The Mystery of the Church
C. Gahan, Ilminster
'How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery . . . which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel', Eph. 3. 3-6.
IN THE WORD 'MYSTERY' we have the key to the meaning of these verses. Three times in this chapter the apostle makes use of this word, and in so doing he was not thinking of that which was unapproachable or inscrutable. The great purpose of God in Christ was never intended to be unattain¬able or incomprehensible. In the New Testament the word mystery has a twofold meaning: it means that which was hidden from men until in the fulness of time it should be made known, and it also means that which in itself cannot be discovered by human reason, it is a supernatural revelation. New Testament mysteries, therefore, do not obscure or conceal; their great purpose is to make known, to make plain. In the words of this chapter, they reveal that 'which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men'. Such a mystery we have now before us in the above verses.
THE MEANING OF THIS MYSTERY
What is this mystery the secret of which was not made known in other ages (generations, R.V.) to the sons of men ? The mystery now revealed concerning this age, was the formation of a new body out of Jews and Gentiles. This, to quote the apostle in verse 9 of this chapter, is 'the mystery which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God'. It had been known in other ages that the Gentiles would share in the blessing of Messiah's kingdom, but it was not known in other ages 'that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs (with believing Jews), and of the same body, and partakers of his promises in Christ by the gospel! This was something altogether new, it introduced a new dispensation, a dispensa¬tion of the Church. The legal and ceremonial system, which like a great wall had so long divided between Jews and Gentiles, was now to be broken down, and both were to be brought into a new position before God, they were to be constituted 'the church, which is his body', 1. 23.
HOW THE BODY WAS FORMED
The formative instrument was the cross. 'For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances ; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain die enmity thereby', 2. 14-16. The Lord Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law, and by His death on the cross removed all the enmity-producing and separating distinctions between Jew and Gentile, thus preparing the way for the introduction of God's new and better thing, the Church, the body of Christ. The two elements of this heavenly body, Jews and Gentiles, are not only reconciled to one another, they are reconciled 'unto God'; they are reconciled unto God 'in one body'; and they are reconciled unto God in one body 'by the cross'. If Jews and Gentiles were to be reconciled unto God in one body by the cross then it follows that the counsels and purposes of God concerning the Church could not be implemented until the cross was past.
WHEN THE BODY WAS FORMED
This heavenly body had a distinct beginning. The day of Pentecost was the Church's birthday; on that day the body of Christ became an established fact on earth. That which in other ages had been hid in God, was now made manifest. It is important to keep in mind that two things were essential to this : first, the exaltation of the Lord Jesus to the right hand of God; and second, the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven. After the Lord Jesus ascended the Holy Spirit descended, and by baptism in the Spirit, i Cor. 12. 13, R.V., all believers were united to the Head in glory, and all became members of His body. Thus the Church exists in virtue of the exaltation of the Lord Jesus to heaven as the Church's Head, and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Hitherto believers had been known as disciples, but now they have an additional name: 'the church, which is his body', and from then until now all who have been saved have been baptized into that one body. 'For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body', 1 Cor. 12. 13, R.V.
WHY THE BODY WAS FORMED
It was formed, among other things, to take the place of our Lord's incarnate body. In a spiritual sense the Church is a body which the Lord Jesus indwells. 'Wherefore when he (the Lord Jesus) cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me', Heb. 10. 5; thus did God, by the Holy Spirit, prepare for Him a physical body. Likewise, when the Lord Jesus departed from this world, God, by the same Holy Spirit, prepared for Him a spiritual body, the Church. Although absent, He is yet present, perpetuating His love, power and grace in the Church which is His body. We can only give active expression to ourselves through the medium of our bodies; in the same way, during His absence from this world, the Lord Jesus is giving active expression to Himself through the medium of the Church. It follows, therefore, that what is manifested on earth of the Lord Jesus is manifested in the members of His spiritual body, and that through us He is making Himself known. The members of our bodies live for the body, they toil for the body, they suffer for the body; may it be ours, as members of the body of Christ, to live, and toil, and suffer for Him.
Such is the meaning of this mystery. The mystery revealed concerning this age, was the formation of this new body, and it is intended to be a holy and beautiful vessel for the display of the Lord Jesus Christ during His absence from this world.
