|RPM, Volume 11, Number 20, May 17 to May 23 2009|
Last week, we saw how Paul started off this section of his letter by talking about their prayers together and in particular what sorts of persons they should pray for. Paul's instruction to the Ephesians, through Timothy, was that they should be praying for all people. As an illustration of just how far he meant them to carry that instruction, he highlights a group of people that they would have found very difficult to pray for, people in civil government. Paul encouraged that they should pray even for these kinds of people. Then he included a couple of comments which indicated why praying for people in civil government was a good thing to do, namely because the role of civil government was to provide social order and stability. Thus, it created a context in which the church could be the church and could function in good order and peace.
Now, because Paul touched on the matter of civil government at this point in his letter, and because such matters are always relevant, but are especially so as we approach an election year, we took the opportunity afforded by those verses to think a little more topically about the whole issue of civil government, what the Bible has to say about it and how we should respond to it.
In the verses before us this morning, we see something of a continuation of last week's message. However, we will NOT be looking again at the matter of civil government and why it should be prayed for, but rather we will look at verses 3-7 of chapter 2 which are Paul's theological justification for his teaching that the Ephesians should be praying for all kinds of people, including people in civil government. Paul's reasoning here has to do with the nature of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. As we look at these things a little more closely today, we will concentrate on two main aspects of this subject: first, the inclusiveness of the Gospel; second, the exclusiveness of the Gospel; and what these things do and do not mean as well as what implications they hold for professing believers in our own day. That's it. Let's pray, and we'll listen to the passage together:
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.First of all, the grace of God is an inclusive grace. It crosses every kind of social, cultural, economic, racial and gender-related barrier. In the passage before us, as we saw last week, Timothy is urged to pray for everyone, for "all people" because there is no class of person, no type of person, that is categorically excluded from the possibility of being saved. Because this is true, and because only God knows those whom He will save, then God's people should pray for everyone.
If anything is true of us as God's people when we come together it is that we should be known as a people who pray for all people in all kinds of situations: for the peace and prosperity of this city and our nation; for those in civil government, for leaders like George Bush, Mike Foster, and Bobby Simpson; for people running for office that we like, and people running for office that we have no intention of voting for; for the war in Iraq, for our troops and for those whom they fight against, for those searching desperately for Mr. Hussein, and for Mr. Hussein himself; for law enforcement personnel in our city, and for the lawbreakers they pursue; for, as one commentator has suggested, "the poor and hungry, and the rich and satisfied; the employed and the unemployed; for the educated and the illiterate; the poised and the awkward"; for our friends, our neighbors, and our enemies. We are to be people who pray for all people because no one is beyond the sovereign reach of our Creator God.
We see this truth, not only in verses 1 and 2, which we looked at last week, but also in the verses before us this morning, especially at the end in verse 7 where Paul says, "And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle - I am telling the truth, I am not lying - and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles."
Now, you may find Paul's statement, "I am not lying" a bit strange, after all, we are talking about an apostle here. Why does he say such a thing? Well, it's a lot like when you're telling somebody about something and you know you're about to say something that they are going to struggle to believe and so, before you say it, you preface your comments with statements like "Okay, I'm being totally serious here," or "I kid you not," or "I promise, I'm not making this up" and then, after these assurances you are being honest, you go on to say the thing that you think they will struggle to believe or accept. The same thing is happening here with Paul. He prepares them to hear what he is about to say with the words, "I am telling the truth, I am not lying" and then he goes on to say something he knows that at least some of them might struggle to accept, that God appointed him to be an apostle to the Gentiles.
You see, one of the early prejudices that Christianity had to deal with was the attempts by some within the church, as well as by those outside the church, to confine the Gospel and its implications to a particular group of people, namely, those who were direct descendants of Abraham, the Jews. In trying to confine the Gospel within the limitations of Judaism these people were simply misreading their own Scriptures which spoke of the Messiah as one who would be a light to all the nations. They were ignoring the words of their own prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, or the implications of books like Jonah, which showed God's concern for nations other than Israel.
Indeed, it was this aspect of Jesus' ministry that caused at least some of the confusion and trouble He experienced during His earthly ministry as He associated Himself with all kinds of people, not just those who had a Jewish heritage. The mistake His detractors made was in thinking that because God's Messiah, Jesus, came on the scene through the vehicle of a chosen race of people that this meant that the benefits of His life and ministry were therefore limited to that same group of people.
This sort of misunderstanding pervaded the early church and threatened to de-rail the Gospel's advance to the nations on a number of occasions. As you read Paul's letters in particular you see elements of this struggle come through in various ways, most notably in his letter to the Galatians.
