The benefits of being a Christian believer, whether it is our calling, regeneration, faith and repentance, justification and adoption, or the renewing power of sanctification, all are granted by means of the Word and Spirit of God. What is often lost sight of is that they are granted to us only within that fellowship which binds us together as believers. These blessings are not distributed indiscriminately to us as individuals, nor yet to small groups or gatherings, but to the totality of a great multitude, to the whole of the new humanity chosen in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” (Ephesians 1:3-4)
The faith of the believer is not simply a private matter of opinion or belief; nor is it just a matter of subjective individual concern with our own salvation. At its heart is God’s Temple, the Body of Christ. No believer stands in isolation even when deprived of immediate fellowship with others. In the world of nature, we are each born into the membership of a family by our parents, of a wider people, of mankind itself and all without any effort on our part. To whom we are born or where is not something of our own choosing. Equally, in the spiritual world, regeneration comes to us apart from our own will or actions: “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). We are incorporated into a great whole, a rich fellowship becoming members of a new nation, citizens of a spiritual Kingdom with a glorious King.
The fellowship of belonging to the whole gives the individual believer powerful support so that he is strong, not doubting, not fearing even when he is quite alone, for he is part of a body beyond himself. On our own we are not equal to isolation and solitude. Some of us may be called upon to make a break with our environment, to take issue with all and sundry around us. Here God gives special grace. Biblical examples of this include Abraham, Moses, and Elijah. Elijah complained that he alone was left of the faithful. “Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the LORD; but Baal's prophets are four hundred and fifty men. … And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 18:22; 19:10). Paul was deeply saddened at the end of his life to be forsaken by almost everyone.“For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me” (2 Timothy 4:10). As God’s creatures we were made for fellowship with God but also with other men. We do not like being left on our own.
The elect of God constitute a great multitude out of all generations, languages, peoples and nations. It is true that the Christian faith is personal and individual and election incorporates specific named persons known to God by name, yet these individuals are taken and joined together to form the Temple of God, the one Body of Christ. The purpose of election, however, is the formation of an organism made up of all redeemed, regenerate, renewed, glorified mankind, through which the excellencies of their God are proclaimed. Election is fulfilled in time and no one is included in isolation from all the others. This organic activity carries with it in the heart of every believer a strong spiritual social tendency, a longing for fellowship with other believers.
Election divides people in the world and at the same time binds together. As saints are separated from the ungodly, they are mutually attracted to each other’s fellowship to which the following Psalms bear abundant testimony.
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” (Psalm 1:1)
“O my soul, thou hast said unto the LORD, Thou art my Lord: my goodness extendeth not to thee; But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.”(Psalm 16:2-3)
“I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with dissemblers. I have hated the congregation of evil doers; and will not sit with the wicked. I will wash mine hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, O LORD: That I may publish with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works. LORD, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honour dwelleth. Gather not my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloody men: In whose hands is mischief, and their right hand is full of bribes. But as for me, I will walk in mine integrity: redeem me, and be merciful unto me. My foot standeth in an even place: in the congregations will I bless the LORD.” (Psalm 26:4-12)
“I will give thee thanks in the great congregation: I will praise thee among much people.” (Psalm 35:18)
“I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation: I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great congregation.” (Psalm 40:10)
“Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul.”(Psalm 66:16)
“I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD. Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together: Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the LORD. For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee. Because of the house of the LORD our God I will seek thy good.” (Psalm 122)
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the LORD commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.” (Psalm 133)
At first only a small circle of disciples confessed Jesus as Lord, but this confession bound them in such a unity that after the Master left them they still continued with one accord in prayer and supplication. “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (Acts 1:14).On the Day of Pentecost they were clothed with power from on high and received the Holy Spirit as an independent and indwelling principle of life which freed them from every national bond and made them a peculiar fellowship in the world quite independent of any people or country. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit gave the Church an independent existence.
The gatherings of believers from the beginning had two designations: ‘communion’ or ‘Church’. The Hebrew Old Testament used two different words for gatherings of people and made no distinction between them. The Jews later did draw a distinction between the two terms. The first word was translated into Greek as synagogue, the second as ecclesia. Eventually, Christians preferred the second of these two words for the Christian Church as a gathering of believers actualised in the thought of God’s elective love. When Jews and Christians went their separate ways for good, Christians used the word ecclesia and the Jews the word synagogue. Originally this distinction was not always clear. The word ‘assembly’ used of the Church in James 2:2 is synagogue and in Hebrews 10:25. In Acts 7:38 and Hebrews 2:12 the word ecclesia is used of the gathering of the people of Israel. The same word is used in Acts 19:32, 39, and 41 of a popular meeting.
