The Normal Christian Church Life

Watchman Nee

2. The Separation and Movements of the Apostles


The church in Antioch is the model church shown us in God's Word, because it was the first to come into being after the founding of the churches connected with the Jews and the Gentiles. In the second chapter of Acts we see the church in connection with the Jews established in Jerusalem, and in the tenth chapter we see the church in connection with the Gentiles established in the house of Cornelius. It was just after the establishment of these churches that the church in Antioch was founded. In its transition stage the church in Jerusalem was not altogether free from Judaism, but the church in Antioch from the very outset stood on absolutely clear Church ground. It is of no little significance that "the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch" (Acts 11:26). It was there that the peculiar characteristics of the Christian and the Christian Church were first clearly manifested, for which reason it may be regarded as the pattern church for this dispensation. Its prophets and teachers were model prophets and teachers, and the apostles it sent forth were model apostles Not only are the men sent forth an example to us, but the mode of their sending forth is our example too.

Since the completion of the New Testament the Holy Spirit has called many of God's children to serve Him throughout the world, but strictly speaking none of these can be regarded as our examples. We must always look at the first act of the Holy Spirit in any given direction to discover His pattern for us in that particular direction. The first recorded sending forth of workers from the first church established on absolutely clear Church ground is our best example in the sending forth of apostles or missionaries.


The Holy Spirit's Call


In the first two verses of Acts 13 we read: "Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers as Barnabas and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, 'Separate unto Me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them to." (Acts 13:1-2) Kindly note a few facts here. There was a local church in Antioch, there were certain prophets and teachers who were ministers in that church, and it was from among those that the Holy Spirit separated two for another sphere of service. Barnabas and Saul were two ministers of the Lord already engaged in the ministry when the call of the Spirit came. The Holy Spirit only sends to other parts such as are already equipped for the work and are bearing responsibility where they are, not those who are burying their talent and neglecting local needs while they dream of some future day when the call will come to special service. Let us note first that the Holy Spirit chooses apostles from among the prophets and teachers.

"And as they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, 'Separate unto Me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them to." These prophets and teachers ministered so whole-heartedly to the Lord that when occasion demanded they even ignored the legitimate claims of their physical being and fasted. What filled the thoughts of those prophets and teachers at Antioch was ministry to the Lord, not work for Him. Their devotion was to the Lord Himself, not to His service, and it was while Barnabas and Saul ministered to Him that the voice of the Spirit was heard calling them to special service.

It was to the divine call they responded, not to the call of human need. They had heard no reports of man-eaters or head-hunting savages. Their compassions had not been stirred by doleful tales of child-marriage, or foot-binding, or opium smoking. They had heard no voice but the voice of the Spirit; they had seen no claims but the claims of Christ. No appeal had been made to their natural heroism or love of adventure. They knew only one appeal - the appeal of their Lord. It was the Lordship of Christ that claimed their service, and it was on His authority alone that they went forth. Their call was a spiritual call. No natural factor entered into it. It was the Holy Spirit who said, "Separate unto Me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them to." All spiritual work must begin with the Spirit's call. All divine work must be divinely initiated. The plan conceived for the work may be splendid, the reason adequate, the need urgent, and the man chosen to carry it out may be eminently suitable; but if the Holy Spirit has not said, "Separate unto Me that man for the work to which I have called him," he can never be an apostle. He may be a prophet or a teacher, but he is no apostle. God desires the service of His children, but He makes conscripts, He wants no volunteers. The work is His, and He is its only legitimate Originator. Human intention, however good, can never take the place of divine initiation. Earnest desires for the salvation of sinners or the edification of saints will never qualify a man for God's work. One qualification, and only one, is necessary - God must send him.

It was the Holy Spirit who said, "Separate unto Me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them to." Only the divine call can qualify for the apostolic office. The tragedy in Christian work today is that so many of the workers have simply gone out, they have not been sent. Personal desire, friendly persuasions, the advice of one's elders and the urge of opportunity - all these are factors on the natural plane, and they can never take the place of a spiritual call. That is something which must be registered in the human spirit by the Spirit of God.