Even though Paul is writing this letter to Timothy who is at the Ephesian Church, nestled in a non-Jewish culture, it must have been the case that within the church at Ephesus, at least, there was some significant element of this sort of narrow viewpoint that wanted to confine Christianity to the Jewish clothing in which it was born. As a result, in that sort of context where people had adopted or were threatening to adopt that kind of exclusiveness, Paul emphasizes the inclusive nature of the Gospel, first by reminding them to pray for all people, including civil government officials, and then additionally by reminding them that God had commissioned him, believe it or not, as an apostle to the Gentiles, of all people. The issue was not that there was no exclusivity to the Gospel, as we'll see in a moment, but only that its exclusivity did not operate in ways they thought it did and for the reasons they wrongly assumed it should.
So, again, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an inclusive Gospel, so inclusive that it surprises us sometimes. Indeed, it may more than surprise us. It may disturb and even offend us, at times because God's grace is more inclusive than you or I would ever dream of being. Now our struggle with the inclusiveness of God's grace could be something as simple as the fact that God saves people who are very different from us, who don't have the same tastes, or way of thinking, or upbringing, or education or values; people who are not "our kind of people" whatever that may mean. We see that sometimes erupt in churches in a kind of class warfare which has, at its core, our hard-heartedness and unwillingness to be as inclusive toward others as our Lord has been toward us.
Sometimes our struggle with the inclusiveness of God's grace goes a little deeper than that. I remember hearing years ago the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, the convicted serial killer who committed all sorts of atrocities against his victims, both before and after he murdered them. This same person, as the story goes, while waiting on death row, was sent a twelve-week Bible Study course by a woman who had been praying for him. Well, to everyone's great surprise, Dahmer completed the course and after doing so, wrote the woman a letter, thanked her and wanted to know if he could find out more. At about that point in the story, a part-time prison chaplain began spending time with Dahmer and continued to do so, right up to the very end. This chaplain says, to this day, that he is convinced that Dahmer came to the place where he recognized his sin and guilt and made a genuine commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now I don't know if you ever heard that story before but I can tell you that when I first heard it my response was to be highly skeptical and doubtful. As far as I was concerned, this man had not made a genuine response, he was just hoping that he could take out some "fire insurance," so to speak, before he died. That was my attitude. But then I had to deal with that, you see. I had to ask myself why I struggled so much to believe that such a person as Jeffrey Dahmer, might actually respond in a genuine fashion to the Gospel, or more to the point, why God would be involved in saving such a person as him.
As I examined my own heart I began to see that my struggle with the fact that God might actually forgive even a serial killer stemmed from a lot of things. It stemmed from the fact that I forget, frequently, that this world is not all there is, that Jesus is coming back, and that all books will then be balanced. It stems from the fact of my own hardness of heart, not wanting to forgive or accept those whom God has forgiven. It stems from these crazy thoughts that still enter my head that "some people just don't deserve forgiveness" as if anyone ever does. It stems from this perverse practice I have of imagining that somehow my own sin renders me less culpable before God.
I don't think I'm alone in this struggle.
The truth is that we don't like thinking about the fact that the thief on the cross could live his entire life in rebellion against God and then, at the eleventh hour, receive assurance from Jesus Himself that he will be in paradise. That is, unless we happen to be the thief! We don't like thinking about the parable of the workers in the field and the fact that the ones who worked only one hour ended up getting the same wage as the ones who worked all day. The inclusive grace of God scandalizes us sometimes. We expect God to receive us on the basis of grace, but other people, like the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world, on some other basis, like works. Or, if God does receive people like that, then we expect that we ought to receive some extra credit or something.
The truth is as Christians we can talk a good game about the grace of God, but sometimes we struggle greatly with that same grace because God is always more inclusive than we would sometimes prefer Him to be. Sometimes we wish that God would have consulted with us first. What is that? That's crazy, that's what it is.
So the first thing I want you to see this morning is the surprising, sometimes disturbing inclusiveness of the grace of God. That is certainly what some of Timothy's Ephesian congregation would have felt, disturbed, when they were told to pray for those in civil government or that Paul was deliberately sent to the Gentiles, both of which they considered pond scum.
The second thing I want us to see is "the other side of the coin" or what we might say is the other reality that must be held in tension with the inclusiveness of God. That is the exclusiveness of the grace of God. While God's grace is certainly more inclusive than you or I care to be, it is not absolutely inclusive or exhaustively inclusive. To say that the Gospel is not confined to any particular class or race of people is not to say that it benefits every single person.
