The Lord's Day Morning
January 1, 2006
“My Tribulations on Your Behalf are for Your Glory”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
As we return to Ephesians in the New Year, and I couldn't have picked a better passage to start with. We’re going to concentrate especially on Ephesians 3:8-13 this morning, but I want you to remember what we saw when we studied Ephesians 3:1-6, in part because we said the Apostle Paul was “fixin’ to pray”, and he interrupts himself in Ephesians 3:1 before he “commences to pray” for you, to give you a word of encouragement. He knows that the Ephesian Christians are distressed about his imprisonment, the persecution that he is experiencing on behalf of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ because of his preaching of the gospel, and some of them are tempted to be discouraged by this. And so before he begins this beautiful prayer which starts in verse 14, he pauses to give them a word of encouragement.
Now that in and of itself is a glorious thing. Think of it, my friends. The Apostle Paul, the great persecutor of the church before his conversion, now is suddenly deeply concerned that other Christians who are not enduring the persecution that he is enduring himself might not be discouraged by the persecution that he is experiencing for them. This is surely a mark of grace in this man — from persecutor to the one who now, instead of persecuting Christians, wants to encourage them not to be discouraged by his persecution, which he is enduring for them. This is the grace given to him by the Lord Jesus Christ, that he could suffer for Christ's sake as well as to proclaim His riches.
And so this passage is a passage about encouragement; it's a passage about encouraging the Ephesian Christians not to lose heart, and so it makes it a very appropriate passage as we face a New Year and all its uncertainties, all its pains and trials — and joys, to be sure — with hope, because of the things that Paul teaches us here.
There are going to be three things that I want you especially to see in this passage as we work through it. In verses 8 and 9, I want you to see how Paul talks about the grace that God has given to him. In verses 10-12, I want you to see how he talks about God's purpose for the church. And, finally, in verse 13 I want you to see how God talks about His purposes in Paul's suffering, here in Ephesians 3.
Before we look to God's word and read it — and I'm going to read from verse 1 on down, just to remind you of where we were last in this book — before we read God's word, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Lord God, this is Your word, and that means, among other things, that when we read it we do not stand over it like we stand over some things that we read; for we do not judge this word, this word judges us. Your word searches out the deep things of our hearts. Your word is a divinely inspired, special revelation, a message from God to man, a message which commands our assent, our response of faith, our allegiance, our belief, and our obedience. So we ask, O God, that by Your Holy Spirit we would not only open our eyes and behold wonderful truth in Your word, but that we would respond with the whole of our hearts, with the totality of who we are in trust, in belief on Christ, and in a lively and active embrace of that truth for living. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God.
“For this reason I Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles–if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace which was given to me for you; that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. And by referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God's grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him. Therefore I ask you not to lose heart at my tribulations on your behalf, for they are your glory.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
The Apostle Paul is preparing to pray at the beginning of Ephesians 3, and he interrupts himself in verses 1-6 to encourage the Ephesians as to why they should not lose heart over what he's enduring. First of all, in Ephesians 3:1 he reminds them that he may look like a prisoner of Nero, but in fact he's just a prisoner of Jesus Christ. He's reminding them he wouldn't be in that prison if Christ didn't want him in that prison. He's reminding them that the powers of this world themselves must submit to the authority of Jesus Christ, and not one hair from his head can be taken apart from the will of his heavenly Father.
And he reminds them that he's been given this glorious stewardship to preach Christ, to preach the mystery–and of course, in large print he tells them here, in that mystery which had not been revealed to the Old Testament prophets that God was going to build a people from every tribe and tongue and nation, unite them in the church, express that building in every local church so that Jew and Gentile on the same basis (not on the basis of Moses and the ceremonial law, but on the basis of the finished work of Jesus Christ) would be brothers and sisters in Christ serving God together in the local congregation, and bringing together these people was going to be a witness to the power of God.
Only God could bring together Jew and Greek, slave and free–bring them all together into His body, into the local congregations, where they would love one another, where they would serve with one another in their witness to the world, where they would come to know one another, though they were from different socio-economic backgrounds and different national backgrounds and different ethnic backgrounds. They had in common the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it would pull them together in this new body, this new family, this new society that God was creating. This was the mystery. It was something that was not clearly propounded in the teachings of the Old Testament prophets. Oh, you find glimpses of it here and there, but the fullness of revealed detail — that had to wait for the New Testament.
And then the Apostle Paul says to the Ephesian Christians ‘Look! It's a privilege for me to be able to preach that message!’ And before he goes on to pray beginning in verse 14, he pauses again here in verses 8-13, and he gives them some more reasons why they shouldn't be discouraged, why they shouldn't lose heart because of his trials. You can understand their position. This is Paul! This is the man that led them to Christ. This is the man that pulled together…they wouldn't know Jesus Christ if it weren't for Paul, humanly speaking. He is the instrument of God to bring them face to face with Jesus Christ, to unite them together in the church; and now they look out and where is he? He's in prison, and for all they know he won't be alive for very long, and they’re discouraged.
