Monday, November 20, 2017

A Thankful Heart (Ephesians 1-3)

We sometimes don’t really appreciate our blessings until they are taken from us, if even for a moment.  It takes bad health to make us appreciate good health.  You get the air knocked out of you and you suddenly realize how precious oxygen is.  You might complain about your job until you lose it.  

It works the other way as well.  When our curses are removed, we sometimes fail to remember just how bad they were when they plagued us, and therefore forget how great the blessing our deliverance is.  The Israelites were not long in their exodus from Egypt when they began to pine for their slavery again.  They remembered the leaks and the cucumbers but forgot the humiliation, the servitude, the pain, and the disgrace.  They were not thankful for the blessing because they forgot the curse.

We all suffer from the same malady.  Because of this, we are constantly in danger of failing to recognize the incredible blessings we enjoy from our salvation in Christ.  The best thing about our salvation is the very thing that makes thanksgiving for it so easily forgotten.  The great thing about salvation in Christ is that it can never be taken from us.  We “stand” in grace; we don’t move in and out of it (Rom. 5:2).  “For I am persuaded,” said the apostle, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).  A grace which we could lose would not be very good.  But because the people of God cannot lose their salvation, they are in constant danger of failing to appreciate the never-dying wonder of their deliverance and to forget the pit from which we were delivered.

And yet thanksgiving is necessary, from a spiritual perspective.  For one thing, it’s a matter of obedience.  The apostle Paul wrote, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess. 5:18).  In chapter 5 of Ephesians, Paul will say that giving thanks is an expression of being filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:20). 

God does not just command thanksgiving because we owe it to him.  We do, of course.  But more than that, he does so because at the bottom of mankind’s rebellion against God is a heart that is void of thanksgiving: “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:21).  A thankless heart is one step removed from idolatry.  Those who are not thankful to God for who he is and what he has done for them will give the allegiance of their hearts to someone or something else.

It is also easier to become bitter against God when we lack thankful hearts.  If our hearts are not full of gratitude to God for all that he has done for us, we will easily fall to disappointment and disillusionment when things don’t go our way.  This is exactly what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness.  Despite their miraculous deliverance and God’s continued provision for them, these things faded into the background of their minds and the problems with which they were faced became paramount.  They failed to trust in God and turned to idols.  At the bottom of their problem was the absence of a thankful heart: “they soon forgot his works” (Ps. 106:13, 21; 78:7, 11). 

To become idolaters is to sabotage our true and ultimate happiness.  This is what ancient Israel did when they abandoned the true God for false idols: “Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods?  But my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit.  Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the LORD.  For my people have committed to evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:11-13).  And this is what we do when we abandon God for the false idols of materialism, prosperity, sex, and fame.  They promise us happiness, but they will eventually leave us empty, cold, and dead.  Ultimately, idols are helpless: “They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: they have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: they have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.  They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them” (Ps. 115;5-8).

The battle for a thankful heart is therefore a battle against idolatry.  And it is therefore also a battle for our spiritual well-being and our true joy.  The Biblical command to be thankful is not a call to nostalgia.  Nor is it an attempt to create in your heart the warm fuzzies.  It is essential for the survival of your soul.

So, this morning I want to give you ammunition in this critical battle against ingratitude.  And the way I want to do this is to review with you the spiritual blessings that the apostle has chronicled for us in the first three chapters of the epistle to the Ephesians.  These blessings are described for us as “spiritual blessings” (1:3); that is, blessings which come to us through none other than the Holy Spirit in his ministry to us as he imparts to us the riches of Christ.  They are called “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8) since the blessings we receive through Christ are infinitely valuable.  And they demonstrate “the manifold wisdom of God” in the salvation of his people (3:10).  What are these blessings?

Before I proceed I want to remind you that these blessings are “in Christ” (1:3).  Not everyone is in Christ.  We are all “in Adam.”  We share Adam and Eve’s fallenness.  We are broken, selfish, godless sinners and rebels who are worthy of the judgment of God.   Look around you.  The world in which we live is man’s world.  It is our world.  It is the world man has created.  All the injustice and hate and war and moral confusion that makes our world so ugly and depressing and dark is mankind’s signature upon human history.  Sin is not a harmless or inconsequential pleasure.  It is not just a “failing.”  Its consequences are all around us, and it is sickening.  And what we need to understand is that the darkness that is all around us is also within all of us.  All of us.  None are exempt.  “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10).  Therefore, none of us deserve even the least blessing from God.  When we ask why do bad things happen to good people, we forget that there aren’t any good people: “There is none good but one, that is, God” (Mk. 10:18).  The only really perfect man who ever walked this earth was crucified 2000 years ago.  We cannot expect a single blessing from God if we are expecting him to bless us because of who we are or what we have done.  We can only expect to be blessed by God if he chooses to do so out of grace.  But God is not only gracious; he is also holy.  And the only way God can be both gracious and holy is if our sin is punished in Christ.  All the blessings of salvation come through Christ, and through Christ alone.  We receive them through faith in Christ, by looking away from ourselves and resting completely upon the sufficiency and merit of the Lord Jesus Christ.  “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

If you are in Christ, if you belong to him by faith, if you enjoy saving union with the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf, then the blessings which the apostle records for us in Ephesians belong to you.  And you should not only own them, you should reflect upon them until you feel your heart filling with thanksgiving to God.  What are some of the things Paul calls to our attention?

