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?

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