24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV)
20 Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…” (John 15:20 NIV)
If we are going to faithfully follow Jesus then suffering will surely follow. We should anticipate persecution in some form or another if we are living unashamedly for the cause of the Kingdom and proclaiming the truth of God with word and deed. We will be mocked, laughed at, ridiculed, dismissed, marginalized, fired, or imprisoned if we refuse to remain silent. Suffering for the cause of the Kingdom was part of Jesus’ life and suffering for the cause of the Kingdom was known by His followers whenever they proclaimed the truth. Throughout history the followers of Jesus have paid a steep price for proclaiming the Good News in societies and communities that did not want to hear it.
Suffering for the Privilege of Preaching
Richard Wurmbrand experienced the presence of Jesus in his suffering for the privilege of sharing the Gospel. Richard was born in 1909 in Bucharest to a Jewish family. His father died when he was nine. As a young man he became attracted to communism after attending a series of illegal meetings of the Communist Party of Romania. Richard showed a lot of promise so he was sent to study Marxism in Moscow. When he returned to his home the following year he was arrested and held in prison because of his commitment to communism. While in prison he renounced his belief in communist ideals.
On October 26, 1936, Richard married Sabina Oster. Two years later both Richard and Sabina committed their lives to Jesus when a Romanian carpenter named Christian Wolfkes shared the Gospel with them. Richard and Sabina got involved in the Anglican Mission to the Jews. Richard became immersed in God’s Word and was ordained, first as an Anglican, and then later as a Lutheran pastor.
In 1944, when Richard was in his 30s, the Soviet Union occupied Romania and Richard began a ministry to his Romanian countrymen and to the Red Army soldiers. He was arrested on February 29, 1948 on his way to church services. He spent three years in solitary confinement. His wife, Sabina, was arrested in 1950 and spent three years in prison.
Pastor Wurmbrand was released from prison in 1956 after almost nine years. He was warned not to preach, but as soon as he got out of prison he began ministering to the underground church. He was arrested again in 1959 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. During his imprisonment he was beaten and tortured because he refused to stop speaking about Jesus. Pastor Wurmbrand says,
It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners. It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating. A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so we accepted their [the communists' ] terms. It was a deal; we preached and they beat us. We were happy preaching. They were happy beating us, so everyone was happy. (Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured For Christ.)
In 1964, Pastor Wurmbrand was given amnesty. The Norwegian Mission to the Jews and the Hebrew Christian Alliance negotiated with the communists and gained the pastor’s release for $10,000. They convinced him to leave Romania and become the voice for the persecuted Church. Pastor Wurmbrand and his wife, Sabina, eventually ended up in the United States where they worked through their ministry “The Voice of the Martyrs” to raise awareness of the many followers of Jesus around the world who suffer for the cause of the Kingdom. Tom White, who lived with his wife next door in a duplex to the Wurmbrands, was greatly influenced by Richard and Sabina. He tells a story about Richard’s passion for sharing the Gospel.
One night through the wall of our duplex, we heard a great crash. Richard, now in his 70s, had fallen on the bathroom floor and fractured his skull. The next morning I was in his hospital room. He began to pull on his clothes to leave. The frantic nurses came in to tell him he could not get up. He said, “How can I sit in bed with only a little pain in my head when I am supposed to speak in Berlin where the people suffer much more than I do?” At the time, Berlin, Germany, was a walled-off city surrounded by the East German communist military. He flew to Germany. (Tom White, Executive Director of Voice of the Martyrs. February 9, 2001)
Pastor Wurmbrand, as well as many other followers of Jesus throughout the centuries, experienced an intimacy with the Lord, a sense of purpose, and a feeling of clarity in the midst of their suffering that they say they never experienced during times of ease and prosperity. In our Scripture for today, Ephesians 3:1-13, we will see the same intimacy, purpose, and clarity in the life of the Apostle Paul. Won’t you read with me.
