The Mystery of the Church
January 6th, 1963 @ 8:15 AM
THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-6-63 8:15 a.m.
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. This is the pastor bringing the morning message entitled The Mystery of the Church. Turn to the third chapter of the Book of Ephesians, Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus. And in this third chapter he says:
For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,
If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:
How that by revelation He made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words,
Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)
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:
Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of His power.
Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;
And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ:
To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be made known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,
According to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord:
In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of Him.
He says here in the third verse,
That by revelation God hath made known unto me the mystery . . . which is that in other ages it was not known unto the sons of men, but it is now revealed that the Gentiles shall be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel.
Then in the ninth verse, God hath committed to him this gospel message
To make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ:
To the intent that now unto principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known through the church this mystery, this manifold wisdom of God,
According to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul says that there is a divine purpose, which he calls a mystery that God hid in His own infinite counsels and no one knew it, not the principalities and powers in heavenly places [Ephesians 3:10], least of all the prophets and the saints of the earth [Ephesians 3:9]. There was a great mystery that God hid in his own infinite counsels; and it was only made known when the day of Paul came and his fellow holy apostles [Ephesians 3:5]. That’s a strange thing, that’s an unusual thing; because back there in the Old Testament are prophecies, prophecies, prophecies of the purposes of God in the ages that were and are to come. Yet Paul says that this thing that has been revealed unto him is a mystery that no one in heaven and no one in earth knew until it was revealed at the time appointed [Ephesians 3:3-6].
That word “mystery,” a mustērion, is not the kind of a thing that we describe or define as a mystery. To us a mystery is an unfathomable, inexplicable secret; nobody knows what it is. It can be a phenomenon, it’s a mystery, you can’t understand it. That’s a mystery to us. That word mustērion in the Greek language, translated “mystery” here, has no connotation of that meaning; it does not approach it. The word is taken by Paul from the mystery religions. In the day that Paul lived, the whole Greco-Roman world was filled with mystery religion; the Delphic mysteries, the Eleusinian mysteries, mysteries everywhere. And the word mustērion, the mystery, referred to a secret that was known but to the initiates. And when a man was initiated into those mystery religions the secret of the religion was revealed to him. And that revelation, that secret, that initiation, they called a mustērion. It was something that was hid until it was revealed to certain people. Now that is the exact meaning of the word of Paul here in the third chapter of Ephesians. He uses the word mustērion to refer to a great secret that was hidden in the counsels of God, and a secret that no man could learn by reason, by rational study, by scientific probing. It was a thing that no man could ever have known except it were revealed by God Himself.
Now what is this great mystery that Paul refers to as having been kept in the secret counsels of God from the beginning of the creation? [Ephesians 3:5, 9]. Well, maybe that mystery is the kingdom of God. Is that the mystery? No, because in the Old Testament Scriptures those prophets spoke glowingly and gloriously of the great kingdom of God that was yet to come. Isaiah one time looked forward and saw the day when “The wolf would dwell with the lamb, and the leopard would lie down with the kid . . . when the lion would eat straw like the ox . . . when they would not hurt nor destroy in all God’s holy mountain; but the earth would be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” [Isaiah 11:6, 7, 9]. The Old Testament prophet spake in glowing terms of the marvelous consummation of the kingdom of heaven. So the mystery is not the kingdom of God.
Well, maybe that mystery is that the Gentiles, along with the Jews, were to be saved; maybe that is the mystery. No, because back in these old prophetic days God spake by those holy men through the Holy Spirit, and they prophesied of the salvation of the Gentiles [Acts 3:25]. That’s not the mystery.
Could I pause here about one of those prophecies? We read in the headlines of the papers today of the turmoil and the trouble in the Middle East. There’s a great prophecy about the Middle East. One of the greatest and one of the most unusual in the Bible is in the nineteenth chapter of Isaiah, about that whole Middle East:
In that day there shall be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the Lord God Jehovah.
