The first act after the ascension of the Messiah was the sending of the Holy Ghost, that the Church might be gathered. This new election, taken from among all nations, was to the Jews a matter of great surprise. How far it had been foretold in the prophets, is a point into which we need not here enter. (Isa. lxv. 1.) But if foretold, it had not been comprehended by the elect people as a part of the Divine purpose. (Eph. iii. 6.) The subjection of all nations to the Messiah, and their blessedness under His rule, was one of the most familiar themes of prophecy; but an election from all nations to stand in closer relations to Him, and to be advanced to higher honor in His Kingdom, than themselves, was something as new to them as it was incredible. This subordinate position was more offensive than banishment from their land, and a temporary suspension of the theocratic relation; and is a stone of stumbling even to this day.
The purpose of God in this new election was in general the same as in the election of the Jews, that to its members He might first reveal Himself; and then through them, made like unto His Son, reveal Himself to the world. To this end, the gospel was to be preached to every creature, that whosoever believed might enter into this elect number. As thus individually gathered through the word preached to them, they were brought by regeneration into organic unity. They were made members of Christ, and so members one of another; one Body of which He is the Head.
The term "Body of Christ," so often applied by St. Paul to this election, needs careful consideration if we would understand the place of the Church in the Divine economy of redemption. The body of a man is that material organism through which he stands in relation to things external and material, by which he manifests himself to others, and puts forth his activity. It is a part of himself, and subject to his will. So is it with the Church, the body of Christ. It is composed of those who have been made partakers of His life, and thus are one with Him. They are by the appointment of God, and by the operation of the Spirit, so united and organized that through them the Head can put forth every form of activity, both to gather and to perfect those gathered; and by them to manifest Himself in His glory to all the world. As His body, a part of Himself, and obedient to His will, the instrument of His present actings, by which, though absent, He speaks and works, it testifies that He is living; and though in heaven is carrying forward on the earth the Divine purpose in redemption.
We thus see the peculiar place of the new election as the body of Christ. Its very existence is the proof that He now lives in heaven as its Head. Primarily, we know of His resurrection and ascension through the testimony of the apostles; but to this personal witness there is added that which the Church gives through its existence, its endowments of holiness and power, its ordinances, its teaching, its worship. Regarded merely as a system of abstract doctrine, of religious truth taught by one long since dead, and held only as an intellectual deposit, Christianity might be placed upon the same line as other religions. But the Church is an insoluble enigma. The facts which its history presents cannot be explained if we deny its connection with the Living Head. We have here to do not only with truth, but with life. The phenomena of Christian life everywhere meet us, and these can be explained only by the fact that the Head of the Church is the living Man, Christ Jesus; and that it is His life which is given through divinely appointed channels to its members.
It is here that we meet the great peculiarity of the Church. There is no other religion than the Christian which affirms that its Founder now lives, that its members are baptized into Him, and made partakers of His life. Mohammedanism does not affirm this of Mohammed, nor Buddhism of Buddh. It is indeed true in a figurative sense, that a teacher lives in his disciples, a truth lives in its votaries. But what Christianity affirms of Christ is, that He rose from the dead, and now lives a perfect man — body, soul, and spirit re-united, and no more capable of separation; that His life is conveyed in regeneration to believers; that they live by abiding in Him; and that all together constitute one body. There afe many bonds by which men may be bound together, — common lineage, common belief, common worship, common interests; but in the Church it is the life of Christ which is the bond of unity. Regeneration is unknown to all heathen religions. They speak of a moral change, but Christianity of a new birth. It alone declares its Head to be an immortal and glorified Man, who died to make atonement for the sins of the world, and is now exalted to God's right hand, "the Beginning of the new creation."
It is in this vital relation of the Church to Christ, that its distinctive feature consists. It cannot exist separate from Him. It lives because it is His Body, and its life is the fruit of His life. If He is not, no one can be baptized into Him; if there be no vine, there can be no branches in the vine. Therefore, the Church living on earth is a continual witness to Him as living in heaven. "Because I live, ye shall live also." Every act of regeneration through the Spirit sent by Him, attests His resurrection. And every one regenerate can say with the apostle, "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."
Thus there appeared in the earth after Christ's ascension, a great religious community, such an one as had never been seen before. In it all distinctions of race, of sex, of age, of culture, of position, as conditions of membership, were set aside. Wherever the life of the first Adam was found, there might be given the life of the Second. The Spirit of life in Christ Jesus laid hold of the most diverse, the most estranged, the most hostile, and made them one, thus giving proof that His mission is universal. There is "one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all."
Through this body perfectly constituted for its end, should the ascended Messiah carry on the work of redemption in the earth, and so give proof to the world of His resurrection and present activity. The appearing of the Church in the world was thus a clear and most wonderful manifestation of a new life that had entered into humanity. God in His Fatherhood had given a new Head to the race, the second Adam, the God-man. In Him, the supernatural in its highest sense began. The Church in its very existence as His body, is supernatural. "Ye are not of (out of) the world, even as I am not of the world." It is lifted up and seated with Him in the heavenlies; as partaking of His life, the life of the resurrection, it is not under the law of sin and death; as abiding in Him, the Holy One, it must be holy. He speaks and acts from heaven by the ministers whom He appoints; He preaches the Gospel to all nations, He guides and instructs and blesses His people. As the Great High Priest He leads their worship, and intercedes for them before the Father.
Thus did God in the Church, through the headship of His Son, bring men into closer relations with Himself than had been possible before; and make a higher revelation of Himself to the world. The way of approach to Him was now opened as it had not been before; and, cleansed by the blood of Jesus, the obedient worshippers had liberty of access into the holiest of all. Thus the two elements of revelation and of redemption, which mark every stage of God's purpose in man's salvation, were here seen in far higher measure than in earlier dispensations. God is revealed in the Incarnate Son, a revelation so surpassing any that had previously been made, that the Evangelist could say, "No man hath seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him." Although Himself in heaven, and invisible to men, the Risen Lord is manifested in those to whom He has given His own life, and has made partakers of His holiness and power. The Church abiding in Him is His witness to the world through her heavenly life, and teaching of truth, and supernatural works. As the Father invisible is revealed in the Incarnate Son, so the Son, now for a time invisible, is revealed through His body, the Church.
And as revelation, both of the Father and the Son, entered upon a new stage when the Church was formed and set to be "the light of the world," so did redemption. Now for the first time could men be delivered from the law of sin and death by the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. (Rom. viii. 2.) And as receiving His life, they could also receive a fullness of spiritual endowment not given before. (1 Cor. xii. 3, etc.) As they had a knowledge of God through the Son, of which all before the Incarnation were ignorant, so they had, as members of the Son, a closeness of union with God not given before to any. "As thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us." And, on the other hand, there was through His sacrifice and priesthood, a consciousness of forgiveness, of cleansing, of peace; a liberty of access to the Father; a fullness of communion with Him, of which none who lived before the Son had died and risen again, and was glorified, and had sent down the Spirit, could be partakers.