Saturday 30 June 2012

Am I called? (Matthew 22:1-14)

Questioning Jesus

Over the next five weeks, we are looking at a series of debates between Jesus and the religious experts of his day. Now I realise that a debate may not be all that exciting an event compared to say, the Euro 2012 finals happening tonight. We want action. We want to root for our favourite team. In comparison, a boring, intellectual discussion on doctrine and religious issues hardly makes for a fun night out with the guys at the pub.

Yet whenever I get a phone call or email saying to me, “Calvin, could we talk about something important, please?” I have yet to meet up with such a person only to end up talking about football. It is always something urgent. It is always personal.

These debates between Jesus and the religious teachers are not there to entertain us, though the topics of these debates certainly are intriguing: Why should I support a government I didn’t vote for? Isn’t the whole idea of resurrection from the dead nonsensical? Can you seriously believe that God had a Son and his name is Jesus? These are the topics that Jesus deals with, which we will be looking at closely in the coming weeks. They are all there in Chapter 22 of Matthew’s gospel. They are interesting topics. They are intriguing issues. But more than that, they have eternal significance. The bible presents us with two ways to live. Just two. And what these debates are designed to do is reveal which team you’re rooting for. Which side you are really on.

The empty banquet

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
Matthew 22:1-3

Jesus tells a story about heaven and he says, “Think of a big wedding dinner with all the decorations laid out, all the food prepared, all the hundreds of waiters, chefs and cooking staff on the ready, but with not a single guest in sight.” The hall is empty not because everyone got the wrong date in their calendars, verse 3 says, but because “they refused to come”.

What would you do? What the main character of this story does is he sends out even more reminders. Look at verse 4.


Then he sent some more servants and said, “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”
Matthew 22:4

He sends out a copy of the menu - Roast duck! Lobster noodles! Abalone mushrooms! He says, “Tell them, all the food is ready. Just come!” But look at their reaction in verse 5, and notice there, two layers of responses to the king’s invitation.

But they paid no attention and went off - one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.
Matthew 22:5-6

The first group just tears up the invite and goes back to watching the football. “We’ve got better things to do; more important things to do, than to spend Saturday night at a party - no matter how nice the food might be.” That’s the first response. And if we’re honest, we’ve all done this. We get loads of invites on Facebook which we just ignore. We conveniently chuck that wedding invitation card in the trash. “Can’t you see I’m a busy?”

The second group is more extreme. Verse 6: “They seized his servants, mistreated them,” - meaning, they physically abused and even tortured them - “and killed them.”

There are two levels of responses to the same invitation - one ignores it, the other violently rejects it - two very different responses; and that’s important to see because of what happens next. The king sends in his armies to punish both groups. He destroys their entire city. Look at verse 7.

Two responses, one rejection

The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
Matthew 22:7

What’s going on? Understandably, a lot of people read this, they immediately get that Jesus is talking about God, and they object that the king is acting unfairly towards his subjects. “It’s just a dinner!” they might say. “I mean, if he was just punishing the guys who beat up the servants and killed them, that would make sense. But burning down the entire city? That’s going too far.” So the objection goes.

What is so valuable about this parable that it helps us understand what the bible means by sin. Jesus is teaching us that sinning against God means rebelling against the King. It’s not just breaking a rule. It’s not just being bad and sticking pieces of gum under the table in class. To sin is to say to God, “We don’t want you to be king over our lives.”

And this parable is designed to show us how all of us rebel against God in one of two ways - through idolatry or rejection. All of us rebel against God either through idolatry or rejection. What do I mean?

The first group of people, we read in verse 5, “went off” and by that, we think it means they paid no attention to the invitation. But Matthew adds the words, “one to his field, another to his business.” This last description is very emphatic in the Greek, as it literally reads, “to his own (idion) field or farm.” Meaning, they owned their own land. They owned their own business. That’s the emphasis. They were landowners and business owners. You see, the basis of comparison wasn’t the food - how lavish it was for the king to slaughter his cows and oxen or how amazing the evening entertainment was going to be. No, the comparison was that of wealth and power. “I have my own land. I have my own business. Who is the king to tell me what to do? I am my own king.” That’s idolatry. Idolatry is turning away from God to something else other than God and turning that thing into God.

Or, to put it another way: Idolatry is the worship of something less that God. When we use excuses like “I’m busy with work or study or even family issues to talk about God right now” - and I know how acceptable those excuses sound, even here in the Chinese Church sometimes - what we are really saying is, “Instead of worshipping God, I would rather worship my work. I would rather worship my studies. I would rather worship my family.” They are excuses we use to turn away from worshipping the true and living God. That’s the first way we rebel against God, through idolatry.

The second way is outright rejection. But I want you to see, that it is a rejection not simply of God himself - through violence, anger, murder. No, it is the rejection of his word. Notice again, who the people lash out against. It’s the messengers. It is the servants who bring the message of the king, again and again to these same people, calling the hearers to respond to the king’s invitation. The villagers didn’t grab their pitchforks and storm the castle in order to attack the king's army. Rather what they did was more cowardly, and at the same time, more sinister. They took their aggression out on the servants of the king. Literally, the word is douloi, which is the word for slaves: These weren’t soldiers. They were simple postmen carrying the same message. And by the villagers act of violence, they were sending a message back to the king which read, “We reject your word of invitation. We reject your command of authority.”

Together, these two responses constitute one act of rebellion against the authority of the king, which is why Jesus tells this parable. He is saying to the religious teachers and Pharisees, “Do you know who you are dealing with?” God is a king who graciously invites us into his presence. He calls us to celebrate the wedding of his son. He calls us to respond to his word of grace. When we reject his word it is because we are rebelling against his authority. When we reject the invitation to his son’s wedding, it is because we despise how much the king loves his son and we reject how much the king wants us to glorify him through his son.

City of God

The consequence of this rebellion is the complete destruction of the people and their city. Again, it is vital that we notice that judgement falls on two separate levels - the people and their city. The king sends in his army to punish the wrongdoers, those who killed his messengers (together with those who stood and let this happen). But he also burns down their city.

These series of encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders takes place at a specific time and place. Chapter 21 is a turning point in the whole gospel as Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem as the long-awaited king riding on a donkey, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah that this was the Messiah, the chosen king by God to bring order and salvation to the people of Israel. Jerusalem was the capital, not unlike London, it was the place where everything of significance happens - the Olympics, the Queen’s Jubilee, the opening scenes of Apprentice. But more than that, Jerusalem was God’s city. This was the city of the great King David. This was the city of God’s temple where his presence dwelt, which bore his holy name.

And all the religious leaders and Pharisees would have instantly understood what Jesus meant when he spoke of the king destroying “their city”. He was talking about Jerusalem. It wasn’t their city, it was God’s. But by their idolatry - by their continual rejection of God’s word - Jerusalem, which historically was a focus of so much of God’s attention; which scripturally, was the focus of God’s revelation; which liturgically, was the centre of God’s worship and presence, this city was now the object of God’s shame and judgement. It had become their city not God’s.

If you look a few verses back to Chapter 21, and verse 45, we read, “When the chief priests and Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.” This parable was directed at people who were confident of their standing in God’s kingdom because of their position on earth. They were church leaders. These were the bible experts. And just in case we are quick to then assume that they weren’t consistent in their living or that they were too liberal in their thinking, we need to understand that the Pharisees were among the most zealous individuals known in history to apply God’s laws in everyday living. They memorised the five books of Moses (word for word, and that includes Leviticus!). Many served in the Temple court for generations. They observed all the cleanliness laws. They gave their tithes and offerings each week. They regarded God as holy, righteous and awesome. In many ways, the Pharisees were the evangelicals of their day. They were mainstream, respected, authoritative, biblical.

They were religious.

Answering the call

Yet through this parable, Jesus exposed how religion can actually lead us away from God. It can even lead us to rebel against God. We see this in the way the city-dwellers were repeatedly described as invited.

Verse 3: The king “sent his servants to those who had been invited”.
Verse 4: “Tell those who have been invited.”
Verse 8: “Those I invited did not deserve to come.”

The Greek word keklemenoi comes from the root word kaleo, which simply means “called”. These were the called ones. In fact, whenever we see the word “tell” in this parable, it is the exact same word for “call”. Meaning, the king send his servants again and again to call those who have been called. The parable is summed up at the end in verse 14, as “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

We misunderstand the word call today whenever we say, “I think God is calling me to be a pastor.” Or, “I feel God’s call for me to go to China.” And whenever we use the word “call” exclusively and primarily to mean some kind of mystical experience which spiritually authenticates God’s direction for our lives, we display that we are dangerously close to being in the same camp as the Pharisees and religious leaders Jesus addresses in this parable. They took God’s call for granted. They assumed by their status and religiosity and knowledge that therefore God was going to accept them based on their status, religiosity and knowledge.

And what they missed was God’s call as his gracious invitation to glorify him through his Son. For us today as the church - which means “called out” in Greek (ekklesia = ek [out] + kaleo [called]) - how much more does this parable remind us the importance of responding to God’s primary call to belong to Jesus Christ (Romans 1:6), and not to turn away because of idolatry or because of the rejection of his word. In other words, you might have been coming here to the Chinese Church for years. Week after week, you hear about Jesus. But have you ever RSVP’d his call to belong to his Son? Don’t mistake your attendance or even your long service record as your basis of acceptance before God. That was the danger of the Pharisees and religious leaders. Just because you are a musician. Just because you are a church leader. In fact, all the more because you are a leader, the bible is asking you, “Have you answered God’s call to be in Jesus Christ?”

Jesus is speaking to leaders, old-timers, Sunday School teachers. But then he turns to the rest of us to say, “How about you?” As we shall see (from verse 8 onwards), there is yet another invitation. The king sends out more servants, but now the call goes out to everyone, not just to the privileged few. It is a call from God to rejoice in Jesus Christ his Son. And what I want to put to you today is that this call isn’t just a call to be in heaven. Answering this call involves God’s plan for the church here on earth.

The good, the bad and the gospel

Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Matthew 22:8-10

“Go to the street corners,” says the king, “and call anyone you find.” The street corners (NIV) is not talking about the sidewalks (or street corners where you find a Starbucks, and the such) but actually describes “busy road”, that is, the roads the lead out of the city, where they turn into highways. The image then, is of these servants, going out as far as they can to the very edge of the kingdom to invite everyone and anyone they meet. Hence, by the end of the exercise, the entire wedding party is filled with every kind of person, verse 10 says, “both good and bad”.