First of all, he reminds us that in Christ we have been made accepted.  This is one of the things that every human being craves.  So many people go through the holiday season with deep sadness in their hearts because they feel alienated and alone.  We all want to belong somewhere.  We want to have relationships where we are not judged; where we are accepted.  Paul reminds us that the believer has acceptance on a level that no earthly family or club or team can give.  For the believer has first of all been accepted by God himself.  He or she has been chosen by God (1:4) and predestined for adoption into the very family of God (1:5).  God the Father has not just grudgingly accepted you.  We all know what it is like to be included because people feel they have to include us in their group, even though they don’t want to.  It is not a very enjoyable association.  Instead, God has taken the initiative before you were born and chosen you to salvation.  He chose you in love, and it is in this sense that “he that made us accepted in the beloved” (1:6).  We need to remember that God’s choice of us is entirely of grace.  It preceded our choice of him not only in time but also in terms of cause and effect.  We chose him because he first chose us.  His acceptance of us is therefore not dependent upon the vacillations of our souls but entirely upon the unchangeable love of God for his people.  We ought to marvel at and be thankful for the goodness of God in whom we find perfect acceptance!

Not only this, but God has put his children in a family.  He has created the church, where believers of every stamp can find acceptance.  He has not only reconciled men and women to himself, he is also reconciling men and women to each other in the church.  This is Paul’s point in 2:11-22.  We love each other here because we all share in God’s love for us in Christ.  God has created an institution in which we can grow spiritually and be encouraged and held accountable.  The devil tries to mimic the church.  But the church is the only place in which you can truly grow spiritually.  And God your Father provided it for you, for your joy and blessing and good.

Second, the apostle reminds us that in Christ we have the forgiveness of all our sins: “in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (1:7).  No one can completely escape the reality of guilt.  We all have to deal with it.  And there are basically two ways to deal with guilt.  One way is to ignore it, harden your heart, and sear your conscience.  Unfortunately, this is the advice that many mental health professionals give to people dealing with genuine guilt (though I am not denying that there is such a thing as a false sense of guilt).  Guilt is not a bad thing, when it is the response of our soul to sin in our hearts and lives.  It is a warning that something is wrong and needs to be dealt with.  Ignoring that is like covering up cancer with a Band-Aid.  You can bury it for a while, but it will eventually rise up against you in the day of judgment.

The other way is to acknowledge your sin and to try to make things right.  However, we cannot make things right if we only try to work on the horizontal level.  The most important dimension to sin is the vertical.  We have sinned against God.  And there is no way we can adequately right our wrongs against God.  This is of course because since God is infinitely exalted above us, our sin is infinitely heinous and therefore deserving of infinite punishment.  We have spent what we cannot pay back.  We can never purge our sins.  We are enslaved to the just claims of God’s judgment. 

This is why the gospel is really good news.  We should shed our blood from now until eternity and never pay the debt we owe to God.  But the God-man, Jesus Christ, has come and shed his blood for us.  In him we are delivered from our liability to God’s holy wrath against sin.  Our mites can never pay the debt we owe.  But in Christ, the riches of God’s grace came and paid the debt for us.  There is truly no greater blessing than this.  Everything else is in comparison but shadows and smoke.  If we can claim this reality, then it does not matter what else happens to us, does it?  For if your sin is paid for, if your debt is paid, then God is for us.  And if God is for you, who can be against you?

Third, Paul reminds us that in Christ we have been given hope (1:8-14, 18).  A lot of people have no idea what their place is in this world.  Or they just have no hope at all.  They believe that when they die, that is that.  And so there is no future for them beyond the grave.  The apostle’s description of those who are outside of Christ is that they have “no hope, and [are] without God in the world” (2:11).  But in Christ we have been enlightened as to our future with him.  We are told that in the fulness of times God will unite all things in Christ.  He will take the discordant elements of the universe and finally bring harmony to our broken world.  And will have a part in this, because he has given us an inheritance in the age to come.  We know that our hope is sure because the one in whom we hope is the one “who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (1:11, ESV).  Thus, we who “hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory” (1:12, ESV).

I cannot imagine what it would be like to live without hope.  I don’t think you can live without hope.  So it’s not like only Christians have hope.  The difference is that the hope of the Christian is rock-solid and eternally meaningful.  We have a hope that is like “an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil” (Heb. 6:19).  Thank God for this hope.  It is the light that shines upon our path, the lightness in our steps, the kindling for joy in the heart.

God your Father desires that you have this hope.  It is for this reason that he has sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts as “the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory” (1:14).  The word from without and the Spirit from within testify to us of the hope that we have in Christ. 

