Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 02/07/1999
"The mystery of Christ . . . to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel."
In the first part of chapter 3, Paul departs from his treatise on the growth of the Church as a Holy Temple to marvel at the Grace of God, which makes him a Prisoner of Jesus Christ instead of a Prisoner of Rome, which makes him a Steward of God's Grace, and which makes him (as we saw last week) a Recipient of God's Revelation. And what is revealed? It is "The mystery of Christ . . . to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel." This to Paul, that Pharisee of the Pharisees, is a marvel rivaling even his own salvation from the Path of Persecution. And it ought to be to us, the Gentiles, as well. What is so marvelous? That we are:
OK, if we are fellow heirs, then what did the descendants of Abraham inherit? At least four things.
By virtue of God's calling Abraham, his seed gained a new identity, becoming the people of God. We all need a sense of purpose in order to prosper as human beings, so we try to find something larger than ourselves that we can identify with. When I first arrived on the campus of Taylor University as an undergraduate, I did what all recent high school graduates do: my first official act on campus after moving into the dorm was to buy an article of clothing with the college's name on it. Even more importantly, I later earned a windbreaker with the words "Taylor University Marching Band" emblazoned on it--which you may be sure I was careful to wear anytime I was back home on break in a place where any of my old high-school band mates were likely to run into me. Yet somehow neither that sweater nor that jacket seem to have the significance they once had back in the early 70's. Why? Because Taylor University was not a big enough cause to give meaning to one's whole life. It wasn't something that could last. What is? Only one thing: the Church, the Body of Christ, which will be on display before angels and archangels for all of eternity as proof that God is a God of Grace.
Abraham's descendants were promised a Land that they are still miraculously (if not very securely for the moment) attached to 4,000 years later. It was a visible token to them of God's blessing, something that rooted their identity as his people in concrete reality. I can still remember walking over every inch of the acre and a third that we bought here near Toccoa right after we moved in, marveling that it was mine and wondering what kind of roots I would be able to sink into it. Renting just isn't the same! But the Land was more than this: it was an earnest, a down payment on the Restoration of the whole planet cursed by the Fall. The Church during the Millennium will reign over it with redeemed Israel as God proves that he has not neglected any of his promises or any part of his creation.
Perhaps the most important thing that Israel inherited was the Law, the oracles of God. It was not just a set of arbitrary rules, but gave them a knowledge of His character greater than that possessed by any other people, as it charted for them the Path of Blessing, the way of life that please Him. That is a great gift indeed.
Last but not least, they received a MISSION, a purpose. In Abraham's seed would every tribe in the earth be blessed. they were not only to enjoy God's Shalom, but spread it to the whole earth. We did not know how that particular promise would be fulfilled until after the day of Pentecost. But now we know the Great Commission as its fulfillment, bringing us full circle to Paul's marveling about being a Steward of Grace. All this, which is the rightful possession of Israel but which has been rejected in its spiritual sense by that nation as a whole until the time of Restoration comes, is now shared in by faithful Israel AND by us Gentiles in the Church. But not only are we fellow heirs with Israel, we are also
Man was created a social being, needing a "helper like himself" even when he existed in perfect communion with God (Gen. 2:18). We need relatedness, belonging, acceptance, and understanding from those like ourselves. The creation of Eve was the first provision for this need, but not the only one. But since the Fall, we have had instead of those things Eve was to have provided for Adam alienation, estrangement, and loneliness. Our families are dysfunctional, our friends too often self centered and preoccupied. Even if we are fortunate enough to have good families and good friends, it is not enough.
Now, we have gotten used in the Evangelical world to thinking of the Family as God's solution to this loneliness of our species. But this is only a half truth. The ministries of people like James Dobson, so good and so helpful in many ways, have unintentionally, it seems to me, played into our tendency to romanticize the family, making those who cannot find understanding and acceptance and healthy relationships there feel even more estranged than ever. This tendency is not simply wrong. It is impossible to miss that fact that Eve was created, the first marriage was performed, and the first family was instituted in direct response to this need. But what we have missed is the fact that the family is not God's ultimate solution and never was. It was a stopgap measure at best, and after the Fall is often unavoidably a curse. It becomes clear from Ephesians that it is the Church, the Body of Christ, which is supposed to be the solution to the human need for community that is destined to last. In the Kingdom we will be as the angels who neither marry nor are given in marriage--but we will still be part of Christ's Body..
It is one more mark of a fallen world that the Church often does not do a very good job of meeting our need for community either. Surely one of the primary reasons for the dominance of unbelief in our day is the fact that the Church is the last place any sane person would think of looking for satisfying relationships. My own back is covered with scars from the knife-wounds inflicted there, though I have also known one or two congregations that did in fact love one another as they are supposed to. But if our churches do not embody the ideal very well, let us at least begin by seeing what the ideal is. The Church is to be a community unified around a common Lord, a common belief, and a common purpose: One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One God and Father of All, as Paul will expound it a little later. And Jesus tells us quite explicitly in John 17 that the credibility of our message will depend on how well we love one another. So we must ask again as we did last week: When will the Church be the Church? Let us make it so in our own congregations now. And then we will also be
What did God promise to Abraham? All of the above: an Identity, to know who we are; a Land, a place to be at home and experience his blessing; the Law, the revelation of his character and of the path of life; a Purpose, to be stewards of Creation and stewards of his Grace; and a Relationship with him and with each other which will in eternity become so fulfilling that we will never be lonely again. This Promise will be fulfilled perfectly and fully in the Kingdom, and is fulfilled as an earnest or down payment even now. And it is all summed up in Jesus Christ, who said, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest"; who said, "He that cometh unto me I will never cast out"; who said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." These are the promises that are yea and amen in Christ.
No wonder Paul marvels at the grace of God to the Gentiles. Even Israel was saved by Grace alone, but at least she had the covenant and promise of that salvation; we had no claim on God at all. Yet he has brought this great salvation to us as well. Let us therefore never take it for granted. Let us marvel afresh ourselves, as those who are being mentioned when Paul says it, that "The mystery of Christ [is] . . . to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel."
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams