A sermon on Ephesians 3:1-13 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 30 August 2020
I love a good mystery. A crime is committed. An investigation is launched. Everyone, I mean, literally everyone in the town had a motive. But apparently no one could have done it. The first suspect was at home with his family. The second suspect was in a coma in the hospital. The third suspect wasn’t even in the country. Every clue leads to a dead end and nothing seems to make sense. But with ten minutes to go something is discovered. The perpetrator is identified and cornered. There is a final confrontation and the hero saves the day.
A bad mystery will be predictable. The culprit is obvious from the very first scene. But a great mystery will always deliver a surprise. And only with the benefit of hindsight will all the confusion start to make sense.
What we have in the gospel is a mystery. I don’t mean that the church is a club with secrets that are only revealed to the chosen few. I don’t mean that the church is a great conspiracy, hiding the truth while it peddles a lie. What I mean is that what we have in the gospel of Jesus Christ is a surprise. An ultimate truth that could not have been predicted from the hints and clues that were dropped before. But only with hindsight, once the truth is revealed, can the believer look back at the hints and clues and see that they all make sense.
In Ephesians chapter 3 the apostle Paul says that the mystery of Christ was revealed to him. It wasn’t something he discovered by being clever. It wasn’t something he arrived at by following all the clues. Paul was one of the most religious people of his generation. He had learned the Scriptures from the best of the rabbis of his day. But not even he with all his learning, with all his piety, with all his fervour could unlock the mystery of the truth of God. The truth was revealed to him by revelation. God himself disclosed it to him.
It reminds us as Paul said in Ephesians chapter 2 that faith is a gift. We are saved by grace. Not by human effort. Not by human ingenuity. Not by our piety or devotion. But by the grace of God which is received through faith. The truth about God is not something that we can master. It is not something in our grasp or under our control. The truth about God is not something that we own, that we can call ours and use for our own benefit at the exclusion of others.
Sadly, we have a bad habit of using blaming language. We see someone having a bad time and we say things like, “If only they had more faith”, which is like saying to a drowning man, “If only he had more oxygen and less water.” Like saying to a paraplegic, “You could walk if you only tried harder.” But faith is a gift. And the truth about God is a mystery. A secret that has now been revealed. It is a gift from God to know him. We are simply like beggars who’ve been told where we can find bread.
What was revealed to Paul was the mystery of Christ. Paul thought he knew Jesus and he thought he knew what the Messiah was meant to be. And the two didn’t match. The Messiah was the great Son of David. The King who would come with the power of God to put Israel’s enemies to the sword and to establish the kingdom of God on earth. The Messiah was meant to be a holy warrior, as passionate for the traditions of his people as he was a gifted leader of men. And Jesus was none of those things. Jesus came in weakness. He came like a peasant dressed in rags. He associated with all the wrong sort of people. And what was worst of all, he died under a curse, under the judgment of God, hanging to a stake of wood.
To Paul’s mind, Israel’s leaders might have been blind. They might have been wrong. They might have executed the wrong man for the wrong reasons. They might have been corrupt and unjust. But God would have never, ever abandoned his holy one to such an unholy death. For that to happen to Jesus could only mean that Jesus was a great sinner. Any other explanation was an impossibility that would have undermined everything that Paul believed in. And so Paul had committed his former life to ridding the earth of all those who blasphemed God by daring to say that Jesus was the Messiah. Such people were not worthy of the life God had given them.
But then the mystery of Christ was revealed to him on the road to Damascus. A bright light came from heaven and a voice came, asking, “Why are you persecuting me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” asked Paul. There was no mystery about who was speaking to him. It was the God of Israel, the Lord who had appeared to Abraham, the Lord who had spoken to Moses, the Lord who had been the strength of David. This Lord had chosen to reveal himself to Paul. So Paul wanted to know his name, the name by which he could call upon him.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” With that answer, with that name, the seed of the gospel was planted in Paul’s life. From that moment, everything he did, everything he said, everything he wrote about in all his letters preserved in the New Testament, grew from that name.
“Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus.”