Fourth, the apostle reminds us that in Christ we have been raised from a death in sins (2:1-10).  If you are tempted to wonder why God is not doing something in your life, why he isn’t fixing a problem that you have, and if you are tempted to wonder if God is even interested in your life at all, remember this.  There was a time when you were dead in trespasses and in sins.  You were spiritually in no better shape than a corpse is physically.  You were dead to the things of God.  You were separated from the life of God.  You were going your own way, away from God and away from eternal life.  You loved the things you should have hated.  You despised the things you should have loved.  You were enslaved to the world, to the flesh, and to the devil.  There is no reason why you should ever have considered the state of your soul and turned in faith to Christ.  Why then, did you?

The answer is that God invaded your life.  God came to the grave which was your heart and spoke life into it.  He took away your blindness to the beauty and sufficiency of Christ.  He took away your hardness of heart.  He did it.  You did not raise yourself from your death in sin.  “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together in Christ (by grace ye are saved)” (2:4-5).  You did not make yourself into what you are.  No, you are God’s workmanship (2:10).  Don’t forget God’s goodness to you in giving you the new birth and bringing you to faith and repentance.  Thank him for the life that you have in Christ.

Fifth, Paul reminds us that in Christ we have been given the gospel of God through the apostles and prophets (3:3-11).  It has come to us “by revelation.”  God has “revealed [it] unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (5).  The fact of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is a remarkable testimony to the goodness of God towards his people.  The Bible is our burning bush.  In it we hear the words of God.  There is no learning more precious than this.  You may go to hell with a head full of knowledge about math and physics and literature and history and languages.  But you cannot go to heaven without the knowledge of the God of heaven, and you cannot know God apart from his word. 

And to have the Bible in our own language is another remarkable blessing.  We should never forget that men and women have given their lives for this privilege.  More than that, we have amazing access to this word.  Most of us have multiple copies of the Bible in our homes.  And if someone does not have a copy, they can easily get one. 

These are some of the blessings which the apostle invites us to remember.  God – Father, Son, and Spirit – has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places.  He has blessed us with blessings that are infinitely superior to any merely earthly gift.  And not only that, but he is infinitely generous with his gifts.  Over and over again the apostle speaks of God’s riches.  “The riches of his grace” (1:7); “the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (1:18); “God, who is rich in mercy” (2:4); “the riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (2:7); “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8); “the riches of his glory” (3:16).  No believer is a beggar in Christ.  God has lavished his gifts upon us with unbounded kindness.

Our earthly fortunes may wax and wane.  Our riches may come and go.  Our health will eventually give way.  But there is no time in the believer’s life when any one of these spiritual blessings are not true.  The one who is in Christ is always accepted and loved, and forgiven.  We always have a reason to hope.  The life that God has given to us can never be taken away.  The word of God is always true and reliable.  And so we, of all people, have a reason to be thankful.  Remember God’s goodness toward you and do not forget.  And let our thankfulness be appropriate to the blessings we have received.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Perfect Freedom – Ephesians 3:9-13

What is your view of history?  Do you see it as merely a jumble of names, dates, and events?  Is history for you a boring tale of irrelevant people and places?  To quote Henry Ford, is history “bunk”?  Well, for me history is anything but boring.  I was a history major before I was a math major.  To this day, I still love history.  In fact, history well-written is far more interesting than any novel, in my opinion. 

And I am absolutely certain that a knowledge of history is very important for any educated person.  In fact, one of the things that really worries me about our current society here in America is the reality that so many people have almost no knowledge of history.  As is often quoted, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”  Unfortunately, we forget history over and over again.  And when we do, there are always dire consequences.  Think of that fateful verse at the beginning of the book of Exodus: “Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (Exod. 1:8).  The result was the enslavement of an entire race of people.  I think we are seeing that very thing happening in our own country today.  There is a whole generation of young people today who have no real knowledge of our country’s past and principles.  It is very troubling to think about where we are headed.

But this is not all there is to history.  History is not just a warning from the past.  Nor is history just the story of all the stupid things people have done.  Nor is it just the story about the rich and the powerful and the famous.  For the Christian, history is much, much more than that.  For us, history is His-story, God’s story.  And it is not organized around this or that civilization but around redemptive history.  For us, history begins in the Garden of Eden and moves through Egypt and Canaan towards the birth of the Son of God, who took on flesh and died for our sins, so that one day a new heavens and new earth will replace the sin-cursed heavens and earth in which we now dwell and then redemption will be complete. 

What Paul is describing in the text we are considering this morning takes into account the Biblical view of history.  According to the apostle Paul, God has a plan.  In verse 9, he calls it “the plan of the mystery” and in verse 11 he calls it “the eternal purpose which he purposed [accomplished] in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  This is very important.  If you believe in a sovereign God, you cannot believe that the saga of the human race is just a random series of events.  According to the Bible, God is over history.  This is one the hard lessons that King Nebuchadnezzar had to learn.  After being struck down on account of his pride, he realized that God is the ultimate king, not he: “And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan. 4:35).  And therefore things happen for a purpose, even if we don’t see what that purpose is.  God’s ways are higher than our way and his thoughts than our thoughts. 

