If you’ve ever given a significant amount of your time and energy to serve the Lord and help his church accomplish its mission, then maybe you’ve wondered on occasion if it’s all worth it. Maybe you’re simply exhausted from all the (sometimes thankless) hours you put in as a volunteer. Maybe your theme song in life goes something like this:
Mary had a little lamb, It would have been a sheep; But it joined an evangelical church, And died from lack of sleep.
Or as one church bulletin blooper put it: “Don’t let stress kill you. Let the church help.”
So many ministry events, so little time. So many service opportunities, so little energy. One can hardly blame the disciples for seeing five thousand men (perhaps twenty thousand people in all) needing food and care, and saying, “Send them away!”
We find ourselves saying the same thing sometimes. The sheer volume of needs around us can make us want to give up. The tank is empty. The well is dry. We get drained. We get burned out, and there’s nothing left to go on with. Joy erodes, and the marks of our personhood are rubbed raw.
Remarkably, Jesus doesn’t send the crowds away. People are not a burden to him (even the needy ones), so he doesn’t dismiss them. He wants them to draw near to him, and he treats them with compassion. Nor does Jesus let his disciples send them away. Rather, he says, “You give them something to eat.” This is where Jesus’ followers come in.
We learn here that our first response to the needs of others is not to measure our resources, but to consider God’s resources. When Jesus tells us to do something hard, we “act as if we can even if we feel like we can’t.” That’s when the miracle of multiplication takes place, and he swallows up our need with his infinite supply. To put it simply, Kingdom hospitality is letting Jesus be gracious through you.
So, what’s your hospitality quotient? Who’s at your table? Who does God want at your table? Who does he want you to feed?
At some point in our lives, we’ll probably be scandalized by the behavior of someone else—maybe even a fellow believer. What then? Tim Chester has said, “When you discover that someone in your church has sinned, your own heart will be exposed.” We tend to think at such times that all eyes are on the person who sinned, but no. God’s eyes are also on the people responding to that sin. Are they more eager to condemn or restore?
That’s one of the issues on the table when Jesus has dinner with Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader in the 1st century. A sinful woman comes into the room where they’re meeting and does the unthinkable. “As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them” (Luke 7:38).
If there’s a more tense and awkward scene in the Gospels, it’s hard to know what it is. The episode has everyone holding his breath, looking around, turning red, and wondering, “How can I slither out of here right now?” Indeed, Simon is thinking to himself, “If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).
Men like Simon avoided contact with “impure” people lest they become spiritually “infected” by them. Moreover, letting one’s hair down was reserved for the bedroom; for women to do it in public was grounds for divorce. Women in that culture were obligated to cover their hair in public. So, on the surface, everything here looks highly inappropriate—the hair, the tears, the touching. It’s almost as if the woman is treating Jesus as one of her clients. But unlike others in the room, Jesus interprets what she does as a loving act rather than an erotic act.
Everyone in the room expects Jesus to be scandalized, but he sees what’s happening in her heart. There’s nothing erotic going on at all. What Simon doesn’t realize is that Jesus—who can hear his thoughts, too—is testing him. How far does God’s compassion go? How about love? How about forgiveness? Jesus is testing us, too. How far does ours go?
The encounter also provides a sharp contrast between those (like Simon) who merely analyze Jesus, coming to him in a cold, clinical, and detached way, and those (like this woman) who adore Jesus, coming to him in a warm, relational, and personal way. In fact, she turns out to be a better host than Simon, and it’s not even her house! In the end, she sacrifices her prize possession—a costly alabaster flask of perfume—to honor Jesus and his grace. The heart of the contrast, says Jesus, is that some people see themselves as spiritually self-sufficient, while others see themselves as spiritually needy. Jesus comes for the latter.
In dramatic fashion, then, we learn that sinners welcome Jesus because Jesus welcomes sinners. The grace of acceptance comes first, and the grace of transformation follows. Religious folks tend to get that exactly backward. That’s why “the other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’” (Luke 7:49). Now, that’s the right question to ask! Have you answered it yet? Jesus is God with us. God in human flesh. God revealing God. And he gladly welcomes you into his presence when you come to realize that you need his grace, too.
