Open secret - Ephesians 3:1-21

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 6th February 2005.

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One of the most prolific and important Christian writers of the 20th century was C S Lewis. He produced numerous books on defending the Christian faith, attacking false ideas and points of view, as well as a wonderful series of children's books explaining the gospel through stories called the Chronicles of Narnia. But you may not know that C S Lewis also wrote a trilogy of science fiction books. Again they are written with a view to presenting the Christian message, and the final book in the trilogy called "That Hideous Strength" is particularly clear in relating the battle between the forces of evil and God and his church. The story is about how a huge Institution called the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, or NICE as it is known, takes over a small university town in the Midlands and whose power extends over the whole of England. This Institution is enormously powerful, with tentacles all over the world, and it seems as if they will soon dominate the whole of the world. And what is worse is that behind this human institution are powerful evil spiritual forces intent on making the earth their own. But this enormous all encompassing organisation is opposed by a tiny group of 8 people, headed up by a man called Dr. Ransom, who is a sort of Christ figure. And the odds are totally stacked against this tiny band of loyal supporters. It seems there is absolutely nothing they can do to stop the work of the NICE and it's total domination of the whole world. In fact at one point in the book, one of this tiny band of followers, a man called MacPhee, who is a straight talking, straight doing Irish man, says to the rest of the small gathering: "You know, I don't know why we bother. I mean we are so small against an institution so large. What hope have we possibly got? We just seem so weak and pathetic."

  And I guess in our darker moments, many of us might be tempted to say the same thing about the Christian faith and the Christian church. It all seems so very weak and pathetic. If we take a moment to think of our situation here in Hull, we'll see that we live in a city of several hundred thousand people, but with only 0.7% of the population going to church. It is very easy to feel small and insignificant. Take a moment to listen to the talk shows on the radios or to see how the Christian faith and the Lord Jesus Christ are presented on the TV and it's pretty depressing. At the least, Jesus and his people are sidelined, and at the worst, they are openly and blasphemously mocked and appallingly ridiculed. If we think of our own personal situations, it may be things aren't any better. Maybe a work environment where we are the only Christian in the office, or the school, or on the course. Perhaps we're members of a family who openly oppose our faith or at best are just not interested and are apathetic. And it's very tempting to cry out: "Is all this really worth it? Is it worth all the effort and pain of being a Christian? It's just seems so hopeless and weak and pathetic?"

  Well if that's how we feel sometimes about our situation as Christians in this city and this country, then we are in for a real treat this morning. Because the apostle Paul in chapter 3 of his letter to the Ephesians is going to tell us some staggering truths about what it means to be a Christian. Because it's as if he is drawing back the curtain on reality and showing us what things are really like. And we'll see that whilst this world may mock and ridicule God's people and whilst it may seem to us so weak and pathetic, yet the reality is that the church, God's people, is at the very centre of God's plan for the whole universe. God's people and the work he has given us to do have a value and worth that will last for all eternity. Because Paul is saying to us this morning, 'don't let appearances deceive you'. Look at God's reality, look at things from his perspective. And you'll be amazed at what you see. And it's my prayer this morning that as we look at this passage, we'll be encouraged to press on as God's people knowing that we are incredibly important to God and our work for him has eternal value. So let's see Paul's two amazing lessons about the church.

1) The Church's God-Given Privilege (Vv 1-13)

2) The Church's God-Given Power (Vv 14-21)

1) The Church's God-Given Privilege (Vv 1-13)

So first of all then we see the church's God-given privilege in verses 1-13. Now in chapter 2, Paul has been outlining the wonderful way in which God is building his world wide church. It's a church which consists of Jews and Gentiles, that is non Jews, and they have been brought together through the cross of Jesus Christ, the place where our sins are dealt with and we are declared right with God again. And then in chapter 3 v 1, Paul looks as if he is about to launch into a prayer for these particular churches that he's writing to. So he says in verse 1: "For this reason, I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you GentilesBut then he breaks off and decides to tell us a bit more about how this church of God has come into being and how Paul has a very important role in it. And then later in verse 14, he'll return to his prayer. So verses 2-13 are a digression, but a very important one nevertheless. And the theme of these verses 2-13 are what Paul calls the mystery.

