J. M. Frost - 1916
J. M. Frost. The Baptist World, Louisville, Ky., Dec. 16, 1915.
”Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” - Matt. 16:17, 18.
”Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers - praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” - Acts 2:41, 42, 47.
THE dotted line separating these scriptures connect two of the most significant events in New Testament history - the transfiguration scene in the life of our Lord with Pentecost and the days immediately following. It connects Peter’s great confession with his great sermon in that day of signal wonders. In point of time it represents perhaps some eight or ten months - a short period, indeed, but full of startling events, marvelous and momentous in the history of human redemption.
In that intervening period Christ had finished his walk among men, had instituted his perpetual memorial in the upper room at Jerusalem, had witnessed the betrayal of Judas, the fall and restoration of Peter, had been tried and condemned to be crucified, had died on the cross with many signals of the extraordinary, had been buried and after three days was raised from the dead by the power and glory of the Father, had spent forty days coming and going among the disciples with many infallible proofs and giving commandments through the Holy Spirit, had ascended into heaven and was at the right hand of God, had sent forth the Holy Spirit according to promise for the enduement of the disciples with power from on high, had witnessed the first preaching of the cross with the first manifestation of his resurrection power, and had seen his church come to its flower and fruitage in the first conquest of the gospel of his grace. There is nothing in all history comparable to this series of events in scope and power, in lofty dignity and triumphant sweep, in the glory of achievements and the richness and fullness of blessing, for saving the world and bringing in God’s kingdom among men.
The words and events of Pentecost are not meant here to interpret what our Lord said to Peter concerning his church which he was then building-certainly not in the full. They are, however, wonderfully illustrative and taken together they are full of significance in magnifying the local church and in setting out the sources of its power and the fullness of its mission. There is no thought here of raising the question of an invisible or universal church. Our people are not at one concerning that question and can afford to hold it in abeyance for the present purpose, while emphasis is given to the local church concerning which there is practical agreement.
At any rate, so far as this article is concerned, it has to do only with the local church as worthy of special consideration and in these times needing special emphasis. Its New Testament counterpart is found in the church at Jerusalem, in the church at Antioch, in the church of God at Corinth, and in other churches as they were multiplied in other cities, as the churches of Galatia and the churches of Asia, each in its individual capacity, life, character and responsibility. It is unfortunate that modern conditions and customs make it necessary to use the word local. The very word is an infringement upon the character, dignity and mission of the church - will unconsciously depreciate it in the public mind even when that is not intended by its use. The church of Christ was first one - as at Jerusalem - then more than one, then many, then increasing more and more as they multiplied in number and were augmented in power and efficiency.
In all this each church, even when described in the most wonderful way, preserved its own individuality in place and name, in character and mission. They were similar in fundamentals with many things in common, but each one separate and distinct in itself. The church at Ephesus, for example, was ”the church of God which he purchased with his own blood,” whose leaders were chosen of the Holy Spirit - ”the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Following this basal idea, and starting at Jerusalem and Pentecost, the New Testament deals with the individual church, and everywhere gives emphasis to its character, history and work. Its reproofs and commendations alike are for individual churches - for individual churches even when they are grouped as with the seven churches of Asia. It was the one church at Corinth, typical of others, which was the temple of God, the place of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit when he came in fulfillment of the promise, that he should dwell in them and be with them. This, as one of its phases, is the glory of the local church, the very essence of its life and power.
There is much today tending to depreciate the local church that is not in keeping with this high standard and ideal of the New Testament. A loose and indefinite use of both words, kingdom and church, is an example of this. Some organization voted recently that ”the church should maintain a lobby at Washington” as an offset to intermeddling by Roman Catholics in state affairs. A visiting preacher at Vanderbilt University was quite free in the charge that ”the modern church has lost its religion.” Much maudlin talk of this kind is now going on from what is counted authoritative sources, and the outside world takes it up, not knowing what it meansand surely there can be no blame for not understanding what is meant-and charges the church with this or that, or clamors that the church should do such and such things. This use of the word church is all very hollow, without any meaning, and unlike anything in New Testament life and literature. Meanwhile, however, the mischief is being wrought, and the local church is set in the background, and its character and mission misunderstood and undervalued.