When the Jews and Gentiles finally went their different ways, they each took their separate words with them. The disciples at Jerusalem, even after Pentecost, continued to meet in the Temple or one of its buildings (see Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:12). They kept the Jewish hours of prayer to which they had been used to do, sometimes preaching the Gospel to the people. This God blessed richly and 1000s were added to the Church (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7). Then persecution began culminating with the stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:8 – 7:60). The disciples at Jerusalem were dispersed throughout all Judea and Samaria, even as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch (Acts 8:1; 11:19). Through the preaching of the disciples many Jews were won to the faith and Churches were established in many places.
The Christian Church enjoyed peace for some time during which they multiplied greatly (Acts 8:4, 14, 25; 9:31, 35, 38). There were many who hope that Israel as a whole would turn to the Lord (Acts 3:17-26). This hope waned as the Gentile Church grew. In Jesus’ day there were but few proselytes, as for example the Greeks who wanted to see Him (John 12:20ff.). At the Church in Jerusalem there were ‘certain Grecians’ (Acts 6:1), who like Stephen had a fairly liberal view towards the relationship of Christians to the Temple and the Law (Acts 6:13, 14). In the dispersion from Jerusalem, the Gospel was preached to Samarians (Acts 8:5 ff), to the chamberlain from Ethiopia (Acts 8:26 ff), to the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10), to Greeks in Antioch (Acts 11:20).
All this was preparatory to the great missionary work of Paul and Barnabas who were sent by the Holy Spirit from the Church at Antioch (Acts 13 ff.). Initially, Paul followed the rule to preach to the Jews first (Acts 13:5 & 14; cf. Romans 1:16; 2:9; 3:1; 9:3; 11:13 ff; 1 Corinthians 1:22 ff; 9:20. When the Jews continued to reject his preaching, Paul turned to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46; 17:17; 18:4, 6; 28:25-28. It was a matter of great grief and sadness to Paul that his brethren after the flesh were offended at the cross and sought to establish their own righteousness (Romans 9:2). Nevertheless, he never gave up on them entirely (Romans 11:14). There was still a remnant according to the election of grace, Paul himself being evidence of it (Romans 11:1-15).
Blindness had come to the Jews until the fullness of the Gentiles had come in (Romans 11:25). The branches were broken off because of unbelief and in their place branches of the wild olive tree grafted in (Romans 11:17-24). Israel according to the flesh and Israel according to the Spirit are not one and the same (Romans 2:28-29; 9:8; 1 Corinthians 10:18).
Those among the Jews who reject Christ are not true Jews, are not of the circumcision, but are of the concision (Philippians 3:2). They are unruly, vain talkers, deceivers, persecutors of believers (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; Titus 1:10-11). Jews who molest the Church at Smyrna say they are Jews, but in truth they are a synagogue of Satan (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). Jews and Christians went their separate ways. Although the Christians were at first regarded as a Jewish sect (Acts 24:5, 14 & 28:22), eventually they acquired their own name of ‘Christians’ at Antioch (Acts 11:26). This led to the Jews gathering being called ‘synagogue’ and the community of believers being called ‘ecclesia’.
In our Bibles ecclesia is commonly translated as ‘Church’. The expression was first used of believers by the Lord Jesus Himself (Matthew 16:18; 18:17). The Hebrew word was used by Jesus and is found repeatedly in the Old Testament so that it would have been known and easily recognised when He used it. The new thing was that Jesus used it of His disciples. We should note that the word is not used in the first instance of believers in a particular place, but comprehensively of all those who believe in Him at any time. In Acts 2:47; 5:11; 8:1; 11:22 the word is used of local believers in Jerusalem, but we must remember that they were virtually the only gathering. There may have been some others here and there, in Judea, Samaria, Galilee, but this was only after persecution broke out and dispersion ensued. Initially there was just one gathering at Jerusalem. When through the preaching of the Word other gatherings were formed then the term was used of them also. The Church at Jerusalem was never an organisation that formed branches of itself elsewhere. Other gatherings grew up alongside that at Jerusalem and believers in those places were also called ‘Churches’. Mention is made in Scripture of the Church at Antioch (Acts 11:26; 13:110, but also at Lystra, Derbe and the surrounding countryside (Acts 14:23). Paul uses the same term of gatherings of believers in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and more. He uses the plural of Churches in the territory of Galatia and Judea (Galatians 1:2, 22). Yet all are the one Church of Christ.
