We are going to focus on Ephesians 3:8–10. And we are going to move backward through this text, passing from the widest view to the narrowest view, or from the biggest picture of things to the smallest, or from the greatest goal of missions backward through three successively smaller means to reach this great goal.
Obey the Great Commission
So we will move first from the display of the wisdom of God to the innumerable angelic armies (verse 10); to the means that God uses to display this wisdom, namely, the church, the gathering of the people of God from all the nations of the world (verse 10a); to the means of this gathering, namely, the preaching of the of the unsearchable riches of Christ among all the nations (verse 9); finally to the means of this preaching, namely, you and me, the least of the saints (verse 8). So we move from
- the display of God’s great wisdom
- to the world of angels
- to the church gathered from all the nations
- to the preaching of the gospel of the riches of Christ to the simple, sinner-saints, who live and minister by grace alone — the missionaries.
I go backward in this order because I want to end with you. God is not done with the work of missions. He said go make disciples of all nations. And then he said, “I will be with you to the end of the age.” The promise is good till Jesus comes, because the commission is binding till Jesus comes. Therefore you and I face the question individually what our role is in obeying the great commission to reach all the unreached peoples of the world with the gospel of the riches of Christ.
“God is not done with the work of missions.”
That is where I will end this morning, Lord willing. My aim is to awaken and confirm and encourage a sense of God’s leading in your life toward cross-cultural missions. And so at the end of this service I will invite you to come to the front so that I can pray for you and so that you can receive a card from the missions department here for your support and encouragement and guidance. I don’t want you to be taken off guard at the end. I want your decision to come to be prayerful and thoughtful. So let’s pray now that God would be at work to awaken and confirm and encourage your own sense of his leading in your life.
The Painter and His Brushes
Now I want to create a picture for you of these four steps. Remember we are going to move backward through the text from the display of God’s manifold wisdom (verse 10b), to the gathering of God’s global church (verse 10a), to the preaching of Christ’s unsearchable riches (verse 8b), to the service of God’s ordinary missionary (verse 8a).
Picture in your mind a great, wise painter painting on a huge canvas with many brushes, most of them very ordinary and messy. The painter is God, so you can’t picture him. He’s invisible. But he intends for his painting to be the visible display of his wisdom. He knows people can’t see him, but he wants his wisdom to be seen and admired. His canvas is huge. It’s the size of the created universe. I know you can’t really imagine looking at that canvas because you are in it. But do your best.
And God is painting with thousands and thousands of colors and shades and textures — a picture as big as the universe and as old as creation and as lasting as eternity — a picture we call history, with the central drama being the preparation, salvation, and formation of the church of Jesus Christ. And he is using thousands of different brushes, most of them very ordinary and very small because every minute detail is crucial in this painting, to display the wisdom of the Painter. These brushes are God’s missionaries.
That’s the picture. Now there’s a reason in the text that I am encouraging to have a picture like this in your mind. It’s in the word “manifold” in verse 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.” This Greek word for “manifold” occurs in the Bible only here. It is very unusual. Half of it (poikilos) is used to mean, “wrought in various colors,” diversified, intricate, complex, subtle. It’s basic idea is of varied in color. Then Paul puts a prefix on the word that means “many” (polupoikilos). So the emphasis is very many colors and variations and intricacies and subtleties. So, since that is in the text, I want you to think of the display of God’s wisdom as a universe-sized painting with innumerable colors and shadings and texture. It is unsearchably intricate.
God’s Manifold Wisdom
Now let’s go to our four steps and start in verse 10 with the greatest goal of history and missions: “so that.” You can see from the words “so that” that God’s purpose and aim for missions and the church are now being expressed. The riches of Christ are preached to the Gentiles, the nations, and the church is gathered from all the peoples “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
So this is God’s goal. He created the world and he redeemed a people through the death of his son (see Ephesians 2:12–19), and he sends missionaries and gathers his church by the preaching of the riches of Christ “so that that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” That’s the goal of all of history. That is the goal of missions, the central drama of history.
This universe is finally about the many-colored wisdom of God. History exists to display the infinitely varied and complex and intricate wisdom of God. Missions is the means that God uses to gather the church. And that gathering from all the nations is the focus of this wisdom-displaying painting. You see that in the words “through the church,” “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known.”
But stay with the display of God’s wisdom for a moment. The next point has to do with the church. Look who the audience is in verse 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.” This means that the painting, and the drama of history and redemption that it portrays, from creation to consummation, is meant to show angels — the good ones and the evil ones — the greatness of God’s wisdom.
“Missions exists so that angels would stand in awe of the wisdom of God.”
Missions exists, and the ingathering of God’s elect exists, and the church exists so that angels would stand in awe of the wisdom of God. God displays his wisdom in history so that the worship of heaven would be white hot with admiration and wonder. The good angels never fell into sin, and only marvel at the wisdom of God’s grace from outside, so to speak. No angel will ever sing “how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” They are not wretches and have never been lost. This is our song and our joy, and they can never sing it or know it. But God wanted them to see it. And so his aim in history is to display the wisdom of his grace in the way he saves the church by justifying the ungodly from all nations by faith alone on the basis of Christ alone. And the angels love to stoop down and get as close as they can to the wonders of redemption and how God prepared and saved and gathered his church (1 Peter 1:12).
