Sunday, February 17, 2019

Bringing the Gospel Home – Ephesians 6:21-24

The book of Ephesians is one of the most important letters in the entire New Testament.  It contains in relatively brief form the Apostle Paul’s major theological ideas as well as his understanding of their application in the life of the first century church.  Of course, we believe that since this book is written by an apostle of Jesus Christ, it is therefore not just the apostle’s own personal understanding of these things, but an authoritative message from our Lord himself.  These are good words.  They are true words.  Some people have tried to separate Christianity from Paul’s understanding of Christianity.  But the fact of the matter is that you simply cannot do that.  You are not a Christian in any authentic sense of the word if you are not Pauline in your orthodoxy.  And that makes books like Ephesians simply foundational for the identity of the church today and the way it lives out the gospel.

So as we come to a close in our series of expositions on this great book, let’s remind ourselves of some of the major themes that the apostle has set before us in his letter.  In fact, we have them right before us in the closing words of the apostle: “Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.  Amen.”

There are several words here that really summarize the message of this epistle.  They are peace, grace, love, and faith.  These words tell us what God has done for us in Christ, how this came to us in Christ, and why this came to us in Christ.

Peace.  This is what God has done for us in Christ.  It is a central element to the gospel.  Essentially, the gospel is about reconciliation, above all between God and man.  In 2 Cor. 5:18, Paul calls his ministry “the ministry of reconciliation.”  According to God’s word, sin has created a chasm between God and man and the gospel tells us that this chasm is bridged by Christ.  In the gospel, we have the announcement of peace from heaven: “For he [Christ] is our peace, who hath made both [Jew and Gentile] one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh” (Eph. 2:14-17).  This idea is also present at the very beginning of the letter, when Paul tells us that the purpose of God’s predestination of his people is that we should be adopted into his family (Eph. 1:5).  Those who were once enemies are now part of his family!

Now this is a two-fold peace.  There is a horizontal and vertical dimension to it.  Horizontally, we are reconciled to our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.  Though this is a very diverse group of people, with very different backgrounds – as illustrated in the bringing together Jew and Gentile into one church – yet we have far more in common than we are different from one another.  For we are members in a family, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We share a family likeness as the result of the new birth and a family name as a result of adoption into the family of God.  We share a family inheritance as well, one that is not dependent upon the rising and falling fortunes of the stock market, but one which is kept for us, reserved in heaven.

But this peace is primarily vertical, and it is this peace that makes the peace with our fellow Christian possible.  Through Christ’s atonement, we have been reconciled to God.  Our sins have been purged and done away with.  With have obtained forgiveness and justification.  Moreover, our hearts have been changed.  So we are no longer hostile toward God and God is no longer hostile toward us.  If you are in Christ, God is on your side.  He is with you, and no longer against you. 

Again, this should lead to us being at peace with each other.  Paul put it this way to the Romans: “Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).  Peace with God leads to peace with the brethren.  It should lead to peace in the church.  The Spirit of God, who unites us to Christ, is a Spirit of unity and therefore of peace: “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).  Peace is not some theological abstract that we are supposed to hold independently of our day-to-day lives.  It ought to manifest itself in longsuffering toward one another, forgiving one another, submitting to one another. 

Now depending on how important this is to you will determine how you will read this book and respond to it.  If you are more concerned with your financial portfolio than you are about your relationship with God, then this epistle isn’t going to mean much to you.  If politics is more important to you than whether or not you have a relationship with God and his people, then this epistle isn’t going to mean much to you.  If your personal comfort and security in this life is more important to you than the forgiveness of sins, then you might just yawn through this book.  But how in the world does it make sense to put politics, personal comfort, or money before a relationship with the God of the universe?  How does it make sense to prioritize those things above the gospel?  When we see things the way we ought to see them, this announcement of peace in the gospel is the most amazing thing in the world.  Indeed, “how beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!” (Rom. 10:15).

Grace.  In the final benediction, Paul prays for grace.  It is a fitting thing, too, because this epistle has begun with grace and grace has weaved its magic throughout its pages.  Grace tells us how God brings peace to us.  For the fact confronting every human being is that we are not what we are supposed to be.  We are massive failures.  We have failed at the most important thing: loving God with all our minds and hearts.  Instead, we have alienated ourselves from God.  We have ignored God.  We have sinned against him over and over again.  We deserve judgment.  We deserve hell.  We need to be saved.

But how can we be saved?  That is the question.  And the answer is grace.  “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).  Grace is God’s unmerited favor.  He does not save us because we were good enough; he saves us because it is his gracious will to do so.  Our salvation does not originate in our goodness, for we have none, but in God’s generosity.

But how can grace and justice coincide?  For God is holy.  God can have no fellowship with sin.  He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Hab. 1:13).  How can a just and holy God embrace sinful men?  How can grace come to us?  The answer is that grace comes to us through Jesus Christ.  That is why you read this phrase “in Christ” or something like it over and over again throughout this epistle.  It begins that way: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3).  God can be just because Jesus Christ came as the perfect sacrifice to purge our guilt by taking the punishment of our sin upon himself.  He became a propitiation for sin, to take it away, so that God “might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26).  Through Christ, grace comes to the guilty and justifies those who are ungodly (Rom. 4:5).

