes followed Him, that the kingdom they looked for was very different in character from that He would bring in. Hence, Matthew 5 to 7 set forth the principles that characterise those who should enter into it when set up, and thus indirectly those of the kingdom itself: Matthew 8 and Matthew 9 bringing out the grace in power, in which, not the King merely, but Jehovah Himself was present among them. In Matthew 10 He calls to Him the twelve, and gives them a testimony, strictly confined to Israel, till it should be broken off by the rejection of the witnesses, and the consequent scattering of the people (leaving room for its being resumed when they are again found in their cities), a rejection now first plainly intimated in His instructions to them from verse 16; while in Matthew 11 the facts of it come pressing upon His own spirit.

The testimony of God in warning and in grace was alike unheeded by a generation more hard of heart than Tyre or even Sodom. The full sense of it only served, as in every scene of testing for Him, to bring out the sweet savour of His perfection in the place He had taken as man. At perfect rest in the knowledge of the Father He knows whence to take all that came upon Him and in perfect submission bows to the Father's hand. And this became the occasion for laying the first principle of our blessing in a glory of His Person, infinitely beyond that in which He had been presented to Israel. Pressed back by their rejection of Him on the line of earthly promise, this only served to press out the consciousness of His place with the Father; and all that He is in Himself comes out. "All things," not merely the kingdom of Israel, were delivered unto Him of the Father, who alone knew Him in the complex and unfathomable glory of the Son who had become man; but if there was none to reveal the Son, He had come to make the Father known, as He, Son of the Father, alone knew Him.

Thus, if rejected as Messiah, He remains for faith in glory above all dispensations, according to the counsels of the Father, His own essentially, and the sovereign grace in which He had come to reveal the Father — deepest purpose of His heart. And if we would know to whom this wonderful revelation will be made, He answers by calling to Himself the weary and heavy-laden in such a world, that He may give us rest by revealing and introducing us into the source of His own. Soon He must lead us out into the circumstances of His rejection; but how perfect and precious the grace that, before the storm and testing, opens to us rest and home outside the scene in the knowledge of the Father. Next, that this rest may be maintained through all circumstances, He teaches us to take His yoke upon us, the yoke of that divine Learner in the school of our sorrows, and submit ourselves in everything to the Father's hand as He did. Surely it enhances infinitely, as it characterises the blessedness of the rest that He leads us into in this double way, that it is presented to us in His own experience of it first of all. (Vers. 25, 26) Contained in the knowledge of the Father, who would limit the deepening enjoyment of which such rest is capable? We shall grow in it as we grow in the knowledge of Him who says, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father."* But it is sweet to know that it is the first thing the Lord would lead our hearts into, in preparing us for the path of His calling and ours. (Eph. 1:18; 4:1-4) Coming before the revelation of our relationship, His first thought is to reveal to us the Father with whom that relationship is to be.

*The Gospel of John is the full development of the connection of thought in the close of this chapter. It opens with the rejection as accomplished, of which Matthew (and the other synoptic gospels, each from its own point of view) gives us the history. Then the glories of verse 27 are the subject-matter of John. Hence it is that, while our relationship as children and sons is fully brought out elsewhere, in John alone we find the Father fully revealed. This gives that gospel an amazing place.

In Matthew 12 we find the religious leaders of the nation taking counsel how they might destroy Him, and at once (Matt. 13), proportionate in magnitude to the glory of Him "whom the nation abhorreth," we find the first great change of dispensation, based upon that rejection. Disowning His natural relationships with the people, Jesus leaves the Jewish house, and takes His place by the sea-side of nations, to commence a new work of God. No longer looking for fruit from Israel, He went forth into the world at large, to sow, that He might produce fruit, and the six parables follow which give the full result in "the mysteries of the kingdom of the heavens" whether in the form the kingdom takes on His rejection, publicly as in the first three, or as in the last three, the hidden reality known in it to the King. The assembly follows in Matthew 16, which is not a dispensation, but rather a parenthesis in the course of the dispensations, and then (Matthew 17) the kingdom of the Son of man coming in heavenly glory.