When Barnabas and Saul were sent forth, the Spirit first called them, then the brethren confirmed the call. The brethren may say you have a call, and circumstances may seem to indicate it, but the question is, have you yourself heard the call? If you are to go forth then you are the one who must first hear the voice of the Spirit. We dare not disregard the opinion of the brethren, but their opinion is no substitute for a personal call from God.

If God desires the service of any child of His, He Himself will call him to it, and He Himself will send him forth. The first requirement in divine work is a divine call. Everything hinges on this. A divine call gives God His rightful place, for it recognizes Him as the Originator of the work. Where there is no call from God, the work undertaken is not of divine origin, and it has no spiritual value. Divine work must be divinely initiated. A worker may be called directly by the Spirit, or indirectly through the reading of the Word, through preaching, or through circumstances; but whatever means God may use to make His will known to man, His voice must be the one heard through every other voice; He must be the one who speaks, no matter through what instrument the call may come. We must never be independent of the other members of the Body, but we must never forget that we receive all our directions from the Head.


Separation of Workers


Yes, it was the Holy Spirit who called Barnabas and Saul, but He said to the other prophets and teachers as well as to them, "Separate unto Me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them to." The Holy Spirit spoke directly to the apostles, but He also spoke indirectly through the prophets and teachers. What was said privately to the two was confirmed publicly through the other three. All apostles must have a personal revelation of God's will, but to make that alone the basis of their going forth is not sufficient. On the one hand the opinion of others, however spiritual and however experienced, can never be a substitute for a direct call from God. On the other hand, a personal call, however definite, requires the confirmation of the representative members of the Body of Christ in the locality from which the workers go out.

Let us observe that the Holy Spirit did not say to the church in Antioch, "Separate unto Me Barnabas and Saul." It was to the prophets and teachers He spoke. For God to make His will known to the entire assembly would scarcely have been practicable. Some of its members were spiritually mature, but others were only babes in Christ. God therefore spoke to a representative company in the church, to men of spiritual experience who were utterly devoted to His interests.

And here was the result - "When they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away" (Acts 13:3). The setting apart of the apostles by the prophets and teachers followed the call which came to them from the Spirit. The call was personal, the separation was corporate; and the one was not complete without the other. A direct call from God, and a confirmation of that call in the setting apart of the called ones by the prophets and teachers, is God's provision against freelances in His service.

The calling of an apostle is the Holy Spirit speaking directly to the one called. The separating of an apostle is the Holy Spirit speaking indirectly through the fellow-workers of the called one. It is the Holy Spirit who takes the initiative both in the calling and separation of workers. Therefore if the representative brethren of any assembly set men apart for the service of the Lord, they must ask themselves, Are we doing this on our own initiative, or as representing the Spirit of God? They must be able to say of every worker they send forth, He was sent out by the Holy Spirit, not by man. No separation of workers should be done hastily or lightly. It was for this reason that fasting and prayer preceded the sending forth of Barnabas and Saul.

As regards all sent ones, they must pay attention to these two aspects in their separation for the service of God. On the one hand there must be a direct call from God and a personal recognition of that call. On the other hand there must be a confirmation of that call by the representative members of the Body of Christ. And as regards all who are responsible for the sending forth of others, they must on the one hand be in a position to receive the revelation of the Spirit and to discern the mind of the Lord; on the other hand they must be able to enter sympathetically into the experience of those whom they, as the representative members of the Body of Christ, send forth in the Name of the Lord. The principle that governed the sending forth of the first apostles still governs the sending forth of all apostles who are truly appointed by the Spirit to the work of God.


The Expression of the Body


On what ground did these prophets and teachers set certain men apart as apostles, and whom did these prophets and teachers represent? Why did they, and not the entire church, separate those workers? What is the significance of such separation, and what is the qualification required on the part of those who assume responsibility in the matter?

