Reading: Acts 1:2-4; 1 Cor. 15:3-8.
These passages do not give a complete record. A more complete one would be this: To Mary (John 20), to the woman, to the two disciples on the Emmaus way, to Peter, to the apostles without Thomas, to the apostles with Thomas, to the seven disciples by the Lake (John 21), to a multitude of Galilee (Matt. 28), to James in Galilee, to all the apostles (Acts 1), and then in the ascension.
In these passages, especially 1 Cor. 15 with the larger summary which we have added of His appearances, we have something which is a great feature and factor of the church in the mind and will of the Lord. Why would not the Lord be content with waiting for, or bringing about what we would call "the psychological moment", when all the disciples were gathered together with the believers, and then appear in the midst of them and let it all be done in one act, so that they all beheld Him? There would have been nothing personal and private as such, and everyone would be able to verify the other's witnessing. Why should He spread it over so long a period, and make His appearances so diverse, so various? Why these two features of adversity and continuity? The answer is that which provides the church with its meaning. They each, and all, saw the Lord. In the end it was a company, each of which had seen Him alive. That is the church. That is what He intends the church to be, so that every one personally can say, "I am one who has seen the Lord", and then they are formed into the large company, and they are all together saying, "We have all seen the Lord". You cannot have anything simpler than that, and yet how vital, how important that is.
You can constitute a Christian society in many other ways, but you can only constitute the church on that basis. The true church is that, or it is nothing. It is the company of those who can all look at one another and say, "You have not got an experience of the living Lord that I have not. I have seen the Lord!" It is a matter of personal testimony to having come into touch with the living Lord, the risen Lord, and that personal testimony becoming collective forms the church. That is as essential to the local assembly as it is to the whole.
That is where you begin, but there is something more inside of it. The diversity of appearances was in order that there should be particular meaning in each case. The thing which was common to all was that they saw the Lord, they came into touch with Him as alive, but there were things which were not common to all added to that; that He appeared to different ones with a different meaning, for particular purposes.
There was something secret in the heart of Mary Magdalene. The coming of the Lord to her first, alone as He did, had a big meaning. Of course, you want that verified, or you might think that is straining the point or is fanciful. Tell me why it was that to Mary He said, "Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, 'I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God'", but that when the others saw Him they held Him by the knees? We will not answer that question at present. It does not come within what we have to say, but it would be strange, would it not? If the Lord were really right in what He said to Mary, then there was some principle involved, some truth at stake. But He allowed the others to embrace Him. You cannot say there is nothing in that at all. Mary stands alone in every way, and it was for a specific purpose that He appeared to her first and alone. There was a secret. She had that secret.
Why did the angel say, "go your way, tell the disciples and Peter..."? Here you do not know when it was. It says twice over in the New Testament that He appeared unto Peter. One is, "...and has appeared to Peter". Here is an isolated appearance. They reported it. Why? There was a special reason. He was a man who had a secret, a tragic secret, a terrible secret. He was a man who might never have forgiven himself. There was something in his life that he might never be able to overlook. Why did the Lord appear to Simon alone? You have the answer in your own heart; you know why.
Why did the Lord appear to James alone? It is not a matter of answering the question and saying why. The point is this: there is a diversity of appearances which had its own meaning for all concerned specifically. It meant something to Mary that it meant to no one else. It meant something to Peter that it meant to no one else. It meant something to James which was peculiar to him.
There is the diversity.
Our knowledge of the Lord, while it must have the common basis, must be the same with us all. That we have really come into touch with the living Lord, that must mean something to our own hearts particularly and peculiarly so that we have got a treasure, a pearl, something which that has come to mean to us.
Bringing all these things together you have the church. For one to be able to say, He means this to me, and for another to be able to say, He means that to me, and to pool our appreciation of Christ, constitutes the church's full-orbed testimony. We all have the Lord, but we all know our own secret as to what the Lord means to us in a particular way. There is no mere generalisation about this. The Lord touches the individual life with a meaning that becomes very personal. That ought to characterise our coming together, that we are not only able to say that He is our Lord with one voice, but we ought to be able to speak of what He is to us personally in a particular way; to have our own secret about the Lord.
There is not only the diversity, there is the inclusiveness: "to the whole company of about five hundred brethren at once". Why that? Perhaps you would think that it was enough when He had appeared to them separately and apart. There is such a thing as verifying one another's testimony, and if anyone is going to make a statement about having seen the Lord, it will be necessary for all the rest to be able to corroborate. The Lord does not leave anything to chance. Here is this multitude together, and some are saying: "We have seen the Lord", and others may be saying: "Well, that may be your imagination, that may be simply a psychical experience that you have because you are made like that". No, they could all verify, they could all corroborate. The church's testimony must be a corroborated testimony. We must all be able to stand alongside of the other and verify this as a solid whole. The fact is that the Lord did not go until He had covered the whole ground both separately and collectively. So He made His church a whole, both by individual and collective proof, evidence and witness. So far as the individuals were concerned, they were the separate notes of testimony. When you get the multitude you have the whole harmony, and you have that as really the nature of the church. It has its separate and distinctive notes, but it is ultimately and finally a great harmony of testimony to Him.
