Last week my friend Damon was here visiting with us. He’s pretty high-energy, pretty intense, but also totally sold out for Jesus. He shared a lot of stories about what God is doing in his own life and in the lives of others in our military and on the mission field as they have an encounter with God.
Having him here, and hearing his story, turns out to be a great introduction to the book we’re going to begin studying this morning. It wasn’t planned or intended that way, but it’s all worked out in God’s sovereign timing because this morning we start the book of Ephesians and the theme of the book is: what God is making of us. It’s a description of what happens when the gospel – the ‘good news’ of what God is doing – smashes into our lives and violently, but beautifully, changes us forever.
We’re not going to make it very far into the book today. In fact, we’re only going to look at the opening line, not even the complete verse. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees.’ Well, there’s an entire forest ahead of us in this book, and we’re going to try to take it all in, but we’re also going to examine some of the trees that make up the forest. And this morning that’s exactly what we’re going to do: stop and marvel at this one big tree. So look with me, if you will, at
Ephesians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God,
That’s it, that’s where we’re stopping – at the feet of this mighty oak standing guard at the edge of the Ephesian forest. There are four limbs I want to point out on the tree: Paul, an apostle, of Jesus Christ, by the will of God.
Let’s start with the first, Paul. Who is this guy? If you’ve spent much time around Christian churches you’ve probably heard of him, in fact, he’s pretty hard to miss – after all, he wrote 1/3 of the books of the New Testament.
The Bible is divided up into two chunks: the Old Testament, which is about everything before Jesus came; and the New Testament which is everything that was written after Jesus came. The New Testament opens with the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Those are the four biographies of Jesus, they tell roughly the same story because they’re all about the same Jesus, but they each share slightly different perspectives, just like you would have different angles from four different authors writing biographies about any man or woman today. The facts are the same, but which you include, and how long you dwell on them, helps the reader see different aspects of the individual’s life and impact.
After those four, you have the book of Acts, The Acts of the Apostles, which is like a documentary on what happened in the days, weeks, months, and years after Jesus died. It tells us how Christianity spread from Israel across the Roman Empire down into Africa, out East into Asia, and up North into Europe.
And as the Christian faith spread, new churches were established in all those places. So, the rest of the New Testament, after the gospels and Acts is letters that were sent to those churches, or people in them, giving them more information, clarifying issues, or correcting problems. And that’s where Paul comes in, he wrote 13 or some argue 14, of those letters. Including one to the church in Ephesus, which is in modern Turkey. The point of the letter was to tell them more about what God has done to save us and how that should impact our lives and our relationships.
But, who is this guy, and where does he come from? Why does he get this position of leadership and influence? Well, that’s what makes the story so compelling, because Paul, like my friend Damon, wasn’t on a course to become the head of a Christian ministry. His life was headed another direction.
Paul was a Jew, and he had a lot of things going for him. He was born into a good family. He was of the tribe of Benjamin, and he was named after the first king of Israel, King Saul.
He was born as a Roman citizen, and that was a REALLY big deal. There are a lot of people today who want to become a US citizen, well, it was like that back then with Roman citizenship, only it was even harder to obtain. But Paul was born a citizen and that gave him special rights and privileges.
He grew up going to a really good Jewish school studying with a famous professor, or rabbi. He was the ancient equivalent of an Ivy-Leaguer. He had a golden pedigree. On top of all that, he was a Pharisee, which was like a denomination in the Jewish faith. Today in Christianity we have Baptists, and Methodists, and Presbyterians, for example, but back in ancient Judaism you had Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and others. And the Pharisees were highly regarded, people looked up to them because they took their faith seriously.
Too seriously, unfortunately. Jesus had some good things to say about them, but his final judgment was that they were all about the letter of the law and not the spirit. They were good at obeying the rules, but their heart wasn’t always in it for the right reasons.
So, here’s young Saul, who people eventually call Paul: he’s from a good family, he’s got a good education, he’s a Roman citizen and he takes his religious identity very seriously. So seriously in fact, that when he hears people talking about Jesus from Nazareth as if He was the promised Messiah, the savior, Saul gets so fired up he wants to put them to death. After all, it was Saul’s friends and people Saul looked up to who had Jesus crucified in the first place.
And since that was the example in his life, he became a part of the system and became a witness and accomplice to the murder of Christians because he so opposed their message.
So, what was that message? They simply had the audacity to believe that Jesus was the Son of God and that He died on a Roman cross, was buried, but rose again on the third day BECAUSE His death was actually a sacrifice intended to cover the sins of those who would confess their sins, repent (or, turn away from their sins), and commit their lives to God.
