The Stewardship of the Mystery

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 8 - The "Mystery" or Divine Secret in the Letter to the Ephesians

When we come to the Letter to the Ephesians (so called), we come to what we may call the fountain-head of this matter. It is from here that we derive the fulness of the revelation given in this particular. With all the many things contained in this letter - and there is fulness here as nowhere else - the spring of everything is the once hidden, but now revealed, secret of God. Everything must be regarded and looked at from this standpoint.

It should be realised that when we hold this Letter in our hand, we are holding one of the greatest, most momentous, and weightiest documents ever committed to man. This Letter embodies and presents the greatest religious crisis in the history of this world; for, out from eternity, and out from all past ages came a secret which God had ever kept within His own counsels unto a chosen time for its disclosure. By the disclosure of this secret a dispensation greater in significance than all others was introduced.

The significance of this dispensation is the occasion for the cosmic powers to move into a conflict born of the deepest consternation and fear. That part of the Letter which - in our chapter and verse arrangement - is chapter 6 from verse 10 to verse 20 (leading on to "Mystery" in verse 19) can only be rightly understood in the light of this essential dispensation-significance. Many have been - and are - the discourses and expositions on 'The Armour of God', and this warfare and provision are usually and generally taken out of the context and made something in themselves. But the kind of warfare referred to and the provision made for it are only really understood and appreciated by those who have actively entered into the light and meaning of this immense significance. There is, of course, conflict in various connections in every Christian life, and it is true to experience that this life is to be regarded as a warfare, with 'soldiers', 'swords', 'trumpets', 'marching as to war', 'forts', 'banners', a 'Captain', 'commands', and so on. All this is of general acceptance and relates to many particulars in moral, social and doctrinal questions. But the issue of 'Ephesians' is something infinitely more critical and significant than this.

When the Apostle Paul wrote this Letter he was not discussing a subject; he was not presenting a proposed idea for Christian life and the Church; nor was he setting down some beautiful or profound thoughts upon which his mind had been at work either in prison or during years before. He was making a proclamation of a revelation which had been specifically given to him from Heaven. Maybe he had had the force and immensity of this matter growing in him for long, but, either he had been unable to commit it to writing before because of circumstances, or the Lord had held him back because - in His foreknowledge - He knew that prolonged imprisonment would be the best occasion for this particular purpose, both by seclusion, and by transcendently saving His servant from the corrosion of inaction. This may be but a guess, but it is more than evident that, when the Apostle got to writing this Letter, his spirit was bursting all its banks. He exhausts language and employs every superlative. He rides rough-shod over grammar. He goes off at a tangent before completing a statement and returns long afterward to join up with the break. He has the longest sentence without a 'period' in all of his writings. Yes, the thing defies and defeats the command of language that even this "Mercury" (Acts 14:12) possesses. It is so vast; it is so imperative; it is so important!

It is not something that can be regarded as optional in the matter of acceptance or non-acceptance, so that the Christian life will not be seriously affected by heed or heedlessness thereto. In this Letter we have the concentrated essence of the Gospel revelation. It will be a determining factor as to the value of each Christian's life, and that of each Christian church. Thirty years after this Letter went out the seven churches in Asia (including that of Ephesus) were challenged and brought to judgment on the ground of this particular deposit, and their destiny was determined by it. (See Rev. 1-3.)

The two Letters - twin Letters - 'Ephesians' and 'Colossians' are undoubtedly the crown of Paul's ministry, especially his written ministry. The former is very contemporary because never was there such an active concern as to the corporate life of the Church as there is today.

If the Apostle had any awareness that his time before execution might be short it would be natural that he should want to put into writing that which, to him, was the greatest and most vital concern of his heart. So that we can rightly regard this Letter as that.

In the foreknowledge of God, Paul just had to be! The two main features of this Divine determination are just part and counterpart. The second was the complement or correlative of the first. The first was Stephen. It is impossible to read Stephen's address to the Jewish rulers without recognizing that he had gone far beyond the entire position which they - as representing the sum of Jewish acceptance - held. He was devastating their fixed boundaries and mightily assailing the citadel of their exclusive traditions. He exposed the falsehood of their 'Biblical' interpretations and declared that the very Scriptures upon which they based their position contradicted their exclusiveness. Not only did those rulers refuse him a full hearing, but "stopped their ears and rushed upon him". But only slowly did the first Christian leaders - Peter, James, John, and the others - come to Stephen's position. Stephen was "pleading a cause already condemned". The authority who used that last clause goes on to say - "We may fairly doubt whether the Church as a whole would have been prepared to sanction Stephen's line of teaching. Had they been called to pronounce upon it, they might perhaps have censured it as rash and premature, if not essentially unsound."

