Have you ever met a know-it-all? Interestingly enough, usually, this sort does not know that they do not know. Unfortunately, during my youth, I did whatever pleased me. Although the LORD surrounded me with people who tried to warn me of the world’s dangers, I remember thinking its traps could not catch me because I was smarter than that. I thought I knew it all and I thought I understood enough about God’s Word. Was I wrong! Sometimes people achieve great things because they are unaware of limitations, but obliviousness often removes the opportunity to avoid failure. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.
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In Ephesians 3, Paul explained that God’s eternal purpose for the Church was a mystery hidden from previous generations to be revealed to the Gentiles for out-of-this-world reasons! After studying this chapter for weeks, my heart bowed in wonderment at how God revealed His plan for humanity throughout time. It is so simple to receive that a child can understand, and its depth and breadth require diligent reading for His Spirit to impart its gravity and consequence. When I digested this study:
- my heart wept at the amazing grace of my Saviour;
- my mind was happily stunned at the revelation that was always available but not fully contemplated; and,
- my spirit was invigorated to continue to run the race most determinedly to win the prize of His high calling.
If you would like, grab your bible to follow along because while this is a verse-by-verse study, I sometimes refer to a verse from Ephesians 3 but do not quote it. I have divided my blog into three main points outlined as follows:
- A Willing Prisoner Captivated by God’s Will is Free
- The Ekklēsía is Otherworldly, Predetermined and Misunderstood which includes:
- The Holy Spirit Strengthens Our Spirit in the Love of Christ to Experience the Fullness of God.
Let’s dive in, and remember, you cannot understand what you do not know. We are individually responsible for what we are prepared to understand.
Point 1: A Willing Prisoner Captivated by God’s Will is Free
The Holy Spirit, through the apostle Paul, had established for the Ephesians (in Chapter 2) that God created one new man in Jesus Christ (a new species that is neither Jew nor Gentile). This new kind of person has their citizenship in heaven despite living in a temporary earthly residence. By being united to Christ, the re-created person is in God’s family and is His dwelling. As such, each person who is joined to Christ is related to all believers (throughout time and space). When Christ tore down the “wall of separation”, He dismantled anything that separated God’s redeemed; we cannot be separated by nationality, gender, age, physical location, social or economic status, not even time.
As we continue in this letter, Paul explained in Ephesians 3:1 that he was a willing prisoner of Christ because of this message of “joining” to Christ as the way to have access to the temple of God. This new temple (not made by hands) became a controversy for the Jews because their entire life revolved around the sacrificial system at the temple in Jerusalem.
Background on Paul’s Imprisonment
Paul was a prisoner of Christ not just because he was captivated by God’s extravagant grace and unfailing love, he was a prisoner of earthly governments by God’s will. The context of Pauls’ life explains what the Ephesians would have known. Let’s consider this briefly.
Paul was arrested in Jerusalem around 58 A.D. because he was accused of breaking Jewish segregation temple laws described in Acts 21:27 to 31. Then he was sent to Caesarea to escape the Jew’s conspiracy to murder him by 59 A.D. (refer to Acts 23:1 to 35). The situation arose because the Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection) and the Pharisees (who were offended because Paul said he had a good conscience before God without the high priest) needed to put an end to Paul’s testimony. This account demonstrates the LORD’s intervention and protection. Scripture states:
- … the Lord stood by him and said, “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome.” (Acts 23:11)
Later Ananias, the high priest, accused Paul of sedition (Acts 24:5 to 6). Paul remained in Caesarea for two years while witnessing to Felix, the governor. Felix procrastinated with Paul’s case until he was succeeded by Porcius Festus. (Acts 24:22 to 27). Festus being new in the role sought the advice of the King because the Jewish leadership was making accusations they could not prove. Paul had appealed to Caesar since he was a Roman citizen, but Festus did not have a clear charge against Paul. King Agrippa agreed to examine Paul to determine the supporting rationale for sending Paul to the emperor. Paul’s self-defence was as follows:
- “As the Jewish leaders are well aware, I was given a thorough Jewish training from my earliest childhood among my own people and in Jerusalem. If they would admit it, they know that I have been a member of the Pharisees, the strictest sect of our religion. Now I am on trial because of my hope in the fulfillment of God’s promise made to our ancestors. In fact, that is why the twelve tribes of Israel zealously worship God night and day, and they share the same hope I have. Yet, Your Majesty, they accuse me for having this hope! Why does it seem incredible to any of you that God can raise the dead? “I used to believe that I ought to do everything I could to oppose the very name of Jesus the Nazarene. Indeed, I did just that in Jerusalem. Authorized by the leading priests, I caused many believers there to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. Many times I had them punished in the synagogues to get them to curse Jesus. I was so violently opposed to them that I even chased them down in foreign cities. “One day I was on such a mission to Damascus, armed with the authority and commission of the leading priests. About noon, Your Majesty, as I was on the road, a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone down on me and my companions. We all fell down, and I heard a voice saying to me in Hebrew, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is useless for you to fight against my will.’ “‘Who are you, lord?’ I asked. “And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Now get to your feet! For I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant and witness. You are to tell the world what you have seen and what I will show you in the future. And I will rescue you from both your own people and the Gentiles. Yes, I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me.‘ “And so, King Agrippa, I obeyed that vision from heaven. (Acts 26:4 to 19 New Living Translation)
Earlier during the account of Paul’s conversion, the LORD had appeared to a disciple at Damascus named Ananias saying:
- “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. “For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15 to 16)
Paul was a willing prisoner of our LORD, and as such, he was fulfilling his call. In 61 A.D., Paul was sent to Rome where he was imprisoned again. His letter to the Ephesians (written in 62 A.D.) explained that God’s grace had converted his heart by the illumination of who Christ is. Paul understood that God had predestined his calling, and he was a free willing captive of God’s love and will.
Earlier in 57 A.D, Paul wrote the Galatians telling them of his appointment to the world’s nations saying:
- But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the Church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles. (Galatians 1:11 to 16)
After Paul’s encounter with the risen LORD, he willingly suffered. He had understood the cost of serving Christ, and he knew he would be greatly opposed. His experience and changed heart made him strong and bold for the LORD. He counted the persecution as a reason for joy; and, the newly found peace and assurance was liberty from community norms, religious legalism, and slavery to sin. As he wrote:
- Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. (2nd Corinthians 3:17)
- Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. (Galatians 5:1)
Point 2: The Ekklēsía is Otherworldly, Predetermined and Misunderstood
Paul explained that his suffering for the Church had a specific purpose; this cause previously escaped humanity by God’s design. He wrote about the dispensation of the grace of God which was considered a mystery (refer to Ephesians 3:2 to 5),
What exactly is the dispensation of the grace of God? I have heard some people excuse their poor behaviour or unholy preferences by claiming liberty from the law because of grace. I often wonder if being in the dispensation of grace is understood.
Grace existed in the old covenant Scriptures. To note just a few examples, please consider Noah, Moses, Ester, Ruth, David and Israel as a whole were given grace from God. Here are a few passages to prove this: Genesis 6:8, Exodus 33: 17, Ezra 9:8. Esther 2:17, Psalms 84:11, Proverbs 3:34, and Jeremiah 31:2.
Let’s pick Noah from these examples. When Noah was on earth, the LORD had not given the law, so Noah was not governed by law. Humanity lived by their consciences.
- For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, (Romans 1:20 to 22).
While humanity understood right from wrong, Scripture states that every intention of their hearts was continually evil (Genesis 6:5).
God’s expectation of man-kind was clear. He told Cain:
- “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7).
Cain was even shown a certain level of grace with reasonable discipline after he murdered his brother (Genesis 4:12 to 15).
So, we see that before Moses and the law, God showed grace to Noah (grace is one of His attributes). He spoke to Noah; Noah believed God and obeyed; Noah’s faith in action resulted in God’s provision of protection from the righteous judgment that overtook the world because of ongoing rebellion.
