New Testament Church Basics
Chapter 8 – The Local Assembly Fulfils the Divine Commission
Our thoughts now turn to “the great commission” in which the Lord Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel, baptise the converts, and teach them to observe all things that He had commanded. Having looked at the issue of teaching in article seven, we close this series with a look at gospel preaching and its relationship to the local assembly.
The New Testament is clear. All evangelism is assembly-based. That is to say, God has designated local assemblies – not para-church organizations, or committees, or ‘ministries’ – to be the vehicle for the fulfilling of ‘the great commission’. That is the uniform record of the book of Acts and the epistles. Evangelists in the New Testament were not unaffiliated free agents! They were commended by and responsible to local assemblies.
Take Paul the apostle, for example. When he was called to preach the gospel, he was sent out by the local assembly in Antioch (Acts 13:3). He did not start ‘Paul Ministries Inc.’ and answer to a board of trustees! At the end of his first missionary journey he returned to his ‘sending assembly’ to report on all that God had done. Antioch is described as the place from which Paul and Barnabus “had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled” (Acts 14:26). This same principle applies to all believers engaged in evangelism – all gospel work must flow out from the local assembly and lead back to the assembly.
Christ’s command to “preach the gospel” involves two major elements: first, preaching (the method), second, the gospel (the message).
Many today want us to believe that preaching is outdated and ineffective. We are now told that the way to “reach the world for Christ” is through political involvement, social work and the performing arts. But what does the Bible say? “Go into all the word and preach the gospel”. We wouldn’t think of changing the message; so why change the method?
There are two chief proofs that “preaching” is the prescribed method for communicating the gospel:
1. The Greek word used for ‘preach’ in ‘the great commission’
The word the Lord used for ‘preach’ in Mark 16:15 means ‘to herald’ (Gk. kerusso). By using this particular word, He was indicating that evangelism is to be conducted first and foremost by public preaching.
2. How evangelism was conducted in the New Testament
The apostles clearly understood what Christ meant, because Peter, Paul, Philip and the other apostles all concentrated on and kept to preaching. Paul called himself a preacher (Gk. kerux, a herald) and asked “How shall they hear without one who preaches” (2 Tim 1:11, Rom 10:14).
But why did Christ send the 12 apostles into a first century culture saturated with politics, entertainment and drama, and tell them simply to preach? Because public preaching was, is and always will be the best and most suitable method for communicating gospel truth. How so? Because, in preaching, the Word of God is in full unobscured view; the spirit of the message is conveyed directly (eye to eye); the rational mind and conscience are engaged, and the tone of the method fits the content of the message.
So, assemblies are to send forth men of God, filled with the Spirit of God, to engage in the unobscured, direct and serious public heralding of the word of God, aimed at the mind and conscience of sinners. The performing arts – acting, clowns, rock music, dance and puppets – represent a totally different genre of communication, wholly unsuited to the communication of the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But what about the use of tracts, personal one-on-one witnessing, and other verbal and written presentations of the gospel? All of these are perfectly in order. They are subsets of preaching, aimed at the mind and conscience of the sinner. But they are not substitutes for preaching. Preaching must always be the main thing. It is what God has chosen and authorised, and it has been singularly blessed by God throughout history.
Is the assembly of which you form a part busy in gospel labour? Does it have a dedicated gospel meeting each week? Does it preach in the streets and markets of your area? Does it have regular concentrated series of consecutive daily gospel meetings? Is it a gospel-focussed, gospel-supporting assembly led by gospel minded overseers? W.W. Fereday writing in the early 1900’s remarked: “Sometimes it happens that the saints who are the best fed are the poorest workers. They would prefer endless Bible Readings to a vigorous gospel series”. What a tragedy!
The message we are to preach contains three essential elements. Man’s ruin in sin, God’s remedy in Christ, and man’s responsibility to repent and believe the gospel. These elements are set forth in the great commission itself (see Luke 24:46-47 and Mark 16:16), as well as in the Roman epistle, which expounds the doctrine of the gospel.
Why start with man’s ruin? Because a person must learn that they are guilty before they can be justified; that they are lost before they can be saved; that they are bound for hell before they can start for heaven! And their problem is not just what they have done, but what they are. An awakening to their miserable and sinful condition by nature and practice is the proper backdrop for the good news of the gospel – that God so loved the world, that Christ died for the ungodly, and that God offers salvation as a free gift to bankrupt helpless sinners! In preaching we must labour to convince our hearers that their nature is so corrupt that only the new birth can ever change them; that their guilt is so absolute that only a righteousness from God can ever fit them for heaven; that their sins are so vile that only the blood of Christ can cleanse them; and that their helplessness is so complete that only the mighty Victor of Calvary can deliver them.
What a privilege to be able to point sinners to the person and work of Christ, to tell them of His finished work and urge them to repent and believe the gospel. To press upon them their need to agree with what God says about their guilt and ruin, and receive the mercy which comes to them in that very condition! The sinner can do nothing, save to rest on what Another has done in His place. Taking God at His word he learns: “He was wounded…I am healed” (Isa 53:5). What a message!
We have already seen that the local assembly is the only place on earth, in the present dispensation, where the Lord is present among His people; where His rule is acknowledged, where His order of headship is symbolically displayed, and where the Lord’s Supper can be commemorated in remembrance of Him. In the previous article we discovered that it is the only entity designated “pillar and ground of the truth”. Now we have seen that it is the only scriptural locus of operation for the carrying out of “the great commission”.
Do you appreciate what it is to be part of an assembly? Are you prayerfully, intelligently and energetically contributing to its welfare? Do you understand that to be in God’s assembly is, outside of the blessings of salvation, the greatest privilege a believer can enjoy?
One man who firmly grasped the uniqueness and significance of the assembly was the writer and Greek and Hebrew scholar, William Kelly, who graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, with first class distinction in highest classical honours. When, at the age of 23, he discovered the Bible’s teaching about the function, character and pattern of the assembly, he gave up what he once thought would be a glittering career in “the Church” and associated himself with other believers who shared his convictions. Many years later, writing a personal letter to a friend on 6th April 1902, he described the day he first gathered to break bread in New Testament simplicity, outside the traditions and systems of Christendom: “I myself when I left the English Establishment near 60 years ago met two or three in a room – not larger – of a private house than you and others have; and even then I felt it a privilege far beyond St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey.”
May God lead each reader to be able to say of the assembly what Jacob said of Bethel; “Surely the LORD is in this place…How dreadful [awesome] is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”. May the Lord be pleased to teach us more of His blessed ways, to appreciate the place of His name, and to love “the habitation of Thy House, the place where Thine honour dwelleth” (Psa 26:8).
Michael J. Penfold (firstname.lastname@example.org)