In 1993, Bill Murray starred in a film called Groundhog Day. He plays a weatherman who's assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day event. He hates this assignment and wants to get it over with as soon as possible. But he wakes up the next day and finds that he's in a time loop. Every day is now Groundhog Day for him. The basic plot of the movie is, "He's having the worst day of his life, over and over..."
Do you ever have the feeling that it's Groundhog Day, the same day of your life over and over? Years ago someone said, "The hardest thing about life is that it's so daily." Life can easily become a drudgery, when our hearts are really longing for more. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and do more than get up every day to repeat the same things over and over.
Some of you may say, "I'd like for my life to be a drudgery." Things may be so bad in your life right now that you actually miss when your biggest problem was boredom.
If you are struggling with either problem - drudgery or trials that are worse than drudgery - then today's passage is going to be a help to you. Today's passage is really a digression or a detour in the book. The apostle Paul is writing to a church and describing how God's great power is at work among them. he begins to pray for them, and as he begins he gets sidetracked. It's important to see what sidetracks him, so we understand why he writes what he's about to write. We'll then see how relevant this passage is to our own lives as well.
So what sidetracks Paul? Look at Ephesians 3:1 with me. Paul writes, "For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—" and then he breaks off and switches topics. You have to ask, what made him lose his train of thought and take this big digression? You get a hint to the answer if you look at how he concludes his digression in verse 13: "I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory." This is so important if we're going to understand this passage and why Paul wrote it.
The problem that prompted Paul to write this passage is that he is in jail and suffering. He's a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and he's suffering. Paul realizes that this could be very discouraging to his readers. Acts tells us that Paul was seized by an angry mob, beaten, and bound in chains. People plotted to kill him. Some swore an oath that they would not eat or drink until they had killed Paul. Within a few years of writing this, Paul would be martyred in Rome. This raises big questions and big doubts. The very reason Paul gets distracted is because he is in the middle of major trials, and these trials are likely to affect the churches that know and love Paul. They're likely to get discouraged too.
So what do you do when you're in the middle of trials that discourage you? What do you do when you are caught in the middle of trials that are not only yours, but that are dragging the people around you down? This is relevant to us because many of us are dealing with stuff that overwhelms us, or maybe we're just dealing with the discouragement of daily living which can cause us to lose hope.
Paul gives us insight into two truths that give him confidence and hope even in the middle of these trials:
One: That he is part of something bigger
Read verses 2 to 7 again with me:
Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.
As Paul wrote this letter, he was probably under house arrest in Rome. If the average person had met Paul, they probably would have seen him as nothing more than a common prisoner waiting trial. But as you read this passage, you get a sense that Paul understands that he is part of something much bigger. In verse 2 he talks about being a steward of God's grace. Paul sees himself as having a God-given role in making the gospel known to others, specifically to the Gentiles who hadn't heard it yet.
This gospel never ceased to amaze Paul. He's already told us that what the gospel is in chapter two. First: God has taken spiritually dead people and has made us alive by grace through faith. "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5). Second: God has already begun to unite all things together again in Christ, and he's begun in the church. He's done this by breaking through all the barriers that divide us to make us into a new humanity in Christ. He alludes to this again in this chapter, verses 5 and 6: God has revealed something now that nobody in previous generations understood. Sure, they understood that Gentiles would be included in God's plan. But nobody ever thought that Gentiles would one day be on completely equal footing before God. We are, Paul says in verse 6, "are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus."
In other words, Paul realized that he was part of something much bigger: part of the plan of God who created all things. Notice the change that it made:
- He calls himself a "prisoner of Jesus Christ" in verse 1. Not a prisoner of Caesar, but a prisoner of Jesus. He could see that God, not Nero, was in control, and had put him right where he wanted him.
- He said "on behalf of you Gentiles." Paul had been arrested because of his association with Gentiles. He could see that his suffering had a purpose. It wasn't just random. He was giving his life to a purpose that transcended his imprisonment.
- He spoke of becoming a "a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace" (verse 7). Most of the time, I think we tend to talk about what we do for God. Paul didn't. He saw ministry not as his gift to God, but God's gift to him.
- Then notice his humility in verse 8. He calls himself "the least of all the Lord's people." This isn't false humility. Paul knew that he was in need of God's grace as much as any person who has ever followed the LORD.
Because Paul grasped the gospel and his part in it, he had confidence and hope even in the middle of trials. He knew he was part of something bigger, and it gave him hope even under house arrest. Understanding the gospel gives us confidence and hope in our trials.
