One Sunday morning, the pastor noticed little Alex staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the church. The seven-year-old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the pastor walked up, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, "Good morning Alex."
"Good morning pastor," replied the young man, focused on the plaque. "Pastor McGee, what is this?"
"Well, son, these are all the people who have died in the service," replied the pastor.
Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque.
Little Alex's voice barely broke the silence when he asked quietly, "Which one, the 9:00 or 10:30 service?"
Serving sacrificially is a topic that we often dont like to consider. When it comes to giving of oneself we have our limits. When it comes to serving the body of Christ, dying in the service of the Church is not something we would volunteer for. Lets face it, its hard enough to get people to volunteer for the nursery! But at the heart of Pauls discussion of the union of Jew and Gentile in the Church, Paul introduces an autobiographical sketch which portrays serving as the primary picture of the Christian life in the body of Christ. This passage gives us a great perspective on how we should view serving.
Few passages reveal more about what makes Paul tick. Some people view Paul as a super-saint, others picture him as a stern, overly logical theologian, who barely had feelings or other human attributes. But here Paul pulls back the curtain to reveal his self-understanding. It has been said that this is possibly the most experiential chapter in all his epistles as he pauses and gets very personal amidst this sea of doctrine. If there is one verb which would describe Paul in this passage it is "serve." We see here how Paul viewed his service to the Church. From this we can glean important truths for our service as well.
Pauls movement between praise and prayer in his letter continues in chapter 3. In the first chapter we saw how Pauls doxology, his praise of the triune God, in verses 3-14 produced prayer for his readers, and has his description of Gods grace in us as a Church produce another prayer. Paul sees Gods union of Jew and Gentile as a reason for prayer. He begins in 3:1, but interrupts himself, picking up again in verse 14. But this interruption provides us with a wonderful insight into Paul.
We serve through suffering - verses 1,13
Paul understood his sufferings served a benefit for the Gentiles
How you introduce yourself says something about who you are and how you view yourself. Mothers on the playground or school yard may say, "Hi, Im Tommys mom." We may use a title before our name to clarify what our role in life is or explain where we are from. Paul identifies himself in such a way that would at first appear embarrassing. He is Paul, the prisoner.
While writing this letter, Paul is chained to a Roman guard 24/7 under house arrest. The picture at first glance is tragic. The great missionary, the traveling apostle who began so many churches, is awaiting an audience with the emperor Nero to ascertain whether he will live or die.
But he clarifies what this means. He is the prisoner of Christ Jesus
Paul defines himself not just by his immediate circumstances, but in light of what God has done through Christ. The chains which rattle and clang each and every day, the leer of the Roman guard are not what determine his status in life. Who Paul is is elucidated only by Christ. Paul takes the greatest disgrace and makes it the highest honor. Paul is in jail not for some criminal activity, but because of his faithfulness to Christ.Paul never thought of himself as the prisoner of Rome; he always thought of himself as the prisoner of Christ. Paul knew who was truly running the universe; and the Lord Christ was far more potent that Rome's Caesar. He knew that all things happened at God's command; and that no power was in authority, but that God ordained. Hence, the Roman guards and rulers were tools of God. Christ had Paul in jail - not the Romans - and Christ had Paul in Rome as part of the fulfillment of His plan to preach the Gospel to the whole world. (The Covenant Pulpit, Rev. David W. Hall)
His reason for the chains are simple: "for the sake of you Gentiles."
At first, the Greek readers of this letter may have felt a twinge of guilt, as though Paul is saying, "its all your fault that Im stuck in here." But that is not the case with Paul at all. Rather Paul willingly lost his liberty to proclaim the freedom of the Gentiles before God.
You can read of the events which lead to his confinement in Acts 21. Paul, having returned to Jerusalem after passing through the cities where he had begun numerous churches, returns with a financial gift for the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. While in the Temple area, Paul is seized by Jews from Asia Minor. Why? Because they had seen Paul with Trophimus, a Christian from Ephesus, with Paul in Jerusalem days before. They assumed Paul smuggled this Greek into the Temple to desecrate their place of worship. When a riot ensued, the Roman guards intervened and arrested Paul. In order to obtain a fair trial, Paul, as a citizen of Rome, appealed his case to Caesar. So now, he finds himself on a short chain and a confined future.Pauls suffering is a direct result of his service. But there is not a trace of bitterness, not a hint of disillusionment. Rather he sees not only the ultimate cause behind his imprisonment is Christ, but also the benefit is for his readers. In verse 13 he challenges them not to be discouraged because all this is for their glory. When Christ is our focus, His honor is our goal, then we can see that nothing which happens is pointless.
