Lev. 23:9-21; Acts 2.
from 'The Church: What is it?'
Ten lectures on the church of the New Testament seen to be established, endowed, united and free.
W. T. P. Wolston, M.D., 1905.
The day of Pentecost was the Birthday of the Church of God. That statement may seem a little strange to some; but I think if we look at Scripture, and listen to Scripture, we shall soon be convinced that such is the case. We have seen that the Lord Jesus Christ told His beloved servant Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my assembly" — i.e., on the confession of Himself as Son of the living God. That it was as the Son of God risen from the dead is proved by the scriptures I have just read in Leviticus and the Acts of the Apostles. I think if we use the word "Assembly," we shall get the thought of God better than by the use of the term "Church," because that term, so generally, is connected in people's minds with what is material — they think of a building which human hands have erected.
"Upon this rock I will build my assembly" was that which the Lord indicated to Peter in Matthew 16, but much had taken place between Matthew 16 and Acts 2. He had been taken by the leaders of the nation, who laid a snare and a trap for Him. They brought Him before the priestly judges, who ought to have interceded for Him, but they condemned Him, and passed Him on to the Roman governor with the demand that He should die, "because he made himself the Son of God." Much against his own will Pilate signed His death-warrant: to Calvary was Jesus taken, and there He was crucified. Over His head Pilate wrote in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, the three languages of the civilised world at that moment, "This is Jesus the King of the Jews."
It was the Roman habit, when a man was crucified, to put over his head what his crime was, and Christ's crime was nailed over His head, "This is Jesus the King of the Jews," i.e., His crime consisted in being what He truly was. The chief priests said to Pilate: "Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews. Pilate answered, What I have written, I have written" (John 19:21-22). He had written the truth — Jesus was the King of the Jews; but the nation in cold blood crucified their Messiah, their King: He died, and all was over with Israel as a nation. Their history for the time being was over before God. Their guilt had not, however, culminated in the crucifixion of their Messiah, for they crowned it by refusing the testimony of Peter in Acts 3 — who assured them that if repentant, "God shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached to you" (ver. 20) — and by resisting the Holy Ghost, who through the lips of Stephen told them Christ was alive at God's right hand. That faithful witness they slew, as they had slain his Master, whom morally he resembled in the manner of his death.
They then fulfilled the Lord's parable of Luke 19, in which "a certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return. And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said to them, Occupy till I come. But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us" (vers. 12-14). Stephen was the man sent up with this message. They refused their Messiah upon earth; and when, in heaven, He is by the grace of God, presented to them again — in answer to His own intercession for them on the cross — they refused Him again. Thus was another parable fulfilled: "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he to the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none. Cut it down; why cumbers it the ground? And he answering said to him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it; and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down." (Luke 13:6-9). I do not doubt that the three years indicate the Lord's own ministry, and thereafter that God gave the extra year of grace between the crucifixion and that which happened in the history of Stephen. Alas! there was no response to God's grace in the nation generally — they refused Christ still, and in Stephen's martyrdom sent after Him this message, "We will not have this man to reign over us."
It is important to observe the truth in this way; otherwise the mind is not clear to see that God is absolutely justified in His treatment of Israel, and that the Church of God, now to come in view, is an entirely new departure in the ways of God. There can now be introduced into this scene something totally new, that had not been before, and that will not be again. When the Church is completed it will be taken to heaven, to which it belongs, and then will Jesus of Nazareth, the now rejected King, again come back to earth, get His rights, and have His kingdom established. Then will Israel again come in view and be blessed under their Messiah, accepted and believed in by the nation. In the meantime the Church of God, which is the subject of His eternal counsel, is introduced into the scene consequent upon the death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven of the Lord Jesus Christ. Until He comes back again to take His kingdom and power, and reinstate the Jew, as He will do — because He is the fulfiller of promise, what Scripture calls the Church, the Assembly of God, is the subject of the Holy Spirit's activity.
When this is seen one can understand the meaning of the apostle's injunction, "Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God" (1 Cor. 10:3 2). This last was a totally new structure, which had its birthday on the day of Pentecost. It did not exist previous to the death of Christ, and will not be found on earth after the Rapture of the saints — the moment when the Lord comes to take up the Bride to Himself, to the peculiar place of blessing for which the Church is destined. She belongs to the rejected Man: the Church is in Christ, according to the purpose and counsel of God in eternity; and by the indwelling Spirit of God is united to Christ, so as to be the fulness of Him that fills all in all. Out of the material of Jews as such, and Gentiles too, found on earth — out of these two classes the Assembly of Christ is formed by the operation of God's Spirit in individuals, who from that moment, all one in Christ, cease to be either Jews or Gentiles.
I want you now to notice the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Christ had died, was risen, and Acts 1 opens with the Lord seen in resurrection, walking in and out among His disciples, "until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments to the apostles whom he had chosen" (ver. 2). Here is a striking bit of instruction for us Christians. Jesus is seen, a Man alive from the dead and full of the Holy Ghost. So should it ever be with us. Thank God, in the glorified body we too shall be full of the Holy Ghost — the flesh gone, and nothing left but the fulness of the Holy Ghost, for worship, for the enjoyment of God, and for any service the Lord may put into our hands in that day. It is a lovely picture of what will be by-and-by. When thus risen, the Lord said to His disciples, "But tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high" (Luke 24:49); and adds, "Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence" (Acts 1:5). Thereafter they were to be witnesses for Him "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth" (ver. 8). Beginning at the guiltiest spot in the world, they were to go down to Judea where they did not care for Him, to Samaria, which appeared more ready to receive Him, and then to every corner of the earth. God steps outside all dispensations now. He has kept His promises to the fathers, but man has failed — the Jew has forfeited all right to God's favour; and God for the time being sets him aside, free to let out His heart to the ends of the earth, and thus the apostles have the commission to go out to the uttermost parts of the earth.
There is something delightfully fresh in this — God can go out to all men. His disposition is that of grace toward all men, and He sends out His servants to declare this glorious fact, with its attendant blessings. The dividing wall, the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile has been broken down, and upon the ground of the death and resurrection of Christ, whereby God has been glorified, sin put away, and Satan's power annulled, God is free to come out with the presentation of His grace to man everywhere. In the Acts we shall see how He proceeds to carry this out. When the Lord had given His servants their commission, "while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight." And then the angels tell them, "This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven" (ver. 11). What is that? The Rapture? No, it is not here the Lord coming for the Church, but the moment of His re-appearing, when He comes back to the earth with His attendant saints in glory. He is coming back in glory, and the world will then see Him. The believers saw Him go up; and the unbelievers as well will see Him come back; but before that epoch there is another aspect of His coming — He will come for His people as detailed in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17.
The disciples, commanded to tarry at Jerusalem for the baptism of the Spirit, do what they are bidden, and spend the intervening time — ten days — in prayer. That is a great lesson for us. It was a wonderful ten days' prayer meeting, and look at the blessing that came at the end of it. In principle, this condition of dependence on the part of God's saints is always the precursor of blessing. Their moral state was right, and they were prepared for what followed. Then we read: "And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place" (Acts 2:1). Pentecost has peculiar instruction for us, so we must seek to apprehend its meaning as given in the Old Testament.
If you will go back to Leviticus 23 you will there find a beautiful and instructive type of what is before us in Acts 2. The seven Feasts of the Lord there given are the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Wave Sheaf, and the Two Wave Loaves, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. The first four teach lessons every Christian should learn, and must enter into if he is to be intelligent. The last three relate only to future Jewish history — the Feast of Trumpets typifying Israel being waked up to seek the Lord, the Day of Atonement their individual repentance before God (see Zech. 12:10-14), and the Feast of Tabernacles their future national glory. The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread go together, and are full of instruction for us. The first is the type of the death of Christ — the blood being put upon the lintel and the door-posts — that shelters the soul from the righteous judgment of God. The unleavened bread is the holy separate walk that should characterise those who are sheltered by the blood of Christ. The Wave Sheaf and the Two Wave Loaves go also together, one indicating Christ, and the other the Church.
What then is the Wave Sheaf? Christ, risen and accepted before God for us — it could not be anything else. We read: "When ye be come into the land which I give to you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring a sheaf of the first-fruits of your harvest to the priest: and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it" (Lev. 23:10-11). The full harvest was coming on, but God gets the first-fruits of it. God gets a great deal more out of the death and resurrection of Christ than we. We get a great deal, but God has infinitely more. "And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor green ears, until the selfsame day that ye have brought an offering to your God: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings" (ver. 14).
If we clearly see what God has found in Christ, then we understand much better what we ourselves find in Him, for the greater includes the less. If all the claims of God in righteousness are divinely met and He infinitely glorified in Christ's death, how much more easily are all the needs of my conscience and heart met? The reason why many believers today are in uncertainty as to forgiveness, salvation, and acceptance, is because they do not see what the death of Christ has effected for God. Following our type, observe what occurred on "the morrow after the Sabbath," in which Christ lay in the grave. The priest brought the Wave Sheaf to be accepted for Israel, but when the priest was waving the sheaf, what had taken place? "At the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week," the blessed Lord rose triumphant from the tomb, having accomplished the glorious work of redemption. His was "resurrection from among the dead," the pattern and type of His people's resurrection. That very morning the true Wave Sheaf had risen from among the dead, "become the first-fruits of them that sleep" (1 Cor. 15:20), and had said to Mary Magdalene, "Go to my brethren, and say to them, I ascend to my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (John 20:17). That Wave Sheaf was accepted for us who believe, hence we read: "He has made us accepted in the beloved" (Eph. 1:6). What is the acceptance of a Christian? It is the acceptance before God which now is Christ's — no less, and it could not be more.
What a wonderful thing that the believer stands before God in association with the Man that is alive from the dead. just before His death, He said, "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone: but if it die, it brings forth much fruit" (John 12:24). He was the unique, solitary corn of wheat, the only sinless Man that ever was in this world. He went into death, met all God's claims, and annulled Satan's power, hence, regarding His Assembly, could say to Peter, "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Satan was vanquished. He who was the Son of the living God, by undergoing death, abolished it. But Christ is risen from the dead, death is annulled, He is now the risen victorious Man at God's right hand, and we are accepted in Him. That is the teaching of the Wave Sheaf.
With the Wave Sheaf there were certain offerings to be presented, viz., the Burnt Offering, which prefigured the devotedness of Jesus, Godward, even to death; and the Meat Offering, which denotes the devotedness of His life in all its perfection for God. He appreciated all the beauty of the life of Jesus, and all the devotedness of His heart, even to death: they were sweet savour offerings that all went up to God. Note carefully that there was no Sin Offering and no Peace Offering — which is the basis of communion — offered with the Wave Sheaf, because it represents Christ personally, who "did no sin," and never was out of communion with God.
Now look at the Wave Loaves: "And ye shall count to you from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Sabbaths shall be complete: even to the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering to the Lord" (Lev. 23:15-16). There we reach the day of Pentecost, which is the fiftieth day after the waving of the sheaf of first-fruits. Then we read. "Ye shall bring out of your habitation two wave loaves of two tenth deals: they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baken with leaven; they are the first-fruits to the Lord" (ver. 17). Here we have in type the day of Pentecost, and what originated then. There was a new meat offering of two wave loaves baken with leaven. In Acts 2 we have the antitype — God's people gathered together by the Holy Ghost, and presented before Him in connection with all the preciousness of Christ in life, death, and resurrection. The passover is His death; the wave sheaf His resurrection; the two wave loaves baken on the fiftieth day — the Holy Ghost forming the Church of God.
But why two loaves? There are not two Churches of God on earth — the Jewish and the Gentile. The very fact of there being two loaves — not one — is remarkable. The mystery of the Church was hidden, and this type does not reveal the secret, which could not come out till Christ had died, risen, and gone on high. Then the "one loaf" is plain enough. Hence I judge it does not typify Jew and Gentile Churches, as some have thought. When God demands witness, His regular way is "two" witnesses. Christ was risen — the wave sheaf. Christians — the two wave loaves — are competent witnesses of the power of His resurrection. We must not forget that the truth of the Church was "kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets (of the New Testament), according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith" (Rom. 16:25-26). Again, we read of "the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world has been hid in God" (Eph. 3:9). Further, Paul tells us of "the mystery which has been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints; to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:26-27). Hence we do not find the full truth of the mystery in our type — it was hidden.
The thought of the "two loaves" then, I judge, is competent testimony — God would have a real, true testimony to what Christ was and had accomplished. The two loaves were a testimony that there had been a harvest, and God had already got the first-fruits, for on the day of Pentecost "Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept" (1 Cor. 15:20), was before Him in heavenly glory. These two loaves are then presented before the Lord. They are composed of very different elements — fine flour baken with leaven. The "fine flour" is the figure of the blessed holy humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, the even expression of all perfections in a sinless Man. The "leaven" expresses what we are by nature, corrupt and corrupting. "They shall be baken with leaven; they are the first-fruits to the Lord," is a wonderful statement. The Wave Sheaf — Christ — was first-fruits, and now it is the two loaves that are first-fruits. The figure of the "fine flour" brings all that is connected with the holiness of Christ as a Man before the eye, and both the Christian individually and the Church collectively stand before God in all the value and. acceptability of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Why, then, was there leaven in this new meat-offering? Elsewhere we read, "No meat-offering, which ye shall bring to the Lord, shall be made with leaven; for ye shall burn no leaven, nor any honey, in any offering of the Lord made by fire" (Lev. 2:11). Leaven symbolises the evil of nature, and honey the sweetness of nature. Neither will do for God. There is nothing in you and me that will do for God. It is only Christ that will do for God. Why then do we find the leaven here? Because, though you may be born of the Spirit, washed from your sins by the blood of the Son of God, and sealed by the Holy Ghost, there is still the evil of the flesh in you. You have a new nature as born of God, but you still have the old nature in you; hence the opposition of the two which every one born anew is conscious of (see Rom. 7:14-25). Two natures are in the Christian; one craving evil and the indulgence of self; the other loving Christ and delighting in the will of God. But is the flesh always to work? No; for we have received the Spirit that we might not do the things that we would (Gal. 5:17; see also vers. 24, 25).
