[This sermon was preached on Sunday, January 9, 2011.]
Please turn with me to Ephesians, halfway through the New Testament, chapter 3. Verses 1 through 9 will be our text today. Next week, Lord willing, we’re going to take it the next step; it’s kind of a two-part message and we’re going to get into the deeply spiritual part of Ephesians, dealing with powers and authorities, spiritual beings, in verses 10 and 11. But today we look at verses 1 through 9, chapter 3. Would you stand with me please, as we look together to God’s Word?
Ephesians 3:1: For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—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. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which 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. 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. I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of His power. 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.
[Prayer] Father, we thank You today for Your Word, this wonderful mystery, Lord, that You called the Gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ. We rejoice in Him; it is central to our lives, central to our being. I pray You would speak to us today, Your truth would go deeper than ever before. I pray for those who may not know You, Lord, that the seed of Your Gospel will find good soil today, and take root and would grow in You. Anoint Your servant to speak, and our ears to hear, and our hearts to receive. Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, speak to my heart, change my life, in Jesus’ Name. Amen, amen. You may be seated.
It’s been a weird week. Maybe you have heard of some of the animal deaths around the world. There have been quite a few. At last count I heard there were 28 mysterious mass deaths of birds, or fish, crabs by the tens of thousands who washed up in the Chesapeake, flocks of birds by the tens of thousands different places in the world. There were doves in Sweden with a blue mark on their beak that came down, and millions of fish in many different places showed up dead so, like I said, 28 counts that I have heard of. Now I’ve read, and some say, this is kind of common. This kind of happens all the time, but we don’t hear about it. Most of these 28 happened in the United States, and they’re mysterious. I heard that in Arkansas, the birds there that died, they think it had to do with the fireworks on New Year’s Eve, and maybe so.
It’s interesting that when there is a mystery like this and someone throws out a possible resolution to the mystery for one of the 28, that we somehow forget the other 27. And so it’s not on my front burner, probably not for you either. You are going to live your life this week, whether they solve the mystery or not, right? So it’s not number one. But it was interesting that it would be this week, where I am preaching this message of divine–or whatever–these sermon illustrations just kind of happen to supplement the message. So next week I am going to preach on how to become a millionaire accidentally, [congregation laughs], and I am hoping that through this week, it will just kind of happen for you, and it will supplement the message.
There are mysteries, and then there are hidden mysteries, and through this text you see the word “mystery” appearing again and again and again. There are mysteries that we know of, and some of them have been longstanding mysteries. How did the stones of Stonehenge get to where they are? The rocks on Easter Island? What happened to Amelia Earhart? What happened to Jimmy Hoffa? Is he in your back yard? [He chuckles, because even though the former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union was last seen in Detroit, Michigan, many people thought Hoffa was killed and buried in PA or New Jersey.] The Shroud of Turin, what is the Shroud of Turin? There are mysteries that we know of, and there are many of them, and there are people that are devoting much of their life to try to solve these mysteries. And most of them don’t get solved.
I was taking some vacation time over Christmas break and I was watching the History Channel, and I discovered something that I didn’t know, and that was, of [Meriwether] Lewis and [William] Clark–remember President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase that the United States had purchased from France [May 1804 through September 1806], and they went all the way to the West Coast, the Columbia River. They came back, and for all this time–about 200 years–we thought that Lewis had committed suicide, but they pretty much proved on the History Channel he was murdered.
Well, I didn’t even know it was a mystery, so we have mysteries that we know of and then there are hidden mysteries. And I would submit to you that the hidden mysteries, there are far more of those than the apparent mysteries that we know of. There are things that physicists are wrestling with right now: the behavior of certain subatomic particles that you and I aren’t even aware of. Somewhere, someone is going, “Hmm, this is a mystery.” And here we are, we are not even aware that it’s a mystery.