Paul's (as Saul) presence at the trial and death of Stephen was no coincidence; it was a definite and distinct incident in God's "working all things after the counsel of his own will". For exactly the same position as that enunciated by Stephen, the man standing there and giving his consent to the bloody deed was himself going to be stoned, beaten, imprisoned; and persecuted in almost every one of the numerous places to which he would go, and, at last, through Jewish intrigue, have his life taken from him. The arrest on the road to Damascus was but the ironical counterpart of the hearing of Stephen's statement of God's truth and Paul's violent reaction thereto. Paul just had to be, because of that extra deposit which Heaven had given to Stephen and which Heaven was determined should be the full meaning of this dispensation.

The writing of this Letter entitled 'Ephesians' was the completion of that which Heaven determined and would not be robbed of a second time. If Paul had been born after Stephen's death it might well have been (superstitiously) said, as Herod said of Jesus with regard to John the Baptist, 'This is Stephen come to life again'. God's time had come for His long kept 'secret' to be out, and hell was not to be allowed to keep it in, or quench it!

Paul had encountered some formidable giants in his (approximately) thirty year's ministry. The giants of Judaistic legalism and its bondage were laid low by his Letters to the Romans and Galatians. The giant of Christian carnality received some heavy blows in 'Corinthians'. In the Letters to the Ephesians and Colossians he reaches through the merely earthly aspects of the conflict to the heavenly, the supra-earthly; through the temporal to the spiritual; through the local to the universal; through the temporary to the eternal. In the 'Ephesian' Letter the term "heavenly" is used five times, and we can only really understand the meaning and message of the Letter as we understand that term. It is upon that very term that the great difference in the dispensation turns.

From the natural point of view we can well understand the difficulty of the Jewish leaders and their great concourse of followers. They had a long and God-honoured history of temporal and earthly blessings. Had they not the Land given them by God? Did they not receive from Him the Covenant, the Oracles, the Holy City, the Temple, the Priesthood, and the Promises? What a tremendous case they seemed to have for their tradition! Theirs were the Fathers, the Patriarchs, the Kings, the Prophets. Everything of all this massive heritage was in the body; visible, tangible, present, right down to earth. And now these other people, and Paul as their chief exponent, were saying that all that was past and belonged to a dispensation which had been concluded. With Jesus Christ there has come in a new dispensation, the entire nature and economy of which is spiritual and heavenly. "Every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies" (Ephesians 1:3.) To analyse the term according to the fivefold context of this Letter, the "heavenlies" are:-

1. A spiritual sphere; not a material, geographical locality.
2. It is above - or around - the earth, beyond the region of sense.
3. It is a realm of spiritual activities.
4. It is a realm of intelligent spiritual forces; with an order or system; a spiritual organization.
5. For a great part this system of spiritual intelligences and activities is evil and hostile to all that is of God, and to all that represent Him.
6. It is also - in its higher realm (what Paul calls "the third heaven" - 2 Cor. 12:2) - the realm of celestial intelligences; where Christ is enthroned "far above all rule and authority..." (Eph. 1:21). And it is the realm in which we are said to have a spiritual union with Christ (Eph. 2:6).
7. Finally, it is the realm of a great spiritual warfare in which the Church is involved; "not with flesh and blood", that is, not literal warfare with earthly people, but with "...hosts of wicked spirits".
All this realm and what is there, is said to be "unseen". The seen is temporal and transient, but the unseen - the higher heavenly - is spiritual and eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).

No one who has any real spiritual experience will ever question the reality of these unseen forces and the fact of this spiritual conflict.

But when we have said all this we have not touched or indicated the vital and essential occasion of it all. True it is that the real nature of this present dispensation was never revealed in former ages, but was "kept secret". Its introduction with Christ and its proclamation through Apostles was like dropping an atomic bomb into the centre of that ancient and deeply-rooted system. It started up something which disintegrated that system, and to this day it is broken to pieces. We have said that it is difficult to appreciate the shock and the implications of this disclosure of the Secret - "the mystery". We could only approximate to such understanding if we were to visualize the effects and results of a movement which by its chief representatives, to say nothing of its Originator, stood by the great St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome or the great St. Paul's Cathedral in London and proclaimed that this thing no longer stood in God's acceptance or recognition. That it belongs to an age which is past and gone. That the whole system represented by it has been supplanted by another which is not of tangible stones (John 4:21-23), and not of earthly Orders, patronages, vestments, and ritual. That the day of the doom of it all is fixed (Matt. 24:2; Heb. 12:26,27). That this is no longer - if ever it was - the true intention of God. The reactions to such pronouncements would be no less violent today than they were in Stephen's time.