Suffering has its privilegesAmerican Express sells itself by reminding us that "Membership has its privileges" but for the Christian the relationship with have with Christ turns this truth around. The membership Paul was given entitled him not to limitless financial freedom, not access to the finest places with the best of people. Membership meant suffering. But for the Christian suffering has its privileges. Paul was in jail for preaching the Gospel to those others thought should be excluded from Gods offer of salvation. Again, this passage is particular to Pauls circumstances in life. We may not find ourselves arrested and jailed for our faith. But we can adopt the same mindset of Paul here. We need to see in the worst of circumstances that God has not abandoned us. In fact, God may well use those situations we face each and every day for the benefit of others. When life is overwhelming, we must not forget that God has graciously set to work in us and through us for His glory. But how can we do this? How can we serve in our suffering? C. H. Spurgeon understood the need for suffering, for he wrote, "Stars may be seen from the bottom of a deep well that cannot be discerned from the top of a mountain: so are many things learned in adversity which the prosperous man dreams not of. We need affliction as the trees need winter, that we may collect sap and nourishment for future blossoms and fruit. Sorrow is as necessary for the soul as medicine is to the body." Mountain tops are for views and inspiration, but fruit is grown in the valleys. This truth was borne out in the life of missionary Elisabeth Elliot after she received news that her husband had been martyred by the Auca Indians in Ecuador. Through this she was shaken but not to the point of despair. Her focus in suffering was on serving not just those people who killed her husband, but she saw the bigger picture. She also believed that her Heavenly Father had permitted this seeming tragedy for some good purpose. The confidence she had in the all-wise God enabled her to write a letter to a friend, saying, "Only in acceptance lies peace - not in forgetting nor in resignation nor in busyness. His will is good and acceptable and perfect." It was only in that light could she bring herself to move in among the very people who killed her husband and befriend them. The suffering she endured was for their glory, their eternal benefit. We serve by Gods grace - verses 2, 7, 8 God gives us service to highlight His grace
Next in verse 2 Paul refers to the special administration of God's grace that was given to him. The English word "administration" is a translation of the Greek word oikonomia, or "house-law" from which we derive the English word economy. An economy is an orderly administration or rule of the house where various responsibilities are divided to as to save time and effort. This word can also be translated as stewardship or management.
Such an economy or administration was discharged to Paul. The specific charge was to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Others within the house-economy (or on the team) would reach out to Jews, but to Paul was given the division of labor to reach the Gentiles. He had a special task that none before had been overtly assigned. He was a steward, a custodian of the Gospel which was entrusted to him. Paul was not in jail by accident, but to discharge this responsibility for the Master. (The Covenant Pulpit, Rev. David W. Hall)
In the next chapter Paul will outline his view of Gods household in more detail, but here we have a glimpse in Pauls view of ministry, of serving others. Just as we saw earlier, we are Gods workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do. The service we are each to do is what God has prepared for us. In verse 2, Pauls work was what God had given him. In the next chapter, it is God who gifts people for service.
We often think of service as optional, as what we chose. To serve is to volunteer, so we imagine. But here serving is part of Gods calling on Pauls life. We are no different. Certainly we are not like the great Apostle laying the foundation for the church, but Gods calling is in our lives to serve just the same. Most people wish to serve God but in an advisory capacity only.
Look at the job he had - one which focuses on grace. It was Gods grace that empowers him and it is Gods grace that is the focus of his work. You and I are called by Gods grace to speak of His grace. Pauls job was to reveal a mystery which we will look at more next week. But in a nutshell the mystery is that because of Christs death, burial and resurrection, there is now no more barriers between us and God. We have freedom of access.
This is what we are to be telling others as well. Our lives are to be grace oriented. It is far too easy for us to adopt the posture of the gate-keepers of Gods law. We certainly need to be a voice for right and wrong in a world that has lost its moral compass. We must stand firm for the absolutes found in Scripture and speak clearly about the importance of the Decalogue in our society. But having said that, we must never think that to the extent we critique our society we have fulfilled the mandate to be salt and light in our world. If all we ever speak is law and never give the answer in the Gospel we have not served our world well. We must follow Pauls lead, that as he was given an administration of Gods grace, we too must continue to hold up that banner of God reconciled because of Christs death.
Paul gives a similar command in Colossians 4. In telling his readers to know how to handle those who do not believe, he emphasizes the importance of grace. "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone."
Serving graciously is never easy. It is easiest to offer a quick jab or a hurtful comment. It is easy to judge and censor those with whom we disagree. But how are we to answer? How are we to serve others - pointing them to a God who has dealt graciously with us, not as we deserved?
Gods grace is the power by which we serve
In verse 7 Paul continues to define himself and lay out a great picture of how we are to serve.
Paul is a servant. Not only has he taken on the title of a prisoner, he continues using terms that would not endear him to social climbers and cultural snobs. Paul is not just a prisoner, but a servant, a deacon, a minister. While the title "minister" today may not have the status it did in ages past, it is often understood to be a term of respect. But the word is derived from the term Paul uses here of himself in verse 7: he is a servant, doing the work of not of ones own choosing, but what the master commands.
