That God has a purpose is evident from Paul's words in Ephesians 1, verse 11, "...according to the purpose of the One Who is operating all in accord with the counsel of His will," and in Ephesians 3:11, "...in accord with the purpose of the eons, which He makes in Christ Jesus, our Lord."
The ultimate aim of God's purpose is that He might be All in all (1 Cor.15:28), and this objective must always be kept in mind whenever His purpose is being considered. There is, of course, a climax of grandeur in the consummation--in that final scene when all is achieved--but it is our submission that there is a grandeur running all through God's purpose, and that this grandeur is not confined to those scenes where tens of thousands and thousands of thousands are acclaiming Him, but is also to be found in many other places where events are less spectacular. There is, for instance, a grandeur of purpose to be found in Eden, in Bethlehem, at Golgotha, and on the road to Damascus.
In this short series of studies, we can only hope to cover a few of the scenes in the unfolding of God's great design. We shall not attempt to bring forth anything new, since all God's purpose was conceived and planned before any part of it was put into operation, but rather, through a succession of mental pictures, endeavor to portray to you, to make more vivid in your minds, the inherent grandeur contained in all our Father's wonderful operations.
Let us, then, open our book, and commence our story at the beginning.
Our beginning scene is one of Spirit--Spirit existing in unique majesty. That Spirit is God. The apostle John declares that "God is spirit" (literally, spirit the God -- John 4:24). There is none beside Him. Brother Adlai Loudy, in his book, GOD'S EONIAN PURPOSE, describes this first scene as follows:
|Come, my friends, and go with me |
Away back to eternity!
Go back beyond the days of youth
Where everything that was, was truth.
Go back until within the past
You fail to find the place, at last,
Where "the beginning" you can see
Of the immense eternity.
Go back until there's not a trace
Of anything but God and space:
God all around--below, above,
Unlimited in power and love.
Away back there, removed from sight,
Where everything that was, was right.
Away back there, removed from sin,
Is where our story will begin.
Can you imagine this scene? God alone, abiding in glorious grandeur. Spirit, with nothing but Himself in which to dwell; Light, with nothing outside Himself on which to shine; Love, but with nothing, nothing whatever, to lavish itself upon.
Somewhere back there, when God was all in Himself, His wonderful purpose was conceived. The same apostle (John), who tells us that God (is) Spirit, also reveals that "God is Light" (1 John 1:5) and "God is Love" (1 John 4:8). These last two are figurative expressions, but full of meaning. Light, to be of value, requires something on which to shine, and love cannot express itself unless there is something, or someone to be loved. And so as we turn the page, we reach
The scene changes, and we find that out of Himself (for all is out of Him, Rom.11:36), God creates another glorious Being, Whom John (in the Unveiling) declares to be "God's Creative Original" (Rev.3:14), but Whom Paul designates as "The Son of His love" (Col.1:13).
What a wealth of meaning this latter phrase contains! We cannot pretend to be able to plumb its depths. The One so described, Who later became known as the Lord Jesus Christ, is, in fact, God's complement--that which makes God complete. That is to say, He bears the same kind of relationship to God as the first woman bears to the first man, only on a far, far grander scale. Just as Woman (Eve's original name--see Gen.2:23) was taken from man, and presented to man, Adam, as his complement, so Christ was created out of the Father, and God gave Himself the most wonderful gift of all eternity when He presented Himself with this One, Who could, and would, respond to His love to the uttermost.
From this point, we may perceive that God's purpose from beginning to end is so designed as to be concentrated in this "Son of His love." And further, (and this is a tremendous and sublime thought!) the achievement of His purpose is made to depend upon this one factor, that Christ would reciprocate God's love in every circumstance, and to the very utmost. Everything depends on that!
This One, God's Complement, thus becomes the channel for all God's subsequent operations. In every phase, God's purpose is worked out through this "Son of His love." In Colossians again we read that all is created "in Him," "through Him" and "for Him" (Col.1:16,17). Into this Original Creation of God, were placed, not only the seeds of all subsequent creation (John 1:3), but with them the love of God for the whole universe, for through this One every drop of God's love for His creatures has been poured. Christ is the channel through which this love reaches the rest. In very truth, He is the Way to the Father.
How wonderful it is that God's purpose was conceived in love! The fact that it is all centered in the Son of His love also ensures that it will be executed in love and find its consummation in love!
And at this time, when God created the Son of His love, He also made provision for Him (Christ) to have a complement, the ecclesia, which was to be His body, as intimately connected with Him as Woman was with Adam. For the ecclesia was chosen in Christ before the disruption of the world (Eph.1:4), and was given the gift of grace in Christ Jesus before times eonian (2 Tim.1:9). And also before times eonian, a promise of life was made to creation; this promise, too, was made in Christ Jesus, and (advancing our study considerably) Paul's apostleship was later to be in accord with this promise (2 Tim.1:1; Titus 1:2). For Paul's evangel is essentially one of life, with all that is necessary for the full enjoyment of it, namely, justification, peace toward God, and vivification for all.
