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.
In seeking light on our pathway here we frequently get help from the mistakes of other saints recorded in God's Word. There might not seem to you much connection between these Old Testament Scriptures and the subject of the Church, but indeed I think you will find there is a very close connection, as a matter of principle. The test of true love in a day of declension is the maintenance of the truth, and anything short of the maintenance of the truth is not love. Anything that does not maintain the truth is not love begotten of God. Now that is a very simple principle, but it is of the last importance, because love always seeks the blessing of others. Love seeks always to help those of whom it thinks.
I find the apostle John saying, "He that loves his brother abides in the light." It is not, "He that abides in the light loves his brother." Of course that is quite true. But my loving my brother is the evidence of my abiding in the light, and the result is: "And there is none occasion of stumbling in him" (1 John 2:10). These are very important principles, and very wide-reaching ones also.
Now let us go back to the Old Testament and read 1 Chronicles 13. It was because David had not been reading his Bible carefully that the new cart came upon the scene. If he had been reading his Bible carefully he would never have gone to the Philistines for a pattern how to serve the Lord. Do you think he would? I do not think so. He had a Bible, mind you, though it was not as long as yours. But he had it. It was a very much shorter Book he had got, but the point was he had it, but had not heeded it. Now we shall find that between the thirteenth and the fifteenth chapters there is no manner of doubt that he felt that he had been pulled up sharply by God, and he then set himself to read his Bible. And when he read his Bible, he found out what was the mind of the Lord. That is what usually happens to us.
The scene is very interesting. For long, as we know, the Ark had not been in the midst of God's people. If you turn back to the occasion when it was lost, a good long time before, you will see that when the children of Israel, in Samuel's day, went out against the Philistines, they took the Ark of God with them. "So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from thence the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, which dwells between the cherubims: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. And when the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again. And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, What means the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews? And they understood that the ark of the Lord was come into the camp. And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp. And they said, Woe to us! for there has not been such a thing heretofore. Woe to us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty gods? these are the gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness. Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines, that ye be not servants to the Israelites, as they have been to you: quit yourselves like men, and fight. And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen. And the ark of God was taken: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain" (1 Sam. 4:4-11). That is to say, the Ark was taken and its bearers slain.
Instead of the Philistines being defeated, as Israel hoped, and as they themselves feared, the very reverse took place, and, as a Psalm says, God "forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men; and delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy's hand" (Ps. 78:60 and 61). Do you know why that was? God will have reality. If Israel thought that the Ark, which was the external pledge of God's presence, could or would support them in their sinful state, they were mightily mistaken. God will be no party to what is not true and real, so He says, I will let my ark go."
"Well," you say, that was a dreadful downfall." For God's Ark? Oh no. A terrible downfall for God's people is certain, then and now, if they be not real. That is the lesson I learn from it.
Now come to 1 Samuel 5. The taken Ark is brought to Ashdod, and placed by the Philistines in the house of their god Dagon. You know what followed then. The next day they find Dagon's head off, and his hands off, and the next thing is they are very anxious to get rid of the Ark, this symbol of God's presence. That is the world. The world is very keen to get rid of the presence of God. It is therefore a very serious thing if God's people be mixed up with the world, even though it be religious, and I can understand the meaning of the call of God, "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, says the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing" (2 Cor. 6:17). Or again, "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues" (Rev. 18:4). That was Babylon. What is Babylon? It is the world-church. And you and I must not forget that while there is the Church of God, the real thing, there is also the world-church. And therefore we should see what it is. It is a serious thing if the saints of God get mixed up with the world or the world-church, which is Babylon.
God took good care of His own Ark, and also plagued the Philistines, who, after sending it from city to city, determine to be quit of it, saying, "Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go again to his own place" (ver. 11). This they did in the next chapter. They felt they must get rid of this irksome presence, and they say: "Now therefore make a new cart, and take two milch kine, on which there has come no yoke, and tie the kine to the cart, and bring their calves home from them: and take the ark of the Lord, and lay it upon the cart; and put the jewels of gold, which ye return him for a trespass offering, in a coffer by the side thereof; and send it away, that it may go. And see, if it goes up by the way of his own coast to Beth-shemesh, then he has done us this great evil; but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us; it was a chance that happened to us. And the men did so; and took two milch kine, and tied them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. And they laid the ark of the Lord upon the cart, and the coffer with the mice of gold and the images of their emerods" (1 Sam. 6:7-11). Now a new cart was all very well for the Philistines to use to get rid of the Ark, though it was not according to God's injunction about the Levites. But then they were not Levites, and you do not expect a "natural man" to be intelligent about divine things. God's children, however, should be, for they are "spiritual," unless, through mixing with the world, they have become "carnal" (see 1 Cor. 2, 3).
And now observe how God took charge of these two milch kine. "And the kine took the straight way to the way of Beth-shemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left; and the lords of the Philistines went after them to the border of Beth-shemesh" (ver. 12). These creatures of God were under His guidance, and they did the reverse of what you would expect — they left their young.
And now when they come to Beth-shemesh there is another lesson. "And he smote the men of Beth-shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote the people fifty thousand and three score and ten men: and the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter" (ver. 19). That is to say, when the Ark got among God's people, if there was not behaviour suited to the Ark, judgment fell again. In plain language, this principle is everywhere in Scripture, God is holy, and He will have reality. And if His people were so prying and curious that they must lift the lid of the Ark, then judgment falls. We have all great need to heed a warning like that, for there is a widespread tendency to admit and justify the working of the human mind in divine things today. That is either prying into that which God has not revealed, or lightly regarding that which, in His Word, He has revealed. You may depend upon it the hand of the Lord will fall upon this character of self-will sooner or later in judgment. Church history, ancient and modern, only too plainly illustrates this.
The next thing we find is that "the men of Kirjath-jearim came, and fetched up the ark of the Lord, and brought it into the house of Abinadab in the hill, and sanctified Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the Lord" (1 Sam. 7:1). Now it is in its right place, under the care of the priests. And there it remains until David is on the throne of Israel. When thoroughly established on that throne, the movement is set on foot, of which we read in 1 Chronicles 13, where David wants the Ark of God to be brought up into the place that he had prepared.
Now turn to this thirteenth chapter of 1st Chronicles. "And David consulted with the captains of thousands and hundreds, and with every leader. And David said to all the congregation of Israel, If it seem good to you, and that it be of the Lord our God, let us send abroad to our brethren everywhere, that are left in all the land of Israel, and with them also to the priests and Levites which are in their cities and suburbs, that they may gather themselves to us " (1 Chr. 13:1 and 2). There was a great desire for fellowship. All right, that is as it should be; I trust nobody loves fellowship more than I do, but even in a matter for fellowship there must be divine order, and an acting on divine direction.
"And let us bring again the ark of our God to us: for we inquired not at it in the days of Saul. And all the congregation said that they would do so: for the thing was right in the eyes of all the people. So David gathered all Israel together, from Shihor of Egypt even to the entering of Hemath, to bring the ark of God from Kirjath-jearim" (vers. 3-5). It was a wonderful scene. What tremendous crowds. What a hearty gathering it must have been.
"And David went up, and all Israel, to Baalah, that is, to Kirjath-jearim, which belonged to Judah, to bring up thence the ark of God the Lord, that dwells between the cherubims, whose name is called on it. And they carried the ark of God in a new cart out of the house of Abinadab: and Uzza and Ahio drave the cart" (vers. 6, 7). Would you not have thought with all that love of fellowship, and desire to have things right, that the King — the leader — would have inquired of God as to whether He had given any instructions as to the transport of His own Ark? We should be sure to think that he would have gone to the Scriptures to find out the right way. But it was not so. David thought, like many a person today, that the new cart was a very good mode of carrying that Ark. The way it reached the house of Abinadab would surely do to take it to Jerusalem. That the Philistines — God's enemies — should furnish the idea was a small matter in his eyes. What is the new cart? Anything that is not according to the pattern of Scripture. I could show you some hundreds of new carts, in Christendom today, all professedly carrying the Ark — and mind I do not say they do not carry it — for King David's new cart carried it, though he soon learned his mistake. What different shapes and sizes, characters and colours these new carts present as you glance over Christendom's systems.
