Saturday 11 February 2012

Real suffering (Ephesians 3:1-13)

Stop… in the name of love

Paul’s purpose is to communicate God’s love. That’s his destination in verse 18, “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” That’s why he prays. Verse 14: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,” Paul begins. He is saying: I want you know what it means for God to love you; What it means for Christ to die on the cross for you.

But there is a problem. His destination is God’s love – that’s where he is trying get to – but along the way he makes a detour. Why? Because of suffering. Look at verse 1.

For this reason, I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ on behalf of you Gentiles
Ephesians 3:1

It is the exact same way he begins in verse 14, “For this reason I bow my knees”. He is about to pray for these Christians to know the fullness of God’s love in Jesus Christ. But along the way he mentions the fact that he is praying this prayer in a prison cell. He is not in a comfortable study, doing his morning devotional on his Kindle, sipping herbal tea and listening to Stuart Townend in the background. Paul is a prisoner of Christ “on behalf of you Gentiles”. The context of this prayer for love – this prayer for God’s power to understand God’s love – is suffering.

And Paul immediately sees: That’s a problem for these Christians.

And sometimes you might be very eager to communicate God’s love to a friend, so you bring them to church, you bring them to hear the talks at the CICCU mission last week (which were amazing!), you bow your knees before God and you pray for them to receive God’s love. But if you are like Paul, you take one look at your friend, and you might notice that he’s been worried sick about his grandmother in hospital. Or that she’s just come off a bad break-up with her boyfriend. You notice these things because suffering may, at times, lead us to cry out for God’s love. But often times, it causes us to question the reality of God’s love. If God loves us, why is there suffering in this world?

Paul stops to deal with that question. He wants his readers to understand that God’s love and our suffering are not two incompatible realities. In fact, Paul will go so far as to say that one explains the other. That is, Paul doesn’t just comfort them, and say, “There, there you poor thing.” He tells them the reason why he is suffering. And it’s very shocking what he says here, I wonder if you’ve noticed that. He says: I am suffering for Christ. I am suffering for your sake. “For this reason, I Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.” Wow!

There are three things I want you to notice in today’s passage:
(1) The reason for Paul’s suffering – which is the gospel (verses 1-6);
(2) The privilege of Paul’s suffering – which is God’s grace (verses 7-9); and
(3) The boldness of Paul’s suffering – which is their glory (verses 10-13)

1. The reason for Paul’s suffering – the gospel

Remember the reason why Paul makes this important stop. He is dealing with the problem of suffering – his suffering! Paul is in prison. Paul is in chains (Ephesians 6:20). But, notice, he doesn’t stop to talk about his painful trials, does he? He isn’t complaining about the prison food or the unfair treatment. What Paul does is he goes straight into the reason why he is suffering.

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, and 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.
Ephesians 3:2-5

What he keeps focusing on is this thing he calls “the mystery”. It is the mystery made known to him by revelation (verse 3). It is the mystery not made known to the sons of men in other generations (verse 5), but instead revealed, only now, and only to Christ’s holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.

What is this mystery?

It is not talking about something mysterious. As in a mystery novel where Sherlock Holmes uses his intuition, takes one look at the clues and then solves the whole mystery. It is also not talking about the mysterious unknown – ghosts, UFO’s and the Twilight Zone. Ooooh, mysterious!

“Mystery” in the bible is something that is hidden by God from man’s understanding. That’s verse 5: It was not made known to the sons of men. “Secret” might be a better word. God had kept this secret hidden for generations, all throughout history – this secret of Christ – of what God was planning to accomplish when Jesus came. What’s the reason why we couldn’t figure it out? God kept it hidden from our understanding. He didn’t want us to know the final destination of his plan.

Until now.

Now, God has revealed this secret, it says at the end of verse 5, “to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit”. Paul is not Sherlock Holmes. He didn’t work out this mystery. It was revealed to him by God – “by the Spirit”.