Leaven, in Scripture, be it observed, is always a figure of evil. I know people have tried to make out that it means good; but that is twisting Scripture. It is only and always evil. In the parable in Matthew 13 the woman hides leaven in three measures of meal. That is not the gospel converting the world, as many teach, but the solemn fact that professing Christianity which God set up pure has been all corrupted, for leaven implies what is evil there, as elsewhere in Scripture.
Evil is in every believer, but knowing that Christ has been judged for his sin, he judges it in himself and refuses it. Sin is recognised by God as in me, but it is not supposed to work. The existence of sin in the Christian does not give a bad conscience; that comes if we allow it to work. The good conscience is gotten by the cleansing power of the blood of Christ; and that is hinted at in our type, as we read: "Then ye shall sacrifice one kid of the goats for a sin offering, and two lambs of the first year for a sacrifice of peace-offerings" (ver. 19). Where you have, in figure, the Church presented before God in all the perfections of Christ, though in the believer the existence of evil is recognised, you have the one goat for a sin offering. God recognises the fact that evil is in the believer; but it is supposed not to work, and its presence is met by the blood of the sin offering. There is no imputation of sin whatever; but you are before God in all the value of the work of Christ. The two lambs of the peace offering provide the basis of communion and worship. You cannot make too much of Christ, and what He is. Consequently we are told: "The priest shall wave them with the bread of the firstfruits for a wave offering before the Lord, with the two lambs: they shall be holy to the Lord for the priest" (ver. 20).
Having learned the meaning of the type, let us now see its blessed fulfilment in the antitype as given in Acts 1 and 2. There Christ is risen from the dead, gone into heaven, God accepts Him for His people, and the Holy Ghost comes down and falls on the one hundred and twenty gathered believers, and then adds to them three thousand new-born souls, and thus that day for the first time was constituted the Assembly of God. The start of the Church is intensely interesting, as showing how the saints were drawn together. "And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place" (Acts 2:1). The nucleus of the Church was small indeed, but from that day a deeper and larger work was to go on, in which Christ is to see of the travail of His soul. His Assembly by the descent of the Spirit of God was formed; and therefore, again, I say assuredly that the day of Pentecost was the birthday of the Church of God, because it had never existed before. From Abel downwards individual saints and servants of God had existed, but they were not in the Church. John the Baptist, and the thief on the cross, died before the Lord Jesus was risen to be the Head of it, or any one could be united to Him. It was due to Christ, who had so glorified God in death, that there should be an adequate answer to His sorrows and sufferings; and He finds that answer in the Assembly, which is His body, as she is also His Bride, the new Jerusalem.
It is a wonderful thing to be part of Christ's Assembly. The unconverted are not. If you are a mere professor or confessor of Christ, and possibly a so-called "Church member," but yet in your sins, you are outside all this. But if you are a Christian, born of the Spirit, redeemed and cleansed by the blood of Christ, and indwelt of the Spirit, you are in Christ before God, and a member of His body on earth. What a lift to the soul it is, and what a sense of favour it obtains when it can truly say, I am accepted in Him — God sees me in Him — I am part of His Bride so dear to His heart.
Scripture is full of types of this blessed truth of the Bride. Eve was the helpmeet of Adam; think of the Assembly as Christ's helpmeet. Rebecca was in figure the object of the Father's choice; the subject of the Holy Ghost's care, as the nameless servant carried her across the desert; and the object of Isaac's love — for "she became his wife; and he loved her: and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death" (Gen. 24:67). What a wonderful thing to see the Church as the helpmeet and comfort of Christ, and may I not say what wondrous favour that you and I should be part of the Church?
Now see what we have in Acts 2. The disciples were all together. One Spirit moved them, and Christ was dear to their hearts. Though you may not be very intelligent, if you are saved, Christ is an object of affection to you; for "to you that believe he is precious"; and if not — vain is your profession of Christianity. It is but form — a shell without a kernel. In this scene we get the kernel of Christianity; the Holy Ghost came down from an ascended Christ in glory to unite to Him and to one another all that believe in Him. They are also living stones in the building which Christ builds. God made the presence of His Spirit very manifest in both its corporate and, individual aspects, when "suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting … and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost" (vers. 2-4).
This was the blessed and prayerfully waited-for moment the Lord had predicted the night before His death: "I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it sees him not, neither knows him; but ye know him; for he dwells with you, and shall be in you. … But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said to you" (John 14:16-17, 26). "But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send to you from the Father, he shall testify of me" (John 15:26). "Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak; and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it to you" (John 16:13-15).