So much, then, was involved in the creation of the Son of God's love, He is the Image of the invisible God, Firstborn of every creature, for in Him is all created (Col. 1:15). He is before all, and all has its cohesion in Him (v.17).
But now the scene changes again, and we find creation proceeding. "Created by the Alueim were the heavens and the earth" (Gen.l:l).
Have you ever considered the incongruity of this statement? It is like saying, "Created by the Alueim were the Atlantic Ocean and a raindrop." The heavens are so infinitely vast; the earth, by comparison, so incredibly minute. Our globe is as a speck of dust in the expanses of creation. And yet, on this mere speck, God decided to enact many of the main events in the working out of His purpose for the universe. How honored this earth is!
In God's creation of the heavens is included all those spirit beings, whose number is nowhere given, but only hinted at as being exceedingly great.
That the heavens were created before the earth is evident from the statements in Job 38:4-7. "Whereat were you when I founded the earth?...When jubilate together the stars of the morning, and shouting are all the sons of the Alueim?" There were beings existing outside of the earth when the earth was founded.
But why was the earth created at all? The celestial beings, who watched it develop, might have wondered. But we can now see it as the stage upon which a great drama was to be enacted - a drama which would even involve the death of the Son of God's love. But this is anticipating our study again, so we shall not pursue the matter now, but rather note certain other peculiar things which came into being.
For instance, in Genesis 1:2, we have the first mention of darkness. There was no darkness in either of our first two scenes. Isaiah tells us that darkness had to be created, and that God was responsible for its creation. In the same text (Isa.45:7) we learn that God also created evil. Evil is not inherent in God any more than darkness is; both had to be created. And if it is God Who creates evil, He must be responsible for the one who practices the most evil, namely, the Adversary. Yes, God's purpose required there to be a ruiner to harm (Isa.54:16), a serpent to deceive (Job 26:13).
It was, in fact, necessary for the Adversary to be greater and more powerful than any other created being in God's universe with the exception of the Son of God's love. No lesser being could hope to challenge the headship of the Lord Jesus, for any such would inevitably be challenged in turn by others; no lesser being could hope to deceive hosts of messengers and draw them away from God; no lesser being could sustain an unremitting opposition to God throughout the period covered by the eons.
Mention of the eons reminds us that, at the very commencement of His creative acts, God made them through Christ Jesus (Heb.1:2). The eons have both a beginning and an end, so that God's purpose might be enclosed within them, instead of being left loose in the boundlessness of eternity, thus ensuring that He will be able to bring it eventually to finality. That is why we speak of "God's Eonian Purpose" instead of "God's Eternal Purpose." The Scriptures call it "the purpose of the eons" (Eph.3:11). Though its results will last for eternity, God's purpose itself will come to an end in the consummation.
THE GRANDEUR OF GOD'S PURPOSE
THE orderliness of creation has been superseded by disruption and chaos; light has given way to darkness; positive creation seems to have surrendered to purposeless desolation. What has happened? What is the reason for this?
There can be no doubt that the devastation described in Genesis 1:2 was the outcome of a previous rebellion among God's celestial creations against His authority, which He had vested in the Son of His love. It can be taken as an axiom that Satan will always attack God's purpose wherever he sees it revealed. The morning stars and sons of God may have sung in jubilation when they saw the foundations of the earth being laid, but there seems little doubt that many of the celestial beings, deceived by the Adversary, would have gloated with unholy triumph when they saw the chaos wrought in the earth as a result of the disruption which brought the first eon to an end.
Let us be quite clear upon one point. The disruption was not forced upon God, but was an essential and planned feature of His purpose. God does not leave it to the Adversary to determine the means by which each eon shall come to an end, nor the moment when this shall occur. He Himself brought about the judgment of Noah's day long after the decadence of the second eon had been started by Adam's transgression; He will bring about the judgments at the close of the present eon and the judgment of the great white throne at the end of the next. Times and eras are ever within His own jurisdiction (Acts 1:7).
The darkness which had covered the whole scene of Genesis 1:2 began to be dispelled when the Spirit of God vibrated above the waters of the submerged chaos. Darkness is the evidence of alienation from God, and the partial reappearance of light signified the first step towards the re-establishment of communion with God. Let us note that it was God Who took this step; creation was powerless to effect it. Darkness was, however, not completely dispelled, but was allowed to alternate with light, crossing the stage (this earth) every twenty-four hours, so that creation should be continually reminded of its existence. It would be felt again, in a most intense form, at the crucifixion of God's Son, so much so that Christ would cry out to His Father from a sense of abandonment.
With the partial return of light, God was able to create a being with whom He could walk and talk, a being in His own image and according to His own likeness. In doing this, God in effect gave notice to the celestials that His purpose would from then on be conducted through humanity.
Now a much more restricted scene greets our eyes. We are in a garden, in which God has placed His most recent creation, man. There is, as we have just indicated, a grandeur in man's creation which is not shared by other beings, either spirit (angelic) or fleshly (animal). For man (humanity) was created in the image and likeness of his Creator.
