Sunday, October 29, 2017

Given by Revelation – Ephesians 3:1-6

In a couple of days we come to Halloween, which is another way of saying All Hallows Eve, the day before All Hallows Day, which among certain denominations is the day the church remembers and celebrates the memory of the saints and martyrs of the church.  It is unfortunate, in my mind, that we have replaced the memory of saints and martyrs with goblins, ghosts, and devils.  But be that as it may, and whatever one thinks of the current celebration of Halloween, something very wonderful did happen on this day exactly 500 years ago – the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.  It is generally agreed by historians that the Reformation began when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses for debate on the subject of indulgences to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517.

In itself, the nailing of the 95 theses was not a very dramatic event, however.  Luther himself never expected the commotion that resulted from it.  It has been said that Luther was like a blind man in a bell tower who lost his footing and reached out for something to steady himself.  When he caught hold of the bell rope, he was as startled as anyone else when the bell started tolling.  After all, just a few months earlier he had nailed a previous set of theses for debate to the church door on weighty theological issues and yet nothing came of it.  You must remember that Wittenberg was a university town and scholars posted theses for debate to church doors all the time.  In those days, the church door functioned just as much as a community bulletin board as it did an entrance into the church.  So what Luther did that October 31 was not a big deal, really. 

What made it a big deal was the fact that they dealt with indulgences and indulgences were very unpopular in Germany at that time, which were seen by many Germans to be the Roman curia’s way of lining their pockets with German money.  Thanks to the printing press and the fact that someone translated Luther’s Latin theses into German, these particular theses soon set the entire nation on fire and he became an instant hero in the fight for German independence from Roman overreach.  

However, the real dramatic event in Luther’s life was not nailing the theses on the church door.  The real dramatic event happened about three and a half years later when he was summoned to appear before the imperial diet at Worms in April, 1521.  By this time, everyone understood where Luther was headed, and it upset the Roman church and the civil authorities.  Luther also knew that although he was given a safe conduct to and from the diet, so had John Huss and they had burnt him at the stake.  Many of his friends begged him not to go.  But Luther went anyway, and when told that he must recant the teachings of his books, he finally replied, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have often contradicted themselves; my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will recant, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  Here I stand.  I can do no other.  God help me, Amen.”  Luther’s nailing the theses to the church door did not make the Reformation inevitable.  His continued stand, despite being outlawed by the Roman church and the civil authorities, did.

What we hear in Luther’s famous declaration before the emperor in Worms is that the authority of Scripture was at stake.  The Roman church did indeed give lip service to the authority of God’s word, but in effect it had gutted the influence of Scripture upon the church by replacing it with the authority of the pope and church tradition.  By Luther’s time, the church had become thoroughly corrupt.  Reformation was needed.  But not just any reformation; what was needed was a reformation that proceeded upon paths determined by Holy Scripture.  And that is what Luther and the other Reformers determined to do.  This is why I believe God blessed the Reformation, for all its faults.  Because God blesses his Word and his blesses those who honor his Word.  At the end of the day, the Reformers were men who were determined to follow and honor God’s holy Word.  Their consciences were captive to the Word of God.

Every generation needs men and women who are like Martin Luther, who are determined to follow and obey God’s Word, no matter what others say or threaten.  Today, the church needs men and women of Luther’s caliber more than ever.  For we are living in a day in which the church seems to be embarrassed by the Word of God.  There is a great ignorance of the teachings of God’s Word even in the so-called evangelical church.  There is little true preaching of the true gospel, even by those who claim to believe it.  I was told that here in our own community, at a recent Christian youth event, the speaker never mentioned the gospel, and yet at the end gave an invitation.  An invitation to what?  It reminds me of what Spurgeon said of some of his contemporaries, who would shout at men and women to believe, and yet never tell them what they were to believe.  We have replaced true gospel-centered preaching with emotionalism and sentimentalism. 

Which is why we need to hear what the apostle is saying in the text we are considering this morning, Ephesians 3:1-6.  You cannot become a Martin Luther if your conscience is not captive to God’s Word.  But you will never submit your conscience to the authority of the Bible if you are not absolutely convinced that it is the Word of God.  You will not follow the teachings of the Scripture to a point where you become an outlaw like Luther if you think the Bible is just a nice collection of sayings by nice people who ultimately just wanted you to be nice.  You will never be like one of the saints and martyrs commemorated on All Saints Day if you think your 21st century intellect is too sophisticated for the Bible. 

Hear what the apostle is saying in these verses.  He says that he has been given a stewardship of God’s grace – “the dispensation of the grace of God” (2).  The object of this stewardship was to bring the message of the grace of God to the Gentiles, so that they could be “fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (6).  At the heart of the message he had been given was the “mystery” (3).  The mystery was the fact that God was now creating a new people composed of Jew and Gentile, and that door into this new people of God was faith alone in Christ alone.  Before our Lord’s first advent, if you wanted to be a part of the OT church, you had to submit to all the regulations of the Mosaic Law.  Now, faith in Christ is the only prerequisite for admittance into the NT church.

