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 Have you seen how irrelevant and out of date they are?”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 7: The Church as the Company of Saints (Ephesians 3:14-21)

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?

  • “infinitely more”?
  • “immeasurably more”?
  • “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.

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.

The Christ Community, Part 2: The Church as God’s New Humanity (Ephesians 2:11-18)

Ever since Genesis 3, it has been hard for people to get along. We’re all so different, and, because of our fallenness, those differences can annoy us, threaten us, and make us suspicious of one another. In jealousy, envy, and pride, we tend to think, say, and do nasty things to each other, making life unpleasant at times.

In the first century, there were two groups of people who didn’t get along very well—Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles were everybody else. Both latent and overt hostility marked their relationship over the centuries. Paul addresses that enmity in Ephesians 2, and he talks about what God has done to rectify it. The solution he offers is still relevant today because the world is more polarized now than ever. In recent years we have witnessed a growing hostility between races, classes, genders, and political parties. The tension is exhausting and disillusioning. 

How can God take widely diverse and disparate people and put them successfully into one new group? Paul’s answer is Jesus. Why? Because “he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).

Paul argues that the source of alienation between Jew and Gentile—God’s law—was put on the shelf (2:15a) because the source of reconciliation—God’s Son—was put on the cross (2:13b, 16b). Human beings may be hostile to each other, but God treated his perfect Son as if he were all the world’s hostility rolled into one. And when Christ died on the cross, the Father regarded the hostility itself as having died, too. God’s purpose was to create one new humanity out of the two—a horizontal hostility replaced with horizontal peace (2:15b).

The result is that irreligious people (like the Gentiles, who thought they are “far off”) can now hear and believe the gospel of peace (2:17a). Religious people (like the Jews, who thought they are already near) can hear and believe that same gospel (2:17b). All are “far off” because of sin, but all can “draw near” now because of Jesus. God is wise in this regard. All who draw near to him wind up drawing near to each other, too. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate fully in his new community—the church.

That’s not always easy because we’re all different. But believers who draw near to God bear the marks of unity in diversity. That’s why Paul cites the Trinity two times in this passage (2:18, 22). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the ultimate model for the church—a community of truth, love, and unity in diversity.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

‘Plenty Too Much’: The God of Immeasurably More

What are some of your highest and best thoughts about God? How incredible is he in your mind? How awesome do you conceive him to be? Now multiply those thoughts by a billion, and what kind of picture emerges? Raise them to the millionth power, and what do you find? No matter how lofty our thoughts about God may be, they will always fall short of his infinite greatness. 

And to that I say, “Thank God!” His ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts (cf. Isaiah 55:9). Clearly, our finite minds run out of steam while the infinite mind keeps going and going. We’re a tiny drop of water in the vastness of God’s unending ocean. I used to be frustrated by that, but I’ve come to see it’s a genuine comfort to 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 challenge is trying to express God’s greatness in human language with all our inherent limitations. How can we even come close to doing it justice?

In the soaring conclusion to his lofty prayer in Ephesians 3, the Apostle Paul strings together 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 (without precedent) to the word ekperissou, which means “excessively” or “all the more.” How would you translate this stack of superlatives? 

  • “infinitely more”?
  • “immeasurably more”?
  • “far more abundantly”?
  • “exceedingly abundantly above”?
  • “beyond all measure more”?

That’s the best our translators can do, and you might recognize some of these expressions from your own Bible reading. Perhaps Eugene Peterson captures it well in The Message, where he paraphrases the sentence like this: “God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!”

All told, these words allow Paul—and us—to burst into jubilant praise about God’s majestic abilities, all of which come to fullest expression in the love of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:18, NIV). 

Paul also indicates here that God is not limited by our asking but can go way beyond our hopes, dreams, and expectations. He’s like a cascading fountain that not only flows but overflows. As many of us used to sing in Sunday school when we were children, “My cup is full and running over.” That’s because God delights in pouring 24 ounces of iced tea into a 12-ounce glass. The resulting mess is part of his message: “I am the God not only of abundance but of superabundance.” 

This mindset runs in the family, too. Whenever Jesus, the Son of God, multiplies food for the masses, there are always multiple basketfuls left over. He, too, is a God of superabundance. And his love overflows to the ends of the earth. To borrow a phrase from the pidjin English used on mission fields around the world, God loves us “plenty too much.” This love sustains us as we walk the (sometimes painful) road of sanctification to which we’ve been called, “grow[ing] in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). 

I hope that God has done “plenty too much” for you this year, difficult though it may have been amidst a global pandemic and a widespread sense of national angst and polarization. If not, may his blessings cascade beyond your wildest dreams in the coming year. Do not give up! He has not abandoned you. It’s not in his character to do so. 

Image Credits: wallpaperflare.com; wallpaperstock.net; shutterstock.com.