Message given on July 19, 1966
We are still before Thee, oh Lord our God, with hearts reaching out, with every faculty poised to hear, to see, what the Lord will say unto us. Our prayer most earnestly is that it may be the Lord's saying - it may be through a human voice - but the Lord's saying. And for this one thing we pray: that it may be the consciousness of the Lord again in this hour, and that Thou wilt so govern everything toward that end of Thine own pleasure and satisfaction, through the Lord Jesus, Thy beloved Son, amen.
It has been announced, as the keynote to this week of gathering and ministry, that we shall be concerned with "The unsearchable riches of Christ". There has been no collaboration whatever between those who are ministering, but my own heart is greatly rejoiced in finding that so far we are moving in the same, exactly the same realm in what the Lord has said in our brother and through him, and in myself. I trust it will be through me too.
I told you last night that I had a great question about being here this week because it has been so fraught with conflict and challenge right up to the last moment. After this last hour, I am wondering whether I have got the answer; whether it hasn't been the Lord saying, "You're not necessary there, brother Fromke will be there"; for you couldn't have any fuller vision than that which has been brought to you this morning. Anything that I may have to say will be very largely a filling in.
Well, our key word is Ephesians 3:8, I'll just read it again: "Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach unto the nations the unsearchable riches of Christ".
What I have to say this morning is very largely introductory to what, if the Lord wills, I may be saying on subsequent mornings. These words which we have just read are set in the midst of the letter which contains the consummate essence of the ministry of the apostle Paul, Christ's greatest servant, and this letter, more than any other, is the letter of spiritual enlargement. The range of this letter, as you know, is from eternity to eternity. It is in that range that we have been moving this morning.
That is the horizon of the letter, so-called to the "Ephesians", unfortunately so-called, because it was never limited to that in the beginning. Space was left in this letter for a filling in, it was just a letter "To: ..." and then filled in: Ephesus, Colossae, Philipi and so on; not reduced to Ephesus. And the apostle says: "Unto the nations this grace was given to preach" unto the nations. So the letter has that horizon of the nations within the horizon of the two eternities.
This phrase: "The unsearchable riches of Christ" is just one of a number of superlatives in this letter. If you read it through carefully and watchfully, you will come on phrases like these: "The exceeding greatness of His power"; "The fulness of Him that filleth all in all"; "The exceeding riches of His grace"; "Exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think"; "Far above all principality and power and rule and dominion and every name that is named not only in this age but in that which is to come"; "Unto all the fulness of God"; "Attain unto the fulness of Christ"; "To Him be the glory in the church by Christ Jesus unto all ages for ever and ever". A selection of superlatives; the apostle finds language beggared to express what he has seen and what is in his heart. Am I not right in saying that this is the letter of spiritual enlargement?
Well, the crying need, dear friends, the crying need of our time is:
The Need for Increase of Spiritual Capacity in the Lord's People.
I expect if you were asked today: 'What do you feel to be the greatest need of Christians at this time?', your answers would be various and many. This may not be the greatest of them all, but I do suggest to you that it will rank very high and take a very foremost place when I say that the need of Christians in our time is for an increase of spiritual capacity and we are one with the apostle Paul when we say that, for when he found himself launched on this wonderful unveiling in writing this letter, he didn't get very far before he dropped on his knees.
There he was, with his parchment before him, and his great vision, and his heart bursting, and it was as though he said: 'Can I get it over? It's a hopeless task! It's impossible unless the Lord does something!'. As he dropped on his knees he said: "And for this I bow my knee unto the Father of glory, that He would grant unto you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your heart being enlightened". What a phrase: "The eyes of your heart being enlightened." You know, the heart has better reason than the head. Always. You ask any mother about that!
Yes, this is a day, in many realms, of mediocrity. The fact is that there are no people today who are big enough to cope with the situation in any realm; in the political realm, in the social realm, in the industrial realm, in the realm of society, in the realm of human nature. No one is big enough to cope with the situation today and bring it under hand. And that is very largely true in the spiritual realm. Christians are being, as we said this morning, forced up into a corner. The Church is being pressed up into a corner where the one consciousness which is overwhelming us is: 'We are not sufficient for these things. We are not adequate to the situation. We are just not going to cope with this unless the Lord increases our capacity'. Is that not true? If it is not true in the consciousness of any of you, leave yourselves in the hand of the Lord, and that is the way that He will take you - where enlargement of spiritual measure will be the only solution to your problem, within and without. Yes, it is true: we are not sufficient to cope until the Lord enlarges us, and may it be, may it be that this week that happens!
