The Mystery of the Gospel

Series: New Community

Sermon by David Strain on Jun 14, 2015

Ephesians 3:1-13

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Now if you would, take a copy of the Bible in your hands and turn to the New Testament Scriptures to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 3; page 977. Before we pray and read, let me say by way of preface that I find it enormously encouraging to notice that Ephesians chapter 3 begins with an interruption. Verse 1 - “For this reason, I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles” and then he breaks off the thought and engages in a kind of excursus, a digression that he does not come back to, to complete the thought, until verse 14. So you see that in verse 14? “For this reason” - and he’s picking up where he left off. Now I hope you can see why I find it enormously encouraging. What is it that has been interrupted in verse 1? Well verse 14 and following makes it plain that it is Paul’s prayer that has been interrupted. In verse 1 he has set out to pray but has gotten distracted. Another thought intrudes; he can’t pray yet. That really comforts me. I hope it comforts you. Apparently even Paul, when he sets out to pray, gets sidetracked. Although to be fair, when I get sidetracked - I’m pretty sure when you do too - more often than not it’s by something mundane or frivolous, right? Emails and social media and daydreaming and the preoccupations of the busyness of the day ahead.

Well Paul’s interruption, as it turns out in verses 1 through 13, could not be more important. It is a digression, it is an interruption, but it is a vital one, a happy one for all that. And so it will be the focus of our attention this morning. Before we read it, however, I want to ask you not to do what Paul does here. As we come to prayer, I’d like for you to stay with me and turn your attention to God and bow your heads with me as we pray. Let’s pray.

Almighty God our Father, we come to You pleading for Your Spirit by whom the mystery of Christ has been revealed to us in Holy Scripture. Send Him to us afresh and help us by His work in our minds and hearts to hear and believe and embrace and obey Your Word. Give us both a hunger for it and true satisfaction in it. Make us long for it as babes longing for pure, spiritual milk and then satisfy us with it so that with joy in the Gospel we may live for Your glory from this day forth and forever. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Ephesians chapter 3 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles -  assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly.  When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

 

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power.  To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.

A Happy Digression

A few weeks back I mentioned a childhood vacation in Morecambe Bay in the northwest of England. I have another childhood vacation memory to share with you this morning, this time a trip to the south of France. We would often drive from Glasgow through Scotland, down through England, across on the ferry to France, and drive all the way down to where the Pyrenees Mountains meet the Mediterranean to a little village on the shores of the south of France. Only on this occasion we found ourselves stuck on the equivalent of the interstate because the French truckers unions decided the best mechanism for protest would be to park their eighteen-wheelers on the interstate blocking traffic in every direction, effectively causing the country to grind to a halt. And so what was already a long trip was made significantly longer by a diversion, a digression, a detour through the Massif Central - the mountain range that covers about 15% of the country of France. It seemed at first like a tedious, frustrating diversion from our purpose but it actually turned out to be a breathtaking scenic trip - the roads curling round hairpin mountain bends with plunging valleys and soaring peaks on every side. Between our gasps of fear at the death-defying road and gasps of awe at the grandeur all around us, it was an absolutely unforgettable journey. I’m so thankful for that detour. It was a happy digression.

And as we come to the opening thirteen verses of chapter 3 we have another happy digression. It is no less welcome, no less beautiful, no less memorable than that trip I made at vacation one summer. Paul, you will remember, has begun to pray. And as he does so he mentions his present circumstances as he prays. Verse 1 - he is a “prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of the Gentiles.” But that thought triggers in Paul the need to press the pause button on his prayer and to explain instead the nature of his ministry in more detail. The Ephesians may not fully understand why Paul is in jail, why he is in prison. “Why is he suffering? Is it worth suffering for?” And so in what ensues, we have one of the most important discussions of Gospel ministry anywhere in the New Testament Scriptures. This is a happy detour.

