The Mystery of the Church
April 5th, 1970 @ 8:15 AM
THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-05-70 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message. It is The Mystery of the Church; and I suppose out of all of the preachments that the pastor could deliver none would be more central than the message this morning. If you understand this message this morning, you will have an open Bible before you. If you do not understand it, you will be like ninety-nine percent of the other Christian people who read it, and they do not know where to go in it. They have kind of lost the keystone in the arch. But you listen this morning. And if you will get this message in your heart, this whole Bible will be an open Book to you, and it will fit together beautifully and perfectly. Now the message is an exposition of the third chapter of Ephesians.
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—
not by reason—
How that by revelation God made known unto me the mustērion…
Which in ages past was not made known unto the sons of men, but it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;
Namely, which mustērion is this:
That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel:
Whereunto 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—
what is the oikonomia, what is the dispensation—
of the mustērion, 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, unto all the angelic orders as well as here on earth, might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,
According to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Oh, what things Paul is saying! Now let’s look at them.
The mystery of the church, the mustērion of the church [Ephesians 3:3]. In the day that Paul lived, the whole Roman Empire was intimately acquainted with mystery religions, mystery religions. Now the word mustērion, which bodily taken into English, we have “mystery,” mustērion. Well, to us a mystery is an enigma; we don’t understand, it’s a mystery. Well, the word in Paul’s day and in Paul’s language and here in the New Testament had no connotation like that at all.
A mystery religion was, though it was religion, it was like you would say the Masonic Lodge is today. The mysteries of the mystery religion were revealed to the initiates; and the uninitiated did not know them. You had to be initiated into the religion to learn them. It was a mystery religion. Just like the Masonic Lodge, you have to be initiated into the lodge to know all of the mysteries of the lodge. Now that is the way the word is used, just a common word in the day Paul used it, to refer to the church. He says the church is a mustērion [Ephesians 3:3]. That is, you could never learn of it except through a revelation of God. And he says the whole thing, the concept, the being of the church was a secret kept in the heart of God until God revealed it to His holy apostles [Ephesians 3:5]. That the prophets, that the old dispensation, that even the angels of heaven did not know of it [1 Peter 1:12]. Well, that’s an astonishing thing for Paul to write, that the church is a mustērion [Ephesians 3:3]. Let’s see what it is not, then.
The church then, if it is a secret hid in the heart of God, and the angels did not know about it, and the prophets did not know about it [Ephesians 3:5], then the church is not the kingdom, for the Old Testament dispensation is full of the prophecies concerning the glories of the kingdom. All right, a second thing, then the secret is not only that it is not the kingdom, but the secret is not that the Gentiles are going to be saved; for the Old Testament is filled with the prophecies of the dispensation of God’s grace to the Gentiles. It starts off like that. The Lord called Abraham and said that, “In thee and in thy seed, as of one, in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” [Genesis 22:15-18; Galatians 3:16]. That’s the way the thing starts. So the old dispensation says that the Gentiles are going to be included in the great, great grace and merciful providence of God.
I wish that we had time to look at some of these things. To me, there is not a more astonishing passage of Scripture in the Bible than this prophecy in the nineteenth chapter in the Book of Isaiah. And I say it is astonishing to me because of what the headlines are in the daily newspapers. Now you look at this prophecy:
In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian 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.
Why, when you read that, you can hardly believe it. Just read your headline today, and then read that prophecy of Isaiah. Well, let’s go back to what we were talking about.
From the beginning, God purposed to bless the Gentiles, so that’s not the mystery [Genesis 22:15-18]. All right again, it is not the mystery of the sufferings and the glories of Christ. The old dispensation, the old covenant, the old Bible is full of that. The fifty-third chapter of Isaiah will prophesy the sufferings of Christ in as dramatic a language as though the prophet stood there on Calvary and watched Jesus die [Isaiah 53:1-12]. And of course in the ninth chapter of Isaiah, O, the glory of Christ, “His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” [Isaiah 9:6].
And then think of the glories of Christ as the prophet describes them in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah [Isaiah 11:1-16]. No, there were no secrets that God did not reveal concerning the kingdom, and concerning the Gentiles, and concerning the suffering and the glory of Christ. Yet Paul writes here that this church is a mustērion. It is a secret hid in the heart of God that the Lord did not reveal until He showed it to His holy apostles [Ephesians 3:36].
Well, let’s continue that just for a minute. I know by that then that the church and the age, the dispensation in which we live, is not a continuation of the old covenant and the old dispensation. It just isn’t. The church and the age in which we live is a new covenant. It is a new testament. It is a new dispensation [Ephesians 3:1-12]. It is a new age. It is a new government. And oh there’s so much of that in the Bible that this is a new thing. For example, in Matthew, in the ninth chapter, the Lord will say, “You do not put a new patch on an old garment, because when the new patch shrinks it would tear the rend bigger [Matthew 9:16]. And you do not put new wine in old wineskins, hard; because as it fermented it would break it open” [Matthew 9:17]. This is a new thing, Jesus says.
Now in the Gospel of Luke the Lord will say, “For the law and the prophets were until John; but John introduced a new day and a new era” [Luke 16:16]. The apostle John, in the Fourth Gospel, will say it, “For the law came by Moses, but grace and truth by Jesus Christ” [John 1:17]. It’s a new day. It’s a new era. It’s a new dispensation. That’s what the chapters of 9, 10, and 11 in Romans are about. He is saying in those chapters that in the elective purpose of God that God took the Jewish nation, the chosen people of the Lord, and set them aside. And God is now dealing in a new way, and with the Gentiles [Romans 9-11]. But someday, He is going to put back that natural branch in the olive tree [Romans 11:23-24].
We don’t have time to speak of these things, but that’s what those chapters are about. Now could I kind of summarize that chapter in saying this? When John the Baptist came, he announced, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” [Matthew 3:1-2]; and when Jesus came to preach, He announced “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” [Matthew 4:17]; and when the Lord sent out the seventy, they preached, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” [Luke 10:1-9]. But the Jew rejected the kingdom, and they slew their King [Acts 2:22-23]. And you have a new dispensation. You have a new era. You have a new thing. You have a new testament, a new covenant, a new government. God is doing something else. And that something else is the mustērion that the prophets never saw [Ephesians 3:5], and the angels never saw [1 Peter 1:12], and that is this: that the kingdom was set aside when it was rejected by the chosen people, and in a new dispensation, God is doing something else [Ephesians 3:5-11]. Jesus is never called the King of the church, never. He is always the head of the body [Colossians 1:18]. So, we’re going to have a King someday––that’s the reason I like that song,
We shall see the King someday, amen!
We shall shout and sing someday, Glory to God!
But that’s not now. That’s not now, for the King went away.
The Book says in the nineteenth chapter of Luke, the King went away, and He is coming back someday and establish His kingdom in the earth [Matthew 25:31]. And we are going to be kingdom subjects [Revelation2 2:3]. We are going to see Him [Revelation 22:4]. It’s going to be a great and hallelujah consummation, but not now, not now. The King went away. He is in exile [Luke 19:11-13].
Now, the mustērion; what the prophets never saw [Ephesians 3:5], and what the angels didn’t know and according to the first chapter of the letter of Simon Peter, Simon Peter says, “The angels desired to look into it” [1 Peter 1:12]. It was a marvel to the angels to see what God was doing. The mustērion is this: that between the going away of the Lord and the coming back of the Lord [Acts 1:11], that there was to be a period of time in there, a new dispensation, a new covenant [Ephesians 3:1]. And in that period of time, and Paul says, “The mustērion is that the Gentiles and the Jews are to be fellow members of the same body” [Ephesians 3:6-10], there is to be a new creation: the church, the body of Christ. And the Jew, and the prophet, and the ancient of the covenant, and even the angels themselves didn’t see that [Ephesians 3:5; 1 Peter 1:12].
I want to show that to you about the angels. In the tenth and eleventh verses in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus is ascending into heaven, and the angels came and said to those apostles there, “Why are you standing looking into heaven? this same Jesus that you see going up into heaven, shall so come in like manner” [Acts 1:9-11]; the two right there together—because the angels didn’t see [1 Peter 1:12], just like the prophets [Ephesians 3:5]. When the prophets prophesied about the Lord Jesus, in the same breath that they would speak of His sufferings, in that same breath they would speak of His glory—denied, rejected of men, and the same breath of His wonder and His kingly presence [Isaiah 53:1-12].
