The True Centre
There is a longing in the hearts of many Christians for union––a desire to find some standard as a basis on which everyone is agreed, and a focus around which all may gather. In part this is a reaction against the party spirit that has so splintered and divided God’s people, but unless this response is channelled in the right direction, it can only result in more dishonour to the name of the Lord.
Looking around on the many denominations that surround us, each formed on some different basis, and across which the members of the one body of Christ are scattered, it may well be asked ‘Is there really a common centre for them all, around which all can unite?’ Is it in fact written in vain that “[There is] one body and one Spirit, as ye have been also called in one hope of your calling” (Eph. 4: 4)? Did the apostle Paul set before believers a hopeless task when he wrote the words “using diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace” (v3)? When the Lord prayed for those who believed on Him that “they may be all one, as thou, Father, [art] in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17: 21) did He desire something which could never be accomplished? Is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, by which we are all baptised into one body (see 1 Cor. 12: 13, whether Jews or Gentiles, merely a figure of speech and not a grand reality?
Perhaps Christians are wrong in desiring union––is it only a daydream, something which must ever escape their grasp? Or are they right in their desire, but wrong in the way many of them seek to bring it about? These, and other similar questions, are forced upon us when we witness the strenuous efforts being made to amalgamate the denominations and unite those who have been long apart. Often union seems to be at the expense of truth, and peace at the cost of righteousness! Let us turn away from the plans and thoughts of men, however well–meaning, and see what the Scriptures say. Can we find there an answer to the all–important question: Is there a true centre around which Christians may unite?
When God called Israel out of Egypt, He appointed a focus to unite them, and an object which they were all to follow––the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night. Wherever that went, they went too––it was “to lead them [in] the way” (Exod. 13: 21). If any had wandered on the way the pillar would have shown them the way back to the camp. Thus the multitude that came up out of Egypt was kept in one united body because they had their eyes fixed on the symbol of God “going with us” (33: 16). This tremendous favour was to distinguish Israel “from every people that is on the face of the earth” (33: 16).
The people were not to forget, however, the immense responsibility connected with having God in their midst: “For Jehovah thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee; and thy camp shall be holy, that he see nothing unseemly with thee, and turn away from thee” (Deut. 23: 14). When Aaron and the people defiled the camp with idolatry, the response of Moses was to take the tent of meeting then existing (not the tabernacle as such, for that was not yet made) and pitch it “outside the camp, far from the camp” (Ex. 33: 7). Thus “every one who sought Jehovah went out to the tent of meeting which was outside the camp” (33: 7). A holy God could not associate Himself with “so great a sin” (32: 21) and if He were to come into the camp, it would only be for judgment (see 33: 5). Shortly afterwards, Moses intercedes for the people, saying: “If indeed I have found grace in thine eyes, Lord, let the Lord, I pray thee, go in our midst; for it is a stiff–necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for an inheritance!” (34: 9).
In answer, God made a covenant with Israel (see vs 10–28), and the construction of the tabernacle began (see 36: 1) following the instructions Moses had already received. From now on God would not only go in the midst but “dwell in the midst of the children of Israel” (29: 45, my emphasis). The centre–piece of this sanctuary in which God was to dwell (see 25: 8) was the Ark of the Covenant. On the completion of the tabernacle, “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of Jehovah filled the tabernacle ... And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel journeyed in all their journeys. And if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not journey until the day that it was taken up” (Exod. 40: 34, 36, 37; see also Num. 9: 15–23). Thus the cloud became identified with the tabernacle, the movements of the one being inextricably linked with the other. The people were to move with the ark (see Num. 10: 33–36), and woe betide any who moved without it (see Num. 14: 44).
