Welcome to our study of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Before we jump into this week’s passage, let’s take a step back to consider why we take the time to revisit these ancient documents, to unpack them and apply them to ourselves today. We’ll get there by way of a scene written by Oxford math professor John Lennox. Lennox, who is from Northern Ireland, writes:
Let us imagine that Aunt Matilda has made a beautiful cake, and we take it along to be analyzed by a group of the world’s top scientists …. The nutrition scientists will tell us about the number of calories in the cake and its nutritional effect; the biochemists will inform us about the structure of proteins, fats, etc. in the cake … the physicists will be able to analyze the cake in terms of fundamental particles; and the mathematicians will no doubt offer us a set of elegant equations to describe the behavior of those particles.
We have certainly been given a description of how the cake was made and how its various [ingredients] relate to each other, but suppose I now ask the assembled group of experts a final question: Why was the cake made? The grin on Aunt Matilda’s face shows she knows the answer, for she made it for a purpose. But all the [scientists] in the world will not be able to answer the question—and it is no insult to their disciplines to state their incapacity to answer it. Their disciplines … cannot answer the “why” questions connected with the purpose for which the cake was made. In fact, the only way we shall ever get an answer is if Aunt Matilda reveals it to us. But if she does not disclose the answer to us, the plain fact is that no amount of scientific analysis will enlighten us.
John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker (Lion, 2009), p. 41
As with Aunt Matilda’s cake, so with this sermon series on God, Human Identity, and Everything Between: unless our Creator reveals it to us, we would never know the purpose for which he created us. That is why we study the Bible. God has revealed himself through the Bible and ultimately in person through Jesus Christ. You can know God!
So turning right to the first emphasis of today’s passage…
- God has revealed a previously unknowable mystery—saving all who hear & believe.
What we could not and did not know on our own, God has now revealed. What has he revealed that we could never figure out by ourselves? That God saves, sets right with himself, all who hear and believe the good news message of Jesus.
Ephesians chapter 3 is where we discover this. Picking up in verse 4 Paul speaks of…
“…the mystery of Christ…was not made known to people 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.”
We all love a good mystery. You might like mystery novels. Maybe you enjoy the plot of a good mystery movie, trying to figure out the clues to guess how it’s going to all come together at the end.
The NT use of mystery is different from the way we use it in English. Rather than meaning something secret that you have to try to figure out, like an escape room, the NT emphasis is that what was unknown and unknowable before now is in the open. Like Aunt Matilda revealing why she made the cake, the NT emphasizes that in the coming of Jesus, in fulfillment of the prophets and now explained by the apostles, the “why” is all out in the open for anyone to hear and be saved. You don’t have to remain in the dark on who God is, why he made you, and how you fit in to his stunning master plan. What was previously unknowable…God has now revealed. What could not be known, he has now made known.
Here’s another way to think of it. We subscribed to National Geographic magazine when I was a kid. Eye-popping photography that opens your eyes to people and places you might otherwise never see and experience. And the best pages were the ones where what you see is already breathtaking, but then you feel the page and realize there’s more. This is one of those fold-out panorama pages. So you grab the edge and open it up, and a whole new vista comes into view.
That, Paul says, is what God has now done. In the earlier parts of the Bible we get to take in awe-inspiring scenes showing who God is and what he is up to, why he created us and the universe, and the universal problem of sin.
In the prophets, we get zoom lens glimpses way down the road, something about a coming Messiah.
Then Jesus comes. The Master photographer himself comes on the scene to show and tell about God, Our Identity, and Everything Between. He appoints special apostles to continue his revelation, promising that the Holy Spirit would guide them into truths they didn’t yet understand.
And that is precisely what we see in the NT letters: page after page of those fold-out panoramas, revealing the awesomeness of why Jesus came, and how you can get in on what God is doing.
The specific mystery Paul zooms in on here is the miracle that out of the most deeply divided people (Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s day, lots of examples in our day), God is making one new people, from all who believe in Jesus and are saved.
This is the mystery of Christ: that he, and only he, makes enemies friends, and more than that, family. If you missed last week, a message all about that is available online—the revelation that right now, God is building a new community that transcends all the walls that people put up. Only Jesus could do this. And he is!
I wonder if you realize, and feel, how amazing this is? When Karen and I lived in NYC, at that time the percentage of evangelical believers was just 2%. That’s so low, in missions that would be considered an unreached nation.
So here’s a typical way it would play out. You would be on a packed subway at rush hour, and happen to notice the passenger across from you reading a pocket NT. If he or she happened to glance up, there would be a silent acknowledgment of the Bible, a nod & a smile, and an instant connection. You weren’t alone. It was an uplifting moment amidst the daily grind. We appreciated fellowship more there, because it was harder to find. And I think that’s one reason why in our church we rubbed shoulders across the typical cultural barriers: black & white, Latino & Asian, quiet and loud. There are still a lot of people who simply don’t know this is possible. Because it’s a mystery. It’s something previously unknowable that God has now revealed: all who hear the good news of Jesus and believe are saved. We become equals, one new community.
