The book of the Acts opens with an implication: "all that Jesus began to do and to teach...". The implication is that His work was not finished, there was a sense in which it was but the beginning, and therefore a continuation would follow. The beginning was in Himself in person on the earth; the continuation is by His Spirit in the church. If it were true that in His person He took up and fulfilled all the Divine thought and idea of the prophet, the priest and the king, and He leaves this earth not having finished, then surely He continues in that threefold capacity in the church. So it is for us to recognise the ministry of Christ and the function of Christ in that threefold capacity in the church.
A Word of Introduction
Let us look at one or two introductory things before we come immediately to that consideration. The first is concerning the abiding value of the revelation of the church. We should recognise that that revelation abides in its value in spite of all that has happened. There are quite a lot of people who, because of what they see as to the disappointing history of the church, and what is called the state of the church, have abandoned that ground and adopted a course of what they would call evangelism: "Let us get on with the simple work of soul winning, for the church is in ruins, and irreparably so!" I do not see anything in the Word to warrant such an attitude. The revelation of the church has been given for the dispensation, and it holds good today as much as it did when it was first given, and is as important as ever it was. We must not be moved away from it, and from the importance and value of it, because of the conditions which we see around us. The fact is that in the realm of spiritual life the values of the revelation of the church are as potent, as mighty, as helpful as ever they were, and they still operate. Those values are far deeper than perhaps we have yet come to realise.
So it is important to remind ourselves that the revelation of the church has an abiding value which is undiminished right to the end. There is a great peril attached to an evangelism divorced from the church, and the weaknesses consequent upon that course are seen everywhere. We must remember that evangelism proceeds from the church and comes back to the church. It is the church doing the work, and all the work of the church is for the building up of the church. You cannot divorce a function of that kind any more than you can take some function from your body and separate it and send it out into the outside objective realm apart from your body. It is there to do its work in relation to the body. Evangelism is essential unto the building up of the Body, and it is the Body building itself up. To divorce that or any other function of the Body from the whole is to mean a large measure of weakness and failure.
Another thing that we want to point out here is the importance of giving God credit for meaning more than we see and more than He says. It is a thing that is lost sight of and forgotten. It is a mark of our superficiality, carelessness or thoughtlessness. If there is one thing that is characteristic of a life which really goes on with God, it is that it is constantly discovering that God meant more than was realised when first that thing was seen. It means more and more, and when you go on into the greater fulnesses of God's meaning about things, you are tremendously impressed; you come to a state of awe. So we must give heed to things, not according to what we apprehend and understand as to their meaning, but because God has said it. And we may take it that if God says a thing, all the fulness of infinite wisdom lies behind that utterance. If you could measure God's thoughts, God's mind, God's intent, then you might come to limitation. But that is not possible, and so within every statement of the Lord there is a universe of meaning. If we could get behind the simplest statements we should discover they led on deeper and deeper.
The apostle Paul said concerning his being caught up into the third heaven, that he saw unspeakable things which it is not lawful for a man to utter; therefore there was much that Paul could not utter. He knew things which he could not, dare not speak. Were they, therefore, things which were of no value to the Lord's people? If they were of value to the Lord's people surely they ought to be brought out. Or was the restraint upon Paul because of something else, that if those things were spoken, because of their condition men would find them difficult, and would be put under too great a responsibility? I think that is the explanation. I believe that there are many things that the Lord would say, but you and I are not prepared to accept them; men are not willing to have them; and the Lord holds them back because of the responsibility of knowledge, and it is not lawful to speak of them for that reason.
If you and I could come to the place where, at any cost (and that is saying a great deal), we are willing to go on with all the revealed mind of God, we shall get a very much larger revelation than the average believer. I verily believe that was just what Paul represented and that it was because of his utterness and his willingness to pay the full price, not just of laying down his life in one act, but going on throughout years of living martyrdom, that he could have such full revelation. Very largely that was the explanation. There is revelation for those who would pay the price, but for those who are not prepared to do so there are things which it is not lawful to utter; they cannot be revealed, they have to be held back.
The point is this, that there are things which cannot be made known to us because we are not ready for them, but we have got to give God credit for meaning much more than He says. We must not give to things the value which we see that they hold, we have got to take the attitude towards the Lord of openheartedness: 'Lord, You may mean a great deal more in that than I can see and accept at the moment. As far as I can see I cannot go all that way; nevertheless my heart is open. If I cannot accept it at the moment, my heart is open to You to reveal to me the truth!' That is a real openness and teachableness, which makes so much possible.
