by T. Austin-Sparks
Chapter 1 - The Nature of This Ministry
The second letter to the Corinthians, second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4: "Therefore seeing we have this ministry..." those two words will be the key to our meditation and consideration this evening, and probably, if the Lord wills, for several evenings to come.
"This ministry". This ministry. As you know, we are using
these few evenings for the purpose of restating and clarifying
what we believe to be the Lord's meaning and purpose in the church
and in our having been (by His grace and mercy) brought under His
hand as a people here. It is very necessary that from time to time
as the years go on and the company changes, that we keep very
clearly before us that full purpose of God into which He has
While we are always seeking new light and to be open to new instruction and counsel from the Lord, we must preserve the original vision and keep in line with that which has been the object of our apprehending. And it is the church's ministry - a ministry for which the church is chosen of God and for which the church is equipped by God. It is a ministry. So far as we here are concerned, we feel that the Lord has laid it very much on us to seek to be in line with the ministry of the full counsel of God. And, as things are in these times, it is very necessary that there shall be preserved a ministry amongst the Lord's people, for the Lord's people, that they shall the better be fitted with spiritual wealth and larger measures of Christ to strengthen all the Lord's people to the fulfilment of their holy vocation in this world.
Now, Paul here says, "We have this ministry". I think it is quite clear from the larger context of those words, that when he said "we", he was including the Corinthians as well as himself and his brethren who were with him in the ministry. Later, for instance, he will say: "We all with unveiled face...", it is the ministry of the whole church that the apostle has in view. "This ministry" is what the Lord would have the whole church fulfil and it is of very great importance that the whole church (and that includes every one of us here this evening, while it goes far beyond), it is very important that every one of us should realise that we are called of God not only unto salvation and unto ultimate glory, but particularly unto a ministry - a ministry from the Lord for the Lord; from the Lord, unto the Lord. We have this ministry! And when the apostle says "this ministry", you notice that the whole context of this letter defines what he means by "this ministry". It is a ministry of a certain nature, character, and constitution so that, if this is true that the church is here particularly and pre-eminently to fulfil a ministry, and we are in that, we must know what that ministry is, and we must be in line with it.
The apostle first draws attention, then, to what the church is, in itself, the "we", and then he proceeds with the vocation of that church. The church is affected as to its character by its calling. If we were to clearly apprehend our calling, we should the more forcefully realise what we have got to be. The impetus, the motive, the dynamic of "being" is found in the vocation, in the calling, in what we are here for; that is, in the Divine purpose. Have you grasped that? Let me repeat that: that we shall find our inspiration to be what we ought to be, when we adequately apprehend what it is the Lord has called us for, that is, to do, because we cannot do that and fulfil the vocation unless we are of a certain kind, of a certain character - it does not just happen willy-nilly. The Lord requires a certain kind of "we" for this particular kind of ministry. That is the whole force of this letter, as you know. The apostle is seeking to show what the ministry is, and by showing that, inspiring, and encouraging, and admonishing the church to be worthy of that ministry; to be the kind of church necessary to fulfil it.
So we begin this evening to consider:-
The Nature of This Ministry
What constitutes it... there is very much to be said, and I confess to you that I am so full that I am most eager to get on; my peril will be to overrun the matter, but we will seek to confine ourselves for this little time this evening to one aspect or phase of this ministry. It is what the apostle means when he repeatedly speaks of "God's purpose". Notice that was a characteristic conception in the apostle's heart and mind. We are very familiar, for instance, with the words of Romans 8:28, the last clause of which is: "called according to His purpose". Called! According to His purpose. And again in Ephesians chapter 1, verse 9: "Having made known unto us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Him" - that is, in Christ. Verse 11: "In whom also we were made a heritage having been foreordained according to the purpose of Him who works all things after the counsel of His will". It is with something that the apostle terms "the purpose... the eternal purpose" in mind, that the church has its existence.
When we come to look at these Scriptures and break them up,
analyse them, we find that this purpose has several aspects.
Firstly, it is shown to be consummately, all-inclusively a
gathering together of all things in Christ. That's the purpose:
comprehensively, to gather together all things in Christ.
And then, in the second place, the purpose is to manifest, or
express the fulness of Christ in, and to, this whole universe.
That is "the counsel of God's will".
And then in the third place, we find that, for that, for that, God, before times eternal, chose, or elected, the church (that which is called "the church") to be the vessel for this purpose.
Look at that a little more closely, those three things. "To... (and
it is put in several different ways in different translations) to
sum up all things in Christ", or "to gather together all things in
Christ", or again, "to re-unite all things in Christ", or, once
more, "to gather up into one all things in Christ". That is the
pre-eminent explanation of the Lord Jesus.