Like coffee on the tongue of a child, the book of Ecclesiastes is an acquired taste. New believers don’t usually like it, and even seasoned saints aren’t always sure it belongs in the canon. Indeed, Ecclesiastes is one of the most puzzling and provocative books in the entire Bible. The author deals with a key issue of human existence—namely, the meaning of life—and all the questions associated with that vast and vital topic. What is the reason for humanity’s presence on earth? What can we do with our lives that will make them worthwhile? How can we truly find joy and satisfaction during our brief time on earth? What is the “big picture” of this world and God’s “end game” for it?
We’ve all wrestled with these questions, haven’t we? The everyday weariness, frustration, injustice, and sense of emptiness we sometimes experience during life “under the sun” don’t seem to square with those fleeting moments of happiness, contentment, and delight that are also part of our stories. Aggravating the problem is a certain death that looms over us all—a dread that stands in sharp contrast to the pulsating life we have now. Such contradictory realities cry out for resolution—if, indeed, there can be a resolution. If there’s no Big Story at all, what then is the point of all our little stories?
Christian faith teaches that people can believe there is a resolution to the conundrum—chiefly expressed in the hope-filled story of Jesus and his love. In his victory over death (and all the hate and hostility directed at him by angry and fear-filled people), he disarmed the ravages of soul that lead to hopelessness and despair. By conquering the darkness with his own faith intact (Luke 23:46), Christ enables his people to endure (and even embrace!) the riddles, mysteries, and unanswered questions of this life until the restoration of all things. Moreover, they are empowered to participate now in that restoration in Jesus’ name, knowing that all will be well in the end.
As coffee can help students pull an occasional “all nighter” on their way to the end of a semester, so the bold realism of Ecclesiastes can help us make it to the end of our lives knowing the journey was well worth it. Despite the evil and ugliness of this world, which seem to support the idea that there can be no meaning in the universe, humanity keeps pursuing the question of meaning. We see it in our songs, poems, and artwork all the time. “What’s it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?” Alfie may neither know nor care, but a large segment of humanity refuses to live with the conclusion that life is totally senseless and has no meaning at all.
But why should that be the case? Are we somehow “hard-wired” for meaning, or are we simply being naïve? Or could it be both? Ecclesiastes 3:11 says: “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of human beings; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” The text suggests that human beings are hard-wired for meaning (“God has set eternity in the heart”), but we will never comprehend the big picture in this lifetime (“cannot fathom what God has done”). The Christian faith we love and embrace allows both these things to be true at the same time.
It is important to note, however, that Ecclesiastes does not envision a superficial faith that fails to take into account the fallenness of this world. Rather, it is a wakeup call to believers and unbelievers alike. For unbelievers, Ecclesiastes is an evangelistic nudge, calling secular people to face the dire implications of their skepticism and consider a better way. Utter despair is neither warranted nor necessary. For believers, Ecclesiastes is a call to realism, summoning the faithful to take seriously the enigmas of life and the sense of futility it often contains. Triumphalism is neither warranted nor sustainable. True wisdom, then, recognizes that human autonomy, self-sufficiency, and perfectibility on our own is a myth. It also recognizes our need for divine grace at every moment—giving us an irrepressible hope as we face the future together. The overall message of Ecclesiastes, then, holds two realties in dynamic tension:
1. Human beings do not hold the key to the meaning of life. We cannot know the big picture in its totality—what life is all about with its many riddles, mysteries, heartbreaks, and inconsistencies. We proceed through life as a horse with blinders; we see in part, and the big picture is veiled to us. But this need not lead to despair for the people of God. We have been “hard-wired” to know that there is a big picture—that there is a grand purpose in which all the pieces of the puzzle fit together—even if the knowledge of how they do so presently eludes us. As eternal yet finite creatures, we are like crossword puzzle addicts with a limited vocabulary. We want to fill in all the blanks, and we get frustrated when we cannot.