Notice in verse 2 that Paul describes himself as “a steward.” Do you see that in verse 2? A stewardship has been given to him. Back in the last verse of the previous chapter, Paul described the church as the structure that God is building, “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” The word “structure” and the word “dwelling place” in Greek share the same root as the word he now uses here to describe his ministry, “stewardship.” They all relate to a house or a dwelling or a household or a home. The people of God, the Church, is the dwelling place of God. The Church is His house. And Paul, we now learn, is the steward who works in that house to care for it and provide for it and to arrange its affairs. It is the stewardship of God’s grace given to Paul for the Ephesian church.

But what exactly does this stewardship consist in? What is it that Paul is called to do for the church? He answers that question in three ways. First in verses 2 to 6, Paul explores the stewardship given to him in terms of the message he is to proclaim; the message he is to proclaim. Then in 7 and 8, he explores his stewardship in terms of the ministry given to him by grace; the ministry given to him. And then in 9 to 13, the mission he must fulfill. The message to proclaim, the ministry given, and mission to fulfill.

I. The Message to Proclaim

 

Look at verses 2 to 6 please. First of all, here’s the message he is to proclaim. Perhaps the easiest way to see Paul’s point in these verses will be to reread them, and if you will allow me simply to highlight some of the key words and phrases. Look at the text with me beginning in verse 3. “The mystery was made known to me by revelation.” So Paul has revealed knowledge. He says, “It is made known to me by revelation as I have written to you briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight.” This revealed knowledge has been written down, we are now told, by the Apostle Paul. Verse 4 - “When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ.” So the revelation given to Paul, written down by him, is focused on Jesus Christ. It is the “mystery of Christ,” verse 5, “which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed.” In the Old Testament Scriptures it was made known “but not like it’s being made known now,” Paul says. And so verse 5, “It was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” This whole process of revelation focusing on Jesus Christ that Paul, in common with the other apostles and prophets, has written down just like in the letter to the Ephesians itself, is the work of the Holy Spirit. All of that to say, the Apostle Paul is talking about the New Testament Scriptures, isn’t he? They fill out the partial, incomplete revelation of the Old Testament Scriptures and all of them together point to and explain the meaning and significance and implications of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Apostolic Charge

So what is the stewardship given to Paul? Well as we would put it, it is to expound the whole Bible, the whole body of revealed truth, to explain the Old Testament in the light of the New, to preach the New building on the foundation of the Old, and to demonstrate how it all focuses on Jesus Christ. It is, verse 6, the “mystery that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Paul is to announce to the whole world, to Gentiles as well as to Jews, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ opens the way into the household and family of God for any and all who will trust in the Lord Jesus.

Kent Hughes tells the story of the great conductor, Toscanini. At one concert the audience was wildly enthusiastic with encore after encore following the performance and still the audience cheered on. Eventually there was a lull in the applause and Toscanini turned his back on the audience and said so the orchestra could hear, “I am nothing. You are nothing. Beethoven is everything!”

And that actually is Paul’s point with regard to the Gospel, isn’t it? As we go to the whole world with the Word of God on every page, in every book, in psalms and histories and prophecies and proverbs, in law codes and love songs, Christ is everything! We might like the message to be shaped by the Spirit of the age and the agenda of the culture; we might like to hear, I suppose, an uplifting inspirational message that affirms your choices and helps you fulfill your life goals. We might want five minute sound bites or perhaps a stand-up comedy routine in our pulpits. Messages like that doubtless will appeal, but it is not the message given to us by Almighty God. The stewardship entrusted to us is to proclaim Jesus Christ from the whole Bible, to take all who will listen into the Old Testament and into the New and show them Jesus on every page. As Paul says, it’s what the household of God, the Church, needs. This is what the household steward must do. He must give us Bible and he must give us Christ in the whole Bible. He must take us through line by line, precept by precept the whole Book, and follow every path to Calvary, to take us by the hand from every place in Scripture and show us how it leads us to the Savior. He must say to the whole world, to Jew and Gentile, from every text, that there is a place for sinners regardless of their class or color, regardless of their ethnicity or background or education or social status. There is a place for sinners in the Church of Jesus Christ by faith in the Good News. There is a message to proclaim.