a) The Mystery Revealed (Vv 2-6)- And first in verses 2-6 Paul talks about the mystery revealed. Have a look with me at verses 2-3: "Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly (most likely referring to chapters 1-2 of Ephesians)." Now the word 'mystery' in the Bible is a technical word which means something a little different to what we might think. When we talk of mystery, we tend to think of someone like Agatha Christie and her murder mysteries. And so as we read the books or watch the TV programmes, we are walking in Hercule Poirot's footsteps trying to work out who the murderer is. Working out the mystery is something we need to do. But a mystery in the Bible is something that God has kept hidden and that God has now revealed. So a mystery is like an open secret. So verse 5, Paul says that this mystery was "not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets." We knew a little about this mystery in the OT, but only now has this mystery been fully revealed. And so what is this mystery? Well in verse 6, Paul tells us: "This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." The mystery revealed is the privilege of our identity as God's people. And that says Paul is what God has given him to tell the world. The mystery revealed is that both Jews and Gentiles can be part of God's church, his people. The church's God-given privilege is that we are God's people.

  Now we need to pause here to see the incredible statement Paul is making in this verse. Because it may be we're tempted to say, "So what? How on earth does that help me when I'm thinking that living the Christian life is hard and tough and I'm feeling like chucking it in!" Well look again at what Paul is saying in verse 6. Because he is using three words to describe the incredible privilege of our identity as God's people. For literally Paul writes we are "co-heirs", we are "co-bodies" and "co-sharers" of the promises of God together with those Jewish brothers and sisters who have believed in Christ. We are now all part of God's people through the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the result of that is that we are fellow heirs of the promises of God in Christ. Because we are God's people, then we are facing a future with Christ in his perfect kingdom for ever. Now I need to be reminded of that immense privilege again and again if I am to press on to heaven. What else keeps us going and pressing on in a world that is opposed to Christ and his church? What else gives us confidence in the face of colleagues and relatives opposed to and apathetic about Jesus? Well surely it is the knowledge that as God's people we have a certain future hope which affects the way we live in the present. If I am not sure of where I am heading, and the fact that there is much better to come, then I will surely give up the Christian life. But the fact that I do know I am Christ's and I know where I am heading means I can have great confidence whatever this world throws at me. And it gives me the ability to keep going in this life. When Henry Venn a Christian leader in the 18th century was on his death bed, the prospect of dying, we are told, made him so jubilant and high spirited that his doctor said it kept Venn alive for another fortnight! And that future hope is ours too in Christ. And our identity as God's people sharing the promises of Christ, and heading for heaven, is just one of the God-given privileges we have as God's church.

b) The Mystery Proclaimed (Vv 7-13)- But Paul isn't quite finished with the mystery he's describing in verses 2-13, because he goes on from the mystery revealed to talk of the mystery proclaimed in verses 7-13, and it's in these verses that we see the church's second privilege, the privilege of intimacy, intimacy that is with God. Paul says in verses 8-9 that it's his job to proclaim this mystery. Verse 8: "Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things." As the apostle to the Gentiles that was Paul's task. But then Paul says something quite staggering in verse 10, something totally unexpected. He says that "[God's] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms." Now what Paul is saying here is that through the church God is displaying to the spiritual forces, the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, his wisdom and power. These rulers and authorities are most likely the evil spiritual forces that Paul has already mentioned in chapter 2 and will again tackle in chapter 6. And it's as if God holds up the church to these forces and says: "Look, your power over these people is broken. You no longer hold sway. You are a defeated enemy." Because Paul had told us in chapter 2 that before we became Christians we were following the ways of the ruler of the air, that is the devil. We were under the devil's sway. But now God has rescued us as his people and we are a sign that God has defeated those evil spiritual forces. Their hold over us has been broken. So the church is a wonderful example to the universe that evil is defeated. And one day it will be totally destroyed and eradicated.