Now the starting point in thinking about this with reference to the passage before us is verses 4 to 6 which read, "...This is good [referring to their prayers for all people] and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men..."
The phrase we are interested in at this point is "all men" or simply "all people." As we saw last week, this sort of language in the Bible can be used in different ways and the word "all" does not necessarily mean "all without exception" but can have a more relative meaning like "all without distinction." The question before us this morning is: which way are we to take these words in verses 4 and 6? Does God want every single person to be saved or does He want all kinds of people to be saved?
Well, in order to think about that, let's look at a couple other places where "all" is not used in an absolute or exhaustive sense. For example, in Mark's gospel, chapter 1, verse 4 and following, it says, "And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and ALL THE PEOPLE OF JERUSALEM went out to him..."
Mark says, "All the people of Jerusalem" went out to see John. Does he mean this in an absolute sense, as in every single person, or in a relative sense, emphasizing rather the breadth of the response of the people? Well, when you compare this passage to its parallel passage in Luke 7:29-30, which refers to this same event, you see there that the Pharisees did NOT go out to be baptized by John and so "all" must have a relative meaning here.
Look also at John 8:1-2. Again, does the reference to "all the people" mean every single person or simply all kinds of people or perhaps "all the people who were there at the time"? Well, l it could only have meant something like that last possibility, as the temple itself was not nearly large enough to hold all the people in the city. It just wasn't physically possible. So, this too, must be a relative use of the term "all".
The point is: there is no question that in Scripture the word "all" can be used in a relative and limited sense. But is that the case here, in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 6? I personally feel that the context of the passage says that it is. As we saw before, there is this sort of emphasis on different kinds or groups of people in the passage itself. After Paul says they are to pray for everyone, he singles out a class or group of people, civil government officials, as being included in that. Later on, Paul talks about another group or class of people, the Gentiles, and about his being commissioned to go to them. Why? Because God's salvation is for all kinds of people, including the Gentiles. Of course, then there are the many, many verses of Paul's which speak quite clearly of the very defined and particular focus of God's grace toward some people, most notably the ninth chapter of Romans.
My own view, then is that the point of Paul's remarks about "all men" or "all people" is to emphasize not absolute inclusion of every single person but rather relative inclusion of all kinds of people. God wants all kinds of people to be saved, including kings and gentiles. However, we need to acknowledge that while all this is true, there is need for some honesty and humility as we approach think about this subject.
Commenting on this, John Stott has some helpful things to say about this sort of understanding of the passage before us. He also says that the recognition that Paul is talking here about "all kinds of people" and not "every person in the world" is,
....an important insight which needs to be affirmed. Nevertheless, it does not altogether solve the problem. However (we interpret these words) we are still left with an antinomy (paradox) between the universal offer of the gospel and God's purpose of election, between the "all" and the "some". Moreover, it is not purely a Pauline problem; we find it clearly within the teaching of Jesus himself. On the one hand, he invited all to come to him; on the other he said that his ministry was limited to those whom the Father had given him out of the world.While we admit that we do not know how to completely reconcile the Bible truths of God's sovereignty and human responsibility, the one thing we cannot do is change or manipulate the evidence - evidence which clearly shows that there is certain exclusiveness to the outworking of God's grace. If it is true that God does not mean to save "every single person," and it is, then it must be true that He is saving certain persons. Such language speaks of particularity in the workings of God. This reality is further underlined by the words of verse 5, "For there is ONE God and ONE mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." Just those words, in and of themselves, signal the presence of certain exclusiveness within Christianity, certain uniqueness about Christ and his unique relationship with God that is not shared with anyone else.
Again, on one occasion he said, "You refuse to come to me" and on another, "No one can come to me unless the Father...draws him." So why is it that some people do not come to Christ? Is it that they will not or that they cannot? Jesus taught both. Wherever we look in Scripture we see this antinomy: divine sovereignty and human responsibility, universal offer and electing purpose, the all and the some, the cannot and the will not.
The right response to this phenomenon is neither to seek a superficial harmonization (by manipulating part of the evidence), nor to declare that Jesus and Paul contradicted themselves, but to affirm both parts of the antinomy as true, while confessing that at present our little minds are unable to resolve it....
It is interesting, that immediately after using the language of God wanting "all men" to be saved, making what, at first appearance, is an all-inclusive type of statement, Paul follows with a very exclusive statement saying in effect, there is only one way to God and that is because there is only one person who was capable of bringing about a reconciliation between God and man, One who was both God and man Himself. That person was/is Jesus Christ. That sort of statement about the unique role and work of Jesus is one which rules out, categorically, every other religious system, every other philosophy.
