The Mystery of the Church
April 5th, 1970 @ 10:50 AM
THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-5-70 10:50 a.m.
Now the title of the sermon is The Mystery, the mustērion, The Mystery Of The Church. And if you will pay attention to it, you will find your Bible will fall into place as in no other study you ever made in your life. And without the truth that I am preaching this morning, which is an exposition of the third chapter of Ephesians, the Bible is a lot unknown, unsearchable Book. It is fragmented and it means this and this and this and does not mean anything altogether. But in the message this morning every part of the Bible has a tremendous and significant and beautifully integrated part. So you listen with your head and your heart and your soul. The Mystery, the mustērion, of the Church.
Now, we are going to read the first part of the third chapter of the Book of Ephesians, and the message is an exposition of these words.
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 other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, but it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;
– that, namely which mustērion is this? –
That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body
– the body of our Lord, the church –
and of the same body, and partakers His promise in Christ by the gospel: Whereof I was made a minister
– and I am preaching it unto you –
Even I, who am less than the least of all the saints, but God gave me this grace that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;
And to make known to all men 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 Christ Jesus:
To the intent that now,
Up there in glory, where it was not even known – the mystery, the mustērion was not even known by the angels, but now:
even unto the principalities and powers
– those orders of heavenly beings –
in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,
According to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Now in that verse, number 3, "How that by revelation was made known unto me the mustērion," and then in verse 9, God called me "to make all men see what is the dispensation of the mustērion, which from the beginning God hid in His own heart, but now is made known to the angels in heaven as well as to the saints on the earth, a mustērion." Now, when you read the English Bible translate that word mystery you get a wrong idea. A mystery to us is an enigma. It is something that we don’t ferret out. It’s hidden. Its mystery may be unsearchable or un-understandable. That’s what a mystery is to us. But a mustērion in the days of the apostle Paul, and as it is used here in the New Testament, is not anything like that.
In the days when Paul lived, the Roman Empire was covered with what they called "mystery religions." And only the initiates, only those who were inducted into the mystery, such as the Eleusinian mysteries, only those knew what the mysteries were. It is the same kind of a thing as the day you find in the Masonic Lodge. In the Masonic Lodge you are inducted into the mysteries of the Lodge, things that you learn only when you are initiated in it. When you are not initiated in it, you don’t know them. Well, that’s the way the word mustērion was used in the days of the Roman Empire, and that’s the way Paul uses it here. It was an ordinary Greek word referring to secrets that were made known only to those to whom they were revealed, to the initiates. Now Paul takes that word mustērion, and he says there is a mustērion, there is a secret that God kept in His heart that the angels didn’t know, that the prophets didn’t see. It was a secret God kept in His heart until that day that He revealed it to His holy apostles [Ephesians 3:5].
Well, what is that mustērion? What is that secret that was kept in the heart of God? Is it the kingdom of God? Is that it? No. For the old dispensation, this Bible is filled with prophecies of the glory of the coming kingdom. Well, what is that mustērion, that secret in the heart of God? Is it that the Gentiles are going to be saved? No. For the whole Old Testament is filled with the promised blessings to the Gentiles. It starts off that way. The whole covenant starts off with God’s promise to Abraham that, "In thee and in thy seed, as of one, shall all the families of the earth be blessed" [Genesis 12:3] And over and over and over again will you find in the Old Testament; the prophecies that the Gentiles are going to be blessed and God is going to use Israel to bring that blessing to the whole world.
As I read these headlines today, I cannot help but be amazed, astonished at this prophecy! For example, in the last verses of the nineteenth chapter of Isaiah, listen to Isaiah as he prophesies:
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 blessed be Assyria the work of My hands, and blessed be Israel Mine inheritance.
So what do you think about that? Just look at these headlines today. Read them today. Well, I am just saying to you that the Gentiles are going to be blessed and that the Gentiles are going to be saved is no mustērion. It is written all through the Bible and that is what the Bible is about: that God was going to take Abraham and then his seed – Isaac, and Jacob, and Israel – and is going to use Israel to be a blessing for the whole world. That is no mustērion, that is what the Bible reveals.
