In Matthew chapter 18, verse 20 the Lord Jesus planted a seed thought which blossomed in the book of Acts and bore fruit in the Epistles. One of the reasons given by the Lord when he called the twelve in Mark’s Gospel was ‘that they should be with him’, and that privileged band of followers are found in His company throughout the Gospel records hearing Him preach, teach and pray. They would have noticed that He had time for the children and drew from them an illustration of conversion, Matt. 18. 3; yet His message also reached the heart of the scholarly ‘teacher of Israel’, John 3. 10 JND. They would remember that He regularly crossed the social divide and brought the word of salvation to both Pharisee and publican alike. Many times He addressed a multitude, but often met with individuals. On occasion, ‘they came to him’ and He taught them and fed them; other times He would go to where the needy were, in Samaria, Gadara and Bethesda. The faithful eleven would never forget that night when He said, ‘With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer’, and as they later took from His hand bread and wine, symbols of a new covenant, the words ‘this do in remembrance of me’ would be indelibly etched on their hearts.
It was against such a background of example and instruction that the early disciples sought to carry out the Lord’s commission and, with the assurance of His presence, they obeyed the command to go into all the world and preach the gospel, to teach, baptize, and to make disciples. The distinction between the whole church, the body of Christ, and believers meeting together in a locality according to the New Testament pattern, often referred to as ‘a local church’, has been well taught and documented. From the earliest days after Pentecost, groups of Christians met together, often in the home of one of their number, not simply on the basis of friendship but as an expression of fellowship; a united desire to be obedient to the word of God and to present a cohesive witness to a hostile world. The fragmentation which developed later into sects and denominations was largely unknown in apostolic days. Warnings were given of impending disruption, e.g., Acts 20. 29-30; 2 John 7-11, but, in those early pristine days, the well rehearsed formula of Acts chapter 2 verses 41 and 42 gives a clear outline of the activities engaged in by the first companies of believers.
If we consider those verses as an initial response to the Lord’s teaching and example, the first occupation of the early believers was gospel outreach. For folk to ‘gladly receive’ the word, it must first be made known. At Pentecost and for the time which followed, the miraculous gift of tongues, known and recognized languages, granted to the apostles and other early believers, enabled the gospel to be spread quickly, as well as providing ‘a sign’ for the Jews and proselytes that God was indeed working. Starting at Jerusalem the apostles presented a united front in preaching the gospel and, after the initial acceptance when they had ‘favour with all the people’, Acts 2. 47, their message soon attracted opposition. The healing of the lame man in chapter 3 brought repercussions and, after a brief confinement, ‘being let go, they went to their own company’, a lovely expression suggesting unity, fellowship, singleness of purpose, and a place of safety, features which should be recognizable in a local church or assembly.
Before the end of chapter 5 the high priest complained, ‘Ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine’, what an accolade! But now the time had come to broaden the field and the apostles, together with other believers, consequent upon the persecution which followed the death of Stephen, began to move out to Judaea and Samaria, and from there the work has progressed, ‘to the uttermost parts of the world’.
It is evident that the gospel work in those early days involved an itinerant ministry, sometimes singly, often in pairs and occasionally in larger numbers. On several occasions in his Epistles the apostle Paul addressed individuals and greeted ‘the church that is in thy house’. J. B. Lightfoot, in his commentary on Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon, asserts that ‘there is no clear example of a separate building set apart for Christian worship within the limits of the Roman Empire before the third century’. In the years that followed, Christian witness developed, and it became normal and accepted practice for a suitable building to be used in which to meet in order to engage in the communal practices indicated in the New Testament. It may be worth remembering that the Gospel Halls and other buildings where we meet are nothing more than that, convenient buildings. The architecture and design may be appealing in an aesthetic sense but the practical suitability is more important. There should be respect for the place, not reverence; it is not ‘consecrated ground’. It provides a focal point for the testimony, a place from which the gospel witness can radiate, where the word of God is taught and to which folk can be invited.
In many assemblies the formal 6.30 p.m. ‘Gospel Meeting’ has become something of an institution! Any suggestion of varying the time or the format is considered to be far too radical, something akin to ‘removing the ancient landmarks’ – anathema! In reality it is largely a relic of bygone days when most people attended a ‘place of worship’ on a Sunday evening, the time was convenient, there was no electricity, so after ‘church’, they would go home to bed in order to rise early for a day of manual labour. However, many people were saved as a result of the gospel being preached in this way; it worked! Often, what is not taken into consideration is that although the God of the gospel and the gospel of God do not change, society and its conduct do.
Church attendance fell away dramatically after two world wars. The word of God was systematically devalued in the education system, family values were eroded, technology and science became the new gods and what was already an immoral society fast became largely amoral. Yet this is our mission field, this is our parish! If the 6.30 p.m. meeting on a Sunday evening still sees the lost coming in, if there are still opportunities to use that hour to advantage, stay with it. But if that is the sum total of gospel outreach in the week, think again! The buildings we have can be put to good use to reach out to young and old at times convenient to them rather than to ourselves. But the great need for a society steeped in ignorance and submerged in apathy as far as the scriptures are concerned, is for believers to live the gospel before them, that the Lord whom we serve and the truth we believe are a living epistle, ‘known and read of all men’, 2 Cor. 3. 2.
Following the presentation and acceptance of the gospel, ‘they that gladly received his word were baptized’. Most of our halls have adequate facilities for baptisms, and many would like more opportunity to use them. A baptism is a joyous occasion and always a good opportunity to show hospitality and present the gospel to friends and relatives of the ones being baptized, often folk who would not normally attend a formal meeting. Doubtless, in the early days believers would gather together for such an event, not, however, in a building, but by a river, the sea or any suitable place where there was adequate depth of water, thus providing a very public testimony which would almost certainly attract a level of persecution. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that baptism by immersion, symbol of death, burial and resurrection, is closely associated with conversion. It adds nothing to the work of salvation, the convert walks ‘in newness of life’ from the moment of believing, not from the time of baptism.
However, the practical experience and public witness of obedience to the word of God should give an impetus to the Christian’s pathway. It would be true to say that many baptisms we attend are for the children of believers; those brought up with a familiarity of the various meetings of the assembly. Elders, as shepherds, should be aware of the spiritual progress of the lambs as well as the sheep of the flock, and it should come as no surprise when young believers ask for baptism. With those saved ‘out of the world’, there is often a clearer evidence of a changed life, but in all cases the overseers should be assured of the reality of the profession before announcing and arranging the baptism.
The expectation and outcome of ‘steadfast continuance in the apostles’ doctrine’ will be considered later as we take a look at other ‘church gatherings’ identified in the New Testament.