God’s Pattern for Growth - The biblical blueprint for growing assemblies
“Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied” (Acts 9:31).
The assemblies had peace, were edified, had power and were multiplied. We would first mention that we do well to remember that Christ is the Builder of His church, as He announced "I will build my Assembly" (Matt. 16:18). He also is the One that chooses His servants and Who sends them (Matt. 9:37-38). As Lord He is leading us individually, as also His servants individually are responsible to Him. As Head of the body He also gives individual gifts (Eph. 4:8) for the edification of the body, and practical righteousness in the assembly life will give Him His rightful place and maintain the authority of His Word in a spirit of love. Thus righteousness will lead to peace and foster spiritual prosperity. Peace and joy will lead to growth of the assemblies (cp. Rom. 14:17). While the disciples were first told by the Lord not to go to Samaria, we now find our mission to be worldwide in scope and character. As the assemblies are "called out ones" (Acts 26:17), we are to keep in mind that God`s grace has taken away national limitations among believers.
The connection between numerical and spiritual growth is most important to observe. While the Lord promisses His presence in the midst of the smallest possible number, we cannot excuse ourselves by imagining spiritual growth while experiencing numerical decline. A brother wrote in Help & Food 1921: "It is surely nothing to the credit of a company of believers to see their numbers at a standstill, or worse, diminishing. And it should certainly cause us deepest exercise when we see some gatherings dying out, and the candlestick, to all appearance, removed. The Lord help us to lay these things to heart, and walk even as these disciples walked." (C. Knapp).
We can divide the "Acts of the Apostles" into five parts, the last verse of each part making evident numerical growth, geographical extension and spiritual growth. Each part also shows attacks from outside and inside the assembly and how the Lord deals with these attacks, maintaining the balance between numerical and spiritual growth (cp. Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 19:20; 28:30-31).
But no growth whatsoever can be expected without internal peace. Obedience to the Word of God and prayer was the basis for being of one accord (cp. Acts 1:14) and growth. So why is the prayer meeting often the poorest attended? They were with one accord in one place when the Holy Spirit came down (Acts 2:1) and they continued daily with one accord (v.46). They were actively waiting on the Lord and showed constancy and continuation in their happy walk together. Supplication now is turned into adoration as they give the Lord His rightful place (Acts 4:24). No wonder that power was the result. In Acts 5:12 the disciples were associated together while many signs and wonders were wrought by the hands of the apostles. But as difficulties come up we need also to have the determination to resolve the problem with one accord (cp. Acts 15:25). A lack of peace hinders our message (John 13:44) and strife shows carnality (1 Cor. 3). We need to be willing to yield and submit one to another searching the ways of peace. The Lord has made peace and established unity through His work of calvary and we have to keep the unity of the spirit (Eph. 4). The right attitudes (e.g. humility) of unity are necessary for this. But if in the early church the enemy attacked as it grew, we should expect the same today. If those attacks are missing it would seem that such an assembly is no threat to the enemy.
Edification is a most important thing for all of us believers, just like the breaking of bread (cp. Acts 2:42) - a constant process until He comes. It should be that which characterizes every service for the Lord. If a building is to stand there has to be a firm foundation - Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11)! What is it then that edifies or builds up the local assembly? God`s Word (Acts 20:32), faith (Jude 1:20), love (e.g. 1 Cor 13), spiritual gifts and preaching (1 Cor. 14:12, 26, 3), speech (Eph. 4:15, 29; Col. 4:6) and personal example (Rom. 14:13-17). There needs to be a freshness in the ministry of the Word for edification!
The "fear of the Lord" is the condition for experiencing the "comfort of the Holy Spirit". It is reverential awe before the Holy One and the desire to honor Him in all we do and say (cp. Prov. 8:13; 16:6b). We are reminded by a quote from brother F.B. Hole that "God pays comparatively little attention to outward position where there is not a corresponding inward condition". This is found to be true with regard to our intimacy with the Lord (Ps. 25:14) as well as when desirous to hold up the banner of the Gospel or the testimony of the Assembly (Ps. 60:4). The Lord holds dear the remanent, "them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon His name" (Mal. 3:16) and we should desire to be of those that "call on the Lord out of a pure heart" (2. Tim. 2). To lay stress on outward position rather than inward condition clearly leads to pride which is most hateful to God (cp. Mal. 4:1-2). This danger is not only seen in organized Christendom, but is also a real danger amongst those that desire to be simply gathered unto the Name of the Lord Jesus. "To lay primary stress on outward position, while relegating questions of spiritual condition to a secondary place, necessarily tends in this direction, since one is then occupied with certain external privileges and points of advantage -whether real or imaginary- in which one can boast, while considerations of one`s own definite state or lowly condition which would humble are thrust out of sight." (F.B. Hole).