I believe the very first thing toward it will be a new vision of the Lord Jesus. He has started on that, I believe He is going to carry us right along that line.
Now, you know it has been spiritual limitation - inadequate capacity - which has been responsible for so many spiritual tragedies in history. That was the secret or the cause of the tragedy of Israel at Kadesh-Barnea, when they came to the border of the land and were wheeled around and turned back into the wilderness and "perished", as Paul puts it, in the wilderness and did not enter into the inheritance. It was on this one thing: not sufficient spiritual capacity. They saw the giants in the land, the walled cities, and the forces which stood in the way, and they said: 'We were in our own sight, and in theirs, as grasshoppers'. Well, you know, it is quite a good thing to view yourself like that sometimes; indeed, it is quite essential in the Divine economy that you and I should feel that we are in ourselves nothing more than grasshoppers, indeed feeling that we are not able to hop at all, but there can be a wrong attitude like that. It depends on whom you are measuring the situation against: yourself or the Lord. And if you measure every situation by the Lord, grasshopper you may be, but you hop over into the land to take possession. They measured by what they themselves were naturally, and not what they were by faith in the Lord.
That paradox, of course, comes out often with Paul. We may light on it as we go on, because, you see, here the apostle is saying: "Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints..." Less than the least of all saints! Does that sound like spiritual capacity? Ah, but he didn't stop there - "was this grace given". To the least of all, less than the least, to "preach the unsearchable riches of Christ" to the nations. That is capacity in one whose conception of himself was so small and so limited... so he wrote, and so he referred to himself, as himself, and yet he wrote this letter with all the superlatives. Contradiction, isn't it and yet depending entirely upon your viewpoint; entirely upon your viewpoint.
I am, for the moment, speaking about the limitation which does exist, but which should not exist: this persistent tendency to reduce everything to what is called "simplicity". There is a simplicity in Christ - again paradoxical - which is quite right, but there is a simplicity which is quite wrong.
When people say: 'We want just the simple gospel' - and they often say it - 'we are not interested in all this high-flown language, this great realm of spiritual ideas. Give us the simple gospel!'. People who talk like that do not know their New Testament. No, dear friends, the Lord is always well ahead of us, while we want Him to come into step with us and we are always trying to get Him into step with us, we are always trying to reduce Him to our size, to make the Lord one with whom we can cope, whom we can fully understand, and wholly agree and be on terms of absolute happiness; and the Lord won't have any of it. If you know anything about life with the Lord and going on with the Lord, you will know that He is always well ahead of you. He is always making demands beyond you, beyond your capacity, and beyond your ability. The man who wrote this letter had also written: "We were pressed beyond our measure". Beyond our measure! Yes, the Lord is always getting us out of our depth, beyond our measure, for very good reason.
Of course, you don't accept that principle in any other realm but the spiritual, of having things in your measure, do you? Why do you send your children to school? To be taught the things that they already know and that's quite easy for them? Do they come home and say: 'Well, I haven't learned anything fresh today that I haven't known; it's all easy'? You don't do that in any realm of education. You know quite well that the law of education and growth is that something must always be making demands upon you beyond your present knowledge and ability. And in the spiritual life it's like that. I don't want to discourage you at all, but it's going to be like that more and more as you go on.
My brothers here, who are ministering to you because because they have gone ahead with the Lord, and it is true of myself, will agree with me that today they are out of their depth; we are out of our depth with the Lord. Our capacity for understanding what the Lord is doing with us is too limited. No, He's got us beyond ourselves, and rightly so! It must be so, or we will never grow. He is on the road of increasing capacity - understand that - in all His dealings with us. We will come back upon that again, but the Lord's object is to increase and enlarge our spiritual measure, and it's a hard school.