But why now? Notice that this is called the mystery “of Christ” (verse 4). It was the coming of Jesus Christ that changed the course of history. In fact, the holy apostles in verse 5 – “his” holy apostles – is not a reference to God, but to Jesus. These are Jesus’ apostles. He chose his twelve disciples. He revealed the secrets of the Kingdom of God to his holy apostles. And upon his death and resurrection, he left them his Holy Spirit, to remind them of all that he had taught them and to give them insight into the mystery of God. “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says in Matthew 13:11, “but to them it has not been given.”

Well, that brings us back to the same question: What is this mystery? Paul tells us, in verse 6.

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.
Ephesians 3:6

Hmm, doesn’t sound all that mysterious, does it? Doesn’t sound like much of a mystery, either. Rather, it’s plain and frankly, quite simple. The outsiders are now insiders. Everything that God promised his people, the Jews – everything, which includes the kingdom, the resurrection and eternal life – all of these promises are now given to non-Jews, to Gentiles – “in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” That’s the mystery. It is not mysterious. It is not hard to explain: “If you are in Christ, you’re in.” That’s the mystery.

So again, you might very reasonably say, “What’s the big deal?” And if you think that, it’s because you’re a Gentile. You’re the outsider. You don’t understand what a big deal it is for God to include you into his kingdom.

You don’t get it because you don’t get the gospel. The gospel is the central message of the bible that Jesus Christ died on the cross so that you could be in. That’s the ticket price. Jesus’ death for your life. Some of you take the cross for granted, that’s why you take your life for granted. You think it’s cheap. You think that the money you dropped in the offering bag is your subscription to this church service. You think that going to Rock Fellowship is such a sacrifice. You don’t get that the only reason why you can call yourself a Christian – if you really are a Christian – is that Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross and he took the punishment of God for your sin on your behalf. That is the gospel.

But there’s another way to reject the gospel, and this is probably closer to the reason why Paul brings up the gospel here. It is the reason why Paul stops for a moment from talking about God’s love to focus on the reason for Paul’s suffering. The first way to reject the gospel is to reject Christ’s death on your behalf. But the second way to reject the gospel is to reject those accepted through Christ’s death on their behalf. And I think it’s this second rejection that is central to the reason why Paul is suffering for the gospel.

Paul was in prison because the gospel is offensive. It was offensive to the insiders, the Jews, who said, “How can these Gentiles be included into the kingdom?” They worship idols. They are immoral. They don’t know anything about the bible or about God. How can we let them into our church?

And Paul says this: The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. That’s offensive.

If you’ve been coming to the Chinese Church for decades; and for decades we only had Chinese songs; for decades we have only had Chinese people; for decades we only ate Chinese food! Then suddenly, one day, someone brings huge big bowl of Caesar Salad and plonks it right in the middle of the buffet table at the Chinese New Year. Or one day, a whole group of African Christians join us on Sunday afternoon and they start jumping and raising their hands during the songs. Or one day, a Japanese pastor who speaks fluent Mandarin applies to be our lead pastor.

What is our response? What should be our response? I hope it is this: In Christ Jesus, through the gospel, all outsiders are insiders! That should be our response.

But the reality for Paul was this: that wasn’t the response he got to the gospel. People got upset. They started riots. They even hired men to kill Paul. That’s the reason why he was arrested. Mainly for causing so much trouble for preaching this gospel – this simple message that Jesus Christ is the one and only way we are accepted by God. That was enough then to get people angry with Paul. It is an offensive message.
Yet notice what it took for Paul to understand that gospel. Revelation. God changes our hearts to accept Christ, to accept this message of Christ, and only then, to accept our brothers and sisters in Christ.

That’s very important because of what I’m going to say next. If you don’t see that Christ makes anyone and everyone who trusts in him, acceptable here in the church – you’re probably not a Christian, yourself. I’ll say that again, maybe in a slightly different way. If you can’t look at another person who is totally unlike you – he or she has a different colour of skin, they speak a different language, they come from a background that is entire foreign to yours – and say in your heart, as long as this person trusts in Jesus Christ as their one and only basis for forgiveness and acceptance in God, he is my brother; she is my sister; if you cannot say that, then it’s possible that you are not a Christian yourself.

