The Christ Community, Part 9: The Church as the Manifold Wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:7-13)

Ephesians 3:10 conveys a fascinating truth: God’s intent is that “now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” That is, God’s people are on the stage of history right now, and the audience is not just a watching world. It’s much bigger than that. Moreover, the star of the show is God’s manifold wisdom—revealed “through the church.” That’s not just epic. It’s cosmic.

The Greek word underneath our English word “manifold” means “various,” “variegated, “assorted,” or “many-splendored.” It was a word used of the embroidery work of a multi-colored garment, or of a multi-colored bouquet of flowers, or of an array of multi-colored lights in the sky—the kind we might see in the Northern Lights. We could translate the word “iridescent,” “luminous,” or even “kaleidoscopic.” It refers to God’s brilliant, multi-faceted wisdom—a wisdom we see in creation with its many varieties of plants and animals that God made. We see it also in the church with her many varieties of people and personalities that God made. 

This manifold wisdom of God, says Paul, is made known “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,” that is, spiritual beings who live in the unseen realm—whether they be good or evil. They’re watching history unfold, and as they do, God is displaying his manifold wisdom to them “through the church.” In the spiritual battle of cosmic history, the church is at the center of God’s plan. 

That’s mind-boggling. When God wants to show forth his wisdom to the invisible realm, he points to the church! Now, that raises a question. Of all the vehicles God could have used to display his kaleidoscopic wisdom, he chooses the church? Really? Why on earth would he do that? We want to say, “Hey wait a minute, God. Have you been to church lately? Have you seen the crazy things your people do sometimes? Have you seen the petty things they argue about? Have you seen how harsh and condemnatory they can be toward each other sometimes? Have you seen how irrelevant and out of date they are?”

Why would God use the church in this way? Isn’t the church an embarrassment to him? Be assured that God’s wisdom is not displayed because of the blemishes of the church, but because of the One who bought the church for him—Jesus Christ—and what the church is becoming in grace. God is patiently taking his people beyond their blemishes to a beauty that matches that of Christ. The process is long and slow, but it’s happening now. Paul is reminding us that the church of Jesus Christ is a prism through which the radiant wisdom of God is cosmically displayed. It’s no small thing, then, to be a follower of Christ. 

Use your imagination for a moment. If Ephesians 3:10 is true, then God could be saying something like this in the heavenly realm: “Hey, Gabriel, take a look at this. Watch my people trust my sovereignty when life is hard rather than stewing in self-pity!” “Hey, Michael, take a look at this: “Watch my people practice servanthood rather than living in selfishness like so much of the world!” And God is not looking to find fault. Like a father who wants to see his daughter shine on the stage in the school play, God delights when his people follow the script he wrote for us. As Paul said elsewhere, his for us not against us. And as the Apostle Peter said, “Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Pet 1:12b).

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Christ Community, Part 6: The Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

The most prominent image for the church in the New Testament is “the Body of Christ.” There are about 15 references to it from Matthew to Revelation. The image implies that believers are to be, do, and say what Christ would be, do, and say if he were physically with us today. For three and a half decades, Jesus lived on this planet as the Son of God—deity in human flesh. In his earthly body, he went around preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, loving and serving those for whom he came. 

•  With his eyes he saw the physical and spiritual needs around him.

•  With his ears he heard the cries of the hurting and the oppressed.

•  With his heart he felt compassion toward those who needed the grace of God.

•  With his feet he went to their side to be with them.

•  With his hands he touched them, fed them, and healed them.

•  With his voice he spoke God’s word to them

In time he died on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the world. He was buried in an unused tomb, and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is now seated at the Father’s right hand. 

On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—came back to earth indwell his people and constitute his church. So, while God came to the world in Jesus in a body 2,000 years ago, he now comes to the world in his new body, the church.

•  We are the eyes of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the ears of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the heart of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the feet of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the hands of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the voice of Jesus on earth.

Believers are the means through which Christ expresses himself and ministers to the world today. In short, the church of Christ is the body of Christ on earth. How in the world could we ever fulfill such a task? We start by staying connected to the head of the body—Jesus Christ himself.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Christ Community, Part 5: The Church as the Temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

In 1 Corinthians 3 and Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul likens the church of Jesus Christ to a sacred temple. The building blocks of this new temple, he says, are Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Together they “rise to become a holy temple in the Lord.” Not only that, says Paul, they’re being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” That is, they are habitations of the divine. Similar imagery can be found in 1 Peter 2.

It’s an amazing image to ponder. First, one of the great themes running through the Bible storyline is that God looking for a home on earth. That’s what a temple is—the intersection point of heaven and earth. Second, Jews and Gentiles were notorious for not getting along. Many within each group harbored a deep resentment toward the other. So, how in the world would this new arrangement work? With such contempt and disgust close to the surface, how would they ever interact peacefully? Clearly it wouldn’t be easy. But here’s the little known secret: it wasn’t supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be easy today, either.