But grace runs deeper than most people think.  Grace did not begin when I made a decision to follow Christ.  Grace went before and gave me life when I was in a state of spiritual death (Eph. 2:1-10).  I would never have made one step toward Christ, had not God opened my eyes to my need for the gospel, and that was a work of pure grace. 

But grace goes back even further: it began in eternity past when God, apart from any consideration of works on our part, chose us in Christ (Eph. 1:4-5).  My salvation did not originate in my will but in God’s gracious and loving will.  God did not choose me because he foresaw that I would choose his Son, but I chose his Son because God the Father chose me.  Just like it has always been: “and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).  In other words, I owe all my salvation, from beginning to end, to the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  There is no ground of boasting.  All crowns belong at the feet of Jesus in the age to come.

Love.  But the question then is, why did God do any of this?  If there is no reason to be found in me, what motivated God to save me?  The answer of the apostle, and of the entire Bible, is that God loved us before the foundation of the world.  It was his “great love, wherewith he loved us” that caused him to give us life from the dead (Eph. 2:4).  It was not a love that responded to loveliness in us.  If you want a picture of what we were like before God saved us, look at Ezek. 16.  No, we were not lovely, we were loathsome.  God’s love was not responding to anything in us; God’s love originated in himself, from the fellowship of the Holy Trinity.  We love him because he first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19). 

Now we are confronted with a mystery here.  No wonder the apostle talks about “the love of Christ which passeth knowledge” (Eph. 3:19).  But it is a glorious and wonderful mystery, because it means that God’s love for me does not depend upon my fickle love for him.  It means that God’s faithfulness to his people is rock-solid and eternal.  Our confidence and reliance upon God’s commitment to us can never be misplaced.  Thank God for the reality of Jer. 31:3, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.”

Of course, if we have really been embraced in God’s love, we ought also to love one another.  And this is the practical dimension to this epistle.  Knowing the love of Christ, we are to bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2), we are to speak the truth in love (4:15) and grow up into Christ in love (4:16).  We are to walk in love as Christ loved us (5:2).  Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (5:25).  What Paul said to the Colossians applies here: “And above all these things, put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14).  You cannot know the love of God expressed in the doctrines of the first three chapters of Ephesians and not go on to live them out in a life of love to others in ways expressed in the exhortations of the last three chapters of Ephesians.

In particular, we will love Christ (Eph. 6:24).  In the KJV, the prayer is for those who love our Lord “in sincerity.”  Probably a better translation is that of the ESV, “with love incorruptible.”  (See 1 Cor. 15:42; Rom. 2:7 for example uses of the word).  Those who truly know Christ will love him with an undying love.  Those who abandon him for the things of the world, like Demas, never really knew him or his love.  The love of Christ is not something you can ever recover from, thank God. 

There is one more word here at the end.  It is “faith” which Paul puts together with “love.”  Why is that?  “Love with faith.”  Well, clearly the love here is a love centered on the gospel.  And that is impossible apart from faith.  You cannot exercise the love commanded and commended in the pages of the NT unless you believe the gospel.  It also points us to the nature of saving faith.  True faith is a faith which works by love (Gal. 5:6).  If you have this faith, then you will love Christ with an undying love.  This faith is a faith which sees the beauty of holiness and the ways in which Christ is uniquely and perfected fitted to be our perfect Lord and Savior.  It will have no other rule over it.  Its allegiance is to Christ above all.

Faith is also important because faith is the way by which, in God’s perfect plan, we become personally connected to all the saving benefits of Christ’s redemption.  We are saved by grace through faith.  Do you feel your need for peace with God?  Do you want to experience his saving grace?  Do you want to know God’s love for you?  Then believe on Christ, and you shall be saved. 

These are the great themes of Ephesians.  However, before we end our time in this epistle, back up a couple of verses to verses 21-22.  Here Paul mentions a man by the name of Tychicus.  I think it’s important for us to consider what Paul says here because it illustrates a very important point, one which we dare not forget when reading these epistles.  The principle is this: we can never separate the truths of God from the people of God. 

This is true for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is usually people who bring us the word in the first place.  We get the word of God from the people of God.  As children, perhaps we got it from our parents or a close friend.  As we grew up, we have been influenced by the godly people God put into our lives, whether it be at church or in the workplace or in our circle of friends.  We ought to thank God for this.  For the Ephesians, it was Paul who brought them the gospel in the first place.  But we don’t just need to be converted, we need to grow in our faith.  And so he writes them this epistle.  But Paul cannot go, he is in prison, and so he sends this man Tychicus in his place.

Who was Tychicus?  Well, he is mentioned in four passages in the Bible, excluding this one: Acts 20:4; Col. 4:7-9; Tit. 3:12; 2 Tim. 4:12.  When you put these verses together, what emerges is a picture of a man who was obviously a trustworthy servant of God.  Paul probably sent him to relieve both Timothy at Ephesus and Titus in Crete.  So he was someone Paul could trust to carry on the work of guys like Timothy and Titus in their absence.  Like them, he could act at times as an apostolic representative.  It is also possible that he was a native of Ephesus, since he is said to be from the Roman province of Asia (where Ephesus was), and is linked to Trophimus who is explicitly called an Ephesian in Acts 21:29.  Tychicus also probably served as Paul’s postal service in carrying no fewer than five different epistles of Paul to various locations (Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, 2 Timothy, and Titus). 