However, notice that at the heart of Paul’s ministry was the fact that he had received revelation from God.  The content of his message was determined by revelation.  The mystery which he preached was given to him by revelation.  He says this in verse 3: “How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery.”  And then again in verse 5: “Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”  Paul is claiming that he didn’t discover his message; it was given to him, it was made known to him, by revelation.  In fact, the very word he uses to describe his message – mystery – implies this idea of revelation.  In our day, if something is a mystery, it means that you cannot understand it.  We talk about the mystery of the human mind, by which we mean there are aspects to the human mind we cannot fathom.  Something may be a mystery until you understand it; then it is no longer a mystery to you.  However, in the NT, a mystery is something which cannot be known unless it is revealed.  For example, in Romans 16, Paul also writes about “the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began.  But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:25-26).  The gospel is a mystery, not because we cannot understand it but because it could only be known by revelation.  Even after it is known it does not cease to be a mystery, because the gospel never loses the property of being Divine revelation.

The apostle is thus reminding his readers that he is not preaching his own message.  The gospel he preaches and writes about is not his own.  It has been given to him by God.  It has been communicated to his “holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”  He is delivering the words of God.  He is an ambassador, not declaring his own message but that of his king.  He is an apostle, one sent by Christ himself to preach good news to both Jew and Gentile.

Now that phrase “by the Spirit” is also very important here.  Because there are some who might say that yes, God has revealed the gospel to the apostles, but then they communicate it to us with their own words which are not always without error.  There are those who believe that the Bible is God’s word in the sense that it contains God’s word, but it also contains error, and it is up to the church to discern between the truth and the error.  Those who argue this way will often point to what they think are historical inaccuracies in the Biblical narratives.

However, when Paul says that the gospel was revealed to him “by the Spirit,” he is essentially saying that not only was the content of the mystery determined by revelation, but the communication itself was safeguarded by the Holy Spirit so that the revelation is not intermixed with errors.  Remember what the apostle Peter said: “Knowing this first, that no prophesy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.  For the prophesy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21).  Peter is saying that God didn’t just give the prophets a general idea of what they were to speak and then they were on their own.  No, he guided them in the very words they used to communicate God’s truth: “holy men of God spake as they were moved [carried along, ESV] by the Holy Spirit.”  The very words of the Bible have been safeguarded from error by the inspiration of the Spirit of God.

Again, the apostle Paul tells Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16).  The word “Scripture” literally means “writing.”  So when Paul says that Scripture is given by inspiration of God, he is not just saying that the ideas are inspired, or that the doctrines behind the Scriptures are inspired.  No, he is saying that the writing down of the doctrines and ideas in words onto the pages of Holy Writ is inspired.  And not just some Scriptures, but all Scripture, every last word.

The uniform testimony of the authors of the Bible is that their words are not their own; they were given to them by God.  When we read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we are not just reading Paul, we are reading God’s Word to them and to us.  Thus, when Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he gives thanks because “when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 Thess. 2:13).  The difference between the Bible and the Koran, or between the Bible and the Book of Mormon, or between the Bible and the Vedas, is not one of degree but a complete and utter difference of kind.  The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is uniquely God’s Word to man.  Nothing else even comes close.

Now there are all sorts of objections to this.  Some will argue that it is arrogant to claim that Christians have the word of God and other religions don’t.  However, think about this a bit.  Why do they say this?  They say it because they believe it is a matter of humility to believe that you don’t have all the truth and pride to believe that you do.  Relativism is hard-wired into the way our culture looks at and thinks about things.  People will often give the analogy of the blind men and the elephant.  One blind man touches one of the elephant’s legs and says that an elephant is like a tree.  Another blind man touches his trunk, and says that an elephant is like a snake.  And so on.  People who use this analogy will apply it to religion: we are all talking about the same God although we describe him in different ways.  No one has the whole perspective; we are all describing God from our limited point of view.  Both blind men are right; in the same way, all religions are right even though they describe God in different ways.

However, this analogy fails.  Do you see why?  It fails because in order for the analogy to work, the person telling the story has to have the whole perspective, has to see the entire elephant.  The only way to come to the conclusion that both blind men are telling the truth is that someone has to have seen the elephant trunk to tail, head to foot.  In the same way, people who say that all religions are telling the truth although from different perspectives are essentially saying that they have the whole perspective.  How else could they say that?  Those who confidently affirm that the Bible is just part of the truth are just as guilty of the arrogance that they claim the Christian to be guilty of.  For they cannot make their claim unless they have assumed a position of absolute knowledge about the truth of God.

Another objection to the claim that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God is that science has made the Bible irrelevant.  Many today just don’t feel a need for the Bible because they look to science instead.  Unfortunately, a lot of modern people think that as science expands, belief in God will shrink.  Not too long ago, a famous author claimed that belief in God would disappear in the next few decades.  In other words, it is thought that the reason for God lies in the places that science cannot explain, a “God of the gaps.”  So as our need for God as an explanation goes away, our need for Scripture disappears, too.

