Four Greatnesses of Divine Revelation
by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 8 - Part 3: The Greatness of the Church

Read: 1 Chronicles 28:2–7,11–13,19; 29:3–5; 2 Chronicles 2:1,2; Ephesians 1:4–6,11,12,17–23; 2:7,19–22; 3:10,11,20,21; 4:1,4,5,13–15; 5:25–27.

So we come to the third of those greatnesses of Divine revelation—the greatness of the Church; a greatness which, it is regrettable to think, so very few of the people of God have seen.  There is a painful slowness amongst Christians to apprehend the great purpose and intent of their salvation, to know and to understand the nature of their high calling; and it is in this connection that there is a great divide between the people of God.  Christianity at its best has very largely become a general thing, a matter of being saved and of going on in a general way as Christians, but not recognizing that in God’s mind we are saved with a mighty purpose, which is not just to be saved and then to be occupied with getting others saved, and stopping there.  Both of those things are good.  They are fundamental and essential, but they are only the beginning.  From that point something quite different begins—what Paul refers to here when he says: “I... beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called”; and around that phrase: “the calling wherewith ye were called” he gathers all these immense things about the Church which, as to the backward aspect, reach far back over the ages; as to the upward aspect—“in the heavenlies,” with a vocation which is now heavenly; and then the onward aspect—“the ages to come.”  These are phrases which indicate the calling wherewith we are called, but how few of us have really apprehended it!  We could say very much about the tragedy of the loss of that vision and Divine revelation, and of the building up of something which has made it well nigh impossible for multitudes now to move into that calling, bound hand and foot as they are by a tradition and by a system which leaves responsible people not free and too much involved, for their very livelihood, to move into God’s full thought.  We shall not pursue that line.  It is better for us to keep to this positive presentation of the thought of God and to use our time in seeking to approach—for it will hardly be more than that—this matter of the greatness of the Church.

We have been thinking about the greatness of Christ and took several chapters over contemplating that greatness; then came the greatness of the Cross—the range and the content of the death and resurrection of Christ. When we come to consider the greatness of the Church, we find that greatness is because the Church takes up those other two greatnesses; that is, the greatness of the Church is the greatness of Christ and the greatness of His Cross.  They give the Church its real character.  We took the type, with its magnificence and fulness of presentation, its redundance of wealth—Solomon, as bringing Christ into view typically, remembering the Lord’s own word: “a greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42).  But we need to remember also that Solomon came forward and into view in relation to the house of God. That was really what brought him to light, and was the reason, the occasion, of Solomon’s prominence.  David had it in his heart that a house should be built, and that was a Divine thought: “Thou didst well that it was in thine heart” (1 Kings 8:18).  It was in his heart from the Lord, and so much so that the Lord entrusted him with a revelation, in fulness, completeness and detail, of that house.  David made a remarkable statement: “All this have I been made to understand in writing from the hand of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 28:19).  You cannot explain that!  It was clearly a Divine intention, and it was out of that Divine implanting and unfolding that Solomon came on the scene at all.  He was to be the one to whom it was entrusted for fulfilment.  His glory was intended to be a related glory, his greatness a related greatness.  In other words, the house which he would build would be the embodiment and presentation of his own glory and splendour.  What Solomon gathered, and was given by the Lord in every way, would come and find its central embodiment and manifestation in the house which he would build.

Of course, we at once leap over to that superlative utterance of the Apostle: “...unto Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever” (Ephesians 3:21; ASV).  This letter to the Ephesians is the counterpart of this narrative in Chronicles in showing that the Church, as the Body of Christ, is the vessel chosen of God, and appointed and revealed by Him, to be the embodiment of the glory and greatness of Christ.  It is the vessel, the vehicle, by which all that Christ is will be made known through the ages of the ages; and there is a true sense in which the revelation of Jesus Christ and the bringing of Him into view by God is a related thing.  The reason for it is to get this elect, foreknown and foreordained company in which God in Christ would be made known to a wondering universe.  “ unto the principalities and powers... through the church...” (Ephesians 3:10).  So, as the house was the manifestation of Solomon’s greatness, the Church is conceived by God to be the manifestation of the greatness of Christ.

Having said that as giving just a glimpse of this greatness (and, of course, for anything like an adequate appreciation it requires all that we have been saying about the greatness of Christ), we remember also the greatness of the altar and the sacrifice which came into view with Solomon—the immensity of the offering made to God at that time.  The greatness of the work of Christ in His Cross indicates how great the Church must be.  If Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it, and if that was a sacrifice, an offering, compared with which the tens of thousands of bullocks and sheep offered by Solomon are as nothing, a sacrifice so great that the type pales in comparison; if the work of the Cross of the Lord Jesus was so great, is not that a further indication of how great the Church must be?  It has, by His own parable, been called a “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46), and to secure it He, the Divine Merchantman, let go all that He had—and He had an ‘all’ which no merchantman in the history of this world has ever possessed, a wealth and a fulness, a glory which He had with God before the world was, something indestructible, great and wonderful.  Seeking goodly pearls, when He had found one of great price He sold all to get it.  We cannot understand that, for it is beyond us, but there it is; it is Divine revelation.  And the Cross was the price of the Church.  For some unspeakable reason, the Church stands related to God in value like that.  Christ loved the Church, “the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”  It is evidently a very great and wonderful thing.

