I had the great privilege of preaching for RUF at CNU’s leadership retreat this past Sunday (January 17, 2021). The message drew from Ephesians 3. Below is a transcript of the sermon.
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This past week I was trying to figure out what I’d preach on today—I flipped through notes from old Bible studies to see if anything caught my attention, and I tried to see if anything from class stuck out as particularly helpful. Normally I’d prefer to work through a series, but I don’t have the luxury of that this weekend; I can only preach one sermon. So I sat and thought, if I could only preach one message, if I could only say one thing to y’all—and this might be the last message from me you ever hear again—what would it be? My heart settled on a question one of my professors asked the class before class a few months ago.
Is Jesus precious to you? Do you love Jesus?
At RUF we like to emphasize good, solid theology—and trust me, Im a sucker for solid theology—but that’s not my questions today. This is about your heart. Is Jesus precious to you? That’s a question that every person has to wrestle with. It’s the most important question of our lives. But for Christian leaders, it’s particularly important, because we have more to lose. It’s something I have to seriously consider all the time.
Let me explain. For me, my faith isn’t just my personal conviction. Christianity to me is also the core of my community, my main hobby, and my career field. Between all those things there’s a lot of room for ulterior motives, so I have to ask myself: am I at this Bible study because I love Jesus, or is this just a convenient social event for me to see friends at? Am I reading this book on predestination only because it’s entertaining (to me, at least) or because I want to know the heart of God more deeply? Am I in ministry for a paycheck or the reputation, or am I really here to love and serve Jesus?
We’ve just spent a whole weekend talking about how to be good, effective campus ministry leaders—but let me ask you: why are you here? Why are you serving? Are you leading worship because you just like performing music in front of people, or is it because you want to foster genuine worship of your Lord? Are you a student leader because it looks good on your college resume? Are you here because all your friends are here? I’m not trying to be presumptuous or accusing, I’m not pointing fingers at anyone, but I am inviting us to be honest with ourselves. Let’s really assess our hearts, and let’s keep doing that continually throughout our whole lives.
To help us think through these questions, we’re going to dive into Ephesians 3 and see how Paul views Jesus; Paul will be our case study. We’re going to focus on three things in Ephesians 3:
- Paul’s Identity: How does Paul identify himself? Who does Paul say that he is? Why does that matter?
- Paul’s Mission: What is it that Paul preaches? How does he view his work, his role?
- Paul’s Prayer: What is Paul’s hope for the Ephesian church?
1 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— 2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. 13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:1-19, ESV)
Our first focus is on Paul’s identity. Who does Paul say he is? What does it matter? I’ve been reading a lot of Paul recently, especially focusing on the various way he identifies himself. It’s not for some profound reason; it’s simply because I’ve been learning Greek in seminary, and we’re mostly focusing on the first chapters of various epistles. I get so inundated in Greek that I start questioning my own identity. Who am I? How did I get here? Do I even know how to speak English anymore?
This winter I took a three day intensive course all on Greek sentence diagramming (fascinating, I know). We looked at Romans 1:1-4, and talked about what Paul has to say on obedience. My professor recommended me a book by Gregory Coles titled “Single, Gay, Christian.” Coles tells his own story of what it means to be all three of those things. It’s a brilliantly written, poignant account of a man who struggles to remain obedient to God in light of his persistent same-sex attraction. Now, I’m not gay—I’ve certainly had my own history of sexual brokenness, as I’m sure everyone here has as well. Seriously, there’s no way you’ve made it this far in life without having a totally busted view of sex.
This is a tangent, but I want to drive home this point a bit. Last week I met up with a few old RUF friends who drove to Fairfax. We decided to meet in Tyson’s Corner and selected the Lego Store as our rendezvous location (because who doesn’t love Legos?). I parked at the closest entrance to the Lego Store and had to pass by at least two lingerie stores before I got to the Lego store, and it occurred to me that we live in a society that puts Lego Stores next to Victoria Secrets. The fact that it doesn’t even occur to us how weird that is is evidence of how sexually saturated our culture is. If you’ve made it to 20 years old with no form of sexual brokenness you’re either a miracle or you’re lying to yourself.