2. Still, we can know the one who does know the big picture—the infinite God, who alone holds the key to the meaning of life. We can put our trust in him and live in obedience to his ways, even when life is baffling, disappointing, or patently unfair. We can trust him even when we feel tethered by our own limited understanding and finite comprehension of all that God is doing in the world. Wisdom involves knowing that nothing we pursue in this life can lift the veil, but one day our spirit will return to the God who gave it, and he will rightly judge all things. Consequently, during our brief time on this broken planet, we can still have a measure of joy at the end of the tether.
In short, the book of Ecclesiastes is a strategic blend of good news and bad news. It’s a thick, dark roast coffee dispensed with a hint of mint and mocha syrup to make it tolerable. Generally speaking, it gives us two things to do simultaneously:
1. Lament the BAD NEWS of Ecclesiastes.
Human life is extremely short. (1:2; 7:2)
Human life is inherently frustrating. (1:3-4, 11; 2:11)
Human life is exceedingly difficult. (4:1; 8:14)
Human life is spiritually broken. (3:11; 8:17; 7:20)
2. Celebrate the GOOD NEWS of Ecclesiastes.
God knows the big picture of human life. (3:11b, 14; 7:14a)
God encourages his people to live wisely. (2:13-14a; 7:12, 19; 9:17)
God invites his people to enjoy now the gifts he gives. (9:7-9; 11:8; 9:10; 11:9)
God has a life for his people beyond this life. (12:5, 7, 13-14, 11)
This last observation reminds us we can live now, and we can live forever. That is, we can be spiritually “well caffeinated” for life under the sun. And we can know for sure that something good awaits us above the sun. What could be more worthwhile?
Note: It was my Old Testament Professor Dr. David A. Dorsey who first got me turned on to the book of Ecclesiastes. He has a wonderful summary of the author’s message and layout in his book The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, Baker Academic, 1999.
Fanny Crosby wrote it, and the church often sings it: “The vilest offender who truly believes, / That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” They’re hope-filled words that easily roll off the tongue—but do church people today really believe them? Put the face of a real offender in our minds, and then we’re not so sure. Here’s another hymn we love to sing:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
So wrote John Newton, the former slave trader who came to Christ in the mid 1700s. Having come to Christ, he gave up his evil ways, renounced his oppression of other people, and eventually became a minister of the Gospel. A similar thing happened to Levi, also known as Matthew, the tax collector.
Tax collectors in the first century were despised by the Jewish people. They were seen as cheats and traitors for enriching the Roman occupiers by selling out their own countrymen. In fact, the religious leaders of the day said tax collectors could never be “saved.” They had too many sins to repent of in one lifetime. Consequently, the people hated them with a “religious” kind of disgust. Tax collectors may have been wealthy, but they were also isolated from the community of faith and the things of God.
It was shocking, then, that Jesus called Matthew to become one of his disciples. No one saw that coming. Most of Jesus’s students were Torah-observant Jews, but not Matthew. Jesus had compassion on him anyway. Matthew left his tax booth immediately and started following Christ, inspired, no doubt, by his message that even tax collectors could have eternal life. The bigger shock was that Jesus also attended a banquet at Matthew’s house, which would have been scandalous for any rabbi to do.
All through the Gospels, everyone is amazed by the surprising company Jesus keeps. They’re also amazed by the people he serves. But Jesus is willing to disciple anyone who will follow him. And he’s willing to dine with anyone who will host him. When people complain about Jesus for being so kind toward people like Matthew, he says he hasn’t come for the healthy but the sick (v. 31).
He then gives three illustrations about the grace of God that would become such a hallmark of his ministry—the illustration of the bridegroom (a time for joyful relationship, vv. 34-35); the illustration of the garment patch (a time for New Covenant forgiveness, v. 36); and the illustration of the wineskin (a time for overflowing grace, vv. 37-38). The banquet at Levi’s house, then, shows it’s not just our moral lives but our social lives that reveal whether we understand the heart of Jesus.
Most people looked at Levi and saw only an irreligious tax collector. Jesus looked at Levi and saw Matthew, author of the first Gospel. Church history tells us that Matthew was martyred ca. 65 A.D., proclaiming the risen Christ until his death by beheading in Ethiopia.
