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A Sermon on Ephesians 3.1-13

by Mark Horne

copyright © 2003

Paul has written about the work of Jesus Christ–a work of reconciliation in which God, through the death and sacrifice of his son, has reconciled us to God and to each other so that we are becoming one new man with Christ as our exalted head. Paul begins our text this morning with this transitional phrase: “For this reason.” In doing so he is linking everything he has just said about Jew and Gentile alike having their access to God through Christ in the Spirit with what he is about to write now. And what he writes about is his own Apostleship.

But in writing about his own ministry to which he was ordained as an apostle, Paul is also involving us in other things as well. He is also, as we will see, telling his readers about Jesus and his work for them and he is at the same time telling his readers about their own role in God’s plan as Christ’s ambassadors. Paul has describe what Jesus did and he is going to be giving the church directions about how they are to live as the people of Jesus commissioned to spread his kingdom. Our passage here is a middle term between the work of Jesus and the work of the Church where Paul uses his own mission identity as a reminder of Jesus and an example for us.

Now, central to seeing how this all works is the Gospel. Paul speaks of the mystery of Christ and he says that it is his job to reveal it. In verse 7 he makes it clear that the revelation of this mystery is good news–the Gospel. So for me to clearly reinforce what Paul is saying we need to grasp what Paul means by the Gospel, the good news or joyful message.

So, before we can get to our mission as the church revealed by Paul’s commission as an apostle and the work of Jesus himself, we need to ask “What is the Gospel?”

What we learn here is that the Gospel is not the message of justification by faith.

The Apostle Paul does not write in verse 6 that “this mystery is that we are saved by grace through faith and that not of our own doing, it is a gift of God, not of works so that no one should boast.” The Apostle Paul believes and teaches that doctrine and it is essential to all true Christianity, but that is not the mystery that was hidden from previous generations. Paul does not say that it was hidden from previous generations that they were saved by grace and not by their works. That is the only orthodox doctrine that there is or ever was both before and after Jesus.

Let me just reiterate this in case you might forget. When we read from the Old Testament in the worship service we are not reading from a time where people thought or when God claimed that humans could be saved by their good works. When we read the Ten Commandments in worship, we are not claiming that we can or should rely on our good deeds to give us standing with God. The First Commandment means trust God and no one else to save you–trust God and not on your own works for the forgiveness of your sins.

That is a cardinal doctrine in the Bible and Paul reiterates it both in the face of paganism and Judaism for various reasons. But it is not the Gospel. It is not the good news precisely because there is nothing new about it. Paul tells us quite clearly what the Gospel is, and it is something different.

So what is the Gospel? Verse 6: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” That’s the Gospel and it ties in perfectly with what Paul said in the last chapter about the mediatorial role of Jesus. Chapter 2, verse 18, for example: “For through him [Christ] we both (Jew and Gentile) have our access in one Spirit to the Father, so then you are nolonger strangers and aliens but you are fellow-citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” Jesus has died and risen again so that he has, in himself become the peace and reconciliation between Jew and Gentile.

Now let me give you some points to help you understand why the work of Christ would have this effect and the Gospel would be this declaration.

That’s the Gospel. That’s the mystery that had been revealed to Paul. That’s the mystery of Christ.

And since Jesus had offered himself up to unite us all together to God, Paul’s job as his Apostle was to spread that message of victory that was hidden from previous ages. Paul is one of those Apostles who with the New Testament prophets must now reveal the mystery. In fact, Paul has been especially called to the Gentiles as God’s Apostle.

When you hear the word “apostle” think “delegate” or “representative.” Conceptually, the word is very close to “Ambassador” and Paul will later call himself an Ambassador in change. The work which Christ did.

So Paul is God’s Ambassador to the Gentiles or the nations, but there is a problem. You see if is nice to have an apostle devoted to your service. It is nice to know that God has commissioned an Ambassador to see to your real needs. But what if that ambassador is in chains? What if God’s Apostle is taken prisoner? You might be tempted to be discouraged by such a thing. Paul begins this passage mentioning that he is a prisoner and ends it by asking his readers not to lose heart over what he is suffering.

Why shouldn’t they lose heart? Look at the end of verse 13. The should not lose heart over Paul’s sufferings because Paul’s sufferings are their glory. Who else do we know about who suffered in order to bring glory to people?

Notice something else. Paul states in verse 7 that he was made a minister by God’s grace. And he describes that grace in a very specific way. He writes that the grace “was given me by the working of his power.” Where has Paul said that before. Look in chapter 1, verse 19 where Paul says he is praying that the Church will realize

What is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us hwo believe, according to the working of his great might, that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and enthroned him at his right hand in the heavenlies far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…

So God’s grace has been working in Paul–the grace working in the Church and that first worked in Jesus himself raising him from death and exalting him in new life. Paul is pointing out that his calling as an Apostle images the calling of Jesus. Jesus suffered death and through that death God bestowed on us his graciously given glory. So now Paul tells the Ephesians that he is suffering and that should not be a discouragement because in union with Christ Paul’s suffering is for their glory. Paul’s sufferings don’t merit anything for the Ephesians, but through Christ his sufferings are means of grace to his people.

