The First And The Last Church
The last verses of the sixth chapter of Acts gives the story of Stephen when he was summoned before the Sanhedrin. He was tried, found guilty and stoned to death for blasphemy.
What has this to do with the first and last church? Here was a man who was hounded to death for trying to explain the difference between the first and the last church, and many a preacher has lost his life, financial and denominational, since then trying to explain that same thing.
There is the first church and there is the last church, and they are a different as day is from night. The only point of resemblance is this that they are churches and that they have the same Maker and Builder.
This man Stephen was a server of tables, and his table was the money table. The kind of serving he had to do, because he was full of the Holy Ghost and faith, a man of spiritual integrity, was to hand out money to people who needed it. And being full of the Holy Ghost and faith, he did great wonders and miracles among the people.
The church of which Stephen was a member was the last church and this church began in Jerusalem.
Now they began to dispute with this man Stephen, but “They were not able to resist the wisdom and spirit by which he spake” so they suborned men that said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.” They charged the Lord Jesus with blasphemy, and now they charge His servant Stephen with speaking blasphemous words against Moses and against God.
The Council gathered together and sent out men to catch him and bring him in like a criminal. And when Stephen is brought before them, he does not come as one who has had an orderly summons, but appearances are against him. His apparel is torn because they have laid violent hands on him. He was convicted before he ever came into that place. They hated Stephen, this man who had done such marvelous works in the name of Jesus. They knew they would not get anywhere unless they lied about it, so they set up false witnesses who said: “This man ceaseth not to speak against this holy place, and the law.”
By this “holy place” I understand they meant the temple, not the city of Jerusalem, the holy city. They set up witnesses who charged him with speaking against the temple and the law.
Stephen speaks, and when he came to the place where he pointed his finger at them and said: “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost…they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth, but he being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.”
In the hour of Stephen’s martyrdom, the heavens were opened, and he saw Jesus, and so much interested was He, that He is not sitting at ease, but He has arisen from His place and is standing and looking upon this scene.
And when they could listen no longer, they laid violent hands on him again, and he was dragged out and brought away outside of the city altogether and stoned.
The stoning was done in an orderly and in a legal way, and when they came to the place outside of the city they bound his feet and his hands, and they led him to an elevation, possibly erected for the purpose, about twice his own height. Then one took him by the shoulders and threw him down, and then, while he lay there helpless, bound hand and foot, the two witnesses came with the largest stone they could carry and dropped the stone upon him. Then others came in their turn bringing their stones of all sizes, gathered out of the field, and one after the other they threw them upon his body, until at last it was broken and mangled beyond any semblance of humanity. He had not done anything in the world but try to explain the difference between the first and the last church.
The church is nothing in the world but a called out company of people.
The first church is, scripturally speaking, found in Acts 7:38. “The church in the wilderness,” and it was built on Abraham. The relation is a covenant and the word that characterized that first church was “do.” “Do.” “Do not.”
The scriptural designation of the last church is found in Acts 20:28. “The church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.” “The church of God,” founded on a rock, and the rock is not Peter or any other human being. The rock is Christ, the foundation, and the other stones that are added to it are they who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, not those who accept Jesus as a good man, a moral man, or a great teacher, but as God, the eternal Son, co-equal with the Father and with the Spirit. The relationship is one of blood. You cannot join the church. You may join the visible body that we call the church, but, if you are to enter into “The church of God,” you have to be born into it.
How did that child get into your family? Why, through your own blood, through your own life. It is through the blood of God’s dear Son and the life of God through the Eternal Spirit, and the Word of God, that you are born into the church.
In the beginning God breathed into man, and he became a living soul, and it takes the Holy Ghost and Jesus the Word of God and the blood to bring into life. From the beginning to the end it is faith, the resting of my faith on the finished work of the Lord Jesus.
The last church began in the second chapter of Acts, and in 1 Thessalonians 4, you will find it going up, and that is the end of it. In the church of God are both Jews and Gentiles.
There is a difference in polity, that is, in the general government of the church. There is a difference in the prescribed ritual. That has to do with the worship and ceremonies, and, lastly, there is a difference in the promises.