This isn’t talking about heaven. I mean, it is talking about heaven, but it's not just heaven; it is describing God’s open, free and gracious invitation to enter his kingdom through Jesus Christ (the wedding banquet is for his Son, after all) and yet the action of the servants in “calling” is now coupled with “gathering” (sunagogon) all they could find. And that is a description of the church. The church is a gathering of God’s people in response to God’s word. God sends his word of invitation out and those who respond to his good news - his gospel - are gathered into his presence. Earlier, I mentioned that ekklesia was the New Testament word for the church, which literally meant those who were “called out”. In the Old Testament, however, the Hebrew Qahal refers to a “gathering”. And the two terms come together here in Jesus’ parable to describe, on one hand, God’s initiative in calling his church through the gospel (1 Peter 2:9, “God... who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light”), and on the other, our response as the church of gathering around his word and around his Son (Acts 7:38, “The church/gathering in the desert... living words passed down to us”).

The question is: How do you know you have been called and have answered that call? The picture that Jesus gives us in this parable is the gathering of the called. It’s the church, which isn’t a building, but people. The church, which isn’t a gathering of good people, but both bad and good (The word “bad” actually occurs first - bad and good - as if to give it extra emphasis), meaning, it’s not because we have done anything to deserve God’s call. The church, which isn’t a gathering to do good things, but a gathering in response to the good news, did you notice that? What did they do there? It doesn’t tell us. What it does tell us, three times, is that God’s word goes out, and it is his word which brings his people in. What this teaches us is: God’s word gives birth to the church, not the other way around. The purpose of the church is not so much to preach God’s word, as much as the church is the product of the preaching of God’s word. This is important for church planting - you don’t plant a church by getting a bunch of people in order to preach to them. You preach God’s word and it calls people to repentance and trust in Jesus Christ. It means at times people will ignore, that’s what we see in the parable. It means there will be seasons of persecution, we also see that in the parable. But God keeps sending out his word, such that when people do respond to his word, he gathers them around Jesus and they are his church. They are the called ones.

This is counter-intuitive for many of us. We want to set up committees. We want to plan for budgets and search for the right building. And of course, in doing so we wouldn’t dream of leaving out bible study and preaching; we wouldn’t do that. And yet, Jesus teaches us through this parable that God’s word is primarily responsible for gathering his people as the church - not our programs, not our planning. Preaching isn’t simply the feeding of the flock. It’s not something you do as part of your Sunday program (“We have singing, then the offering, then the preaching”). This is something much more fundamental. God’s word produces God’s church, that’s what Jesus is saying. Meaning, when God’s word is absent from our gatherings or when the gospel takes a backseat in our meetings, you really have to start wondering if those who are gathered here in God’s name are truly God’s people.

I understand that we need to find the right people. I know that many of us pray for God to send us the right guy. But hasn’t God given us his word? The ones who carry them are douloi - slaves. Their job is simply to repeat that word and to deliver the message. It is not the messenger, but the message that gathers the guests into the banquet. The messenger is often ignored, he might be rejected, he might even be killed. God sends more servants, carrying that same message, “Come in. Rejoice in Jesus, his Son. Trust in his offer of forgiveness, grace and glory. Everything has been prepared.”

The result is a full house. “The wedding hall was filled with guests” (verse 10). Full of Chinese? No. Full of Cambridge students? No. Full of the bad and the good. Full of those from near and far. Full of people who weren’t part of the initial guest list. Full of people you would never expect to be at such a fancy affair. That is the church. The question is: Is it ours? If we keep on preaching the gospel, it will be. “Go to the street corners and call anyone and everyone.” That’s a very risky thing to do. It is a scary thing to do. And yet it is precisely what God calls us to do. Why? So that we can have a great big church and lots of people will hear about the English congregation which meets in the middle of nowhere? No, because God has done all the preparations to bring all glory to his Son. The king says again and again, “I have prepared my dinner. I have slaughtered my cattle. The banquet is ready.” He has done everything. He has paid for everything. He has done all this for the sake of his Son, and the message is sent out to all who will respond to join him in rejoicing over his Son.

We speak the gospel to the end-roads, to anyone we can find, to the good and bad, to bring glory to Jesus Christ. That’s the last lesson we see in the parable, and it might be the hardest one yet. It would be great if the story ended here: the guests having a good time, the king satisfied that his event is a success, everyone living happily ever after. Instead, we read about one guy who gets thrown out. Instead, we read about final judgement.

Wedding clothes

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. “Friend,” he said, “how did you get in here without wedding clothes?” The man was speechless.

Then the king told his attendants, “Tie him hand and food, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 22:11-13

What are we to make of this? The king notices a guy who doesn’t have his tux on and decides to throw him out of the party. How can that be fair? Weren’t the servant given instructions to invite anyone and everyone to the party - irrespective of whether they were bad or good? Perhaps this was a poor homeless man, it would have been unfair to expect him to turn up in a dinner jacket and black tie, wouldn’t it?

Yet, that’s not even the half of it. The king orders the attendants to tie the poor guy up and throw him outside, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This phrase occurs several times in Matthew’s gospel, always as an allusion to Hell and eternal punishment. It is a picture of extreme sorrow (weeping) together with extreme anger and resentment (gnashing of teeth, see Matthew 13:42 [The parable of the weeds], 13:50 [The parable of the net], 24:51 [The parable of the wicked servant], 25:30 [The parable of the talents]).

First of all, notice that the king comes specifically to meet with his guests (verse 11). They aren’t just a faceless crowd there to fill the empty seats. This king is actually interested in who they are and wants to see each guest face to face. But as he does so he comes across one individual who isn’t dressed in the proper attire: he doesn’t have “wedding clothes” - which isn’t a reference to expensive clothes, but rather, clean clothes. Notice how when asked, this man didn’t have a proper excuse - verse 12 says, “He was speechless”. He didn’t say, “I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have it. I didn’t know.” But rather, by his speechlessness, it implies that he didn’t bother, he wasn’t bothered, and he didn’t care, not even to put on a clean t-shirt. He turned up presuming on graciousness of the king. He thought he could hide in the crowd.

On the surface, it seems superficial. It implies that God is looking for decorum, that the king was looking for an external quality - wedding clothes - that made his guests suitable and acceptable. Yet, the bible repeatedly uses the change of clothing as a picture of what happens when God covers us with the external, outer righteousness of Jesus Christ. Ezekiel describes how God clothes his bride with fine linen and costly garments (Ezekiel 16:10). Paul calls on believers to put off the old sinful nature and to put on the new, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22, 24). Elsewhere, he tells us to clothe ourselves with Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14). In each and every one of these references, God clothes the Christian believer with an external beauty and righteousness, something we did not earn or deserve, rather it is because of everything Jesus did for us on the cross, that makes us acceptable before the King of the universe, and God our heavenly Father. In fact, when God looks at the believer clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, it means he looks upon this former rebel and sinner, as he does his own Son. In Jesus, we are truly and wholly loved by the Father.

Friend of sinners

One last thing. I find it is interesting how the King addresses the man as, “Friend.” At first glance, it may appear that the king is simply playing the gracious host. He doesn’t say, “Hey you!” He calls this man, who has presumed upon the king’s invitation, his friend. And though the man was inappropriately dressed, the king still gives him the opportunity to respond to the charge.

The particular word used here in the king’s address of “Friend” (hetaire), occurs only three times in the New Testament, and all three are found here in Matthew’s gospel. In the first two instances, here and back in Chapter 20 (as part of the parable of the workers), spoken by a ruler addressing his servants with gentleness, in a moment of tension addressing an audience that is antagonistic towards the speaker. So, in the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20, the workers confront their boss. The grumble against him and gang up against him. The landowner says to one of them, "Friend."

Interestingly, in the third and last instance in Matthew's gospel, we find this address of "Friend," used by Jesus Christ himself. It occurs a few pages on in Chapter 26. There in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is betrayed by his disciple, Judas Iscariot. He is betrayed by his friend.

Judas arrived with a mob, armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and elders. Perhaps thinking he could catch Jesus off-guard, Judas devised a plan.

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him. Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.

Jesus replied, “Friend, do what you came for.”
Matthew 26:48-50

Jesus addresses his betrayer as, “Friend.” You see, Jesus knows precisely what this friend of his has in store for him. Yet unlike the parable of the wedding banquet, it isn’t the “friend” who is bound and thrown out in the darkness. Instead, Jesus would be the one who was arrested, it would be his hands and feet that was bound, it was Jesus would was interrogated and put on trial. Jesus would be stripped of his clothes, stripped of all his dignity and hung on the cross. And it would be Jesus, near the end of his life, who would be alone in dark, as he cried out on the cross to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46)

On the cross, Jesus bore our punishment for sin and rebellion. He was thrown into the darkness. He bore our nakedness and shame. And it is this act of sacrifice and friendship shown by Jesus Christ on the cross, from which we receive our righteousness, from which we are clothed in holiness, through which we are loved as sons and daughters of God.

Many are called

Jesus ends his parable with these words:

For many are invited (or called), but few are chosen.
Matthew 22:14

It is an unexpected conclusion. I would have expected him to have said, “For many are called, but few answer the call.” Isn’t that the consistent picture we get from the parable? The king sends out invite after invite, but not everyone responds? Not everyone takes it seriously?

Or, some of us would have expected Jesus to say, “For many are called, but few are live up to the call”, thinking of the guy without the wedding clothes, as a parable of those who presume on God’s call and don’t take it seriously.

But no, Jesus says, “Few are chosen.” Meaning, salvation is God’s prerogative from start to finish. Salvation is God’s grace in calling as well as in choosing. The word “chosen” is the same word elsewhere translated as “elected”. it is saying that God is the one who calls us into his presence and God is the one who enables us by his Spirit to answer that call. It is a totally unexpected conclusion to the parable!

What does this mean for us as Christians today?

1. God has prepared everything for our salvation
Salvation is entirely at God’s initiative and expense. The king repeatedly says, “The wedding banquet is ready. I have prepared my dinner. My oxen and cattle have been slaughtered.” And for us as Christians, God even clothes us with his righteousness in Jesus Christ, to make us acceptable in his presence. God has prepared all, done all, sacrificed all to ensure our entrance into his kingdom and our continued faithfulness to him as our King.

2. God’s call is the good news of his Son
“The Kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus tells us, “is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.” It isn’t simply about the food, in fact, it isn’t at all about the blessings or the food. It is all about the king’s son. God plan of salvation is for all creation to recognise the glory of his one and only Son. He sends out messenger after messenger with the same good news, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

3. Rejection of Jesus is at the heart of our sinful rebellion against God
Jesus spoke this parable against the Pharisees and religious leaders, not simply to expose their double-standards, but to reveal how their rejection of him was indicative of their rejection of God. Through idolatry, the leaders had chosen to make God’s salvation about themselves; trusting in their privilege, their heritage, their traditions and their own status. Through pride and rebellion, they would initiate the murder of Jesus by condemning him to death on the cross, because they rejected Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah.

