God is at work rescuing people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Dr. Ric Cannada preaches a chapel sermon entitled “The Mystery Revealed: God’s Plan for the Ages” on Ephesians 3 at RTS Jackson.
Introduction: It is my privilege to introduce Dr. Cannada, Dr. Ric Cannada. Our Chancellor and CEO of RTS is our speaker this morning for chapel. Many of you see me around, but you don’t often see Dr. Cannada around. We have presidents over all of our campuses, and he is over all the presidents, if you want to say it that way.
Dr. Cannada has been a friend for many years. He actually was part of my ordination service in 1986 when he was the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia, and I was then becoming the assistant pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. I’ve known him for a number of years. He is from Jackson, Mississippi. His father was on the original board to found Reformed Theological Seminary. And so he knows from the beginning in detail of the things that took place that God did to bring about this seminary.
He went to Vanderbilt, and we need to pray for his humility after they beat Ole Miss this past week, but you don’t have that many times that you can boast on Vanderbilt, so we’ll let you do that. He went Vanderbilt. He graduated from RTS, and he became a pastor first at First Presbyterian Church in Clinton, South Carolina, then he went to plant a church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and it is still doing well, Covenant Church. And then he was called to First Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia.
After that, in 1993, he was asked by the board to go to Charlotte and to begin the work of RTS in Charlotte, which he did. And then in 2004, they asked him if he would become the chancellor. And so he did that as well, serving well. RTS has been well served by God through Rick Cannada. The one last thing I’ll tell you is he looks like a very humble man, but he just a couple of months ago wrestled singlehandedly a four-foot alligator that was in his front yard out near the reservoir and caught it and took it back to the water unharmed, but a little bit ruffled. That’s the alligator, I think. Dr. Cannada, it’s a privilege to have you.
Ric Cannada: The story about the alligator—four foot’s not too long, but he still had a pretty good snap. We all have a story, don’t we? People tell their stories today, not only individual stories, but schools have stories, churches have stories, even businesses want to tell their stories today. But in every story, there are ups and downs. There are problems and heartaches and trials and difficulties, frustrations as well as times of success and victory.
And sometimes, as you think through all those different aspects of our stories, individually or as institutions, you often wonder, is there any theme or ultimate story that makes it all make sense? Particularly the trials and struggles that we go through. The Bible says there is such a story, a big story, a big narrative, the metanarrative of all times that makes everything make sense.
The Bible Reveals the Mystery of the True Metanarrative
And that’s the story of the Bible itself. It begins in the first couple of chapters of Genesis, the Garden of Eden, and because of our sin, mankind got kicked out of the garden, excluded from the Tree of Life. But it ends—this great metanarrative—with the last two chapters of the Book of Revelation, the end of the Bible, with an even greater, more beautiful garden, and now a great city in that garden too. The tree of life is there again, except this time as that river of the water of life flows from the throne, the tree is said to be on both sides of the river and giving for its fruit every month of the year, a different kind of fruit. Two trees? Twelve trees? But the whole picture is of an even greater place.
God is at work rescuing a people from every tongue and tribe and nation on the earth, bringing them into his family and preparing them for glory. That’s the ultimate story.And in between the story of all stories, that makes everything make sense, God is at work rescuing a people from every tongue and tribe and nation on the earth, bringing them into his family and preparing them for glory. That’s the ultimate story.
That’s what Paul is talking about here in Ephesians 3, if you’ll turn there with me. He refers to this as a mystery. And you’ve learned in your studies or will learn that the word mystery in the Scriptures doesn’t mean something that’s weird or mysterious in that sense. A mystery is just something we could never have figured out on our own. We would never have known if God had not revealed it to us. Paul says this mystery was revealed, first even in the Old Testament, in bits and pieces, at times not as clear as it was revealed finally in the New Testament to Paul and to others, but it’s been there all along. This is how he describes that mystery, this ultimate story.
Ephesians 3:1, hear the Word of the living God:
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of man in other generations as it is now been revealed to his holy apostles and the prophets by the Spirit. 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.
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. 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, 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 was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
This plan, this eternal purpose of God, this mystery that is now made manifold in the church, the church which is made up of Gentiles as well as Jews, this mystery revealed is that the Gentiles are included with the Jews, that there will be people from every tongue and tribe and nation on the earth ultimately, in God’s family and with him in glory. That’s the ultimate metanarrative, revealed somewhat in the Old Testament, more clearly in the New, but it was there in the Old Testament.
