CBC – August 28, 2016
The Mystery of the Gospel
Sermon Text: Eph 3:1-13
Meditation/Preparation – Jesus had the aroma of God about him. Every part of his life was part of a cosmic plan, and he knew it, and it made him earnest. And the great apostle Paul was like this, too, as we see him here in Ephesians 3. He saw his own little ministry as part of a cosmic plan, and it filled him with seriousness and passion. And I pray that God will open our eyes today so that we can see that all of us believers, each with his peculiar gift, are part of a cosmic mission given to the church by the Creator.
– John Piper, “The Cosmic Church” (March 22, 1981)
1. The mystery of the Gospel: What was the big secret for so long?
2. The monumental importance of the Gospel For what would you be willing to go to prison?
3. The motive of the Gospel: Is it biblical to want to be rich?
No screen – pix of grandson; brought grandson here
We have traveled to see family this summer. Those were long trips, with a long time in the car. We usually find that the time goes faster with the help of books on tape, and this summer we particularly discovered mysteries: Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Mrs Pollifax.
Reflecting on those stories we listened to, it occurred to me that Pual’s letter to the Ephesians is a kind of mystery. It even involves murder (as a sinful world puts Jesus to death) – there’s something of a thriller here, a who-dunnit!
I always find it a good exercise to study my way through a book. You see new things. In the case of Ephesians, I had never really noticed the stress that seems on this reading to fall everywhere in the book on the mystery that Paul speaks of once again in this morning’s text.
1:7 -- 7 In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
(mystery of marriage) 5:31 -- “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
6:18 -- keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
(today) 3:1-13 -- “For this reason I, Paul, am a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
“Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.”
It seems to me the first question we need to answer not only to understand this morning’s passage but to understand the whole letter to the Ephesians is: What exactly is this mystery? What was the big secret for so long?
For some reason, God was pleased to keep the world in the dark for some time. Paul is stressing all the way through his letter that there is a mystery of Christ, a mystery of the Gospel, which was “not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”
Abraham and his descendants, particularly the children of his great grandson, Judah, whom in English we call the Jews, were set apart from all other nations to be “a light to those nations.” So we were in the dark – in the darkness of sin, ever since the fall. And the Jews were chosen to be the light that God would shine into that darkness to make clearer and clearer something that long remained a mystery in the generations of the earth prior to Christ.
It wasn’t a secret in the sense that God was hiding life-saving truths from the world. The law that set the Jews apart to enact a ritual drama for the world to see shone a light on this truth for all the generations since Moses received that law. The prophets proclaimed this truth as a light of revelation all along that history. It remained a secret, even to the Jews whose lives and customs and history were enacting pictures of the truth throughout those hundreds of generations.
It remained a secret because the Jews who dramatized the truth and the world who witnessed the drama seldom had the eyes to see the truth that this light to the nations was illumining. Just like a mystery novel, all the clues were there from the start but it required the discerning eye of a detective and flashes of illumination and recognition for the secret to finally dawn on someone who had been concentrating on the clues and be revealed to everyone who was reading along.
Isn’t it remarkable that God would design history in a way that would unfold like a mystery story instead of throwing all his truth at us from the very first chapter!
Paul is like that detective – a Columbo, whose flashes of illumination come because the Spirit opens the eyes of his heart to look at the evidence that has been right in front of him in a new light and to see what has been there all along.
So what has been there all along? And what is the big mystery that Paul is now bringing to light?
For about two millennia before Paul, God has been singling out a particular people through whom to illustrate and communicate to all the rest of the world what his plan is for redeeming the world from the sin that blinds us and kills us. He instructed them to be holy, set apart from everyone else as a chosen people. Within their particularity he called them to enact ceremonies and rituals of sacrifice that would make it clear that sin is so serious it can only properly be dealt with by a penalty of death. He instructed them to come to the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year to hear his covenants repeated and renewed by every succeeding generation. He instituted a dynasty of kings within Judah together with a promise that that dynasty would never cease but that the throne of David would be occupied for eternity. And all this and more he called a “light to the nations” or a “light to the Gentiles.”