4. God's call is sovereign and gracious
It doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible for our actions. But it does mean that salvation is by grace from start to finish. For you to have heard the gospel, and for it to have made sense in your hearts and minds that, “Jesus Christ really did die for me on the cross,” - that is God’s gracious call to you and me. And for you to respond, “God, please forgive and change me through the cross,” - that, too is God’s grace working in you. It means, we should never take the gospel for granted, but always seek to hear and be changed by the message of forgiveness and reconciliation offered to us by God in his Son.

As Christians today, we sometimes obsess over the question, “Have I been called?” thinking that it is our calling that sets us apart as special or unique in God’s purposes for our lives. Jesus brings our attention back to the God who calls and the God who enables us to answer that call, first and foremost, as a call to respond to his salvation in Jesus Christ. He sends out his word - the gospel - calling everyone and anyone to turn to him in repentance and to rejoice in his Son. He sends out his servants to speak the gospel clearly and faithfully, calling his people to give their lives in obedience and love to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. This is the God who calls us out of darkness into his wonderful light, who calls his enemies his friends, who calls sinful rebels his sons and daughters making them holy and clothing them with righteousness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, his Son, on the cross.

Hear the call of the kingdom
Lift your eyes to the King
Let His song rise within you
As a fragrant offering
Of how God rich in mercy
Came in Christ to redeem
All who trust in His unfailing grace

King of Heaven we will answer the call

We will follow bringing hope to the world
Filled with passion, filled with power to proclaim
Salvation in Jesus' name

“Hear the call of the kingdom”, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Questioning Jesus

A new series on Matthew Chapter 22
This July, Sundays 2pm at the Chinese Church

Sunday 24 June 2012

Not shy about God (Kids' version)

Let me ask the kids today: Who is the noisiest kid in your class? Who is the kid who is always standing up and saying, “Teacher, Teacher, I’m so bored!” and the Sunday School teachers go, “That boy is always causing trouble. That girl is always looking for attention.” Do you know anyone like that? Are you a troublemaker, a noise-maker like that?

Well today, we are going to meet someone who is speaking very loud, making a lot of noise in church and drawing a lot of attention from everyone in church. His name is Paul. No, not the Paul who played drums for us today - he’s a very quiet Paul. No, this is the apostle Paul from the bible. And If I had to describe Paul in one phrase, I would call him, “Not Shy”. That’s what I would call him: a “Not Shy” man.

And today, Paul is going to teach us that as Christians, there are three things we should be “not shy” about. He’s not saying that we should be noisy in class and always cause trouble for Miss Iris and Miss Helen, that’s a bad kind of not shy-ness. As Christians, we should be not shy about God.

We are going to see three things today. Paul was:

1. Not shy about God’s Son
2. Not shy about God’s people
3. Not shy about God’s gospel

1. Not shy about God’s Son

Why do I say that Paul was not shy about God’s Son. Well just look at the beginning of his letter. The first word he says is, “Paul”, but every word after that is, “Jesus”, “Jesus”, “Jesus”. It is like meeting a new friend for the very first time. You ask him, “Hello, what’s your name?” And he answers, “My name is Paul. But let me tell you about Jesus!” Or when your Dad is watching the news on the telly at home and some of you kids walk into the room, you take the remote and change the channel to CBBC. What are you doing? You want to watch your favourite show, “Sarah Jane Adventures” or “Horrible Histories”. You are always changing the channel!

Paul only watches one channel: Jesus is his favourite channel. Look at what he says.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God - the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who, through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 1:1-4

Paul is saying, “I love talking about Jesus. Every time I open the bible, I see Jesus on every page. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament prophets kept looking forward to Jesus, ‘God promised us that he would send a king like David. When is he coming?’ - that’s Jesus.” And when Jesus did come and die on the cross, Paul says, “God raised Jesus from the dead to show us that Jesus really is the King and that Jesus really is God.” He is  (verse 4 says) Jesus Christ our Lord.

Now that’s very not shy! And you might be sitting there thinking, “It’s OK for Paul to be not shy about Jesus, but I’m not like that.” I’m quiet. I prefer to talk about other things, like badminton or football. Well, the question that Paul would ask you is: Do you know Jesus?

Through him and for his name’s sake we have received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those called to belong to Jesus Christ.
Romans 1:5-6

And what Paul says is, “Have you received a phone call from Jesus?” Now, if you’re a kid, you will say to me, “I don’t even have a phone.” Or, “Whenever I pick up the phone, the call is always from my Mummy or Daddy, or... bleagh, my sister!”

Whenever you open the bible, Paul is saying, you need to hear, Riiinngg! Riingg! (Or the Nokia ringtone - NannannaNaanaana Naanannaananaaaa!) Every time you open your bible, God is calling you. And the question is, have you ever picked up that call? Paul says in verse 6, “And you also are among those called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

Let me talk to the adults for a moment. We often use that word, “call” here in the church to mean something like, “God is calling me to be a pastor.” Or, “God is calling me to serve on the music ministry.” I think that’s a mistake because I don’t see that in the bible. Instead, God always calls us to respond to Jesus Christ. Some of us are so afraid of picking up that call because we think God is going to say to us, “Move to Afganistan!” or worse... “Serve in Sunday School!” Arrrrggghh!!!Nooooooooo!!!!!!! That is, we think that God is calling us to serve him or to do something extremely difficult for him.

When you pick up God’s call, the first thing you will hear is not, “Serve me!” but, “Have you been served?” Jesus Christ did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. God’s call is him saying to you, “Come home.” Have you answered that call?

Well, the first thing we see is that Paul is not shy about Jesus, God’s Son. But the next thing we see is that Paul is not shy about God’s people.

2. Not shy about God’s People

Paul loves the church. Whenever he meets his friends, he is the ultimate not shy guy. He will introduce himself. He will ask them how they are doing. But also, one thing that he will definitely not be shy about is prayer - even if he meets you for the first time, Paul will say, “Let me pray for you!” Look at what he says in verse 8.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times.
Romans 1:8-10

If you met Paul in church today, he would say to you, “I’ve been praying for your exams all week! I’ve been praying for God to speak you through your quiet times! Don’t believe me? God is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times!” I think if you met a guy like that, all of us would agree, he’s a not shy guy!

But let me show something that is even more not shy! Look at verse 10 again.

I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
Romans 1:10

He has never met them before! Did you see that? And he says, “God is my witness how I’m always praying for you.” What kind of person is Paul? Some of you might say, “He’s very friendly.” Others might say, “He’s a very strange person.”

A better answer would be: Paul is someone who loves God’s people. It isn’t because everyone is church is so nice, everyone in church is so loving and they all buy him presents every year on his birthday. Although, I hope that you kids are nice to one another. And when it’s someone’s birthday, at least wish him, “Happy Birthday!” and maybe get him something nice (or make a card). No, Paul loves meeting up with Christians because they are his brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus died for him and Jesus died for me. If I love Jesus, I will love my brothers and sisters whom Jesus died for.

Now a word to the adults. I want us to look at verse 14 and see who Paul is talking about when he says, “I am so looking forward to meeting you.”

I am bound both to Greeks and to non-Greeks, both to the wise and to the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.
Romans 1:14

The older we grow, the harder it is to be friends with people who are different from us. We hang out with friends, but only the friends who like the things we like. Students mix with students. Working adults with their colleagues. Paul says, “I am obligated not just to the Greeks, but also to non-Greeks.” I would put that to us as, “I am obligated both to Chinese and to non-Chinese; both to the students and to the non-students.”

What this means is: when the kids join us for our Sunday meetings, we must be careful of thinking, “So mah fan! All these noisy, stinky, troublesome kids.” Paul is teaching us to say, “We owe it to them.” And what we owe them is the gospel. “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you.”

I wonder if you caught that last bit? Paul wants to preach the gospel, not to unbelievers, but to believers in the Roman Christian Church. One of the biggest mistakes is to think, “I’m already a Christian. I don’t need to hear the gospel. I don’t need to go for Rock. Rock is for new believers and non-Christians.” Here is the apostle Paul travelling all the way to Rome, not for a holiday, not for an evangelistic rally. He is doing what we are doing right now: Reminding Christians that Jesus Christ is Lord. And that’s what we need to do here in the Chinese Church - to keep preaching the gospel.

So, to recap Point Two: Paul is not shy about God’s people. And I hope you are not shy about our church. When someone asks you what you did on Sunday, will you say, “I watched football.” Or will you say, “I came to church and I heard a talk from the bible about Jesus.” Will you be not shy about God’s people?

But finally, Paul is not shy about the gospel

3. Not shy about God’s Gospel

Paul says in verse 16:

I am not ashamed (or, not shy) of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Romans 1:16-17
Paul is not shy about the gospel - that is, he is not shy about telling people about Jesus. Now I wonder, if I asked one of you kids to stand up, and to tell your friends about Jesus, how would you feel? If I asked one of the adults to come up front and to give a talk about Jesus, how would you feel?

I think many of us would say, “That’s scary. I would get very nervous.” You know, I get nervous every time I stand in front of you. I’m sure Yao and Andi felt nervous as well leading us in singing the songs just a few moments ago. That’s why it is good to encourage them after this meeting and thank them, together with the music team for serving us so well today.

But you know, some people are nervous for a different reason. They are scared of telling even one person - not a whole big group of people - but even just a good friend whom they know very well, about Jesus. And that’s because they are ashamed. Paul says we can be ashamed of the gospel.

You see, when we tell people about Jesus, we are admitting that we ourselves have let Jesus down. We are sinners. That means even though God loves us and provides for us, we keep telling God to go away. That is a very embarrassing thing to say to our friends, because we want them to think what a nice and wonderful person I am. But in reality, I know that in my heart, I have let Jesus done again and again. That’s hard to do.

But another thing that’s hard to do is to tell your friend, that he or she needs to come to Jesus for forgiveness. Because you are not just admitting that you are bad and need help from Jesus, you are telling your friend, “You also need Jesus to forgive you.”

Paul says, “I am not shy about the gospel.” Why? Because, and this is a very important reason, so please listen up, kids. Please listen up, grown-ups. Because, it is God’s power to save everyone who believes. When you tell someone about Jesus, you are not just telling them a story. God uses your words in telling the good news about Jesus to change people’s hearts, so that they will say sorry to him and that God will save them through Jesus’ death on the cross.