God’s Ultimate Plan Was Revealed Somewhat in the Old Testament
We see it perhaps particularly early on with Abraham. Remember his name was even changed from Abram to Abraham, which means the father of what? Many nations. And remember, the promise was, “I’m going to be a God to you and to your descendants after you.” And that’s perhaps the promise we think about the most, but there was another promise made to him over and over, that in you, all the families of the earth, all the nations, all the Gentiles will be blessed.
In fact, it was repeated again when he offered his son, Isaac, and it says, in your offspring will all the families of the earth, all the nations, be blessed. We see it in individuals when they left the slavery in Egypt and ended up going into the Promised Land. One of the people that helped them there in Jericho, her name was what? Rahab. And she became one of the people of God, actually an ancestor of Jesus, directly from her line. She was a Canaanite. But not only Rahab, there was a Moabitess later who also became part of the people of God and also in Christ’s line. And her name was what? Ruth. Or think of Naaman, the Syrian commander, general, who was converted, became part of the people of God.
In fact, if you look back, even when they came out of Egypt, it talks about a mixed multitude that came along with the Jews. That’s why they had to have so many rules. Who’s in, who’s out? And the proselytes who were circumcised and became part of the people of God. That was always part of the picture.
Then we see it in some of the prophecies as well. We see it in Isaiah 56, where he talks about a time coming when the people will be close to him, and yet he doesn’t just talk about the Jewish people coming back to him. In Isaiah 56:3 says, “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I’m a dry tree.’“ It goes on in verse six, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer” for what? “For all peoples.” For all nations, for the Gentiles.
It’s what Jesus was so upset about, he drove him out of the temple because it’s supposed to be a house of prayer, and he said it there, too, for all peoples. We see it in the Psalms in various places, particularly the psalm we use for our call to worship today, Psalm 96, “Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord all the earth! Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous work among all the peoples! For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.” That whole Psalm is about that. So there were certainly hints about this, teaching about it in the Old Testament, but much more clearly revealed in the New and in Jesus’s own ministry.
God’s Ultimate Plan Is Revealed More Clearly in the New Testament
When they asked him about when is he going to come back and what are the signs and he gives the signs that sounds like more and more what’s happening today, doesn’t it, the wars and rumors of wars and all these terrible things going on in nature, and he says one other thing that will happen before I return is the gospel will be proclaimed to all the nations. There is our theme again. Matthew 28, Great Commission. Go and teach and baptize and make disciples of what? All nations.
In Luke 24, when he’s with those two men on the road to Emmaus, he’s trying to teach them. He says, “Don’t you understand that everything had to be fulfilled about me and that the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms?” And then it says, “He opened their eyes to understand and he went on to say, ‘Thus it was prophesied, proclaimed that the Christ had to suffer and be raised again and that repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name must be proclaimed to all the nations.’“
We see it in 1 Timothy. Perhaps the earliest confession of faith, maybe a psalm or a hymn of some kind. First Timothy 3:16. It says, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations.” There it is again.
We see it, of course, in Paul, not only here in Ephesians and Timothy, but in many other places. I love what he says at the end of Romans in Romans 15, where he’s writing to these people that he hadn’t been with before—to Rome—and he’s trying to explain all this about the gospel and Gentiles being brought in and so forth. Finally he starts quoting from the Old Testament to prove his point. And here he refers to a bunch of places in the Old Testament: Psalms and Isaiah and Deuteronomy. He says in Romans 15:8, “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written . . . .”
And he starts quoting these Old Testament passages about this mystery revealed: the gospel goes through all nations, to the Gentiles. “‘Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.’ And again it is said, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.’ And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.’ And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.’“
That’s the ultimate metanarrative that makes everything make sense in our own lives individually, in the stories of our institutions: God is at work.The theme is there over and over and it’s there in the Book of Revelation. The vision of worship in heaven is described again and again as people there around the throne worshiping him from every tongue and tribe and people and nation on the earth. And then it ends, the end of Revelation, the new heavens and the new earth, perfected garden. The tree of life is there. It talks about the glory of the nations brought into it. It’s interesting. When it describes the tree of life, the leaves of the tree of life, the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of what? The healing of the nations.
