Pray That I May Declare It Fearlessly
(The sermon preached at the commencement of Phillip’s ministry at St Andrew’s Cathedral Sydney.)
Thank you for the opportunity and privilege of proclaiming Christ from this pulpit. A pulpit located in the heart of this great city, and the heart of this great diocese.
I love Sydney, not just as my home but also as a great city. It’s a fantastic city located in such a wonderful part of God’s world. From the beaches to the mountains, with its harbour and its rivers and bays, with its bustling streets and quiet parks, its mild climate and sunny disposition: Sydney is a great city.
But Sydney is more than its beautiful environment. It’s a well-ordered community enjoying its wealth, with freedom and fun-loving pleasure. It’s a city of migrants opening its arms to people from all over the world who want to raise their families in peace, security and prosperity. It’s a city of sport and education, of natural beauty and stunning architecture, of incredible wealth and yet open egalitarianism. I love Sydney.
And I love the Diocese of Sydney, for the Anglican Church in this diocese has taught and nurtured both my family and me. It has provided the fellowship of God’s people. They love the Lord Jesus. They read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures. They openly seek to invite all people into a life-giving relationship with the heavenly Father through the death and resurrection of his Son—our Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s a well-ordered diocese, both pragmatic and prudential in the affairs of money, property and good government. Yet it has always stood firm for principles. The principles of the Anglican Reformation: that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone. I love the Diocese of Sydney.
This pulpit, which I have been invited to occupy, stands in the centre of this great city and this great diocese. It’s a privileged opportunity for me to commence this work with you tonight. But it’s a humbling privilege. No-one is worthy or sufficient for this task, for the task is more than speaking; it’s speaking the word of God. The task is not just intellectual, moral or physical; it’s profoundly spiritual.
So my first sermon from this pulpit—this sermon tonight—is a plea for prayer. It’s a self-centred plea for prayer for me. Yet it’s also a plea for prayer for all of us who would stand in this wonderful city and call upon it to repent. It’s a plea for prayer for boldness; for freedom to speak as I ought, for fearlessness to speak as we ought.
My plea is derived from tonight’s second lesson—Paul writing in Ephesians 6:
18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
19 Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
Firstly, let’s look briefly at the context
Most people detach the passage about spiritual warfare and armoury (Eph 6:10-20) from the rest of Ephesians. But it was not written to provide a Sunday school lesson with easy visual aids. Nor did Paul simply have a few leftover ideas, which he stuck on the end of this letter because he did not know where else to attach them.
This passage is a key part of the important argument of Ephesians. The victory of Christ over all the powers and principalities in the spiritual realms is to be declared and put into effect by preaching the gospel to the nations.
The secularists in our society do not see this spiritual conflict. They assume there is nothing else in life other than the secular. So they turn the perfectly Christian notion of secular (‘of this world’ or ‘of this age’) into the atheistic materialism of secularism. They turn secular education into secularist education. They turn the secular government into the secularist society. They deny even the possibility of the spiritual realm, let alone the conflict in which we (and they) unconsciously are engaged. But friends, their blindness does not remove the reality of what they refuse to see.
Other people make too much of this spiritual warfare conflict—or rather, they fail to understand its nature, the sovereignty of God over the spiritual realms, and the victory of Christ in his sacrificial death and resurrection. They see demons and spirits in every action of creation and under every bed. They fear the world of the demonic, not recognising Christ’s liberating victory. They try to gain control of spiritual forces, or to align themselves with such forces by the New Age mysticism, crystals, tarot cards and magic, not recognising that the power of the devil resides in lies and deception; not recognising the rebellious immorality of the spirit world; not recognising the victory declared in the gospel.
Ephesians 6 talks of our warfare:
12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the whole armour of God
This is the supernatural conflict of world evangelism. The armour, you notice, is all about the gospel (belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shield of faith, helmet of salvation). It’s all defensive armoury—except the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. But in this armour the Christian is to stand in the heat of the conflict with spiritual forces in the heavenly realms.
And it’s in this context that Paul speaks of praying. He speaks of praying at all times in all ways, but specifically “in the Spirit”—that is, by calling God ‘Father’ through the Lord Jesus Christ. For it’s through Christ that we have access to the Father by one Spirit. And so we are to pray for all God’s people and in particular, Paul says, “and also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (v. 19).