Believers in a particular locality began to meet regularly, sometimes daily (Acts 2:46), but certainly regularly on Sunday (1 Corinthians 16:2; Acts 20:7; Revelation1:10). They had, of course, no buildings of their own. James 2:2 may be the first instance of a particular place where believers met in the house of a brother or sister suited to their purposes. In Jerusalem they still gathered for some time in the Temple (Acts 2:1, 46; 3:11; 5:12, 20, 42). In addition they also held special meetings (Acts 1:14; 2:42) in homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42. There is reference to the house of Mary the mother of John Mark in Acts 12:12 then later that of James (Acts 21:18) which evidently became the centre of ecclesiastical life in Jerusalem.
Because the Church at Jerusalem was so large, it divided into groups meeting together in the same house at different times or in different houses at the same time. This was also the practice in other places such as Thessalonica (Acts 17:11), Troas (Acts 20:8), Ephesus (Acts 20:20), Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:19), Colossae (Philemon 2), Laodicea (Colossians 4:15), and Rome (Romans 16:5, 14 &15). Although meeting in houses, they were given the name ‘Church’ (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2). One gathering was not subordinate to another; each was independent, all having the same rights as one another.
Nevertheless, they were all one Church. Jesus spoke of all His disciples taken together as being His Church (Matthew 16:18; 18:17). All the apostles, but especially Paul, speak in the same way of the body of believers. The Church in its entirety is understood to be the Body of Christ of which He is its Head (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:15; Colossians 1:18, 24). The Church is the bride of the Lamb adorned for her husband (Ephesians 5:32; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Revelation 21:2). The Church is the House and Temple of God built on the only foundation that can be laid by the apostles which is Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-16). Christ is the cornerstone and the believers are living stones. The Church is a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people called to show forth the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light (1 Peter 2:9).
Some make a distinction between the empirical and the ideal Church that is not found in the New Testament. The apostles, following our Lord’s example, speak gloriously of the Church (John 14-17) with not a thought of something that exists only in the abstract, thought of as an ideal after which we must strive, but will probably never realise. The apostles always have in mind the whole, the actual Church, that Body of which the gatherings of believers in various localities and times are particular manifestations. They may be in many respects imperfect or defective, this is testified to in the epistles, but despite this they remain manifestations of a reality behind them, actualisations of the counsel of God that moves forward from generation to generation.
In that counsel or decree, God sees the whole Church of Christ before Him in its perfection, in Christ who purchased her with His blood. The Holy Spirit takes everything from Christ and this is no ideal but a reality. The Church will be in constant change from the beginning right to the end of the world. Every day many leave it, those who have fought the good fight of faith, kept the faith, have earned a crown of righteousness. They are the Church triumphant, the Church of the firstborn and the spirits of just men made perfect (Hebrews 12:23). New members are added by the Lord to the Church on earth every day. They are the Church militant.
These two parts of the Church belong together. Yet without us they could not become perfect and without them we could not be perfect (Hebrews 11:40). Only all the saints together can fully grasp the greatness of the love of Christ and be filled with the fullness of God. “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19) History will continue until we have come to oneness of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)
The apostles when speaking of the Church as a united whole are not expressing something purely idealistic, but they are describing a practical reality. This is evident because they speak of each local gathering but also of each individual believer in the same way. The Church at Corinth had many errors and shortcomings but was still called the Temple of God, the dwelling place of His Spirit and the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:16; 12:27). To the individual believer is attributed many similar charateristics. The believer’s body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit and with body and spirit he belongs to God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). The Church as a whole, every local Church, every individual believer all share the same benefits, all are partakers of Christ, all possess the same Spirit and are led to the same Father (1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 2:18).“Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:3-6). God does not grant to each and every believer the same measure of grace (Romans 12:6). “But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ”(Ephesians 4:7). There may well be a difference of gift, administration, operation and working, but this only serves to foster and strengthen the unity of believers in Christ. “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
As a real and living organism, a living body, the Church is made up of many and various members each with his own place and function within the whole. “And if they were all one member, where were the body?” (1 Corinthians 12:19) In the same way that the body is one but has many members and all those members belong to the one body, so it is with the Church of Christ. “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ”(1 Corinthians 12:12). Depending up the nature of the gift received from God every believer is to minister to his brethren as a good steward of God’s grace towards him. “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). Such gifts are not given solely for personal benefit, but to be a blessing to all and so for the edification of the Church. “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal” (1 Corinthians 12:7). “Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12).
Despite the various roles and differing gifts, the Church of Christ remains a unity. There is but one Church; this was always the case and will ever remain so. It was and will always be the same everywhere, having the same privileges and benefits. The unity of the Church is not imposed upon it from outside but is due to its essential nature. It possesses a spiritual oneness in its character. This unity is founded upon and can be exemplified by the unity existing between the Father and Christ Jesus as Mediator. “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17:21-23). Our unity is in Christ who as the vine nourishes the branches. “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). “From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love”(Ephesians 4:16). The love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit are our portion, that of every local gathering of saints, and of the whole Church.