“The Riches of Christ”
November 18, 2001
v.1 That is, because of all that I have so far said about the salvation of God through Jesus Christ now bestowed on Jews and Gentiles alike…
Paul is a prisoner because of his loyal service to Jesus Christ. His imprisonment is an honorable one and the proof of his commitment to the Gentiles. He brought them the good news of salvation even though he risked and finally suffered imprisonment, even the threat of death, to do so.
v.3 This word “mystery” is very important and needs some explanation because it does not mean what “mystery” means to us today. In Paul’s usage, “mystery” does not mean something uncertain, vague, something “mysterious” in that sense; it is not a secret that must be discovered by clever people. It certainly does not refer to a puzzle for which no answer can be found. In the New Testament mystery is something that was hidden and secret but which is now known and can be known because it has been revealed by God. Mystery is a temporary secret, but once revealed by God, it is known and understood – a secret no longer. It is a term that in some uses in the New Testament is almost a synonym for “revelation.”
Fortunately, the term is used often by the Apostle Paul and even frequently in this letter, so it is not hard to determine what he means by it. In 1:9 the “mystery” is God’s plan of salvation in its entirety as now revealed in Christ. In 6:19 he refers to the “mystery of the gospel.” Here he simply refers to the “mystery of Christ.” In Col. 1:27 he speaks of “this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” In all of these uses, the mystery is the way of salvation for sinners through Jesus Christ. That has been made known. It is no longer secret to the world.
v.4 Remember, Paul often makes a point of saying that because he was not one of the original 12 apostles, his message came to him later by direct revelation from Christ.
v.5 Obviously, the way of salvation was known before the incarnation and before the ministry of Paul. Even that the Gentiles would participate in this salvation was known. It is often enough a subject in the preaching of the OT prophets. Paul does not hesitate to speak about Abraham or Moses knowing and believing in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But, it was not known so clearly as it is now known, it was not revealed in such great detail and clarity. That measure of revelation awaited the appearance of the Lord Jesus, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the ministry of the apostles, and especially Paul, in taking the gospel to the Gentile world.
v.6 The ultimate mystery is salvation in Christ itself, but part of that mystery is that this salvation would be lavished on the nations as upon the Jews and that Jew and Gentile alike would be formed into a single spiritual organism.
v.7 The mystery is the gospel, as in 6:19.
v.8 I’ve told you before the story that John Newton tells about a man, a man who had always thought of himself as a Christian. But, one day he was reading this passage and was arrested in his reading by Paul’s phrase “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” He thought to himself, “I don’t find anything so wonderful, so unsearchable” in Paul’s message. He thought it was all plain and obvious. He thought salvation was a matter of doing good and being good, what is so unsearchable about that! But this phrase made him think that Paul obviously did not think about his message the way he thought about Paul’s message. So he began to read and study until he realized that he had completely missed Paul’s great point about Jesus Christ and salvation by God’s free grace. And suddenly realizing what a glory the gospel was, he believed and was saved.
v.9 “to everyone”: this gospel is for all men everywhere. The NT several times makes the point that for ages the gospel was not revealed to the world, but now it has been and God is summoning men everywhere to faith in his Son.
v.11 The church does not exist for itself. It exists for the glory of God and it serves that glory by demonstrating in its own life the wisdom, and of course the grace and goodness and justice and holiness of God, as sinners are transformed by the gospel of Christ and formed into a unity of love. And to whom is this demonstration made: to the spiritual beings who inhabit this universe. Probably angels both good and bad are meant. In 1 Peter 1:12, for example, holy angels are said to look into the matters of our salvation with amazement and wonder. The evil angels, of course, see it differently, but also see their kingdom withering as the kingdom of God makes its advance through the nations.
v.13 With such access to God we need not worry or be discouraged. Knowing that God is working his gracious and perfect purpose out in the world and that all that happens in the church, including Paul’s sufferings, is somehow demonstrating to the principalities and powers the manifold wisdom of God, we can rejoice in our sufferings instead of being discouraged by them.
Paul, Saul of Tarsus, the former Pharisee and persecutor of the Christian church, never could get over being amazed that he, of all people, should have become the missionary of Jesus Christ to the nations. Paul all his Christian life was black and blue from constantly pinching himself to see if it were really true! The proud Jew who had been well-taught and conditioned to look down on Gentiles was now their cheerful and willing servant, even in prison for their sake, because he had made preaching Christ to them his life’s work. “It is a bad day in the life of any Christian when he [or she] forgets ‘the hole of the pit out of which he has been digged’” as the old King James Version quaintly rendered Isa. 51:1. [Lloyd Jones, iii, 53] This does not mean that we are always to be looking backward, still less that we should be morbid, never able to forget our past sins and unbelief. But if we forget what God has done for us, if we forget where we were and would be if left to ourselves, if we forget how much we owe to the grace of God, we will lose the element of thanksgiving and love and amazement in our Christian lives and with it that humility that stands at the bottom of all Christian holiness and goodness. Paul never lost that element; he never forgot that he was what he was entirely and solely by the grace of God.
