We are too far advanced now in the conference to give even a brief synopsis of what has been before us. And all that can be done at this point is to say that with these two letters of Paul to Timothy, we are in the presence of a great change which was coming over Christianity at the time when they were written; a change which was not arrested, but went on and developed so that at the end of the apostolic age, with the close of the first Christian century, Christianity had completely changed. It had lost its primal, original character. And it is in the consciousness of this change coming about, the Apostle wrote these letters to Timothy and through them, by them, in all their content, sought to indicate the way - the only way, God's way - of keeping things pure: maintaining things according to their original nature.
The letters amount to one thing, that in God's thought for "Christianity" (I use that wide term for the moment) in God's thought everything was to be, had been, and was intended to be, wholly spiritual as over against that which was developing, a system - ordered, governed, arranged and carried on by man; formal, ecclesiastical, outward and so on. These letters are a strong appeal for the recovery or the maintenance of a wholly spiritual character in every thing, every department, and every aspect of the life of the Christian community.
Now, I have used the large word "Christianity" and now just used a term: "the Christian community". And I am coming immediately to what that really means - the proper name for it - because neither of those terms are in the New Testament: "Christianity" and "the Christian community". But there is a term for what they were intended to mean, and that term is "the Church". I ask you to look at these letters, one or two fragments, which intimate that matter.
The first letter, chapter 3, verse 5: "If a man knoweth not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?" We leave the context and the immediate relationship and application, and just note that this that is called the "Church of God" is introduced as something which must have been known and recognised, that is something taken for granted. It's just introduced, it's referred to. There is such a thing as the Church of God. That's all we want to get at that point, for the moment.
Look at verse 15 of the same chapter: "If I tarry long, that thou mayest know how men ought to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness". The church of the Living God, the pillar, and ground or stay of the truth.
And then in the second letter, chapter 2, and verse 10: "Therefore I endure all things for the elect's sake, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory". The elect... that they may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
Here we have then, in both letters, the drawing attention to the church. What we have been saying about this turning-point in Christian history, this change which was coming about, this departure from the original character and nature, was a church matter - not just "Christianity", in that very general term; and not only that certain Christians were losing out, or that a state of spiritual decline had set in with some believers; but it was a church matter. The departure was the departure of the church. And so these two letters are essentially church letters. That will become even more clear to you if you just read them through. It's about church affairs, church matters and about the church.
Now it is quite clear, from what we have just read, that the apostle was speaking of the church in more than one conception. He was not saying to Timothy, who was at Ephesus, in the church in Ephesus, and had a great responsibility given him by the apostle in relation to that church, "Now Ephesus is the church of the living God". He wasn't saying that any local church is the church. But to turn it round the other way, he was saying that any local church is a representation of the Church as a whole and that the church as a whole, should be represented locally, and that what is true of the church as a whole, in the mind of God, ought to be true wherever it is found in a local expression. And then the apostle brings it down to the individuals, the persons, and in effect clearly says, "Now look here, any one of you individuals can show what the church is meant to be, as a whole, or you can let it down. You are not just individual Christians - yours is a church responsibility!" Well, we must get to this matter, because it is of very great importance in the connection with which we are occupied: God's first supreme thought concerning the Church.
What is the Church?
What is the church?
That is the first question. Well, I think Paul very definitely
puts his finger upon that question or gives us that answer in
this term, this title that he gives it, "Therefore I endure all
things for the elect's sake...". And if you look at the
context, you will see that the apostle takes that back to what
he here calls "before times eternal". So briefly, the church is
something which is "elect before times eternal", something quite
clearly defined as an elect people, an elect
body, which has its roots in eternity past, and therefore is not
historical. It is eternal, and therefore it must be spiritual.
In the second letter we are looking at, in that connection, perhaps you'd just like to note the words, the second letter, chapter 1, verse 9: "Who saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before times eternal". "Purpose... grace... given us in Christ Jesus before times eternal". So the very first thing is that the church, according to God's mind, is altogether different from, and above, something that is historical - that is, that has its beginnings, and course, and development in time. This is something which has its beginnings in eternity past, and its course is ordered according to the purpose, purpose in eternity past. This is something not constituted by man, not brought into being by any human effort whatsoever: this is something which is constituted by the Holy Spirit, the eternal Spirit. And therefore, as we were seeing this morning, that which is constituted by the Holy Spirit is essentially a spiritual thing: "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
Now that, as we saw, relates to the new birth of the individual: the individual Christian is essentially constituted a spiritual being by the work of the Holy Spirit. And what is true of the individuals is true of the aggregate of the born-anew: the church is something born of the Holy Spirit and therefore is a spiritual thing. That does not mean that it is abstract. I noticed in his prayer our brother used the phrase and made the petition that it should not be "so spiritual that it was hidden and not manifest". Well, we know exactly what he meant and are in full agreement, and I am not putting him right when I say that it is impossible for anything to be spiritual and not manifest. Can the Holy Spirit be present, active, living, and no one know it? That's not a correction, it's simply an enlargement on what I am saying. What is spiritual is not just abstract, indefinite; something intangible, in the air, like a vapour or a cloud. What is spiritual is terrific, it's mighty; and so, when the church was really a spiritual body, it was - and the word can be well applied - it was terrific. It was!
Well, yesterday I was referring to what the church encountered, which was developing just at the time that Paul wrote these very letters. It caused his own imprisonment and his own execution, it was the cause of much that is in these letters to Timothy about being strong, because Timothy himself had been arrested with Paul and imprisoned, and later released. Paul wrote: "Know ye that our brother Timothy hath been set at liberty", but Timothy knew something of what was pending. He needed to be encouraged to be strong. But I am referring to what the church had to encounter in those unspeakable persecutions, horrors, diabolical, indescribable, going on for many, many years, with the whole Roman world - the greatest Empire that had been - determined to blot out the name of Jesus of Nazareth by liquidating the last Christian on this earth. And it stood at nothing, human or inhuman, to do it. And when it had done its worst, the Roman Empire went to ashes and the church rose out of them, triumphant, growing. Oh yes, I tell you a Holy Ghost thing is a tremendous thing; nothing can stand before it. Spirituality is not abstract, it is a potent force in this universe, I mean Divine spirituality, or if you like, that which is born of the Spirit and filled with the Spirit and governed by the Spirit.
And so the church is, according to the Divine conception, essentially a spiritual people, and we have got to somehow get to the place where we see it as God and as Heaven sees it. And that is a tremendous adjustment to make. Now here is our practical difficulty right here. You see, in apostolic times, it was quite easy to see the church as a single entity. Although it was represented in numerous local companies all over the Roman world, yet it was still a single entity: it was not then divided up into the '-ists' and the '-ans' and the '-ics' and the '-isms' and you can put the prefixes to every one in which we find it today. I mean that today when you speak to Christian people, they very soon ask you if you are an '-ist', or an '-ic', or an '-an', and they say "I am an ...'ist'" something. Ah, but there was nothing of that in the church in the days of the apostles. Whatever little differences there were amongst the Lord's people locally, the church as a whole was one entity, everywhere, held together by spiritual ties and by spiritual ministries, but no central government or no sectional government of affiliated bodies. It was just one; everywhere. If you had gone from one province to another, from one country to another, to the Christians in every place, they would never have asked you whether you were an '-ist', or an '-ian', or an '-ic' - whether you belonged to them, giving the name. No, you were a Christian - that was enough. You belonged to the Lord - that was enough. But, with the closing of the apostolic age, the thing was changing - changing into what we have today; all these things.
An altogether wrong and false mentality has grown up around this word "church". And most people, when that word is used, think of one of these things with a prefix, or some place - a church; that is the mentality that is common. Dear friends, recovery of the original demands an escape from that mentality. I'm talking about the mentality. I'm not saying you've got to come out of this and that and the other thing - don't misunderstand me - you've got to get out of a mentality; absolute emancipation from this earth mentality about the church, to the heavenly mentality as to what the church really is, and see it as God sees it and as Heaven sees it. And we must get free of the confusion which is brought about by the historical institution called "The Church".
What is the church, from Heaven's standpoint? Well, you see, Heaven does not look upon the matter through or by means of these titles, and these sections, and these departments, and these bodies, and these divisions; Heaven doesn't look at it like that at all. Heaven ignores that, and looks for members of Christ: born-again children of God, spiritual people in their constitution by new birth and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And wherever Heaven sees those - whether it be in an '-ism', or an '-ic', or an '-an', or anything else - that's the church, and you and I have got to adjust to that. That's the church. A congregation is not the church, but in a congregation the church may be represented by only two people. Of all those people gathered in what is called a church, 98 may be unsaved people, though adherents and communicants and all the rest, and two born-again people. Those two are the church, and the others are not! That is what the Church is. It is constituted by the Holy Spirit in bringing through to new birth spiritually-made people.
I said Heaven ignores the other. In a sense that is true, but maybe in another sense it is not true, because Heaven will judge the other as a false thing. But in a sense, Heaven ignores, and I say it because this is the thing that you and I have got to do, what Heaven does: meet people - no matter in what they are; you may not agree with it, you may think it is false; you have got to ignore that and meet people on the ground of Christ - have to do with them, as far as you can, on the ground that they belong to the Lord. Our only question has got to be: "Do you belong to the Lord? Are you born again?" That's all. And then, if they say, "I am a so-and-so-ist: what are you?" - "That doesn't matter; leave that out. We belong to the Lord: let's get on with this." Until you and I can do that, dear friends, we are caught in the meshes of a thing that has lost its power - because it's lost its true identity, its true nature, a spiritual thing. Yes, adjustment to Heaven's point of view. And many of you know I am really only giving you the Letter to the Ephesians! That is how it is seen in Heaven.
So, that's the answer to the question (of course very inadequately, very briefly, concisely) what is the church. The second question is:
For What Does the Church Exist?
For what does the church exist? Well, of course, we have got the thing stated for us by Paul here, haven't we? In the very words that we have read, the first letter, chapter 3, verses 15 and 16: "...how men ought to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and stay of the truth" - and there ought to be no period there, full period, only a pause to take a breath - "And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness; He was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, received up in glory". That's the deposit in the church; that is the testimony of Jesus. For that the church exists. It is to that that the apostle refers, you notice, more than once, when he said to Timothy, "Guard the trust, guard the deposit, oh Timothy, guard that which has been committed to thy trust... Oh Timothy guard the deposit". The Church is the repository of the testimony of Jesus.
What is that? Well, of course, here are certain statements about the testimony of Jesus, but I am not going to take these different clauses up, because I am not occupied with Christian doctrine, or the doctrine of the church today, I am occupied with the church itself. You can look at that, but I turn you now on to the book of the Revelation, for as we said this morning, the writings of John, written after Paul had finished his work and gone to glory, related to the full development of this very thing that Paul was seeing coming about. And the book of the Revelation is peculiarly appropriate applied to this state of spiritual departure and declension, and when you come, therefore, to the book of the Revelation you find that the all-governing thing of the whole book is this one phrase: "the testimony of Jesus".
The Testimony of Jesus
John said that he was "in the isle... called Patmos, for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus". But there is a Divine sovereignty over the Roman Empire, and the persecutors and the one who has sent him to Patmos - a Divine sovereignty which says: "Right, this is what I have brought you here for! They sent you, but I have brought you! This is not their sovereignty that has put you here; this is Mine. I have something to say to the church, and I have given you a quiet time to say it for Me." "I was in the isle that is called Patmos - because the Roman Empire sent me there? Because the Roman Emperor sent me there? Because the persecutors caught me and sent me there?" Not a bit of it! "I was in the isle... called Patmos... for... the testimony of Jesus". Now that may have been because, because he had stood for the testimony of Jesus: but it is very impressive, is it not, that this very phrase runs through this book, and comes, as we go on, to be seen to be the thing, the thing by which the Lord is first of all judging the churches, and representatively the church as a whole - by the testimony of Jesus; you'll see that in a minute. And then, having dealt with the Church on the basis of the testimony of Jesus, He moves on to deal with the nations, and eventually with the Devil and his kingdom. It is all related to the testimony of Jesus.
What is it? Well, the testimony of Jesus is presented to us symbolically right at the beginning of the book, and in this declaration (we will not touch the symbol for the moment) the declaration made by the Lord Himself: "I am He that liveth. I became dead, and behold, I am alive unto the ages of the ages, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. Write therefore..." What is the testimony of Jesus? The living, the present, present living Person of Jesus in the power of the Holy Ghost. That is where it begins: the living Person of Jesus, not the historic Jesus of Palestine of centuries ago - no, the right up-to-date, here-and-now living Jesus, manifested, demonstrated, proved to be alive in the power of the Holy Ghost. Is that carrying it too far? Well, then, why, when the churches, the seven churches in Asia are challenged, is there repeated seven times in every connection: "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches"? The Holy Spirit has got this matter in hand. The Holy Spirit is challenging concerning, not a creed or a doctrine as such, but the manifestation of the living Christ: there, and there, and there! The testimony of Jesus, whether it be in Ephesus, or Smyrna, or Pergamum, or in any other place, the testimony of Jesus is just this: that the place where that church is - the town, the city, the province - is to know, in the power of the Holy Ghost, that Jesus is alive! That's where it begins. By its very presence, by its very existence, by its very life there in that place, the one thing that people are to know is that they haven't got rid of Jesus. They have not been able to put Him out of this world - He is here, alive!