1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles– 2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 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. 7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 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, 11 according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. 13 I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory. (Ephesians 3:1-13 NIV)
Ephesians 3 is really a prayer. It is a prayer Paul prays on behalf of the folks in Ephesus, yet, as soon as Paul begins his prayer he gets sidetracked. He opens his prayer by saying, “For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—“ (Ephesians 3:1 NIV) As soon as Paul finishes writing this phrase his mind begins a new thought and he doesn’t get back to his prayer until we get to verse 14 where Paul writes, “For this reason I kneel before the Father…” (Ephesians 3:14 NIV) What we find in verses 2-13 is not merely the ramblings of a distracted man, but rather it is priceless information that is intended to comfort and strengthen the believers in Ephesus. The comfort and strengthening would come as Paul explained to them that what was happening to him was not a stroke of bad luck, it wasn’t an unfortunate circumstance, and neither was it the victimization of an innocent man—it was all part of God’s plan. The strengthening and comfort would come from Paul sharing with the believers in Ephesus the truth of God’s eternal plan and purpose for their lives. Let’s see what we can learn.
The Comfort and Strength of God’s Sovereignty
In Ephesians 3:1-13 Paul explains several things about himself which are intended to comfort and strengthen his brothers and sisters in Ephesus. Let’s take a look at some of them for the next few minutes. Paul is in a Roman prison, he had been a prisoner of the Romans for about five years; two of which were spent in Caesarea before he was moved to Rome. He had been accused by the Jewish people of a crime he didn’t commit—the crime of taking Gentiles into the forbidden areas of the Temple. Paul wasn’t angry at the Roman authorities, he had no desire to seek vengeance on the Jews who tried to kill him—he saw himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. John MacArthur writes,
Although arrested on Jewish charges, Paul did not consider himself a prisoner of the Jews. Although imprisoned by Roman authority, he did not consider himself a prison of Rome. Although he had appealed to Caesar, he did not consider himself Caesar’s prisoner. He was a minister of Jesus Christ, bought with a price, and given the special mission of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. He was therefore a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Whatever he did and wherever he went were under Christ’s control. Without his Lord’s consent, he was not subject to the plans, power, punishment, or imprisonment of any man or government. (MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary. pg. 87)
Paul didn’t see his imprisonment as an impediment on his calling as a follower of Jesus; he saw it as an opportunity. Paul wrote four letters from prison: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Many Bible teachers believe that all of these “Prison Epistles,” or “Letters from Prison,” were written from Rome where Paul was imprisoned twice, from 60-62 A.D. and from 64-65 A.D. In another of his letters from prison, the letter to the church in Philippi, Paul writes,
12 Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. (Philippians 1:12-14 NIV)
Did you hear that? “…I am in chains for Christ.” How can a man who is sitting in prison suffering injustice at the hands of those who will eventually kill him say that he is right in the middle of God’s purpose for his life? How can he say that his hardships are serving for the furtherance of the cause of the Kingdom? I can answer that question for you. Paul believed, he was persuaded, he was absolutely convinced of the Sovereignty of God at work in his life whether he was free and traveling about the land or whether he was sitting in a prison awaiting his final days. If Paul would not have believed in the Sovereignty of God then he would have simply concluded that he was the victim of injustice. Instead of spending his time sharing the Gospel and writing letters to encourage the followers of Jesus throughout the land, he would have spent his time mired in depression and despair trying to figure out how all of “this” could have happened to him and how he could get out of his predicament.
There is no doubt in my mind that Paul shared this with the folks in Ephesus, as well as the folks in Philippi, because there were folks in the church who were troubled by Paul’s troubles. It just didn’t seem right. If Paul was a man of God, then why was he going through so many hardships? If God really loved Paul then why was he in prison? Why were folks trying to kill him? The offspring of those who were troubled by the troubles of God’s people are still with us today. Peter wrote to the followers of Jesus, and he still speaks to us today, with these words.
