Exhortation - April 06



Readings: Ephesians chs. 3 and 4

It may seem a rather paradoxical statement but it is probably true to say that because of our familiarity with certain passages of Scripture we miss a lot of their message. We all no doubt have had the experience of reading in another translation a well known passage and being surprised at the improved insight and understanding that the different rendering gives to our minds, and yet we have also no doubt experienced that when we go back to our regular version and look at the same passage we find that all the time that teaching is there but because of our familiarity we have tended to pass over the familiar words, whereas the new turn of phrase of the other translation had made us stop and think.

Well, possibly this is true of some of Paul € s epistles, which, after all, we read at least twice a year and some familiar passages much oftener than that. Take, for example, the opening verse ofchapter3 of Paul € s epistle to the Ephesians, which we have just read: € For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles. € How easy it is for us to sit in our comfortable chairs, maybe in front of a warm fire, and read that verse without any real appreciation of what the words mean, or maybe we do it with the mental comment, 0 yes, that must have been when Paul was being imprisoned in Rome as recorded in the 28th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, and then leave it at that. Now this morning let us try to linger a little longer on some of these verses in our chapters. Let us start with this opening verse: € For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles. € Let us think of that for a moment. Paul, a prisoner. Yes, the active, energetic, widely travelled preacher now confined to four walls, cut off from his beloved converts whose welfare and company had been his sole life for so long, forced instead to the continual company of a rude Roman soldier who was never further away than the length of the chain that bound guard and prisoner together; and all this, not just for a week or two or for a month or two but for two whole years. Just think in our lives back two whole years. It seems a long time ago. In the last two years we have done many things in and out and about, visiting, coming to the meetings, going on holiday maybe. All this was denied Paul. Why? He tells us in this verse. He was the prisoner, he says, not really of that soldier to whom he was chained, not really of the Roman Empire; he was the prisoner of Christ, he was there because of his unwavering allegiance to the one who had altered his life so dramatically on the road to Damascus.

He was there also, and possibly more particularly € and this is where we come to the theme of this epistle to the Ephesians € he was there because of his work in preaching the gospel of salvation, not to the Jews but to the Gentiles. Take our minds back to his arrest in Jerusalem that was the initial cause of his imprisonment. What was the cause of the uproar and what was the main charge at his initial hearing? It was because the jealous Jews had seen him in Jerusalem with Trophimus the Ephesian, a Gentile, and they had assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple. In this man they saw the epitome of Paul € s labours in extending the hope of Israel to those who for centuries had been in darkness, and so the Jews tried to lynch him. Yes, Paul indeed was the prisoner of Christ for the sake of the Gentiles.

But even in his altered circumstances Paul € s thoughts were all for his converts in their particular problems and difficulties. Not able to visit them, he did the next best thing and wrote the series of epistles that we are currently reading, and this one to the Ephesians, as we have already mentioned, was especially written for the newly converted Gentiles. The reason for its writing? That they might be fully conscious of their privileges and their prospects as members of the household of God.

So we see Paul in our mind € s eye in that prison house in which he was confined, pacing up and down, maybe, within the limits of his chain, while his quick, restless mind dictated to a scribe this letter to his beloved brethren and sisters in Asia. But this letter even goes further than that. It gives us an insight into another aspect of Paul € s life in prison. So we see him again. All is quiet now. Maybe it is dark and still outside. We see the beloved apostle on his knees in prayer. What a privilege it would be, what an insight into the character of this great man if only we could hear what he is saying. But we can, we have, we have read his words together a few moments ago, and we find that it is an especial prayer for Gentile Christians, in other words, for everyone of us here.

What is it, then, we ask, that our beloved brother is praying to God for on our behalf? Well, the prayer recorded in chapter 3 is the climax of the first half of this epistle. In these first three chapters Paul has been assuring the Gentiles that despite their upbringing in a country or a culture remote from the things of God, away from the traditions of the Israelitish life and way of service epitomised in the temple, the Inauguration of which we read in our earlier readings, that temple which the Jews prized so much; away, too, from the life-giving promises to the Jewish fathers; despite the fact that they had been brought up away from all this, now that these Gentiles had obeyed the Truth their position was absolutely equal to that of a faithful member of the chosen race. There was no difference at all. They were all part of the family and the household of God. In Christ there were no natural or cultural divisions but there was a glorious unity. This is the theme of chapter 2 which we read yesterday, which culminates in that sublime metaphor of a Divine temple erected on the basis of the promise to the fathers but into whose fabric were incorporated components from both Jews and Gentiles, making a glorious single building fit for the dwelling of God.

