by Charles Welch
In the article entitled hope we have referred to three spheres of blessing, the earth, the heavenly city, and the position indicated in Ephesians one, as « far above all ». This aspect of truth is vital. It gathers up unto itself all that is distinctive in what is called Dispensational Truth, and we must spare no pains, nor begrudge the space needed to provide the Scriptural evidence for believing that there are « three spheres of blessing » revealed in the Scriptures.
Now because the term « sphere » does not occur in the Scriptures, is it therefore unscriptural? According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word « scriptural » is anything « based upon, derived from, or depending upon Holy Scripture ». Because, therefore, an English word does not appear in Holy Scriptures, such word need not be unscriptural; it could only rightly be called unscriptural if the idea contained in the term was not based upon, derived from, or depended upon Holy Scripture. Therefore, to say regarding the use of the term « sphere », « as it is not an inspired term we have no means of fixing its force », as one who opposes this teaching affirmed, seems either to manifest ignorance of the English language or to be an effort unduly to influence the unwary. In either case the matter is no longer disputable, for the use of the term « sphere of blessing » has been proved to be both good English and Scriptural.
Our next step is to enumerate in Scriptural terms the actual « spheres of blessing » that are spoken of in the Scriptures, and then to compare and contrast them so that by trying the things that differ we may avoid confusion and keep each calling in its appointed place. Let us begin with our own calling as revealed in the Epistle to the Ephesians.
(1) The sphere of blessing found in Ephesians 1:3 is defined as « in heavenly places ». Again we are not yet concerned as to whether these « heavenly places » are no higher than the firmament in which birds fly; whether they denote the starry heavens; or whether they refer to a position far above all. All that we are immediately concerned with is that a distinct « sphere » is indicated by the words « in heavenly places ».
We now turn to another part of the N.T., where we read of another sphere of blessing: « blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth »" (Mat. 5:5). Once more, we are not concerned with the character of those here referred to, nor with their inheritance, but exclusively with the « sphere » of their inheritance, and we therefore record:
(2) A sphere of blessing is found in Matthew 5:5 which is defined as « the earth ». We assume, but have not yet proved, that « the earth » and « heavenly places » are two distinct spheres. Common sense says that they are distinct, but we leave the proof until later.
Here then are two spheres of blessing concerning which there is no controversy. But in addition to these two, we discover what appears to be an intermediate sphere of blessing, a sphere above « the earth », yet not « in heavenly places ». For this we turn to Galatians 3:14: « that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ ». The question which now arises is, does this passage refer to a distinct sphere of blessing, or is the blessing of Abraham to be enjoyed in one or other of the two spheres already considered? A complete answer can only be given after careful examination, but for the sake of conciseness, we note that in this calling, « there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus » (Gal. 3:28).
This unity does not sound like the constitution of a kingdom, which is what is in view in Matthew five. Rather it so resembles the later revelation of Ephesians that some have adopted the expression « all one in Christ Jesus » with the idea that it declares the Unity of the spirit of Ephesians four. Before seeing the proofs, most, if not all, will agree that Galatians 3:14 does not refer to an inheritance on the « earth ». Yet when we read on to Galatians 3:29, we are prevented from asserting that it belongs to the sphere of the Mystery made known in Ephesians, for we find it stated: « and if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise ».
So entirely contrary is it to the Scriptural teaching concerning the Mystery to make it a fulfillment of any promise to Abraham that we must hesitate to place this company, which is Abraham's seed, « in heavenly places ». We therefore search further in this epistle, and in the fourth chapter we find the following statement: « But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all . . . now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise » (Gal. 4:26, 28). « Jerusalem which is above », is neither « on the earth » nor « in heavenly places far above all principality », and as this city forms the theme of Hebrews 11:9 — 16 and 12:18 — 23, where the « heavenly country » is contrasted with the « earth », we are obliged to record a third sphere of blessing.
(3) A third sphere of blessing, differing from that of Ephesians 1:3 and that of Matthew 5:5 is recorded in the Epistles to the Galatians and the Hebrews, and is associated with the heavenly Jerusalem, a sphere distinct on the one hand from the earth and its kingdom, and on the other hand from the heavenly places which are the sphere of the church of the Mystery. We must now examine these passages, so that our conception of what is « heavenly » shall be moulded, not by our own views, but by what is actually written.
