Many years ago there were only two ways to communicate with people. You went to their place and talked to them or you sent them a letter. Today there is no end of ways – letter still works, but most people prefer phone, texting, Facebook, Twitter, email and sometimes they even talk to people face to face. What makes it more complicated is that everyone has their favorite way. With some people the best way to get them a message is by Facebook. Others you have to text, others you have to phone. Some have an answering machine and some don't. Some only have a cell phone and some have no computer. In spite of a dozen different ways of getting a message out, we don't always get the message through to the intended person. However, when there is a very important message that we need to get to someone, we can usually find a way. I have sometimes thought about this when we have gone on a canoe trip. There is no cell service out there, but if the situation was serious enough and you needed to get hold of someone, it could be done. If a message is important enough there is usually a way of communicating that message.
Over the last seven times that I have preached, we have examined all the wonderful things that Jesus has done for us. This is a message that is important and one that urgently needs to be communicated. Ephesians 3:1-13 speaks about the message God has for us to proclaim and about the need to proclaim it. In this section Paul shares his personal testimony about the call God had on his life. As we listen in on the conversation, we can learn many things about the message and the importance of making it known.
The passage begins with the words "This is the reason" and then we notice in verse 14 that we have similar words when it says, "For this reason I bow my knees before the Father." Paul's intention was to begin a prayer, but with the mention of the fact that he was a "prisoner for Christ Jesus" he went off on a tangent about how God has worked in and through him. This testimony provides a great lesson on proclaiming the gospel. I trust that as we examine these words, we will see that we have a message worth proclaiming and we will see the urgency of proclaiming the message.
God's message is introduced in this text as a mystery. But it is really more of a secret that has been revealed. The message about the work of God is not something that has been clearly known in all times past. There was a time when people didn't know about what God was doing. Even though He revealed His plan in the Old Testament, it was not clearly understood at that time. But the secret is not a mystery any more. Paul has already written about this in chapter 1 when he talked about God's plan and now mentions again that God has now made this secret clearly known. Paul himself discovered the secret of God's plan through a revelation by the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 1:11-24, Paul describes how that mystery was made known to Him. It began when a light from heaven shone down on him on the road to Damascus and it was also revealed as he spent time with God.
The message which God has made known is good news. That is what the word "gospel," which we read in verse 6, means. And what good news it is! It is described in verse 8 as the "news of the boundless riches of Christ."
Carla read me a story from the news this week about a man who was given $20 by a young person because he believed that he was a homeless person. There was a picture of the man and he could easily have been mistaken for one but as much as he tried to explain to the young person that he was not, the young person insisted that he take the $20. The man did and because he didn't really feel he deserved it, he added another $20 to it and gave the $40 to Siloam Mission. What a great story about a gift of grace.
The story of the "news of the boundless riches of Christ" is even greater. It is a story of a gift given to those who truly did need it. It is the story of life given to those who were dead. It is the story about making those who were not God's people into those who now are the children of God. It is the story of forgiveness given to people who were terrible sinners. As we have examined the story over the last week, we have certainly seen that it is a story about the boundless riches of Christ. It has taken us 7 messages, the equivalent of about 31/2 hours, and we know that we have only scratched the surface of what God has done for us. Truly the message God has for people is good news. It is "boundless riches" for people who are in desperate poverty.
It is also good news because it is a message for all people. Last week we talked about how the gospel message is also for the Gentiles. Once again Paul speaks about how the good news is for Gentiles. In verse 6 he indicates that the Gentiles now have become "fellow heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise of Christ." This is good news for us as well because as Gentiles we know that this is for us.
This good news is also described in verse 9 as "the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things." God, who is the creator of all things, has a plan. In the past that plan was slowly revealed through the words of the prophets. Now, in these last days, that plan has been fully and clearly revealed.
Sometimes we may get to the place where we think of God's plan as something very simplistic. If we reduce the plan of God to the four spiritual laws, we are in danger of minimizing just how great it is. I am not against the four spiritual laws, but they are just one way of looking at what God's plan is all about and only include part of God's plan. Listen to how verse 10 describes God's plan when it speaks of the "wisdom of God in its rich variety." Once again we have the word "rich" but it is a different word than the word "rich" in verse 8. There the word used is one that often refers to wealth. In verse 10 it is a word that could be translated "many colored" to describe the many layered abundance of God's plan. It is a plan that can be described as salvation or redemption or reconciliation or justification or mercy or forgiveness and many other ways. What God has planned is truly amazing, it is rich, it is varied and it arises out of the amazing love which God has for all those whom He has created.
