The Heavenly Calling, Conduct and Conflict of the Church
by T. Austin-Sparks
We turn to the letter to the Ephesians, not for an exposition of the letter in any detailed sense, but for the message of the Lord, and at the outset I specially want to underline a phrase which occurs some five times in this letter.
“…Has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ” (Eph. 1:3).
“…He raised Him from the dead, and made Him to sit at his right hand in the heavenlies…” (Eph. 1:20).
“…Raised us up with Him, and made us to sit with Him in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).
“…That now unto the principalities and powers in the heavenlies might be made known through the church the manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10).
“Our wrestling is… against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenlies” (Eph. 6:12).
So the message is that concerning the heavenly calling, conduct and conflict of the church.
The calling covers the first three chapters, and is that to which the apostle refers in Ephesians 4:1: “I therefore beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called”. The calling is that of which he has been writing up to that point.
The conduct goes on with Ephesians 4 as far as Ephesians 6:9.
Then the conflict comes in at Ephesians 6:10.
These three things represent a revelation – a calling is a revelation; an exhortation in relation to the revelation, and then finally a challenge by the powers of evil to the revelation, the calling, and the conduct of the church.
This letter to the Ephesians, so-called, (which we must always remember was an encyclical letter, that is, it was sent to a considerable number of churches in Asia) is a grand summary of all the Divine thoughts from eternity to eternity. It reveals the greatest things that have ever been disclosed by God to man. They are the things which are gathered into the small compass of this letter.
Here we have, for instance, the unveiling of God’s comprehensive eternal intentions, getting behind His acts, going further back than history into the very spring and fountain-head of all the doings of God. There we have the intentions of God from the very beginning. Then we have briefly, but very forcefully shown, the place of His Son in those eternal intentions. Further, we are made by this letter to understand the meaning of the cross, that is, the death, the resurrection, the ascension and the exaltation of Christ in relation to those intentions of God. Finally we have set forth the place, the nature, the vocation and the destiny of the church as the Body of Christ. These are not small things, but immense things crowded, as we have said, into a small compass of words, but everybody who has read this letter knows quite well that the outstanding characteristic of what is called “Ephesians” is the superlative element. The apostle in this letter more than anywhere else, is found to be moving in the superlative realm. We know some of his great superlatives: “Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, unto Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever” (Eph. 3:20-21). That is superlative language, but only a specimen of what is in this letter.
Now, the one thing which governs all that in this letter, is that everything has to be apprehended in the light of God’s eternal purpose. That is, nothing is merely personal, nothing is merely for the moment, and nothing is just a thing in itself. Everything is related, and is related to the eternal purpose and what the apostle takes pains to emphasise is that everything has got to be apprehended in that way. The saints have got to take hold of everything in the light of the eternal purpose; every detail has got to be set in that light, seen in that light, and acted upon in that light, and there are many details. That all-governing purpose of God embraces all the details of our lives as God’s people, and there is nothing in His mind which can be or may be regarded by us as lying outside of a relationship to His purpose, as lying outside that realm where it can affect that purpose or be affected by that purpose. We shall see that later when we come to speak of the conduct of the church which, as you know, has to deal with many things in the ordinary life of believers.
What is that all-governing purpose in the light of which everything in our lives has got to be apprehended? Well, briefly, and this has to be very much enlarged as we go forward, briefly, it is this – a reigning and governing one new Man in Christ. Christ and His members are here set forth as the one new Man, the collective Christ, and what is true of Him is true of His members, and the purpose purposed concerning the Christ is here seen to be concerning Him as Head over all things to the church which is His Body, and the Body, the members therefore, are called, chosen in Him unto the very purpose which God has eternally determined concerning Him, the Son. The purpose is one in the Head and the members, in the Son and in the sons. And the purpose is reigning, governmental administration in God’s universe in heaven and in earth. That is the calling in brief, that is the eternal purpose. That is no small thing to contemplate. You and I would never dare to contemplate a thing like that, if God had not revealed it to be His eternal intention – not just His thought, but His intention – and, mark you, not just the fruit of His grace, but the intention of His will – grace comes in afterwards. It is going to be. You and I may or may not be in it according to our response to God, but it will be. He will have a corporate Christ; He will have a Head and members in oneness who will govern this universe in heaven and on earth. Grace finds us in that, but before grace, is the counsel of His will. Everything is settled finally in the will of God. Well, that purpose sees that eventually – a Body, of which Christ is Head, in governmental authority in God’s universe. This is the calling.
But then, you see, when you have recognised what the calling is, you have to come nearer and see that this is a present, as well as future, expression; that this has to come to realisation in a way and in a measure now, and it is not something only for a coming age, or the ages of the ages. We are in the operation of God’s eternal counsels now. We are in the realm of the fulfilling of His will now, and we are now in the line of the spiritual accomplishment of that purpose.