But this is folly.  One problem with this is that it confuses different types of explanation.  Science is powerful as an explanation for the mechanisms behind the material processes in the universe.  But to say that because we understand the science behind certain aspects of physical phenomenon therefore we don’t need God as an explanation for the universe, is like saying that because we understand the physics behind the internal combustion engine therefore we don’t need Henry Ford as an explanation for the automobile.[1] 

This kind of thinking is also problematic because it overestimates the power of scientific explanation.  Science cannot explain everything.  In fact, science cannot even explain itself.  The affirmation that we can only arrive at true knowledge through science is a statement that is not testable by the scientific method and so is self-defeating.  In fact, science does not explain the really big questions.  It cannot tell you why you are here, where you came from, or where you are going.  It cannot give you a reason for your existence.  More importantly, science cannot give you access to the mind of God concerning salvation.  It cannot tell you how sinful men and women can be reconciled to a holy God.  In order to know that, we must hear God speak to us.  That does not come from science; that comes from Scripture.

Another objection comes from the apparent discrepancies and historical inaccuracies of the Bible.  It would take me too far afield to address these all.  However, let me say this.  When you hear someone say that the Bible cannot be true because of this or that apparent discrepancy, be very careful that you don’t just swallow the claim hook-line-and-sinker.  Neither should we be afraid of facing up to them.  But caution is the order of the day when it comes to such claims.  For years, it was thought that the Bible contained errors because in Daniel it says that Belshazzar was the ruler in Babylon when it fell, when there was no evidence outside the Bible that such a man even existed.  In fact, everyone knew that it was Nabonidus who was ruler when Babylon was conquered.  For many years, believers in the inerrancy of Scripture had no proof that the Bible was telling the truth.  But eventually archeology turned up independent evidence for Belshazzar.  This has happened over and over again.  So be careful.  The Bible is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.  Even when evidence is lacking, history tells us that over and over again the Bible is eventually vindicated.  We have every reason to believe that it will emerge victorious over all who dispute its truthfulness.

But the ultimate proof in the trustworthiness and authority of Scripture comes from our Lord Jesus Christ.  What did Jesus say about the Bible?  He affirmed the authority of Scripture and its truthfulness, down to the very words.  For example, in John 10:35, he defends the position he was taking in a controversy with his opponents by appealing to Scripture, and then by saying, “And the Scripture cannot be broken.”  What is so significant about this is that Jesus’ argument hinged on a single word in Psalm 82:6.  He was saying that Scripture down to its most minute details cannot be broken, annulled, or denied.  What’s interesting about this is that the word “Scripture” had a very definite meaning in his day.  It meant the entire OT as we have it today.  So when our Lord said that Scripture cannot be broken, he was appealing to the fact that all of the OT from Genesis to Malachi is authoritative and true.

In Matthew 19:4-5, our Lord quotes Gen. 2:24, and says, “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?”  What is interesting about this is that when you read Genesis 2:24, it is not explicitly said that God said these words.  In fact, it appears to be the words of Adam, or Moses’ commentary on the events of woman’s creation.  But when our Lord quotes these words, he ascribes them to God.  Why?  Because what Moses wrote were the words of God.  Genesis is not just Moses’ version of early history; it is the word of God to man.

But our Lord did not only affirm the authority of the OT, he also affirmed the authority of the NT.  Because he commissioned the apostles to go speak his words to men.  He promised them the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the apostles when he said, “When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak, and he will shew you things to come” (Jn. 16:13).  This is why the early church rejected all documents as canonical that were not either written by apostles or by those directly connected with the apostles (like Mark and Luke).  The reason is because it is the apostles to whom God revealed the mystery, as Paul puts it to the Ephesians.

The resurrection is not just proof that God the Father accepted the sacrifice of God the Son.  It is that, primarily and gloriously.  But it is also proof that the claims of Jesus during his earthly ministry were true.  The resurrection is God’s imprimatur upon the claims of Christ.  And one of those claims is that the Bible, OT and NT, is the Word of God.  We can believe in the truthfulness of the Bible and the authority of the Bible because our Lord rose from the grave.

Now what affect should this have on us?  Do we truly believe that the Bible is the Word of God?  Then my friends, let us hold fast to it with all our might.  Let us not neglect it or despise it.  Let us not turn from it for the chaff that passes as wisdom in our culture.  As God told the prophet Jeremiah long ago, “The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully.  What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the LORD.  Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh in pieces?” (Jer. 23:28-29).  This word is not something to be ashamed of; it is our glory (cf. Eph. 3:13).  It is that which changes us from glory to glory (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18).

[1] I got this analogy from John Lennox.  See his book God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Do not lose heart – Eph. 3:1-13

We need to remember that the apostle Paul was in prison when he wrote this.  Indeed, the apostle himself reminds us in the opening words of chapter 3: “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles. . .” (1).  In 4:1 he again describes himself as “the prisoner of the Lord,” and in 5:20 as “an ambassador in bonds.”  Technically, he was the prisoner of the Romans, awaiting trial before Caesar.  But Paul never describes himself in those terms; it is always, “the prisoner of the Lord.” 

This personal description was significant because for one thing it was a reminder that ultimately it is Christ who is sovereign.  He is the prisoner of the Lord because, on one level, it was the Lord who put him there.  Paul knew from experience that if he was in prison, it was because it was the Lord who put him there.  Why did he get thrown into prison in Philippi?  Because a jailor needed to hear the gospel and be saved.  Why was he then in prison?  Because the Roman emperor Nero needed to be confronted with the truth of the gospel.  Yes, he was a prisoner of the Romans.  But what they didn’t realize is that the Emperor of the Universe had him there for a reason.  God is sovereign, and we must never forget that.  They put Paul in chains, but they could not bind the power of the gospel: “I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:9).