He, a persecutor of the church, a proud man who had lived his life looking down on others, now a preacher of the unsearchable riches of Christ. Why, before he became a Christian, moments before he became a Christian, he couldn’t stomach the name of Jesus Christ. He had stood and watched Stephen be stoned to death simply because he was a follower of Christ and he was glad to see it happen. The blood and the groans flowing from that good man as the stones struck hadn’t bothered Saul of Tarsus one whit! And now, wonder of wonders, he was the world’s most prominent Christian! He would, in time, suffer Stephen’s fate and rejoice that he was counted worthy to suffer for the Name! He was spending his life, burning the candle at both ends, all to reach as many people as he possibly could with the good news that there was salvation in Jesus of Nazareth. A man who looked down on non-Jews was now known as the Apostle to the Gentiles! A proud man was now a humble man. The hater of Christ was now the lover of Christ.
Here was a man who knew what to do with his life! He was to proclaim to the world “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” The world then as now would rather have ministers speak about other things. More relevant things, so they think. Talk to us about money, about marriage, about politics, about raising our children. We will be much more interested if you talk about those things. Those things will be more helpful to us. But Paul would have none of that. He would say things about all those subjects which were profoundly helpful and practical, the very things we most need to hear about money and about marriage and about raising our children and about politics, but he said them all and only in the context of his preaching “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” You can have a good marriage and still die in your sins. You can raise reasonably happy children, children you are proud of, and both you and your children will die in your sins. You can handle your money wisely and live in prosperity and still die in your sins. Indeed, most of the people who handle their money well – as the world thinks about money management – die in their sins!
But Jesus Christ will do for you what no one else can and will do that thing you most need done. You need peace with God, you need the forgiveness of your sins, you need the sure hope of everlasting life, perfect life after you die. Money, marriage, children and family, politics, none of these things can give you any of that. But Jesus can, and with those fabulous gifts, you get the most valuable help with your money and your marriage and your children thrown in. Times of economic prosperity come and go. War and peace alike come and go. But Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever and our absolute need for him is likewise the same.
And that is what I want you to notice in these verses from Ephesians 3. They are all about Jesus Christ himself. They are not about salvation, though they talk about that. They are not about Christology, the doctrine of Christ, though they give us some of that. They are not about the Christian life, though that is revealed here, to be sure. Paul is thinking, as he always does, he is speaking, as he always does, he is exhilarating, as he always does about Jesus Christ himself, the person, the man who is also God the Son. For Paul, Jesus himself is the center of everything, the meaning of everything, the way to everything good. As he puts it in Colossians, Jesus Christ has the first place in everything!
Did you notice, as we were reading, how many times the name of Jesus appears in these few verses. But, still more, how central he is to Paul’s thought here. It is the mystery of Christ that he is talking about in these verses. We share in the gospel and the promise in Christ Jesus. God’s purpose in the world, the whole plan of salvation are accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. And, of course, there in the center, his marvelous summary of his message, the unsearchable riches of Christ. Paul begins by identifying himself as the prisoner of Jesus Christ, a beautiful way to describe the measure of his loyalty to the Lord Jesus but also his nearness to Christ: prisoners and jailers see a great deal of one another.
There is a Christocentricity to Paul’s view of life, his own life and the life of the world. And, very clearly, he wants that Christocentricity to be characteristic of his Christian readers as well. He is going to pray, in the next paragraph, that God might work in them through his spirit “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” He doesn’t mean, of course, that he didn’t think Christ was already dwelling in their hearts. Paul already said that he believed Christ was dwelling within them, but as the paragraph goes on it is clear he means that he wants them to know more and more this reality and the wonder of it. He wants them to be more taken up with Jesus Christ, more Christocentric.
The unsearchable riches of Christ are for Paul everything that is ours because of what Christ has done, what he is presently doing in our lives, and what he will someday do for those who love him: it is his love, his sacrifice for our sins, his present intercession, his coming again to bring us at last to heaven; it is the joy and peace and love and hope that we have – even if we are in prison facing death – because we know that Jesus has saved us, that he now loves us, that he is with us by his Holy Spirit, and that he is coming again to take us to be with him forever.
Remember that great text in Revelation 3? It is the Lord Jesus speaking to us. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”” That is what Paul is after here. That these Christians might know the Lord Jesus as intimately as he does, that they might enjoy that fellowship with the Son of God that can be likened to sitting down to a feast with him. And, then, knowing the Lord Jesus better and better, and knowing more and more of who he is and what he has done and what he will do, the Prince of Life himself may more and more come to dominate their thinking, their loving, their living as he dominated Paul’s.
Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China, used to recite a little poem every day and make it his prayer for that day:
Lord Jesus, make Thyself to me
A living, bright Reality;
More present to faith’s vision keen
Than any outward object seen;
More dear, more intimately nigh
Than e’en the sweetest earthly tie.
There is the true Pauline concept of the Christian life, the person of Jesus Christ coming to dominate everything: his presence, his love, his righteousness, his rule, his promises, his glory, his purpose, all taken into the heart and the life so that our living becomes every day a matter of walking with Christ, of union and communion with Jesus Christ, and knowing the Lord Jesus, of loving him in thought, word, and deed, of turning to him and depending upon him, of trusting ourselves to him. Paul had devoted his own life to the unsearchable riches of Christ and he wants these Christians to do the same.
There is a supremacy to Jesus Christ that must be not only theoretically but practically unrivalled in our lives if we would live a truly authentic life, if we would live a truly good life, and if we would enter most deeply into the joy of the Lord. Historians speak of Alexander the Great, or Charles the Great, or Napoleon the Great, but no one speaks of Jesus Christ the Great. He is not “the Great”, he is “the Only.” Jesus Christ has no rivals and no successors. He is utterly and eternally unique. The one and only Son of God, the only Name under heaven by which we can be saved. The Prince of Life, the Savior of the World, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
But, if that is so, surely our living, our loving, our obeying, our serving ought to reflect that supremacy of Jesus Christ. There is no better way for each one of us to evaluate our lives, to take stock of where we are in the Christian life, to measure our faithfulness and fruitfulness than simply to ask ourselves, and to keep asking, to what degree does Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior himself, occupy the supreme place. To what degree does our knowledge of him, his love, his great sacrifice motivate us to live as we do every day? To what degree is the knowledge of and sense of his presence the great blessing that we seek for ourselves every day? To what degree has his pleasure become our pleasure? And, to what degree is it obvious to others that we are Jesus men and women, boys and girls; that there is nothing more important to us than that we should be and should be known as his followers?
It is so easy for us; the temptation is so subtle to begin thinking about our Christian faith and our Christian life in terms of a set of beliefs, a way of life, moral and spiritual commitments that we hold, even that we hold very dear. Many of those commitments have to do with Jesus Christ himself, to be sure. That should be true, of course. We should have those commitments. But that is not the nub, that is not the center, that is not the power and the genius of true Christianity. True Christianity in heart and in life is a personal communion with and love for and commitment to and walking with the Prince of Life, the Lord Christ himself. “I will come in to him and sup with him.” To the extent that this personal element fades, to the extent that Jesus himself recedes into the background, our Christianity becomes less Christian and more like other religions, Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam, that likewise are a system of doctrine and of moral commitment but do not offer and do not depend upon a personal communion with God, with God who had come among men and made himself a man precisely so that we human beings might know him as our Savior and our King.
That is the true wonder of our faith! That the true marvel that exists in this world. That sinners like you and me can know the Son of God and walk with him, that our lives can be transformed by his presence in them. Angels and demons look upon this and in loving admiration or hateful frustration can hardly believe what they are seeing!
Paul thought that it was entirely natural and right that he should commit his entire life to following Christ and proclaiming him to others. Why? Because there is nothing in this world so wonderful, so important, so necessary for men and women to know, something so entirely worthy of all we are and have. The unsearchable riches of Christ. And he thinks, of course, that you and I ought to have precisely the same mind about these mighty and splendid things that he did. After all, Jesus Christ was nothing more to the Apostle Paul than he is today to you and me.
There was a remarkable man in 18th century Switzerland, a philosopher, a Christian preacher and theologian, a scientist, and, a poet. His name was Johann Kaspar Lavater. He was widely admired for the beauty of his Christian character even though he did have some eccentric views in theology, though mostly in the mystical direction. He was a thorough advocate of orthodox, historic Christianity. In one of his famous books he worked out the thesis that every person must conceive of God as manifested in Jesus Christ crucified in order to be truly alive to himself. That is, it is the knowledge of Jesus Christ that lies at the base of any true knowledge and any true knowledge of oneself. It is the essential prerequisite of an authentic human life, much less authentic Christian life. His doctrine came to be called Christomania. [McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia, v, 279] I like that. I would think it a very good thing that others should describe my work, my life as an evidence of Christomania. Don’t you think so? Must we not think so? Must we not be guilty of Christomania if we are going to follow the Apostle Paul as he followed Jesus Christ?
Well Lavater, as I said, was a well-regarded poet. And he had a poem that was a prayer for a deeper and deeper Christomania.
O Jesus Christ, grow Thou in me,
And all things else recede;
My heart be daily nearer Thee
From sin be daily freed.
Each day let Thy supporting might
My weakness still embrace;
My darkness vanish in Thy light,
Thy life my death efface.
More of Thy glory let me see,
Thou Holy, Wise, and True!
I would Thy living image be,
In joy and sorrow too.
Make this poor self grow less and less,
Be Thou my life and aim;
Oh, make me daily, through thy grace,
More meet to bear Thy Name.
Do you want to know how to live? To live a true life, a life worthy to be called life, a life you will be glad to have lived when your days of living in this world are done? Do you want to live an authentic life? Do you want your life to count both in earth and in heaven? Then, I will tell you what to do. Pray that prayer, or one like it, every day. Pray it from your heart and the heart of your heart. Pray it and never give up praying it. And then seek in thought, word, and deed, to be what you are praying to become: Someone whose life is utterly dominated by his knowledge of and love for and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ.