Sunday, November 10, 2019

THE GREATEST OF ALL MYSTERIES


Before we had taken a break from it, we began our study in the book of Ephesians last spring talking about climbing mountains. I mentioned some of the mountains where I have hiked and how, as I ascended, I could get a clearer vision of the surrounding countryside. Many things that I simply could not see at all at the lower altitudes or that seemed confusing began to make sense as I achieved a higher perspective.

These were things that I may have been able to try and describe to someone who had never climbed that particular mountain, but a simple description of the view from higher altitudes could never give a totally satisfactory idea of what it was actually like to be on the mountain for oneself. The experience involves more than simply connecting lines on a map. It is much more than a bare reporting of the facts.


In the book of Ephesians, Paul is describing to us some of the things that he had seen on some of the spiritual mountains that he had climbed. I am sure that as he was writing, he at times must have been frustrated that his description of his experience fell far short of what he had actually witnessed.


But trying to understand what Paul is telling us requires more than he being a good writer with clear descriptions. It also requires that we be good readers. We often read the Scriptures looking only for the facts. We want the facts. We want to know, “how does this work” and “what is going to happen” and “when it is going to occur.”

Just the Facts Ma’am

Facts are important, but life is more than simply a list of facts. You can realize this even by describing your day. In the evening, if your spouse asks you about your day, you can say, “I got up at 6:30, showered, had some breakfast, got into the car and went to work, put in a good day at the office or worksite, came home and had supper.”

If you were that spouse, would you be satisfied with that answer? I don’t think so! The very fact that you asked the question was an indication that you wanted to enter into the experience of the day of your spouse as much as was possible. You would want him or her to use words that would help you create a mental image of what they were describing to you and what they were thinking about during the day.

Coming from the other side, if you began to go into a more detailed description about your day, only to learn that your spouse simply wanted to know such things as how the traffic had been and exactly how long it took you to get to work, you would be disappointed. They did not actually want to share your day with you. They only wanted facts.

So it should be when we read the words that Paul is telling us. I think that Paul is trying to use words to help us to see that what he is describing to us is something that requires us to look not only at the face value of the facts that he is telling us about. There is so much beyond what he is able to describe.


Unsearchable Riches
Listen to what he says at the end of the third chapter of Ephesians, just after he has just concluded telling of a mystery which he says had been hidden in God for all ages past, but which he says demonstrates “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” 

…Then you, being rooted and grounded in love, will have power, together with all the saints, to comprehend the length and width and height and depth of His love, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19 BSB) 

Did you catch the dimensions of this mystery that Paul wants us to comprehend? He does not want us to only know the length, width and height of it—not just the three dimensions in which we normally look at life. He wants us to attempt to comprehend the four dimensions of the mystery—the length, width, height and depth of Christ’s love! Certainly, we also use the word depth in our various descriptions, but we do not think four dimensionally–only in three dimensions.

It is no wonder that Paul ends up his description of this mystery with this tribute: 

Now to Him who is able to do infinitely more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.(Ephesians 3:20-21 BSB) 

…Infinitely more than we can ask or imagine,” Paul writes.

So, what is this amazing mystery that deserves such a grand recognition of surpassing greatness? 

The Most Amazing Mystery

I actually consider something contained in this portion of Ephesians to be the most astounding of revelations in all of Paul’s letters. It is going to take us a little while to get to the part that seems so amazing to me, but it has its beginning with how Paul concluded the previous section of the letter, the last part of chapter two. It was there where he spoke of all believers in Jesus Christ as “being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22 NAS).

Now, in this section, Paul says that it is because of the truth that Jew and Gentile alike are being built together into a dwelling that he now proceeds in his teaching to the Ephesians.

“That is,” he says, “the mystery made known to me by revelation” (Ephesians 3:3) 

The Stewardship of God’s Grace

Paul calls his ministry of bringing the gospel to those who had not before heard it, “the stewardship of God’s grace” (3:2). With all that we have read so far up to this point of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we know that he considered this his calling from God. He was called to bring the teaching of God’s grace to the Jews and the non-Jews, or the Gentiles alike. We were chosen, Paul said, from before the formation of the world. Paul also wrote to Timothy that we were chosen by God for his specific purpose given to us “Before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9).

Paul’s message was the gospel of grace; one that is not based on the Law or on one’s own strength. It is not by our works or through the determination of our own will, but it is God’s own purposes and his grace. It is based only upon what God has done and is doing for us. It is no wonder that it is called the “good message.”