Since God is righteous, what does grace do that allows God to hold back judgement for sin?
The impact of God’s grace on an individual heart, changes the heart’s affections, reflection, and gratitude. God’s grace is His undeserved Divine influence upon the heart, that illuminates understanding and thereby changes the person’s desires and results in their turning away from sinful actions through faith in God’s plan of reconciliation. This is different than His indwelling Spirit,
Although confronted by temptations, a heart changed by God’s grace desires to please the LORD; not to offend the LORD. The indwelling Spirit of God gives guides us to obey.
Grace did not change the definition of right or wrong; it changed the heart of its recipient to enable obedience.
Let’s take a look at what Paul says about being “in the dispensation of God’s grace” since he is primarily the only apostle who taught the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Most apostles only mentioned grace in passing (such as in salutations or as a characteristic of the LORD) focusing on faith mostly. Peter also spoke about grace in 1st Peter, when he confirmed Paul’s teaching to be Scripture. Peter wrote:
- … consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation, as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen. (2nd Peter 3:15 to 18)
Paul used the word “dispensation” in Ephesians 3 verse 2 which is “oikonomía” in Greek. It is defined in Strong’s G3622 as the administration (of a household or estate); especially, a religious economy or a dispensation, stewardship.
- Easton’s Bible Dictionary states it is a method or scheme according to which God carries out his purposes towards men. It is notably linked with the commission to preach the gospel. The conclusion is therefore that dispensations are providential events that affect men either in the way of mercy or of judgement.
Paul explained, that at the very least, God trusted him with the management of the Gentile house of God. But by willingly fulfilling this stewardship, he receives a reward. (1st Corinthians 9:17). This is about faithfully completing a role to the end.
Later in this same letter to the Corinthians, he expanded on what this stewardship meant to his daily lifestyle and work. He said:
- Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ… When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. (1st Corinthians 9:19 to 23 New Living Translation);
- I now rejoice in my sufferings for you… for the sake of His body, which is the Church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:24 to 27).
So Paul (who majored in the doctrine of grace) stated that He obeyed the law of Christ; and, Christ was the fulfillment of the law. Obedience to God was never supposed to be exercised by checking off a list; it was supposed to be willing submission to His Sovereignty.
Paul explained that God had entrusted him with preaching the good news that God would dwell in a believer through the Holy Spirit; that the believer is God’s holy temple that will be filled eternally with His presence. If He is in us, He will train us to live in harmony with the Godhead. In 2nd Peter 3:15 to 18, Peter stated that unlearned and unstable people twist the meaning of Paul’s messages which implies these individuals have some knowledge but misunderstand the entire purpose.
Perhaps these errors cause misapplication of Scripture, legalism, or (in contrast) even allow someone to permit themselves to disobey God’s Word.
If a Christ-follower has received grace, they grow in their knowledge of Him through His Word by His Spirit. Anyone who refuses to learn needs to examine the reason for their rebellion to Scripture. Sanctification (or the process of being made holy) is an ongoing reality in the life of those in Christ until taken home.
You see, this is part of why we are here: to learn, to grow, and to teach others so that we collectively uphold our placement in the temple that God is building for Himself. This will become clearer in the study.
Paul emphasized in Ephesians 3:3 that God chose to reveal the mystery of God’s temple to the apostles through the Holy Spirit. Let’s think about this for a moment. In the New Testament, Jesus told us that He would build the temple:
- Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19)
Of course, people ridiculed Jesus because they did not understand He was referring to His death and resurrection. But it was not the time for them to understand. Before the LORD went to the cross to redeem us, He had told His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come and dwell in them. After Jesus rose from the dead, He gave them instructions to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Ghost power for a purpose.