The first thing we must realize is that God has incorporated all of His children into one Body.

When we speak of the one Body we emphasize the oneness of the life of all God's children: when we speak of its many members we emphasize the diversity of functions in that unity. The characteristic of the former is life: the characteristic of the latter is work. In a physical body the members differ one from another, yet they function as one because they share one life and have the upbuilding of the whole body as their one aim.

Because the Body of Christ has these two different aspects - life and ministry - it consequently has two different outward manifestations. The church in a locality is used to express the life of the Body, and the gifts in the Church are used to express the ministry of its members. In other words, each local church should stand on the ground of the Body, regarding itself as an expression of the oneness of the life of the Body, and it should on no account admit of division, since it exists as the manifestation of an indivisible life. The various ministers of the Church should likewise stand on the ground of the Body, regarding themselves as an expression of the oneness of its varied ministries. Perfect fellowship and cooperation should characterize all their activity, for though their functions are diverse, their ministry is really one.

A cursory reading of Eph. 4:11-12 might lead us to conclude that apostles, prophets evangelists, pastors and teachers functioned outside the Body, because they were given by the Lord to His Church for her upbuilding (verse 12); but the sixteenth verse makes it clear that they do not stand outside the Body to build it up: they seek to build it up from within. They themselves are part of the Body, and it is only as they take their rightful place in it, as ministering members, that the whole Body is edified.

That churches are the local expression of the Body of Christ is an established fact, so we need not go into that here; but some explanation is called for regarding the gifted ministers whom God has set in the Church as the expression of the ministry of the Body. In 1 Cor. 12 Paul is clearly dealing with the question of Christian service. He likens the workers to different members of a body, and shows that each member has its specific use, and all serve the body as belonging to it, not as distinct from it. In verse 27 he writes, "Now you are the Body of Christ, and individually members thereof"; and in the following verse he says, "And God has set in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, governments, diverse kinds of tongues. A study of these two verses makes it clear that the gifted ministers of verse 28 are the members of verse 27, and that the Church of verse 28 is the Body of verse 27; therefore, what ministers are to the Church, members are to the Body. The gifted ministers are the functioning members of the Body, and all their operations are as members. They are to the Church what hands, feet, mouth and head are to the physical body. They are in the Body, serving it by the use of those faculties which they, as members, possess.

In reading 1 Cor. 12:28 one cannot but be arrested by the striking difference between the description of the first three gifts and the remaining five. Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit, takes special care in enumerating them "first apostles; secondly prophets; thirdly teachers." The first three are specifically numbered, but not the rest; and they are quite distinct in their nature as well as their numbering. They are men, the rest are things. The three first-named gifts of the Lord to His Church - apostles, prophets and teachers - stand apart from all the others. They are ministers of God's Word, and their function, to edify the Body of Christ, is the most important function in the Church. They are the representatives of the ministry of the Body.

The only Scriptural record of the sending forth of apostles is found in Acts 13, and there we see that it is the prophets and teachers who set them apart for their ministry. Scripture provides no precedent for the separation and sending forth of men by one or more individuals, or by any mission or organization; even the sending out of workers by a local church is a thing unknown in the Word of God. The only example provided us there is the separating and sending forth of apostles by the prophets and teachers.

What is the significance of this? In Antioch the prophets and teachers were chosen of God to separate Barnabas and Saul for His service, because they were the ministering members of the church, and this separation of the apostles was a question of ministry rather than life. Had it related to life, and not specifically to service, then it would have been the concern of the whole local church, not merely of its ministering members. But let it be noted that, though Barnabas and Saul were not separated for the work by the entire church, they were sent out not as representatives of a few select members but as representatives of the whole Body. Their being separated by the prophets and teachers implied that they did not go out on individualistic lines, or on the basis of any organization, but on the ground of the ministry of the Body. The emphasis, as we have seen, was on ministry, not on life, but it was a ministry representing the whole Church, not representing any particular section of it.