According to the apostle Paul, God’s plan for history involves the church.  In fact, the church is the key player in what God is doing on the earth today.  In verse 9, the apostle tells us that “from the beginning of the world” God hid this mystery.  In other words, up until that point in history, the mystery was not revealed (cf. ver. 5).  But now God has revealed it.  The mystery is the fact that God is now creating the church, a multi-national, multi-ethnic community of followers of Christ.  Those who make up the church are “fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (6). 

Then in verse 10, Paul tells us one of the reasons why God is doing this: “to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God” (10).  The “principalities and powers in heavenly places” are not societal or political structures to which the church is supposed to bear witness.  By comparing Paul’s words here with 1:21 and 6:12, we see that he is referring to angelic beings, both good and bad.  As God gathers his redeemed people into the church, both angels and demons are made to see the wisdom of God at work.  The apostle Peter says something very similar in his first epistle: “Unto whom [the OT prophets] it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12).  I think John Stott sums it up well: “It is as if a great drama is being enacted.  History is the theatre, the world is the stage, and church members in every land are the actors.  God himself has written the play, and he directs and produces it.  Act by act, scene by scene, the story continues to unfold.  But who are the audience?  They are the cosmic intelligences, the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.  We are to think of them as spectators of the drama of salvation.”[1]

Again, all of this is “according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (11).  Now the verb “purposed” is literally the word “made” or “accomplished” or “realized.”  God’s purpose is made in Christ.  It is a redemptive purpose and it is accomplished and carried out in Christ.  This tells us that the big thing that God is doing in history has little to do with the acquisition of land or wealth or the advance of technologies.  That doesn’t mean that God has nothing to do with these things, of course.  What it does mean is that the most important thing that is happening in the world right now is not the development of the next iPhone but the gathering into the church of people from every corner of the world through the gospel.  Whatever the world thinks about the church, the church is the key to history because the church is the key to God’s eternal purpose in Christ Jesus.  The Israelites may have been slaves in Egypt, but it was through Israel that God brought his Son into the world.  And though Christians today may be the least of the least in the eyes of modern man, it is through the church that the life-giving message of the gospel is brought forth into all the world.

The great thing that God is doing through the church is to bring people the gospel so that they will “have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him” (12).  What is God doing in history?  He is opening people’s eyes to see the truth of the gospel so that they will be able to have full and free access to the Triune God.  That is the “glory” that the apostle is referring to in verse 13.  It is this reality that I want to focus on this morning: the Christian is a person who has perfect freedom to speak to God and perfect freedom to approach God.  God is creating the church, which means he is about creating people who fit this description.  So let us consider what this means and what implications it has for our lives.

First of all, I think it’s important to nail down exactly what Paul means when he says that we have “boldness” and “access,” both with “confidence.”  Take the word “boldness.”  This word was used to describe the freedom of speech exercised by the citizens of the Greek democratic city-states (in particular, Athens).[2]  More than that, it expressed the fact that citizens not only had a right to speak freely but with a frankness that could sometimes be unhelpful (as is often the case in political discourse).  In the NT, it means the ability to speak plainly, openly, and with confidence.  It describes a person who is not afraid to speak and to give their opinion.  We all know what it is like to be around people and be afraid to speak.  We are intimidated.  What the apostle is saying here is that those who are in Christ have no need to be intimidated in the presence of God, who is infinitely exalted above the most powerful king or ruler on earth.  They have boldness: they have freedom of speech in the presence of God.  In Christ, we have no reason to shrink back from pouring out our hearts to God.

Then there is the word “access.”  We have already seen this word in 2:18, “For through him [Christ] we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.”  This word has reference to freedom as well.  It refers to freedom of approach.  The door is open and you can walk on in.  There is no one barring your way.  As the hymn-writer put it: “Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.” 

And Paul says that the Christian has both freedom of speech with God and freedom of approach to God with “confidence.”  These are incredible gifts to have and it is often held by the fearful Christian rather tenuously.  But the apostle says that there is no reason why we should not take our freedoms in Christ and exercise them with confidence.  It is not presumption to boldly approach the throne of grace since God has freely given us these freedoms in Christ.  As Hebrews puts it, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

Of course, confidence does not mean arrogance.  It does not mean that we come before the throne of God with a proud heart.  We all know what God thinks of pride: “though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud knoweth he afar off” (Ps. 138:6).  This access and boldness and confidence is “by the faith of him [Christ,” and that implies a person who sees their utter and complete dependence upon Christ.  Such a person does not come waltzing into the presence of God.  But on the other hand, neither does our knowledge of our sins keep us from entering in if we are in Christ.  For in Christ our sins are purged and God sees us clothed in the righteousness of his Son.

Now let’s think about the implications of these freedoms for the Christian.  First of all, this says something wonderful about God’s attitude towards his children.  If freedom of speech and freedom of approach are blessings given to us in Christ, then that means that these blessings are not things we give to ourselves but things that are given to us from God himself.  Our heavenly Father wants us to come to him and he wants us to pour out our hearts before him.  He doesn’t want you to keep your burdens to yourself.  He wants you to unburden yourself before him.  Psalm 62:8 reads, “Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us.” 