What’s more, our society has inextricably tied sexuality with identity. One’s sexual preference is a definition of who one is. That’s one of the primary ways people find their identity today. I find it fascinating to contrast the ways people find their identity today with what we see when we look at the Bible. Here in Ephesians 3, we see that Paul defines his identity in a way that most people would cringe at today. What does Paul call himself? “A prisoner of Christ Jesus.”
What does it mean for Paul to be a prisoner? Well, he’s a literal prisoner to Rome; he’s been arrested and is going to stand trial. And yet, Paul very intentionally identifies himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Paul may be held captive by Rome, but he is captivated by Jesus.
When you’re a prisoner, how much freedom do you have? Not much, right? You’re bound to do the commands of the one who holds you. Paul is saying here “My life is bound to the will of Jesus.” Elsewhere Paul identifies himself even more uncomfortably as a slave of Christ Jesus. This language can make us uncomfortable because we much prefer talking about God as our Father, our Friend, our Hero and Savior. Amen and hallelujah, He is those things! And He is also our Lord and Master. That should make us feel a little uncomfortable—but remember: we’re not called to be comfortable. Rather, we’re called to be obedient.
That’s why my professor recommended us the book “Single, Gay, Christian”—it’s got some phenomenal commentary on obedience. Here’s a quote from his third chapter, “Debating the Divine”:
Obedience is supposed to be costly. When Jesus told his followers to take up their crosses and follow him, he wasn’t just calling them to place heftier check in the offering plate or to put up with the occasional irritation at work. He was calling them to blood and sorrow and unspeakable agony. He was calling them to death.
In many parts of the world, this calling to death is still very much a literal one for those who declare their allegiance to Christ. And if not death, perhaps the risk of beatings, of depravation, of complete ostracization by family and community. But in the Western world, lulled by freedom of religion and unprecedented opulence, we so easily lose sight of what words like suffering really mean. We begin to believe that ease and safety are the baseline experience of humanity, the natural states of being from which any other state diverges. And suffering, when it comes, feels like a violation. Suffering shocks us.
“I’ll follow you,” we say to Christ so readily, watching the thorns dig into his forehead. And then, moments later, we cry foul when we discover thorns of our own.
Don’t let the aesthetically pleasing cross hanging around your neck or on the walls of your church building fool you. There was nothing sanitary about the cross. Nothing beautiful, except the beautiful scandal of our redemption.
Maybe the problem isn’t that gay Christians have received an impossible task. Maybe the problem is that so many straight Christians have given themselves a task that is too easy, a cross that’s too bearable… (Coles, 38)
He concludes this section by writing “Maybe the problem isn’t that our faith costs some of us too much, but that it costs all of us too little” (39). Greg Coles knows much about the costliness of obedience. I opened with the fact that us Christian leaders have lots of room for ulterior motives in our faith. Coles finds himself in the opposite position. He has very little to gain and very much to lose by living obediently to Christ. Coles elsewhere writes how he’s an outcast both to the LGBTQIA+ community and to American Evangelicals. Coles and Paul have that in common; obedience has cost Paul much. Indeed, it’s gotten him thrown into prison, and many Christians have forsaken him—and yet he is eager to obey his Lord.
The natural question for both of these men is: why the heck are you enduring this? Why continue to obey when it costs so much? Paul not only identifies himself as a prisoner, but also a minister. That leads us into our second point.
What is Paul’s mission? What is it that he preaches? We’re shown right in verses 2-6. This is the gospel, the mystery that Paul preaches: Gentiles are included in the promise of life in Jesus. The cool thing about mysteries in Paul’s letters is that they’re always immediately explained. When Paul talks about mysteries, he refers to things that in the Old Testament were hidden but in the coming of Jesus have been revealed. And this mystery is awesome. The redemption God’s people looked forward to all those centuries is actually way bigger than they thought! It’s not just Israel, it’s everyone—like Super Smash Bros Ultimate, “Everybody is here!”
Paul’s mission is to bring that message to all the Gentiles, even to the Ephesians. “Okay, cool, that’s not all that surprising Patrick,” I hear you groan. “We get it, share the gospel.” But that’s not what I find fascinating about this passage. How does Paul talk about his duty, his calling? Look to verse 8: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given.” Not “this duty” or “this burden” or “this job” but “this grace.”