But it was also a reminder that he was not in prison because he had committed some egregious wrong against Roman (or Jewish) society.  No, it was because he was a minister of Jesus Christ.  In particular, it was because of the message that the Gentiles are “fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (6) that his fellow Jews had risen against him and accused him to the authorities.  They had tried to kill him multiply times for the proclamation of the gospel.  It is a very sad reality that though this message is the very thing we need to embrace in order to be reconciled to God, yet because of human sinfulness and unbelief it is also the very thing that unregenerate men and women want least to hear. 

In Paul’s context, the most problematic aspect of the gospel to his Jewish audience was this insistence that God is creating a new society composed of Jew and Gentile, and that the door into this new society is not the observance of the law but faith in Christ.  Paul tells the Galatians, “And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution?  Then is the offense of the cross ceased” (Gal. 5:11).  And he reminds them that the reason his legalist opponents in Galatia insisted on their converts keeping the law was “lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:12).  Paul refused to compromise the gospel, and so he got persecuted.  He bore in the body the marks of the Lord Jesus (Gal. 6:17).

The reality is that following Christ does not always lead to people liking you.  Sometimes, perhaps more often than we would like, it means that people will not only not like us, they will despise us.  Faithfulness to Christ can be a lonely road in this world.  It is not a popular way.  Didn’t our Lord remind us of that when he described his way as a narrow and hard way, one that few traverse (cf. Mt. 7:13-14)?  If we follow Christ, we need to remember that we are following him whom the prophet described as “despised and rejected of men” (Isa. 53:3).  I think this is important to remember in our day, because the perception is that if you are a faithful follower of Jesus, everyone will see that you are a nice person and appreciate all the things you do.  And on the other hand, if you stir up the malice of unbelievers against you, it must be because you said or did something inappropriate.  But this is just not so.  Jesus was the best person who ever lived on this earth, and his own neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff (cf. Lk. 4).  In fact, our Lord says the opposite of the conventional wisdom: “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you!  For so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Lk. 6:26).  Beware when you are popular.  You might just be a false prophet.  Paul was not a false prophet; he was a faithful minister of Jesus Christ and it landed him in prison.

Now at the end of chapter 2, Paul had just finished describing the double reconciliation of Jew and Gentile to God and to each other that our Lord accomplished through his death on the cross, and he was apparently then going to pray for the Ephesians.  Verses 2-13 are a sort of parenthesis.  In verse 1, Paul says, “For this cause I Paul . . .” and then doesn’t come back to what he was going to say until verse 14, where he repeats in identical language, “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and then he prays.  So in verse 2, Paul breaks off from this intention to pray, and instead gives them this lengthy description of the mystery and ministry that he has received from Christ.  And the question is, obviously, why would Paul do that?

I think the reason is that, as Paul is describing himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ, he remembers something else.  He remembers that many of the saints in Ephesus are discouraged because of his imprisonment.  We know this because of what Paul writes in verse 13, at the very end of his parenthetical excursion: “Wherefore I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory.”  They were fainting, losing heart, becoming discouraged precisely because he was a prisoner of Jesus Christ.  Despite the fact that our Lord himself has warned us that following him is not a participation in a happy parade down Main Street, somehow we get the impression that if we follow him all should go well.  And when it doesn’t, we begin to lose heart.  Perhaps something like that had happened to the Ephesians.  They didn’t understand why someone like Paul, a man personally commissioned by Christ himself, would suffer as he did at the hands of wicked men.  And so Paul writes verses 2-13 to keep them from losing heart.

It is therefore very important for us to get the big picture here and to see what Paul is doing.  Fundamentally, in verses 2-13, he is giving the Ephesians who are discouraged reasons to overcome their discouragement.  And so if you are struggling this morning with discouragement, if you feel that you are on the verge of losing heart, if you feel faint, then you need to hear what the apostle has to say.  You need to take the pastoral medicine that he is about to administer to these weary believers. 

The key to overcoming discouragement is found in verse 13, where Paul says that his sufferings for them are their “glory.”  This was very important for them (and us) to see.  You see, there are two approaches you can take when you are confronted with suffering, whether yours or someone else’s.  One approach is to try to understand why the suffering is taking place, to understand the reason behind it.  And I think this approach is fundamentally flawed, because there is no way this side of heaven that we will ever be able to understand all the reasons why we or others suffer as we do.  The big lesson from the Book of Job is that God never explained to Job why he suffered.  God never let Job in on his meeting with Satan.  Rather, God tells Job that he was not in the position to understand or even to ask why.  No human being has the right to shake their fist at God and demand answers.  God is not the one who needs to be justified; we are the ones who need to be justified.

The other approach is the one that the apostle takes.  It is to place our sufferings and trials in the light of God’s redemptive purposes for us.  It is to see our tribulations against the backdrop of the glory that God has reserved for his elect.  Paul had seen glory, the glory of Christ and the glory that he gives.  And he knew that no amount of suffering in this world would be able to diminish, not in the very least, the glory that belongs by grace to the children of God: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). 

Our problem is that we often do compare our sufferings with the glory to come.  We so fixate on them that we diminish the immensity of the reward that is ours in Christ.  And when we do that, we begin to lose heart.

Now I do not want to give the impression that we are to pretend that our sufferings are not real or tragic or even at times unbearable.  We are not commanded to bear up like a Stoic and act like we do not feel the pain.  Our Lord wept at Lazarus’ tomb and in the Garden of Gethsemane he was under so much duress that he sweat as it were great drops of blood.  Some of us will bear mental and emotional scars to the day of our death, and that is just reality.  There is nothing sinful about being human.  So I am not saying that the key to dealing with suffering so that we do not lose heart is to pretend that we don’t feel the hurt and pain.  We are not supposed to live in denial that our suffering is real and hard and painful and sometimes lifelong. 

We don’t live in denial of present suffering.  But neither do we live in denial of future glory.  And so Paul reminds the Ephesians that his sufferings for them have secured for them the glory to come.  He is in prison for preaching the gospel, yes.  But this preaching led to them receiving the gospel, by which they became fellow heirs, members of the body of Christ, and partakers of his promise in Christ (6).  Note that Paul is not the least bit sorry that he has done this.  The ministry, which led to his imprisonment, was not a matter of regret for Paul, it was an occasion of incredible and intense gratitude: “unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (8).  And regardless of what Paul was suffering or would suffer, this reality could never be taken away from him: “in whom [Christ] we have boldness and access [to God the Father] with confidence by the faith of him” (12). 

In other words, the key to not losing heart is to remind ourselves that we are heirs to unspeakable and incomparable glory in Christ.  You see this emphasis all over the NT.  For example, to the Romans, Paul writes, “Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” (12:12).  I don’t think it was an accident that Paul put those two things together.  They who persevere in trials are precisely those who rejoice in hope. 

You see this in the apostle Peter’s epistles.  He writes that they have been born again to a living hope “to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed at the last time.  Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness though manifold temptations: that the trial of your faith, being much more precious that of gold that perisheth, though it be tried by fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:3-7).  I think it is very significant that Peter’s reflection on their sufferings are bracketed before and after by his reminders of the glory to come.  I also want to notice the dual reality of rejoicing and heaviness that described the experience of these Christians.  Faith in Christ does not make the heaviness disappear.  But it is balanced by rejoicing in hope, and in that hope we can find the strength to persevere in the midst of trials.

Again, in chapter 4 of 1 Peter, we read, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad with exceeding joy” (12-13).  We should not think it strange that those who follow Jesus Christ should suffer.  He suffered.  His whole live was marked by suffering.  When he was born his parents had to spirit him away to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill him.  When he began his ministry, his neighbors wanted to throw him off a cliff.  And finally, he was arrested and crucified.  He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  So when we respond to his call, “Follow me,” it should not surprise us if we find fiery trials along the way.  We are simply following our Savior.  But this is not the whole story; our sufferings are his sufferings, and as his suffering gave way to immeasurable glory, so our trials will someday give way to indescribable glory.  We may be in heaviness now, but there is coming a day when all will give way to “exceeding joy.”

And of course our Lord himself taught this at the end of the Beatitudes.  “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.  Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted the prophets which were before you” (Mt. 5:10-12).  Why should you rejoice in the midst of persecution?  Surely there is no reason to rejoice!  And yet, our Savior tells us that it is precisely at that moment that we should rejoice: “for great is your reward in heaven.”  It is only as we keep our eyes upon the reward that we will be able to be patient in tribulation.

The apostles lived this out.  This was not merely theological discourse to them.  When Peter and John were arrested and then beaten for preaching in the name of Jesus Christ, we are told that “they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41).  And we see the same for believers throughout history.  Men and women who were willing to undergo the most brutal sufferings for the name of Christ because they kept their eyes on the hope of glory.  And there are millions of God’s people in heaven today who can testify to the reality that faith in Christ will never disappoint. 

Many of the passages that we’ve referenced refer to believers suffering for their faith.  The NT authors focus on this because the church faced violent persecution from the very start and believers had to be prepared for that.  And the fact of the matter is that, even in the West, we will inevitably face some form of persecution if we are faithful to Christ.  “All who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).  But we should not think that only those sufferings which are the direct result of persecution for the sake of Christ are addressed by our hope in Christ.  When Paul writes that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory,” there is no indication that he is thinking just of sufferings due to persecution.  Rather, we should take his meaning in the broadest possible sense.  When we lose someone very dear to us, that is suffering.  We are not immune to it.  The pain can be indescribable.  And yet, we know that all our suffering is Christ’s suffering.  And because it is his suffering, we can be sure that behind our suffering will come the grace and comfort of our Savior that bears us up and keeps us going until the day we are face to face with him in incomparable glory.

Now there are many people, especially in our day, who if they heard me say this, would simply respond by saying that I am just dishing up pie in the sky.  They would say that all this nonsense about hope is simply wish-fulfillment for people who want to escape reality.  The first thing I would say to that would be to ask, could it be possible that the desire for there to be no heaven and no hope beyond this world be nothing more than wish-fulfillment for those who have no desire to meet the God of heaven? 

But the second thing I would say, and the more important thing, is that we have every reason to believe that this hope is not simply pie in the sky.  This is because our hope is built on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Peter describes the hope of the Christian as a living hope “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).  Our hope is anchored in an event of history that took place in Judea 2000 years ago.  It was an event that was witnessed by every one of the apostles, who turned from fearful and trembling recluses to courageous and lion-like witnesses for Christ.  It was witnessed, according to the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 15:6, by more than 500 eye witnesses.  And then we have the testimony of Paul himself, who met Christ on the road to Damascus and turned the persecutor into an ambassador for Christ.  There simply is no good explanation for the meteoric rise of the Christian church in Palestine if Christ did not rise from the dead.  And of course, in some sense every believer in Christ has met the living and risen Christ.  He has raised us from a death in sin and given us life in Christ.  Jesus our Lord arose.  And he did not rise simply as an individual but as the first fruits of all who belong to him: “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20). 

And for that reason, we have hope.  We don’t have hope because we are good enough to deserve the glory to come.  No, we have hope because Jesus Christ was good for us, because on the cross he paid the penalty for sin and invites all who know their sinfulness to embrace the forgiveness that he offers to those who believe.  It is because of that we can have hope.  It is because of our Lord’s triumph over the grave that we can have confidence that one day we too will triumph over the grave.  “But thanks be unto God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What is the Church?  Ephesians 2:19-22

In the West, where individualism reigns supreme, we have privatized almost everything, including the Christian faith.  But it’s interesting, isn’t it, as we look at Paul’s words here in Ephesians 2, that one of the overriding concerns of the cross is to bring people together.  The reconciliation that was accomplished on the cross, doesn’t just reconcile people to God – though that is the main thing – it also reconciles man to man.  And it doesn’t stop there, it brings men and women into the community of the church.  We are not meant to live out the Christian life in solitude, cut off from other believers.  We are to live together in the fellowship of those who have also been called out of darkness and into the marvelous light of Christ.

And yet, despite the clear importance of the church, there is a lot of confusion as to what the church is.  Too often, I think, church is equated with the meeting that happens on Sunday morning.  Though this event is certainly necessary and very important to the life of the church (we are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, Heb. 10:25), this is not the church.  If what we do on Sunday morning is the sum total of what defines us as a church, then we need to think a little more carefully as to what we are about.  Not too long ago, I heard a prominent voice in the Christian community say that he didn’t think the church was up to the task of confronting the rising secularism of our culture.  His statement frankly alarmed me.  How can you have so little confidence in God’s institution?  If change doesn’t come from the church, where would it come from?  And then I realized that he was thinking of the church as a group of people who do no more than meet together to watch something once a week, if that often.  Yes, I agree, that will not change society.  Because that is not the church!

On the other hand, some people think that church is just getting together with other believers, in any context.  This is closer to the truth, but it is still far from the Biblical reality.  They emphasize fellowship, which is important, but they stop far short of what the Bible describes as Christian fellowship.  They balk at the notion of a “service,” and will ascribe such things to legalism and formalism.  For such people, a church service is no good; they would rather go to the park and talk theology over hot dogs.  Fellowship among Christians is truly in short supply, and ironically our technological society has begun replacing Biblical fellowship with media.  And yet, the NT church is much bigger than talking theology over hot dogs.

Others think of the church purely in terms of programs.  Again, I want to say right off the bat that I’m not against programs.  But secular organizations run programs.  Doing stuff together is not what really defines a group of people as the church, no matter how impactful such efforts might be.

What then, is the church?  Well, we can give a functional definition.  When one looks into the NT, one sees that the church is the community of God’s called-out people (ekklesia) who worship together (Eph. 5:19,20), pray together (1 Tim. 2), disciple one another (Rom. 15:14), submit to spiritual leaders together (Heb. 13:7, 17), hear and respond together in faith to Spirit-filled preaching (2 Tim. 4:1-5), who hold one another accountable (Gal. 6:1-5), and who share with each other (1 Tim. 6:17).  All these things can be illustrated by definite examples in the book of Acts.  And this is not a complete list.  All the “one-anothers” of the NT go here as well.  And it thus becomes immediately clear that limiting the church to an event, to a program, or to theology over hot dogs, is far, far from all that God has for us in the church.

However, the problem with purely functional definitions is that they beg the question, why?  Why do we do all these things together?  And why these particular things and not others?  And so on.  That is why it is also very important to get down to a more ontological definition of the church.  What I mean by that is, what is the church before it does anything? What is the essence of the church?  Because if we understand that, then we will have a better grasp on what we are to do.  And I think this is especially relevant for our church in this season.  As we consider what God would have us to do, we need to always go back and measure such goals against what we are.   

And here in our text, the apostle Paul helps us.  Though the word “church” itself is never used, we know that is what the apostle is talking about here.  For the imagery he uses he applies elsewhere to the church.  Paul describes his readers as belonging to the household of God; in 1 Tim. 3:15 he says that the house of God is the church of God.  In 1 Cor. 3, Paul describes the church as a temple, just as he does here.  In Eph. 2:19-22, we have a description of the NT church.