But Paul gives us a second reason. Verse 17: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” The second reason is: righteousness. What’s that? I want you to think of righteousness like this: It is a report card you get at the end of year in school, which you then hand back to your parents, and they go, “Hmmm, ‘B’ for Art, OK. ‘C’ for PE, oh well. ‘A’ for maths, you must be Chinese.” For grownups, your righteousness or your report card is your CV which you use to apply for a job. Or it’s your morality - all the good things you did today, separated the rubbish into recycle bins, mowed the lawn, came to church. And a lot of people think, that when they see God, they will produce a report card of all the good things they did in life, and God will go, “OK, come on into heaven.” And we are surprised when the bible says to us, “You’ve got it upside down.”

And what we’ve missed is Paul is not talking about our righteousness, but Gods. “For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed.” He is saying, “When you look at the bible, you should see what God has done, how good God is, what God’s greatest accomplishment is - and that is salvation through Jesus Christ.” Yet, again and again, people open up the bible, and they don’t see God’s righteousness, but they keep looking for their own. They want to know what they can do. What they need to do. What God wants them to do in order to get into heaven. They are trying to be self-righteous.

This is the biggest difference between Jesus and all the other religions in the world. Or for the kids, I would put it this way: Two-letters separate religion from Christianity. Religion says, D-O: Do! Do this. Do that. Go to that place. Do this number of prayers. Religion has two letters, and it’s D-O. The gospel has two extra letters, it spells D-O-N-E. The gospel tells us what God has done. What Jesus has done by dying on the cross. God has DONE everything for us in saving us and making us righteous in Jesus Christ.

Are you still trying to do, instead of trusting in what God has done? It’s a lot easier to trust in Jesus isn’t it? It’s not about what you need to do for God. Know what Jesus did for you on the cross, to forgive your sin and to bring you back into relationship with him and with God as your heavenly Father.

Not shy about God

Paul teaches us that we should be not shy about God’s Son, but always tells our friends about Jesus. Paul teaches us that we should be not shy about God’s people, but love them as our brothers and sisters. And lastly, Paul teaches us that we should be not shy about God’s gospel, because it saves. What we should do is to trust Jesus and give our lives to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.

Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father,
We confess there are times we have let you down again and again
We have lived our lives our own way and ignored you as our God
We are sorry
Please forgive us and change us
So that we can live with you as our Father
And no longer be ashamed of our sins
Or of you as our God
But to be “not shy” for the gospel
In living for Jesus
And telling others about his wonderful gift of eternal life
We ask this in Jesus name,

Not shy (Romans 1:16-17)

Back in Singapore, whenever we saw someone throwing litter on streets, or a car irresponsibly parked where it shouldn’t be, or a shopper cutting into a long queue at the checkout line, the expression we would use to describe such bad behaviour is, “Beh Pai Seh!” a Hokkien expression which means, “Not shy!”

That is, we wouldn’t simply look at a bad behaviour and condemn it as bad. We wouldn’t simply look upon irresponsible actions and condemn them as wrong. Instead we would say that such a person is “Beh Pai Seh” or “Not shy”, as a way of saying that he or she has no shame. He or she is shameless.

As Asians, we come from a shame culture. Ours is a culture which places a premium on personal integrity, on respect for elders, on maintaining the honour of our traditions and our way of life. Meaning, offensive behaviour isn’t simply that which is bad or destructive, but behaviour which brings shame to our family, actions which cause embarrassment to our community.

Which is why the text we are looking at today is so puzzling. Because Paul says that he is someone who is not ashamed of the gospel. Someone from a Western background reads that and thinks that Paul is simply saying that he is bold; that Paul means to say that he is proud of the gospel; that Paul wants to shout the gospel from the rooftops and let everyone know that he is a Christian and that he is proud of being a Christian.

That is not what Paul is saying at all. When Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he is actually admitting that there is a part of him that is tempted to be ashamed, that is tempted to feel embarrassed for confessing that he is Christian. Do you ever feel that way sometimes? Someone asks you what you did on Sunday and you might tell them that you watched the football. What you won’t say is that you came here to church and heard a talk from the bible. Why? Because that would embarrassing. Paul is saying to you, “I know what that feels like.” And yet, Paul is also saying to you, “You shouldn’t be ashamed. I’m not.” And then he tells us why.

Let me read to you what Paul says in verses 16 and 17:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Romans 1:16-17

I want us to see just two things today: two reasons why we should not be ashamed of the gospel. The first reason is, God saves us through the gospel. And the second reason is, God makes us righteous by faith in the gospel.

God saves us through the gospel

Reason number one: God saves us through the gospel.

Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” or you might even read it as, “I am not shy about the gospel.” That is, when it comes to talking about Jesus and living for Jesus, Paul is teaching us that we should not be ashamed. Instead, we ought to be Beh Pai Seh or Pu Ke Qi (Mandarin: “Do not stand on ceremony”) whenever it comes to speaking about Jesus Christ.

Why? Because it is God’s power for the salvation of everyone who believes. God wants to save his people through the gospel and he uses men and women who are not shy about the gospel.

You see this in the opening verses of Romans. Romans is a letter which Paul wrote to Christians living in the city of Rome, and I just want to point out to you how not shy Paul is in the way that he addresses the believers in this church.

First, I thank my God for through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times.
Romans 1:8-10

What kind of person says, “Do you know that I am always praying for you? No kidding, I even call God as my witness, how I remember you in my prayers at all times.” That’s what Paul is saying in these verses. Who would you say this to? A good friend? A close family member? You read these words from Paul and you may be forgiven for thinking that Paul is a close buddy of Roman Christians. You might be forgiven for thinking he used to be their pastor, who planted their church, who preached Sunday after Sunday and brought many of their members to Christ. That’s why he says that he prays for them and is writing this long letter of sixteen chapters to them.

Actually, no. Paul is neither a close friend nor a pastor to the Roman Christians. Just look at what he says in verse 10:

And I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
Romans 1:10

Did you get that? Paul has never met them before! What he says in verse 10 is: He is praying that God would open the way for him to visit them for the first time! How not shy is that? You turn up in church today and a stranger runs up to you and gives a big hug and says, “Hello brother! I’ve missed you sooo much!” You’re going, “Who is this guy? I’ve never met him before. Help me, someone call the police!”

Some of us know people like that: who are sociable, affectionate, outgoing. Is that what Paul is doing, though - being ultra-friendly? Look at verse 14, because there Paul tells us the purpose why he is so eager to visit Rome. It is not simply because he has heard how wonderful and loving the Christians are. It is not simply because Paul loves travelling and would like to see the world. Actually what he says is that he is eager to visit them in order to do one thing above all, and that is, to preach the gospel.

I am bound to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and to the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.
Romans 1:14-15

It all comes back to the gospel. Paul’s not shy-ness, his eagerness, his PDA (Public Display of Affection) is not a result of an outgoing personality. The reason is the gospel.

Now that says something to those of us who aren’t naturally outgoing, who aren’t comfortable with the idea of imposing upon the hospitality of our friends (or indeed, in having friends who are not shy in imposing themselves upon us). We would much rather mind our own business. If we have to organise church events, let’s keep them within the regulars and members. We don’t want to trouble others; we would rather not have other Christians, missionaries, churches stick their noses into our church affairs, thank you very muchly!

Aside from being unloving, such an attitude reveals a deeper misunderstanding about who we are and what we do as the church. And I want you to notice how Paul puts it. He says, “I am bound” - some translations have, “I am obligated” - to Greeks and non-Greeks. For Paul, the fact that God has entrusted him with the gospel means he cannot keep it to himself. He cannot keep it within his church. He cannot even keep it within his own culture or community. What does he say? I am bound, obligated to preach this gospel to those who are in the Greek culture and those who are not. If you read this verse in the English Standard Version, it actually says “barbarians”. What Paul has done is listed two completely opposing cultural standards - on the one hand, the Greeks, representing a culture that was sophisticated, accomplished and well-mannered; and one the other, the barbarians. Think Conan. Think uncivilised, uncouth, insensitive. The word, “barbarian” was a term of insult. To the Greeks, the barbarian language sounded like nonsensical babbling, and it was actually in mimicking what they heard, that the Greeks named them barbarians. Here, Paul says that he is obligated not just to those from the Greek culture, which he would have been familiar with, having grown up as a Roman citizen and tutored by the best scholars of his day. He was obligated also to the non-Greeks.

And he would say to those of us who have the gospel and understand the gospel, do you know who you are obligated to speak the gospel to? It’s not just to the Chinese, you know. It is both to the Chinese and to the non-Chinese. The reason why we have an English-speaking congregation, the reason why we have a Sunday school, is not so that the main congregation of Chinese speakers can get on with the big responsibility of reaching the Chinese people here in Cambridge. We have an obligation. To the kids who are joining us here today, I want you know, that the bible says, you are supposed to be here. You are welcome here, this is your church. And I am obligated to tell you about Jesus, I hope you know that.

This is not to say that it would be wrong to focus on telling the gospel to those who are Chinese here in Cambridge. After all, in verse 5, Paul reminds us that God has sent him as apostle to the Gentiles. It is a specific focus that God himself has set for Paul: to preach to an audience who were not Jewish (That’s what the word “Gentiles” refers to. It means “nations”, which in the Old Testament, referred to all the other nations apart from the one nation of God’s people, the Jews.) Now, notice that Paul wasn’t sent to his own people. He had a mission, yes. It was a specific focus, yes. But it wasn’t the kind of mission or focus that he chose himself, or that many of us would choose for ourselves today. We choose jobs which play to our strengths. We choose to focus on people who look like us, who sound like us, using the excuse that we are making use of the gifts God has already given to us. Yet when it comes to the gospel, Jesus calls us to make disciples of all nations, not just our nation. Of all peoples, not just our people. For us here in the Chinese Church, this means intentionally thinking about cultures and communities which may have nothing to do with China, Hong Kong, Malaysia or Singapore, but looking beyond to people from Western nations, African nations and Muslim nations. This isn’t some optional extra. Missions is at the heart of gospel ministry. Jesus Christ died on the cross, in order to purchase with his blood “men from every tribe, language people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

I know that sounds scary. Much easier it is to look at what we have and what we’re good at; to do what we have always done and which has always worked for us so far. What we need to do is to look at the gospel. Do you know what you have in the gospel? It is the power of God to save everyone - everyone who believes and trusts in the gospel.

If you understand that, it will transform the way you speak the gospel to people whom you’ve never imagined you’d ever want to speak the gospel to. Not just your friends, but your enemies. Not just your colleagues whom you get along with, but the boss who signs your paycheck. Some of us are terrified to speaking the gospel to our parents, to family members who are older than us. Paul is saying to us, “Look at the gospel. See there God’s power to save. Then look at that person whom you’re hesitant to talk to and say to yourself: I owe it him or her to tell her about Jesus.”

