THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-19-78 7:30 p.m.
Now on the radio we want you to turn with us to the fifth chapter of the Book of Ephesians, and we are going to read three verses together: verses 30, 31, and 32. Ephesians chapter 5, verses 30, 31, and 32.
The title of the sermon is The Mystery of the Church, the twofold mystery of the church. Ephesians 5 and these three verses: 30, 31, and 32, now, may we read them out loud together:
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 a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.
To us, a mystery is an enigma. It is a riddle. It is something that is beyond our understanding or finding out. That is the word “mystery” to us. But in the language of the days of our Lord and of His apostles, the word “mystery,” mustērion, was an altogether different thing. If you were inducted into the mystery religions, it was something unknown to the people on the outside until your initiation into the mysteries of the religion.
You have the same kind of a thing as if you entered the Masonic Lodge. There are secrets in the lodge that are revealed to those who are initiated into the lodge. That’s the word mustērion in the Greek world. It refers to a secret that is unknown until it is revealed to the initiated. In the Bible, it is used to refer to a secret that God has kept in His heart until He reveals it unto His holy apostles.
So the apostle Paul writes in the text that the church is a great mustērion. “I speak concerning Christ and the church, which is a great mustērion” [Ephesians 5:32]. It is a secret that God kept in His heart until He revealed it to His holy apostles [Ephesians 3:5-10].
There are many facets of that that we haven’t time to enter into. For example, it refers to this whole dispensation of grace, this whole age of the Holy Spirit. The apostles alone knew it. All of the prophets never saw it. The church is not in the Old Testament. It was never seen by the prophets. It was a mystery, a secret God kept in His heart until He revealed it to His holy apostles [Ephesians 3:5]. This is that hiatus, this great interlude between the sixty-ninth and the seventieth weeks of the Book of Daniel [Daniel 9:26-27]. It is a secret, a mustērion that God kept in His heart until He revealed it to His apostles.
Now we’re going to look at the mustērion of the church. It is twofold. First, it is twofold in its origin. Where did the church come from? In this fifth chapter of the Book of Ephesians, Paul says, first, the church was born in the sobs, and the cries, and the wounds, and the suffering, and the blood, and the death of Christ [Ephesians 5:25-30]. It was taken out of the scar in His side.
In this passage that we just read, Paul here quotes Genesis 2:23-24. In that story in the second chapter of Genesis, the Lord God caused a deep sleep to come upon Adam. And God took out of the side of Adam—you have it translated, “a rib” [Genesis 2:21]. But in no other place in the Bible is that word ever translated, “rib.” Somebody had an idea of rib and so used the word rib.
I’ve done my best for thirty, forty years to find out where that came from, and I have never yet been able to discover it. Everywhere else in the Bible the word is “side,” like the side of the tabernacle, or the side of the ark, or the side of the altar. Always, it is side. It means side there. God took out of the side of Adam and created Eve and brought her to Adam [Genesis 2:21-22]. And when Adam saw her, he said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called ishah because she was taken out of ish. She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” [Genesis 2:23].
And Paul uses that as the imagery of the creation of the church. As God took Eve out of the side of Adam from near his heart, so the Lord took the church out of the side of our crucified Lord. We are born in the sobs, and tears, and sufferings, and crucifixion, and death of our Lord [Ephesians 5:25-30]. We are taken out of the scar in His side.
Therefore, Paul says, “We are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones” [Ephesians 5:30]. When we become Christians, we are added to, we are baptized into the body of Christ [1 Corinthians 12:13].
Second: Paul says another thing concerning the mystery of the origin of the church. We are not only taken out of the side of our Lord, and not only born out of His sufferings and from His crucifixion, but we are born in the word. He uses an amazing word here that you would never see in the English translation. He says, “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it; That He might sanctify and cleanse it with—and you have the translation, ‘washing’—with the washing of water by the word” [Ephesians 5:25-26].
The Hebrew is kiyyor. The Greek word is loutron. If we were to translate it actually, it would be “laver.” The laver between the altar and the door of the sanctuary was the great laver where the priest washed himself as he came to present himself before the Lord [Exodus 30:18-21]. And the apostle says that the church is born out of the washing, the kiyyor, the loutron, the laver of the word of God. We are born in the word of Christ [Ephesians 5:25-26].
No one is ever introduced into the kingdom of our Savior who is not born by the word and in the word, no one. That’s what the Lord referred to when in John 3:5, He says, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” That is, except a man be born of the word, the gospel message, and of the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit of God, he can never be saved [John 3:3]. No man is ever saved apart from the preaching of the word of God. We are born by the word, in the word, through the word. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing the word of God” [Romans 10:17].
