Is Paul to be Trusted?
A sermon on Ephesians 1:1,2 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, April 13, 1997
On a hot, muggy July evening in 1863, the President of the United States and members of his cabinet gathered in the Secretary of War's office. Tension filled the room, for this was the third day of an epic battle near Gettysburg, Pennslyvania. For the Army of the Potomac to lose on northern soil would be disastrous. As the hours stretched on towards midnight, several cabinet members left to try to get some rest. Abraham Lincoln remained, hoping for some news to come via telegraph.
Footsteps sounded in the hall: a telegraph messenger running towards the room! He burst through the door, handing the message to Secretary of War Stanton. The Secretary peered at the telegraph, then read aloud, "The Army of the Potomac holds the field; General Meade has won!":
When cheering broke out, the President raised his hand. "No celebrating is in order yet. Who wrote this telegram? Can we trust the author?"
Stanton replied, "The telegram is signed, 'Byington.' Who is this Byington?"
When no one in the room could respond, Lincoln commanded the telegraph operator: "Reply immediately with these words: 'Who is Byington?'"
Eventually the reply came: "Ask the Secretary of the Navy." Secretary Welles was roused from his sleep in order to verify that Byington was a newspaper reporter he knew well, who could be trusted. The battle was indeed won, and Robert E. Lee's daring invasion of the North was thwarted.
Like Lincoln, we too have received great news. Last week we introduced this letter to the Ephesians. In this epistle, Paul tells us:
This is indeed great news! But we are faced with the same question as Lincoln: Can we believe it? Should we get our hopes up? Or are we simply being led astray? How reliable is the message?
Indeed, this letter has been attacked from many angles. Some claim that the ideas expressed here were not developed until decades after Paul's death, and thus he could not have written the letter. Others come to the same conclusion based on phrases and language that are used here but not in other Pauline epistles. Others believe that Paul is the author here, but that he is merely stating his own ideas and opinions; these are not the words of God. Many consider this letter and all of Scripture as a documentation of man's attempts to understand God and the world around him, not as the revelation of God to man.
So before we embark on a months-long study of this book, we need to ask ourselves the question: Who is the messenger? Is he reliable? Is the letter of Paul to the Ephesians the word of God?
Please turn with me in your Bibles to Ephesians, the first chapter. Let us read together the first two verses:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we look at these verses, we will address five questions (some more thoroughly than others):
Let us then begin with the first question:
(1) To whom is the letter addressed?
Paul says his letter is to "the saints, the faithful in Christ Jesus." What is a saint? Are you a saint? Well, if you are a Christian, you are indeed a saint. A saint is not someone who lives a superspiritual life, or a person who removes himself from the world to focus on God. The word "saint" literally means someone who is set apart, someone who is called to be holy. Indeed, the same Greek word appears in verse 4, which is translated, "He chose us to be holy and blameless." God chose all Christians to be holy and blameless; everyone God chose, every true Christian, is a saint.
So the word "saint" as used in the Bible is not reserved for a select few, a small number of great Christians. Rather, the term implies two important facts about every single one of us:
In addition to calling the recipients of the letter "saints," Paul uses the term "faithful." This word can mean faithful in the normal sense of the English word -- reliable, steadfast -- but in this context more probably means "having faith." So we might translate this phrase, "to the saints, to those who have faith in Christ Jesus."
So this letter, actually, is written to all Christians: to the saints, those whose position is secure in Christ, who are being made holy in thought and action by God; to those who believe in Christ Jesus. This is what it means to be a Christian: to be called by God, and to believe in Christ. We are not Christians because we try to live up to a set of rule, or perform a set of rituals. We are not Christians because we are members of a particular church, or because we have been baptized in a particular place or in a particular manner. We are Christians because God called us, and because we believe in Jesus.
(2) What are the claims of the author? Why should we listen to Paul?
Paul calls himself "an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God." An apostle is one who is sent forth with orders, one who is prepared, one who is fitted out to accomplish a task. The word "apostle" is used in two different ways in the New Testament. First, it is used in a general sense, referring to those who are sent forth to accomplish God's tasks. In this sense, Barnabas, Timothy, and even Jesus (Hebrews 3:1) are referred to as apostles.
Second, "apostle" refers to the twelve, those who are chosen and taught directly by Jesus Christ, whose names, as told us in Revelation 21, are written on the twelve foundation stones of the heavenly Jerusalem.
In which sense is Paul an apostle? Paul is an apostle "by the will of God," as he states here; he did not appoint himself, and was not appointed by a human being. God called him to the task, dramatically and forcefully. There can be no question about that. But should we consider Paul as one of the twelve?
There is some debate about this; Scripture does not insist on one interpretation. In my opinion, however, the majority of the evidence suggests that Paul is one of the twelve, the one God chose to replace Judas. Acts 1 relates the story of the eleven remaining disciples deciding to replace the traitor Judas, who has committed suicide, by casting lots for either Matthias or Joseph Barsabbas. The lot falls to Matthias, but we never hear any more of either of these two men. Peter is clearly right to conclude that God intends to replace Judas -- but God had more work to do on Paul before he could be made one of the twelve. So, as I understand the Scriptures, Peter erred in Acts 1, acting peremptorily in putting two names before God, neither of whom was God's chosen 12th apostle. So I believe that when we stand together in the new Jerusalem, we will see "Paul" and not "Matthias" written on one of the twelve foundation stones.
That is debatable. But what is not debatable is that God called Paul to be his apostle to the Gentiles, and that He arranged matters so that Paul arguably had a greater influence on the church than any other apostle. We must listen to Paul, as he is God's chosen vessel to communicate His truth to us.
(3) Are Paul's writings Scripture?