If you believed that, Saul wanted to arrest you and, if possible, put you to death so you didn’t spread this to anyone else. That’s pretty serious opposition, isn’t it?
And yet, one day, as he was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus with a warrant to go search out more Christians and stop their message from spreading in Syria, God suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted Saul’s life. Out of nowhere Jesus Christ appeared to Saul from Heaven.
Paul shared the details of what happened next in his own words and they’re recorded in:
Acts 26:15 So I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. 17 I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, 18 to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’
And in that moment Saul was eternally transformed. While he was hunting down Christians, God was hunting him down. Jesus found him, cornered him, and ambushed him – totally overwhelmed him and declared, ‘I’m going to MAKE you a minister and a witness.’ I love the power and authority of that.
We talk sometimes about ‘inviting Jesus into your heart.’ That’s not what we see here. This wasn’t some teary-eyed walk down the aisle of the church to give your life to Jesus moment, though that’s OK to do. But this was, as Damon called him last week, Jesus, the commander of the universe, saying, ‘You are mine and I will MAKE of you what I will.’
And Saul was overwhelmed. There was no resistance, no rebuttal, no debate, only total submission and surrender.
Wouldn’t you love to have that happen to you, to be confronted with the reality and the power, the sovereignty of God and feel and know so clearly the overwhelming compulsion to surrender and submit? Some of you have. In varying forms, and to varying degrees, Jesus Christ has revealed Himself to you and you know, you absolutely know that He is real and He is Lord. You weren’t talked into the Christian faith and you can’t be talked out of it, because you know God is there, you know He is real, and you know He is demanding your life and obedience. You know He is making something out of you, just as He said He was going to MAKE Saul into a minister and witness.
And you understand why Paul would now introduce himself as:
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God,
Paul’s view of himself is entirely rooted in who Jesus has made him, and all of that happened because it was the will of God. The result is that Paul has this sort of divine, eternal, unshakeable confidence. He’s not struggling to find his identity.
I want you to think about that and the assurance, the strength, the benefit that comes along with it: Paul knows his identity. He doesn’t struggle to find it or define it, he knows, with confidence, who he is and what he is because God interrupted his life and defined him.
And friend, God can define you too. He can slam broadside into your life, shake up everything and put you on an entirely new track for His glory and your good like He did with Paul. Or, He can show up and infiltrate everything from the inside like He did with Damon, and let you keep your job, your spouse, and your career, but infuse it all with a new meaning and purpose as you surrender it to Him.
But no matter which route things take, I want you to see this, chew on it, and I want you to walk out of here this morning saying, “Our crazy pastor spent the whole morning talking about eleven words, not even a full sentence, not even a full verse!” Because, there is so much here.
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God,
I want you to know, there was this man, a real human being, with family and friends and background and a job and a place to live, and his whole life and identity were shaken up with the result that he saw himself entirely in terms of what God had made him.
This is his identity, this is the way he sees himself. He says, “I am an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the will of God.”
Let’s take that apart and see what we can learn from it. First let’s ask: what is an apostle?
Well, the word apostle comes into English straight from the Greek word apostellein which means ‘to send.’ One person or a group sends someone somewhere else. But it also has the idea of a commissioning to go along with the sending. You’re sent out with authority – that’s why our military officers hold a commission – they have authority to act and give orders to act on behalf on the President of the United States. And it’s not just authority; there is also accountability, responsibility to complete the task.
So, an apostle is someone sent out by another, with authority and responsibility to complete a task. It’s similar to the idea of an ambassador, but ambassadors typically emphasize speech and communication, while apostles include taking action.
The Bible speaks of apostles frequently. Did you know Jesus is spoken of as an apostle because He was sent by God the Father to earth to complete the mission of our salvation? The author of the book of Hebrews encourages us to “…consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, 2 who was faithful to Him who appointed Him…” Heb 3:1.
So Jesus is an apostle sent by God, but then He commissioned some apostles of His own. Luke tells us:
Luke 6:13 And when it was day, He called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles:
Early in His ministry Jesus had a lot of guys and gals that would follow Him around and listen to the things He was saying. They were called disciples, or learners, people who wanted to learn what He was teaching. And, there were more than twelve of them, and Paul was not one of them. But from that group of disciples, Jesus chose the famous twelve disciples and called them apostles.
So we see the difference between a disciple, someone who is learning, and an apostle, someone who is sent out on a mission because of what they have learned. Again, our military provides a good example. You may go through one of the military academies, or ROTC and study and learn about the military, but you aren’t officially ‘commissioned’ until you’ve completed your basic military discipleship, or training and your education. Then you’re ready to be sent out.