Paul was mainly interested in the eternal significance of Christ
and of His vocation in the purpose of God. Therefore, there is
very little indeed in Paul's writings throughout, of the earthly
life of the Lord Jesus - practically nothing from His birth onward
to His cross. Paul does not give us any account of the journeys of
the Lord Jesus when here on earth; of His miracles; of His
discourses - he says practically nothing about that whole period.
If he has anything to say about the Lord Jesus in that connection,
it is almost entirely about the meaning of the incarnation, that
is, His self-emptying, humbling Himself and taking on Him the form
of a bond-slave, and being found in fashion as a man - well, that
goes back to the beginning. From there onward he has practically
nothing to say until he comes to the Cross - he has a lot to say
Paul is not concerned with the earthly or historic Christ; he is
concerned with the eternal significance of His Person and
His work. And that is very largely why he so often uses the title
"Christ" and "the Christ", which is a larger title than "Jesus".
He often speaks, of course, of Jesus, but Paul's great title for
Him is "Christ", and "the Christ", that relates to His
anointing for His vocation, to fulfil His great purpose in
this universe. It is the eternal Christ that Paul is
concerned with. And he it is who, in this unique, peculiar and
particular way, brings us to that eternal vocation. He shows us
that in those eternal counsels of God, the Son was intended to be
the sum of all things, and all things to be the sum of Him: "He
should fill all things", and "in all things have the
pre-eminence", "in Him all things should consist" and all things
in this universe should find its integrating centre and power in
Christ. That was the Divine intention.
Then things proceeded, as we only too well know, to the point
where the mighty determined counter to that entered into this
universe. It is something with which you and I ought to be perhaps
more impressed than we are, that along every line of Divine
intention concerning the Lord Jesus, there is a counter
movement in this universe. Did God intend and determine that in
and through His Son the glory of God should be manifested in this
universe? It should be glory in and by Christ Jesus; and we have a
great deal of data on that matter. "Very well, then", says this
counter movement, "we will make it our business to see that
everything that relates to the Lord Jesus is brought into shame
and dishonour". What a history there is! You cannot bring anything
of the Lord Jesus in for glory without this counter movement to
bring that under a reproach, into shame, into disrepute, and to
thwart and frustrate the glory.
Is it the wealth, the riches of Christ and that are in Christ
that are to be displayed and enjoyed? "Very well", says the
counter movement, "Everything that is related to Christ, we will
bring into poverty. We will counter that". And there is a lot of
history in that - the poverty, poverty of what has the name of
Christ on it in this world! Spiritual poverty, poorness; it is
And so you follow it round the clock, and at every point where
God determined something concerning His Son, you find the counter
movement. And here it focuses upon this matter of "gathering
together", gathering together, summing up, re-uniting, gathering
into one all things in Christ. "Very well", says that counter
movement, "We will make it our business to divide everything that
has the name of Christ on it. We will not stop short at anything
to counter that uniting movement in Christ. We'll break it up
somehow!" And what a lot of history there is in that!
If the church was brought into being for that purpose, well, the enemy hasn't spared himself to spoil that purpose in the church. We come to that again in a moment, but here we find ourselves in a disintegrated and disrupted universe in every direction and in every connection; not stopping short of what is called "the church". I very carefully put it like that - what is called the church. But the purpose of God stands and His pre-determinate counsel, the counsel of His will, will eventually and ultimately be fulfilled. He will "sum up all things in Christ".
Now, you see, God is engaged deeper than our sensing and our
sight, upon this matter of re-integrating in His Son. And the
basic principle of this integration, this re-uniting, the basic
principle is Christ Himself! If you get a hold of that, you will
get past a great many difficulties. The ground of oneness is
Christ Himself. Many, many things are thought to be the way to
unity or the grounds of unity, but no, there is only one ground of
unity, and that is Christ Himself. And where Christ is, there is,
beneath and beyond whatever else may be present, there is unity.
There is no doubt about it. You may have a lot that is extra, the
accretions, the things that are built upon that, which are not
Christ, but get away down through all that, to the fundamental
reality of Christ within by new birth from above, and you've got
something in common. There is the unity. Christ Himself is the Law
of this new integration, but it will depend upon how much
of Christ, how much manifested unity there will be. That,
of course, would be a terrible indictment, wouldn't it, of very
much where there is disunity amongst the Lord's people. It would
say, "Well there is not enough of Christ! If only there were more
of Christ... that would not be". So it resolves itself into a
matter of the greatness and the fulness of Christ.