The Ark of God was connected with His worship, It was the central bit of the tabernacle. That Ark spoke of Christ. It was the Person of Christ. The mercy-seat, and the blood on the mercy-seat, spoke of Him and His work. Inside the Ark there was the golden pot of manna, Israel's food in the wilderness; Aaron's rod that budded, Christ's priestly grace in resurrection; and then there were the tables of stone, for the law was hidden in Him. You look into these things — they will interest you. Israel had to carry that Ark and its contents through the desert. We too, as Christians, have to carry the Ark. You go back to Israel passing through the wilderness, and you find there were the priests, the Levites, and the common people, or warriors. Well now today every Christian is a priest in worship, and every Christian is a Levite for service, and likewise is one of the common people in everyday work, and warfare against the enemy.
Now the particular work of the Levites, we learn from Numbers 4:15 and Deuteronomy 10:8, Deuteronomy 31:9, was to carry the Ark. And that is what David found out afterwards. But he had not found it out here. I do not doubt God has recorded this for our instruction; how even an earnest person, a man with a large heart, and a man who had the interests of God very deeply at heart, how he might go astray, while seeking to serve God, if he were not absolutely in subjection to the word of the Lord.
"And Uzza and Ahio drave the cart. And David and all Israel played before God with all their might, and with singing," etc. (vers. 7, 8). Well, they pass on. And by-and-by the oxen stumble. Of course they do. And "Uzza put forth his hand to hold the ark … and there he died before God" (vers. 9, 10). Uzza thought he could take care of God's Ark. But the fact is, God can take care of His own Ark, and if Uzza attempt to sustain and support the Ark, immediately the hand of the Lord is shown. You may depend upon it, the "new cart" style of thing in relation to Christ's Church or Christ's Gospel does not do for God. What do you mean by the new cart? Everything, whether in worship or service, that is not absolutely according to the pattern of Scripture, but after some human pattern, which consequently cannot be divine, and therefore should have no authority over the conscience of a devout and obedient child of God.
Uzza's death woke David up to the error of his ways. At first he judged God — because of the breach made — later he judged himself. "And David was displeased, because the Lord had made a breach upon Uzza: wherefore that place is called Perez-uzza to this day. And David was afraid of God that day, saying, How shall I bring the ark of God home to me? So David brought not the ark home to himself to the city of David, but carried it aside into the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. And the ark of God remained with the family of Obed-edom in his house three months. And the Lord blessed the house of Obed-edom, and all that he had" (vers. 11-14). Those three months brought deep blessing into the house of Obed-edom, and during them David evidently took to studying and following the instructions in his Bible, which led to his being greatly blessed soon after, as we shall see.
Now come to chapter 15. "And David made him houses in the city of David, and prepared a place for the ark of God, and pitched for it a tent" (1 Chr. 15:1). And now comes the proof of his having studied his Bible. "Then David said, None ought to carry the ark of God but the Levites: for them has the Lord chosen to carry the ark of God, and to minister to him for ever" (ver. 2). He said this as though he had made a great discovery, and so indeed it was. But four hundred years before, it had been plainly written, "At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him, and to bless in his name, to this day" (Deut. 10:8). The Spirit of God doubtless turned David's attention to this and cognate scriptures, and he at one prepared to obey the Word of God. "Cease to do evil, learn to do well" (Isa. 1:16-17), became an active principle for the moment. I think I hear him saying then, "What a foolish man I was to imitate the Philistines."
