A lot of people will tell you that Christianity is all about following a set of rules—the only thing that matters is that you do x and don’t do y. That’s always been a popular view. After all, if Christianity is just about measuring up to particular standards of behavior—whether it’s the “we don’t smoke, we don’t chew, we don’t go with those who do” variety, or the “be nice to everybody” variety, or whatever—then it’s easy to tell who’s a Christian and who isn’t; and perhaps even more importantly, it’s easy to look at yourself and tell how you’re doing. The nice thing about a fence, after all, is that you always know which side of it you’re on. Or perhaps I should say, one nice thing about a fence; the other nice thing is that you know exactly how far you can go before you’ve crossed it. The fence tells you what you can get away with, as much as what you can’t.
I suspect that was part of the appeal to the folks in Ephesus who were following the false teachers there; we know that the false teachers were quite strict in some ways, but it seems likely that they were quite loose in others, such that things like infidelity and drunkenness were becoming problems among the leadership of the congregation. More than that, I suspect it’s a lot of the appeal for people who have followed false teachers like that down through the ages, right up to our present day. As I’ve said before, the longer I do this, the more convinced I become that we really don’t want grace, and we don’t want to live by grace. We may say we do, and we may sing about it, but at some level, we’d rather live by some form of law. After all, if you ask the law, “How many times do I have to forgive somebody before I can give them the punishment they have coming,” the law will tell you, “Three times,” or “seven times,” or whatever; it will give you a standard you have a chance to live up to. If you ask Jesus the same question, he’s going to say, “Seventy times seven”—which is to say, once you lose count, you’re just getting started. Law gives you a limit to what you have to do; grace is like the Energizer bunny—it just keeps going, and going, and going, long after we want to quit.
The fact of the matter is, whatever version of the law we come up with, whatever standard of behavior we set, if it’s our idea and our standard, we’re going to start defining it as something we can meet, something we can live up to in our own strength; we inevitably make it far too small a thing. It sounds all very well to say, for instance, “Christianity isn’t about believing certain things, it’s about living a life of love”; but how do we know what love is? How do we know what it means to live a life of love? The classical Christian answer is to say that we know what love is because God is love, and because he has revealed himself to us in his word—in his living Word who is his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and in the words of Scripture, which his Spirit inspired to show us the living Word. Our understanding of love is grounded in the truth of Scripture, which shows us the truth of who God is, and thus what love is; we take our definition of love from these pages. If we set this aside, or say that those truths don’t matter, then we’re left to define love for ourselves, according to our own preferences, prejudices, and preconceived ideas; we get to decide for ourselves what’s appropriate and act accordingly, and then pat ourselves on the back for being such good Christians, without ever even asking ourselves what God wants us to do, let alone submitting ourselves to his will.
In the end, that leaves us in the same place as the false teachers who were giving Timothy such fits in Ephesus: elevating our own desires over the demands of the gospel. In this letter, as we’ve seen, Paul shows a fair bit of concern for what we might call “community standards”; some of the women in the church were offending the community with their dress, some of the leaders of the church were scandalizing the community with their behavior, so Paul tells them that what they’re doing is inappropriate. Why? Because the church needs to conform to the standards of the community? No, but because what they’re doing is hindering the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. If people are scandalized by the gospel itself, if they’re offended by the call to holiness—as many were then, and are now, and will be in every age until Jesus returns—that’s one thing; but if anything else gets in the way of the preaching of the gospel, then we need to set it aside, no matter what it might be.
We saw this in chapter 2, but Paul makes it explicit here. As he writes, he hopes to come to Ephesus soon to make these points to the church in person, but in case he can’t, he’s sending this letter—why? Because people in the church have forgotten what sort of behavior and what sort of lifestyle are appropriate for a member of the household of God. Any parent expects certain things out of their kids, and God is no different with us, but people in Ephesus have lost sight of this fact. As a consequence, their behavior is casting God’s name into disrepute. The church in Ephesus, like every congregation everywhere, is called to be a pillar and a bulwark of the truth, and they’re falling down on the job, betraying that truth by their behavior. Paul wants them to understand that they have a responsibility to fulfill, and they’d better start taking it seriously.
