Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
A PRACTICAL EXPOSITION OF JOHN 13-17.
By Rev. D. J. Burrill, D.D., LL.D.
THE ASSEMBLING OF THE CHURCH.
(Mark xiv. 17.)
In the twilight of the evening the little company climbed the outer stairway into the upper room. Let us enter and look about us.
We have read of Councils of War and Councils of Peace, of political conclaves and conferences of the Great Powers; but the world has never seen an assembly like this. How simply the record runs: "In the evening he cometh with the twelve." There is no blare of trumpets nor waving of banners. The Man of Nazareth enters with His modest retinue. Why are they here? Is it merely to keep the Passover? Is it only for the last farewell? Oh, no; it means vastly more. Our Lord has a great purpose in mind: no less than to marshal and mobilise His Church for the campaign of the ages.
It is safe to say that the disciples had no thought of the tremendous issues which were destined to go forth from that meeting. We are accustomed to regard it as a mere incident in the Gospel story: but behind the closed doors of that guest-chamber a work was begun which was destined ultimately to restore the ruined race to God.
The Church is the greatest organisation on earth. All other guilds, fraternities, leagues, federations, governments and political alliances combined, are not to be compared with it This is the great living organism through which God is working, by the power of His Spirit, for the establishment of His kingdom of truth and righteousness in this world of ours.
It is significant that the Christian Church should have had its beginning here in the goodman’s house. The domestic ideal is observed. The primal Church was in the house of Adam and Eve, having its franchise in the prophecy of "the seed of the woman" who was to "bruise the serpent’s head." Then came the Church in the house of Noah, who "builded an altar unto the Lord and offered burnt-offerings upon it" — an altar spanned by a rainbow arch of Messianic hope. Then the Church in the house of Abraham, who saw Christ afar off "and was glad." Then the Church in the house of Moses, and the Church in the house of David, and thus along the ages. It was meet, therefore, that the reorganised Church should meet as a home circle with the shadow of the Cross over it For the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love is a family tie. God is our Father; and Christ, "the firstborn among many brethren," is elder Brother of us all. "For this cause," says Paul, "I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named."
It may not be unprofitable in this connection to correct some of the prevalent mistakes with reference to the Church.
It is a mistake to suppose that the Church thus instituted by Christ was a new Church.
The Church of ancient Israel was a Christian Church. It had no reason for existence except in its loyalty to the expected Christ. Adam was a Christian; Abraham was a Christian; Moses was a Christian; David was a Christian; all true Jews were Christians, because they cherished the Hope of Israel and were saved by faith in Christ, precisely as believers are saved in these days.
The Jews were "chosen" to transmit the Messianic hope to succeeding ages. In the course of time, however, the great multitude, while keeping up the outward forms of devotion, so far lost the true conception of their Messiah that when He came they were ready to put Him to an ignominious death. But there was always "a remnant" that continued to cherish the Hope. This remnant was represented by the little company of believers in the goodman’s house. The purpose of Christ was now to reorganise and reanimate this remnant as the true Israel of God. He originated nothing on this occasion. The Christ who presided over this assembly was the Messiah of the Jews. No new creed was formulated, no new code of ethics; no new plan of salvation; nothing new. It was a revival of Judaism pure and simple; a renaissance of the Church as originally constituted, the Church of Messiah, the only-begotten Son of God.
It is also a mistake to regard this Christian Church as an exclusive Church.
The Jews had been "separated" as a peculiar people. Their Church was ethnic, or national, in the necessity of the case. They were entrusted with the Oracles, in which were crystallised the prophecies of Christ, and were enjoined to pass them on along the centuries until He should appear. But they construed this to mean that they had a monopoly of salvation. They became a dose corporation, accordingly, dosing the doors against all comers, and saying, "The temple of the Lord are we."
In the goodman’s house the doors are thrown open. The arms of Christ are stretched out in invitation to all sinners desiring to know the way of eternal life. We shall presently see a polyglot assemblage at a Pentecostal feast, where the spokesman of the Church exhorts Parthians, Medes and Elamites and dwellers in Mesopotamia, Phrygians and Pamphylians, Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of sins; "for to you is the promise, and to your children and to all that are afar off; even as many as the Lord our God shall call unto him."
It is a further mistake to regard this Church as a sacerdotal Church.