If what we have said (and all the more that lies behind it) is true, how very great Christ is; that He has the capacity for filling this universe! And those are not just words, it's not just a wild statement, it can be borne out in various ways which perhaps we ought not to take time to show this evening, except in one way.
You know, you can take any manual of any subject or
subjects in human knowledge, however great may be the manual -
full, and detailed, and comprehensive - and you can master it. You
can master it, you can get the substance out of it, so that it is
in you and you can put the manual away and have no further need to
refer to it - you've got it. It may be very vastly comprehensive,
but you've got it, you know all that is there. You can never do
that with anything that relates to Christ! A little fragment of
written ministry which you can read in fifteen or twenty minutes,
like the letter (so-called) to the Ephesians, or Philippians, or
Colossians, read right through in so many minutes, yet unexhausted
over twenty centuries, and still deeper and fuller than all those
twenty centuries have ever been able to extract from it! It
relates to Christ, and it takes more than all time to
comprehend Him, to fathom Him. He is still beyond us, still beyond
us... vastly beyond us! He is a Universe.
He has the capacity for filling all things; He is inexhaustible, but not only in the matter of measure or degree, but in the matter of character. It is not only that He is going to fill all things, but He is going to give character to all things. And what a wonderful thing it is when the Lord Jesus gets in! The changes He makes in character! And if it is true, as we have illustrated, that He is capable of filling all time, and going beyond it as to measure, He can change this whole universe with His character. He can give a character to all things which is different, and which cannot be found in any other but Himself. We know that, we know that, that where Christ is, truly, there's something different. All the prophets of men, all their teachers, all their religions, all their philosophies (as wonderful as they may think them to be) they don't change the character. They don't make this radical, constitutional difference in men, but He does! Therefore, in Him is not only the measure, but the character of the coming universe. It will take its nature from Him. He is capable of doing that. That is the gospel, that there is not one remote figure, or point, or creature in this universe who cannot be changed by Jesus Christ, and made different. He is the measure, He is the nature, but He is also the criterion!
Everything in this universe is going eventually to be judged by Him, according to Him. Not that He sits upon a judgment seat at some time, and gathers all before Him, and passes sentence objectively - that's our mentality and thinking of the judgment. Let us understand that it is spiritual, and that all things will be judged according to the measure of Christ that is there; according to how they measure up to Him - He is the standard, He is the criterion. He is God's measuring line for everything. And with God, all things, all things are judged in this way: "What place have you given My Son? What place could you have given Him? What place did you have the opportunity of giving Him? What place did all that was given to you, make possible for Him? What's the result?" God will be righteous in His judgments. Men that have very, very little of Christ, God will be righteous if they could not have more. But, you see, the much or the little, after all, comes back to this: it is Christ, Christ who is the criterion of everything.
All that then, and so much more, is found in this first fragment of the purpose: "to sum up all things in Christ"; "to gather together all things in Christ".
Then you come to:-
The Elect Vessel
The elect vessel, that which we know by the name of "the church".
What is the meaning of election after all? For it is this church
that is elected, that answers to this particular and peculiar
thought in the mind of God from eternity. What is the meaning of
election? We have gone far wide I think, of the real answer to
that question in the Word of God. If only we did realise that
election is related essentially to vocation and not salvation,
we'd be saved a lot of trouble.
It is "chosen according to the purpose", in relation to a vocation! It is "elect" with a meaning, and that is not just to be saved and to be got to Heaven - it's "this ministry" that governs election. "This ministry" is the ministry of something elected of God to fulfil it. Get quite clear about that, and get your minds free of other thoughts when that word "election", or "foreordination", or "predestination" rises - at once focus upon this: it is purpose that is in view, not just salvation; it is purpose.
What is the purpose of the election - that is, the nature of the
election, or the meaning of election, its vocation - what is the
purpose of the election? Again, the purpose of election is Christ,
it is Christ! "Chosen in Him" for this very purpose of being God's
vessel and vehicle for the revelation of Jesus Christ in the
nations and beyond, in the heavenlies. I keep strictly, if you
care to follow with the Word, I keep strictly to the Scriptures in
all this. "Now unto the principalities and powers in the
heavenlies, might be made manifest the manifold wisdom of God".
It's in the nations and it's over the nations that this vocation
is to be fulfilled - it is Christ!