And how did that happen? Verse 11, it was all through Jesus Christ our Lord. So listen to how Paul puts it in Colossians 2 v 15: "Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle over them, triumphing over them by the cross." It was through the cross that Jesus defeated these powers and broke their hold over us. And what does that mean for us? Verse 12: "In [Jesus] and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence." We have the privilege of intimacy with God. We can know God personally and approach him with total confidence because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. And it's in the church that that triumphant power and wisdom is seen.

Now again let's pause to consider to the implications of these amazing verses. Now you might not have followed all the details in these verses, but understand this one thing. That the church is very significant and precious to God. We are very important to him. We have the amazing privilege of being his people heading for heaven. And we have the amazing privilege of being able to have intimacy with God, that is a personal child-to-father relationship with the God who made us. And perhaps most staggering of all, is that the church is a sign to the evil spiritual forces in the universe that God is the victor and God is the king. Can you see now how wonderful the church is in God's eyes. It's amazing, not because we are amazing in and of ourselves, but because God has given us these staggering gifts of being his people and his children. The church really is awesome. And it's the centre piece in the great cosmic reconciliation of the whole universe coming under the power of the Lord Jesus Christ.

You see things may look pathetic and weak when we look at the church from an earthly perspective. But that's precisely our problem. We're looking at it from our earth bound perspective. What we need is to see the bigger picture. It reminds me of a story I read recently of a woman who came home to find her husband shaking frantically with what looked like a wire running from his waist towards the electric kettle. Intending to jolt him away from the deadly current, she whacked him with a handy plank of wood which she found by the back door. The only trouble was that she broke her husband's arm in two places. And it was only then that she discovered that up until that unfortunate moment her husband had happily been listening to his Walkman!

What we need is to see reality as God sees it. And that is precisely what Paul does for us in these verses. He draws back the curtain and allows us to see the mystery revealed and the mystery proclaimed. And that is that the church has these amazing God given privileges of our identity as God's people and our intimacy as God's children.

2) The Church's God-Given Power (Vv 14-21)

But Paul doesn't finish there, because if you remember, verses 2-13 were a digression in Paul's line of thought. He was about to pray for the church before he decided to remind them of their privileges as God's people and his role in proclaiming the mystery. But now he goes back to pray for these Christians. And Paul's prayer reveals secondly the church's God given power. And it's because Paul knows that the church is so precious in God's eyes, because he has God's perspective on God's church that he prays big prayers for the church. For the things we pray for one another reveal what our priorities are. Often the danger is that we pray for things that are simply material things or small matters. We perhaps pray for health and material comfort and safety. Not that there is anything wrong with praying for those things. But if we pray only those things for ourselves and our church, then it shows are priorities aren't quite in line with God's. Rather notice what Paul prays for as he kneels before his father in verse 14. As often in his prayers, he prays first and foremost for spiritual things. His prayer in Ephesians 3 is marked by two requests. And in both cases, they are requests for power, but power in the right way.

a) Power to Grow (Vv 16-17a) First there is the power to grow. And this request comes in verse 16: "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith." So what does Paul mean here? Well he is praying for power, and this is power that comes by the Holy Spirit. It is a divine thing, not a humanly engineered gift. And this power strengthens us in our inner being. Now this is where Paul shows his priority of spiritual work in the believer. For the inner being is the place where Paul sees everything of importance taking place. It is our spiritual heart, and Paul is therefore praying that that heart would be strengthened. But why? Why does Paul pray this prayer? He gives a reason. Verse 17: "So that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith." Now in what sense does Christ dwell in our hearts? Surely for the Christian he already dwells in our hearts? Well that is certainly true. But here Paul is using a word which means to take up permanent residence.

