The big picture - Ephesians 1:1-14
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I wonder if you have ever heard of a lady called Thelma Howard. Thelma Howard died in 1981, but for 20 years she had been the maid of Walt and Lillian Disney. Every Christmas Walt Disney would summon her to his office to give her a Christmas bonus of some sort. No doubt she was looking for a $20 tip or the like. But instead every year for twenty years he would give her a piece of paper with some writing on it. Well Thelma Howard died in 1981 in dire poverty, a lonely old woman. But when her few possessions were being sorted out, it was discovered that she was worth an absolute fortune. She was actually a millionaire. Those bits of paper which Walt Disney had given her over the years were actually bonds and stocks and shares in the company. She was worth an estimated million. She had all the riches she could want and yet she never knew it.
Well one of the biggest dangers for the Christian is to forget how wonderfully rich we are spiritually speaking. I guess for many of us, the Christian life can seem a struggle at times. We struggle to live an authentic Christian life in our workplaces; we struggle to be godly witnesses to our families; and we struggle when times are hard. And even serving God in the church family can be a grind sometimes. Well if that is true then one of the best tonics for our souls is the letter to the Ephesians which we're studying these next few months, and particularly this passage before us today. Because this letter and this passage remind us of the immense privilege and joy it is to be a Christian. For Paul explains here that you and I, if we are trusting in Christ, are the richest people in the universe. For we have been blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus. But like Thelma Howard, sometimes we just don't realise it!
Now Paul is writing to a group of churches, one of which was the church at Ephesus. He was writing a sort of round robin letter, like you might send out at Christmas time with all the family news. But of course this letter is very different. For the main theme of Paul's letter is God's amazing plan for the universe. And that is, as Paul explains in verse 10, to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. God's plan is about cosmic reconciliation. The Christian has the privilege of being let in on God's amazing plan for the whole universe! And the local church, like St. John's or the church at Ephesus, is a picture of that amazing reconciliation with God. So Ephesians is about what it means for us as a church to be God's people and to live as God's people. In fact, one writer has summed up the message of Ephesians as "the wealth, the walk and the warfare". The spiritual wealth we have as Christians, the walk we are to make progress in with Christ, and the warfare we are to engage in as a church in the world.
And Paul begins first of all in verses 1-14 with our wealth. And verse 3 is the headline for the whole passage: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." Paul is saying that we have everything we need and could want spiritually speaking. We are very wealthy. And notice that everything we need is in Jesus. In fact Paul says "in Christ" or "in him" more than fourteen times in this passage alone. We have all these blessings through our relationship with Jesus Christ. And two other phrases which crop up several times in this passage show us why God has given these things. Four times, Paul says that all these spiritual blessings are "according to God's pleasure and good will". You can almost see the smile and joy of God as he pours out blessing after blessing upon us. He has lovingly lavished us with all these good gifts. And why has he done it? Because he wanted to! God delighted to save you and to shower you with all these good things in Christ. And the other phrase that crops up three times is the phrase "to the praise of his glory". In other words, all these things work for the glory of God. So as we come to this passage this morning, we need to repent of our collective amnesia and see again the wonderful things God has purposed for us in Jesus. And it's not simply that we might feel better, but rather that we might realise our true identity in Christ as God's people, so that we might love him and serve him more wholeheartedly and passionately. And as we begin another New Year together as God's church, then nothing could be more important than that! So three blessings then that are ours in Christ which concern our past, our present and our future.
1) God's Choice of us in the Past (Vv 4-6)
And the first blessing that Paul highlights is God's choice of us in the past. Verse 4: "For God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ....." And verse 11: "In Christ we were also chosen having been predestined...." Now everyone likes to be chosen don't they. I often get pieces of paper through my door to say that I have been chosen for something. Here is a recent one. "Dear Mr Buttery, This is to advise you that in the latest Reader's Digest Prize Draw your name has come through the first two stages..... The computer has chosen certain people to receive VIP status- and you, Mr Buttery, were among them....In the whole of North Humberside only 3 out of every hundred households have been selected as VIP's to receive our book offer and the other SPECIAL BENEFITS that you'll be getting..... PS Remember, not everyone is getting all the special benefits that are on their way to you. Make the most of your VIP status and be sure to claim all your opportunities." Well I love to be chosen, but I can also spot a con a mile off. However, when God chooses us there is no con involved. He has chosen us to be adopted into his family, as sons and daughters in Christ. We are now part of the royal family. And notice when God did all this. It wasn't part of some plan B, when plan A with the people of Israel went wrong. He planned it all along. From the creation of the world says Paul. So when God was making the Milky Way, he also had you and me in mind. Isn't that mind blowing. All those millions of years ago, way back in eternity, God was thinking of us. Now I find that quite staggering. To think that God should chose me to be a member of his family is amazing. We now have VIP status as God's children.