Well, is the mustērion the sufferings and the glories of Christ? No. For the prophets speak of them in the most beautiful and glowing and dramatic terms. The suffering of Christ, you will find, for example, in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, when the prophet, seven hundred fifty years before it came to pass, described the passion of our Lord as though he were standing on the top of Mt. Calvary, watching Him die. And the same prophet in the same breath will describe the glories of the Lord. The ninth chapter of Isaiah, "And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace" [Isaiah 9:6]; or the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, describing the glories of the Lord and the kingdom. So it is no mustērion that Christ should suffer and that He should be glorified.
Well, what is the mustērion then that was kept in the secret heart of God until that day that He revealed it to His apostles? The secret was this, that between the suffering of our Lord and the glorification, the kingdom appearance of our Lord, there was to be a great period of time, an age of grace, a dispensation of mercy, and that in that big period of time, those two great mountain peaks, God was going to form another entity. And that entity is to be made up of Jews and Gentiles, and that they should be of the same body, belonging to the same household of faith.
That was the secret that God kept in His heart until the day that He revealed it. And even the angels didn’tt know it. First chapter of 1 Peter says they desired to look into it, wondering what God was doing. And to show you how the angels didn’t know it, when the Lord ascended to heaven, in the first chapter of Acts, in the tenth and eleventh verses, as those men stood there looking up into heaven – into which Jesus had gone – why, the angels came and said to those men, "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking up into heaven? This same Jesus, that has so ascended from you into heaven, shall in like manner come down from heaven." He shall descend, He shall come down – as though He were ascending, as though He were coming right down.
Even the angels did not know that between the passion and ascension of Christ and His coming back again was this great period of time. And the prophets didn’t know it; they never saw it. It was a mustērion that was revealed to the apostles, it’s like two great mountain peaks when you look at them: far, far away when you look at them, they look like one mountain range. Those two great peaks look they’re side by side when you are a long way off, but when you get to them and you journey and you journey, and you get to them, you find that the two mountain peaks are far apart; here is one and there’s the other, and there is a great valley in between. That’s exactly what the prophets did, and that’s all that the angels knew. They saw the coming of Christ, suffering. They saw the coming of Christ in His glory. But they never saw the great valley in between. And in that valley God says He is going to create something new. And into that new creation, the Jew and the Gentile alike should belong to the household of faith.
Isn’t that a remarkable thing? Let me parenthesize here to say, ninety-nine percent of the commentators and doctors of divinity and the preachers will go back in the Old Testament, and there they will read about the glories of the church. And no prophet ever heard of a church, and no angel ever dreamed of a church. The Bible says so. What you read back there in the Old Testament belongs to the prophecies of that kingdom dispensation. They never saw the church. They never heard of the church. They never dreamed of the church. It was a mustērion! It was a secret in the heart of God, and that is why you fall into trouble.
When you read these old prophecies back here, and along comes a doctor of divinity and he says, "Now this prophecy back here refers to the glories of the church." Well, no wonder, the Bible gets so enigmatic to you and the whole providence of God becomes so confused to you until you walk around and say, "Well, I don’t understand anything. Where is God?" And, "What’s God doing?" And, "What is this thing?" And you just live in confusion all your life. You don’t have any answers. You don’t have any way out. The whole world, God above it and you in it and the Bible talking about it, is nothing but an enigmatic riddle.
Well, the reason for it is very plain. The Bible says some things, but we don’t listen to them. And the Bible wants us to understand some things, but we don’t want to understand. That’s why I started off this sermon this morning, "If you’ll just listen to me." You listen to me. Now I’m not talking about that fellow out there. If you listen to me, I’m saying this Bible will become an open book to you; it will all just fit right together, and these things that the Lord says are so plain.
Now, let us continue with it. I didn’t mean to say all that. Let us continue with it, this mustērion in the heart of God. Well, what is this age then and this new creation; this church that He hid in His heart until He revealed it?
Well, let us say what it is not: first, it is not – it is n-o-t, not – It is not a continuation of the old dispensation, of the old covenant, it is not. The church and this age is a new dispensation, it is a new covenant, it is a new testament, it is a new age, it is a new government; God doing a new thing.