For example, when the persecutor Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus to hale into prison those who were calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus, the Lord appeared to him in the way [Acts 9:1-5], and when Saul fell down at His feet and said, “Lord, what would Thou have me to do?” the Lord Jesus says, “Go into the city, and there it will be told thee what thou must do” [Acts 9:6]. Why didn’t Jesus tell him what to do? He’s standing there before Him face to face. Because no man comes into the will of God apart from the delivery of the message of another man [Romans 10:17].
Take again just one other instance. In the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts, an angel appears unto Cornelius. And he says to Cornelius, “Your prayers are heard. Your alms are seen. Send down to Joppa for one Simon who will come and tell thee words whereby thou and thy house may be saved” [Acts 10:1-5]. Why didn’t the angel tell him the words whereby he and his house could be saved? The angel was standing there before him. The angel was speaking to him, talking to him. And yet he says, “Send down for Simon who will come and tell thee words whereby thou and thy house may be saved” [Acts 10:6]. Because no man is ever saved apart from the preaching of the gospel of the Son of God [Romans 10:17], that’s why the blood of the entire world is upon our hands. Without us, they cannot be saved. “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher” [Romans 10:13-14]? Depending upon us for the delivery of the gospel message is the regeneration and salvation of the whole world.
A man is born again by listening to the Word of the Lord. This is the mystery, the mustērion, of the origin of the church [Romans 10:17]. It is born out of the suffering side of our Lord, and it is born out of the preached word of the living God—the twofold mustērion of the origin of the church.
Second: the ordinances of the church are twofold. They are not three. They are not one. They are two. There is an initial ordinance: the ordinance of baptism [Matthew 28:19-20]. By the Holy Spirit we are baptized into the body of Christ [1 Corinthians 12:13]. And the imagery of that is seen in our baptism in water [Romans 6:3-5]. Upon our confession of faith in the Lord Jesus, we are baptized in the name of the triune God.
“See,” said the Ethiopian eunuch to the evangelist Philip, “see, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” [Acts 8:36]. The first thing that a child of God—someone who is born again, a Christian [John 3:3]—the first thing he will want to do is, “I want to be baptized, just as it says in the Book [Matthew 28:19-20], just as our Lord was baptized [Matthew 3:13-17], just as all of the apostles were baptized [John 3:22]. I want to be baptized,” buried with the Lord, raised with the Lord in the likeness of His living glorious resurrection [Romans 6:3-5]. This is the first and the initial ordinance.
The second ordinance is recurring: the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. “This is My body which is given for you . . . this is My blood which is shed for the remission of sins . . . as oft as you eat the bread and drink the cup, ye do show forth, you portray, you dramatize, the Lord’s death till He come” [Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26]. I know what that means. When the Lord says, “This is My body,” and, “This is My blood,” He was standing before the apostles when He avowed it. Therefore, I know that He does not mean: “This is My actual body,” and, “This is My actual blood.” It is not the mass. It represents. It brings to mind. It is a memorial. “This do in remembrance of Me” [1 Corinthians 11:24, 25], that we might not forget the sacrifice He made for our sins [1 Corinthians 11:26].
There was—he’s now in heaven—a very wealthy man in city of Dallas who belonged to our church. I was visiting in his home, a beautiful palatial mansion, and he took me to the library. And there in the library on the wall was an oval picture of an old-fashioned girl. The way her hair was dressed and the way her dress was made, plainly, a long time ago, old-fashioned girl. She looked about not more than eighteen years old at the most.
And as I stood by the side of this distinguished Dallas man, he pointed to that picture, and he said, “Pastor, that is my mother.” And as he looked at the picture, he said, “I never saw her. I have never seen her. She died when I was born.” And he said, “The first thing I want to do after I see Jesus when I am in heaven, I want to see my sainted mother. That is my mother.”
He was very moved as he stood there and talked to me about that mother whom he’d never seen. I could have answered in ridicule and in scorn and sarcasm, “Sir, you mean that is your mother? That is your mother? Why, man, that’s just ink and cardboard and paper. That’s not your mother!” I did no such thing. It would have been crude and rude and brutal for me thus to have thought such a thing. I knew exactly what he meant as he stood there by my side and looked at the picture of that old-fashioned girl, and he said, “Pastor, this is my mother.” I knew what he meant. “This represents, to me, my mother. This brings back to me the memory of my sainted mother who gave her life for me, whom I shall see some day in heaven.” I knew what he meant. “This is my mother.”