We learn from this meal that authentic outreach goes way beyond religious pronouncements; it entails winsome interaction. We also learn that open doors lead to open hearts; that’s why strict isolation from “sinners” is not the call of the Christian disciple. The heart of the Lord is compassion, which can only be shared up close.
Who is at your table? If “doing lunch is doing theology” (Conrad Gempf), then what kind of theology do you have? If there’s a place at God’s table for you, shouldn’t there a place at your table for someone else who needs divine grace?
When I was in college, I participated in Campus Crusade for Christ with a couple hundred other students. We used to do odd and silly things to gather a crowd and then talk to people about Jesus. We would do everything from crazy skits on the Sunnyside bar strip to air bands on the student union plaza.
Above is a picture of our group playing slow motion football one day in front of Woodburn Hall on the main campus. I’m the guy in the white shirt on the right, across from Steve, one of the leaders of CCC. We decided to growl at each other every down. The well-padded guy in the back is Fred, one of my roommates. We had a glorious time that day, and a few people gave their hearts to Christ. As Henry Blackaby reminds us, “The harvest is not the crowd. The harvest is in the crowd.”
Back in those days, we survived on the music of Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Russ Taff, Twila Paris, Michael Card, Rich Mullins, Stryper, Petra, and many others. They were good times, and we had many adventures with our faithful God.
Even if we don’t act as silly and odd as we used to, we still love talking to people about Jesus. Feel free to contact me if you need prayer or would like to chat about the claims of Christ and why he is “out of this world” for everyone still in it.
Fill in the blank: “The Son of Man came __________.” How would you respond? Teaching and preaching? Healing and forgiving? Loving and restoring? Dying and rising? All good answers, but Luke 7:34 says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking.” In fact, a major feature of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus is usually going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. If you love to eat, Luke is your Gospel.
But wait a minute. Does that sound like the lifestyle of a holy man to you? Does that sound like the behavior of a prophet? More feasting than fasting? More parties than protests? What kind of rabbi is this? The rap on Jesus was that he was “a drunkard and a glutton” (Luke 7:34). Now, Jesus was neither of those things—the Bible says he never sinned—but he did give his enemies enough ammunition to make the charge stick.
And they made the charge stick, not because he was eating and drinking per se, but because of the kinds of people he had at his table—those who were awfully low on the religious food chain. And there’s no indication such folks even had to “repent” before they could come and eat at Jesus’ table! The fact that they came at all—and ate and enjoyed his welcome—was apparently repentance enough for Jesus.
What’s going on here? It’s called grace. And grace is often a threat to the religious mind. Tim Chester has said, “In Luke’s Gospel Jesus got himself killed because of the way he ate.” That’s hardly an overstatement. Before Jesus ever picked up the cross, he picked up the fork. And when he did, he turned the tables—and everything changed!
In this series, we look at the major meals portrayed in Luke’s Gospel. We’re doing so because meals were central to the mission of Jesus; they embodied the very grace of God that he came to give. Significantly, the one person Jesus pictured tormented in Hades was a man who kept others from dining at his table (cf. Luke 16:19-31).
Moreover, Paul’s great exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith in the letter to the Galatians is sparked by a meal—by Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles. For Paul, broken table fellowship was a denial of the gospel itself. Why? Because meals are such a central and powerful expression of the reconciling work Jesus came to do.
In this first message of the series, we look at the meaning of meals and the potential of meals. Here’s what we discover:
Meals remind us that the God who feeds us is hospitable, generous, wise, and good.
Meals remind us that we are not self-sufficient creatures but finite beings dependent upon the Creator.
Meals reveal to us the status of our own hearts—who are we willing or unwilling to have at our tables?
Meals enable us to be conduits of God’s grace to others—to listen, affirm, encourage, inspire, value, and support others.
Meals remind us of the ultimate meal to come—the Marriage Supper of the Lamb at the restoration of all things.