Secondly, let’s notice what Paul is asking for
If you have read the accounts of Paul’s life, you could be excused for wondering why Paul would ask for boldness for fearlessness to speak. His life was full of dangers and difficulties—shipwrecks, imprisonment, beatings, whippings, stonings—but he seemed always to abound in courage and forcefulness. Contending with rulers and soldiers, hostile crowds and troubled individuals, brimful of confidence and authority.
But here he is asking for boldness to speak as he should. You do not ask in prayer for what you already have, but rather you ask for what you do not have or are worried that you will not have. What we read in the accounts of Paul’s life are the positive answers to the prayers for boldness. We, looking from the outside, may assume that Paul had boldness in buckets. But Paul knew his need for prayerful support—that he would not be ashamed of the gospel; that he would not be silenced by the intellectual snobbishness of the philosophers and debaters of his day; that he would not be browbeaten or afraid of the courts he had to face; that he would not be censored by the Jewish officials of the synagogues or the Sanhedrin.
He should speak with open bold confidence the mystery of the gospel, but he wanted the prayerful support necessary to do so. Such speaking is more than a matter of human courage; it’s engaging in the spiritual warfare of the heavenly realms. The mystery of the gospel is the truth that the devil does not want preached and proclaimed. From his perspective, those who preach it must be silenced or corrupted.
But notice that Paul does not ask for fearlessness to preach the gospel as he ought, but to preach the mystery of the gospel as he ought. Why the mystery of the gospel? What is the mystery of the gospel? Is the gospel mysterious?
No, the gospel is not mysterious. It’s open, plain and all too clear (that’s why people do not like it and oppose it so frequently and vehemently). In Ephesians and in the rest of Paul’s writings, the word ‘mystery’ doesn’t mean ‘mysterious’ but rather ‘secret’. It’s the secret of the gospel. And a secret is not a mystery. My father’s middle name is a secret that only my family members may know, but it’s not mysterious. It’s a secret that I could share with you, and then we would all know.
What is the secret of the gospel? What is “the mystery of the gospel” that Paul needs prayerful support to speak freely about? You can find it back in
6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
Here is the mystery that was hidden for centuries, the secret that Paul explained around the Mediterranean world. The great mystery of the gospel is that the Jewish Messiah did not come for the Jews only; that the Jewish Messianic kingdom is not for the Jews only; but that the non-Jews—the Gentiles, all peoples, all nations—are invited into the kingdom of God as full citizens, as full children, of God.
When Jesus died on the cross to pay for sins, it wasn’t for Jewish sins only but for the sins of the whole world. When he arose and sent his Spirit out into the world with the regenerating message of salvation, it wasn’t just for the Jews but also for the Samaritans and the nations; for the old and the young; for the weak and the healthy; for the rich and the poor; for the idolaters and the philosophers and the prison guards and the demon-possessed.
God’s one and only Son paid the price for the redemption of all mankind—and he paid it fully and completely, once for all. This is God’s way back to God; the all-inclusive and only way back to God.
So Paul went preaching the gospel message of Jesus. But in particular he had the task of declaring the secret—the mystery—of the gospel: the all-inclusiveness of the gospel. And this is what made his work so objectionable to others and so fearful to undertake.
For once you see that Jesus is God’s way to bring all mankind back to himself—that the gospel is inclusive of all people—then you start to see that there are no privileged seats. It no longer matters that you are Jewish or rich or clever or Roman or anything. This becomes fairly offensive to people who take pride and security in their position. It became very offensive to the Jew who thought he was all right with God because he belonged to God’s chosen people.
But as you listen to the gospel, it’s more offensive still. You see, today inclusiveness is applauded. The church should be open to all people irrespective of race, religion, class, sex, nationality, personal preferences or lifestyle. But listen to the gospel message of Jesus—the one who died and rose again and who is coming to judge the living and the dead—and you will see the appropriate response is to repent! It’s to change. It’s to turn back from your lifestyle and yourself. It’s to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus.