It means, as incredible as it might sound, that the God of heaven wants to hear from those who trust in his Son as their Lord and Savior.  It means that the God of the universe wants to have fellowship with you.  And he desires this fellowship right now.  These freedoms are not something merely to be enjoyed in heaven, in the age to come.  Sure, we will experience these freedoms to their fullest in the age to come.  But these blessings belong to us now.  “We have” right now, present tense, boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him. 

It also indicates that God desires to bless his children.  We all know that fathers who love their children and want to be around them are also the best providers for their children, as far as they are able.  In the same way, the fact that God is so solicitous for his children is strong evidence that he will guide them and bless them.  And he is able.  Though of course this doesn’t mean that the saint will have no problems in this world, it does mean that God does not allow anything to happen to his children that is not for their ultimate good.  So this not only says something about the privileges we have as believers, it also says a lot about the love that God the Father has for those who belong to the body of Christ. 

Another implication for the Christian is what this means about the life of prayer.  For one thing, it means that prayer is not dependent upon the right phraseology to be accepted by God.  I wonder how many of us have a hard time praying because we just don’t think God will think very highly of the sentences we use in our prayers?  We have this idea that the effectiveness of prayer is somehow linked to the language we use in them.  However, the freedom that we have in Christ means that we have the freedom to approach God freely with our words.  You don’t have to use some exalted ecclesiastical prayer to engage the God of the universe.  No, you simply need to come by faith in Christ.  Faith is the language of prayer and is what makes it effective, not the style in which we pray. 

It also means that we have to freedom to come to God in prayer whatever we find the state of our soul to be in.  You don’t have to have some halo glowing above your head to pray.  You don’t have to be completely peaceful in your soul to pray.  You can feel down and depressed and guilty and dirty and still pray.  Our freedom to approach God does not depend upon the state of mind in which we find ourselves.  It depends upon Christ, our advocate, who is always for us and never changes.

Are you feeling overwhelmed?  Do you feel like you are sinking in a pit?  Then pray!  If you belong to Christ, if you are covered by his blood, then you have boldness and access with confidence to the Father.  I love the way the psalmist opens Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD.  Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications” (1-2).  There are all sorts of promises for those who feel like they are in over their heads, like the one in Isaiah 43, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.  For I am the LORD thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Savior” (Isa. 43:2-3).  It is right for you to come before the throne of God and plead for grace and deliverance.  It is a right that has been given to us at the great cost of the life of the Son of God.  So avail yourself of this great privilege.

Are you feeling the weight of the guilt of your sin?  Perhaps there is nothing that tends to silence our mouths in prayer more than this.  But even then, the one who belongs to Christ still has the freedom to speak to God and the freedom to approach his presence.  Jesus Christ did not just die for some of your sins.  He died for all of your sins.  He fully and completely paid the price.  He fully and completely satisfied the wrath of God against you on account of your sins.  I’m not saying that we don’t have to worry about repenting of our sins.  Those who belong to Christ live lives of repentance.  Faith in Christ is unthinkable apart from repentance towards God (cf. Acts 20:21).  But it is possible to be repenting of your sins and yet think that somehow your sin has barred you from further fellowship with God. 

But that is not true.  Hear what the apostle John tells us: “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not.  And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and nor for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:1-2).  Our sinfulness is not dealt with by our becoming righteous, but by Christ being righteous for us and by becoming the propitiation for our sins.  So don’t let the feeling of guilt keep you from praying.  Later on in Psalm 130, the psalmist goes on to say this: “If thou, LORD, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?  But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.”  And therefore, “I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.  My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.  Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.  And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Ps. 130:3-8).

Are you feeling confused and not knowing which way to go?  Then pray!  One of the Scriptures that I’ve been praying a lot in the past year or so is Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”  Claim that promise.  Those who acknowledge God in prayer, who commit their way to him, will be directed by him.  I want God to direct my paths.  I don’t want to strike out in any direction which would take me away from the blessing of my Lord.  And so I pray this prayer.

I love the way Psalm 107 puts this all together.  In this psalm, we are presented with four scenarios.  Each case is different, but in each case, people find themselves in a state that requires help outside of themselves.  That is to say, they have reached the bottom.  They are at the end of themselves.  Or, as the psalmist puts it in verse 27, they “are at their wits’ end.”  But in each case, we are told “then they cried unto the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses” (ver. 6, 13, 19, 28).  No matter what situation the believer finds himself or herself in, we ought always to follow this example.  We have no reason not to. 

Now these two freedoms, freedom of speech before God and freedom of approach to God, these are the very things that apart from Christ that we don’t have.  There is no access to God apart from Christ.  We have no right to speak or pray to him and we have no right to approach his throne.  “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination unto the LORD: but the prayer of the upright is his delight” (Prov. 15:8).  No one has the right to claim either one of these privileges apart from the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.  None of us can approach the throne of God on our own and expect to receive his blessing.  We are sinful.  We are unholy and we are unthankful.  You and I need Christ.  And yet, though none of us deserve the least of God’s mercies, he sent his Son into this world to pay the penalty for sin.  And the gospel announces that he has finished the work and that all who believe on him will be saved.  If you believe in Christ with all your heart, you will be saved.  And as the saved, you not only are delivered from the wrath to come, but are welcomed with open arms into the presence of the God of the universe, with boldness and access with confidence by the faith of Christ.