And that’s not all. Continuing in the passage…
- God has entrusted a previously unimaginable ministry—sending the saved to spread the word.
What we couldn’t figure out—how to get back to God—God himself has made known. And if that’s not jaw-dropping enough, we learn that his plan includes everyone who comes to know Jesus. Paul begins with his personal calling from God, then expands it to everyone. Ephesians 3:8-9 he writes…
“Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless 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.”
Paul says, “This is now my life work: helping people understand and respond to Jesus.” And he recognizes that of all the people God could have chosen, Paul was the least likely to spread the message to non-Jews. This is little Jewish rabbi Paul. Why would Gentiles want to listen to a Jewish religious expert? Yet that was God’s call. And forever grateful that God included him after he had a hand in murdering Christians, Paul accepted that call.
By the way, there may be a fun play on words going on here. Paul’s Roman name ‘Paulus’ is Latin for ‘little,’ and tradition says he was short. So Paul may be saying, “Listen, I am little. I’m little by name, I’m little in height, and morally I’m smaller than the smallest Christian given my past. But God called me, so I stand tall and do what he’s called me to do: call others to trust in Jesus.”
And while Paul had a unique calling in his day, the pattern God put in place beginning with the apostles and continuing until Jesus returns, is that he now sends the saved to spread the word about Jesus. Some believers are evangelists; all believers are witnesses about Jesus. Let’s break down what the passage teaches. First is that…
- God entrusts us with his message.
The word translated ‘preach’ here is euangelizo, from which we get the word evangelism. When we hear “preaching,” we typically think of the guy up front in church, maybe even a style of speaking that includes more raised volume than you’d speak with in a conversation. That’s not what the word means here. Euangelizo simply means to ‘announce good news.’
When the Colts go from one win and five losses at the start of the season, to an end-of-season record of ten wins and six losses, you talk about it! Last year was exciting! Our new coach was awarded AFC Coach of the Year after leading the team to such a dramatic turnaround.
That’s what euangelizo is. You tell the good news. And this good news is about Jesus. What he’s done for me, he can do for you. That’s God’s plan. He entrusts us with his message.
Any chance you get, bring Jesus into the conversation. I remember visiting Jewish evangelist Sam Nadler in Manhattan. I met him at his office and then we got on the elevator to head out for lunch. A couple of floors down, the elevator stopped for someone else to get on. As soon as the doors closed, Sam turned to me and asked, “Ken, have I told you about Jesus?” And away he went, for the seconds he had a captive audience! Sam is still training believers today in how to start and lead churches that specifically can reach his people, Jews, with the good news of Yeshua ha Meshiach, Hebrew for Jesus the Messiah.
Every time Billy Graham was asked to do a mic check for TV interviews, every time he would quote John 3:16—’For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.’
When asked why he did that, Graham explained, “Because that way, if I am not able to communicate the gospel clearly during the interview, at least the cameraman will have heard it.”
Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham (Zondervan, 2005), pp. 71-72
I’m not Paul or Billy Graham. You’re not either. But we can have the heart of them both, asking God for and looking for opportunities to bring Jesus into the conversation. God entrusts us with his message. Second…
- God enlightens us to his purpose.
Paul speaks of making “…plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.” Ephesians 3:9
If euangelizo is to announce good news, the word translated ‘make plain’ here means to enlighten. God entrusts us to speak his message. And we in turn trust God to turn the lights on for those we share the message with.
Here’s another way to say it.
The good news message about Jesus is God’s revelation.
The way God opens people’s understanding is by the Holy Spirit’s illumination, turning on the lights within to hear and take to heart that Jesus is real, this is true, and it’s for me.
Last Sunday was St. Patrick’s Day. Here’s an appropriate place to tell you a little something about the real Patrick. As a young boy Patrick lived a comfortable life near an English coastal city where his father was a deacon in their church. But at the age of 16, Irish pirates attacked his village, abducting Patrick and many others. After arriving in Ireland, Patrick was sold as a slave to a Druid tribal chieftain who forced Patrick to work with a herd of pigs.
In the squalor of that pig filth, God began to illuminate Patrick’s heart and mind. In his autobiography, Patrick wrote, “I was sixteen and knew not the true God, but in a strange land the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes, and I was converted.”
So catch that sequence: Patrick’s family and church had told him the message of Jesus. It took hardship for Patrick to become open to God enlightening him to his need for Jesus.
Patrick became convinced that the kidnapping and homesickness were actually opportunities to know Christ better. Do you ever think of hardship that way?
“Anything that happens to me,” Patrick wrote, “whether pleasant or distasteful, I ought to accept with [serenity] giving thanks to God … who never disappoints.”
Understanding now that this peace didn’t come from his own strength, Patrick wrote, “Now I understand that it was the fervent Spirit praying within me.” The illumination of the Holy Spirit, God enlightening his understanding. God can do the same for you when you face unbelievably hard circumstances. He can turn the lights up to press forward with sufficient peace.
