A Response to Ryrie’s Challenge

Justin Johnson

In his most popular book, Dr. Charles Ryrie provides a challenge to Pauline dispensationalists, whom he calls “ultradispensationalists”1. Below is his challenge:

“Ultradispensationalists are fond of using this passage [Ephesians 3:1-12] to attempt to prove that to Paul exclusively was revealed the mystery of the church, the Body of Christ. If this is provable, then the mystery church, the body, could not have begun until Paul came on the scene.” – Ryrie, Charles. Dispensationalism. Moody, 2007. p236.

As far as I know, there has been no direct response to his challenge, though what a shame it would be if I were the first.

Is there proof that to Paul exclusively was revealed the mystery of the church? I believe so, and according to Dr. Ryrie, if there is, then the church began with the Lord’s revelation to Paul.

What a great opportunity from one of the most esteemed living dispensational theologians to consider the Biblical evidence for mid-Acts Pauline dispensational right division! 2

Revelation to Paul

Before dealing with the central element of the challenge all doubt as to Paul receiving special revelation concerning the mystery of the church must be removed.

On this point it is admitted by Dr. Ryrie and most other students of scripture that Paul did receive revelation concerning the mystery of the church. There is abundant proof for this found most notably in passages such as 2 Cor 12:7; Gal 1:12; Eph 5:32; Col 1:25-27, and most clearly in Ephesians 3:3-4.

“How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)” – Ephesians 3:3-4

If words mean anything, it is true that Paul received revelation concerning the mystery of the church. However, the central point of the challenge is not to question the special revelation to Paul, which is commonly agreed upon, but rather whether this revelation was exclusive to Paul.

What Exclusive Means

The popular response to the claim of exclusive revelation to Paul, and the response in Ryrie’s book, is that Ephesians 3:5 proves that other apostles and prophets received the revelation of the mystery:

“Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;” – Ephesians 3:5

Clearly, Paul was not the only apostle or prophet to whom the revelation was ever revealed, but this fact alone does not adequately diminish the claim of Pauline exclusivity.

Exclusive revelation to Paul only requires that he be the first, chief, or sole source of information concerning the revelation, not the only recipient of the revelation.

Pauline dispensationalism does not initially seek to prove that Paul was the only apostle or prophet at any time to receive revelation of the mystery, but that he was first, chief, and our sole source of information about it.

In this way, the revelation of the mystery church is exclusive to the apostle Paul.

Paul the First

George Washington was the first American president. That there was another president in his lifetime does not repeal the historical reality that the presidential office began with him: George Washington was the first.

In a similar way, Ephesians 3:5 simply communicates that the mystery was revealed to other apostles and prophets, but not when, nor specifically to whom.

It is assumed that these apostles are the twelve apostles before Paul, but the passage does not identify these apostles and prophets. They could be, and most likely are, the same apostles and prophets of the mystery one body church Paul discusses in 1 Cor 12:28.

Even if these other apostles are the Twelve (a position I do not hold for important reasons), Eph 3:5 does not indicate when the other apostles received it. If every apostle in Eph 3:5 received revelation after Paul, the mystery would have been exclusively revealed to Paul until it was revealed to others.

Is there any time before Paul (Acts 9) that an apostle taught the mystery of a new creature made of Jew and Gentile, saved without the law, without Israel, apart from their covenants?

The early chapters of Acts and the Hebrew epistles will be searched in vain for such teaching. There we find only the teaching of Jesus Christ as Lord and King of Israel’s kingdom, as part of Israel’s prophetic covenants, and the necessary obedience to Israel’s law.

The Jerusalem church did not go to Gentiles (Acts 11:19). Peter is still keeping the law in Acts 10, and separates from Gentiles in Galatians 2. John writes of the necessity of keeping the law in his epistles, and James and Hebrews is written to the nation of Israel about their covenant and kingdom.

How can we prove that Paul was first? It is proven by a lack of evidence to the contrary.

A Note on 1 Timothy 1:16

“…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” – 1 Timothy 1:15-16

Critics of the mid-Acts interpretation of 1 Tim 1:16 like to point out that “first” here may not mean chronological but categorical as in the word “chief”. But this does not change the meaning of the word “pattern” which connotes that Paul was the one that others imitated. A pattern is the original. Paul was the original to exemplify the cause of Christ to save sinners. A pattern is before the rest, it is first.

Since the pattern was for them “which should hereafter”, Paul is speaking about a point in time where he became the pattern. The pattern for this cause of Christ could come no earlier than Paul. It is right that the word “first” be used in reference to Paul as a pattern.

Paul the Chief

Another way to prove the exclusivity of Paul is to prove his being the chief, or highest in rank in making known the revelation of the mystery. If he was the chief apostle of the mystery church, then he held exclusive authority concerning those things.

