The Revelation of God’s Mystery (part 6) … Suffering for Glory
Scripture Reading Acts 20:17-24
Sermon Title: The Revelation of God’s Mystery (part 6) … Suffering for Glory
Sermon Text: Ephesians 3:1-2, 13
- How is Paul a prisoner of Christ Jesus?
- How is Paul a prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles?
- How does Paul suffer tribulations on behalf of the Gentiles?
- What is meant by, “they (Paul’s tribulations) are your glory”?
NOTE: “Scripture quotations are from the NASB." I provide this manuscript as a courtesy. I do not follow the document word for word during the message. I also do not write the document with the intent of publication; there may be grammatical errors throughout. Thanks for understanding.
Introduction: The Picture Frame of Suffering
If Bible passages were able to be represented as paintings, the opening paragraph of Ephesians 3 would make a beautiful masterpiece. Surely not one of the most beautiful paintings of Scripture, but certainly one of great beauty.
The subject of the painting is the revealed mystery. We would see a picture of God giving the Apostle Paul the ministry of grace to preach to the Gentiles the mystery of Christ. The mystery would appear as an object once hidden in God and darkness to the eyes but now revealed by the bright shining light of God’s Holy Spirit. Around the illuminated mystery, God’s apostles and prophets stand in wonder and awe as they describe what they see to a great crowd of people. Words flow as life from the mystery. The crowd includes Jews and an array of people of different lands, who were once forsaken by God, all holding hands and rejoicing at the incredible news that they are now fellow heirs, members, and partakers of the promises of Christ.
The mystery is a great rich treasure in their midst. Its wealth is unceasing. Written upon the treasure is the name Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The apostles and prophets and the people are not the only ones in the painting. In the outer atmosphere, we see spiritual beings looking at the scene unfolding before them. What they see is different from what the crowd sees. While the crowd looks upon the unfathomable riches of the treasure, the demonic beings see God’s glorious wisdom. Their eyes are stricken because they see their inevitable destruction.
It’s a painting filled with bright heavenly light and outer darkness. It is filled with vivid, rich, colors of the people of the nations. It is a painting of a vast scene of earthly landscapes and atmospheric depth. At the center is the beauty of Christ’s holiness which stands in stark contrast to the distorted ugliness of the evil spiritual beings on the outer edges.
As our eyes look upon the painting, we see the frame for the first time. The painting is framed by the first and last verse of the paragraph. These verses frame the words captured in the passage. The frame is about Paul’s current tribulation and suffering. It is about Paul being in jail and on trial as a result of his ministry.
We gaze upon a glorious masterpiece of God saving the nations, and the painting is held in place, supported, and framed by the suffering of God’s saints.
It seems rather odd to frame a beautiful painting with words about imprisonment and tribulation. The verses making up the frame appear out of place. They seem outlandish. However, they are not outlandish once we understand the context and the background.
For example, let’s look at verse one:
For this reason, I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—
Read this verse literally as though Paul is writing to us and we know nothing about his situation. Paul says, “I am a prisoner of Jesus.” Prisoner of Jesus? What are you talking about? Does Jesus have a jail? Is Jesus in the habit of putting people in prison? How does this verse frame the picture of Christ’s unfathomable riches?
Imagine explaining this verse to a Muslim or your curious seven-year-old child. Explain how Paul is a prisoner of Jesus. Or, imagine trying to explain this to people who listen to prosperity gospel preachers. You know who they are. They teach “your best life now.”
The primary theology of mainstream Christianity in America doesn’t teach about Jesus putting people in prison. Not Jesus! He is loving. Jesus puts you in a good job and a nice house. Jesus takes you out of prison. However, Paul says, he is a prisoner of Christ.
Paul also says, “I am a prisoner for you Gentiles.” What if he said, I am a prisoner for you people in New England?” What do you mean you are a prisoner for us New Englanders? Did we ask you to be a prisoner on our behalf? Are we supposed to be in prison and you are in prison for us? When will you be released? What in the world are you talking about?
We can do the same with the last verse of the paragraph:
Therefore, I ask you not to lose heart at my tribulations on your behalf, for they are your glory.
Paul, we love you, how would we not lose heart at your imprisonment? How are you in prison on our behalf? What do you mean your tribulation is our glory? What glory? How do your imprisonment and tribulation relate to our glory?
It sounds like Paul drank a little too much sea water during his shipwreck or got hit in the head one too many times when the Jews were throwing stones.
We need to understand what Paul is talking about. To do this, we are going to ask the Bible questions and look for the answers. When we get the answers, we will think about what we have learned and ask how we may understand and apply truth to our lives.
Here are four questions we may ask:
- How is Paul a prisoner of Christ Jesus?