All hell - "principalities and powers", etc. - are ever enraged to most vicious spite when the true implications of the significance of Christ in this dispensation are revealed and declared. Let us get nearer still to this matter. To the old Israel, with all its earthly order and claims, the Stewardship of the Mystery announced that that Israel was dismissed and displaced, and that a new, heavenly and spiritual Israel had been begun which was destined to become the one eternal and universal "Israel of God". That what the former Israel was intended to be in character and purpose within the limits of earth and time - but had failed to be and had forfeited its calling - this new Israel is to universal and eternal dimensions. Very few hints of that being in the counsels of God were given to Israel. Solemn and powerful warnings were given in plenty. They were not left without the knowledge of what God wanted of them. But this thing - the supplanting of that Israel and all its earthly system by another Israel "not of this world" - was hidden from their eyes. Jesus said to them: "The kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and shall be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (Matt. 21:43), and Peter later said that the Church of Christ is that holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).

If Israel of old was chosen to represent God among the nations; to rule for God among the nations; to be a light to the nations; to include the Gentiles in its blessing; and in all this failed utterly, in spite of all God's unbounded mercy, patience, entreaty and warnings, the new Israel, with its 'Jerusalem above' (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22), and its entire order a spiritual and heavenly one, takes its place, vocation, and purpose which God has from eternity determined to have. All this is included in such phrases as "according to his eternal purpose" (Eph. 3:11), "the heavenly calling" (Heb. 3:1), "so great salvation" (Heb. 2:3), "the hope of his calling" (Eph. 1:18), "his inheritance in the saints" (Eph. 1:18), and many others. The eternal implications of all this as to the Church's destiny - the deposing of every other system, heavenly and earthly, which is opposed to God's Christ and God's Church - are the explanation of why anything or anyone relating to that eternal purpose becomes the object of the relentless antagonism of the evil powers. The less 'of this world', and the more 'of Heaven', so the more this spiritual hostility is met.

Now let us sum up.

Paul, the erstwhile embodiment of the whole Jewish or Israelitish system and tradition in more than an ordinary way, has - by a visitation from Heaven, a "heavenly vision" (Acts 26:19) and "revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal. 1:12) - come to see and to accept that that whole realm and nature of things has changed with the advent of the Christ: that the new and present "Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16) is the Church founded and built upon Christ as 'the Foundation' and 'Chief Corner Stone' (Eph. 2:20): that the "seed of Abraham" is not his natural seed, but Christ and those who are of faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16): that the Land of Promise is now not an earthly country, but a heavenly (Heb. 11:14): that the journey is not now an earthly walk, but a spiritual, though on the earth: that the City is "the Jerusalem which is above" (Gal. 4:26): that the "Captain of the hosts of the Lord" (Joshua 5:14) and the King is "at the right hand of God" (Acts 6:56) in the heavens. So also is the High Priest, who has completed all the sacrifices, and, in virtue of His own blood, makes intercession for the Saints. Further, he sees that "the middle wall of partition" between Jew and Gentile has been broken down, and "of the twain" God has created "one new man" (Eph. 2:14,15): that the synagogues have given place to the local churches: that the Elders of Israel are now displaced by the Elders of the churches: that the exclusiveness of Judaism has been destroyed to give place to the universality of Christ, His Gospel, and the Church. And finally, that the enemies which seek to obstruct the Church and 'withstand' its ultimate dominion in their realm are "principalities and powers, the world-rulers of this darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenlies" (Eph. 6:12), and so on, and on. The whole realm, scene, nature and goal is changed.

It was no small revolution that came in with Christ, and was preached by Paul; which was, indeed, entrusted and committed to him in a special way and made his "Stewardship". The implications are immensely and intensely challenging. Christendom has almost entirely failed to apprehend this change and its devastating implications. Hence, there is all the phraseology and terminology without the consistent nature and expression, and therefore without the impact and power or authority.

The "Mystery" - the eternal Divine secret - is still veiled in many hearts, even though they have the New Testament in their hands. It was because of this that the Apostle felt the need to pray for those who had received in word "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) that they might be given "a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the (full) knowledge of him, the eyes of (their) hearts being enlightened" (Eph. 1:17,18). If that were necessary then, is it less so now?

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