And it shall be for a sign and for a witness unto the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt: for they shall cry unto the Lord because of the oppressors, and He shall send them a Savior, and a Great One, and He shall deliver them.
God’s Book says that land is going to be oppressed; and we think we know the source from whence that oppression is coming. That’s the reason our president stood before the Congress of the United States and asked for power to stay the hand of that terrible and dark tyranny. The Bible says that it’s coming:
They shall cry unto the Lord because of that oppression, and God shall send them a Great One, and He shall deliver them.
And the Lord shall be known in Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day…
In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria—
to Iraq and to Iran—
and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian shall go into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians.
In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land:
Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel Mine inheritance.
[Isaiah 19:20-21, 23-25]
Would you believe that? Would you? “The day is coming,” God says, “when I will say to Egypt, ‘My people, Egypt’; I will say to Iraq and to Iran, ‘My people, the Persians’; and I will say to Israel, the third among the nations there, I will say to Israel, ‘Blessed be Israel, Mine inheritance’” [Isaiah 19:25]. Sure wouldn’t think for it now; the bitterness of the Arab toward the Jew, the bitterness of the Jew toward the Egyptian, and all of them in such turmoil. No, that’s not the mystery. The old prophets saw that glorious day when the Gentile would be a part of the great purpose of God in that united kingdom that is yet to come, presided over by Prince Messiah, King Jesus; they saw that.
Well, that mystery must be the sufferings of Christ and His glory; that Christ should suffer, and that He should be glorified. That is the mystery hid in God from the beginning of the creation. No, no, because the prophets spake of the sufferings of Jesus: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. . .Like a sheep led to the slaughter, like a lamb dumb before his shearer” [Isaiah 53:6-7]; then in the next breath that same prophet who spake of the sufferings of the Lamb of God, that same prophet speaks of the glories of Prince Messiah, “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called the Wonderful One” [Isaiah 9:6]. They saw that. That’s not the mystery.
Well, what is this mystery that Paul says was hid in the counsels of God from the beginning of the creation? [Ephesians 3:9]. It was a mystery that the prophets tried to see, tried to ferret out, tried to understand, but could never enter into it. In the first chapter of the first letter of Simon Peter, he says, “Of that salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time…when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” [1 Peter 1:10-11]. Then in the next paragraph he says, “And the angels desired to look into it” [1 Peter 1:12]. There was something God was planning, there was a secret in the heart of the counsels of the Almighty that the prophets looked ahead and they couldn’t seize it, they couldn’t understand it, they couldn’t grasp it; there was something still [1 Peter 1:10-11].
And the angels knew there was something yet in the counsels of God, and they couldn’t understand it, this mystery [1 Peter 1:12]. And you will find it delineated, illustrated, how the mystery was not made known in the first chapter of Acts here and the eleventh verse. The first chapter, where the angels says to them, this angel didn’t realize this thing—the angel said to them, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven” [Acts 1:11]. Do you see there? The angel says, “This Jesus ascending into glory shall descend back to earth in the same way that you saw Him go away.” Those two great peaks, the glorification of our Lord and His glorious descent, His coming again, and the angel here speaks of them as side by side: those two tremendous mountain peaks, the earthly life of our Lord and His ascension, and His glorious coming again. Look at it: “This same Jesus, taken up from you into heaven. . . so come again” [Acts 1:11], right there side by side, the same verse, the same breath, almost in the same clause.
That was the way with all of the Old Testament prophets. They looked forward and in the same breath they would speak of the sufferings of Christ, and in the same sentence the glory of Christ, right side by side [Isaiah 52:13-53:12]. They looked ahead and it was all in one great revelation to them, the sufferings and the glory of Christ; two mountain peaks from where they could see, looking far, far ahead, two mountain peaks that seemed to be side by side.