Now if we had hours, we could just take these things that I’m saying one at a time and look at them in the Bible. For example, that this is not a continuation of the old dispensation. And that’s why some of our churches and some of our denominations they sprinkle babies. They say this is a continuation of the old dispensation. And in the old dispensation they circumcise the child. But in this continuation of the old covenant, of the old dispensation, we sprinkle the child. Now that’s what you fall into when you don’t read the Bible. That is a doctrinal perversion. There is nothing like that in the Bible. This age in which we live, the church age, the age of grace and the Holy Spirit in which we live, is not a continuation of the old dispensation, of the old covenant. It is a new day, a new covenant, a new testament.
Now, just look at it for a second. For example, in Matthew chapter 9, the Lord says this is not a patch on an old garment. This is not new wine put in an old wineskin, because when the patch shrinks, why, it tears the rend bigger, and when the wine begins to ferment, why, it breaks up that old bottle, the old skin. But you’ve got to put that wine into a new skin so as it ferments and expands, that pliable skin will expand [Matthew 9:16-17]. This is not a patch on an old covenant, it’s something new.
All right, take again. In the [sixteenth] chapter of the Book of Luke, the Lord will say, "For the Law and the Prophets were until John [verse 16]." But when John the forerunner came, he introduced a new dispensation, a new day, a new age. All right, take again in the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel. "For the law was given by Moses, for the law came by Moses, but grace and truth by Jesus Christ" [John 1:17]. They always make that complete break there. And that’s what Romans chapter 9, chapter 10, and chapter 11 are about. That’s what Paul is talking about. The Lord was working with His chosen people, the Jewish people.
And the Lord, when they rejected their Messiah, the Lord took out of that era, that dispensation, He took out that olive branch, and He grafted in a wild olive branch, which Paul says is we, the Gentile. But Paul says one of these days, God is going to put back that native olive branch, the one that belongs. He is going to put it back in the tree, and it’s going to flourish and grow [Romans 11:13-14]. That’s what he’s talking about. We are not a continuation of the so-called Jewish church. We are not a continuation of the old dispensation, the old covenant. We are a new dispensation. We are a new covenant. We are a new testament. We are under a new government. It was something new that God has done. I’m just saying, in other words, that the church is one thing and the kingdom is another thing, and they are not the same thing.
In the Holy Scriptures, Jesus is the head of the church and the church is His body. The Lord Jesus is the head of the church, but He is never spoken of and you will never find any such nomenclature as that "Jesus is the King of the church"; it just isn’t in the Bible. For a king must have a kingdom; but the church has a head, a lord, and we are His body.
Now there is to be a kingdom. When John the Baptist came, he said, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent ye and get ready" [Matthew 3:1-2]. When Jesus came, He said, "Repent ye for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" [Matthew 4:17]. And when He sent out the seventy, they went out and preached, "Repent ye. Get ready, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" [Matthew 10:7]. But they rejected their King, and now He is an exiled King. He has gone away, but some day He is coming back, and He is coming back to be the King. He is coming back to establish His kingdom and He is coming back to reign over the whole creation. But between now and then is that hiatus, that valley in between. And this is the dispensation, the age of the calling out of His people, the church, the creation of this new body, the church.
Now, let’s say, for a few minutes left, what the church is then. It is not a continuation of the old dispensation. It is something new. And it is not the kingdom, for the kingdom is coming and the church is right here. I belong to one of them. Well, what is the church? One, the church is the called out people of the Lord through the years and now through the centuries of all the families and tribes and people under the sun; the Jews, the Gentiles, the Northerner, the Southerner, the Easterner, the Westerner. God is creating a new something, and He calls it – isn’t it a tragedy that we’ve lost the word? He calls it His ekklēsia, and for three hundred years it was called the ekklēsia. But when Constantine was converted and he built those gorgeous piles, why, they changed it from ekklēsia to kuriakos, a lordly house, kuriakos, kurkos, kurk, church!
But the Bible knows no such thing as a church, a church, a kuriakos, a kurkos, a kurk, a church. The Bible knows nothing about it. For the church in the Bible is an ekklēsia, the called out people of the Lord. You can have it anywhere.
