When Ye Come Together
Many so–called ‘evangelicals’ think that the sinner’s needs are so paramount in the Gospel that the glory of God receives little consideration. This view has inevitably filtered down into ecclesiastical thinking such that many now assume that how they "do church" is correspondingly all about the Christian. It is no shock then if believers act as consumers when it comes to the Assembly (or Church) and identify themselves with the place that provides the ‘product’ that suits them best. Nor is it remarkable that those responsible for delivering this ‘product’ are constantly looking at ways to improve the offer, particularly as the ecclesiastical market is so competitive. What the Bible says hardly gets a look in. Any real concept of the Assembly as God’s house (see 1 Tim. 3: 15)—a house where conduct has nothing to do with what I think and everything to do with what God thinks—has been largely forgotten in the rush to embrace what is actually no more than Christianised entertainment. In such an infantilised culture it is hardly surprising that loyalty to the collective idea itself is somewhat tenuous and is easily abandoned when serious external pressure is applied (see Heb. 10: 25)—particularly when the attitude to ‘meetings’ is determined by the gratification of personal needs rather than the Word of God. Bearing all this in mind, I wish to consider two occasions in the NT where believers came together, but in so gathering were not merely a ‘believer’s meeting’ but had God Himself in their midst. Other meetings of the Assembly are documented for us (see 1 Cor. 11: 17–34; Heb. 2: 12 etc.), but the two selected will suffice for my purpose. One relates the voice of the Assembly to God in prayer, and the other relates the voice of God to His Assembly in ministry. As can be readily appreciated, the two forms of meeting are interrelated, for prayer is often about need, and ministry is often about divine supply. These two meetings are also among the most neglected by Christians.
Let us now look at the first of these—a meeting for prayer as described in Matt. 18: 19, 20. I could have said ‘the prayer meeting’ but this would have unjustly limited the scope of the passage. Certainly, it is connected to what is said earlier in the chapter about the Assembly, but as v16 illustrates, two or three can be distinguished from the Assembly as a whole. This makes it peculiarly appropriate for the modern situation when sometimes it is only two or three gathered for prayer rather than every true believer in a locality. To even these few, the Lord’s presence may be granted.
There am I in the Midst of Them
In Matt. 18: 19, 20 the Lord assures His disciples "that if two of you shall agree on the earth concerning any matter, whatsoever it may be that they shall ask, it shall come to them from my Father who is in [the] heavens. For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them". Now there is a tendency to read a passage like this through the theological lens of today without considering what it would have conveyed to those to whom it was first addressed. This is a great mistake. Indeed, we must also remember that the disciples would have had no knowledge of what was revealed later on in the NT. Thus, when the Lord spoke of the Assembly in v17, the disciples would not think of it beyond a called–out company from Israel. There was nothing particularly remarkable about this to Jewish ears, as the thought of a believing remnant was part of both OT prophecy and their own experience. By contrast, the truth of the mystery, namely Jew and Gentile equal in one body and united to the Head in heaven, would have been startling to them, unknown as it was in OT writings, and not revealed during the Lord’s ministry on earth. The latter part of v17, "let him be to thee as one of the nations and a tax gatherer", are proof of this, such words having no meaning for Gentile believers. Note also v19, "my Father who is in [the] heavens"—an expression which does not appear in the epistles at all, and stands in some contrast to the intimacy of John 14: 23: "If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him". The fact of the matter (however much the truth may have been developed subsequently) is that Matthew 18 barely takes the reader off Jewish ground, and therefore its interpretation must take account of what can be understood from the OT. This is not to de–Christianize the passage but to interpret it in its proper setting.