In Colossians 1:15, and also in 2 Corinthians 4:4, Christ is portrayed as the Image of God. No other being in the celestial realms is so described. There is something very wonderful indeed in the fact that humanity was created in the image of the Alueim. Anticipating our study again, this was in order that Christ Himself, God's true Image, might eventually appear in the likeness of humanity without losing His likeness to God, and that ultimately all might be made subject to Him as the Head of the new humanity (Heb.2:8).
Man was made some bit inferior to heavenly messengers, but wreathed with glory and honor (Psa.8:5; Heb.2:7). But how man has abused that glory and that honor! For into this garden scene of Eden, sin found an entry through the first man's disobedience, and subsequently swept like a plague through all his descendants, so that Paul, thousands of years later, could only sum up the position by saying that "all sinned and are wanting of the glory of God" (Rom.3:23).
It is interesting to note that the deception in the Garden of Eden was accomplished through one of the creatures, a serpent, over which Adam had been given dominion. If man could not control one of the lower animals, how could God possibly bring about the subjection of all to humanity? Truly Satan had attacked God's purposes on a vital issue, but could not inflict a mortal wound. Though Adam might die as a result of his disobedience, and though a second Man, the last Adam, might also die because of His obedience, God will still make all to be subject to Christ as the Head of the new humanity.
God formed man of the soil of the ground, and by so doing, and, at the same time, creating him in His own image and likeness, God clearly showed His intention of developing His purpose through humanity and on this earth -- this speck of dust in the universe. From now on, the heavens recede into the background. Later on, we shall find that they return in full measure into the picture. Actually, of course, they are always there, and every now and then some of their inhabitants come into the scene, as, for instance, at the birth of the Lord; but, by and large, they become watchers--witnesses of God's purpose being enacted upon this earth. Some of them (and particularly the Adversary himself) try to interfere with God's arrangements; but such interference is always limited and subject to God's overriding control, as was evidenced in the case of job.
We are specially emphasizing this, because we want you to notice in this and the next three scenes, a continuous contraction of God's purpose--a greater and greater concentration until it is eventually focused upon one thing, a dying Man on a cross. After that, it will widen out again until it embraces the whole of what was originally conceived in the creation of the heavens and the earth.
THE GRANDEUR OF GOD'S PURPOSE
By the creation of humanity in God's image, His purpose is made to converge onto this earth and mankind. In this scene, it is further contracted to one land and one nation. For we now see Abraham, called out of his homeland of Chaldea, established in a land given him by God, and the recipient of the promise of a seed in which all families of the earth would be blessed.
The land of promise (though considerably larger than modern Palestine or Israel) is really a very small part indeed of the earth's surface. Yet to the nation, which was descended from Abraham through Jacob, was shown God's favor. "But you do I know of all the families of the ground," He told them through the prophet Amos (3:2). With them He made a covenant, and to them He gave His law. With them He established His priesthood; for them He appointed judges and chose kings. To them He committed His oracles and sent His prophets.
By giving them His law, with all its attendant detail, God seemingly constricted His purpose still further, for He bound Himself, as a matter of supreme honor, to remain true to that code which He had established. Whatever He might do in the future regarding His chosen people, He could not nullify or abrogate the law which He made at Sinai, for that set the standard of His justice. Henceforth, He must not only be just, but be seen to be just by that standard. And the One Who was to come as a Saviour must of necessity be able to demonstrate His ability to keep that perfect law; otherwise He would be no better than the rest.
Again, God's purpose was further confined within the bounds set by His prophets, who, one after another, made prognostications which God, in honor, "was bound to fulfill. How often do we read, "that that may be fulfilled which was declared by the Lord through the prophet" (or words of similar intent)! Of course, the prophets never spoke their own words, but those that were inspired by God's Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). God was continually setting Himself limits within which His intentions must be contained. A supreme grandeur lies in this, for it shows that in every way God is master of His purpose.
Yes, God seemingly made His purpose as hard as possible. A virgin was to conceive, and bear a Son. This Son was to be born in a particular place, for Micah prophesied that the future Ruler should come out of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). To achieve this, God influenced the mightiest man in the world at that time, the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, and caused him to pass a decree that all the world which he ruled should be registered. It was in response to this decree that Joseph and Mary were induced to make the very trying journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem at a time when Mary was about to bring forth her first-born Son. And it was this same decree that filled the inn with similar travelers, who, being able to move more quickly, could get there first.
THE GRANDEUR OF GOD'S PURPOSE
The scene now is one of light, shining at a time when one normally expects darkness. Shepherds, watching over their flocks in the fields by night, suddenly find themselves in the presence of a messenger of the Lord and engulfed in the marvelous light of the glory of God, shining about them. Notice that this messenger does not speak to them from heaven as is so often depicted on Christmas cards, but is actually standing by them, and they are surrounded, enveloped by God's glory as he speaks.