Features of Christ Taken up in the Church

Now we must look at some of those features of Christ which are taken up in the Church, in order that we may know what this Church is that we are talking about. What is it?  Well, if it takes up the things which are true of Christ, then what is true of Him is, in the mind of God, to be true of the Church; and it is true of the Church which is in God’s eye.

(a)  His Eternal Being

And the first feature of Christ upon which we dwelt when we were considering Him was His eternal being, the eternal conception.  We need not go again over the ground of the eternal Sonship of Christ.  All we need say about that is that He was before the world was; He was before the order of time was instituted in the establishment of those heavenly bodies by the government of which time exists—years and months, day and night, summer and winter.  These are all governed by heavenly bodies, and these are time factors.  Before they were, He was, for He created all things.  This word ‘eternal’ in our usage simply means that going back and going on beyond time, beyond marked periods, beyond history.  That is true of Christ.  The letter to the Ephesians says that in the mind of God the Church existed before the foundation of the world.  It does not necessarily mean that the Church actually existed as Christ did in eternity past, but it was “foreknown.”  “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world... having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto Himself” (Ephesians 1:4,5).  As we have pointed out before, this letter to the Ephesians is not set in time; it will have its effect upon time matters, the practical matters of every­day life, of our walk and conduct here on this earth; but it is set in the timeless realm.  It goes back, and it goes on; it bridges all time in the Divine conception.  That is where this letter is set, and, until we recognize the implications of that, we have no real apprehension of the Church; and when we do recognize that, what nonsense all this ‘churchianity’ becomes, how small and petty, and how we feel that from God’s standpoint we are just playing at some game of churches when we make so much of what has traditionally come to be called ‘the Church!’  If we have one real Divine glimpse of the Church, all that other becomes paltry, petty, foolish, and a mighty emancipation takes place inside us—but it requires illumination.

The Church takes the feature of the absolute stability of Christ.  It is something outside of time, chosen in Him before the world was.  The stability of the true Church, according to God’s mind, is the stability of Christ Himself.  This thing, on God’s basis and in His realm, is an immovable and undestructible thing.  That is not true of anything else.  Oh, the stability of being there in God’s thought!  Survival is certain, and, indeed, more than survival.  We sometimes sing the old hymn:

“Crowns and thrones may perish,
Kingdoms rise and wane;
But the Church of Jesus
Constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never
‘Gainst that Church prevail.”

“I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  The Church embodies the eternity and indestructibility of Christ’s very life.

(b)  The Mystery of His Heavenliness

Next we spoke of Christ in His heavenliness.  “I came down from heaven” (John 6:38).  Again you need to gather up that constantly reiterated statement which He made about His heavenly origin.  Here in this letter the Church is set forth so strongly, with such emphasis, as being like that.  “Raised us up with Him, and made us to sit with Him in the heavenlies, in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).  We spoke about Christ’s word to Pilate—“My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  I was struck by the last few words of 1 Chronicles 28:5: “He hath chosen Solomon my son to sit upon the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel.”  It was not the kingdom of Israel; it was the Kingdom of God over Israel.  “My kingdom is not of this world.” In other words, ‘My Kingdom is God’s Kingdom— much bigger than this and beyond this: not of this world, that is, not merely temporal.’

We sought to point out the perfect ‘otherness’ of Christ from everyone else in this race.  How utterly other He was, and is; out from another realm altogether!  And that is true of the Church.  It is quite other, something altogether different from that with which we are familiar.  Our word about Christ is true of the true Church—that He passed through this world unrecognized, unknown, making the positive affirmation that “no one knoweth the Son, save the Father” (Matthew 11:27).  There is a mystery here.  That word ‘mystery,’ used so much by the Apostle, particularly in this letter, is a most difficult word to explain.  We have to resort to a paradox whenever we try to explain it, for mystery—‘mysterium’—simply means manifestation in a hidden way.  That is a contradiction, a paradox, but that is the essence of the word.  God is manifested, but in a hidden way.  “No one knoweth the Son, save the Father,” and yet: “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father.”  He is manifested as God in Christ, but in such a hidden way that it demands an act of God in specific revelation to see Jesus Christ.  You cannot truly see who Jesus Christ is unless God acts sovereignly and opens the eyes of your heart.  That has been demonstrated by His whole life here on this earth. When one Apostle was able, in a moment of revelation, to say: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the rejoinder was: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father” (Matthew 16:17).  But the moment passed, for not long afterward the man who had had the revelation was found denying that One with oaths and with curses, and that three times.  If the revelation had been an abiding one, how could he have done that?  It was a moment of Divine, sovereign action when the mystery was disclosed and he saw.  God was manifested in a hidden way while that instant lasted; but then the veil fell again, and the mystery continued.