This has implications on the way we do church membership. On the way we choose our leaders, our pastors, our Sunday schools teachers. On who we marry – whether that person is a graduate or not, Chinese or not, young or not so young. It has implications on mission – do we just reach the Chinese students; are our events just focussed on Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival every year?

I’m not saying that we won’t struggle with this. Quite the opposite: We will struggle with these issues precisely because we are struggling to apply the gospel into these issues; and because the gospel is so radically inclusive and at the same time, so radically exclusive in these issues. God is bringing all things under Christ – meaning every person and every issue is relevant to Jesus. And yet Christ is head over all things – In the end, he will be seen as King. In the end, he alone receives all glory.

The only way to struggle with these issues is to struggle with the gospel. You need to open your bibles (It boggles me how church leaders can debate long and hard about church issues with God’s word closed to the discussion!) and you need to bow before God in prayer – he reveals his gospel by his Spirit. You keep coming back to the gospel. You keep turning back to Christ. And you keep leaning on God’s spirit for his wisdom and revelation.

The gospel will cause us to struggle. That’s a good thing. But the gospel will also cause us to suffer. That, too, is a good thing.

Paul calls this God’s grace to him.

2. The privilege of Paul’s suffering – God’s grace

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.
Ephesians 3:7-9

Again, remember that Paul is speaking to a bunch of Christians, who see him languishing in a prison cell and are probably going, “You poor thing.” And Paul is saying to them, “You don’t get it. Yes, it’s tough. But I know why I’m here. It’s because of the gospel.”

If we were in such a situation, well, if I were in such a situation, I would be tempted to say something like, “I don’t deserve this suffering.” You know, especially if you’re serving God and preaching the gospel, you might say, “Why is this happening to me? Am I not doing God’s will?” I mean, it’s bad enough if you’re in trouble for doing something that you know is bad; you know that God doesn’t want you to do. But what if you’re doing something that you know for sure, God wanted you to do. What if you were obeying God fully and walking according to his revealed will, and then suffering occurs? Wouldn’t you be tempted to say, “I don’t deserve this!”

But what does Paul say? I don’t deserve to be preaching this gospel.

He says, “Though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given me, to preach to the Gentiles” (verse 8). This is God’s grace. I don’t deserve this. It is a privilege to open my mouth and to speak this message of the gospel and be an instrument that God uses to bring outsiders into his kingdom.

Paul isn’t exaggerating when he calls himself the least of all the saints (by “saints” he is referring to Christians. All Christians are “saints”, or “set apart” for God.) He is the last guy you would expect to be a Christian pastor. For Paul to be preaching the gospel would be like getting Richard Dawkins to speak at the CICCU mission, telling hundreds of students to give their lives to Jesus. In the book of Acts, we see Paul dragging Christians to court, throwing them into prison, and at one point, even condoning the murder of the first Christian martyr. He did this with a passion. He did this because he thought he was absolutely in the right, that he was serving God, that Jesus was a fake, and that the Christian faith was deceptive and dangerous. He truly believed this, but his beliefs led him to anger, to violence and to persecute those who disagreed with him (1 Timothy 1:13).

But then Paul met Jesus. On his way to arrest and kill more Christians, there on the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Paul, then called, Saul.

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”
And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Acts 9:4-5

The vision left Paul blind for three days. Led to Damascus, Paul met a Christian named Ananias, who also received a message from Jesus to lay hands on Paul, helping him regain his sight. Ananias was, understandably, hesitant at first.

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Acts 9:13-15

Paul was chosen by Jesus – this former murderer was hand-picked by God – to do two things: to preach the name of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, kings and Israelites; and to suffer for that same name. And here in Ephesians 3, Paul refers to this episode, calling it God’s grace.

For Paul, his salvation in Christ and his service to Christ were one and the same. For Paul, speaking the gospel and suffering for the sake of the gospel, were one and the same. They were given him in accordance with the grace of God.

He did not deserve to be saved. And in a way, yes, he did not deserve to suffer. But not in the way, you or I, would say, “I don’t deserve to suffer.” For Paul, his suffering came hand in hand with his salvation. In another letter to the Christians in Philippi, he writes:

For it has been granted to you for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also to suffer for his sake.
Philippians 1:29

The word “granted” here is actually the word “graced” (echariste). It means that God has given you one gift – one grace – in two parts: to trust in Jesus, and to suffer for Jesus. Both were from God. Both were God’s grace. Paul didn’t deserve his suffering. It was “graced” upon him by God.