The church-as-temple image tells us that God is building a “house” for himself, and flawed believers are his construction materials. Yet, the whole project is for his glory, our good, and the Kingdom’s gain. It was Augustine who first described the church as “a hospital for sinners.” He went on to say it would be very strange if people were to criticize hospitals because their patients were sick. The whole point of the hospital is that people are there precisely because they’re sick and they haven’t yet fully recovered.

And so it is with believers today. Colin Smith has noted, “It’s hard enough for two sinners to make a good marriage. So how much harder is it for 200 sinners or 2,000 sinners to make a good church?” Indeed, Scripture says when we see Christ, “we will be like him,” but until that time comes, we are like a building under construction. Construction is messy. Construction sites are muddy. The construction process can look like chaos. But the mess of construction means the Builder is at work, and the blueprint is being followed. As renowned theologian R. C. Sproul has said:

“The Christian church is one of the few organizations in the world that requires a public acknowledgement of sin as a condition for membership. In one sense, the church has fewer hypocrites than any other institution because, by definition, the church is a haven for sinners. If [we] claimed to be an organization of perfect people, then [our] claim would be hypocritical. But no such claim is made by the church. There is no slander in the charge that the church is full of sinners. Such a statement would only compliment the church for fulfilling her divinely appointed task.”

So, what is God up to in the building of his living temple, whose very stones are flawed from the get-go? That’s what we explore together in this message.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Unwrapping a Miracle: Joining Jesus in the Vital Work of Restoration

Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he did. John 11:44 says, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’” This well-known story is primarily a revelation of who Jesus is. In the Gospel that bears his name, John calls Jesus the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Light, the Word, the Son of God, and many other titles conveying his divinity. It’s all about him. But is there anything in this story for us mortals—before our own resurrection at the end of the age? Indeed, there is.

The dead in Israel would be wrapped in long strips of cloth. The strips were placed in such a way as to bind the limbs and keep them straight. Even the head was wrapped to keep the mouth closed. Such a tight encasement would have made it hard for a living person to walk, let alone a dead person whose consciousness had just been restored.

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Given these constraints, how did Lazarus even stand up when Jesus ordered him to? How did he make it over to the entrance of the tomb for all to see? Nothing but the power of God can explain such a miracle.

But could not the Savior who had just set a man free from the grip of death also set him free from the garments of death? If the restoration of life was no problem, could the removal of linens be a challenge? Obviously not. So, why the command? Apparently, Jesus delights in letting his followers participate in a miracle. 

  • “Take me to the tomb!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he find it himself?)
  • “Take away the stone!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he do that himself?)
  • “Take off the linens!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he do that himself?)

Jesus could have done all those things himself, but once again he allows his followers to participate in a miracle. It seems to be his pattern—and his Father’s. In the Old Testament, creation is supernaturally spoken into existence by God, but human beings have to take care of it. Manna is supernaturally rained down from heaven by God, but the Israelites have to go out and collect it. The Promised Land is supernaturally given by God, but the covenant people have to go in and take possession of it.

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Like Father, like Son: Jairus’ daughter is supernaturally raised to life, but the family has to feed her. The bread and fish are supernaturally multiplied, but the disciples have to distribute the food and pick up the leftovers. Eternal salvation is supernaturally accomplished on Calvary, but believers have to proclaim it for the world to hear the good news and respond in faith. Jesus acts like his Father in every respect.

The God of the Bible never needs our help, but he often allows himself to be “helped.” Remember the Palm Sunday donkey? “The Lord has need of it,” says Jesus (Luke 19:31). That’s an odd thing to say if you’re the Son of God.

What kind of a Savior admits to having a need? What kind of an all-powerful God is this? One who is meek. One who is kind. One who invites his people to join him in his work of restoration. It’s the same humble God we meet in the manger. And again in the upper room washing dirty feet. The beauty of Jesus’ meekness here in John 11 is that the people who wrapped Lazarus in sorrow now get to unwrap him in joy! Jesus made him alive, but they get to set him free!

This is the mission of the church—to help set at liberty those who are in bondage and living under the sentence of death. But it’s also a mission that applies to believers, too—those who have been resurrected by Jesus in the new birth but still may not be completely free. Can you relate?

All of us come into the kingdom of God with some sort of hang-up—a habit, an attitude, an addiction, a trauma, a psychological struggle, or some sort of besetting sin. Oh, we’re trusting Christ for salvation all right—and we’re spiritually alive in him—but we’re still not completely free. We’re wrapped up tight in a collection of character flaws and spiritual deficiencies. Theologians call it “remaining corruption.” And some of that corruption seems to remain for a long time. But it’s not who we really are anymore (cf. Rom 7:17, 20).