To begin with, we have the polity of the first church. Here is how they were to act. Drive out, grab everything, rule everybody. The twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy says, “The Lord shall cause thine enemies that rise up against thee to be smitten before they face; they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways.” They shall come out one way with their weapons, with their banners flying, and their young men in the pride of youth, and their great warriors, and God, the living God is in your midst, and because you are doing these things He would have you do, they shall flee before you seven ways. Come one way and flee seven, glad to get away with their lives! The first church was domineering and ruled in the might of its power. No humility in that, no love in that, not as we know it in these days. No grace in that, far, far from it.
Look at the last church in line with this word—Polity—Driven out, giving all, not grabbing everything; but giving all, ruled by others. 1 Corinthians 4:9, 11, 13.
“For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men.
“Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place.
“Being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and the offscouring of all things unto this day.”
Hunger,—so when we have food and raiment let us be thankful. Naked, buffeted! Oh, what a difference there is. Love your enemies. The other was an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Then the second word, “Prescribed Ritual.” In the first church they had blue blooded priests. Not everybody could get into the priesthood. You had to be born into it. They were the best people in Israel. Their robes were magnificent and their ritual was inspiring, and they worshiped God in a marvelous tabernacle or in a temple.
What about the last church; the sacrifices of the last church? There is only one sacrifice in the last church, and that is the sacrifice of the condemned criminal, who was carried without the gate and hung there on the cross. There is no tabernacle, no temple for the last church. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst.” You see the difference.
Take the “promises” of God to His ancient people and see the differences even here. The first were promises of power and all the fullness of prosperity and everything that the earth could yield. “Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you.” Authority and power and prosperity and everything that their hearts could crave in the natural. That was what they were promised if they would do.
The last church was promised absolutely nothing but persecution and poverty.
These are the points of difference, and these are some of the things which Stephen was trying to explain to these religious leaders, and they could not get them. They could not understand why they had been set aside and they refused to accept the setting aside, and this new ruler that had come, Jesus, this new One that had come to start a new church. They were satisfied with the old. Now the confusion that is in the church today comes from the mixing of the new and the old.
There is so much misunderstanding in regard to wealth and to worship and to war. President Harding went to church last Sunday. That is good as far as it goes, but hear what President Harding had to listen to. He had to sit and listen to the honored president of a great university who occupied the pulpit. He said that all the world, including Russia would soon reach a common understanding which would ensure a permanent peace.
This preacher knows very little about the differences between the first and the last church. The coming together of the nations, particularly Russia with the other nations, and cementing themselves in one great union thus ensuring the world’s peace!
Here we have two buildings, both built by the same man. He planned this one and put it up and he planned that one and put it up. Along comes the San Francisco earthquake. Notwithstanding the fact that he put both these buildings up solidly, down they go. This one was different from that one, but go and look at them the morning after the earthquake, and you cannot tell the first from the last. That is the way the Devil has succeeded in jumbling together everything that concerns the first and the last church and all that has to do with worship, wealth and war.
Over in Russia they thought they were doing God service when they wrote God’s name in diamonds over the door of a cathedral. There are multitudes that never heard the name of Jesus and are perishing for the bread of life that might be sent to them by one of those diamonds. Then again we go to such extremes, from rich-robed priests and an amazing ritual, to business like buildings that include everything even a billiard room in the basement and a ballroom on the second story, where the young folks can be held together by having a good time. May God have mercy on a church that has resorted to these things to hold its young folks together. To hold them together for what? There is nothing that will hold any company together but the cement of the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s dear Son, but when they are born into the church, when they are born and bred together, they will hold together all right enough.
They say the most of the wealth of the United States is in the hands of church members. There is nothing in the Scriptures concerning the last church that would lead us to believe that there ought to be a great accumulation of money in the hands of the members. Naked, hungry, buffeted! A man needs capital to run his business. It may be selling matches, and he would need to have at least seventy-five cents on hand to buy his stock in the morning. Or his business might be selling war ships or apartment houses of something big, and his capital would have to be more than seventy-five cents. But the trouble comes that men are not honest with God. Much of the wealth of the world is in the hands of church members, including God’s share.
The first church is an open book, anybody can read it. There is nothing mysterious about it. The last church is a great mystery, for God Himself says, “Great is the mystery of godliness—God was manifest in the flesh.” The greatest mystery the world ever looked at was Jesus Christ. They have not fathomed Him yet. There is mystery in His deity and humanity; in His death and resurrection, mystery in his life now and in His coming back again. There are great mysteries.
