As you’ve already heard a few times now, we have united our morning services because we are always looking for ways to encourage our sense of unity, the reality of our oneness together in Christ, and to practice fellowship together as a congregation of the Lord’s people. Most of us attend one or other of our two morning services, which means we often miss each other on Sunday mornings. So we thought it good and wise to mark and to celebrate our unity in Jesus by gathering today as one assembly of God’s people and I trust that there will be, and already is, a real sense of the blessing of God and of His favor as we join together to worship Him in this way.
It also so happens, as you’ve also discovered, that the date chosen for our “1 Sunday” celebration, is the first Sunday of our stewardship season. And so we’d already planned to be together as a joint Sunday School and we had also planned to break from our regular series working through the letter of Paul to the Colossians to focus on this whole subject of stewardship. Stewardship is one of those fantastically Christian words; code words. We sometimes use it in church. A nice, polite piece of Christianese. What we really mean is the duty of every church member to provide adequate financial support for the many and varied ministries that go on every day and every week here at First Presbyterian Church. But we are polite Christian Mississippians and it’s uncomfortable to be that direct. So we’ll call it stewardship and hope you get the message! But I’m not a Mississippian so forgive me if I’m a little more blunt with you!
As you may know, in places like 1 Corinthians chapter 16 verses 1 through 4, the Bible teaches us that every member of the local church should give a portion of their income as the Lord prospers them. In the Old Testament scriptures, the proportional amount was known as a tithe, a tenth of our income. It may surprise you to know that the New Testament principle is even more challenging than that. Second Corinthians chapter 8, for example, Paul holds up the churches of Macedonia as a model to the Corinthians. He says of them in a severe test of affliction their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part for they gave “according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. And this not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord, and then by the will of God, to us.” And so the New Testament pattern is broader than the Old Testament model. They gave according to their means, Paul says. There’s the principle of proportionality. And they also gave beyond their means. There’s the principle of sacrificial generosity. The tithe is a good starting point. But the New Testament envisages Christians giving more, giving so much in fact that they have to adjust their lifestyle in order to do it. It is costly, do you see. It is radical, sacrificial generosity. That’s the teaching of the Scriptures.
And let me say this before we move on because I think there's quite a bit of confusion about this. From the New Testament perspective, the proportional and sacrificial contribution that we have prayerfully decided upon to give is to be given entirely to the church. The question of who gets our tithe is really not in debate, Biblically speaking. We are not, after all, radically autonomous individuals, giving to whomever as we determine privately, subdividing our tithe among our favorite fifteen ministries, only one of which might be your local church. No, you remember that in the Scriptures the church is the bride of Christ, it is the temple of God, it is the light of the world. The church is the only institution ordained by the Lord for the evangelization of the nations and for the equipping and maturing of Christians. We do not know better than God. God's priority is the church and that same priority should be reflected in all sorts of ways in our own Christian lives, shouldn't it? In our attendance on worship in your own congregation, Lord's Day by Lord's Day, as long as providence permits. In the way we bear one another's burdens, praying for and with each other. And not least of all in our giving. And if the Lord should prosper us to the extent we find we have more money to give beyond the amount that we've already committed to give, of course then we are free to apportion that to anyone as we choose. But as Buz Lowry reminded us earlier, Malachi 3:10 famously challenges us to "bring the whole tithe into the storehouse."
Now I’m saying all of this up front because it’s not a comfortable subject for me, really; maybe not for you either. And I find that in circumstances like that when something is a little delicate it’s best to address it head on and be direct and speak plainly about our responsibilities as Christian people. But I’m also saying it up front like this because I want you to feel what I certainly feel, and that is the bite of a stinging conscience. Giving is a challenging subject, isn’t it? And if we’re honest with ourselves, if you’re like me at least, you will find yourself being a little defensive, maybe making some excuses, even perhaps taking offense when the subject comes up. But when Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” He was reminding us that the way we react to the claims He makes upon our pocketbooks and our bank accounts actually reveals what comes first in our hearts and in our priorities. How you think about money reveals what you’re living for. Think about your expenditure. What does it reveal? What comes first? Is it Jesus Christ or is it your comforts? What has your heart? Your pleasures, your leisure activities, or your Savior? Nothing reveals the answer to that question quite so effectively as what we do with our money. And that stings. Doesn’t it? I feel the bite of that challenge for sure; it’s convicting. So what do we do about it? Is there any encouragement? Any help or hope for us?