[1] John. R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians (BST), p. 123-124.
[2] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, 465.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Grace of God for Ministry – Ephesians 3:7-8

It is strange but a fact that often people become bitter at God, not through the sufferings that they are going through, but because of the sufferings they see others going through.  The irony is that those who are undergoing the actual suffering many times come through it resilient when it comes to their faith and hope in God.  I have found this true in my own life.  As I watch others endure tragedy and trials, sometimes it makes me complain to God and doubt his goodness.  And yet those who are enduing the tragedy and trials are being drawn nearer to Christ through it all.  This is not universally true, of course.  There are those who lose their faith in a loving and good God because of the suffering they undergo.  And yet I also know that there are people who have endured much more and yet come through it stronger in the faith.  I think of Corrie Ten Boom who watched her sister die in a Nazi concentration camp, and who was herself brutally treated by the prison guards.  And yet even though she did struggle with her own doubts for a time, at the end of it all she realized, as she put it, that there is no pit so deep but God’s love is not deeper still.  She didn’t say that the way Hallmark cards sentimentalize things.  She meant it.  She experienced it.  There is no pit so deep but God’s love is not deeper still.

And still we struggle with the concept of a loving and good God allowing his people to suffer.  I say this to remind you of the context of the verses we are considering.  Paul is writing this to encourage the Ephesian Christians who have become downcast on account of his imprisonment.  It made them “faint” (13).  Perhaps they reasoned, how can we trust in the provision and love of God when he allows his foremost apostle to be treated this way?  And so even though the Ephesians themselves do not seem to have been going through trials of their own, yet they were really troubled with Paul’s suffering.  It caused some of them to lose hope.

The funny thing is that Paul himself did not share their gloomy perspective, even though he was the one in prison, not they.  He is not at all ashamed or disappointed in the path that obedience to Christ has led him.  Instead, he exults in the ministry that eventually landed him in prison.  He never second-guesses the Lord.  He doesn’t wish that things somehow would have turned out better.  There are no regrets on his part. 

Instead, Paul revels in the amazing privilege it was for him to represent Christ to the world.  But how could he do this, as he sat in prison year after year?  How could he do this, after all that he had gone through?  Think about it: everything Paul said had happened to him in 2 Cor. 11:23-28 had already happened to him and then some, with “far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.  Three times I was beaten with rods.  Once I was stoned.  Three times I was shipwrecked [by this time it would have been four times]; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.  And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (ESV).  How could Paul go through all this and not end up jaded?

Well, we saw a couple of weeks ago one of the answers.  One of the answers is that Paul’s hope was not in this world, but in the glory of the world to come.  It is to that glory that Paul points the believers in verse 13.  But I think another answer lies in the fact that Paul did not have any false expectations from Christ.  He did not sign up expecting to be on top of the mountain all the time, feeling great, with no worries and a perpetual smile on his face.  He knew, from the very beginning, that following Christ in this world was not going to be easy.  He didn’t think, unlike a lot of Western evangelicals, that if you just have enough faith you won’t have to deal with the pressures of life.  Do you remember what our Lord told Ananias about Paul, right after the Damascus Road experience?  “Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).  Paul knew from the beginning that suffering would mark that way of obedience for him.  So when it happened, he didn’t lose heart. 

For a lot of us, we just do not expect suffering.  We somehow think that worldly prosperity and blessing is a sign of God’s love.  Therefore, when we lose the prosperity we lose confidence that God really loves us, and we become bitter and disappointed.  So let’s be very clear.  Jesus doesn’t promise any of those who follow him immunity from the disappointments that often meet us in this world.  He promises no immunity from pain, or depression, or sickness, or poverty, or loneliness, or persecution.  If that is why you are following Christ, then you are following him for the wrong reasons.   No wonder we give up when the going gets hard.  We think, “I didn’t sign up for this!”  No, we didn’t, and if that’s our point of view, then we never truly signed up to follow Christ. 

Why then would anyone ever follow him?  Well, false expectations have to give way to true expectations.  No, Christ has not promised us riches and wealth and ease and prosperity in this world.  What he has promised us, though, is “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (8).  What are those?  Go back and read Ephesians 1-2; those are the riches Christ has given his people.  He has promised us “every spiritual blessing” (1:3), including victory over death, the forgiveness of all our sins, and endless fellowship with God forever in never-ending, ever-increasing joy.  All this is given to us not because we earned it or because we deserved it, but because God the Father freely elected us before the foundation of the world that we should become his sons and daughters, because Christ lovingly died for us and purchased every blessing on the cross, and because the Holy Spirit has come effectually to apply the merits of Christ to us personally.  If we really believe these things, I mean really believe them, then there is no reason why we would not willingly follow Christ through suffering if that’s the way we get to glory.