Christianity consists in the individual possession, and the corporate indwelling of the ever-abiding blessed Spirit of Truth, the Holy Ghost. He had come upon men in days gone by, and left them; upon a Balaam, a Saul — type of man in the flesh — whom the Holy Ghost might use in the sovereignty of God, and then abandon them. He came upon David too, who afterwards feared he might lose Him — hence his prayer, "And take not thy Holy Spirit from me" (Ps. 51:11). This prayer, right enough from David, no Christian intelligent in the ways of God could now pray, for the salient truth of Christianity is that the Holy Ghost would come and abide for ever in the one whose faith in Christ He seals.
On the day of Pentecost it was "a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind" that announced an unseen presence — the advent of the third Person of the Godhead to earth, to form the Assembly, the new dwelling-place of God, the body of Christ. In effecting that the Spirit makes His presence felt, not by an earthquake, but by a rushing mighty wind. Men compose the tabernacle, where God disdains not to" dwell. Cleansed by the blood of Jesus, they are rendered fit to be God's habitation in Spirit. When this took place, the disciples — now a holy priesthood — are not driven from the Lord's presence like those of old (see 1 Kings 8:10-11). His presence is their joy, and they form His habitation. This is the dawn of Christianity.
Further, we read, "There appeared to them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them" (ver. 3). The Spirit of God had fallen upon Jesus like a dove, emblem of His own gentle and beautiful character, of whom it is said, "He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets" (Matt. 12:19). Here the sign and form of His appearance was totally different. The cloven tongues meant testimony — the power of God in testimony — the word in testimony — that carries everything before it, just like fire which destroys and judges all that comes in its way. And it was not merely a tongue, but each one divided into many, which sat on each disciple. The idea was this — the Spirit of God was there; the testimony of God in grace was no more to be confined to the Jew, but was to go out to the ends of the earth. The Gentile must hear "the wonderful works of God," no less than the once favoured Jew. The mission of grace which flows from Christ's new position must go out indiscriminately. The fire meant the judgment of what did not suit a holy God. The tongues as of fire set forth God's intolerance of evil. In the sacrifice of the cross all evil had been judged; similarly now what did not suit God and the claims of His holiness was to be condemned. "Fire" is always in Scripture the testing which God's holiness necessarily demands.
"And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (ver. 4). This was the promised baptism of the Holy Ghost, which once having taken place is not repeated, though on nine occasions in Acts individuals or companies are said to be "filled with the Holy Ghost." The house was filled; and they were also filled individually with the Holy Ghost, "and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Christ's wonderful Assembly, thus formed by the Spirit and begun to be built, immediately indicates what it exists for — to ring out praises whom men had despised and rejected, but whom God had exalted as Man to His own right hand.
The church bells, so to speak, begin to ring in the day of its birth. I hear those joy-bells ring in Acts 2, and they pour forth wonderful music, the glories of Jesus. They are not made of molten metal, but of hearts melted by a Saviour's grace, and glad, in the power of the Holy Ghost, to tell His worth. A hundred and twenty bells then rang out the glories of Christ. The Church was in existence, its foundation laid, and living stones laid upon it, so the bells begin to ring; and soon the world-wide character of its testimony begins to appear, for "devout men, out of every nation under heaven … came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language" (vers. 5, 6). The hundred and twenty Spirit-filled disciples were all telling of Jesus. Little wonder that the cosmopolitan multitude marvelled, as they said, "We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God" (ver. 11). The effect of the testimony was as far reaching as the ends of the earth, and as beautiful as it was God-designed. In the very spot of His rejection, Christ's Assembly — God's newly formed witness to His Son — tells out what Christ has done and who He is. The witness to His death, resurrection, and ascension, as Man, to God's right hand, is perfect.
No one can ponder over this wonderful scene without observing how complete and absolute is the contrast between this scripture and Genesis 11 Babel and Pentecost are as diverse as the poles in their nature, object, and effects. They give the history of the first man and of the Second, as it is written, "Whosoever exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted" (Luke 14:11). Mark the pride that says: "Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth" (Gen. 11:4-9).
There is an immense deal in Scripture about Babylon, and here it begins. God's judgment at Babel by diversity of language confounded the pride of the race that utterly forgot Him, and became confederate in will to exalt itself. Genesis 11 is a most important chapter, for there is more of reliable ethnology in it than anywhere else. God gives us the truth as to ethnology there, and gives the reason also. The pride of men God judges by confounding their language, so that they shall not understand each other, and they are necessarily scattered.