It's very simple; but you see, that's what the Church is here for, first of all and basically, the very purpose of the church is in the first place to make this world know that Jesus is alive, and not by declaring the doctrinal fact, but by living in the power of His resurrection! There are times when the church in some countries is not able to preach and proclaim the truth of Christ, but that is not the end of its power. Even though silent in words, it can still be known that Jesus is alive. Yes, the testimony of Jesus: "I am He that liveth... I am He that liveth... the church of the living God, the pillar and stay of the truth..."; but, more - the living victory of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, "For I became dead, but behold, I am alive... never to become dead again. I have the keys of death... the mastery, the authority, the power over death. I have absolutely triumphed over death and all that occasioned death - sin." Victory! Victory over death in the power of the Holy Spirit. That's the testimony of Jesus: His living victory present where Christians are.
Do you think, dear friends, I hope you're not thinking that this is all very wonderful and very beautiful, but is this practical? Now look here! It's so practical, it's so practical that you are a living member of Christ, and if you are a company of believers, born-again believers, constituted by the Holy Spirit on this true spiritual basis, you will, without any doubt, be taken into situations, conditions, where only the resurrection power of Jesus Christ will get you through! Your very survival will necessitate your knowing the power of His resurrection for individual believers, from time to time, and for local companies of the Lord's people, just as truly as for the church universal (as in those days to which I have referred). The survival is a testimony to the fact that death has no place here. Death cannot swallow this up - death itself has been swallowed up in victory! What a glorious, glorious assurance that is! What a ground of confidence! What an encouragement! Oh yes, we do come to times when it looks as though the end has come, we are not going to survive and get through. Don't you believe it. Don't you believe it, the life of Jesus was not taken from Him by men, He laid it down. "This authority", He said, "I received from My Father." The life of Paul was not taken from him by the executioner's axe, just outside of Rome: "I am already being offered up, and the time of my departure is at hand." He is a man who knows it is the Lord's time for him to go to glory and he is just offering himself up, he's just being offered up. Paul never said, "I am going to be executed, they're going to kill me"; he said, "I am being offered up".
Until the Lord's time comes, if you and I are living on the basis of this One, Who says: "I became dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore" in the power of His resurrection we are living on that basis, our end will be God-governed, not man-governed. It will be when the Lord says, "It is enough", not with circumstances. God is in charge of this where His church is concerned. And so, and so whatever the world does, whatever men do, and whatever the devil does with the church, local or universal, if it is really on this basis, it just cannot be brought to nought. Oh, Gamaliel is always our standby here, isn't he? "You'd better leave it alone, you'd better leave it alone. If it's of God, you had better not be found to be fighting against God. Be careful! Careful, if it is not of God, well, it will peter out sooner or later; but if it is of God, you cannot, you cannot..." and that's from a non-Christian! Well, you see the point. This is the Church which is to embody the testimony of Jesus in terms of a life which has conquered death, the embodiment of a living victory in the power of the Holy Spirit.
And then the expression of the living nature and character of Jesus in the Holy Spirit. That, of course, is far too large a matter for the present; it can only be stated. But it must be stated, because, you see both in these letters to Timothy and in the Revelation, a lot is made of this matter of the expression of the Lord Jesus in His character. The decline was from a level of character. The departure was from an expression of what Christ is in His nature. And you know, we can never, never overcome the world, nor the devil and all his powers, if the devil has got a foothold right in the middle of something that is of himself in moral delinquency and failure. In the power of the same Holy Spirit, you and I have got to exemplify Christ - the church has got to exemplify Christ, has got to express what Christ is; not only facts about Christ, but be the embodiment of Christ's nature.
That is why John, coming back at the end of the apostolic age, has so much to say about this matter of love: "You don't know the Lord if you don't love your brother. It is no use your saying you love the Lord, if you don't love your brother that's all nonsense" said John in other words: all nonsense; it's hypocrisy. "How can a man love God, Whom he has not seen, if he does not love his brother whom he has seen?" that's John's argument. It is a matter of "walking in the light as He is in the light", you see so much in John's writings touch upon this thing. And then look at those letters to the seven churches. It's a state isn't it? It's condition, it's lost spiritual life in the sense of expressing what Christ is like in nature. That's the testimony of Jesus. The testimony of Jesus, the testimony is lost when you and I are unChrist-like; it's no use, no use using the phrases and making the claims: the thing has got to be substantiated by what we are like, and what we are like has got to be what Christ is like. The church is for that purpose; not doctrines to be upheld - although the doctrines have got to be upheld; not ordinances to be maintained and repeated, not just congregations of Christians having meetings and conferences, but the embodiment of the Holy Spirit.
