The True New Testament Church
October 17th, 1976 @ 8:15 AM
THE TRUE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-17-76 8:15 a.m.
The message is entitled: The New Testament Church. And our exposition of the Scripture is in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Matthew, beginning at verse 13. Matthew, chapter 16, beginning at verse 13: "When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi," To us, the word "coast" means seashore. The town is located at the base of the Lebanon Mountains. The Greek word is meros, actually a division of a country.
So we would say it like this:
When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am?
And they said: Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.
He saith unto them: But whom say ye that I am?
And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven.
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Petros, and upon this petra…
Petros is a stone, an individual rock. Petra is a great ledge, a great foundational stratum.
I have stood at the exact place in Caesarea Philippi, and there is there a fountain, a very large one, the head of the Jordan River flowing out at the base of a great cliff. And I can see our Lord with a gesture of His hand say to Peter, "Thou art Petros, one of the rocks out of which God will build His church. And upon this petra, upon this vast stratum, upon this great foundational ledge, and referring to that vast cliff there, "thou art Petros and upon this petra,," that is, the great, everlasting avowal of the deity of our Lord.
Peter had just said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." "Thou art Petra – one of the stones of the building up of the temple of God – on this great petra, this vast stratum, and upon this great foundation, I will build My church and the gates of hell – the word is Hades, death – shall not prevail against it," katischusousin.
The Greek word for down is kata; the Greek word for "to be strong" is iskuō. So, katischusousin is to hold it down, to prevail against it. That is, the church of Christ is living today and shall be to the consummation of the age. Time, the taste of death, blood, fire, and persecution are unable to destroy it. It lives forever.
Now, if that is true, then it is in the world today and will be for our children. What kind of a church is it? If it’s here today, can we recognize it? This church of the living Christ and of the living God, is it known by a certain additional name? Or is it known by a certain kind of history? I don’t think so; it is known by great, cardinal characteristics, basic fundamental descriptions by which it can be identified through all of the centuries. By not having a certain kind of history or certain kind of a name, I mean, something like this, and this is not without parallel in Christendom in the story of the propagation of the gospel.
A New Testament, a Bible, is washed ashore on an island in the South Pacific. And there the indigenous natives read it, and they’re converted. And they build a church, according to the church that they find on the pages of that New Testament washed up on their shores. It has no predecessor in history; it has no particular name, but they learned it out of the Word of God. And that is as much of a New Testament church as the mother church in Jerusalem. So, it is not by name that we’re looking, nor a certain kind of history for which we are searching. But, according to the Word of the Lord, there are certain fundamental and cardinal characteristics of the New Testament church today, tomorrow, and forever.
And I name the great, five, fundamental, cardinal ones. As I have on my hand five fingers, so there are five great, constitutional, fundamental characteristics. I name them. Number one: It has the Holy Scriptures for its only foundation and basis of faith and practice. All of its doctrines and all of its practices come out of the Book, not from the commandments of men, but by the revelation of Almighty God. This body of truth was first oral. That is why the first three Gospels are called synoptic, synoptic meaning, "looking at a thing alike." The first three Gospels are Synoptic Gospels.
Most of the literature in the first – most of the writing in the first three gospels is alike; they parallel each other very closely, which shows that in the beginning the Formgeschichte, the form of the spoken word, was placed in certain categories and in certain context. And they were repeated, and they were memorized, and they were learned and categorized by the church. And it was authoritative from the beginning. From the first day that Jesus was raised from the dead and from the first day of the Pentecostal outpouring by whose Holy Spirit, the things the Lord had spoken of were brought to the minds of the apostles. From that day and forever, the great faith and practice of the church is founded in the Word of God, and in the Word of God alone. We have a pattern of that in the life of our Lord. In John 5, He said, "Search the Scriptures, for in them you have eternal life and they are they which testify of Me." In the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts, "The Bereans were more noble than those of Thessalonica, because they searched the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so."
You have the pattern of it in the life of our Lord. In the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the Lord opened the minds of the apostles that they might understand the Holy Scriptures: And, then, beginning with Moses, the Torah, and, then, at the Psalms, the great body of literature called the Ketuvim, the Writings, and, then, in the Prophets, the Nevi’im. In the great three sections of the Bible, He opened their minds to understand the truth of the New Covenant, the New Testament.
