The New Fellowship
“And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him: but their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket. And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem. And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him. Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus. 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 9:23-31
In the first part of this chapter we learn something of God’s dealings with Saul of Tarsus, once a bitter enemy of the truth of God but in a moment changed into an ardent advocate of the Gospel. Every conversion is a miracle. I have heard people say, “I don’t believe in sudden conversion.” To be perfectly frank, there is no other kind. I do not mean by that, that everyone has the same experience as Saul of Tarsus, but I do mean that in the case of every person who is saved, there comes a moment when they definitely receive Christ. It may take place after long years of soul exercise or, as in the case of Saul of Tarsus, it may take place as the immediate result of the Spirit’s mighty convicting work—bringing to an end of self someone who before has never been concerned about the message of the Gospel. We see both kinds about us. There are some who have been brought up in Christian homes and come to young manhood and young womanhood and, as I can say myself, have never known a time in their lives when they were not exercised about spiritual things; but for them as for others, there had to come a definite time when they trusted Christ. There are many who have lived wild sinful lives, who can say:
“I once was far away from God,
On Ruin’s dark and fatal road;
And little dreamed I’d see the day
When I should tread the narrow way.”
And yet, these people, brought suddenly to a realization of their lost condition, are led in a moment to the Lord. There are many such. And so Saul’s conversion is really just a model of God’s way of saving a needy soul.
Following his conversion, he became a witness; and that is the will of God for all who are saved. If we know the Lord Jesus Christ for ourselves, we should begin immediately to carry the good news to others. It is not the will of God that all should preach in a public way, but all who know the Saviour should speak to others and seek to win them to Christ. To what extent ought we to do this? I am afraid there are a great many Christians who are just content to be going to heaven themselves and who manifest very little interest in the souls of others about them. It was otherwise with Saul of Tarsus. No sooner was he saved than he began to tell all with whom he came in contact that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the Son of God. He preached Christ in Damascus—the very city to which he had intended to go and throw the disciples into prison. But, we are told. The Jews took counsel to slay him. Having rejected their Messiah, they hated this man who brought to them their responsibility to acknowledge his claims. They watched the gates day and night, hoping to kill him; but he knew they were lying in wait; so the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket. It was a rather humiliating way for this servant of Christ to leave the city of his first labors.
I remember standing by the wall of the city of Damascus and we looked up and there was a little window, and the guide was absolutely certain it was the window through which Saul of Tarsus was lowered. I don’t know whether that is true or not, but I can see this one-time proud, haughty Pharisee now, couched in a basket being lowered over the wall. You would have thought he would never refer to this again (and if he had been as vain as some of us, he would have left it buried in the annals of time), but, years later he said, “And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall.” He was never ashamed of any of the humbling experiences he was called on to endure for the Lord Jesus Christ.
From Damascus he went to Jerusalem and attempted to hunt out the believers, but when he assayed to join himself to the disciples, they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. We do not wonder they were afraid of him. The last they had seen and known of him he was going from house to house trying to ferret out those who professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver them over to prison. He never forgave himself for that. Years afterward, he said, “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Now, having returned to Jerusalem, he attempted to find the believers but they were afraid of him. They said, “We do not dare let this man in. He is an enemy waiting to kill us.” But Saul had a friend who understood—Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. And the testimony of Barnabas authenticated the profession of Saul. Barnabas could say, “Why, I know all about him. We don’t need to be afraid of him now. He was once an enemy but a great change has taken place.” In other words, Saul was born again—and I can not help but stress the importance of the second birth. People are becoming engrossed in religious education—thinking, perhaps, that you can take a child and educate him along religious lines and he will grow up a Christian, but that is all a delusion. Jesus said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God;” and the apostle Peter said, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever…And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.” Saul of Tarsus had believed the Gospel. He was born again. He would never lift a persecuting hand against the people of God any more.
An interesting thing about it is that he had found in Jerusalem those who were definitely recognized as a new fellowship. They were apart from the rest, though looked on as a Jewish sect with many distinct features. In the first place, he found there a recognized fellowship. We are told in the second chapter of Acts that those who believed were baptized and they continued daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house. This was the new creation company. This fellowship is call in 1 Corinthians 1:9, “The fellowship of His Son.” That is a beautiful name for the people of God. The fellowship! Once they were just so many units; they were not particularly interested in one another—every one for himself; but grace reached their hearts and that introduced them into a wonderful fellowship with common interests and from that day on those early Christians were members one of another. This fellowship is called very distinctly the Church of God. I have heard some say that the Church had no existence during the period of the transition in the book of Acts—that it only came into full existence after the apostle Paul was put in prison. That is negative by his own words. In 1 Corinthians 15:9, writing to his own converts, he said, “I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” The Church of God was already in existence; it came into existence on the day of Pentecost by the baptism of the Holy Spirit and it was there before he became converted; so he could say, “I persecuted the Church of God.” He uses the same expression in the epistle to the Galatians (1:13) years after his conversion: “For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it.” From the day of Pentecost to the present time the Church of God has been a distinct company in this world, made up of those who know and love the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Church of God takes in all believers. Scriptures also speaks, however, of churches of God—local companies of believers. In Galatians again (1:21-22), Paul says, “I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ” and in the second verse of this same chapter he writes, “All the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia.” Here the term, you will see, is used in the plural and refers to local companies in different places who professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the first letter to the Thessalonians, writing to those who came from heathenism, he said, “For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have the Jews.” It is important to see the distinction between THE Church of God, to which all Christians belong, and the churches of God in various localities. Looking at it that way, many people are troubled because The Moody Church is not denominationally related to some great group, but it is definitely related to the Church to which all true churches belong. There may be different doctrinal standards and different views as to the ordinances and sacraments and as to church government, but where you find believers honoring the Lord Jesus Christ, coming together for worship, praise, testimony and prayer, there you have a local church of God in any given community.
