Our Soveriegn Praiseworthy God
May 14, 2006
The last time I preached, our text was Ephesians 2:1-10, and we looked at what Paul had written about how God sovereignly saves, and He does this not based on the works of the one who is saved, but only on the basis of His kindness and mercy and love and grace. I preached from that text because it went so well with the series that Phil was in at the time in Titus, but I said then that it would be so much better if we could begin at chapter 1, verse 1 of this great book and see even more clearly the basis for Paul's teaching on salvation. And so here we are. I figure that as I have opportunity to preach, it would be a good thing to begin with Ephesians.
This Epistle, or letter, has been called "the quintessence of Paulinism" (F.F. Bruce), "the crown and climax of Pauline Theology" (John Mackay), "the queen of the epistles" (William Barclay), and "the divinest composition of man" (Samuel Taylor Coleridge). In this letter, Paul uses what language he can to attempt to unfold the "mysteries of God," speaking of election, adoption as sons, union with Christ, predestination, the making of a new man from both Jews and Gentiles, and the reconciliation of that man to God. Based on those mysteries, he then exhorts all believers with the clearest language to live a life "worthy of the calling with which they have been called," to "lay aside the old self," to "be imitators of God," for wives to "submit to your own husbands as to the Lord," for husbands to "love your wives just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her," for children to "obey your parents in the Lord for this is right," for fathers to "not provoke your children to anger," and for all of us to "put on the full armor of God." He covers much of the credenda and agenda of the church in this relatively small letter.
To have so much packed into these six chapters must make this a handy tool when one wants to know what a Christian believes. And that is why I have titled this series, The Theocentric Worldview. Theocentric means "God-centered." There are many who are called Christians in today's world that are far from being theocentric. They may be anthropocentric (man-centered), material-centric, purpose-driven-centric, but they are mostly self-centric. Their conception of the Gospel has been altered to make them the center of it, their conception of the church has been altered to make them the center of it, and even their conception of eternal life has them at the center of it. But if we look at the Scriptural view of things, this cannot be. Specifically, as we look at the book of Ephesians, we cannot make the mistake of being self-centered or any-other-centered other than God-centered. Paul begins with this worldview, and he will end with it, and all that is in between is full of a high view of God.
But before we can look at the letter as a whole and relish the divine truths found therein, we must begin at verse 1, and it is here that we begin to see Paul's, and Scripture as a whole's, theocentric worldview, focusing in the first four verses on the sovereignty and praiseworthiness of God. To gain a good understanding of the context, let us read 1:1-14.
1:1-2: The Humble Greeting of a God-Centered Apostle
Paul begins this letter with a typical format for a letter in the first century A.D. He states who he is, to whom he is writing, and then gives a salutatory greeting to them. But, as in other early Christian letters, this is not your typical Greco-Roman greeting. It has been Christianized.
1:1a - Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God...
Paul does begin by stating who he is and what he does, simply, "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus." We know the fact that Paul would be writing this letter is amazing. Paul, formerly, Saul, was the great persecutor of the church. He would travel from place to place, doing what he could to snuff out the every last existence of what he thought was a blasphemous group, claiming that God joined Himself with man, and that this man was the promised Messiah, who actually was killed, and who these madmen say came back to life and ascended into the heavens. This Paul, who was a "Hebrew of the Hebrews" and who had "advanced in Judaism beyond many of [his] contemporaries... being more extremely zealous for [his] ancestral traditions," who eventually was party to the murder of Stephen, a deacon full of the Spirit, and who "ravaged the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, putting them into prison," was now writing a letter as "an apostle of Christ Jesus." How could this be? You know the story well from Acts 9, no doubt, that this Paul, on his way to Damascus to round up more Christians for jail, was knocked down by a blinding light, and he heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?...I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." He was then instructed by Jesus to go into Damascus and wait for further instructions. He did, and thus the destroyer of the church became an apostle to the church, not by his own sudden change of heart, but by the power and grace of a sovereign God.