This to me is the picture of many a Christian today who has been seeking to worship God, or working for Him according to his own mind, and going here and there just as he fancies he would like to. He has allowed his religious life to be moulded by what he learned as a child, or saw as a man all round about him, without ever going to God's Word to see if He had given any plain directions on these points or not. We may all well learn from David. He got light as to the carrying of the Ark and acted on it. And if God has given me light, one thing I am sure of, He expects me to respond to it, to answer to it. I cannot help my brethren otherwise. If I saw a man in a ditch I should not go into the ditch to get him out: I should stand upon firm ground and fish him out. If you go into the ditch you will get as muddy as he. You can reach him better from terra firma. And I believe God has given us today the privilege of reaching and helping His dear children, not by going where they are, making light of their inattention to, and departure from His plain Word, but by firmly and tenaciously holding on to the truth that His grace has given us.
There is a religion today that suits the world, and suits man in the flesh, and the great effort of Christendom, broadly speaking, today is to make the things of God acceptable to man in the flesh. I do not believe God has called us to that. And if He has given us heavenly light, let us take care lest we dim it. Further, that light is given to help others. I think sometimes we are little aware how we may affect others. We have to remember that no man lives to himself. Our walk and ways are very far-reaching and telling upon others.
But David has learned his lesson as he says, "None ought to carry the ark of God but the Levites: for them has the Lord chosen to carry the ark of God, and to minister to him for ever." And then a second time: "David gathered all Israel together, to bring up the ark of the Lord to his place, which he had prepared for it" (1 Chr. 15:2-3). Mark his next step: "And David assembled the children of Aaron, and the Levites" (v. 4) … and said to them, "Ye are the chief of the fathers of the Levites: sanctify yourselves, both ye and your brethren, that ye may bring up the ark of the Lord God of Israel to the place that I have prepared for it. For because ye did it not at the first, the Lord our God made a breach upon us;" and now he gives the reason, "For that we sought him not AFTER THE DUE ORDER" (vers. 12, 13).
There is a great deep underlying principle there for our souls today. God has a "due order" as to everything down here for His Church, and if we step out of this divine order, there is pretty sure to be a Perez-uzza. The New Testament contains what David called "due order" instructions for God's Assembly very fully. Our Lord intimated what would be its rallying centre when He said, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20). His Spirit would gather, His Name and His Name only be the centre of unity, and His presence was pledged to all so gathered, even though it might be but two or three. There is the resource of faith in a day of Church ruin. The many have departed from the "due order" in this respect, and are gathered round special points of doctrine, or ecclesiastical organisation as to form and mode of worship, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist, Methodist, etc. This every one knows, and claims the right to practice according to his set views. All such would do well to ask themselves, Is this really the "due order" of God's Word?
Again, take the Lord's Supper. Is there a "due order" for it? Let Acts 20:7 answer: "And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached to them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight." Note the object for which they were gathered together. "To break bread," though Paul took occasion to speak to the gathered saints, both before the breaking of bread and afterwards. The fall and death of Eutychus interrupted, but did not dissolve that meeting. This we learn from verse 11: "When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, he departed." The unity of the whole Assembly, as we have seen already, is expressed in the breaking of bread, and it was that which gathered the saints at Troas — not to hear Paul speak, though he did speak, and speak twice, which gives divine warrant for ministry both before and after the Lord's Supper, should the Spirit of God lead any servant in this way, when the Assembly is gathered together to break bread.
How different is this from what obtains on all hands today. Every Lord's Day morning you can see hundreds making towards ecclesiastical buildings. if asked, "Whither bound?" the answer would be, "We are going to church." Further inquiry elicits the fact that Mr — is to preach, and him they are going to hear. Is this the "due order" of God's Assembly? No page of His book reveals it that I can find. Nowhere in the New Testament can you find the pattern from which the many churches of Christendom are formulated. The idea of an Assembly over which a solitary servant is placed — no matter how gifted he might be — is utterly foreign to God's Word. Depend upon it, King David's new cart — suggested by the Philistines — has its complete counterpart today in Christendom. Who will deny it? If what we see all round us is to be found in God's Word, it can easily be indicated, but it is not there.
