Date: 7 January 2024, 9.30 am
Speaker: Rev Nathanael Tan Sermon Text: Ephesians 3:1-13
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Recent events in Israel are very tragic-loss of more than a thousand lives in a day, including women and children. A war that has taken the lives of thousands in Gaza. God’s heart breaks at this, at the hardness of human hearts, both Jew and Palestinian. Is there any hope of peace and reconciliation between these 2 peoples?
About 10 years ago, Andrew Bush, a missionary and professor witnessed a window of hope in Israel, I quote (or paraphrase what he saw):
…I attended a remarkable meeting in Bethlehem on the West Bank for the launching of a devotional … The book is a collection of three hundred sixty-five devotions, one for every day of the year. Remarkably, each day’s entry was written by either a Palestinian Christian, an Israeli Arab Christian, or a Messianic Jew. For the dedication celebration the authors each shared a few words about the project. Finally, we all joined in a time of prayer. As voices were lifted in Hebrew and Arabic, Norwegian and English, it seemed like the glory of Pentecost might fall again!
In our Bible passage today, Paul says that the church is important because of her unity-where jews and non-jews are one in Christ. Not just that, the church is important because in her unity, she is a witness to all creation, of the wisdom of God.
These are the two points in our message today. Why is the church important?
The Church is a Unity. Vv1-6; 13.
The United Church is a Witness to God’s wisdom. Vv.7-12.
Let’s go to the first point: The church is a unity. Vv1-6; 13.
Before Paul talks about the unity of the church he gives some context to where he is. Paul refers to his imprisonment-actually-house arrest in Rome- twice in this passage. In v1 and v13, the start and end of this passage. V1 reads:
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles. V13, simply refers to his imprisonment as his suffering for them.
Now most people would feel sorry for themselves for being in prison, but Paul saw it differently. He was a prisoner not of the Romans, but of Christ Jesus, his Lord and Saviour; and he willingly became a prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles because that was more important than his freedom.
Ultimately, what landed him in prison, was the mystery of Christ. The word mystery here means a secret that can only be discovered by God revealing it to us. But what exactly is the mystery of Christ in this passage v3, 4, 6(esv), 9?
The definition is found in v6.
6 to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, NASB 1995.
In other words, the mystery of Christ is that Gentiles are full and equal partners with the Jews in God’s family. They are very different, but united as one Body in Christ, with the same privileges and blessings.
The OT prophets etc, and people of God had no knowledge of this. You may ask…really? Aren’t there Bible passages that refer to Gentiles being part of God’s family-joining the Jews in worship of God?
Yes there are many references, but to the Jews in those days, what they had in mind was uniformity-the Gentiles were to conform to Jewish culture and practices, like circumcision before they were added to the congregation of Israel. They would forever be second class Jews. But the mystery revealed to the NT apostles and the church is that in Christ, through the Gospel, both Jew and Gentile are united in one Body of Christ, as equal members.
My friends, this was what Paul was concerned about-the unity of the church-where Jews and gentiles were brought together as one body in Christ-and that was more important than his freedom.
What does this mean for us today, in Singapore today?
It is said that the true value of something, is what you are willing to give up for it. Last year, Taylor Swift tickets were selling for a few hundred dollars online. That was the market value, but resellers were selling them for upwards of a thousand dollars because people valued the chance to see her perform. People were willing to give up sleep and stand in line at Singpost the night before to secure their tickets. Now many were in line not because they liked Taylor Swift, but they loved their friends or children who were fans, and were willing to stand in line because of them.
Let me ask us something very personal then…if a united church in Christ that is culturally diverse is so important to Jesus…what are we willing to give up for it? Because make no mistake, this is very important to Jesus. This is why he died, to bring people from every people group to God’s family-into the church.
Rev 5:9-10 9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
What are we willing to give up so that Christ is glorified in a united church that is culturally diverse? Now the cultural situation in SG is quite different from the church in Paul’s day. The pressing issue was how Jews and non-Jews, for thousands of years enemies, could come together as one body. In SG, we have many people groups but the dominant group is still Chinese.
But it does not mean there is no cultural diversity.
First of all, even between Chinese, there are cultural differences-a Chinese person born in the Philippines will be very different from someone born in Singapore---trust me---Irene was born in Manila and there was some culture shock when we got married-for example-she eats her dumplings with ketchup! She in turn is horrified to see us put chilli and black sauce in chee chong fun-steam rice rolls.
Secondly, there is a generation gap, this is also cultural. The millennials and younger see things very very differently from a gen x-what more a baby boomer? We see staying in a job for at least 6 years a sign of maturity and loyalty, they may perceive it as a lack of ambition and clarity about our goals in life.
So even in a church that is mainly of one race, we have differences in subcultures; and intergenerational differences. But in spite of those differences, what are we willing to give up so that the church is united?
I recall many years back in Hebron, the Mandarin worship service (MWS) outgrew Bethel sanctuary, and was bursting at the seams with worshippers, quite a few in wheelchairs…the Session met and decided that because we are one united church, not 2 congregations EWS and MWS, the Second English Service, SEWS -where young and young at heart worshipped would swap with them and let them use Zion, a much bigger sanctuary. I was there at the Session meeting, and trust me, we felt this was God’s leading, and there was real joy among the MWS leaders and congregation. Not just that, our young people were happy to shift to a cosier worship space and they also saw that the older MWS congregation needed the space more than them. Personally, this was the moment I felt proudest as a Hebronite.