Paul calls himself the servant of this message. Particularly, he considered his task to be the teaching of something that God had revealed to him. It was in that revelation from God (or perhaps a result of more than one revelation) that Paul learned of the great mystery which he is about to tell us. 

The Nature of Paul’s Mystery

This last spring, I spoke about the word mystery, and how Paul regards the mysteries given to him by God as information that were theretofore unknown. The nature of God’s mysteries is such that they are not something that we can deduce from our own wisdom or knowledge, or from interpreting the right “clues.” The word mystery in the Bible is used in such a way to refer to truths that are not only beyond our knowledge, but also are so far outside of our understanding that they can only come to us by way of revelation from outside of ourselves.

When did this revelation come to Paul? As in much of the revealing of the mysteries of God, it may have come in progressive stages, but Paul himself told of his experience on the road to Damascus. I also mentioned this event last spring concerning the opening of spiritual eyes. It was when the Lord appeared to the apostle, telling him that he would be sent to the Jews and Gentiles alike.

Paul described his experience when God appeared to him in the book of Acts, chapter twenty-six. He quotes the words that Jesus said to him:

“I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen from Me and what I will show you,” Jesus said to Paul in the vision. “I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.” (Acts 26:16-18 BSB).

From the time of this vision and calling forward, Paul’s simple desire was to spread the words of Jesus.

One of the aspects of this task was what Paul wrote to the Colossians, referring to the “glorious riches” of the mystery. Part of these glorious riches is that our hope of eternal glory does not lie in keeping the Law, but rather that Christ will indwell believers with his gift of eternal life. Paul refers to it as: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

As this revelation continued to evolve, Paul began to understand the implications of all of this in an ever increasing way. Not only were the Gentiles to be included as outsiders, but it was God’s intention that all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, would made “into one new man, thus establishing peace” (Ephesians 2:15).

Today we might look at this from a political perspective of the Middle East, where hostilities between the Jew and the Non-Jew have existed all throughout history. But what Paul is talking about goes far beyond the changing politics of this age. Paul’s is a statement of eternal truth. The Gentiles are to be fellow heirs with the Jews, and “Members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6 ESV). 

It Began With Abraham

One might say that this revelation was not completely new with Paul, for God had spoken of this in the past. Even from the time of the calling of Abraham, God’s intention was that all of the nations would be blessed. This promise was later transmitted through Abraham’s son Isaac (Genesis 26:4-5) and then through his heir Jacob (Genesis 28:14).

Paul himself also mentions the words of the prophet Hosea, where he quotes him as saying, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved’” (Romans 9:25 quoting Hosea 2:23).

Then Paul goes on to say, “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God’” (Romans 9:25-26 ESV).

All of this may seem unremarkable to us today, but it was an astonishing realization in the first century. For Paul, it was a further vision of the final plan of God. He had read all of these Old Testament passages many time before, but until the vision given to him by God, he had not understood their significance.

The realization came also to the Apostle Peter. When he began to understand the full significance of what Jesus had done and was still in the process of forming, Peter wrote: 

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.

It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10-12 NAS) 

Now we find Paul writing, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 ESV).

This is why he could also write, “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” (Ephesians 3:6 ESV).

This is a mystery that had been revealed and which Paul was made a minister. But this is not the great mystery that I am spoke about earlier. 

The Revelation

The mystery deepens. When we hear that phrase we usually take it to mean that in trying to solve the case of a crime, new clues have arisen that tend to complicate some fact, a fact that we before thought was somewhat clear. As we continue on with what Paul writes to the Ephesians, the mystery which he is revealing indeed does deepen.

Do you remember that near the beginning of this sermon I quoted Paul when he spoke of his desire that the Ephesian church would be able to comprehend the four dimensions of the length and width and height and depth of Christ’s love? Paul added the dimension of depth to the three dimensions in which we perceive the world.

This mystery is beginning to show the depth of its complexity. Moreover, this portion of the revelation that Paul is giving not only makes the mystery more complicated than we before thought we understood, but is something of which we before had no knowledge at all! We are now just beginning to learn of it. This is the manner of the mysteries of God, and it causes us to realize that there is much more that God has in store that we do not know and has not even yet been revealed to us.

In speaking of this revelation, Paul’s sentence that I will quote below is much briefer than we would like it to be, and it will take us a few moments to unravel. It is best to read it slowly and consider every phrase. 

