Living the Promises

Our study this week covers the third chapter of Ephesians. Paul opens this chapter by reminding his readers that he is in prison for preaching the gospel to them, “I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles” (vs. 1). Later, in verse 13 he asks them “not to lose heart over what he is suffering” for them. In obeying his call from Christ to preach the gospel to the Gentiles Paul has encountered more than mere resistance to his message. In the culture of his day, a Jew who preached the breaking down of walls between Jew and Gentile, and ‘abolishment of commandments expressed in ordinances’ was preaching a radical message.  The idea that Gentiles were no longer strangers and aliens but were fellow citizens with the (Jews) and members of the household of God—without first becoming Jews—was dangerously inflammatory and whipped whole towns into a frenzy wherever Paul preached. Yet, in his obedience to what he knew to be true, and out of love for the Lord who saved him, Paul preached this gospel at risk to his life and freedom.

Several times in the book of Ephesians, and especially here in the third chapter, Paul mentions the “mystery” with which he has been entrusted. He received this mystery by revelation (vs. 3, 5) and is responsible as a steward to preach it to the Gentiles and bring it to light for everyone. James Boice points out that our contemporary understanding of the word “mystery” holds a different meaning for us now than it did to Paul’s audience.  When we hear the word we often assume it means something that is unknown or unknowable.

‘But this is not the meaning “mystery” had in Paul’s day. In Greek the word mysterion (from which we get our word) refers to something known only to the initiated. It is not that the thing itself is unknown. It is known—but only to those to whom it is revealed… When the apostle used the word, it was with a similar meaning. He used it to describe something that was unknown before the coming of Christ but is now revealed fully.” [James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians, An Expositional Commentary, (Baker: Grand Rapids; 1988) 95]

Paul is not a magician, performing sleight-of-hand with the ancient prophecies and the apostles’ teaching. Rather, he is revealing a truth that had been hidden but is now revealed. All the Old Testament prophesies, types, and shadows have now been fulfilled in Christ. Like placing the final pieces into a jigsaw puzzle, suddenly the picture is revealed and complete. Paul was given the task of preaching this completed picture to the Gentiles, “according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given [him] by the working of his power.” Commenting on this, Richard Phillips confesses:

‘I have to say that this is the only thing that gives me any confidence in preaching. If I believed I had to win over the consciences of rebellious sinners or to impress human hearts long trained to worldly tastes, I would despair of ever seeing any fruit from my preaching. But Paul shows that the power to convince and convert comes from God as his Spirit attends the simple and direct preaching of his Word.’  [Richard D. Phillips, Ephesians, a Mentor Expository Commentary, (Christian Focus Publications; 2016), p. 260]

Seeing that it is by God’s grace that Paul is enabled to become a servant of the gospel, and the work that God gave Paul is itself a grace, we are asked to consider what “graces”—or spheres of ministry—God has given each of us? We each serve in different ways, whether it be in a visible ministry, such as hospitality, serving in nursery, teaching a Sunday school class, writing or leading Bible studies, or less visible ministries, such as prayer, writing notes of encouragement, or cleaning the church kitchen.

A valuable, but less visible area of ministry is serving our families at home. I know that when I was surrounded by small children and piles of laundry and dishes it sure didn’t feel like I was serving in ministry. I felt invisible and forgotten many days. Yet looking back now, I see that those years rearing my children were so very important to how the Lord shaped them, and me. Mommas, don’t ever think that your time spent changing diapers, wiping little noses, feeding, clothing, and cleaning up after your babies isn’t important. Read and sing to them, teach them about Jesus, live before them the grace, mercy, and love that he has given you. And when you fail—not if, but when— show those precious children that forgiveness is yours and theirs for the asking. Rearing your littles in the nurture and admonition of the Lord isn’t unimportant or invisible, on the contrary, it is vitally important to their futures, to your sanctification, and the future of the church.

Caring for an aging loved one, whether it be a spouse or a parent, can also be a ministry which feels burdensome, lonely, and overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to reach out, asking for prayer and help when needed. These may be uncharted waters for you, but others, many others, have navigated them, and help is available. Remember that your tender care and humble heart in putting another’s needs before your own and caring for those who can no longer care for themselves is one way in which you show forth the image of our Savior, whose tender mercy we need each and every day.