- “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: “of sin, because they do not believe in Me; “of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; “of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. (John 16:7 to 13)
Before His ascension, Jesus said:
- “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Scripture tells us when this happened:
- When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1 to 4)
Before Pentecost, our heavenly Father had used these various stewardships of veiled grace throughout time to accomplish His Word (which was His purpose from the foundation of the world).
- He had used the patriarchs to set apart a family the birth of the Messiah (Genesis 18:18);
- He had used the law to teach humanity how they transgressed against God (The books of Genesis, through to Deuteronomy). Inability to keep the law demonstrated they needed the Saviour to reconcile them to God (Galatians 3:23 to 24, Colossians 2:17, Hebrews 8:5);
- He had used the prophets to foretell events providing evidence of the truth (visit The Message in a Body blog for references too numerous to list now);
- He used evil to crucify the Messiah fulfilling prophetic Scriptures (John 13:18 to 27, Isaiah 53);
- He had filled those who accepted God’s grace with His Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1 to 4) as the prerequisite; and then,
Post-Pentecost, God had once more ‘called people‘ using the stewardship of the apostles’ proclamation of His message with Christ as the Chief Cornerstone. This is how His temple would be built (1st Corinthians 3:10 to 11, Revelation 21:14).
In Ephesians 3, verses 7 to 9, we read that Paul was given marvellous insight into God’s plan of the ages. Scripture states God had appointed Paul from birth to accomplish His will (Galatians 1:15). Notice that Paul was educated in the law before his conversion and zealous for God. Paul explained that those in Christ are a part of a supernatural body for a specific purpose and are blessed to inherit everything in Christ (Galatians 3:29, Ephesians 2:15 to 16).
Regardless of where a believer is placed in God’s temple, we serve one LORD by One Spirt in one body, the Church, for the glory of God (1st Corinthians 3:5).
If you are in Christ, take a look around you. Where are you placed? What is it for? Who are you building up? Who are you proclaiming God’s grace to? Who is teaching you? What is it all about? For whom are you doing what you are doing? Are you in a body of believers who hold to the Gospel of God (called by Christ, Romans 1:1 to 6)?
- For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. (1st Corinthians 3:9)
- “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, (Acts 17:26)
When a believer wrestles with the application of Scripture, it stems from an inner conflict between the Spirit of God and the believer’s desires. The Spirit is working to bring that believer to a place of growth and obedience to God.
Failing to become obedient in increasing ways to the LORD as outlined by His Scripture is willful disobedience or rebellion. It is knowing what is right and choosing to disobey; preferring one’s will over God’s will.
What is the Scriptural Definition of the Church?
The Old Testament did not contain the term “Church”. The first mention of the word “Church” was by Christ in the book of Matthew. The Greek word is Ekklēsia which means “a calling out”.
The Church is the temple of God that is built by Christ and includes those who truly believe and rely on Christ’s death, burial and resurrection for their right standing before God (Matthew 16:18, 1st Corinthians 3:10 to 11, and Ephesians 2:20 to 22). These individuals are assembled into a composition of individuals who are called out of the world (of darkness and sin) and called into a purifying relationship with Him. Refer to (2nd Corinthians 4:6 and1st Peter 2:9).
The LORD had promised to build His Church, and after His ascension to Heaven, the Holy Spirit was poured out to them:
- …. And the Lord added to the Church daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47)
- … So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the Church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (Acts 11:26)
- I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, (Ephesians 4:1)
- who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, (2nd Timothy 1:9)
A member of the Church should care more about the realization of God’s will than their personal and collective comfort and ambition. Walking in this manner requires Christ-like humility. Scripture states:
- Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (Romans 8:27 to 30)
What does it mean “to be conformed to the image of Christ”, and how can we individually and collectively be like Him? While there is a list of characteristics to emulate and deeds to do, it would be futile without the Spirit’s empowerment. Since each believer is in a different spot in their sanctification journey, let’s look at what Jesus said and follow His instructions:
- “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. (John 6:38)
- “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. … “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples. (John 15:4 to 8)
Since Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone that connects and builds us into one building for God’s Spirit to fill, then it is not His will for believers to be apart from each other. In fact, to willingly choose to be separated from the body of Christ is to be in rebellion against His Word. Rebellion is sin; purposely living in sin hinders fellowship with the Head encumbering growth.