If Tychicus was from Ephesus, then you could say he was bringing the gospel home.  There, he would not only share the news of Paul’s health and goings on, but also minister to them himself with words of encouragement (ver. 22).  But the point here is that all this happens through the ministry of people like Tychicus.  Paul wrote the epistle, but it would have never made it to the Ephesians without the service of Tychicus.

But there is another reason why we can never separate the truths of God from the people of God.  It is because those who bring the word commend the word only so far as they are willing to live by the word.  The word of God does not simply live on pages in a Bible.  It lives in the lives of the followers of Christ.  And that is why the description of Tychicus is so important here.  He is called “a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord” (21). 

He is first of all “a beloved brother.”  Paul loved him.  And it’s obvious that he must have loved Paul.  But by describing him this way to the Ephesians, Paul is saying that this man is someone any Christian could love.  He is not the kind of Christian that you want to avoid being around.  He was not one of those difficult people who are always creating problems for others to fix.  He was someone who invested in others, who thought about others, who served others.

Which leads to the second way Paul describes him: “a faithful minister.”  Now the word here is not a term designating a person who is in “the ministry” as we use the term today.  It’s the more general word for service – in fact, the word here is diakonos, though it doesn’t refer to the office of a deacon either.  A diakonos was a person who served others.  And that is what Tychicus did.  Sometimes he did it by carrying Paul’s letters to various churches.  Sometimes he did it by serving as a temporary pastor in a place.  Sometimes he did it by simply encouraging others with the word of God.  But the point is that this was not a man who lived for himself – like his Lord, he did not come to be served, but to serve.  It was the life of a man like this, one who characterized the truths of Ephesians, that made its message more plausible. 

And so we too need to be like Tychicus.  We need to be people who bring the word to others.  Sometimes this means bringing the word to a non-believer by sharing the gospel.  Sometimes this means bringing the word to fellow believers by teaching truth and reminding and exhorting and encouraging them to live out its truths.  And above all we need to be people who live out the word.  Knowing the doctrines and exhortations of this letter will do us absolutely no good unless we put it into practice.  Ephesians was not written to be merely understood and studied.  It was written to help God’s people live out the kind of life that is appropriate for those who are saved by grace through faith.  Knowing the doctrines of this epistle and doing nothing with them is like a billionaire sitting on his wealth and doing nothing with it.

The book of Ephesians offers to us a perspective on life that the world will not and cannot give.  It gives the perspective of God.  It gives an eternal perspective, one that reaches back into the mists before time into God’s eternal plan in Christ, and one that reaches forward into an unending future of glory for those who are embraced in the family of God.  Its message of peace with God who loves us and gives us grace through faith is one that ought to inspire us to a living hope and deep joy.  It remains for us to take that message, and, like Tychicus, bring it others by our word and works, by our lips and our lives.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

All-Prayer – Eph. 6:18-20

In Bunyan’s classic allegory, The Pilgrims’ Progress, he describes a point at which Christian comes to the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  He is warned away from it by two men fleeing from its horrors in these words: “We saw there the hobgoblins, satyrs, and dragons of the pit; we heard also in that Valley a continual howling and yelling, as of a people under unutterable misery, who there sat bound in affliction and irons; and over that Valley hangs discouraging clouds of confusion.  Death also doth always spread his wings over it.  In a word, it is every whit dreadful, being utterly without order.”  Christian’s response is that this is the way to the Celestial City, and so he ventures forward cautiously, carefully, and, frankly, fearfully.  When he begins to approach the Valley, we are told that in “the midst of this valley, I perceived the mouth of hell to be, and it stood hard by the wayside.  Now, thought Christian, what shall I do?  And ever and anon the flame and smoke would come out in such abundance, with sparks and hideous noises, (things that cared not for Christian’s sword, as did Apollyon before), that he was forced to put up his sword, and betake himself to another weapon called All-prayer. [Eph. 6:18]  So he cried out in my hearing, ‘O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul!’ [Ps. 116:4].”  Bunyan’s character, Christian, is not saved by the sword but by the weapon of All-prayer.  Bunyan, of course, took this from the words of Paul in our text: “Praying always with all prayer…” (Eph. 6:18).

Now I’m not sure that Paul actually intended prayer to be considered a weapon.  In any case, he does not liken prayer to any part of the soldier’s armor and weaponry.  Nevertheless, there is no doubt that prayer is to accompany the Christian soldier throughout our warfare.  This does not describe so much a particular weapon as it does the attitude with which a Christian is to do war with the enemy.  Prayer is to pervade every aspect of our combat.  We are to stand with the armor and take our weapons as we pray to the Lord for help and depend upon him for strength and guidance.

I think perhaps the best Biblical illustration of this comes from the reign of good king Jehoshaphat.  In 2 Chron. 20, we are told that the nations and Moab, Ammon, and their confederates united to attack the nation of Judah.  Against their numbers, the army of Judah was no match.  So what did Jehoshaphat do?  He “set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.  And Judah gathered themselves together, to ask help of the LORD: even out of all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD” (20:3-4).  In the next few verses, you have this great prayer of the king to the Lord (ver. 5-12), which ends with these words: “O our God, wilt thou not judge them?  For we have no might against this great company that cometh against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon thee.” 