Remember where Paul is: in prison—and prison is just the tip of the iceberg for Paul. He’s been shipwrecked, beaten, stoned, whipped, chastised; he’s been driven out of his home city, he’s survived extreme poverty. All of that is far too overwhelming for us to understand, so let’s put it into terms we can relate to. He’s been abused, he’s been abandoned by friends, he’s been lonely for years, he’s been sick and had chronic pain, he’s been betrayed by people he trusted, he’s been hungry and homeless without enough money for dinner or a hotel. And yet he refers to his ministry, his work, as a “grace given to” him. Why!? How?!
Just see how he describes his work. It’s not merely “to preach Christ to the Gentiles.” Paul’s not just teaching history, he’s not just disseminating facts; he’s not only preaching “Christ”, he’s preaching “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Paul’s making a value statement. How do your translations render “unsearchable”? Maybe “unfathomable” or “immeasurable”? This word literally refers to a path or track that is so vast it cannot be fully explored. It’s incomprehensible. Do you see how precious Jesus is to Paul? I think it’s remarkable that elsewhere, Paul can measure the sufferings he’s endured. All the shipwrecks and beatings and everything else is listed in 2 Corinthians 11. And yet, when Paul turns to look at what he’s received in Jesus, he can’t even measure it. It’s so much greater!
Paul spends verses 9-12 defining exactly what that means, the message that has immeasurable value. But see how Paul ends this explanation; in verse 13, he says “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” Think about this for a second. Why would Paul say this? Why might the Ephesian church lose heart at Paul’s suffering? It could be that they sympathize with Paul—we hate to see our loved ones suffer, that can be very discouraging. But if I had to guess why they might be discouraged, it’s because they see the most godly person they know arrested by the authorities.
Imagine if you got word that your pastor got arrested and that he was in prison, or imagine that you show up to RUF one week and it’s just the interns and your campus minister is nowhere to be found, and the interns tell you that your campus minister got arrested and is in jail. On the one hand, you might start to question who it is you’ve been receiving guidance from these past few years, “Who is this guy? Can I trust him?” On the other hand, you might be concerned that if a godly man like Jeff or your pastor can be arrested, how are you going to fare any better?
I think that’s what’s going on here. The Ephesians might be discouraged that the Christian life involved suffering, and in fact the more devoted to the Christian life you are, the more you will suffer. But notice how Paul finishes his reassurance: “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” Paul’s suffering is because of the Gospel, but the Gospel is the very thing that brings glory and salvation to the Ephesians! Again, Paul’s suffering pales in comparison to the immeasurable riches of Christ; Jesus is that precious to Paul.
That brings us to our last point, which is the point Paul’s been trying to make this whole time—did you notice how verses 2-13 are all just a massive tangent? I love Paul. He starts in verse 1, then picks up again in verse 14, with “For this reason…” For what reason? Paul is building off of Ephesians 2, which we will not dive into at this time (but your homework is to read Ephesians 2 on your own time today). In short, Paul is talking about unity in Christ across all the church, in all its diversity. Remember Paul’s mission.
For that reason, Paul writes, “I bow my knees before the Father…”—see the humility, the servitude, the genuineness of his prayer—“that according to the riches”—again, precious—“of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit”—this strength is not of yourselves, it’s not something you conjure up on your own; it’s given to you, and it continuously comes from the Holy Spirit in you—“so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” That’s the heart of it: Jesus dwelling in your hearts. Paul’s prayer is that you might join in his adoration of Jesus, that Jesus may be as precious to you as He is to Paul.
This is the point of Paul’s ministry, this is his hope for all believers. Not that you might become more moral people, not that you might make new friends, not that you might boost your ego or your resume, but rather “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” This is the heart of our faith. This is why we’re Christians, this is why we’re here.
…Right? Is that why you’re here? Friends, let’s be honest with each other. Are you here for selfish reasons or are you here because Jesus is precious to you? If you’re anything like me, your answer is probably, “Both.” I am a confused, guilt-ridden, struggling and failing mess of both. Sometimes I do go to Bible studies just to see friends; sometimes I do read theology books just for entertainment; sometimes I do confess my sins just because “it’s the right thing to do” and not because I’m really grieved I nailed Jesus to the cross. If you’re anything like me, how can we possibly have hope? How can we know that God won’t cast us out for our fickle love?
