The Church, the Habitation of God

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God, in " the old dispensation," was displaying himself, in the government of his people Israel, as the Most High God. The devil had made it appear to the world (which had become an idolatrous world), that he was the alone source of that good and evil Which was felt to result from man's conduct here: he had caused men to worship other gods. That a testimony might be raised against this, and an opportunity afforded in the midst of it for the display of his providential government, God took up one nation and separated them from the peoples of the earth to himself. But to this end, the separation must needs be a manifest one. An external character, distinctive in the eyes of the heathen, must be given them; and therefore ceremonial observances were enjoined which effectually separated them, and marked them off as a people distinct from all others; and this separate character being preserved, the surrounding nations were henceforward dealt with in judgment or otherwise, according to the manner in which they acted towards the Jews. Hence resulted the judgments upon Edom, Moab, Babylon, etc. " Sin was imputed."
But whilst they were thus called to be a witness for God against the idolatry of the world, and to be the medium for the display of His character, as the Most High God, towards the nations, the responsibilities which were laid upon them, together with the conditional blessings or curses annexed to their fulfillment or neglect, gave occasion for the constant display of his government' amongst themselves. They were to be blessed in earthly things if obedient, and to be visited with curses if not (see Dent. xxviii).
But they failed: and, instead of having rest and blessing in the land, and the first place among the nations, Nebuchadnezzar, was permitted to carry them away as captives into Babylon.
But when Christ came and displayed all the goodness and grace-in a word, all the moral glory of God; and when, the Jewish witness being displaced, another had now to be raised up, the character of this witness must, of necessity, be altogether new. The providential government of God was now no longer to 'be the special subject of the testimony; but that light of the knowledge of the glory which God had given in the face of Jesus Christ had now to be reflected. Indeed, Jesus Himself being in the heavens and His glory invisible, the saints in their path here on earth were to represent Him, and to be the witness of His glory. They were to take His place here-in a word, they were to be Christ's epistle of commendation to the world (2 Cor. 3). Evidently, therefore, the character and relations of this new witness, unlike those of Israel before, must needs be heavenly., But perhaps there is nothing in which the difference is more strikingly seen, than in the hope which is set before, us; for, although it is true we do replace Israel on the earth, yet it is in " the ends of the world" we stand (1 Cor. 10). We are in the last times (1 John 2:1818Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. (1 John 2:18)); and so true is this, that nothing is revealed as of necessity intervening between us and the glory. The glory is before us as our immediate hope: it is to this heavenly glory we are called. Thus our calling is identical with our hope: but with those of old it was far otherwise.
The present calling and the eternal hope was with them distinct; so that it was not merely that intervening events were revealed, but intervening objects of hope were presented to their faith.. Thus a Jew was called into separation from the Gentiles to the enjoyment of present blessings in the land; and although doubtless individual faith reached out beyond the proper calling of the dispensation, and laid hold of what was eternal; and although in the ministry of the prophets (a ministry which was introduced in grace because of the failure), the better hopes of a resurrection state were more clearly opened to the view of faith, that the souls of those faithful ones who felt the present ruin might be sustained; yet these were at best only indistinctly seen, and were ever, as it were, in the distance. It was only through a lengthened vista that they viewed them; for " life and immortality were brought to light through the Gospel" (2 Tim. 1:1010But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel: (2 Timothy 1:10)). Abraham, for example, looked for a " city which hath foundations, and so dwelt as a sojourner in the land of promise" (Heb. 11:99By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: (Hebrews 11:9)); but it was only through a lengthened vista that Abraham viewed the city; for it was revealed to him that he was to be buried in a good old age-the iniquity of the Amorites was yet to come to the full, and his seed was to be afflicted -four hundred years in a land that was not theirs. But in this dispensation the present call and the eternal hope are one and the same. We are called into the immediate hope and expectancy of that glory into which Jesus, with whom we stand in present association, has already entered.
We are now by the Holy Ghost made conversant with our eternal blessings, no longer indistinctly seen in the distance; but "brought to light," so as to become objects of present delight and enjoyment. The glory is immediately before us, and we press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. God grant that we might each be able to say with the Apostle, " This one thing I do."