God responds to their request through the words of the prophet Jahaziel (ver. 14-17).  The gist of it was this: you will not have to fight; God will fight for you.  And that is exactly what happened.  Judah believed the word of the Lord.  And so instead of going out to battle with swords flashing, they go into battle line with a line of priests singing praise to the Lord.  We read, “And they rose early in the morning, and went forth into the wilderness of Tekoa: and as they went forth, Jehoshaphat stood and said, Hear me, O Judah, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem; believe in the LORD your God, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper.  And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the LORD, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the LORD; for his mercy endureth forever” (ver. 20-21). 

In the end, Judah didn’t even have to fight.  Instead, God turned the enemies of Israel upon each other, and God’s people just watched as their enemies destroy themselves.  The key to the victory here was not the power of the sword, but the power of prayer.  Not that prayer is itself powerful, of course.  Prayer is only as powerful as the God to whom it addresses is powerful.  But since the God of Judah is the God of the universe, their enemies had no power over them.  They stood in the evil day through prayer.

Here is a NT illustration of the principle of the text before us.  In several of the gospels, we have this story of the father whose son is afflicted by demons.  He had asked the disciples to cast out the demon but they were unable.  At the time, Jesus and three of his apostles were gone (they were on the Mount of Transfiguration).  They returned just as things were getting pretty embarrassing for the disciples that had been left.  Our Lord then cast the demon out with no problem.  Flummoxed, the apostles asked the Lord why they were not able to do this themselves.  I want you to hear the Lord’s very interesting reply: he told them they were not able to cast this demon out “because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, ‘Remove hence to yonder place;’ and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.  Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer” (Mt. 17:20-21).

Our Lord’s response points to two realities that we would do well to take heed to.  First, that prayer is the response of faith and that the measure of our faith can be determined by our prayer life.  The words, “this kind goeth not out but by prayer” indicate that the disciples had not sought the exorcism of the demon through prayer.  In other words, they were relying on their own power and ability, as strange as that might seem.  I suppose that, after you’ve cast out a few demons, anyone could get cocky.  But our Lord says that it was their unbelief that was their undoing on this particular occasion, and then points to their prayer life.  Faith and prayer go together.  Sinful self-confidence and self-righteousness and prayerlessness go together too.  And whereas the Lord blesses the former, he will not bless the latter.

The second reality to which our Lord’s words point is that some situations require more conscious seeking and dependence upon the Lord than others.  They had cast out other demons, but this one wouldn’t budge.  Why?  “This kind” was different from the others.  I don’t know particularly much about demons, but apparently some are worse than others.  This points up to a general principle: there are some things in the spiritual realm you are not going to be able to accomplish apart from a life of faith and prayer.  Talents and ability and personality won’t do it.  These things may count for a lot in this world and its priorities, but not before God.  As the Psalm puts it, “He [God] delighteth not in the strength of the horse: he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man.”  Rather, “the LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy” (Ps. 147:10-11).  It’s when we are weak (in terms of our own personal strength) that we are truly strong (in terms of God’s grace and empowerment, 2 Cor. 12:9-10).

These two illustrations, one from the OT and one from NT, show us why the apostle would say what he does here.  Prayer is immensely important.  It is important, not as another box to check on our spiritual duties list, but as a way to express our dependence and faith in our Savior.  These illustrations show us that true spiritual victory is accomplished not so much by what we do, but by what God does by his grace for us and through us.  And the only way to truly live this reality out is through prayer.  If we really believe that it is not by might nor by power but by the Spirit of God (cf. Zech. 4:6) that we conquer, then this conviction will express itself in regular, real, believing prayer.

But the apostle does not focus so much on the why of prayer here.  He assumes it, more or less.  Rather, he focuses on the how of prayer.  How are we to pray?  Here is how: “always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints: and for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:18-20).  In particular, there are four universals that are to characterize our prayer life: we are to pray with all prayer, at all times, with all perseverance, and for all the saints.

All Prayer

There are different kinds of prayer.  There are prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of deliverance, prayers of praise, prayers for direction, and so on.  Our prayers ought to be as varied as our needs.  In fact, the description of prayer by the term “supplication” points to prayer as that by which we address to God our needs.  It is a word which points in the direction of neediness, of lack, of want, and of entreating God to meet us at our point of need.  We come to him, not as one who is “rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing” but as those who are “wretched and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).  The Psalmist described himself as “poor and needy” (Ps. 40:17), a fit description for you and me as well!  The great thing is that, despite our poverty and emptiness, “yet the Lord thinketh upon me” and therefore we pray, “thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God.”

We are to commit to God all our needs, both small and great.  We are not to think that there is anything too small for the notice of our God, who knows even the number of the hairs upon our heads.  He who cares for the grass of the field and the birds of the air certainly cares for our littlest needs.  There is nothing that escapes his notice, nothing beneath his dignity for which we cannot pray.  Isn’t this how the apostle exhorts us in his letter to the Philippians?  “Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (Phil. 4:6). 

In doing so, we will learn to bring all our life under the sovereignty of God, which is where it should be.  This is what the apostle James is getting at, when he rebukes those who cavalierly make plans without consideration of God’s will in the matter.  “Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow.  For what is your life?  It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away.  For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this or that” (Jm. 4:13-15).  Approaching every situation with the prayer, “If the Lord will,” is the only way to submit our hearts to God’s sovereign will over our lives.

