Local Assembly Basics
2. The Local Assembly Manifests the Divine Presence
Our thoughts now turn to a second fundamental purpose of a local assembly – it manifests the presence of God.
Since the beginning of creation it has always been God’s purpose to dwell among His people. Adam and Eve heard God’s voice, knew His presence and enjoyed fellowship with Him in Eden’s garden. Later, in the book of Genesis, Jacob met God in “Bethel” (Hebrew: “house of God”) and exclaimed, “Surely the LORD is in this place…this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”. Again, no sooner had the nation of Israel been called out of Egypt (1,500BC), redeemed by blood and baptised unto Moses in the Red Sea, than God declared His purpose; “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exod 25:8). Turning to the other end of the Bible: the apostle John sees the “new heavens and the new earth” and writes that “the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people” (Rev 21:3). Suffice to say, God’s presence among His people is a chief theme of Scripture.
It is important to distinguish between God’s omnipresence and what we might call His “manifested presence”. The fact that the Lord is “present everywhere” does not hinder Him from manifesting His presence in a particular location at a particular time. In the Tabernacle of Moses the Lord dwelled “between the cherubim” (Ex 25:22). Again, the “glory of the Lord” filled Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, a city which is referred to repeatedly as “the place that I have chosen to set My name” (Neh 1:9). Even in the Millennial Kingdom, Jerusalem will be called “the Lord is there” (Eze 48:35).
All of this invites the question, “Where does God dwell today?”. The Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple of Solomon have long since perished. Is God’s presence to be found in the cathedrals, shrines and basilicas of Christendom? Let the Word of God supply the answer: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20). This pivotal verse breaks down neatly into three parts, as follows.
First, “Where Two or Three are Gathered Together”
Note that Matt 18:20 is not saying “Where two or three people decide to get together, there am I.” The verb “gathered together” is in the passive voice, which means the “two or three” have been gathered together by God.1 Exactly how does God gather His people together today so that He may dwell among them? Come with me for a moment back to Ancient Greece, a culture that featured ‘town criers’ who heralded local announcements in the public square. The Greek word for a town crier or herald is a ‘kerux’. When political or legislative matters needed to be settled in a Greek town or city, the kerux stood in the street and loudly called the civilians together. Once the kerux had announced the call, out the people came from their homes and businesses and gathered together in a group. This group, this “called-out company”, was called an ekklesia (from ek/out and kaleo/to call).2
Have you got the picture? A ‘kerux’ issued the call, and an ‘ekklesia’ was formed. Now, the Bible uses these two words – kerux and ekklesia – in a spiritual sense. The apostle Paul called himself a kerux in 2 Timothy 1:11. He said, “I am appointed a preacher”. The New Testament concept of preaching is that of a herald who publicly announces the message of the gospel. As for the word ‘ekklesia’, this is the regular New Testament word for ‘church’ or assembly. An assembly is neither a building, nor a denomination, nor an order of men. It is a “called-out company”. How is it “called out”? – by the Lord through the gospel preacher (the kerux). Why is it called out? In order to be “gathered together” to the name of the Lord Jesus – and that is where the Lord dwells today! When sinners respond to the gospel call in repentance and faith, are baptised, and are gathered in a local called-out company “to His name”, God makes them His dwelling.
It should be noted that the verb “gathered together” in Matt 18:20 is a perfect participle, which means it describes something that both has happened and is still happening. It emphasises state, not something passing or temporary. This gathered company has a history! Literally translated, the verse should read “Where two or three are, having been and being gathered together in My name, there am I”. An assembly gathering is not a haphazard ad hoc social get together – but a settled spiritual gathering together.
Second, “In My name”
The formula “into the name” – using the Greek preposition “eis” – occurs in three connections in the New Testament, each of which is filled with significance:
- Salvation – “Believe on [eis] the name” (John 1:12, 2:23, 3:18)
- Baptism – “Baptised in [eis] the name” (Matt 28:19, Acts 8:16, 19:5)
- Gathering – “Gathered in [eis] My name” (Matt 18:20)
These three steps match what we later read in Acts Ch 2 where people were 1. saved, 2. baptised, and 3. added to the assembly in Jerusalem. What does being “gathered in His name” actually mean? Let me suggest two leading thoughts: ‘association’ and ‘authority’.
An assembly is not gathered to a doctrine, or to a figure of Church history, or to a human organisation. An assembly gathers “into His name”. Gathering in or to the Lord’s name means coming into association with a Person – the Lord Jesus Christ. Since Biblically someone’s name speaks of their character, “gathering in Christ’s name” means associating with His character – His truth, His holiness and His majesty. This has solemn consequences.
A vital New Testament passage – 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 – outlines the theology behind the great truth of “separation”. Note carefully the wording: “I will dwell in them and walk in them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people, wherefore come out from among them and be ye separate saith the Lord.” Notice the word “wherefore”. Why should Christians be separate from all that is contrary to righteousness, light and truth? Because the Lord is present among them and they are thus associated with His name!
When Paul the apostle visited Corinth, he encountered a wicked city steeped in immorality and idolatry. God moved mightily through gospel preaching and an assembly of God was planted in the midst of that city. The Lord dwelt among His people in Corinth! That involved far reaching consequences for the converted Corinthians. Because of the Lord’s presence among them and their association with Him, they had to sever their associations with the culture of Corinth. They learned that they could not partake of “the table of demons” in the pagan Temple at the same time as partaking of “the table of the Lord” in the assembly. They learned that a local assembly must reflect the holiness of the One who dwells in it. Paul warned the Corinthian believers: “The [inner] temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (1 Cor 6:17). To be part of an assembly where God dwells necessitates that we separate from the unrighteousness and godlessness of the “present evil world” around us – its drinking houses, its movie and music industries, and its idolatrous sports-mad culture.
A ‘name’ can also function as a substitute word (a metonym) for authority. If a soldier knocks at your door and demands “Open up in the name of the King”, he is not referring to the appellation “George” or “Henry” or “William”! He means “Open up in the authority of the King”. Gathering “in the Lord’s name” means “coming under and acknowledging His authority”. This is crucial. The “Lord in the midst” carries not just the idea of “God dwelling” but also of “God ruling”, and only where believers “gather in His name”, thus owning His authority and Lordship, is the presence of Christ known corporately.
Third, “There Am I in the Midst of Them”
The import of this statement is staggering. The One who inhabits eternity, of whom Solomon said “Who is able to build Him an house, seeing the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain him?”, now dwells among those who are simply “gathered in His name”. To be part of a local assembly thus gathered is a greater privilege than being a member of the House of Commons, or of the House of Bishops, or indeed a member of any club, guild, association or body, no matter how prestigious or powerful it may be thought to be by men. No high ecclesiastical sanction is required; no Papal decree; no denominational affiliation. What a discovery! What a privilege!
Michael J. Penfold
- Although the Matt 18 passage initially concerns assembly discipline, by v20 a general principle is being given.
- The “lawful assembly” mentioned by the town clerk in Ephesus in Acts 19:39 is one such secular use of the word ekklesia.