WHAT IS THE ASSEMBLY?
Acts 8: 33
1 Timothy 3: 14, 15
Ephesians 1: 22, 23
I seek the Lord’s help to speak of a question that has sometimes been asked: what is the assembly? We have been speaking about the Lord Jesus; but what is the assembly? It is a most important question. In the day in which we live, believers might take account of one another, might take account of Christendom and the church generally, and ask, “What is the assembly?”. The hymnwriter wrote about it:
Tho' with a scornful wonder
The world sees her oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed,
Samuel J Stone (1866)
That is the outward view of the assembly. Why is it like that? Because it is precious to Christ, and therefore Satan will not fail to attack it; that is why. But you can never get a true understanding of the assembly by looking at what you find in Christendom - I might say by what you find in any company. In order to get a view of what the assembly is, you have to go right back to God’s thoughts in the beginning.
We were speaking in the reading of a time when God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”, Gen 1: 26. He had in mind that He should be expressed, that there should be One to be the expression of God to the whole creation; that is what God had in mind. How quickly man failed, and for four thousand years there was almost nothing but failure recorded in the history of man; but then God intervened. We were saying in the reading that, when God made man, what He had in His heart was another Man, a Man of another order; that is what God had in His heart, and God intervened in the course of the history of man in the Person of Jesus. There was One who fully expressed God; He was Himself the expression of God, “in him all the fulness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell” (Col 1: 19), and He displayed all that God is to man. Think of the wonderful moment it was when Jesus came into manhood. What a day for the earth! There had never been a day like that before. The most momentous happening occurred in obscurity, in a small city that was of no account to men; it occurred in obscurity there; men were totally unaware of who was there, but God had come in. Think of the greatness of that, that God had come into His creation - not that creation could contain God, far from it, but He had come into it in the Person of Jesus, Jehovah the Saviour. We know Him in that way, do we not? I look around and I see the brethren’s faces, and I think to myself that every one has had a time when they have had to do with God, and they have had to realise that God has come out in Him, Jehovah the Saviour, a Saviour God. How precious that is, beloved, to know that we have a Saviour God! We were reading locally, “our Saviour God, who desires that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth”, 1 Tim 2: 3, 4. Think of a God like that; and He actually came into the creation, and for the first time there was One upon the earth who expressed all that God is. Men could take account of Him; generally, they took account of Him as a Man and they wondered at Him. They wondered that a Man could do such things as He did. That light as to who He was was disclosed to a few: God was there; He found His expression in one Man.
What you find is that every divine thought has been expressed in the Lord Jesus Himself. Take another thought: God expressed the desire that He would dwell with men, that He wanted to have His dwelling place, among men. He told Moses that: he said to Moses “Speak unto the children of Israel … And they shall make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them”, Exod 25: 2, 8. Think of a God like that who wants to dwell, have His actual dwelling place among men! He was there among the people. They did not appreciate the greatness of what was there in type as they went through that wilderness; they continued in their idolatry. But God was there. They came to the Jordan and Joshua said to the people, “Hereby shall ye know that the living God is in your midst”, Josh 3: 10. You think of that: “the living God”, He was there. They were confronted by the waters of Jordan and they had to pass through that; the living God was there. Those waters of Jordan went back. I love to think of the references in scripture where death stood in the way of God’s purpose. It says that the waters rose up in a heap (Josh 3: 16); think of that word - a heap! It shows that the power of death was in total disarray, there is no order in a heap. The waters “rose up in a heap” right back to the city Adam - how wonderful. And the ark was just a figure of what was going to come in Jesus, that God was going to dwell. It was not only that He was going to be seen, but He was going to dwell among men: “became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we have contemplated his glory …)”, John 1: 14.
Think of the greatness of what it was that God should dwell among His people, and not only should He dwell among His people but His very feelings should be known by His people and expressed in His people. I would struggle to find a type of the feelings of God being expressed in the same way as we have a type of the dwelling place of God. But the feelings of God were there all the time, and they were known by some. Moses, for instance, says to the people, “Not because ye were more in number than all the peoples, hath Jehovah been attached to you and chosen you … but because Jehovah loved you”, Deut 7: 7, 8. The feelings of God were expressed to His people; but when Jesus came - oh, how fully those feelings were expressed! They were fully expressed in that blessed Man. You think of how He served in lowly grace in order that they should be brought round to God’s thoughts for them. He humbled Himself in His love for His people; there were those who recognised it. Take John 11: “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus” (v: 5); He loved them all; His feelings were known, they were expressed there. His feelings were known when He came to that grave; it says, “Jesus wept”, v 35. First He groaned (v 33), and then it says He wept; He wept as seeing all the damage that sin had done to the human race, and the ultimate effect of sin upon the race. “Jesus wept”: you think of the feelings there, divine feelings expressed in a Man, there in a scene of death. The heart of God was being expressed. The heart of God was told out fully at the cross, when Jesus made atonement for sins and went into death, and His precious blood was shed. It gave God a basis on which His heart could be fully expressed. All these are things that found their fulfilment in Jesus.