Another application has to do with missions, where we take the Gospel across cultures. What are we willing to give up so that God’s church is culturally diverse and united?
Through the years, I know Hermon has also done cross cultural work, or missions, locally and overseas. I have had the privilege of meeting Zebedee for several chats. He shared with me a bit about the work overseas; and when he returned to SG, I saw him play basketball regularly with a diverse group of youths, reaching out to them. I also know David and Lai Kin, the good work you do with culturally diverse students in BB and the kindergarten in the past.
They saw the importance of a united church, culturally diverse, and were willing to give up much for that, but none saw it as a burdensome sacrifice; like Paul, they knew Who they were serving-our Lord and Saviour Jesus; and they loved the people that Christ died for.
My friends, if a culturally diverse church is worth losing our freedom for, even our lives-like what Paul and Christ gave up; what are we willing to give up for a united church?
for a start-give our time to find out and pray for the nations to reach Christ. One way is through the Joshua project-an app you can download that highlights an unreached people group with info and prayer points-won’t take too long.
have a meal and chat with someone from another ethnic group / or school friends, colleagues.
Go for a short-term cross-cultural trip-outside or within Singapore-, go as a fellowship, or a family.
So far, we have talked about how the importance of the church is seen in unity between diverse people groups; and that is important enough for us to give up our freedoms. Vv1-6; 13.
But there is another reason why the united church is so important to God. The reason is that God has purposed the united church to show powerful spiritual beings His perfect wisdom. This is the second point of the message. Let me read vv 8-10 for us from the CEV:
7 God treated me with kindness. His power worked in me, and it became my job to spread the good news. 8 I am the least important of all God's people. But God was kind and chose me to tell the Gentiles that because of Christ there are blessings that cannot be measured. 9 God, who created everything, wanted me to help everyone understand the mysterious plan that had always been hidden in his mind. 10Then God would use the church to show the powers and authorities in the spiritual world that he has many different kinds of wisdom.
Now most versions of the Bible use the term-powers and authorities in the heavenly realms-which gives us the impression that only the good angels in heaven are shown God’s perfect wisdom in the united church.
This actually is not the case. A better translation is actually found in the CEV, which uses ‘spiritual world’. Powerful demons are actually part of the spiritual world. Paul references this in Chp 6 of Ephesians:
10 A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. 12 For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. NLT.
These are the same phrases used in Ephesians 3:10 -the powers and authorities in the spiritual realm, or heavenly places.
Both good angels, and bad ones, or demons, are taught, and shown God’s manifold wisdom, through the church which comprises Jews and Gentiles, a church united despite diversity and centuries of conflict.
As a scholar has said-the church is graduate school for the spiritual powers.
Pause and reflect with me. Angels and demons are far smarter than us- they, unlike us have seen God, and have heard Him speak in the heavenly courts-they outlive us, they outrank us, they are far more powerful than us. A single angel destroyed 185 000 Assyrian soldiers in one night to save Judah (Isaiah 37:36).
God could have used many things to teach them or show them his manifold wisdom. But He chose the united church-a church comprising Jews and Gentiles, people from every ethnic group-formerly enemies, now Brothers in Christ, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
At the start of this message I talked about the conflict in Israel, between 2 different people groups, I asked, is there hope for reconciliation and peace? Yes. God has a plan to save both, through the church of Jesus Christ. When the gospel reaches both peoples, real change begins, when both sides see their rebellion against their Creator, and the grace of God given to them by Jesus, Who loved them both and died for both, to make them one united people, in the church. In the united Body of Christ, the church, there is real forgiveness, and reconciliation. This, friends, is the glory of God-and His perfect wisdom-that silences the demons, and causes the lips of angels to praise God.
Subha was a young Palestinian woman who came to Christ through a dream where someone told her she was going to meet people who would teach her new things. Shortly after that she chatted with a Christian on the internet and eventually received Christ. She was also moved by Jesus’ examples of forgiveness in the Gospels. One day, while traveling in a taxi with her infant son, a militant Israeli settler threw a rock at the windscreen and shattered the glass. A few splinters pierced into her eye and caused her pain. Doctors advised her after a few surgeries nothing more could be done to improve her eyesight and pain. She would have to live with the pain through painkillers. During a retreat in Bethlehem, she was able to meet with several Israelis. She told them about her injury and saddened, they asked for forgiveness on behalf of their nation. Subbha said, “We are all humans. We have all sinned. We all need forgiveness. So you do not need to ask for forgiveness. But since you have asked, be assured of my forgiveness”. (Andrew F. Bush, Learning from the Least: Reflections on a journey in mission with Palestinian Christians. p.18)
My friends, who do you think witnessed the spiritual journey of Subbha, and marveled at her forgiveness of those who did her wrong? The purpose of the church, the united church, is to show cosmic, spiritual powers, both good and evil, the manifold wisdom of God-forever. I think a big part of that wisdom, is how in the Church of Christ, there is forgiveness and reconciliation between former enemies from different people groups.
Let’s apply this individually and as a church. As individuals, so we need to forgive anyone from this church who is from a differing camp from you-I am not just saying someone from another ethnic group, but someone who holds a different view than you on an issue that is important.
As a church, is Hermon growing in teaching and modelling forgiveness to others?
As Hermon embarks on this exciting journey in Henderson will you be culturally diverse yet united because Christ died for your unity; and would your unity in Christ, show the spiritual beings the perfect wisdom of our God?