We are, dear friends, chosen in Christ to reveal Christ, to manifest Christ, to show what Christ is. Then what is the demand, if this is true? It's true, the demand is found in one little phrase: "Give diligence to make your calling and election sure"! In other words, see to it that you are fulfilling this ministry; that you really are in this ministry of Christ. So "this ministry" relates to the fulness of Christ. First of all to fill its vessel, the vessel of the ministry, and then to overflow, or pass beyond the vessel, or through the vessel to the nations.
What is required for this ministry, if this is what it is? What
is required for it? Well, first of all (again keeping close to the
Word), it can really only be fulfilled on heavenly ground. It is absolutely
essential that the church stands on heavenly ground to
fulfil this ministry. It is on the ground of the heavenly
Man; it is on the ground of a heavenly order, "as it is
done in heaven" was the phrase used by the Lord Himself. It is on
the ground of the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. You see, in
every way it requires heavenly ground.
Paul so constantly uses this phrase: "in the heavenlies
in Christ Jesus" - "in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus". Touch the
earthly and the natural man, and what happens? At once the
integration changes to disintegration again. Let me put that
another way: here is something that is raised up of the Lord, used
of the Lord, and then man or men put their hand on it, take charge
of it; begin to hold it, and use it, and govern it. What is the
history of that? It is the history of all the divisions. At any
rate, in most of the divisions amongst the Lord's people it can
be traced to it coming down to the earthly man somewhere; the
touch of the earthly man - the earthly man in the otherwise
heavenly man - there are always two sides to men. When men get on
to their earthly side and touch the things of God, division comes,
the glory fades out, the fulness of Christ narrows down...
spiritual poverty comes where there was once wealth.
You see, touch, touch the earthly man, touch the earth itself, and at once you come into this realm of breaking up, and dividing; you come down on to this earth-level of things. And it is like that. There is no oneness and integration on this earth. If you like to change the word "earth" for "the world", well alright, touch this world; let the church come into touch with this world, and what happens? It breaks up, it divides, it loses its spiritual fulness, and its glory, and its effectiveness and its registration here. And that is exactly what is happening, "Come down, come down!" And I believe, dear friends, if the letter to the Ephesians (so-called) means anything at all as it comes to its consummation, that great warfare in the heavenlies, if it means anything at all, it means this: the tremendous conflict that the church has for maintaining its heavenly position, for all these forces of evil are bent upon forcing it down. Now, is that not true to your own personal experience? Pressing down, forcing down, dragging down! It's this tremendous battle not to come down! It is essential that we maintain our heavenly ground, and not come down, if we are to fulfil this ministry.
You must keep off of all ground that is of man's making, forming, shaping and constituting, if you are going to have this fulness of Christ and minister it to His people. A suggestion like that is enough, I think without following it through. We are speaking about the ministry to which we are called, and it is an essential part of that ministry, that we do not come on to man's religious, traditional, or historical, ecclesiastical ground; we maintain a spiritual position, in the heavenlies, in Christ. And as soon as we lose that position, and become something down here: an institution, a sect, a denomination, an organization, anything down here - we lose our wealth - we'll lose our wealth and we'll lose our glory. And we'll lose our measure of Christ; we will lose everything spiritual and pass into being what so many things have become - just another thing down here amongst many things, very little different from the rest. Oh no, the church of Christ is not that! It is not that. And if we say: "Well, where shall we find this? Does Ephesians still hold good?" I verily believe, dear friends, with all my heart, that if we are in the right position, we will find there the right and full resources of Christ
Now, you say, "How is all this to be? It is all perhaps very wonderful, but it is so much beyond us. How is it to be effected?" And I don't want to be occupied with setting forth great ideas and truths and concepts, I am most concerned to solve some of the spiritual problems of this matter of spiritual fulness. I take an illustration to try and help in this matter. You see, all this that we are thinking of, "this ministry", is not going, (in the first place) to be an objective thing at all. Here you come to this second letter to the Corinthians, and you find how subjective this ministry is, we shall come to that on subsequent occasions, but "God hath shined into our hearts" It is not, first of all, an objective thing. You won't find this in the first place in an outward way, you won't find this church in an outward way, here on the earth. It's no use going about looking for this kind of church - where shall we find this kind of church which corresponds to Ephesians, and so on. No use going round looking for something objectively like that. You won't find it. You won't find it! You won't find "this ministry" in that objective way; maybe ministries which more or less approximate to this, but, it is not to be found in the objective way, in the first place. How is it to be found then?
Perhaps I can best illustrate it in this way: have you ever been inoculated? Have you ever had an injection? Well, of course it depends very much on what it is, but it is characteristic and usual with infections or inoculations, that you get a reaction; we say, "a flare-up". You have a bad time for a while. Something has been introduced into your system, that is either a deficiency in your system, a supply to a deficiency, or something that is antagonistic to what is there. And so a battle ensues, until that which has been introduced has got the mastery and subjected everything to itself and becomes the governing constituent in your system, so that the old thing, the old thing against which the injection or the inoculation was made, doesn't arise again and take the mastery - it is under.
Now, that is known to most of you as being quite true and is quite a
simple illustration, but do you recognise that that is exactly
what is happening in the spiritual constitution of the Lord's
people? We are all defective in Christ; there is a
terrible deficiency of Christ in us all isn't there? And Christ is
so other than we are, so different. Really, this heavenly Man is
antagonistic to this earthly man. Introduce Christ into the life
and it is not long before a battle rages or some flare-up; you
have a bad time, a bad time. You go through a bad time until that
which has been introduced into your spiritual constitution or
system gains the mastery, and that old man comes under - that
other thing is made subject to Him and He becomes the
dominant constituent. And that battle is over! How, in thousands of
ways and connections, that is what happens.
You have an injection for this, and an injection for that, an inoculation for one thing and another - all sorts of things - these are multiplying today to such a degree that you don't know where they are going to stop; but there it is. But, you see, in our spiritual nature, constitution, there are numerous things that have got to be brought into subjection to Christ, and that never takes place without a battle. And the more of Christ that is going to come in, the greater the battles will be. There is this antagonism for a time, our nature does not take kindly to Christ! There's something in us, that while we in heart want Him, there is something in us that doesn't like Him. And it means a battle.
Now that is the sort of thing that changes, you see, the people of God; that changes the church, brings in Christ and more of Christ, and you bring in, first of all, tremendous reactions: a good deal of inward conflict and suffering, until, until He has the mastery and there is a larger measure of Christ that is dominant. I believe that is the real spiritual history of the church - it is like that; the church does go through these tremendous battles. The Lord's people go through these times of stress, and it's all (what used to be called in my young days, but the medicals won't have it now) "growing pains". It's that increase of another character, another order of things, and it never takes place easily - always a battle - related to some fuller measure of Christ.
That may explain a lot for you, but I believe that is the way in
which we come to the fulness of Christ - that is the point. The
way we come to the fulness of Christ is just like that; it just
does not happen quietly and kindly and gently; we only come
to every little extra bit of Christ through some conflict, through
some stress, through some flare-up, until He gets the upper hand.
It is just that.
You see, all things have got to be brought into subjection to Him. And the very word "subjection" means that there are rival forces, that there are enemy forces at work, in us. There is a lot of subduing to go on in us, but He has the power to subdue all things unto Himself. If He comes in He will do that.
Now, how then is this ministry to be fulfilled? It is by, first of all, the church, in which Christ has the largest possible place, which possesses the largest possible measure of Christ. That can only be as everything in us and in the church becomes subject to Christ. It's only another way of speaking of His Lordship, of His Headship, of His absolute mastery. It is like that. You see, it opens up the Word so much. Take one amongst them - Peter. Peter, the man who, in the first place, had the most, I think, that did not take kindly to Christ; well-meaning and all that, but he was all the time rising up in himself to oppose something of Christ: "This shall never come to Thee... this shall never be... No!" You see? Opposing Christ in himself. But this terrific battle was set up in Peter as to who was to have the mastery and I believe that mastery was gained, you know, on that morning on that shore of the sea, when Jesus said, again and again: "Lovest thou Me? Lovest thou Me? Lovest thou Me?" We have a very large measure of Christ in Peter afterward - a very large measure - but you can see the battle, the inward battle through which that man went in order to make room for Christ. And it was all along the line of absolute subjection to Christ, Christ having the mastery, being in the ascendant and those things in the man subdued to Christ, that "in all things He might have the pre-eminence". It is the way of the fulness, it is the way of "this ministry".
Oh, may the Lord go beyond what I am able to say to you, convey to you, and bring a mighty impression upon you, that we are called as, with His church, with a great purpose, which only has its beginning here in time, in this life, and will have its fulfilment, Paul says, "in the ages to come... in the ages to come... unto the ages of the ages". We are called with that purpose. The purpose is, (and to begin now, to begin now) the manifestation of the greatness of Christ; the significance and meaning of Christ. Then, if we are to make our calling and our election sure, it is a matter of Christ in all things, having the pre-eminence, the absolute mastery. All things being in subjection to Him, in us, and amongst us.
"Therefore, seeing we have this ministry..." can you go
on? Perhaps you are feeling now: "Well, we will faint; it
is too much!" - "We faint not..." we faint not.
The Lord fulfil all His purpose of grace in us.
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