A man wanted to be like Christ, and how do you suppose he went about it? He put on a robe. It is a wonder he was not arrested. No one has a right to expose their limbs and the upper part of their anatomy, except ladies in Chicago, but he put on a robe and let his hair grow long, and he announced that he was doing this because he wanted to be like Christ. Great is the mystery of godliness.
You come together at the communion service and hear them say at the close of the service, “As oft as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show forth the Lord’s death until He come.” After the service if you were to go up behind some old lady and touch her on the arm and say? “I am glad we agree on that.” She would say, “Agree on what?” “Why, on the fact of the Lord’s coming. You just said we were to do this until Jesus came. Jesus is coming back.” She would say, “Go on, you are crazy.” They do not believe Jesus is coming back. Great is the mystery of godliness.
His death, His resurrection. They had to account for it some way, so a professor over in Oxford came before his class and made this announcement. In order to get away with it he announced that the Lord Jesus had simply swooned because of the great agony He suffered and the awful strain upon His body. His human nature would not stand up under it and he swooned. So they took Him down from the cross, but in the hands of His friends and under restoratives which those loving hands administered, He revived. Great is the mystery of godliness.
The first church is an open book, but the last church is a mystery to the great majority.
Here is another great point that stands out on the peaks of differences. The first church was not a missionary church. The first church sent out no missionaries and gave no money for the training of native teachers among the tribes. The last church is a missionary church or it is nothing, it is not a church at all. A book of statistics published some time ago, said that in the United States 12,000 churches had given not one penny to missions. We call them “churches.” It is courteous designation. When the church says, “I do not believe in missions,” then it stamps itself a heathen.
Let us say it was an usher in The Moody Church. The usher came along with the dough pan and stuck it under the nose of a certain man when taking up the offering for foreign missions and the fellow rejected it with this word, “I do not believe in missions.” Then this usher, (he was a wise sort of a fellow) kept the pan under that man’s nose, and the man looked up and growled, “Didn’t you hear me say that I did not believe in missions?” “Well,” urged the usher, “I held the pan here so you could dip in and have some for yourself. The money is going to the heathen anyway and you might as well have yours now.”
The first church was not a missionary church; the last church is a missionary church or it is no church at all; it is not worthy of name. It is not included in the church of God which He purchased with His blood.
Now, in closing. There are so many differences. The first church was typified, was characterized by law. The first church forbade, and it demanded. It was law and nothing but law, forbidding and demanding. But the new church is characterized by grace. The first church came with a weapon and threatened; the last church came with out-stretched arms and with tears streaming down its face, pleading with people to accept the Lord Jesus Christ. There is all the difference in the world.
Why did they kill Him? What did Stephen do? Why was he before the Sanhedrin? He had told them that the temple was not the place to worship. He had told them God had set aside the whole regime and priesthood and nation because of disobedience and that a new era had been inaugurated in Jesus Christ, God’s dear Son. That is all he did. That was the truth.
Many a preacher has lost his life in doing the same thing. That is, he has lost his financial life, his life of position and prestige, and he has been driven out because of the critics and the stubbornness of the nominal Christian church that will not accept the simple teaching of the Book.
Are we really trying to grab something out of the old dispensation that we have no right to at all, or are we content with all the promise of the future that is ours. God has something for his church that began in Acts and that ends in 1 Thessalonians 4. He has something for it immeasurably beyond anything He ever promised to Israel.
All the promises to the first church will be carried out, and the Jews will take possession of the earth in due time, but the church of God has something beyond any earthly inheritance, beyond anything that can be provided for Israel. The Old Testament saints are not in this last church. They are in their own order, they are in their own company, in their own rank.
Someone will say, “But were they not saved in the old dispensation?” Certainly they were saved. “How were they saved?” Through Jesus by all means, there is no other salvation. But can we not see that God makes a difference? Can we not see that God has something for the last church that was purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ that is inestimably beyond anything that Israel will ever enjoy? In the new church, God is seeking a bride for His Son.
Do not make any mistake. You are not a member of the church of God unless you have been born again of the Word of God through the blood of Jesus Christ and the ministry of the divine Spirit of God. You cannot join the church of God. If you are to be in it at all, you will have to be born into it. The relationship is a blood relationship with God Himself.