  Let me give you an illustration to explain what Paul is praying for. Imagine that a young couple buy a house after just getting married and there is a lot of work to do. The kitchen needs replacing, the heating system is archaic and is hardly effective, the roof leaks, and to cap it all the garden looks like a section of Equatorial rain forest. But it is theirs and they are happy. It is their marital home. They now live there. But as the years go by, they gradually do more to the house. They refit the kitchen and replace the roof. They put a pond in the garden and plant new flower beds, and then a few years after that they extend the house with an annex and convert the loft. And one day the man turns to his wife and says, "You know I really love this place. It really is our home. We've put our own mark on this place." Now when the Spirit of God takes up residence in our hearts, there is the moral equivalent of leaky roofs and trashy kitchens. But as the spiritual years go by, the heart of the believer gets cleaned up and Christ takes up more and more of a permanent residence in that heart. And gradually, that human heart has more and more hallmarks of its heavenly dweller, the Spirit of God. So when Paul prays that Ephesians would be strengthened in their inner beings with the power of the Spirit so that Christ can dwell there, he is praying for spiritual growth, for growth in godliness. He is praying that this church would grow more and like Christ. And he's praying in line with God's will because that is always what God wants in the hearts of believers. So we can be sure that God will delight to answer Paul's prayer.

b) The Power to Grasp (Vv 17b-19)

But the second request for power is the power to grasp. And what is it that they are to grasp or understand? Well Paul tells us in verse 17: "Paul prays that they being rooted and established in love may have the power together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and high and long and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge." Paul is praying for the power to grasp or understand the love of God for them in Christ. It is not that they haven't known that love already. Paul acknowledges that they are rooted and established in love already. You cannot be a Christian without some understanding of the love of God. That's what roots and establishes us in life. It is our grounding and foundation in a world that constantly buffets and harasses us. But Paul says that the present level of knowledge is not enough. We can always appreciate more and more just how much Christ loves us. So Paul prays on for the power to grasp how wide and high and long and deep is the love of Christ. He even says that it is a love that surpasses acknowledges. It is so deep that we cannot fathom it. And yet we can always know more. And in case we think that such a prayer is just a prayer for a mental understanding, Paul makes it clear that head knowledge is only part of it. He prays in verse 19 in order that "you may be filled to the measure of the fullness of God."

Knowing the love of God is not only a mental exercise. It is an exercise of experience as well. The love of God is it is something to taste and drink in, and experience more and more right up to the fullness that God gives, until we are complete and mature. And that of course will only be fully in heaven. The more we know and experience God's love for us then the more we will be like him. The more we experience that love, the more strength we will have to cope with the ups and downs of life. So true Christian maturity is seen not only in our ability to express Christian doctrines correctly, but also according to Paul in our deepening appreciation of the love of Christ in our lives. For where there is an understanding and experience of love, then there can be growth.

Let me tell you about a young couple I read about recently who spent years of their lives rearing children as foster parents. One time they were asked to foster two twin baby boys aged eighteen months. Well the first night the babies were with them they were put to bed and not a peep came out of room. The husband was curious and went up to the bedroom, only to find both boys wide awake, their pillows wet with tears, though not making a sound. It turned out that they had been beaten for crying in several of the homes they had stayed in before, and this house was their ninth. Testing showed that they were irreparably damaged emotionally and intellectually. But after two years with this loving couple the babies were said to be normal in terms of their emotional and intellectual status. All because they knew the love of kind foster parents. And spiritually speaking that is what Paul is praying for us. For the way to true Christian maturity is know the love of Christ and to grow in that love. And it takes the power of God to help us grasp that love.

So let me ask, as I ask myself, is that the sort of prayer you and are praying for yourself and for our church family. The power to grow and the power to grasp. Because it's exactly the sort of prayer we need to be praying if you and I are to grow to maturity as Christians. And if you have an Ephesians 3 understanding of the church, then will be praying an Ephesians 3 prayer. If you believe, as Paul did that the people of God are immensely privileged as God's people, then you will long to pray prayers which are in line with God's plan for his church. That is to bring us to maturity in Christ. And we can only do that if we have the power to grow in Christ and the power to grasp Christ's love.

You see in the world's eyes there is no doubt the church looks pathetic and weak. And you and I may be tempted to think that way too from time to time. But look at the church with God's eyes and you see a very different picture. We as God's people are incredibly privileged and very special. It's certainly something C S Lewis understood. Because that weak and pathetic looking bunch of 8 men and women eventually defeated the forces of NICE, evil spiritual powers and all. And it's something that the apostle Paul was in no doubt about at all. And if you do have any doubt that God is able to bring to fulfilment his amazing plans for his people, then read Paul's words with me in verses 20-21 as we finish: "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen."

  

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