Paul recognized this was not of his own will, because he then goes on to qualify himself, as an apostle of Christ Jesus "by the will of God." And it is here that we begin to see the God-centered worldview that permeated and pulsed through the veins of this great apostle of Christ. He was not with Jesus from the beginning. He did not follow the footsteps of Jesus, like the other apostles. Paul was not there when he died, or even more, he was not there when Jesus was resurrected by the power of God and then appeared to the "rest" of the disciples. No, he was not even there to witness the ascension of Jesus to His Father. Where was he? He was doing all that he could to eradicate the bride of Christ. But, "as to one untimely born," Christ appeared also to him and commissioned him.
Paul was an apostle, one sent out by Christ. But Paul did not consider himself the author of his apostleship. In fact, it is because of his former life that he considered himself least of the apostles. "But by the grace of God I am what I am," Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:10. And here, in Ephesians 1:1, Paul points to the reason for his office as apostle - God's will. Saul did not care to be an apostle. He cared with everything in him to rid Israel of these troublemakers. But when God "willed," Saul changed. His former thoughts were no longer his thoughts. His former passions were no longer his passions. His former nature was no longer his nature. Saul was now Paul, and this only by the will of God. And notice that he doesn't focus on the fact of his apostleship, but on the how of His apostleship. It is because of his God-centered worldview that Paul seeks to show God as the pursuer of him, and as the establisher of his apostleship. Basically, Paul is saying that if I am where I am, it is because God has done it. Yes Paul worked; yes he toiled, yes he was imprisoned (even as he was writing this letter), but it was God who was working through him for the accomplishment of His purposes.
And we must remember, that if we are where we are, it is solely because of this selfsame sovereign God, who raises up kings and lowers them, who sends out apostles, and who has you where you are at this very moment. And His grace to you is not in vain. You are not too bad, or too lowly, or too unreachable for God to use you. In fact, you are the kind of person He tends to use the most. He specializes in the refurbishment of broken vessels, of which I am one, and you are one, and Paul was one. It is when we begin looking to this God as the King and Ruler that He is, that we begin to notice our understanding of ourselves and of our place in the world becoming more contrite and humble before this awe-some God.
And it is this Sovereign God who regenerated Paul and brought him to this position as an apostle of King Jesus that explains the next part of this peculiar greeting.
1:1b - ...to the saints who are in Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus...
Saints, in Ephesus? You've got to be kidding. This town that is the center of Asia Minor, a port town (and all that that implies)? The place of the temple of Artemis, where temple prostitution was rampant? Hundreds of miles away from the center of Christianity in Jerusalem? Can this be? Yes, it can. We see that Paul visited Ephesus in his 2nd and 3rd missionary journeys.
But this letter was likely not only written to Ephesus, as the earliest manuscripts leave out "in Ephesus." It was probably a circular letter to be passed among the churches in Asia Minor, as was Colossians. This fact adds even more to the catholicity of this letter. Paul was not only writing to specific situations that needed to be addressed in the church at Ephesus, but he was writing to "the Church," i.e. the mass of local churches, what he refers to as the saints and faithful.
What about this term, saint. What comes to your mind when I read this word? Is it a perfect child that has a halo around their head, at least when you're looking? Is it a picture of a chosen Roman Catholic priest, pope, or nun who supposedly had more merits than demerits? Or is it the Biblical understanding of a saint - one who is set apart? Set apart from the world and set apart to holiness and service to God. This is Paul's regular description for a Christian.
This idea of being a saint, or being holy, or being set apart, is important because of the OT connotations involved in using it. It is Israel that was "set apart." They were "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6), "a people holy to the LORD" (Deuteronomy 7:6). But now, Paul, an Israelite himself, is using this same designation for those not physically descended from Abraham. He is writing to those in a pagan city, who were not under the Mosaic Covenant. But, they are united with the seed of Abraham, Jesus the Messiah. They are spiritually sons of Abraham, because of their relation to Jesus. We, too, are saints, holy to the Lord, if we are "in Christ."