These churches of God were founded by the time Saul was converted, all over Judaea; and in Samaria. Then in a little while we find them out among the Gentiles. In the fifth chapter of this book of Acts we find the term used (in the original manuscripts, at least) THE church. “Great fear came upon all the church.” In chapter one, verse 47, we read in our English version, “Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily.” But you will notice if you have a revised version the words “to the church” are omitted. “The Lord added to them.” Probably the three words “to the church” are not to authoritative here, though they give the meaning clear enough that this little company from the very beginning constitute the Church—but that this does not mean just a local company is clear because Saul persecuted the church of God not only at Jerusalem but he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the members of that church, this wonderful new fellowship God had brought into existence.
Another term is used; that is, “the kingdom of God.” Wherever these early Christians went preaching the Gospel of the grace of God, they carried with them the proclamation that Christ is the rightful king and Lord of all and called on all men everywhere to believe in Him. Those who confessed Him as Saviour and owned Him as their Master were translated from Satan’s realm of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love. His kingdom was set up in their hearts. It is a moral thing. The kingdom of God is established in righteousness and peace; and here was a company of people in the midst of a sinful world, who honored Christ and crowned Him Lord of all in their lives, and they constitute His kingdom morally and that kingdom is still in the world. Some day it will be manifested openly when He comes again. When He returns, it will be the day of the kingdom in glory. I think it is helpful to us as believers if we get some of these things clear. We are members of the Church of God. We belong to this fellowship of the redeemed, and we have been translated into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love.
More than that, this man Saul afterward called Pall, was chosen by God later on to open up a new and clear revelation: that not only are believers members of the church of God, but that Church is also the body of Christ and all believers are members of that body and Christ is their Head in heaven. What a wonderful fellowship this is!
Are we to be surprised that in those days of stress and turmoil we read that they had all things in common. It was not what we today call communism but was simply that their hearts were so filled with love, that those with plenty ministered to those with less, and together they walked in holy, happy fellowship.
And so it was into this fellowship that this one time enemy of the cross of Christ came to share the Lord’s Table. In the earlier part of the service we read, The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? That is the same word “fellowship” in the original text. “Is it not the fellowship of the blood of Christ…For we being many are one bread, and one body.” And so the Lord’s Supper, the table of the Lord, is the outward expression of that fellowship as we sit and drink together, the redeemed of God remembering the Christ who gave His precious blood for them.
What a wonderful thing it must have been for Saul of Tarsus to sit down with the disciples at the Lord’s Supper for the first time. We read that they continued to the temple, but broke bread at home. I remember reading in a missionary record not so long ago that a man in New Guinea, who had been away to school, returned to his own village and on the Lord’s Day a group of missionaries had gathered together to remember the Lord at His table; and as they sat there, suddenly a tremor passed through the young man’s body and he laid his hand on the arm of one of the missionaries, as though he were under a nervous strain: then, in a moment, all was quiet again. Later the missionary asked, “What was it? What troubled you?” He replied, “It is all right; but there was a man who had just come in, who killed and ate the body of my father and now he had come in to remember the Lord. At first I was so shocked to see the murderer of my father come in, I didn’t know whether I could endure it; but it is all right now—he is washed in the same precious blood.” And so together they had communion. Does the world know anything of this? No! It is the marvelous grace of God. I think, when the disciples sat down with Saul of Tarsus, one said, “That is the man who arrested my father;” another probably said, “That man threw my mother into prison—and there he sits, a humble, contrite believer, receiving the bread and wine in commemoration of the Lord who died.” That was wonderful fellowship.
We read, “He was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem. And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians (the term “Grecians” here means not Greeks exactly, but Hellenistic Jews—Jews born out among the nations of the Gentiles) but they (instead of responding to the message) went about to slay him.” God permitted him to know something of the persecution he had brought on others. “Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus”—his own native city. And with Saul out of the way, the churches prospered. Does that seem strange? But remember he was now the object of the intense hatred of the Phariseeic party, which he had at one time represented, and the disciples realized it was better for him to go elsewhere to labor instead of right there in Jerusalem.
Observe the three districts: “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria.” By this time churches had been established throughout Judaea, up north in Galilee and in the intermediate district of Samaria. “And were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.”
Have you ever noticed something about Bible arithmetic in this book of Acts? In Acts 2:41, we read the Lord added those that believed; in Acts 2:47, “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved”; in Acts 5:14, “And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” In Acts 6:7, “And the number of the disciples multiplied”; and here we read, “Walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.” This is Bible arithmetic: first, addition—then, multiplication! I am afraid sometimes it is not like that today. In fact, I know a great many places where it seems to be subtraction rather than even holing their own. My dear brethren, if our companies are not being added to and believers are not being multiplied, I will tell you the reason: the church is not walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost. When the Spirit of God has His way, then unsaved people will be reached. It behooves us to ask ourselves, Are we individually in that state of soul where God can trust us to reach others?