Once we have acknowledged that Paul is an apostle, the answer to this question is easier. The early church, when grappling with the question of which books to recognize as constituting the canon of Scripture, looked to see if the book had apostolic authority. While books like Mark and Luke were not written by apostles, they were the result of a close association between Mark and Peter on the one hand and Luke and Paul on the other. A letter by Paul clearly has apostolic authority.
Furthermore, Scripture itself substantiates the authority of Paul's writings. In chapter 3 of his second epistle, Peter writes:
15 Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Peter says, first, that Paul wrote with the wisdom given by God. Second, that some of what Paul wrote is hard to understand -- we'll get plenty of supporting evidence for that statement as we make our way through Ephesians! (And we'll find that making the effort necessary to understand the difficulties is deeply rewarding.) Third, by comparing Paul's writings to "the other Scriptures," Peter is clearly asserting that Paul's writings are Scriptures. So what is true of Scripture in general is true of Paul's writings. This, then, leads us to our fourth question:
(4) Why should we believe that Scripture is reliable?
We will answer this question by asking two others:
First, what does the Bible claim about itself? Let's start with a negative: The Bible does not claim to be exclusively words dictated by God to a man. While parts of the Bible are God's exact words -- the Ten Commandments, for example -- we do not argue that this letter to the Ephesians was dictated by God to Paul. This contrasts with the Koran, which Moslems claim was given word for word by Allah to Mohammed.
Instead, the Bible claims that is inspired, or "God-breathed," as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16. Peter says that the Scriptures resulted when "men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." Men inspired by the Holy Spirit, carried along by the Holy Spirit, superintended by the Holy Spirit wrote completely authoritatively, but using their own personal style and structure. Similarly, Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 that the message he communicated to them was the message of the word of God.
An analogy might be helpful here. This week, Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug spoke at Williams. Imagine a reporter for the campus newspaper taking notes at the talk, and subsequently writing an article. The student then gives the article to Mr Borlaug, who "superintends" it -- he checks it, so that the report is an accurate summary of the talk. The published article then will reflect the student's writing style, the words will be chosen by the student, and there may even be grammatical errors -- but if Mr Borlaug has done his work carefully, the article will be a completely accurate account of the speech.
That is the biblical claim of inspiration: not dictated, but superintended by the Holy Spirit so that the words of Scripture are completely accurate, completely reliable.
Now, some might protest that this is circular reasoning: I am saying we should believe the Bible because the Bible says that it is inspired. Other writings have claimed to be inspired -- such as the Koran -- on what basis can we believe the Bible and reject the Koran?
What we have established so far is that the Bible claims for itself the authority of God. There are other books that make similar claims. The next step, then, is to examine the internal evidence of the Scriptures: Does the Bible as a whole support the claim it makes for itself?
This morning, we will examine one aspect of the answer to this question -- arguably the most important aspect: What did Jesus Christ believe about the Scriptures? How did he use Scripture in his interactions with others? After all, if Jesus is fully God, if he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we must adopt his view. Consider these four points.
"O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
Jesus is here saying that it is foolish not to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Just as it was foolish for these two disciples not to believe, so it is foolish for us.
Jesus clearly believed the Scriptures to be fully reliable. He used them as his authority, both in his arguments with men and in his arguments with spiritual forces of darkness. The Bible claims for itself full authority. We, along with Jesus, need to rely on the word of God.
(5) What are the implications for how we approach Ephesians, and rest of Scripture?
We need to consider all of Scripture to be God's words -- not the words dictated by God, because they reflect the style and personality of the human author, but nevertheless superintended by the Holy Spirit and thus authoritative and reliable. We are therefore to be in submission to the word. We are in no position to judge Scripture -- rather, Scripture judges us, Scripture cuts to our hearts, as it is sharper than any two-edged sword. Once we begin picking and choosing what parts of Scripture we want to include and what parts we want to exclude, we have placed ourselves in authority, instead of allowing Scripture to be our authority.
Now, this is not to assert that there are no difficulties with the Bible. There are sections that are hard to understand, and there are passages that seem to contradict each other. In my experience, prayerfully studying these paradoxical sections can be highly rewarding, as God enlightens us, showing how both are true and complementary rather than contradictory. In other cases, the truth is simply beyond our capability to understand, and we must be willing to live with that answer.
So I ask you: Do you believe this? Do you believe that the Scriptures are to be your sole authority, that this Bible is God's word to you, God's revelation, wholly reliable and completely sufficient? Be honest. If you do not, I understand -- I've been there. But I ask you not to sit back and say, "I just can't believe all that." Instead, do this: Every day for a month, pray, saying "Lord, I'm confused. I've heard attacks on these Scriptures, saying they are not reliable. Give me insight, I pray, give me understanding. If this is truly your word, open it up to me, verify it to me. I submit myself to your word -- for this month." I believe God will answer that prayer, that He will confirm his word to you.
Ray Stedman put it this way:
When you believe that this book is from God and, as Proverbs says, "Cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures," then this book will reveal to you the marvels of a deliberately patterned structure that can only be of God's making, and reveal to you astounding grasps of life and explanations of how the human heart operates.
Or as Charles Spurgeon said: "The Bible is like a lion. Who ever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose, it will defend itself."
So can you trust Paul? The first step is to trust Jesus Christ as Savior. Know the Lord of the universe -- he gave his all for you.
Those of you who believe in Jesus, you Christians: Can you trust this book? I declare to you that this book is the word of God. Read it. Depend upon it. Submit to it. God will then open your eyes and give you understanding of your own life and the world around you; he will open your eyes to the hope of your calling, the riches of his inheritance in his people, and his great power available to us who believe.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on April 13, 1997. The view expressed here that Paul is one of the twelve apostles is not shared by all elders of CBC.
Copyright © 1998, Thomas C. Pinckney.This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.
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