12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:12-16 NIV)
There’s a great lesson for you and me to learn in this my friends. I don’t know anyone who has had to suffer like the Apostle Paul, or Simon Peter, or Pastor Wurmbrand, but I do know folks who have had friends who ridiculed them or alienated them because of their commitment to Christ. I’ve known people who worked for unbelieving bosses who tried to make their lives miserable, who mocked their faith every chance they got, and tried to get others in the office to harass them as well. I’ve known kids in school who have been labeled by their classmates because their commitment to Christ kept them from doing some of the things that most of the kids do. One of the loneliest times of my life was my freshman year in college. There was only one other believer on my team and he was a senior. I found out that seniors and freshman didn’t mix—even if they were brothers in Christ. There was always some crazy stuff going on with girls, drugs, and alcohol, but I was a new believer, I had made a commitment to live for Christ, and I was serious about it. As a result, I spent lots of time by myself or at the Baptist Student Union, which brought its own baggage with it.
Paul’s Life was Commissioned
There was another aspect of Paul’s life that he wanted the believers to know about for the purpose of strengthening them and bringing them comfort. Paul wanted them to know that his life was not his choosing. The New American Standard translation of our Scripture says,
…I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ… (Ephesians 3:7-9 NAS)
Paul wasn’t on his way to church when he met Jesus. He was on his way to arrest Christians, he was public enemy number one of the cause of Christ, and yet on his way to seek out Christians, he was sought out by the Lord. He was struck blind, led into the city, and the Lord went before him to give instructions to a godly man named Ananias. When Ananias heard that the Lord wanted him to go and lay hands on Saul so that he would regain his eyesight, Ananias hesitated. In Acts 9:15-16 we learn what happened next. Read it with me.
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15-16 NIV)
God had a purpose for Paul’s life. He had a plan for Paul’s life. Carrying the Gospel to the Gentiles would be his life’s work. That is why Paul can write to the people in Ephesus, in the end of our Scripture for this morning, and say with confidence,
13 I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory. (Ephesians 3:13 NIV)
Paul didn’t sit down and brainstorm all of the potential careers he could pursue. No, he was made a minister, a servant, of the Gospel. He was humbled that God would choose him. He was overwhelmed that God would use him. Because of his understanding of the radical change of direction he had experienced in his life, he was more than willing to do whatever God called him to do, go wherever the Lord called him to go, and faithfully proclaim the truth of God regardless of the price to be paid. He wanted the Gentiles and the Jews in Ephesus to know that the mystery of the Gospel, the mystery of the plan of God to bring the Jews and Gentiles together as one people, was a message that he would make known regardless of the price he had to pay.
Less Than the Least
Paul never lost sight of the grace of God which had taken him from where he was and made him a messenger, a servant of the Gospel. Paul wrote to his young friend in the ministry, Timothy, and said,
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:12-16 NIV)
It’s so interesting isn’t it? We look at Paul as some kind of super human, some kind of saint who was far different than anything we are or ever hope to be, and yet Paul described himself in his letter to Timothy as the worst of all sinners. In our Scripture for today, Paul described himself to the folks in Ephesus as “less than the least of all God’s people.” In his letter to the people in Corinth, Paul wrote,
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:9-10 NIV)
This past week, as I’ve been reading these Scriptures and being reminded of Paul’s perspective about who he was and what God had done, I’ve thought about my own life and the life of the Body of Christ in our nation. What is the difference between the two? Paul never lost sight of the fact that it was all of God’s grace. He was overwhelmed by God’s grace. Today, many of us have lost sight of this fact. We look around us and conclude that we are “good” people. We’re not nearly as bad as others. Our goodness has moved God’s grace into the shadows my friends. As a result of this we’ve lost our fire, our passion, to carry God’s Word to others.
I’m convinced that the reason why Paul and those followers of Jesus who have gone before us were able to accomplish so much with so little is because they were convinced that what God had done for them He wanted to do for others. The agent, the instrument of God’s power, was His Word. They proclaimed His Word at every turn. They shared His Word when it was convenient and when it wasn’t. They put nothing before making His Word known to all people.
