The Stewardship of the Mystery

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 2 - The Chosen Vessel

Thus far we have taken account of two major matters. One, that this present dispensation - between the first and second advents of Christ - is marked out as of a particular and superlative character and significance in the eternal counsels of God, and that particular nature is the 'making known' of "the mystery which has been hid in God from all (other) ages and generations". The other thing is that the Apostle Paul was "an elect vessel" with a particular, though not exclusive, relationship to "the stewardship of the (disclosed) mystery". We have noted that he claimed this with regard to himself; that the specific Divine intervention for his 'apprehending' pointed to this; and we have hinted that his spiritual history was all in line with this.

We have now to take further and fuller account of this 'vessel' himself. In this consideration we shall find a considerable amount of instruction and enlightenment which will help us, even if it is only as a sidelight.

The Chosen Vessel

When we approach any consideration of God's choice of vessels for His purpose, we are immediately confronted with three factors:

1. Divine sovereignty in the choice.

2. The humanity of such vessels.

3. Divine grace at work in the humanity and with the sovereignty.

So we begin with the:

(1). Divine Sovereignty in the Choice

While sovereignty means God's freedom and right to choose whom He will, so that neither the vessel nor others are allowed to raise any question as to why He so chose, God does not just choose willy-nilly, at random or casually. God is the Creator and Former. He knows what He has created and how He has formed. According to this knowledge He chooses, and all history bears this out, as we shall see. God is able to say, "I know thee": 'I know what I have made': 'I know exactly what I have chosen'. In this connection God's thoughts are usually above man's. A Moses and a Jeremiah may have a controversy with God on this question of His choosing, but God quickly answers and silences their questions. All the world may wonder why God chose the Hebrews as 'an elect vessel', but spiritual understanding both justifies God and finds comfort in His principle. Worldly wisdom and standards would have looked elsewhere than in the direction of Christ's chosen Apostles, but He said, "I know whom I have chosen", and "Ye did not choose me but I chose you". History has done nothing but support the Divine sovereignty in all these and other cases, and history is a handmaid of the Lord. The most unlikely man on earth to break away from Judaism and become - more than any other - the Apostle of universality (not 'universalism') was Saul of Tarsus. But Divine sovereignty was rightly guided, and while God's choice of him was ever a mystery to Paul, it was never a mystery to God.

We come closer to this when we consider the next aspect:

(2). The Humanity of the Vessel

In this connection it is possible to make too much or too little of the human factor. We can give too much room to it and make too many allowances and excuses for it, giving it too much liberty and free play; or we can be so 'spiritual' as to condemn all that is human, and live in an artificial realm of 'saintliness' which only reacts in repressions or a false conscience.

How very important it is for us to settle this matter that God has not chosen angels but men, and not perfected men at that!

But our present point is that for particular kinds of work God chooses particular kinds of human beings, and He has made peculiar kinds of humanity. The fact of variety in human nature is recognized and accepted by all. The same is true of the fact that in a more or less definite way human nature is divided into categories: not always clear-cut, but often overlapping, yet with a preponderating bias which justifies classification. We refer to the categories of human temperament. How impressive it is, and factual, that for different kinds of work God has chosen His instruments from different but specific categories of temperament. This is not going to be a treatise on human temperaments, but in taking the case of the Apostle Paul we are going to indicate what we believe will be helpful, instructive, and vital truth, by which we can be encouraged or warned.

We therefore proceed to define that class of human nature into which God dips for the particular work for which such men as Paul - more or less - have been divinely chosen.

But first a word of warning and re-emphasis. It is so easy and dangerous to weaken or dismiss the ministry and message of a servant of God with such a remark or dictum as - "Well, you know, that is just the man; he is made like that; it is his temperament". By such reactions people choose their ministries and either accept or reject God's messengers. This is the basis of many a disastrous partisanship: "I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas..." Thus, what is God's sovereign means for reaching a particular value is stripped of that sovereign wisdom and power, and reduced to the merely human element and made to be just man only.

How great an enlargement upon this could be made with profit, but having struck the note of warning, let us just make the note of re-emphasis. God has created man. He has made men to differ in temperament. Every class or order has in it the potentiality or suitability for a particular function, and God chooses men for that. We must recognize this principle and fact. We must accept it. When that instrument has fulfilled its purpose He will change it if it is to be changed for another, and it is only interfering with God's sovereign prerogative to despise or set aside the vessel of His choice. This can never fail to result in irreparable loss. Make no mistake about this. The Bible is loaded with proof of it.

So we come to our particular case in point and see God choosing and working with this kind of clay. It is not difficult to recognize this material before identifying it with names and functions.

The most obvious feature or characteristic of this category, which leads to so much more, is its dislike, even intolerance of the superficial. Here we meet a basic seriousness which always gravitates to the deeper aspects of life, and seeks out the fundamentally spiritual realities. This is a restless disposition which, if it finds rest at all, will only do so in the deeps and not in the shallows. The profound, the unobvious, the serious draw this kind like a magnet. Their magnetic North is the serious, the solemn, the truth of primary import.