In the worship of Israel "the service" was the great thing. At the very hour when the disciples were assembled in the upper room the rabbis were worshipping in the temple near by with great pomp and circumstance. They were dad in pontifical robes with broad fringes and phylacteries. They were burning incense and waving oblations and performing all manner of liturgical rites. But there was nothing of that sort in the goodman’s house. The purpose of the elaborate system of ordinances in the Jewish Church was to keep alive the Messianic hope. All the ablutions, all the sacrifices, centred in Christ It is obvious that when He came there was no more occasion for them; because He fulfilled them all. The scaffolding was taken down when the building was completed.
We are thus delivered from the bondage of the ceremonial law. All that remains of that complex system is the two sacraments: Baptism, which stands for all the ancient ablutions, and the Lord’s Supper, which is a memorial summary of all sacrifices. In these the ceremonial law is reduced to its simplest terms. Thus it is written, "He blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us; and he hath taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross" (Col. ii. 14).,
It is a mistake, furthermore, to suppose that the Christian Church is a uniform Church.
The Jewish Church was an integer, an indivisible unit. It had but one temple, whither all the tribes went up. To this day the tribes scattered throughout the world worship with their faces toward Zion. The Jewish Church was like a solitaire; but the Christian Church is like a cluster of diamonds for the King’s crown. It has no temple. It worships in ten thousand temples, and in ten thousand ways, while holding to "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all."
This diversity in unity is after the analogy of nature. We are born to segregate. Men gather in groups, according to their divers ways of thinking. If you follow the apostles out of the upper room, you will find each of them gathering about him a group of likeminded men. We shall have the Petrine Church, placing its emphasis on zeal: the Johannean Church, placing its emphasis on love: the Jacobean Church, placing its emphasis on conduct. But however these "denominations" may multiply, they will all preserve their legitimacy by emphasising Christ and the essential facts which centre in Him. "In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity." Thus the force of cohesion is stronger than all divisive forces. "We are not divided; all one body we; one in hope and doctrine, one in charity." Christ ever walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks with their many branches, having on His right hand the signet ring with its seven stars. This is "Church union" as it ought to be.
It is another mistake to regard the Christian Church as a perfect Church — that is, as a body of good people.
In that assembly in the upper room there were none but sinners. We speak of "Saint John" and "Saint Peter" and "Saint James"; but they themselves would have disavowed it. The members of the Christian Church do not profess to be good, but only to be trying to be good. There is no difference; all alike are sinners saved by grace. All alike are trusting in the cleansing power of the blood. All alike are moved by a resolute purpose to overcome sin and follow in the footsteps of Christ who is their exemplar in righteousness.
Peter is always with us, stumbling and denying his Lord, but repenting and insisting, "Lord, thou knowest that I love thee." Thomas is always with us, doubting and hesitating, but convinced at length by the wounds of the Master and crying, "My Lord and my God!" And now and then, alas ! a Judas is found among us, who "steals the livery of the Court of Heaven to serve the devil in." In fact, however, his intrusion in this company is a tribute to the general character of the Church and the popular estimate concerning it; for rogues do not counterfeit bad money. We never hear of a spurious infidel. It is not worth while to counterfeit infidelity; because there is nothing to be gained by it. But to pass for a Christian is a matter of some consequence; and little wonder that occasionally a bad man takes advantage of it. The Lord Himself said, "The wheat and the tares must grow together until the judgment." There will be a great sifting in that day; and "the Lord knoweth them that are his."
It is a mistake also to think of the Christian Church as a provisional Church — that is, an organisation which may sometime be supplanted by a better one.
There never has been but one Church and there never will be another. The Church as originally instituted, and as revived and re-energised by Christ in the goodman’s house, was adjusted to all the vicissitudes of time. The world moves and new conditions require new modes and methods; but, as to the fundamentals of the Church, they are like Christ Himself, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever." There are some things that never change. Air and water and sunlight cannot be improved on. Sin is just what it has always been; nor is there any new plan of salvation. God is abreast of every age. The non-essentials come and go, but the essentials have come to stay. Thrones and dynasties rise and flourish and totter to their fall; but the Church abides.
There is one point at which no thoughtful man can make an y mistake; namely, that the Christian Church is a conquering Church.
The men who are presently to issue from the goodman’s house will be going to the conquest of the world. "I send you forth," said the Master, **as sheep among wolves." The axe is sharpened; the fagots are kindled; but the blood of the martyrs is destined to be the seed of the Church. In all these nineteen centuries there never has been a time when the hands on God’s dial have moved backward. There have been seasons of discouragement when men, noting an apparent decadence of faith, have cried, "The fountains of the great deep are broken up!" But the Captain of our salvation leads no forlorn hope. The truth of His Messiahship and power to save is an impregnable rock; as He said, "On this rock do I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."