The question on everyone’s minds is: Surely, this only applies in special cases like Paul? Verse 4 says, he is a “minister” of the gospel. There you go! He’s a minister. Ministers are pastors, bishops, what-have-you. In the NIV, the same word is translated, “servant” (diakonos). It’s actually a very, very common word found repeatedly in the gospels and the New Testament letters. It just means servant, or employee. In many cases, it even refers to a waiter.

That is, the weight of Paul’s commission is not to be found in that one word, “servant”. It’s in the gospel. Of this gospel – this precious message of Jesus’ death of the cross, which announces God’s kingdom and brings outsiders into that kingdom – of this gospel, Paul is made a waiter. He just serves it up. That’s the waiter’s job – not to add a little something to your dish or dress it up. Paul’s job as a servant of the gospel is to get it out. To pass it on.

And if you are in any way, speaking the gospel to your friends, to the kids at Sunday School, at Rock Fellowship to your brothers and sisters – not just up front on Sundays with a microphone – but even in the car on the way to Tesco’s for your weekly shopping; you need to realise, it’s a privilege. God is graciously using you to make known the most important message in the universe about his Son. It is a message we are entrusted with to speak clearly and honestly. It is a message that God empowers us to know by his Spirit. It is a message that is often rejected. It is a message that often gets us into trouble.

It is a message of God’s salvation, of God’s plan. Of God’s grace. And Paul says, it is a message that gives us boldness in God’s presence.

3. The boldness of Paul’s suffering – our glory

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 realised in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
Ephesians 3:10-12

There is a radical transition that occurs in verse 10 onwards. Up till then, it was Paul who was called to preach the gospel. Up till then, it was Paul’s ministry in bringing to light for everyone God’s plan hidden for ages past (verse 9).

But now, it’s the church, not just Paul, who makes this gospel known. Now in verse 10, it’s the church preaching not simply to the world, but making God’s wisdom known to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” What’s going on?

There are two staggering implications to this transition.

Firstly, the gospel gives birth to the church. That is, in preaching the gospel, men and women are gathered around the Word of God as the church.

We often get it the other way around. We sometimes think that we need to get Christians together to come up with a new message every now and then to be packaged as the gospel. Or we assume that since our church has been around for so long, we must be preaching the gospel. In so doing, we've gotten the means mixed up with the end. Only the gospel produces the church. The church can never ever produce the gospel, for the gospel is the eternal unchanging message of the one salvation through the death of Jesus Christ. What we do with the gospel is guard it from error and proclaim it in faithfulness.

How is this important? In missions and evangelism, the preaching of the gospel is central, and I could go more into that. But instead, I want to mention just one very relevant issue. What are you looking for in a church? Here in Cambridge, students hop from church to church looking for various things: good music, friendship, the kind of coffee they serve during the break, how long the sermon is. As you consider these factors in the church you are hoping to settle in, the question you are really asking is: What is the purpose of this church? What can this church do for me?

I suggest to you, that's the wrong question. The real question you should be asking is: Is the gospel being preached?

You see, if you really believed that the gospel produces the true church, then you would be looking for the gospel. Jesus says that he will build his church and he does so (as we saw in last week's passage) "on the foundations of the apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 2:20) which is again, a reference to the gospel witness to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whatever state the church is in: if it is preaching the gospel, God by his grace will build his church. It may not be big and the coffee might be lousy - but if the gospel is there, God will build his church. The danger is: you may be looking at what may appear to be a vibrant church, but which has no evidence of the gospel; no centrality of the message of the cross. Such a gathering is a very dangerous one to be in. For they have taken the gospel for granted and foolishly taken the glory away from God.

Look for the gospel. Or better yet: preach the gospel. For God uses the gospel as means to building his church.