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things… (Ephesians 3:8-9 ESV) 

The “Plan”

I am breaking off this thought of Paul’s in mid-sentence because we must take a few moments to consider the impact of what Paul says in the above words when he speaks about “the unsearchable riches of Christ.”

In keeping with our subject of a mystery, this is one which Paul says that God has kept hidden for ages. Before God gave this information to Paul, it was kept sealed up only in the mind of God.

When Paul begins to explain it, he speaks of it as God’s “plan;” at least, that is the word as translated in the English Standard Version of the Bible. “To bring to light … the plan.” The New American Standard translates the word as administration, the Berean Study Bible, the stewardship, and the King James Version, fellowship.

The Greek word that Paul uses the same word oikonomia, which we also had discussed earlier, and which speaks of the household rules in God’s kingdom. The reason that all of these English Bible translations have used different words illustrates for us the complexity of communicating the truth that Paul’s statement is trying to explain.

Paul also mentions creation when he speaks of the “God who created all things.” It is important to see this because it is also important to understand that this plan for the end of ages is not something that God came up with only in the latter days. In eternity, when God’s full plan is revealed to us, it will be of great interest to us as we see how God has had the whole sweep of history in view from the very beginning.

We sometimes tend to think that Satan threw a monkey wrench into God’s original intentions for creation, requiring God to scramble to come up with a solution to rectify the situation. However, there is much more to the administration of Christ than what we can readily understand. When the full story is revealed to us and we are able to see God’s purposes as they were designed from the beginning, we will see a great wisdom of God that we do not now know. 

The Amazing Church of Jesus Christ

Part of that great purpose is seen in the following words as we continue Paul’s thought that we interrupted above. As we consider the eternal purpose of God, Paul now writes of one of the most astounding aspects of it: 

…So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:10 ESV) 

Consider for a moment what Paul is telling us. Don’t miss it! This is the amazing mystery that I was referring to and the most astounding of all revelations given to Paul. What he is saying is that, in a manner of speaking, the church will one day be put on display before heavenly beings as the definitive example of God’s wisdom. It is the church of Jesus Christ who will be the finest example of all that God has done in all of creation!

None of us fully appreciate what God’s final intention is for the church. We are often so accustomed to pointing out all that is wrong in the church that we have ceased to see it as the eternal purpose of God. I have even heard some call the church “a failed institution,” as if it were a man-made organization. But the church is not something that has come from man. It is God’s eternal purpose.

Certainly, there are very many things about the church that we see today that have all the hallmarks of man’s hand upon it. It is true that the institutionalized church of today has failed in many regards, but the true church, the body of Christ cleansed by the blood of Jesus, has not failed and cannot fail. It cannot fail because it is not something that depends upon our efforts. The true church is something that God is building. Paul continues: 

This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. (Ephesians 3:11-13 ESV) 

If we remember, some of the first words that we read in the book of Ephesians concern what Paul called the “administration suitable to the fullness of the times” (Ephesians 1:10 NAS). This, we learned, was the “summing up” or “uniting” of all things in Christ.

Now, in this present passage in the third chapter of Ephesians, Paul is again using the word translated administration when talking about God’s eternal plan. This is the same administration of eternity that will be brought together in Christ. 

The Universe Stands in Amazement

To what is probably our great amazement, it is the church unified in Christ who will be the demonstration of God’s eternal purpose. This fact is not only amazing to us, but did you notice that it also will be to “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places?” These are other angelic beings of heaven who also will be present to witness the perfected church.

Just as we often look at the church as a failed institution and cannot comprehend why God would continue working with this prideful and self-centered group of individuals, apparently, neither can the angels of heaven understand what God is doing. They must wonder, as do you and I, why God does not just simply abandon us to our own ways.

But it is when they see the purified church that these angels will finally see the depths of the wisdom of God that they before were not able to comprehend.

They will say, along with the rest of creation, “Oh the unsearchable riches of God!”

When we see that the perfected church is part of the eternal purpose of Christ Jesus our Lord, there is a sense in which all that we experience now as true believers in Christ is part of the perfecting of the church. We may not be able to see this, and perhaps, from our perspective, it may seem that we are moving away from perfection instead of towards it. But Paul gives us the assurance that God will complete his work.

It is no wonder that Paul refers to the perfected church as a demonstration of the manifold wisdom of God. That phrase in itself, the manifold wisdom of God, is a very interesting one, and one which we shall pick up in the sermon next week. 

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