But amid the announcement of these great public changes, flowing from, and dependent upon, the rejection of the Messiah, the blessed Lord, thinking of the need of His people in view of them, begins to exercise their hearts for a path hitherto untrodden by any. In Matthew 14 John is put to death, forerunner of His Master even in this; and the circumstances of the path come fully into view. Lingering in grace in Israel as Jehovah, He satisfies her poor with bread; but now, dismissing the Jewish multitude, He goes apart upon the mountain-top to pray, while His disciples are left to cross the storm-tossed sea of this world without Him, though His eye and heart are never withdrawn from them for a moment. The night far advanced, He presents Himself walking upon the water, so as irresistibly to draw out the desire of one of them, if there were but one, to walk like Him, that he might go to Him.

It was a path unknown to man, where indeed no principle of the flesh could enter; if divine, and the soul were divinely attracted into it, there were divine resources to sustain in it. But they were all found in that deeper glory of the Lord Jesus, in which, if rejected as Messiah, He remained, as we have seen, for faith. It was no question of the character of the path; not if the sea be calm, but "If it be Thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come." The ship was the only way known to man to cross the deep, but the new path of faith opens the path of Christ as He walks upon the water. The glory of His Person attracts into it, His word gives divine warrant to take it, and Peter "came down out of the ship, and walked on the water, to go to Jesus."

For a little moment how bright it was, as he proved the power of the "If it be thou" to sustain, where His word led him. But soon the needed test arises for even one who had taken the path of Christ — unknown, indeed, save in that path. The character of the scene to be crossed is not changed; only contrary winds and waves must be encountered in a world that has cast out the Lord. But the storm is no more than the calm to divine power; without it who could walk on the calmest sea there ever was? Even if Satan raises it, it is permitted only to test faith as to the reality of the path assumed, and our resources for it; unbelief makes fools of us, and exposes to his power. The instant Peter's eye is off Jesus to look at the circumstances, he breaks down utterly and begins to sink, though Jesus is too near in blessed grace to let him. But the joy of communion in walking like Christ, sustained and triumphing over all opposition by divine power, as the eye of faith simply rests upon its Object, is exchanged for the rebuke of unbelief. And what a difference! "O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?"

What must be the state of the soul that is not exercised by all this, as the circumstances in which Christ must be followed in this world, the special character of the path known only to faith, and the resources for it, as well as the source of failure, come out before us. Time was when divine power clave the waters and made a dry path for Israel through them; but He, who wielded all that power still, present in grace among them and rejected, now exercises it for faith, in empowering the heart attracted by His glory, to walk above them like Himself, on its way to Him. None can lead another into such a path then: the very attempt to do so would prove how little the character of it were known to the soul. The faith that can alone take it, is as individual as the attraction, and exercise of heart and conscience, by which it is made real to us, and ever by grace more real. Thus the storm has quickly succeeded to the home, and we see how perfect is the order of the truth, and the grace that would lead our souls into it in this order.

Matthew 15 is the total judgment of man as such, whether in his specious religious guise, or purely natural condition, and prepares the way for the revelation that follows (Matt. 16); while the faith of even a poor Canaanite, who is brought to take the ground of that judgment, reaches through to the heart of God, acting in His own goodness for blessing, no longer to be confined within the narrow limits of Israel.

In Matthew 16, after the glory of His Person (still as from Matthew 11, the touch-stone of everything) manifests the unbelief of Pharisees and Sadducees, and puts the feeble faith of true believers to the test, the Lord, turning from the indifference of those even who owned the authority and power in which He had come, raises fully the question of what that glory was among the company of His own. This becomes the occasion of the wonderful revelation by the Father to Peter, that leads the Lord Jesus to unfold His purpose as to His assembly, now to be founded on the glory in which He had been acknowledged as "the Christ, the Son of the living God" — a revelation involving the source of life, and of life in power over him that had the power of death, as expressed in His resurrection — while He also gives to Peter a special place of administration in the kingdom as about to be established. Thereupon, inasmuch as all now depended upon glory beyond that of special relationships with Israel, He closes the testimony that He was the Christ, and "from that time forth" began to set forth to His disciples His death and resurrection. It was the turning-point in fact of His ministry and life here, although the ground of the change was laid, as we have seen, in Matthew 11.