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Our fellow disciples are commissioned to help unwrap us from that which still binds us, even as they themselves are being unwrapped. That’s why, according to the New Testament, we do this for each other in a relationship of radical grace and non-judgmental accountability. We’re all in the same battered boat, so capsizing other people’s ships is rank hypocrisy.

Sometimes the unbinding process is messy and complicated (“But, Lord . . . by this time there is a bad odor,” v. 39). Sometimes it’s glorious and exhilarating (“Many . . . put their faith in him,” v. 45). Either way, when we join Christ in his work of restoration, we get to see the love-power of God in action—up close and in person.

We get to see Lazarus face to face, and we get to unwrap a miracle.

Thank you, Father, for your amazing love-power that can do all things. Send forth your Word again in our day to heal, forgive, restore, and provide. Open my eyes to the opportunities around me where I can participate in your divine work of restoration and be a conduit of your grace. Help me to be gentle and meek like Jesus, using my gifts, abilities, and resources to serve others and advance your kingdom. Use me as you see fit to help set others free from their bondage. And help me, Lord, to allow my fellow disciples to gently pull off my own grave clothes, too. Amen.

Image Credits: Jesus of Nazareth ITC; lightoftheworldgarden.com.

ICL Evangelism and Discipleship, Class Session 2

Class Resources:

Video Clip: Alistair Begg on “The Supremacy of Christ in the First Century” (2:45)

Video Clip: Paul Tripp on “Knowledge Does Not Mean Maturity” (3:45)

Video Clip: Robert Plummer on “The Greek Grammar of the Great Commission” (6:56)

Class video available (for 30 days) upon request.

The Permanent Exile of Death (Isaiah 25:6-8)

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines. 

On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.  

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces;
he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.  

Isaiah 25:6-8

There’s something pitiable about the person who lives in exile. To be in a faraway place when your heart is back home can be a severe discouragement. We can’t help feeling sorry for people who’ve been evicted or evacuated against their will. To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.

Have you ever felt like an exile? It’s a miserable sensation. The child going away for summer camp, or the teenager going away to college for the first time might have a sense of exile. So might the missionary who heads off to a strange and hostile land after years of being cloistered in a Christian subculture. 

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To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.

Indeed, exiles come in many forms—the military spouse who gets dragged all over the globe; the chronically ill patient who’s confined to a hospital bed; the success-driven businessperson who gets strapped into a plane seat yet again; the incarcerated man who can do nothing but hang his wrists on the iron bars all day long.

Then there are those who may be physically in their homes, but they, too, feel like exiles: the widow separated from her beloved husband, now living in a quiet house with echoes of poignant memories flooding her soul; the teen athlete who desperately wants to compete but has to stay cloistered in her house while a pandemic runs its course; the child whose parents are emotionally absent and unavailable to provide support and affirmation in those critical, formative years.

All of them can feel like exiles, and all of them desperately want to go “home.”

The people of Isaiah’s day knew that feeling well. Theirs was the plight of the exile. They’re a long way from home, and they have “miles to go before they sleep.” But Isaiah 25 is a song of liberation—an Old Testament Magnificat that anticipates real hope for a bright and glorious future. The hymn breaks into the text unexpected, celebrating the end of the tyranny and shame that have befallen the Jews for so long. God is clearly on the move, having subdued the enemies of Israel and having promised to restore them to a place of peace and prominence once again.

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With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. Verses 6-8 in particular celebrate the end of darkness and death for the covenant people. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.

As is often the case with Old Testament prophecies, the divine Author could see more than the earthly author (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12). It’s not difficult to capture glimpses of a greater resurrection in this passage—the bodily resurrection that awaits all believers at the end of the age.

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With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.

In fact, when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54 that “death is swallowed up in victory,” he’s citing Isaiah 25:8. When John writes in Revelation 7:17 that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” and again in 21:4 that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,” he’s surely alluding to the same prophecy. Isaiah’s original vision exceeds all expectations.

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Indeed, humanity’s exile to this sin-scarred planet of crime, cruelty, injustice, and death will one day come to an end. Like Israel of old, the church may continue to fail God in many ways, but God is still God, and he will keep his promises:

•  He will prepare an eschatological feast for his people (6).

•  He will destroy the corpse’s shroud that enfolds us all (7).

•  He will swallow up death forever (8a).

•  He will wipe away the tears from our faces (8b).

•  And he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth (8c).

In other words, death itself will be exiled forever, and the people of God will finally be home. And the authority for such a great hope is that the Lord himself has said it will happen (8d).

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Thank you, God, for your power over death and the hope that it brings. As we journey through this life—sometimes feeling like strangers and exiles—encourage our spirits by helping us to remember that you will keep your resurrection promises. In the midst of our many failures, disappointments, disillusionments, and inadequacies, help us to stay focused on the glorious future that awaits the people of God. We’re eager to see you, Lord, and have you dry our tears. Until then, help us to hope. Amen.