With the anticipated arrival of summer in the northern hemisphere, the Word on Wednesday will offer a series of reflections on the Letter to the Ephesians entitled, ‘Summer Growth’. The substance of the Letter goes to the heart of quintessential Christianity and plumbs the depths of biblical truth, providing riches that shape the mind and warm the heart.
The Letter was written to be read in churches in the region of ancient Asia Minor, modern Turkey, starting with the church in Ephesus. It may be helpful to imagine yourself sitting in church with the first eager listeners when the wonders of this Letter unfolded – after all we are members of the same family.
Consider the opening lines: Paul, an envoy of Christ Jesus by the will of God – commissioned through God’s decision – to the holy ones in Ephesus – regular people whose lives were separated from God through sin, and who are now walking a new life of faith in Christ. Grace to you and peace – being reconciled with God, may the rich kindness and favor of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ rest on your minds and hearts.
Then in one long sentence, from verses 3 through 14, we are drawn into God’s awe-inspiring presence and cosmic plan – a plan that reveals the extraordinary grace of the triune God.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the realm of spiritual realities – Paul begins. He continues by breaking out what this looks like – in terms of God’s pre-cosmic plans for his people which includes their redemption and remission of their sins in Christ (verses 4-6), and their inheritance in Christ (verse 11), a relationship and hope that is sealed by the Spirit of God (verses 13f).
The theme of God’s grace is palpable, dominating the whole scene. God is the subject of almost every main verb: It is he who has blessed us … ’; He has freely bestowed upon us his grace (verse 6); He has made known his will and purpose which he set forth in Christ… to unite all things’ (verses 9f); He accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will (verse 11).
Contrary to a stereotyped view, the God of the Bible delights in giving life, is kind and generous, warm-hearted and loving – so different from the impersonal Force of Star Wars and the cold-blooded, ruthless rule of human dictatorships.
How easy it is to nod sagely at Paul’s words and yet fail to consider their substance, especially what they teach us about God’s grace. In verses 5 through 8 we learn what that grace cost God: He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
God’s glory is revealed in his grace, his extraordinary love for the unworthy: and despite what we like to think, none of us is worthy. And that glorious grace is supremely seen in the costly death of his Son.
At the turn of the 5th century AD, Pelagius, a popular preacher, challenged the immorality of his day and urged people to live pure lives. His preaching seemed biblical until the north African theologian and bishop, Augustine, began to review his teaching. He pointed out that Pelagius was saying that it was only through ‘right living’ that we had any hope of eternal life – in other words, our hope of eternal life lay in using God as the one who sells us heaven.
Augustine rightly commented that the Bible teaches that we are designed to love, but the tragedy is that we have turned love in on itself – from loving God to loving self. Our hearts need to be changed – something we can’t do ourselves.
In our western world today there’s a culture of victimhood that blames the ills of the world on others. Underlying it all is the rejection of any sense of my personal failure. It’s what happens when self-love dominates. And, if there is life after death, most people reckon that they’re good enough to make it.
Tragically, many professing Christians and churches have not grasped the reality of the meaning of God’s grace. They tell us Christianity is about love, but the focus is on loving one’s neighbour and caring about the injustices of the world. They have no vocabulary for the cost of God’s grace that required Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. In turn they don’t have a ministry or a liturgy that calls for repentance for sins and the assurance of God’s forgiveness.
God’s plan is to build a vibrant, new community of forgiven people. Eleven times we read the phrase, in Christ or in him. And in verses 9 & 10 we learn that God’s ultimate plan is to bring everything and everyone under the rule of Christ.
Assurance. Having believed, you were marked in him (in Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit, guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession— to the praise of his glory.
God seals us as his own by putting his Spirit within us. Long before, he had promised his people that he would take up residence with them (Jeremiah 31:31ff). Ephesians is now telling us that the presence of God’s Spirit within us is a down-payment on our future inheritance.
When one day I am asked why I should be given entrance into God’s presence, I will ask that the Book of Life be checked. The presence of the Holy Spirit within me now, assures me that my name will be found in the great Register of God’s people – listed as an adopted son of the Father, signed in by Jesus Christ, embossed with the great seal of the Holy Spirit of God.
It is with humble, heart-felt thankfulness for the humility of our great and wonderful, all-glorious and loving God, that I look forward to that day with joy, because he has honored me with a part in his epic story.
A prayer. Lord God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: mercifully accept our prayers, and because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do nothing good without you, grant us the help of your grace, so that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in word and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.