Adam was set up as the head of the universe; he was to be the great administrator, I suppose; but administration failed in man’s hands. But you think of Jesus: “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things to be in his hand”, John 3: 35. All that is yet to come, the administration of the world to come, is all going to be in His hand.
God intended that there should be an answer from men, that there should be glory to Him from men. We spoke about that in the reading, that there should be an answer in glory. How far short of that men fell, but you think of Jesus coming in. That time when He was alone and all His works of power appeared to be of no effect, He said, “I praise thee, Father, Lord of the heaven and of the earth” (Matt 11: 25); how His heart went out to God. So, at the end, He could say, “I have glorified thee on the earth”, John 17: 4. All this was what God was looking for from man, and it was all fulfilled in Jesus.
Now we come to what the eunuch was reading. It says, “his life is taken from the earth”, the One who was the embodiment of every divine thought. You might say that God had secured it all in a Man, but His life is taken from the earth. Does that mean, then, that there was nothing left on the earth for God? Does it mean that the earth was empty for God; that what was for Him had been seen once and then lost? That could not be; that would have been a victory for Satan. No: God has the final word - the life of Jesus was taken from the earth, but if you go to the previous chapter in the Acts, you will find that there was one man who saw Him in a new condition, standing in heaven. Stephen says, “I behold the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God”, Acts 7: 56. That life was treasured up in heaven, and we know that that beloved One was taken up to heaven. What glory there was associated with that, for the first time a Man was in heaven; there had never been a man there before. Not only did He go up to heaven, He passed through all the heavens. How fitting that was:-
Up through the heavens,
their hosts bowed and worshipping,
Enters the One who had stooped down to die!
G H Stuart Price (1941), A Selection of Poems
You think of the place that Jesus was given there above all the heavens; how worthy He is of it.
So, what is left upon earth; what does God have upon the earth? Does He have a dwelling here now? It was not long after Jesus went up into heaven when the Holy Spirit came. What happened when the Holy Spirit came? Is that just a text in the Bible? God came down! The Holy Spirit is a divine Person, and again it was God who came down in the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus had said, “I will beg the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever” (John 4: 16); in other words, that He would find a dwelling place. God would find a dwelling place on earth in the presence of the Holy Spirit here. The presence of the Holy Spirit here shows that God has a dwelling place on earth.
Now, that is not just a number of persons. Someone might read the beginning of Acts and say that was just a hundred and twenty people. That is not true - the fact is that the Holy Spirit came upon each one of them. Read that passage carefully; it says, “And there appeared to them parted tongues, as of fire, anditsat upon each one of them” - “it” sat upon each one of them, Acts 2: 3. It came down from one source, parted tongues as of fire, and “it sat upon each one of them”, every one. And today, every believer who has the Holy Spirit is united, not only to Christ - he is united to Christ - but he has that unbreakable link with every other believer who has the Holy Spirit. What an amazing thing that is that God should be found in that way! And if God is dwelling here, what does that mean the assembly is? We read in Timothy: “God’s house, which is the assembly of the living God”. If God is dwelling here, then He has a house, and that is what the assembly is, it is the house of God. This is a house that is like no other house that has ever been made. You remember that Solomon made a house, and it was an extraordinary construction; it was glorious. I do not suppose there has been a building like it before or since. And yet, when Solomon came to dedicate that house, he said of God, “the heaven of heavens, cannot contain thee”, 1 Kings 8: 27. What is this house? Solomon had an impression that what he had built was a material structure, and God cannot be contained in what is material. He dwells by the Spirit in the hearts of believers, believers everywhere. Think of the wonder of that!
There were impressions of it in the Old Testament. The prophet Isaiah was given a word: it was God speaking of Himself - “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, and whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place” - that word came to His people of old; they could recognise that God was in heaven. And then He says, “and with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit”, Isa 57: 15. What is the connection between “the high and holy place” and “him that is of a contrite and humble spirit”? It is suitable conditions in which God can dwell; the Holy Spirit is free where there is a contrite and humble spirit. We can speak of the Lord Jesus as being humble; He was always humble. He says, “I am meek and lowly in heart”, Matt 11: 29. We are not meek and lowly in heart; we do not have lowly hearts naturally; we have hearts that may tend to assert themselves and look for their own ends. The Lord Jesus was “meek and lowly in heart”. We are told to take on lowliness of mind (Phil 2: 3); that is something we are exhorted to take on, but naturally our hearts are not lowly. It is an exercise we have to go through, a constant exercise to be maintained in lowliness of mind.