Until that eschatological meal, Jesus feeds his people with the bread and cup of Holy Communion—his body and blood. Consequently, at the center of the Christian life is a meal—with Jesus himself as the main course. To quote Tim Chester again:
“Jesus didn’t run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events. He ate meals. If you routinely share meals and you have a passion for Jesus, then you’ll be doing mission. It’s not that meals save people. People are saved through the gospel message. But meals will create natural opportunities to share that message in a context that resonates powerfully with what you’re saying.”
So let’s ask the question: Who is at our table and why? Who might God want us to invite to our table to share and celebrate grace? Are there any biblical restrictions on who should be at our table? (Yes, but only a few. The holiest man from eternity ate with the unholiest people in history.) First John 2:6 says, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” Let’s update that statement in light of our theme: “Whoever claims to live in him must eat as Jesus ate.” Are you up for the challenge?
If you were looking for a new church home, what would you be looking for? What would be the criteria by which you make your selection? Size? Location? Style of Worship? Average age of the parishioners? How about facilities? Or the ministry programs? Or the preaching?
There are probably as many answers to that question as there are believers. Different people look for different things when it comes to finding a church. And trying to satisfy everyone is an absolute impossibility. But have you ever wondered, “What does Jesus look for in a church?” After all, it’s his church, right? What are the criteria by which he makes an evaluation?
Revelation 2-3 tell us. In these chapters we catch a glimpse of seven report cards for seven first-century churches in Asia Minor. The criteria Jesus uses to evaluate them may be different from our own. Now, Jesus is not looking for a new church home, but he is looking for a home in his church. What is it that makes him feel like he belongs in a group of believers? This message takes a summary look at that question in the context of John’s experience of the risen, glorified Christ.
John meets an awe-inspiring Jesus, functioning like a great high priest, actively tending to his lamps—filling his people with the oil of his Holy Spirit and trimming their wicks with his corrective word. He does these things so they can shine upon the nations with the hope of the gospel. The image tells us that the church is a company of believers vitally joined to Christ, giving light to the world. That’s a creative, apocalyptic way of saying much the same as we saw in the image of the church as the ambassadors of Christ.
Are we connected to the center stem of this lampstand—Jesus—by faith? Are we burning brightly for him? Are we allowing ourselves to be “trimmed” (i.e., sanctified) by the Lord? He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as “God on the cross.” In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his.”
After winning the gold medal in the women’s tennis event at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Serena Williams told a reporter, “I didn’t think it could be better than winning Wimbledon, but at Wimbledon, I was just playing for myself. The Olympic gold means more to me because I was playing for my country.”
It’s an interesting observation. When you’re competing to bring honor only to yourself, the victory may be wide, but it’s not very deep. When you’re competing to bring honor to an entire country, however, the victory is both wide and deep. But why? It’s because—in a sense—you’re sharing the celebration with the people you represent. Your victory is their victory, too. The joy is wider, and the satisfaction is deeper.
Imagine the significance, then, of representing not just a nation but an entire kingdom. And not just any kingdom but the kingdom of God. In 1 Corinthians 5:20, Paul says: “We are…Christ’s ambassadors.” In other words, we’re sent by the risen King—Jesus Christ—and we are sent to operate on his behalf in a certain cultural setting. We’re royal citizens of heaven, but we’re also heaven’s ambassadors on earth in a certain time and a certain ZIP code.
What are ambassadors? Ambassadors are government representatives commissioned to serve in a foreign country for the purpose of accurately communicating the position and policies of the government they represent so that the people to whom they speak will be brought into—and kept in a good relationship with—the government of the country they serve. When Paul writes, “We are Christ’s ambassadors,” he’s saying: The followers of Christ are the representatives of Christ in the world. That is both an honor and a challenge. This sermon takes a brief look at both the marks and message of an ambassador.
When it comes to the marks, Paul indicates that ambassadors of Christ must display loyalty, authenticity, humility, and winsomeness. They must have confidence in the message God sends them with and truly value the people he has made. There’s a sense of urgency to the task, and they have to be willing to let God share his message through them.
