FOR THE PURPOSE of illustration, let us imagine that we are in a large exhibition hall, and that on each of the four sides there is a display stand. Then let us imagine a further display stand in the entrance hall. One has to pass this stand in order to get into the main exhibition itself.
The four displays in the main hall are God's own displays, but first let us look closer at this stand in the entrance. On it there is just one figure, one exhibit. It is the apostle Paul, and this display stand is set up by the Lord Jesus. Paul himself describes it in 1 Timothy 1:12-16, where we read,
"Grateful am I to Him Who invigorates me, Christ Jesus, our Lord, for He deems me faithful, assigning me a service, I, who formerly was a calumniator and a persecutor and an outrager: but I was shown mercy, seeing that I do it being ignorant, in unbelief. Yet the grace of our Lord overwhelms, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all welcome, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, foremost of whom am I. But therefore was I shown mercy, that in me, the foremost, Jesus Christ should be displaying all His patience, for a pattern of those who are about to be believing on Him for life eonian."
Did Jesus display His patience with Peter and the other disciples who walked with Him on earth? We have no doubt that Jesus exercised His patience with each and all of them many times, but when it comes to a question of such a display of His patience that it shall be a pattern for His dealings with all others who would afterwards believe in Him for life eonian, then there is only one figure that will fill the stand. Saul of Tarsus had been a murderer - he had persecuted the ecclesia of God and ravaged it; he had persecuted its members to death, binding and giving over both men and women to jail, as he told King Agrippa, "Many of the saints I lock up in jails, obtaining authority from the chief priests. Besides, I deposit a ballot to dispatch them" - that is, he voted to have them put to death - "And at all the synagogues, often punishing them, I compelled them to blaspheme. Besides, being exceedingly maddened against them, I persecuted them as far as the outside cities also" (Acts 26:10,11).
It is the way in which Christ Jesus deals with this one that forms such a grand display of His patience and makes Paul the pattern for all subsequent believers. How can such a desperate character, such a convinced opposer, be converted? Yet he was, and not merely converted, but completely transformed. If the patience of Jesus was such that it could change Saul the outrager and rabid fanatic, into Paul the apostle of grace and peace, then it can transform the most implacable of God's enemies into the greatest friend. In such cases, the grace of our Lord overwhelms, and no one can be said to be beyond the pale or outside the scope of its influence.
This stand at the entrance is Jesus' own display, but now let us enter the main hall and look at God's displays. Shall we be surprised that it is the apostle Paul, who tells us about them? There are four of them. Let the apostle take us round and describe the displays to us. We imagine one stand on each side of the room.
On the first side is a stand crowded with many vessels, like the vessels of a potter, but they are all marred vessels, adapted for destruction. Our guide tells us about them in Romans 9:22, "Now if God, wanting to display His indignation and to make His powerful doings known, carries on with much patience, the vessels of indignation, adapted for destruction..."
God wanting to display His indignation! But we thought that God was love! Why should He want to display His indignation? Because it is an indignation which is vented against all unrighteousness, and it is necessary that this indignation shall be displayed in order that all creation may see the terrible consequences of such unrighteousness - may see in fact what sin and rebellion against God can lead to. God does not delight in displaying His indignation - He has no delight in the destruction of evildoers or in the death of the wicked - but He realizes that, without such a display as a contrast, He cannot (as the apostle continues) "make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He makes ready before for glory - us, whom He calls also."
Next to this stand, on the second side of the hall, we can imagine another stand, this time containing only a single vessel, but one specially exalted in order that God might display His power in it. We read about this vessel in Romans 9:17, "For the scripture is saying to Pharaoh that `For this selfsame thing I rouse you up, so that I should be displaying in you My power, and so that My name should be published in the entire earth.'"
Was God's power displayed in Pharaoh? To be sure it was, and it was the power exercised against an unrelenting opponent, the power that brought a stubborn enemy to destruction, the power that defeated and annihilated every alien god that Pharaoh worshipped. For Pharaoh at that time was the earthly representative of all false worship, the supporter of every type of alien god, the willing tool of Satan in his antagonism to the one true God. It was not only in the deliverance of Israel that God's power was shown but more particularly in the utter havoc that was wrought upon Pharaoh and everything that Pharaoh represented. It was in Pharaoh that God's power was displayed. It was in the succession of plagues that God brought upon him that God's omnipotence was manifested, directed as they were against the impotent gods that he worshipped. And similar plagues will come again when God lets loose His indignation at the end of this present eon.
So far the exhibit is rather daunting. A hint of mercy, it is true, but we have not seen mercy put on display. But now let us look at the third stand. Here we have again a single exhibit, but this time one of supreme glory, for this is a stand which displays God's righteousness. Our guide tells us of this in Romans 3:21-26,
"Yet now, apart from law, a righteousness of God is manifested (being attested by the law and the prophets), yet a righteousness of God through Jesus Christ's faith, for all, and on all who are believing, for there is no distinction, for all sinned and are wanting of the glory of God. "Being justified gratuitously in His grace, through the deliverance which is in Christ Jesus (Whom God purposed for a Propitiatory shelter, through faith in His blood, for a display of His righteousness because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God), toward the display of His righteousness in the current era, for Him to be just and the Justifier of the one who is of the faith of Jesus."
