Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Trinitarian Work of Christian Unity

Ephesians 2:11-22

In the Scriptures we might say that we find the overwhelming assumption of the doctrine of the Trinity. Nowhere in the Bible will we find the concise creedal statement, “God is one God eternally existing in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Yet when we study Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we are struck with the clear teaching on the unity of God along with the triune work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: “there is one body and one Spirit- just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:4-6). In the great doxological sentence of chapter one we find that God the Father accomplishes all things according the counsel of his will (1:11). This purpose is accomplished by redemption through the blood of Christ (1:7). This purpose is applied, sealed, and guaranteed in our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit (1:13).

This same unified, harmonious work of one God in three persons is found in Ephesians 2:11-22. What is particularly glorious about this passage is that it teaches us that the unity of many believers into one unified body is accomplished by our Triune God. As a body of believers we reflect the image of the Triune God – many members in one body- through the work of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As one body we do not lose who we are as individuals any more than Christ loses his personhood in his unity of essence with the Father. We are called to be unified, not uniform. This is part of the great mystery of the Godhead. There is diversity in the persons and functions of the Triune God. But it is diversity with perfect harmony and unity! And this is the work of God in his redeeming power through the Church.

In Ephesians 2:11-22 we find no less than twelve explicit references to the Trinity in twelve verses: five references to Christ – vv. 12, 13(2x), 20,21; five references to God – vv. 12, 16, 18, 19, 22; and two references to the Holy Spirit - vv. 18,22. God the Father has willed and decreed that a holy temple, a great household, a wonderful family be brought together throughout time and all over the world “to the praise of His glorious grace.”

But his children are rebels and sinners. Ephesians 2:11-13 paints a rather grim portrait of our sinful condition before the just and righteous God. We were “gentiles in the flesh,” the “uncircumcision.” We had no claim to an inheritance before God the Father. We had no place at his table. We were separated from Christ, aliens and strangers to the law of God and his covenant promises. We were at war with God, and at war with his people. We were far off, with no rightful access to God. We were without hope and without God in the world.
How might this hostility be abolished? How might these warring brothers be united? How might this sin be atoned? How will the prodigals, aliens, and strangers be brought into the commonwealth of Israel? By the Triune work of God.

First, by the purpose, decree, and power of God (Eph. 1:3-14). This sovereign purpose of God is the overarching theme of Ephesians, and more than that, the whole of God’s Word!
This purpose is accomplished by the work of Christ. In Ephesians 2:13 we see that we were brought near to the holy and just God by the blood of Christ. Jesus Christ made one body by giving up his own body on the cross. He made one new man, reconciling all men to God through the cross. He preached peace first to the Jew (who was near) and then to the Gentile (who was far off.)

This work of Christ is applied by the work of the Holy Spirit. We see in verse 18, while Jesus did
the work of atonement, the Spirit does the work of granting access. We have access to the Father by the indwelling presence of God Himself in us by the Spirit. We are made a “dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” We are a new household; each of his children by the spirit of sonship (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). We are brothers and sisters “eagerly maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3).

As I reflect on Ephesians 2:11-22, I have to ask myself if I typically look at unity in the body through the beautiful Trinitarian lens that Paul gives us in this passage. Try a little exercise with me. Consider a brother or sister in the church you find difficult to get along with. Perhaps they rub you the wrong way, or maybe they have legitimately hurt you in some way. Maybe you have a bone to pick with an elder in the church, or you have issues with the way a fellowship group leader teaches, or how he handled a situation. Now consider him in light of Ephesians 2:11-22 and the work of our Triune God in making both of you one “to the praise of his glorious grace.”

Remember that both of you share a common heritage of sinfulness, exile, separation from Christ, hopelessness, and alienation from God. Without the pure, undeserved grace of Christ, neither of you have any claim to godliness, goodness, nor glory. This tends to level our pride, doesn’t it? Keeps you from “thinking of yourself more highly than you ought” (Romans 12:3).

Next, remember that God chose him before the foundation of the world according to the purpose of His will. God the Father loves this brother as a son and has a glorious redemptive design for his life, and you are part of that design as a member with him of one unified body.

Now reflect of the blood of Christ that was shed to bring both this brother and you near to God. Through the body of Christ, you are now one body. Whatever hostility there is between you, it has been removed by the work of Christ. You were given peace through the cross of Christ. You have both been reconciled to God and this same power is at work to reconcile you to one another.