When it comes to the message, ambassadors of Christ speak about God and his grace. They do this because the benefits of the gospel are astounding. Paul writes, “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Ambassadors also speak about God and his invitation. They do so because the consequences of rejecting the gospel are disastrous. Paul writes, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor 5:20). To whom are you being an ambassador for Christ?
Scattered throughout the New Testament are words, phrases, and illustrations that give the church a military flavor. In Philippians 2, for example, Paul speaks of “Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier.” In Philemon 2 he refers to “Archippus our fellow soldier.” In 2 Timothy 2 Paul exhorts his young apprentice to “endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Moreover, Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of the faith.” The Christian life is a battle.
But the military motif is found not only in Paul. It’s also found on the lips Jesus. In Matthew 11:12, Jesus offered this challenging statement: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” Forcefully advancing is something an army does. It’s no wonder, then, that theologians have long spoke of “the church militant,” that is, the church on mission, as opposed to “the church triumphant,” the company of believers who left the battlefield of this earth and have gone to be with Jesus.
Now, we have to interpret these kinds of Scriptures carefully. The Christian mission does not involve taking up arms against a human enemy to advance the cause. That’s a gross distortion of the nature and purpose of the kingdom of God. When Jesus stood before Pilate, he said in John 18, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Moreover, the previous night—when Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane—Peter pulled out a sword and tried to attack the authorities, but Jesus said in Matthew 26:52, “Put your sword back in its place…for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
So, when we look carefully at the military flavored passages of the New Testament, it’s quite clear the type of conflict Christians are engaged in is radically different from the normal concept of warfare as we understand it. In fact, in this particular fight, the enemies are invisible. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5:
3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
Our is a different kind of war, says Paul. “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” So, the military image is designed to teach believers that: The church of Jesus Christ is a spiritual army that fights spiritual enemies with spiritual weapons. This message takes a look at some of those weapons. It also emphasizes that believers are not struggling for a victory, but from a victory—the victory Christ has already won.
There once was a church that was totally centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Above the entrance to their meeting place hung a sign that read, “We Preach Christ Crucified” (cf. 1 Cor 1:23). Everyone in that church knew what their purpose was in this world.
Over the years, ivy began to grow up and around the entrance, and it obscured the last word of the sign. Soon it simply read: “We Preach Christ.” The members of the church never really noticed the change because the sign accurately reflected what was going on inside. Rather than preaching the crucified Savior as they had in the past, they were now just preaching Jesus as a loving man—an example of how to live—but no death on the cross to atone for our sins.
As the years passed, the ivy continued crawling over the sign, which now read, “We Preach.” Again, the parishioners hardly noticed the change, as the message of the church had become more of a lecture about morality than a proclamation of the good news—that God gave his Son for us that we might have life in his death and resurrection.
Sometime later, the ivy crawled even further and covered more of the sign, to the point where it simply read, “We.” Again, church folks hardly noticed because they had become inwardly focused and only interested in themselves. Finally, the ivy covered the entire sign, and the church died. Such is the fate of any church that minimizes the central truths about Jesus Christ and fails to carry out its mission in this world.
In 1 Timothy 3:15, the Apostle Paul called the church of the living God “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” In other words, the mission of the church is to preserve and promote the central truths of the living Christ. The problem, of course, is that a vast majority of people today no longer believe in the concept of truth. Specific objections to the Christian faith include the following:
“All religions are equally valid and basically teach the same truths.”
“Each religion sees part of the spiritual truth, but none sees the whole truth.”
“Religious belief is too culturally and historically conditioned to be universally true.”
“It is arrogant to insist that your religious truth is right and try to convert others to it.”
“We will never have peace on earth as long as religions make exclusive truth claims.”
This message tackles each one of these objections, seeking to demonstrate that “what I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25). It then presents the simple message of the person and work of Jesus Christ, who reveals the Father, as Paul outlines in this passage:
Incarnation: “He appeared in a body . . . .”
Resurrection: “. . . was vindicated by the Spirit . . . .”
Verification: “. . . was seen by angels . . . .”
Proclamation: “. . . was preached among the nations . . . .”