However, that does not mean that there are no blessings along the way to heaven.  The path to glory is not one long wilderness road bereft of any beauty.  Paul reminds us over and over again in his letter to the Philippians that the Christian above any other person should be rejoicing: “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).  There is manna in the desert.  There is water from the rock.  Every step between Egypt and Canaan is watched over by the Lord.  And that is one of the things that stands out to me in the text we are considering this morning.  You cannot read Paul’s description of his ministry and not come away with a sense that here was a man who truly appreciated his work.  He wasn’t in it for the fame.  He wasn’t in it for the money.  He was in it because he loved Christ and the grace he received in serving him was a foretaste of the future grace of the glory to come.  Paul found joy in the journey as he labored in the ministry to which Christ had called him.

Yes, there may be hardship.  And yet along the way God gives grace and more grace.  We rejoice in hope and we rejoice in knowing and serving Christ in the here and now.  I think this is true not only for Paul but also for you and me.  No matter where God has placed you, if you are a Christian, your purpose in that place is to serve Christ.  And as you serve him faithfully, you will find grace upon grace, even in the trials that God is bringing you through. 

In other words, if you want to persevere as a Christian in this world, you have to have your eyes fixed on the glory to come, you have to throw away these false expectations of health, wealth, and prosperity in this world, and then you must not live for yourself but live out your life serving the Lord wherever he has placed you.  Now I want to focus the remainder of our time this morning on this last point: serving the Lord in the ministry to which he has called you.  To see how we can do this, I think we can learn some lessons from the way the apostle describes the ministry to which he was called.

Now I know that the age of the apostles are over.  None of us are called to be an apostle.  That is not the way God wants you to serve him!  But clearly, there are applications of this description of ministry that are wider than apostleship.  Clearly, every pastor can say with Paul that the privilege to preach and teach the gospel is a gift of the grace of God.  But the fact of the matter is that, as we’ve been suggesting, every Christian is called to some form of ministry.  And it is as we serve Christ using the gifts and resources that he has given to us that we will find the “effectual working of his power” in our lives, and there is surely nothing more invigorating and joy-filling than that.

If you are a Christian, you are meant to serve the kingdom of God in some form.  In chapter 4, the apostle will say that the reason our Lord gave the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers is “for the perfecting [equipping] of the saints for the work of the ministry” (4:11-12).  Thus, the pastor isn’t the only one doing ministry.  If fact, one of the main jobs of a pastor is to equip the church so that they will go out and do ministry.  If the pastor is the only one in the church doing ministry, something is wrong.  The apostle had already written to the Corinthians on this point.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, he wrote, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7, ESV).  Did you hear that?  To each, to every person who belongs to the church, is given “the manifestation of the Spirit,” a spiritual gift, in order to serve the common good of the church.  And not every gift is the same.  Thank God for diversity!  In fact, some of the gifts Paul mentions in Romans 12 might seem to some rather prosaic, and yet they are just as much the ministry of the Spirit to the church as any other gift.  Consider the list of gifts he gives there: prophesy, serving, teaching, exhorting, giving, ruling, showing mercy (Rom. 12:6-8).  Nor is this list meant to be exhaustive.  Any gift whereby the church is encouraged and built up is a Spiritual gift. 

However, there is a difference between Christian ministry and charitable activities.  There is and ought to be a difference between what happens in the church and what happens in the Kiwanis club.  So as we consider and celebrate what it means to engage in Christian ministry, how Paul describes his ministry is very helpful.  There are three adjectives that defined Paul’s ministry and these three adjectives ought to always define the kind of ministry we do for our Lord.  Thus, Christian ministry is a gospel ministry; Christian ministry is a gifted ministry; and Christian ministry is a gracious ministry.  We will now consider each of these statements in turn.

First of all, Christian ministry is a gospel ministry.  Paul begins verse 7 by saying, “Whereof I was made a minister.”  Whereof what?  The word “whereof” is a reference to the word “gospel” at the end of verse 6.  In fact, some translations go ahead and put the word “gospel” in verse 7 as a way to clarify what Paul was saying.  Paul was a minister, a servant, of the gospel.  Everything he did was to proclaim the gospel to Jew and Gentile.  The gospel is the good news that Christ has come into the world to do what we could not do, to save us from our sins.  The gospel is not the story of mankind’s attempt to save himself.  It is the true story that the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us.  It is the record that the Son of God bore the righteous wrath of God that ought to have fallen upon sinful men and women, and nailed it to the cross.  It is the news that the grave is empty, that Jesus rose victorious from the dead, and that the Father accepted the sacrifice so that all who put their trust in him need no longer to anguish over their sins. 

Now, perhaps when you think of gospel ministry, you think of a preacher on a street corner sharing the gospel to passersby.  That is an instance of gospel ministry.  But that is not all gospel ministry is.  That is a very small fraction of it.  In fact, if you are a mom or dad raising your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that is gospel ministry.  In fact, everything we do, from eating and drinking to what we do at the job ought to testify to the gospel.  Our whole lives ought to testify to the gospel; our whole life ought to be gospel ministry.  All of us out to be living and preaching the gospel with our lips and lives.  As the apostle put it, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17). 