Here we are in touch with acute sensitiveness, capacity for suffering, deep affection, poignant sympathy. Such people are concerned with the significance of things more than with the things themselves. They look for meanings behind and below things said or done. To say that they are serious-minded is to sum them up too easily.

Their perils are always in the direction of too much introspection, anxiety and worry. Tragedy as an element is a part of their makeup or constitution. The people of this class are capable of ranging great heights and plunging into great depths. Theirs is not the even temper and steady undulation of the valley or plain. They are not naturally sociable, but lean toward reserve and aloneness. Indeed, they shrink from company and publicity. But at the same time it is here that we may encounter great strength of purpose and forcefulness of personality. Such can be overbearing, aggressive, and terribly strong. Because of the deep and terrible strengths of this temperament, the dealings of God with it are more drastic than - perhaps - with any other.

Of course, every temperament finds it difficult to be patient with the others. Each feels that everybody should be as he or she is. This is very true of the class of which we are speaking. Their peril is to put - or try to put - everyone into their own disposition and make them feel the same. Grace will adjust this, as we shall see. Mary of Bethany is a clear case of this type; seeking always the 'spiritual' and 'deeper'; marked by the sad, even by melancholy. Martha, the so-clear case of an entirely different temperamental category, finds it so difficult to bear with her sister, and is much irritated by her 'spirituality'. Experience, through grace, will lead to a harmonizing of these discords, and the variety - conflicting difference - in the same natural family will come - through discipline - to co-ordination and co-operation, as we see in the last picture of that Bethany home.

To return to our basis. Whether we like the idea or not, the story of God's sovereign ways down the ages shows unmistakably that He has related a particular piece of work to a particular human constitution, and it is in the direction of the category of which we are now thinking that God has usually looked for leaders.

Leadership is a large subject in itself and cannot be taken up here. But the 'stuff' of leadership is that which peculiarly belongs to this kind of humanity. Features of this function are evident: vision, insight, capacity for loneliness - although with deep sensitiveness; the alternations between abounding hopefulness and depression and despair; hatred of policy, compromise, prevarication, pretension, falsehood and hypocrisy, and such like; and fiery jealousy for principle. These are some - only some - of the characteristics which identify this particular class.

We are - for the moment - looking at all this on natural grounds. We have yet to open the door wide to grace and its action. What we have said is enough to introduce that school of men who, with all the weaknesses, faults, defects, perils of their capacities, have so frequently been the choice of God for pioneering and leading the way to His fuller purposes.

In the light of this imperfect delineation it is not difficult to recognize Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Elijah, and many of the Prophets - Nehemiah, John the Baptist, Stephen - and in later times, Cromwell, Bunyan, Luther, and - if of lesser calibre - a host of 'pioneers of the heavenly way'.

So we come to Paul. He fits so perfectly into the picture. As 'Saul of Tarsus' we see a perfect natural example of the type. As Paul the Apostle we see the type - not destroyed - but under grace. The purpose and the chosen vessel fit like a hand and glove. To Jeremiah the Lord said, "Before I formed thee... I knew thee, and before thou camest forth... I sanctified thee". Paul was able to say, "It pleased God, who separated me, even from my mother's womb..." (i.e., 'set me apart'). Here, the point indicated is that, even before there was any operation of grace in the life, there was the operation of Divine selectiveness for a particular purpose. Jeremiah may demur on grounds of his own sense of unfitness, and Paul may be increasingly overwhelmed with the wonder of such as he being chosen, but, whatever the human reaction, the fact has to be bowed down to, as Meyers expresses it in his poem as from the lips of Paul:
'This is His will: He takes and He refuses,
Finds Him ambassadors whom men deny,
Wise ones nor mighty for His saints He chooses,
No, such as John, or Gideon, or I.'
It may be that some who read this will react to it either with the feeling that it is not helpful to them because they do not belong to the category being considered and therefore no such usefulness falls to their lot or is possible to them; or - in any case - this is at best a study of the man Paul. We therefore pause to try to help such with a word on both of these points. As to the first: it would be just as easy to take up any of the - say six main - categories or classes of human constitution (to say nothing of the over-lapping or combination of greater number) and show how - in just as definite and distinct a way - they provide God with ground for Divine purpose. It takes all to make a family. It requires every function to make a body. Paul himself has recognized this with his illustration of spiritual functions as 'Foot, hand, eye, nose, ear' (1 Cor. 12:12-31). It is true that we cannot all be Pauls. We were not meant to be, but we may be - if in lesser degree - in the category of Peter, James, John, Barnabas, etc., each of whom is in a different temperamental class, but very surely related through grace to Divine purpose. But here we are concerned with a particular aspect of the purpose and the kind of vessel needed for it. Paul was the pioneer of this for the dispensation. That is his special place. Apostolic Succession is not official, ecclesiastical, or hereditary. It is vocational and spiritual. There has been, ever since Paul, a line of those who have especially been related to that aspect of the Divine purpose, as there have been to other aspects, but the purpose is not manifold. It is one purpose with manifold aspects.