So, the assembly is a place where God dwells; but not only that. If a person has a house, if you go to that house you find that their will prevails in it; the house is arranged according to the will of the head. It is a sphere where the will of the head pervades. And that is what the assembly is, where the will of God is known. You take account of what took place in those early days, and you find that the disciples were maintained in life, in energy, in freshness, and they were here for the will of God, as Jesus was here for the will of God. In fact, He said, “I come to do thy will”, Heb 10: 9. That is why He came: He came to do the will of God. And in the assembly, the will of God is made known, and it is there it is maintained. And you see in the early chapters of the Acts it was in keeping with God’s will that those early disciples should go out and preach (the assembly does not preach but those who form it do), that they should preach the gospel, and be subject to whatever the will of God allows. Paul and Silas were put into prison in Philippi; the will of God allowed it. You might say that they should be out preaching, getting converts - why did He allow them to get into prison? It was of His will that material should be secured another way. God never operates according to man’s ways; He has His own way of operating. The assembly is really a sphere in which He is to be free to operate according to His will.
But then it is not only His will. God is supreme, and His will will assert itself soon; it will become clear. A day is coming soon when His will be the only will that will operate in the whole universe; what a wonderful day that will be! But not only is the assembly a place where His will can operate, but where His heart can be known - I have spoken about His heart; and where His affection can be seen to be working. And so in Ephesians it is “according to” His will that Christ should be exalted, and He “has put all things under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the assembly, which is his body”; and that is a wonderful thing, to think of His body here upon earth. Where is His body? It is the same persons; every person who is alive today who has the Holy Spirit is part of the body of Christ; they form part of it. They may not be in the good of it, but they form part of it. It is a blessed thing that the feelings of Christ should be known and should be operating here upon the earth: “if one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; and if one member be glorified, all the members rejoice with it”, 1 Cor 12: 26. That is the way the body works, considering for one another, bearing with one another. And it is all for “its self-building up in love” (Eph 4: 16); how wonderful the thing is. And how easily it is proved - a brother has problems, difficulties, and the phone starts ringing because the brethren are sympathetic. They do not just say, ’Oh, that is a shame’; brethren are sympathetic with one another, and their feelings come out and they try to help. All these things that come out, beloved, are expressions of the heart of God being made known here. And it is tangible - many of us have experienced it; there is something here that is operating, and the body is a substantial thing. These things are not just theories, they are substantial things, and they will go through to the end. How wonderful that is, to know that there is something here and it is in the assembly; that is what is to be known.
Another thing about the assembly is that the mind of God can be known, and His word for us at any time. That was known by Jesus; we often remember those words in Isaiah, “He wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the instructed”, chap 50: 4. God had one Man upon earth to whom He could communicate His mind; but He is gone, “his life is taken from the earth”. He now has the assembly in which He communicates His word today, to the saints. Is that not wonderful? We speak of light; it is really what God is bringing to His people at any time. There is a man in the Psalms who said,
One thing have I asked of Jehovah, that will
I seek after: that I may dwell in the
house of Jehovah all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of Jehovah,
and to inquire of him in his temple,
Ps 27: 4.
That is another thing: the brethren speak of the temple and that is another view in which we can see the assembly. Now that is not exactly proved universally; in divine wisdom; God has set His people together in localities. No local gathering can claim to be the assembly; it cannot even claim to be the assembly in the place because that would mean that everybody else who lives in the place is an unbeliever. But we can seek to represent it, seek to walk in the light of it; and as we do so, we come together. We can also come together in larger companies and read the Scriptures as we did earlier today, and you find that things are coming in that you had not thought about; you are getting fresh impressions; you are in the temple -
… to behold the beauty of Jehovah,
and to inquire of him in his temple
The whole assembly can never come together in one place at the present time; it will do so when we hear that cry, when we hear that call from above. The whole assembly will be together, a wonderful thing; what a great and glorious moment that will be! But, in the meantime, in divine wisdom, we are set in localities; and God has given the wisdom that things should be worked out in manageable numbers. That is divine wisdom; and there we can find that the truth as to the Lord Jesus, and the truth as to the revelation of God, can be worked out in our companies.
There is also the question of a response to God. We get that in chapter 3 of Ephesians. There was always a response from the Lord Jesus; He never failed in His life here to lift up His heart to God, but there is a response in the assembly. Assembly response is a wonderful thing; it is a thing we experience on Lord’s day morning and at other times, a thing we will experience eternally. The end of Ephesians 3 says, “to him that is able to do far exceedingly above all which we ask or think, according to the power which works in us, to him be glory in the assembly in Christ Jesus unto all generations of the age of ages. Amen”, v 20, 21. Beloved, eternally the assembly will be a vessel of response to God.