So, Paul is obligated to Greeks and to non-Greeks - meaning, to every culture, and especially to those which were most unlike his. He is obligated to the wise and to the foolish - meaning, not just to the Cambridge graduates and those with PhDs, but he wanted to make the gospel understandable even to those who have never read the bible ever before (these days that includes most Cambridge undergraduates and PhD students), ie. the foolish. Yet, notice his audience in verse 15: “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.”

Now get this, the Romans whom Paul was writing to, were already Christians. Earlier, Paul says, “I thank my God... because your faith is being reported all over the world” (Romans 1:8). And yet, what is Paul’s purpose is visiting these Christian believers, whose faith was so famously known by every other church in the Christian word? To preach the gospel.

Christians need to hear the gospel, not just the non-believers. Did you know that? The reason why we meet as the church, every Sunday here as the Chinese Church, every Wednesday at Rock Fellowship, in our various groups - Joshua, Timothy, Esther groups - is to gather as God’s people around the gospel. We are reminding ourselves that Jesus Christ is Lord. He died for our sins, he was raised for our justification. And whenever someone says to you, “Can’t we move on? Why do we need to keep hearing about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, over and over again? I already know the gospel.” That’s a person that needs to hear the gospel because the bible keeps bringing us back to the gospel. It is God’s power to save us and it is God’s grace to keep us in his salvation.

There are two reasons why someone might want to move away from the gospel. Either they do not know the gospel or they are tempted to be ashamed of the gospel. Some people don’t know the gospel. Actually, the truth is most people do not know the gospel and indeed, they cannot know the gospel unless by the work of God’s spirit. It is therefore a dangerous and irresponsible thing to assume the knowledge of the gospel.

We were having a music practice yesterday afternoon, and after going through all the songs, I said to Yao and Andi, “These are good songs. I love these songs. But there’s one thing we’ve missed. There’s not a single song here that mentions Jesus by name!” Now I know Yao and Andi well and after all these years, I can say in good conscience that these two good brothers of mine know the gospel and they have certainly heard the gospel, week after week here in the Chinese Church and in Rock Fellowship. And again, I thought that the song selection was marvellous, praising God for his salvation in Jesus Christ (which they made special effort in being clear about in their bible readings and introductions). And what i wanted to get across was: Let’s be extra clear about the gospel, even in choosing the songs that we sing. After all, how many times after a Sunday meeting have you had a deep discussion about the sermon (I hope you have had at least... some!), and comparatively, how many more times have you left, humming a song about Jesus we had just sung together? For the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we want to remind them of the gospel in which they have taken their stand. But also for the sake of those who have yet to know Jesus, we want to give every opportunity for them to respond to him by hearing the gospel and giving their lives over to him in repentance and trust. Not everyone knows the gospel, and it is actually unloving to assume such knowledge of Jesus even in a regular gathering of believers but strive to make the message of his salvation clear and understandable to everyone.

But secondly, the reason might be shame. Paul, in speaking to a Christian audience here in Romans, says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel”. Why might a Christian be ashamed of the gospel? Simply put, the gospel is a shameful message. The gospel says that we are sinners deserving God’s punishment because all of us have rejected him as God. None of us wanted God as our King. None of us loved God as our creator. All of us choose to live our lives selfishly for our own good and not for his glory. That’s shameful, to admit that you and I are sinners. There is an old Christian prayer of confession that even says to God, we are miserable sinners. The gospel is shameful because it means we have to admit our shame before God.

More than that, the gospel is shameful because God saves us by taking our shame. Jesus Christ was strung up on a cross, hung there and left to die. The cross is a symbol of utter humiliation. Men and women cursed Jesus to his face in his dying moments, because they thought, “No way would God allow his son to suffer such a horrible punishment!” Many still think that today. And yet, that is precisely what God did in sending his Son to earth, to take on humanity, to suffer our rejection, and on the cross, to suffer the punishment of death for our sakes. On the cross, God poured out all his anger upon Jesus. And Christians point to that one event of Jesus hanging on the cross, saying, “That’s how I know I’ve been saved. That is how I know I am loved.”

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” He also says, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Keep telling people about Jesus dying on the cross for sins and they are going to say to you, “What a load of nonsense!” It is a foolish message. It doesn’t make sense to the wise. It sounds weak to those who are strong. And yet for us who are being saved, it is the power of God to save.

The gospel is a shameful message. It brings us to terms with our shame in our sinfulness. It brings us to terms with God who takes our shamefulness and puts it onto Jesus, who then clothes us with his righteousness, holiness and love. Ironically, it is only is acknowledging the shamefulness of our sin and the shamefulness that Jesus bore on the cross, that we become not ashamed of the gospel.

Paul is not ashamed of the gospel because though it is a shameful message, it is God’s answer in dealing with our shame. On the cross, Jesus Christ bore our pain and our shame, dying our deaths and taking our punishment, so that we could be free from guilt and free from shame. For all those who trust in his death on our behalf, the gospel promises salvation. It gives us new life and a renewed relationship with God. But more than that, the gospel offers us something called righteousness. That brings us to our next point: God makes us righteous by faith through the gospel.

God makes us righteous by faith through the gospel

For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith.”
Romans 1:17

I want you to notice that though the word “righteousness” several times in this verse, in the first two instances it is talking about God’s righteousness - “a righteousness from God is revealed” - and only in the last instance is it talking about our righteousness - “the righteous will live by faith”. So, it’s God’s righteousness first, followed by ours. And that’s an important order to get right because Paul is describing how something that intrinsically belongs to God is transferred to us as Christians.

What does righteousness mean? You can think of righteousness as a list of requirements that someone has that makes him acceptable and opens doors for him or her. So, when you go for a job interview, your CV is your righteousness - a list of achievements you’ve made in school and in your previous work experiences - that you put forward to your prospective employer to say, “I can do this job. Please hire me.” Or when, Cambridge graduates walk up to Senate House next week, their righteousness is their Tripos results - they have passed the exams, they have worked hard for their grades - therefore, each student is then presented to University Chancellor, “Please admit him or her into their degree.” In other words, righteousness is like a ticket of admission. You present it and you gain entry and acceptance into a place, a position or a relationship. This is how much of our world works and understands righteousness - in school, in the office, even in clubs and restaurants - that is we tend to think of righteousness in terms of morality, goodness, uprightness and fairness, respectability.

Which is why many people think that’s how it ought to work with God. We expect that God will let us into heaven as long as we present the right credentials and tick off the right boxes on his to-do list: Be nice to your mum; Eat your vegetables; Attend church every week. That’s our righteousness. Our list of requirements and accomplishments that we present to God and say to him, “Accept me.”

But remember, Paul doesn’t begin with our righteousness. He starts by talking about God’s righteousness. And he says that when we look at the gospel, what we see is God’s achievement. God’s accomplishment. Now, the fact that Paul uses the word, “reveal”, hints at the fact the this isn’t obvious to everyone. I wonder if you’ve ever heard the gospel and realised that it’s not about you, or what you have done, or what you need to do. Often times, we mistake the gospel for religion. Religion might sound like the gospel, in that it talks about heaven and God and eternal life. But the big difference between religion and the gospel is that while religion talks about what we need to do to get to heaven, what we need to do in order the accepted by God, what we need to do in order to gain eternal life - it’s always do this and do that - the gospel reveals to us what God has done. And what God has done is saved us. That’s his righteousness. He has sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins, so that we would be saved.

Interestingly, Paul doesn’t stop there, because he moves on to talk about how we receive - not simply God’s salvation - but God’s righteousness. He says that this righteousness is “by faith from first to last”. What does that mean? It’s saying that all the credentials and CV points that Jesus did have been transferred to us. This includes all his goodness, all his reward, all his humility, all his holiness, all his glory - he takes that and he covers us with them. Like a soldier who risks his life by fighting in a war and is awarded a medal of bravery, but then pins that medal onto someone else, Jesus takes his medal and pins it on us, as if to say, “Everything I did on cross and everything I deserve for dying on the cross, I share with these brothers and sisters of mine.” That’s an awesome picture of salvation. It’s saying that we aren’t simply cleared of all our debts of sin, but our accounts are credited with all of Jesus’ wealth and reward. It is saying that we aren’t simply washed of all our guilt and shame, but that we are clothed in Jesus’ holiness and righteousness. Therefore, if you are in Christ, God looks at us as if he were looking at Jesus; with the same regard, with the same love he has for his own Son.

And Paul says we receive all this by faith. To have faith means to trust, to rely and to depend; and what we trust in are God’s trustworthy, reliable and dependable promises found in the gospel. Faith means we do not deserve salvation, yet God grants it to us as a gift. Faith means we could not do this for ourselves, we receive it simply by trusting in the gospel. So, when Paul writes that this righteous is by faith from first to last - literally, if you look in your footnotes, “from faith to faith” - what he is saying is, “You began by trusting in the gospel; so carrying on trusting in this same message of the gospel”. We begin with faith, we continue in faithfulness, continually coming back to the gospel, continually being reminded of the gospel.

How do we receive God’s righteousness? By trusting in Jesus, and by continuing to trust in Jesus. That’s Paul’s unpacking of the gospel. But remember that it is also Paul’s explanation as to why he isn’t ashamed of the gospel. You see, Paul is banging the same gospel drum here when he uses the word faith. He is saying, “You began with faith in the gospel, well then, continue on in that same faith.” In other words, don’t add anything to it. God’s righteousness comes to those who trust in Jesus and keep on trusting only in Jesus.

What he is dealing with, therefore, is a kind of embarrassment over the gospel, that tries to add something extra to the gospel. That implies that faith is good, but what you need to keep on going is more than faith alone. Paul quotes an Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk, to deal with this point. He says, “Just as it is written, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Quoting Habakkuk 2:4) And this could be a reminder that those who have been made righteous, that is accepted by God through Jesus, ought to go on living by faith. However, the prophet Habakkuk was talking not about daily living, but the salvation of God’s people in the midst of terrible judgement. God promises Habakkuk that he will spare his people - the righteous - and that they will not die in his judgement, but instead, will live. Therefore, Paul is talking about who will ultimately be saved in the final judgement. Verse 17 could be better translated as “The righteous by faith, will live”. Meaning, only those who trust in God are righteous in his eyes. Only those who trust in the gospel are saved.