Oh, what is the matter is that there are two great mountain peaks! One, the coming of the Lord to suffer [Isaiah 53:5]; second, the coming of the Lord to reign [Isaiah 52:13-15], and to the prophet and to the angels, they were side by side. He is going away. He is coming back [Acts 1:11]. But the angels themselves didn’t put this great hiatus between the two. And as we see, in the mustērion of God and in our living before the Lord, those two mountain peaks that when you look at them way off look side by side. But when you come to them, you find the first mountain peak is here—that is the suffering of our Christ [Luke 24:26, 46]. But the second mountain peak, the coming of the Lord, is way beyond [Matthew 25:31]. And in between is this vast valley; the dispensation of grace, of the Holy Spirit, the age of the church, the age of the preaching of the gospel, the age of the forming of a new creation [2 Corinthians 5:17], which the prophet never saw [Ephesians 3:5-6], which the angels didn’t know anything about [1 Peter 1:12], namely, that God was going to do a new thing.
He was going to create a new body with Jew and Gentile, with everybody in the earth in that one fitly framed, beautifully put together body of the Lord called the church. Now that is the mustērion [Ephesians 3:3-11]. And no one ever knew of it. No one ever saw it. No one ever prophesied about it. When I read these commentators, and in the Old Testament they’re talking about the prophet talking about the glories of the church, to me that is ecclesiastical, spiritual, scriptural, abysmal ignorance! For the Book says the prophets never saw it [Ephesians 3:5], and the Book says the angels didn’t know anything about it [1 Peter 1:12]. The Book says it is a mustērion that was hid in the heart of God and was never known until God revealed it to His holy prophets.
Now when, the reason I began this sermon, “If you will listen to me, you will have an open Bible before you, and it’ll all fit together just beautifully.” But when you get it all mixed up––and here are prophecies that pertain to Israel and you make them pertain to the church, and here are prophecies that pertain to this age, this dispensation that the prophet couldn’t discern, when all he could see was just like one like that, the sufferings of Christ and the glories of Christ to him, all at the one time––if you don’t separate them like God is revealing to us here in the New Testament, it is inexplicable. And you go around and you say, “I don’t understand. I don’t understand God. And I don’t understand what’s happening, and I don’t understand providence, and I don’t understand. I just don’t believe there is a God.”
Well, I can understand that. When you’re so confused in the biblical message and what you’re finding out here in the world, I can easily understand why. “I just don’t believe God’s around. I don’t believe God’s running this thing. I don’t believe God’s doing anything in this world in which we live.” Well, that’s because you’re confused. You’re not reading the Book. But when you read this Word and you see what God is doing, everything that happens in the daily newspapers will fit just perfectly; what God is working out through the ages.
Now let’s take the remainder of this time and let’s look at that mustērion, that church that God revealed to the holy apostles, and this age in which we live [Ephesians 3:4-5]. The church is a called-out body of believers [Romans 8:28-30], and there is a word that is used in the New Testament for it, and it’s a word that you know: the word egkaleō. Ek “out of,” kaleō “to call,” the ekklēsia, “the called-out ones” [1 Corinthians 1:2]. There’s no such a thing in the Bible as a church, a kuriakos, a kurkas, a kurk, a church. See, in different languages it’s pronounced by different pronunciation. That came with Constantine when they built those elaborate buildings. Then they changed the name of it from an ekklēsia to a kuriakos, a lordly house, a kuriakos, a kurkas, a kurk, a church. There’s no such thing as that in the Bible. It is always an ekklēsia, a called-out company of people.
I went out yesterday with our Juniors to the retreat out at Mt. Lebanon. Somebody was having a little meeting in the WMU building out there. And on a big placard on an easel, they removed it as we came in, but as I came in, I looked at that placard; and the placard read “A church can be anywhere, a church can be anywhere.” Now I don’t know who wrote that but that’s sure the gospel. A church can be in a barn. A church can be in a cave. A church can be on a sawdust floor. A church can be under a banyan tree. A church can be in your house. A church does not refer to all of this elaboration: windows, and carpets, and pews, and brick, and spire.
Oh, the church is God’s called-out people! [Romans 8:28-30]. That’s the church. And I look on it like that too, more and more, as I minister in the name of the Lord. I look upon these things. They’re just facilities for me to use. What the trowel is to the mason, or the hammer and saw is to a carpenter, or arms are to the soldier, that’s all I look upon these things. These things are just facilities. They’re just instruments by which we’re teaching these youngsters the faith of the Lord and by which we’re encouraging one another to serve Jesus. The church then is the called-out body. It’s the called-out family of the Lord [Romans 8:28-30].