The gospel ought to be a fragrance that blows through every room of our lives.  It ought to flavor all our words and affect all that we do.  We all do gospel ministry by living out the realities of the gospel in our lives.  You don’t have to be behind a pulpit to do that.  You just have to be a person who trusts in and loves Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

But more specifically, it means that we ought to be looking for ways to put the gospel on display for others to see and savor.  It means that we look at our jobs, not just as a way to make money and pay the bills, but as a way to introduce others to the realities of the grace of God in Christ.  If we are truly gospel-centered, it means that we have realized that God has put us where he has put us in order to shine the light in that particular dark spot in this world.  It means that we look at our homes as places where we want Jesus to be cherished above all things.  It means that we watch our attitudes and affections so that we do not become people whose lives tell others that Jesus is not the most important person in the world to us.

If we are just living for this world, if we are just serving time, then no matter how great our accomplishments, at the end of the day they are only temporary.  But if we are living with a gospel mentality, then everything is done in light of eternity.  No longer are our lives being wasted, no matter what others may think of our achievements.

As we consider as a church where we want to go in the future, let us always keep the gospel first and foremost.  Above everything else, God is calling us to be a gospel church, a church in which the gospel is proclaimed, taught, lived out, and shared.  The banner over our church ought to be what Paul said to the Corinthians: “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

Second, Christian ministry is a gifted ministry.  The apostle continues: “. . . according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power.”  Here Paul is saying that his ability to do the ministry that God had called him to do did not stem from himself.  The ability to do the ministry came from God.  It was the gift of the grace of God. 

Now here is the lesson.  If God is calling you to a particular ministry, he is also going to give you the ability to fulfill that ministry.  God does not call us to something that he will not empower us for.  And at the end of the day, no matter how gifted we are, whether by nature or educationally, we cannot do real gospel ministry unless we do so in God’s power.  Consider the apostle Paul.  He was probably far and away the most educated of the apostles.  Some have said that Paul had the equivalent of a Ph.D. by the age of 21.  And yet, Paul never once gives even the slightest hint that any success in his ministry that he had, had come from his own attainments.  No, rather he says things like this: “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me what not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).  Or, “we preach [Christ], warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: whereunto I also labor, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily” (Col. 1:28-29).  Or, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7).  If Paul realized that he couldn’t truly serve Christ apart from his grace, how much more do we need his help?

There is no room for pride in the service of Christ.  We can’t change hearts, only he can.  “So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3:7).  There is no room for boasting about what we have done.  In fact, if we have done anything apart from the help of the grace of God, then it will only come to ruin.  Only God can build his church and only God can impart the grace to ministry that makes it truly effective, and therefore only he gets the praise.

But there is another side to this coin.  The reality that ministry is a gift of grace not only means that there is no room for pride, it also means that there is no room for despair.  If God has called us to do something, he will give us the grace to see it through, no matter what the devil and the world will throw at us.  Note that Paul describes the help that comes through grace in terms of the power of God: “the effectual working of his power.”  The resource at the believer’s disposal is nothing less than the power of God.  And if God be for us, who can be against us?  So let us not despair or grow weary in well-doing.  If God has gifted us, he will support us and bless us.  And he will never fail us, even when all our earthly supports come crashing down.

Finally, Christian ministry is a gracious ministry.  In the first part of verse 8, the apostle writes, “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given.”  It is not just lack of resources that causes us to shrink back from ministry for the Lord, is it?  Isn’t it also the fact that so many of feel unworthy?  We look back over our past lives and the darkness of past deeds comes creeping around us and makes us feel that we should not engage in gospel work because we are just not worthy. 

So listen to the apostle Paul.  “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given.”  Paul actually bends grammar to make this statement.  He takes a superlative (“least”) and turns it into a comparative (“leaster”).  Less than the least of all the saints: that was how Paul saw himself.  This was no false modesty.  Paul really felt this way.  To his dying day, he never forgot the shame from the role he played in persecuting the church, and in participating in the murder of Stephen.  Towards the end of his life, he still described himself as “before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious.”  But he doesn’t stop there: “but I obtained mercy” (1 Tim. 1:13).  In fact, he goes on, “And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.  This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:14-15).  But this is not just for Paul: “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:16). 

Our past does not need to determine our future, not because we can make our past go away, but because Jesus Christ died for our filthy, shameful past.  He can make it go away.  The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin.  Whatever ministry we do, it is not to put us on display.  It is to put Christ on display.  So let us not be discouraged from serving Christ.  If you have repented and are trusting in the sacrifice of Christ on your behalf, then grace is given to you.  It came to the least of the apostles, to the least of all the saints, and to the chief of sinners. 

This is not only true of serving Christ; it is also true of coming to Christ in the first place.  Do you think that you are not worthy?  Of course you are not, no one is.  Do you feel that your sins are keeping you from God?  Well, there is only one way to breach the gap between you and God.  You will never do it by trying to please God on your own, for you will never be good enough.  You will never do it by trying to punish yourself, for you will never erase the guilt of sins against an infinitely holy God.  The only way you can come to God is by grace, by the free gift of God in Christ.  We are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).  So come to him this morning, embrace his cross and his righteousness and his forgiveness, and you will be saved.

Sealed and Standing (Rev. 7)

At the end of the previous chapter, when John sees the breaking of the sixth seal of the scroll, we see Christ coming again in judgment upon...