Paul is saying that embarrassment over the gospel is no small thing. It is a matter of our ultimate salvation in Jesus Christ. The gospel is the power of salvation of everyone - but everyone, that is, who trusts in the gospel. And Habakkuk reinforces that statement by saying that only those whose trust is solely in God’s gospel will be saved.

God is not ashamed

To recap, Paul gives us two reasons not to be ashamed of the gospel.

Firstly, it is God’s power to save. The gospel gives us a boldness and eagerness to tell our friends and family about Jesus because in his great mercy, God has chosen this message to offer forgiveness and eternal life to everyone who trusts in Jesus death for them on the cross. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel. Instead, announce it clearly and confidently, trusting in God’s power to save through the gospel.

Secondly, it is God’s righteousness for those who trust in him. It reminds us of the goodness of God and the goodness of the gospel. We did nothing, Jesus has done everything on the cross. Therefore, each we live is by faith, trusting in him, and being made righteous in Jesus.

In closing, I thought it would be interesting to briefly look at another bible passage which talks about God who is not ashamed of us. That’s a funny thing to think about, that God could be ashamed of us, but then again, we have been reading today about our temptation to be ashamed of God. Hear what the bible says God is not ashamed of:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only say them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.

If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

Who is God not ashamed of? Those trust in him, and continue trusting in him even when they were tempted to turn back. Why? Because compared to everything they knew and had, they trusted in God’s promises when he said that he was going to build them “a better country - a heavenly one”.

If you are a believer who has been trusting faithfully in God’s promises through Jesus Christ, I want you to know, this passage is talking about you. His eye searches for men and women, for boys and girls who hear his word and go, “There’s a promise I can trust. My God is faithful in keeping his word.” The world may look at you call you an alien and a stranger. A barbarian. Pu Ke Qi. Beh Pai Seh. Not shy.

God looks at you and your perseverance and faithfulness in Jesus and says he is not ashamed to be called your God. Keep trusting in him and keep proclaiming Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.

At the cross
God demonstrates His love for us.
While we were sinners Jesus came to die
so by His blood we could be justified.

At the cross
God demonstrates that He is just.
Unpunished sins could not be overlooked
so Jesus took them on Himself.

So be not ashamed of the cross.
It brings salvation to all who believe.
God is revealed.  Guilt is removed.
Forgiveness can now be received.
So be not ashamed of the cross.
Tell of its power to all who will hear.
Great is our joy.  Glory is ours.
From death we can now be set free.
(“At the cross”, Bryson Smith and Philip Percival)

Sunday 17 June 2012

An undying love (Ephesians 6:18-24)

Now I know that know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.
Acts 20:25-27

These are the words of the apostle Paul as he said goodbye for the last time to the leaders of the church in Ephesus. “None of you,” he says, “will ever see me again.” Paul wasn’t going on a holiday. He wasn’t leaving the church because of some big disagreement with the council. He loved this church with all his heart. For three years, he lived in the city of Ephesus in order to plant this church as its founding pastor -  not by buying a building, not by setting up a committee, not by having evangelistic rallies and holding big celebrations during Chinese New Year - but simply by doing one thing again and again: Paul taught the bible every day. Acts Chapter 19, and verse 9, tells us that Paul had discussions “daily”; about Jesus, about God and about the bible, and he did this in a school hall. Not once a week; not in a fancy cafe where everyone could have free lattes and sit on comfy seats; but in a lecture theatre at the Engineering Faculty. There Paul opened up the scriptures and explained the gospel. Imagine that! And Paul says here, to the Ephesian elders, “I am innocent of the blood of all men.” Why? “For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” He held nothing back, that’s why he is innocent. He told them everything from God’s word about who Jesus is and what he came to do on the cross; everything including salvation as well as judgement that is revealed through the single cosmic event of the cross. And because of Paul’s faithfulness with God’s word, Paul could stand before God throne, and before God’s people and say, “I’ve done my job. I have carried out my responsibilities to the full.”

But you see, even though Paul knew he would never see them face to face ever again, he always had a special place for the Ephesian Christians in his heart. More than that, he did everything he could to encourage his old friends back in Ephesus. How do we know this? The evidence is right here in the form of the letter to the Ephesians, which we have been looking at these six months. Paul was in prison and as he sat there awaiting his trial, his thoughts went back to his brothers and sisters in Ephesus, and he wrote to them this letter, saying, “I have not stopped giving thanks to for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:16).

I want you to imagine someone like Judy, Alan, Kinki or Joyce writing a letter like this to us here at the Chinese Church. I want you to have in mind friends who have left us in past years - Richard, Humberto, Qi, Zhu Lin, Ray, Molly, Mimi, Peggy, Chee, Sophia, Andy, Susan, Helen - some of whom we may never see again, at least in this lifetime. Then, one day the post arrives, with a thick handwritten letter addressed to “the saints in the Cambridge Chinese Church, the faithful in Jesus Christ.” What would that letter say? What would you hope to read about this good friend whom you haven’t heard from for ages - this faithful brother or sister, whom you dearly miss - what would you expect him or her to say to us today? “I’m still walking with Jesus.” That would be so encouraging! “I’m serving in a local church and might even be pursuing full-time ministry.” That would be amazing! “Let me tell you how God has been so good to me in my life!” Hallelujah! I think we would all rejoice at receiving such good news from such good friends.

And yet, Paul goes one step further. You open up his letter to the church in Ephesus, and what you find is that he says very little about how he is doing. Rather what you find is Paul saying to us, “How are you doing? Are you still walking with Jesus? Are you still going for Rock Fellowship every week?” In other words, Paul writes the letter of Ephesians to say to them on paper, what he always said to them in person: Jesus Christ is Lord. Keep trusting in him. Keep living your lives centred on him.

You see, the reason why Paul left the church was not in order to find a better position elsewhere. He is in prison. He has been arrested for telling people about Jesus. But nowhere in Ephesians does he say, “I’ve been a victim of a horrible injustice!” Neither does he say, “Pray for me, that God will get me out of this mess.” Actually what he said to the Ephesians elders was, “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me” (Acts 19:23). And here in the letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds his fellow brothers and sisters, “Make sure that you are praying for the needs in your church. And if you do pray for me, pray that I will not waste any opportunity to speak out for Jesus.”

That is, Paul is saying, “Here is the agenda for your next prayer meeting: Pray over God’s word.” That’s what he means when he tells us to pray “in the Spirit”. Look at what he says in verse 18:

Praying in the Spirit

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and keep on praying for all the saints.
Ephesians 6:18

Some of you are thinking, “Hold on! Where do you get this strange idea about praying over God’s word from this one verse? There’s nothing there about the bible. It just tells us to pray!” Some will go as far as to say, “When we meet for bible study, we read the bible. But when we pray, we put the bible aside, and we come with our burdens and needs. Please don’t talk to me about some passage you read this morning in Ephesians. Leave all that intellectual stuff behind when you come here. This is a prayer meeting!” If we’re honest, a lot of our prayer meetings are like that. We spend time talking about concerns and worries, “Hey, did you hear about Mr So-and-So who did this-and-that?” And if we are not careful, these prayer meetings can turn in sessions for gossip and for slander.

The vitally important thing to note is that this whole section on prayer - from verses 18 right up to 20 - where Paul reminds us to pray at all times, to pray all kinds of prayers, to pray for all situations, to pray for all our brothers and sisters, to pray for Paul himself - this entire section on prayer is an expansion on a single point we looked at last week in verse 17. What does Paul say in verse 17?

Take... the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Ephesians 6:17

And immediately following that, Paul says, “Pray in the Spirit.” The English Standard Version is helpful at this point because it makes verse 18 part of the same sentence as verse 17 - “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit”. In other words, we take up the sword of the Spirit by praying in the Spirit.

What does he mean by praying in the Spirit? It’s not praying in tongues (In 1 Corinthians 12:30, he asks the question, “Do all speak in tongues?” by which the answer is, “No.” Yet, here is a kind of prayer in the Spirit that every believer is called to.) Neither is it a special kind of meditation whereby you enter into ‘Spirit-mode’ by walking round and round the city of Cambridge, reclaiming spiritual authority over Trinity College from the devil, reclaiming King’s College chapel from the occupying forces of the evil one. No, if you remember, last week we learnt that Paul describes the sword of the Spirit as the spoken word of God (Instead of “logos”, which means revelation, expression and word, Paul uses the word “rhema” which is the spoken revelation, an expression that is verbal, a word that is preached). These words are not meant to stay on the printed page. We need to speak them daily into our lives - whether it’s the preaching of the gospel on Sundays, or the study of the bible in our small groups, and even - Paul is saying, and even - in the praying of God's word in our prayer meetings. The Spirit of God works through the spoken word of God, and if you want God’s spirit to work through our prayers; if you want God’s will to be done through our prayers, Paul is saying, the way to do that is to pray according to his word. When you do that, you are praying in the Spirit. You take up the sword of the Spirit by praying in the Spirit.

Meaning, when we do come together to pray, God’s word is not an optional extra. If anything, the bible is teaching us that the only way to know that you are actually praying according to God’s will is by praying according to God’s word. Jesus warns us that some people think their prayers are heard “because of their many words” (Matthew 7:7). James tells us that some of us don’t get what we pray for, “because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” And Peter tells the men in the church to be considerate to their wives, to treat them with respect as the weaker partner, as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, “so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Peter 3:7). Paul writes, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger and disputing” (1 Timothy 2:8).

Sometimes we tell our friends, “Just talk to God. He’ll hear your prayer and he’ll answer all your prayers.” Do you know that the bible teaches that God doesn’t listen to some of our prayers? When I’ve treated my wife with disrespect. When I come to God full of myself with hidden motives to sin, he won’t hear my prayers. When I have hatred towards a brother and sister in Christ, Jesus says, “First go and be reconciled with your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 7:23). God turns away from some of our prayers - perhaps he even turns away from many of our prayers - when they are offered up with pride, with presumption and with prejudice. I say this to you because, many of us don’t know that. And we don’t know that because we don’t know the word of God and we don’t pray according to the will of God.

To say that God hears all our prayers is simply not true. I’m sorry if that comes as a shock to some of you. Prayer is a privilege and a prerogative of those who have a relationship with God as their heavenly Father. That was the radical lesson that Jesus taught his disciples. “This, then is how you should pray,” Jesus said. “Our Father in heaven.” Daddy. That’s the one and only basis. Not your sincerity. Not your position in church. Not even the urgency and seriousness of the problem you are praying for. You approach God on his terms, through his Son, Jesus Christ, who brings us before his throne; who says before his heavenly Father, “I have given my life on the cross to pay the price for Calvin’s forgiveness and now I clothe him with my righteousness and my holiness. Accept him as you would accept me. Love him as your son.” On that basis, and that basis alone, we come to God and say, “Father.”

