Life in the Spirit
by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 8 - The Corporate Vessel

READING: Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-7; Eph. 1:22-23, 4:15-16; Col. 1:18, 2:19; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6.

Following on our last meditation, something remains to be said on the other side, the corporate side, the relationship of the life in the Spirit to the ultimate purpose of God as it concerns the Church, recognising what is set forth in the Word, that the representation of God of which we spoke is not merely individual but corporate.

There are two titles or designations of the Church, which are, to my mind, supreme amongst the designations. The first is that which we have in 1 Cor. 12:12, "the Christ". The definite article should be preserved in the reading here: "As the body is one... so also is the Christ". That seems to be the very highest designation of the Church. The other is that which is in Ephesians 2:15, the "new man". Both of these are represented by the other designation, "the Church, which is his body". In the sense in which Paul meant it, the Body is the Christ corporately presented. Again, it is the "one new man".

In those two designations - "the Christ and the "one new man" - we have the whole idea of representation, and that is now here set forth as supremely a corporate thing. We have said much about the Spirit of sonship in the individual believer, but in a very much fuller sense than that the Spirit of sonship is in the Church. It is in one Spirit (not by one Spirit) that we are baptized into one Body, and it is in the Spirit of sonship.

That means that importance of the individual is subjected in the Body to the Body. It is what the Apostle is leading to when he says that, by the grace of God given to him, he exhorts every man not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think, because we are members one of another. There is one Body, and we are members one of another, and the importance of the individual has to be subjected to the importance of the whole Body. The individual importance must not stand out from, or in, the Body as something over the Body, something in itself. There is an importance of the individual member, as the Apostle makes perfectly clear, and a great importance, but that importance of the individual is not to protrude.

That brings us to another very vital aspect of the great truth of the Body of Christ, as presented in the Word of God, and that is,

The Holy Spirit and the Order in the Body

You cannot read these writings of Paul by the Holy Spirit in the light of facts as you see them, or of conditions as you meet them, without being rendered well-nigh breathless. It is an astonishing vision that Paul has concerning the Body. You have only to stand back from these things as you read them, and you feel this is either something amazing, or else it is impossible. Many have surrendered to the latter conclusion.

Paul here presents the Church, the Body of Christ, with these two features, namely, as already complete, and as already functioning. He speaks in the present tense: "All the body, fitly framed and knit together... maketh increase..." The Body is one. Paul never speaks of the Church as if it would one day be all fitly framed together. He speaks of it as being complete already, and then, more remarkable still, he speaks of it as even now functioning: "The head... from whom all the body, fitly framed and knit together... maketh increase..." It takes your breath away and you are compelled to ask some questions, come to some conclusions about it. The fact is, as we see it, the Body is not fitly framed. It is in a tangle, and in disorder. It is only rarely that you come upon anything that you can call an adequate expression of this adjustment, this relatedness, this perfect fitting together. You meet far, far more of what is contrary to that. It is almost difficult to find two people of God who are perfectly fitted together, and yet Paul talks about the whole Body as being like that. We say of that, "Ideal, but impossible"! It is certainly not what we see. Paul wrote those words hundreds of years ago, as though the Church were then in that state, and we have only to look at the conditions in Paul's own time and read the letters to the Corinthians and Galatians, to see that his conception was one thing and the actual situation a contradiction.

It is not an impossible situation. If we saw it as Paul saw it we should say the same thing. What Paul saw about the Church as the Body of Christ was quite evidently a spiritual, and not a temporal thing. He saw the Church from above, not from beneath. He was not looking at the human side of believers and that about believers which produces the conflict and the strain, the break and the lack of adjustment and fellowship and oneness, he was seeing the inner relatedness.

This is one of the most difficult things to explain. We can see it, and see what Paul meant, and there is a key to it. The key is this, that Christ is a unity. There is no conflict in Christ, no strain, no dividedness, no schism, but a perfect harmonious, ordered life. The Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Christ - therefore utterly one with what He is - distributes Christ to all His members. What they are in themselves is one thing, but what Christ is in them is another. Christ, by coming into all this conflict of our humanity, does not take of its nature, does not lose His perfect harmony and oneness. That which is of Christ in us is working one thing, in one way, with one purpose, working to a clearly defined plan. It is perfectly one and perfectly related. That which is given to you is one aspect, one feature of Christ, while to me is given another, to a third another, and yet all these features make up the one perfect Man, and are necessary to that end. If we live in the Spirit, if our life is in the Spirit, in spite of what we are in ourselves, there is through us all that perfect unity of Christ; that is, there is something of Christ at work in each which, related to what is of Him in all the others, makes the whole expression of Christ.