In sending Barnabas and Saul from Antioch, the prophets and teachers stood for no "church" or mission; they represented the ministry of the Body. They were not the whole Church, they were only a group of God's servants. They bore no special name, they were bound by no particular organization, and they were subject to no fixed rules. They simply submitted themselves to the control of the Spirit and separated those whom He had separated for the work to which He had called them. They themselves were not the Body, but they stood on the ground of the Body, under the authority of the Head. Under that authority, and on that ground, they separated men to be apostles; and under the same authority, and on the same ground, others can do the same. The separation of apostles on this principle will mean that the men sent out may differ, those who send them may differ, and the time and place of their sending may differ too; but since all is under the direction of the one Head, and on the ground of the one Body, there will still be no division. If Antioch sends men out on the basis of the Body, and Jerusalem sends men out on the basis of the Bodv, there will still be inward oneness despite all outward diversity. How grand it would be if there were no representatives of different earthly bodies, but only representatives of the Body, the Body of Christ. If thousands of local churches, with thousands of prophets and teachers, each sent out thousands of different workers, there would be a vast outward diversity, but there could still be perfect inward unity if all were sent out under the direction of one Head and on the ground of the one Body.

That Christ is the Head of the Church is a recognized fact, but that fact needs emphasis in relation to the ministry as well as the life of the Church. Christian ministry is the ministry of the whole Church, not merely of one section of it. We must see to it that our work is on no lesser basis than the Body of Christ. Otherwise we lose the Headship of Christ, for Christ is not the Head of any system, or mission, or organization: He is the Head of the Church.

In Scripture we find no trace of man-made organizations sending out men to preach the Gospel. We only find representatives of the ministry of the Church, under the guidance of the Spirit and on the ground of the Body, sending out those whom the Spirit has already separated for the work. If those responsible for the sending out of workers sent them out not as their own representatives or the representatives of any organizations but only as representatives of the Body of Christ, and if those sent out stood on the ground of no particular "church" or mission but on the ground of the Church alone, then no matter from what places the workers came or to what places they went, cooperation and unity would always be possible and much confusion would be avoided.


Their Movements


After the apostles were called by the Spirit and were separated for the work by the representative members of the Body, what did they do? We need to recall that those who separated them had no authority to control the apostles. Those prophets and teachers at the base assumed no official responsibility in regard to their movements, their methods of work, or the supply of their financial needs. In Scripture we nowhere find that apostles are under the control of any individual or any organized company. They had no regulations to adhere to and no superiors to obey. The Holy Spirit called them and they followed His leading and guidance. He alone was their director.

In Chapters 13 and 14 of the Book of Acts we find the first Scriptural record of missionary movements. Though today the places we visit and the conditions we meet may be vastly different from those of the Scripture record, yet in principle the experience of the first apostles may well serve as our example. Let us glance for a moment at these two chapters.

"So they, being sent forth by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. And when they were at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John as their attendant. And when they had gone through the whole island unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer" (Acts 13:4-6). From the very outset constant movement characterized those sent ones. A true apostle is a traveler, not a settler.

"Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departed from them and returned to Jerusalem. But they, passing through from Perga, came to Antioch of Pisidia; and they went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down" (Acts 13:13-14). (The Antioch mentioned here is not the same as the Antioch from which Barnabas and Saul set forth on their first missionary tour). The apostles were constantly on the move, proclaiming the Word of God wherever they went, but until they reached Antioch in Pisidia we are not told anything of the result of their labors. From this point there is a definite development in the work.