That light was for the benefit of all the rest of us. It was meant to offer clues to something mysterious. If the clues had been read, there really wouldn’t have been any secret at all. But sinful hearts misread the clues. The chosen people of Israel thought that being chosen as a light meant that they were also chosen for salvation. But salvation was always given to the heart of faith, not to the actions of rituals and the light of pictures and clues. The nations outside of Israel took all the clues of Israel’s light as so much empty ceremony and a set of chores and laws that they weren’t interested in learning from let alone participating in them.
The light was there all along. Sin and pride and the attractions of the world kept all but God’s prophets and a remnant who listened to them from seeing what the light illuminated. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.” It was all a mystery. A murder mystery, in fact, because the light of the clues had been revealing for generation after generation that sin called for death.
But this mystery of the Gospel was not so much a whodunit. It was our sin that nailed Christ to the cross. And it was his Father who killed him there as the perfect sacrifice for our transgressions. That much is pretty unmistakable. The unexpected thing is that in this story the murder doesn’t cause the mystery; the murder solves the mystery! And yet that was so unexpected that the solution appeared in mysterious form, with mysterious effects.
A death was responsible for life – which is what the clues had been trying to say for a thousand years. The anointed king has come who would sit on the throne of Judah, and the way he would do that for world without end was by ending his worldly days on a cross – which is what the prophets had been telling Israel about God’s suffering servant for generations. And the chosen people had been chosen not for their own sakes alone but to enlighten the path of faith to salvation for all the rest of the nations – which is what the covenants had been promising Israel for years. The mystery, made known to Paul by revelation, he says here in Eph 3, “is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
The story of this mystery is a page turner. This is a book that should be hard to put down. God has not revealed his plan of redemption to us in a theology text book. He has given it to us in the form of a murder mystery! And now that Paul has seen how Christ has solved the mystery, he can barely contain himself. He ends the book, as we saw, asking the Ephesians to pray vigilantly for him “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.”
This is the exciting message for whose preparation and proclamation we propose to add an addition to our building in the coming year or two. It’s a building we’re calling the “4:12 Center” because we want it to help us do what Ephesians 4:12 says: to equip the saints for the work of the ministry – the proclamation of this exciting mystery of the Gospel; and to help build up the body of Christ – which is the result of us Gentiles becoming “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Not only does Paul ask people to pray for his opportunity to proclaim this mystery. This morning’s passage begins with the fairly startling claim that this is the reason why he is “a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.” It’s that important to him.
This first sentence has proven to be a difficult one for translators. They look for the verb that follows the subject, I, Paul, … and it doesn’t seem to be there. He breaks off into a digression and seems like he never quite completes the sentence. The easiest solution to this syntactical problem is to supply the verb “is” which Greek speakers often left out. I did that in italics in the copy in the bulletin. In that case, Paul is saying: This is the reason I am a prisoner. Helping to draw the Gentiles near and into the covenants of Israel is so important to Paul that he is willing to go to prison for the cause.
I conclude from Paul’s statement that there are things in life that are worth going to prison for. That was a conclusion of strong relevance to the generation of Christians that followed Paul. Lots of Christians in the first couple of centuries that followed, in fact for many centuries afterward, not only went to prison for their convictions but often even went to death.
This opening sentence of Paul’s – “For this reason I, Paul, am a prisoner for Christ Jesus” – ought to put a burning question on our minds this morning: How important are my Christian convictions? Is there anything I would be willing to go to prison for? For Paul, the answer was manifestly yes. The mystery of the Gospel, that God means for Gentiles (for you and me) to be extended the inheritance of Israel, was so important that he was ready on several occasions to become what he calls himself in 6:19, “an ambassador in chains.” He implored his fellow Christians to pray for him that he would have the boldness to declare this mystery of the Gospel, regardless of consequences like imprisonment or even death.
And so for us the answer ought also to be yes. And the sad fact of our time is that this question is become less and less academic and more and more a looming reality. It seems to me increasingly the duty of pastors and teachers, in equipping the saints for the work of the ministry, to prepare our people, believers in Christ’s church, to face consequences like jail or even death because of the greater importance, the monumental importance, of the upholding the love and the wisdom of Jesus Christ in a hostile, secularizing world.
Some of the challenges will come from the extremism of religious opposition. ISIS has publically beheaded scores, if not hundreds, of Christians in the Middle East just in the past year. Challenges like that are not far from reaching our own shores. They may not arrive as quickly as some other challenges, but we need to be steeling our younger generations to face them.