The enlargement of spiritual capacity is the solution to all our problems; that is the only way in which the problems are going to be resolved - understand that. For illustration, look at the letters to the Corinthians and the situation in Corinth. If ever there was a situation representing spiritual limitation, that was at Corinth! "I could not", said the apostle, "I could not speak to you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal. I fed you with milk. You were not able, neither are you yet able", and the result of that spiritual limitation was found in all the things found in his letter; tragic and terrible things. Their relationships with, and attitudes toward, one another; going to law against one another - saints in the worldly courts; their attitude toward the apostles, some saying: 'Well, Paul is our man. We like Paul. You can have Peter and you can have Apollos, but this is our man'. Others: 'Well, our man is Peter. We like his style, we like his way of speaking, we like his material. You can have Paul - Paul is too beyond us; Peter is more within our range'. Others: 'Now, you know Apollos is a learned man! He's a learned man, he's an eloquent man, he's mighty in the scriptures, Apollos is the man for us'. Divisions over ministries and men, human complexions, preferences, and prejudices. The apostle Paul says: 'That's spiritual smallness. That's a contemptible, mean state of spiritual life when things are like that'.
Their attitudes toward the apostles - and God only knows from many hints given by Paul in those letters, what their attitudes toward him were! He summed it up, I think, in one phrase: "The more I love, the less I be loved". What about that for spiritual measure?
Toward the Lord's work, he made an invidious comparison I think, between them and those at Philippi: 'They were ready - ready to give, ready to send to those in need, and here are you: you said a year ago that you'd do something and you've never done it. Now let there be a doing of what you promised!' Tardiness in outgoing fellowship and co-operation in the work of the Lord.
And when those things were true - what was this large section of his first letter about? "Now concerning the 'spirituals'!" I don't know if there was a tang of sarcasm in there, and perhaps I shouldn't even suggest there was, "Now, concerning the spirituals" - and then he went on to correct the 'spirituals'! Within that category, you know: healings, and tongues, and the manifestation gifts - not saying they are wrong, but when you sum it all up you have to say: 'You people are more concerned with these demonstrative aspects of Christianity than you are with Christ. Your whole focus is upon these things which appeal to the senses, by which a show can be made'.
Do you know the one word that Paul uses in that connection? And it is the word which is the focal point of what we are saying: 'unto edifying'. What a pity that's in our translation isn't it? Whenever you come on that word 'edifying', or 'edify', retranslate it into the original, which is: 'building up'. For, so many people when they read or hear the word 'edifying' really interpret it as being 'headifying'. And nothing that is headifying is building up in the spiritual realm. No building up. Paul is challenging; for these things, after all, issue in building up that is increase, enlargement spiritually - not as something in themselves which will leave you in that state of spiritual immaturity, after all, but are you, through these things, or without them, growing up, becoming full grown and spiritually mature? That's the thing that matters!
(And I put in parenthesis here: it is a very impressive thing that so often the people who are most concerned about these manifestation aspects of Christianity are the least spiritually mature. You can't talk about anything else with them but those things, and you try to talk about the Lord and things go flat. See? Well, that's in parenthesis. I will probably be taking up on that again).
But here it is: over the 'spirituals' Paul is saying: 'Well, these things which you think to be marks of spirituality, are they really marks of spiritual growth out of these conditions which obtain among you, to which we have made reference?' So, there is Corinth in a nutshell, and it is very limited, isn't it, what we've said.
What is Paul's remedy for Corinth, for all the problems, all the conditions, all the disappointments, and all the defeat? What is his remedy? It is in one word, or in one clause:
'Be ye enlarged'.
"Our heart is open to you, oh Corinthians. You are not straitened in us, you are straitened in your own selves... for a recompense... be ye enlarged". That's the answer! "If you were bigger people, these things would not mark your lives at all. You would have grown out of these infantile features and elements".
Now, this is a challenge friends, as well as a statement of fact, it's a challenge. It may be a challenge this week. I don't want to come right down on earth-ground over this, but it may be a challenge. You see, it may be just possible that with various ministries here, you might have your preferences, and your partialities, and perhaps your prejudices. It is quite possible for you to say: 'Well, you know, I like the American way of things', or you might say: 'I like the Asiatic way of presenting', and you might say: 'Well, I have not much room for the European'. And let me say, if we get into that realm, we are in Corinth, which is poor, mean, contemptible, and earthly.