- How is Paul a prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles?
- How does Paul suffer tribulations on behalf of the Gentiles?
- What is meant by, “they are your glory”?
Let’s begin with the first question:
1. How is Paul a Prisoner of Christ Jesus?
Paul begins the paragraph saying that he is a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Obviously, Jesus personally did not put Paul in prison. We can read how he was put in prison in the book of Acts. Paul believes it is because of God’s sovereign control of events he is in prison.
While Paul was in Jerusalem, his preaching caused a ruckus in the Temple. The Jews threw him out of the temple and started beating Paul. The Commander of the Roman cohort who is responsible for keeping law and order brought soldiers to the commotion (Acts 21:31). The Roman Commander assumed Paul was the trouble maker, so he put Paul in chains. The Roman commander is under the authority of Nero. But, Paul considers himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
Paul saw all the circumstances around him as God working out His purposes and plans. There is no such thing as bad luck for Paul. It is not bad luck that the Roman government arrested Paul unfairly. Paul didn’t start a political campaign to change the elections to get rid of the bad government. Paul was not a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when the Jews started beating him outside the Temple.
Paul knows his life is in God’s hands. He is a prisoner of the Roman government, but he is a prisoner of Christ Jesus. The government is God’s servant. And, it’s not just Paul’s imprisonment which came from the hand of God. All of Paul’s shipwrecks, beatings, and trials come from the hand of God.
How does Paul know this?
Paul is a student of Scripture. Paul knows about the “J” men. Joseph, Job, and Jonah.
Paul has read about Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egypt, but Joseph said God was ultimately responsible. The brothers meant it for evil, but God meant is for good (Gen. 50:20).
Paul has read the book of Job and read that all the circumstances of Job’s life are in God’s hands. The Chaldeans, thieves, and the wind took from Job his family, livestock, and possessions. Job said the Lord gives and the Lord takes away (Job 1:21). And, Job did not sin in saying God took these things away from him.
Paul has read the book of Jonah and knew the men in the boat cast Jonah into the sea, and Jonah testified God cast him into the sea (Jonah 2:3).
Paul knows men wreaked havoc in Joseph’s, Job’s, and Jonah’s life, but God was behind it all. Yes, the Jews and the Roman Commander put Paul in chains, but Paul knows God is fulfilling His purpose.
There is another reason Paul knows the Lord is behind his imprisonment. It is from personal revelation. When Paul was saved on the road to Damascus, the Lord told Ananias these things would happen.
But the Lord said to him (Ananias), “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16)
Our Scripture reading said as much. In Acts, we read of Paul’s testimony to the Ephesian elders while Paul was on the way to Jerusalem.
“And now, behold, bound in spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. (Acts 20:22-23)
Paul’s ministry from God is to preach the unfathomable riches of Christ to the Gentiles. As a result, Paul suffered just as God planned. However, suffering did not deter Paul. He put suffering on one side of the scale and ministry of the Gospel on the other. Ministry far outweighed suffering.
“But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24)
Paul’s arrest and imprisonment are God’s plan and purpose. This is what the Holy Spirit told Paul. Those who put Paul in prison are doing God’s bidding. Paul is a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
2. How is Paul a Prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles?
“I am a prisoner for you Gentiles.” What does he mean he is a prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles?
We could say Paul is speaking in general terms and we would be correct. Paul is in prison because he ministered the gospel to Gentiles. The ministry to Gentiles is his calling, and because of this, Paul is put in prison.
Generally speaking, Paul is in prison for the sake of all Gentiles.
Interestingly, Paul may also mean he is a prisoner specifically because of the Ephesian Gentiles. We may say Paul is in prison because of one Gentile from Ephesus in particular. A man named Trophimus.
Let’s review the account of Paul’s arrest. Around 53-55 AD, Paul spent a three-year period in Ephesus. We can read about it in Acts 19. He planted the church and then Ephesus to continue his ministry.
Part of Paul’s ministry was to bring a collection to the Jews in Jerusalem on behalf of the Gentile churches. At the time Paul is traveling in the Roman Empire planting churches, a famine took place in Jerusalem. The church in Jerusalem suffered badly and were in poverty. Paul took a collection from the Gentile churches under his care, and his intention was to bring it to Jerusalem. It was a sign of good will from the Gentiles to the Jewish believers.
In 56 AD, approximately 18 months after leaving Ephesus, as he was making his way to Jerusalem, Paul landed in Miletus. He was fairly close to Ephesus, so he sent for the elders of the church in Ephesus, and they met with Paul in Miletus. (Acts 20)
Paul met with them and told them he was on the way to Jerusalem. He told them in Jerusalem trouble awaited him because this is what the Holy Spirit revealed.