In the first passage, we read that these Hebrews were « partakers of the heavenly calling », but whether or not this means that they were going to enjoy their inheritance in the heavenly places « where Christ sitteth » is not here stated. In the first place, however, let us note that there is the most positive testimony that the position occupied by Christ in Hebrews is identical with that of Ephesians. In Ephesians, Christ is said to have ascended « far above all heavens » (Eph. 4:10), while in Hebrews He is said to have « passed through the heavens » (Heb. 4:14) and « made higher than the heavens » (hupseloteros, Heb. 7:26). What is never taught in Hebrews, however, is that any of the redeemed could entertain the hope of being there, « where Christ sitteth ». The teaching is all in the other direction. We are reminded, for instance, that when the High Priest entered the most holy place (a type of heaven itself) he entered « alone » (Heb. 9:7). These Hebrews had certainly « tasted the heavenly gift », but they did not ascend to heaven to do so; they tasted this heavenly gift while here on earth.
It is therefore folly to point to the fact that the word epouranios occurs both in Hebrews and in Ephesians, and to deduce from this that there is nothing distinctive about the Ephesian sphere. In Hebrews it is Christ, and Christ alone, Who sits in the heavenly place. In Ephesians, the essence of the Mystery is that an elect company of the redeemed sit there potentially with Him. It is this fact that makes this new sphere of blessing unique; a fact which an indiscriminate list of the occurrences of epouranios can neither establish nor overthrow.
While Hebrews speaks of a « heavenly calling » and a « heavenly gift », we are not left in doubt as to « where » this calling is to be enjoyed. The sphere of blessing connected with the « heavenly calling » is the « heavenly country » or the « heavenly Jerusalem » which filled the vision of Abraham, and for which those who walked by faith in the O.T. days suffered the loss of all things.
This calling differs from the one that is associated with Mount Sinai. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all « before the law » (see Gal. 3:17, 18), and the inclusion of Abel, Noah and Enoch shows that is is not essentially connected with the Abrahamic covenant. Moreover the inclusion of Rahab, after the law, reveals that it is of wider scope than the covenant of Sinai, and the presence of such names as Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel (Heb. 11:32) shows that after the law of Moses had been given, there were still those who reached out for this higher and heavenly sphere.
In contrast with Sinai and its terrors, we have Sion with its blessings.
The reader will notice a slight departure from the AV here. The « general assembly » should be linked, not with the « church of the firstborn », but with the « innumerable company ». The church of the firstborn is made up of « the spirits of perfected righteous ones » (Heb. 12:23), or « the spirits of righteous ones having been perfected ». This « perfecting » is the key to Hebrews and is the basis of its exhortation. Either those to whom the Apostle wrote would leave the things that were connected with the beginning and go on unto perfection (Heb. 6:1), or, failing to endure, would draw back unto « loss » and « waste » (Heb. 10:32 — 39). The word « perdition » is translated « destruction » in Philippians 3:19, and is put in contrast there, as in Hebrews, with « attaining » and a « better resurrection » (Phil. 3:11; Heb. 11:35). The word is also seen in Matthew 26:8, where it is translated « waste ».
We would mention here, in passing, the important principle that, what constitutes the initial calling of one company (e.g. the Galatian converts), may also be the added « prize » of another company (e.g. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who had already received the « land » and the « nation » in their initial calling). A further example of the same principle is provided by the fact that « eternal life » which is a « gift » in Romans, is spoken of as an « award » in Matthew twenty five. We will not however, pursue this matter further, as it is not essential to our present purpose.
It is clear from Hebrews eleven and twelve that the sphere of blessing there in view is that of the city which will at the last come down from God out of heaven. This reference takes us to the Book of the Revelation, where we discover two things. First, that those whose blessings are found in the New Jerusalem are spoken of as the « Bride », a company that differs from the divorced Wife who will be restored at the end; and secondly, that this company are « overcomers » who have a « crown » (Rev. 3:11, 12), a further parallel with the believers of Philippians three, who attain the « prize ». (See millennial studies.)
We discover, therefore, that the second sphere of blessing is in the nature of a reward. It is the « heavenly » phase of the kingdom. Abraham could not have forfeited the land of promise, for it was his as an unconditional gift; but in addition to this, he received the « heavenly country », which was associated with his « perfecting ». This « perfecting » of his faith is the theme of the Epistle of James, which regards the offering of Isaac as the « fulfilling » of the initial act of faith whereby Abraham was justified (Jas. 2:23). (See the article temptation James also has much to say in the first chapter about patient endurance and its perfecting work in view of the crown (Jas. 1:3, 4, 12). The heavenly country and city are not for « righteous ones », simply, but for « perfected righteous ones », just as the « prize of the high calling in Christ Jesus » and « the out-resurrection » of Philippians three are for those who go on unto perfection.
If the heavenly country, for which Abraham gave up so much, differs from the land of promise in which he lived as a pilgrim, then we must obviously recognize this heavenly calling as a separate sphere. Moreover it is clear that one of the chief characteristics of this sphere is that it represents a reward for faithful obedience, as distinct from the land of promise which was quite unconditional. We have not attempted to differentiate between the covenant made with Abraham regarding the land, and the covenant made at Sinai. As both operate on the earth, they are both included in the one sphere.
