Growth in life, growth in numbers
Eph 3:16-19 That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit into the inner man, 17 That Christ may make His home in your hearts through faith, that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 May be full of strength to apprehend with all the saints what the breadth and length and height and depth are 19 And to know the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ, that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God.
Eph 1:22-23 [He] gave Him to be Head over all things to the church, 23 Which is His Body, the fullness of the One who fills all in all.
Eph 4:11-12,16 And He Himself gave some as apostles and some as prophets and some as evangelists and some as shepherds and teachers, 12 For the perfecting of the saints unto the work of the ministry, unto the building up of the Body of Christ, … Christ, 16 Out from whom all the Body, being joined together and being knit together through every joint of the rich supply and through the operation in the measure of each one part, causes the growth of the Body unto the building up of itself in love.
In this story, we can see that God is God, the real One who worked the miracle (1Co 3:6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God made to grow). Elisha typifies one of the “joints of the rich supply”, one of the four gifts in Eph 4:11 who is joined to the Lord to speak the word of the Lord’s supply to the members. However, according to God’s plan for His building, it is not the gifted members like Elisha who build the Body directly, but they perfect and supply the members so that the members can build up the Body directly (Eph 4:12). So the widow typifies an ordinary member who, by the perfecting of the shepherd-teachers, is able to take her little portion of Christ as the life-giving Spirit (the oil), and let God work to multiply it by filling herself up and overflowing Christ as life to others. Her two sons typify members of the Body who are perfected by the evangelists to go out and obtain empty vessels for the Lord’s filling. Before, these vessels were common, in the neighbours’ houses. But by their gospel, these vessels of clay are brought into the church and become vessels of honour—still fragile and earthy, but chosen and holy (sanctified) by God to become containers of a priceless treasure—Christ as the life-giving Spirit. By the operation of the shepherding member (the widow), the empty vessels whom the evangelizing members have brought into the church can now be filled up with Christ as the Spirit, and God is free to flow until He fills up all the members in the church with Himself.
Without a doubt, the reality of this miracle is the oil; that is, the growth of Christ as life in the members is the reality. Suppose the sons had brought in 1,000 empty vessels, but there had been no increase of the oil? It would have been utterly meaningless. God’s goal is ultimately not to have many vessels; His goal is to have much, much Christ. Thus, the growth in Christ and life is essentially what really matters.
However, it is crucial to note that the increase of the oil was limited to the increase in numbers of the vessels. The Bible does not say how many vessels the sons brought, nor the size of the vessels. Let us suppose, just for illustration, that the vessels each contained one litre (l) of oil (the liquid quantity of a one-litre bottle of water). If the sons had brought 10 vessels, then Christ would have multiplied into 10 litres. If they had brought 20, then Christ would be 20 litres. If they had brought 100, then Christ would have become 100 litres. But no matter how many vessels they brought, once the sons said, “There is no other vessel”, then “the oil stopped”. Here we see a distinction between individualistic and corporate thinking. We are clear that our concern is for the growth of God, for the increase of Christ Himself. On one hand, if we think individualistically, we consider to what percentage this Christ has increased in us, and we make that our focus. On the other hand, if we consider that God’s goal is a corporate vessel, then we will realize that it really does matter how many individual vessels there are to contain Him.
Christ is infinitely rich. In the first message of the summer training, the brother unveiled a picture of Christ who is the one who is infinitely greater than the universe. In fact, he suggested that the reason the universe is so big is to serve as a type of how big Christ is. This Christ wants an expression. For this He regenerates sinners, dispenses Himself into them, transmits all His accomplishments and power into them, and builds them up to be the church, which is His Body, the fullness of Himself, the one who fills all in all. Paul prays that we be strengthened so that with all the saints we may apprehend the breadth, length, height, and depth of this infinite Christ. Can you imagine, this infinite Christ can be apprehended? In mathematics, there is a number called infinity ∞ which cannot be apprehended. In fact, it is not a number because it is beyond all numbers. The Bible says that the infinite, unsearchable, unlimited, knowledge-surpassing Christ can be apprehended by all the saints, built up as His Body, to be the fullness of this universe-filling and universe-exceeding Christ. Hallelujah! What a Christ! What a Body of Christ!
For this to be realized, there is the need of many, many vessels. In the type, through the proper operation of all the joints and members according to the New Testament ministry, Christ is able to fill up every empty vessel that is brought to Him. However, for this, He needs the empty vessels to be brought to Him! Although each member who is present will be filled in life by the proper operation in the New Testament ministry, Christ will not be filled up in His full measure if there are not many vessels for Him to fill up. Suppose there had been only 10 vessels and 10 litres of oil. Perhaps this would have been able to pay only half the widow’s debt, and then only one son, not both, would have had to go into slavery. Suppose there had been 20 vessels, and all the family’s debts could have been paid up. But there might have been nothing left over for them to live on, and then though they would have been free, they might have had to beg in order to survive. But suppose there had been 30, 50, or even 100 vessels. In that case, Christ as the oil would have expanded to meet their immediate need, and then become a surplus to meet their ongoing and future needs.
We must never pit growth in life against growth in numbers. I believe that the two are always connected. I have not done a careful study of this matter, but according to my general memory, whenever you see the growth of the church and of the churches in the book of Acts, it includes both Christ as grace multiplying among the saints, and large numbers of people receiving the Lord and growing in Him as their grace. If we merely think of the Body of Christ as the sum total of all Christians, then we might overemphasize numbers, and neglect the fact that vessels without oil are meaningless to God for His economy. (This is the error of many Christians who think that God’s economy is to give His children a mansion in heaven.) If we think of the Body primarily in terms of our own individualistic enjoyment and experience of Christ, then we might overemphasize the filling up of the vessels who are already present and neglect God’s need for many, many, many vessels to contain the big, big, big Christ. (This is the error of “Laodicean” Christians who think they have so many riches.) But if we see a more biblical view of the Body as the fullness of the one who fills all in all, then we will appreciate that this Christ needs hundreds of millions, even billions, of vessels, each one filled up to the brim and overflowing with Himself, built up together as one corporate vessel, in order to express His fullness. This is the New Jerusalem.
O Lord Jesus! Be our content! Fill us up with You! Overflow in us into many vessels! Expand and grow! Save sinners! Sanctify the vessels of wrath to become the vessels of mercy! Make the vessels of mercy into vessels of honour, filled up with the priceless treasure that pleases the Father’s heart! Build us up! Make us a corporate lampstand, burning with You and shining You forth for Your unique testimony on the earth!