That is why He extended His stay so that there might be this diversity and this unity, and that there might be an establishment of this matter, that it should not be something transcendent, something leaving them, after all, with the question: Was it real? Was it true? It was so fleeting.
Arising out of that you have this particular feature: it is reality. If you prefer the word: truth, it is a more comprehensive word. It is the characteristic of reality that the Lord is after; reality in spiritual life, reality in spiritual experience of Him. How He works at this matter of reality! What pains He takes! How He will deal with us personally in a secret way, and how He will persist and persist, and not leave us until He has established reality in us! The Lord has His heart set upon reality. Let us use the Scriptural phrase for that: "You want truth in the inward parts" (Psa. 51:6).
As we have pointed out, these men, for the time before the resurrection, were moving in an unreal realm: they themselves were not in reality, it was all something which they had not really grasped. They heard things, and saw things, but they were not in those things. They would declare their belief both in Him and in His statements, but with all their declaration, with all their good intention, with all their sincerity, with all their desire and meaning to go all the way with Him, the root of the matter was not in them, and they were really not in it. The Lord knew that quite well, and He knew that there being this element of untruth, this lack of truth in them, that structure would collapse sooner or later. If there is an element of untruth anywhere in the church in any member or in any place, that structure will collapse, it will not weather the storm.
I wonder if we dare turn to illustrate again from literature in this connection. You remember Buskin's "Seven Lamps of Literature". When he speaks about the lamp of truth he tells of his visits to Italy. Going round looking at the great buildings he saw some which had weathered the storms of generations, showed no signs of wear or crumbling, were still as steady as when they were first constructed, and he said the builders had put true foundations and true stones into the buildings. But he went elsewhere, and he saw buildings the roofs of which had collapsed, fallen in. He entered into one building and found that buckets had been placed to catch the rain which was dripping over priceless frescos. Into another building he went to see the wonderful marble columns that were spoken about, and as he scratched them he found that the marble was painted on. They were forsaken buildings. People had discovered the deception, and in disgust left them alone. So he went the round, and he said these roofs had collapsed, these buildings were forsaken, these buckets were all a testimony to a lie; lying stones in a foundation, lying paint pretending to be marble; and it tells its own story at length. At length the lie found it out.
It would be too strong a word to say that these men were in a lie during those years, but they were not in a true position. They may have thought they were, but they were not, and the Lord knew that; there being an absence of that truth, the building would collapse sooner or later, and so by the space of forty days - a complete period of probation, testing, evidencing - He would make sure, He would make for reality. He would leave them in the place where they were able now to say, not in testifying to something presented objectively, but in speaking of that which had entered into their very being: "We know. This Christianity and this Christ is not a teaching, a doctrine, or anything like that to us; it is a living reality. We know it is true." So John wrote years afterward: "We know Him Who is true", and in writing the Apocalypse he repeatedly speaks of Him that is true. It was that that made the church. It is that which makes the church. It is that which must make the assembly.
The Lord pursues that course, and persists in it with you and with me. If you and I are really in living union with the risen Lord, under the government of the Holy Spirit, the Lord is going to check us up on all matters of reality. We may get a lot of teaching, and think that we know it, and go and talk about it, but sooner or later we shall go through something which will find out whether that truth is our very life or not, and if it should be found that we can say, "Oh well, this thing that we have been in, and all this that we have heard does not work!" That would be the disclosure to the Lord. The Lord is working against that by taking us down into depths, trial, adversity, suffering; sometimes suffering in circumstances, sometimes physical suffering, sometimes mental suffering, sometimes the suffering of a long-drawn-out demand of patience. What is the result? When we come back we are more real, there is something more genuine, more true. We know what has happened. The storm has passed over us, and, passing over, it has swayed us, it has tugged us, it has sought to root us up, and sometimes we wondered whether we should not be rooted up and thrown over in that storm. But at length our rooting has become deeper and stronger, and we come out of the tempest knowing something more settled, more restful, more assured, more steady, less self-confident, but with more confidence in the Lord. The solemn reality has been wrought by means of the storm.
The Lord is out for reality in us, not mere profession without possession. May we urge upon you the need for continually seeking the Lord for reality, for truth. You do not want to come to the day when your edifice will collapse, and the sad story be of a lie, an untruth, something that was not real, but which was a pretence, that was an assumption; you were in a false position, you were there because it was expected of you, or for some other reason. Be sure you are on ground of truth, ground of reality.
The Lord was making sure in the forty days. That was what it amounted to. If you want that proved you must read on into the New Testament, and read through the book of the Acts, and you will see that the one mark of an apostle was that he had had his own evidence of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and he could say: "I know!" This is the foundation of the apostles and prophets, upon which the church is built. We have to come on to that foundation.