That is what Paul saw, and that is what we have to see. That is how the Apostle checked the situation at Corinth. One said, I am of Paul! and another, I am of Apollos! and another, I am of Peter! Paul said, Is Christ divided? He meant, That is you, not Christ. You are violating the truth, you are destroying a reality. The reality is that Christ remains one. Because you live in yourself you are a contradiction, but the fact remains that Christ is one. If you forsake that line of things, and come on to Christ's ground, you will come into the great fact.

So Paul saw through, as from above, everything that we see and that presents itself to us as what we think to be the Church, the Body of Christ, the people of the Lord. He saw right through as from above, and taught the fact, the reality. What is it? It is that Christ is one, and although He can be giving Himself by His Spirit in various features and aspects of His person, He does not divide Himself up. He remains one, and that oneness is something deeper than what we know ourselves. Even when we, as children of God, are divided one against another, that oneness of Christ remains.

Paul saw more than that. He saw the functioning of that. Recognising the fact, seeing it, he said things which have to be regarded by us, in order that the fact may have as full an expression as is possible in the Body. The fact is one thing, the expression of it is another. We are not responsible for the fact; we can neither make it nor alter it. Nothing in this universe can alter the fact that Christ is one. There is nothing capable of disintegrating Christ, dividing Christ, breaking Christ up into conflicting fragments. Nothing can do that. The Head is in heaven, in the power of a universal victory over every divisive force in this universe, and nothing can touch the absolute oneness of Christ. You and I as members of Christ may have the most violent conflict, but we do not alter the fact of the oneness. The manifestation, the expression is another thing, and that is where our responsibility begins. Seeing as he saw, the background reality and fact of that oneness, Paul had to say things concerning our responsibility, and that of which we have to take account in order to make the fact as far as possible a manifest fact amongst us, or in order to bring the fact into operation in us.

We will touch upon some of those things. You are sufficiently aware of, and alive to, the importance of this matter. This is not just a presentation of teaching about great themes, great ideas; this has to do with God's ultimate purpose represented in this universe, an expression of God in Man-form. That is our destiny, that is what we have our being for, and we miss our destiny unless we recognise this. We have no adequate knowledge and understanding of what God is doing, and why He is dealing with us as He is, until we see this purpose of God in our being conformed to the image of His Son, the producing in this universe of a corporate Man which is Christ in full expression.

Order Essential to Increase

Firstly, the Body (you can use the term "the new man" in this corporate sense, if you like) grows and makes increase through order.

The Apostle makes that perfectly clear. It is as the Body is fitly framed that it grows. It makes increase with the increase of God. That is on the basis of being fitly framed, and every joint working in its due measure. Order and growth and increase is, therefore, by means of this order. We hardly need turn again to the analogy of the physical body, which is presented to the mind of the Apostle as he writes about the Body of Christ. It is quite true that there is no growth in the body, no development, unless there is an ordered state in the body, what he calls a fitly framing.

It is wonderful how the Lord has created things in the physical world so that their position is best suited to their purpose. Conceive of any other order in the arrangement of our members, and see how we should be handicapped. We do not want to be humorous, but rather to simplify this matter and get the principle home. But supposing your thumbs were on the other side of your hands, and you had to work in that way and get hold of everything on the outside. Get anything that is freakish, and see at once how limitation arises. Now the Lord has an order, which, if recognised, and if functioning, leads to the greatest measure of increase, is itself determined to realise the end of God; and we can no more realise God's End without God's order than we can realise the physical possibilities of our bodies with a body disordered.

The inclusive factor in this order is the headship of Christ, and, of course, our holding it: "Holding fast the head, from whom all the body, being supplied..." The headship of Christ, and our holding that, is the inclusive factor. Every faculty is centred in Him as Head; and no part of a body can function if the head is severed from the body or in any way separated in the sense of function. Get in between the head and the body in any way by a nervous disorder, or a fracture, and the whole body is out of order and incapable of functioning. Everything is gathered up into the head. Thus the headship of Christ becomes essential to the order of His Body, the Church. In speaking of the headship of Christ we are only speaking, in other words, of the government of the Holy Spirit, who comes as from Christ the Head.

