In this week’s study of Ephesians chapter 2, we are first plunged to the depths of the darkness of human nature before being raised by the grace and mercy of the Father into the light of his love by two of the simplest, yet most profound words of the gospel: ‘But God.’ In this we will see the past, present, and future realities of all who place their faith in Christ for salvation. We each have individual stories, but once it’s boiled down, we who are in Christ share the same basic history and are headed together on the same path toward the same glorious destination.
We begin by reading through Ephesians 2:1-10, examining the portrait Paul is painting of those who are ‘dead in transgressions and sins.’ Along with the parallel passage in Colossians 3, we are asked, “What things characterize this life?”
‘Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices…’ (Colossians 3:5-9)
Before Christ saved us, our lives were characterized by spiritual death and running full-throttle after the world, the flesh, and the devil. The Reformed doctrine of sin describes unregenerate mankind as ‘totally depraved.’ This does not mean that we are as totally bad as we could be, unleashing every evil we can act out. This means that every aspect of ourselves is affected by the Fall. Our minds, our wills, our entire nature is fallen, dead to God.
‘This is the Bible’s teaching about men and women in sin. We are not well, not even sick, but spiritually dead. Paul does not mean that we lack biological life: we still walk, talk, eat, drink, and work. But doing all this in the realm of sin, we are dead to the things of God.
We know someone is dead because he no longer responds to stimuli. We talk to him but he does not answer. We touch him and he does not move. This is the way people who are spiritually dead respond to God and his word: they have no comprehension, even when the Bible is taught; when the gospel offer is made, they do not respond.’ [Richard D. Phillips, Ephesians, a Mentor Expository Commentary, (Christian Focus Publications; 2016), p. 133]
The gospel is bad news before it is good news. Before an individual can hear the good news, she must accept the bad news that she is a sinner, justly under the wrath of a Holy God, unable to lift a finger to save herself, without hope, and headed for Hell. Without Christ I am dead, dead, dead. In fact, while I am dead, I can’t even know that I’m dead.
Don’t stay there; keep reading.
‘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— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.’ (Ephesians 2:4-7)
In these two small words, we read of the glorious grace, the riches of mercy, and the unfathomable love of God. Simply put, ‘These two words in and of themselves contain the whole of the gospel.’ [D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, God’s Way of Reconciliation: Studies in Ephesians, Chapter 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker; 1972), 59.]
What can we learn about God’s character from these verses? In these we see his sovereignty, mercy, grace, and kindness. We also learn of his holiness, justice, wisdom, and love. He saved us because of his great love for us. But how can sinners justly deserving the wrath of a holy God hope for forgiveness? In his commentary, Richard D. Phillips quotes the great Puritan theologian, John Owen:
‘To see Christ…beloved of the Father, fear and tremble, bow and sweat, pray and die; to see him lifted up on the cross, the earth trembling beneath him as if unable to bear his weight; to see the heavens darkened over him…and to see that all this is because of our sins is to see clearly the holy justice and wrath of God against sin. Supremely in Christ do we learn this great truth that God hates sin and judges it with a dreadful and fearful punishment.’ [John Owen, Communion With God (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 82, 83.]