So the purpose of the gospel is the church. Not many Christians would have a problem with that statement, I should think, but some may with the next: The purpose of the church is not the gospel. Rather the church stands as the result of the proclamation of the gospel as a testimony to the fullness and completeness of God's plan in Jesus Christ. That is the second point.

Secondly, the gospel is the announcement of God’s final plan realised and full victory achieved in Jesus Christ. “The rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” – do you know what that’s talking about? Paul makes a fuller reference in Ephesians 6:12 where he tells Christians, “For do we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

What the gospel is doing then is announcing God’s victory in the face of his enemies – even “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The gospel says: God has won. We see that on the cross where Jesus takes on the full judgement of the world upon himself and defeated death, decay and the devil.

But we also see that one other place – and this is the staggering reality revealed in Ephesians 6:10 – we see that reality of God’s full and final plan realised since creation, in the church. “So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known.”

When you look around you, and you see sinners deserving judgement, now standing firm in their faith and trust in Jesus Christ, looking forward to the day of his return – you see the evidence that God has won. That guy should be condemned. That girl should be an outcast. But in Jesus Christ, they are loved, accepted, redeemed by his blood.

God wants his enemies to see that. There! These men and women are the evidence and proof that when Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished!” all of God’s purposes in salvation and judgement were truly accomplished. Why? Because these men and women – though weak and helpless sinners – stand bold and confident before the throne in Jesus Christ.

In whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
Ephesians 3:12

Verse 12 is kind of over the top language: boldness, access, confidence. It is God saying, “Come on in!”

Dare I ask: Are you in God’s presence? Are you in Christ? Do you approach the Almighty Judge of the Universe with boldness? With confidence?

It was God’s eternal purpose that in Christ Jesus, you are able to do so, right here and right now. It is God’s statement to all who oppose him, and who oppose you because you are in him, that Jesus was victorious on the cross. You stand by grace if you are standing in Christ.

Which brings us to verse 13, which is Paul’s closing statement: Don’t give up!

So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.
Ephesians 3:13

This week at Rock Fellowship we ended by talking about what our non-Christian friends see when they look at us as Christians. Some of us admitted, “They don’t see much that’s different from everyone else.” We could all think of someone who is nicer than us. Someone who is more generous. And even when it came to suffering, we could think of a few non-Christian friends who were in much more challenging situations than we were.

It is tempting as Christians to try and outdo our non-Christians friends, even with a sincere desire to show how much God’s grace has changed our lives. So, we make a special effort to be loving and patient to say, the person in class who is meanest to us.

But you know, the unique thing we see in this passage is not that Paul is suffering in prison – I’m sure there are lots of other people in the neighbouring cells – but why. Paul knows the reason for his suffering, he is able to communicate it clearly to us, he is even able to encourage us through his suffering.

That’s unique. That’s different. And that’s very helpful.

So by all means, do be extra nice to that mean guy in your class. But when someone asks you why, what will you say? “Oh, it’s just nice to be nice.” Or, “I’m paying it forward.”

Or will you say, “That’s what I looked like to Jesus when I rejected him as God. And this is just a small part of what Jesus did for me on the cross even when I was his enemy.” You see, that’s different. That’s the gospel.

Here, Paul is saying something not many people can say, honestly or with conviction. I’m suffering for the gospel. I’m suffering for your glory; without a hint of self-pity, I might add, but with every intention of encouraging these Christians to stand firm in the gospel.

You see, the reaction Paul is looking for is not, “What a brave man, that Paul is,” but “What an amazing God we have in Jesus Christ”. If Paul is still standing in the gospel; if God is keeping him faithful even in these difficult circumstances; then God will be just as faithful and loving in my life through Jesus Christ.

And friends, that’s just Paul stopping for a moment to address the problem of suffering. Stick around and find out what he says next when he talks about God’s love.

Heavenly Father,
Thank you that in Jesus Christ
Even our suffering has a purpose
To bring glory to your name
And encouragement to those around us
Help us always to trust in Jesus alone
Who bore all our suffering and pain
All our condemnation and shame
On himself when he died on the cross
So that now I can stand before you accepted
Confident of your love
And bold in your presence
We ask this in Jesus’ precious name
and for his glory alone,

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