As every congregation needs to do, including us. We are part of God’s temple on earth—God makes his home on earth in us by his Spirit who lives in us—and that gives us a profound responsibility indeed. The mission of the church is to be a pillar to uphold the truth, and a bulwark to protect and defend it—to speak the truth to a world that too often doesn’t want to hear it, to proclaim and uphold the truth by our words and by our actions, to defend it against those who would rather attack it (and us) than listen. If at any time our behavior undermines or weakens the church, then we are threatening that mission, and we must stop. That’s why Paul rebukes men in the church for their anger and disputes, which were wrecking their prayers and disrupting their worship; that’s why he calls women in the church to restrain their use of their Christian freedom, since their behavior, too, was becoming disruptive. That’s why he rules out leaders who lacked the maturity to lead, because such leaders were drawing the church away from its mission and damaging its reputation in the community, undercutting its credibility in proclaiming the truth. Everything else had to be, and must be, secondary to the mission.
And if that mission was, and is, to uphold and defend the truth, then what truth is that? Some of us would probably start giving a list of details, but Paul goes right to the heart of the matter. “The mystery of godliness is great,” he says—which doesn’t, by the way, mean that it’s very mysterious; indeed, this is a mystery, something hidden from human sight, which has now been revealed. What has been revealed is very great—it’s something no human mind could ever have conceived, or would ever have predicted. That mystery is Jesus Christ—God revealed in human flesh, and the plan of God revealed in human history; and that truth is the truth we uphold and defend, that God was born as a human child. As the British poet John Betjeman put it, “And is it true,/This most tremendous tale of all,/Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,/A Baby in an ox’s stall?/The Maker of the stars and sea/Become a Child on earth for me? . . . No love that in a family dwells,/No carolling in frosty air,/Nor all the steeple-shaking bells/Can with this single Truth compare—/That God was man in Palestine/And lives today in Bread and Wine.”
That is the truth of which the church is a pillar and a bulwark—it is the truth which has been entrusted to us to proclaim to the nations, to preach in season and out of season, in every word we speak and every step we take; not that Jesus was a good man, or a kind man, or a great teacher, or a loving person, but that he was God in the flesh come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. It is the truth that when we look at him we see God, and that in him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. And it is indeed a truth with which nothing else can compare, and one which is well worth giving our lives for; there is simply nothing we can do which is more important than to let people know that God became a human being, with human skin, human bone, a human mind and a human heart, for them, because he loves them, and to help them grow into a full understanding of what that means for them and their lives.
We’ve heard this so often that familiarity dulls the message, but stop and think about it and you’ll realize what a staggering thing it is: the God of all worlds and all ages, the God who created everything that is and who holds the universe in the palm of his hand, the God who holds all that was, and is, and is to come as a thought in his mind and who keeps it all going by his will, humbled himself to step down into the small space of one human body, living one messy human life, suffering one very messy human death—for us; and then he turned that defeat into the ultimate victory by rising from the dead, in his own power—for us. And then he ascended into heaven—for us—and did he send his angels to trumpet the news across the sky, so that everyone would believe? Did he write a message in the stars and blind the world with his glory? Did the voice that spoke the world into being announce his victory with a deafening thunder that would drive people to their knees? No; he rose from the dead, he returned to heaven, and he left that job—for us. In his great plan for this world, he left us to carry out that part, so that this wouldn’t all just be something God did to us—so that we would have something we could do; and while nothing prevents him from working directly, he lets us do it most of the time, leaving us with the responsibility to tell the world what he has done.
This is our job to do—not in our own strength, to be sure, for he enables and empowers us by his Spirit; but in our own lives, and by our own words and actions, to tell the world that God loved them in this way, and this much, that he sent his only Son into this world, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life. This is our job to do, and our song of praise to sing—with our words, with our voices, with our whole lives—for all the world to hear; it is ours, in the fullness of our hearts, to sing our great Redeemer’s praise, and to sing through all the earth the honors of his name. May our hearts be so full of praise that as we sing, we can only wish that we had a thousand tongues, a thousand voices, to sing his praise that much more.