In Ephesians 3:8-11 Paul summarizes his ministry:
8 To me, less than the least of all saints, was this grace given to announce to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ as the gospel 9 and to enlighten all that they may see what the economy of the mystery is, which throughout the ages has been hidden in God, who created all things, 10 in order that now to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenlies the multifarious wisdom of God might be made known through the church, 11 according to the eternal purpose which He made in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This summary is built upon three crucial phrases:
- The unsearchable riches of Christ as the gospel
- The economy of the mystery
- God might be made known through the church
Paul concludes this loaded description of what his ministry is all about with an equally loaded phrase—’the eternal purpose’. There is a vital connection here. If we don’t grasp the significance of these foundational phrases in Paul’s ministry, then our understanding of God’s eternal purpose will crumble. This is because Paul’s ministry and God’s eternal purpose are concentric and coextensive, which means they have the same center and circumference. This is seen in the fact that Paul uses the same Greek word to describe both his ministry and God’s purpose, oikonomia (Eph 3:2, 9). Paul and God were coworkers, partners working together in the same enterprise (1 Cor 3:9; Heb 3:14; 2 Cor 6:1). What God had planned and accomplished and what He was applying in His salvation, Paul was carrying out in his ministry. In Paul’s understanding this connection was so definite that he says, in one of his last letters, to teach differently from his ministry is to misaim from God’s economy (1 Tim 1:3-6).
Sadly, in modern Christianity there is much misaiming, and the central items of Paul’s ministry are often replaced, perhaps unwittingly and imperceptibly, with other things.
- Instead of the unsearchable riches of Christ as the gospel, modern Christianity has the doctrines of grace.
- Instead of God’s economy as the plan, modern Christianity has judicial redemption.
- Instead of God’s expression through the church as the goal, modern Christianity has heaven.
The Ephesians-Corinthians Connection
Over the next three posts I want to look at the connection between Paul’s summary of his ministry in Ephesians 3 and how he demonstrates his ministry along these lines in 1 Corinthians. The question is especially interesting because Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus, near the end of his three-year stay there. This problem-solving Epistle is not a farrago of unrelated Q&As. Paul is not answering questions live, with the erratic discontinuity of a press conference. He is writing with purpose and direction. He is being selective in what he addresses, which indicates an intention to teach (11:34). All the problems in the church afforded Paul an opportunity to unveil something greater. In fact, Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians what he said in Ephesians he was called to do—enlighten. He is enlightening the Corinthians to see God’s wisdom in a mystery, which is God’s plan to dispense the all-inclusive Christ into His chosen people—foolish, weak, lowborn, despised as they are—to produce the Body of Christ for His corporate expression.
The church in Corinth, given its extreme immaturity, its puffed up self-importance, its contentious wranglings, and its sharp divisions, seemingly is the last place one would expect the apostle to release such a profound revelation concerning the organic unfolding of God’s wisdom, but no other place could have been more appropriate.
1. The Unsearchable Riches of Christ as the Gospel
Summarized in Ephesians
In the summary description of his ministry, the first thing that Paul says he is doing is announcing the gospel. So far this is par for the religious conceptual course. But all of a sudden, right when we were going into autopilot, skim-reading mode (“Yes, yes, of course the gospel”), Paul catches our attention with what exactly he was preaching as the gospel. When we hear the word gospel, we probably default to the forgiveness of sins, forensic justification, or the doctrine of the gospel. Certainly these are part of the gospel, but Paul says something unexpected. He was preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ. This is far more than God loves me, Christ died for me, and if I believe I will be saved. Far more than a doctrine.
Paul was not preaching a doctrine to be understood, he was preaching a Person to be experienced. Of course, there is some measure of understanding needed for the gospel to be properly appropriated and enjoyed. Revelation and truth always proceed reliable, consistent, and proper experience, and the Lord wants us to come to the full knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4) . But the gospel is not something merely to nod your head to or sign off on. The gospel is Christ, with all the riches of His Person, work, and attainments. This means that the extent of the good news God has for fallen man far exceeds a solution to his sin. The good news is that God has given us Christ to be our life and everything to produce the church for His corporate expression. Ultimately, the gospel is good news for God, because through it He accomplishes His eternal purpose (Gen 1:26).
If you were to ask most Christians who Christ is, I think you would get only a handful of answers—Redeemer, Savior, Prophet, Priest, King, Lamb of God, etc. I don’t think most people would get beyond ten items. That is hardly ‘unsearchable’. The New Testament reveals more than 300 aspects of Christ! Christ as our Redeemer is only the initial aspect into the knowledge and experience of Christ. On top of this, it’s one thing to be able to recite a list of what the Bible says Christ is, it’s a completely different matter to be able to say “Christ is this to me.” In other words, how many aspects of Christ have we personally seen, experienced, and enjoyed? How big is our menu of Christ? Do we have a Christ in doctrine merely, or experience?
Demonstrated in 1 Corinthians
In 1 Corinthians Paul demonstrates this aspect of his ministry. To solve all the problems of the church, he unveils 20 aspects of the unsearchable riches of Christ for our participation and enjoyment. Right at the beginning of the letter he says, “God is faithful through whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son” (1:9). Fellowship is a word that has been devalued through long term usage. It’s one of those Christian buzz words that most people probably don’t stop to think about what it actually means. Turns out it means at least two crucial things: joint participation and mutual enjoyment.
Moffatt’s translation brings out the first definition:
Faithful is the God who called you to participate in his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor 1:9)
The second definition, mutual enjoyment, is seen in verses such as:
- Psa 16:11; 43:4; Job 27:10; Phil 4:4—our enjoyment of God
- Psa 16:3; Zeph 3:17; Isa 62:5—God’s enjoyment of us
Here is where doctrine alone falls short. We have been called to participate in and enjoy Christ. The Corinthians had misaimed and lost sight of this, which is why Paul begins this Epistle with the reminder that God has called us into the fellowship of His Son. Certainly this is experiential language, which requires an indwelling and subjective Christ—we cannot experience anything that is not immediately present, personal, and subjective. Paul reveals that the objective, historic Christ we read about in the Gospels—the last Adam—became the life-giving Spirit in resurrection and is now joined to us as one spirit. 1 Corinthians is a case study on the disastrous effects of doctrine without experience. The Corinthians had been enriched in all utterance and knowledge, but were still infants in Christ. Thus, to recover them to the experience of the unsearchable riches of Christ, Paul emphatically points them to the human spirit (2:11), the life-giving Spirit (15:45), and the mingled spirit (6:17).
When spirit is brought home to spirit, the Spirit of Christ to the spirit of man, the two cannot in the nature of things remain separate from each other. The one cannot be set within the other as a precious jewel may be set in gold, the jewel remaining the jewel, the gold the gold. They must rather mingle like two different atmospheres, each diffusing itself throughout the other, so that both shall be found in every particle of their united volumes. The Spirit is more than a guide or instructor of those in whom He dwells, and He does more than reveal to them the great example they are to imitate. He penetrates their being; He acts as the center of their life. ‘He that is joined to the Lord is one Spirit.’
These two spirits as one are the means for us to experience Christ, and they undergird the entire Epistle, surfacing more times here than anywhere else in Paul’s letters. To deny the existence of the human spirit, to deny that Christ is the Spirit, and to deny the mingling of God and man as one spirit is to deny the factors that enable us to experience Christ. This is to deny a central focus of Paul’s ministry and to miss God’s economy.
1. John Pester, “The Corporate God in 1 Corinthians: Living in the Divine Fellowship of the Incorporated Triune God through the Divine Dispensing of the Life-giving Spirit for the Producing of the Body of Christ”, A&C, X.2 (October 2005): 49
2. Witness Lee, The Conclusion of the New Testament: Experiencing, Enjoying, and Expressing Christ (1), p. 2753
3. William Milligan, The Ascension of Christ, pp. 183-184
4. Verses mentioning the human spirit—2:11; 5:5; 7:34; 14:2, 14-16; 16:18. Verses mentioning the Holy Spirit—2:4, 10-14; 3:16; 6:11, 19; 7:40; 12:3-4, 7-9, 11, 13; 15:45. Verses mentioning the mingled spirit—4:21; 5:3-4; 6:17
“Paul was not preaching a doctrine to be understood, he was preaching a Person to be experienced.” This is tight. The unsearchable riches of Christ are the gospel! I love that the gospel is not something we can wrap our minds around (like redemption and heaven), but comprises a person that is unsearchably rich and to be experienced daily. Lets make the gospel mysterious again (Eph. 6:19)!
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“Let’s make the gospel mysterious again”—tshirt waiting to happen.
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Nice. Thanks for this post! Wow, we can be “enriched in all utterance and knowledge,” but still be infants in Christ if we miss the mingled spirit. “Our spirit is the key to God’s economy”! So good to see how Paul applied his ministry to the Corinthian believers.
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Loved these epic quotes: Instead of God’s expression through the church as the goal, modern Christianity has heaven…
Paul was not preaching a doctrine to be understood, he was preaching a Person to be experienced.
It reminds me of how in The All Inclusive Christ it portrays Him in great detail as the unsearchable riches of the good land that are for us to obtain. Amen brother!