Paul says he is not concerned because he did not consider his life as dear, but what he considered dear to himself is the ministry of the gospel. Paul proclaimed to be innocent of the blood of all men because he did not shrink from declaring the whole purpose of God.
He warned the Ephesian elders against false teachers. He commended them to God’s grace and the Word of God. He also told them they would not see his face again. After telling them these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.
The Bible tells us the Ephesian elders began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him and they were grieving because Paul told them that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied Paul to the ship.
I imagine the elders went back to the church and shared all that took place in Miletus. The church would remember Paul in their prayers.
There seems to be one person from Ephesus who continued with Paul. Paul had with him members from the other churches, so it seems he took with him Trophimus from Ephesus. Trophimus shows up in the next chapter.
Paul arrived in Jerusalem, and we may read about his arrest in Acts 21, which takes place in 57 AD, about two years after meeting with the Ephesian elders.
Paul was in the temple, and the Jews from Asia saw Paul, began to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him. We need to realize Paul was very well known. The Jews from Asia recognized him, and they were familiar with the ministry Paul conducted in their cities. The Jews from Israel cried out, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (Acts 21:28).
The Jews from Asia were staunch Jews. They didn’t like Paul preaching about a New Covenant; they believed in the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses. They were particularly upset because they thought Paul defiled the temple by bringing Gentiles into the Temple. It is not likely that Paul brought him into the Temple because Paul showed respect for the Law so that he might win the Jews. But, that didn’t matter to them. The Asian Jews had seen Trophimus in the city with Paul, and that was enough to suppose he brought Trophimus into the temple.
All the city was provoked. The Jews rushed together and took hold of Paul they dragged him out of the temple, and slammed the doors behind him. They were not going to kill him in the Temple; that would be wrong. They were going to kill Paul just as they had killed Stephen.
While this was happening, a report came to the commander of the Roman cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. So, the commander took soldiers and centurions and ran down to the scene. When the Jews saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.
Long story short, the commander rescued Paul from the mob. Once he was in safety, Paul asked the commander if he could speak to the Jews and he received permission. We can read of Paul addressing the Jews in Acts 23.
Paul addresses the Jews, tells of his testimony on the road to Damascus and the Jews were listening. He even told the Jews that he also used to persecute Christians and approved of the stoning of Stephen. He was telling them, “I was just like you.” During his testimony, as soon as Paul said the Lord said to me, “Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” The Jews went mad and cried out, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!”
The commander again rescued Paul from the mob. The commander wanted to get to the bottom of the problem and decided to find out the truth by scourging Paul (waterboarding hadn’t been invented yet). When the soldiers had Paul all stretched out and were ready with the whip, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?”
You know the rest of the story. Paul appealed his arrest to Caesar. It took three years for Paul to get to Rome where he was imprisoned for two years. It is from Rome that Paul writes to the Ephesians.
What happened to Trophimus? I imagine after Paul’s arrest, Trophimus made his way back to Ephesus and told the church what happened.
So, when Paul writes the letter to Ephesus and says, I am a prisoner for the sake of you Gentiles, the church would look at one another and say, yes, it is because of us, Paul is in prison. Paul preached the Gospel to us Gentiles, and he is in prison because he loved us and wanted us to know the unfathomable riches of Christ. They might even glance over at Trophimus. Trophimus might say, “I wasn’t in the Temple with Paul, honest!” The people in the church would say, “Don’t worry, we know it’s not your fault. We know it is God’s plan.” Perhaps a few people invited Trophimus over for dinner so he wouldn’t feel so bad.
Paul is a prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles. It is because of his ministry to them he is in jail.
Next week, we will answer the two remaining questions. How does Paul suffer tribulations on behalf of the Gentiles? And, what is meant by, “Paul’s tribulations are your glory”?
The word of God is profitable; it bears fruit in our life (2 Timothy 3:16). This letter is good for the Ephesians, and it is good for us. It accomplishes a work in the believer that is for our good. It provides instruction in righteousness. How then, does Paul telling the church in Ephesus that he is a prisoner of Christ for our good? How does it instruct us so we will live righteously?
Here are three principles we may apply from what we have heard today.
1-Embrace the sovereignty of God in life’s circumstances
Paul’s arrest is not bad timing. He wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. Paul was doing what is right. Paul obeyed God. Bad things happened.
We don’t judge Paul’s ministry and think he must have done something wrong. His arrest was not God’s punishment because his ministry went astray. We have to be careful about judging Christians who are standing up for God’s word. Just because they are arrested doesn’t mean they are doing wrong.