To refer to the symbolism, unless you have the oil poured upon the head, and then as from the head coming down to the body (the oil on the head of Aaron flowed down to the skirts of his garment), there can be no functioning. So here the Holy Spirit is represented as being upon the Head for all the members, and bringing all the members under the Head and the one anointing. In one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body, under one Head, because the oil is given to the Head. You see that this is the government of the Holy Spirit.

Now we must take up the whole matter of the individual function of the members. We have not to take up the matter of our own function in the first place, as to what it is. That is not the first consideration. Our relatedness to others is likewise not a thing of which we are to make a mental problem. The first thing that we have to do is to come right under the government of the Holy Spirit, under the anointing. The result of that government will be the order. The individual will have to be subject to Christ, and when the individual is subject to Christ, that individual is by the Holy Spirit brought into a proper function and relationship with every other expression of Christ. Harmony comes in that way. It is spontaneous.

The Nature of Spiritual Relationship and Function

Secondly, the members of Christ as set forth in the Word are functioning parts of Christ.

The members of Christ's Body are functioning parts of Christ. That follows from our being one spirit, as joined to the Lord. Let us get rid of the physical idea altogether, and recognise how that the Body of Christ is the uniting of renewed spirits indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It is not the uniting of so many physical bodies and calling them the Church. That is merely a congregation. It is what we are together in spirit that makes us the Church. Believers do not make a Church, and congregations do not make a Church. The Church is spiritual, because it is the union of spirits. Is not this exactly what the Master was pointing to in His dealings with the woman of Samaria? To her words, "Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship", His reply was, "the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth". It was not a case of the Samaritan temple, nor the Jewish temple at Jerusalem; the true worshippers worship the Father in spirit, and the Father seeks such to worship Him. "God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth". In effect the Lord said, 'I am come to take the place of the temple, and all that outward system; and the Church now, by My coming, is not a place, not a congregation, but a union of spirits'. Wheresoever two or three are gathered in My name - there I come and join them? Nothing of the kind. Somehow people have the idea that if two or three come together and say, 'Lord, we have come together in Thy name, come and make one in our midst' that is the meaning of it. It does not say so. It is in no way a question of providing a ground upon which to claim the Lord's presence at all. He says, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I". "Two or three have Me already dwelling in them." That is the Church. It is a union of spirits. We are not talking about something physical, but about the spiritual Body, the Church. "He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit". That is the nature of union, and that is the nature of membership of the Body.

Membership of Christ is something other than our physical relatedness. What a lot of notions we have to get rid of. If we have our names put down on a certain church roll we say we have joined the Church. Membership of the Church is membership of Christ by union with Him in our spirits, and that union is brought about by Christ indwelling our spirits. The spirit is a vessel.

Now we come back to what we were saying. The Holy Spirit gives to the obedient believer some faculty of Christ, that is, a spiritual faculty. Think about that for a moment. The Holy Spirit gives to obedient believers some faculty of Christ. This is what is meant by gifts of the Spirit. We referred to some of them in our previous meditation in 1 Cor. 12 and in Ephesians 4. That does not exhaust all, for the spiritual faculties of Christ cannot be fully tabulated, but there you have examples.

The Laying on of Hands
(a) Its Appointment of God
(b) Its Signification

We have referred to two passages in the letters to Timothy about the laying on of hands. Paul speaks of the gift that was in him by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. There was a gift given by the Spirit to Timothy. That was bestowed at the time of the laying on of hands. That shows it to be a necessary thing, for this is in the Word of God. We must be perfectly honest with the Word of God, and with ourselves, and with the Lord, and not hedge any of these matters. It makes it necessary for us to look at this matter of the laying on of hands.