It is almost, if not quite, as bad from a vague use of the word kingdom that has become common in nearly all circles. This word - kingdom - is one of the great words of the language, and kingdom of God is possibly our greatest conception. And yet it is greatly marred by the use here referred to, while at the same time the local church itself is also set in depreciation by what seems some sort of adverse comparison. The word is high-sounding and catches the ear, but means nothing to the ordinary hearer. One suffers in his thinking in the misuse or loose use of really great words. It tends to impoverishment of thought, and both kingdom and local church have been let down in our thinking in this way - not perhaps always with the speaker but certainly with those who hear but do not understand what is meant. Kingdom, even the kingdom of God, and the local church have no points of rivalry, but much significance of meaning in their relation to each other. They are never confused in the New Testament, but all the confusion grows out of our modern conditions and use of these words. Each has its separate meaning, its high function and commanding relation one to the other - both being of God, and set for his honor and for efficiency in the economy of his grace.
Without comparison or even reference to the kingdom, the purpose here is to magnify the local church as the most potential single factor for an efficient Christianity. Having been built by our Lord himself, and having its equipment and endowment for self-propagating power, it stands among the fundamental facts in the Christian system. This thought is prominent and large throughout all the pages of New Testament history, and shows the local church almost startling in its might and power. It brings forth after its kind as the vine in the vineyard or the gigantic oak in the forest. Those who make the best local church or churches, therefore, will make the best expression of the actual working of the kingdom of God, and do most for its efficient extension among men. Every great Christian enterprise in blessing the world at large and bringing in the kingdom of God with power, most likely had its root back in a local church or churches, and is nourished there in its life and enrichment.
The cause of Christ, indeed, in all its many, many phases, prospers as these local churches prosper and maintain their New Testament character and mission. Every diversion will tend certainly to marring and weakness, and perhaps to its undoing. It has in custody the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, is entrusted with the keeping of the great ordinances in their integrity and purity, is charged with preaching the gospel of the kingdom among the nations of the earth, and is composed of men and women professing salvation through personal faith in the Lord Jesus. These and other things to match them, and all of lofty character, make these local churches unique in themselves, without parallel and incomparable among human organizations, while their members in life and service sit together in heavenly places. Surely they must be the mightiest forces and centers of power working among men for the honor and glory of him from whom they came. To hold membership within these churches is of high worth, of commanding responsibility, and our opportunity for serving God after his plan and purpose.
Someone has said that Christ talked much about the kingdom, but gave no concern about the church - meaning the local church. Surely this last cannot be true, for the local church is the only one he has on earth, and is of his own creation as an agency and method for working out his purpose on the mighty scale which he himself devised. His whole life work - living, teaching, dying, being raised from the dead and the wondrous things which followed - came to glorious consummation in the local church at Jerusalem-in a restricted way, to be sure, and ye in a large, commanding and significant sense. And that church, with the churches which came after in the New Testament period, has been through all the succeeding centuries to this day the one exalted and commanding type of the local church and churches.
Surely nothing could give the local church more pronounced emphasis, or could show its distinction and worth in a more forcible way, or commend it more to the heart of those who love Christ, who know by blessed experience his saving grace, and who desire the triumph of his cause and in bringing of his kingdom.
A writer in England gives great emphasis to four fundamentals in the gospel system as follows: The deity of Jesus, the supremacy of the Scriptures, the empire of conscience, the sanctity of the single church. Each of these items was brought to the front and set aglow with heavenly light on the day of Pentecost and the days that followed. They stand or fall, live or die together. They are inseparable except for disaster, and mark the failure or triumph of the Redeemer’s kingdom - the sanctity of the single church no less than the others.
Essential in themselves, these great facts and factors are essential to each other as interlocking forces, if they are to abide and triumph and bless the world - holding the everlasting truth of God in impregnable solidarity. No man can strike either one - the deity of Jesus, or the supremacy of the Scriptures, or the empire of conscience, or the sanctity of the single church - without striking the other; cannot mar one without marring the other. To stand for one is to stand for all four - the deity of Jesus, the supremacy of the Scriptures, the empire of conscience, and the sanctity of the single church - each in its own sphere and proper relation. Inscribed on our banner as the banner of the cross, appealing to our love, loyalty and faithfulness, they point the way to victory and to further leading of captivity captive.