And what is true of Christ is true of the Church.  It is heavenly, it is unrecognized and unknown unless God reveals it.  I want you really to grasp this.  I know in what a realm of helplessness it places us on the one side, and it is well that this should be so; and therefore what it makes necessary on the other side is that God should have a Church which exists on the basis of His own sovereign act of revelation.  The purity of it demands that.  If everybody could see and understand and comprehend, and the Church could be brought right down to the limited compass of human apprehension, what sort of Church would it be?  That is exactly what the devil has sought to do—to bring the Church within the compass of anybody’s range of comprehension, so that anybody can be in it, or think they are in it.  What havoc the devil has made by getting rid of this great fact!  They have done it with Christ, and made Him the Jesus of history, with unspeakable loss.  Very largely, Christianity is in its appalling state today because of this mishandling of the Person of Christ, this trying to constitute everything upon the basis of the Jesus of history.  The cry: ‘Back to Jesus!’ (meaning, away from Paul) is simply to try to bring things down to this earthly, human level which everybody can understand and grasp.  ‘We cannot follow Paul.  He is so mysterious, otherworldly, remote. Let us get back to the simple Jesus of history, the Jesus of the Gospels!’  This is simply jettisoning the thing which is essential for bringing to God that upon which His heart is set.  “No man can come unto Me, except it be given unto him of the Father” (John 6:65), said the Lord Jesus.  “No man can come unto Me.”  It demands a Divine, a sovereign, act on God’s part to bring any man or woman really to Christ.  You cannot just choose or decide to come.  It is not with anybody to say that they are going to be a Christian.  God has to do something in every case, and it is His own sovereign act.  Do not cheapen the Gospel!  If we do, we shall open the door so wide that we shall be glad after a time to get rid of that which has come in.  The Church, in its heavenly character taken from Christ, is something that can only be entered by revelation, because it can only be known by revelation.  “No one knoweth....”  We can only state these facts.  No teaching can accomplish it, and we are powerless in the matter.  All that is given to us is to state Divine facts, and it is for God to reveal.  But, thanks be unto God, He has revealed and He does reveal.  Some of us can say that He has shined into our hearts in this matter, and the revelation of Christ and of the Church has made an immense difference in every way.  Of course, this faculty of ‘seeing’ is inherent in the new birth by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

(c)  Manifesting the Features of the Divine Person

The revelation of God in Christ is carried on in the Church in exactly the same way as with Him, in this sense—that God has revealed Himself Person-wise.  The Letter to the Hebrews opens with: “God... hath at the end of these days spoken unto us in a Son”—Son-wise, and that is only another way of saying ‘Person-wise.’  The only adequate revelation of God is personal.  God cannot be really known by the things which He says, however many they may be.  There is such a difference between a mental, intellectual apprehension and conception of God, and a living, heart-transforming apprehension. God must come to us Himself in a living, personal way if we are to know Him livingly and actually.  You may read a biography or an autobiography, and you may afterward say that you thereby know the person concerned; but how often it is true that, when you actually meet that person, there is something that was not there in the book and which makes all the difference. You were not really changed and transformed by reading the book.  You had impressions, but they did not make any difference to you actually in your very life and nature; but you meet the person, and the impact of that person makes a deep impression and has a great effect.  That is so often the case; but it is a poor illustration.  God’s revelation unto life has had to be Person-wise.  He has come in the Person of His Son, incarnate, and if you really touch the reality of Christ in the Spirit there is a tremendous result.  You know how this is borne out in the accounts in the Gospels.  There were times when crowds thronged Him and pressed upon Him in closest touch, but nothing happened to the crowds.  But in the crowd there was an individual in deep and desperate need who had faith, and said: “If I do but touch His garment, I shall be made whole” (Matthew 9:21).  There was some spiritual link between that one and Him which did not exist between Him and the rest of the crowd thronging Him, and that one by the touch found, not the Jesus of history, but the Christ of God, not merely the Man of Galilee, but the real Divine Person.  It is difficult to explain and define, but you can see there is a difference.  That is the only sufficient revelation of God—Person-wise.

That is taken up in the Church and is the real meaning of this definition of the Church: “the church, which is His body”; “gave Him to be head over all things”—not: ‘of the church,’ though that is true—but “to the church.”  The Church, coming under that Headship, into that vital relationship with Him as Head, comes into the ‘all things’ that are in Christ, and, as His Body, it embodies Him.