The first thing that it signifies is the fact of the one Body. If you take the instances in the New Testament of the laying on of hands you will see that it was a recognition and acknowledgment that converts were now members of the one Body. The first instance is at Samaria. The Samaritans turned to the Lord, and there went down from Jerusalem some of the elders and saw this true work of Christ, and it says, with reference to those that had believed "They laid their hands upon them". It is a wonderful triumph of the Spirit, to begin with, between Jews and Samaritans, in the light of all that we know about those relationships, and it is a wonderful fulfilment of what Christ had said to a Samaritan woman about the true worshippers worshipping neither in their mountain nor yet at Jerusalem. It is the spiritual testimony that matters. The testimony borne in the laying on of hands was to the fact that they were one. They were one Body and one spirit. That was the true adjustment to the fact, of the one Body. Then, inasmuch as the hands were laid upon the head of the believers (we have skipped a lot in that connection; this is all in Acts 8) a proclamation was made of the sovereignty of Christ as Head, or, in other words, the subjection of the member to the Head.

It would be necessary to enlarge upon the matter of headship right through the Bible to make that clear. When the Lord speaks about headship, He makes it perfectly clear that headship on the one hand signifies that there is subjection on the other hand. He uses a human illustration. The man is the head of the woman, even as Christ is the head of the Church. That means that the Church has to be subject to Christ. The greatest profit is obtained that way. The Lord intended to reach His highest ends by this order, and if the order is upset there will be some kind of limitation. This all represents the heavenly fact of Christ and the Church. When it comes to subjection to Christ, the man has to be as much subject to Christ as the woman. You will see that Paul has something to say to the man, as well as to the woman, in the assembly, about how he is to behave in the assembly. If a woman is not to go uncovered, then a man must not go covered. It is a matter of order before heaven, and we have all to be subject to Christ. Subjection means our place under Christ's headship, whatever that place may be.

Now we have been speaking of the laying on of hands, the fact of the one Body and subjection to Christ as Head. When representative members of the Body (mark you, "the presbytery" is not an official body as such, not necessarily a body of apostles. Ananias laid his hands on Paul, and he was not an apostle. He represented the assembly in Damascus; that is the most you can say. If you go to Antioch, you find five men there who were not apostles, but were simply men taking spiritual responsibility under God in the assembly. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Lord said, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul..."), when representative members prayed in the case of Timothy and laid their hands upon him, recognising the fact of the one Body and his subjection to Christ, they were led to pray by the Spirit in a certain way. They asked that this young man should be marked and characterised by certain things, and that the Lord would qualify him in a certain way. It was inspired prayer and proved to be prophetic. Afterwards it became quite clear to everybody that Timothy was marked by certain things. "Do the work of an evangelist; make full proof of thy ministry". Timothy was marked by the gift of an evangelist. How had that come about? Is not that the thing they prayed for when they laid their hands upon him? It was prophetic, in that the Holy Spirit indicated what his ministry was, what his vocation was, and qualified him, equipped him with gift for that. So that the functioning relationship of all members is by gift.

I do not believe that was intended to cease in the Body of Christ, neither the method, the testimony, nor the outcome. The Body of Christ must cease as a functioning thing if that ceases. So the testimony should go on, and for believers there should be a continuation in this testimony; the oneness of the Body, the headship of Christ, and gift of the Holy Spirit whereby the priests shall be enabled to function in the Body of Christ.

Let us not narrow down the word "gift", it has been narrowed down to three or four things, to the detriment of the whole truth. A few people think that one certain gift is the sure sign of the Holy Spirit, and that if you have not got that you have not received the Holy Spirit. The Lord deliver us from that sort of thing. Paul shows very clearly that what some people make so important is one of the least of the gifts (we refer to tongues). There are others more important than that. There is a gift of wisdom, of knowledge, of understanding, of revelation. These are very, very important gifts, and yet you cannot do much with them in public. They are not things you can demonstrate before men. They work in a quiet but very valuable way. And there are others, which work in the secret altogether, and yet they are gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The point is that the Holy Spirit gives some faculty of Christ to His members. Every member is to be a functioning member, with some faculty of Christ. There may be a correspondence between spiritual faculties and the physical faculties. There is the faculty of sight, and the Lord by the Spirit constitutes some members those who see for Him. Is that not perhaps discernment, perception? All have not that discernment. Oh, that those who have not got it knew they had not, instead of thinking they have, and getting other people into all sorts of trouble because they act without discernment. There are some who have that gift, and it would be well for such as are without discernment to work in fellowship with those who see more clearly than they see. Moses said to his father-in-law, Come with us, and be unto us as eyes. I think, in that instance, he made a mistake, but at the same time the Lord does need eyes for His people.