And he says ‘Look, don't be discouraged. Let me give you three reasons why you ought not lose heart because of my trials. And the first reason is because of God's grace to me. The second reason is because of God's plan for you. And the third reason is because of God's purpose in my suffering.’ And those are the three things I want to look at with you today: God's grace to Paul; God's purpose for you — not just for the Ephesians, but for you — God's purpose for you in this local church, and God's purpose in Paul's suffering and in our suffering.
I. God's grace to Paul.
Let's look at the first one in verses 8 and 9: God's grace to Paul. Here we see a double grace that God bestows on Paul, and Paul is thankful for that double grace:
“To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ,
and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things….”
You see, the Apostle Paul is reminding us here of two blessings, a double blessing that God had given to him. First of all, he has the grace, the gift, the privilege of preaching the unfathomable riches of Christ and of revealing the mystery of God's purpose. Look at both aspects of that.
First of all, here's Paul, and here he calls himself the least of all saints. Now, you know elsewhere he’ll speak of himself as the least of the apostles, but here he goes further: “I'm the least of all saints!” In other words, Paul is reminding you that once upon a time he was the greatest single threat to the survival of Christianity in this world. If you looked back at early Christian history in the first century and you had to rate who was the person who came closest to snuffing out Christianity, it wouldn't be Nero; it wouldn't be Domitian; it wouldn't be Trajan, it wouldn't be any of the great Roman emperors. It would be instead a man named Saul of Tarsus who almost strangled Christianity in its crib. And God has called him to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ, and he's saying ‘Friends, you don't understand! I don't deserve to be saved, I don't deserve to be alive, I ought to be a greasy spot on the ground somewhere, where God in His judgment just fries me somewhere, right there! That's where I ought…and He's given me the privilege of preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ! That's not fair; that's grace! You don't need to be discouraged by my trials. Friends! Just for a person like me to be able to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ…that's more than any man could ask who had done the things that I have done.’
And not only that, he goes on to say, doesn't he, “…and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for age has been hidden in God, who created all things….”
In other words, he says ‘Not only did I get to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, I got to preach something that Moses didn't get to preach, that Isaiah didn't get to preach, that David didn't get to preach, that Daniel didn't get to preach, that Malachi didn't get to preach, that John the Baptist didn't get to preach! I got to preach a message that He didn't give those great prophets of the Old Testament the privilege of preaching: I got to tell the people of God about this unfolding plan, this mystery of God which He has accomplished in Jesus Christ whereby He has abolished that dividing wall of the ceremonial law that separated Jew and Gentile, and He has brought together in one family Jew and Gentile in His church, in His family. I got to preach that message. Isaiah didn't get to preach that message. Jeremiah didn't get to preach that message. Moses didn't get to preach that message…I got to preach that message! You do not need to lose heart about my tribulations! I'd do 10,000 tribulations to be able to preach those messages, to be able to tell people about the unfolding plan of God in history.’
You see the excitement of the Apostle Paul about the riches of Christ and about the church. And my friends, I want to say to you, in the year to come this world has 10,000 different ways that it can pull the rug out from under your feet, and the two things that you can be absolutely sure of in the year to come are your unchanging God and this plan that He has for His church. Your gracious God is not going to change in the year to come, and the gates of Hell are not going to prevail against His church in the year to come. Now, many other things may happen in the year to come which are out of your control, but those two things, my friends, you can count on. And the Apostle Paul is saying to these Ephesian Christians ‘Look, friends; look at your God. Look at the God who showed grace to me and gave me this message to preach, and look at this glorious mystery that He's revealing in His church and His people, and don't lose hope, don't lose heart, don't give up.’
II. God's eternal plan is for the Church.
Then he moves on to say a second thing. You see this in verses 10-12. He says ‘Don't lose heart, because of God's glorious purpose for the church. God's got a plan for you. He's got a glorious purpose for the church.’ And the Apostle Paul explains here that it is the eternal purpose of God through Christ for the church to be the display of God's wisdom to the heavenly powers. Now let me do my best to try and explain that.
The Apostle Paul is saying, ‘Ephesian Christians [and he's saying to you, Christians gathered as the congregation of First Presbyterian Church], you need to understand that it is God's purpose for you to be “Exhibit A” to the angelic powers, the principalities and the authorities of the wisdom of God.
Let me say that another way. The Apostle Paul is saying that God has put you up on the stage of history and that when you look up into the galleries and into those expensive boxes you are going to see the angelic powers of heaven, good and evil, because God is putting them in graduate school to learn from you of His wisdom and glory. In other words, God is going to display His glory to good angels and bad angels. He's going to display the wisdom of His plan to principalities and powers through you as the church. He's going to say ‘Satan, you remember when you told Job that I wasn't worth living for? Let me show you something. Exhibit A: Here are My people. These are people from every tribe and tongue and nation. They have come from every conceivable background. Some of their cultures and nations war against one another. Some of their cultures and nations hate one another. Some of these people have absolutely nothing in common with one another from the standpoint of personality and society, economic status. And look at them. In Christ I have brought them together as a family. They love one another, they love My word, they love Me. I have heaped on them inexhaustible riches in Jesus Christ. Behold “Exhibit A” as the demonstration of My wisdom, of My salvation, of My redemption, of My grace, of My glory.’