That is, the inclusiveness of the gospel is also the exclusiveness of the gospel. All may come in—but to only come in by Jesus is a message (a secret) that, once revealed, causes deep upset to those who wish to come to God by their own way. The Jews would not accept that the Gentiles could be fellow citizens of the kingdom of God. The Romans would not accept that their gods were false and needed to be left behind. The Greek philosophers would not accept that the resurrection of Jesus spelt the coming judgement of the world on their idolatry and stupidity.
So when Paul wrote to the Ephesians he was in prison, he tells us in chapter 3, “for the sake of you Gentiles” (v. 1). He was imprisoned for the non-Jews, whose place in the kingdom of God was secured by Christ’s death and resurrection and was announced by Christ’s ambassador in chains.
Thirdly, if that is what Paul was asking then what am I asking for?
Tonight we commence a new chapter in the ministry of proclaiming the mystery of the gospel in the city of Sydney. So I ask for the same thing Paul asked for, because we are still engaged in the same spiritual battle and we need the same supernatural courage.
It’s the same conflict with the powers and principalities for the souls of this city. For beautiful as this city is, well-ordered as this city is, and as much as we may love it, this city still has its dark side of immorality and decadence; of rebellion against God issuing in antisocial behaviour at all levels of society. This city’s spiritual need for the gospel is as great as ever—and the devil’s desire to censor it from public discourse, to discredit its teachers and to pervert its message is also as great as ever.
We are still in spiritual need of prayer, to preach the gospel fearlessly with boldness. The same fears of shame and persecution, of put-down and ridicule, are there in me and in you as they were in the apostle in chains. So we need to pray for one another—and I need you to pray for me—that we may speak the mystery of the gospel fearlessly as we ought.
But remember, it’s not just the gospel but the mystery of the gospel that causes the offence. It’s the inclusiveness and the consequential exclusiveness of the gospel that causes the offence. If I were to say that Jesus died and rose again, people in our tolerant and carefree city would say, “Well we are glad you think so, and happy that you feel free to say it”. But when I say that Jesus died and rose again as the one and only unique sacrifice for sins and the judge and ruler of all mankind irrespective of race, religion or creed—well, then the opposition starts. Then the ill-liberality of liberals commences. Then the censorious persecution opens up. Then political correctness takes over.
For Jesus to be the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) is mildly offensive; but for Jesus to be the only way to the Father (again, John 14:6) is downright rude for all those who want to live without Jesus as their king and their saviour and their God.
Our society does not want this cathedral to genuinely express the inclusiveness of Gospel. But Christ is not the Lord of the Anglo-Saxons, nor the Lord of the Anglicans, but the Lord of all people. This cathedral cannot be Christian and for Anglo-Saxon stock only. It must be for all people—rich, poor, young, old, professors, illiterate, for Greeks and Jews, for Chinese and Lebanese, for Muslims, Buddhists, New Age followers and atheists.
Our society does not want the exclusiveness of gospel. But Christ is not one of many and options, to be placed amongst all the gods of this world. The message of this cathedral’s pulpit must be repentance; must be to give up our other gods; to give up our false ideas; to give up our non-Christian cultural baggage, our non-Christian tribal allegiances. It’s easy for us to point the finger at statues of Buddha or at practices of Sharia law, but Jesus demanded that we deny ourselves; that the rich young ruler give up his wealth. The New Testament calls upon us to turn away from gluttony, lying, materialism and covetousness. Sydney has to give up its addiction to gambling and greed. In the presence of God, we must renounce our Anglo pride, culture, and any other false security we may have.
Christ is either right or wrong. He cannot be relativised as right for some people but wrong for others.
• The Qur’an denies that Jesus died.
• The Bible declares Jesus died and that his death is central to his whole life and message.
• The Jews agree that Jesus died but deny that he rose again.
All these views cannot be right. They could all be wrong; Jesus may never have lived. But if he did live then either he died or he didn’t die. And if he died then either he is still dead or he rose from the grave. If one view is right, the others must be wrong. We must stop the stupidity of stretching social tolerance into religious or philosophical relativism.
But here is the problem for the preacher: people don’t want me to say that anything or anybody is wrong. I am supposed to speak the truth without denying the error. But friends, that itself is an erroneous view. It is the erroneous view of liberalism and relativism.
