Making Known the Manifold Wisdom of God Through Prison and Prayer

Third Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization

Cape Town, South Africa


Exposition of Ephesians 3:1-21

I’m going to preach this message to you two times. The first time will be about eight minutes and will give you the big picture of where we are going. The second time will be about fifteen minutes, and we will focus on three scenes in this big picture and draw out implications for our moment in history.

First, the eight-minute sermon: the big picture. There are three scenes in this picture.

Scene 1: The great, sovereign, cosmic purpose of God is to make known the glory of his wisdom to the demonic powers of the universe (verses 8–10).  

Look at verses 8–10 with me:

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles [the nations] the unsearchable riches of Christ [that’s what Paul preached, the unsearchable riches of the glory of Christ. That’s the first thing he was given to do. The second is this…],

9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things [those two things God gave Paul to do: preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, and make known the mysterious plan of God hidden for ages. Now why? What was God’s great, cosmic purpose in this?],

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. [And we know from Ephesians 6:12 that these “rulers and authorities” are demonic powers. We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against “rulers and authorities”—that is we wrestle against the devil and his messengers].

That is scene number one: The cosmic purpose of God to make the whole universe say: God is infinitely wise! The preaching of the unsearchable riches of Christ and the revelation of the mysterious plan of God have this one ultimate purpose: to make known the glory of his wisdom to the demonic powers of the universe.

God is not a tribal deity. His purposes encompass the whole universe. If there had been humans on other planets in other galaxies, they would have been invited to Lausanne. We are not merely a global congress on world evangelization. We are a global congress on the cosmic manifestation of the glory of the wisdom of the Creator of the universe.

Scene 2: God has chosen that some of his servants be imprisoned and suffer as a way of bringing about God’s cosmic purpose to manifest his wisdom (verses 1, 13) 

Notice verses 1 and 13:

Verse 1: “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.”

Verse 13: “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.”

Notice, Paul does not mention his sufferings to get pity. He mentions them because he wants the church to know that this is their glory. Do you see that at the end of verse 13? “I am suffering for you, which is your glory.”

In other words, God’s design is that his church be drawn into the glory of the unsearchable riches of Christ through the sufferings of her missionaries and her ministers. Our sufferings are their glory. They are made glorious through our sufferings.

Why would God glorify his church this way?

Because he is infinitely, gloriously wise. And he means for all heaven and hell to see this through his church.

Scene 3: God has chosen that the supernatural power required to see the glory of his wisdom, and to suffer for his name, come through earnest prayer. (vv. 14-21)

All of verses 14–21 are Paul’s prayer that what he is preaching will in fact happen. Notice the connection between verse 14 and all that has gone before.

  • Paul wants us to see and enjoy the unsearchable riches of Christ (v. 8).
  • Paul wants us to understand and embrace the mystery hidden for ages (v. 9).
  • Paul wants us to be a part of revealing the glory of God’s wisdom to powers of darkness (v. 10).
  • And Paul wants his own suffering to be our glory (v. 13).

So he says in verse 14: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father.” Why? Because 

  • no human being can see the riches of Christ—the breadth and length and height and depth of it all,
  • no human being can embrace the mystery of the ages,
  • no one can reveal the glory of God’s wisdom,
  • no one can be transformed from one degree of glory to the next through suffering,

without omnipotent, divine, supernatural power.

And God has chosen to give that power to his church through prayer.

That’s the end of the short sermon—the big picture with its three scenes. Now we focus on these three scenes again and draw out some implications.

* * *

Scene 1

It has these three parts:

  • the demonstration of the wisdom of God to the powers of darkness (v. 10);
  • the preaching of the unsearchable riches of Christ (v. 8);
  • the revelation of the mystery hidden for  in God (v. 9).  

How do they relate to each other?

Like this. Notice what the mystery is. It’s defined in verse 6: “This mystery is that the Gentiles [the nations, that’s most of us here] are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

The mystery is that the Gentiles—every tribe and language and people and nation—will now be included in all the promises of God made to Israel. This is why verse 8 says that Paul preaches to the Gentiles—the nations—the unsearchable riches of the Christ, the Messiah. All the promises of God made in the Old Testament belong now to the Messiah Jesus and to his people (2 Corinthians 1:20).

So now we have connected two parts of scene one: the mystery hidden for ages is that all the peoples of the world will be included in the unsearchable riches of the Messiah.

  • God will bring them to life.
  • He will bring them to faith.
  • He will forgive their sins.
  • He will declare them righteous in his sight.
  • He will give them his Spirit.
  • He will make them holy.
  • He will raise them from the dead.
  • He will reign over them in righteousness.
  • He will banish all evil and suffering from the world.
  • And he will make them everlastingly happy with him in the new heaven and the new earth.

So if the mystery is the inclusion of the nations in the unsearchable riches of the Messiah, then how does this relate to the manifestation of the wisdom of God?