So what of verse 20 itself: "For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them"? The first clause, as already indicated, could easily be understood in a Jewish context. If we go back to the OT, Jehovah’s name was associated multiple times with both places and people (see Num.6: 27; Deut. 12: 5 etc.), and indicates identification, whereby the invisible God marked out what distinctively belonged to Him. Solomon’s temple is an apt illustration of this. When Solomon built a house in Jerusalem for Jehovah to dwell in, this did not alter the fact that the heavens were "the settled place" (1 Kings 8: 39) of God’s dwelling. However, when God said of what Solomon had built that He would put His name there forever, He was identifying Himself with it, and saying "mine eyes and my heart shall be there perpetually" (1 Kings 9: 3). God’s name indicated where God’s interests lay. Now in Matthew 18, we have the situation viewed (as it were) from the opposite direction. The two or three individuals there, not having anything tangible to relate to (the Lord, by inference, being absent), identify themselves with Him by gathering to His name. It is not God putting His name on a place (as with Solomon’s temple), but a people seeking out that name as the gathering place. None of this is far removed from what the disciples understood as Jews, and indeed, would recall to their minds such Scriptures as Zech. 13: 9, in which the absent Messiah would answer a called–out remnant of Israel who identified themselves with His name. Indeed, it may well be that the Scripture in Matthew 18: 20, since it is not distinctly concerned with the Assembly itself, may have relevance to the Jewish remnant of a future day as well as Christians now. Certainly, it is quite in keeping with the fact that there is no ascension recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, and also the Lord’s promise in Matt. 28: 20 that "behold, I am with you all the days, until the completion of the age".
The second clause of Matt. 18: 20 ("there am I in the midst of them") would recall to Jewish minds what was said on the momentous occasion of the giving of the ten commandments: "in all places where I shall make my name to be remembered, I will come unto thee, and bless thee" (Ex. 20: 24). Indeed, the concept of Jehovah being present in the midst of His people would be very familiar to any Jew (see Ex. 25: 8; 1 Kings 6: 13; Ezek. 43: 7 etc.) and both the tabernacle and the temple were the centre pieces of the nation. Now the Lord does not promise that the two or three gathered to His name will be aware of His presence—only that He will be there. Of course, when the Lord stood in the midst of His own in Luke 24: 36 and John 20: 19, 26 it was a physical manifestation, but there is no reason to suppose that the invisible presence of Matt. 18: 20 is any less personal. It cannot be "absent in body but present in spirit" (1 Cor. 5: 3), as some have alleged, for the point of that Scripture is that Paul was not actually in Corinth! Nor does He say that the Holy Spirit will be there (though that is surely true) but "there am I in the midst of them" (my emphasis). Of course, the Lord is now a man in heaven at the Father’s right hand, but that does not mean that He cannot also be in some sense here—any less than Jehovah, whose settled dwelling place was in the heavens, could also be said to fill the temple with His glory (see 2 Chron. 7: 2). How the Lord is present among the two or three gathered in His name is not revealed to us, and therefore we need not speculate, for where Scripture is silent, so must we be.
What we can say, however, is why the Lord promises to be present, for Scripture provides the clue. In verse 19, the two or three gathered for prayer are promised that "whatsoever it may be that they shall ask, it shall come to them from my Father who is in [the] heavens". That verse is then connected to the next by the little word for, implying that the reason their petitions are granted is because the Lord is present in their midst. In John 11: 41,42, the Lord "lifted up his eyes on high and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me; but I knew that thou always hearest me", and in Matthew 18 this assurance before the Father is transferred to His own by virtue of His promise to be in their midst. Of course, that presence is dependent on a condition, namely being "gathered together unto my name", and this raises the question of how we can be sure that are indeed gathered in that way. In response to this some would argue that they must have fulfilled the condition because they feel the Lord’s presence in their