The second of Acts shows how grace can reverse this judgment, because there had been a Man upon earth who never thought of Himself, but only of God and His glory; One who "humbled himself, and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross." As a consequence, God has put Him in the spot that man in Genesis 11 could not reach, and the Holy Ghost comes down and temporarily reverses the judgment of Genesis 11. The difference of language was not extirpated, but the divine grace and power which will one day make the world to be of one speech, then lifted the disciples above the effects of Babel's judgment, and, without learning them, enabled the former to speak in as many languages as their hearers had. That blessed Man Jesus had turned the scales in man's favour. God's answer to the lowly ways of Christ is this — the Holy Ghost comes down, and in this marvellous manner overrules the effects of the sin and pride of the first man, so that those gathered at Jerusalem are compelled to say: "Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?" (vers. 7, 8). The answer to their query is simple. This giving of the Spirit was God's expression of His delight in Christ, as the One who humbled Himself, and the testimony given showed that there was upon the earth now an absolutely new structure, that which Christ had called "My assembly." And what was it here for? Jesus lived here to make God manifest in all His wonderful nature before man. the Church is here to do the same. Hence it is a serious thing to be a professing Christian. Christianity is the continuation of Christ — it is the reproduction of His life in the lives of those who are His — and they are living stones in the building which He builds for this purpose.
An immense stir followed this manifestation of the Holy Ghost's presence on earth. Multitudes came together: "And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What means this? Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine" (vers. 12, 13). Peter replies, "This is that which was spoken of by the prophet Joel" — he does not say it is the fulfilment of Joel's prophecy, because it is not. Joel's prophecy will be fulfilled when the Lord comes back to earth by-and-by, and the nations are brought into blessing in connection with the Jew restored to Palestine. What we have on the day of Pentecost was an anticipative expression of it. The nation had refused and slain Christ — their Messiah — but God had reversed their action, for He had raised Him from the dead, and in heaven had made Him both Lord and Christ. Peter and the others had seen Him alive on earth; hence he can say, "This Jesus has God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses." Perhaps you have your doubts about the resurrection. Peter had none, and today, the man that is converted, and has the Holy Ghost, can give his testimony that he too has seen Jesus. "We see not yet all things put under him. But we see Jesus, crowned with glory and honour" (Heb. 2:8-9).
Then comes the explanation of the strange phenomena which the multitude saw and heard. "Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he has shed forth this, which ye now see and hear" (ver. 33). Christ received the Holy Ghost twice — first in the day when John baptized Him in Jordan; that was for Himself. But then He died and rose again; and now a second time He receives the Spirit of God, as the ascended Man, for His people, and sheds it forth. By that Spirit He unites His people with Himself; He gives them the same Spirit that He Himself has received, and brings them into association with Himself before His Father.
But the gift of the Holy Ghost is here connected with the responsibility of the nation to bow to the One in glory; hence Peter goes on: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ" (ver. 36). Since that ascended Man is Lord and Christ, then every one must bow to Him. "Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (vers. 37, 38). Here, without doubt, Peter uses one of those keys which His Master said should be his in Matthew 16, and he opens the door to the Jew. Notice again that he had not the keys of the Church — we nowhere hear of such in Scripture — but of the kingdom of heaven. God's Church is a heavenly company, though it be formed on earth; and the kingdom is earthly, though it be ordered from heaven. Peter uses here what I have ventured to call the Repentance key.
Why does he call on these Jews to "repent"? Seven weeks before they had clamoured for the Saviour's blood. He says, Go down, and now as publicly own Him as then you denied Him. Confess Him in the waters of baptism to be your Lord and your Messiah, and you will have remission of your sins and receive the Holy Ghost. "For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call [a hint of the Gentiles getting in]. And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation" (vers. 39, 40). These "many other words" meant, I take it, a good, sound, plain preaching, which had most blessed results. Peter was in splendid form that day, because he was full of the Holy Ghost. A few weeks before he had gone out of the high priest's palace a very dejected man, because, being then full of himself (see Luke 22:33), he had boasted what he would do, and immediately after had denied his Master: now, full of the Holy Ghost, he preached boldly and pointedly, and that day the dear simple fisherman won three thousand souls for Christ. "Save yourselves from this untoward generation" was a call to sever themselves from the nation that had slain its Messiah and to get into the city of refuge. Practically the Church of God became "the city of refuge" to every Jew who had imbrued his hand in the blood of his brother — who had helped to slay the Lord.
"Then they that (gladly) received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added to them about three thousand souls" (ver. 41). It is very doubtful if "gladly" be there (since all the best authorities for the text omit it), because when first convicted of sin before God, a man is grave and thoughtful, not glad. Joy follows in due time. These three thousand souls were then added to the Assembly of God on earth. The one hundred and twenty received them, and thus carried out the injunction given them by the Lord, — "Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted to them" (John 20:23). Administratively and in the name of Christ they outwardly remitted the sins of the three thousand, whom He had already forgiven. The very number is suggestive of grace, and is in striking contrast with what occurred when the Jew was placed under law. When the law was given, and broken before ever it reached the camp, Moses came down from God with the two tables of stone in his hand, and dashed them to pieces at the base of the mountain. The camp had fallen into idolatry, and Moses stood at the gate and said, "Who is on the Lord's side? let him come to me." The sons of Levi buckled on the sword, and three thousand men fell, slain (see Ex. 32:15-29). But here grace is triumphant, for Jesus has died, and, atonement for sin effected, is risen from the dead, gone on high, and the Holy Ghost come down; so the day that the Church of God is formed on earth, three thousand men are saved. That evening in Jerusalem there were three thousand one hundred and twenty living stones brought together, and set by the Holy Ghost in the new building Christ was forming.