Another thing which shines out so clearly in those forty days is fellowship. The cross scattered them, the resurrection gathered them; and I think it scattered them in more ways than one. "I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered..." "You all will be offended... this night". "We shall be scattered every man to his own...". Probably they were not only scattered in that geographical way, but they were very largely out of touch with one another. That is true at any rate in some cases. His appearing was a steady process of recovering, and some of the most beautiful touches of those days were when they were together talking about Him, talking upon a report perhaps. Some had reported that they had seen the Lord, and as they were reporting and talking about this He was in the midst. It was fellowship by which the Lord was realised. It was the risen Lord creating the fellowship, which in turn brought an enjoyment of His presence. There was a wonderful, steady gathering together. You start with the individual, and you end with the whole company. They are being brought together in some new way. They were flowing together, and there was one testimony.
There is nothing like having one testimony to make for fellowship. There is nothing like having a similar knowledge of the experience of the Lord. It is the sharing of the one Life of the Lord that brings fellowship. So the forty days were making a growing, consolidated fellowship. When He has finished there is no more scattering. What happens when He is received up? They all go back to the upper room together, and then there comes the Day of Pentecost. They waited together in the upper room for a further period, and then Pentecost. And what an exhibition of fellowship there is on the Day of Pentecost. That is the church. It is the fellowship of one Life, the fellowship of one basic experience of the Lord, the fellowship of one testimony. The Lord was making for that. He was definitely at work to secure that. It was wonderful to see it coming about. Thomas was a little awkward. In effect he said, I am not coming in; you can have your meetings if you like, I shall not be there. But this spiritual movement which was going on made it impossible for him to maintain that indefinitely, he could not keep it up. There was something doing, he was one of them, and he had to come in. So the Lord in the end secured them all.
Fellowship is a feature of the church, and is of tremendous importance to the world. There is one who works against it; but he would work for it, to him it represents values of no small character. Do remember that the proof of this is seen. Whenever any one gets out of fellowship they get out of Life, and they interfere with the real life of the assembly, the church, when they are out of spiritual fellowship. They become a dead spot, and the whole fellowship, the whole assembly is hurt. If you in secret are out of the spirit of fellowship with any of your brethren, any fellow members of Christ, remember that that spells death for you, and it spells death for the assembly in measure. The Lord's way is not being given Him while that is so, and you know quite well that if you have ever been like that - and most of us have had our bad times, when we have been disgruntled and out of good spirit with others - we know that it is not until we have settled that matter that there is joy, and we are able to go on, and the Lord is able to go on with us. Fellowship is of tremendous importance to Life and the very purpose of God. So He wrought fellowship for forty days after His resurrection, seeking to bring it about.
There is one more word to add. It is not so clearly marked as these things, it is a thing that you can sense only, and which you must really deduce, and yet it is of great importance. It could not be otherwise, and as a matter of fact it always does work out like this when you have got that of which we have spoken, that personal visitation of the Lord as to a Mary. Oh, wonder for Mary. I have no doubt she was overwhelmed with it, in the light of what she had been and who she was, that she should be the first, and then that she should be entrusted with this great message. Surely she would have said, "Who am I? What am I? Is it true? Am I dreaming? Think of what I have been; think of what I am. Is it true?" Then see Peter. The Lord made a special point of giving him a personal visitation in resurrection. What must Peter have thought? "Oh, this is too much for me. Think of what I have done. Think of that awful night, and yet, and yet, He comes to me in a personal way, not as one of a crowd, but alone." And then look at Thomas. What must Thomas have felt? "Oh, a week ago I was talking as a disaffected man, declaring my unwillingness to believe, and now He has come right to me, 'My Lord, and my God'".
What is behind all that? What is the result of all that? There is only one word for it: a deep, deep humility. These appearances did not make these people feel important. This knowledge of the Lord did not puff them up. They did not set themselves up as the people. It did not inflate them. It did not for a moment stir any pride of a fleshly kind. It went to the depths and created the deepest sense of humility.
A true assembly as the expression of the true church is that. Something which is proud of its teaching, proud of its knowledge, proud of what it has of the Lord in a wrong sense, and looking down on others, talking as from a pedestal, is not the true thing. The true thing is of a very humble spirit: "Why should the Lord have done this for me? What am I? Who am I?" That ought to be the effect of a personal knowledge of the Lord, and that ought to be spread right over the church:
"Not I, but Christ, be
honoured, loved, exalted;
Not I, but Christ, be seen, be known and heard...
No self-important bearing".
The true child of God is not self-assertive, does not keep himself or herself in view, does not put on airs to attract attention, is always seeking as far as possible to be hidden in the Lord and to keep Him in view. The Lord is everything and such a sense maintains a true humility. "The ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is of great price..." (1 Peter 3:4). That is the church.
These things can be felt, can be sensed, can be discerned in the forty days, and they are great elements in the making of the church, and they tell us what the assembly ought to be; the assembly is only the aggregate of the individual; the assembly can never be more than its individual members are.
So may the Lord make us like this, for His Name's sake.