When the Holy Ghost at first came down, and the Assembly was formed, Christ, the Head of the Body, gave suited gifts to meet its need. But they, each and all, were given to and belonged to the body — not to a body — and were designed for the good of the whole Assembly, and not one. in any single instance that can be pointed out in Scripture was appointed as "the minister" of "a church."
It is quite possible you will reply, "What about 'the angel of the church of Ephesus' to whom the Lord wrote in Revelation 2?" That proves my point — whatever his function, he belonged to "the church of Ephesus," not to a church — one among many of diverse constitution. The idea conveyed by the angel — where not actually a messenger heavenly or earthly — is clearly the mystical representative of one not clearly seen. We find it so presented in Scripture regarding Jehovah (Isa. 63:9); children (Matt. 18:10); and Simon Peter (Acts 12:15). The angel represents the Assembly, though primarily the elders may have been those whom Christ held responsible for its condition, for the angels and the assemblies are identified. That the clergy took this place eventually is known in history — and that makes their position very serious — but the Spirit does not indicate it in this scripture. They have assumed the position, and must accept the responsibility. The latter will be found to far outweigh the honour implied in the term.
Christ addresses the angels — not even the elders or leaders, who then, as in Acts 20, and always, have a special place of responsibility. The origin of the term "clergy" is curious. The word from which it springs is kleros — a lot; and, as used in the New Testament by the Spirit of God, evidently means the flock, and not the shepherds. It is Peter who says to the elders, "Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind: neither as lords over God's heritage [or lots, ton kleron], but being ensamples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2-3). The little companies of Christians were called God's lots. Clergy has been made out of this, having assumed to themselves to be God's lot only; whereas the only use of it in Scripture is as applied to the laity, if you please, contrasted with ministers. Of the terms clergy and laity now in common use there is no hint in Scripture. Here again the idea of the "new cart" is suggested, while the "due order" is lost sight of.
All this is not according to God's Word. I am speaking plainly and simply, beloved friends, because I desire your profit, and the order of God's Assembly is plainly given in His Word as to worship and service as we have already seen. And if you and I profess to be of that House, then the divine order of that House ought to be seen in our practical ways, for the saint of God is called to obedience and the Church is the expression of the truth. Let us walk according to it. It is a sorrowful thing to go on consenting to that which is not according to God's mind, and eventually discover, like David, that "we sought him not after the due order." I am really exercised about this. If a person say to me, "I do not think you have 'the due order,"' I say, "Sit down then and show me what it is, for I want it."
Let us now see the happy effect of the "due order" being adhered to in David's case. "So the priests and the Levites sanctified themselves to bring up the ark of the Lord God of Israel. And the children of the Levites bare the ark of God upon their shoulders with the staves thereon, as Moses commanded, ACCORDING TO THE WORD OF THE LORD" (vers. 14, 15). If you want to know where to find the due order, read Exodus 25:13-15. The Ark was only to be carried after that manner. God had written it plainly enough. But David had read his Bible carelessly theretofore. You may say to me, I do not see things as you do. Quite possible; but if you will go and read your Bible you will see what the Lord says the order of His Assembly should be; and that is the vital point, because it is of the last importance to have the mind of God, and not take our own way in anything where the carrying of the Ark — for us the testimony of Christ — is concerned.
When David's new cart was in use we find that stumbling, death, displeasure, and disappointment were manifested, and joy, gladness, and worship conspicuous by their absence. All this is reversed when the "due order" is observed. "Lifting up the voice with joy" (ver. 16) was heard, for "Chenaniah, chief of the Levites, was for song: he instructed about the song, because he was skilful." (ver. 22). It is of vast importance what we sing, as well as being a very nice thing to be able to sing properly. You may not have a very good voice. That is not the point. Can we say, "I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also"? (1 Cor. 14:15). It is a great thing to be a New Testament Chenaniah. To be "skilful" in the Assembly is a great thing, whether prayer, song, worship, or testimony are in question; so that it is of importance that what we allow be true and according to the due order.