Moving to the next question in our study, our attention is drawn to the nature of this mystery that Paul has been addressing. Paul tells us in verse 6 that, “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.” Contrasted with their situation prior to the gospel, as Paul describes it in 2:12, “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world,” we see how he is circling back to this theme over and over to drive home the truth that the gospel fundamentally changes all who place their faith in Christ.

When Paul says that the mystery “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed,” he doesn’t mean that it wasn’t hinted at, but that it was only partially revealed. The Old Testament does give some glimpses that the Gentiles will be included in God’s plan of salvation, as seen in the following verses:

‘Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

‘It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways  and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ (Isaiah 2:2, 3)

‘And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:5, 6)

Once again, as we discussed in last week’s lesson, it has been God’s plan all along to save the Gentiles through the promised Messiah. Now that Christ has come, lived a perfectly obedient life, died in the place of sinners on the cross, and has risen victorious from the grave, the mystery of God’s plan is fully revealed. Through Christ, salvation will reach to all the ends of the earth. It seems that a plain reading of the Old Testament texts would make this clear, but as Boice explains, it was more complex than that.

‘It is true, of course, that God announced his intention of saving Gentiles as well as Jews from the beginning. But before the coming of Christ it was understood that this was to happen only as Gentiles became Jews through proselytizing. A Gentile could approach the God of Israel, but only as an Israelite. He had to become a member of the covenant people through the rite of circumcision. The new thing revealed to Paul is that this approach is no longer necessary. Christ has broken down that wall, making one new people out of two previously divided people. So now both Jew and Gentile approach God equally on that new basis.’ [p. 95, 96]

All the barriers are broken down. Circumcision is no longer required. This was such an outrageous change of course that even the apostles who had spent three years with Jesus during his earthly ministry had a difficulty swallowing it.

The apostles weren’t the only ones who were amazed by this revelation. As he explains that this unity of the church brings glory to God, Paul makes an astonishing statement that, “the plan of the mystery (was) hidden for ages in God… so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vs. 10, 11, italics mine). Paul is saying that the angels are also surprised by what God has done through Jesus Christ in the church. Lloyd-Jones says it better than I ever could:

‘The apostle is asserting that what is happening in the Church is so stupendous, so glorious, that even the bright angelic beings who have spent their entire existence in the presence of God, even they are staggered and amazed at what they see in and through the Church. These angels, created by God, have always been immediately in the presence of God; but according to the Apostle, what takes place in the church is something that even they had never thought of or imagined. It surpasses even their knowledge, their comprehension, and even their imagination.’ [D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ: An Exposition of Ephesians 3 (Baker: Grand Rapids, 1980), 81]

These angels have watched from front-row seats as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created the universe, placed Adam and Eve in sinless perfection in the Garden, and then expelled them after the Fall, covering their nakedness with the first hint of the atonement and promising to send a deliverer. They have watched the covenants unfold throughout history and they have watched as mankind repeatedly failed to obey even the most obvious and simple commands. These beings who shield their faces and feet in the presence of the holiness of the Lord, crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” in ceaseless praise before his throne, must have wondered when the Son made his appearance on earth at last not by a triumphal display of power, but by being born to a humble virgin in a smelly stable—only to be driven to Egypt as Herod threatened to exterminate the infant Messiah.

What must they have felt as they watched the Son of God submit to the horror of execution on a Roman cross at the hands of evil men? Ten thousand angels standing at the ready to fly to his aid, and yet the call never came. When Christ rose from death and ascended to his heavenly throne it must have made some sense to them. But now, through the Church, it all comes together and reveals the manifold wisdom of God, clearing away any confusion as they see what God’s purpose has been all along.