All the glory in which He had been now made known and confessed, connects with and becomes the cross in this world; and the character of the Christian's path is fully revealed: the test becomes absolute. Not the wonderful brightness of the heavenly revelation supplies it, but the cross, which is its answer upon earth. Peter interposes to deter the Lord from this, the necessary path to the accomplishment of the glory, and he who just before had been the subject of such marvellous privilege, now becomes a stumbling-block in the path of faithfulness, and has to be treated as Satan by the faithful Lord, who reveals the source of Peter's failure: his mind was not upon the things that be of God, but those that be of men. How solemn and searching the truth for us all! All that is of man is now ranged in antagonism to the heavenly glory of Christ and the assembly connected with it — terrible expression of what man is! To follow out the path of the glorified Christ and of the assembly united to Him as such involves the cross upon man and self. This was where the shoe pinched. Peter had not refused the revelation of the heavenly glory, but the earthly consequence of it was too much for him.

Nothing could more solemnly bring out the insidious character of the opposition, that is at once to be met with if we would walk in the power of a Christ so known. It is not contrary winds and waves now merely — every principle of the world without that has rejected Him; but the self we carry about within us. Hence the Lord puts it plainly before us, "If any one desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever shall desire to save his life shall lose it: but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" It is not what is openly evil merely, but all that goes to make up man's life in this world, self and its sphere, that must be subjected to the cross and surrendered to follow Christ. Those who "mind earthly things" (Phil. 3:19 — "mind" there and "savour" here being the same word) are "the enemies of the cross of Christ," and must necessarily be a stumbling-block in the way of any who would truly follow the Lord. "All that is of the world … is not of the Father." How soon had the power of the heavenly glory, that had shone so brightly before Peter's heart for a little moment, become enfeebled — easier lost than regained! For as far as we know from the Acts and his epistles, he never regained it in power, so as to characterise his testimony. Another vessel, Paul, had to be taken up to bring out the full consequences of the revelation here made to Peter, of whom we read that on his conversion, "straightway in the synagogues he preached Jesus, that he is the Son of God." If by that testimony these precious truths have been received by our souls, let us take heed, lest by any sparing or consideration of self, the power, and so the path, of them be missed or lost to us.

There remains a further change of dispensation flowing from His rejection yet to take place — the manifestation of the kingdom in heavenly glory. (Matt. 17) The Lord brings it before His disciples at this point of the instructions to encourage their hearts in going down into the path of the cross to man and this world, the path that leads to it. Upon the mount of transfiguration they saw His power and coming and were eye-witnesses of His majesty. Yet the time was not come for setting up the kingdom thus, and the gleam of its glory passes away, but only to leave what transcends by far all the glory in which it will be manifested, in that of His Person who remains to us — the next of these precious lessons for our hearts. Would they have detained the Lord in the associations of a glory connected with, as to be manifested upon, the earth? A voice out of the cloud makes Him known in personal glory far beyond it, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him. … And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only." Jesus only — it was the point to which He had been ever leading up their hearts — but revealed according to the Father's thoughts about Him and the Father's delight in Him. Oh, is He thus known to us to satisfy our hearts for ever? But the voice came that we might enter into and share in our little measure the Father's delight in Him, and be satisfied now. And this is the centre and sum of all our blessedness in the assembly.

But before we pass on to this directly, one more wonderful scene of His grace helps to bring out the full character of this blessedness. It is at the close of the chapter, where again it is the glory of His Person that is in question, as Peter so readily affirms of the Lord, that He will pay the accustomed tribute to the temple. Do the kings of the earth then take tribute of their own sons, or of strangers? is the touching way in which Jesus recalls to Peter who He was. The sons of the king were then free; but that is to associate Peter with Himself in His position before the Father. But there is more in this: taking the place of the stranger that He was given, He immediately exercises the power of the divine Creator of the universe — as He was, though a poor man upon earth — and commands a fish of the deep to bring the coin that was the exact amount for two persons, and says, "That take, and give unto them for me and for thee." Thus was He already winning hearts by His marvellous tenderness and grace, for an association with Him, which — the fruit of the corn of wheat having fallen into the ground and died — should be theirs and ours in the assembly, at once its richest and characteristic privilege. And this was the last sweet lesson of such divine instruction, before the culminating point of all is reached in Matthew 18.