And the apostle Paul here is talking about a mystery that God had ordained in Christ that the Chosen people and the unchosen, the Gentiles–the Jews and the Gentiles—would be brought together in Christ, made one. He said that was a hidden mystery; God had planned it, but God did it, and now “I have the privilege,” Paul is saying, “of administering this mystery and telling people about it.” And he is so excited because there are so many more Gentiles than Jews. It’s kind of unlimited, almost, the number of people to take the Gospel to and tell them about Jesus. A small number of Jews, lots of Gentiles, and so he is on this grand adventure of sharing the Gospel and sharing the Jesus that he personally met, and sharing what God’s plan was in Jesus, and seeing the power of God manifest, and he is having the time of his life, even though he is in prison all of the time. But he is having a grand time, pursuing this mystery, this mystery.
Well, in Colossians, he uses the same kind of terminology so this is something that’s near and dear to Paul’s heart. As the Spirit inspires him, Colossians 1:26 and 27, says: the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious richness of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. The mystery, you boil it down to this: Christ in you, the hope of glory. Remember that phrase. Christ in you, the hope of glory. Now it’s a mystery. How does Christ get in me, and how does Christ in me become the hope of glory? Well, that’s what the Gospel is all about, and that is, this revelation has come to us.
Now let me talk a little bit about the need for revelation. You know, there are a lot of smart people out there. Have you ever met one of them? [He chuckles.] There’s a lot of smart people, and they think they know enough to pooh-pooh this mystery of Christ. You know, they’ve read this, and they’ve heard that, and so they kind of look down on anyone who is a person of faith. They think that we checked our brains at the door. We are just not as smart as them. We are not bright. I’ve heard some atheists use the term “bright people”, and the rest of us are dull. I would say, just the opposite. You know, it’s kind of like a first grader talking to a kindergartner, and the kindergartner has learned how to count to, let’s say, 50, and the kindergartner’s all proud of that. But the first grader knows how to add two plus two. Two plus two equals four. So the first grader is talking to the kindergartner and the kindergartner is rattling off, “I can count—one, two, three, four, five.” And he is all proud of that, and the first grader says, “Yes, but what is two plus two?” And the kindergartner is stumped. “I don’t know.” And then the first grader says, “Oh, you’re so stupid. You’re so ignorant.” I’ll tell you who the ignorant person is. It’s the first grader who thinks they know it all. You with me? I submit to you that there is so much of this universe, there are so many hidden mysteries, that anybody who thinks they have figured it out is like an arrogant first grader who’s all puffed up. They think they know something when they know next to nothing, okay? So to be smart is to know enough to know that you know very little. That’s a smart person. And, here’s the thing, in this universe, with the manifold—oh, there are probably more mysteries than we can possibly count, let’s say thousands or millions of mysteries in the universe–things we don’t know about, things we don’t even know we don’t know about, then how can we know anything for sure, you with me? How can we know anything for sure?
There is only one answer—revelation. If God doesn’t speak to us, it’s hopeless. We’re just like worms or snails. I mean, we’re existing and we live life and that’s it, but we have no clue as to the bigger picture. Only if God reveals Himself to us, speaks to us, do we have any hope of having something that is sure, something that is solid, something that we can anchor to and live our life by. You with me? You can’t live your life by science because it changes every day. It’s like technology, right now, is changing so rapidly. There are so many smart phones out there I don’t even know the difference between them. You know? And more and more things are changing so rapidly, you can’t live your life by that. Only by revelation.
Now, once in a while, you’ll hear in the news, someone said, “God told me,” and someone will pooh-pooh that. [spoken sarcastically] “Oh, you think God speaks to you!” [humble answer] “Yeah, if God exists, it only makes sense that God would communicate with us. He would speak to us, sure.” Sure. The issue is hearing His voice and understanding His voice. It makes no sense for there to be a God who doesn’t communicate, right, although some people believe in that. But it makes no sense. Why would He create us and not communicate with us?
So communicating with God should be a normal thing. He reveals Himself through His Word and most perfectly through Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. This mystery of Christ is so precious, so core, it guides our life. It guides our life–Christ in us, the hope of glory. So we need revelation. We need revelation. That’s just part of growing up and being mature.
It’s interesting to watch young adults mature because when children are very young, Dad and Mom know everything, you know. And then when children become teenagers, Mom and Dad are really stupid, right? Mom and Dad know nothing. And then, when they move into their 20’s, it’s amazing how much Dad and Mom learn again [many in the congregation laugh]. It really is. My sons are asking for my advice now more than ever, much more than they did in their teen years. Teen years is about being independent, you know, “I can make it on my own”. But part of growing up is your eyes open to a bigger picture.
