If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church: whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God. (vv. 23-25)
The if with which verse 23 begins has been the occasion of much perplexity to timid souls who hardly dare to accept the truth of the believer’s eternal security, so conscious are they of their own weakness and insufficiency. But, rightly understood, there is nothing here to disturb any sincere believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. There are a number of similar ifs in the New Testament, and all with precisely the same object in view—the testing of profession. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 we read, “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.” Here the if is inserted in order to exercise the consciences of any who, having professed to believe the gospel, are in danger of forgetting the message, so proving that they have never really received the truth into their hearts. He would have them carefully examine their foundations. Many there are who readily profess to adopt Christianity and unite themselves outwardly with the people of God, who have never truly turned to the Lord in repentance and rested their souls upon His finished work. Such endure for a time but soon forget the claims of the gospel when satanic allurements would draw them away.
In Hebrews 3:6 we have another such if. “But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.” The meaning is plain. It is not enough to profess to have the Christian hope. Those who are real will hold fast unto the end, as we also read in 10:38—39 of the same epistle. Endurance is the proof of reality. What God implants in the soul is lasting, and we may be assured that He who hath begun a good work in any one will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ, the time when He shall come for His ransomed people to complete in glory what His grace began on earth.
Paul did not pretend to say who of the Colossians were really born of God. While he had confidence that most of them were, he wrote in such a way as to stir up the consciences of any who were becoming slack. A readiness to adopt new and fanciful systems was a cause for grave concern. Those who are really children of God, grounded and strengthened in the truth, are not of the number who will be moved away from the hope of the gospel. They know too well what it has already done for them to lightly turn away from it to some new and untried theory.
This gospel they had heard, as in the providence of God it had been preached in all the creation under heaven. This is probably a better translation than that of the King James Version. It is hardly thinkable that the apostle meant that every creature in the habitable earth had heard the gospel. But it is a wonderful testimony to the devotion of the early believers that even within one generation after our Lord’s ascension the evangel had been carried throughout the known world. Of this gospel Paul was made “minister.” The indefinite article does not really help. It only lends color to the idea which came in later, that the ministry is a special class to which all believers do not belong. The apostle is not claiming that he is a minister in the sense in which that term has been used in later years. He was one addicted to the work of the ministry. That is, the gospel had been committed to him by God whom he served, as he says elsewhere, with his spirit in the gospel of God’s Son. This gospel ministry has been committed to all believers, and Paul is a sharer with others in making the testimony known. But in a preeminent way it was given to him to reveal it. As preached by Paul, it bears the distinctive character of “the gospel of the glory,”
Another ministry had also been given to him, even that of the assembly, the body of Christ. So he goes on to say that he rejoices in whatsoever he might be called upon to suffer on behalf of the people of God, as in doing this he was filling up what was lacking of the afflictions of Christ in his own flesh. That is true of every real servant of God. To such a one the people of the Lord will ever be precious. And he will realize that in serving them and enduring trial on their behalf he is ministering in place of his absent Lord. Christ suffered once for all on the cross to put away sin. His faithful servants suffer in fellowship with Him for the perfecting of the saints, “for His body’s sake, which is the church.” The more devoted one is to Christ’s interests down here, during His absence in heaven, the more one will enter into this phase of suffering. It is godly shepherd care that he has in mind, enduring affliction for the blessing of Christ’s beautiful flock.
Of the church Paul was made minister according to the dispensation of God given to him on our behalf to complete the divine testimony or to fill up the Word of God. The whole counsel of God was not made known until Paul received this revelation of the mystery. This dispensation, or stewardship (for the two words are exactly the same in Greek), he unfolds more fully elsewhere, noticeably in the epistle to the Ephesians, which, as previously intimated, is the correlative to that to the Colossians. It was a special revelation given not to the Twelve, but to him as the apostle of the new dispensation. He goes on with this theme in the verses that follow.
Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily, (vv. 26-29)
It is important to remember that the mysteries of the New Testament are not necessarily things mysterious or abstruse. They are rather sacred secrets made known to the initiated.1
These divine secrets could never have been discovered by human reason, nor even by the child of God unless a special revelation had been given. The Gnostics made much of the mysteries of their systems. The Christian mysteries are in vivid contrast to these dreams of insubject men.
The mystery of the church as the body of Christ was never made known in Old Testament times, nor yet in the days when our Lord was on the earth. We are told distinctly it had been “hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to the saints.” The divine method of making it known was by a special revelation to the apostle Paul, as he tells us in Ephesians 3. But this revelation was not for him only. It was a ministry committed to him to pass on to the saints, “To whom God did make known the wealth of the splendor of this sacred secret among the nations, which is Christ among the Gentiles, the hope of glory” (author’s translation). The Old Testament Scripture clearly predicted the calling of the Gentiles, but always in subjection to Israel. During the present dispensation Israel, as we read in Romans 11, is set aside because of unbelief, and Christ is working among the nations, attracting weary hearts to Himself altogether apart from any thought of Jewish priority. Believing Jews and Gentiles are united by the Holy Spirit’s baptism into the one body, and thus all fleshly distinctions are done away. The middle wall of partition is broken down. This is the mystery.
Christ Himself, the Head of this body, is the apostle’s theme. Note his words, “whom we preach.” To substitute what for whom we preach is a serious mistake. Christianity is centered in a Person, and no one preaches the gospel who does not preach Christ. When there is faith in Him the Spirit unites the believer to Him.
How earnest was the apostle in seeking to lead Christians into the knowledge of this precious truth, “warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom.” His was the true pastor’s heart, and he combined in a marvelous way the teacher’s gift with this. The subject of his ministry was the perfecting of the saints, as he says elsewhere. He would present every man complete or full grown in Christ Jesus. To this end he earnestly labored according to that divine energy which wrought so powerfully in him for the salvation of souls and the upbuilding of the people of God.
False teachers would turn the eyes of the saints away from Christ, the glorified Head of the body, in order that they might occupy them with specious systems of satanic origin, and thus draw away disciples after themselves, as Paul had warned the Ephesian elders. But all true Spirit-given ministry is Christo-centric. Every faithful minister of the new dispensation would lift up the Lord Jesus before the admiring gaze of His people so that, occupied with Him, they might be transfigured into His likeness. Like John the Baptist he will say, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
No man really preaches the whole truth today who does not enter into the twofold ministry of this section of Colossians—the gospel and the church. The former is proclaimed to sinners and is the power of God unto salvation to every one who believes. The latter is taught to saints and builds them up in the faith as to their present privileges, and corresponding responsibilities. I am called upon, not only to win sinners to Christ that they may be saved from impending wrath, but I am to seek to make “good churchmen” out of those already saved. This is not to insist on what is called denominational loyalty, nor to endeavor to sectionalize the saints and bring them into bondage to legal principles and practices for which there is no biblical warrant. But it is to show them their position as in the new creation, linked with their risen, glorified Head, and to lead them into the recognition of the unity of the body, in which all believers have a part. Thus they may endeavor to keep the unity formed by the Holy Spirit, as they walk together in the uniting bond of peace.
Sad indeed is it when this very truth becomes a means of dividing those of like precious faith when perverted by men of sectarian spirit and narrow, cramped sympathies who are more concerned about building up local “causes” than edifying the body of Christ!
That saints are not to neglect local responsibilities, out of which grows the relationship of church to church, is perfectly true. But it is not a unity or confederacy of assemblies that is denominated “the unity of the Spirit.” It is rather that abiding unity which the Holy Spirit has formed by baptizing believers into one body. If I set at nought any fellow believer I am to that extent failing to keep this unity. As members one of another, having the same care one for the other, we show in a practical way the truth that we are one in Christ.
1 For fuller discussion of this interesting subject the inquiring or studious reader is referred to the author’s handbook titled “The Mysteries of God.”