Take your Bibles in hand please and turn with me to the stewardship verse that has been chosen by our deacons – Ephesians chapter 3, verses 20 and 21. You’ll find that on page 977 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Such a helpful couple of verses to consider as we wrestle with our giving because these verses help us reexamine our priorities. Our giving will follow our priorities. And these two verses help us think again about our priorities. We’re going to consider the passage this week and again next week under four headings. Two this week, two again, God willing, next time. This week we’re going to think about the divine priority; that is, the priority of God. And the divine presence; the presence of God. That’s this week. And then next week, the divine power and the divine praise. So this week, the divine priority and the divine presence. Ephesians 3:20-21. Before we read it, let’s bow our heads again as we pray.
O Lord, now before us is Your holy, authoritative Word. Give to us ears to hear what Your Spirit is saying to Your Church and a heart ready to respond in new obedience clinging to Christ. For we ask it in His name, amen.
Ephesians 3 at the twentieth verse. This is the Word of God:
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
William Carey, the great pioneer missionary to India, had, as you perhaps know, as his personal motto this phrase – "Expect great things from God and attempt great things for God." Expect great things from God and attempt great things for God. He was willing to risk everything, to give everything, pour himself out in bold, audacious service because of a deep conviction that God was able to do far more abundantly than all that he asks or thinks. And of course, that means Carey is simply mimicking the example of the apostle Paul and learning the lesson of the two verses now before us.
If you’ll look at the passage you’ll notice in verses 14 through 19, just prior to our text, Paul prays an extraordinary prayer; a prayer of such extravagant audacity that it really ought to take our breath away. Look at it with me for a moment. He prays that the Ephesians would be given strength and power through the Spirit that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith. He prays for strength to comprehend, together with all the saints, the love of Christ in its incomprehensibly vast dimensions. And in conclusion in verse 19, here’s the extraordinary climax of an extraordinary prayer. Just when you think he can ask for nothing greater than the comprehension of the length and breadth and depth and height of the love of Christ, he prays that we might be “filled with all the fullness of God,” filled with God to the fullest extent imaginable. What a prayer! And you may even wonder, “How could Paul dare to pray it?” It’s almost presumptuous in its extravagant boldness in just what it’s asking for. He’s not asking for a little bit of help here and there. He’s not asking for guidance. He’s not asking for a modest encouragement from God once in a while. He’s praying for God to fill the Ephesians; for Christ to burst in upon them by His Spirit. For the love of Christ to overwhelm them like endless ocean depths engulfing them. This is a big prayer. How can he pray it? How can he pray it?
Take a look at our passage in verses 20 and 21; this amazing doxology. Here’s how Paul could expect great things from God and attempt great things for God. Or to make the connection with stewardship and giving, here’s why anyone would risk giving with radical, costly, sacrificial generosity like the churches in Macedonia did. Paul could pray like this, William Carey could go as he did, we can give in a New Testament pattern with radical, sacrificial generosity because first of all, because of the divine priority. The divine priority. Paul, remember, is the servant of the church. He’s given his life to plant churches all over the Roman Empire, to help new believers grow up into Christian maturity. There is really nothing that he has not surrendered, no comfort that he has not relinquished, no hardship he has not willing endured, all for the sake and the good of the church. But the church, our passage teaches us, the church is not his focus. The church is not his priority. What is Paul’s great priority? Verse 20 – “Now to Him who is able,” verse 21, “to Him be glory.” The divine priority rules his heart. God is first. He prays as he does for the Ephesians with this almost presumptuous boldness, not because the Ephesians are special – though he loves them dearly – but because he wants the Lord to get the glory in their lives. He’s animated by this overriding Godwardness. Paul lives “to Him who is able; to Him be glory” and he wants the same for the Ephesians and the same for us.