Of them we read: "And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (ver. 42). It is a fine thing to be steadfast. The apostles' "doctrine" was the truth they had received, and fellowship — the common appreciation and enjoyment thereof — the natural outcome of the truth. Then came the breaking of bread — that is the expression of the fellowship; and all was maintained, in a spirit of dependence, by prayer. If you had gone into Jerusalem at that time you would have found a big company at the breaking of bread, and as big a prayer-meeting.
Here then is seen Christ's Assembly, His new building on earth. It had a wonderful birthday, and a wonderful increase in the day of its birth, and it grew steadily on. The growth of the Assembly is really the subject of the Acts of the Apostles. There we get history which shows the working out of God's eternal counsel. "The mystery of Christ" was about to be unfolded, regarding which Paul, Christ's "chosen vessel," wrote later: "Which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel; whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of the Christ; and to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world has been hid in God [not even in Scripture], who created all things by Jesus Christ. To the intent that now to the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Eph. 3:5-11). That shows that the Church is the lesson book of the most exalted created intelligences of the heavens.
That of which Paul here develops the doctrine, became a fact in the Acts, before the doctrine was revealed to him, or made known to any others. Christ's Assembly was to be formed of Jew and Gentile made one — the middle wall of partition having been broken down in the cross. We can understand how divine was the work, as we read, "And the Lord added daily to the assembly such as should be saved" (Acts 2:47).
The effect of Peter's second sermon (Acts 3) — spite of strong opposition — is, "Howbeit many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand" (Acts 4:4). That chapter presents a. lovely sight, a prayerful and consequently a powerful Assembly. "They were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness. And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart, and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus; and great grace was upon them all" (Acts 4:31-33). What a beautiful testimony to the power of love, the love of God which the Holy Ghost had shed abroad in their heart — the one heart that marked them. The Spirit was then ungrieved and the Assembly unsoiled; love reigned and holy liberty showed itself in practical life — the fruits of the Spirit being seen everywhere. Charming spectacle! For the moment the Lord's repeated prayer of John 17 — as to His own being one — was blessedly answered. Would that it had continued!
In Acts 5 the history of Ananias and Sapphira tells us that the flesh is always in the Christian, and that God by His Spirit is in the Assembly. They forgot both facts. God dwelt in the midst of His own Assembly, knew everything, however carefully attempted to be concealed, and would not permit evil where He dwelt. The guilty pair died, God by His judgment maintaining the consistency of the Assembly with His holy presence, before that discipline had been formally committed to it, with this result, that "great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things. … And of the rest durst no man join himself to them" (vers. 11, 13). God's Assembly was felt to be intensely holy, and people were not then in the hurry to "join the Church" that is evident in our day. They felt that not only was new life a preliminary necessity, in order to enter the Assembly, but that a holy life was necessary therein as alone consistent with the presence of God in His House.
Fear of entering the Assembly was soon followed by "a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem," while, "as for Saul, he made havoc of the church" (Acts 8:1-3). This, so far from stopping God's work, only really helped it on, for "they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word" (ver. 4). This dispersion led Philip to Samaria, where we see that vast numbers of the semi-heathen Samaritans, whom the law had failed to conquer, were reached and saved by the gospel preached by Philip. God in that instance carefully maintains the unity of the Assembly, by not giving the Spirit till Peter and John appear on the scene, who thus link up the work in Samaria with what already pre-existed in Jerusalem. Although converted and baptized, the Samaritan believers do not receive the Holy Ghost till the apostles pray for and lay their hands upon them. Without doubt the reason for this is plain. The Church was one, the work one; one Head in heaven, one Spirit on earth; one body, one Assembly — not two, Jewish and Samaritan, with their religious rivalry of long standing perpetuated in Christianity. The bare idea of a "national Church" or an "independent Church" — so likely to spring up in the circumstances, and so familiar to our eyes in this day — is distinctly negatived by God's action through the apostles. "That they may be one" was the Lord's prayer in John 17, and here unity is beautifully maintained, we again see.