So the great, first, cardinal, basic characteristic of the New Testament church is that it finds in the Bible its sole authority for practice and for its faith. You have a marvelous illustration of that in the great revival in Christendom called the Reformation. There was a watchword of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura – the Scriptures alone. And that is our cry; that is our cry today. The Word of God, the Holy Scriptures alone; not what a man says, not what a hierarchy says, not what a church says, but what God says. The sole authority for faith and practice: the Word of God.
The second finger: the second great, cardinal characteristic of the New Testament church is the priesthood of every believer. It is one of the most significant things in the life of the revelation of God.
When, as the Lord died and the sacrifice, the atonement for our sins was complete, there was a great earthquake and the veil of the temple was rent in twain, from the top to the bottom. If a man did it, it would have been rent from the bottom to the top. But, it was manifestly the hands of God that seized it and tore it apart, from the top, where God is, to the bottom, where man is. And the inner sanctuary of Almighty God was open to view, and any man could look in, any man could approach. The way was open for any soul, boldly to enter into the innermost sanctuary of the almighty and awesome God. And he’s invited to do so, "Come boldly to the throne of grace that ye might find grace to help in time of need." Every man is his own priest, and every man has access to God freely. That is any time, anywhere, can be a sacred place to bow in the presence of the Almighty. A kitchen corner is just as acceptable in His sight as the most gilded cathedral. And the vilest sinner can call upon the name of the Lord for himself. There is no intermediary now, between us and God, except the Lord Jesus Christ. And in Him, we have full access in the presence of the Most High. Our sanctuary is in heaven. Our altar is in heaven. Our sacrifice is in heaven. And our Great Priest – High Priest and Mediator – the Lord Jesus Christ is in heaven, and anyone, anywhere, any time, in any place, can boldly call upon the name of the Lord for himself: The priesthood of every believer.
The third finger: a regenerate church membership. That is something that arises mostly out of the experience in Christendom, in history. It is a great, cardinal doctrine in the Bible: a regenerate church membership. That each one who belongs to the church is one who has found Christ has his personal Savior.
But it came to pass with great vehemence, and underscoring, and emphasis in the working out of the gospel in history. It came like this: as the church was pulled away from its scriptural foundation and became more and more a tool in the hands of men – formed by decrees and by men’s judgments – as the church pulled away from its foundation in the Scriptures, it came to pass that the church became congress with the state. That is, if you were born a citizen of the state, you were also born a member of the church. They were the same.
For example in Sweden today, each Swedish child that is born in the nation is born a citizen of Sweden, and is also born a member of the state church. And in order to disassociate yourself from the state church, there has to be a legal process through which one is allowed, in these modern days, to not become a member of the state church. This is no doctrine of the Bible and it does not come out of the revelation in the Holy Scriptures. We are members of a state by having been born a citizen of it. But, when we become members of the true church of Christ, we must be born again. We are born into the fellowship and communion of the people of God. We are, by volition and by choice, by repentance and by acceptance, by faith, we are added to the body of Christ, the church of the living God.
So everyone who is a member of the church in some way, becomes that because of a personal experience he has had with the Lord. Like Paul, on the road to Damascus, in some place, he’s had a confrontation with God. He’s given his heart to the Lord. He has become a Christian. Not because of his parents. Not because he was born in a certain nation or state. But he becomes a Christian because of an experience he has had in his heart. "I have accepted the Lord as my Savior," and on the basis of that commitment, he is baptized into the body of Christ. He becomes a member of the church of the living God. It is a regenerate church membership.
The fourth finger – the fourth great characteristic of the New Testament church: it has two orders, two sacred offices, two ordinations, and it has two ordinances, two ordaining practices that come from the hands of our Lord. First, the orders: There are two sacred, and holy, and consecrated orders of service in the New Testament church. "Paul and Timothy, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus, which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." And once again, 1 Timothy, chapter 3, "This is a true saying – noble and fine saying – If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work." Verse 8, "Likewise must the deacons . . .." There are two consecrated offices in a New Testament church – just two, two ordinations. They are first: a presbuteros, an episkopos, and a poimēn. All three refer to the same office, the same ordained minister in the house of the Lord. Presbuteros is translated "elder," referring to the dignity of his office.