Spiritual capacity means what has been said this morning, as I cannot say it, a focus upon Jesus Christ. He is the criterion of ministry; as this man, and that man, and the other man, something of Christ is ministered, if so, we focus upon that: forget the man and all other natural things. It is Christ! And I beg you, that if you don't find that you're getting anything of Christ under my ministry, don't come. No, it's to be the Lord Jesus, isn't it? The remedy: "Be ye enlarged."
Paul was straitened, restricted, and limited with Corinth. He had to put an embargo upon himself. As he approached them he said: "When I came to you I determined not...", I determined not... in other words: 'I limited my scope and concentrated on one thing only for you - Jesus Christ and Him crucified'. He was limited - not that he wanted more than Jesus Christ and Him crucified, but, my word, the dimensions of Jesus Christ and Him crucified are not Corinthian dimensions; not at all!
Now you see, when Paul passes from Corinth to Ephesus, to use the phrase "to Ephesus", look at the dimensions! It is almost like two different worlds, isn't it, from Corinth to Ephesus, speaking spiritually. The dimension: the man is released! He is emancipated! He is out of all bonds. He is out of the bonds of language. He cannot - master of languages that he is - he cannot find language from which to speak what is on his heart. The floodgates are open, he is out of this world in the heavenlies. The man is free. His only problem is: How am I going to bring the infinite to this people to whom I am writing? That's his problem here.
At last this great apostle is free from the personal occupation with local problems on the spot, the problems of the churches on the spot, and all the work of here and there, and there and there - the different complexes that he was meeting all the time. He is free by the sovereign will and way of God - he is in prison... is he? Is he imprisoned? There was never a man more enlarged than that man with the chain on his wrist and the Roman guard watching nearby. In the restrictions that were his, never a man more enlarged. He is out and free!
And now, by that sovereign will of God, that sovereign ordering of God, so strange, so mysterious. Before he was able to sit down quietly and look the thing in the face. Strange that he should have come to Rome like this, when he had said that he longed to come to Rome. He had longed to come to Rome and to give them some spiritual blessing. All his ambition was: get to Rome, the centre of the world, and preach Christ there. And then the way he got there - all the conflict, the battle, the shipwreck, obstructions, and frustrations, and the devil and everything else. Many a question in other minds as to whether they would ever arrive, but at last the all-governing phrase: "And so we came to Rome". 'All right, all right, we are here anyway, by the sovereign power of God, but it has been strange, this way; perplexing, and difficult and hard'.
There seems to be so much contradiction in the methods of God, but now he sits down quietly and everything is set back, and it comes over him: 'Now I have the opportunity that I have longed for for years! I have never been able to do this before, I have been too busy, too occupied in the work of the Lord - rightly so - too obsessed with the problems of believers and churches. Now the thing that I have longed for has come. I can unburden my heart of all that has been accumulating there, stored up, that I wanted to give out, but I had no opportunity, no facility. I have got it now'. And so this letter came out with all its unspeakable fulness of the unsearchable riches of Christ. Here, then, in this letter is the great eternal calling of the church, the great capacity which God desires the church to have, and the great responsibility resting upon those who have the light. That is what is here.
You know the New Testament takes account of three categories of people. Firstly, it takes account of the unsaved; and here I want to say a thing that I think needs to be said, and said with emphasis. Where the unsaved are concerned, and it is thought that to them the gospel must be preached, and when that word 'gospel' is used, is employed, people think of something, you know, elementary, quite simple, just the beginning of things. You'll not find that in the New Testament, and I, dear friends, do believe that here is one of the great mistakes, for I believe that the greater the gospel you preach to the unsaved, the better kind of Christians you are going to get. Put that round the other way: the tragedy is that so many Christians are so poor in their birth because they haven't had a big enough Christ presented. Isn't that true?
And the New Testament says: give the unsaved the greatness of the Lord Jesus and you'll get better converts. Take that to heart. Take it to heart. Oh, I do wish that to the unsaved, to the convert, to the beginner, some of the greatest realities, the big things of the gospel of salvation, were made known! Oh yes. Oh yes! You might find it necessary to have your counselors afterward and advisers and instructors - all so good, but you know, dear friends, that the New Testament is based upon this: if when you truly believe and come to the Lord, you receive the Holy Spirit into your heart and understand that you have received the Holy Spirit, He will teach you! He will tell you what you ought to do and what you ought not to do. You won't have to have people coming along and saying: 'Now you are a Christian, you know, you mustn't do this; you mustn't go there; this is what you must do...'. Not a bit of it!