The distinctive place, « where », and the time « when » the Church of the Mystery shall enjoy its blessings and was chosen in Christ by the Father, are given in Ephesians 1:3, 4. We are not now concerned with the true translation of the words, « before the foundation of the world » in verse four, but with the latter clause of verse three:
As the phrase en tois epouraniois is exclusive to Ephesians, and as every other occurrence of epouranios has reference to the character of the « heavenly » thing concerned, but not the place « where » it will be enjoyed, a mere list of the occurrences of epouranios would have only the appearance of argument while lacking validity.
« In heavenly places » is the translation of the Greek words en tois epouraniois. We have seen that the word epouranios occurs six times in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but there it speaks of a heavenly calling, a heavenly gift, heavenly realities, and a heavenly country or city. There can be no comparison between a « heavenly gift » that was enjoyed on earth with « the heavenly places » of Ephesians 1:3: the one refers to character, the other to a place. The occurrences of epouranios in Ephesians must be segregated, for they form a group by themselves. The phrase en tois epouraniois occurs only in Ephesians and nowhere else either in the N.T. or in the Septuagint, a note which some readers may question if they accept teaching given them without verification.
The second occurrence of the phrase is found in Ephesians 1:20, 21, where we learn that this sphere is « where Christ sitteth » at the right hand of God. Whether we continue the use of the phrase « far above all » or whether we exchange it for a more limited rendering, nothing is more certain than that there can be no conceivably higher position in the whole universe than the right hand of God. Such is the height of this exaltation of Christ that the passage continues:
Quite apart from the words « far above », there can be no denial of the fact that there is here indicated a sphere without compare in the whole range of Scripture. To conclude the first part of our examination, we turn to Ephesians 2:6 where we have a categorical statement that there, where Christ sits, is the sphere of blessing for every member of the Church which is His Body. In these three passages (Eph. 1:3, 20, 21; and 2:6) we have indubitable evidence of a sphere of blessing that differs entirely from anything that had hitherto been revealed.
But our task will not have been completed if we fail to take note of the attempts that have been made to discredit the teaching of the three spheres by concentrating attention upon the A.V. rendering of huperanos. The words translated « far above all » in Ephesians 1:21 and 4:10 are adjuncts of the teaching we have already proved by other means, and no alteration or re-translation can make the slightest difference to the threefold distinctions we have already seen. As the word in question only occurs three times in the N.T., it is a matter of importance to ascertain whether it occurs in the Septuagint, and if so, in what connection. A writer who has gone out of his way to denounce the teaching of The Berean Expositor says:
But when we consult the Septuagint, we discover that our critic omits the first occurrence and upon examination we further find that this first occurrence is antagonistic to his contention that huperanos means position but never distance. The omitted reference is Genesis 7:20: « fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail, and the mountains were covered ».
If the subject before us was the comparative value of the various manuscripts which we have to consult in seeking the original text of the Scriptures, it would be right and proper to assess the respective merits of the Vatican, the Sinaiticus, the Alexandrian, and other mss., and at the close of the investigation we should be within our rights if we were to express a preference for one manuscript above another. But if we are investigating the usage of a particular word, and we profess to have given « all of the occurrences », then the omission of one reference, especially one that militates against our own conclusions, is serious. This first reference to huperano in the Septuagint most emphatically uses the word to express distance in cubits, whereas our self-appointed mentor grows almost hysterical in his denunciation of our retention of the A.V. rendering, « far above », calling it, among other things, a blot on the A.V. translation, and adding that « so long as it remains it is impossible for the English reader to get the truth ». These words would have sounded rather empty if Genesis 7:20 had been cited, and our critic's dictum that huperano denotes « position, never distance » looks absurd in the presence of these 15 cubits! We have more to bring forward from Genesis 7:20 in a moment, but it will be better appreciated after we have allowed our critic a little more space.
The third and last occurrence of huperano in the N.T. is found in Hebrews 9:5, which reads: « and over it the cherubim of glory shadowing the mercy seat ». The critic's comment is:
He further suggests that probably the lower parts of the Cherubim were « below » the crown of the ark, and gets so enamoured of this idea that he even goes so far as to say « huperano, in this case, may denote near rather than far », but we recall that he has already prefaced his investigation by saying: « As few of us are sufficiently adept in either Greek or English to pass judgment upon such grammatical and idiomatic problems, we will base nothing on expert evidence », so that we need not be greatly concerned. The Scriptures themselves are the only and final appeal.