Consider the reality that you are both members of one household, children in the same family, citizens together of one nation, each fitted into a new structure, a holy temple in the Lord. You are each indwelt by the Spirit of God. The same Spirit that quickened your heart from death to life worked this same regeneration in the heart of your brother! The Spirit in you is the Spirit in Him [are you referring to ‘him’ your brother or ‘Him’ God?...wasn’t sure] and the same Spirit “who searches even the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10). Through this same indwelling Spirit you are together part of the very dwelling place of God.

As we see our lives, our identity, and our relationships through the glorious work of our Triune God, what is it that might impede unity in the body? What human hindrance stands in the way of the decree of God, the blood of Christ, and the work of the Spirit? What sinful struggle or satanic strategy can thwart the harmony and order that is ours through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. With this Trinitarian vision, heed the call of the Apostle to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Don't Take Your Life Into Your Own Hands

I know that you are stunned (all three of you) to see a Holding Fast either on this illustious blog page or in your inbox. Well, here 'tis. Sorry for my laziness in posting. Spring is crazy and crazier, and things have slowed down a bit, allowing me to squeeze in time to jot down some devotional words. As well, you need to know this about me- I am not a very fast writer. I always have a lot I think I want to say, but struggle greatly in the saying of it. Many, many a post have begun, and still sit in the cyber dustbin of My Documents.

I'd like to veer a way from Ephesians and look at a passage from my daily Scripture reading. Last night I read 1 Samuel 24-25, the familiar story of David sparing King Saul's life. If you haven't read it, or don't remember it- please read it now.

David is a rising star in Israel and has also been anointed by Samuel to be the 'true' King of Israel after Saul spared Agag, king of the Amalekites and kept the plunder for himself. Saul is seething with jealous rage toward David, seeking to capture and kill him at every turn. Remember the songs that echoed through Israel, "Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands" ? (1 Sam. 21:11) David and his men are on the run throughout the wilderness around Judah, hiding out in the caves. In our passage here, the outlaw band is in the wilderness of Engedi ('spring of the kid', thus the reference to 'wildgoat's rocks' in 24:2), deep within the caves while Saul and his 3000 warriors encamp outside waiting to strike. We can assume that perhaps a spy caught sight of King Saul in a vulnerable spot 'relieving himself' (Heb. 'covering his feet' - a Hebraic euphemism, you know, 'seeing a man about a horse') alone, without his cohort. David is urged by his men to go in and kill the King of Israel, ending their miserable existence as outlaws in the desert and establishing their rule and authority in the land.

David does not kill Saul, instead he cuts a corner from the king's robe to reveal that he could have taken his life and yet spared him. David had the chance to take hold of his destiny, to take his life in his own hands: to kill an hostile enemy, to establish himself as King, to vindicate his name and reputation, to give himself to lead all his followers and admirers in Israel, to show his power and authority to his men, to enjoy the fruit of kingship-wealth, power, comfort, worldly success. David does not take his life into his own hands, but rather continues to entrust his life to God and honor the king. Why? There are a few reasons laid out for us in 24:6-22.

1. David had a tender conscience. We read in verse 5, "afterward, David's heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul's robe." The NIV says that David was 'conscience stricken', the NAS says that David's heart 'bothered him', and the King James translates it, "David's heart smote him". I find this point especially interesting because there is a real sense in which David had a right to strike Saul down. We remember that earlier, because of Saul's sin and wickedness, God had rejected him as king. David has already been anointed by Samuel to rule over Israel. Saul is certainly in the wrong in doggedly pursuing David and seeking to kill him. David says to his men in verse 6, "the Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord's anointed..." Yet, the anointing was taken away from Saul and placed upon David! What do we learn from this?

Whether or not David had the right or the freedom to strike Saul down is not the issue. David's conscience would not let him. God speaks and testifies to us not only through his word, through the counsel of others, but also through our conscience. Paul says in Acts 24:16, "I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man." In Romans 2:15 we read that the law is written upon our hearts, and our conscience bears witness to it. In speaking about issues of Christian liberty to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 8,10), Paul strongly admonishes them to heed their own consciences and the conscience of others in how they act and in the manner in which they live. John Gill, the great baptist theologian, defines consience in this way:

"It is a power or faculty of the rational soul of man; by which it knows its own actions, and judges of them according to the light it has: some take it to be an habit of the mind; others an act of the practical judgment, flowing from the faculty of the understanding by the force of some certain habit."