Even when we were dead in our trespasses—when we were an offensive stench in his nostrils— ‘because of the great love with which he loved us,’ God sovereignly reached down and plucked us from our graves. He not only plucks us from death and makes us alive, but he unites us to Christ and raises us up with him and seats us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
‘Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.’ (Psalm 113:5-8)
The precondition necessary for being raised up and seated with Christ is nothing that we do, but the grace of God working in us to fundamentally change us. We who were dead have been made alive in Christ. The theological term for this is regeneration. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
This is the significance of grace. When Paul says that we are saved by grace and then goes on to explain that it is the gift of God, not a result of works, he is driving home the point that we cannot possibly hope to earn this salvation for ourselves. Grace, by definition, is free and unmerited favor, not fairly earned wages. Re-read the John Owen quote above. If there was any other way for sinners to be saved Christ would not have gone to the cross; the Son of God would not have needed to die. We who were dead have been made alive by the gift of God’s grace, therefore our only boast is in the Lord, for our salvation is all of him and nothing of us. Augustus Toplady grasped the significance of grace when he penned his glorious hymn, Rock of Ages, in 1776, two verses of which sing:
Not the labor of my hands Can fulfill Thy law’s demands; Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow, All for sin could not atone; Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to the cross I cling; Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless look to Thee for grace; Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Once he has made clear that we have been saved by no works of our own and are new creatures in Christ, Paul writes that God has prepared works for us to do. These are not meritorious acts designed to increase our favor with God and get into some super-spiritual ‘inner-circle.’ These are works of faith and obedience which we were incapable of doing while dead, but now that we are alive in Christ we are able to freely and joyfully obey the Lord. As James says, ‘What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?’ (James 2:14) He then goes on to lay a carefully reasoned argument that genuine faith shows itself in the life of a believer by the works that he does, not only by the words he speaks, boldly asserting, ‘Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works’ (vs. 18). As far as what these works might be, Paul will discuss them at length in chapters 4 to 6 of Ephesians—stay tuned.
Moving on to verses 11-22, Paul lays out a ‘Before-and-After’ contrast which is true for every Believer in Christ, but specifically for the Gentiles who historically had been the heathen nations apart from chosen Israel. Before we were regenerated in Christ, our situation was dire: we were, ‘separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’ (vs. 11) After we were made alive, however, we, ‘have been brought near by the blood of Christ… no longer strangers and aliens, but [we] are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God’ (vs. 13,19) [italics mine]
God’s solution to the plight of the Gentiles is the solution for every Believer: the blood of Christ which cleanses us from all our sins. This does not indicate a change in God’s plan for the Gentiles. Rather, it indicates a change in the Gentiles according to God’s plan. This is the plan first revealed by God to Abraham way back in Genesis 12, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (vs. 3). We are directed to the prophets for more Old Testament clues to this mystery:
‘It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:2-4)
“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 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 all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:6,7)
‘At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart.’ (Jeremiah 3:17)
It was there all along: God’s plan to save the Gentiles.
The theme of verses 14-18 is peace. Jesus himself is our peace; he has made us both one (unity = peace); he created one new man in place of the two, so making peace; and he reconciled us both (made peace) to God. Christ did all this peacemaking for us through the cross; he killed the hostility; and he preached peace to those far off and those who were near.
In the midst of all this peacemaking, Paul mentions that Jesus did this by ‘abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Is he contradicting what he wrote in Romans 3:31?
‘Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.’ (Rom. 3:31)
To answer this, let’s turn once more to what Richard D. Phillips writes in his commentary:
‘When Paul says Jesus abolished the law, he does not mean the moral law, such as the Ten Commandments, which expresses God’s character. Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them’ (Matt. 5:17). Likewise, God’s people today are to obey God’s moral law. But we are no longer to uphold those temporary regulations that separated Jews from Gentiles and protected God’s people from contact with unbelievers’ (p. 213).
As an example of this, note in the book of Acts, when Peter was praying on the rooftop and saw the vision of a sheet coming down from heaven with all kinds of animals, clean and unclean, and a voice told him, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter resisted, and the voice came again, saying, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:9-15) This was the precursor to God sending Peter to preach the gospel to a Gentile household. The dividing wall of separation was torn down. Phillips goes on to explain how this applies to Christians today:
‘This is a vital matter today, when too many Christians think holiness is about checking out of the culture. Many Christians think they are being holy if they have no non-Christian friends, if they enjoy only Christian entertainment, if they have nothing to do with their neighbors or treat their unbelieving co-workers as unclean. But Christ’s death has freed God’s people from the juvenile bonds of such legalism; we are now to go out into the world, being in the world but not of it, as the salt that preserves it from death and the light that shines in the darkness’ (p. 213).