Did you notice, by the way, in Paul's prayer that the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of Jesus Christ, and the fullness of God the Father are all carefully mentioned; all three persons of the blessed Trinity are invoked with care as if to remove all ambiguity that what characterizes Paul and what Paul is after for them is a comprehensively Godward life; a Godward life. Every life is like a bicycle wheel; your life and mine, we're like bicycle wheels, spinning around an axel. When our giving is lackluster and unplanned and indifferent and casual at best, it's almost always because the triune God of glory and grace has been reduced to just another spoke in the wheel of our lives; but He's not the hub of the wheel. He's not the center of things. If God were, first, if you saw again His love for you in Christ, if He came to take central position, everything else would begin to revolve around Him; it would all serve Him. Including how we think about our money. And our great question then would be, "How can I use what I have been given for Him, for His glory, and for His praise?" There is a divine priority that Paul models that we need to recover. To see again the infinite worth of God for whom those who see it gladly give up all, sacrifice all, risk anything, go anywhere, expect great things from this God and attempt great things for Him. When He has first place, giving and going, praying and serving cease to be problematic burdens and start to be at last expressions of our delight in a God whose glory and worth surpasses our ability adequately to adore. The divine priority. It animates Paul, he wants it to animate the Ephesians and to animate all of us.
And then, secondly, I want you to think about the other end of the doxology. God willing next week we'll think about the heart of it, but we're thinking today about the beginning and the end of it – the divine priority; it is focused on God – "to Him be glory." And the other end of the doxology – the divine presence. The divine presence. Notice Paul says in verse 21, "to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus." Now if you backup to the end of chapter 2, you'll see Paul is likely echoing themes that he speaks about there at the end of the second chapter. There he says of the church that it is built "on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself, being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In Him, you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by His Spirit." So the image Paul is working with, the metaphor, is of the Jerusalem temple, which during the old covenant era, in which God was pleased to make His presence known. The outshining of the presence of God, the Shekinah glory it's called, filled the temple. And Paul says now, today, in the new covenant that same glory is seen and known not in a temple made by hands but in the church, united to Jesus Christ, filled with the presence of God by His Spirit.
The Glory of God
Now that is an amazing thought. Isn't it? It's amazing. We may not always feel the depth of this reality, but Paul says the glory cloud, the Shekinah glory that was the great emblem of the Spirit of God filling the holy place, that glory now rests on the church. That is to say, God is here, right now. He's here. We are in His presence. In the old covenant, the glory presence of God was deadly. You couldn't get near it. To be exposed directly to it would really mean the obliteration of sinful humanity. But today, Paul says, now that Jesus has come and the temple curtain has been torn in two – you remember, at the crucifixion; torn in two from top to bottom. The way that marked the entry into the holy place where God's presence is to be found, that temple curtain is torn. Because of the cross, we can go all the way into the glory presence of God and have fellowship with Him – bold, full of joy, communing with the triune God in Jesus Christ. That's the reality taking place in all the mundane ordinary things in the life of a local church. The glory presence of God unseen, sometimes unnoticed to our shame, inhabiting the people of God and the praises of God and the ordinances of God.
And it is that electrifying thought that causes this doxology to erupt from the pen of the apostle Paul in the closing words of chapter 3. If the Shekinah glory, the glory presence of God, fills the church because of Jesus, well then what should the church do? The church, Paul says, to should exist to return glory, to return praise to this great God. God, he says, comes down to fill the church with His glory by His Spirit, and therefore the Spirit of God helping us, glory rises from the church in praise to our great God. The presence of God inhabits the church and so the praise of God rises from the church. To Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus.