In Paul the functions of the pioneer, the foundation-layer, the master-builder, the leader, are most characteristic. Paul was peculiarly a sign of the dispensation. He called himself a 'first one'. The great dispensational purpose for which he was chosen is discernible in his spiritual history under the hand of the Lord. This is a richly-rewarding and helpful sphere of study and observation. At a later point we shall dwell upon it again and more fully. We must, for the time being, come to our third matter.

(3). Divine Grace and the Human Vessel

Although the sovereignty of God so evidently chooses a certain kind of human clay for a certain kind of purpose, and though sovereignty has to take responsibility for the contingencies, sovereignty operates through grace, and grace is the handmaid of sovereignty. But what is grace? The old and favourite definition of grace as 'unmerited favour' is comprehensive and basic, but in our present connection it is not exact enough. The human clay with all its potentialities is by no means perfectly suitable to Divine and heavenly purpose. It may have the particular dispositional properties, but in the natural man everything is mixed, complicated, distorted, and tainted. The clay has been marred and the vessel spoiled. Another must be made. Paul is the most outspoken as to the incapacitation of the natural man with regard to spiritual things. The temperament of Saul of Tarsus, vehemently religious as it was, led him all astray.

So grace had to get to work to break down the natural strengths and to reconstitute according to Christ. This meant that grace had to work in terms of spiritual illumination and understanding; to inculcate Christly patience and forbearance, over against intolerance; to establish balance over against the natural tendency to extremes; to break down the walls of prejudice and enlarge the spirit beyond the limits of national, social, and religious exclusiveness. In a word, to redeem the true values and potentialities of the human nature, and undercut and cripple - like Jacob's thigh - the strength of selfhood. So grace is not only acceptance, it is strength under discipline, submission under chastening, meekness in adversity, and understanding when painful precautionary measures are taken, as in the case of the "thorn in the flesh" to circumvent spiritual pride. Grace is a working power unto the 'gaining of the soul', not its destruction or annihilation.

Upon the clay, divinely selected, grace gets to work, not to change the essential personality, for we shall always be ourselves, but to effect an inward circumcision, a cutting around or between the self-strength and a dependence wholly upon God. This is the life-long operation of the Spirit of God and the work of grace.

Grace is the source, the river, the ocean. Paul is the greatest exponent of grace (see that word in his writings) because of the greatness of the purpose to which he was chosen, and because of the tremendous forces within the particular nature and temperament which was his. While Paul might be greatly affected by the honour attached to his calling and never cease to wonder that it should be to such as he; Paul was never far from the consciousness of the terrific thing that had to be done in him, and of how costly to his own soul that work was. Grace, to him, related to both of these aspects. In the hands of the Potter the clay may often come very near to arguing that the Potter had made a mistake in His choice of material, or that the pressure of His hands implies His adverse judgment amounting to condemnation.

Here enters the demand for faith, and faith is the yoke-fellow of grace. To glance back at our beginning; it is disastrous in every way, and wholly wrong, to allow human temperament - our own or that of others - to govern our judgments and attitudes without giving a higher place to grace.

This is what Paul meant by 'knowing after the flesh', that is, knowing apart from God. In the world this has to be done as a matter of 'common-sense', and you ignore it at your peril. But in the realm of grace other factors enter in and have to be given their due place. Men and women so often shout at us for what they are naturally; that is Christian men and women, and it is an issue of grace to wait patiently for the Spirit in them to gain ascendency over that strong natural life. This is just the meaning of 'growing in grace'.

What we have been saying would just resolve itself into human psychology if we did not keep that door of grace wide open. Psychology, like philosophy, can be a most deadly thing, with no way through, if Divine grace does not have its due and triumphant place.

We suspend this aspect of our consideration of "the stewardship of the mystery" by pointing to a very instructive fact.

The question has been asked - 'Seeing that Jesus entered into our humanity, which category of all the human categories did He enter?' In other words, what was the particular temperamental class to which Jesus belonged? The answer is: To none and to all. It is impossible to fit Him exclusively into any one of the - say six - categories of human nature. If we tried to do so, we should find contradictions in every case. It just cannot be done. The fact is that He is the embodiment of the best in every category and none of the worst or faults. This is why He is able to help every type of humanity. Conformity to Christ means that the flaws, defects, and preponderances of our natural constitution will be made subservient to the Spirit of Jesus at work within us. There we must pause, for we have touched the latch of the window through which all the meaning of "the mystery" is to be seen, and it still lies before us as 'a land of far distances'.

This consideration should lead us to see at least one thing of considerable importance. It is that God never separates between the work and the worker. Because men like the great ones of the Bible have been raised up sovereignly for a Divine purpose, and have been inspired to give some eternal values to history, they have none the less, but all the more, been very drastically dealt with by God, and the natural features of their makeup have been deeply disciplined. We can never escape or be excused because we are God's servants and He has used and blessed us. It is always possible that "after having preached to others we should be cast away" (as instruments). Against such a possibility the Lord sets deep and serious disciplines; sometimes to the extent of "a messenger of Satan to buffet".

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