"Fear not, for lo! I am bringing you an evangel of great joy, which will be for the entire people, for today was brought forth to you a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this is the sign to you: you will be finding a Babe, swaddled and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:10-12).
You will be finding. . .a great Potentate? No. A Prince? No. A Prophet? No. A man? No, not even a man, but just a Babe! Do you realize that at this point the whole purpose of God is concentrated into a tiny, newborn Baby, helpless apart from its mother?
Yes, and in spite of the words of Micah (5:2) concerning Bethlehem, there was no place prepared, no place found except a manger for this wonderful birth. A virgin had conceived, and a Child had been born, a Son had been given; the words of the prophets had been fulfilled; the true Light had come to the people walking in darkness, yet its first flicker was seen in a manger and among the lower animals.
The shepherds, ere they hastened to the place which was described by the messenger, were suddenly surrounded by a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and ascribing to Him glory for this new development of His purpose. What a grand scene this must have been--a host of heavenly messengers singing "Glory to God," yet cannot we also see a grandeur of purpose in the humbleness of the cradle and all the other attendant circumstances connected with our Lord's birth?
"Today" said the solitary messenger to the shepherds, "was brought forth to you a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord." it needed only one heavenly messenger to make this tremendous announcement of an event which fulfilled the predictions of the prophets concerning the coming of a Messiah, but it needed a multitude of the heavenly host to give the measure of glory to God that this proclamation demanded.
The announcement of a Saviour, though made primarily to the nation of Israel, was the joyful news that the whole world was waiting for, had the world but known it. But, alas, the world lay in darkness, and there were very few, like Simeon and Hannah and the shepherds, whose hearts were opened to receive and welcome the newborn Child, even though He was, in reality, the Son of God. There was, however, among the celestials a multitude of the heavenly host who suddenly sprang into a chorus of exultation. Were they just heavenly onlookers, jubilant simply because they were the bearers of good news to the inhabitants of earth? Or did they perceive a cause for personal rejoicing in the releasing of the glad tidings concerning the birth of this little Child? Undoubtedly the coming of this Saviour will ultimately bring blessings to the celestials as well as to humanity.
But for the moment the promise is to earth--" on earth peace, among men, delight!" What wonderful words of hope and comfort to a race which has been groping its uncertain way through darkness and sin for a very long time. But the vast majority of earth's inhabitants are still unaware of the true significance of this event which occurred nearly two thousand years ago.
|"Glory to God!" the angels sang, |
Announcing thus a Royal birth.
Through heaven the proclamation rang,
And found an echo in the earth.
The shepherds, trembling from the shout
That hailed the advent of Messiah,
Exulted with a joy devout
To hear that grand celestial choir.
"Glory to God! " The shades of night
Lay deep upon the favored Land,
And those who saw the newborn Light
Were but a tiny, lowly band;
For earth lay buried deep in sin--
So deep that to its lasting shame
No room within the humblest inn
Could be reserved for Him Who came.
"Glory to God!" The world once more
Sleeps on, unmindful of its Hope.
Its watchers see the Star before,
But millions still in darkness grope.
And often though the angels sing
In hearing hearts their words of joy,
When will earth see its Saviour King
In Bethlehem's uncradled Boy?
Truly the Son of God's love emptied Himself when He came to earth, as Paul tells us in Philippians 2:7. He divested Himself of all the greatness that He had, and became as nothing. But now He was to go still further, and humble Himself even unto death.
In this next picture, instead of it being light when one normally expects darkness, it has become dark when one normally expects it to be light. For it is dark at noon day.
The Babe of our last scene has become a Man hanging on a cross, surrounded by a darkness which signifies separation from God. Who can measure the anguish in our Lord's mind of those three terrible hours of darkness, when He, the One without sin, took upon Himself the sins of the many? And, more than that, when He was made to be Sin, that Sin itself should be crucified -- disposed of forever. It was because of this that God turned away from Him. He had never turned away from any sin-offering made in the past; there is no record in the Hebrew scriptures of it ever becoming dark on the day of propitiation. But this was something very different, the Sacrifice of all sacrifices, the Offering of all offerings, for it dealt with Sin to a finality. The Firstborn of every creature was made to be Sin so that every creature in the universe (including Satan) is brought within the scope of the effects of the Offering.
When the light returned, our Lord's anguish was reflected in the cry, "My God! My God! Why didst Thou forsake Me?" God forsake the Son of His love? Yes, God's purpose demanded even this. And do not let us forget that it cost God Himself a very, very great deal to subject the Son of His love to such a severe trial. To brand Him with the stigma of a transgressor was a terrible thing to do, only justified in the light of its glorious outcome. To make Him, Who knew no sin, to be the personification of Sin itself, as the sign of the serpent on the pole had intimated (John 3:14), would have been a deed to outrage the feelings of God Himself, had He not been able to see the end from the beginning, and the universal blessings that would ultimately flow from His action. In all the circumstances surrounding the cross, it is God Who most commends His love to us, but the love of Christ also shines forth in all its splendor. it was evidenced in the garden of Gethsemene, when, faced with the reality of what was before, Him, He said to the Father, "Abba, Father, all is possible to Thee. Have this cup carried aside from Me. But not what I will, but what Thou!" (Mark 14:36).
The cross is the crux of God's purpose. Here it finds its greatest concentration. The heavens, the earth, the land of promise, even the city, are all too big for God to use in this display of His love. He requires only one square yard, or even less; just room enough to erect a stake in the ground, pointing to heaven. And on this stake was suspended the One through Whom all else came into being. And even the life of this One, through Whom all else had received life, was about to be extinguished!
God's purpose for the universe, His plans for the salvation and reconciliation of all, focused upon one lone form hanging upon a stake. Surely, to the discerning eye, this is a moment of supreme grandeur in His purpose. Who but God could have conceived such a complete solution to the problem of sin, and who but Christ could ever have been effective in accomplishing it?"
|"Glory to God!" From Bethlehem |
The scene moves on to Calvary,
Where men took counsel to condemn
The One Who came to set them free;
For on the cross the Saviour died--
The sinless One to bear their sins.
Now roused, ascended, glorified,
Through Him the work of peace begins.
No doubt the hosts of heaven, whose representatives manifested themselves at the time of the Lord's birth, would be watching and marveling at what appeared to be the extinction of all expectation at the crucifixion, though their presence is not indicated. But in this next scene, two of their number, clothed in light, are seen at an empty tomb, and they greet those bringing spices with the astounding words, "Why are you seeking the living with the dead? He is not here, but was roused. Be reminded how He speaks to you, being still in Galilee, saying that `The Son of Mankind must be given up into the hands of men, sinners, and be crucified, and the third day rise'" (Luke 24:6-8). In this way, the Lord's resurrection was first proclaimed.
In our previous scenes, God's purpose has seemingly been steadily contracting, but from this point it begins equally steadily to expand. Paul, in his Colossian letter, describes Christ as being "Firstborn from among the dead, that in all He may be becoming first" (Col.1:18). In Corinthians, he says, "Yet now Christ has been roused from among the dead, the Firstfruit of those who are reposing.... For even as in Adam all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified" (1 Cor.15:20-22). Firstborn, Firstfruit; these terms indicate more to follow.
In Romans (4:25), Paul tells us that Christ was given up because of our offenses, and was roused because of our justifying." The just award, though ours now, is eventually "for all mankind for life's justifying" (Rom.5:18). God's purpose is already expanding again to cover all mankind. In 1 Timothy 2:4, Paul tells us that God "wills that all mankind be saved and come into a realization of the truth," and in 1 Timothy 4:9, he asserts that "we rely on the living God, Who is the Saviour of all mankind."
But let us look again at 1 Corinthians 15, and read the passage from verse 20 to 28, and note what comes about as a direct consequence of Christ's rousing. (In the Concordant Version, these verses are enclosed in parentheses, showing that they are all to be taken together.
"Yet now Christ has been roused from among the dead, the Firstfruit of those who are reposing. For since, in fact, through a man came death, through a Man, also, comes the resurrection of the dead. For even as, in Adam, all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified. Yet each in his own class: the Firstfruit, Christ; thereupon those who are Christ's in His presence; thereafter the consummation, whenever He may be giving up the kingdom to His God and Father, whenever He should be nullifying all sovereignty and all authority and power. For He must be reigning until He should be placing all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy being abolished is death. For He subjects all under His feet. Now whenever He may be saying that all is subject, it is evident that it is outside of Him Who subjects all to Him. Now, whenever all may be subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also shall be subjected to Him Who subjects all to Him, that God may be All in all."
This wonderful passage begins with the rousing of Christ and ends with the consummation of God's purpose. From it we see that, once Christ has been roused, the consummation can be proclaimed, for nothing can possibly hinder it. The momentous events of two-and-a-half eons are telescoped into these nine verses. How they will come about will be shown in the remaining scenes of our study.
|"Glory to God!" for He has willed |
All tongues to praise their Sovereign Lord,
And when His purpose is fulfilled
The universe will sing in chord.
From lowest rank to highest place
The whole creation will proclaim,
Unto the utmost bounds of space,
The greatness of its Saviour's Name.
THE GRANDEUR OF GOD'S PURPOSE
OUR next picture is a miniature, in the sense that it is centered around two individuals, but it is a very important one, for it portrays an incident which had tremendous consequences. One of the two people mainly concerned is standing before a hostile crowd of his own countrymen. His name is Stephen, and he has just delivered a stirring address, in which he has outlined the history of his people down the centuries, beginning with the promises made to their fathers, upon which all their expectations as a nation were based. But his address has not been a flattering one. He has not hesitated to show how succeeding generations turned away from God, for example, in disowning Moses as their leader, in their sacrifices to a calf made by hands, and in their worship of the gods of heathen nations; and he has just concluded by telling his hearers that they are no better than their predecessors, for they have just murdered that greater Prophet Whom Moses had spoken of.
This accusation, true though it was, angered the listeners very much, but while they were still contemplating what to do, there was a remarkable development. For we read in Acts 7, verses 55 and 56, that Stephen, "possessing the fullness of faith and holy spirit" and "looking intently into heaven ... perceived the glory of God, and Jesus, standing at the right hand of God, and said, `Lo! I am beholding the heavens opened up, and the Son of Mankind standing at the right hand of God.'"
What Stephen saw was the sign promised by Jesus to indicate His second coming to set up His kingdom: "the Son of Mankind in heaven" (Matt.24:30). When this sign is seen by "all the tribes of the land," the Lord will be about to come. What Stephen saw was a preview of this sign, with the Lord standing, as though ready to come. But the representatives of the nation were neither ready nor willing to receive Him. On the contrary, they pressed their ears so that they should hear no more, and to their part in the murder of Jesus they rushed to add the murder of His messenger.
On the cross, Jesus had prayed concerning those who were assassinating Him, "Father, forgive them, for they are not aware what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). The Lord's prayer was answered, for the kingdom was, in effect, re-offered through the twelve apostles, beginning with Peter's statement on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38,39). With the murder of Stephen, the leaders of the Jews showed their contempt for this offer. The hope of the kingdom gradually receded, and a door of salvation opened to the nations (Acts 28:23-28).
Stephen's prayer was different from that of the Lord. Whereas Jesus had asked for His murderers to be forgiven, Stephen asked that the sin should not even be charged against them. Both of these prayers were in accord with the purpose of God at the time they were uttered.
Stephen is described as being filled with five things (the only person in scripture so described, though others may have possessed all of these graces), namely, holy spirit, wisdom, faith, grace and power (Acts 6:3,5,8). In Acts 7:55, it is again stressed that he possessed "the fullness of faith and holy spirit" when he saw the vision of the Lord standing at the right hand of God. A man so inspired by God's spirit must have thoughts in accord with God's purpose at that time, and, although Stephen would not be aware of the fact, his prayer opened the era of absolute grace. Saul of Tarsus, the second man in our picture, stood by, endorsing the murder of Stephen. He was the principal and most rabid of the persecutors of the disciples of Jesus; he was truly the foremost of sinners; yet he was the first to receive such grace, for he was never charged with his offenses. Quite the contrary, in fact, as we shall see in our next scene.
A road stretches out before us through the land of promise, and in the distance, beyond the frontier, rise the roofs and towers of a foreign city, Damascus, ancient capital of Syria.
Down this roadway to Damascus strode a persecuting band, and their hearts were full of murder as they journeyed through the Land; till before them rose the city, with its pinnacles so fair, but their leader felt no pity for the Lord's disciples there.
Now, the roadway to Damascus is a symbol of God's grace, for 'twas there the chief of sinners met his Saviour face to face. Worthy of God's indignation, he was smitten from above, yet there lay no condemnation in that blinding shaft of love.
Saul of Tarsus, later to become Paul, the slave and apostle of Christ Jesus, was indeed a choice instrument of God, to further His purpose in a way previously undreamed of. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul mentions this service, and reveals that he, who formerly was "a calumniator and a persecutor and an outrager" was "shown mercy" that in him, "the foremost of sinners, Jesus Christ should be displaying all His patience, for a pattern of those who are about to be believing on Him for life eonian" (1 Tim.1:12-16).
Paul, the first apostle of the risen Lord, as distinct from the apostles from the Lord on earth, Peter, John and the rest of the Twelve, becomes a pattern for future believers, in that he was saved entirely in grace. With his own experience behind him, he began to proclaim an evangel, which, unlike all that had been preached before, relied entirely upon God's power for salvation, and had grace as its basis and faith as its means of operation. As he wrote later in his career, "In grace are you saved, through faith, and this is not out of you, it is God's approach present, not of works, lest anyone should be boasting. For His achievement are we..." (Eph.2:8-10).
Paul was the one appointed "to complete the Word of God" (Col.1:25). God has no further secrets to reveal concerning His purpose beyond those made known to His beloved apostle to the nations, and all that the universe needs to know concerning the basic truths of justification and reconciliation, as well as all that it needs to know to grow into a full realization of God, are contained within His completed Word.
"The Lord Himself will be descending from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the Chief Messenger, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ shall be rising first. Thereupon we, the living, who are surviving, shall at the same time be snatched away together with them in clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And thus shall we always be together with the Lord" (1 Thess.4:16-18).
In these words to the Thessalonians, Paul describes the next great event in God's purpose, the meeting of the Lord with that ecclesia which is His body, His complement. Those who are to meet the Lord on this supreme occasion, are to be changed in a moment, in the twinkle of an eye, thus throwing off mortality and corruption for immortality and incorruption. In fact, they are to be given a body conformed to His body of glory, as indeed befits that which is His complement. How wonderful! How transcendently transcendent!