The third thing is this, that when we come to the church side of this truth - not a departing, separate thing, but the other side of the truth - we must recognise that we come into the realm of the infinite and unspeakable grace of God. So often when we speak about the church, people think of it as truth, as teaching, as something in itself which is optional. But, oh, we have seen the Lord Jesus a little, what He is, and what He stands for in the presence of God on our behalf. As we have contemplated Him our hearts have gone out and we have said, "Jesus... my Prophet, Priest and King". Now in relation to that, the church is brought in, and all that which is true of Him is to be expressed in and through the church. What is our reaction? Is it the reaction that that is teaching, that is truth, or is it, "What unspeakable grace!"
So it is when you come to open the letter to the Ephesians, where more than anywhere else the church is unveiled and that word "grace" is repeated: "the riches of His grace"; "unto me who am less than the least was this grace given" (Eph. 3:8). What grace? To proclaim "the unsearchable riches of Christ". That is the calling of the church, "according to the riches of His grace, ...that we should be unto the praise of His glory" (Eph. 1:7,12). We are not dealing with truth, we are dealing with the grace of God to us, that we should constitute that Body in which, through which, all that Christ is, is to be manifested and displayed to the universe. Let us remember that as we go on, and all the time seek to keep before us that this is not some truth, but this is some grace. This is not some teaching, this is the infinite grace of God to usward. This is not some way that we are called to take. It is some realm of grace into which we are called to stand and are privileged to stand.
Having said that, we now come to at least the beginning of the other side of this great revelation of Jesus Christ as Prophet, Priest and King, and we work to that perhaps by a somewhat lengthy process.
We first come to the prophet, and we have seen as to the prophet that the deepest and innermost significance of the prophetic function is the representation of God's full thought, and the maintenance of that full thought. The prophet comes forth in a living expression of all the thought of God concerning men, and he stands there uncompromisingly to demand that that thought shall govern, and that everything shall be constituted according to that comprehensive and perfect thought or mind of God. That simply means that all the spirit of prophecy heads up to Him. He stands as the full-orbed revelation of the mind of God, and challenges everything in relation thereto, and this in Man-form, as centred in a Man, so that in Him God has the Man according to His own mind. We have to work to that in relation to the church, by recognising what has come in in a special way as to the Body of Christ. In this matter, I think it is of primary importance that we know exactly what did come in through Paul. I am not sure that people are able to recognise or clearly define just exactly what did come in through Paul, so it will be of value and much help to see where Paul differed from the other apostles.
Before you can touch the differences you have to recognise the similarities. There was no difference between Paul and the other apostles on a great many points. As to Christ, there was no difference. There was no difference between them on the matter of sin, repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification, the supernatural world, baptism, the Lord's Table, the Lord's coming again as a truth; on evangelism or fellowship, the Gentiles admitted to the Gospel, and the church as a reality. On all those matters they were all one, and there was no difference at all. There may have been on one or two of those points a larger emphasis, or perhaps a little fuller understanding between them, such as on the matter of the Lord's coming. Paul says many things about baptism that are not said by the others, but I do not think there was any difference in their position.
Now you have to see the difference between Paul and the others. The difference was not as to salvation, but it was as to the saved; that is, it was not as to the salvation of Jews and Gentiles. The difference was that both Jew and Gentile disappeared. The others were seeking the salvation of Jews, and Gentiles being admitted to the Gospel, and they still saw them as Jews and Gentiles. But Paul differed altogether from that position, and in what he called "my Gospel", his revelation in which Jew and Gentile, and indeed all other earthly distinctions, disappeared and the saved were not saved Jews and saved Gentiles, saved barbarians, Scythians, bondmen, freemen, but the saved were one New Man apart from all those distinctions and differences. Paul stood apart from the twelve on that ground, and that is a major difference between him and them.
Then Paul differed on the matter of the heavenly nature of the church as the Body of Christ, as to its timelessness and its universality. His position demanded the breaking altogether of the earthly system, and what he saw and was occupied with was a period, a dispensation, in which God had ceased to be occupied with the earth as such, and to be wholly occupied with the heavenly. It is a revolutionary thought. That will make some upheavals if it is true. As such, God is not concerned with the nations, nor with doing anything on this earth. He is not building or planning or constituting anything on this earth throughout the dispensation. God is constituting a heavenly thing, and when He has finished that, the earth will be abandoned to judgement. By the development of His plan in different stages, eventually it will be swept clean, and that which has been done in this dispensation, having been suspended from the earth for the time being, will come to it and occupy it. That is a point where Paul's revelation differed.
