The Stewardship of the Mystery

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 1 - The Eternal Purpose

"According to the eternal purpose" (Ephes. 1:9-11).

Into two phrases the Apostle gathers all the immense significance of this present dispensation. Those phrases are "The stewardship of the mystery", and "According to the eternal purpose". We must define the terms. The statement (Eph. 3:2-5, etc.) is that this present dispensation is that in which something momentous, which had been hid in God from all other ages and generations, has been disclosed. The immensely significant thing is called "The Mystery". What does 'mystery' mean? It certainly is not a myth. It is not something which just has a mysterious element about it. It is not an illusion, something illusive, intangible, unreal. God has not been playing a game of 'hide and seek' through the ages. What He has kept as His secret, hidden, undisclosed, and unannounced, has been the greatest, the most real and vastly important thing ever conceived in His mind.

So, "mystery" in this connection, means God's undisclosed secret. Something lay hidden behind all His ways and means through the ages; hinted at, symbolized, embodied in type and parable, but never stripped of its covering and wrapping. It was something suspected by Prophets, and something which they sometimes seemed to be very near to touching; but it was never fully revealed to them. The full and real meaning of things which the Spirit of God made them say was never clearly apprehended by them.

Now, says Paul, two things have happened. The dispensation or age has come in which that "mystery", that secret has been disclosed, brought out into the light, stripped of its wrappings, and made available for all men to know. Then, while this revelation has been entrusted to all God's "apostles and prophets" (Eph. 3:5), he, Paul, was in a particular and fuller way chosen as a vessel for its revelation. Paul claimed for himself a special revelation of and entrustment with this special ministry - "If ye have heard of the stewardship... which was given to me... how that by revelation was made known unto me the mystery... ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery... whereof I was made a minister" etc. (Eph. 3:1-13).

It would not be difficult to trace - in the light of Paul's later writings - when and how this 'revelation' came to him, and how all his spiritual history conformed to it. Something of that is certain to come out as we proceed, but at present we have to take account of these facts.

1. This age is a special age in the history of this world. It is marked off by and for a particular purpose, and that purpose is greater than anything in past "ages and generations".

2. While not exclusively, yet in a particular way, by a unique intervention from Heaven, a certain "vessel" was "apprehended" to be the recipient and "minister" of that particular age-revelation.

3. It is that revelation which is the criterion - the measuring standard - by which all things are, and will be, judged, and determined as to God's satisfaction.

4. That revelation is the occasion of the most persistent, violent, malignant and many-sided fury and assault of the satanic kingdom, using everything that offers any ground for its purpose.

Before we can come to look at the nature of the "revelation", or at what the "purpose" is, we must enlarge upon some of those points mentioned, because it is vital to this whole consideration that we are sufficiently impressed with the greatness and seriousness of this whole matter. Remember, we are seeking to get behind the tragedy and breakdown of the Church's testimony and authority in this universe. We are reaching out to find the secret of God's committal of Himself and His release from limitation in His Church. These are not small things. So we have first to go a very long way back to what we may call -

The Eternal Counsels.

Here we can only use the language of men and in so doing mentally visualize things which cannot really be understood except in the Spirit. There are quite a number of statements and inferences which indicate a kind of session of the Godhead in which certain superlative and ultimate decisions were reached.

It is a very wonderful thing that we should be given glimpses of these counsels and communings of the Godhead - so to speak. There is the timeless time when they took place - "before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1: 4), "before times eternal" (2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2). Then there is the deliberation - "who worketh all things after the counsel of his will"; "according to his good pleasure which he purposed"; "the mystery of his will", "according to the purpose"; "foreordained"; "chose"; "he purposed"; "works... afore prepared" (Eph. 1:4-11; 2:10; Rom. 8:28,30, etc.).

These and many other references show that behind this age there lie definite Divine devisings, plannings, purposings, and determinings. Nothing is haphazard or left to chance, and even the contingencies of man's sin, error, rebellion, and failure are provided against.

The Bible is comprehended by these counsels in three major and inclusive features of Divine sovereignty.

1. The Purpose of God. Fixed and unchanging.

2. The Ways of God. Varying, numerous, and passing.

3. The Rule of God. Unquestionable. Infallible.

That is the background against which the dispensation in which we live is placed, and if that is so, we are prisoners of the Divine counsels. Whether we (the Church or individuals) are fugitive, delinquent, negligent, or careless, the possession of a Bible - especially a New Testament - puts us into a place of very great privilege or responsibility. We have the disclosure of eternal counsels in our possession and by that disclosure the Spirit of God helps the committed or judges the careless or rebellious. It was in this knowledge that Paul called himself "the prisoner of Jesus Christ", and both as to himself and all believers set the standard of utterness of committal. All his urgings and warnings, his appeals and concern, by example and precept, sprang from this knowledge of the immense significance of this dispensation, and of his own calling in that relationship.