‘Creation, secular history, and Old Testament history reveal the wisdom of God. But the manifold wisdom of God—and by manifold Paul means the great variety, like the colors in a prism—is displayed in the New Testament revelation given through the apostles. It is through the Christian church that the angels see new shades and hues in God’s wisdom that never before had come to light.…Paul writes of the manifold, the many-colored, wisdom of God. This is what the church displays in the amazing stories of our salvation. Every one of us is needed to complete the picture; all our voices are needed to create the harmony that fully glorifies God.” [Phillips, p. 267, 268]

As Paul elsewhere exclaims:

‘Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.  (Romans 11:33-36)

Moving forward in our study, in verse 14 Paul resumes the thought that he began in verse 1, but broke off for his parenthetical explanation of his stewardship of the mystery. He is turning now to prayer for the Ephesians, based on what he has already taught them in chapter 2 about the grace of God in their salvation. He addresses his prayer on behalf of the Ephesians to the Father who chose them before the foundation of the world, who predestined them for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, who made them members of his own household and heirs together with Christ. Who better to seek blessings from than the heavenly Father who gives better gifts than any earthly father: gifts based in his character and are given in perfect wisdom, holiness, and love?

I love the way Megan Hill pictures for us the perfection of God’s promises in contrast to what our earth-bound hearts may expect in her book, Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches (Wheaton: Crossway; 2016):

‘We’ve just seen five glorious promises from our gracious Lord. But if our hearts are far from God, we might receive these promises like the boy who thinks he’s going to get candy but wakes up Christmas morning to socks and oranges. Socks and oranges are actually amazing gifts: protection and nourishment! Warmth and sweetness! They are much more substantial than even the biggest box of chocolates, but they still appear dull to a kid who anticipated something else.

So, too, the promises of God for praying together—spiritual victory, God’s glory, revival, fellowship, salvation—could seem dull to someone who expected a lollipop. These big and weighty promises only appeal to those whose priorities and values have been conformed to Christ. And it’s the humble child, the one who aligns his heart with the desires of his parents, the one who trusts them to give what is best, who can squeal with delight as he opens his gifts. Our Father is the loving parent who will not promise us candy when socks and oranges are far better. The goal for us, then, is to learn to love them because God does.’ [p. 53, 54]

This is exactly what we read in Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians in verses 14 to 21. Paul prays for the very best that God has to offer. His chief concerns for them are expressed in the content of his prayers: that they may be strengthened inwardly by the Holy Spirit, that Christ would dwell in their hearts through faith, that they would grasp his love for them, and that they would be filled with all the fullness of God. This is a deep and powerful prayer which we can pray for every Believer, regardless of their individual circumstances. This is a bold prayer which the Father will delight to grant, because it is precisely what we most need.

For us to live as God is calling us in his Word we need divine power. While circumstances may overwhelm us and the world makes false promises we must place our faith in the Creator who made us and placed us where we live in time and space. Calling out to him not because we believe in the ‘power of prayer,’ but because we believe in him. As Megan Hill elaborates:

‘…the true “prayer of faith” expresses faith in a person. It is faith in the triune God, the Creator of heaven and earth and the architect of our salvation. It is faith in the almighty God who placed the stars, dresses the lilies, catches fallen sparrows, and knows each hair on our head (Ps. 8:2; Matt. 6:28-29; 10:29-31). It is faith in the God who has so often been pleased to glorify himself and do good to his people by forgiving their sins, defeating their enemies, healing their illnesses, providing for their needs, and giving them cause for rejoicing (Ps. 103:2-5). It is faith in the God who is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask” (Eph. 3:20).

…Not only do we pray believing in a God who can do anything; we pray believing in a God who will do—always does!—what is best. The prayer of faith never demands from God but instead bows before God, who works all things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). It is faith in the God to whom we have never given anything and yet who gives to us every good and perfect gift (Rom. 11:35; James 1:17). It is faith in the God who, if necessary, also gives us trials and suffering (1 Pet. 1:6-7; James 1:2-3). It is faith in the Father who did not spare his own Son and therefore does not begrudge us anything else that is best for us (Rom. 8:23; Ps. 84:11). And it is faith in the God who… always answers our prayers with either “Yes” or “Let me give you something better.” (p. 51-52)

In closing, let’s simply read slowly through Paul’s prayer, noting his emphasis of power and love:

 ‘For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.’ (vs. 14-21)

The power for which Paul prays is God’s resurrection power at work in our inner beings, to bring about our spiritual flourishing. By this power, we will be able to comprehend, within the context of the fellowship of the saints in the church, the unknowable love of Christ. And in knowing his love we will be filled with all the fullness of God.

This, dear ones, is indeed far more than I could imagine or ask. Far more. What are we waiting for? Start asking!

 

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