There is, however, still a very simple and definite sense in which the saints of the present dispensation may be regarded as replacing Israel on the earth, without in any way detracting from their high and heavenly standing as members of Christ's body. It is evident that we replace them now (just as they will us again in the Millennium), as heirs of promise on the earth, and this is the subject which the Apostle considers in Rom. 11. But we must remember that here we descend into the region of the kingdom•' indeed, we get entirely on earthly ground, for the Apostle is here treating of the administration on earth of those promises which naturally belonged to Israel.
It is important to observe, that the olive-tree itself retains its place throughout the past, the present, and the future dispensations: some changes indeed are made as regards the branches; but the stock, and some of the branches, retain the same place throughout, without any change whatever. Now the Jews are here represented by the natural branches of the olive-tree, that is, they stood on the earth as the heirs of the promises to Abraham; but on the setting aside of that dispensation, some of the branches, i.e., the unbelieving' portion of the Jews, were broken off; and we, who were sinners of the Gentiles, being graffed in, partake with the branches that were left of the root and fatness of the olive-tree: in other words, we, together with the remnant according to the election of grace out of Israel, now stand in Israel's place, as the only present inheritors here on earth of these same Abrahamic promises and blessings-a place which the Jews will again themselves fill in the next dispensation; for then the natural branches shall be again grafted into their own olive-tree (Rom. 11:24-2624For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree? 25For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. 26And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: (Romans 11:24‑26)).
But our participation during our sojourn here on earth of the fatness of this olive-tree, cannot for a moment be understood to imply that all our privileges and blessings are derived from it. The fact is, that the proper distinctive privileges and blessings of the Church are in no way whatever connected with it. The arrangements of Heaven do not come within the statements of the Apostle in this chapter at all: he merely speaks of what takes place on earth. All indeed that is stated as to the present position of the saints is simply this, that whereas the Jews were the depositaries of the promises of God on earth in the former dispensation, we (inasmuch as we are actually on earth for the present) have become the depositaries of promise now: a place in which we shall, in our turn, be succeeded by the Jews again in the Millennium. That responsibilities are, of course, connected with this position is sufficiently plain from the same passage,-responsibilities too upon the fulfillment of which our very continuance in the enjoyment of the privileges in question is made to depend; for it is said, " If God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God; on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness; otherwise thou also shalt be cut off." Nor does anything which is here said about the responsibilities and conditional privileges of the saints as replacing the Jews on earth, in the slightest degree interfere with the heavenly character and privileges of the Church as taught elsewhere. Let us suppose the case of a householder who, having conferred certain privileges on his servants, afterward chooses to break up his establishment, and dismiss them all for a time; but during the interval he allows his sons to enjoy the privileges and perquisites which had previously belonged to his servants. Would any one for a moment suppose that they would of necessity lose thereby their place and character as children, and be reduced to the mere condition of servants?
Nothing, indeed, can be more plain, than that the apostle, in this 11th of Romans, simply speaks of the transfer of certain privileges and responsibilities here on earth from one body to another, without in any, way touching upon the character and condition of that body to whom they are thus transferred. But it is at the same time most important, that we should very distinctly recognize the position in which the saints are presented in this chapter; for it is as standing in this place, that we fill up the gap in the earthly dealings of God, and partake of the character of an earthly dispensation. And it is because the saints have entirely failed in fulfilling the responsibilities belonging to them in this position, that we speak of the failure and ruin of the church. It must be plain to all, that she has not fulfilled the conditions of the 11th of Romans.
Surely no one can read the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, and compare the state of things there described with that which now exists around us, without seeing that the most sorrowful failure has undoubtedly taken place. We have not " continued in the goodness of God"; and the unavoidable sentence of excision therefore hangs over us-" otherwise thou also shalt be cut off." Nor does Scripture hold out any hope whatever, of our regaining that dispensational standing and privilege which, through the apostasy, has been lost. But although it is evident that the Church, looked at as a system left on earth to witness to the things which are above, has entirely failed and is to be "cut off"; this, of course, in no way whatever affects her in the enjoyment of those eternal blessings and privileges, which belong to her as united to the Lord Jesus Christ in heavenly places. As seated with Him in the heavenly places, she is above dispensation, and therefore is not subject to failure; she is now associated with God in His thoughts about the dispensations, rather than being herself the subject of them; and it is in this high and blessed place we have the Church presented to us in Scripture. But in order to have any distinct thoughts as to her privileges and blessings, it is most necessary for us first to ascertain what the Church, properly so called, really is.