Scripture admonishes us to share the Word with everyone and allow God’s Word to do the work that He purposes. His heart is for every believer to enjoy the unity of the Godhead together forever. His Word says:
- I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2nd Timothy 4:1 to 5)
While we do not enjoy negative interactions, press on in love and prayerfully. Ensure it is the Spirit is leading. Since God is responsible for building and knitting together His Church, leave the consequence to Him.
Regardless of where a believer is in their walk with the LORD, every circumstance in their life is permitted by the LORD; even the ones lamented. We may not understand the reasons for situations, but we can trust in the wisdom and character of our gracious Father. There is often a bigger picture we cannot see; and, I believe that it is an exercise of God’s wisdom that appoints times and events for our good and His glory.
Think about this. God created the Church for Himself, for the believer, for kingdom advancement, and to demonstrate His attributes to spiritual forces. Ephesians 3: 9 and 10 state:
- to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the Church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places,
Although God had shared His plan to a certain extent in every dispensation of time, He wisely concealed how the Messianic prophecies for our salvation would come to fruition. He even used the rulers of darkness to do so. This is the way Scripture states it:
- Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. (1st Peter 1:10 to 11 New International Version)
- But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. (1st Corinthians 2:7 to 10)
The LORD had introduced the mystery of the kingdom of heaven to His disciples which is documented in the gospels (Mark 4:11). Jesus said had explained that a new era had arrived. He said:
- For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. ( Matthew 11:13).
After John the Baptist was placed in prison, Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17). From that point on, during His earthly ministry, Jesus often addressed the masses in parables. When asked why He spoke this way, Jesus said:
- “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. “For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. “Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. “And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’ “But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; “for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matthew 13:11 to 17).
Luke 4 informs us that when given the book of Isaiah to read in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, Jesus found the portion of Scripture that we know as Isaiah 61 and recited it saying:
- “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18 to 19).
Jesus had stopped before verse 2 ended. It is written:
- To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn, (Isaiah 61:2).
The Jews were awaiting their Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom and overthrow the Roman empire. It seems as though the LORD confirmed that He was indeed the Messiah but through His silence implied that the vengeance of God was not to occur at this point.
As we look back in history, we can see that the kingdom of heaven has phases since: (1) it was near before the LORD’s death and ascension; (2) it started on the Day of Pentecost; and, (3) it is still expanding but (in the way that we experience time) it is not complete yet.
Is There a Distinction Between the Kingdom of Heaven and the Church?
While Jesus taught openly about the kingdom of heaven in parables to anyone who would hear, He only explained their meaning to the disciples who would later make other disciples and scribe His Words for those called in the future. In the book of Matthew, Jesus provides 12 parables to explain the kingdom of heaven. Let’s take a look at the list from a high level:
- The Sower (explained in Matthew 13:18 to 23) is about different categories of people who listen to the Word of God;
- The Wheat and the Tares (explained in Matthew 13:36 to 43) is about good and bad people;
- The Mustard Seed (explained in Matthew 13:31 to 32) is about abnormal growth;
- The Leaven (explained in Matthew 13:33) is about the corruption of truth;
- The Hidden Treasure (in Matthew 13:44) is Israel’s present state: refer to Exodus 19:5, Malachi 3:17, Romans 11:25 to 29, Luke 21:24, and Luke 1:32 to 33;
- The Pearl of Great Price (in Matthew 13:45 to 46) is the Church comprised of Jews and Gentiles that was purchased (consider that the pearl is a non-kosher, glistening object formed by mixing an irritant with a natural secretion);
- The Dragnet (in Matthew 13:47 to 50) is about the effect of the kingdom message on various sorts of individuals (regardless of the condition of their hearts).