This chapter connects with Matthew 16, and the kingdom glory of Matthew 17 being not yet come, reveals the spirit of lowliness and grace towards others, and uncompromising severity as to every snare of self (the only way not to be a stumbling-block to others) that should characterise those left in Christ's place here — He being rejected and absent — whether as belonging to the kingdom of the heavens, or in the especial form in which they were to represent Him, of the assembly. In view of the purpose of Christ announced in Matthew 16, we come here to what the assembly is, not as to how it was to be formed, or as to the persons who should compose it, but as it is to be practically found when gathered on earth, and invested with Christ's authority, His presence being promised to the two or three gathered to His name. Nor must it be supposed that we have only here our resource in a day of ruin. This was what constituted the assembly for any practical purpose at the beginning — Christ's presence in the midst of the two or three truly gathered to His name: no ruin, can touch this. Thus the assembly's richest prerogative from the first, remains to faith to count on to the end. From verse 17 the question naturally arises, where is the assembly to be found to which in the last resort the case referred to is to be brought? If its decisions are ratified in heaven (ver. 18), and the prayer of even two that agree as touching anything they ask is answered of the Father (ver. 19), it is alike because of His promised presence in the midst. (Ver. 20) Thus we are brought to the essence of our privilege, expressed in a sevenfold completeness in that verse.

First, as to the locality. What a change from anything known on earth previously! It was no longer one spot known, where Jehovah had put His name, and must alone be sought — "Where" (namely wherever) "two or three" — the smallest company that there could be: one person could not secure His presence thus, but if even "two" were found to count upon His promise, it should be theirs; that would be the assembly, practically, and the Lord in the midst. "Are gathered" — and this involves a gathering power, for it is not "Where two or three meet;" it was no matter of human arrangement or will: it was surely none other than that of the Holy Ghost, when sent down to carry out the Father's will for the glory of Christ, in the saints being thus gathered together in one. For "together" marks the fact of their unity, and the sweet fellowship of hearts knit to Christ, and to one another in it. "To my name" — the point to which the gathering was at the beginning, is still the rallying-point to the end — the name that will suffice to unite us for ever in the glory, the only one that can be recognised now by faith — the name, as ever, the expression of all that He is, the sum of blessing at any time being contained in the name by which God is pleased to reveal Himself — not to be limited therefore to Jesus, the sweet name of His humiliation — name above every name though it is — but the full name in which He is now revealed from the glory as Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, Head of His body the assembly. "There am I" — and thus we reach the divine centre, the centre of God's eternal counsels, and manifested to be the centre of all He was doing for the accomplishment of them from the moment of Christ's presence on earth — now the centre of the gathered company here, as He will be for ever, when none of His own will be missing in that gathering around the throne, and the Lamb as slain in the midst of it: the "there am I" of His promised presence now, answering to the "where I am" of all conceivable blessing and joy in the Father's house for ever. What grace it is that has recovered the ground upon which He can be thus with us, after centuries of the professing assembly's unfaithfulness, during which it had been lost and unsought! And last of all, "in the midst of them" defines the character of His presence, the centre and source of our whole position in the practical walk of the assembly: it is not as in heavenly glory far above us, nor does He "spread his tabernacle over" us, as over those in the millennium (Rev. 7), but right down "in the midst of them," as of those He has associated in such wonderful grace with Himself; and this so fully that we know from another precious scripture that, as in the midst of the assembly, He leads us in the praise that suits the place into which He has entered as Man, and in which we are united to Him — His song ours now.

This was the point to which steadily underneath all the instruction of great dispensational and public changes (which makes the Gospel of Matthew so important) He was conducting His people, and educating their hearts for it. The facts referred to at the outset were needed to be accomplished that we might be in the position of the assembly: the light of the mystery (Eph. and Col.) had yet to be thrown upon that position to give it its full height of privilege and responsibility; but all the after gain of intelligence, which has now its full and important place, will, where real, only enhance and deepen for our souls the amazing privilege and blessedness of the original and primary promise of His presence in the midst of the two or three gathered to His name. No more was the assembly's resource in its brightest days at the beginning; no less remains to be ours at the end. No ruin can alter the principles of the assembly's position now fully revealed — and by subjection to which, the ground can be recovered, whatever the ruin, where His presence will be found — nor touch what He is for faith when so found. Only in the light of the truths by which the Lord led His disciples up to this point will the character of the path be properly estimated; and being so we shall understand the varied exercise and testing, by which alone such a path can be truly reached and maintained, nor shrink from any analogous process by which the same gracious and faithful Lord would make it real to us in these last days.