But notice Paul's designation of his recipients is not only as "saints," but also as "faithful in Christ Jesus." Christians are set apart, yes, but they are also faithful. They endure to the end. God preserves them, and they persevere by the grace of God. But it is a struggle to continue on in trusting in Christ for salvation when the whole world is telling you another way to live. "You don't need to be faithful, God is love; He will forgive you." "You don't need to be faithful, there is no God; you are trusting in an figment." "You don't need to be faithful to God; unless that god is yourself."
But if you are indeed a Christian, it is precisely you who are faithful to God in Christ. His Law has become beautiful to you and a light load to bear, not because you are perfect and without sin, but because it is the one "in whom" you are trusting that lightens the load and carries you on to faithfulness - You are faithful in Christ Jesus!
Maybe you are hearing these words, and think to yourself, "Self, I am not set apart from the world, and I definitely am not faithful in Christ." Then I implore you, friend, to seek Christ while He may be found. At worst, you will confirm the sweet fellowship that you already have with God in Christ, though you may have lost sight of it for a while; but at best you will find that you are not truly trusting in the Christ for your salvation, but that you are simply paying lip service to an idea that sounds comforting. If this last description describes you, then for the sake of your everlasting soul, run to Christ! He is a comfort to the comfortless. He is a lover of the unloved. He is kind, gracious, merciful, and good. But He is also the judge of all creation, and He is just. He will do what is right according to His Law. He will not let sin, or the sinner, go unpunished, for to do so would be to deny Himself. So repent! Throw yourself on His mercy while there is mercy to be had! Find the grace and peace that Paul talks about: God's unmerited favor and the reconciliation between you and God.
And it is this grace and peace with which Paul now greets those to whom he is writing in vs. 2.
1:2 - Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here we see Paul's desire for them: Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This greeting is similar to others of the time. The standard Greek, or Hellenistic, greeting would have been Chirein, or 'rejoice.' But Paul has again Christianized this greeting to be Charis, or 'grace,' and Eirene, or 'peace.' We find this same greeting throughout most of the Pauline epistles. It sums up the Christian fellowship pretty well. "I Paul greet you with God's unmerited favor and reconciliation, of which we share and are joined together by a loving and holy God." Notice that these mercies here are from a dual source: God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. We see again the theocentric worldview that Paul has. These mercies that he shares with all Christians, are not a contrived set of shared variables that cause their fellowship. It is only mercies from God, even the persons of the Father and the Son, that could bond this group of Christians into the church. Jews, Greeks, slaves, free, male, female, young, old - they all share in the grace and peace that come from God.
We also see the high regard that Paul had for Jesus as the Christ and giver of grace and provider of peace. He is the co-source provider with God the Father of grace and peace. They are entirely at one in securing and bestowing grace and peace.
And we also see the importance of these mercies in Paul's thought, because if we skip to the end of the letter (6:23-24), we see Paul making a chiasmic inclusio, ending the letter with the same emphases with which he began it.
How much does this greeting relate to us, in this day and age, in Memphis, TN? Well, keep in mind to whom Paul was writing. Ephesus was grossly commercial and materialistic. Is not Memphis? It was pagan, preoccupied with sex and superstitions. Is not Memphis? So, what can keep us as God's church faithful to God in such an environment? Grace and Peace.
It is these gifts of God to which Paul will now turn in his attempt to squeeze out what he can in human language to praise God.
1:3: The Exalted Praise of a God-centered Apostle
Beginning in vs. 3, Paul now moves from his greeting to the body of his letter. It is usually at this point that we find Paul praising God with thanksgivings for the work he has done in the lives of those to whom he is writing. Think of Philippians, "I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all." And 1 Corinthians, "I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus." And Colossians, "We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you." And 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, and Philemon. But here, Paul goes straight from his humble, God-centered greeting to an exalted, God-focused praise. We see his theology become his doxology. This God, who made him an apostle out of His grace, and who then has shown that grace to all His children who are set apart and who are trusting in Him, Who has exacted peace and reconciliation where there once was a just enmity, this God has overcome the apostle so, that he turns directly to praise Him in the form of a Hebrew berakah. A berakah was a common Hebrew form of blessing or praise. There are other NT examples in Luke , 2 Corinthians and 1 Peter. The format of this praise is, "Blessed be God, who...," with this example in Ephesians stretching from vs. 3 to vs. 14. In it Paul adds phrases on top of words on top of clauses on top of adjectives, all to try to come close to describing the reasons that one should praise the living God. He has a hard time doing it, because of the many reasons to praise God: election, adoption, God's will, His grace, redemption, wisdom, the mystery, the consummation of all things, the incorporation of Jews and Gentiles in Christ, and their sealing by the Holy Spirit. One commentator called this, "the most monstrous sentence conglomeration that I have ever found in the Greek language." This is true. And it is only after this "monstrous" praise that Paul gets back to his usual thanksgiving and prayer section.