The mystery is this: that between that ascension, that taking up into heaven, and that coming again [Acts 1:11], between those two stupendous mountains, there’s a great valley in between. The mountains are not side by side; but between them there is a long, long, and rich history. That’s the mystery that the prophets didn’t know. When they looked ahead and saw the sufferings of Christ, and the glory of Christ [Luke 24:26], it seemed to them those two stupendous mountains were side by side. But now that we have approached the first, we can see that there’s a great valley to the next. We reached this mountain peak here, the cross of the Lord Jesus, and the other great peak, the glory, the consummation of the work of our Lord [Luke 24:26], is far, far apart; it has been two thousand years. There’s a great valley in between.
Paul says here in my text that the angels in heaven did not know that [Ephesians 3:9-10]. He says that “this mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God,” that “now unto the principalities and powers in the heavenlies” [Ephesians 3:9-10]; Paul does not delineate on that, but many times he refers to it. Paul says that up there in glory the angels are not just angels, they’re just not celestial creatures, but he groups them and he divides them into great orders. Some of them are cherubim, some of them are seraphim, some of them are angels, some of them are what you call here “principalities and powers in the heavenly places,” they’re organized in cohorts, in legions, in great, great vast numbers, and in descending and ascending orders. And he says that those principalities and powers in heavenly places are learning themselves the manifold wisdom of God as they observe the unfolding of the Lord’s work in this great mystery, this time between the suffering of our Lord and the coming again of our Lord [Ephesians 3:9-10].
That mystery then is this great rich period of time between the crucifixion and ascension of our Savior and His coming again in glory and in power [Luke 24:26]; and we call that time in between, we call that “the great parenthesis,” we call that time “the day of grace,” we call that time “the age of the church” [Ephesians 3:2]. In that time God did a new thing. God did a thing that the prophets never saw, and the angels didn’t know [Ephesians 3:5]. For God made in that period of time a new creation, and He calls it “the body of Christ,” He calls it “the bride of Christ,” He calls it “the church of the Lord Jesus our Savior” [Ephesians 3:6-11]. The mystery that was hid in the counsels of God from the beginning of the creation [Ephesians 3:9], is this thing that we call a church, in which Jew and Gentile are together as one, members in the body of the Lord Jesus Christ [Ephesians 3:10-11]. It was a new thing, something that had never been known before [Ephesians 3:5].
Then let us say what this church is not. The church is not, therefore, a continuation of the Old Testament dispensation under another name. The church is a brand new thing. It’s a thing the world had never heard of; and it is presented in the Bible like that. “The law and the prophets were until John [Matthew 11:13]. “For the law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” [John 1:17]. And the parables of our Lord in the ninth chapter of Matthew, “No man,” says Jesus, “takes a new piece of cloth and sews it on an old garment, lest when the new cloth shrinks it tears from the place that is rent already in the old garment; but you put an old piece upon an old garment, and a new piece upon a new garment” [Matthew 9:16]. Then He said, “No man puts new wine in an old wineskin, lest as it ferments it would break that hardened wineskin; but new wine is placed in a new wineskin” [Matthew 9:17]. So it is with the church: the church is a new covenant, it is a new dispensation, it is a new government, it is a new creation, it is a thing that was hid in the mind of God from the beginning, and has now been revealed unto us; a church [Ephesians 3:6-11].
A church then is not the kingdom of God. There’s no such a thing in the Scriptures as nomenclature being mixed that refers to the church and the kingdom of God as being the same. The kingdom of God is one thing [Luke 17:20-21]; the church of Jesus Christ is another thing [Hebrews 12:23]. Jesus is the head of the church [Ephesians 5:23]. Jesus is the King in the kingdom [John 18:36]. Jesus is never referred to as the King of the church. Jesus is the head of the church, which is His body [Colossians 1:18]. And He is a King that’s gone far away, awaiting the time when He will receive the kingdom [Luke 19:12]. And some day that time will come; but in the meantime, in the meantime, there is being built to the glory of Christ, His bride, His body, His church [Ephesians 1:23].
