John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote an autobiographical book called, ‘Grace Abounding’. As you come to the end of this book John Bunyan is in prison and his wife, Elizabeth, is trying to procure his freedom.
What was the crime that he had committed that caused him to be put into prison and labeled a pestilent-fellow and a disturber of the peace?
What had he done that resulted in him being hated by the judges before whom he would try to plead his case?
He was in prison for preaching the gospel.
While Bunyan was in prison Elizabeth went before the judges to plead for his freedom. She spoke to each of them but she found that not one of them had any compassion for them. They told Elizabeth that he had been convicted and that it had been recorded; therefore, they said that there is nothing that they could do.
At one point Judge Twisdom asks Elizabeth if her husband would be willing to do one thing to be set free. I am sure that she immediately thought that her husband was just moments away from being sent home; but then the judge says, “Will your husband leave preaching, as long as he can speak?”
Immediately, Elizabeth responds by saying, “My Lord, he dares not leave preaching, as long as he can speak.” She told him that her husband desired to live peaceably, and to follow his calling.
In one last attempt to persuade these judges Elizabeth says, ‘My Lord, I have four small children that cannot help themselves of which one is blind, and we have nothing to live upon, but the charity of good people.”
Despite all of these things they continue to say that they cannot help her. They harden their hearts and deny her request. Surprisingly, she leaves mourning more for their souls than for the fact that her husband will remain in prison. She continues to trust that God will faithfully provide for them as He has already been doing.
As you come to the end of this book Bunyan remains in prison. And with every turn of the page you hope that you will discover that he has been released. But as you come to the last sentence of the book you read these words, “And thus was I hindered and prevented, at that time also, from appearing before the judge, and left in prison.” That is how John Bunyan ends the biographical book that he had been writing!
Thankfully, a friend of John Bunyan’s completes the book so that we know the rest of the story. We find that Bunyan is eventually released from prison and he resumes his ministry to the little flock of believers in the town of Bedford. His friend writes the reason that he decided to complete this book. He says that it was so that ‘John Bunyan’s good end may be known as well as his evil beginning.’
This friend wanted to testify about the abounding grace of God towards John Bunyan. He wanted to testify as to how the Lord can save a sinful man, transform and sanctify him and then show how such individuals can serve God and display the manifold wisdom of God.
When we come to our text this morning we see many similarities between the apostle Paul and the ministry of John Bunyan. Paul was a man who had an evil beginning before he came to know Jesus. Paul says to Timothy, “I thank Him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because He judged me faithful, appointing me to His service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” (1 Timothy 1:12-13)
Then he says this in 1 Timothy 1:15-16, “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in Him for Eternal life.”
As a result of these things, Paul says in Ephesians 3:8, “I am the very least of all of the saints” (8).
There is little mercy in this world for men like Paul or John Bunyan; but each of them found mercy in Christ. And because of this mercy both of these men are transformed. As we look at our text consider some of the following things.
Paul has been chained and imprisoned for being a preacher of the gospel (1).
Paul is a steward of the gospel and the ministry that he has received from God (2-6).
Paul can suffer because of the powerful working of grace in his life (7-12).
As a result of these things, Paul commands them to not loose heart (13).
Let us read together Ephesians 3:1-13,
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— 2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. 13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.
We have come to the middle of this letter and we are suddenly reminded that we are reading the words of a man who is in prison. He has lost his freedom and he faces the death penalty because he was a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Jews brought a charge against Paul, saying, “This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place.” (Acts 21:28) At this point, it would be good to consider Paul’s words when in prison in Rome when he says, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.” (Acts 28:17)
Paul had one passion, one focus and one aim in life. He lives and preaches according to the gift of God's grace, which was given to him by the working of God’s power. (3:7) And as a result of this power that strengthens him, Paul “is teaching everyone everywhere.”
Nothing can be done to Paul, apart from death, that would keep him from preaching about Christ and fulfilling his ministry. Paul says in Acts 20:24, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I have received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
Paul continued to preach even while he was incarcerated. Paul tells the Philippians, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the Word without fear.” (Philippians 1:12-14)
Even in the face of such hardships Paul did not fear anything. He would not compromise in any way but he endured faithfully till the very end. He says in 2 Timothy 4:18, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
George Whitefield said of John Bunyan’s writings, “His books smell of the prison.” And then he says, “Ministers never write and preach so well as when they are under the cross. The Spirit of Christ and of glory then rests upon them.”
As we come to Ephesians 3 the Holy Spirit wanted this church, and all Christians, to be reminded that Paul’s writings had the smell of prison on it.
A retired minister said several decades ago, “In America today we are chipper...We are a chipper people. Which means there is not many books to be read today that is worth the time to read. Because the smell of heaven and hell is not on them. When your walking along the precipice of eternity there is a smell about your preaching which is almost missing today entirely.”
Maybe, one of the things that can come out of this pandemic and all of the hardship that will inevitably come along with it, is a sense of sobriety that has been lacking in the American church till now.
We are discovering that we cannot control all things.
We cannot foresee these things coming.
Life can change so quickly.
We are not strong enough, wise enough or affluent enough to be self-sufficient through these things.
Perhaps, as we stand upon the precipice of eternity at this time we will gain a sense of clarity that we have not experienced at other times.
Perhaps, while standing upon this precipice we will see our great need for the grace of God and for the power of God to be present in our lives.
Perhaps if we will have the courage to stand upon this precipice we will begin to see the glory of God in an entirely new way.
Paul will pray for Christians to experience these very things immediately after our text. In Ephesians in 3:14-19 Paul prays,
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
No one will be will be able to suffer, or be uncomfortable, ore be inconvenienced for very long without the aid of the Holy Spirit.
It is hard to walk by faith and not by sight. Naturally, we will want to trust in men that we can see; than to trust in the God that we cannot. Our tendency will be to demand countless things from those around us in this world; and yet, few will pray to the Lord and ask for the wisdom to live in such a time.
James 1:5-8, says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
After Paul prays in Ephesians 3:14-19 he gives this doxology, “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
The temptation will be to seek answers to things without going to our bibles.
The temptation will be to seek comfort in things that do not require an enduring faith and trust in God.
The temptation will be to find immediate relief from our discomfort; rather than to remember that we are given the grace of God to be faithful in the good times and in the bad. Philippians 4:12, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”
What good is God doing in our lives through this time of trial?
If Paul and John Bunyan smelled like a prison, perhaps this is a time that we have been given to smell that means we are being faithful in suffering. We have an opportunity to smell like this fiery trial. Consider 1 Peter 4:12-14,
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s suffering, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.
What will make the Christian smell different than so many others during this time?
Perhaps it will be the joy, faith and the fruit that will be put on display for others to see. Consider James 1:2-4,
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
We have come to Ephesians 3 and the Holy Spirit has reminded us that Paul’s writings had the smell of prison on it.
It was through these persecutions and trials that Paul would be able to say with such confidence, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)
Because of this pandemic and any other trial that we may go through we will be able to say these things with Paul with great confidence and thanksgiving.
Elizabeth’s faith must have been a pleasing aroma to John Bunyan as he was in prison. Her faith must have been a great testimony to her kids as they went without support.
Let our faith and hope in God be a pleasing fragrance to those who are around us at this time.