Paul did not blame the government for overstepping their boundary and infringing upon Paul’s rights. Instead, Paul rejoiced because the prison guards were saved from his imprisonment. We should recognize that if we are arrested for preaching the gospel it may be because God wants the judge, the governor, the guards, or other prisoners to hear the unfathomable riches of Christ.
Paul didn’t interpret his beatings and imprisonment as God “closing the door.” Paul didn’t think God was trying to send him a message to be quiet. We need to have the same conviction. Some people may interpret their imprisonment as God’s way of saying be quiet. They think God is saying to them, “What you are doing is wrong. Therefore, I am shutting the door on your ministry.” That may be true for a corrupt ministry or a proud ministry. But, it may be just the opposite. Paul saw his imprisonment and beatings as God opening the door to new opportunities.
If you preach the unfathomable riches of Christ, you are in the middle of God’s purpose. Embrace the sovereignty of God and all He has in store for you.
2-Christianity is about preferring others
Once Paul was saved, he could have sat back and enjoyed his salvation in Christ. Instead, Paul couldn’t help but share the unfathomable riches of Christ with others. When one town wouldn’t listen, he would pack up and move on to the next town. Paul rejoiced in bringing others to Christ.
He found his joy in preferring others. In doing this, he was living as his Savior lived.
Jesus said the Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve (Luke 22:27). Paul served the church; the church didn’t serve Paul. Do you desire to serve the church? Preach the gospel. The greatest act of service is for us to be willing to serve others by preaching the unfathomable riches of Christ.
The greatest love is to lay down our life for others. Paul did this. Paul did not count his life as dear to himself but counted the ministry of the Gospel as his most precious gift. Paul’s servant heart of preferring others resulted in the establishment of churches in countless cities throughout the Roman Empire.
When we prefer others, we are willing to count the cost and be willing to speak forth the words of life to those who are dying.
Take a moment to thank God for those who were willing to prefer us over themselves in bringing the gospel to our ears. Let’s ask God for the strength, boldness, and wisdom to prefer the salvation of others over our conveniences. Let us ask God for the joy of being servants of Christ that others might hear of the goodness of God and come to salvation.
3-Suffering for the Gospel is part of ministry
As Paul served others, he suffered.
Paul didn’t hate the suffering; Paul embraced the suffering. Paul counted it as joy. Paul counted it as proof of his apostleship. After Paul had established the church in Corinth, evil men came into Corinth and tried to discredit Paul as an Apostle.
Paul asks, are they servants of Christ? “I am more a servant of Christ because I have far more imprisonments, I’ve been beaten times without number. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and in exposure. (1 Cor. 11:23-28).
It’s not only Paul who suffered. All through the book of Acts we see suffering accompanies the Gospel. Almost every time we read of the Gospel being preached we see beatings, riots, and attacks.
To those who are perishing, the preaching of the unfathomable riches of Christ is the aroma of death. It stinks to their nostrils. They have a visceral reaction of hatred. They do all they can to remove the smell of death. But, to those who are being saved, the Gospel is the aroma of life.
Paul says, “who is adequate” of such things? (2 Cor. 2:16). It is a great challenge to spread about an aroma of death. It is only by the grace of God we may stand and bear such a challenge. We may not let suffering for the Gospel deter us from preaching the glory of God and proclaiming the words of life. Count it as all joy.
Praise God for giving the strength to those who have gone before us, so we may hold in our hands the truth of God’s Word. The church is built on the foundation of Christ blood on the cross, and the stone wall building blocks are held together with the blood of the martyrs.
The Masterpiece and the Frame
We are blessed to have eyes to see these beautiful word pictures of God’s work. The sovereignty of God is a great canvas upon which all the paint is applied. The sovereignty of God forms the basis upon which all the color, texture, and brushstrokes of salvation find their resting place. God’s purpose is that the central focus of the painting is Christ drawing all men to Himself. God is painting His purpose for all to see; those upon the earth and all the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.
This great painting of salvation is not for us to hang in our closet or even in our living room. This beautiful masterpiece is to be shared by those who may see its beauty. It must hang prominently. Christianity is not a painting for collectors, but we are to prefer others. We are to serve those around us by sharing this beautiful picture. As we put the painting on display in our workplace or as we show it to our friends, we are to ask God to open their eyes. It is not right to hide this masterpiece. To share it openly is the only way this masterful work of Christ may be appreciated and savored.
Some will look upon this masterpiece and speak words of mocking. Because they hate Christ, they will hate those who display His glorious work. God has purposed that the suffering endured by the saints as they put the painting on display to be the frame. Suffering for the Gospel is not to be avoided, but embraced. The beautiful painting of the gospel is framed by the suffering of the saints who proclaimed the glory of God and the unfathomable riches of Christ. What a great honor and privilege to serve as the picture frame for the masterpiece of the gospel.