And he hears us. The amazing thing that Ephesians 6:17 does is it frees us up in order to be able to pray. Paul says, “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions, with all kinds of prayers and requests.” Everywhere and anywhere. Every occasion and every situation. God will hear your prayers and God will answer your prayers.

I was speaking at an event last month on the rich young man who approached Jesus for a place on his mission team. Here was a Cambridge graduate. Here was a morally-upright man. Here was the perfect candidate to lead the next church plant in Arbury. And the surprising thing is, Jesus turns him away because though this young man was sincere and moral and good, his basis of approaching Jesus was his own sincerity, his own morality and his own goodness. Right after the talk, one of the students asked me, “So how should this man have approached Jesus instead?” I pointed him back to the same passage. Right after the rich young man left, all the disciples were shocked and said, “Jesus, do you know what you’ve just done? You’ve turned away Mark Zuckerberg!” But immediately after, Peter speaks up on behalf of the gang and asks, what I think is the most outrageous, the most insensitive and the most idiotic of questions. He says to Jesus, “We’ve given everything to follow you, Jesus. What are we going to get in return?”

Now most of us hear that and think, “What an idiot! How thick-skinned! Not shy man, this guy!” But let me just say, a lot of our prayers to Jesus sound exactly like that to him. A lot of our prayers are insensitive, thick-skinned and not shy. We think we’ve done something extraordinary that deserves a reward (“Jesus I played the keyboard really well at church today, how are you going to bless me?”). We come to Jesus looking to get something from him. But do you know what Jesus does? In response to Peter's bold request, Jesus promises him much more than what Peter asks for. A hundred times more.

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields - and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”
Mark 10:29-30

What kind of request was Peter’s? A silly request, yes. A childish request, yes. But it was a request that was spoken out of faith, out of trust, out of dependence on Jesus alone to fulfil that request. In that sense, it wasn’t so much childish as it was child-like. Prayer is saying to God, my hands are empty, I have nothing in and of myself to offer you, but accept me on the basis of your word, on the basis of the promises found in your word, and on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus is, in effect, teaching us that God loves to answer such prayers. In fact, he will do abundant more than we ask or imagine to bless us through such prayers.

In all occasions, at all times, will all kinds of requests. Some translations have, “supplications” which means asking God for something. That’s important because a lot of prayer, if not all of our prayers, involve asking God for something. We sometimes hear Christians describe prayer as “talking to God”, and that’s true. But according to the bible and according to Jesus, in reality and in practice, the heart of our prayers have less to do with talking with God and more to do with petitioning God, requesting God to do something for us. And therefore, Paul is impressing upon us the need for prayer not simply as a discipline, even less as a kind of skill that you develop, but essentially as an expression of our need and dependence upon God. You pray at all times, at all occasions because you always need God’s help at every moment of your lives. It means constantly approaching God in humility, in need and yet with full confidence that he hears us, with every expectation that he will help us.

If you remember again, Jesus’ model or template prayer to his friends, teaches them to say:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
Matthew 6:9-13

At each and every point, Jesus’ model prayer teaches us to ask God for something - for the glory of his name, for his kingdom, for our food and livelihood, for the forgiveness of our sins, for protection from temptation and the devil. Request upon request, upon request. We are confessing before God our need. We are trusting in his goodness and faithfulness to meet our need. Meaning, when someone asks you how they can pray for you, and you are tempted to reply, “Oh, I’m OK. Thanks very much for the thought.” The reason we give such answers - and I have done so, myself, at times - isn’t because we are embarrassed, or that we are so content with our lives we don’t have anything urgent that needs attention. If we are honest, such requests take us by surprise. We stutter in embarrassment and we don't know how to respond. That's because most of us don’t get up in the morning and say to ourselves, “Boy! Today’s going to be a real pickle to get through. God, please help me!” Oh, we do so when we’re in the midst of our exams. We turn up at the prayer meeting when there’s that emergency situation that sorely needs attention. But Jesus’ prayer is meant to be an everyday prayer, an all-day prayer. We need God to answer this prayer every single day. “Forgive my sins.” Even, “Please put food on my table.” When we don’t see our need for God everyday we won’t recognise our need for prayer every day. The issue that Paul is getting at is complacency. That’s why he says, with regard to the Ephesians’ attitude to prayer, “You fellas need to wake up!”

With this in mind, be alert and always keep praying for all the saints.
Ephesians 6:18b

On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus told his closest friends to stay awake, to be alert, and to pray with him. But their eyes were heavy and they kept falling asleep. They had, after all, just had a big dinner and a nap felt so good. Paul uses that language of staying awake and staying alert here to bring home the point of spiritual awareness, prayerful alertness. Be alert, he says. Keep on praying for all the saints, he says. Some of us pray at the end of the day, and that’s not a bad thing. The bible does not prescribe set times for prayer. And yet, I wonder if the reason we pray at the end of the day, on our beds in the horizontal position, two milliseconds before knocking off into lala-land, is simply because we put it off till then end of the day. We don’t see the urgency. We go through the entire day unaware of of our need for prayer, the importance of prayer - for ourselves, and Paul says here in verse 18, for our brothers and sisters. “Always keep praying for all the saints.” Here’s a tip if you find yourself stuck in knowing what to pray for: Get out piece of paper and write down the names of everyone who turned up at bible study this week. One by one. As you write each name, pray for him or her. Don’t ramble on. Just say out loud that specific requests for that brother - that his car will be fixed, his job application will get through, that he will prepare for the next bible study well; for that sister - that her family will come to know Jesus, that she will apply today’s sermon in her life. Be short, be specific and move on. Next time you open up Facebook, pray for the person whose name pops up. Next time you fire up your email, pray for the person who just wrote you. This is one way to stay engaged in your prayer life, by praying specifically for each of your friends and for all your friends. And if you are one of those with a thousand friends on Facebook, there is no reason why your prayer would be at all boring! If anything, you will probably end up praying all day, every day!

In this sense, the time at prayer meetings is not well-spent going through long lists prayer requests, especially when there are lots of you, and there are lots of requests. When we do come together to pray, we should... well, just pray. Not talk about praying for someone, and then say, “We’ll go home and pray for all this stuff we didn’t have enough time to pray over.” In fact, resolve to turn up, not to say anything at all, and to just pray. If you do open your mouth, first open the bible and then open your mouth only to read God’s word to God’s people. Because the only basis we have for prayer is God’s promise in his word. We are leaning on his faithfulness to fulfil all that he has said he will do in his word through Jesus Christ. In this way, we hear God’s voice and we respond in worship and prayer, with alertness and supplication, for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters.

Jesus once prayed, “Father, I thank you that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of those standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:42). Even Jesus did not feel the need to let everyone know what he was praying for, but when he did, it was for the benefit of those who heard him. Why? So that they would know who he was and so that his hearers would know the God who sent him. How much more for us, when we open our mouths to pray before God’s people, to actually have our hearers in mind, and to consciously reveal who Jesus truly is. When we do pray aloud - here in church, in our bible studies, in our prayer meetings - it’s not just a private conversation between you and God. It is you, together with God’s people, gathering before God. And if Jesus felt the importance to speak with clarity the gospel when he prayed in the presence of his friends - hence, the Lord’s prayer which teaches us about God’s kingdom, our sinfulness and need for forgiveness; and hence, Jesus’ longest prayer in the whole bible, found in John Chapter 17 for the disciples, where he asks God to “sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth... I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known...” - how much more should we be conscious to pray like Jesus, to make God known through our words of prayers, to pray God’s word made known to us through the scriptures.

So, to recap, praying in the Spirit is Paul’s explanation on what it means to take up the sword of the Spirit. It means praying in accordance with God’s truth. Such are the prayers that God empowers by his Spirit. But secondly, taking up the sword of the Spirit means asking God to empower the preaching of his word through his Spirit. This is at the centre of Paul’s prayer request for himself.

Boldness in preaching

Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
Ephesians 6:19-20

Paul does not say, “Pray that God will release me from my chains.” That’s because Paul knows the reason why he is in chains, not simply as a result of preaching the gospel and annoying a whole lot of powerful people who decided to lock him away. No, he is in chains in order to preach the gospel. He calls himself an “ambassador in chains”. (That's like Barack Obama introducing himself as the President in Prison.) Elsewhere, he tells the Ephesians not to be discouraged because his sufferings for them, which are their glory (Ephesians 3:13). And his prayer request is for God to enable him not to waste even his suffering as an opportunity to display God's glory in his suffering for the gospel.

The one thing he says that he needs is fearlessness, or boldness (as the ESV and KJV has it). Twice, he asks for boldness in making known the mystery of the gospel (verse 19), and in declaring it boldly, “as I should” (verse 20), as if to say that boldness is the manner in which the message of God deserves to be delivered. It deserves to presented with full confidence, with full conviction. And yet, this is not the kind of proud, confident, boastful speech that comes from power and experience. Paul isn’t trying to impress his hearers with his skills in bible interpretation packed with witty illustrations conveyed with eloquent oratory. He needs boldness because of he is a broken man. He is in prison, under guard and in chains. His audience will regard him as trash. His hearers will be those who have the authority to put him away for life or to torture him to death. Paul says he needs boldness in these very situations of brokenness; confidence in the midst of contriteness. And so his prayer is for the Spirit to sustain him amidst his suffering.

And yet, it is worth noting that that word “boldness” could equally be translated “plainness”. That is, Paul concern is to preach the gospel as plainly and as clearly as possible. For all his theology and education, this is still Paul’s number one prayer request, “Please pray that people will understand what I’m saying when I tell them about Jesus.” That’s the concern: For people to know God. Not for people to like us. Not for people to be impressed by our grasp of Greek and Hebrew. But that Jesus is seen as who he really is: Lord and Saviour and God. “Pray that I may declare it plainly, as I should,” Paul says. “I want to be clear, and I need God’s help to do this. Please pray for me,” Paul is saying.

Last night I had a chat with a brother about preaching, and he was quite honest in telling me that after so many years he still gets nervous about preaching the bible in front of the church. I was surprised because, in my estimation, he is a good speaker and an experienced leader. Yet his nervousness was not so much about standing in front of a crowd and having to deliver a speech. He said, “I’m always concerned about the responsibility of saying something from God’s word that will help my brothers and sisters.” That’s a right kind of nervousness to have. Paul says, “Pray that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me.” Paul doesn’t want to give his opinion, he wants to God to give him the words that he is to speak. Paul is nervous about opening his mouth and saying something other than God’s word whenever he preaches the gospel.