The answer is contained the last phrase of verse 6. This mystery—this inclusion of the nations in the unsearchable riches of the Messiah—is “through the gospel.”

And what is the gospel? Paul’s clearest definition goes like this:

Now I would remind you of the gospel . . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1–4).

So we Gentiles are included in the riches of the Messiah because he died for us.

  • He bore our sins.
  • He completed our righteousness.
  • He conquered our death and hell and the devil.

As Ephesians 2:16 says, He reconciled us to God by his cross.

Now in Paul’s mind how does the cross relate to the wisdom of God? The resounding answer is given in 1 Corinthians 1:22–24:

Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified,  stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

The crucifixion is not the world’s wisdom. It is not the world’s power. It is foolishness and weakness to the world. But it is God’s power. And it is God’s wisdom.

When the Messiah dies on the cross to create the church out of all the nations of the world, the manifold wisdom of God shines most brightly in that very crucified Messiah—“Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

But here is an amazing thing. The rulers and authorities don’t just see the wisdom of God at the cross. They see it in what the cross created, namely the church, from every people tribe and nations.

You can see that at the beginning of verse 10? “Through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” There isn’t anything greater that can be said of the global church of Christ than that Christ died so that she would be the display of God’s infinite wisdom.

So scene number one is the inclusion of the Gentile nations in the unsearchable riches of the Messiah through the gospel of Christ crucified in our place. And that crucifixion is the wisdom of God displayed in the creation of a redeemed people from every tribe and language and nation. One day all rulers, all authorities, all demons and Satan himself, as they are cast in the lake of fire, will be forced to say: God is infinitely wise.

Before I turn to scene two, there is another implication that this congress needs to draw out. Why did the Son of God have to be crucified in order for the Jewish people and the nations to be included in the unsearchable riches of Christ?

One indispensable answer is found in a little phrase in Ephesians 2:3:

We all once lived among the sons of disobedience in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

All mankind, Paul says, are “children of wrath” apart from faith in Christ. Because of our sinful rebellious nature, we are under the wrath of God. This is why Christ had to die. Not just because we were sinners, but because he is holy. His infinite justice demanded that he punish sinners.

If God had not put Christ forward to bear his own wrath, if Christ had not become a curse for us, as Galatians 3:13 says, then all the nations and all Jews would have perished under God’s wrath and entered into everlasting suffering in hell, as Jesus said in Matthew 25:46.

The reason I draw out this implication of the cross is to hold together in this congress and in the church of Christ two truths that are often felt to be at odds with each other, but don’t have to be.

One truth is that when the gospel takes root in our souls it impels us out toward the alleviation of all unjust suffering in this age. That’s what love does!

The other truth is that when the gospel takes root in our souls it awakens us to the horrible reality of eternal suffering in hell, under the wrath of a just and omnipotent God. And it impels us to rescue the perishing, and to warn people to flee from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

I plead with you. Don’t choose between those two truths. Embrace them both. It doesn’t mean we all spend our time in the same way. God forbid. But it means we let the Bible define reality and define love.

Could Lausanne say—could the evangelical church say—we Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering? I hope we can say that. But if we feel resistant to saying “especially eternal suffering,” or if we feel resistant to saying “we care about all suffering in this age,” then either we have a defective view of hell or a defective heart.

I pray that Lausanne would have neither.

Scenes 2 and 3: God appoints suffering and prayer as a means of gathering the nations into the unsearchable riches of Christ for the glory of his infinite wisdom.

Verse 13: “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.”

When Paul was willing to go to prison for the sake of Christ, he showed the nations that Christ is more precious than freedom. When he was willing to suffer for Christ, he showed the nations that Christ is more precious than comfort and security and prosperity.

In other words, the infinite value of the unsearchable riches of Christ shine brightly not in Paul’s prosperity, but in his imprisonment. With his suffering, he draws the nations to the glory Christ and displays the wisdom of the cross.

But no one chooses prison,

  • no one turns from prosperity,
  • no one sees the breadth and length and height and depth of the love Christ that passes knowledge,
  • no one is filled with all the fullness of God,
  • no one says, “I count everything as loss for the sake of Christ”

 without supernatural, omnipotent power coming into their lives.

And how does it come? Paul shows us that it comes by prayer.

Most of the peoples of the world where the church is not yet planted, don’t want us to come and bring the gospel. But they will perish if the gospel does not reach them. If, for Christ’s sake, we are willing to go—and Christ commands us to go—then we will suffer. And if our suffering is to be the glory of the world, then we must pray.

So to you, O Lord, who are able to do far more abundantly
than all that we ask or think,
according to the power at work within us,
to you be glory in the church
and in Christ Jesus
throughout all generations,
forever and ever.
(Ephesians 3:20–21)

Thumb author john piper

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of 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 A Peculiar Glory.