THE GREAT MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-31-82 10:50 a.m.
And welcome to the great throngs of you who share this hour with us on radio and on television. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. In the series of doctrinal messages on ecclesiology, on the church, the sermon today is entitled The Great Mystery of the Church. We turn in our Bibles for the exposition to Ephesians chapter 5; 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, the Book of Ephesians. This is an encyclical, it is a general epistle; the Textus Receptus happened to have the copy of it addressed to the church at Ephesus. It is addressed to all the churches, addressed to us. Ephesians chapter 5, beginning at verse 25 and reading through verse 32, Ephesians 5:25:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it;
That He might sanctify and cleanse it with the loutron, the kiyyor, the laver of water by the word,
That He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.
So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. For he that loveth his wife loveth himself.
For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:
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 mustērion: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.
“This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and His church” [Ephesians 5:32]. To us the word “mystery” signifies a riddle, hid in an enigma, wrapped up in a conundrum. A mystery to us, something we couldn’t know or enter into, unfathomable, un-understandable, a mystery. But the word mustērion—which is spelled out in English just as it is written in Greek—to the Greek the word mustērion had no such connotation at all. To the Greek it referred to the mystery religions, like the Eleusinian mysteries. And no one knew those mysteries except those who were initiated into the religion. An initiate alone knew the mystery; that is the secret rites of the religion. The New Testament writers took that word mustērion and used it to describe a secret kept in the heart of God until He chose to reveal it to His holy apostles [Ephesians 3:1-5]. Those secret plans and elective purposes that God kept in His heart until the day that He revealed them, they were called musteria, mysteries, a mustērion.
It is frequently used in the New Testament. Paul will say, for example, in 1 Corinthians 4:1, “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The Lord Jesus said to His apostles in Matthew 13:11, “It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” When the Jewish nation rejected Christ, the kingdom in its consummation was postponed [Matthew 21:43]; and the kingdom took a mystery form in the hearts of men [Luke 17:21]. No one ever thought or dreamed of such a thing; it was a secret kept in God’s heart until He revealed it [Ephesians 3:4-12]. No man could ever know it by searching out: God has to reveal it. It is a mustērion.
So in the Scriptures there are many references to the mysteries of God. The incarnation is one: “Without controversy,” Paul writes, “great is the mustērion of true religion: God was manifest in the flesh” [1 Timothy 3:16]. Who could ever think of God being in human form? It is a mustērion. He will speak again of the tremendous mystery of the rapture of the church. He will say, “Brethren, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God . . . But I show you a mustērion; We are not all going to sleep” [1 Corinthians 15:50-52]. There is going to be a generation, Paul says, that shall never see death. They shall be raptured away, caught up to God in heaven at the last trump [1 Corinthians 15:50-51]. What a marvelous thing, but no man would ever know that. It is a mustērion kept in the heart of God until that day when He revealed it to His holy apostles [Ephesians 3:5].
Thus it is that the word is used in describing the church. The church is a mustērion [Ephesians 3:3-11]; it’s a new thing, it’s a new creation, it has a form and substance and significance that no man could ever know by searching. The prophets never saw it [Ephesians 3:5]. The church is not in the Old Testament; Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel never saw it. Anytime you identify the church with Israel, you’re going to find the Word of God so enigmatic and so un-understandable that finally you’ll just cast it aside as being a piece of ancient literature, an antique relic of an ancient tribe, but it has no meaning. You can’t put it together unless you see the dispensational truth of God, one of which is this: Paul writes, in the third chapter of the Book of Ephesians, “How that by revelation God made known unto me the mustērion; (as I wrote before . . . that ye may understand my knowledge in the mustērion of Christ) which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” [Ephesians 3:3-5]. Now what is that mustērion that Paul is here describing? [Ephesians 3:3]. The mustērion of the new creation: the church, that in it the Gentiles should be fellow heirs of the same body, partakers of the same promise [Ephesians 3:6]. God elected, selected, chose the Jewish nation as peculiarly His own [Deuteronomy 7:6-7]. But in this mustērion, a secret God kept in His heart until the day He revealed it, there is to be a new body, a new creation, a new election. And that new creation is called the church [Ephesians 3:4-6, 10].