We always remember our dear brother Watchman Nee over this, in dealing with a convert in the country when he went out, out from the city for a rest in the country and lodged in the house of a peasant, a heathen peasant and his wife. And he didn't say anything for some time, but he lived, he lived Christ. Then eventually he spoke about Christ, told them about the Lord Jesus and left a Bible with them when he went back to Shanghai. He didn't tell them anything about what they ought to do and what they ought not to do. And the man was a great drinker. After he had gone the man said to his wife at the next mealtime, "Bring me my drink". And she put the drink in front of him and he said: "Now, brother Nee always asked a blessing before we took our meal, we'll ask a blessing". He bowed his head and tried to ask a blessing, but nothing would come. He got started, but it would not come, he couldn't pray.
He said: "I can't ask the blessing. What's the matter? Brother Nee always did. Well, let's try again". No, no; it wouldn't come. He said, "I can't ask the blessing on this, what shall we do?".
"Well," she said, "brother Nee left us a Bible. You can read the Bible, I can't, I will bring it and you will find it in the Bible where it says something about this".
So she brought the big Bible (I suppose in Chinese it was a big Bible!), and he went over and over and over trying to find something. Then he said: "I can't find anything about this, so take the Bible away and we will try again".
He tried again: "No, no, I can't pray".
"Perhaps," she said, "well, you'd better go and see brother Nee and ask him about it".
And so off the man trotted into the city and looked up brother Nee. He said: "Brother Nee, after you had left I asked my wife to bring the drink and I tried to pray as you did, but I couldn't pray! I couldn't pray, I tried again and again, and I couldn't pray. Brother Nee, Resident Boss wouldn't let me have that drink!"
Brother Nee had taught the reality of the indwelling Holy Spirit at new birth - 'Resident Boss' dictated what should be or not. It's very simple, you've heard it many times before, but you couldn't have a better illustration of what ought to happen through the gospel to the unsaved. Already the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit ought to be a reality and in action. And yet at Corinth believers of some long standing didn't understand that, didn't know that. They wouldn't have gone to law against one another if 'Resident Boss' had been heard; or anything else.
Oh, this challenges us, doesn't it? It does - but my point is, what is it? The gospel is a bigger thing than that little, so-called 'simple' thing that is so often. Give them the greatness of Christ and overwhelm them with that to which they are called, and they will make better Christians.
That is one realm, and then there's the realm, the category of the saved. The category of the saved recognised by the New Testament, and what about them? The whole of the New Testament is focused upon these people, with warnings, exhortations, admonitions, entreaties to go on! Ninety per cent of the New Testament is on this line, to believers not to stand still, not to remain where they are, but to go on, and be ever going on because God is going on, and if you don't He'll leave you behind. Go on!
And there's a third category which will take a much longer time than the morning allows, the third category amongst believers, you know, there are what the New Testament calls 'The Victors'. The word is more common: 'overcomers' amongst believers, for whom there is the crown. Paul was not concerned about his salvation and whether that was in jeopardy when he said: "Brethren, I have not yet attained, I am not already complete, but this one thing I do - leaving the things which are behind, I press toward the mark of the prize of..." Do you see? "Of the prize of the on-high calling". Something more than just getting into heaven, saved, getting into heaven. Much more. The prize!
We can't dwell on that now, it will come up again as we go on this week if the Lord wills, but these are categories of which the New Testament takes account and the time being gone this morning, we must leave it there with this inclusive statement that when all is said, everything depends upon our apprehension of Jesus Christ. What kind of Christ? How big is He? Well, you'll never be able to say, never be able to measure Him, but have we got such an apprehension of Jesus Christ that on the one hand makes us feel this is beyond us, altogether beyond us, but on the other hand, to me, who is less than the least of all was this grace, this grace, the unsearchable riches of Christ... We will leave it there for the time being and go on later with what those unsearchable riches are, or some of them, if the Lord wills.
"And now, unto Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto Him be the glory in the church by Christ Jesus unto all ages, for ever and ever". Amen.