Let us re-read the words which conclude chapter 2. Verse 17, speaking of the sacrifice of Christ, he says: € He came and preached peace to you which were afar oft € (yes, to the Gentiles) € and to them that were nigh. For through him we both (Jews and Gentiles) have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore ye (Gentiles) are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. €

Let us think of the purpose of this edifice, composed of Jews and Gentiles. What was it for? Paul tells us that it was for € an habitation of God through the Spirit. € In its fulness, of course, this habitation refers to the future, to the time when, as the New Jerusalem, the post- millennial company of the saints will experience the time when € the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them. € They will be His habitation when the former things will have passed away.

But there is also another sense in which men and women, Jew or Gentile, can be a habitation of God, and that is in the present time rather than in the future. Jesus said to his disciples: € If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. € Here, then, are two stages, an indwelling of God in the heart and mind of a saint on probation, followed by the glorious full habitation when, in the beauties of spirit nature, when all imperfections will have been removed both from ourselves and the earth, the tabernacle, or temple, of God will indeed be with men.

This, then, is what Paul was assuring the Gentiles, that they too could have this hope, that they were unquestionably related to it. What, then, was his prayer for them? Nothing less than that this glorious hope should be realised. So he immediately goes on: € For this cause € € because of their relationship to God and their incorporation into His temple € € For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles. € Then in verse 2 he seems to change the theme; indeed, he does. The idea of his being a prisoner for the Gentiles makes him commence a parenthesis which goes on for several verses, talking about his especial work as the apostle to the Gentiles, but he reverts to his theme and his prayer again in verse 14. He repeats his opening phrase again: € For this cause € (because of what he said at the end of chapter 2) € I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named. € And what is his prayer? Let us read it again: € That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. €

Here then is Paul € s prayer for you and me, and it is that this grand Divine intention may be realised, that he may dwell with us, that we may be filled with all the fulness of God, a fit habitation of God through the Spirit. Let us look at his payer now in more detail. It consists of three requests, and yet they are not separate requests, they lead on from one to the other in three progressive stages by which the ideal of perfect Divine fellowship is ultimately reached. He prays (verse 10) that we would be strengthened in the inner man; that Christ would dwell in our hearts by faith; to the end that we may know the love of Christ and be filled with the fulness of God.

Let us think about these three stages, the stages that Paul prayed each one of us would experience. € Strengthened with might (or power) by the Spirit in the inner man. € All of us know what that means. What is it that is powerful and mighty to strengthen us? It is the Word of God, which we read in Hebrews is powerful, and the strengthening of the inner man is not something that isjust bestowed automatically on us by God. Rather is it the reward for study and meditation on the Spirit Word. That is the way that the Spirit € s might and power can strengthen us. That Spirit will never be powerful to strengthen us if we never allow its influence to be felt. So the first step, obviously, to achieving this blessed state of Divine indwelling is to allow the Word of God to reach our heart, our inner man. Paul told the Corinthians that though our outward man perish, yet ourinward man is renewed day by day; and so it should be. The exhortation to read and read regularly the Word, and let it sink down into our heart, is necessary, despite its being so obvious.

The second thing that Paul prayed for € That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith. € This is the sequel to letting the words of the Spirit influence our lives. Remember it is said by Jesus in that passage we quoted: € if a man... keep my words. .. we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. € A life of obedience, then, is essential if this prayer is to be answered. But Paul says that Christ should dwell in our hearts by faith. Faith implies trust in all that God and Christ have done and will do. Obedience assumes that God will do something for us in the future. Trust implies our own weakness and insufficiency. We would have no need to trust and have faith if we were strong of ourselves. So we remind ourselves that God will not dwell now, let alone in the future, in a self-sufficient or a proud heart. We need faith and humility. € I dwell € says God through Isaiah, € in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit. €

Again, Paul asks for Christ to dwell in our hearts, but God says € Can two walk together, except they be agreed? € So we cannot have God or Christ accompany us on our journey of life unless there is compatability of heart and mind, and so our objective therefore should always be to try and think on Jesus, think on him as the perfect manifestation of God, to read, to meditate on his life, to make his thoughts, his disposition ours. We know it is not easy, none of us finds it so, especially in this modern world with all its pressure of living, its turmoil and its distractions, and we know that we will never succeed perfectly in having Christ always in our hearts. But on the other hand, we will never achieve anything if we do not even try. That the effort will be more than worth while is shown by Paul € s third request. The strengthening by the Spirit, the indwelling of Christ in our hearts and minds, he says, is to the end that € ye. being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge. €