As a result, if it was Paul's intention in speaking of "all men" to communicate an idea of God's universal, indiscriminate salvation, then it would hardly be consistent to speak, immediately afterward, in such exclusive terms about the one mediator, Jesus Christ.
Therefore, when we read in verse 6 that Jesus gave Himself as a "ransom" for "all men" or "all people" we should not read that in absolutist terms but in relative terms. Jesus was the substitute for His people. His life, death, and resurrection accomplished certain things, real things, final things for His people, for those He came purposely to save. Right? Think about it. If it is the work of Christ alone which saves people, and if the Bible makes it clear that not all people are saved, then it simply must be the case that the ransom which Christ paid, His death on the cross was DEFINITE and DETERMINATIVE for many people, for His people, but not for all people. Otherwise, all would be saved.
To be sure, His people are of all kinds and types, they come from every tribe and tongue and nation. Yes, only the Lord knows ultimately what that means and who they are and that means we surely DO need to pray for all people, and preach the Gospel to all people, without exception, because we do NOT know. BUT unless we grossly distort what the Bible teaches about what Jesus did on the cross and what it accomplished, unless we introduce some other means of salvation other than the grace of God in Jesus, we simply must understand the very definite, focused specific nature of Christ's death - for His people.
Now I know that some of you here struggle with the notion of God's particularity in saving people. It is not an easy thing to come at. It is especially difficult in our own day and age which would much prefer to believe that God treats everyone the same and indeed should treat everyone the same. However, the Bible just doesn't say that.
Did God treat Noah's neighbors the same way he treated Noah? Did God treat Abraham the same way He treated the other nomads around him? Did He treat Jacob the same way He treated Esau? Did He treat Moses and the Israelites the same way He treated Pharaoh and the Egyptians? Did He treat the Israelites the same as He did those whom they drove out of the Promised Land? The fact is, the Bible is full of examples where God differed in His treatment of persons. Certainly, the reasons for God doing these things had nothing to do with the people themselves, as if their superior holiness or character had earned them brownie points with God. The Bible makes it clear that there is no INTRINSIC reason for God making a distinction. The reasons are all within God and His plans and purposes. And He's not telling.
So the point still stands: we would have to distort the Bible pretty severely to cover up the fact that God, according to some incomprehensible wisdom, has in the past (and continues to) make distinctions among people.
Like the reality of God's inclusiveness, the reality of God's exclusiveness can be a struggle for God's people in every age. It too can sometimes surprise and bewilder us, and sometimes just plain disturb us. We live in a world that gets smaller all the time. We come face to face with other peoples, cultures and belief systems with a directness and frequency that is much greater than that experienced by our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. All around us are people who do not think like we do. They did not grow up in one of the many versions of "the western world". They grew up with an Eastern view, they grew up believing different things about God and life and people. They don't love baseball, hot dogs, apple pie or Chevrolet.
Now they are our neighbors. We work with them, and for them. Their children go to school with our children. We sit beside each other in our classes at university. Our lives get all mixed up together, as they should, and we see that they love their families, live decent lives and work hard and yet they do not love Jesus, they do not believe the Bible is God's Word, and in fact, believe quite differently than we do, if they believe at all. We look at a verse like verse 5: "For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus." and we ask, "Is it really true? Is there really only one Mediator, only one way?" Paul says it is absolutely true. There is no denying it in Scripture. We struggle with the exclusive implications of the Gospel.
Yet our failure to fully understand why something is true does not make it any less true. Just as in our struggle with God's inclusivity, in a similar fashion our struggle to understand the exclusivity or particularity of God's grace also stems from our failure to grasp a number of things. Most of these things are related to our vision of God, failing to see His beauty, majesty, and infinite worthiness, and as a result, we have failure to recognize the absolute wickedness of anything that would assert itself over against a God of such worth and beauty. So, it is that if we are ever going to make any progress in this area, such progress will ultimately be tied, as all progress in the Christian life is tied, to our view of God, our vision of His holiness and grasp of His beauty. The answer will not come, cannot come, from looking anywhere else.
While we wait and watch, then, our task is to pray for ALL, to love and serve ALL, to do good to ALL, and to leave to God the things that are His. And to pray that God will take our sometimes grudging, half-hearted acceptance and enable us, in His time, to come to the place where we delight in these truths which He Himself delights in, to take joy in embracing them because they are truths which are a reflection of His great character and person.
The grace of God:
It's more inclusive than we want it to be.
It's more exclusive than we're comfortable admitting.
It bewilders us, exposes us, and sometimes it even offends us.
The grace of God is certainly amazing. And sometimes, just plain scandalous.....
This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.
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