Salvation: “. . . was believed on in the world . . . .”
Exaltation: “. . . was taken up in glory.”
The doctrines represented in the lines of this early hymn quoted by Paul are true. To surrender them is to let the ivy obscure the church’s message.
The word “saint” (Eph 3:18) is a descriptive noun for the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments. The root of the word is “holy,” which means “set apart.” From the time of the Exodus, the Israelites came to be called “the holy ones” because they were set apart by God’s grace and for God’s glory. They were ordinary people like everyone else, but now they were set apart by God for a special work and witness in the world.
So, the word “saint” refers to all believers—not just a few good ones. Indeed, despite the many flaws and faults of the Corinthian believers, Paul called them “saints” (1 Cor 1:2). They were called to grow in the sacred status they had already received in Christ. The same was true for the believers in Ephesus. Paul prays that they would especially grow in love:
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:14-19).
The prayer is loaded with theological insights and practical truths, some of which are highlighted in this message. The great doxology that follows the prayer is also glorious:
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Eph 3:20-21).
What can God do? Paul strings together here a series of “loaded” Greek words to say what cannot fully be said. First, he uses the word hyper, which means “above” or “beyond.” Then he uses the word panta, which means, “all,” “every,” or “any.” Then he uses the word hyper again, this time connecting it with a word that means “excessively” or “all the more.” How would you translate this stack of superlatives?
“far more abundantly”?
“exceedingly abundantly above”?
“beyond all measure more”?
That’s the best our translators can do. However we translate the phrase, it’s a genuine comfort to know we worship a God whose greatness cannot be exaggerated. As Corrie Ten Boom once said, “A religion that is small enough for our understanding would not be big enough for our needs.” The good news is, God is able do anything we can think of. The better news is, he is able to do what we can’t even think of!
And it’s all “according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph 3:20). That power is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. It’s the same power that raised him up into heaven. It’s the same power that made a new and living way for every saint—every believer—down through history. What trial could we possibly face that is greater than God’s love-power on our behalf? Billy Joel once sang, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, ’cause sinners are much more fun.” Paul would beg to differ. The saints of God are set apart to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
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.
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.
My birth certificate has always been as mysterious as President Obama’s. There are, to be sure, a lot fewer people in the world who are interested in my birth certificate than there were in his. Still, mine is crazy. For starters, there were three originals, and they all had different birth dates (March 30, March 31, and April 1). Second, the named father is not my biological father but the man who would have been my stepfather. And, third, a new birth certificate had to be issued after the “Decree of Abandonment” was signed by a Montgomery County judge:
“The court…finds that Henry Morucci [yes, that was my given name, but you’re not allowed to call me that!] was abandoned by his father…immediately following his birth and delivery of custody to the Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County, he never having seen the child, and after having been contacted by the Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County showed no further interest or desire to contact, see, or know the child in any manner whatsoever.”
That’s kind of cold to read, even after all these years. But the good news is that a completely different birth certificate was issued 13 months later when I was adopted by Carl and Cherie Valentino of Reading, Pennsylvania. Another signature by the judge—this time on a “Decree of Adoption”–changed everything:
“Hereafter the said Henry Morucci shall be in law the adopted child of the petitioners and shall have all the rights of a child and heir of the petitioners, and shall be subject to the duties of such child, and your petitioners further pray that the said child shall be known as Timothy Ray Valentino.”
If the decree of abandonment is a source of coldness, the decree of adoption is a source of comfort. In one single day, I got a new name, a new home, a new set of relatives, a new inheritance, and a new hope. In one single day, I got a whole new family!
So it is spiritually with the followers of Christ. The church in Scripture is referred to repeatedly as a “family.” That is, at one time we were spiritual orphans, but now in Christ we have been adopted as his children. And that changes everything.
Adoptions are expensive, and Jesus paid for ours on the cross with his own blood. In the process, we gained many spiritual relatives and a new spiritual inheritance. That’s a tremendous blessing and a tremendous challenge at the same time. In the end, we are reminded in this message that the church of Jesus Christ is a family of believers. Be a good brother or sister in the family!