He further saw that that church which was being taken out from the nations and made heavenly, had as its destiny the government of the world. The government of this [new] world is bound up with the church, and it is to be the administrative Body in the ages to come. The other apostles went so far, and then stopped short of this full revelation given to Paul.
It is true that John gave us some visions which seem to be entirely in keeping with this. In the book of the Revelation you have this, but John gave them as visions, not as teaching. Paul gave them as a heavenly system of truth, to be applied in practice in the dispensation; John gave them as a vision of realisation at the end.
We are wrong, of course, in speaking of 'Paul' and 'John' when we touch things like that. We should say 'the Holy Spirit through Paul and John' was working with the same thing in view, but we are noting the uniqueness, the peculiarity of the revelation given to Paul. So Paul stands alone, and that by Divine ordination. It is quite wrong to say that a mistake was made and Paul ought to have been the twelfth apostle. Not at all. You cannot fail to see the difference in the revelation given to Paul. Theirs was one line; it was true as far as it went, it was of great value up to a point, but then it stopped. Paul alone went on, and he remains alone to the last. They could not follow him. They tried. Peter said, "Even as our beloved Paul hath said in all his letters... things hard to be understood" (2 Pet. 3:15,16). He tried to follow, but he could not go all the way. Paul remains alone to the last.
His attitude and position as to the earthly and heavenly order resulted in his being alone. He was not out for Israel ultimately; he was not out for an earthly church, either of Jews or Gentiles or a combination of both; his whole value was the heavenly. He was governed by a heavenly calling, a heavenly vocation, a heavenly vision, a heavenly purpose. Unless you have realised that, you have failed to understand the secret of Paul's endurance, that which supported him when everything around was crashing, and what might have been called his life work was going to pieces. He seems unshaken. In the days when, so far as the earth was concerned, all that had come into being through him was breaking down, he seemed to be most triumphant. This proves that Paul saw the heavenly side of the work of God in the dispensation, and that the earthly was merely a passing phase. God was taking up, as it were, into heaven, out of the earth, that which would abide, and that which would not abide would break down. Governed by that heavenly conception he stood alone. It was that very fact that caused his aloneness.
Yet even Paul came to the fulness of his revelation progressively; that is, he did not come at once into the full meaning of the particular revelation given to him. It came to him in parts, it came by private disclosures, and eventually he came into it in its fulness, but not until he had finally let go of Israel and Jerusalem. For a long time he held on to the hope of Israel, his brethren after the flesh. It may seem almost like sacrilege to talk of an apostle like Paul making mistakes, but he did, and he made mistakes in relation to Jerusalem and Israel. The Lord sovereignly and graciously overruled and brought him out of them. The Lord had told him to depart far hence, because they would not receive his testimony, yet he tried again in spite of the direct and explicit word of the Lord as to what the situation was and what the issue would be. Not until he had finally let go of Jerusalem and of Israel did he come out into the fulness of the heavenly meaning of things.
This shows how it is possible to counter the heavenly by clinging to something earthly. It goes back to what we were saying in the introductory word, that there is something which is of vast and unspeakable importance, but there is a price attached to it, and you cannot come into it until you are prepared to pay that price and to let go that secondary thing, however important you may think it to be, however good it may be in its own realm. There is something higher than that, and the good may be the enemy of the best; it may stand in the way of the fulness. So many people are unwilling to pay that kind of price. They are prepared to let the bad go for the good, but they are clinging to the good even when there is something better.
We must recognise that there is a difference between the foundation and the superstructure. The foundation may be that of the twelve apostles, as it is said to be, but the superstructure may be something more than that. It is what is going to be built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. The twelve laid a good foundation. All the fundamental or foundational truths of redemption and salvation were laid by them, but the superstructure may be something more than that, and it is upon that that Paul built the heavenly church. So many people are content with the foundation, occupied all the time with the foundation of repentance, and faith, and so on.