Our next question in the study focuses on verse 18, where Paul tells us that we, through Christ, have access to the Father. What does this mean and what difference does it make for our day-to-day lives? Access to the Father as a beloved child, who has been adopted through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of the Father’s will, means that we don’t need to wait for a ceremonial occasion to travel to the temple, we don’t need to bring the carcasses of animals for sacrifice, we don’t even need to filter our audience with God through a priest. As his children, we have the privilege of coming to him when we need, as we are, to lisp and stutter our own requests directly to him.
Last week the internet was brought to its knees in delight as an expert on East Asia who lives in South Korea was being interviewed for live BBC broadcast from his home office. As he is discussing the weighty matters of South Korean politics his adorable daughter dances into the room, followed by her little brother in his walker. Mom soon followed, sliding into the room in a panic to save her husband’s interview, but the moment was captured live and immortalized across the web. I found a follow-up article written by Russ Ramsey which relates to this idea of access that we’re discussing here. I love how he makes this connection:
‘They are just people—a humble, funny, intelligent couple raising little children who could not care less about the BBC, politics in South Korea, or how important dad’s job is. For the children in the video, those things might as well not even exist. All they see is dad, and all they want is a piece of his attention. And you can see it on the dad’s face that he wants to give it, even as he and his wife valiantly try to recover the moment so he can finish his thought on live television about the political climate of East Asia.
A while back, Tim Keller wrote, “The only person who dares wake up a king at 3:00 AM for a glass of water is a child.”
This video is a picture of that. For the dad, access to being on live TV required a lot—years of school, practice talking on camera, and immersion in culture and politics. For the children, on the other hand, access to their father is no trouble at all. They just dance right in.’ [Russ Ramsey, http://rabbitroom.com/2017/03/those-kids-still-have-no-idea/]
We, the adopted children of God, have this access, in one Spirit, to our Father in heaven, because we have been brought near by the blood of Christ. We may enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! (Psalm 100:4)
Paul finishes the chapter with imagery which helps us to grasp the unity of the people who are saved in Christ. We aren’t just a bunch of individuals walking separate, if parallel paths, to the same ultimate destination. We are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (vs. 22). Paul draws upon many metaphors in his writings to help us understand heavenly concepts, and this is one of them. Paul also uses the plural form of “you” in his letters to the churches. So, what we see in this metaphor of being built into a holy temple is that even though we may each be an individual brick, we all have a place in the church and we are each needed to make the structure complete. We need one another, and God places us where he knows best.
We also read that this holy temple of which we are a part is built upon the firm foundation of the apostles and the prophets. This is Paul’s shorthand for referring us back to the written Word of God delivered to us now in the shape of the Old Testament, as well as the written Word which would become the New Testament. Our foundation is not shifted by the winds of change or the cultural mood. The church is built upon the solid foundation of the Scriptures which we are blessed to have available in our own language, can read for ourselves, and is preached from the pulpits of gospel-teaching churches worldwide.
Though we live in an individualistic society and a culture which encourages us to march to the beat of our own drum, what Paul writes in Ephesians calls for us to live in a radically different way. As we will see the deeper we dive into Ephesians, we are called to live in unity with other Christians. As our identity now is rooted in Christ, and our future home in Heaven will be populated by all those for whom Christ died, so we are to live in unity with one another, loving and serving together, for the praise of God’s glorious grace. Jesus may have abolished the regulations that separated Jew from Gentile, but in doing so, he replaced them with a better commandment:
‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”’ (John 13:34, 35)
Loving one another is the command, serving one another is part of it, and these ends are both better accomplished within our own churches when we actually know one another. This requires more than showing up for Church on Sunday morning, smiling and nodding at our fellow congregants in the pew. When we spend time together, praying with and for one another, laughing and weeping with one another, doing life together, that’s when we begin to truly know one another.
As we studied through the book of Joshua we read a lot about warfare. We Christians are still at war, and we need to be in the trenches together, supporting one another in fighting against the triple threat of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The vulnerability which is required for this trench warfare may be terrifying at first, but as we stand arm-in-arm together against our common foes, it becomes beautiful. Together, in Christ, we are the church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against us.