John the Baptist came preaching and saying, “Behold, behold the kingdom of heaven is at hand” [Matthew 3:2]. Jesus and the seventy came preaching, saying, “The kingdom of God is at hand” [Luke 10:1-9]. And Jesus came, the King of the kingdom [John 18:36], and the Jewish nation slew their King; they crucified the Son of David [Matthew 27:32-50]. And the consummation of the kingdom was postponed until, as Paul says, in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Romans, “until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in” [Romans 11:25]; until this church age be fully ended, until the last soul that is to be saved is saved, until the body of Christ is complete. When that day comes, then the church age shall end [Romans 11:25], and we shall enter immediately the day of the fulfillment of the those wonderful prophecies, when the lamb and the lion shall lie down together [Isaiah 11:6]; when Egypt and Israel will be friends with one great common Lord and Deliverer, Jesus Christ the King [Isaiah 19:23-25].
Now may I briefly say a thing of what the church is? The church is, therefore, the body of Christ [Colossians 1:18]. The church is, therefore, the bride of Christ [Ephesians 5:25]. The church is, therefore, out of every nation under the sun, out of the Jews, out of the Gentiles; the church is an ekklēsia, an ek-kaleō, a called-out assembly of God’s people [Hebrews 12:23]. The church is the fruit of the work and ministry of our Savior the Lord Christ. “Upon this rock, upon this petra I will build My church” [Matthew 16:18]. “Verily, I say unto thee that thou art petros, a stone; and upon this petra,” upon this great foundation, which is Jesus Christ, the confession of Jesus Christ, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” [Matthew 16:16], “upon that great petra I will build My church,” the living temple of God [Matthew 16:18]. Simon Peter a petros, John a petros, James a petros, Timothy a petros, all of the saints of God each in his turn a petros, a stone in the great building of God.
And according to 1 Corinthians the third chapter, “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” [1 Corinthians 3:11]; not Simon Peter, not any man. But the church is built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, the great Stone of all stones, the Rock of Ages, the great stratum that upholds the universe. The fruit and the work of the life of our Lord issued in a church: “I will build My church” [Matthew 16:18].
And the church accomplishes the mission of Jesus in the earth. We’re saved through the preaching of the gospel [Romans 10:13-15]. We observe the ordinances God has given us in the church. Not given to me as a pastor—that’s the reason I don’t receive people when they come down the aisle. “Why don’t you, pastor? Why don’t you receive these people and baptize them?” Because the ordinances were not given to me; they are given to no man. The ordinances were given to the church; Jesus gave the authority to baptize, to administer the Lord’s Supper, to His church [Matthew 28:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:26]. And that church, having the ordinances, having the God-breathed presence of the Spirit of God, is to evangelize the world [Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8].
And finally, and most briefly, may I speak of the destiny of the church? What is it? The destiny of the church is to be caught out of the world. Listen to the Word of the Lord: in the fourth chapter of the first Thessalonian letter:
For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until that glorious consummation shall not precede them that fall asleep in Jesus.
For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
[1 Thessalonians 4:15-17]
The destiny of His church is to be caught up to meet the Lord our Master in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:17]. So much of the Bible refers to that glorious consummation. “I tell you,” Jesus says in the seventeenth of Luke, “I tell you, that in that night there shall be two men in one bed; one shall be taken, and the other shall be left” [Luke 17:34]. Now listen to the next breath, listen to the next sentence: and the Lord continued, “Two women shall be grinding together; one shall be taken, and the other left [Luke 17:35]. Two men shall be in the field; one shall be taken, and the other left” [Luke 17:36]. There in the same breath our Lord says, “Two men shall be sleeping in a bed; one shall be taken, and the other left” [Luke 17:34]; then He says, “Two men shall be out in the field; one shall be taken, and the other left [Luke 17:36]. And two women shall be grinding at a mill” [Luke 17:35]. Well, isn’t that a strange thing, Lord? Isn’t that a strange thing? It’s night, you see: “In that night, two men shall be sleeping in a bed; one taken, and the other left” [Luke 17:34]; and then You say, “Two men shall be in the field working [Luke 17:36], and two women shall be grinding at the mill” [Luke 17:35]. Ah, that’s a simple thing. For upon any moment half of this world is shaded in the night, and half of this world is bathed in light. And when that final moment comes for the rapture of His church, for the taking out of His people, when that final moment comes half of the world will be in the dark, and half of the world will be in the light. And when that moment comes, in the part that is dark, “Two men shall be sleeping in a bed; one shall be taken away, and the other shall be left” [Luke 17:34]. And in that part of the world that is light, two women shall be grinding in a mill, great millstone, shoving it this way, one shoved it this way, one pushed that way, the two women grinding at the mill, turning that great millstone, grinding the wheat; one of them shall be taken, and the other left [Luke 17:35]. And two men shall be working out in a field, side by side, plowing, running a tractor, harvesting; one shall be taken, and the other left [Luke 17:36].