Patrick escaped after six years and admitted, “It is not in my nature to show divine mercy toward the very ones who once enslaved me.” No kidding! But then God again turned up the lights. In part through a dramatic dream, Patrick knew that God was calling him to return to Ireland—not as a slave, but to spread the message of Jesus.
His family and friends were horrified and tried to dissuade him. But in A.D. 432 Patrick used his own money to buy a boat and sail back to Ireland. Patrick spent the rest of his life telling the people of Ireland about Jesus.
In his autobiography, Patrick wrote: “I am certain of this: I was a dumb stone lying squashed in the mud; the Mighty and Merciful God came, dug me out and set me on top of the wall. Therefore, I praise him and ought to render him something for his wonderful benefits to me both now and in eternity.”
Matt Woodley, managing editor of PreachingToday.com; source: John W. Cowart, People Whose Faith Got Them into Trouble (InterVarsity Press, 1990), pp. 31-42
God has revealed a previously unknowable mystery—that he saves all who hear and believe in Jesus.
God has entrusted a previously unimaginable ministry—sending the saved to spread the word. He entrusts us with his message, and he enlightens us to his purpose. And third, Paul lays out…
- God is unstoppable in his plan—displaying his wisdom even to spiritual entities.
“His 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, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.”
Do you hear what this is saying? We—you and I, yChurch and each local church; Christ’s Church around the world is God’s way to show unseen spiritual powers how great is his wisdom. That’s what’s being said here! You and I are God’s show and tell to angels and demons. What those fold-out panorama pages from National Geographic are to us, provoking wonder and appreciation, Christ’s Church is to watching angels and demons throughout history.
Paul speaks of God’s manifold wisdom. The word in Greek literally means ‘many-colored.’ It was used outside the NT to describe flowers (think about the stunning variety among floral arrangements), crowns, richly embroidered cloth, and beautiful hand-woven carpets. A version of this same word was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe young Joseph’s coat of many colors, showing his Dad delighting in him.
Christ’s Church, Paul says, is an around-the-world-and-throughout-history miracle. Christians will ultimately come from every tribe, nation, language, and people. Gorgeous diversity unified in following one leader, Jesus as Lord. No other nation or community comes close in portraying the manifold wisdom of God. What humanity has tried and tried and failed and failed, God is doing in and through Christ’s Church—bringing together people who otherwise would remain separated and divided.
History is the theater, the globe is the stage, Christ’s Church are the actors, and angels and demons are the watching audience. That’s the stunning high note on which Paul ends. Before we sing our hearts out in response to God who is doing all this, I want to give you a quick summary overview. I’m calling it…
The trinity of God’s spectacular salvation plan
This whole passage breaks into three parts, three great moves of God in saving all who will hear and believe in Jesus. First comes…
- Revelation: God’s saving plan came into view through special revelation to the prophets & apostles.
Creation itself is known as general revelation. Everyone who has ever lived knows there is a God and he is immensely powerful, simply by experiencing nature: the awe you feel standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon; the terror of a singe lightning strike nearby; the smallness we feel standing under a clear night sky or on a beach looking at a landless horizon; seeing the intricate design and beauty of kinds of birds and bugs, fish and flowers. All of that is general revelation.
The prophets’ and apostles’ claim is that they wrote under God’s guidance in a way that is special revelation. Things we could not know otherwise about God, Human Identity, and Everything Between, we now can know, because God has made it known through the prophets and apostles.
After that special revelation has come…
- Proclamation: God’s salvation continues today through proclamation of the apostles’ message.
God revealed his plan to Paul and the other apostles by special revelation. Today, God spreads his saving message by way of proclamation. We pass on the apostles’ message as God’s timeless word for our generation. That’s why we invite others to church. It’s why we’ll offer a family photo booth the day before Palm Sunday. It’s why we offer the prayer table during the week—to proclaim the good news that Jesus saves.
And finally comes…
- Demonstration: God’s saving wisdom is demonstrated through the Church, throughout history.
First came revelation. From that flows our proclamation, and the stunning reality that we are also God’s demonstration to angels and demons of how great his wisdom is. When you belong to Christ’s Church, you belong to something very special.
So here’s the question to consider as we wrap up the message for today: What’s the point of history?
History typically concentrates on kings and queens, presidents and dictators, all the VIPS of the world.
The Bible ultimately focuses on a different group of people called ‘the saints.’ Some are VIPs, but most are the insignificant and unimportant. We are largely unknown to the world, but we are deeply known by God.
History focuses on land grabs, power grabs, and wars, whereas the Bible focuses on the war between good and evil behind visible powers. The Bible focuses on the victory already won by Jesus Christ, the peace treaty already won through his blood, and the new world soon to come under the leadership of Jesus Christ.
And where history focuses on a constantly shifting map of alliances and tensions as nations fight, the Bible concentrates on the new multi-national community known as Christ’s Church—with no boundaries between us, claiming the whole world as the Lord’s, as we follow Jesus as Lord over any and all other leaders.
May knowing Jesus make your worship more inspired, your fellowship more deep, and your outreach more intentional!