"Now when the synagogue broke up, many of the Jews and of the devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who speaking to them, urged them to continue in the grace of God" (Acts 13:43). Here is the outcome of a short period of witness in Antioch of Pisidia - many of the Jews and religious proselytes believed. A week later almost the whole city gathered together to hear the Word (verse 44); but this enthusiastic response on the part of the people provoked the Jews to jealousy and they opposed the,apostles (verse 45). At this point the apostles turned to the Gentiles (verse 46), and "as many as were ordained to eternal life believed" (verse 48). On the previous Sabbath a number of Jews had received the Word of life. This Sabbath a number of Gentiles believed on the Lord. So not long after the arrival of the apostles in Antioch of Pisidia we find a church there.

But the apostles did not argue, "Now we have a group of believers here, we must stay awhile and shepherd them." They founded a local church at Antioch of Pisidia, but they did not stay to build it up. On they went again, publishing the Word of the Lord "throughout all the region" (verse 49). Their objective was not one city, but "all the region." The modern custom of settling down in one place to shepherd a particular flock has no precedent in Scripture.

Persecution followed (verse 50). The opponents of the Gospel message expelled the apostles from their coasts, and they answered by shaking the dust from their feet (verse 51). Many a present-day missionary has no dust to shake from his feet! But those who gather no dust lack the characteristic of an apostle. The early apostles never settled down in comfortable homes, nor did they stop for long to pastor the churches they founded. They were constantly itinerating. To be an apostle means to be a sent one, that is, to be always going out. A stationary apostle is a contradiction in terms. A true apostle is one who in times of persecution will always have dust to shake off his feet.

What effect had this early departure of the apostles upon the infant church? Here was a group of new believers, mere babes in Christ, and their fathers in the faith forsook them in their infancy. Did they argue, Why should the apostles take fright at persecution and leave us to face the opposition alone? Did they plead with the apostles to remain awhile and care for their spiritual welfare? Did they reason, If you leave us now we shall be as sheep without a shepherd? If both of you cannot stay, surely one at least can remain behind and look after us The persecution is so intense, we shall never get through without your help. How amazing the Scripture record is: "And the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit" (verse 52).

There was no mourning among the disciples when the apostles went, because the apostles' departure meant an opportunity for others to hear the Gospel. What was loss to them was gain to Iconium. Those believers were not like the believers of today, hoping for a settled pastor to instruct them, solve their problems and shelter them from trouble. Those apostles were not like the apostles of today; they were pioneers, not settlers. They did not wait till believers were mature before they left them. They dared to leave them in mere infancy, for they believed in the power of the life of God within them.

But those disciples were not only filled with joy, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. The apostles might go, but the Spirit remained. If they had had a pastor to throw light on all their problems they would have felt little need of the Spirit's instruction, and they would have felt little need of His power if they had one in their midst who was bearing all responsibility for the spiritual side of the work while they attended to the secular. In Scripture there is not the slightest hint that apostles should settle down to pastor those they have led to the Lord. There are pastors in Scripture, but they are simply brethren raised up of God from among the local saints to care for their fellow believers. One of the reasons why so many present-day converts are not filled with the Spirit is because the apostles settle down to shepherd them and take upon themselves the responsibility that belongs to the Holy Spirit.

Praise God that the apostles "moved on to Iconium," for "a great multitude of both Jews and Greeks believed" (Acts 14:1). Before long "the multitude of the city was divided; and part held with the Jews, and part with the apostles" (verse 4). The saved were obviously "a great multitude," since their coming out from the unsaved so vitally affected the place as to cause a division in the city. Only a short time after the apostles left Antioch in Pisidia, there was a church established in Iconium, and here, as in the previous place, opposition was intense. The apostles might well have argued that to leave "a great multitude" of mere babes in Christ exposed to fierce persecution was heartless, and bad policy besides. But the apostles were true to their apostolic calling, and off they went "to cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe" (verse 6). And what did they do when they came to Lystra? As elsewhere, so here, "they preached the Gospel" (verse 7); and as elsewhere, so here, there was opposition and persecution (verse 19). It is difficult to estimate the number of believers at Lystra, but judging by the remark that the disciples "encircled" Paul (verse 20, Darby), there must have been at least half a dozen, and there may have been scores or even hundreds. So now there is a church in Lystra!