But prayers of supplication are not the only category of prayer.  Prayer is not just to be a litany of needs presented before God.  Thanksgiving ought to be a great part of our prayer life.  If we don’t make room for thanksgiving, we will end up forgetting just how blessed we already are in Christ.  Thanksgiving is a preventative to bitterness.  It also keeps us from developing an entitlement attitude.  Thanksgiving reminds us that God doesn’t owe us anything, that everything comes to us as a gift of grace.

Then there should be confession.  “If we confess our sins” is a necessary part of walking in the light as he is in the light (1 Jn. 1:9).  May God prevent us from ever taking on the attitude of the Pharisee who could only see the sins of others and not his own.  When we pray asking for God to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, we are acknowledging our dependence upon the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and our need of God’s righteousness which comes to us through him by faith.  It is also the first step to dealing with our sins.  If you cannot even bring up your sins in secret confession to God, how in the world are you going to even begin to think of mortifying them in our life?  So let confession be a part of your prayer life.

And then there ought to be the element of worship in our prayers.  What I mean by this is that our prayers ought to be characterized by a sense of awe and reverence and humility and joy.  It’s why when our Lord taught his disciples to pray, the very first words are, “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed by thy name” (Mt. 6:9).  We are so liable to pride that we need to constantly be humbling ourselves.  But we also need to be reminded just how small we are and how great God is.  It is the first step in true religion.  There is a book, written by Ed Welch, entitled, When People are Big and God is Small.  It’s a book intended to deal with all the problems that come from magnifying people and minimizing God.  And certainly a lot of problems start here. 

But ultimately the reason for the element of worship in our prayers is that God is worthy of our worship.  He is worthy in a way no one else is.  He is the only source of eternal joy and gladness.  At the end of the day, our greatest need is God himself, not the things he gives, but himself.  When we worship him, we are acknowledging that reality.  Let us pray with “all prayer and supplication.”

Before we address the next universal, notice that the apostle describes this praying and praying “in the Spirit.”  This points to the reality that prayer is not just a matter of turning prayer wheels.  It is real communion with the living God.  You are not going to really pray if you don’t believe that.  But the point of the apostle is that this is exactly what prayer is for the Christian.  Christ has provided a way into the very presence of God.  “Through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Eph. 2:18).  Prayer therefore is not something we do just to make ourselves feel better.  It is not something we do to lower our blood pressure.  No, it is talking to God in the most real and literal sense and knowing that God is listening to you. 

In fact, Paul says in his letter to the Romans, that even in the situation where we find ourselves unable to know what to pray, the Spirit of God himself steps in and prays for us: “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.  And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26-27).  This being the case, why is it that we do not avail ourselves of this privilege more than we do?  Paul is saying that, apart from sin separating us from fellowship with God, there is literally no way you can go wrong in prayer.  Even when you don’t know how to pray, even then we can pray the most spiritual prayers!

All Times

In the KJV, the apostle opens by saying, “Praying always.  The text literally says, “on every occasion,” or, as some translate it, “at every opportunity.”[1]  As the apostle says in another place, we are to “pray without ceasing” (1Thess. 5:17).  I take this to mean that the Christian is to maintain an attitude of prayer throughout the day and throughout one’s life.  There is never a moment when we do not need God, and therefore there is not a moment when we should not be able to pray.  Theologian John Gill once described prayer as the breath of the regenerate man, and I think he is exactly right.  Prayer is not just something we do at discrete points in time; it is an attitude that we ought to carry with us throughout the day.

Again, this points to the privilege that belongs to the Christian.  The fact that we are to be continually engaged in prayer means that heaven’s gates are always open to the Christian.  If we do not avail ourselves of the privilege of prayer, it is not because God is not listening.  It is because we have become self-satisfied, like the apostles who couldn’t cast out the demon and didn’t even think to avail themselves of the power of prayer. 

All perseverance

Praying at every opportunity goes hand and hand with another part of Paul’s description of the how of prayer: “watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication.”  This points to maintaining an earnest purpose for preserving prayer as a part of our lives.  It means that we don’t give up when we don’t get what we pray for.  It means that we don’t stop praying because we feel neglected by God.  It means that we keep praying even when we don’t feel like it. 

The fact of the matter is that prayer is hard.  Anyone who tells you different must have a different experience from most of the saints throughout history.  Prayer is hard because it is part of a spiritual battle, and battle is hard.  The devil knows that God blesses prayer and it is to his advantage that he keep you from praying. 

This is why our Lord spoke the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18.  Do you remember how this parable is introduced by Luke?  He says, “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Lk. 18:1).  Our Lord spoke this parable to encourage us to pray because he knew that it is easy for us to become discouraged and to stop praying.  Looking at the parable, it seems that our Lord’s point is that, like the widow, we have to keep coming to God, even we it doesn’t seem like God is listening to our requests.  God does not always answer our prayers on our time schedule.  God answered Isaac’s prayer for Rebekah twenty years later, it seems.  God answered Zachariah’s prayer for Elizabeth long after he had stopped praying for it and had completely given up on it.  But God had heard, he had listened, and he did answer their prayers.

Now this doesn’t mean that if we badger God long enough, he is eventually going to give in to our every request.  Thank God he doesn’t!  But it does mean that every prayer is heard and received with love, and is answered according to the counsels of infinite wisdom, power, and grace.

We don’t give up on prayer, because giving up on prayer means that we have given up on God.  But God is faithful, and he will never give up on us.  Therefore, let us pray with all perseverance.