I’ve got to tell you, college students, I had the privilege, when I was at Evangel University, to be in charge of student government my last year. And I was one of the students that was always murmuring, and complaining, “the administration this, the administration that”. It happens at every college. Students complain about the food, administration, whatever—it’s just an extension of adolescence is what it is. And so when I got to be in charge of student government and I got to actually sit down with these people that we called the administration—they’re actually human beings [some laughter], they are actually trying to do their best—and I sat down with them and heard the reasoning as to why they made the decisions they made, I decided I agreed with them at least 95% of the time. I’m supposed to represent these students who are always complaining to the administration and I realized that we don’t really have many legitimate complaints [and he bursts into laughter]. And that was a real growing up experience for me. You know? Some people live their whole life just complaining about other people making their life miserable. Well, it’s good for us all to just grow up, and find out that life is a little more complicated, and everybody is trying to make their own way, and there are a lot of things we don’t understand.
Well, Paul understood that, and so he understood that we have a need for revelation, verse 3: that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. So apparently he had written a very short letter to the Ephesians that we don’t know about. And by the way, there are other letters that are not in the Bible. We know that there is another letter to the church of Corinth that no one has ever discovered. But he knew that without revelation, we don’t know anything for sure, so we anchor to that.
Number two, verse 7–we surrender to that revelation: I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of His power. We surrender to it. Now some people, they understand okay, we need revelation. [He totters a bit and several men stand up to assist him, and he says] Don’t worry about me. I was always a little off balance. We need revelation. Okay. God has spoken but then the issue is should I surrender to that revelation. Okay. [enunciating slowly, with great emphasis] If God has spoken, and it’s your choice to surrender or not to the revelation, how many think maybe it’s only smart to surrender to God? How many think that makes sense? How many think not surrendering to God makes no sense at all? I mean, it’s just–no sense! [And he chuckles, almost to himself.]
Okay, like someone in the 60’s said, “Your arms are too short to box with God.” [The quote is actually “Your arm’s too short to box with God.” It is found in God’s Trombones, a book by James Weldon Johnson from 1927, in a poem about the Prodigal Son.] When I don’t understand what God is doing, I just say, “I don’t understand.” And I may even get upset, and I don’t remember the last time I did that, but, you know, people do. But how are you going to box with God? You can’t, so you surrender to it.
Now, when you surrender to the mystery, it becomes an adventure. Our youngest son, Ryan, is probably the most adventurous of our two sons, although Ireida [Rob’s wife of seven months] is making Rob a lot more adventurous these days. [Many in the congregation laugh.] And among the many things that Ryan got into, including becoming an EMS worker and a number of things, he got into spelunking and into exploring caves. Now, probably when I was younger, I would have been interested in that, but now, it’s just like, “Okay, there are cracks in the mountains. So what.” [and he laughs] “What’s back there? And if there is a skull back there, who knows who it was? It was some other spelunker who went too far.” So he’s a big guy. I mean, he would work his way through these narrow passages, and it can get dangerous, you know, because you might squeeze through and not get back to these things. But to explore, it’s natural, especially for young men to do that.
Well I submit to you, this mystery of what God is doing–and we’ll get deeper into it next week—this mystery of what God is doing in the world, has been doing, and continues to do, by Jesus Christ and by His Spirit, is the ultimate of mysteries. And it’s not only good to surrender to it personally. It’s great to just, kind of, go with it. You know, I was thinking this week, as I was talking to the men–we started the second half of our men’s fraternity [weekly Bible study]—about the demographics of church attendance in America, and particularly in the Western world, America and the Western world, and how different it is from the early days of the Gospel. In the Western world, probably, the group that is most averse to surrendering to this mystery and just going with it is young men, ages 18 to 30. [He repeats] Young men, ages 18 to 30. But who did Jesus call to say, “Come, follow Me [Matthew 4:19]; surrender. Just lay down those fishing nets, lay down whatever you’re doing, just come, follow Me on this great, mysterious adventure?” It’s twelve young men. These were not 50, 60-year old men. We know that John, the Beloved, lived to around A.D. 100, so when Jesus called him he had to be, probably, in his 20’s, when Jesus asked him to follow Him. And Jesus Himself was 30 years old. So you have a 30-year old male, calling those who are probably in their 20’s, to follow Him, and that’s how this whole thing started, a group of young adult males. And yet today, the group that is most averse to totally, radically following Jesus, seems to be young adult males, in this part of the world. Well, maybe we’ve domesticated the Gospel too much. Maybe we’ve taken too much of the adventure out of it, because young men like adventure. We surrender to this mystery.