And the demons (Ephesians 6:12) — the evil principalities and powers — must look at this painting and watch the wisdom by which they were defeated in the very moment they thought they had triumphed — in the death and resurrection of Christ, and in the blood of the martyrs. Just as our fighter verse this week says, “Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Just when God paints a dark color of the death of his witness and the devils begin to gloat, God picks up another brush and with orange and yellow and red makes that dark death serve the beauty of his wisdom. And the demons gnash their teeth.
The final glory of the painting “missions” is that every brush stroke will add to the infinitely intricate display of God’s wisdom to the armies of heaven.
The Gathering of God’s Global Church
We have seen in verse 10 that it is through the church that the great divine Painter is displaying his manifold wisdom to the armies of heaven and hell. But now notice that the church is being gathered from all the nations. Verses 8–9: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles [there is the first pointer, the “Gentiles” are the non-Jewish nations] the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone [there it is again: we are to spread the gospel to “everyone”] what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”
The “mystery hidden for ages” is exactly this universal scope of the gospel to include Gentiles and not just Jews in the covenant people of God. Verse 6 makes this crystal clear: “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.” The nations share in the promise made to Abraham. They become part of the historic people of God. They become “true Jews” (Romans 2:29).
We have seen all of this in Romans 11. Wild Gentile branches are being grafted into the tree of promise, and broken-off Jewish branches will be grafted in when the fullness of the Gentiles comes in. It’s the complex and strange and intricate way that God is saving his church from all the nations so that none can boast that brings Paul in Romans 11:33 to the exact place he comes in Ephesians 3:10, namely to the praise of God’s unsearchable wisdom: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
That is what God aims at in heaven and on earth — the praise of his many-colored wisdom in the way he is saving and gathering his church from all the peoples of the world. There are twists and turns in history that no one ever dreamed would bring about what God designed. There are no wasted strokes on this canvas as God paints his wisdom in the history of missions.
This leads us now to the means of this gathering. How does missions advance? How is the church gathered from the nations to the praise of God’s many-colored wisdom.
The Preaching of Christ’s Unsearchable Riches
Ephesians 3:8–9: “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, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”
Missions happens by preaching to the nations “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Missionaries lift up Jesus Christ and all that God is for us in him, and God gathers his elect from all the peoples of the world.
That term “the unsearchable riches of Christ” is worth a year of sermons. But I give you one pointer to what it means. In Ephesians 2:12 Paul tells the Gentiles — the converts from the nations — “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
In other words, once all that God had ever promised in the Old Testament for the glorious future of his people was not theirs. They were excluded from everything God promised. Now verse 19 is the gospel message based on the cross of Christ: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
That is what missionaries preach everywhere they go: you — you Uzbeks, you Maninka, you Kachin, you Shandai, you Swedes, you Germans, you Russians, you British — you who trust Christ are now part of the covenant made with Israel. You are fellow citizens. You are members of the household of God. You will inherit every promise ever made if you believe in Christ. All of them are yes to you in Christ. You will inherit the earth. You are heir of the world. You are children of the maker of the universe in Jesus Christ. All things are yours. And Jesus Christ is the sum of all those things, and all things will show you more of him and increase your joy forever.
Ephesians 2:7 says that it is going to take eternity for God to exhaust on you the unsearchable riches of his glory in Christ Jesus: “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” It will take ages upon ages upon ages for the riches of Christ to be searched out. That is what missionaries say to the nations of the world and show them — that Christ died and rose again so that people from every nation might be one in this inheritance.
This leaves just one final question: Who are the brushes? If God aims to display his many-colored wisdom with the canvas of world history, and if the in-gathering church from every people and tribe and nation is the main drama on this canvas, and if missions are the means of gathering and establishing that church among all the peoples, what are the brushes God uses to paint this drama?
The Service of God’s Ordinary Missionaries
The brushes he uses are messy, ordinary people who have seen the unsearchable riches of Christ and are willing, and often eager, to take these riches to the nations. The brushes are broken, sinning, ordinary missionaries — of whom the world is not worthy (Hebrews 11:38).
“The brushes God uses are broken, sinning, ordinary missionaries — of whom the world is not worthy.”
Verse 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.” There are two reasons Paul mentioned that he was the least of all the saints. One is because he was a hater and persecutor of the church and of Christ. He never got over that God had chosen him in spite of his horrible past. The other reason is to remind you today that he can do the same for you.
So here is one of the greatest incentives of all to draw you into missions. God intends to use ordinary, messy, small paintbrushes on the canvas of the history of missions because every minute stroke of his brush matters. Every bright stroke of triumph and every dark stroke of suffering matters. He is an infinitely wise painter. He knows what he is doing with your life. Not one stroke will be wasted. You can trust him with your life. Yield the wise hand that would paint with your life. Oh what riches we have to give!
So I want to invite you to come. And I want those of you who do not come to feel good about not coming because of how committed you are — for now — to sending those who come. This is a partnership. Sitting is an obedience. And coming is an obedience. If God has been at work in your life to stir you to seriously look toward cross cultural missions in your life — short term, midterm or long term — I would like you to come. I would like to pray for you and give you a card for your encouragement and support. Why don’t you who are already missionaries and already committed to going join the rest.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Coronavirus and Christ.