Paul has told us of Christ suffering for the glory of the nations and their salvation. Paul is now telling us of his own sufferings by the grace of Christ for their glory. In only a few paragraphs he will be telling the Ephesians that they must suffer for one another. Ephesians 4.32ff:

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another; as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Did you catch that? The love of God compels us to love one another and the sacrifice of Christ compels us to suffer for one another. That’s what Paul is working toward when he mentions his own suffering as working toward their glory and he uses language he used from when he described the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. His role as an Apostle is unique, but it applies to the Church as a whole and we can and must all follow his example in our own circumstances.

The Gospel, the good news, demands exactly that sort of ethic in God’s community the church. That’s the sort of ministry Paul is destined to have if he truly is an apostle of Christ crucified, and ambassador of the cross. And that is shocking to people. That’s why he has to tell not to lose heart. They are embarrassed that their Apostle is in prison. But Paul is confident that just as God has lavished glory on us all through his son submitting to death, so in union with Christ he can be sure his suffering is not in vain for the Church.

And Paul says that we in the Church are to share in that commission to present the challenge of the gospel to the nations that must submit and trust Christ and become his people. Look at verse 10: Paul says that his witness to the Gospel is done “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Now if the Church is going to bear witness to the gospel that now all nations are to come into the Church as one, then the church is going to be bearing witness to those who want their own dominion to remain intact. If the Church says that Jesus is Lord and all both must submit to him and are welcome in his Kingdom, Caesar is going to say, “Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be lord of the Roman Empire.” And the Priests and Elders in Israel are going to say, “Wait a minute, what about our special status as God’s covenant people?”

Those are the powers in the heavenly places whom Jesus has already in principle displaced by ascending over them into heaven and raising up the Church to be seated in him. And the Church, by embodying the Gospel–by being a community of love in which entrusting oneself to the Lordship of Christ is the only membership requirement–proclaims to these powers that Jesus is Lord and that all nations are subject to him and welcome to him for every blessing–the forgiveness of sins and everything else.

Now, we’ve half forgotten this in the U.S., but the fact is that the powers don’t respond well to this sort of Gospel-driven community. Paul says that he’s suffering for this Gospel and then says the Gospel is being “made known” to the rulers by the Church. His implication is that the people of God are themselves in union with Christ going to need to prepare themselves to suffer for the Gospel as well.

Let’s remember: In communist China where the Church has been persecuted to various degrees, it is not because the government takes it’s orders directly from Satan. It’s because the Church dares to claim and to live according to the idea that Jesus is the source of their identity, the source of their life, and most offensively the source of a new community which is not beholden to the state or to the wider society. And that is intolerable, just as it was intolerable to faithful Jews to see a society where circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles ate together on the basis of nothing more than “Jesus is Lord.” That sort of community is often found intolerable to our political rulers just as it was intolerable to the worshipers of Caesar that a group would worship together claiming that Jesus and not Caesar was Lord.

That’s the Gospel and it means community. On the part of each one of us, it means a willingness to suffer for the sake of the glory of others. It means being human, being a husband, a wife, a father, a mother, a boss, an employee, a child, a student in such a way that it manifest Jesus Christ and him crucified. And central to all of that, it means living as ambassadors of the cross in the Church so the Church itself becomes an Embassy of the Cross.

The only way the gospel can be clearly seen in the witness of the Church is by its members willingly dying to self and living for the sake of one another. They do this as they realize what the Gospel means and by doing this they better understand what the Gospel means: God’s love for the world inviting all nations and tribes and people and social classes and economic classes back to his kingdom as one people of God by faith. That’s the challenge we face to live as Christians.

Remember Jesus’ words in John 17 when he is praying for his disciples:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

That is what the Apostle Paul is saying: Through the Church the Gospel is to be made known to everyone, even to the rulers of this age. We should have confidence and access to God’s throne room as one people together. Paul has written, in the last half of chapter two, that our access is in one Spirit through Christ who offered himself up for us. We should expect then that our access and confidence in faith should mean that we are marked out by the cross of Christ.

Paul as Christ’s Apostle, his representative, shows us the form of the Christian life: “a prisoner for King Jesus for the sake of the nations” and “one who suffers for the nations for their glory.” Jesus’ own call for us to take up our cross and follow him is still the only call there is.

If we want glory, if we want to see the glory of the Lord more visible in and around us, we need to embrace the pattern of the cross, dying daily to self and living for God and for his Gospel–for other people.

copyright © 2003

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