He is saying that you, church, are to be the display of God's wisdom and glory to angelic powers. You remember how Peter says that “…the angels long to look into these things.” Well, here's the Apostle Paul saying that's exactly right. God is demonstrating the wisdom of His plan in the grace of His glory through you. And so the Apostle Paul says ‘Friends, don't lose heart over my persecutions! I'd die a thousand deaths to be able to tell the people of God that news, that it is God's stratagem through you to manifest His wisdom and glory to the whole arraigned universe, so that Satan himself will have to shut his mouth before the awesome display of God's grace and power, so that the angels themselves are left dumbfounded at the power of what God has done. The Apostle Paul is saying ‘My friends, God has a glorious purpose for you, His church. I have the privilege of proclaiming it. I once persecuted that church! God has given me the privilege of now proclaiming that church that I persecuted is part of the purpose of God to demonstrate His wisdom and glory in history! Do not cry for me! Do not lose heart for me!’
This message is worth dying for. Derek reminded us recently that George Marsden tells us in his biography of Jonathon Edwards that Jonathon Edwards spent his whole life preparing to die. That's a thought that you could think about for a long time in this New Year. But, you see, the Apostle Paul was a man who was ready to die because he had grasped the centrality of the church in the purposes of God, and he was overwhelmed with the privilege of being able to proclaim God's purposes in His plan for His people. And so the Apostle Paul says do not lose heart.
And for us as we face a new year, surely for us that is a message to take in: Do not lose heart; God is working His purposes out through you, even in your sufferings. And that's the last thing I want to say. Look at verse 13, because Paul third and finally points them to God's purposes in his suffering:
“Therefore I ask you not to lose heart at my tribulations on your behalf, for they are your glory.”
You see, Paul is speaking there of the glorious and vicarious purposes of his suffering. He's reminding us again that his mission was to spend himself for the people of God, and he's telling the Ephesian Christians ‘Look, once upon a time I persecuted Christ and His people, and now God has given me the privilege of being persecuted for Christ and His people. I’ll take the latter, my friends: I've tried the former. Don't lose heart; and don't lose heart because my sufferings are for your glory, so that you will understand the message I've just told you in verses 10-12. I'd suffer a thousand things,’ the Apostle Paul says, ‘if you could just understand what God says He's making you to be in verses 3-10.
And my friends, I don't know what sufferings you’re going to endure in the year to come, but do you realize that in God's glorious wisdom He may well give you a chance in your suffering to be a blessing to the people of God? To build up the people of God? I don't know what illnesses or betrayals or heartbreaks or setbacks or disappointments that you’ll face in the year to come. But I do know this, Christian: when you face them you will have the opportunity to face those with a view to being a blessing to the church in those sufferings.
A dear friend of mine was making a hospital visit to a lady who is a relative of a number of people in our congregation. By all rights, she ought not to be alive. The fact that she is alive today is the sheer grace of God. But when he went by to visit her, she began to recount to him what she was thinking about as she lay on her back alone, thinking that she was going to die alone. She began to tell him, “You know, I started thinking, and as I was lying there I said ‘Thank You, Lord, that all my children are Christians. They’re baptized believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and members of local churches. They love You. Thank You that I'm going to see them in heaven.’ She began to recount some of the things that she was thinking about.
Now, he went by to encourage her because she was in a very, very difficult spot from the standpoint of her health. The doctors had over and over indicated that she would not last long. Let me tell you, he's not one to cry, this friend of mine, but it was all he could do to get out of that room and not be in a puddle! You know, she left him that day with an encouragement that he’ll take to his grave: how a Christian woman faces death thinking about God's blessings to her, thinking about the salvation of her children.
Maybe you’ll be able to be that kind of a blessing in your sufferings in the year to come, to people in this congregation. And the Apostle Paul says to the Ephesians ‘Oh, my friends! If I can suffer tribulation for your sake so that you can hear the truth, so that you can know Christ, so that you can respond in faith, that is not something to lose heart about. That's something to praise God for.’
May God grant you hope in Him and in His purposes for the church, and even in your suffering in this year to come.
Lord God, Your purposes stagger us. We don't deserve to know things that Isaiah didn't know. We don't deserve to know things that Moses didn't know. We don't deserve to be the instrument by which You’re going to display Your wisdom to the assembled principalities and powers of this universe. We don't deserve to be the instrument that You’re going to bring the devil to his knees about. But that's what You say in Your word, so we believe You. O Lord, we do believe. Help our unbelief, and take our lives, O God, for Christ's sake. Amen.