Does Paul stay to shepherd them awhile, or at least to tend them till the fierceness of the opposition has subsided? No! "On the morrow he went forth with Barnabas to Derbe" (verse 20). And there again the Gospel is proclaimed and many disciples are made (verse 21). So another church is formed! And with the founding of a church in Derbe the first missionary tour of the apostles closes.

Looking back over thee two chapters, we note that a fundamental principle governs the movements of the apostles. They travel from place to place, according to the leading of the Spirit, preaching the Gospel and founding churches. Nowhere do we find them settling down to shepherd and instruct the converts, or to bear any local responsibility in the churches they have founded. In days of peace the apostles were on the move, and in days of persecution likewise. "Go!" was the word of the Lord, and "Go!" was the watchword of the apostles. The outstanding trait of a sent one is that he is always on the move.


On Their Return


But the question arises, How were these new converts shepherded and instructed? How were the newly-founded churches established? In studying the Word of God we find that the missionary tour of the apostles consisted of an outward and a return journey. On their outward journey their first concern was to found churches. On their return journey their chief business was to build them up.

Having "made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, and to Iconium, and to Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:21,22). Here we see Paul and Barnabas returning to do some construction work in the churches already founded; but as before on their outward journey, so now on their return, they never settle down in any one place.

It is clear then that the apostles did not just move from place to place founding churches, they also did definite construction work. Merely to found churches without establishing them would be like leaving newborn babes to their own resources. The point to note here is, that while the instruction of the new converts and the building up of the churches was a very vital part of the apostles' work, they did it not by settling down in one place but rather by visiting the places where they had been before.

Before they left a place where a church had been founded and some construction work done, they appointed elders to bear responsibility there (Acts 14:23). This is one of the most important parts of an apostle's work. (This subject will be dealt with more fully in a subsequent chapter.)

Thus the early apostles worked, and the blessing of the Lord rested on their labors. We shall do well if we follow in their steps, but we must realize clearly that even though we adopt apostolic methods, unless we have apostolic consecration, apostolic faith and apostolic power, we shall still fail to see apostolic results. We dare not underestimate the value of apostolic methods they are absolutely essential if we are to have apostolic fruits - but we must not overlook the need of apostolic spirituality, and we must not fear apostolic persecution.


Back to Antioch


"And from there they sailed to Antioch, from where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had fulfilled. And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all things that God had done with them, and how that He had opened a door of faith unto the Gentiles" (Acts 14:26-27). On their return to Antioch the apostles "rehearsed all things that God had done with them." It was from Antioch that Paul and Barnabas had gone out, so it was only fitting that on their return they should give an account of the Lord's dealings with them to those from whom they had gone forth. To give reports of the work to those who are truly bearing the burden with us, is sanctioned by God's Word. It is not only permissible but necessary that the children of God at the base should he informed of His doings on the field, but we do well to make sure that our reports are not in the nature of advertisements.

In the matter of reporting, we should on the one hand avoid all unnatural reticence and soulish seclusiveness; on the other hand we must carefully guard against the intrusion of any personal interest. In all reports of the work our aim should be to glorify God and bring spiritual enrichment to those who share them. To utilize reports as a means of propaganda, with material returns in view, is base in the extreme, and unworthy of any Christian. When the motive is to glorify God and benefit His children, but at the same time to make known the needs of the work with a view to receiving material help, it is still far from acceptable to the Lord, and is unworthy of His servants, Our aim should be this alone - that God shall be glorified and His children blessed. If there were this perfect purity of motive in our reports, how differently many of them would be worded!

Each time we write or speak of our work let us ask ourselves these questions: 1) Am I reporting with a view to gain publicity for myself and my work? 2) Am I reporting with the double object of glorifying the Lord and advertising the work? 3) Am I reporting with this aim alone, that God shall be glorified and His children blessed? May the Lord give us grace to report with unmixed motives and perfect purity of heart!


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