Whether or not we feel David would be justified in striking Saul down, David's conscience was denied him this liberty and he could not act against the internal witness God had given him. When we ignore this internal voice, Paul says we become cauterized, seared, unfeeling and hard hearted. In this light, Paul exhorts Timothy to 'hold on to the faith and a good conscience' (1 Timothy 1:19).

2. We find in David's actions a commitment to obeying God above one's personal sense of justice, the need for retribution, and a claim to rights or power. Jesus commends much the same thing in the sermon on the mount, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake...do not resist the one who is evil but if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also...love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." The Apostle Paul tells us to "bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse...repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all...never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God..." (Romans 12:14ff.) David was not enslaved to his own personal desires for retaliation. David was not cheifly concerned with his reputation. David was not primarily concerned with the judgments of others. God is the sovereign judge of all, and David serves His God first and foremost.

Let's say you have been hurt by someone, maligned, impugned, whatever. Your reputation is at stake, your sense of justice breached, and the wisdom of the world is on your side. Do you assert your rights? Do you assert your power and vindicate yourself and every possible turn? The Scriptures don't call us to be doormats, this is not the lesson. The lesson is, though, that our actions are not in accordance with human perception, along the lines of worldly wisdom, or the sake of personal vindication. We don't serve man, we don't serve self- we serve God and seek to please him in all things. We also recognize that in the final analysis, the sovereign God will judge rightly and we can rest in his ultimate power. As we display this trust in his hand, as we show grace to others in such a trust- we are unveiling the real source of our hope and our life

3. Take note of how David deals with others. When others are calling him to act against his conscience, he opposes them. He does not cave in to the pressures of his men. In refusing to kill Saul, he was refusing them safety, the comforts of home, and insuring that they would be spending more nights in some God forsaken caves. In refusing to heed their advice, to ignore their urgent designs for his future- he was risking the threat of mutiny and rebellion to his ever lengthening list of problems. Nonetheless, he stood down his men, and refused to capitulate to the pressures of the flesh and the world. I think of Paul’s words to the Galatians as he stood down the Judaizers and rebuked Peter for caving to their legalistic demands and perversion of the gospel, “Am I now seeking the favor of men or of God? Am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)

We also see David choose to take the high road with Saul, appealing to the conscience of the King and pleading for justice and grace. David does not taunt the King or mock him. Rather, he honors Saul, even in the face of Saul’s wicked designs to take his own life. Again David is entrusting his life and future not to Saul, but to God who establishes Kings and takes them off their throne. David understands that it is not his place to do God’s job for him. But he can honestly and transparently appeal to his King. Sometimes I think we plot and connive, speaking and manipulating in secret, hoping we might secure victory for ourselves. It is God’s to secure victory, and it is ours to behave righteously.

Just a few lessons from the soon to be King of Israel. It is important to remember these three things as well, in conclusion:

1. David wasn’t always faithful, and was a great sinner. It is dangerous to turn all of this into mere moralism. David was a man after God’s own heart, which refers to a heart of repentance and faith, not perfection and human righteousness.
2. God didn’t resolve all of David’s problems immediately, not by a long shot. Saul continued in wickedness, David continued to wander in the wilderness, and God’s providence led him through a hard road of resolution to his ‘Saul problem’.
3. Ultimately, God judged rightly. The wicked faced judgment, the faithful were vindicated. This is the way of things, and the promise of the gospel is that by faith in Christ the wicked are made faithful, and in the righteousness of Christ the sinner will be vindicated before the holiness and justice of God. We are called to repent of our sin, and believe, entrusting ourselves to God through Christ.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Dead Men Walking

Ephesians 2:1-10

There was a heartbreaking statement made by Anne Frank, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Sadly, she would lose her life, and all that she held dear, to demonstrate not the truth of these puerile beliefs but the darkness of the human heart.

Paul spares us any sentiment in his description of the human condition here in Ephesians 2. He doesn’t swoon over the loftiness of the human spirit. On the same token, Paul’s description is not a cold cynicism or embittered disenchantment because of life’s disappointments and loss. Paul states plainly and forthrightly the rather bleak reality of our natural, sinful state apart from God’s grace: “you were dead in trespasses and sins.” The prophet Jeremiah states this reality in such stark terms as well, “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure; who can understand it” (Jer. 17:9). We are made in God’s image, but are fallen; in our natural condition we are dead men walking. In its litany for the burial of the dead, the Book of Common Prayer puts it rather famously, “in the midst of life we are in death.”