We further read: "And Berechiah and Elkanah were doorkeepers for the ark. And Shebaniah, and Jehoshaphat, and Nethaneel, and Amasai, and Zechariah, and Benaiah, and Eliezer, the priests, did blow with the trumpets before the ark of God: and Obed-edom and Jehiah were doorkeepers for the ark" (vers. 23 and 24). Only the priests could blow the trumpets. It takes a priest to give the signal that gathers the Assembly together (see Num. 10:1-10). It was their office and theirs only — not that of the Levites. The Levite cannot do it. And who were the doorkeepers? They took the greatest possible care of the Ark. And surely in connection with the order of the Assembly when gathered for worship, the testimony of the gospel, the ministry of the Word of God, and the admission to His Assembly today, it is of great importance to have the spirit of the doorkeepers here. We are to be very careful with regard to everything relating to Christ and His interests.
"So David, and the elders of Israel, and the captains over thousands, went to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the house of Obed-edom with joy." That is the sure result of obedience. "And it came to pass, when God helped the Levites that bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord, that they offered seven bullocks and seven rams" (ver. 26). Observe God's notice of the Levites when things are thus according to His mind — they are helped, and then typically in the sacrifices you see worship flowing up to God. If you and I set ourselves to really obey the Word of the Lord, no matter what it costs, we too shall find that God will help us, and there will be joy in our souls and worship, and fruitful service Godward.
Then you will find perhaps somebody will despise you, as in our chapter we find Michal despising David. Never mind that; I would rather be an obedient David than a despising Michal. God has given to you and me an opportunity, in the absence of the Lord Jesus Christ, to be faithful to His truth. We have the knowledge that the Holy Ghost is still in the Assembly on the earth, and some of us have by God's grace learned the truth as to His Assembly, and what it is to be gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Well, if we have that truth, let us be true to it, and let us walk in the liberty of the truth. It may lead to persecution. It must lead to separation, from what we know is wrong, that is a very clear case; because I shall not be able to help a man that is in the confusion of Christendom if I am walking with him in it. You take up your ground firmly, quietly, and humbly, and you will find you will help other people. It is not for a moment that I am inculcating narrowness of heart. God forbid that, and give us a big, broad, loving heart. But while the heart is to be kept broad, it is of necessity a narrow path in which the feet are found, if we are to obey the Lord, and seek to carry out the direct instructions of His Word.
That is why Paul said to Timothy: "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men" (2 Tim. 2:2). Why faithful men? They were men that would not tone down or fling away the truth. The truth Paul had he passed on to Timothy, and Timothy was to be careful to impart it to faithful men, that they in their turn also might pass it on to others. There were those who would not have Paul's heavenly line of things, they turned away from him. Not so Timothy, who was to pass on to faithful men the truth he had learned, who should in their turn be able to teach others also. I think, beloved friends, it is a great privilege, a great favour from God, if He has given us to see and seek to act on recovered truth and light. I believe we have it by God's grace. Should it puff us up? God forbid. It was grace that called us as sinners, and if God has given us the light and truth of the Assembly, and what ministry really is, and what it is to be gathered to the Lord's name, it is an immense favour.
God give us grace to be true to what the Lord has taught us. Because depend upon it, "Whosoever has, to him shall be given; and whosoever has not, from him shall be taken even that which he seems to have" (Luke 8:18). I would add this, and I am not saying it without close observance, if people do not cherish and hold on to the truth God has given them, by and by their vision becomes dull, they fling it all up, and in course of time become the most determined opponents of the truth they once prized. That is an awful thing. The Lord help us to be true to Himself for His name's sake.