“Given to us,” Paul writes, “to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mustērion, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God . . . but now is revealed unto His holy apostles” [Ephesians 3:9-10]. It is a gloriously new and wonderful thing that God has done. In this new creation, the church, there is the Jew, there is the Gentile, male and female, bond and free, rich and poor, old and young, educated and uneducated, all together making up one glorious congregation in the Lord, called “the body of Christ,” the church of our Lord [Ephesians 3:6].
Now, he writes of it in an unusual way in our passage, in our text that we’re going to expound this morning. He speaks of the origin of the church, where it came from: “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” [Ephesians 5:30-32]. What Paul does there is, in describing this mustērion, this new creation, he refers to Genesis 2:21, 22, 23, 24: “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam . . . and He took out of his side, tsela”—just the ordinary Hebrew word for “side,” like the side of a mountain, the side of the ark, the side of the tabernacle, the side of the golden altar of incense; it’s just used all through the Bible, tsela—it’s just in this one place that they translate that “rib,” I have no idea why, nor can I find out. Nobody knows why they chose here to call that “rib,” tsela.
God took out of the side of Adam, and closed up the flesh thereof; and of that side which the Lord God had taken from the man, made He a woman, and brought her to the man. And when Adam saw her, he said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called ishshah, because she was taken out of ish. She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
“This is a great mustērion: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” [Ephesians 5:32]. The apostle says that as Eve was taken out of the side of Adam, so the church is taken out of the side of our Lord. We are born in His sobs, and in His tears, and in His wounds, and in His agony, and in His blood, in His suffering, and in His cross [Matthew 27:32-50]. And out of the side of our Lord from which poured the crimson of His life [John 19:34], out of the sufferings of the Savior, the mustērion, who would ever have thought that out of the brutal condemnation and execution of a man by the Roman government would be born the church of Jesus Christ? [Ephesians 1:20-23]. It is a mustērion. It is a secret kept in the heart of God until the day that He revealed it to His apostles, to the world, and to us [Ephesians 3:3-6, 10]. It is a marvelous thing, a wonderful thing.
It was wonderful in its sign, in its symbol, in the creation of Eve, out of the side of Adam [Genesis 2:21-24]. It is even more wonderful when we see the antitype: what God was doing when He created the church out of the sufferings, and the tears, and the cross of our Lord. We are taken from His side, from near His heart; the mustērion of the church [Genesis 2:23; Ephesians 1:22-23].
And he says, “Christ loved the church” [Ephesians 5:25]. If you are a mother, I would think you could enter into that beyond what any one of us who are men could ever understand. In the travail and in the agony of birth, a mother somehow loves the child in a depth, in a height that maybe a man could never quite enter into. Having suffered for the child, the mother just loves in a way that is deeper and different. So it is with Christ and His church: having suffered for us, and died for us, pouring out His life for us, He loves us in a deeper and a different way. “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it” [Ephesians 5:25]. He never said, “My wife”; He never said, “My child”; but He did say, “My church [Matthew 16:18] . . .Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it” [Ephesians 5:25].
And do you see again, “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 His church” [Ephesians 5:31-32]. We are joined to Christ in one body with Him [Ephesians 5:30]. We are together with Him indissolubly, inextricably, foreverily, everlastingly; we are one with our Lord [Galatians 3:28]. As He is, we are; as we are, He is. We’re not separated. We are crucified with Him [Galatians 2:20]. We are buried with Him; we are raised with Him [Colossians 2:12]. We are ascended with Him; we are in heaven with Him [Philippians 3:20]. He is our head [Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18], and we are joined in body to Him [Ephesians 1:22-23]. He is with us here in this earth. We are His body. We are the voice of Christ to preach the gospel of salvation. We are the heart of Christ, in compassionate love and remembrance. Nowhere would you ever find in the Bible, nowhere that the Lord said, “Take away these lepers, and these crippled, and these blind, and these halt, and these poor”; always, “Bring them unto Me,” and He healed them all [Matthew 12:15, 15:30-31]. We are His heart of compassion in this earth. We belong to Him. We’re His body. We’re His feet, to visit, and to bring the message of salvation. We are His hands to help and to serve. As Christ is, we are. We belong to Him.