In describing the church, the apostle uses three metaphors: kingdom, family, and temple.  The first two are found in verse 19, and the third is expounded in verses 20-22.  So as we ask the apostle Paul what he thinks the church is, he would say that the church is the community of those who belong to the kingdom and family of God, and who are being incorporated into the temple of God.  This morning, I want to try to unpack what is implied in these metaphors.  And hopefully, as we go forward in our vision-casting we will look back to what we are in Christ in order to determine how to look forward in our service to him and his kingdom.

The church is the community of those who belong to the kingdom of God.

Now I recognize that the church and the kingdom of God are not strictly synonymous.  God’s kingdom rules over all (Ps. 103:19), and the church is not a universal community.  It has always been, and will always be a minority community in the world.  Nevertheless, the church consists of those who have bowed the knee to Jesus as their King and who find their identity as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.  This is what the apostle is saying when he writes, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints.”

This is in contrast with the description of their former state in verse 12.  “At that time” they were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel.”  Remember that before Christ came, God’s rule among men was most closely connected with the nation of Israel.  Israel, in its most glorious state under the rule of Kings David and Solomon had been a theocracy; the true God was the acknowledged ruler.  The Gentiles were for the most part alienated from this visible expression of God’s rule upon the earth.  But now, this is no longer the case.  In Christ, God is forming a new community upon the earth, the church, and this community is now the visible expression of God’s rule upon the earth. 

Of course, the citizenship celebrated here is more than just belonging to the church here on earth.  It means that we are citizens of heaven, as Paul reminds the Philippian believers: “For our citizenship is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil. 3:20, 21).  The kingdom of which we are now a part has no borders and it has no end.  It is a kingdom which will find its ultimate fulfillment in the new heavens and new earth.

As such, the church is connected to the saints in every age.  “Fellow citizens with the saints.”  The saints are those who in every age, from Adam until now, who have embraced with faith the rule of God over their lives, who have bent their knees to the sovereignty of God over their plans and choices and desires.  It is a truly global and timeless community.

There are at least three implications for the church that arise from this metaphor.  First of all, we need to be constantly reminded that it is vain that we claim to belong to the kingdom of God if we are not willing to submit our entire lives to the lordship of Christ.  Though it is true that our works can never inherit eternal life, and though it is gloriously true that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, that does not mean that works have no place in the life of the Christian.  Faith is necessary, but faith without works is dead, as James put it.  We are saved by grace unto good works (Eph. 2:9-10).  The fact of the matter is that you cannot truly have put your trust in Christ without repenting of your sins.  Christ does not present himself to you merely as a Savior, but as Savior and Lord.  You must have the whole Christ; he does not come to you in pieces for you to pick and choose as you like. 

That is why any healthy church is going to be a place that promotes holiness and discipleship.  Healthy churches are going to be places where church discipline is practiced.  They are going to be places where sin is lovingly confronted, not conveniently ignored.  Of course that does not mean that we are to be harsh or unkind.  It does not mean that we are to be inflexible or self-righteous.  But it does mean that we follow Christ.  We embrace the sinners with love and with the same love call them to repentance. 

There is also another implication from this description of the church that we need to hear: since the church is borderless and timeless, we need to be careful that we don’t just define our mission purely in terms of our own locality.  From Paul’s epistles, we know that in the first century, churches in Greece sent money to help churches in Judea.  Christians had a global mindset even then, and we need to have the same.  To the extent that we can, we should be willing to help churches in other parts of the world.  This is an often overlooked responsibility of the church.  We are sometimes so focused on helping those who don’t know Christ in other parts of the world, that we forget about those who do.

And then the third implication is that we are to be concerned about world missions.  We cannot belong to the kingdom of God and pray, “Thy kingdom come,” without wanting to see the saving rule of Christ embraced by more and more people in every part of the world.  This is why Paul was in prison; he was in prison because he had made it his mission “to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery” (Eph. 3:9).  May God bless our church to be a part of God’s world-wide mission.

The church is the community of those who belong to the family of God.

In Christ, we belong to the family of God.  It is why when we pray, we call God, “Father.”  Christians are people who embrace God as their Father through Christ and who receive one another as brothers and sisters.  We belong to “the household of God.”  One commentary notes that the world the apostle uses here “implies a close intimate family.”[1]  God does not welcome us to his family like David welcomed Absalom back from exile; rather, God embraces us with open arms into the intimacy of the fellowship of his family.

This is one of the reasons, by the way, why we have to be careful that we don’t define church so narrowly as to exclude members of God’s family from it.  Unfortunately, the need for denominational commitments has led to a very unbiblical view of the church.  For some, the church is defined primarily in terms of externals like baptism and ordination.  But here, in our text, the apostle describes the church as the household of God, as he does in 1 Tim. 3:15.  That does not mean that we give up certain denominational commitments, but it does mean that we are willing to recognize that the church is bigger than our own local fellowship or denomination.  We all know how dreadful it is when siblings exclude each other; how much more horrible must it be when sons and daughters of God exclude each other from mutual fellowship!