I went out there to Mt. Lebanon yesterday with Millie Kohn and her Juniors in their retreat out there. Where were you, Gene? Oh, you graduated up, getting smart. Well, us Juniors were out there yesterday, and they opened the WMU building for us. So I went in the WMU building and there were some of them just leaving. And those who were leaving they had a placard there on an easel. And I read it just before they took it down. It said, "The church can be anywhere."
I wonder who wrote that. Whoever did had the finest theological idea you will find in the Bible. The church can be anywhere! It can be in a barn. It can be on a sawdust floor. It can be in a den or a cave. It can be in your house. The church can be anywhere, for the church is you! It’s the people of the Lord, the called out people of God. That’s the church. And that’s the way I look on it. I don’t look on these things as anything else but an instrument, a facility. That’s all I look on them. Just like a mason needs a trowel, and like a carpenter needs a hammer and a saw, and a soldier needs a gun – he needs arms, I look upon these facilities like that; they’re facilities.
Like Dr. Estes over here, he has facilities to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Well, I have to have facilities if I do it well, to teach about Jesus, and about the Bible, and about our souls, and about heaven, and about glory. They’re just facilities, but the church is you. And I could preach just as well under a tabernacle, in fact, better, because I did it for years and years, as I could right here in this plush church with this fine carpet and those seats that, man a-living! and they make you want to go to sleep or something. You don’t go to sleep out there sitting on a split log, do you? Oh, dear!
This is the Book and it is vital that we understand these things. The church is God’s ekklēsia. He is calling out His people and what a, oh, what a glory that He called us, and God chose us and put it in our hearts to respond. The church is His bride. The church is His body. This new thing – now, I want to show you here in the Book of Ephesians; this is the great letter to the church. Paul turned to the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, and he took out of the story of the creation of Eve, he took out these words, 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" [Ephesians 5:31]. This is a great mustērion! This is a great mustērion; but I speak concerning Christ and the church" [Ephesians 5:32]
Well, what does the apostle say there? Well, that’s what he’s saying there. He took the second chapter of the Book of Genesis over here, and he followed the creation of Eve. Now, God said He put Adam under a deep sleep, and he took out of Adam’s side. And haven’t you heard me say that I cannot find, to save my life, where they ever got the idea of translating that word "rib"? In the Bible, and it’s used a thousand times, you have the "side" of the ark, you have the side of the tabernacle, you have the side of the Temple, you have the side of the house, all through where it is translated side everywhere in the Bible, except that one place where they translated "rib" [Genesis 2:21-22]. I have no idea why they did that, and I can’t find out.
Well anyway, the Book says that God put Adam under a deep sleep, and God took out of his side and made woman, made Eve. And the Bible says there in the second chapter of Genesis that God brought Eve and gave her to Adam. 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, because she was taken out of Man" [Genesis 2:23]. She shall be called ishsha because she was taken out of ish. The Hebrew word for man is ish and woman is ishsha. She was called ishsha because she was taken out of ish, out of man. Then the Lord said, "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" [Genesis 2:24]. "This is a great mustērion: but I speak concerning Christ and His church" [Ephesians 5:32].
Well, what Paul is saying is this: that as Eve, the bride of Adam was taken out of his side, so the bride of Christ was taken out of the riven side of our Lord. We are born in His tears, and in His sobs, and in His cross, and in His suffering, and in His blood and in His wounds, and in His death. That’s where the church came from. We are His bride, and God took us out of the body of our Lord. And that’s where we belong, close to the heart of our Savior, as Eve belonged in the arms of Adam. God made her that way. "Therefore, shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh. I speak this mustērion concerning Christ and His church."
Why, bless you, when you get to reading the Book and seeing what God says to us, you just want to shout all over the place. You want to clap your hands. You want to sing. You want to praise God. Look what the Lord has done for us. That’s His church and that’s the mustērion that was hid in the secret heart of God until the Lord revealed it through His holy apostles and to us [Ephesians 3:4-5].
Now, we are going to skip over all the rest for an hour or two that I had prepared and we are going to the end of this sermon. We are going to come to the destiny of the church. What is the destiny of the church? Oh, dear, oh, oh, if we are on shouting ground when we talk about where we came from, out of the love of our Lord and out of His riven side, born in His blood and in His cross; if we could shout when we think about the origin of the church, where we came from, think of the glory when we behold, just contemplate our destiny!
