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Occasional Letters: What Every Assembly Needs

D Newell, Glasgow

Do you ever blush at the recollection of childhood misdemeanours? One spring morning in the early 1950s, at the tender age of three or four, I entered our next door neighbour’s garden and systematically removed all the heads from his prized bed of tulips. To this day I do not know why. Perhaps those neat rows of alternating red and yellow flowers just invited harvesting. Perhaps I had some vague memory of seeing my mother dead-heading her dahlias and thought I’d save our neighbour the trouble. Perhaps it was the simple pleasure of horticultural decapitation. When the crime was discovered my mother was mercifully on hand to prevent a case of sudden infanticide, but I was given to understand, in no uncertain terms, that my actions had not been appreciated.

Now I tell this story for the sake of one word – systematically. I trotted down those ranks of tulips with such careful and deadly deliberation that not a single flower remained unmolested. And this – believe it or not – is the model for Bible instruction in the local assembly. For God’s people to get the full nourishment of His Word, all the Scriptures without exception must be on the menu. This requires system. Occasional, haphazard or ad hoc teaching will never provide a balanced diet of truth. The Lord Jesus made clear that we live "by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Mt 4.4). Mark that: "every word", not selected highlights, or popular passages. If I am not feasting on every word I am not properly living. What better way to encourage believers in their personal reading of the entire Bible than to make sure that the Word as a whole is being taught in public?

Local assembly teaching should therefore be systematic. Please don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the systematic is opposed to the spiritual. It isn’t. What it is opposed to is the random, the disorderly, and the chaotic. All assembly activity is to be "done decently and in order" (1 Cor 14.40), just as Luke’s Gospel is designed to "set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us" (Lk 1.1). That’s clear enough – Luke’s account of the Lord Jesus is not a collection of disjointed gobbets of information but a methodically planned record of His life and ministry. Orderly instruction is its keynote. There is of course a place in a local assembly for open ministry, where a gifted and exercised brother can pass on to the saints what he has been enjoying in the Scriptures. But no assembly can be sustained on that alone. An organised teaching programme is a requirement. When Barnabas brought Saul to help build up the new believers in Antioch, we read that "a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people" (Acts 11.26). We can be certain their teaching was neither desultory nor disorganised simply by considering the clear design features built into the Scriptures themselves. The Bible does not consist of isolated statements, snippets of truth, unconnected parcels of doctrine. Rather, each of its 66 books, whether a chronicle, a letter, a collection of poems, a compilation of laws, is a meticulously organized body of data. Paul’s letters are carefully shaped arguments. And his oral teaching was no different, as Acts testifies. The man who could insist that he had declared "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20.27, ASV) quite obviously did it with method. There is no other way. If an assembly wishes to get to know the rich variety of God’s Word, its teaching programme will need to be systematic lest it omit Ezekiel, or Job, or Jeremiah. By the way, when did your assembly last teach those books?

But teaching must also be consecutive. Not only must every book of the Bible be included, each book must be opened up in its own sequential order. Simply put, I shall never make sense of Genesis until I go through it chapter by chapter as it was meant to be read. Luke’s tidy plan for his Gospel again presents a pattern: "it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order" (Lk 1.3), that is, offering "an orderly account" (ESV). According to Thayer, the word means "one after another, successively", and it is used to describe the way Paul visited the assemblies in Galatia and Phrygia (Acts 18.23). He went to them one at a time. If we go through books of the Bible consecutively, a chapter at a time, we shall at least make sure that we are exposed to God’s Word in its entirety. Topical teaching has its value but it can never take the place of chapter by chapter instruction.

Assembly teaching must also be regular, occurring at frequent, prearranged intervals. I doubt if Saul and Barnabas’ year-long stint in Antioch consisted merely of occasional ministry sessions. No, it would have been rigorous, frequent and coordinated. Little point in taking the saints through Isaiah on a monthly basis, simply because people will have forgotten what was said last month and half of each new meeting will be taken up with a prolonged recapitulation. Paul’s teaching at Berea was sufficiently concentrated to be checked daily: "they [the Bereans] received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (Acts 17.11). This passage proves incidentally that what Paul said was so tightly locked into the text of Scripture that it could easily be followed up afterwards. The example of Antioch in Syria demonstrates that the teaching was delivered by gifted men who were on the spot and could therefore provide continuity. A programme involving imported gift is going to have little cohesion if the teachers cannot hear each other. If I have to teach chapter two not knowing what the brother who expounded chapter one said, I am unlikely to be able to follow on effectively. Barnabas and Saul did not visit Antioch for a series of Thursdays or a few weeks’ meetings – they actually moved to Antioch so that they could be permanently on hand (Acts 11.25-26). And one of the most striking long-term results of their instruction was that the assembly expanded in local gift. In Acts 13.1 we learn of five gifted teachers, but by Acts 15.35 we read that "Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also". See the growth? In Acts 11 there were two teachers; by Acts 13 there were five (two of whom were called to service further afield); and in Acts 15 there were "many". Regular instruction produces an educated, spiritually edified assembly, equipped to support itself.

Teaching must be expository. That is to say, it has to open up and explain the meaning of God’s Word. The Levites who encouraged the returned Jewish exiles are a fine example: "they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading" (Neh 8.8). So too is Paul at Thessalonica: "Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead" (Acts 17.2-3). "Opening and alleging" might be rendered "explaining and proving" (ESV): as thoroughly as the Lord Jesus opened the ears of a deaf man (Mk 7.34), or the understanding of bewildered disciples (Lk 24.45), Paul opened up Scripture. And this is not easy. Exposition is hard work, which perhaps explains why so few are prepared to undertake it. It demands hours alone in the study, rigorously, methodically, sorting out what each verse means in its context. The few moments spent on the platform are but the tip of the iceberg of disciplined, dedicated industry. We all ought to be profoundly grateful to God for the expository teachers in our own local church. And if we do not have any, then we should be praying earnestly that God would raise them up so that our company might be what every New Testament assembly ought to be - a self-supporting gathering of believers where the Word is constantly at the forefront.

Finally, all teaching should be stimulating. If I am not passionate about God’s Word I should not be on the platform. Although the gift of prophecy no longer functions today, Paul’s description of its results can legitimately be applied to Bible exposition: "he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort" (1 Cor 14.3). His language suggests something of the sheer range of ministry. It is nothing if not practical. Real teaching fills our heads with the truth of God, challenges our hands to become involved in His work, and warms our hearts with His love. As the Word is elucidated, the Lord’s people are built up in doctrine, stirred up to godly action, and lifted up in spiritual encouragement. We cannot do without it and, if we would grow in grace, we need it all.

To be continued.


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