All saints

Finally, Paul says we are to pray for “all saints.”  It has been pointed out many times over that the Lord’s Prayer is a communal prayer, not a prayer of the rugged individualist.  In the same way, Paul reminds us that when we pray, we are to pray for all the saints.  Of course this doesn’t mean every Christian in the world.  But it does mean that we are to pray for those believers that are in the sphere of our influence and notice.  Begin with your own home, and then work outward in increasing circles of people you are connected to.  Of course this doesn’t mean we don’t pray for our own needs.  But God doesn’t have us on this earth for ourselves; we are here to serve others.  And part of that service to others is to pray for them.

You see this illustrated in several delightful ways in the NT.  I think of Epaphras, who is described to the Colossian believers as “a servant of Christ . . . always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12).  It is what James exhorts us to when he writes, “Pray one for another, that ye may be healed.  The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jm. 5:16).

And Paul himself wants to get in on this, as he does in other places as well (cf. Rom. 15:30).  In particular, he asks them to pray for him so that he will have boldness in proclaiming the gospel. 

It is well that we hear this.  Do we not often think, “Well, what’s the point?  Why pray when God is sovereign?”  Whereas we ought to say, “Why pray at all if God is not sovereign?”  If God’s hands are tied, if he has already done everything he can and now it’s up to us, then there really is no point in praying.  But if God is sovereign, then we can have confidence that our prayers will be answered.  We can have confidence because the Scriptures teach us that God has chosen to use prayer to further his purposes in the earth.  And having chosen prayer, we can be sure that God will use it.  God’s sovereign control over all things is no reason to sit on our hands and do nothing.  Prayer is God’s sovereignly chosen means to advance his kingdom, his glory, and our eternal good in this world and the next.

This being the case, we cannot expect God’s blessings apart from prayer.  There is very real danger lurking around the corner for those who do not pray.  The apostles found this out when they slept instead of praying.  We should hear our Lord’s words to them and appropriate them for ourselves: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41).  They didn’t and entered into temptation.  Peter denied Christ, and the rest abandoned him.

So let us pray.  With all prayer, at all times, with all perseverance, for all the saints.  It’s an incredible privilege given to us through the redeeming work of God’s own Son.  Therefore let us take every advantage of this amazing blessing!

[1] Hoehner, Ephesians, p. 855.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Sword of the Spirit – Ephesians 6:17

The Bible, the written word of God, is the most precious commodity a Christian has.  The Bible is like food to the hungry soul: “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart” (Jer. 15:16).  “How sweet are thy words unto my taste!  Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103).  They are like streams of water to a huge oak tree, for the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord “shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Ps. 1:3).  God’s words are more valuable than gold and silver: “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:10).  “The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver” (Ps. 119:72).  It is a light in a dark place: “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (Ps. 119:130). 

It is therefore a terrible judgment when God’s words are withheld.  In the book of Amos, such a predicament is likened to a famine: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, than I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11).  Just as physical life cannot long endure without food and water, neither can our spiritual life be healthy and flourishing apart from the word of God.  Therefore in Eph. 4:15, we are told that it is as we speak the truth in love – truth which finds its origin in Scripture – that we grow. 

In light of these metaphors, it almost seems incongruous for the apostle to liken the Scripture – the word of God – to a sword.  A sword is not something that makes one rich, that nourishes the soul, or gives light in darkness.  A sword is something that destroys and wounds and kills.  However, as Ecclesiastes puts it, there is “a time to kill, and a time to heal . . . a time of war, and a time of peace” (Eccl. 3:3, 8).  It is the versatility of the word of God that it can kill and make alive, depending on the need of the moment. 

So, when we ask the question, “Why would the apostle Paul use the metaphor of a sword for the word of God?” we find the reason in the context of our verse.  The context is that of battle, spiritual battle, with Satan and his demonic armies.  The Christian is under constant attack by them and he must be able to stand and not give ground when he or she is attacked.  In such a context, a sword is what is needed, especially in close-quarters combat, which is what the apostle envisions here (cf. ver. 12).  The role of God’s word pictured here, then, is not so much its function in providing spiritual nourishment for the soul as it is its function in fending off the enemies of our souls.  So the question we must ask of this text is, how does the Bible function to enable us to fight off the enemies of our souls?  That would explain why the Bible is likened to a sword.  And then the second question would be, why is it called the sword of the Spirit.  What role does the Holy Spirit play in all this? This will be the focus of our study this morning.

However, before we proceed with this agenda, we need to address our assumption that Paul is talking about the Bible here.  There are plenty of people out there who refuse to say that the Bible is the written word of God.  They are in fact embarrassed by such a claim.  They might say that the Bible contains the word of God.  Or they might say that the Bible is a human attempt to reflect God’s word to us.  But at the end of the day, for them the Bible is just a book like any other book: a human creation from beginning to end.  It is not the word of God, it is the word of man about God.  There are many reasons why people think this way: some are embarrassed by how out of step the Bible is to the morals and sensitivities of our culture; others are embarrassed by how out of step the Bible is to certain current scientific claims; others are embarrassed by apparent discrepancies in the Bible itself.  But whatever the reason, this embarrassment has its roots in a previous surrender to the values of the culture over the values of the word of God.  For such people, the Bible can’t be the word of God because it doesn’t reflect their worldview.