 

II.  The Ministry Received

 

Then secondly, Paul explains the stewardship given by the ministry he has received. Verses 7 and 8 - twice, Paul says, to be a minister is a gift of grace. You see that in verses 7 and 8? Verse 7 - “Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace.” Verse 8 - “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given.” Many a minister feels like the Apostle Paul in verse 8 - “the least of all the saints” - perhaps especially as they climb down from the pulpit steps on Sunday mornings. The burdens and demands of pastoral ministry are many; they are weighty. And ministers are, after all, just men - sinful, foolish, weak, prone to pride and despair, given to pretense, often inclined to hide behind the veneer of professionalism. They burn out, they wander off, they grow cold. They mistake chutzpah for godly zeal. They confuse shame for true repentance. They substitute preaching in the place of prayer. Ministers are men and they are sinful men. And there are seasons, if I might speak in a more confessional mode for a moment, when those realities weigh down and press down with unusual force and power.

The Grace and Power of God

How then can we help our ministers from wallowing in self-pity sometimes? How can we help them stay the course and not desert their post when the going gets tough? How can you remind them of the task and the opportunities and encourage them to stay in the fight? Well you can turn them to verses 7 and 8 and remind them that for all the burdens and challenges of ministry, standing above and behind ministry, lending power and force to ministry is the grace gift of Almighty God so that the success of a Gospel minister rests not on his personal gifts, not on the strength of his personality, nor on the compelling power of his rhetoric in the pulpit, but on the grace and power of God that has called him and sent him and works by him in the lives of the people of God. Remind them, remind your ministers, ministry for all its burdens is a gift of grace.

You remember where Paul is as he writes these words, don’t you? Verse 1 - languishing in a Roman prison cell. Doubtless the weight, the cost of Gospel ministry press down upon Paul as he penned these words with unusual power given physical, tangible form in the shackles that held him in bondage, and yet as he begins to write about the ministry entrusted to him, I’m sure those shackles felt lighter, the burdens lifted, his soul lifted, joy rekindled because he remembers in verse 8 the grace gift that God has given to him. That “though I am the least of all the saints, this gift of grace was given to me to preach Christ to the nations.” Is there a sweeter, happier task in all the world than to stand up and say to any and all who will listen, “I have good news for you, unsearchable riches for you, treasure whose value you will never exhaust, whose worth can never deplete or be depreciated. I have Christ for you! A perfect Savior for all and any! The mystery is that you, even you, may find a place among His people if you will trust Him.” What a gift the ministry is. What a privilege and a blessing to proclaim such good news. Brothers in Gospel ministry, seminarians training for the pastoral office, when the feeling of your smallness and sinfulness presses in on you and you feel with Paul that you are the least of all the saints, remember the grace gift of the ministry. Remember that behind and above your labors giving power and significance to your service is the gift and call of God. The measure of the power and usefulness of the ministry doesn’t lie in the strength or capacity of the preacher but in the grace and power of God.

III.  The Mission to Fulfill

The message to proclaim, the ministry that’s given, and then finally the mission to fulfill. Our mission, Paul says, is two-fold; it has two dimensions. First of all, verse 9 - we are “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” The message about Jesus, the plan of the mystery, is for everyone. We’re to go to the whole world, to the nations, to bring to light the plan of the mystery. That’s the task. Take the unsearchable riches of Christ to all people everywhere, across the street and around the world. On June 11, 1739 John Wesley, having been excluded from many of the pulpits of the Church of England and forced to preach in the fields, made this declaration in his journal. He said, “I look on all the world as my parish. Thus far I mean that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear the glad tidings of salvation.” That is Paul’s point. That is the mission given to us. The world is our parish. We have good news for sinners. For all people everywhere, there is a Savior for you in Jesus Christ. We are to go into all the world and make disciples. That is the mission entrusted to us.