I am always fascinated by how we manage to skirt the reality of sin. It is as plain as the nose on our face. Sin and its consequences are everywhere: crime, poverty, disease, corruption, deception, pain, anguish. Pick up today’s newspaper and you will find a register of humanity’s awful, sinful situation from a local to a global scale. Each morning you look in the mirror and behold the deadly effects of sin – every day renders us a bit older, fatter, and greyer; drawing us closer to our inevitable demise. Yet, we are constantly denying and obscuring the plain reality of the sin around us and the sin within us. This denial in itself is part of the sinful condition. It is a sort of pride, a stubborn unwillingness to recognize our need and inability. We are prone to the same proud hope in self which plagued the Laodicean church in Revelation 3:17, “not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

There is a sort of sinful trifecta at work in our depravity outlined in Ephesians 2. Paul says that by nature we followed the “course of this world,” the “prince of the power of the world,” and lived in “the passions of our flesh.” The war on sin is fought on three fronts: the world, the devil, and the flesh. Interestingly, throughout the New Testament we find that the world is a system of ideas, desires, and agendas opposed and hostile to the kingdom of God and the work of the Spirit. This is the city of man: the empires built through human endeavor as a legacy to man apart from God’s power and grace. The world calls us to bow the knee to money, power, human influence, personal autonomy and self service. However imposing and powerful it might seem from our narrow creaturely perspective; this system is fleeting and vain, already under the judgment of God and will one day be destroyed (John 12:31).

Paul says that in our former “walk” we followed the “prince of the power of the air.” Paul calls this prince or ruler (Jesus refers to Satan as the ruler – archon- of the world in John 12:31) the “god of this age” in 2 Corinthians 4:4. We discover that there is a real and actual being in the universe who has set up a kingdom in opposition to God. Peter says that he is a devil (diabolos- accuser, adversary) who prowls about like a lion, seeking those he might devour. Paul’s description of Satan’s domain is interesting, and could mean a variety of things. He has dominion in the “power of the air” which could be translated atmosphere or even foggy atmosphere. Some have taken Paul to mean that Satan is the ruler of the shadowy and dark realm of powers and principalities who are at war with the Sovereign God of the universe. Some take “the power of the air” here to mean that he is the ruler of a passing and empty dominion, however powerful it might seem at any given moment. Certainly we must understand that there is a real enemy, a powerful adversary who wages war against God and his people. He seeks to deceive and devour, enticing humans into his control through the temptations of the world and the desires of our flesh. But his power is limited and restrained by God, and his kingdom is passing away and without any lasting influence.

Lest we remove ourselves from any culpability in this equation, Paul states clearly that we are part of the problem. We are by nature sinners through the trespass of Adam (Romans 5:12, 17). We were born sinners and “children of wrath.” Yet we also actively walked in these sinful desires, we lived in them, gratifying and pursuing our own self interests and fleshly concerns. In our flesh we aligned ourselves with the world and the prince of this world, against God’s rule and design.

This second chapter of Ephesians contains the familiar and glorious witness to the grace of God, “by grace you have been saved through faith” (2:8). Many of us have memorized this verse from childhood. Before Paul exalts the grace of God he uncovers the depths of our sin. The gospel of grace shines forth only in the context of depravity and the darkness of the human heart. We were dead in sin. There is nothing good and righteous in a corpse. We were lifeless, lost and without hope in the world (2:12).

There is another trifecta in this passage - the richness of God’s mercy, the greatness of God’s love and the immeasurable riches of his grace toward us in Christ Jesus (vv.4, 7). Verse 5 begins with a wonderful little word, the conjunction even (Greek- kai). It is one thing for a well man to praise God for a gift, or a sick man to praise God for healing. It is quite another for a dead man to praise God for life itself. It was not in our goodness that God reached down with his grace, it was even while we were dead in transgressions. It was not that God saw any innate potential in our hearts, it was even while we were dead. Our righteous deeds were filthy rags, our hearts were bloodless stones. Even there God’s rich mercy, his great love, his immeasurable grace breathed life.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Open Our Eyes - Part 2

Ephesians 1:17-23

Part I of this devotional gave us insight into what Paul prayed for all believers – spiritual maturity and an opening of our hearts to see beyond this world and to the riches of the next. Paul prays that we would catch a glimpse of the following: first, hope; second, a glorious inheritance; third, the immeasurable greatness of power. Paul doesn’t elaborate too much on these first two things, but spends four verses fleshing out what he means by the third. Let me point out just a few things from these closing words of Ephesians 1.