Just as the metaphor of kingdom speaks to the need of holiness in the church, so the metaphor of family speaks to the need of love in the church.  “Home is where the heart is” is a message we see displayed in many homes, and it should certainly be true of the church.  The community of the people of God should be a place where we feel at home.  It should be a place where we can let down our guard, so to speak, where we can feel vulnerable.  It should be a place where we can be honest with each other without getting our heads bitten off.  The church should be a community of people who want to serve each other.  It should be a place where washing the disciples’ feet is lived out in many practical ways.  Remember what our Lord said: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (Jn. 13:35).  “Bear ye one anothers burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

And by the way, kingdom and family are not mutually exclusive categories.  Paul put both the need for holiness and the need for love together in Eph. 4:15, when he wrote, “But speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”  We grow in holiness through the embrace of truth in our hearts.  But truth is most convincingly embraced when it is received in love.  It is very unfortunate that some people don’t know how to be zealous for holiness without being ugly about it.  How unlike our Lord that is!  There was no one on earth more zealous for holiness and the glory of God than Jesus Christ.  And yet there was no one on the earth more gentle and loving than he.  I love how the prophet describes him: “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench” (Mt. 12:20, quoting Isa. 42:1-3).  It was he who said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:29). 

The church is the community of those who are being incorporated into the temple of God

The third metaphor Paul uses, and which he spends the most time developing, is that of the temple.  He writes: “And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom all the building fitly framed together growing unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (20-22).

There are two words for temple that are used in the NT.  One word is used to refer to the totality of the temple precincts in Jerusalem: the court of the Gentiles, the court of the women, and the court of Israel and the priests.  The other word is used to refer to the inner sanctum, the temple proper, where the priests would offer sacrifice and burn incense to God.  It is this word that the apostle uses to describe the church.  The church is the place where God meets with his people in grace and salvation.  The church is the “habitation of God through the Spirit.” 

It is true that the individual Christian is the dwelling place of God through the Spirit.  Paul teaches that in 1 Cor. 6.  But in 1 Cor. 3, when Paul refers to the temple of God, he is not talking about the individual believer, but as here he is talking about the church of God as a corporate reality.  We must not miss the significance of that!  In a day when people are adopting drive-thru churches or resorting to the Hour of Power as their weekly encounter with the church, we need to be reminded that God reserves a special blessing for the church as the gathered community of his people.  We are meant to be together, and God blesses his church when they meet together. 

You see that in the imagery that Paul uses here.  He says that in Christ the building is “fitly framed together.”  Today, it really doesn’t matter as much how the bricks are shaped because we use mortar to put them together.  But in Paul’s day, they didn’t use mortar and so there was “an elaborate process of cutting and smoothing the stones so that they fit exactly next to each other.”[2]  The idea is that God is shaping us and smoothing us so that we will fit perfectly into the temple that he is building.  But that means fitting exactly next to other believers!  This is a beautiful picture of the harmony and unity enjoyed by believers who before their conversion were at each other’s throats.  We need each other for the temple that God is building. 

A wonderful illustration of this comes from the ministry of the Welsh preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  There was a witch in the town where he was preaching who was on her way to take her own life, when she passed by the church building and heard the service in progress.  For some reason, she went in – and as she entered, she said that she felt a power, not a dirty power which she had known through witchcraft, but a clean, holy, wonderful power.  And it changed her!  God was working in the gathering of his people!  We need to make sure that we don’t miss the great blessing of the church.  God didn’t ordain the internet, he ordained the church.  He didn’t ordain parachurch ministries, he ordained the church.  God is building his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  If you really want to experience his blessing, you will get in on what God is doing: and what he is doing is building his church.  To abandon the church is to forsake your own blessing.

In describing the church, Paul talks about its foundation.  This is very important.  One of the sad things about the church is that through history it has often been mistaken about its foundation.  Paul says that the foundation of the church is “the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.”  The apostles and (New Testament) prophets are foundational in the sense that the church’s beliefs and doctrines are grounded in their teaching.  God communicated his truth to the church through the apostles and prophets.  And this was done once: “are built upon the foundation…”  God is not still laying the foundation.  That has been done.  As Jude put it, we are to contend earnestly “for the faith once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).  And we are not to add to that foundation. 

The contents of this foundation are to be found in the NT.  It is not found in the tradition of the church fathers, nor in the traditions of our grandfathers!  It may be illuminated by them, but it is not defined by them.  This is why I am so thankful for the Reformation emphasis on sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone.”  With Martin Luther, we ought to boldly proclaim, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have often contradicted themselves; my conscience is captive to the word of God.  I cannot and will not recant, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  Here I stand, I can do no other.  God help me.  Amen.”

And Jesus is the “chief cornerstone.”  Ancient builders laid the cornerstone first.  It was the most important stone in the foundation because it determined how the other foundational stones would be laid.  “It is that stone by which every other stone in the foundation and the superstructure must be measured.”[3]  Christ is the measure of the church.  The message of the church is Christ and him crucified.  The life of the church is the abundant life purchased by him on the cross.  Everything about the church is to point to Christ as our Savior and Lord and Brother and Friend.  We witness to the fact that those who rest their lives upon him will never be disappointed.

[1] Hoehner, p. 384.
[2] Hoehner, p. 409.
[3] Ibid, p. 407.

How to be blessed by the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:1-4)

I have heard it said that if you were to poll the average Christian on which book of the Bible they most want to study, the answer would be ...