More pressingly in our own American context where we still enjoy some relative safety from terrorist beheadings, social and moral challenges are intruding into our everyday lives, and in ways subtle if not overt they are in our face right now.
I can provide more particular details to anyone who wants to ask me later. My point here isn’t to accuse particular legislatures or courts or officials but to stress that there are challenges rising in the present moment that threaten not so much to kill us but still to rob us of our jobs, to put us into prison, or to marginalize Christians as social pariahs.
In early June: a nearby state [the Illinois] legislature has passed a bill—[SB 1564]—that would force all medical facilities and physicians in the state who conscientiously object to involvement in abortions to adopt policies that provide women who ask for abortions with a list of providers “they reasonably believe may offer” them. In other words, the government is trying to compel the speech of pro-life providers—in the form of abortion referrals.
Particularly at issue is the bill’s requirement that every [Illinois] pro-life medical provider of any kind in the state who chooses not to perform a procedure such as abortion or a prescription for birth control has one of three options: Either they must “refer the patient” to another provider, “transfer the patient” to another provider, or provide a list of “other health care providers who they reasonably believe may offer the health care service.”
That state’s Governor signed into law at the end of July.
A state university just a couple of states away from here [West Virginia University (WVU)] has told its 29,000 students that they are breaking federal law if don’t agree to use the pronouns — including ‘he’ or ‘she,’ ‘zir’ or ‘hir’ etc. — preferred by each person who claims to be transgender."
Another state Assembly has passed a bill [California bill SB 1146] that requires Christian colleges to advertise publicly their "discrimination" against "GLBT" students. Implicit in the bill is an interpretation of the term "sex" in the federal Title IX as including "sexual orientation" and "gender identity,"
The bill states: "The Student Aid Commission shall collect the information received ... and post and maintain a list on the commission’s Internet Web site of the institutions that have claimed the exemption with their respective bases for claiming or having the exemption."
Any Christian college in the state that counts same-sex behavior as immoral on biblical grounds will now be publically listed as an institution that is guilty of discrimination.
It took three tries to pass the bill in the Assembly, but its advocates don’t give up until the laws conform to their new morality. It’s on its way into the state Senate and in the inevitable trends of our culture it will likely be law before long.
We’ve all heard of the so-called “Dear Colleague Letter” that recently issued new bathroom mandates from the executive branch: The administration now intends to enforce as policy in all schools that receive Title IX funding that:
1. Boys who self-identify as girls are allowed to use girls’ locker rooms and shower facilities, and vice versa
2. Schools are not allowed to offer private use facilities for transgender students as a compromise
3. Students must be allowed to play the sport of the gender with which they self-identify
4. A student may self-identify his or her gender to the school without parental permission or knowledge
5. it states on page two, under the heading Compliance with Title IX: 'Under Title IX, there is no medical diagnosis or treatment requirement that students must meet as a prerequisite to being treated consistent with their gender identity.'
6. Unless all students are lodged in private rooms on school field trips, boys who self-identify as female must be allowed to sleep in the same hotel rooms as female students, and vice versa
The good news is that this executive pronouncement was emporarily stayed by the Supreme Court on Aug 3 and then struck down by a federal judge in TX, all on procedural (not moral principle). The bad news is that the courts’ stays are under appeal and in the current climate will have a hard time standing firm against the winds of progressive challenge.
About three weeks ago, on August 2, 2016 [/by Blaine Conzatti, Family Policy Institute of Washington] a report was published that:
Officials at a public elementary school in Palmdale, California, dispatched a deputy sheriff after a first grader shared Bible verses with his friends at lunch.
Like many other loving mothers, Christina Zavala would send her seven-year-old son, Caleb, notes in his school lunch bag that included Bible stories. At the urging of his friends, Caleb soon began sharing the stories with them at lunch.
Caleb was then told that he would have to wait until after school to share the Bible verses and stories with his friends, but shortly thereafter, the school again changed its policy, telling him that he could not share the notes while on school property. Caleb complied with the school’s demands.
Later in the day, a deputy sheriff, called by someone working for the school district, arrived at the Zavalas’ home, “demanding that [Caleb’s] note-sharing cease altogether because ‘someone might be offended,’” according to Liberty Counsel.