That brings us to an enlargement upon

Paul's Place in the Dispensation

This is not to make Paul the centre or to give him an importance which is unbalanced and out of proportion. If Paul were of small significance, then all that has come through him can be derated. All his enemies and critics would be justified. But - the Lord Jesus apart - Paul has been a greater factor to be reckoned with than has any other man since Christianity began. And he still holds that position. We leave the realm of theological-philosophical debate to those who like it, and come close to Paul spiritually. It has sometimes been said that when the Apostles proceeded, as they did, to fill the vacancy caused by the departure of Judas, they made a mistake and should have waited the five or more years to the time when Paul was ready for apostleship. It is said to have been a mistake because God had His man in view, and Paul should have taken the place vacated by Judas. We shall not enter at length into that controversy, but it does seem that such a view involves those who hold it in some dubious situations. To say one thing which is not the least, the Holy Spirit was a party to the choice of Matthias, as He fell upon them all, imparting the fiery tongues to each, and they were referred to as "the twelve". If the 'eleven' acted after prayer and fasting, a mistake at that so-critical juncture would have been a very serious flaw in the Church's constitution at its very birth, and any countenancing of it by the Holy Spirit - to say nothing of endorsing it - would leave a serious question.

Paul said later that a peculiar feature of his apostleship was that he "received it not of man", and that those who were apostles before him gave him nothing. That would be sheer arrogance if Paul's apostleship ought to have been by the laying on of hands of the former apostles at Jerusalem. There are plenty of other factors against that view or contention, but we leave them for what is positive. No! Paul stands alone, and for the best of reasons, as we shall see. We are strengthened in this conviction by considering the peculiar nature and measure of the revelation given to Paul.

In his letter to the 'Ephesians' (so called), he says that "by revelation was made known unto me the mystery... my understanding of the mystery". If it is not a precise statement it is a very clear implication that, while Paul is not saying that he is the only one who has come to this knowledge, he is undoubtedly saying that he has a special revelation of it; he has come by that knowledge in a special way, by a direct act of God.

The revelation was special in his case, but it was also a manifestation of grace in a special way - "...whereof I was made a minister, according to... that grace which was given to me". (3:7).

The question naturally arises here as to

The Difference Between Paul and 'The Twelve'.

The fact of a difference is difficult to deny. In the majority of things he and 'the twelve' were in perfect agreement; e.g., Christ, His Person and work; the teaching, life, death, and resurrection; His exaltation, and coming again. These, and many other things, would find them all on common ground. There would be no difference as to sin, repentance, justification, sanctification, baptism, the Lord's Table. The same would be true regarding evangelism, Christian fellowship, assemblies of believers, the Gentiles being admitted to the Church,  - although in this last matter the attitude of the Jerusalem elders was: Be careful; establish certain safeguards and go carefully.

When all that is granted, it is just there that some feature shows itself which is the cause of some ununderstanding not entirely misunderstanding; certainly not affecting love, fellowship, and mutual appreciation. Peter will later on refer to "our beloved Paul", but in the same breath will say of his teaching: "...wherein are some things hard to be understood". There will be those at Corinth who will form a 'not of Paul' group and complex, who prefer Peter probably because Paul goes too far. The time will come when Paul will, with a pang, say: "All they which are in Asia turned away from me". How far are we to allow that statement to take us? 'All in Asia' - Ephesus, Laodicea, Smyrna, Sardis, Thyatira, Philadelphia, Pergamum, Troas? We know that at least two of his letters had a space left for filling in the name of their destination, and so were 'circular letters' - ('Ephesians' and 'Colossians'). Did they go round this wider circle? Laodicea is definitely mentioned in 'Colossians'. Incidentally, may it not be very significant that, not so very many years after Paul had 'finished his course', the risen Lord appeared, mainly with reproach and solemn judgment, among the churches in Asia? Was it in jealousy for that full light and revelation which had constituted them 'lampstands', and because of repudiation, threatened the 'lampstand' with removal and the light with extinction? It is a solemn thought, and if it is true, it brings us very close to the purpose of these meditations.

Thus far we have come only to indicate that Paul, being "a chosen vessel", had deposited in him a revelation of special significance to this dispensation and of which he was - certainly in measure, and largely in kind - different. This takes nothing from the importance and value of other apostles. Not for one moment does it discredit them. They are "the twelve apostles of the Lamb", ever in great honour and glory, but, in the final summing up, even they may owe an inestimable value to this lone one to whom the glorified Lord broke through on the Damascus Road to 'apprehend' him in relation to "the eternal purpose".

It is not - definitely not - a detracting from John, wonderful and beloved John, with all that we so much cherish through him; neither is it overlooking the great values of the letters bearing Peter's name. Rather is it the peculiar and specific significance of the vocation of Paul that we are concerned with here.

We cannot overload the chapters of this paper, so we must wait till later to continue with the particular revelation entrusted to Paul - what it was.

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