When the people encamped, then they encamped around the tabernacle––it formed their centre. On the east side were the tents of Moses, Aaron and the priests, on the other three sides were the tents of the Levite families of Kohath, Gershon and Merari. Outside all these on the four sides stretched out the camps of the twelve tribes, three on each side (see Num. 1–3). What a contrast there must have been between the flimsy structure before them and the impressive temples of Egypt, so long familiar, and built as if to defy time. But appearances deceive. The temples of Egypt, however beautiful and enduring they might have appeared, had an element of decay which nothing could arrest, and a fundamental want which none could supply. The tabernacle in their midst, by contrast, though so fragile in its structure, and so lacking in outward beauty, was the dwelling place of God. Other nations might boast of their sacred cities and settled territories. As they wandered in the wilderness Israel had no home to speak of, but they had the incalculable privilege of having the ark of Jehovah with them, and the God of Jacob as their guide. They had what all the priests of Egypt and the wise men of Assyria could never discover––divine wisdom from heaven (see Num. 7: 89). At the door of the tabernacle the people assembled (see Lev. 8: 3) and there the Lord promised to meet them (see Exod. 29: 43).
In the process of time, the wilderness condition ceased and Israel settled in the land, but their devotion to the divine centre remained. As yet, however, it had no permanent abiding place. When they first entered Canaan, the camp was fixed at Gilgal (see Josh. 4: 19; 10: 43). Afterwards we find the tabernacle at Shiloh (see Josh. 18: 1) and in the days of Saul it was at Nob (see 1 Sam. 21: 1). When Solomon ascended the throne it was at Gibeon (see 2 Chron. 1: 3). How the children of Israel regarded the tabernacle as their one centre and the common privilege of all is proved by their negative reaction to the altar erected by the three tribes on the other side of the Jordan: “rebel not against Jehovah, and rebel not against us, in building for yourselves an altar besides the altar of Jehovah our God” (Josh. 22: 19).
In the days of Solomon an important change took place. The kingdom being established, God’s centre was given a permanent dwelling place on Mount Moriah (see 2 Chron. 3: 1). This fulfilled what was said in Deut 12: “But when ye have gone over the Jordan, and dwell in the land which Jehovah your God causeth you to inherit, and when he hath given you rest from all your enemies round about, and ye dwell in safety, then there shall be a place which Jehovah your God will choose to cause his name to dwell there” (vs 10–11). When Solomon had finished the temple, God appeared to him saying “I have chosen for myself this place for a house of sacrifice ... that my name may be there for ever; and mine eyes and my heart shall be there perpetually” (2 Chron. 7: 12, 16). What other place on earth can claim a promise like this? Nebuchadnezzar might lay the house level with the dust, and Belshazzar might drink out of its holy vessels in a drunken orgy, but God’s promise about this spot on earth remained unbroken. Daniel knew this when he opened his windows and prayed three times a day towards Jerusalem (see Dan. 6: 10) even though the city was in ruins. The Samaritans might set up a rival temple on Mount Gerizim, but they could not change God’s settled purpose about Zion: “Jerusalem, which art built as a city that is compact together, Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of Jah, a testimony to Israel, to give thanks unto the name of Jehovah” (Ps. 122: 3–4).
Centuries passed away and Jerusalem remained under the Gentile yoke, a shadow of its former glory. Then, in the fulness of time, God sent forth His Son born of a virgin and called Emmanuel (“which is, being interpreted, ‘God with us.”––Matt. 1: 23). Sadly, Israel did not know the season of their visitation (see Luke 19: 44) and, despite the Lord stretching out His hands to them all the day long, they refused and rejected Him. Accordingly, in words which mingle both condemnation and lamentation, sentence was pronounced on Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, [the city] that kills the prophets and stones those that are sent unto her, how often would I have gathered thy children as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate; for I say unto you, Ye shall in no wise see me henceforth until ye say, Blessed [be] he that comes in the name of [the] Lord” (Matt. 23: 37–39). In a practical sense, Jerusalem was really only God’s centre on earth by His living presence there, and in thrusting Christ out (He suffered “without the gate”––Heb. 13: 12), the people were forfeiting their position of divine favour. Hence “My house” (Matt. 21: 13) could no longer be owned as such by God, but was to be dismissed as “your house” (23: 38). If they would not allow the Lord to gather them, if they would not have Him as their centre, then Jerusalem would lose her position of being God’s appointed centre. A day yet to come will find her place restored to her (see Is. 2: 1–3; Zech. 14: 16–19), but for now she is set aside. Only when He “shall have taken away their sins” (Rom. 11: 27) will Jerusalem be called “Jehovah is there” (Ezek. 48: 35).