Read verses 17-19 with me. Paul explains what he means by “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
…that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Whose love are we rooted and grounded in? Ours? No. His. In Christ’s love.
I’m gonna play an audio clip from a sermon my old pastor preached back in 2013; even though its been like 8 years, it’s stuck with me. The sermon was on having joy in the midst of hard circumstances and his text was from Philippians 1. He emphasizes verse 21, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”
(A transcript of the audio clip)
How is this worldview possible? The answer is the gospel. The only way in which we can say and mean with any passion in our souls that to live is Christ and to die is gain is through the gospel itself. This is not a thing you can work up within yourself; this is not a theory you can hold to and somehow apply in your life; this is not a legalism you can beat yourself up with and think, “I need to make my life more about Christ so that to die is gain.” It is a thing that can only come by grace. How? By realizing that for Jesus, verse 21 reads very differently. Jesus doesn’t say “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” Jesus says, “For me, to live was you. The reason I came to this earth wasn’t for my own sake, it was for your sake. The reason I came to dwell amongst this people wasn’t that I might teach them how to live better lives but was primarily that I might save them from their sin and from their brokenness—that these people who are full of anger and bitterness and jealousy and shame and who have added much to their guilt on a daily basis. I have come to live for them.”
And not only does he say, “To live is you,” he says, “And for me, to die is also you. Death is also for you. I didn’t hang myself up on a cross to somehow…bring attention to myself. I have done this so that your sins might be forgiven, that the eternal suffering we are due for the things we have done need not fall upon us because it has fallen upon me on the cross. So,” Jesus says, “for me, to live is you and for me, to die is you.”
Do you realize that Jesus considered you precious? He considered it a joy to redeem you. That’s the love we are rooted in. It’s not our own fickle, fleeting, weak love. It is our Lord’s eternal, unshakable, true love. Jesus is worth the pain. He’s worth the awkward, sheepish shame that so often comes with repentance. He’s worth imprisonment. He’s worth celibacy and ridicule. He’s worth the cost of obedience.
“Comprehend with all the saints”
This is my last thought. I want us to hone in on verse 18 where Paul writes “comprehend with all the saints.” Let me submit this to you: Paul is calling the Ephesians to community within the local church. This is the most important practical takeaway I could possibly offer you all. Grow roots in a local church. My greatest regret from college is not that I dropped my history major; that’s a distant second. My main regret is that I didn’t pour myself into my church sooner. My last year at By Grace was the sweetest year of living in Newport News. You all as college students are in town long enough to spread roots, to get involved, to love and to be loved. Do not let that opportunity pass.
And as important as that is for you now, it is worlds more important for you post-college. I’m going to be completely honest with you right now: it will never be more convenient for you to be a Christian than it is in college. Don’t get me wrong, being a Christian is not a walk in the park in college. I had my own struggles with that. But I am not kidding when I say it is so much easier compared to post-college life. You’re not going to live within walking distance of a community of Christians; you’re not going to have the luxury of choosing between 20 different small groups across 5 different campus ministries that meet at any possible time throughout the week; you’re not going to a campus minister or interns who are actively reaching out to you, to the point of annoyance, to meet with you and disciple you. You’re going to have a job (hopefully, eventually), you’re going to have a commute to church, you’re going to have to meet new people who aren’t your same age and don’t have your same interests or views, you might even have a spouse and kids one day, which suck up more time than you and I could possibly fathom.
The point is, you will have no shortage of excuses and things to blame for a withering faith after you graduate. Even in the most ideal conditions of college, you still could find friends who have a list of excuses why they aren’t prioritizing their faith right now; maybe you find yourself making excuses. Why am I saying all of this? I’m not trying to scare you or to shame you. My point is this: there will always be excuses for people who are looking for them, but if Jesus is precious enough to you, there won’t be a single excuse that could stop you from pursuing Him.
What do you point to for your identity? What is your mission? What is your prayer for your fellow RUF students? Is Jesus precious to you? You are precious to him. Let’s worship him as we close.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)
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