So the message of God is a wonderful word about what God has done and once again we need to take note that it is centered in one person and that is the person of Jesus Christ. We have already taken note of the many times that the phrase "in Christ" appears in Ephesians. Once again the text points to Jesus. The message which God wants everyone to know is not a message about a list of rules or a guide for good living. It is a message about Jesus Christ. In verse 4 he describes it as "the mystery of Christ." In verse 6 he speaks about the promise which the Gentiles now share "in Christ Jesus." In verse 8 we have already spoken about God's "boundless riches" but take note that they are "of Christ." Verse 11 mentions that God's purpose has been carried out "in Christ Jesus our Lord."
It is very important for us to understand this. God has revealed a message to the world. The message is good news which is carried out according to God's plan and the center of the message of God is that it is a message about Jesus. It is about Jesus because it is in Jesus alone that we can be forgiven, in Jesus alone that we have power to obey God's way and in Jesus alone that we have the hope of eternal life. The message of God is about making Jesus known. If we call ourselves Christian we must identify with Christ.
As we have already noted, this passage is about the commission Paul has been given to make this message known. In verse 2 Paul speaks about "the commission of God's grace that was given me for you." Then we read in verse 7, "Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace…" Very early in Paul's Christian life, he knew that God had called him into ministry. When God sent Ananias to speak to Paul in Damascus, He already revealed to Ananias that Paul was going to be a missionary. Paul had a strong sense of awareness of this calling. The word for servant that is used here is a word that is behind our word "economy." "We might call him an 'economist of grace' or, with Letty Russell, the “housekeeper” in God’s household…" Paul saw himself as a steward given the responsibility of making the gospel known. He had an obligation and was very much aware of the importance of making the message known.
As we read through this text it becomes very clear that this idea of making the message known is important. God's plan is so great that God's plan must be made known. In the text there are three audiences to whom this message must be made known.
Clearly, since this is Paul's story being told, the message must be made known to the Gentiles. That was his particular assignment and it lines up with the commission given by God to the disciples as they watched Jesus ascend into heaven. In Acts 1:8 we read that they were to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth. Paul was the first one who really made a concerted effort to reach out into the uttermost parts of the earth.
The second audience mentioned in the text extends even more broadly. In verse 9 it says that God's plan is to "make everyone see." Do we have such a vision? Do we have the heart to see the lost and care enough about them that we want them to know? Are there people we don't see? Although the Jews were the first to receive the message of the gospel of Jesus, yet today in many countries they are among the least reached people groups in the world. God's intention is still that everyone may see the message of the gospel.
The most fascinating extent for the proclamation of God's message is stated in verse 10, declaring that it "might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places." There are two ways in which we can understand this somewhat puzzling phrase. One is that the rulers and authorities refer to those who are in authority in the land, the government. The mention of them being in the heavenly places might refer to the pagan understanding that behind every ruler there was a heavenly power. On the other hand it may refer to the recognition that, as Paul indicates in Ephesians 6, we are in a battle which has more to it than meets the eye. Those powers who are arrayed in battle against God and His kingdom must also know the message of God's rich grace.
When we recognize all three of these audiences for the proclamation of God's good news, it helps us realize that the message must be made known and it must be made known everywhere.
How will it be made known?
In verse 5 reference is made to the apostles and prophets. They were the first to understand the mystery which God was revealing. Through the Holy Spirit, they came to know and understand what God was up to. They were the first to proclaim it. The story of Peter on the day of Pentecost tells us just how that message of God was first proclaimed. It starts with a gathering of disciples who timidly spent time in an upper room, in prayer, wondering what the ministry of Jesus and his resurrection might mean. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, it all suddenly became clear and Peter with words that were clearly beyond him put it all together. It is in this way that the apostles and prophets are the foundation of the church. They were the first to understand God's message and the first to make it known.
As we have already noted, this passage is largely about Paul's own experience. As we listen to his description about how he came to be a messenger of God's good news, we can learn some important things about our own role as His messengers.