The Apostle is not concerned in Hebrews 9:5 with the fact that the Cherubim and the mercy seat were made out of one piece of metal. His statement is confined to one feature, and one feature only, namely, that the Cherubim « overshadowed » (kataskiazo) the mercy seat and in so doing he is referring to Exodus 25:18 — 20 where we read:
Here we have inspired usage of words and need not be adepts either in Hebrew, Greek, or English, to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word here translated « on high ». Maal is translated in the LXX by puerano, and so provides an infallible authority for the usage and meaning of the word. Maal occurs in such passages as « in heaven above » (Ex. 20:4); « from his shoulders and upward » (1 Sam. 9:2); « the clouds above » (Prov. 8:28). Whoever used the word huperano in Genesis 7:20 and elsewhere, had no hesitation in using it for a measurable distance, whether for the height of the water above the mountains, or the height of the wings of the overshadowing Cherubim. Doubtless he would have been surprised to have learned that huperano contained no idea of « distance », and that in the reference to the Cherubim, it might mean near rather than far. However good our intention may be, we are all liable to go to such lengths when seeking support for any particular line of teaching. Although we have written on the subject again and again, our critic has never understood that when we speak of a position « far above all heavens », we have no idea that when Christ ascended up far above all heavens He was « outside the heavens ». What we have maintained is that « the heavens » that are in view since the six days creation are the only heavens associated with the redeemed until the revelation of the Mystery, and that no redeemed child of God has any prospect of association with the heaven of Genesis 1:1 except the church of the Mystery chosen in Christ before the period referred to in Genesis 1:2. (See the article entitled heaven). As many of our readers may not have access to our early writings, and as it is essential that this matter should be clarified, we repeat what has been in print for over forty years, so that all may see, if they will but take the trouble, that so far as we are concerned, we have nothing in common with any teaching that puts the church of the One Body outside the realm of Genesis 1:1. In 1917 (The Berean Expositor Vol. VII, p. 8) we wrote:
As two words are used, both translated « heavenly », we are justified in attempting to discriminate, and as epi is added to ouranios, and huperano supplies the idea, we adopted the Latin equivalent of huper and added super—coining the word « over-heavens » for the special usage found in Ephesians 1:3,20 and 2:6.
On page 45 of the same volume we have the following:
In such translations as « over-heavens », « far above all heavens », « made higher than the heavens », it is evident that a sphere beyond the limitations of the heavens of Genesis 1:8 is intended. That this was and is our meaning, let the following quotation from Vol. XI (1921), page 76, bear witness:
In our pamphlet entitled Far above all occurs the following:
Having established from the Scriptures, quite independently of the occurrences or the meaning of either epouranios or huperano, the fact that there are three distinct companies of believers who are destined to inherit blessings in three distinct spheres, we can dismiss the question as to how « far » this exalted sphere is above all others; the answer to the question makes no difference to the fact that the Scriptures speak of three different spheres. For the sake of clarity we summarize our findings.
There are blessings that are to be enjoyed on earth. Those who will occupy the central position in this sphere are Israel, and this calling is expressed in the terms of a Kingdom. Gentile nations, while blessed in this same sphere, will be subservient, for to Israel, and Israel alone, is the Kingdom, and to Israel on the earth pertains the « adoption ». Israel is the firstborn among the nations.
There are other blessings that are to be enjoyed in the heavenly country and the heavenly city. These are the blessings of Abraham, and the calling is that of « The Bride » (a calling that must be kept distinct from that of the restoration of Israel, « The Wife »). Gentiles, as well as Israel, go to form this company called « The Bride », where there is neither Jew nor Greek, but where both alike are reckoned as Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise. Instead of nations being subservient to this company of the redeemed, it is angels who are associated with them in a subordinate position. To this company, in this sphere, pertains this particular « adoption »; they are the church of the Firstborn whose names are written in heaven.
There are, however, blessings that are neither those of Israel as a kingdom, nor of the heavenly calling of the Bride, and these are enjoyed in heavenly places where Christ sits, far above all principality and power and far above all heavens. They who enjoy them constitute neither a Kingdom nor the Bride, but are the Body of Christ and a perfect Man. While individuals of Israel who believe are not precluded, this calling is mainly Gentile, for it operates during the period of Israel's blindness. This company also has a citizenship, but it is one which has nothing to do with the New Jerusalem; neither nations nor angels are subservient to it, but principalities and powers. To this company pertains the « adoption » associated with this sphere, and Christ, as the Firstborn from the dead, is its Head, each believer of the company forming a member of the Church which is His Body.
As this highest of all callings is the subject of a Secret that goes back before the overthrow of the world (Gen. 1:2), so it goes up beyond the « firmament that was called heaven » which spans the ages, and finds its sphere in the over-heavens; those heavens of Genesis 1:1 which remain unmoved by the ebb and flow of time, sin, death, or dispensational change.