All this has certain issues for us of very practical account, and we may as well face the issues as we go along. We will look at some of those issues. Firstly, the nature of our spiritual life and work. Is it in relation to God's fullest thought, God's heavenly revelation, or is it something less than that upon the earth? Are we looking for something here? Are we giving ourselves to have something here, not only in work, but in our own lives? How this pierces right through to the heart of things. What are we looking for here in spiritual life?
Let us put that another way: what is our history of God's dealings with us as we go on? In the early stages we may have something that looks very much like something down here on the earth; that is, we come in spiritual infancy into that which is almost capable of being experienced in the senses, almost tangible. It seems that we have almost reached heaven down here. As we go on with the Lord we find that things are moving more and more away from the earth to heaven, and that our experience is growingly one of faith's utmost tests, even in spiritual matters. We only get through to a position of knowledge and experience where matters are actual, living realities in our history, by means of the severest tests of our faith. We are put into situations and experiences where faith is tried to its full extent, and then, as the result of that, some new knowledge of the Lord comes out, and it becomes more like that as we go on. There was a time when we would have a severe test of faith, then there would be some decrease of intensity, and we would have a little time of respite and enjoyment. But as the years have gone on we have found that the periods of respite have become fewer and shorter, and the pressure upon faith is more prolonged and continuous, and we are getting more and more to the place where we only know the Lord at all by sheer faith, for there is nothing else to help us. You have nothing on the earth, nothing to support you round about, nothing here that underpins your faith. If God in heaven is not real to the last degree, then your ship is going to pieces, you are swung clean away from all that relates to this world and to this earth, and your life is hid with Christ in God; it is in heaven and you have nothing here. That is a proof of the heavenly nature of things.
What is true in the spiritual experience as we go on, is true in service. The principle operates and governs still that in this dispensation God is not building up something on this earth. God is working to get everything of a heavenly order. Unfortunately so many of the Lord's people, with the purest and truest motives, have made far more of the earthly means than the heavenly end, and the earthly means of doing God's work is so great, and the heavenly end is so small that it is hardly worthwhile. There is a tremendous amount of administration, organisation, missionary paraphernalia, and what is the result? You may say, "What is the alternative?" There is a glorious alternative where, with a minimum, if any at all, of that human production, God by His Spirit can be doing something which is utterly heavenly. It is a test. All that other is going to break down; it is destined to do so, and then the thing which will still go on will be only what is heavenly in its nature.
We have not forgotten that we have the Prophet in view. It is a heavenly thought that is to be represented. This is the church in prophetic function - all things of God, God's mind, not man's. The issue which arises is as to the nature of our spiritual life and work, the measure of God's full thought, and that leads us to the necessity for a revelation as to God's full thought. The mistake has been made, and is being made, and there is failure because there is no perception of what God's thought and intention is. The trouble is the lack of revelation concerning the heavenly. That should be a real burden upon the heart of all who think that they see. Let us, if we think that we see, not condemn and judge, but pray. Paul knew quite well that the Ephesians and others for whom his letter was written, did not see. They had no perception about this heavenly truth - the church, the Body - but he did not rail upon them, he did not condemn and judge. He did not say, "You do not have the light, you do not have the truth, you do not have the revelation, you are all wrong." He said, "For this cause I bow my knees (Eph. 3:14) ...that He would grant you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him" (Eph. 1:17). That is the proof, as to whether we have the thing in the head or in the heart. If we have it in the head then we shall talk down at people; if it is in the heart we shall pray to God with all our heart that He would grant unto them "a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him".
Another issue arises out of this, and is that of our willingness to be in a rejected minority. Paul was not understood. Even the other apostles could only go so far with him. James could not go all the way. Peter came under the influence of James and fell into grievous default, and Paul had to withstand him to his face. Paul had come in later than all of them. Yes, he had to stand up against the rest for his revelation. He was alone. What he saw made him alone, and he was alone to the end. Not that they did not love him and that they did not believe him; not that there was no fellowship in the Spirit, not that they would not have said, 'Beloved brother Paul!' But with all that they were not able to go all the way with him, to see as he saw, and he was alone because of his revelation. If ever there was a lonely man at the end from this world's standpoint it was Paul, just as his Master had been, and it was his heavenliness of perception and understanding that made him that. The willingness to be in a rejected minority is an issue to be faced, and it is quite a real issue. You cannot avoid it. It is not an imaginary thing, and when it comes to the truth it is not a matter of somebody thinking they have something which nobody else has, and therefore are ostracized because of their conceit. The truth isolates if you are going all the way with God. You will find that you sift your following more and more.