But these berakoth, we see them in the Old Testament, too. "Blessed be the God of Shem" (Genesis 9:26), "Blessed be the God of Israel" (1 Sam. 25:32; 1 Kings 1:48, 8:15; 10:9; Psalm 41:13, 72:18), "Blessed be God most high" (Genesis 14:20), and "Blessed be YHWH" (Exodus 18:10; 1 Sam. 25:39). You get the picture. But here, Paul again Christianizes this berakah, classifying God not as the God of Israel, or as the most high, but as the, "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." The reason that this God is to be praised is because of His Son and our Lord, because it is through Him that believers are saved and God is most glorified.
Notice carefully the switch between vs. 2 and vs. 3: "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," to "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Father of Jesus is our Father, too! This in itself is cause for praise. As we read when I preached last in Ephesians 2, we were not always children of God. In fact, at one time, we were children of wrath as the rest of the world. When God looked upon us, He saw nothing but those deserving of His eternal, infinite, holy, and just wrath, because we hated Him and His Law, and we strove to do what was right in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world and the leader of this world. Ah, "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he love us, even when we were dead in our transgression, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)"! He is our Father in Christ! We have the same love shown towards us that the Father shows to the Son. We have been adopted. We are in union with Christ. What a supernatural miracle!
But there is more reason to praise this God. Look at the participial phrase that Paul uses to give the grounds for his praise of God: "Who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ." Do you notice the repetition? Blessed..blessed...blessing? They don't mean the same thing. These words are all built on the same root, from which we get our word 'eulogy." And this is what we do with a eulogy, we bless, or praise, the person who has died for all of the great things they have done or have meant to us. But the first "blessed" is the Greek, Eulogetos, which only is used of God and ascribes praise to Him. The second "blessed" is the Greek verb, Eulogeo. It has the connotation of acting graciously towards someone. The third "blessing" is the Greek, Eulogia, and has the idea of "a gift." So this God, who alone is to be "Blessed" with praise, is the One who acts graciously towards us by giving us spiritual gifts in Christ.
Notice who it is that is blessed with spiritual blessings. "Us." Who comprises the "us," here? Well clearly Paul is included as it is a first person plural pronoun, but whom else is he including? Those to whom he is writing? And who is that? The saints and faithful. These spiritual blessings from God are to the church, that is, the true church - those who are set apart and believing from vs. 1. As an individual in Christ's church, His body, you are blessed. Past tense. There is no need to wait for a future time when God's spiritual blessings will be poured out on you. You don't need to wait for a second baptism of the Holy Spirit. You are blessed now. "Well," you say to yourself, "I have not felt especially blessed lately. What blessings are you talking about?" Paul is so kind as to give us a long list of these spiritual blessings in the coming verses. God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless before Him; He predestined us to adoption us as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself; He has shown us the kind intention of His will; He freely bestowed us with grace in Christ; we have redemption through Jesus' blood. We have forgiveness of our trespasses, we have been shown the mystery of His will that He purposed in Christ; we have obtained an inheritance; we have been sealed with the Holy Spirit. What spiritual blessings do you have? What spiritual blessing don't you have is the better question! Paul says in vs. 3 that you have "every spiritual blessing".