That’s the theme, that’s the ultimate metanarrative that makes everything make sense in our own lives individually, in the stories of our institutions: God is at work. After Paradise lost he is preparing for a Paradise regained, a people to be part of his family from every tongue and tribe and nation on the earth. The question is, how do we fit in to his great story, his great plan?
One of the joys I have at my position at RTS is to see and hear about what the Lord is doing in so many different places around the world through our graduates. Just part of this story in our day of bringing people in from all these different tribes and nations into his family. Mike Milton, who will be taking over next June as our new chancellor, loves to break it up, talking about old Christendom and new Christendom and the next Christendom.
God Is at Work in the Old Christendom
Old Christendom: Europe and North America. There are so many places, particularly in Europe, where things are dead and dying spiritually and yet other places where the Lord is at work. One of our grads from our Atlanta campus started an RUF in Athens. And that’s not Athens, Georgia. That’s Athens, Greece.
We had others working around different places in Europe. One of the lighthouses for the gospel and Reformed faith in Scotland right now is Highland Theological College. One of their academic deans is one of our grads from here.
There are places that are dead and dying, it seems, and yet the Lord is at work.But where it’s happening is in Eastern Europe. It’s just amazing what the gospel is doing over there in the former places of the Soviet Union. Some of our professors and students have been involved so much, in the Ukraine, for instance.
But it’s not just over there. It’s here in this country. There are places that are dead and dying, it seems, and yet the Lord is at work. If you pick up the latest issue of our magazine, you’ll see about what the Lord is doing in that place of concrete, spiritually, in New England. It’s just so hard, and we’ve got a bunch of grads up there doing great work. Mike Meldrum, when he was up there last year, said their goal together was 100 churches in 100 years because it’s so tough up there. And they knew they wouldn’t see it, but they trusted that what they do now would lead to that in the years to come, to reclaim that area for the gospel, the burned over district.
On the other hand, one of our grads in the spring is in San Diego, doing a great work in downtown San Diego. Their goal is 100 churches just in the San Diego area in the next 30 years.
And then here in Jackson, Mississippi, the churches that have been revived, churches that are growing, the different ministries. I’m so encouraged about Elbert McGowan and what he’s doing over at Jackson State and some of the other opportunities that we’re continuing to grow in to serve the African-American community here in Mississippi. There are good things going. That’s part of the story of God at work, bringing people from every tongue and tribe and nation into his family and preparing them for glory.
God Is Also at Work in the New Christendom (Global South)
But not only in old Christendom, but in new Christendom, too. That’s the Global South. There are more Christians, as you know, in the Global South than in the Global North now. Christianity is growing amazingly in Africa and South America and parts of Asia. And often it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. One of the things they say they need is more leadership and help so that they don’t fall into some of the heresies of the past, and we’re doing what we can to help them. But it is exciting.
I think of many of our grads all over Central and South America. Andres Garza, one of our grads who’s in Monterrey, Mexico, and for the first time with MTW (Mission to the World), someone who’s a native of the area is head of an MTW team. And that’s one of our grads.
We’re in Africa, and all the connections, particularly this campus, has with African Bible College and the places there. There are so many Anglicans that have come over here to study have gone back to places like Uganda. I get so tickled and I know you do too that bishops of these places around the world declaring the American Episcopal church apostate and sending the Anglican mission to America to start churches.
There’s a lot of places around the world where Presbyterians are more conservative than the Presbyterians in this country, and most of them too send missionaries here.
Then Asia. What’s happened in Korea over the last century—most Christian country in Asia—just thrilling. And China, you know, when the missionaries were kicked out, communists took over, they estimate maybe a million Christians in China. For years, we didn’t know what happened to them. Were they all wiped out? And now not only did we find out that they grew, the estimate now is maybe at least 100 million Christians in China.
The Lord Is at Work in the Next Christendom
The Lord is at work for his ultimate story of bringing people into his family from every tongue and tribe a nation on the earth. Not just old Christendom and new Christendom, but in the next Christendom. Nations of Islam, nations controlled by Buddhism, Hinduism, perhaps the Shinto religion in Japan. They are going to become Christians too. The Lord says he is going to bring people into his family from every tongue and tribe and nation on the earth. It’s just a matter of time and when and what the Lord is going to use. He’s going to bring them in.