There is another side to that. I know quite a lot of people who have isolated many quite unnecessarily by reason of their foolishness, tactlessness, pride and conceit, but that is not what we are talking about with Paul. No one could ever lay such charges at his door. Here is a man with a revelation, a man who knows God, a man who is standing for the thought of God in an utterness that is peculiar, and he is isolated and alone. It will always be like that. It is something to be faced.
Let us refresh our memories as to what Paul says in Galatians 1:10-19 and 2:1-14. There you will see that Paul is letting us into his inner history as to his stewardship, and the points which he makes are his detachment, on the one hand, from that which was of repute among men, from the accepted position, however good, and from the things of flesh and blood in his ministry. On the other hand there is his attachment to heaven. His revelation is seen to be of a double character. Firstly outward: "The Lord appeared unto me", he said. Then inwardly: "when it pleased God to reveal His Son in me." It was that inward revelation of the outward reality that Jesus of Nazareth was God's Son, and all it meant that constituted Paul's peculiar revelation and ministry. It was not the fact, but that which it meant. All the others believed in Jesus as the Son of God, but Paul got a revelation of what that meant: he saw a Man in glory. They believed that Jesus was in heaven, but Paul received, shall we say, the full-orbed revelation of the meaning of God having glorified that Man, His Son, in heaven. All his teaching came out of that. He had seen Jesus of Nazareth in heaven with the glory of God. It had flung him to the ground, completely broken him and made a tremendous and indestructible effect upon him. 'What does this mean?', was what he said in effect. He must go away alone with this. He spent long months and years with that, alone with God, and the thing began to break upon him, and by the explanations of the Holy Spirit he was taken back into the eternal counsels of God before the world was. He took that fact of a Man in the glory back there, and he saw what God was purposing, and he saw what God determined and decided.
He saw God's Son becoming the model for all His creation, and then he saw that developing, and he saw God's Son assuming the form of a corporate Man. He saw a corporate Body, and that Son as the Head of that Body, and he saw the end was that Son glorified, filled with God's glory, and that Body filled with that same glory. It was shown to him that God had predestined that, and then that the Body was an elect Body, chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. And then he saw the operations of God by His Spirit in gathering out from the nations men and women who, as they came out and in their spiritual life shed what was natural, what was of the earth - nationality and everything else - and assumed the nature and form of God's Son. He saw conformity to the image of God's Son as a foreordained thing, as a process going on. Then he saw the Spirit of God's Son introduced into those who were being gathered out, and God's Son fully formed in them. And then he saw the climax of that spiritual process in a day which was called "the day of the adoption as sons", which meant the taking of the veil away and the revealing of them in the likeness of Christ, the manifestation of the sons of God. Then he saw that as the key to everything in the universe, and all the havoc and all the travail and all the vanity in the creation ceasing, and the creation becoming all that God intended it to be in the day of the manifestation of the sons of God, the day of the adoption of the sons.
Oh, we have only touched the fringes of it! Paul saw it, and to that vision he was abandoned. No one had seen it like that. Only one had seen that. He could not stand dissimulation or mockery after that, even of Peter or James or Barnabas. If they acted inconsistently, then he must rebuke them. It made him a lonely man, but what we owe to that loneliness!
All that is gathered up into the Prophet. There is the Prophet at God's right hand. That is the full realisation of that eternal thought, the Man Christ Jesus. By revelation Paul became the prophet to the church, and through his ministry the church comes into that prophetic office, ministry, and function, to embody God's thought, to express it and to minister concerning it. The church has a prophetic ministry in that sense.
We have limited the word prophet, or prophecy. We have to take it in its fullest sense; even its meaning in time has been limited, and it has gone perhaps a little too wide of what it ought to be. It is said that the prophet was one who predicted, and we pass from that today into the one who preaches. 'Pro' means 'before', and 'phaino' means 'to set forth', and the root of this word means 'illumination'. Therefore, the meaning is: to give a fore-illumination of God's thought, to set forth - to go before with God's thought is the office of the prophet. That is the church; that is Paul; that is Jesus Christ. It is not just prediction in the limited, historic sense, and certainly not just preaching in the general sense; it is bringing God's thought before men in an illumined way in the light, so that men see the light as God's thought is presented. That is the function of the church in relation to Jesus as God.