Later, the New Testament makes reference to others who were recognized as ‘apostles’ as well, in each case holding positions of leadership and authority in the early church. We’ll talk more about that when we get to chapter four where Paul says Jesus gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers to the church.
But for now, I simply want to point out once again: this isn’t the career path Paul had chosen. This isn’t what he grew up really hoping to be. It’s what God made him.
And I want to think about how this affects our lives. Can you be OK with the idea that God made Paul something he never asked to be? And, can you be OK with whatever God might want to make you? Even if it isn’t what you originally envisioned?
My friends, can I ask: are there limits to God’s sovereignty in your life, are there boundaries, are there limits? Does He have the right to change your plans, change your role, your position, your assignment? Is He your God? Here’s one big way to know: when He calls you to come, or sends you to go, when He brings unrequested change your way, do you obey?
Or, are you looking to stay put, looking for a god who makes the life you’re building better because he/she/it/they/whatever add some spiritual super sauce to what you’re cooking, instead of serving a God who makes you, molds you, and gives you your identity?
Ephesians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God,
Let’s talk for a minute about God making changes to our lives, and how we react to it.
I was just having a conversation with my brother in law about this yesterday on the sidelines at a little girls soccer game, and he was asking the same question I was: why do we always assume that what God wants to make us is going to involve some kind of sacrifice in our lives? Why do we so often come at it from the side that says, ‘look at everything that God is going to make me give up, and look at how hard this is going to be?’
Why are we so prone to see things from our own perspective? Why are we so blind? Why are we so foolish? Why isn’t our default position to expect that if God is calling us to change or to follow that it’s going to lead to our good, to our blessing, to our betterment?
May God forgive us for the struggle we experience in surrendering to Him! In trusting Him. May God forgive us for not automatically assuming and believing that He has something better for us! Why do we see it all through us instead of seeing it through Him?
Friends, read your Bibles. Go beyond the opening verse of Ephesians and look at what Paul has to say about what God has made him. He doesn’t regret the fact that God interrupted his life. He doesn’t talk about what it cost him to follow Jesus. He rejoices, he exults, he can’t contain his praise for God and all that Jesus has allowed him to do, at times he even rambles on and jumbles his thoughts because he has so much to say about what God has done.
Some of the greatest blessings in my life were things I wasn’t looking for or trying to accomplish, but they are things that God did. He didn’t ask me, He just did it. I was at a point in my life where I was actively intending not to date anyone, and God brought Madeleine into my life. I got out of the Marine Corps actively intending to get my Bachelor’s degree in business and go right back in as an officer, and God called me into ministry. Later I was actively intending to go back into the military in ministry as a chaplain, and God called me to pastor a church. Those are life-shaping, life-defining interruptions of my plans and I’m so thankful for every one of them.
Does God have the right to do the same in your life? Absolutely, of course. And I hope He does!
We get into all these cute little theological debates about God’s sovereignty and man’s free will and can you resist God’s will and can you miss God’s will for your life? And a lot of breath is wasted as the debates go on and on. I don’t want to have them. I want for you, and for me, to be able to hear God say, ‘this is what I am going to MAKE you.’ I want us to see ourselves like Paul does: Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.
I want you to know the absolutely blessed futility of your identity in Christ, that it is what it is, and there’s no resisting it. I want you to know that you are what you are because that’s what God made you. That it’s “by the will of God.” And therefore you MUST go along with it, you must submit, accept, and obey.
Now, this isn’t an excuse for being a mess – “Well, this is just how God made me.” No, you never see anyone in Scripture use that excuse. God doesn’t make messes, He cleans up messes. Whatever you are now, as you follow and submit to God, He’s only going to improve you. He’ll have to get you over some things, and He’ll have to lead you through some others, but the whole process is going to refine and purify you.
So, understanding and embracing what God has for you isn’t an excuse for being a mess, but it’s also not a fatalistic, cruel, suck it up and deal with it kind of thing. Knowing who you are in Christ, understanding what He has given you and what God wants to make of you gives you an identity that is rooted in a declaration of strength, a proclamation of surety – God is active and aware – He knows me and has a plan for my life!
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy though. If you pick up your Bible and read it, you notice that serving Christ led Paul through a lot of difficulties and sufferings, a lot of sweat and strain, and fervent prayer. In fact, he’s writing this letter to the Ephesians from jail in Rome.
But, he sees that as God’s problem, not his own. And he trusts that since God let him get into this situation while he was doing what God sent him do, it was up to God to either get him out or help him get through it.
And that’s true for you too. God might have made you something that’s not comfortable for you on your own, He might be changing some things about your life, transforming your situation. Are you OK with that? Is it ultimately His problem or yours?
Paul cared about what was happening to himself and others, he had ‘a deep concern for all the churches’ and yet, in a sense he didn’t. He felt it, but he trusted. He saw himself as Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and he knew things were eventually going to work out for the eternal good.
The point of all of this is that embracing and receiving the direction God is laying down into your life won’t make things easy, or give you an excuse for what you are, but if we understand it properly, it should give us a godly confidence, a god-fidence, that we are known, we are loved, and we have a purpose. We are here for a reason. We have a mission, an opportunity to love and serve God in our situation and position and to use it all to make Christ known.
So, let me ask: How do you see yourself? Who do you belong to? What are you? What is the source of your identity?
Some of you are looking to the future for your identity – you think you’re on the way to what you hope to be. Some of you look to the past and keep telling stories to yourself and others about what you used to do or be. But God is offering you a transcendent identity here and now. He has a will for your life.
One of the down sides of living in our day and age in America is that you have so many choices. And sometimes we drown in the choices.
One of my least favorite things to shop for is ties. You go into the store and they have all these different ties that so similar and they’re fanned around the table. Don’t give me a hundred options, just give me two or three and I’ll pick from among them.
First world problems, right? Or hard calls like: of all the stuff you could watch for free on Amazon Prime, which is really the best use of that one free hour you have tonight?
I’m having fun with this, but the struggle is real for other more serious issues, right? Like, of all the schools you could apply to, which should you? And if you get accepted to more than one, then which do you choose? And what major should you go with? What jobs should you apply for? Which assignments should you request? When should you get married, when should you have kids, where should you go on vacation this year? Lease, rent, or buy? iPhone 7 or Galaxy 7? Dropbox, Google Drive, or One Drive? When should you retire? Where should retire? We are overwhelmed by questions and choices in life. And the stakes can feel so high. So do you see the rest and release that can come from knowing that no matter how anything else turns out, Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God?
I hope you do, and if you don’t I hope you will. I hope you chew on these eleven simple words this week and that God works their meaning and significance deep into your soul as He helps you see and understand your identity in Christ. And that that knowledge gives you rest, strength, and confidence for the tasks that God is giving you. When you come back next week we’ll take a look at the next tree in the forest and as we walk through it, I trust you will be continually amazed by who God is and what He is doing for us, in us, and through us.
And Christ will give you light.”
Christian you have to understand, not all unity is good, sometimes there needs to be division. If your “friend” or “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or spouse, or favorite show or brand, author or artist, or whatever is leading you astray, encouraging you to go along with empty words, you need to let there be division, even if it’s painful right now, because sooner or later it’s going to cause even greater pain when consequences or conviction come and bite you.
The Scripture says it is “shameful even to speak of the things they do” – but what fills your entertainment? What do the lyrics of your songs speak about, the videos you watch, the books you read – are there things you need to purge from your playlist or watchlist or DVD library?
Could you invite Christ to go room by room through your home or apartment, could you hand Him your computer or phone and say, here – take this and see if there is anything here that is unhelpful to me? I actually pray over any new electronics that enter our home that they would be useful to me and my family and would not lead us astray. It helps me stay aware of the danger.
What about the conversations you have, do you hear and tell dirty little jokes? Or ladies especially, do things devolve into gossip as you share about things that should not even be named among you? Brothers and sisters, what kind of stories do you listen to people tell about what they did this weekend or last night?
If you are a Christian, a transformation has occurred. There has been a real change – we once were one thing, “but now” (vs 8) we have changed, and we are encouraged to be what we now are. There is a new standard and it’s light.
If you’re going to imitate Christ, if you’re going to be known for being His, if you’re going to be in a relationship with Him, these things need to be driven far from your life. These are things that are going to cripple your ability to love others as Christ loves and grieve the God you claim to love and worship. Drive them far from your life and surround yourself with godliness and holy examples. You can’t imitate what you don’t know. So learn more of God, fill your life and your mind with worship and the Word. Put on Christ, even it’s an act at first; imitation is the most sincere form of flattery right?
Bur first, consider: where do you need to repent today – not just repent to become a new Christian, but today, at this point in your Christian life, where are you headed the wrong way, and where do you need to work on repenting? Even mature Christians still go astray and we need to repeat the most basic steps: to identify where we are going wrong and to repent, change course, and follow Christ more fully. We don’t want to get set in our ways, we want to we seek out sanctification and purification – we “find out what is acceptable to the Lord” and walk in His light. We want to imitate Him as dear children. We want to love as He loves.
Doing all of that is going to require letting go of some things and taking up others. I can’t tell you what the exact formula is for your life, but I can encourage you to take it to the Lord in prayer. Submit your life to Him and let Him shape and mold Him for your benefit and His glory.