The theme of this stand is God's righteousness, and here, in the death of His Son, it is put on display in a way that it was never displayed before. If we refer back to the first chapter of Romans, where Paul introduces his evangel for the first time, we read, "For a righteousness which is of God is being revealed in it" (1:17). Now, the word translated `revealed' is the Greek apokaluptoo, from which we get our English word `apocalypse,' or `revelation.' It has the thought of `taking a cover from,' as you take the cover from a statue when you unveil it. In the Concordant Literal New Testament, whenever this word is used of a person, it is rendered `unveil' or `unveiling,' like the Unveiling of Jesus Christ; but when it is used of a thing it is translated `reveal' or 'revelation.' But what is revelation other than taking the cover away? All truth is concealed in God, Who knows the end from the beginning, until such time as He chooses to uncover it. And here, in the evangel committed to Paul, the righteousness of God is being revealed, unveiled, uncovered, so that it is now seen in all its majesty and glory. Let us see what the immediate effect is.
If we look at the scriptures outside of the writings of Paul, we find quite a number of people being described as just or righteous. We are thinking of Abel, Lot, John the Baptist, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph, Simeon, Joseph of Arimathea, to name a few. But when once the evangel committed to Paul is proclaimed, what do we find? "Not one is just, not even one." All are brought down to the same common denominator. "All sinned and are wanting of the glory of God" (Rom.3:10,23).
Why is this? Because in other parts of Scripture, those who are declared to be just are being compared with the rest of humanity. Abel is just when contrasted with Cain; Lot when constrasted with the people of Sodom; Zechariah when contrasted with the priesthood of his day, as exemplified by, for example, Caiaphas. But when once the righteousness of God (apart from law) is unveiled and put on display, a different standard of comparison is immediately set up, and against this standard all else falls short. All, including Abel and the rest, are reduced to the same level. Not one is just, not even one.
Now we have no doubt that God's righteousness was operating in all His dealings with His creatures. There can never be unrighteousness with God, and all down the Scriptures men have testified to the righteousness of God. But when it comes to an absolute and open display of God's righteousness that shall stand for all time and be a witness to every creature in earth and heaven, then there is only one exhibit that can fill the stand. In the complete faith-obedience of Jesus Christ, the One truly without sin, the One in Whom no fault could be found at all - in the complete faith-obedience of this One, which brought Him, as the Son of God's love, to the ignominy of the cross and thereby provided a way of deliverance which would enable God, while always remaining just Himself, to justify those of the faith of Jesus - in this is seen an absolute display of God's righteousness which is without parallel elsewhere. And it has an immediate effect - in the current era; for such is the display of God's righteousness through Jesus Christ's faith that God, Who had, in previous times, declared that He would not justify the wicked (Ex.23:7), can now be seen to be still just while justifying the irreverent, provided that they have the faith of Jesus. In other words, God can take vessels from those adapted for destruction, and by giving them a faith like that of Jesus, declare them righteous in His sight. And that is exactly what He does.
For on this fourth stand, there are quite a lot of vessels, though not nearly so many as there were on the first. They are similar in appearance and in composition to those on the first stand, the vessels of indignation. In themselves, there is nothing to keep them off the first stand. They are of the same clay; they have sinned like the rest, and are wanting of the glory of God; but let us see what Paul says about them in Ephesians 2. This is how he describes them:
"And you, being dead to your offenses and sins, in which once you walked, in accord with the eon of this world, in accord with the chief of the jurisdiction of the air, the spirit now operating in the sons of stubbornness (among whom we also all behaved ourselves once in the lusts of our flesh, doing the will of the flesh and of the comprehension, and were, in our nature, children of indignation, even as the rest)" - like all those on that first stand - "yet God, being rich in mercy" - here is where mercy comes to the for - "because of His vast love with which He loves us (we also being dead to the offenses and the lusts), vivifies us together in Christ (in grace are you saved!) and rouses us together and seats us together among the celestials, in Christ Jesus, that, in the oncoming eons, He should be displaying the transcendent riches of His grace in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For in grace, through faith, are you saved, 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, being created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God makes ready beforehand, that we should be walking in them."
Here, then, we have it. Here we are among the celestials, where all the troubles of the universe originated. Here we are being used by God to display to them the riches of His grace. In earlier parts of this study, we suggested that the original rebellion against God occurred among the celestials, long before man was created; and that humanity was an entirely separate creation, made in the image and likeness of Himself, to be the form in which God's own Son could come to give up His life for the universe, and remedy what had gone wrong in that higher sphere. Thus humanity is made the vehicle through which the reconciling of the universe is to be effected, even though all efforts of humanity itself are in vain and come to nothing, and it is left to God to provide, in the person of His Son, the one effectual means by which this reconciliation is to be accomplished. For God's Son came in the likeness of humanity, and it was as a Human that He died on the cross, and it is the blood of Christ's cross that brings the peace which is the basis of the reconciliation to God of all that is in heaven and on earth (Col.1:20).