We all need to live for something bigger than ourselves. Paul David Tripp writes, "There is woven inside each of us a desire for something more - a craving to be part of something bigger, greater, and more profound than our relatively meaningless day-to-day existence." That longing to be part of something more in your life - that's God given.
What is it? It's the gospel. Understanding the gospel allowed Paul to see his life completely differently. The same thing can happen for us. Instead of seeing ourselves as a teacher working for the board of education, we can see ourselves as a teacher working for Jesus Christ. When we suffer, we can see that even our suffering has a purpose. When we serve God, we can see the ministry as a gift from God rather than an obligation or something we're doing for God. And it will give us a humility, because we'll marvel that God has chosen us even though we are the least of all of God's people. Understanding the gospel gives us confidence and hope in our trials.
If you ever go to the south coast of England, I hope you get a chance to stare out over the English Channel and imagine what happened there in the spring of 1940. Hitler had the Allied Forces in a corner and was getting ready to invade Great Britain. His troops were closing in on the Allies in what was going to be an easy kill. Nearly a quarter million young British soldiers and over 100,000 allied troops faced capture or death, and the Royal Navy could only save a small fraction of this number.
But a bizarre fleet of ships appeared on the horizon of the English Channel. Trawlers, tugs, fishing sloops, lifeboats, sailboats, pleasure craft, an island ferry named Gracie Fields, and even the America's Cup challenger Endeavor, all manned by civilian sailors, sped to the rescue. The ragtag armada eventually rescued 338,682 men and returned them home to the shores of England, as pilots of the Royal Air Force jockeyed with the German Luftwaffe in the skies above the channel. It was one of the most remarkable naval operations in history. And for those few days they were more than trawlers and fishing boats, and they could put up with all kinds of trials because they had a purpose. You can have the same thing happen in your life. It's the gospel that gives us purpose that we're part of something much bigger even in our trials.
There's a second truth that kept Paul going. Honestly, this one could blow us away if we really understood it.
Two: That the church is part of something bigger
Not only did Paul see his life as part of something bigger, but he looked around and saw that as the mystery of the gospel was being revealed, God was accomplishing something that boggles our minds. He writes:
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10-11)
This is going to blow our minds. The very existence of the church, Paul wrote, has a much higher purpose than we realize. It's an amazing thing that spiritually dead people are raised to new life, and that former enemies become family with each other within the church. This is such a big deal that it is the way that God has chosen to reveal his wisdom in its reach variety. Think for a minute of all the ways that God could show to angels and demons that he is wise. The human genome shows that God is wise. Scientists are unravelling all the ways that information is stored in our DNA that makes us who we are. It's amazing. The universe shows God's wisdom. I could think of many ways that God could choose to show angels and demons his wisdom.
But look at how God has chosen to reveal his wisdom: through the church. As somebody has said, the history of the Christian church has become a graduate school for angels. Demons thought they had Jesus killed once and for all. All of his followers were scattered. But he rose from the dead. But then he left. You can't expect much from a small group of followers who had never amounted to much. But then Peter - yes, that Peter - got up to preach, and thousands joined the church. Satan and demons threw everything they could at the church, but the church continued to spread all throughout the Roman Empire, so that this obscure, marginal movement became the dominant religious force in the western world for centuries.
The very existence of the church is a sign to demons that their authority has been broken, and that their final defeat is imminent. God shows through the church that his purposes are being fulfilled and they're moving toward their climax. F.F. Bruce says that the church is "God's pilot scheme for the reconciled universe of the future." God has chosen to display his wisdom in all its dimensions through, of all things, the church. It blows my mind.
By the way, this has huge implications for how we see church. A lot of us try out a Christianity that's all about us and Jesus and has nothing to do with the church. But that doesn't fly as you read Ephesians. The church, according to Paul, is central to history. It's central to the gospel. "The church is good news of a new society as well as of a new life," says John Stott. The church is a showcase to the entire universe of God's wisdom in all of its variety. This makes all the difference in how we see the church.
And because Paul saw his life as something bigger, and the church as something much bigger, he was able to write in verses 12 and 13:
In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.
Because of all of this, we have access to God that's unhindered by hostile powers. We can have assurance that our sufferings have a purpose, and are actually tied to our glory. Understanding the gospel gives us confidence and hope in our trials.
I don't know what you're going through this morning, but I know that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, that you are part of something much bigger, and this can give you confidence and hope even in the middle of your trials. And if you're not yet a follower of Christ, then the good news is that the gospel is about taking people just like you and making them part of something much bigger, something that can give a prisoner, a cancer sufferer, a divorcee, a doubter, a struggler, a sinner hope confidence and hope, even in the middle of trials.