First, this power is spiritual. It is not just ‘natural’ or ‘physical’- though it is certainly that, as the bodily resurrection demonstrates. It is in this sense that we must have our ‘heart eyes’ opened up. We do not see this power at work in a natural, or normative, sense. God isn’t levitating chairs or blinking light bulbs in the parlor like some sort of poltergeist. As if this were any real display of power anyhow. Paul prays that we might see with the eyes of faith what is ‘beyond the veil,’ so to speak. Paul is assuring us that the same power that breathed life into the dead body of the crucified Lord, the same power that rolled back the stone, the same power that lifted Christ bodily into the heavens, the same power that established Christ as Lord of the Universe at God’s right hand, this power is at work in us, through us, and for us.

Second, I’d like to focus in on verses 22-23, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” When Paul speaks of God’s power at work in ‘us,’ it is important to understand who this us is. Paul says that God’s power is “toward us who believe” and that those who believe are united to the church, which is the very body of Christ. There is a treasure of truth in Ephesians related to this wonderful new creation that God made in Christ, the church. I believe the central truth and theme verses of this letter are found in 3:10-11, “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There is a lot more to be said about this, but here in chapter one, we see that the power of God is not received, felt, and displayed in our lives individually. We are brought into a corporate relationship to God and the saints, and we are to corporately reveal and unfold the mystery and wisdom of God as the church.

This is a very important point, and is a driving principle in my life and ministry as a pastor, so we’ll linger here a bit. You will often hear me say, “I don’t believe in the priority and importance of the local church because I’m a pastor; I’m a pastor because of the biblical priority and importance of the local church.” What I mean to say here is that I don’t push membership and involvement in the local church because it’s crucial to my vocational success, or because it is in my job description. I push membership and involvement in the local church because I believe it is crucial to the growth and sanctification of the believer and the spread of the gospel to the world. Because of this conviction I gave my life to leadership and service in the local church. The church is not a social club; it is not a therapeutic program; it is not a non-profit community center. The church is the body of Christ, the instrument of God’s sovereign and saving power, the inheritor of all the spiritual blessings of God in Christ, the display of God’s wisdom to rulers and authorities (seen and unseen). The believer who embraces the fullness of this Ephesian ecclesiology, who commits fully to this glorious design of God will see hope to which he has called us, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance, and the immeasurable greatness of his power.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Open Our Eyes - Part 1

Ephesians 1:17-23

It is good for us to pay attention to verses like Ephesians 1:17. Here is an answer to the question, “How did great men of God like the Apostle Paul pray? And what did they pray for?” We have a partial answer to the first question in 1:16, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” Paul prayed with constancy and fervency. When should we pray? The answer here is ‘whenever!’ or ‘as much as possible!’ We find from verse 16 as well that Paul allowed thanksgiving (over need, anxiety, fear, desire) to rule his heart as he lifted it to God. All the glorious truths of our salvation spelled out in 1:3-14 cause the Apostle’s heart to overflow in thankful prayer for God’s people. In the next wonderful paragraph we discover what Paul prayed for the Ephesians and for us, and what we should be praying for each other.

Paul asks that God might give us “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him.” Paul desires that God’s people might be full of a heavenly wisdom which equips them to see through the deception of the world, the flesh and the devil. Consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:12-13). In a real sense, Paul is asking for spiritual maturity. This maturity comes from the Spirit of God, who dwells within us.

What an interesting phrase in verse 17, “a spirit …of revelation.” This is, of course, a reference to the revelatory work of God in the Scriptures. God has unveiled his purpose and design for the universe in the Scriptures. But there is a sense in which we are to have a spirit of revelation. Theologians have called this the doctrine of illumination, the work of the Spirit of God enlightening the truths of God to his people through his word. Paul further defines this spirit of revelation in verse 18, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened…” What a wonderful phrase! First of all, Paul is asking for an enlightenment that reaches deeper and further than that which is seen or known in the natural realm. He is asking for that wisdom and knowledge that allows us to grasp that “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Paul’s great concern for the Ephesians is that they might be given a heavenly perspective and spiritual maturity that allows them to see beyond the struggles and temptations, even the mundane satisfaction of their daily lives. He asks God to open the eyes of our hearts to “the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” We must be given spiritual eyes to look beyond the vain and empty hopes of this world. If we are only able to see the material, earthly world around us, then we would be hopeless, despairing people. Imagine having all that this world offers: money, beauty, fame and reputation. Would you be happy? Consider those who have such things. Are they happy? Are they satisfied? The reality is, they are some of the most desperate, unsatisfied people we can imagine. Why? Because they have experienced all the joys that the world offers and have discovered it tragically lacking.