When the "fear of the Lord" is missing, the power is gone! The "fear of the Lord" is obviously absent or underdeveloped when there is "fear of men“, when we listen to evil speaking (slander, backbiting, etc.), and when we receive any accusation without also listening to the one concerned. God is then not in the picture.
The question could be asked, where the power of the first assemblies came from? The Lord`s prayer for the unity of the saints was answered (John 17:20-21). The Holy Spirit came to accomplish that unity. And as the saints would show their dependence through prayer, the Spirit would fill them and they would be empowered to preach with boldness. Being one in heart and soul they were led to have all things in common. And that again made possible that "with great power did the apostles give witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all." (Acts 4:31-33). In our families according to the flesh we have all things in common. Should it not be in principle the same in the family of God? Would we not be much more credible if we broke more radically the universal law of greed? Would this not become more evident if we made ourselves more friends with the unrighteous mammon? We are no communists. The communist says "what is yours is also mine", while the Christian says "what is mine is also yours" and this out of a willing heart, "that there might be equality" (2 Cor. 8:13-15).
A following quote from "The Christian`s Friend" of 1898 challenges us: "There are many divine reasons why there will not be now similar exhibitions of miraculous "signs and wonders"; but let us not for one moment doubt that, if prepared for its exercise, there might be power as real as in this remarkable instance. And there would be, and this continuously, if we could be found with one accord waiting, if any company could thus perseveringly wait, upon God. The first beginnings of spiritual power are seen in the increased realization of absolute dependence, and this again will express itself in continuing instant in prayer. In such a case the Lord will work as surely through these waiting saints as through the Pentecostal company... The gain, moreover, is immense when it is perceived that the right state can only be formed in the Spirit, and that He is the only power for service. The temptation abounds, on every hand because the practice is so common to depend upon human means, human influences, the help and countenance of the world in some shape or other, that we grieve the Holy Spirit and limit His energy. That He is the only qualification and power for the Lord`s work is an accepted doctrine; but in practice, as may be everywhere seen, the doctrine is sadly overlooked, if not denied. We have much need, therefore, to weigh the statement that this company were all filled with the Holy Ghost, as the divine response to their prayers."
Let us now look at the secret of multiplication and growth in the local assembly as well as at those factors that hinder it. Knowing that the Lord had been seen by about 500 brethren at once, we are surprised to see that there were only 120 in the upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 1:15) after the Lord`s ascension. But the Spirit worked mightily as Peter preached and 3000 souls got saved after his message (Acts 2:41). If we saw a thousand times less results today, it would still mean that three souls could be saved after a Gospel message. Would that be too much to expect today?! Of course, they were all characterized by "singleness of heart", not "complicated hearts" and growth was a usual and happy thing, not a threat (Acts 2:46). In Acts 4:4 another "number" of 5000 who believed is mentioned. As we should not focus one-sided on numbers, we should not deem them completely unimportant as well. But the Lord only knows who are His. When sin enters the Assembly, like in the first case of Ananias and Sapphira`s covetousness and lye, it must be dealt with, as Holiness becomes to the House of God. Then can the saints be again together with "one accord" and "multitudes" can be added by and to the Lord (Acts 5:14). In Acts 6 we saw murmuring and discontent, certainly not a good ground for growth! Once the problem was solved in a godly way, further growth was possible (Acts 6:7; 9:42; 11:21). Working together is something we need to practice more and we shall see the blessing of it (cp. Acts 14:1). Preaching Christ out of the Scriptures is most important if we want to see growth (cp. Acts 17:4)! Let us remember always that if there is growth in the Assembly, then it is the Lord`s doing. But He usually wants to use us for it - what a wonderful GRACE! Our attitude needs to always be HUMILITY as He gives grace to the humble. A brother reminded us that „the Lord gives brothers with gifts to the whole Assembly and we should not despise them! Otherwise we act against the Lord and there will be no growth in the Assembly - according to Eph. 4:7-16".
We serve indeed a faithful God - the God of faithfulness! He will never change and therefore He will fulfill everything that He has promised us in His precious Word. He wants us to lean upon His promises as e.g. in Mark 10:29-30, to experience His faithfulness and to be His witnesses even "unto the uttermost part of the earth." (Acts 1:8) May our lives be a platform where God is able to manifest in this world that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever." (Heb 13:8)
Let us never forget the Lord`s pierced hands! He is worthy of the fruit of the travail of His soul! So let us continue to sow in faith, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that our labour is not in vain in the Lord (cp. 1 Cor. 15:58)! Then we will continue to have the joy to meet around Him with others and to hear His blessed voice telling us: "Peace be unto you" (John 20:19) and "even so send I you" (John 20:21).
(Summary of MIF 2015)
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