Jesus, the homeless preacher, the friend of vagabonds and traitors and sinners, the breaker of the Sabbath, the one rejected by the priests and elders and nailed to the cross, was the Lord, and the Messiah of Israel. Paul had expected someone like himself, or at least someone like himself with a sword and the strength to use it. One who would bring glory to Israel. One who would have thanked Paul for his dedicated service. But it was Paul, not Jesus, who was the fraud. It was Paul, not Jesus, who was the great sinner.
The Holy One of God had come and walked on earth, not marked for glory, but hidden in the preacher from Nazareth. And in their blindness the nation’s leaders had taken him and put him to death. The Messiah had not slain his enemies with his sword, but forgiven them with his cross. And God had raised his chosen one to life. Jesus’ case had gone to a higher court on appeal, to the judge of all the earth. And the verdict against him had been overturned. The world looks to all kinds of saviour. The warrior who will defeat the enemy. The scientist who will solved climate change or COVID 19. But God’s chosen saviour is his Son Jesus. Because Jesus, and only he, is Lord.
It reminds us that Jesus did not come to bless us on our way through life. But to call us to follow his way. It reminds us that Jesus did not come to fulfil our hopes and dreams but to keep his promises, and to be our hope. Jesus does not add the icing to the cake of our aspirations and prosperity, but he is himself the icing and the cake. He is our bread and water, our food and drink, our only source of life and joy.
It is the mystery of Christ. Once it was hidden. But now it has been made known by the Spirit to the holy apostles and prophets and passed on to you in the gospel. You know the great mystery, the biggest surprise in all of history. The world cries out from the deepest pit. It shouts out from the highest mountain. “Who are you, Lord?” And you know the answer that will make sense of everything. “Who are you, Lord?” And the gospel answers, “I am Jesus.”
But there is another secret in the gospel which Paul reveals in chapter 3 verse 6.
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.
What was revealed to Paul was that Jesus was not only the Messiah of Israel, but the Saviour of the world. And I admit that most of the Old Testament seems to be only interested in one group of people. The nation of Israel. But the Lord was always more than just the God of Israel. He was the creator of the world. And from the very beginning there were always hints and clues that God was interested in more than just the survival of one nation.
In the book of Genesis God said to Abraham,
All the peoples of the world will be blessed in you.
In the book of Ruth, Ruth came from Moab, not Israel, to marry Boaz and to become the great grandmother of King David.
The prophet Jonah was sent to the people of Ninevah, not Jerusalem.
And most clearly God said through the prophet Isaiah,
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
And yet, no mission to the nations began until Jesus’ rejection and death. Like a jar of perfume dropped and broken on the floor so that the perfume runs out and fills the whole house with its scent, so the blood of Jesus shed on his cross was poured out not just for Israel, but for the sins of the whole world. And his Spirit went out into all the world. For Jesus was rejected by Israel, taken outside the holy city, cast away by the priests to reach all the castaways. Cursed on the cross to remove every curse. Abandoned by his people and by his Father so that in him no one would be abandoned. And so the Lord said of Paul,
This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.
This was the administration of God’s grace that was given to Paul, that he would be the messenger sent to proclaim that Jews and non-Jews were heir together, members of one body, sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus. Paul’s job was to spoil the mystery. To spill the secret. To make known to all what God had made known to him. As he says in verse 12,
In Christ and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
Not with fear and trembling. Not with doubt and insecurity. But with faith, with freedom, and with complete confidence. By the grace of God the doorway to fellowship with him stands wide open for the rich and poor, for the wise and simple, for Eskimos and Ethiopians and Estonians And if the grace of God can include a man like Paul, then there is room for you.
The gospel is still a mystery. It is still a profound surprise. The world gets ready for war, but Jesus came as a man of peace. The world strives to become rich, but Jesus came as a poor man. And too often we nurse our pride to protect our fragile egos, but Jesus came humbly as a servant. Jesus is not the saviour the world wants. But he is the saviour it needs.
This is the mystery of Christ. The world with all its wisdom could not have figured it out. But God by his grace has made it known in the gospel. That secret has come to you. In Christ and through faith in him you may approach God with freedom and confidence. But the secret is not yours to keep, but for you to tell. For we are beggars sent by God to tell other beggars where to find bread.