Now the church. Come back to that point of change in which we find ourselves is so different, with all its break-up and division, its sectionalism and what not. How are we going to get over this? Once again it's where the seat of government is, isn't it? Just where the seat of government is. Now, you see, as things are today, there is no one government of the whole church on this earth, is there? While Rome may claim that the only church in existence is the church of Rome and therefore the headquarters, "The only church in existence is in Rome". Well, alright, they have that deception. We don't believe it, but it's not true in any section that the headquarters of the church is any place. The headquarters of the church is in Heaven. The seat of government of the Church is in Heaven; it's nowhere else. And the Lord won't let it be anywhere else. When Jerusalem was beginning to assume the character of a governmental headquarters for the expanding church, the Lord scattered them to the ends of the earth. No headquarters on earth! It's in Heaven.
Now at that point I would like to take you into the book of the Revelation again, I'll only mention it, you can follow it out, you look at some passages in the book of Revelation; shall we look at them at any rate, even if we don't stay for much comment on them. Chapter 1, chapter 1 of Revelation, verse 4: "John, to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him Which is and Which was and Which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before His throne." Chapter 3, verse 1: "These things saith He That hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works." Chapter 4 verse 5, "Out of the throne proceed lightnings and voices and thunders. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God". Chapter 5 and verse 6: "I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, having seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God".
You know this book is just full of symbols. Here you have these four references to the seven Spirits. Of course it doesn't mean that there were seven separate Spirits. Seven is the number of spiritual entirety, completeness, fullness. It's there all through the Bible. When you come to the number seven, you have completed something: you've completed something. See the seventh day - the completion of creation. And I won't go any further. Seven is spiritual completeness: so that the symbolism here is the fullness, the completeness, the absoluteness of the Holy Spirit. The whole matter begins there, "These things saith He That hath the seven Spirits..." This that is going to be said is in the authority and the power of the Holy Spirit. HE, He is in charge of this matter, He it is that is indicting these things that are to be said, He it is that is before the throne. The Holy Spirit, in touch with the seat of government, is dealing with things down here. Have you got that? There, at the throne, the seat of the government of everything; here are all these things down here.
And note the first connection of the seven Spirits is the "seven stars" which are "the seven churches". The throne of government hinged on here between the Holy Spirit and the fullness of what? Power, intelligence - the "seven eyes", knowing all about it, knowing about it, seeing perfectly the truth through all the deception, through all the masks, through all the pretence and profession, through the "name to live, but dead" - seeing through; perfect perception, perfect knowledge, perfect comprehension. The Holy Spirit in the fullness of His knowledge, the fullness of His power - "seven lamps of fire burning". This is not cold light, this is not just theoretical knowledge; this is not something that is just abstract. It is a burning lamp, it's a burning lamp, it is something that is alive with fire, with power: He's coming to deal with this situation in the power, the burning power of His judgment and of His knowledge. Things are alive with the Holy Spirit.
The seven Spirits, see? The seven-fold Holy Spirit. I said I can't stay to break that up, it means so much, but it inclusively, it is the comprehensiveness of the Holy Spirit over everything, administering from the throne. Everything, the point is this: that everything, everything that the Holy Spirit requires has got to pass with Him as being purely spiritual. It has got to be according to the judgment of the HOLY Spirit, the Spirit of God. It's like that, if you can go to church like that, and can stand up to that. You say, "Impossible!" Oh well, it's the throne of the Lamb, it's the throne of the Lamb, and that's the testimony isn't it, in relation to all our sin, and to all our failure is the Lamb on the throne. But that's another subject. But hear what I am trying to say, so imperfectly and with such difficulty, is this: that the Lord's idea for the church, in any dispensation, in any age, at any time, in any place, is that it is essentially a spiritual thing, essentially a heavenly thing; it is essentially governed by the Holy Spirit. The headquarters are in the throne, and the Holy Spirit administers the church from Heaven. And if He doesn't, then man will have to administer it himself, and he will make an awful mess of it, as he has done. Oh, for a people, wherever they are - local companies, and for the Lord's people at large - really to be under this government of the Holy Spirit!
Now I must close, and I will just close by saying this. Dear friends, every one of you, young Christians perhaps especially, do realise this: that in coming to the Lord, you have come into a tremendous vocation, to be a part of that which is to keep alive the testimony of Jesus in this world. Now I must close.