It is exactly that with this recurring ordinance. “This is My body broken for you” [1 Corinthians 11:26]. “This is My blood shed for you” [Matthew 26:28]. I know what He means. This represents My suffering on the cross [Matthew 27:32-50]. This represents the crimson of My life poured out upon the ground [John 19:30-34]. “This do in remembrance of Me” [1 Corinthians 11:24, 25]. Every time you observe it, let it bring back to your heart the memory of My death in your behalf and the promise that some day we will see our Lord in glory, achris hou elthē, “till he come, till he come” [1 Corinthians 11:26].
The ordained officers of the church are two, only two [Philippians 1:1]—not four, not seven, not one—they are two. The first ordained officer of the church is the presbuteros or the episkopos or the poimēn [Acts 20:28]. In the Bible, all three words are used interchangeably to refer to the same office. The presbuteros, translated, “elder,” refers to the respect that the congregation is to have for their spiritual leader. The word episkopos, “overseer,” literally, “overseer,” refers to the function, the assignment, the godly work of the pastor in the church. And the third word poimēn is the Greek word for shepherd. And the pastor is to be the shepherd of the flock. He is to love the people and to seek after and care for their highest spiritual welfare. And all three of those words are used interchangeably to refer to the same officer.
Presbuteros, elder, referring to the dignity of his office; any time in the world that you find a congregation that looks upon their pastor as a cheap hireling, there will you find a church inside of which are the seeds of disintegration already growing. There is no such thing as a wonderful and a great church but that treats their pastor and looks upon him with deepest respect and reverence. That’s why I think this church is the greatest of all the churches we have in the world.
For forty-seven years, this church looked with love and deepest respect upon the far-famed pastor, Dr. George W. Truett—standing in this pulpit for forty-seven years. When Dr. Truett died and they called me, I was forty-three years younger than Dr. Truett. But I inherited that same deference, and that same love, and that same respect that this great church had for that far-famed and mighty preacher.
Presbuteros, elder, referring to the reverence and affection and deference that the church pays to its pastor. They called him, “Pastor,” and when I came so much younger, they called me, “Pastor.” And I have been called “Pastor” ever since.
Episkopos: that refers to the rulership of the church. Several times does the apostle Paul refer to the pastor as the ruler of the church [1 Timothy 3:1-7]. Anytime there is anyone else who is leading the church, you have a poorly led congregation; I don’t care who he is, or how many they are, or however they may be organized, if it’s run by a clique, if it’s run by an organized group, if it’s run by anybody! God intends for the rulership of the church to lie in the pastor. He is under God, responsible to the Lord for the church. And these who stand by his side are fellow helpers.
A deacon is a diakonos, a servant, a helper [Acts 6:3-4]. He is to stand by the side of the pastor and hold up his arms, and hold up his arms like Hur and Aaron [Exodus 17:12]. And you’ll have a mighty church if you have laymen and deacons who stand by the side of the pastor and help him build up the house of God. They make an unbeatable team: a consecrated deacon and a dedicated pastor. And it takes both of them.
The other ordained officer in the church is that, the diakonos, the servant, the deacon, the layman [1 Timothy 3:8-13]. And oh, what a mighty contribution does that deacon have to offer to God in his faithfulness and in his dedication to the assignment to which God has called him [1 Timothy 3:13] and for which the people have laid hands upon his head [1 Timothy 5:22].
Leave it to the minister and soon the church will die;
Leave it to the women folk and the young will pass it by;
For the church is all that lifts us from the coarse and selfish mob;
But a church that is to prosper needs a layman on the job.
Now, a layman has his business, and a layman has his joys;
But he also has the rearing of his little girls and boys.
And I wonder how he’d like it if there were no churches here;
And he had to raise his children in a godless atmosphere.
When you see a church that’s empty, though its doors are open wide,
It’s not the church that’s died; it’s the laymen who have died.
For it’s not by song or sermon that the church’s work is done;
It’s the laymen of the country who for God must carry on.
[Edgar A. Guest, “Laypeople”]
In a great convocation in Washington D.C., I heard James L. Kraft—founder of the great Kraft food corporation—I heard him say, “I had rather be a layman in the North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago than to head the greatest corporation in America.” Then he paused and added, “My first job is serving Jesus.” That is an unbeatable team: a dedicated and consecrated pastor who loves his people and is responsible to God for their souls, and a dedicated layman, a dedicated laywoman, standing by his side serving the Lord in humility, in faithfulness, and in deepest consecration.