These various matters mentioned in this letter to the Ephesians are dealt with more fully in themselves in other parts of the New Testament. There they relate to phases and stages of the Christian life and spiritual history. In the book of the Acts we have a large revelation of the Holy Spirit and His activities as in a general way, mainly in relation to the church as His instrument. In the letter to the Romans and the letter to the Galatians, we have a special emphasis upon the cross; that is, the cross related to certain special things in spiritual life. In the letter to the Corinthians we have resurrection brought out in a very full way, and so in Colossians we have ascension, the meaning of Christ’s ascension, underlined and stressed. In Philippians we have the exaltation of Christ – “God highly exalted Him, and gave unto Him the name which is above every name”. So, in the other parts of the New Testament, you have things mentioned specifically in relation to certain spiritual stages and phases of experience.
But in the letter to the Ephesians, you have all of these brought together in relation to the eternal purpose, the purpose of God concerning Christ and His Body, and all with one object in view – that is, administration. I use that as one of several alternatives. In one translation, the word is “stewardship”. In another, it is “dispensation”. It is the same word in the Greek, and simply means or refers to the administration of a household, the dispensation or arrangement, the scheme of things which obtains as governing everything for the time being. We speak of a regime. One person comes in to take over control and administration in an establishment and under their regime certain things obtain. You may, under their regime, do certain things and you may not do certain things. It is the present form of government. Another person comes along and takes their place and, under the new regime, an entirely new order is set up. That is the meaning of the word “stewardship” here. It is that form of government which obtains for the time being, and in this letter you have to place in the time being the ages of the ages. That will be the time being. Unto the ages of the ages there will be an administration and that administration will be in the hands of Christ and His members as one Body.
It is administration, then, which is in view here and which lies behind this phrase – “in the heavenlies”. Let me go back a step and repeat. It is in the light of that that everything here has got to be apprehended. That is, we have got to see the cross in the light of administration, every aspect of the cross: the death of Christ, in the light of administration; the resurrection of Christ in the light of administration; the ascension of Christ, the exaltation of Christ, all in the light of administration, and the point is this – not only that they are related to that, but you and I have got to lay hold of them in relation to that. That is, we have got to come into the good of these things in the light of the purpose of them, which is administration. If you like to change the word “administration” for the larger definition and say that everything, the death, the resurrection, the ascension and the exaltation of Christ, have to be made good in our experience in order that we may reign – that is what it means – having a life in ascendancy with Christ in a spiritual way.
Now, the keyword of this letter is the word “together” – a most interesting word, I think, in the Greek language. Here, in this letter alone, we are seen to be –
Gathered together (Eph. 1:10, A.V.).
Quickened together (Eph. 2:5, A.V.).
Raised together (Eph. 2:6, A.V.).
Seated together (Eph. 2:6, A.V.).
Framed together (Eph. 2:21).
Built together (Eph. 2:22).
It is this ‘together-ness’ which is the key, and the ‘together-ness’ is twofold.
It is ‘together-ness’ in Christ, and it is ‘together-ness’ with one another as His Body. It is an identity of experience with Christ on the part of the church. What is true of Christ is true of His members in every phase of His experience, and nothing is apart or a thing in itself.
Then the unique feature of this letter is this phrase – “in the heavenlies”, showing exactly where and what all this is, this ‘together-ness’ and this purpose and all that is the common life of the members with the Head. We shall come back to that again later. Of course, this does not mean in heaven in the full and final sense in which we use the phrase “in heaven”. Here it is referring to a sphere or realm where Christ is – heavenly in nature, heavenly in privilege, heavenly in function. But even this is seen in this letter to be divided into two parts. He is seen to be far above all rule and authority, all principality and power, seated in the heavens, and we are seen to be there in Him. But later we find another ‘heavenlies’ in which principalities and powers, and world rulers of this darkness and hosts of wicked spirits are found. They are not the same, identical realm, but they are both called ‘heavens’. If we were to recognise the difference we would understand the nature of our vocation and conflict perhaps a little better. That remains for our further consideration of the conflict aspect of things.
May I just say here in passing that the great effort of the adversary is to get us down into his heavenlies and out of our heavenlies. Our heavenlies is “seated in Christ far above all rule and authority”. His heavenlies is a lower realm than that, and his effort is always to try and get us down into his own realm, to bring us into his realm of things. It is always the downward pull or enticement – in some way to dislodge the church from its spiritual position, and if that means anything, it means this, that you and I have got to recognise and maintain our position as superior to those evil principalities and powers. Acknowledge for a moment that his position is equal to ours and his power is equal to ours and we are done; hence he will demonstrate in such a way as to make us, if he can, accept his “superior” power.
You will notice that men of faith, in both Old and New Testaments, when there has been a great demonstration of an undoubtedly mighty enemy, have very quietly, in the secret place, maintained their place of absolute tranquillity, and that has been the secret of their victory. Hezekiah, when there is a demonstration going on round about on the part of the hosts beleaguering, says, “Answer not a word, keep quiet, don’t argue, don’t debate, don’t answer back, keep quiet”, and into the sanctuary Hezekiah goes and spreads the matter before the Lord. Well, it is victory, deliverance. The demonstration was not taken on. Whenever the enemy has been able to create panic by his demonstration, the panic itself has been his victory. It has been a ‘walkover’ after that. “Stand still“, says the Lord to Israel on the shores of the Red Sea, “stand still and see…”. And perhaps that is what the apostle meant when, in the matter of the conflict, he says three times – “Stand… stand… stand“. It is a mighty thing to stand before the terrific onrush, seething demonstration, churning up, disturbing, when everything shouts of the power and fury of the enemy. That is the time in which to stand. That will be borne out and our ascendancy will be mainly based upon our ability just to stand. “See that ye be not shaken”, for to be shaken is to be lost. Well, all that came out of dividing between the heavenlies, seeing the upper heavenlies of our position, and the lower heavenlies in which our conflict takes place.
“In the heavenlies“. What does that term really mean? What is it intended to mean to believers in the heavenlies? I think so few of the Lord’s people have grasped the significance and value of that phrase. It is so abstract, so unreal, so remote. ‘In the heavenlies’ – very few people have any real interest in that – it must be outside of practical life! We are going to see, before we are through, that it is not outside of practical life by any means. Some of us know that already. But, in a word, what does this phrase mean to believers? It means this, that what is now true of Christ as Head and Representative, is to be of full avail and account to His members. He is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high. He has sat down on the throne in the heavenlies, which means that He possesses complete administration and authority. It has been given to Him in heaven and in earth. He, as Head, has been filled with all God’s fulness for administration, which means that all the resources of God are at His disposal for His administrative work. That is what it means: “Has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ”. God has filled Him as Head with every necessary resource for His heavenly administration.
Now all that is true of Him as Head. And we cannot entertain the thought, the idea, of a head without a body. Headship just involves the body; it means, it implies, the body. There is no sense in talking about a head without conceiving of a body. No, as Head and as Representative (for He is there in a representative capacity), all that is true of Him thus is available to His members and is to their account. That is what it means to be ‘in the heavenlies’. What does it matter whether we are here on the earth in the flesh or there, if all that is true of Him is as much for our account here as it would be if we were there? It does not matter. We are in the heavenlies in that sense, that all that is true of Him is available to us, but remember – not for our use, not to be made a personal thing at all, notto be applied to peculiar and particular circumstances as such, but in the light of the purpose. And we shall only find resources which are ours in Christ being made effectual as we come into line with the purpose. And what is the purpose again? It is the expression of His supreme Headship in the church, through the church, or is the manifestation of His Lordship in this universe by the church. It is the glory of God in the church by Christ Jesus. As we come into line with the purpose, that we are called of God in union with Christ to govern, then we find our resources.
If you and I are going to seek the riches of Christ for some little personal Christian life and some little bit of personal Christian work, something that is quite a private affair, something that is ours and of interest to us, something down here on this earth that we want to get going, preserve, develop – we are not going to find the Lord comes in in fulness along that line at all. That is why there are so many struggling, but ever-defeated Christians, and that is why there is such a poor sort of church here; ineffective. It is trying to live on far too low a level with far too small a vision. If you and I and the Lord’s people were to come to see the tremendous significance of the calling – administration in Christ in this universe, spiritual authority in Christ over the evil powers which rule this universe, and now that, back of flesh and blood, back of things seen, there is the throne which we share in a practical way spiritually, then we would discover what our riches are, what our ‘every spiritual blessing’ is.
Some of us never really discovered the greater fulnesses of Christ until we came to see that we are not Christians just to live a good life more or less, we are not here just to do this or that or something else for the Lord of what we call ‘Christian service’, but when the Lord revealed to us that we had a heavenly vocation back of all things and that our real significance was not in the realm of things seen, but it was back there behind things seen, it was then that we came to see our riches, our wealth, the greater fulnesses of Christ, our resources, and this is what the church needs today. Speaking in general terms, the church is fighting a losing battle. It is in weakness and defeat. There is very little reigning on the part of the church now.
Hence the Lord would speak to us at this time and show us that it is a higher spiritual level that is wanted. It is another realm of things that is needed. It is that which is meant by ‘the heavenlies in Christ’, which is, let me repeat, the availability, the accessibility, the effectiveness, of all that is true concerning Him now for the church in a spiritual way against all the spiritual enemies of Christ and the church. That is our calling. It is the upward calling, the heavenly calling.
Oh that the Lord would give us the ear within to hear in these days that call anew, and that, as the result, there may be a registration upon those forces of evil of the impact of that throne through the church, and on our part a new knowledge that we are not intended to be a crushed, trampled-down church hardly able to hold its own, wriggling and writhing under the heel of the adversary. On the contrary we are called to the place where that initial thing concerning the Head has to be made good in the church. “He shall bruise thy head” and “God shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly”. That is what we are called to. We never forget that dear old apostle had a way of putting that. Whenever we come to that, his words come back to us where he represents the Lord Jesus as saying to His Bride, “Come, My spouse, and put your heel where I have put Mine”. Well, that is a graphic way of putting it, but that is what it means, that we have to occupy the place that Christ occupies so far as the powers of evil are concerned, for the administration of this universe.
The Lord strengthen us unto that!