First of all, Paul had a very powerful sense of call to a specific task. He speaks of his commission, of being a servant and of being given grace by God's power for the task of making the gospel known to the Gentiles. When we read that, our temptation might be to think that we do not have such a strong commission and therefore we might be tempted to back off. That logic does not follow. Everyone of us is called to be a witness to the message of God, as we will see in a moment. But Paul's example also shows us that each of us also can have a call to a specific task. What is it that God has called us to? I learned early in my life, while serving in this church that God was calling me to serve Him. When this church ordained me, that sense of calling was strengthened, but I still did not know exactly how God wanted me to serve Him. Over the years, various experiences helped me finally come to understand that God wanted me to serve him by being a pastor and particularly by proclaiming His word. In fact, I was a pastor for 10 years before I figured that out. What is it that God has called you to? What are the gifts that He has given you? What is the passion that He has given you. I love listening to the passion with which my step dad, Art Rempel talks about delivering Scripture for the Gideon's. When I hear that, I see God's call to him in that task. I believe it is important for us to learn what God's call to us is because as we understand it two important things happen. We are not distracted by the many things that someone else thinks we should be doing and we are able to focus our primary energy on the thing that God has called us to do.
We may be quick to dismiss Paul as an example for us to follow. After all, Paul was such an amazing guy. We see him as well educated, specifically prepared by God, gifted and a capable leader. We may think, "that is not me. I am just an ordinary me. What have I got to offer?" But in verse 8 we see Paul's view of himself. He says, "I am the very least of all the saints." Paul was no different than we are. He did not see himself as strong or capable. He saw himself as a terrible sinner because he had persecuted the church. In other places we read about all his weaknesses. Wood writes, "Perhaps there is a playful allusion to his own name (v. 1) meaning “little” (paulos). In 2 Corinthians 12:11 he acknowledges that in himself he is a nobody while at the same time recognizing that God has made him a somebody. Such humility is an essential qualification for effective service." How encouraging that is because it helps us understand that God is not looking for super apostles, but for people who will say yes to the call He places on their life. Will you say "yes?"
So the example of Paul helps us to understand our role in making God's message known, but we cannot escape that we together also have a role to play in making God's message known. In verse 10 we read, "through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known."
According to this verse, the church and everyone who is part of the church must play a role. God has left us on this earth for one specific purpose and that is to make known the message God has for the world. We do not exist to maintain a little club called the church. God has given us a task and we need to focus on that task. Last week a group of people met to think about the outreach of our church. One of the things we talked about and I believe agreed on is that we must be very careful as a church that we do not see preservation of Portage Avenue Church as our reason to exist. We must recognize that we are God's servants. We must focus on the lost and we must do what we can to make God's message known to those who are lost. Neufeld suggests some good thoughts about this when he says, "by the quality of its existence…The church is most powerful in its 'communicative being' when it is diverse ethnically, racially, culturally, and socioeconomically—when it is made up of those who should not be able to coexist." He says further that it does its task "when its members participate in taking up the cross in relation to those outside their fellowship and especially in relation to each other." He also says that the church "goes beyond merely maintaining itself in its courageous confrontation of the powers with the wise gospel. Its message is that God is reclaiming humanity and all that God has created from the grip of evil and rebellion."
What will it mean for us to obey this call at Portage Avenue Church?
As we are involved in this mission to make God's message known, the text also mentions several important things that we need to be aware of.
The passage begins with Paul's mention that he is a "prisoner for Christ Jesus" and ends with a mention of his "sufferings." This is a reality that we sometimes don't want to recognize or admit. If we are confronting the powers of darkness and if we are faithful, it may well involve opposition and suffering. Last week at Bible Study someone mentioned that we are too comfortable. Is that an indication of God's grace to us or is it an indication that we are not intently engaged in God's Mission. We ought not to seek suffering, but let us make sure that we have not become so comfortable that we are not diligent in God's work.
Yet suffering is not the only reality. In the midst of trial, difficulty and a very challenging assignment, there is powerful help. Verse 12 reminds us that we have "access to God" and that this access to God gives us both boldness and confidence. How do you adequately make the "wisdom of God in its rich variety" known to people who are spiritually hard of hearing? It is only through the presence of God and through confidence in Him. How do you overcome natural shyness and a history of being "the quiet in the land" in order to share God's love with people who are not like you at all? It can only happen because we have access to God who will give us boldness and confidence!
Therefore, as we think about the task of making God's message known, let us spend much time in prayer, asking God to help us do His work in His way. As we think about what God wants for Portage Avenue Church, let us recognize that because we have access, we can regularly get on our knees in His presence to seek His direction.
We have been talking about Jesus. He is so amazing that we just can't keep that message to ourselves. I believe that the words of this text remind us that we have a message worth proclaiming. What are we going to do with it? Because he talks about the message being proclaimed "through the church" we know that this text applies to us. What are we as a church and as individuals going to do about it?
At the most simple level, I believe that if we live our lives in meaningful contact with unbelievers and if we love Jesus we will be faithful to this call. May God help us.