Now, here in the Book of Ephesians, he describes where we came from and what we are. In the fifth chapter of the Book of Ephesians, he writes:
For we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.
For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.
This is the great mustērion; but I speak concerning Christ and the church.
Now isn’t that something? Well, let me show you what Paul is doing here. What he did was, he went back there to Genesis, the second chapter of Genesis, and he read there in the second chapter of Genesis how that God put Adam under a deep sleep, and He took out of his side [Genesis 2:21]––and you’ve heard me expatiate on that rendering of the word “rib.” There’s no such even an approach to rib. There’s no place in the Bible where that word is translated “rib.” You’ve got the side of the ark. You’ve got the side of the tent. You’ve got the side of the house, all through the Bible, well so it is there––He took out of his side, the side of Adam, God took out of the side of Adam and made the woman and brought her to Adam [Genesis 2:22]. And when Adam looked upon her, he said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman.” The Hebrew word for “man” is ish, and the Hebrew word for “woman” is ishah [Genesis 2:23]. “She shall be called ishah because she was taken out of ish. Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife: and they two shall be one flesh” [Genesis 2:24].
Now Paul quotes that, then he says, “This is a great mustērion: but I am speaking concerning Christ and the church” [Ephesians 5:32]. Well, what he means by that is, as Eve the bride, and the church is called His bride, as Eve the bride was taken out of the side of Adam [Genesis 2:22], so the church, the bride of Christ, was taken out of His side [Ephesians 5]. That is, we are born in His blood, in His tears, in His cross, in His sacrifice, in His sobs, in the pouring out of His life for us [Ephesians 5:25-27]. That’s where we came from. That’s the mustērion; that the Lord took the church out of the love and sacrifice, and sobs and tears, and blood and sufferings of Christ [Ephesians 5:25-27]. Why, I tell you when you get to reading this Book and seeing what God is saying to us, it’s the most marvelous thing in the earth. It’s just incomparable.
Well, let me skip over all the rest of this sermon and come to the last thing I wanted to say. What is the destiny of the church? Because the church age is going to end. It began there when God took the church out of the side of the Lord, and he—John the Baptist gathered the material for it; Jesus organized it, gave it its discipline, its ordinances, its apostles, and the Holy Spirit breathed upon it, and we became a living organism. The church is not a club. It’s not an ethical society. It’s not a reforming agency. The church is the living organ, the body of Christ [Ephesians 5:30]. He is our head [Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18], and we are His members. We are the body of our Lord [Ephesians 5:30].
Now, the destiny of the church; as the church has an origin, it has an ending. This dispensation, this era of grace in which we live, it’s going to end. And the destiny of the church, the Scriptures say, is: we’re going to be––and here we must use, it’s not a word in the Bible, it’s an old English word for what the Bible says––the destiny of the church is to be raptured! That’s an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning we’re going to be snatched away. We’re going to be taken out, we are going to be caught up—and oh, when you think of these things.
“Two shall be working in a field, one shall be taken, the other left; two shall be grinding at the mill, one shall be taken, the other left” [Luke 17:34-36]; but you see the earth is always half night if it is half day, so he also says, “Two shall be sleeping in a bed, one shall be taken, the other left” [Luke 17:34]. All around the earth, when the Lord comes, it’ll be night some places, and it’ll be day some places; and then some will be taken and the others left. As Paul will write in the Thessalonian letter,
This we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord shall not precede those who are asleep.
For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel . . . and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we who are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord shall be caught up in the clouds with them, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we be with the Lord.
[1 Thessalonians 4:15-17]
Now that duality of response to the coming of Christ is all through the Bible, all through the Scriptures. There’s going to be a resurrection of those who are sleeping in Jesus, and there’s going to be a rapture of those who are living at the time when the Lord comes [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]. For example, when the Lord is on Mt. Transfiguration, there appeared to Him Elijah [Matthew 17:3]. Now he didn’t die. Elijah, he was caught up to heaven in a whirlwind [2 Kings 2:11], and he represents those who are changed, glorified, immortalized at the coming of the Lord [1 Corinthians 15:51-52]. And the other who stood and spoke to the Lord on Transfiguration was Moses [Matthew 17:3]. He died and was buried [Deuteronomy 34:5-6]. And he represents those who were resurrected from the dead 1 Thessalonians 4:16].