midst. Now it would be wrong to say that the Lord’s presence cannot ever be felt, but for certainty we need something beyond the subjective. Why should anyone trust the bold proclamation that says "Is not Jehovah in the midst of us?" (Mic. 3: 11)—however sincerely the belief may be held? There must be objective evidence to prove the claim. Once again, the little word for that connects v19 and v20 in Matt. 18 is of critical importance, as it shows that the two or three have the proof of the Lord’s presence in the fact that their petitions to the Father are granted. You say that is a big test! Yes it is, but then the presence of God is no light thing either. Christians frequently betray their lack of confidence in that presence by uttering prayers so general in nature that it would be impossible to determine whether they have been answered or not. Such can hardly be said to have faith in Lord being among them. Indeed, the silences and gaps, the vain repetitions, and the hackneyed requests that characterise many a prayer meeting all testify that there is no real belief that the Lord is actually in the midst. And what can be said of those who absent themselves from occasions of collective prayer? There might be many a plausible reason for not going to a meeting for teaching or the gospel, but it ought to be an unusual thing not to be present at a meeting for prayer. Why? Because the Lord has said He will be there, personally present in the midst of His own. Is this not an incentive enough? Certainly, the cares of life are many (especially family pressures), but collective prayer is a fundamental part of the proper functioning of the body of Christ. How sad then that it is more usual for only a few to be gathered for prayer, rather than—as in Acts 12: 12—many brought together! Brothers in particular need to reflect on 1 Tim. 2: 8: "I will therefore that the men pray in every place" (my emphasis)—an apostolic commandment to public prayer that always takes precedence over employment demands or responsibilities to government edicts. It is to be feared that while many give assent to the doctrines of Scripture in their heads there is no real faith in their hearts as to the practical outworking of such teaching.
We have considered the voice of the Assembly to God in prayer. Now let us consider the voice of God to the Assembly:
God is Indeed Amongst You
Unlike Matt. 18: 19, 20, what is presented in 1 Cor. 14: 26–33 has no parallel in the OT. Certainly, there were prophets under the old order, but they tended to be isolated individuals (hence the title ‘man of God’) whereas what the apostle presents is the whole Assembly occupied in ministry of some form or another. This is inevitable for "having ascended up on high, he has led captivity captive, and has given gifts to men" (Eph. 4: 8). Again, whereas just two or three of the Lord’s people are in view in Matt. 18: 19, 20, the meeting on which the apostle gives instruction in 1 Cor. 14 is for "the whole assembly come together in one place" (v23). Indeed, it is important to note that Paul uses the same expression when speaking of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11: 20. Nobody acquainted with the NT doubts that the communion service is characteristic of the Assembly as formally convened, but many seem to overlook that this is also true of what is spoken of in 1 Cor. 14 (see vs. 4, 5, 12, 19, 26, 28, 33, 34, 35). Now of course Christians may gather for useful purposes without being gathered as an Assembly of God and nothing that is said here is intended to undermine that liberty. Thus, a brother, gifted of the Lord as a teacher may exercise his ministry before an audience brought together to that end, but this is not the equivalent of "when ye come together in assembly" (1 Cor. 11: 18). Similarly, the saints may also wish to support an evangelist in the proclamation of the glad tidings, but the same principle holds true—it is not the Assembly convened as the Assembly. When the Assembly gathers, it is around the Lord—He is distinctively the focus of the gathering. We know this because of the effect such a meeting has on those watching the proceedings: "But if all prophesy, and some unbeliever or simple [person] come in, he is convicted of all, he is judged of all; the secrets of his heart are manifested; and thus, falling upon [his] face, he will do homage to God, reporting that God is indeed amongst you" (1 Cor. 14: 24, 25, my emphasis). There is no thought in these spectators of admiration for the speakers or any gift they may have, for such matters are immaterial where there is a genuine realisation of the presence of God.