And where are these spiritual blessings? In the heavenlies. What? Where is that? It is where it is. This wording is exclusive to Paul and to Ephesians. Your translation may say "the heavenly places" or "the heavenly realms;" but it is a subjective adjective - simply the heavenlies. Let's see what we can know about these heavenlies. This is here in vs. 3 the realm or place where our blessings are "in Christ." These heavenlies are the sphere of God and Christ, as we see in 1:20 and 2:6. They are also the location of principalities and powers, as we see in 3:10 and 6:12. So what are we to make of these "heavenlies?" I think that most present day evangelicals, and even Romanists, see this as more of a Gnostic meaning, than a Biblical one. The "heavenlies" are that Platonic "real" world that lies behind the apparent world. What you see when you look at me is just an image of the true form that is in the heavenly places. What you see here is not real. I don't think that this Gnostic idea is what Paul is speaking of.
Another understanding might be the OT and Jewish concept of there being several heavens. Think of 4:10, where Paul says Jesus ascended far above "all the heavens." He sits above "all rule and authority" in 1:21 - compare that with 3:10. Principalities and powers are in the lower heavens, or the "realm of the air" in 2:2. But it doesn't seem that Paul in this letter is giving us what Peter O'Brien calls a celestial topography.
Rather, what I think Paul is referring to here by "heavenlies" is the Jewish concept of a Two-Age structure. There is the present age, and the age to come; the now and the not yet. And for Paul, the age to come is now - sort of. Theologians call this inaugurated eschatology. The next age has broken through to the present age through the work of Christ. What we experience of spiritual blessing is actually the gifts of the next, heavenly age. And this entire blessing is "in Christ." It is because of His eternality as God that we are able to experience God's blessing "in Him." He was before creation, He is now, and He will be in the next age. And it is through His work from the promise before creation, His work through the present age as Redeemer and Mediator, and His work in the future age as the triumphant, glorious King that we have reason to have these blessings.
He has secured for us righteousness - not of ourselves, but His righteousness, given as a gift to us. But why these spiritual blessings? In vs. 4, Paul tells us "because God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before Him." We are now given spiritual blessings, because of God's "election" or "choosing" of us before the creation of the world, so that we would be holy and blameless before Him in the judgment.
And God has done this blessing in the heavenlies "in Christ." If you remember, I spoke to this idea of being "in Christ" in my last sermon. "In Christ," "in Him," or "in Whom" are used 164 times in Pauline writings, and 11 times in this berakah alone. In many of its uses, and in these verses specifically, Paul uses the phrase "in Christ" to speak to the union that we as believers have with Christ. What is true for Him, is true for us. Christ's righteousness is seen as our own before the just God. The blessings that Christ has experienced as the perfect man, are now given to us in Him. All grace is given to us "in the beloved" as Paul says in vs. 6. We were chosen in Him (vs. 4). In Him we have redemption (vs. 7). We have obtained an inheritance in Him (vs. 11). In Him we were sealed with the Spirit (vs. 13). It is in Him that we have Spiritual blessings. It is in Him that we must trust for salvation, for in whom else can we go for spiritual blessings? Do you know anyone else to whom you want to be joined? Name them. They are all sinful. Do you really want their righteousness? It is as dirty as your own. Do you really want the justice that God will show them shown to you also? NO! Jesus is the only one with whom you would want to be united.
But the world, they want the blessings of God without the "in Christ." But surely you must see, that if you take away the "in Christ," there are no blessings to be had! It is in Him we have been given "every spiritual blessing." Without Him, there are no spiritual blessings. The hymn writer was right: "Without Him I could do nothing, Without Him I'd surely fail; Without him I would be drifting, Like a ship without a sail. Without Him, I would be dying, Without Him I'd be enslaved; Without Him, life would be hopeless, But with Jesus, thank God, I'm saved." Without Christ, you are left to yourself, enslaved in sin, dishonoring God, hording up for yourself wrath in the Day of Judgment.
Is this your story? Are you "without Him?" Or are you "in Him? Is it grace and peace that is to you from God? Have you been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ? Do you trust Christ to be your righteousness, holy and blameless before the Father? What will you do with this Christ? I implore you, turn to Him. Trust Him. Love Him. Because in doing so, you will show that your world is no longer centered on yourself, or the world, or even on your desired blessings, but your world is centered on God and His Son, Jesus Christ.
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