In Matthew Chapter 5, Jesus sees the crowds approaching him, and the gospel writer, Matthew, has a very interesting description of what Jesus does next. Verse 2 reads, “He opened his mouth and taught them.” And you might think that is a strange thing to say. Of course Jesus had to open his mouth in order to teach them! (Hence, the NIV leaves this description out completely; you will need to turn to translations like the ESV to notice this phrase). The expression “to open his mouth” actually describes a deliberate action to say something very carefully in a circumstance of great seriousness. It means the speaker is choosing his words with immense care and thought. Psalm 78, and verse 2, reads, “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old” (which Jesus himself quotes from in Matthew 13 when explaining why he chooses to explain the Kingdom of God using parables. He was choosing his words carefully to filter out the fans from the faithful hearers.).

Paul uses the same expression when describing his preaching of the gospel. He wants to be clear. He wants to be bold. But also, he wants to be careful with what he says. He is speaking God’s word - making known "the mystery of the gospel" is how he describes it - and this is a solemn responsibility given him as a pastor-teacher. “Pray that I may do this fearlessly, as I should.” Would you pray this for me, as I teach from the bible? Often times, whenever I speak to the students here in Cambridge, they ask me how they can pray for me. In the past, I’ve asked for prayer for our church. I’ve always asked for prayer for my family; my own walk with God as a husband. But of late, I say this, “Pray for this week’s message at the Chinese Church,” and I tell them what that message is about. By that I don’t just mean that I need more time, or more wisdom, or more insight - all these things are true and vital. But what I mean is what Paul means here: That I be very careful with the words that I say, because they are not just my own. I am passing on to you God’s word. I am representing him when I speak on behalf of Christ. My desire is that the gospel be heard with conviction, but most of all, with clarity, because as Paul says, “That is the way I ought to speak.”

Similarly, I wonder if you might be in need of such prayer, as you speak about Jesus to the kids at Sunday School? As you share the gospel with your brother, your sister, your mum or dad? You need that boldness and brokenness that comes from relying completely on God’s Spirit to give you the right words to bring across the message of salvation in Christ alone. Why not ask someone to pray for you to be able to do that fearlessly and clearly as you should?

The sword of the Spirit is the spoken word of God, and here Paul shows us two important ways of applying that word in our lives: in prayer and in evangelism. We pray according to God’s will by praying according to God’s word. We become ambassadors of Christ - his representatives and spokespersons - by speaking the gospel clearly to our friends and family. In doing so, we become partners with God in the work of his kingdom. One such person is Tychicus, whom Paul commends to the church in Ephesus as a brother and faithful servant in the Lord.

The faithful friend; A firm foundation

Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you.
Ephesians 6:21-22

Tychicus was a missionary, but a special kind of missionary. You see, we think of a missionary as someone the church sends out to a distant country to preach the gospel. Missionaries are sent out. They plant new churches. They tell other people about Jesus. But Tychicus was a special kind of missionary; I call him a reverse-missionary. Instead of going out from the church, Paul kept sending Tychicus back into the church. He is a missionary in reverse. We find Tychicus mentioned elsewhere in Colossians Chapter 4 and 2 Timothy Chapter 4. In both cases, Paul keeps sending Tychicus back to the churches, which already have the gospel, who already have elders, who are already Christian. Why? Firstly, to let them know how the mission is going as kind of like a missionary update; Paul says, “so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing.” But also for another important reason. Paul is deeply concerned that these churches who began with Jesus Christ, continue on faithfully in Jesus Christ. Tychicus went back to Ephesus to bring the letter of Ephesians. Tychicus was sent to Colossae to bring them the letter to the Colossians. Both of these letters say surprisingly little about the mission itself. Both of these letters are packed with reminders of the gospel. Paul’s number concern is for Christians who began in Jesus Christ, to continue in Jesus Christ.

But it also says something that Paul sends a brother whom he trusts, whom he loves to convey a message that he values. Tychicus is a dear - literally, loved - brother and a faithful servant in the Lord. Paul sends his best, most trusted friend to encourage the Christians in Ephesus. Remember that Paul was their founding pastor. Remember that Paul said that he would never have the opportunity of returning to this church ever again. Yet Paul never left them in a lurch. Before Paul left, he made well sure that the church in Ephesus had elders - good men who were able to lead the church. By the way, here was a church that was only three years old, meaning that these elders had only been Christians for three years at the most, and yet Paul saw the importance of spiritual leadership and didn’t neglect to provide the believers in the church with the elders that they needed. And on top of all that, Paul prayed for them and he wrote back to them. He didn’t write about the weather in Rome. He didn’t send them photos of the places he visited. No, he wrote doctrine. Ephesians is packed with teachings on Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s promise in reconciling Jews and Gentiles - the religious and irreligious - to himself. Ephesians is a testament to the sovereignty of God and the lordship of Jesus Christ. This was heavy, meaty, solid doctrine on the Word of God. And he delivered it through his most trusted friend, Tychicus, who probably stayed on Ephesus to preach through the lessons found in the book of Ephesians. Meaning this, Paul was away from the church but he ensured that this church was always rooted in the gospel by making sure that they had other faithful leaders who could remind them of the gospel - leaders like the elders he appointed before he left; leaders like Tychicus whom he sent back to them to preach the gospel to these believers.

All this is to say, Paul never took the church’s foundation of the gospel for granted. He wanted every believer - young and old - to be rooted in Jesus Christ; to continue on growing in Jesus Christ; to mature in their love for Jesus Christ. Look at how he ends the letter in verse 23:

An undying love

Peace to the brothers, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.
Ephesians 6:23-24

Here is a church that has received God’s love and have responded to God with love. The word “love” occurs four times in these closing words, did you notice that? Twice it is sent and twice it is responded to. Paul sends Tychicus, a beloved brother (verse 21) and Paul sends them love with faith from God and Jesus (verse 23). The believers in Ephesus in love to Jesus with an undying love. In other words, what we have in the Ephesian church is a loving church: a church that is loved by God; and a church that loves God faithfully in Jesus Christ.

As we close our study of the entire book of Ephesians, after six months going through every chapter and verse, my question to you is simply this: Do you love Jesus? Do you love him with an undying love? Meaning, Do you love Jesus, resolving to always love him faithfully and continually with all that you are?

That’s an important question to get across here in the Chinese Church. The question that seems to be on most of our minds these days is: When will we get another pastor? Who will lead our church? By the way, the Ephesian church had the apostle Paul as their senior pastor. But do you know who else pastored this church? The apostle John. John actually lived in Ephesus, and even wrote the three letters of 1, 2 and 3 John which we have in the New Testament, right here in this city of Ephesus. That’s like saying to the Chinese Church, “Our next pastor is going to be John Piper! And after John Piper retires, Mark Driscoll will replace him as the next pastor of the Cambridge Chinese Christian Church!” Wow! Wouldn’t that be something? Having two heavyweight theologians and preachers as the pastors in our church? On top of all that, Ephesians has four books in the bible written to it and from this church. Here was a church that published books on Jesus which everyone else in the world referred to as textbooks of the Christian faith. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate dream if it were to happen here in the Chinese Church? Setting the standard for doctrine and holiness for believers worldwide!

And yet, it is worth noting that Ephesus is mentioned one last time in the bible, by someone even more famous than the apostles Paul and John combined: Jesus speaks directly to the church in Ephesus in the book of Revelation as the first of seven churches addressed in his letter. The resurrected Jesus Christ says, “Hey, Ephesus! I’ve got something to say to you!” Well, what does he say? Have a look:

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.
Revelation 2:4-5

What does Paul say again in the very last verse of Ephesians? Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love. What happened? Their undying love eventually... died. “You have forsaken your first love,” Jesus says to them.

Do you love Jesus? (You know, that’s a much more fundamental question than: Who’s going to be our next pastor?) The real question to deal with is this: Have you forgotten him as your first love? Do you still love him with an undying love? It is an honest question that demands an honest answer.

For those who have left for Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, China, I do want to know how they’re doing back home. I am concerned that they are in a good church that teaches the bible. But the real question I would want to ask them is this: Do you love Jesus?

And what about you here today? What do you think is the most important thing to get right here in the Chinese Church? The church in Ephesus had the best pastors on the planet and still, if you were to go to Ephesus today, which is in modern-day Turkey, the entire city lies in ruins. It’s gone. Jesus warned them, “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” If that’s what he did to Ephesus, do you think Jesus wouldn’t dare take the same action with us here at the Chinese Church? I ask you again: Do you love Jesus Christ with an undying love? The answer to that question has eternal consequences for you and all of us as a church.

That’s the reason Paul wrote the letter back then to the Ephesians - to encourage them to remain faithful. And that’s why we read this same letter as Christians today, so that those of us who began with Jesus Christ, continue in Jesus Christ, and finish well in Jesus Christ. Over the course of the past months, we have seen that this kind of faithful sacrificial love has practical relevance for our marriages, for our witness to the gospel, for our submission to our parents and employers, for our growing maturity in God’s word and for our constant battle against the sin, the devil and temptation. We do all this as recipients of God’s love in Jesus Christ and we do all this in response to God’s love through Jesus Christ.

Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love. I hope that this is a blessing that describes you and me today, as those who love Jesus undyingly, unwaveringly and wholeheartedly all of our lives.

In conclusion, let me recap four points of application from today's passage:

1. Pray at all times, at all occasions, for all people in the Spirit
No time is a bad time. No time is an inappropriate time to pray. But pray in the Spirit. By that, Paul means for us to pray according to God's will as it is revealed in God's word. There is no sense in asking God to do something that he hasn't promised in the bible. And it is a shame to miss out on the abundant blessing he does want to bless us with that he does make clear in his Word. The promise of himself. The promise of holiness. The reminders of his love. The forgiveness of our sin. The giving of his Son. Know this but also, pray this, Paul says.

2. Pray for God's word to be given you when you speak God's word to others
When you open your mouth to speak for Jesus in any situation - be it to your classmate, in your bible study, or even after this to the person next to you - you are representing God as an ambassador. A representative. Paul says this needs boldness but also brokenness. This needs confidence and contriteness.

3. Value faithfulness in the gospel
Tychicus was the guy Paul could depend on. Paul doesn't call him the impressive guy. Paul says nothing about his qualifications and credentials. Rather, above all else. Tychicus is the faithful servant, the brother who is always at Paul's side. Look out for the brothers and sisters who keep on doing what needs to be done for the gospel. Those of the kind of people we need in our lives to keep us faithful to our spouses, to our friends, to our leaders, to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

4. Love Jesus
It all comes down to love from Jesus and our response of love to Jesus. Do you love him with an undying love? I pray that with God's help, we do.