Series: Great Doctrines

Now in your Bible turn to the third chapter of the Book of Ephesians, Ephesians the third chapter; about two-thirds of the way through your New Testament, Ephesians the third chapter.  Three Sunday mornings ago we spoke of the Jews, last Sunday morning of the Gentiles, this Sunday morning of The Church.  Now the third chapter of the Book of Ephesians:

For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,

If ye have heard of the oikonomia, the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:

How that by revelation He made known unto me the musterion, the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words,

Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the musterion of Christ).

Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;

That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel:

Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of His power.

Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;

And to make all men know what is the oikonomia,

How would we translate that word a moment before?  “The dispensation”; here it is translated “fellowship.”  Why they wanted to do that, I do not know.  But the word is “dispensation.”

And to make all men know what is the dispensation of this musterion, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ:

To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,

According to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord:

In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of Him. [Ephesians 3:1-12]

Now that’s the passage.

Now Paul says one of the most unusual and amazing things there; and it is so stupendous until it is hard to get into our little finite minds these infinite counsels of Almighty God.  We’re going to talk about that musterion, the mystery.  By the Greek word musterion, Paul meant a thing that reason could never find or discover.  It is something that could only be known by the revelation of God.

A man could never figure it out.  A man could never know it.  He could never discover it.  It is something that reason could never find.  A musterion is something that only God could reveal.  Now Paul says that in the beginning of all time, before creation, in other ages, hid from the world in God, there was a musterion.  There was something that was not revealed.  It was not made known.  It was hid in the counsels of God.  And Paul says that musterion was only revealed to His holy apostles and the ministers and prophets of the Lord Jesus Christ.

All right, what is that hidden thing in God that was never revealed?  What is that musterion that only God knew, hid in Himself from before the foundation of the world, never revealed through the millenniums and the generations until it was revealed unto the holy prophets and apostles of the Lord Jesus?  Well, what is that musterion?  Some might say that musterion is the kingdom of God.  That couldn’t be it; couldn’t be the beginning of it because the Old Testament prophets did hardly any other thing than to prophesy and to delineate the kingdom of God.

Oh!  In what glowing terms do they present all of those marvelous things that are coming to pass in the consummation of the kingdom of God.  As Isaiah says, “When the world will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters do cover the sea” [Isaiah 11:9], so that musterion, that thing hid in God from the beginning of the world that was never revealed, that was not the kingdom of God because the prophets spake of it in great glory.

All right, maybe the musterion then was that God was going to save the Gentiles.  God is going to save you and me, not just Abraham and Abraham’s children; but God was going to save the Gentiles.  Maybe that was the great musterion hid in the heart of God.  No, that’s not that great musterion because time and again will you read in the prophets that God is going to save the Gentiles too.

If you will read the ninth chapter of the Book of Romans, that’s what Paul is arguing about there:  that God back there prophesied through Isaiah that He was going to save the Gentiles.  And do you remember in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Matthew?  One of those beautiful prophecies ends like this, “And in His name shall the Gentiles trust” [Matthew 12:21].  So it’s not that God was going to save the Gentiles along with the Jews, for the prophets knew that, that was revealed to the prophets.  That was not the musterion.

Well, then maybe that thing hid in the heart of God, maybe that musterion was this; maybe it was that Christ should suffer and that He should be glorified.  Maybe that is the musterion.  No, that’s not the musterion, for Isaiah in the fifty-third chapter of his book spake of the sufferings of Christ as though he stood by the cross.  He lived seven hundred fifty years before Jesus, but when he writes that chapter, you would think he was standing there looking at Jesus suffer and die.  No, nor the glory of Christ; that’s not the musterion, for in the ninth chapter of Isaiah and in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, you have all of those beautiful descriptions of the Prince of Peace, of the Wonderful Counselor, of the Mighty God, of the Everlasting Father, the Lord Jesus Christ:  “For unto us a Son is born; and the government shall rest upon His shoulders” [Isaiah 9:6].  So that’s not the musterion.

Now let’s look at this passage again:

For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,

If you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:

How that by revelation He made known unto me the musterion; (as I wrote before in few words,

Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the musterion of Christ)

Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;

That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel: [Ephesians 3:1-6]

The ninth verse, “To make all men know what is the dispensation of the musterion, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God.”  Now what is that musterion?  What is it?  It is a something that the Old Testament prophets probed into, looked into, tried to find out about but could never understand.