The destiny of the church is to be taken out of this world to meet our Lord in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:14-17]. The resurrection of the dead, these that have fallen asleep in Jesus, rising first, raised at the sound of the trumpet; and we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, we’re taken out to meet our Lord in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17].
That’s the great symbolism throughout all the Bible. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus is transfigured before them; and on one side of Him is Moses, and on the other side of Him is Elijah [Mark 9:2-4]. Moses is the type and the picture of those who have died [Deuteronomy 34:5-6], and shall be raised to meet the Lord in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:16]. And Elijah is the type of those who will be translated at His coming; they never see death [2 Kings 2:11], they are translated in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye [1 Corinthians 15:51-52]. That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die” [John 11:25-26]. “I am the resurrection, and the life. I am the resurrection.” To the one that falls asleep in Christ, Christ is his resurrection; the assurance he shall live again [John 11:25]. And He is the life to us who remain until His coming; never taste of death [John 11:26], but transfigured in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye [1 Corinthians 15:51-52].
And that is the consummation of the most tremendous chapter that man ever wrote by the power of the Spirit of God: the apostle Paul, climaxing the great fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, the mystery of the church, listen to it:
This I say, brethren, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.
But I show you a mystery—
a mustērion, a thing hidden with God in the beginning of the world but now revealed unto angels and unto men— [Colossians 1:26].
Behold, I show you a mustērion; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
When this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death, death, death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The mystery of His church.
Therefore, My beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
[1 Corinthians 15:50-58]
We don’t lose; we can’t. Whether we live, whether we die, we are the Lord’s; whether we fall asleep before He comes, whether we are alive at that great consummating day, we are His—the resurrection and the life. The mystery of His church [Romans 14:8].
Are you ready? Are you? If the Lord were to blow the trumpet today, would the notes, golden and clarion falling on your ears, would it bring joy and gladness to your heart, to look up and see the King and the kingdom? [1 John 2:28]. Would you be ready? When the Lord said, “Behold, I come quickly,” could you answer with the prayer of the apostle John, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” [Revelation 22:20]? If I know my heart and my own soul, I’m ready, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” Is it right with you and God? Is it? Is it?
On this first Sunday of the new year, would you give your heart to God? [Romans 10:9-10]. Would you? Would you take Him as your Savior? Would you? Would you place your life with us in His church? What a glorious, precious hour, this; we have just this moment; all of us praying this precious moment, this little time. Sometimes a thousand years is in a moment. And a moment means a thousand years. When a soul makes a decision for or against God, oh, that moment, and it’s now. In the great balcony around, this press of people from side to side, would you give your heart to Christ? Would you? Would you put your life in the church? Would you? Does the Lord call? Is it now? Does He say now? Then won’t you? Won’t you? While our people pray, while we sing this song of appeal, down that stairwell from the balcony, into the aisle, wherever you are, would you step out, give me your hand? “Pastor, today, I give my heart to God; I’ll trust Jesus, I’ll look to Him, I’ll look up to Him.” Will you do it? Will you, while we stand and while we sing?