Last: the destiny of the church; the destiny of the church, the assignment of the church is twofold. First, we have the tremendous commission from our Lord to do a twofold work. We are to evangelize, and we are to teach the mind of God that is in Christ Jesus [Matthew 28:19-20].
The missionary impact of the church upon the world is the greatest single phenomenon in human history. And that is our assignment as a congregation of the Lord. We are to mediate the truth of God. We are to do it in our Jerusalem in Dallas. We’re to do it in our Samaria in all of America, and we are to do it to the uttermost parts of the earth [Acts 1:8]. The evangelization of the world, the winning of people to Christ, is our heavenly mandate.
And second, we are to be ready and prepared for the Lord Jesus “till He come” [1 Corinthians 11:26]. We are to have a people watching and waiting for the Lord when He descends in glory and in power from the sky [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, 5:6]. I think that is the whole doctrine of election.
Election is just this: that God has promised that if Jesus dies there will be a people who will trust in His name and who will be waiting for Him when He comes. His death will not be in vain. It will not be barren or sterile or fruitless. But there will be a people who will be waiting for Him, and looking up and believing in Him, and trusting and waiting when He comes from the sky [Titus 2:13].
That is the great destiny and assignment of the church—itself a mustērion—that when He comes we shall be raptured away. We shall be caught away. We shall be lifted up to meet our Lord in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, 5:6].
This is our vast and endless assignment: loving Jesus in life, loving Jesus in age, loving Jesus in death, and praising Jesus through all eternity—our church built around the blessed Jesus, our prayers in the name of the blessed Jesus, our preaching centered in the glorious gospel of the precious Savior, and our songs and praises lifted up to the glory of His wonderful name, that our children be brought up in the love and nurture of the precious Savior, and that our whole lives be cemented together in hope, and in charity, and in faith in the blessed Jesus, our all in all [Ephesians 5:19].
I entered once a home of care,
And penury and want were there,
But joy and peace withal.
I asked the aged mother whence
Her helpless widowhood’s defense;
She answered, “Christ is all.”
I saw the martyr at the stake,
The flames could not his courage shake,
Nor death his soul appall;
I asked him whence his strength was giv’n;
He looked triumphantly to Heav’n,
And answered, “Christ is all.”
I stood beside the dying bed,
Where lay a child with aching head,
Waiting Jesus’ call;
I saw his smile, ’twas sweet as May,
And as his spirit passed away,
He whispered, “Christ is all.”
I dreamed that hoary Time had fled,
The earth and sea gave up their dead,
A fire dissolved this ball;
I saw the church’s ransomed throng,
I caught the burden of their song,
‘Twas this, that Christ is all in all in all.
[adapted from “Christ is All,” by W. A. Williams]
And this is our heavenly mandate and our glorious assignment: praising the Lord Jesus, speaking of the Lord Jesus, telling about the Lord Jesus, praying to the Lord Jesus, gathering together in the name of the Lord Jesus, reading and learning about the Lord Jesus, preaching the gospel of the Lord Jesus, making appeal in the name of the blessed Jesus, waiting for the Lord Jesus from heaven.
And someday in the presence of God’s assembled redeemed, looking upon His face, rejoicing in His presence, and lending our souls, and voices, and hearts, and lives to the exaltation and praise and love of the blessed Savior world without end, amen and amen.
And that is our invitation to you tonight. Come with us. Walk with us. Pilgrimage with us. Journey with us. Face heaven with us. Pray with us. Sing with us. Love God with us. The end of this way is joy unspeakable and full of glory, filled with the lives of the presence and goodness of God, and blessed with every heavenly remembrance that only God Himself could bestow.
To accept the Lord Jesus as your Savior, would you come tonight? To follow the Lord in baptism as He has given us example [Matthew 3:13-17] and commanded in His Word [Matthew 28:19-20], would you come tonight? To put your life and letter with us in this dear church, a family you, your wife, your children, all of you coming, or just the two of you, or just one somebody you, make the decision now in your heart. And in a moment when we stand singing the song, stand walking down that stairway, coming down this aisle, “Pastor, here I am. I have decided for God, and here I stand.” On the first note of the first decision, come. May the angels of heaven attend you, and may the Holy Spirit guide you, woo you, win you, bring you, while we sing this hymn of appeal. When you stand up, that first step will be the greatest step you’ll ever make in your life. Make it for God. Come. Bless you as you hear, while we stand and while we sing.