May I turn aside here for just a moment? Whenever you expound the Word of God truthfully and correctly, all of the parts will beautifully enmesh, they will fit together. If you don’t expound it correctly, there’ll be parts of it that are jagged and they don’t fit. Now let me give you an illustration here with this. One of the tremendous doctrines of the Bible is election, predestination, the everlasting security and salvation of the saints. God has a book up there in heaven. And in that book, He has written the names of those that are saved [Luke 10:20]. And every one of them will answer to his name in that ultimate and final day. There will not be the loss of one. “I give unto them eternal life”; He said in John 10, “and they shall never perish” [John 10:28]. Now, when you preach the truth of that doctrine, the doctrine of election, of predestination, of the omnipotent choice and power of God, that those who find refuge in Him are saved and saved forever, when you do that, every little part of the Bible will fit beautifully and accurately and perfectly. And here’s an instance. In the twelfth chapter of the first Corinthian letter, Paul says that we are all members of the body of Christ, all of us are members, all of us are members of the body of Christ. He avows that all of us have been baptized into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit. “By one Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, are we all baptized into the body of Christ” [1 Corinthians 12:13]. When we were saved, we were joined to the body of Christ [1 Corinthians 12:13]. Then after Paul avows that in the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians, he talks about the differing kinds of members of that body, and he refers to the hand, and he refers to the foot, and he refers to the eye, and he refers to the ear [1 Corinthians 12:14-26]. Now, when you preach the doctrine of the eternal security of God’s people, look how it fits: it would be a doctrine alien and peculiar to the Scriptures to stand up and say, “God adds a hand to His body, then He lops it off and He puts it back on again. You’re saved, you’re lost, you’re saved again, lost, saved, put your hand on, cut it off, put it back on.” Or your foot, God adds a foot to His body, and He lops it off, puts it back on again, lops it off, puts it back on again, saved, and lost, saved, and lost. Or your eye, gouge it out, put it back in, gouge it out, put it back in. That kind of a doctrine is alien to the Scriptures.
When God adds a foot to His body or a hand to His body or an eye to His body, it is added forever; it’s never taken off, it’s never cut off, it’s never cast away. It is added forever. Now, we may stagger and stumble and many times be unworthy of His grace and love; but we are never ultimately cast aside. When a man is added to the body of Christ, there is something in his heart that’s never the same again. “He is a new creation,” the Bible says, “in Christ Jesus” [2 Corinthians 5:17]; and he can never escape it, run away from it, forget it, drown it, be indifferent to it. He is a new creation. To belong to the body of Christ, even though we may be the humblest member, yet we are safe in Him. As long as a man’s head is above water, you can’t drown his feet. And as long as Christ our head is in heaven, I may be but the sole of His feet, but I can’t be drowned; saved, and safe, and kept in Him. That’s one of the reasons Paul says here, “It is a great mustērion: but I speak concerning Christ and His church” [Ephesians 5:32].
Will you notice, again he says that, “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it; that He might wash it, and sanctify it, and cleanse it with the laver of the water by the word” [Ephesians 5:25-26]. Only one other place is that word loutron used in the New Testament: in Titus 3:5, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy has He saved us, by the loutron of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Then he uses it here, “That He might sanctify and cleanse it with the loutron,” where the priests bathed before they entered into the house of the Lord, “with the loutron of the word” [Ephesians 5:26]. Isn’t that a remarkable thing?