Now, you may say to me that this is all very well, but how does it work out in practice, because we are here - maybe ninety here today: how does it work out in practice? Everything was set up at the beginning in power; the apostles were here and generally through the time of the apostles, things were maintained in power. The apostle Paul could see that breakdown was coming; he wrote to Timothy about it: breakdown was going to come into the church. He told the elders in Ephesus that “after my departure … from among your own selves” - think of that, that there should be “men speaking perverted things to draw away the disciples after them”, Acts 20: 29, 30. How quickly that came in, as history tells us; the church fathers as they are called, quickly assumed official positions; how quickly they were elevated into places and given honour that belonged only to the Lord! How quickly this happened; men drew away people after themselves, and failure came in for years and years and years. And that was a dark, dark story, because it was relying on the responsibility of men. But all the way through there must have been believers, and the Holy Spirit remained. Eventually the time came that reminds me of when the ark was in the land of the Philistines, and the psalmist says -
Then the Lord awoke … Ps 78: 65
There was a time, maybe five hundred years ago when a man came to the conclusion that he could be justified, not by the church, not by the clergy, not by those who were lining their own pockets at the expense of the poor: he was justified by faith in Christ, and there was no other basis for being justified but by having faith in Christ. He made this light public, and it caused a stir; and souls were secured. And there were many times after that when souls tried to assert the truth, but one aspect of the truth that was needed all along was the assertion of the fact that the Holy Spirit is here; and that every believer who has the Holy Spirit is united to Christ in glory, and on that account every believer has a direct link with a glorious Man in heaven. No other is to come between a soul and Him. Two hundred years ago, that light dawned in all its brightness. I do not say that light dawned with only one man; that light came to many; there was a distinct movement of the Holy Spirit as souls in many places in different countries came to it at about the same time, that Christ is our Head in heaven, and the Holy Spirit links us to Him. And if I am linked to Him in heaven, then every believer who has the Holy Spirit is linked to Him there, and that forms the body - the one body. What light that was! It was not just an offshoot of what was going on before; that was light from heaven that stirred souls to come apart. What should they do then if that was the truth and the church publicly was sinking deeper and deeper into corruption? What could they do but come apart from it? That was the principle that was followed: “come out from the midst of them, and be separated” (2 Cor 6: 17), and that is what took place. I say that not to eulogise anybody - I have not named any names, but that was a distinct movement of the Holy Spirit, and there were souls that gathered together out of love for the Lord Jesus and a desire to be pleasing to Him, and to be here according to the truth, that the church should not be a human organisation but according to how it is set out in the Scriptures, the house of God, the body, the temple.
I have spoken of things that are set out in the Scriptures. Somebody said to me once, “Yes, the church does not work like that now”, as much as to say that it cannot. Well, beloved, if you pursue the truth, and every divine principle, you will find that that is exactly what God is requiring of believers today, that we pursue the truth: pursue the truth as it has been set out, to make way for the Holy Spirit, to make way for Him to have His placed with us; so that there should be a pure testimony, a pure response in the service of God. And those believers who came out in the eighteen hundreds, were they the assembly? No, but they were part of it, and we may all be part of it as I have shown. We are part of something which may be outwardly in ruins - the church is publicly in ruins - but there is that which is of the assembly that will go through. And our exercise must be to hold ourselves in relation to that because that is what the Lord finds His pleasure in. That is what He commits Himself to; that is what the Holy Spirit commits Himself to; and we will find our place in that as we commit ourselves to it.
I have mentioned certain aspects of the assembly but there is one other aspect that I would like to mention; we mentioned it in our hymn; and it is to be found in the end of Revelation - the bride. That is what answers to the heart of Christ Himself. We do not exactly get the bride as a type in the Old Testament. I know we get references to her by analogy, but none of the great types of the assembly are referred to as a bride. Eve is not referred to as a bride; Rebecca is not called a bride - she is described in many ways but not as the bride; Leah was not; Asnath, no. In the types of the assembly, they are seen as the wife rather than the bride. That is something that is reserved for the assembly herself; she has a heart for Christ, she is waiting for Him, she has kept herself for Him - pure and holy, undefiled, she has kept herself for Him through her pathway here; and she is looking for Him to come. And He is going to come: “he that comes will come, and will not delay”, Heb 10: 37. What will He find? What will He find in my heart? Will He find features of the bride, looking for her Bridegroom; or will He find me settling down in this materialistic western world, and not thinking too much about Him and what answers to His heart? Let us be thinking of the Bridegroom; He is soon to appear, soon to take us to be with Himself. We look for His appearing; we look for Him to come. May we be more expectant, for His Name’s sake.
20th November 2021