The Lord says he is going to bring people into his family from every tongue and tribe and nation on the earth. It’s just a matter of time and when and what the Lord is going to use.That’s the next question. Perhaps the Lord is going to use some of us in those areas, and he is using some of us. It’s amazing to think about what’s going on even in Japan in connection with this tsunami and some of the doors that have been opened, and you’ve read about some of our grads working there.
So I’m working in India, Malaysia, heavy Buddhist area, other places like that where particularly in the Islamic countries, I don’t know what’s going to happen with this Arab Spring movement, but I know some of what’s going on underneath. It’s amazing what the Lord is doing.
I was talking a little bit ahead of time about Indonesia, the largest Muslim population country in the world. Fourth largest population country in the world and 85 percent Muslim, so more Muslims there than Iran and Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Egypt put together. Yet the gospel is strong there. The Christian church, 8 to 10 percent, maybe something like that. The Reformed church is especially strong. And when I visited there the first time a few years ago, I couldn’t forget it out until it finally hit me: it was a Dutch colony for 300 years, so you had all that Dutch Calvinism that was there. They overthrew the colonialism, but there was still a receptivity to Reformed theology. It’s amazing. And there are maybe a half dozen seminaries there started or led by some of our graduates, some natives who’ve gone back, and others who are Western missionaries there. A couple of these seminaries have a couple hundred students each. They’re not tiny things. And so, by God’s grace, we’re going to be more involved over there, and we’re starting a Doctor of Ministry program in Indonesia in January.
It’s not just there. Even some of those places in the Middle East that are much harder, the gospel is at work. We’re involved with World Reformed Fellowship, and some of our people are going to be doing a conference in Turkey in November with primarily Muslim background believers gathering to ask, what do we do? They’re coming from all of those countries to reach out to more with the gospel. How can we help them?
One of our graduates who is from Iran, Sasan Tavassoli, he has a ministry to Persians outside of Iran, as well as to the Iranian people themselves. I saw him in Atlanta this spring. I was there at our Atlanta campus. He wanted to bring somebody to meet me. He brought with him a couple who had just escaped from Iran and gotten approval to come to this country as refugees. The man was a pediatrician there. The wife was a linguist. They had a sixteen-year-old son. They wanted to bring him, get him settled in this country, and then they want to go back. This man was an elder in the Presbyterian Church in Iran.
And I asked how they could go back. They said, he wanted to study some at RTS before he goes back. And that was right when it was all the revolts in Egypt. The next week it went to Libya and so forth. And so I asked him, I said, “What do you think about it?” They said, “We’re hopeful. We think it’s young people looking for opportunity and freedom. And the Muslim Brotherhood could, you know, take it over and that kind of stuff. But we think it’s genuine. And we read the signs and so on.” I asked the next logical question: “Do you hope this will spread—this revolution type stuff—will spread to Iran?” And they all hesitated and they all said, “No.”
I asked, “Why not?” They said, “Well, in a way, we’d like for our people to have more freedom. On the other hand, because of the oppressive Muslim regime in Iran right now, there are so many Muslims becoming Christians that the pastors cannot keep up with the converts. And we’re afraid if we have a revolution, that that will just change what’s going on there and people will be interested in their freedom. We’re not sure we want that.”
They don’t want it because the gospel is spreading so much underground there in Iran. The Lord is at work. Aslan is on the move. The lion of the tribe of Judah, the lamb of God, is at work. And his ultimate plan is to use us, you and me, even through our trials and heartaches and difficulties and the ups and downs of our lives and our ministries and our organizations and our schools and institutions and churches. He’s still at work, and he will accomplish his plan and his purpose in his time and use even our ups and downs for that purpose and for his glory: bringing people into his family from every tongue and tribe and nation and preparing them for glory.
We’re not going to sing this hymn, but the words are there at the back of your program. “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does its successive journeys run, his kingdom spread from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more. To him shall endless prayer be made, and praises throng to crown his head. His name, like sweet perfume, shall rise with every morning sacrifice. People and realms of every tongue dwell on his love with sweetest song.”
Praise be to God. Let’s pray together.