Now, the greatness of the Church is here: that God has ordained and appointed that the Church now, in this dispensation, should be where He can be found, where He can be met, where He can be touched, where He makes self-manifestation.  “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).  God can be met, found and touched there.  There is the vehicle of His manifestation.

So the Church is called to be here in this dispensation, and in the ages to come to be the very Body through which God in Christ manifests Himself and makes Himself known.  Is that the Church that we know, that is commonly called the Church?  Oh no!  But that is God’s thought.

I have been reading a book by Adolph Keller, a man who travelled all over the world to visit all churches and see what could be done along the line of church union.  I came on something like this in his book: “I must admit,” he says, “that ofttimes when I sat in magnificent church buildings, with their stained glass windows and carved organs, I was less conscious of being in the church of Christ than when, for instance, I was in one of those Ukrainian peasant-rooms crowded with men and women who had come barefoot from afar to hear the Word of God.  These poor little congregations and churches, widely scattered in the hills of Jugoslavia, in the lonely villages of Wolhynia, in the coal-mining districts of Belgium, in the taverns and barns of Czechoslovakia—these churches truly humble us, because they show us again and again the true poverty and the true riches of Christ, and that in a way impossible in the securely established, self-sufficient church that we know today.” Then he makes this statement: “The entire Church no longer represents its nature as originally intended, neither is it able to do so.”  How different from the Church of God’s thought!  The true Church is nothing less, in the intention of God, than Christ Himself present and going on with His work without those earthly limitations of His life before His death and resurrection. The Christ risen, ascended and exalted in all the fulness which God has put in is in the true Church.  I say that you cannot identify it.  You can only see where two or three are gathered.  You cannot say of this, or that, or some other thing called ‘the Church’ that is the Church.  No, the true Church is still this mysterious thing.  It is Christ in active expression.  How great is the Church if it is Christ!

I say that we can only state the facts, and there they are.  What we have to do next is to pray to the Lord: ‘O Lord, reveal the true Church!’

(d)  A Vocation for a Day to Come

There is one last word just now.  It concerns that always-present and always-governing factor about Christ which is not taken sufficient account of, I think, in its meaning.  You notice that when Christ was here His aspect was always the forward one.  He was always thinking and talking of a time to come.  That is a governing factor and feature of Christ. “In that day...” (Matthew 7:22, etc.).  He is looking on to and talking about a coming day.  All the time His eyes are upon the distant horizon and He speaks of what will then be: ‘Then you shall know, then you shall see, then all will be manifested, then all that has been so hidden and mysterious will be perfectly clear.’  That related, in the first instance, to the coming Holy Spirit, but when you pass into the Epistles you find the same thing dominant in the case of the Church.  There are mighty things now, big possibilities now, big issues and responsibilities now, and the Church is now, even now, unto principalities and powers an instrument of the revelation of the manifold wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10).  But the onward look is prominent and governs everything.  “...that we should be unto the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:12); “that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7); “...unto Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all the generations of the age of the ages” (Ephesians 3:21).

I am only bringing that in here at this moment with this object: to remind you of the tremendous end to which the Church is called.  How great the Church is in the light of the vocation which it is to fulfil!  What a great vocation!  We might spend much time considering what the calling of the Church is, or is going to be in the coming ages, but we must be satisfied for the present with making this one observation.  It is one thing to be a citizen, and a blessed citizen, of a noble country and of a noble king.  There may be many blessings in that for which to be grateful, but it is an infinitely greater thing to be a member of the king’s household and family, a member of the reigning house.  And that is the calling of the Church: not only to be inhabitants of the land, but to be members of the reigning family.  We are called with that calling, to be in that inner circle.  “The nations... shall walk in the light of it” (Revelation 21:24) is a way of putting it.  The Church is this specific company, elect from all eternity to all eternity, not just to be something in itself and to know satisfaction and gratification, but to be instrumental in the hands of God in serving Him in His universe throughout all the coming ages, in close relationship with His Throne.  How great the Church is!  Well might the Apostle, in seeing far more than we have ever seen, say: “I... beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called, with all lowliness and meekness” (Ephesians 4:1,2).  Then he brings that walk into touch with common things of every­day life, and says: ‘If you are a true member of the Church and have a true apprehension of it, you will not be a bad father or mother, a bad husband or wife; you will not be a bad master or mistress or servant.  All this will be affected by your spiritual apprehension.’  How practical it is!  There are so many people who have high doctrine, and they are poor Christians; who have all the truth, but they are bad employers.  That is not the Church.

May the Lord Himself open our hearts and give us that touch of sovereign grace, that we may see the truth and be conformed to it.

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