You can take every part of the body and find the corresponding spiritual faculty. There are some who hear far more clearly and quickly than others what the Lord is saying for others, and so on. The inclusive point is this, that Christ by the Spirit is distributed through His members in spiritual faculties, and the members are to function accordingly. Then it is that the Body grows, is built up.

The Apostle says it is not only necessary for us to recognise these facts, and to come by the way through which we are constituted functioning members of Christ in spirit, but it is necessary for us to guard the gift. Bear in mind that the Lord has definitely constituted you spiritually for some thing. Be careful that you do not fall short of that. Be careful that you do not allow that to fall into abeyance. Stir up the gift of God which is in you.

The Recognition of the Body

The next thing that the Apostle will teach us is that there must be a mutual recognition of the Body of Christ. We have just said as much; here we make a definite point of it. Again, the words with which we commenced are so apt at this point: "...to every man that is among you, not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think". If he does that, he will be setting other members at naught, or in a place less than should be occupied by them. It does a great deal of harm to the Body of Christ when one member dominates the situation. Mutual subjection to, and recognition of, one another represents what the Lord would have. So Peter would say, "Subject yourselves one to another in the fear of the Lord".

The Ministering of Christ

Further, there must be a ministering of Christ to one another. We have something of Christ, a faculty of Christ for ministering Christ; that is, a measure of Christ to be ministered by us, and our business is to minister Christ one to another. In that way the Body grows.

I shall not forget first hearing a phrase which many of you have often heard. It was in America in 1925. I was talking about a certain servant of the Lord who had been greatly used to build up a work of God in America. I was interested in this servant of the Lord, and wanted to know all I could know of her. I met a man who had been in very close association with her in her life, and I was trying to get from him all that he knew. He was telling me about her closing days, and in a very natural way, quite in the course of things, he used this phrase: "I used to go in to her, and minister life to her in the name of the Lord". He said it as though it were the most natural thing in the world to say. Life to her in the name of the Lord? That was a new idea to me at that time. Then my mind at once reverted to the Word of God. Is there anything to support that? I found there was quite a lot to support it. You hear the Apostle John speaking thus: "If any man see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and God will give him life for them that sin not unto death." (1 John 5:16). It is a part of our ministry. Is not Christ our life, and can we not, as functioning in Christ, minister life to one another? Surely we can. That is what we are called to. Thus the Body grows. Oh, that the Lord will enable us to be greater ministers of life to one another, and not of death.

In the light of the Scriptures throughout, it seems that spiritual order is very largely a military idea. That is because so much in the matter of victory is bound up with order. Take the book of Numbers, for instance, and you find there the ordering of the host in relation to the conquest. They were to move by the sound of the trumpet as an ordered whole. Come to the New Testament, and you find we are in a conflict. Take the Ephesian letter. Through identification with Christ you move into the ordered Body, the right relationships; an ordered whole, filled with the Spirit, and then comes our wrestling with principalities and powers. Why does it come at the end? Obviously because if there is disorder in the Body there is going to be no triumphant walk, nor any victory over the forces of evil. The Lord must have His Body in order, His people functioning in a right relationship.

We have said that it is not for us to take up this whole matter of the detail and technique of the order, but if we have our life in the Spirit it will come about, and we must recognise what the laws of order are. Those have been set forth, and we must be obedient thereto. Here is a great reality, and Paul says that this reality is a fact; but he says also that, in order that there may be increase, building up, growth, victory, you must not have your life on a natural basis, where division will come about. Forsake that ground, and come on to the ground of Christ, and then you come on to the ground of oneness. That means growth, increase. You will be no longer carnal, babes, you will come to full growth. Recognise that order is a very important thing. If any given local assembly is governed by the Holy Spirit you will have an expression of this in that assembly. We ought not to give up hope of having something like that. But apart from the imperfect and immature state of the Lord's people here as seen, looked at from above the Lord sees all that is going on. He sees the spiritual value of each one of His members. He would seek to get each member into such a relationship with Himself that He can bring them into touch with situations and people who need what they have of Him.

We shall need to ask the Lord to give us much understanding and light on this matter.


[ Previous Chapter ] [ Contents ] [ Next Chapter ]



  • Alphabetical
  • Chronological
  • Topical
  • Alphabetical
  • Chronological
  • Topical
  • Alphabetical
  • Chronological
  • Alphabetical
  • Chronological