THE ADMINISTRATOR OF THIS MYSTERY
The administrator of this mystery was the apostle Paul. Administration among men we know; an administrator is one who carries out the wishes, and dispenses the legacies of another. To compare things divine with things human, God had secret purposes and legacies of truth 'which in other ages (generations) was not made known to the sons of men'. But now, in the fulness of time, the long hidden counsels of God were to be made known : first 'unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit', and through them to the saints. This new structure of the new dispensation needed special vessels to reveal it, and New Testament apostles and prophets were set apart for the purpose. They were constituted 'stewards of the mysteries of God', i Cor. 4.1, dispensing or distributing the truth of God now committed to them. Thus these apostles and prophets were the first administrators of the mysteries, chief among them being the apostle Paul. Above all the apostles the hidden treasures of divine wisdom were re¬vealed to him and through him. He it is who speaks most of the mysteries, he it is who is the chief exponent of the mystery now before us - the mystery of the Church. Of this particular mystery he was the chosen minister: 'Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God ... to make all men see what is the fellowship (plan or economy) of the mystery which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God', 3. 7-9.
The revelation was a supernatural one, he did not receive it from man, nor did he discover it for himself, it was communicated to him by special revelation. 'If ye have heard', he says, 'of the dispensation (stewardship) of the grace of God which is given to me to you-ward; how that by revelation he hath made known unto me the mystery', 3. 2-3. Elsewhere he speaks of receiving the revelation from Jesus Christ, Gal. 1. 12; and from the Spirit, Eph. 3. 5. This is quite consistent with the scriptural doctrine of the unity of the Godhead, which teaches the identity as to the substance of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and that the act of one is the act of the others. It is not without significance, that it is in Ephesians, where we have the fullest development of the truth of the Church, that we are frequently confronted with the doctrine of the holy Trinity. In every chapter we see something of their relation to each other, and the various functions they fulfil in the economy of the mystery.
According to the apostle Paul, therefore, the out-calling of the Church is the work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to him the long kept secret was made known. The fuller revelation of 'the church which is his body' was committed to him, and he himself tells us that it was given to him 'to fulfil (to bring to completion) the word of God', Col. 1. 25. The substance of this revelation - the origin, nature, and destiny of the Church of God - forms the basis of his epistles, and constitutes the topstone of his ministry. He was a chosen vessel raised up to declare and complete the full counsel of God.
THE PURPOSE OF THE MYSTERY
In these opening chapters of Ephesians the mystery has a twofold purpose. The first in order of events has to do with angels: 'to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery ... to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God', Eph. 3. 9, 10; the second has to do with the dispensation of the fulness of times : 'Having made known unto us the mystery of his will . . . that in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one (or unite under one head) all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him', Eph. 1. 9, 10.
The present and immediate purpose of the mystery concerns the angels, it is God's 'intent' that they should be instructed by it. Not only so, they are represented in the Scriptures as seeking to be instructed by it; 'which things', says the apostle Peter, 'the angels desire to look into', 1 Peter 1. 25. The words 'to look into' of this verse are elsewhere translated 'to stoop down', John 20. 5; the same word is to be found in the epistle of James: 'But whoso looketh into (literally, stoopeth down to take a close look into) the perfect law of liberty', James 1.25. It seems clear that, apart from the Church, no direct revelation has been made to the angels of God's redemptive purposes. Here was a new and more profound display of God's wisdom, and eagerly and reverently they stoop down the better to behold it. They earnestly desire 'to look into' these things, that through the Church and our deliverance from the guilt of sin, they might learn the manifold wisdom of God. With what dignity does this invest the Church! She not only declares the gospel of God to men, she demonstrates the wisdom of God to angels.
Angels from the realms above,
Contemplate the Church below;
Thus they learn that God is love,
And all His ways of wisdom know.
The future and culminating purpose of the mystery will be seen in 'the dispensation of the fulness of times'. It is the great purpose of God to gather under one head, all things in Christ. Things on earth - a converted Israel and saved nations; things in heaven - a glorified Church and unsinning angels; all are to be brought under the gracious sovereignty of the Lord Jesus. In that day He will be the divine centre around which all things will gather, both in heaven and on earth. Restored Israel will be the centre of His glory on earth, and a perfected Church will be the centre of His glory in heaven. The kingdom now in mystery, will then be manifested in glory, and 'the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day', Isa. 2. 17.
May it be ours to see the beauties of the mystery, rejoicing in the Father's will and purpose in calling out of the world a people for His name.