The Word, the Word of God, the effect it has: when a fellow preaches it, a church will spring up. I did that one time as a young man. I went to a pioneer state in America, in the West, stood in a schoolhouse for two weeks in the auditorium, and preached the gospel. And when I got through, we had scores of converts, and I baptized them in a stock pond. And immediately they said, “We want to organize a church.” And I presided over the organization of the church. Preaching the Word, it ensues in a church. And the same preaching of the Word will cleanse the church and sanctify the church from doctrinal error and all kinds of things that can enter into the people of God [Ephesians 5:26]. The preaching of the Word cleanses it and keeps it right and pure in His sight.
In the preaching of the Word of God, the church is organized according to the Scriptures. It has ordinances according to the Scriptures [Matthew 28:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26]. It has ordained officers according to the Scriptures [1 Timothy 3:1-13]. It has practices according to the Scriptures [1 Corinthians 14:40]. And its great doctrinal tenants are according to the Scriptures [2 Timothy 4:1-3]. When the Word of God is preached, the Spirit of God cleanses the church from all error and doctrinal deviation [Ephesians 5:26]. Well, let me illustrate it. You can see what I’m talking about better if I speak of it like this. I was holding a crusade in a school auditorium in northern Maine, for all of northern Maine. And in that part of the world, which is closest to Russia, there is an enormous American air force base, right out of Caribou, Maine. The chaplain of that, the head chaplain of that Air Force base, when I was there, was a Northern Baptist. And I got to know him real well, and loved him; he’s a man of God. So one day he was saying to me, he said, “There is something about you Southern Baptists I don’t understand.” So when I asked him what, he said, “You don’t teach your people. They’re not doctrinally taught.”
Well, I said, “I just never thought of it like that. Why?”
Well, he said, “I’ll give you an illustration.” He said, “Just the other day, there came a Southern Baptist couple to me here on the air force base, there came a Southern Baptist couple to me, and their sorrow was they had a stillborn baby. And they brought that stillborn baby to me, asking me to baptize the baby, sprinkle water on it, baptize the baby, because, they said, ‘If you don’t, the soul of this baby will be damned in hell forever.’”
I said to the chaplain, “My Lord!” All of those fellow airmen around him, when they saw the baby was stillborn; you know where they came from: immediately spoke to that father and mother, “The child must be baptized, or it’ll spend forever in damnation and hell.” That’s why this is written in the Book. Somewhere there is a minister, and somewhere there is a Sunday school teacher, and somewhere there is an officer in the church that has failed in this great assignment: the church is to be kept doctrinally pure by the laver of the word [Ephesians 5:26].
Now lest we just leave that dangling, let me say, every child that ever comes into this world is saved. For in Christ we are all saved, all of us [1 Corinthians 15:22]. What happens to us is, as I live my life and reach the age of accountability, I choose to do wrong, I do. And if I don’t confess my sins, and repent of my sins, and ask God to forgive me my sins, I’m lost, I’m lost [1 John 1:8, 10]; but I’m never lost because of the sins of my father or mother or the generations past [Ezekiel 18:19-20], clear back to Adam. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all are made alive” [1 Corinthians 15:22]. And that atonement of Christ covers that child [1 John 2:1]. And the only thing, I repeat, when I sin, I am accountable to God [1 Peter 4:5], and I must repent and ask God to save me from the judgment upon my sins [Acts 2:38]. But that child is saved under the blood, under the atoning grace of the Lord.
We must hasten; let me close. He says here in this passage, “Husbands, love your wives” [Ephesians 5:25], and then in effect, and wives love your husbands [Ephesians 5:33], “For this cause does a man leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife; and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mustērion: but I speak concerning Christ and His church” [Ephesians 5:31-32]. When you marry, there’s a commitment, deep as life itself. When you love your wife, and your wife loves you, there is a commitment that is deep as the soul. “This is a great mustērion: for I speak concerning Christ and His church” [Ephesians 5:32]. It is unthinkable, unimaginable that there is a joined union without commitment. It’s a contradiction in terms; it’s an anomaly in thought. In the joining there is a tremendous commitment. And you’ll find it in the church that loves Jesus and serves the Lord.