The Samaritan woman of John 4 raised the subject of God’s centre: “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where one must worship” (v20). The Lord’s reply (while vindicating Judaism) was a clear intimation that the way of worship was to be changed: “Woman, believe me, [the] hour is coming when ye shall neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem worship the Father” (v21). The old economy was centred in Israel’s capital, the new was centred in Christ Himself; Judaism revolved around the place, Christianity around the Person. It is “through him we have ... access by one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2: 18; see also John 14: 6).
When the Lord appeared on earth, wise men came from the East to Jerusalem to find Him, but He was not there (see Matt. 2: 2). There was something they wanted which Jerusalem did not have. The centre had moved. When Christ commenced His ministry, His disciples found a centre where they had never sought it and at His words “follow me” (Luke 5: 27, 28 etc.) left all and followed Him. He invited all who were burdened to “Come to me” (Matt. 11: 28), and announced “I am the bread of life: he that comes to me shall never hunger” (John 6: 35). To the woman at the well He spoke of a water He could give which would satisfy for ever (see John 4: 10–14), and “In the last, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried saying, If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He that believes on me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7: 37, 38). Was not all this making Himself a centre for all to rally round? Surely it was. Nor was this all. He also said “I am the light of the world; he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8: 12) and “I am the good shepherd ... My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10: 14, 27). All blessing was available in Christ, and no blessing was available outside Christ. He was and is the true divine centre.
Now if Christ was really God’s centre when on earth, what happened to that centre when He died? In the same way that Mount Moriah did not cease to be the centre that God had chosen even when Solomon’s temple was destroyed, so death could not change God’s counsel about His Son. Indeed, it only opened the way for the full development of His purpose, for the Lord had prophesied that “I, if I be lifted up out of the earth, will draw all to me” (John 12: 32). How short–sighted was the enemy! That death he had taken such pains to inflict only opened out the way for the unfolding of Christ as the one universal centre: “that he should also gather together into one the children of God who were scattered abroad” (John 11: 52). From America to China, and down all the centuries since, the eyes and hearts of millions have been turned to one common object: the crucified and risen Christ.
As the cog of the wheel unites all the spokes together, so Christ is the basis of union among the saints of God: “if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1: 7). He is “the head, the Christ: from whom the whole body, fitted together, and connected by every joint of supply, according to [the] working in [its] measure of each one part, works for itself the increase of the body to its self–building up in love” (Eph. 4: 15, 16).
Unbelief will protest that Christ is not here and that to speak of Him in this way is all well and good for heaven, but of no practical use down here. But if not Christ, what shall our centre be? Rome or Canterbury? A system of doctrines or a set of morals? A narrow party–line or a vague ‘anything goes’? No! That He is absent from this scene is not denied, but His name is here, and remains the grand basis of unity. Thus Paul writing to the Corinthian saints associated them with saints everywhere: “with all that in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1: 2). A few verses later, he uses that same name as a lever on their consciences: “I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all say the same thing, and that there be not among you divisions; but that ye be perfectly united in the same mind and in the same opinion” (v10). To speak of any other name is treason to the Lord. He is the divine centre and it is to His name alone that we are to gather (see Matt. 18: 20).
We have not exhausted the subject. If a centre to His people now (though unseen by the world) the Lord will also be the centre in the fulness of times for God has purposed “to head up all things in the Christ, the things in the heavens and the things upon the earth” (Eph. 1: 10). Whether on earth or in heaven, Christ shall be the centre and the sun: “And many peoples shall go and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, to the house of the God of Jacob ... For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and Jehovah’s word from Jerusalem ... And I saw, and I heard [the] voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders ... saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that has been slain” (Is. 2: 3; Rev. 5: 11, 12).