Over here in 1 Peter [1], the tenth through the twelfth verses, you have Peter’s description of those Old Testament prophets as they tried to probe into that musterion to find out what it was.  Here’s what Simon Peter writes in the first epistle, the first chapter, beginning at the tenth verse:  “Of that salvation,” this salvation in Christ Jesus, “Of that salvation, concerning that salvation, the prophets,” those Old Testament prophets, “diligently inquired and earnestly searched, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you:  Searching what, or what manner of time.”  If I could put that in my words:

Trying to find out the characteristics of and the time when the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.  Unto whom it was revealed, not for them, but for ourselves, that have preached the gospel unto you by the Spirit; which things the angels desire to look into.

What Simon Peter is saying there is this; those Old Testament prophets looked ahead, and it was revealed unto them the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ, and it was revealed unto them the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.  That’s what Simon Peter says here, “Searching what, what the characteristics of, when the time, when they testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow.”  Those Old Testament prophets looked ahead, and it was revealed unto them the sufferings of Christ and the glory of Christ.

But the musterion was this; it was never revealed to the prophets.  They never saw.  They never understood.  God never showed them.  It was something that He hid in His own counsels.  The musterion is this:  that between the sufferings of Christ and the glory of Christ, between the cross and the crown, there was a great era of time, there was a dispensation of grace.

And the musterion was this: that God made a church.  And on the inside of that church, He put together Jew and Gentile, bond and free, male and female, barbarian, provincial, king and subject; He put them all together in a church!  Between the cross of Christ and the crown of Christ, there was to be a long period of time.  And in that period of time, there was to be a new dispensation, another dispensation; the dispensation of grace, of the church, of the Holy Spirit, that was never revealed to the prophets.

That was the thing they could never understand as they looked into the dim vistas that were yet to come and prophesied of the sufferings and of the glory of Christ – they’d do it in the same breath.  They’d do it in the same sentence.  They do it in the same chapter.  They do it in the same book – at one time they’d be talking about the suffering Servant of the Lord – the Lamb of God – and at the next time, they’d be talking about the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, the Ruler of all of the world [Isaiah 9:6].  But the prophets could never understand that.  How was He to be a suffering, uncomely Servant that nobody wanted was despised and rejected of men and at the same time, He was to be the Lord of all creation and the King of all the earth? [Isaiah 53].  The prophets prophesied both of them, but they couldn’t understand it.  And Peter says, “And angels desired to look into it.”  They didn’t know about it either.  They desired to find out what that was, but they couldn’t probe into it.  It was hid in the inner counsels of Almighty God.

That’s the reason why that you have that tremendous misunderstanding on the part of John the Baptist.  John the Baptist came preaching and preparing the way for the Lord.  And this is the way that he preached: in one breath, he’d speak of the Lord Jesus Christ coming in fiery judgment and the axes laid at the root of the tree, and the flame is placed at the burning, worthless branches, and He is going to purge His threshing floor [Matthew 3:1-12].  At one time he’ll be preaching the great judgment of the Messiah that is coming; and then in the next breath and in the next verse he’ll say, “The Lamb of God, the suffering Servant of Jehovah that is to take away the sins of the world” [John 1:29].

John preached both of them; the suffering Christ and the reigning Christ, the Christ coming in judgment and the Christ dying as a sacrifice.   And that’s why he sent the question to Jesus from the prison.  John the Baptist, over there in prison, sent a question to the Lord Jesus Christ, and he said, “Lord, are you the Christos that is coming, the One that is coming in judgment, the One that is coming in great power and glory, or do we look for another Christ?” [Matthew 11:3].  John says, “I see in You the suffering Servant of Jehovah, the Lamb taking away the sins of the world; but where is the Christ that is coming in power, and in fire, and in glory, and in great triumph and judgment?  Where is that Christ?”

John the Baptist was not doubting the Lord Jesus; he wasn’t in prison full of all kinds of doubts.  The Lord Jesus said:

When you went out to hear John the Baptist, what did you go out to hear?  A reed shaken by the wind?  Every little old wind of doctrine that blows he changes his position?  No! What went you out to see?  A man in fine raiment, a man used to luxury?  No!

[Matthew 11:7-8]

Being in prison didn’t plunge John the Baptist in doubt.  My soul, he didn’t know anything but hardship and privation.  His diet was grasshoppers and wild honey.  Prison didn’t change him.  He wasn’t doubting in prison; he couldn’t understand!  John was like all the other prophets, he couldn’t understand how this thing was, that the same Messiah was to suffer and die and at the same time be Lord and King of all the earth.