What is our destiny? The bride of Christ, the church, this new thing that God has created, this mustērion hid in His heart, what is the destiny of the church? Now Paul again calls that a mustērion. "My brethren," he says,
flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth the corruption inherit incorruption. But I show you a great 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 in Christ shall rise incorruptible, and we shall all be changed, all of us.
[1 Corinthians 15:50-52]
That’s the mustērion. That’s the secret of the destiny of this church.
Now, let’s just take the Bible for a moment. Oh, what God says about that! You see, the destiny of the church, the Scriptures say, is and this is not in the Bible, the word, the thought is in the Bible, but the word is an old Anglo-Saxon word and it is raptured. The destiny of the church is to be raptured, and that’s an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning, "to snatch away, to catch away." And the destiny of the church is to be caught up with the Lord, to be taken out of the world [1 Thessalonians 4:13-18]. As the Lord said, "Two shall be working in a field; one shall be taken, the other left. Two shall be grinding in a mill; one shall be taken, and the other left" [Luke 17:34-36]. But the earth is also half night; if its day here, it’s night over there. So the Lord says when He comes, "Two shall be sleeping in a bed; one shall be taken and the other left." The rapture, the catching up of God’s children to the Lord at the great consummation of age, the destiny of the church, and you will find that duality and response to the coming of the Lord all through the Scripture. You will find it everywhere; some of us raised, and some of us raptured.
When the Lord was on the Mount of Transfiguration, there appeared to Him, talking to Him, Elijah [Mark 9:4]. He never died, he was raptured. He went up to heaven in a whirlwind of fire, when the chariot of Israel came for him [2 Kings 2:11]. He was raptured; he never died, Moses was there talking to Him. Moses died and was buried [Deuteronomy 34:5]. He represents those who are resurrected from the dead.
Or, take again, in the eleventh chapter of the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John [verse 25], the profoundest sentence I think in human language, "And Jesus said, I am the resurrection," there it is, "and the life," that duality again; the resurrection, these that have fallen asleep in the Lord and are buried in the earth. "I am the resurrection," He shall speak and they shall live again. "And I am the life," these who are abiding and remain until the coming of the Lord who shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, who shall never die; the resurrection and the life [1 Corinthians 15:51-52].
All right, take once again in the fifteenth chapter of the first Corinthian letter, Paul says, speaking of the great consummating day, he says, "And then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, O grave where is thy victory?" That’s the resurrection, these that have fallen asleep in the Lord. "O grave where is thy victory?" And, "O death where is thy sting?" [1 Corinthians 15:54-55] That is the cry of those who are raptured, who never die, who are never buried. Oh, dear me, think of that! Think of that.
"For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord," writes the apostle, "that we who are alive and remain under the coming of the Lord shall not precede them who are asleep. 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," that’s the resurrection; "And we who are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord shall be caught up together with them who meet the Lord in the air," that’s the rapture [1 Thessalonians 4:15-17]. And always, it’s those two side by side; the resurrection and the rapture – these who have fallen asleep in Jesus, and we who are alive and remain to His coming.
Not the least of the saints who have trusted in Jesus will God forget. He marked the place where the missionary fell on a foreign field. He saw it. And that humblest servant of Jesus who lives to the appearing of the Lord, they all are in heaven. We all have a part, we all are going to be there.
We sing our hymn of appeal and while we sing it, you coming down that aisle, give your heart to Jesus. A family you putting our life with us in this dear church, a couple you, as the Lord shall lay the appeal upon your heart, while we sing the song, down one of these stairwells if you are in the balcony; on the lower floor, into the aisle and down here to the front and to the pastor, "Here I come today. I want to give my life to the Lord and I am coming. I want to dedicate my house and my home and my children to Jesus, and we’re coming." Or just you, as God shall say the word, make it now. On the first note of the first stanza, come. Make the decision now where you are seated, and in a moment when you stand up, stand up coming. And the Lord bless you in the way while you come, as we stand and as we sing.