Yes, this is what Paul was leading up to. He wanted his readers to really know that love of Christ. In one sense, he says, it is so infinite as to be unknowable, especially in this life. We sing of the love of God that € our utmost thought so far exceeds. € But in another sense it has dimensions that can be sought out and explored. The love of Christ, says Paul, is three-dimensional, breadth, length, height and depth. So wherever we are, whatever our circumstances in life, the love of Christ embraces us, reaches out to us and beyond us, and Paul wants as to know, to understand, to personally experience that love of the Saviour. He could speak from personal experience. Just think of the love of Christ to Paul, how he called him from being a persecutor and a blasphemer; the wonderful conversion, the realisation of who Jesus was and what he had done; Paul € s preservation in a life of hardship and difficulty, the blessing of personal communion with him in prayer, his assurance of a crown of life in the future. Yes, Paul knew how he had benefited from the love of Christ, and so can we; if we let the Word have its effect in our lives then we too can gain knowledge of the love of Christ.

Think in the gospel records of the love of Jesus,of his compassion, his compassion for the children, for the hungry, for the sick and the bereaved, and even the wayward. We would love to know that sort of love in our lives. Think of his care and solicitude for his friends:
€ Having loved his own that were in the world, € we are told, € he loved them unto the end. € Think of his prayers for them. For Peter: € I have prayed for thee. € Or again for his disciples: € I pray for them. € And of course, we now remember the greatest act of his love. How important it is that we really know the extent of this!

If we want to know the real love of Jesus then we must look at the cross. How could we fail to comprehend the height, the breadth, the length and the depth of the love of Jesus as we see him hanging there, bruised and bleeding, impaled by his arms, as his life ebbed away? € Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. € If we know, or are really trying to know, this love of Jesus, then we could never take these emblems lightly or thoughtlessly, could we; much less, after a week when we have dishonoured him or neglected him.

So as we remember him again, do not let us just examine our actions, important though they are, but rather our motives. Can we say with Paul, as we partake of these emblems, that € the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me € ? If we can say that, then nothing else matters. Paul € s prayer for us has been answered. We know the love of Christ, and that knowledge will be an irresistible power for good in our daily lives. If we feel unable to put it quite as strongly as Paul did, then let us use such occasions as these to determine to know more of the love of Jesus and translate it into the actions of our daily life. This, then, was Paul € s prayer on behalf of his readers, that they would so know and appreciate the love of Christ that their life could be one in which God could indeed dwell, that they would truly be a component of that temple which He was erecting. But, of course, as we have said, the complete fulfilment of this prayer lies yet in the future, the time when, as he mentions in verse 16, € the riches of God € s glory € will be dispensed to His true famdy, and then all aspects of this prayer will receive their fulfilment.

So let us think of the future. How we wait for that strengthening by the Spirit € s might when, in the twinkling of an eye, this corruptible will put on incorruption. How we long for the fulfilment of Paul € s second request, for the perfect communion with the return of Jesus, when his prayer will be fulfilled and the saints of all ages will be one, even as he and his Father are one. € I in them € he said, € and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one. € Truly Christ will dwell perfectly in the heart of everyone in the future. And then, with Spirit nature, with the perfection of Divine fellowship, the saints will at last be able really to know and understand the love of Christ. With perfect bodies, perfect minds, with the unlimited and undreamt-of delights of eternity before us, we will then really know what Christ did for us when he laid down his life. As Paul says in concluding that beautiful chapter on love in 1 Corinthians, € Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known € ; and the greatest thing we will know is the full extent of the love of Jesus. Our hearts will then sing his praises with a joy and a delight that we can never even imagine.

But that time is not yet. We now sit here with our weaknesses, with our human frailty, of body, mind or spirit, and as we do so, it is easy for that future to seem impossible for us as individuals. Indeed, it is impossible if we rely on our own strength, but we are not on our own. God desires this glorious future to be a fact in the lives of everyone of us, so much so that He has promised strength, unthought-of strength to all who seek to attain this glorious state when He dwells in them in perfection in His temple. So it is, appropriately enough, that Paul ends his prayer with praise to God, but praise in confident anticipation of Divine help and mercy to attain that end.

May we all take away this morning the message of comfort and help which the words of verse 20 give to us: € Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen. € : € P. J. Southgate


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