Now, whilst God, by the Old Testament prophets, had distinctly revealed the place, character and history, of his earthly people, there was yet a "Mystery" which he never had revealed (Col. 1:25,26). He had purposed, even from before the foundation of the world, to have a people before Him who should be made worthy of Himself (Eph. 1:44According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: (Ephesians 1:4)); "According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love." And this people was to be made a medium suitable for the display of the exceeding riches of his grace in the ages to come. We are said to be quickened and raised up together, and made to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, "that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus." Now this purpose had been "kept secret since the world began" (Rom. 16.25). It had been "hid from ages and from generations" (Col. 1.26); and was only revealed by the preaching of the Apostle Paul after the Lord had taken his place as the risen man in the glory. It is, therefore, in vain for us to search in the Old Testament Scriptures for the blessings and privileges of the Church. The Church is never spoken of there at all. It is in the New Testament, and, I believe, especially in the Epistle to the Ephesians, that we must look for the doctrine of the Church. Now, it was when the flesh had been fully tested, and when, too, the world having rejected and crucified the Lord of Glory, had been left by God as in hopeless ruin for judgment, and all the earthly dealings with Israel had been thereon suspended, and when moreover the Lord Jesus, upon the accomplishment of his work on the cross, had taken his place as the risen man in the glory, that the Holy Ghost came down to gather and form the body of Christ-the " new man," of which the apostle speaks in the Ephesians, and which he there distinctively calls the Church: and it is, important to observe, that the body thus formed, being in its Head rejected from the world, even before it was itself called into existence, could not possibly have had any place upon the earth at all. It was formed for the heavens, to be the associate of Him there who has been rejected and crucified by the world. And it is plainly said to be formed out of those two classes of men into which the world had been heretofore divided. The Jew was taken out of his place, and the Gentile out of his; and so of the twain the one new man was made (Eph. 2.15). It was not that Gentiles were introduced into the standing and privileges which Jews had enjoyed before; but sinners, gathered indiscriminately from among Jews or Gentiles, were introduced into a place in which none had ever yet stood-into new and unthought-of privileges; for it is written, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit" (1 Cor. 2:9,109But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. 10But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. (1 Corinthians 2:9‑10)). That God would bless sinners-that they were the blessed objects of his counsels-was revealed from the beginning; but that sinners should ever share the blessing of His Son, and should even whilst here be brought into living union and present realized association with Jesus, so that, instead of being merely the objects of his counsels, they should even have the mind of Christ, and thus be of one counsel with him, was surely to those of old an unheard-of and unthought-of thing.
Moreover it was evidently necessary that Christ should die upon the cross, before this " new man" could be formed; for it was by the cross that the enmity between Jew and Gentile was slain, and that both were reconciled unto God in one body" (Eph. 2.16). Since therefore this body had no existence until the present dispensation, the Old Testament saints evidently could not have belonged to it. That they will have a common place with us in the glory, is not hereby questioned; but they clearly form no part of what is termed in the Ephesians the " new man," " the body," or " the Church."
The Church is a body which began to be formed at Pentecost; and which will be completed when Jesus its head returns again in glory. It is, indeed, evident also, from the very nature of the unity of this body, that none can be included in it but the saints of the present dispensation. We have been accustomed perhaps most of us to think of the unity spoken of in the Epistles as consisting in the common possession of divine life. Now that every quickened soul must possess divine life, and therefore the same life, and that there is therefore a unity which will take in every saint from the beginning to the end of time, I suppose no one will deny. This indeed may he called invisible unity in Heaven; but this is not the unity of the body; it is not the unity of which the Apostle Paul speaks. He speaks of a present unity on earth (see Eph. 4)-of a unity which hangs not upon the common possession of divine life, but which is in virtue of the presence of Him, who having formed the body at Pentecost, continues to dwell in it as its living power of unity. Thus it is a unity which never existed at all until the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile had been broken down, and the law of commandments contained in ordinances had been abolished: " For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross."