Sadly, in Corinth, God was not the centre piece of the meeting and the saints were coming together in a destructive way such that there was a real danger of ruining their testimony to unbelievers (see v23). The problem seems to have been theirpractice of exhibiting their gifts for selfish reasons. Hence Paul insists that they should come together for the edification (or building up) of all: "he that prophesies speaks to men [in] edification … he that prophesies edifies [the] assembly … that the assembly may receive edification … that ye may abound for the edification of the assembly … Let all things be done to edification … that all may learn and all be encouraged" (vs 3, 4, 5, 12, 26, 31). Of course, such edification may be received by few or many individuals in other sorts of occasions, but it is this meeting that apostolic instruction has established for the building up of the whole Assembly. Furthermore, the words "if there be a revelation to another sitting [there]" (v30), imply that the saints are gathered around the Lord in a very living way, ready to receive, there and then, whatever He has to say to them through His servants. The occasion is thus characterised by spontaneity. The significance of this must not be overlooked, because although each individual is expected to bring something (see v26) in order to edify the saints, all are not expected to participate (see vs. 27–29). In other meetings, individuals might be invited beforehand to speak, but none can speak here without the Lord’s direction—for when the saints are ‘in Assembly’ the Lord holds court. All this is very striking, and, sad to say, quite alien to much of what goes on today. Some excuse their lack of adherence to the apostolic instruction by saying that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians the canon of Scripture had not been closed, and the kingdom was still on offer to Israel. This, of course, is perfectly true, and it follows that the Assembly no longer has prophets in the NT sense, or the sign–gift of tongues. However, this does not give God’s people licence to abandon the basic format of the edification meeting for one of their own devising. There is clearly purpose in preserving the account of 1 Cor. 14: 26–33 for our day, and while the gift of prophecy has passed, the general principles of speaking for the edification of others remain. We still need "edification, and encouragement, and consolation" (v3), and, where necessary, "teaching … conviction … correction" and "instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3: 16). Unless we think the heavens are completely silent, the Lord still speaks to His people in the character of prophecy, even though there may be no new revelations of doctrine. He speaks through His Word, and that Word has a present applicability. There is nothing wrong in pre–arranged and invited speakers holding meetings, but it is clearly God’s mind that there should also be abundant ‘open’ ministry. The reason is not hard to discern: it is in order that the Lord’s message can be heard by His people—something that pre–arranged and invited speakers may fail to live up to.
Sadly, even those who profess to believe in a current relevance for 1 Cor. 14: 26–33 seem reluctant or loathe to allow such liberty, except perhaps on an occasional basis. This is in contrast to the practice at Corinth, for Paul writes: "What is it then, brethren? whenever ye come together, each [of you] has a psalm …" (v26, my emphasis). Paul does not seek to reduce this obvious frequency, and any criticism he may have had seems confined to disorders in the meeting rather than of the meeting itself. Those who are content for this kind of gathering to be the exception rather than the rule are effectively saying that God has little to say to them. Part of the problem lies in the fact that while brethren readily believe the Lord is present at His supper, they do not think of an edification meeting in the same way. In going to the breaking of bread, there is no preoccupation as to what will take place, because the saints go to seek and to find the presence of the Lord. But if it is an edification meeting, there is concern as to who will be there and who will take part—when the only burden should be as to whether the Lord is present. In this kind of spiritual atmosphere it is far easier to let the prominent gifts that the Lord has placed in His Assembly have all the responsibility of action. Now certainly such are given "for the perfecting of the saints; with a view to [the] work of [the] ministry, with a view to the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph. 4: 12) but to wait on them for action exercises the conscience and the responsibility of the saints much less than coming to seek the Lord in the Assembly. Where gift is rested on it is easy to see how a clerical spirit can rapidly develop and all sense of the Lord using whomsoever He will is lost. His presence is essential; the presence of gift is not. Even in apostolic days (as at Corinth), it was open to all to bring something as that which the Lord might use (see v 26), and the first of these that the apostle describes—a psalm—does not appear to be connected in Scripture to gift at all. How much more so in the day in which we live when the Assembly is outwardly fragmentedand gift dispersed! We should never forget that the Lord remains the same, however much disunity and weakness there may be among His people. The Lord can feed five thousand with the smallest offering placed in His hands!
In this rapid sketch, I have sought to show the fundamental importance of these two collective occasions—fundamental because they ought to be characterised by the divine presence in their own distinctive way. We should never forget that Satan is bent on shutting such meetings down or, where this is not possible, of robbing them of their vitality. Let us not be content with a ‘round of meetings’ but go to seek the Lord. We may well then find that we will both get our prayers answered, and be built up in our most holy faith!