The Scope of the Mission

But the scope of our mission, if you will look at the text in verse 10, is even greater than that. This is extraordinary. Did you see this in verse 10? We preach Christ to the world, bringing Jews and Gentiles, all people everywhere, to know Jesus Christ “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” There is a cosmic dimension to the ministry of the Word of God and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That phrase, “rulers and authorities,” is a reference to supernatural powers of evil. It’s the same phrase Paul will use in chapter 6 verse 12 of those powers against which we wrestle, “not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers.” Supernatural evil.

You see what Paul is saying here? When the Gospel shatters the barriers of human division and unites Jews and Gentiles, people from diverse backgrounds into one, when the Gospel takes the good news about Jesus to the whole world, satanic powers are made to see the manifold wisdom of God. Evil, all its malice notwithstanding, is forced to recognize God is right, His wisdom sure, His plan perfect. That’s why Jesus came - verse 11. “This was according to the eternal purpose that he realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus came in order to bring salvation to the world and exalt the wisdom of God over the wickedness of devils. It was God’s eternal purpose. And so when the Church preaches the Gospel about Jesus you see the effect, according to Paul - men and women, boys and girls, are brought from death to life as the good news about Christ is proclaimed and they receive it in faith, and devils are silenced and stunned at the wisdom and victory of God in the Gospel. Sinners saved and Satan silenced that all glory might belong to God.

That is the ultimate end and goal of Gospel ministry and the stewardship entrusted to Paul does not terminate on human beings brought into the Church, as glorious as that is, nor even in the silencing of supernatural evil, but in both and over both, the exaltation of the name of God who does it all. Here is a yardstick, a barometer by which to measure faithful Gospel ministry. Ask yourself, “Does it leave me with my eyes fixed on myself or does it lift my gaze and rivet my attention upon Jesus Christ, a perfect, sufficient Savior, and upon Almighty God our Father to whom belongs all glory and praise forever?”

Before we close, I wonder if you noticed if that’s the task, daunting, overwhelming as it seems, I wonder if you noticed the resources provided for our help? How can Gospel ministers fulfill the stewardship God has given to them since it has not simply a world-spanning but even a cosmic scope? Verse 12 - “Through Christ we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in Him.” Boldness through Jesus to preach and access to God with confidence in prayer through our faith in Jesus Christ so that we may know as we stand to speak in the name of Jesus, that you may know as you open your mouth to take the name of Christ on your lips and as your lisping, stammering tongue begins to proclaim Christ to your friends and neighbors, you have the ear of the King! Access with boldness, access with confidence that you may have boldness to preach Christ fearlessly as you ought.

We have a message to declare - Christ in all of Scripture. And a ministry given to us by grace - to herald the unsearchable riches of Christ. And a great mission to accomplish - to see men and women, boys and girls, from every place and every tribe and language and nation pressing into the kingdom and Satan silenced and all the powers of evil made to acknowledge the wisdom of God in the church through the Gospel. May the Lord bless to you the ministry of His Word and give to you boldness and access with confidence that you, for your part, may fulfill the vocation He has given to you and bring all glory to His name. Let us pray.

Our Father, there are times when we feel the least of all the saints, when we feel our frailty, our lack of vision, our failures to understand the horror of our remaining depravity and the wickedness of our sin that still festers in our hearts; we feel all of that so keenly. Help us, with Paul, to find the secret of a persevering ministry in the grace of Jesus Christ, to thrill to say to any and all who will listen, “I have unsearchable riches for you in Jesus.” We pray that You would use us as a church and as Gospel ministers who serve this church to bring that message to bear upon many, many more that sinners may be saved and satanic powers silenced and all glory be Yours now and forever. In Jesus’ name, amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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