Now, the body, thus gathered and formed, is now the " habitation of God through the Spirit" (Eph. 2:2222In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:22)). It is the temple in which God still dwells on earth. "For. ye are the temple of the living God" (2 Cor. 6.16). And again, " Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are" (1 Cor. 3.16, 17). Now, the truth contained in these passages is of the utmost importance. It is not the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in individuals which is spoken of in them; but the presence of the Holy Ghost, in abiding living power in the Church. He first forms the body, He sets the different members in their several places in it, " 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). And He then dwells there in present living power, to minister to it, and to guide and direct all the movements of its members afterward. " But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will" (1 Cor. 12:1111But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. (1 Corinthians 12:11)). Nor is this presence of the Holy Ghost of which these passages speak, a presence merely in the assemblies of the saints; for although, doubtless, there will be an especial manifestation of it there, yet the assembly is not the church, and Scripture speaks of his presence in the church, where, indeed, he will still continue to dwell, even if there should be no assemblies of the saints at all. " Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen." Nor, indeed, are the actings of the Holy Ghost in the body confined to the assembly, or necessarily connected with it.
The Church again, be it remembered, not the assembly, is the "habitation of God"; and although many of His actings are especially seen and developed in the assembly, yet He is seen acting where there is no assembly at all. It is evident that neither the gifts of healing, nor the discerning of spirits, nor the working of miracles, were to be exercised merely in the assembly, nor indeed perhaps in the assembly at all. Indeed the full power and bearing of this doctrine of the presence of the Holy Ghost in the Church has, I believe, been often lost sight of, even by those who have held it to be true; for it has surely been too often regarded amongst us as bearing merely upon the meeting of saints at the Lord's Table or on other occasions for worship; and whilst it has thus been used as a doctrine which proves a title to what is called " liberty of ministry," and has been often enough applied as a lever to overturn the religious systems of the day, the display of the sovereignty of the Holy Ghost in the Church out. side of the assembly has often been but too little recognized or thought of. And it is important ever to remember, that although it is the same Holy Ghost who dwells in the saints individually and who dwells in the Church corporately, yet Scripture carefully distinguishes between the two; and, I believe, marks His operations as dwelling in the individual, as distinct from His operations as dwelling in the Church. Thus, as dwelling in each saint, He makes us to know the Father (Gal. 4). He is the power of individual communion and worship (John 4); and He is to our souls the blessed earnest of the coming glory, enabling us even here to enjoy the blessings we anticipate (2 Cor.). But as dwelling in the Church He is the Witness of the Lordship of Jesus, and asserts, in and through the Church in which He dwells, the title and power of Christ as Lord. He is the immediate agent in all the work of God on earth. In this we see Him acting by individuals of course, but still by them as members of the body in which He dwells. He bestows on them their gifts, and thus sets them in their various spheres of service as servants of Christ the Lord. But then He not only bestows the gifts, and thus gives faculty and power for service, but as dwelling in the Church He is ever there as the present and abiding source of power for the varied use and exercise of these gifts. This, I doubt not, is the meaning of the. Apostle, when he says, " but all these worketh that one and the self-same Spirit dividing to every man severally as He will" (1 Cor. 12:1111But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. (1 Corinthians 12:11)). He had, in the previous verses, stated the sovereignty of the Holy Ghost in bestowing the gifts on whom He pleases; but here he adds, that the self-same Spirit who had bestowed them is ever present as the animating energy to them. He works them all, and apportions too, from time to time, to each who has the gift, the occasion and opportunity for its exercise. It is evident too, as it has been already observed, that as the exercise of these gifts was never intended to be confined to the assemblies of. the saints, so it is plain that the sovereignty of the Holy Ghost in the Church may be displayed in guiding the evangelist or the teacher in their more individualized labors, quite as much as in moving one and another to speak in the assembly of the saints..
And surely we have often failed in power and blessing, because this truth has not been sufficiently kept before us. It is of little use for us to own the sovereignty of the Holy Ghost in bestowing the gift on whom he pleases, if it be supposed that the gift is afterward to be used according to the will of him on whom it is bestowed. This, indeed, would only open a wider door for the exercise of self-will. But on the other hand, we may equally err in suffering ourselves to be controlled in its exercise by the church, or indeed, by any man, or set of men whatever. The attempt in them is the greatest sin. It is on their parts the assumption of that authority over Christ's servants which belongs alone to Him; and in those who yield to it, it amounts to a denial of Christ's title over them, and is the most positive unfaithfulness to Him. By the possession, of the gift, I am Christ's servant, and am responsible immediately, and only to Him, for the measure and manner of its exercise; and we be to me if I yield that subjection to another, which is due only and exclusively to Christ himself! Surely if gift is bestowed, it is that it may be used in subjection to Him who gave it. And happy is it for us when this subjection is fully and practically owned; we shall then feel ourselves to be just as dependent upon Him, to make the opportunity, and give us the occasion for the exercise of the gift, as for power to use it right when the occasion comes.