So John the Baptist sent to Him and said, “Are there two Messiahs?  Are there two Christs?  Is one of them to suffer and then the other, coming to reign in glory?”  Now that’s why the prophets when they looked far ahead and prophesied concerning the sufferings of Christ and the glory of Christ, that’s why they couldn’t understand.  There they were together before them, and yet how could they be together?  That was the musterion that was hid in the heart and in the counsels of God.

Could I illustrate it?  It’s the same way as if you were seventy-five miles away and way out there in the blue distance are two mountain peaks.  Here’s a mountain peak, and there’s a mountain peak.  And to you, seventy-five miles away, they look side by side in the blue distant yonder.  Then when you travel and travel in your car and get up to those two mountain peaks, they’re not like that.  They’re like that.  You come to one of them, then miles and miles further, there’s the other one.  When actually you get to them, they’re like that, though far away they look like that.  Now that’s what it was to the prophets.  When the prophets looked into the distance, and prophesied of the sufferings of Christ and the glory of Christ, the cross and the crown, they looked side by side.  And they couldn’t understand it.  And even the angels probed into it, Peter says, and they couldn’t understand it.

But it was finally revealed to the holy apostles and the prophets of Jesus and to us, that between the sufferings of Christ and the glory of Christ, there is to be an age, there’s a dispensation.  There’s a government of God, and between the day of His cross and the day of His crown, there is a new government, a brand new thing.  And that thing, that musterion is called “the church of the Son of God.”  It was something revealed only after Jesus came into this world.

All right, in the little time that remains, may I say something about it therefore?  One:  this church then, this dispensation of grace, this time that no prophet foresaw between the sufferings and the glorification of Christ, that time, that church is something else and something different from the Old Testament dispensation.  The church is not just a continuation of the Old Testament dispensation.  It’s something new.  It’s something different.  It’s something that even the prophets didn’t know about.

The Bible says, “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” [John 1:17].  The Bible says that Moses and the Law are in one covenant.  They are in one testament.  They are in one dispensation; and the Holy Scriptures say, “And Jesus and the grace of God are in another covenant.”  They’re in another testament.  They are in another dispensation.

I want to say something to some of you here this morning that belong to a denomination.  That’s the reason why it can never be demonstrated as true:  that  the old covenant by which Abraham circumcised his children and they were made fellow heirs in the family of Abraham and the Jewish people – and bringing that old family covenant all the way through – they say, “So baptism today is a like covenant of circumcision back there in the household of Abraham,” and carrying that same family covenant through, therefore we “sprinkle,” we baptize our infants today, carrying the old covenant through.  Why can you not do that?  Because the covenants are not the same!  You can’t make – according to the Word of God, according to the Scriptures – you cannot make baptism a continuation of the old family covenant of circumcision.  They belong to two different dispensations; they belong to two different testaments, they belong to two different covenants.  And whenever you try to mix the Old Testament covenant, the Old Testament dispensation, and the New Testament dispensation, you’re going to fall into more trouble and more inexplicable Scriptural contradictions than you can solve if you live five hundred million years.  Because what God hath separated, man should not try to put together, just like what God hath joined, man ought not to try to put asunder.

So it is in these dispensations: back there is the Old Testament, “for the Law and the Prophets were until John” [Luke 16:16].  Back there is that old Jewish religion and faith; but the New Testament – the church – the grace of God is another thing and a separate and a different thing.  Jesus said it like this:

No man tries to put a new patch on an old garment, lest when the patch is washed with the garment, it shrink and tear the hole.  No man tries to put new wine in old wineskins, lest the bottles be broken and all be lost. [Matthew 9:16-17]

What He was saying was this thing of the church – this thing of the grace of God, the preaching of the gospel – is not just a continuation of a prophecy like Isaiah, or a great preacher like Jeremiah, but it’s a new thing.  It’s a different thing; it’s another covenant, it’s another dispensation.

All of the Old Testament belongs back there.  All of the church and the preaching of the gospel belongs over here.  And according to the great theological treaties of Paul in the ninth, tenth, and the eleventh chapters of the Book of Romans, for a while God has placed the Jewish people, and the Old Testament covenants, and the contracts, and the promises, and the testaments, God has placed all of them on a sidetrack.  And right now, God is dealing with all of the world – Jew and Gentile alike – on the basis of a new covenant, a new contract, a new promise which is in Christ Jesus.