This week, on Aug 23, I read a report that one of our US Circuit Courts of Appeal upheld a state’s legislation making it illegal for pastors to counsel minors who are struggling with their sexuality and gender. Licensed counselors, including pastors, are prohibited from assisting minors who want to change or reduce their same-sex attractions or steer young people away from gender confusion. According to the law SB 1172], the state “[California] has a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, and in protecting its minors against exposure to serious harms caused by sexual orientation change efforts. … Under no circumstances shall a mental health provider engage in sexual orientation change efforts with a patient under 18 years of age.”
This past Tuesday I received a phone call from a colleague who has tenure at an important Presbyterian seminary. He is known nationally in academic circles as an advocate for traditional views of gender and marriage and for protecting the designs of nature in our human sexuality. Despite his tenure, a new president who is a strong advocate of LGBT concerns has been actively working to force him out of his professorship at the school on grounds that his classroom is not a “safe space” for students who want to act on their same-sex attractions, and on grounds that he doesn’t give sufficient attention to anti-atonement views of the cross. He tells me he is about one complaint of a gay student away from being forced out of his job.
What are we going to do when the livelihood of our families comes under threat because of our Christian convictions? What are pastors going to do when to preach a biblical morality contrary to our culture’s secularizing pressures comes with a threat of imprisonment or loss of the freedom to speak a public word? What are medical professionals going to do when the laws require violation of conscience?
These are deeply difficult questions, but they are also increasingly real and no longer academic questions that you and I and our children are on a collision course with facing, perhaps soon, perhaps not so soon but eventually nearly inevitably. Will we be able to say with Paul, “For this reason, I am a prisoner, an ambassador in chains, for Christ”? Is there anything for which you would be willing to go to prison? Equipping ourselves to answer questions like this is an essential part of equipping ourselves as saints for the work of the ministry. Space to deliberate important questions like that is one of the key reasons for wanting to add the 4:12 Center to our church campus.
Knowing the correct answer to challenging questions like this is the easy part. Should I be willing to lose my job or go to prison because of the mystery of the Gospel of Christ. Of course the right answer to the question is yes. Would I be be willing to lose my job or my life or go to prison because of the Gospel. That heart question about my desires and the strength of my convictions: that’s the hard part. That’s the equipping for ministry that most needs our exercise and attention. And Paul offers a way of arriving at a solution to that, too, in this morning’s text.
What makes this question hard is all of a piece with what made the Gospel so mysterious for so long: from a worldly perspective it seems like I’m being asked to suffer some big losses. No one likes to do that voluntarily. The Israelites didn’t want to give up their special connection to God by sharing it with Gentiles who didn’t have to do all the sacrifices and follow all the dietary restrictions and worry about 600+ ritual commandments. The Jews didn’t want to follow a king who came to suffer and die instead of leading them to political and military success. The disciples at first didn’t want to take up the cross, an instrument of execution, to follow Jesus. And Paul in his early rabbinical ministry didn’t want to go to prison for Christ; he wanted to put people into prison or stone them to death for the blasphemy of preaching the mystery of a crucified, cursed God.
What changed the heart of a remnant of Israel and Judah about their reluctance to sacrifice; what changed the hearts of the disciples about taking up their cross to follow a suffering Messiah; what transformed a persecuting Saul into a Paul who was ready to undergo whatever persecution might be necessary was in each of these cases a Spirit-inspired grace that that lifted their perspective from the paltry human losses they feared to see the incomparable, eternal gains they were promised once they let go of the flimsy, temporal supports the world had to offer.
Listen to Paul: In our passage today he has his eyes on riches that are unsearchable, wisdom that is manifold, and glory for the Ephesians! This is no altruistic duty Paul undergoes in searching out mysteries and undergoing imprisonments. This is a sacrifice of the junk in your basement to gain more resources for investing in high yield dividends. Jim Eliot famously said: “he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Is it biblical to want to be rich? Absolutely, provided we’re talking about lasting and magnificent riches and not just more things for moths to eat and rust to corrupt and thieves to break in and steal. It’s the pearl of great price that matters to Paul, and that pearl of Christ at the heart of the Gospel’s mystery is worth selling everything to gain. It is worth going to prison for to preserve. And it is worth celebrating in our worship. O the depth of the riches and wisdom of God. How mysterious and unsearchable are his ways!
Rom 16:25 – Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.