This shout of command, which the Lord will give, does far more than raise us to this transcendence. It is the signal that sets in motion the further operations of God's purpose-operations that include the heavens as well as the earth. For through His complement, the ecclesia which is His body, Christ continues that great work, begun at the cross, of reconciling all in the universe to God.
The removal of the ecclesia from the earth allows three important unveilings to take place.
First, there is the unveiling of the Man of Lawlessness (2 Thess.2:1-12, note particularly verses 7 and 8). His period of manifestation will be infamous and progressively violent, but mercifully brief, for it will be followed by the second unveiling, that of the Lord Jesus Christ, described in detail in the Book of the Unveiling (Revelation). The Lord Jesus will despatch the Man of Lawlessness "with the spirit of His mouth and will discard [him] by the advent of His presence." The third unveiling is that of the ecclesia, the sons of God, for which even the whole of creation is waiting (Rom.8:18-22).
THE GRANDEUR OF GOD'S PURPOSE
This scene is one of great happiness. People are going about their business undisturbed. There seems to be an air of prosperity and calm. One does not hear of any wars taking place, or of any massive acts of violence. No one seems to be afraid.
There is much traffic between the leading cities of the world and Jerusalem, which has become the world capital, and all nations send their representatives there. The law goes forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Yes, following His own unveiling, Christ has set up His kingdom, and He is ruling from His capital city. Israel has taken up the kingly and priestly roles allotted to her at Sinai, and officiates with Christ in this dual capacity. For Christ is a kingly Priest according to the order of Melchizedek. This Priest does not accept sacrifices for sin, for sin has been dealt with once and to a finality at Golgotha. But He accepts offerings from the people, as did Melchizedek from Abram, and He blesses the people accordingly with kingly blessings.
Christ is a King of Peace, and His rule is a righteous one; the first completely righteous rule in history. Yet it is not a soft rule. He rules with a rod of iron-an iron club (CV)-and evildoers must swiftly toe the line. And this is where the weakness lies, not in the rule itself and certainly not in Christ, but in the inherent soulish nature of the old humanity, which, though technically destroyed at the cross, still remains with mankind until they come to accept the deliverance provided by the cross and become a new creation in Christ. This they will not do during the millennial era, for as soon as the rule is lifted and Satan is released for a time, he is able to enlist vast numbers of earth's inhabitants in a final rebellion.
This is described for us in Revelation 20:7-9, "And whenever the thousand years should be finished, Satan will be loosed out of his jail. And he will be coming out to deceive all the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to be mobilizing them for battle, their number being as the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth, and surround the citadel of the saints and the beloved city. And fire descended from God out of heaven and devoured them."
How strange, in view of that scripture, that so many believers should look upon the Millennium as the final eon, ushering in eternal happiness!
"And I perceived a great white throne, and Him Who is sitting upon it, from Whose face heaven and earth fled, and no place was found for them. And I perceived the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. And scrolls were opened. And another scroll was opened which is the scroll of life. And the dead were judged by that which is written in the scrolls in accord with their acts. And the sea gives up the dead in it, and death and the unseen give up the dead in them. And they were condemned, each in accord with their acts. And death and the unseen were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death-the lake of fire. And if anyone was not found written in the scroll of life, he was cast into the lake of fire" (Rev.20:11-15).
The judgment before the great white throne takes place at the end of the thousand years. This is the time when the majority of the dead are raised, those who are not of the former resurrection (Rev.20:5,6). Let us note that "acts" form the basis of this judgment; grace has no part in it. It is a judgment on merits, and the immediate results are not favorable to those being judged. It is a fundamental truth that "the just by faith shall be living" (Hab.2:4; Rom.1:17; Gal.3:11; Heb.10:38), but these being judged here have neither the righteousness nor the faith to qualify them for life. Hence they go into the second death, which is neither endless annihilation nor eternal torment, but a means of purification to enable them to be vivified at the conclusion of the eons. The lake of fire is obviously a symbolic expression, for death and the unseen are both cast into it.
Those of the former resurrection are not in any way involved in this judgment, for their future was decided a full thousand years earlier, and on them the second death has no jurisdiction. And certainly believers in this day of grace, who form the ecclesia which is the body of Christ, will not be involved, for they will have been caught up to meet the Lord and will be together with Him, as we saw earlier. We now pick up their position again.
Back in Scene Twelve we said that, through the ecclesia which is His body, Christ continues that great work begun at the cross, of reconciling all to God.
Our last picture but one shows the reconciliation of all accomplished, the whole universe being made subject to Christ, and headed up into Him. It is again the apostle Paul who widens the scope of God's operations to include the heavens as well as the earth.
In Ephesians 1, Christ is shown at God's right hand among the celestials, up over every sovereignty and authority and power and lordship, subjecting all under His feet. We would emphasize that the heavens have to be subjected to Christ, and that, insofar as a continent is greater than a grain of sand, so this is an infinitely greater work than subjection on earth. The subjecting work is done by God (1 Cor.15:27), but the reconciling work, which accompanies the subjecting, is done through Christ and the ecclesia (Eph.1:23).
Let no one imagine that all in the heavens are already at peace with God. There are sovereignties there, and authorities and powers and lordships, which aim at usurping His power and authority. These are "the spiritual forces of wickedness among the celestials" with which we are called upon to wrestle (Eph.6:12). God has provided the Sovereign of the celestials, just as He has provided the King of the earth. In each case, it is the Son of His love (Col.1:18). He is Sovereign, and anyone choosing another is rejecting God. God made this principle plain to Samuel when Israel first asked for a king (1 Sam.8:7).
It is because of all this insubjection among the celestials that there has to be new heavens as well as a new earth. The Lord has said, "For, behold Me creating new heavens and a new earth, And the former shall not be remembered, nor shall they come upon the heart" (Isa.65:17). Peter saw the present heavens "passing by with a booming noise" and "the elements dissolved by combustion" but was hoping for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness is dwelling" (2 Pet.3:10-13). Again, John in vision, "perceived a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth pass away" (Rev.21:1). What do you think of a God Who makes everything afresh, so that there shall be no trace of any of the sins and sorrows and mistakes of the past, no disturbing memories to mar the happiness of the future?
But the unruly inhabitants of the heavens have to be made subject to Christ, that all may be headed up in Him, both that in the heavens and that on the earth (Eph.1:10); that in the name of Jesus every knee should be bowing, celestial and terrestrial and subterranean (Phil.2:10); that all may be reconciled to God, whether those on the earth or those in the heavens (Col.1:20). Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians all tell of the same great work among the celestials, as well as among humanity, in which it is the lot of the ecclesia to have a glorious part. Do you realize the grandeur of your allotment in Christ? Do you realize that it is through the ecclesia, which is His body His complement, that He is able to complete the all in all? (Eph.1:23)? Do you realize that it is in the ecclesia, as well as in Christ Jesus, that God is to find glory "for all the generations of the eon of the eons" (Eph.3:21)?
The gift of grace, given to the ecclesia in Christ Jesus before the eons began (2 Tim.1:9), finds its full expression in the ministry of the ecclesia throughout the eons of the eons, when its members display the grace of God in all its fullness (Eph.2:7). The basis of this display is the grace which the ecclesia itself has received at the hands of God. This is shown to us in Ephesians 2:1-10. Twice the apostle declares that "in grace are you saved," and this is not out of us; it is entirely of God. It is because of this that we are in a position to display the "transcendent riches of God's grace" in a way that otherwise would be quite impossible. This is the essential factor behind the ministry of the ecclesia. God graces Christ with a Name which is above every name because He is worthy to receive the honor; He graces the ecclesia with a salvation and an allotment of which, individually, all its members were quite unworthy.
In the ministry of Christ and His ecclesia, humanity, too, finds its highest and noblest expression, and the reason for its being created in the image of the Alueim is demonstrated. For Christ, having come to be in the likeness of humanity (Phil.2:7), and being found in fashion as a human, becomes with resurrection the First of a new humanity; and the ecclesia, as His complement, also becomes part of the new humanity. The attainment of the measure of the stature of the complement of the Christ is coupled with mature manhood in Ephesians 4:13,14; and we only reach this state by putting off the old humanity with its malpractices, and putting on "the new, which, in accord with God, is being created in righteousness and benignity of the truth" (v.24).
Our last scene of all is sometimes termed "The Great Abdication." For when all are gathered together in Christ-when all in the universe are subjected to Him -- when every creature acknowledges His sovereignty and acclaims Him as Lord -- when all hail the power of Jesus' name and even angels prostrate fall -- then, what happens? Christ steps down, and hands over all to God, His Father, that God may be All in all.
Can you imagine any lesser potentate being willing to hand over so much? But surely the grandeur of God's purpose lies essentially in the supreme confidence which the Father has in the Son of His love. God can invest all in Christ in the full knowledge that all will be handed back to Him; God can exalt Christ to the very highest pinnacle in the universe in the absolute certainty that His Son will never seek to usurp the Father's position.
And so we read, in 1 Corinthians 15:24, "Thereafter [comes] the consummation, whenever He may be giving up the kingdom to His God and Father." This occurs when all other sovereignties and authorities and powers have been nullified-brought to naught-and when the last enemy, death itself, has been destroyed. When all is subjected to Christ, then "the Son Himself also shall be subjected to Him [God], Who subjects all to Him, that God may be All in all" (v.28).
All in all! None of God's creatures outside the scope of His indwelling; nothing outside of God Himself dwelling in any of His creatures!
Thus God's purpose, once intensely contracted and concentrated, so that it was all brought to focus in one Man suspended from a pole as a malefactor' now expands again to take in the utmost limits of creation. Truly God's thoughts and ways are not ours, but infinitely more lofty; and how grand His purpose is, in its conception, in its outworking, and in its glorious fulfillment! In every stage it serves to glorify the One Whose purpose is being accomplished.