After Jesus explained these 7 parables, He told them that a person who is well learned about the kingdom of heaven is like a keeper of old and new truths which means they will have an ability to explain the full teaching of it. Truth does not change over time. Refer to Matthew 13:52.
Jesus continued to share the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” to those who could not receive them, and He was teaching truths to be understood by way of “parables” to those who would be a part of His Church. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon explains the “mystery” (or mystḗrion in Greek) as follows:
- It is the secret counsels which govern God in dealing with the righteous which are hidden from ungodly and wicked men but plain to the godly;
- It is God’s plan of providing salvation for men through Christ which was once hidden but now is revealed.
Let’s resume with the remaining 5 kingdom parables recorded in Matthew as follows:
- The Unforgiving Servant (in Matthew 18:23 to 35) explains that while forgiveness of all debts is available, God will not forgive a person who refuses to forgive others;
- The Workers in the Vineyard (in Matthew 20:1 to 16) emphasizes the need for the Church to humble themselves under God’s sovereignty over the timing of His calling and the rewards He gives;
- The Wedding Feast (in Matthew 22 :1 to 13) emphasizes the need to accept the LORD’s invitation to give honour to the King with gratitude (because we are thankful for His grace, we love and respect Him; it is not honourable to accept just for benefits). I like the way Charles Haddon Spurgeon said it:
- He came into the banquet when he was bidden, but he came only in appearance, he came not in heart. ..The man came in full exercise of self-will and self-love. He resolved to yield no homage, but to assert his independent self-sovereignty. He had no objection to be there, to eat the dainties, or recline upon the seats, and see the pomp and the show, but he was only in it, and not of it; he was there in body, but not in spirit.
- The Wise and Foolish Virgins (in Matthew 25:1 to 13) emphasize the need to watch for Christ’s return. The other kingdom parables state “the kingdom of heaven is”, but if you read this particular passage, please note how it begins… “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to“. In another version, it states “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like”. This demonstrates the passage of time, a later time. Also, note the use of “virgin” rather than “bride” with Revelation 14:4.
- The Talents (in Matthew 25:14 to 30) emphasizes how diligence and idleness will be both rewarded.
While each parable could be a separate individual study, I believe collectively there is a “big picture” message in what Jesus taught. From these parables, we understand that the kingdom of heaven is not the same thing as the Church. Stay with me here.
In Ephesians 3, verses 9 to 13, Paul explained that from the beginning of time God veiled His plan to create one new man (mentioned in Ephesians 2:15) containing Jews and Gentiles; that this new man would form the Ekklēsía as Christ’s body to display His wisdom to all the spiritual rulers and authorities in the heavens.
Another thing to note is that the Church has a culminating point. Jesus had told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world (refer to John 18:36). He also instructed His disciples to preach the gospel of the kingdom in all the world and then the end would come (refer to Matthew 24:14).
For a determined period, the kingdom of heaven will include individuals who are not regenerated; they are: (1)”friends” until acceptance of the Messiah; (2) called but not submitted or committed; and, (3) those infiltrating it. This is what the kingdom parables said the kingdom of heaven is like at this point. While the Church is a part of the kingdom of heaven, it is unique because those belonging to it are being sanctified by the work of the indwelling Spirit of God who transforms and seals the believer. He marks the believer for the day of our union with Christ. Paul wrote:
- For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. (Philippians 3:20 to 21);
- Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1st Corinthians 15:51 to 52);
- For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1st Thessalonians 4:16 to18);
- You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. … For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. (1st Thessalonians 5:5 to 6 and 9 to 10).
- “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:1 to 3).
The LORD will certainly set up His earthly kingdom (that is an eternal promise to Israel); and, the Church will have been refined at the judgement seat of Christ before He does so. Scripture states:
- Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1st Corinthians 3:12 to 15)
You see, in the kingdom of heaven (as it is today) some were invited but do not love, obey and respect the King. Those who love the King are a part of His body so they share in His inheritance. Then the LORD will remove those who will not submit to Him before He hands over the perfected kingdom to God who will fill all in all. Scripture says:
- Then the kingdom and dominion, And the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, Shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, And all dominions shall serve and obey Him.’ (Daniel 7:27);
- Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. (1st Corinthians 15:24).