Amazingly, this is all but admitted in Dr. Ryrie’s book as he quotes Erich Sauer that Paul held a chief position because of Ephesians 3:8.

“Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;” – Ephesians 3:8.

Saur makes this chief position the “chief herald of the gospel to the peoples of the world” (Ryrie, p.237).

While this is a magnanimous admission that Paul was the chief herald of the gospel (even surpassing the twelve apostles in this regard), it ignores the rest of what Paul said was given “unto me” in the following verse:

“And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ:” – Ephesians 3:9

If it is true that Paul was the “chief herald” because of Ephesians 3:8, he must also be the chief of Ephesians 3:9. Whether or not Paul was first, which I believe it is proven that he is, if he was chief, then there is no higher authority given by the Lord than Paul regarding the fellowship of the mystery of Christ and His church.

Proof of Paul’s Chief Position

Paul exclusively holds title to being the “apostle of the Gentiles” and magnifies his office (Rom 11:13).

Regarding the chiefest apostles Paul says, “For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles”, and “for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles” (2 Cor 11:5; 2 Cor 12:11). Paul was not inferior to any of the chiefest apostles, possessed no less authority, and even added something to their knowledge about what God was doing in the present dispensation.

“For they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: But contrariwise…” – Gal 2:6

Concerning the major churches outside Jerusalem, Paul was responsible for their establishment, leadership, and care (2 Cor 11:28).

“For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” – 1 Cor 4:15

Paul being the father of the Corinthians spoke to his authority as the chief apostle of the mystery church. He held this position exclusively toward the churches outside of Israel.

When Peter came to Antioch, Paul withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed having no right to influence the church there against the mystery truth Paul had taught there (Gal 2:11).

Paul the Sole Source

Apart from the historical reality of Paul being first, or what chief authority Paul held concerning the revelation of the mystery, there is one final way in which it can be proven that to Paul exclusively was revealed the mystery of the church, the Body of Christ.

Where in the inspired word of God do we find information regarding the mystery of the church, the Body of Christ?

This question is more practical than historical. Nevertheless, the answer is extremely useful concerning where in scripture the church finds its doctrine, message, pattern, and commission. Locating the message in scripture is a powerful argument in that it is only through the lens of inspired scripture that we know the true teachings of the apostles.

The word “mystery” or “mysteries” appears 27 times in scripture. Paul exclusively holds every usage of the word in relation to Christ or the church (20 times), and he is the only writer to ever mention the “mystery of Christ” and “revelation of the mystery”.

John uses the word “mystery” to speak of the prophecies of God, Babylon, and the seven stars. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each use the word once in parallel passages concerning mysteries about Israel’s kingdom.

The phrase “body of Christ” is also used exclusively by Paul in reference to the church. Every reference to “body” from the Twelve apostles refers to a physical body and not the spiritual one body of the mystery church.

When we speak of the mystery church, the one body, the Body of Christ, we are using exclusively Pauline language. In this way, we do not know or learn about the mystery of the church apart from the revelation given to the apostle Paul.

If the twelve apostles knew the mystery information, they did not make it part of their inspired writings, and what they did say was often contrary to mystery truth. If Paul had not come on the scene, we would not have a written record of the revelation of the mystery of Christ.


This website is not a theological journal, nor is it an exhaustive response to all of Dr. Ryrie’s arguments, but it behooves me to consider the esteemed dispensational doctor’s proposition since I am persuaded from scripture that “to Paul exclusively was revealed the mystery of the church.”

While I certainly do not have Dr. Ryrie’s pedigree3, nor do you, we are all provided scripture to study to show ourselves approved unto God (2Tim 2:15; 2 Tim 3:16). Consider the passages in this article along with Dr. Ryrie’s critique of Pauline dispensationalism, and be persuaded in your own mind about where the proof lies.

As Dr. Ryrie rightly said, if it is provable that “to Paul exclusively was revealed the mystery of the church, the Body of Christ… then the mystery church, the body, could not have begun until Paul came on the scene.”

The short list of evidence here is enough to persuade me. Be persuaded in your own mind.

1 – Dr. Ryrie’s ultradispensationalist label includes the Acts 28 position which should be separated from the mid-Acts dispensational position held by this website. I would join Dr. Ryrie in his critique of the Acts 28 position held by Bullinger, Welch, and modern variations of separating Paul’s epistles.

2 – Dr. Ryrie was yet alive at the time of writing this. Attempts were made to send him a copy, but he died a few weeks afterward.

3 – Dr. Charles Caldwell Ryrie is professor emeritus at Dallas Theological Seminary, author of the Ryrie Study Bible, and author of many books in defense of dispensationalism.

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Published: January 9, 2016
Last Modified: November 11, 2019
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