So, what is it that Paul wants us to catch a glimpse of? What is it that our ‘heart eyes’ must see? Hope, a wonderful inheritance and power beyond our imagination…if we follow God’s design for his people.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Thanking God for His People

Ephesians 1:15-16

You may have heard me joke regarding my own noble profession, “Don’t be a shepherd if you don’t like the smell of sheep.” I’m not sure who coined it, but the saying is certainly true. Another once said, “If it weren’t for people and their problems, ministry would be great!” I recently inquired of a man in our church about how his fellowship group was going. He joked, “Apart from all these messed up people, I love it!” Of course, such exclamations are silly. Ministry is people. What is a fellowship group without people? Yes, people can be difficult; people have problems. These problems can be messy and ugly. And, pastors and faithful servants get the joy of seeing the mess up close and personal. But we press on. We continue to serve people with the good news; we continue to pursue others with Spirit-filled fellowship. We do this not because they are good, or because they are without problems; quite the opposite. People are sinners, and our sin is deep and dark. It brings chaos, pain and ultimately, death. But Jesus’ redeeming love is deep and wonderful. It restores order, comforts the afflicted and breathes forth life.

The struggles of ministry, and the reality of people’s sin and depravity, is only half of the story. Yes, if you take seriously the ‘one anothers’ of the New Testament, you’ll discover that the road of obedience to these commands is dangerous and fraught with sorrow. But we find the rest of the story as we travel along. A glimpse of it is found in Ephesians 1:15-16 as Paul begins his intercession for the Ephesian church. He prays, “…because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” Paul faced all sorts of ‘people problems’ in his mission to bring the light of the gospel to a dark world. This letter is one of the prison epistles written by Paul under house arrest. He was so reviled by the Jewish leadership that he was framed (Acts 21) and falsely accused. The Ephesians understood the conflicts that go with bold gospel ministry- stubborn opposition, demonic activity and riots (Acts 19). Remember over in Philippians where Paul tells us that there were those who were “preaching the gospel out of envy and rivalry…thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment” (Phil. 1:15-18). Talk about persecution. I’ve never been imprisoned for my faith in Christ; much less received persecution and affliction by so called Christians while in prison! But this was only part of the story.

Consider the striking source of Paul’s joy: the faith and love of God’s people. Consider also that the great bulk of the New Testament canon is not a collection of dry theological treatises, but personal correspondence. We have God’s Word through the letters of love, warning, joy, sorrow, and hope to God’s people. After all, the salvation of people was the great goal of Paul’s ministry. He was “a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles” (Eph. 3:1). This being so, it is understandable that he rejoiced in the faith of God’s people; for people were putting their faith in Christ. He can take hope that as he is in chains, the people of Ephesus soldier on in loving all the saints. This was Paul’s consolation at the end of his life. All had deserted him; no one was with him at his trial. Though he must have struggled mightily with depression and loneliness, we find these stirring words, “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (2 Tim. 4:17). This is the valuable lesson from these two verses in Ephesians, and the whole life of the Apostle Paul: the ministry of the gospel is hard (life threatening, in fact), God is good and people are being saved.

I can say Amen to Paul’s thanksgiving here. Yes, the sheep are stinky (but then, shepherds don’t smell like roses either) but their faith and love are a great joy to me. I love to hear the testimony of people committing themselves to a fellowship group with fear and reluctance only to find the blessing and joy of communion with God’s people. My Dad, a 40-year veteran of pastoral ministry, would be asked what it is like being a pastor. He would respond simply, “I love the view.” Those who give themselves to the mandate of sacrificial service to the body of Christ (whether they are pastors, elders, deacons, fellowship group leaders, or Sunday school teachers) are given a skybox view of the Spirit’s work. Paul faced great struggle and opposition in Ephesus; and he was able to enjoy the fruit of his labors just through the hearing of the Ephesians faith in Christ and love for the saints. This news was a source of unceasing thanks for the Apostle.

This week, whatever difficulties I might face as a pastor, I will resolve to remember the wonderful people that God has given me to work with and for. I will look beyond the struggles and find joy in the reality that I am surrounded by people who are full of “faith in Christ Jesus.” I will find joy, with the apostle Paul, in the many examples all around me of the love of God’s people for the lost and one another. Today, this stinky shepherd will not cease to give thanks for the stinky sheep, remembering them in his prayers.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Never Fear...

Pastor Erik will be posting more Holding Fast devotions from Ephesians after the first of the year.