You’ll find that in the Word of the Lord Jesus in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John, to Martha and Mary, “I,” and to me this is the greatest sentence in the Bible and the greatest sentence in human speech, “I am the resurrection, and the life” [John 11:25]. Well, there you have those two things again: “the resurrection,” these that have fallen asleep in Jesus, they will rise at the sound of His voice [John 11:43-44]; and “the life,” we who are alive and remain to the Lord, we shall be immortalized and glorified in a moment [1 Thessalonians 4:17].
Look at it again: you’ll find it in the fifteenth chapter of the first Corinthian letter, the great resurrection letter. The apostle Paul, after he describes the glory of the consummation of age, he will say, “Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, O Death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55]. Now that is for those who are going to be raptured. We are alive to the coming of the Lord [1 Thessalonians 4:15], “O Death, where is thy sting?” And then second, “O Grave, where is thy victory?” [1 Corinthians 15:55], that’s for those who have fallen asleep in Jesus [1 Thessalonians 4:13]. These that are going to be resurrected from the dead, “O Grave, where is thy victory” [1 Corinthians 15:55]? All the way through you’ll find that duality. These that have fallen asleep in the Lord are going to be raised from the dead, out of the dust of the ground and the heart of the earth and the depths of the sea [1 Thessalonians 4:16].
And we who are alive and remain to the coming of Jesus, we shall be immortalized, glorified [1 John 3:2]. As Paul says, “My brethren, I know as you know that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God [1 Corinthians 15:50-51]. But I show you a great mustērion [1 Corinthians 15:51], I show you a great secret hid in the heart of God, revealed out to His apostles” [Ephesians 3:5]; namely, the great mustērion that the Lord is going to come:
with a shout, with a voice of the archangel…
and the dead in Christ shall rise first: and we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall be caught up with them in the air
[1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]
The great mustērion: For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven, and in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, this mortal shall put on immortality, and this corruptible shall put on incorruptible, and we shall all be changed [1 Corinthians 15:51-53]. That’s the destiny of the church.
And in the meantime, we’re to preach, we’re to teach, and we’re to train, and we’re to win, calling out the called, the elect, making appeal. And those whom God hath chosen, they’re coming in. I saw some of them come in yesterday. I saw some of them come in the day before. There’ll be others coming in today. And according to the eleventh chapter of the Book of Romans and the twenty-fifth verse, when the last one comes in, then the consummation of the age [Romans 11:25]; the body of Christ is complete. The fullness of the Gentiles, the plērōma, the full number of the Gentiles be come in, then is the consummation of the age. That’s why God says to us, do not rejoice that the spirits are subject to you, however powerful you might be, but rejoice that you belong to the kingdom of God; that you belong to the Lord Jesus Christ; that your names are written in heaven [Luke 10:20]; that when that day comes you are in that number of God’s redeemed.
And now that’s the kingdom. We’re all in it. Like the twenty-four elders: twelve in the Old Testament, twelve in the New—twelve patriarchs, twelve apostles. And the kingdom of God includes all of God’s redeemed through the ages [Revelation 19:4]. The Old Testament saints, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and we sit down in the kingdom with them. All the redeemed of all time are going to be in the kingdom, but the bride is His church [Ephesians 5:25]; the friends of the Bridegroom at the marriage supper of the Lamb [John 3:29; Revelation 19:6-9], but the bride is His church [Revelation 19:6-9]. Oh, how blessed, as Jesus would say, “There is none born of woman greater than John the Baptist, but the least in the kingdom of heaven,” this age in which we live, not the kingdom of God, “but the least in the kingdom of heaven,” the year in which we’re living, “is greater than John the Baptist” [Matthew 11:11].
Oh! Somebody hold my Bible while I shout, “Amen!” Oh, dear. Well, all we need is about forty more hours and we can look at some of these things. Now the time just runs away. On the first note of the first stanza, God leading you, come; God speaking the word, come; God saying the word, come. Make the decision now. Take your wife by the hand, “Why, let’s go. Let’s go.” Both of you come this morning. A family you, come, or just you, in the balcony round, on this lower floor, down this aisle and here to the pastor, “Here I come, doing it now.” God will bless you, oh how richly, how sweetly. Do it, while we stand and while we sing.