But we do not believe that the Bible is the word of man about God.  Rather, we believe that the Bible is the word of God to man.  It is the testimony of the Bible about itself: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, ESV).  “No prophesy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophesy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21, ESV).  These verses clearly state that the Bible is the word of God; that the very words of Scripture (all of them!) are the words of God.  It is why the author of Hebrews, quoting Psalms, was able to say that these are the words of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 3:7).  This is true of both the OT and NT.  It is why the apostle Paul was able to say of his preaching, “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, 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). 

It is also the testimony of our Lord.  It is utterly contradictory to call yourself a follower of Christ, to claim that you believe in the Lordship and sovereignty and divinity of Christ, and yet refuse to accept his own testimony to the Scriptures.  For him, Scripture spoke with authority, down to the very letter.  For him, “the Scripture cannot be broken” (Jn. 10:35).  Our Lord, in responding to the question about divorce, quotes Moses in Genesis 2:24 as the very word of God (Mt. 19:4-6).  The interesting thing about this is that Genesis 2:24 is not written as a report of something God said, but rather it is presented either as the words of Adam or Moses’ commentary on the words of Adam.  However, our Lord quotes these words as if God is speaking them.  The reason can only be because, in our Lord’s eyes, all of Scripture is the word of God to man.  When Moses spoke, God spoke, because God was speaking through him.

It is so important to see that the Bible is God’s word to us, and therefore utterly trustworthy and true.  If you don’t believe this, you are left with your own little light to find the way in impenetrable darkness.  I was talking to someone the other day – this man calls himself an agnostic – who was lamenting the fact that he couldn’t ever be certain of the truthfulness of any truth-claim.  Because ultimately from his perspective every truth-claim relies on an authority which itself is biased and, however good intentioned, fundamentally untrustworthy.  The only way you can get around this is if you have a word from God.  That’s the only way.  Replace this with anything else and you logically have to end up with ultimate uncertainty.  The problem is that you can’t live that way, and you end up having to pretend you have certainty when you don’t and end up living an illusion.

Moreover, it’s important for you to see this because if the Bible is the written word of God, then to reject the Bible is to reject God himself.  This is the way John argues: “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; that that is not of God heareth not us.  Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:6).  If you reject the testimony of the apostles, you reject God; it’s as simple as that.

If the Bible is the word of God, and we have every reason to believe that it is, then to reject the Scriptures as the word of God is to lay your sword by as the enemy closes in for the kill.  It is spiritual suicide.  This sword is your only way to fight back in the evil day.  But unless you are absolutely convinced that this is God’s word you are not going to avail yourselves of its power and protection.  If you don’t completely believe that the Bible is fully God’s word, you are not going to experience what the saints have experienced in every age as they picked it up and used it to parry the sword thrusts of their enemy. 

The word of God here, then, is the Bible, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  It is called the sword of the Spirit, primarily for two reasons, I think.  First, because the Spirit is the author and origin and source of the Scriptures.  Holy men of God spoke, Peter says, as they were carried along by the Spirit.  In Hebrews 3, as we have seen, it is the Holy Spirit who not only spoke through David, but who continues to speak through David.  Paul highlights the role the Spirit in the inspiration of Scripture, when he writes, “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory …. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:7, 10).  We should see the Bible as a product of human and divine cooperation; it was written down by men, yes; but they were so inspired by the Spirit of God that they were kept from error and wrote only truth.

Second, it is called the “sword of the Spirit” because the Spirit is not only the ultimate source of its truths, but also because it is the instrument the Spirit uses to carry on his work in the soul of man.  This is why Paul calls his gospel ministry a ministry of the Holy Spirit, because it was the Spirit that made it effective in the hearts of his hearers.  In this way, it is contrasted with the old covenant, because although the old covenant was given by God, it was written in tablets of stone not in hearts.  The way the new covenant people of God are formed is by the Holy Spirit taking God’s word and writing it in our hearts: “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.  For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:3-6, ESV).

It is important to keep these two things in mind as we come to the application of the text to our lives.  For if we just take the Bible as the sword of the Spirit in the sense that the Spirit forged it for us and hands it to us for us to use entirely on our own, we are going to find ourselves in trouble.  However, if we use the word of the Spirit in a spiritual way, if we use the Bible relying on the Spirit to work its truth in us and through us, only then will we be truly wielding it as a sword of the Spirit.

How do we then fight back with this sword?  What are the attacks that it protects us from?  I am sure that there are many ways in which we can wield the Bible as a sword and turn back the attacks of the wicked one, but I want to mention one – which I think really summarizes all the ways the Bible may be used as a weapon in spiritual warfare.  And it is this: we primarily wield the Bible like a sword when we use it to uncover error and untruths about God and his will for us. 

We have to remember how Satan kills.  He does it primarily by convincing us to believe a lie.  Our Lord said of Satan, “He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own [according to his own nature]: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (Jn. 8:44).  What is interesting about this verse is how our Lord links the devil as a murderer to the devil as a liar.  It strongly implies that the devil murders with lies.  This is confirmed at the very beginning of the Bible in the record of the fall of mankind into sin.  Why did death come into the world?  Because man believed a lie, a lie that Satan told Eve and which she and Adam believed and acted on.  Satan killed Adam and Eve (and all their offspring) with lies and he continues to do this to this day.