Lastly, we serve it. We serve it. Verse 7 says: I became a servant of this Gospel by the gift of God’s grace. Verse 9: to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery. The wonderful thing about this mystery is that it’s not just personal, but we get to partake in it and be part of God’s ultimate plan and purpose. We serve it. We administer it. We share it with others. We invite them to be part of this mystery, this wonderful, wonderful mystery. And when we do so, God works out His plan and purpose in our lives, in our lives.
This week I was reading my devotions, in Genesis 18, where God is talking about Abraham. In Genesis 18, verse 17, it says: Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.” [He repeats] Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?
The Bible says that God has a plan and purpose for us, and some say we shouldn’t talk much about that because salvation is about making it to Heaven, surrendering to God and having our sins forgiven, and being right with God—not being in rebellion against God, but being right with Him and I agree with that, but God does have a plan for your life. He really does. For those of us who know the Lord, that plan is a mystery. I’m still wondering, “God, how is this drama going to work out in my life? What is Your plan? How are You working these things?” And I am intrigued by some of the things that He brings my way, some of the things He has me involved in, and some of the ironies of some things, you know—well, it’s too involved to really help you understand–but everybody understands that there are some things that God brings into your life that you say, “Wow, God, I can see how that is connected to something I did or said maybe a year ago or five years ago.” Or “Wow, You surprised me. I kind of see how that connects.”
So in my life, it’s a mystery. Lord, what are you doing? But, I tell you, for those who don’t know the Lord, God’s plan and purpose for their life is a hidden mystery. You with me? They don’t even know that there is a mystery. They don’t even know that there is a plan and purpose. They don’t even know that there is an adventure, to follow Him.
And there are a whole lot of people out there trying to solve mysteries, and someone may discover what happened to Amelia Earhart, but I’ll tell you what. You can solve what happened to Amelia Earhart, or you may solve the mystery of the action of some subatomic particle, but if you don’t get the mystery for you and your life–God’s plan for you–then all that other stuff is a waste. You can spend your life trying to solve this, and this, and this, and maybe you do that, you fix things, you make things work. And some of you go into houses and someone is totally baffled, [saying] “How do I make this machine work?” And you say, “Well, you just hit the ‘on’ button here.” “Ohhh, what a mystery.” “That will be $80.” [and the congregation laughs] You with me? You’re solving other people’s mysteries. You may be helping a lot of people solve some mysteries in their lives, but I’ll tell you what, if you don’t surrender and serve the mystery of what God wants to do in you—Jesus in you, the hope of glory—then you’ve wasted your whole life, you’ve wasted your whole life.
You say, “How can you say that, Pastor, and be so sure about that?” We’re back to revelation. I want to be a smart first grader who says, “You know, I may know a little bit, but there is a whole lot more that I don’t know than what I do know. And there’s a God that I trust in, because it doesn’t make sense without Him. In fact there is no sense if there is no God. So I trust in Him.” He’s always been faithful. He’s always full of surprises and I love the adventure of serving Him. Even though I can’t tell you exactly how it’s all going to work out–I can’t tell you dates and I can’t tell you times–I can tell you He is a good God. And His purpose for me is not to harm me; it’s to bless, it’s to use, and the only time that holds that back it when I do something, I mess it up and then we have to get back on track. But He is so good, and He loves you so much. Would you stand with me this morning, please? Let’s sing together. [We closed with the hymn “All to Jesus I Surrender”, lyrics by J. W. Van Deventer, music by W. S. Weeden, 1896.]