Episkopos, translated "bishop," refers to the work of his office. He is the leader of the church. He is the episkopos, the overseer of the church. The third is poimēn, shepherd. He is the pastor – translated "pastor." He is "the pastor of the flock." That’s the first office of ordination in a New Testament church: the pastor, or the elder, or the bishop.
The second office of ordination is the diakonos, which is a plain, simple, plain word meaning "servant," the deacon, translated in the New Testament, "deacon." The deacon is the man who supports and helps; who holds up the hand of the pastor and who ministers among the needs – which are so many – among the needs of the church, which can burden a pastor down with 10,000 things of materialities. This of all things, is a weakness in the church; the church needs for its minister to be a preacher, and a pastor, and a overseer. And there are 10,000 things in the separate ministries of the church that ought to be done by the diakonos, the laymen.
To me, that is the strength of the wisdom of God in building a church. It isn’t just the pastor; it is also the layman and the laywoman. Phoebe is called a deaconess in the church at Cenchrea, and the part of the woman in the church is vast: as beautiful, as great, as everlastingly blessed as the mother of the Son of God Himself. And those two make an unbeatable team: The pastor and the layman working together in the vineyard of the Lord.
The ordinances of a New Testament church are also two, and they are but two. They are never sacraments, that is, means of salvation or instruments of grace. But they are rather pictures and dramatic portrayals of the truth of the message of Christ. As a dipper will hold and shape the water, so the two, and only two, ordinances of the church hold and shape the truth. The ordinance of the Lord’s Supper: this is bread broken, reminding us of the body of the Lord; the crushed grapes, reminding us of the blood of the Lord.
And the ordinance of baptism, picturing for us the burial of the Lord, and our burial with Him, and our death to the world, and the resurrection of our Lord, picturing our rising to a new life and a new hope in Him. These are the orders and the ordinances of the church; in both instances, just two.
The last digit on my hand and the fifth great, cardinal characteristic of the church: The Great Commission for us is everlastingly incumbent and mandatory upon us. We have in the Great Commission, three things: Mathētuō – we’re to make disciples, to win people to Christ; Baptizō – we are to baptize them in the name of the Triune God; Didaskō – we are to teach them to observe all of the things the Lord hath commanded us to keep. A New Testament church, one that follows in the way and the will of our Lord, is found doing that. We are evangelizing: mathētuō. We are baptizing: baptizō. And we are catechizing: didaskō – teaching, teaching, teaching, witnessing, testifying; baptizing our converts. There is no finer thing I see in the life of our church than when we have a baptismal service every Sunday night. This is a New Testament church.
Now I have mentioned the five great articles of its constitution: The Scriptures, our sole authority for faith and practice, the priesthood of every believer, we can go to God directly and for ourselves; A regenerate church membership. Each one who belongs is one who has volitionally chosen to give his heart to Christ. The two ordinances and orders of ordination and the Great Commission: to evangelize, to baptize and to teach our converts.
In just the few moments that remain, could I also speak of some of the bylaws, some of the concomitants and corollaries that go along with the great, spiritual constitution of the church of Christ? I name one: The assembling of ourselves together. As the great author of Hebrews wrote in the tenth chapter of his book, "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together." If you were to find a New Testament church, I would find it on the Lord’s Day, assembled in praise, in prayer, and in worship. Nor is it a coercive thing in our lives: "I was glad when at a said unto me, Let us go to the house of the Lord." It is a happy and a precious time for us who love Jesus. On the first day of the week, the disciples were gathered together to break bread. On the first day of the week, the Lord Jesus appeared to His disciples, raised from among the dead. On the first day of the week, on the Lord’s Day, John – even though alone – was in the Spirit and saw the glorious Apocalypse vision of our resurrected, and immortalized, and glorified Lord. And from the beginning, every Sunday was an Easter Sunday to the New Testament church; they gathered together in the praise and worship of the Lord.
Another bylaw of that church: On the same Sunday, the first day of the week, they set aside for the Lord a gift, according to how God had prospered them. [1 Corinthians 16:2], "Upon the first day of the week – upon the Lord’s Day – let everyone of you lay by him in store as God hath prospered him . . .." On the first day of the week, on Sunday, bringing to God’s house a proportion of what God has given us.
