Why I Love the Old Ship of Zion

Zion, with the beautiful temple of God once resting on its western slope, is the highest hill in Jerusalem.  From her fixed position high above the hills, Zion served as a fortress of protection and a beacon of light to the land of Judah.

Old Testament writers honored this place called Zion and often wrote of her, their writing looking forward to a better Zion, the church of our Lord. The apostle, in contrasting the limitations of the old regime with the blessings in the Lord’s church, reminded the Hebrews that they, indeed, had come to that better place:

“But ye are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels” (Hebrews 12:22).

We, today, have come to that place. We have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. Sometimes I think we tend to take for granted the grandeur of the church the Lord “purchased with his own precious blood” (Acts 20:28).

Certainly, the faithful prophets of old did not take Zion for granted. They loved her even as we are to love the Lord’s church today. With the beautiful imagery of Zion representing the church, many song poets through the years also sought to capture the beauty of Zion, some referring to her as an old ship. In 1977 Conrad Cook penned the beautiful words to “Is that the Old Ship of Zion,” a song that tells the story of a man standing on a river bank, looking out and seeing the old ship of Zion sailing in the distance.

As he strains his eyes to make out this ship, he realizes that “its hull was bent and battered.”

He goes on to describe the scene: “Waves were rough,” he writes, “but that old ship was sailing. Is that the old Ship of Zion I see?”

What a beautiful image of the Lord’s church! Surely, through the ages, the church has been “bent and battered.” She has had to endure many storms and a multitude of attacks and will do so until “the Lamb shall overcome them” (Revelation 17:14).

Long before John’s vision, however, Daniel of old reminded us that Zion “shall never be destroyed,” that she “shall stand for ever (Daniel 2:44).

Today I am so glad to be part of that everlasting ship of Zion, to be able to sail life’s sea in this old ship. I want to tell you that I love this church, and I hope that this look back at her beauty will excite you to a greater love for her, too.

There are so many reasons I love old Zion, but there is one timely one here that we want to pause to remember: We love the old ship of Zion, today, because of her history.

True, many of us may have a personal history with the church. Perhaps we were raised by Christian parents and grandparents as was Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5). We could have been born in a place where God’s word was silent; but, instead, for many of us hearing the word of God taught was as common as sitting down to eat supper. For those teachers, the gospel was their life. We are thankful for that.

Some among us, however, came across the gospel later in life. Still, someone, somewhere shared the story of redemption with you, and the gospel convicted you and led you to the redeeming blood of Christ through faith and baptism into His death (Romans 6:3).

Regardless of how we arrived at Mount Zion, our history in the Lord’s church is rich and deep. But the church of Christ goes further back than our lifetimes and the lives of our forefathers.  Prophetically, the history of the church goes back thousands of years to the Old Testament.

Remember Isaiah’s great sermon, in the second chapter of Isaiah:

“And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.  And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (verses 2-3).

How many gospel preachers and teachers have opened up that scripture to discuss the beauty and history of the Lord’s church! Sometimes men forget such scriptures and prophecies and look back to the nineteenth century, to noble men such as Barton Stone or Alexander Campbell, and say, “There it is. There is where the church of Christ started.”

But that is not the case. The church’s establishment and existence were cemented in heaven long before the inception of this country. Inspired writers such as Isaiah and Jeremiah anticipated her coming repeatedly throughout the Old Testament prophesies. The Lord Himself ordained this church long ago, saying that the “Lord’s House” should be established on a mountain and that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3).

Indeed, “out of Zion”! At Zion – more than a thousand years after Isaiah’s writing – the apostle Peter stands up and delivers the first gospel message after Jesus ascended to heaven. His message was not a man-made one but was a sermon written by the very hand of the Lord.

Peter – the Lord said only a short while before Pentecost – I want you to preach “repentance and remission of sins … in (my) name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).

Peter was faithful to that command. When his sermon at Zion about Jesus Christ comes to a climatic end, the audience cries out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter, led by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, answers,

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38).

What happens next is part of the powerful vision Isaiah sees in Isaiah 2.  Isaiah sees “all nations … flow unto” this church. And sure enough, on the great day of Pentecost, on the western side of Mount Zion, many “gladly received his word (and) were baptized, and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).

The second chapter of Acts records the birth of this new Zion, the church of our Lord. That glorious day the hopes and dreams of centuries past were finally realized.

They were realized on the hill of Zion about A.D. 33.  Since that day, the Lord’s church has endured her share of difficulty.  The storms of innovation, digression, apostasy, and apathy have beat against the hull of this great old ship for these two millennia. By the eighteenth century here in America, it might have been difficult to find the Lord’s church teaching and worshipping faithfully.

But secular history tells us that in the early years of the 1800s there were pockets of individuals who had a hungering and thirst for truth. They began to realize that the denominational systems where they worshipped were man-made, not God-ordained. A man here, one there, another some miles away began to search out the scriptures as did the Bereans in Acts 17:11.  Four such men were James O’kelly, Abner Ones, Elias Smith, and Barton Stone.

They realized that the Word of God no longer was the basis of their faith and practice, and these four men among many others began working for restoration – no, not “for the restoration of any religious group, but for the restoration of the one church of the New Testament,” says Robert Brumback in his History of the Church Through the Ages.

From several separate denominations, these men worked to re-dig some old wells, to restore the church of Christ to its pure form. The rallying cry was one that has been much needed through the ages and is needed today: Let us go back to the Bible.

As they re-dug those wells, they found that the biblical wells did not include infant baptism or sprinkling for baptism. So they discarded those practices. They realized that there was only one name “given among men whereby we must be saved,” and that was the name of Jesus Christ. So they called themselves Christians, and some began referring to the church simply as the church of Christ, just as Paul does in Romans 16:16.

In 1824, Barton Stone met Alexander Campbell for the first time, and they began to share ideas. At the end of their meeting, Stone said, “We plainly saw we were on the same foundation, in the same Spirit, and preached the same gospel.”

That message of unity is precisely the one the Apostle Paul preached in the first century: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body,” Paul writes, “whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

What a beautiful thing it is when we can join together, “drinking into one Spirit,” and unite on the decks of that old ship of Zion!  Many honest, truth-seeking men from two centuries ago preceded us in resurrecting that unity. They went back to the teaching of the apostle Paul, when he instructs us to endeavor to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” to proclaim only “one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling, One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:3-6).

Building upon one foundation – clutching the Word of God as their only creed – these restorers began to go back to the gospel pattern. They taught baptism – immersion – for the remission of sins, they called themselves after no other name than the name of Christ, and they returned to the first century pattern of gathering around the Lord’s Table weekly.

There are a hundred reasons we love old Zion, but, certainly, among them are her rich, biblical history. We do not need to look to the world or to denominational practices to shape the Lord’s church today. We need only to go to the Word of God, search those scriptures, follow the powerful teachings handed down by the Holy Spirit, and “follow after the things which make for peace” (Romans 14:19).

Should we be faithful in keeping her pure – if we serve well within her gracious borders – we will sail on that old ship to a lovely harbor. As we look ahead – just beyond the distant horizon – not far over those restless waves, we can see that harbor now, and just beyond is that “holy city, new Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2).

Mr. Cook, in the ending of the beautiful “Is That the Old Ship of Zion,” pictures the conclusion of the great journey on the old ship. Courageously, he steps off of the river bank and onto that ship that is sailing on to Glory land.

“As I step on board,” he writes, “I’ll be leaving all my troubles and trials behind. I’ll be safe with Jesus the captain, sailing out on the old Ship of Zion.”  Perhaps the world needs more; but for me – for us – the old ship of Zion is enough.


Article by: Steven Bowen