The Church in Actual Existence

Acts 1‑9  •  15 min. read  •  grade level: 8
In tracing God's thoughts of the Church, as unfolded in His Word, we shall find the early chapters of the Acts carry us a stage in advance of Matt. 16. There the Church is prophetically announced. Here it is formed and seen in actual existence. But it is not yet the subject of the Spirit's teaching; for this the moment had not yet come, nor was the man yet called who was to be the chosen vessel to unfold the mystery of Christ and the Church.
The death of Christ is the basis of all blessing for men, whether for the saints of Old Testament days, for those who compose the Church, or for restored Israel in the age to come. But the formation of the Church awaited two other events of immense import. The risen Christ must ascend as a Man into the glory, and the Holy Spirit-a Divine Person-must come to earth. The Man in the glory and the Holy Spirit abiding on earth are the two great distinguishing facts of the Christian period. They had no existence in the ages that are past, and they will not mark the ages that are to come; they give the entire character to the present moment.
In the first chapter of the Acts we see the fulfillment of the first great event. Here the disciples receive the last directions from the risen Lord, and "while they beheld, He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight." Christ as a Man was received up into the glory. Of course, in so speaking we must never forget that He is a Divine Person "over all, God blessed forever." But still it is as Man He ascended to Heaven, and as the Son of Man He was seen in Heaven by the martyr, Stephen.
In the second chapter of the Acts we get the fulfillment of the second great event. The Holy Ghost was received on earth according to that word in John 7:3939(But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.) (John 7:39), which connects His coming with the glory of Christ. The disciples were "all together in one place" waiting, according to the Lord's word, for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. While they waited, the Holy Spirit came "from Heaven" and filled all the house where they were sitting; and not only so, but each individual was filled with the Holy Spirit. Thus by one Spirit they were "all baptized into one Body" (1 Cor. 12:1313For 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 Corinthians 12:13)). Here, then, the "one Body" became an actual fact: that Body of which Christ is the Head in Heaven, and believers, the members on earth. The fact was not yet revealed, and could hardly be, as the Body is composed of Jewish and Gentile believers and therefore the revelation of the truth was not given until the Gentile believers had been baptized into the Body by the Holy Spirit. (See Acts 10; 11:16.)
Following upon the baptism of the Spirit, a great number of Jews and proselytes were convicted, believed in Christ, were baptized, received the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Further, we read, "the same day there were added about three thousand souls" (v. 41). Then the last verse of the chapter tells us who added them and to what they were added. It was the Lord Himself who added them, and it was to the Church they were added. For the first time we are permitted to see the Lord forming His Church ac-cording to His own prophetic announcement in Matt. 16. "I will build My Church." The closing words of the verse, "such as should be saved," do not imply that they were unbelievers or that they were added in order to be saved. The nation, having rejected Christ, was going on to judgment, but those who believed and were baptized would be saved from that judgment, and such the Lord added to the Church. They were added to the Lord before they were added to the Church. To insist upon this is of the greatest importance, because Catholicism, and those who follow Catholicism, attach salvation to being of the Church, instead of making the Church the Assembly of those who are saved. Only believers in the beginning of the chapter were formed into the Church by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and only believers at the end of the chapter were added to the Church by the Lord.
Here, then, the Church is seen in actual existence. "All that believed were together" (v. 44). We thus see the fulfillment of that word spoken by Caiaphas concerning Christ when he said, "He should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad." It has been truly said, "There were indeed children of God before this moment, but they were scattered abroad, they were isolated. Christ by His death was to gather them together, not merely to save them, so that they might be together in Heaven (since they were children of God, that was already done), but He was to gather them together in one." This was something entirely new upon the earth. It was no new thing for children of God to exist on the earth. It was no new thing that such were journeying on to Heaven. That was true in Enoch's day, and Job's day, and throughout the days of old, however dimly it was known. But that the children of God should be gathered together in one was an entirely new thing. And this is the truth that the people of God are still so slow to apprehend. We think of ourselves as isolated saints, as if we lived before the cross. Being saved, we are apt to think that it is left to us, according to the best of our ability, to choose what "church" we shall join or whether we shall join any at all. But in this thought we fail to see that already, if we have come to the Lord, He has added us to the Church, and thus there can be no question of remaining in isolation on the one hand, or of joining a church on the other. The very thought of joining "a" church betrays ignorance of the truth of "the" Church.