Let me illustrate with an incident that happened last year. I spoke to a Hindu student who loved my teaching from John’s Gospel about Jesus. He believed in Jesus. For him, Jesus was one of the great spiritual leaders. But like all good Hindus, that didn’t mean he should depart from his Hindu gods—it rather meant just add Jesus to the list. Therefore he didn’t like the exclusiveness of Jesus. In fact, he tried to argue that all religions were right.
I offered to show him that Hinduism is wrong, without attacking Hinduism. I asked the question, “Did Jesus die?” If he did then the Qur’an—the most sacred and authoritative book of Islam, the supposed perfect revelation of Allah—is wrong. If on the other hand he didn’t die, then the Bible is wrong, and not just about some unimportant peripheral detail but about the very central claim of Christianity. They both cannot be right, both possibly wrong; and either is possibly right. But it’s impossible for both to be right. And if they can’t both be right then his Hinduism, which taught him that all religions are right, cannot be right either.
He left me and seemed very disturbed by our conversation. But so far he has continued in his Hindu religion, not because of what is true or right but because of tribal family pressure. We mustn’t be Christians because of tribal family pressure, but because it’s true.
Many lovely, wonderful Hindus and Muslims and Jews and atheists live in our city—good citizens who have every right to expect all the same rights and responsibilities as any other citizen. But their different religions cannot all be right. Some, or all of them, are wrong. And if wrong, they are the monstrous lies and deceits of Satan, devised to destroy the life of the believers; to capture them into the cosmic rebellion against God and destroy the freedom they should have in Christ.
Christians in Sydney are being pressured to preach at best a muted message of Christianity—and certainly not one that will ever deny falsehood.
Friends, astrology is a profoundly stupid false religion. It is just plain dumb to think that you can publish a guide to life for everybody born in a particular month; yet the mainline Sydney papers all publish the daily horoscope for all to see. At the same time we cannot get in a Christian comment about anything, but rather are constantly attacked and pilloried in their columns. The blatant hypocrisy of the media outlets’ anti-Christian bias means that, because of the secularists and the relativists, the gospel is not going to be heard by the citizens. And whoever cares to stand up and speak boldly about there being only one true religion for all people will inevitably be treated like a leper and an outcast.
So the pressure is to speak quietly and softly, to avoid the negatives, to avoid raising the issues of God or of judgement, of death or of resurrection, in public, in the discourse of the community, in parliament, even eventually in private. Politicians (some even claiming to be Anglicans) argued in our parliament that the morality and ethics of killing and using embryonic life should be discussed without any reference to God. Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t use embryos for scientific research—but how can we discuss life and death without reference to God? And since when in this land of freedom, and of religious freedom in particular, are we forbidden to speak of God?
The movie industry is the same. Christianity is constantly censored out. I watched the movie adaptation of John Grisham’s novel The Chamber” but the ending is different to the book. The minister, the Christian repentance and conversion—all just left out of the climax and replaced by pseudo psychobabble about interpersonal relationships.
To its credit, yesterday The Sydney Morning Herald published an article from The New York Times about “Liberal America’s contempt for evangelicals ” which acknowledged that “nearly all of us in the news business are completely out of touch with a group that includes 46 per cent of Americans”. The author says that the liberal presses’ critiques of evangelicals have “a sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself. Such mockery of religious faith is inexcusable. And liberals sometimes show more intellectual curiosity about the religion of Afghanistan than that of Alabama, and more interest in reading the Upanishad than the Book of Revelation.”
Friends, we cannot get the gospel’s message across in the censorious liberal presses; or even argue the case with freedom in the houses of parliament. We are hounded in the universities and not really allowed to seriously study Christianity, nor even to express an articulate Christian view within the classrooms—which are open to almost any and every other view you might wish to express.
The cathedral pulpit in the centre of the city and the suburban pulpits scattered across the whole metropolitan area are therefore critical in the free and unfettered proclamation of the gospel. But we must support our preachers with prayer, because we don’t advance Christianity by force of arms or armies. The battle is a spiritual battle with supernatural forces of evil in the heavenly realms. So the battle is fought by our prayerful preaching of the gospel of the risen Christ Jesus declared to all nations.
This pulpit is one of the few uncensored places left in this city, and you have invited me to use it to preach Christ. So then pray for me that I may speak fearlessly as I ought, as I declare not just the message of the gospel but specifically the mystery of the inclusive and therefore exclusive gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ—the Lord of all people.