(Originally published March 13, 2017)
This week we begin our study of the book of Ephesians with a hard gallop through the entire first chapter. Hopefully the truths in this precious chapter will be written large enough to read as we pass by. There are deep wells of doctrine and encouragement to be found here, and we will pause for refreshment as we come to them. So, giddy-up and hang on!
Beginning with Paul’s introduction of himself in the opening verse of the letter, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God,” our first question asks us to read the account of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-19, (at that time called Saul) and explain how he can claim to be an apostle—one who is sent— “by the will of God.”
The account begins with Paul, ‘still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.’ Paul is clearly not a ‘seeker’ of Christ. He is on a search and destroy mission, with hopes of wiping out this new sect of believers who are polluting, so he believes, the true religion handed down by the prophets. His plans come to a halt, however, when the Lord Jesus appears to him in a blinding light, knocking Paul from his horse and rendering him blind. In an audible voice, the Lord tells him that his persecutions aimed at Christians are striking at him, Jesus, and he is to go into Damascus to await further orders. When the Lord calls upon the believer, Ananias, to go and pray for Paul, he hesitates, knowing who Paul is and what he has done to his fellow believers. The Lord answered him with the astonishing revelation that, “[Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”
Paul did not seek this calling from God; God chose him.
Our second question draws our attention to the theology that Paul includes even in his greetings. Let’s not skim over this and miss the fact that there’s already “good stuff” to learn right from the beginning. In verse 2, we are greeted with,” Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Far from being a thrown-in nicety, Paul is giving us two of the main themes of his letter to the Ephesians. Grace and peace could be the main headings in an outline of the book. In chapters 1 through 3 we will marvel at God’s grace, and in chapters 4 through 6 we will learn how, based on that grace, we are to live lives of peace.
In his Expository Commentary on Ephesians, Richard D. Phillips writes, “Peace is the great need of mankind. Our problem is that there is no peace because of sin. This pertains first to our relationship with God.” (Richard D. Phillips, Ephesians, a Mentor Expository Commentary, Christian Focus Publications, 2016, p. 4) The peace which is available to us through the gospel has both a positive and a negative side. The negative is the removal of the hostility that existed between rebellious creatures and the God who created them. We are never neutral in our relationship with God; because of our own sin, we are his enemies. Elsewhere in Ephesians Paul describes us before we are saved as ‘children of wrath’ (2:3).
The positive side of this peace from God is the blessedness and harmony which is made possible only through the gospel. Jesus assured his followers of this as he celebrated his final Passover meal with them in the upper room, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). In Christ, and only in him, the hostility is removed so we may have peace with God and be drawn into a relationship of mutual love with him.
And once we have peace with God, we are able to live at peace with other believers and extend this peace to those around us, being salt and light to an unbelieving world, pointing them to the only source of peace, our Savior, Jesus Christ. This peace is the secret ingredient to truly obeying the first and second greatest commandments to Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.
Furthermore, the peace from God which surpasses understanding is the great need for believers undergoing trial and pain.
“Peace comes through submission to the Almighty by faith in the Savior who removes the hostility and sends God’s Spirit of peace… even in the midst of hostility [from the world], turmoil and tragedy, Christians can have peace (Phil. 4:6-7).” (Richard D. Phillips, p. 5)
Understanding that we need peace from God, how do we find this peace? By God’s grace alone is such peace made possible.
“Grace is the good pleasure of God that inclines him to bestow benefits upon the undeserving. It is a self-existent principle inherent in the divine nature and appears to us as a self-caused propensity to pity the wretched, spare the guilty, welcome the outcast, and bring into favor those who were before under just disapprobation.” (A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, San Francisco: Harper, 1992, p. 145-146)
Before God invaded our hearts by his grace, we were wretched, guilty, outcast, and justly under the disapprobation of God. (Disapprobation means disapproval; condemnation. I looked it up.) “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved!” (Eph. 2:4, bold, underlined italics and exclamation point mine, and really, why not?!) And now, being saved by God’s grace, we may enjoy peace with God and from God, and we can share that peace with others.
In our third question, we are asked to read through verses 4-10 and note what God has done for us.
‘even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love, he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ (Ephesians 1: 4-10)
This is densely-packed doctrine, and all of it regarding what God has unilaterally done for us:
The Father has chosen us, with the purpose of making us holy and blameless.
In love, the Father predestined us for adoption as his own sons (and daughters).
The Father has blessed us with his glorious grace in the Beloved, that is, in Christ.
Christ redeemed us by his blood, thus making possible the forgiveness of our sins.
The Father lavishes his grace upon us.
The Father makes known to us the mystery of his will.
In Christ, this will has been set forth as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him.
Reading a bit further we discover that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, which serves to guarantee our inheritance until we acquire possession of it (vs. 13-14) (more about this later in the lesson). I’m sure that we could parse these further and find even more blessings from this passage to add to our list, but this is still quite a list! Look carefully through this list and discern, if you can, which of these you applied for. Did you ask for any of this? As Paul will teach us in the first verse of the next chapter, there is no way we could have asked for this because we were dead, and dead people don’t ask for anything.
I included the blessings of verses 13-14 to highlight the Trinitarian aspect of our salvation. The blessings of salvation come to us by the work of all three members of the Trinity. God the Father ordains our salvation, all the way back before the beginning of time; Christ the Son accomplishes our salvation at a specific place and time, crucified in Judea by Pontius Pilate on a Roman cross; and the Holy Spirit applies our salvation when we believe the gospel of salvation. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working in unity to bring about the mystery of God’s will, to unite all things in him.
Look again at the list in verses 4-10. What attitude of heart are we told God has toward us? “In love” God set about saving us by predestining us for salvation. God didn’t save us coldly, to prove a point; or grudgingly, against his will; but lovingly, because God is love and he chose to set his love upon us, unworthy as we were. ‘See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are’ (1 John 3:1). Knowing and believing this, how are we to respond? As we will learn when we reach Ephesians chapter 4, Paul breaks down in very practical ways how we are to live now in the peace we enjoy with God through his grace. Yet every Presbyterian knows the answer in a nutshell is the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q.1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Notice also that the ways in which God has blessed us span all time: eternity past, present, and future. We are chosen for salvation and predestined for adoption before the foundation of the world; we are adopted, redeemed, and forgiven of our sins now; and in the fullness of time all things will be united in him.
Moving along, in verses 11-14 Paul tells us:
‘In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.’
And now we get to that guarantee that we will receive the full inheritance promised to us. Paul describes it as being “sealed” by the Holy Spirit. To help us better grasp what this means, Richard D. Phillips writes in his commentary that there are at least four purposes of a seal: to authenticate something as genuine and true, as a seal on a passport; to mark an object as one’s property, as in branding cattle; to render something secure; and to complete a business transaction, as in “sealing the deal.” “Through the Spirit then, believers are authenticated; we are marked as belonging to Christ; and we are secured and protected from things that might separate us from God; and our redemption is completed, the ransom price has been paid and accepted by God” (P. 76).
Do you see the assurance this gives those who are in Christ that they will never be forgotten or abandoned, that they cannot slip through God’s fingers and be lost? This God who promises us an inheritance, and to guarantee it seals us with the Holy Spirit is he ‘who works all things according to the counsel of his will.’ Our wise and loving God decided it, and in his omnipotent power he will work it out. The power away from which we would have to be wrested is the power which created the entire universe. God decided to save us, by his power he does so, and his Spirit guarantees that we will reach the promised land.
From verses 3 to 14 we have read three times the phrase, ‘to the praise of his glory.’ What does it mean to live ‘to the praise of his glory?’ We have already learned that it is by his grace that we are saved, let us now consider, ever so briefly, why God’s grace is glorious.
God’s grace reveals to us his love and mercy. His love moved him to mercifully extend grace to sinful people who reviled, spat upon, and crucified his Son. Even so, his grace brought us forgiveness and redemption rather than condemnation and rejection. God’s glorious love made sinners into beloved children. When Christians turn and show this same love to the world around us, responding with grace when we are insulted or wronged, God is glorified.
God’s grace achieves what is otherwise impossible: bringing the dead to life—in Christ. Our greatest needs were life and freedom from the bondage to sin and these are met only by God’s grace. In salvation, dead sinners are made alive in Christ, born again into the family of God. But there is a difficulty even greater than raising the dead to life which God overcomes to save us. As Richard D. Phillips explains,
“Greater yet is the problem within God himself that must be overcome for us to be saved. God overcomes the inflexible demands of his own perfect justice; God’s changeless and holy character stands against the salvation of sinners, and God’s grace is glorified in finding a way to satisfy his own judgement through the sacrifice of his sinless Son. Here is the wisdom, here is the victory, into which even angels long to look (1 Pet. 1:12), that God may remain just and yet justify sinners through faith in Jesus Christ.” (p. 39)
And finally, for our purposes here, the effects of God’s grace on creatures made new in his image are glorious. Those who were dead in their trespasses come alive in Christ, put off their old corrupted selves and, renewed in their mind put on new selves made after the likeness of God. Enemies of God become imitators of God, as beloved children. Troubled hearts are soothed by the peace of God, Fearful hearts are emboldened, and hearts formerly filled with anger and hate are flooded with love and mercy. This is glorious indeed.
“Ephesians 1:6 tells us how great is the matter of our salvation and how significant it is to God himself. How typical it is for us to think of salvation only in terms of our own emotional and spiritual experience, or merely in terms of a certain lifestyle as an end in itself. But ultimately, we find here, our salvation is not about us; God saved us with a higher motive than just our blessing. Do you realize what a solid ground this is for assurance? If we are in Christ by faith, our ultimate salvation is as certain as is God’s purpose to bring glory to himself through the praise of his marvelous grace! … God has so arranged salvation as to bring us the highest possible blessing, and himself the highest possible praise, both of which result only through the glory of his grace.” (Richard D. Phillips, p. 41-42)
As we live lives being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, loving the Father and imitating the Son, showing forth God’s love to a lost and hurting world, denying ourselves and taking up his cross, we are trophies of his grace. This is what it means to live to the praise of his glorious grace.
Moving on, we reach Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians beginning in verse 15. What motivates him to pray for them? The answer isn’t as straightforward as it first appears. Paul begins by saying, “For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers…” (vs. 15-16). If his opening phrase, “for this reason” is looking forward, then their faith and love are his motivation. If, however, “for this reason” is another way to say, “therefore,” he is looking back at all that he has just said about the glorious grace of God in their salvation, and that is his motive for praying. Or, perhaps, it is a bit of both.
“‘For this reason,’ he begins, pointing back to the whole of what he had taught in verses 3-14. The emphasis of that teaching was on God’s sovereign grace in salvation… Knowing that God is sovereign over salvation and having heard of their faith in the Lord Jesus and… love toward all the saints’ (Eph. 1:15), Paul prays to give God thanks for them.” (Richard D. Phillips, p. 94).
In his prayer, Paul tells the Ephesians what he is praying for them, and why he is praying for them. What he prays is that God the Father ‘may give [them] a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,” and that they would have “the eyes of [their] hearts enlightened.” Why? “that [they] might know the hope to which [God] has called [them], what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints [them!], and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power towards us who believe” (vs. 17-19).
This is a beautiful and powerful prayer to pray for any believer. One of the blessings that I have found in memorizing the book of Ephesians is that when I pray for others, if I have no specific request from them, this prayer rises in my heart and I can pray, as Paul did, for those things which are most needful for every believer. To know—really know— the solidly genuine hope to which one has been called by our Creator and Redeemer transforms a timid and fearful believer into one who is confident in God’s promises. To know the riches of the glorious inheritance that awaits us loosens our grip on the passing pleasures of this world and melts away the worries and fears about how much or how little we possess as we look forward to our eternal home with him. And those who grasp the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe are strengthened with an unshakeable assurance in their salvation.
The power which God is working in us is the very power by which he raised Christ from the dead, victorious over the grave, and then exalted him above all things to seat him in Divinely Royal dignity on his throne in Heaven at the Father’s right hand. This is the power that raised us to life from death in our trespasses! This is the power that is now working in us to make us holy! And this is the power which will not let us go, and will surely bring us home to Heaven, safely in his embrace.
Take the time to re-read the chapter and pause over each mention of who we are “in Christ.” This is your identity if you are a Christian, and knowing this will significantly impact your life of faith and your walk with the Lord. May our lives reflect his mercy and love, to the praise of his glorious grace.