The Greek word used here is diaconos which means servant, worker, helper from which we get "deacon." While God graciously revealed to him the mystery (which well look at next week), while he was chosen to administrate the Gospel of grace to the Gentiles (pretty heady responsibility), he sees himself only as a servant and that only by Gods grace. Given Pauls proud ethnic and academic past, it would be easy for him to have been proud. But Gods gracious power transformed him to be a servant.
Paul was able to serve graciously because when he wrestled with grace he was forced to see not only Gods goodness, but his unworthiness as well. Paul gives an appraisal of his own status before God in verse 8. He is the least of all Gods saints, Gods people.
It would be easy for one such as Paul, with his superior status as an apostle, his lineage and academic prowess described in Philippians 3 to lord his special standing over these lowly pagans. But not only was his past reason to boast, his present position could cause him to crow. Look in verses 3-5 as Paul describes what it is God has done. The God of the Universe made known that which was unknown to him. Through Paul these Gentiles now can respond in faith to the Gospel message. Other generations did not know this, but thanks be to St. Paul - here it is. In light of all that, in light of Gods grace, Paul only sees his sin.
It is interesting that as Paul matured the way in which he refers to himself also changes.
Early in his ministry Paul recognized that while he was an apostle, he called himself the "least of the apostles" (1 Corinthians 15:9). A few years later when he wrote this letter to the Ephesians he now sees himself even lower. Now he Is the least of the saints. To make his point Paul puts a comparative ending onto a superlative, which is scarcely grammatical; it is as though we were to say in English, "the leastest." Years later as he approached death, he goes even further. In 1 Timothy 1:15 he refers to himself as the "chief of sinners."
Grace has a way of cutting pride down. I think that is why people have historically been opposed to saying we are justified by grace alone! When we are removed from the picture, when we see that our lives are all about Gods love for us and not about anything we have to offer, suddenly our self importance begins to wane.
What would your self evaluation be today? Do you think that youre doing fairly well, moving along in a way that makes God happy? Or, the more you gaze on Gods goodness, His grace in making you His own, do you simultaneously smell the awful stench of your own sin?
The great Toscanini once gave a concert for which the audience was wildly enthusiastic. There were several encores, and still the audience cheered. Finally, there was a lull in the din, and Toscanini turned his back to the audience and said so the orchestra could hear, "I am nothing; you are nothing; but Beethoven, he is everything!" Theologically, that is where Paul was in his preaching of Jesus Christ. Christ was everything!
But then, when we see Christ as everything, what happens? Then at last we are free to serve without fear of failure. It is then we can we can experience Gods power at work in us for it is then we trust Christs righteousness rather than our own.
In his book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster contrasted two forms of service, that which flows from our own self-righteousness and that which comes from serving God because of Christs righteousness.
What is the goal of Gods grace in Pauls life?
To preach the unsearchable riches of Christ
Pauls job was to proclaim the good news of that which can never be fully understood. All that which God has done is a mine so deep and so full of diamonds that it will take all eternity for us to gather a glimpse of how wonderful He is to us. Paul calls these riches unsearchable. It is a compound made up of the negative prefix, the preposition meaning "out," and a noun that signifies "track" or "footstep." It signifies "what cannot be tracked out" or possibly "footprints that cannot be tracked out." There is no way to track down all that God has done or is doing. The riches of Christ mean that there is a never ending stream of wealth for those who are His; what He has for us is beyond our comprehension.
To make plain what is otherwise unclear
Its said that preachers are like God, invisible most of the week and incomprehensible when they speak. But Paul sees his task to make plain what is confusing. Paul describes this part of his service as enlightening, illuminating. Like a brilliant spot light, Paul wants all those who hear him grasp the life changing truth of what life in Christ means.
How does Gods grace affect our service? What does it mean for us to serve graciously?
Just as Paul understood that Gods grace called him to serve and to serve by pointing back to Gods grace, so should it be in our lives, too.
This grace-centered preaching is part of Cornerstones vision. If youve been here just a little while you know that our focus seeks to be on the unsearchable riches of Christ, that we want to make known that which is otherwise unknown - that Gods acceptance of you and me is based not on our performance, not on our perfect keeping of the law, but on Christs keeping of the law for us.
This grace-oriented serving doesnt stop here on Sunday mornings. It should form the basis of how we interact with one another each and every day. Gracious serving and even suffering serving, should characterize our own lives.
That life of serving in light of Gods grace occurs when we dont wait for opportunities to help, but create them, seek them out, when we reach out to others here or those around us each day. They happen when we stop waiting for others to make us happy and begin, with anticipation, to make others happy.
But here is a warning. Try as you might to live like this, you will find yourself grumbling and complaining unless you realize that your service is only a gift from God, that it is His grace working powerfully through you. Otherwise you will find yourself weak and tired.
The answer to this lies before us - not only in the Word preached, but in the wine and bread on the table. It is here God nourishes and feeds us as we come again to trust in His grace, knowing that He died and rose again that we might serve in His strength.