The Jew has to be saved just like a Gentile has to be saved.  He’s got to accept the Lord Jesus Christ just as you have to accept the Lord Jesus Christ.  God is now dealing with the world in terms of His Son, of the grace of the blood of the covenant, of the church of the Lord Jesus.  Some of these days, He will pick up those old covenants and those old promises, and He is going to deal with those Jewish people down at the end.

Jesus said, “They will be here till I come again” [Matthew 24:34-35].  Your Hittites gone, your Jebusites gone, your Gergashites gone, your Hivites, your Canaanites, your Moabite, your Amorite, they’re all gone.  But Jesus said, “But that Jew, he will be here till I come back again.”  And some of these days when the Lord returns, He is going to deal with that Jew [Romans 11:26], and all of those old promises that are unfulfilled, and those old contracts that were never kept, every one of them to the last dot and the last tittle, to the last “i” and the “t,” every one of them going to be fulfilled according to the promise of God. No word of His ever falls to the ground.  But that’s at the end time.  That Jew is out there now, shunted on a sidetrack.  God is dealing with the church now.  And anybody that’s saved now has got to be saved through the preaching of the gospel of the Son of God.  This is a new covenant.  This is a new era.  It’s a new dispensation.  It’s the day and the age of the church.  So the church is not a continuation of the Old Testament dispensation.  It’s something else.  It’s something different.

Now another thing:  did you know – – I look at that clock up there, I have seven major points in this address this morning, and I’m not done with the first one yet – – all right, briefly, one other thing.  It is not a continuation of the Old Testament dispensation; second, the church is not the kingdom of God, never, never.  No place in the Bible, no place, no syllable, no sentence in the Bible are those two ever confused, never.  They’re always differentiated.  The kingdom of God goes way back, back, and back from the beginning of time, and it goes clear through to the great consummation of the ages.  In the kingdom of God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the patriarchs, all of the prophets, how they delighted to speak of the glories of the kingdom of God!  And in the New Testament, they speak of the kingdom of God.  John the Baptist came heralding it.  Jesus sent out the seventy heralding it.  Jesus heralded it.  But something happened: instead of receiving the King, and instead of those great consummations that were to come in the Lord Jesus Christ, what did they do?  They killed their King.  They slew Him.  They crucified Him.  They nailed Him to a tree; and Satan thought that he had won the last and the final triumph against God through the ages, he thought he had.  But the devil didn’t know this – – not only did the angels not know it, not only did the prophets not know it, even the devil didn’t know it – – this musterion was hid in the counsels of God, and out of the death of Christ, there came a new thing that no prophet, no angel, not even the devil himself had ever thought for:  this thing you call the church.

Now in the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Luke, why, as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, He spake a parable unto them because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear.  There He was, and He said, “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return.  And he called his servants, and said, Occupy till I come” [Luke 19:12-13].  Then he gave them the pounds.  And you have the parable of the pounds.  Our King is in exile; He is up yonder.  Our King was rejected, and the kingdom didn’t come.  He is over yonder.  Some of these days this nobleman farmer in a far country is coming back to receive the kingdom.

Well, we’ll come back next Sunday morning just to say that little final word.  The difference between the kingdom and the church; Christ is the head of the church, and the church is the body of Christ.  But you’ll never read anywhere in the Bible where Christ is called “the King of the church,” never.  The kingdom includes all of the ages and all of God’s saints.  The church includes all of us that are called out in this period between the cross and the crown, that much of it.  And the kingdom is all of it.

Now, let’s sing our song.  Number what?  [103] Number one hundred three, let’s sing our song; and while we sing the song, the first stanza somebody give his heart to the Lord.  Somebody put his life here with us in the church, while we sing that first stanza; you come and stand by me, while all of us stand and sing.

For more sermons by W.A Criswell, please visit

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About The Author

W. A. Criswell was born December 19, 1909 in Eldorado, Oklahoma. He received his B.A. from Baylor University, and his Th.M. and Ph.D. degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He served for fifty years as senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, for many years the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention. As founder and chancellor of the Criswell College, Dr. Criswell gave his later years to preparing young preachers to preach the Word of God. Dr. Criswell went to be with the Lord January 10, 2002. His ministry continues through the messages he preached and the lives he touched during his seventy-five years of pastoral service. Over 4000 of these messages with notes, outlines, audio and video are available through the Criswell Sermon Library at The Sermon Library is a ministry of the W.A. Criswell Foundation, Inc. to assist pastors and lay people in sermon preparation.

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