The fact of the matter is that you are not going to live before God in a way that is pleasing to him (and therefore right) unless you believe the truth about God and what his will is for you.  So the aim of the devil is to get you to believe as many lies about God and his will as he possibly can.  He wants to introduce error and untruths in the way you think about God, yourself, the world he made, and the way you are supposed to live in this world he made.  Therefore, the goal is right living is inseparable from right thinking. 

What kind of lies does Satan try to get us to believe?  It would be impossible to list them all.  But we can summarize them like this: anything that is contrary to the teaching of Scripture is a lie the devil wants you to believe.  If Paul is right, and the Scripture (all of it) is what makes the man of God mature and complete, then the failure to embrace any of its teachings is going to make us immature and incomplete in some way.  And in that area of immaturity and incompleteness is where the devil finds a way into our thinking.  A gap in our understanding of truth is like a gap in the lines of an army surrounded by the enemy.  If the gap is not filled, the enemy can pore through it and defeat them.

This is why it is so important for you to take your Bibles seriously and the study of the Bible seriously.  Now I know that this does not mean you have to understand everything about the Bible in order to be a healthy Christian.  But it does mean that we are constantly searching the Scriptures for light on the way, we are constantly looking to the word of God for guidance and direction.  There is never a point in our lives where we will be able to do without it.

It also means that you take theology seriously.  It is a grave mistake to think that theology is not practical or important.  What you think about God is shaped by theology and therefore what you think about theology will shape the way you live toward him.  Theology is always practical and heresy is always destructive.  You see it in the way Paul shapes his letters.  He does not just write a bunch of moral essays made up solely of advice and techniques for godly living.  Rather, he frontends the theology as a way to motivate and make sense of the Christian ethic, as in Romans and Ephesians.  Or he weaves the theology throughout the ethical instructions, as in Titus.  Either way, the apostle would have been shocked to hear the way many modern Christians talk about theology.  It is not enough to say you’re on Jesus’ side, because you’re not on his side unless you embrace Jesus for who he really is, and that involves doing something with theology.  In fact, a lot of time when people decry theology, what they are really doing is providing cover for their heresy.  If they can just keep you from probing into what they really think about Christ, they can fool you into thinking they are one of you until it is too late and they have infected you with their heresy as well.

I don’t of course want to discount the role of the affections and will with our thinking.  You can’t dissociate your will from your thinking or your affections.  It’s a package deal.  And it complicates things.  Because the Bible teaches that our wills are warped and our affections are bent towards wrong things.  Therefore believing the truth is not simply a matter of working through the right arguments for the truth.  We are spiritually blind in the sense that we can see the truth and yet not believe it because we don’t want to.  This is what the apostle is referring to in Romans 1:18 when he describes sinful men as holding down or suppressing the truth.  You don’t suppress what you don’t know.  In fact, Paul explicitly says that even spiritual rebels know God (Rom. 1:21).  This is also what our Lord was talking about in John 3:19 when he says that men refuse to come to the light, not because they don’t see the light, but because they love darkness more than light.

This is where the ongoing role of the Spirit comes in.  He is the one who in the beginning brings the saints into truth, and in the end preserves the saints from error that might lead them away from the faith.  The Spirit’s role is not only to reveal truth in written form, but also to open our eyes to see its beauty and to give us taste buds to taste its sweetness and spiritual senses to feel its warmth in such a way that we know with certainty that this is the word of God.  This is what the apostle John is referring to when, after describing those that had abandoned the faith (“they went out from us . . . they were not all of us,” 1 Jn. 2:19), goes on to say, “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.  I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth” (1 Jn. 2:20-21).  It is the Spirit that opens our blind eyes to see the truth, that softens our hearts to receive it.  And so even if we cannot answer every argument the sceptic throws at us, yet we cannot evade the reality that penetrates our thoughts, affections, and will: that God is truly speaking to us in his word.  It is proof enough.  As Martin Luther put it to Erasmus, “The Spirit is no skeptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions – surer and more certain than sense or life itself.”

Which is why it is so important to walk in step with the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:25), to not grieve the Holy Spirit of God (Eph. 4:30) through conscious and repeated sin.  Keep your hands and hearts clean and you will see with clear eyes the truth of the Scriptures.  I think this is at least partly what our Lord was getting at when he said, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (Jn. 5:17, ESV).

I love the way Charles Hodge describes the power of Scripture.  It really summarizes what we’ve been trying to say here, so I’m going to end with it.  In his exposition on this text, he describes the Bible as a sword that “is sharper than any two-edged sword.  It is the wisdom of God and the power of God.  It has a self-evidencing light.  It commends itself to the reason and conscience.  It has the power not only of truth, but of divine truth. … In opposition to error, to all false philosophy, to all false principles of morals, to all the sophistries of vice, to all the suggestions of the devil, the sole, simple, and sufficient answer is the word of God.  This puts to flight all the powers of darkness.  The Christian finds this to be true in his individual experience.  It dissipates his doubts; it drives away his fears; it delivers him from the power of Satan.  It is also the experience of the church collective.  All her triumphs over sin and error have been effected by the word of God.  So long as she uses this and relies on it alone, she goes on conquering; but when anything else, be it reason, science, tradition, or the commandments of men, is allowed to take its place or to share its office, then the church, or the Christian, is at the mercy of the adversary.”

The Gathering (Acts 2:41-47)

What is the church? What is its purpose? How does it function? If we claim to be a true church, then it behooves us to be able to answer the...