In the ninth of Acts we have the wonderful tale of Saul's conversion. This "chosen vessel" must now be brought on the scene. His bygone history gave no indication of what he was to be, but the apostle of God's fullest grace to the uncircumcision, i.e., the Gentiles, is to be made out of the apostle of man's deepest hatred against Christ. The Great Potter (see Jer. 18:1-6) was about to lay hold of a very unlikely-looking lump of clay and transform it. Till now that "chosen vessel" had been in the Potter's mind — henceforth the Potter's mind would be in the vessel. An immense difference, but one which every Gentile reached by Paul's ministry will eternally thank God for. On his way to Damascus, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, … suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven; and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying to him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" (ver. 1-4). Felled by the glory of Christ, that voice in his mother-tongue revealed the Lord to him, while declaring that His disciples were one with Himself In a moment his career of self-will is over for ever, and "Who art thou, Lord?" is the query of a man whose mind is subdued and whose pride is broken. He learns that the Lord of Glory is Jesus of Nazareth, and that all Christians are united with Himself — they are members of His body — in germ the revelation of the mystery He was to unfold. A self-emptied and for the time blinded man, he hears words which gave him his new commission: "Rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared to thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear to thee; delivering thee from the people (Jews) and from the Gentiles, to whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me" (Acts 26:16-18).
That commission he is seen carrying out in Acts 13 and onwards; but in the interval the Gentiles receive blessing, and first enter the portals of the Assembly through Peter's ministry. This we find in Acts 10. The promises of God had been given to the Jews — none to the Gentiles. But promise is measured grace, and that limited to one people. God's nature is wider far than His promise — I might even say than His counsel. He would have till men to be saved, so now sends the gospel to all; that is His nature. Counsel, which chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, ensures that some shall receive and be blessed by that gospel. God was thinking about the Gentiles, and now admits some of them to His Assembly without becoming Jews. Quite independently of them He sends an angel to Cornelius, an exercised, devout, God-fearing Roman officer, who did not yet know his sins forgiven, and who had not peace. He is bidden to send for Peter.
While the messengers of Cornelius are on their way to call Peter, God teaches him by the "great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to earth; wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air" (vers. 11, 12), that what He has cleansed Peter is not to regard as common. Thus instructed, Peter soon finds himself in the company of the Gentiles, which hitherto had been unlawful to a Jew. Further, he perceives that "God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that fears him, and works righteousness, is accepted with him" (vers. 34, 35).
This leads on to a beautiful declaration of the gospel to the Gentiles, which culminates in the statement, regarding the Lord Jesus, that "to him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believes in him shall receive remission of sins" (ver. 43). This blessed truth was received by simple faith in the heart of Cornelius and his friends, and the Holy Ghost immediately sealed that faith, for "while Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word" (ver. 44), and he and his six Jewish fellow-travellers "heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God" (ver. 46).
The grace of God in this scene sparkles brilliantly. That which the one hundred and twenty received on the day of Pentecost, the Gentile-converts here receive, viz., the gift of the Holy Ghost, and that — thus differing both from the Jewish three thousand in Acts 2, and the Samaritan multitude in Acts 8 — without either baptism, prayer, or laying on of the apostle's hands. God had received them, and sealed them with His Spirit, hence it were impossible not to receive them into God's Assembly, of which they really now formed an integral part. Accordingly Peter commands them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. By that act they were formally received amongst the Christians, and the true, normal aspect of the body of Christ as it affected the Gentiles, began to be brought into view. They stood, by faith in Christ dead and risen, on Christian ground before God, and as such ceased to be Gentiles, equally as much as the believing and baptized Jews ceased to be Jews — for each are viewed as being in Christ before God, and part of the new structure which Jesus called "My assembly."
Thus did the Gentiles become "fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel," and the component parts of that body are seen walking together thenceforth as the Assembly of God continued to grow.
It is noticeable that Peter, the apostle of the circumcision, in a way anticipates Paul's work, in thus going to the Gentiles, whose apostle the latter was. Thus does God mingle the work of His workmen, even as later Paul writes to the Hebrews who were Peter's chief care. But there was also this in it, that by his preaching at Caesarea as I believe, Peter used the second of "the keys of the kingdom of heaven," opening the door to the believing Gentiles — who, through faith and reception of the Holy Ghost, thereby also had their place in the Assembly.
It is of vital moment to see that water-baptism brings one only into the place of profession, not into the Church. It is the reception of the Holy Ghost that brings one into the Assembly of God. The confounding of these two things has led to the existing condition of confusion in Christendom. Any who are baptized with water are supposed thereby to be made children of God, members of Christ and inheritors of the kingdom. Such is not the teaching of Scripture. Vital Christianity consists in the reception of the Holy Ghost, and no one can confer that gift save the Lord — the assumption of so-called apostolic successors notwithstanding. The last chapter we have been considering shows that the intervention of an apostle, and laying on of his hands, in the reception of the Holy Ghost — and that in the first great Gentile case — was in no way necessary. The Gentile then and now receives the Spirit by the hearing of faith (Gal. 3:2), and by that reception is united to Christ as a member of His body, and has his place in the Assembly of God — a blessed truth, most clearly stated by Paul when he wrote, "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:13).
Thus and thus only is the Assembly, the body of Christ, formed.