Moreover, not only were the saints gathered together in one, but being gathered together, God makes ample provision that they might continue together in a visible unity.
First, we have the apostles' teaching, by which the saints were led into all the truth of God and instructed in the mind of God as to their pathway on earth. This instruction, given orally at first, was later on secured to the saints for all time in the inspired Epistles.
Second, flowing from the apostles' teaching, we have the apostles' fellowship. This, as we know, is the fellowship into which all Christians are called -the fellowship of God's Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. The Son of God is the center and object of this fellowship.
Third, the apostles' fellowship leads to the breaking of bread, the formal and highest expression of fellowship, that which calls to remembrance the death of Christ by which the children of God have been entirely separated from the world and gathered together in one.
Last, prayer, by which, as saints, we are kept in the attitude of dependence upon God, recognizing that His grace is available for us, and that we constantly need to come boldly to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Regretfully, God's provision has been almost wholly neglected, and hence the divided and scattered condition of God's people. Christendom has largely set aside the apostles' doctrine by its own tradition; has formed "fellowships" around gifted men, or particular views, instead of the Son of God; has perverted the breaking of bread from a supper of remembrance to a ceremonial means of grace; and has turned prayer into mere formality. However, in the early days of the Acts, the believers "continued steadfastly" in the apostles' doctrine, and fellowship, and breaking of bread, and prayer; and as long as they so continued they remained together in a visible unity.
CT 2:1-47{We have thus seen in the second chapter of the Acts how the Lord Himself builds His Church with living stones upon the Rock. But all this takes place on earth; there is as yet no hint of the heavenly character of the Assembly or of its glorious destiny in the counsels of God. There is not a word so far of the union of the Body on earth with the Head in Heaven. "Union" is still a secret to be unfolded in due time, but what is manifested in these early chapters of the Acts is "unity." Not necessarily a material unity, but a moral unity, marked by gladness and singleness of heart. There remained one event to be fulfilled before the full heavenly character and calling of the Church could be revealed. Israel's cup of guilt must be filled to the brim. Already the nation had rejected and crucified their Messiah; but now the Holy Spirit had come, with the last offer to the guilty nation. Will they resist the Spirit as they had already rejected the Messiah?
CT 1:1-26{When the Lord ascended, as recorded in Acts 1, the disciples "looked steadfastly toward Heaven as He went up." Immediately two angels stood by them, which said, "Why stand ye gazing up into Heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into Heaven, shall so come in like manner." The angels turn their gaze from Heaven, whence Christ had gone, toward the earth to which He will come. At first we might wonder at this. Surely it was a right thing to look up to Heaven where Christ is? Yes, in due season it will be right, but the moment had not yet come to look up. And as we listen to Peter preaching to the nation, we can understand why the disciples' thoughts were to linger for a while on earth. For, says Peter to the guilty nation, "Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; and He shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you" (Acts 3:19,2019Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; 20And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: (Acts 3:19‑20)). This was the final message in grace to the guilty nation, proclaimed by the Holy Spirit come down from the ascended Christ. If they will repent, Jesus will come back to earth. In result they utterly refuse this testimony of the Holy Spirit. They had been the betrayers and murderers of their own Messiah. The Holy Spirit (not having taken a body) they could not murder, but they can murder the man that is filled with the Holy Spirit, and this they do by stoning the witness, Stephen.
The rejection by the nation of this final offer of grace brings about an entire change in the dispensation. Thereafter it is all over with them, and the center of all God's dealings passes from earth to Heaven. In harmony with this change Stephen, being filled with the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into Heaven, and no angel stands by to inquire why he looks up. God's time has come for His people to look away from earth to Heaven. And not only he looks up, but his happy spirit is received up. The first of the long line of martyrs is received into Heaven. Now God's people no longer belong to earth from which Christ has been rejected, but to Heaven where Christ has been received. Heaven is their home, and Christ is there to receive them into that home. If the world will not have Christ, it is no place for His people, and if Heaven has received Christ, then a new place is opened for His people, and into that new place He receives them.
CT 7:1-60{The seventh chapter of the Acts is a great turning-point in the ways of God. From the moment the testimony of Stephen is rejected, the great characteristics of the dispensation come prominently to the fore. In the closing scene of this chapter, everyone and everything stands revealed according to the true character of the Christian dispensation. The guilty nation of Israel is seen in its absolute rejection of Christ and its inveterate resistance to the Holy Spirit. The world is seen in its true character as the rejecter of Christ and the persecutor of His saints. Heaven is seen flung open to disclose Christ in the glory, for the reception of the saints. Christ is seen as the Man in the glory supporting His tried saints on earth and receiving them to Heaven as they fall asleep. The Holy Spirit is seen as a Divine Person on earth, filling a man on earth and leading him to look up steadfastly to Christ in Heaven. And lastly, this Spirit-filled saint is presented as a man on earth drawing all his resources from the Man in the glory, and in so doing becoming changed into His likeness from glory to glory, in such fashion that, like his Master, he prays for his murderers and commits his spirit to the Lord. So that as a man on earth is supported by the Man in the glory, the Man in the glory is represented by a man on earth. Having fought the fight and finished his course, Stephen's happy spirit departs to be with Christ, while his poor battered body falls asleep to await a glorious resurrection.
Ever since the stoning of Stephen, the world has been true to its character. It rejected Christ then; it persecuted the saints then; it has done so ever since in different measures and degrees. It may be religious-it was so then, and it is so now—but religion does not change its character. Indeed, the greater the world's profession of religion, the more intense its hatred and the more relentless its persecution of the saints. Let history bear witness to its unchanging hostility to Christ and His people. Heaven, too, has not changed its attitude to God's people. It was open then; it is open still; and through that open door we can still look into the glory where Jesus is, and the love of Christ still streams down upon His saints. Then truly with Christ there is no change. We can look up and say, "Thou remainest" and "Thou art the same." All the grace and power and wisdom of the Man in the glory are still as available for the support of His people as when Stephen was so blessedly sustained in his martyrdom. With the Holy Spirit, too, there is no change. He came from Christ in the glory to lead us to Christ in the glory. And this is still the way He takes. But how believers have changed! How little we have remained true to our character as saints. How much we have grieved the Spirit, and thus, instead of looking steadfastly to Heaven, we have looked to earth. We have become earthly, if not worldly. Consequently, the support of the Lord has been little received and the power of the Spirit but little manifested, so that we have been but poor representatives of the Man in the glory.
But in spite of all failure, the picture in Acts 7 remains in all its excellent beauty to recall our hearts to the true character of the dispensation. But it does more; it prepares the way for the ministry of Paul with its rich unfolding of the Church as the one Body with Christ, the risen Head, in Heaven.
In the history of Stephen we surely learn that the disciples of the risen Christ belong to Heaven. But in the story of Paul's conversion in Acts 9, we learn, not only that the saints belong to Heaven, but that the saints on earth are united to Christ in Heaven. As Saul journeyed on his way to Damascus "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord," he was struck to the ground by a light from Heaven and heard the voice of Christ from the glory saying unto him, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" The voice did not say, "Mine," nor even "us," but "Me." Mine would imply a company of people that belong to Christ; true indeed, but not all the truth. "Us" would imply a company of people associated with Christ; also true, but not the full truth. "Me" involves a company of people in union with Christ, and in such intimate fashion that to touch them is to touch Christ.
The martyrdom of Stephen and the persecution that follows presents the world in its true character as a persecutor of the saints; but at the conversion of Saul we learn the further truth that in persecuting the saints the world is persecuting Christ. The Church is one with Christ in Heaven, and He is persecuted in His members. This, as it has been said, is "the strongest expression of our union with Him-that He considers the feeblest member of His Body as part of Himself." In Acts 2 and 4 the saints were gathered together with "one heart" and "one soul" presenting a beautiful expression of unity; but here is disclosed the deeper truth of their intimate union with Christ, their exalted Head in Heaven, and with one another as members of His Body on earth.
Israel, having crucified the Messiah, rejected Christ in the glory, and resisted the Holy Spirit on earth, is entirely set aside for the time being, while the Church, formed on earth but destined for glory, becomes the witness for God in the world. Paul was the chosen vessel to unfold by Divine teaching in his Epistles the great truths concerning Christ and the Church.