You know we have a vision statement; we try to talk about it as often as we can, wherever appropriate, but you remember our vision statement is not that "First Presbyterian Church Jackson exists to make disciples on the North State Street corridor, in the greater Jackson area, and around the world." That's not our vision statement. Our elders were wise in the way that they framed that statement, that sense of purpose and divine calling on our church's life. No, what is our vision statement? Our vision statement is: "First Presbyterian Church of Jackson exists to glorify God by making disciples on the North State Street corridor, in the greater Jackson area, and around the world." And that makes all the difference, doesn't it? That is Paul's point here precisely. We have a clear purpose. It is not to perpetuate our institutions, much less is it merely to make more Presbyterians or to enlarge our particular tribe. Our purpose is the glory of God. "To Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus." That's our purpose; that's our vision statement. That's why we are here.
Our evangelism, our church planting efforts, our internationals ministry which is extraordinary, our school – what an amazing ministry; Buz mentioned it earlier. Our camp and conference center, our women’s ministry, our choir who blessed us so marvelously earlier, the preaching and teaching of the Word of God from this pulpit and in our classrooms every week, and all the other extraordinary things that God is doing here almost every single day in any given week of the year, all of them serve this one vision. We want the world to know the glory of God. We want Jackson to know it. We want the North State Street corridor, our community, to see it – the glory that shines in Christ Jesus. The presence of God that is accessible to sinners of every background and circumstance, we are bold to proclaim has come all the way down in Jesus Christ. He has bled and died and risen and reigns and is a Savior to any and all who come to Him. The glory presence of God is here in the church, by the Spirit, in Christ Jesus, and we want you and your friends and your neighbors and the ends of the earth to know it. That’s our vision.
And so when you hear us talking about giving, please don’t let the cynicism of the age warp the message. We don’t want your money simply to keep the lights on, or merely to grease the wheels of an organization. Please don’t give to that. Listen, if First Presbyterian Church Jackson exists simply to perpetuate itself, we should close the doors right now and walk away. We exist for God, for His glory, to spread His praise by bringing as many people as we can with us into His presence through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s His promise to us when we gather in His name. Give to that. The promotion of the glory of God in the salvation of men and women, boys and girls. The exaltation of God in the making of disciples here and all over the world. Give to that.
So there’s a divine priority. We’re called to check our hearts and ask ourselves who really comes first. Nothing reveals that quite like how we use our money. Who really comes first? For Paul, it is the Lord. “To Him, to Him be glory.” Who’s first in your life? Does that bear scrutiny. If we were all to get our checkbooks out and examine our expenditure – who’s first? Who’s really first? And then there’s the divine presence – His glory inhabiting His church through Jesus Christ. And we want the world to come and see it. We want the neighborhoods outside these doors to come and see it, to see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ. If that’s a vision that you find yourself buying into, give to that. May the Lord help us, humble us, bring us to repentance, and then use us for His glory as we begin, like William Carey, like the apostle Paul, to expect great things from God and attempt great things for Him.
Let’s pray together.
O Lord, as we bow before You, we do confess to You that the way we use our money really is a reflection of spiritual apathy in all sorts of areas of our lives. We are a backslidden people. We have fallen far from the zeal for Your glory that ought to have consumed us. So we ask You please to have mercy on us. Today isn’t really ultimately about giving; it’s about the surrender of our whole selves anew on an altar of worship, presenting our bodies living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service. Please have mercy on us for holding back, for holding things in reserve for ourselves. No, You gave Your Son to redeem us to Yourself. We are Yours. We have been bought at a price. We are not our own. And so now before You, as we adore You for the Gospel, we pray for the ministry of the Holy Spirit to bring renewal, revival, starting with repentance in our hearts, for the praise of the name of Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
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