Now whilst we must remember the importance to our souls of apprehending what the Church will be in the Glory; for this indeed is the bright and blessed hope which cheers us on whilst laboring in the midst of the present hopeless ruin and apostasy: it is, I believe, of far greater moment than we think, that we should have before our souls a very distinct view of what the Church is now. Just as the Spirit of God by Balaam not only contemplates the future condition of the people of God, when the star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; but taking also a present view of what they then were in the wilderness, says, How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river side, as the trees of lign-aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar-trees beside the waters": so does it become us to take as it were this present wilderness-view of the Church, to have God's idea of the Church distinctly before our souls- to have a very clear apprehension of the place which it has in Christ's affections as His espoused, and what it is as the present habitation of God on earth through the Spirit. This, as we have in part seen, is the character of the teaching in the Epistle to the Ephesians. The Apostle does not speak there of what the Church will be in glory, but of what it is now; and this was a few years ago laid upon the hearts of many-great blessing and joy was felt in the apprehension of it, and an important movement amongst the saints of God has been the result. But I believe we have found a constant tendency amongst us again to let it slip; and certainly the weight and importance of it has been in a great measure lost sight of: nor indeed is this greatly to be wondered at for I believe we always find that whenever the display of the energy and power of the Spirit of God in the Church has become feeble, that the saints have been usually content to fall back upon those truths which constitute the ground of individual salvation. These, such as justification by faith, the security of the saints in Christ, etc., they have still perhaps continued to hold firmly; but they have at the same time been content with the lowest possible amount of truth which could entitle them to be ranked amongst orthodox Christians, and have neither realized in their souls now, nor looked for in hope much beyond that which has been the common portion of the redeemed in all dispensations. The commonly received orthodox belief of Christians contains indeed little or nothing beyond this. It just leaves out those very truths by which God acts upon the affections of his people. All the peculiar and characteristic blessings of the Church-all that which characterizes the teaching of the Apostle Paul, which he specially includes in the term " my Gospel," is quite left out. Now it is by these very truths—truths which reveal the blessings which belong exclusively and peculiarly to the saints in the present dispensation-that God acts upon our hearts, and touches the springs of hope in our souls: nor can there be fullness of joy, nor energy,—and well-directed devotedness in service, unless these are recognized and held.
It has been truly observed by another, that the life and spiritual energy of a saint depend on his faith in what is proper to his own dispensation; that is, it depends exactly on those very truths which in the commonly received orthodox belief are just left out, and which are therefore now often regarded amongst Christians as dangerous novelties, or at least are classed among things very unessential and unimportant.
If therefore the display of the energy and power of the Holy Ghost has become more feeble of late amongst us, surely it cannot be wondered at that we, too, have in a measure lost our sense of the importance and blessedness of those truths through the apprehension of which so much blessing was once wrought. But if this be so, it surely becomes us to seek to trace the source and origin of the failure, that in humiliation and confession before our God we seek a renewal of blessings from Him. Now I would ask, may it not be traced to the coming in of the world, and its influence amongst us? Has not this greatly tended to sap and undermine the original power and blessing?-Those who in our day first gathered themselves around the table of the Lord, simply as His saints, understood, in some measure at least, what the Church is as the habitation of God through the Spirit.- They saw its heavenly standing and calling as the Bride of Christ. They went forth outside the camp, and the world was left behind. Their souls fully compassed the truths which in much exercise of heart and conscience they had learned. There was the consciousness of weakness. They assumed to be nothing more than the representatives of the present weakness of the Church. In their meetings there was simple dependence upon God. No stimulant in the way of fine or acceptable teaching was then needed. The sweet fragrance of the name of Jesus was there, and they were intent to enjoy Christ together. Much real spiritual power and blessing was the result. God made them a testimony, and others gathered round; but as time went on, many came from various motives-some out of a real desire to partake of the blessing which they saw; but although attracted by the blessing, they had not faith to tread the same path of devotedness and self-denial through which the others had been led into it; instead of leaving their importance and respectability behind them in the world, they often brought it with them, and thus attached it to the gatherings to which they came. This soon caused a serious hindrance to the blessing; it was a deadening weight, the depressing power of which could only have been resisted by a correspondingly increasing energy of faith on the part of those who saw the evil. G. P.