Here again, rather than a lengthy expatiation, let me point it out to you. There are many dark places in this earth where all humanity there is hopeless and helpless and sodden. I have seen it all over the earth. But I’ve seen another thing: wherever you will find humanity helpless and hopeless in those sodden places, you’ll also find there the church loving Jesus, praising the Lord Jesus, pointing the people to hope and help in the Lord Jesus. I’ve seen it.
In the heart of the Amazon jungle, among crude, Stone Age Indians who live a lifetime of murder and spearing one another to death, there I’ve seen the church pointing those violent people, pointing them to Jesus. We’ve even had some of them here in this pulpit, marvelously saved; men who have dipped their hands in the blood of missionaries, we’ve had them here in this pulpit testifying to the Lord Jesus, commitment. I have been in Africa and have seen the lepers cast out into the bush and into the jungle to die. I have seen them gathered together by loving hands, ministered unto, treated and helped, and in the midst of the leper colony, the church, pointing to the love and grace of the blessed Jesus. I have been under the Arctic Circle, there preaching in the church the blessed hope of Christ Jesus.
Now you look: tell me honestly if you were seeking a man to go to the Arctic Circle, or to go to the depths of the bush in the jungle in Africa, if you were looking for a man to spend his life among Stone Age Indians in the Amazon jungle, and you wanted a man of high heritage, and great culture, and splendid education, and you ask him to go without earthly reward, tell me, where would you find him? Where would you search for him? Where would you seek him?
Oh, I know I’d go to Standard Oil Company; I’d find him there. Or I’d go to the great General Motors Corporation in America, and I’d find him there. When that General Motors representative goes out, he’s going out for a stipend. And when that representative of the Standard Oil Company goes out, he’s going out at a high salary. But my brother, all over this world, literally, have I seen gifted, educated, cultured men and women, without any earthly reward at all, travel to the most hostile environment, and in the most unacceptable cultures, and I’ve seen them give their lives pointing a sodden humanity to Jesus. That’s the church. That’s where you’ll find him: a commitment to Christ that is holy and heavenly, just loving the Lord Jesus. “I’m so glad I belong to the family of God; washed in His blood, sanctified in His love” [Ephesians 1:5-7].
Lord, Lord, what a good thing You did for me when You wrote my name in the Book of Life [Revelation 20:12, 15, 21:27] and placed me a fellow member in the body of Christ [1 Corinthians 12:13]. “This is a great mustērion: but I speak concerning Christ and His church” [Ephesians 5:32].
Now may we stand together?
Our wonderful Lord, how could it be that the grace and love of Jesus should reach down to me? In that tiny town, in that poor family, in that little white crackerbox of a church house, there listening to the gospel of Christ, responding in my deepest soul, baptized into the body of our Lord, added as a member of His precious church, O Lord, I thank Thee and praise Thee forever that the outstretched hands of Christ reached to me, and that His love and grace included me! God, we love Thee. Jesus we adore and worship and praise Thee. O Holy Spirit of God, thank Thee for wooing and inviting us.
And in the moment that we wait and pray, is there a family you, whose heart God has touched and God would add you to our congregation? Come and welcome. Is there a couple? Is there one somebody you? “Pastor, today I’m avowing my faith in the blessed Lord, and here I stand.” Or, “I want to be baptized into the body of Christ, as the Holy Word has said [Matthew 28:19-20]. I want to be a part of the family of God.” Welcome. If you’re in the balcony, down one of those stairways, on the lower floor in this press of people, down one of these aisles, make the decision in your heart; do it now. And when we sing this appeal, take that first step; come, and welcome. May angels attend you, the sweetest, finest decision you’d ever make in your life. Bless you as you come.
And our Lord, thank Thee for the sweet harvest You give us; in Thy wonderful and saving name, amen. Welcome. God love you, while we sing, while we sing. “Here I am…”