I have just come back from New York City where I have been preaching the latter part of this week to what they call the Metropolitan New York Southern Baptist Association. It is just now that we are beginning a work in that great and vast metropolitan area of almost 20,000,000 people.
And, as I looked at the vast city and listened to our leaders who are seeking to build a testimony in that vast capital of the nations of the world, my heart sank within me as I looked upon and as I heard described, the historical churches of that great metropolitan area. It is hard to believe that such decadence could have sat in the witnessing congregation of the Lord. As one said to me, "It would be unthinkable that the members of the church would tithe." As another said to me, "They have no conception and no burden of the evangelization of the city." As another said to me, "You would find them very willing to sign most any article of orthodoxy of faith, but they do nothing about it."
As another said, "They eat, and meet, and they retreat."
And the churches have lost their witness. As the city has grown and the population has multiplied, the city churches are empty. They stand there like vast mausoleums, like sepulchers, like tombs. My heart was moved within me as I looked at the vast, vast millions of people and the church so lost in its ableness to cope with the evangelization of the peoples who pour down those streets.
Some men die by shrapnel
And some men die by flames
But some men die
An inch at a time,
Playing at little games.
[Quote from C.T. Studd, athlete and missionary]
With the vast call of the world and the Great Commission of Christ upon it, piddling, dawdling, dying. And the whole world swirling in intenseness, activity around it, and it is dead.
Ah! I think 99 percent of the difference in living in a city like Dallas and in a city like New York, lies in the consecration of its people: A church-going citizenship; a Christ-honoring church. Lord, Lord, that we could keep it vibrant and alive! Do it, Lord, please. Make it shine for Jesus, may there be in the hearts of our members a wonderful consecration to respond, "Here I am, and on the first day of the week, here’s a proportion of what God has given me. I’ll start with a tenth and ask God to help me, in faith, to make it more as the years multiply and I grow in grace."
Bear me just one more word. Those great articles of faith, the fundamental cardinal characteristics of the church of Christ, these bylaws and corollaries: prayer, I don’t think we can do it without it. To pray: I don’t think we can win souls without it – to pray. I don’t think we can over-subscribe our budget without it, to pray. I don’t think we can have the power and presence of the Lord God in our services without it, to pray.
I listened to one of the preachers up there, and he’s the executive of the Association. And he was describing the beginning of Baptist work in New York. He said:
Long, long time ago – long time ago, when the city was on the tip of Manhattan Island – they built a wall across the tip in order to keep out of the wolves and the wild animals in the wilderness above. And that’s where,
– he said –
came the name Wall Street, Wall Street. There was a wall across the tip end of the island from the East River to the Hudson River; there was a wall across there to protect the little community from the ravaging predatory wild animals above.
– he said –
At the dock there landed a man from the ship and walked into a saloon and asked if there was a Baptist church there. The saloon keeper had never heard of a Baptist, much less of a Baptist church. And the saloon keeper replied, "Sir, there’s no Baptist here. But, right up the street – I happen to know they have prayer meetings in a house right up the street." And he pointed it out to the stranger. The stranger went up there and found a little group of Baptist people, calling on the name of the Lord.
– and the executive said –
That saloon keeper was converted and became the first pastor of that first little Baptist congregation in what is known today as New York City.
Just praying; no preacher at the time, no pastor at the time. And God gave them a pastor: a converted, born-again saloon keeper, in prayer. God will do anything that His people ask in faith and in prayer, and every part of our work and every part of our service ought to be bathed in prayer.
Lord, help me to preach in power and in the unction of heaven. Lord, bless my mind as I study and pore over the Holy Scriptures. Lord, help me as I walk in and out among the people. And Lord, help me as I testify to the saving grace of Christ. And Lord, bless the assembly of the saints. And dear God, bless our teaching of the immutable and undying words. Lord, bless our leaders and our staff. And Lord, bless us when the time comes for invitation and appeal. Having witnessed, and having testified, and having sown the seed, Lord, crown it with a gracious harvest, and every part of our church, and of our work, and of our lives, and of our homes, and of every tomorrow, bathed in intercession and in prayer.
That is the church of the living God. I realize I have spoken far too long but these things are so vital and so significant for us who are building a great lighthouse for Christ in the heart of this growing city.