Before Jesus gives the perfected kingdom to God, there will be other latecomers to the Church who will be immediately united with Christ in heaven. These are the tribulation martyrs who refused to accept the imposter posing as the world’s saviour in these last days (Revelation 7:9 to 14). They are refined by their commitment to Christ proven by obedience unto death.
The age of the Church began at Pentecost and will be completed when the fullness of the Gentiles is reached (Romans 11:24 to 33). Our LORD has foreknowledge of all who will accept His grace. Once Christ returns with the Church to the earth, Israel will recognize and receive the Messiah who will establish His millennial reign on the earth.
What is the Application for the Church?
Scripture can help us know whether we have entered into His Church, and it is very important to make certain because only the Church is qualified for the meeting in the air. In the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Revelation, Jesus encouraged each church to overcome (even the one that did not receive His reproof). Overcomers are believers who submit to the LORD. You can identify an overcomer because they have the fruit of the Spirit. Their deeds testify to their faith.
- They walk the unpopular narrow path of obedience to Christ. (Matthew 7:13 to 14)
- They yield to the Holy Spirit’s conviction; self-examine their fruit (Galatians 5:16, 22 to 24);
- They are different and set apart from the world (Ephesians 5:27);
- They forgive everyone and make peace while maintaining righteousness (Hebrews 12:14);
- They actively assemble and fellowship with love in the Church (1st John 1:7, 1st John 4:21);
- They maintain an active prayer life repenting and asking for help. (Hebrews 4:16); and,
- They grow in the knowledge of the LORD (2nd Peter 3:18).
I’m sure there are many lists of overcomer attributes and it would make a wonderful study.
Point 3: The Holy Spirit Strengthens Our Spirit in the Love of Christ to Experience the Fullness of God
I am grateful the LORD gave Paul the revelation of the previously concealed mystery of Christ and the fellowship of the body of Christ. I am so thankful that God chose a reformed pharisee to highlight the power of God’s grace and here is why.
You see, Paul taught the believer is to rely fully upon the grace of the LORD for salvation which is faith (nothing more and nothing less) as stated in Ephesians 2:8. He also taught in Romans 12 that Christians need to overcome evil with good. In the book of Revelation, Jesus told each Church to overcome. Paul’s revelation of the dispensation of grace that enabled the Church to form, helps build a broader understanding of the believer’s privileges and responsibilities.
In the final verses in Ephesians, Paul prayed to the Father:
- that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, (1) to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, (2) that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; (3) that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height; to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; and (4) that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16 to 19).
This is all a part of this wonderful mystery of grace for the Church. In essence, while we cannot humanly fully understand the love of Christ, we can be rooted in Him, in His Word, and in His love. Since He is the Head and we are His body, His Spirit is in us so that we can relationally experience the dimensions of the unity of the Godhead. That said, we might not be able to adequately explain it.
I don’t know how the LORD changed my heart, but I know He did! It is supernatural and otherworldly! The more of His mind that is revealed, the more rooted and grounded we can be. The deeper the roots, the greater the abundance of life-giving nourishment. What we can understand about God is found in the Word of God and is seen clearly in nature. Think of The Word of God as the written grant issued by the Sovereign King of the universe by whom the Church is founded and its obligations, rights and privileges defined.
Friends, will you willingly put on wedding garments in recognition that He is worthy of your reverence and adoration? Will you come to the wedding feast to be the testament of the majesty of the Sovereign King? Are you willing to pledge allegiance to His will, or do you want to be self-sovereign? Will you seek to understand?
The greatest reward of grace is to be completely filled by God’s love and free from the presence of sin. Then we will resemble our King. I hope you hear His voice: “Come up hear!”
- Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20 to 21).
All Scripture used in this blog is from the New King James Version unless otherwise specified.