How are we different today? How is it that one man accomplished so much while an entire nation of Jesus’ followers are accomplishing so little? I’m not being negative—I’m just taking stock of where we are as God’s people in this nation. Think about it with me for a minute. Those early believers risked their very lives for the cause of the Kingdom, to teach God’s truth to those who needed to hear it. As we read through the book of Acts and we learn about the history of the early Church we find them running into trouble over and over again for talking about Jesus, for teaching the truth of what God has done. In the last chapter of Ephesians, while Paul is in prison, he asks the folks in Ephesus to pray for him. Do you know what he asks them to pray about? Was it that he might get out of prison as soon as possible? Not on your life!
19 Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6:19-20 NIV)
“Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” Nothing less should be expected then that I would proclaim it fearlessly! Paul would not be quiet. He would not stop proclaiming the Good News. God had done too great a work in Paul’s life for him to keep it to himself. God had revealed the mystery of the Gospel to Paul, He had shown Paul His grace, He had made him a mouthpiece for the cause of the Kingdom, and the truths of God had to be shared with everyone regardless of the price to be paid. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes,
What a man! What a Christian! Some of us would be much more popular in the Church, as well as in the world, if we did not say certain things. If a preacher wants to be popular he must never offend. But Paul did not want to be popular. He was given the truth, and he preached the whole truth; he withheld nothing. If he had only withheld this particular aspect all would have been well. But no, he says, I was told to preach it, my Lord sent me to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. So he is suffering gladly for their sakes. (Jones, Martyn-Lloyd. The Unsearchable Riches of Christ: Ephesians 3. pg. 22)
Those who have followed Jesus throughout the centuries have been willing to suffer all kinds of persecution and ridicule simply for the privilege of teaching the truth of God. In our day, in our land, we are far too concerned with what people will think, if we will be viewed as controversial or divisive, or if others will like us. We are the vessels of God’s truth to a nation living in darkness. We are the mouthpiece of the mysteries of the Gospel and we can’t afford to remain silent.
There has been a shift happen somewhere along the way that is greatly hindering the cause of the Kingdom. Those early believers, and some believers in other parts of the world today, longed to hear the Word of God and to learn the Word of God so they could then share the Word of God. When I was in Plano, Texas our pastor traveled a couple of times to Onitsha, Nigeria to teach the Bible. David absolutely loved going because the people were so hungry to learn more and more about God’s Word. They would walk from miles and miles away simply to hear David teach God’s Word. David would teach for hours and hours and then they would beg him not to stop. “More, teach us more.”
Today, in our country, in our city, it’s not enough to simply teach the Word of God. You’ve got to have all of the bells and whistles to go along with it. If you really want a church that grows and makes a wide impact then you’ve got to have Michael W. Smith, Fred Hammond, or Darlene Zschech lead singing, you’ve got to have the latest and most mesmerizing technology to wow your audience, and you’ve got to have a “creative” team to put together worship “experiences.” There are many churches that use these “tools” to minister, but I’m convinced that “bells and whistles” are not nearly as effective in equipping us for life, trials, and persecution as the simple study of the Word of God. I’m also convinced that if widespread persecution ever comes to this nation we will not be prepared to stand strong for the cause of the Kingdom.
It is the Word of God that educates us, inspires us, convicts us, and equips us to stand in the face of trials of any kind and see that God is at work. It is my prayer this morning that you will be encouraged by Paul’s words written to the folks in Ephesus. It is my prayer that you will come to understand the comfort and strength that comes from learning about the Sovereignty of Almighty God. It is my prayer that this morning you might hear the voice of God calling you, as He called Paul, and that He will set you on a new track, in a new direction from this day forward. The first step to a new life begins at the foot of the Cross my friends. It is only through what God has done for you and me through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that we can come to know life, even eternal life, and begin to live for Him today. Won’t you invite Him into your heart this morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
February 26, 2012