Christ suffered and died as a Man, and the ecclesia which is His body is also made to pass through the form of humanity, and partake of its weaknesses and failures, its tribulations and afflictions, its sufferings and dying, that it may receive in fullest measure the grace of God. Of itself, the ecclesia can do nothing; its members share the vanity of humanity; they are all sinners and, like Saul of Tarsus, onetime enemies of God. It is God Who calls them and justifies them; it is Christ Who hallows them, that "He should be presenting to Himself a glorious ecclesia, not having spot or wrinkle or any such things, but that it may be holy and flawless" (Eph.5:27). And it is this ecclesia, holy and flawless in God's sight, which will be used by Him to display the transcendent riches of His grace to the whole of the celestial universe.
And how does God do this? Simply like this: He shows first that we really ought to be on that initial stand - children of indignation, even as the rest; if we had our deserts, that is where we would be, recipients of God's indignation even as was displayed in Pharaoh. But because of the deliverance which is in Christ Jesus, the One in Whom His righteousness is so wonderfully displayed, He is able to take us off that first stand - to rescue us out of the coming indignation - and place us here, on this fourth stand, where He can display His grace. He has been exceptionally kind to us in not dealing with us according to our acts; He will be equally kind to others whenever they are willing to accept His kindness. Even now we are proclaiming among our fellows a message of conciliation; we shall continue proclaiming this throughout the oncoming eons until all in heaven and earth are completely reconciled to God. We, members of humanity who have the faith of Jesus, are chosen by God to display to the estranged celestial host the magnitude and the marvel of God's grace; and we do this, not by, any works of our own (for God will not have us boasting of our own achievements), but simply by proclaiming to them how God, in removing the barrier of sin through the death of His Son, and thereby destroying all enmity between Himself and us, has been able to create us anew in Christ Jesus.
As God has been gracious to us, so He will be gracious to them. This is the true expectation of the ecclesia, to be used of Him to display His grace to others, that they, in turn, may be truly reconciled to God.
This is, in truth, our glorious expectation--
And this is, indeed, the true expectation of creation, for as Paul tells us in Romans 8:19, "For the premonition of the creation is awaiting the unveiling [the revealing, the uncovering] of the sons of God. For to vanity was the creation subjected, not voluntarily, but because of Him Who subjects it, in expectation that the creation itself, also, shall be freed from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God."
That freedom which we, as sons of God, now enjoy in spirit will ultimately be enjoyed by the whole creation when it is reconciled to God, and this includes the whole of humanity, for God wills all mankind to be saved and to come into a realization of the truth (1 Tim.2:4). When His purpose is accomplished, there will be no vessels of indignation left on that first stand, nor vessels like Pharaoh on the second. God will dwell with humanity, and they will be His peoples, and He will be their God, and will brush away all tears from their eyes (Rev.21:3,4).
But for us, who are chosen to display His grace, a glory beyond measure in being made like Him Who is our Head lies in the immediate future. No wonder Paul prays in Ephesians 1:18 that we might be able "to perceive what is the expectation of His calling, and what the riches of the glory of the enjoyment of His allotment among the saints." God has a marvelous allotment among the saints; He has placed among us that stupendously transcendent display of His grace which will have the effect of bringing back the whole universe into His fatherly care and love, and in awakening in each of His creatures a love responsive that will delight His heart for evermore. This is the allotment which He has in the saints, the true ecclesia of God, the church which is the body of Christ; and we should be eagerly anticipating and pursuing our place in that allotment, which we shall take up fully when our Lord calls us to meet Him in the air, as Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
Let us not be among those drowsing when He comes, but be continually living in eager anticipation of that day!
That He will take us, and through us proclaim
The blessed joys of reconciliation
Till every creature lauds His glorious Name.
We are looking, we are list'ning
For the coming of the Lord,
With His loudly sounding trumpet
And His own commanding word,
When He calls His saints together,
Bidding sleeping ones arise,
Ready for that glorious meeting
With their Saviour in the skies.
We may not be always certain
Whom the Lord has made His own,
But to Him, Who comes to call them,
Each is intimately known,
And in this we may be happy,
When He greets them in the air
Every member of His body
Will assuredly be there.
We are living, we are longing
For that moment of delight,
When our earnest expectation
Will be realized in sight;
When these bodies, frail and failing,
Will assume celestial powers--
What a prospect, what a calling,
What a privilege is ours!
Designated in God's purpose
For a grand and glorious place,
To display in future ages
All the riches of His grace
In His loving kindness to us,
Which to all will be made known--
How in grace alone He saves us
Through no merit of our own.
We are watching, we are waiting
For that long expected sound
That will call us to His presence,
And to joys that will abound,
In an instant, in a moment,
In the twinkle of an eye,
Changed from weakness into glory
For that gathering on high.
This the summit of our blessings,
To be ever with the Lord,
And to wear the glorious likeness
Of the One we have adored;
Then throughout His Father's kingdom
For God's glory we shall shine,
With a splendor all transcendent
And a radiance Divine.