But for many of us this is pretty deep stuff, and it can be baffling. It perhaps raises more questions than it answers. But it's worth us remembering that this truth is contained in a passage which is full of praise to God for the many blessings he has showered upon us in Christ. It's meant to be a great encouragement and joy to us to discover that we are on the receiving end of such incredible blessing. But Paul does give us three facts about this decision of God's to choose us which may help us to understand it a little better.
First, God's choice is a divine revelation not a human speculation. Notice what Paul says in verse 5 that it was in accordance with God's pleasure and will. In other words, God planned it this way. This was all part of his amazing plan. It's not something you or I could have dreamed up and nor can we fathom God's mind on the matter. There are some things that we human beings have to leave in the hands of God. It is Moses who wisely says in Deuteronomy: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children, that we may follow all the words of this law." God has told us enough to trust him, by he's not told us everything! God reveals his mind on a need to know basis. It's his revelation. Secondly, God's choice of us is an incentive to holiness not an excuse for sin. Have a look at verse 4: "He chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless." The point is that we are not to sit back and think "Oh I'm chosen, I can do what I want". Rather we are saved and adopted for a reason- to be one of God's people, his royal children, holy and blameless. And as God's royal children we are to act like it. The story is told of the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, when they used to go off to parties as small children, then the King would say to them: "Remember! Royal children, royal manners." And as children of the heavenly King, then our adoption in his family means we must live as royal children, displaying the characteristics of the king in how we live. And then thirdly, God's choice of us is a stimulus to humility, not a ground for boasting. It is God's work and it's a completely free gift in verse 6. All the initiative comes from him. The only boasting we can do is in God.
Now it's worth us pausing to think how reassuring this truth is. The fact is, says Paul, that God chose us before the creation of the world for a purpose. To be God's children in his family, to live his way. Now to my mind, there is no more reassuring truth in the Bible than this one, that God is our loving heavenly Father and we are his adopted children by his choice. Because often the temptation for us is to think of God as a crusty old vicar or a grumpy headmaster. We need to bend his arm for him to help us, and to be quite frank he's not really that interested in us. And if we're honest, we think he'd love to teach us a lesson or two. But actually nothing could be further from the truth. For this is the God who knows every hair on your head, who is there at your waking in the morning and your resting at night. He knows our every thought and he knows our most painful experience. He knows us intimately, and he cares for us passionately. And he is a God who will not crush a bruised reed or snuff out a flickering wick. And to be reminded of that at the start of a new year is very important. Because one of the keys to standing firm as a Christian this year is the reminder that God is our heavenly father who chose us before the creation of the world in Christ to be blameless and holy, and he will never let us go. Because when God makes a commitment to adopt you into his family, he never goes back on that promise.
A young mother once wrote this in her diary. "I stayed with my parents several days after the birth of our first child. One afternoon I remarked to my mother that it was surprising our baby had dark hair, since both my husband and I are fair. She said: 'Well, your Dad, has black hair.' 'But Mum, I said, that's irrelevant because I'm adopted, aren't I?' And then with an embarrassed smile, she said the most wonderful words I have ever heard, 'Oh yes, of course. I always forget.'" And with our heavenly Father our adoption is complete. Rejoice this morning and give praise to God who has blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. And that includes his choice of us in the past.
2) God's Rescue of Us in the Present (Vv 7-10)
But the next blessing we find God has given us is his rescue of us in the present. Verse 7: "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding." Paul says that we have redemption in Jesus. So what does he mean by the word redemption? Well redemption is a word that literally means to be bought back. It's a word that has its background in slave markets. So men, women, boys ands girls would be paraded in front of potential buyers and then bought out of slavery. Sometimes they would be given freedom by their buyer, or other times they would become the buyers' slaves. They would have a new master. But in either case they could say they have been redeemed. But for the Jews, the word redemption meant something far more profound than slave markets. Redemption was the word used to describe God's rescue of them from Egypt. If you remember the story, God's people were slaves in Egypt. But God rescued them and brought them out of Egypt and in doing so destroyed the Egyptian army. But like the slave market, the redemption of the people of Israel came at a price. For God said that in rescuing his people he would also bring judgement on the Egyptians. For in every Egyptian home there was the death of the firstborn child; and in every Israelite home, there was a death too. A lamb had been killed in the place of the firstborn son, and it's blood painted on the doorposts of every Israelite house. So as the angel of death passed over Egypt in judgement, the Egyptians' firstborn sons were killed, but the Israelite firstborn sons were saved through the blood of the lamb. The angel passed over their houses without acting in judgement, because the lamb had died in the place of the firstborn son. The blood averted the wrath of God.
Now can you see then what Paul means here when he says that through Jesus we have been redeemed. Paul says we too have been redeemed, bought back from slavery. We were in slavery to a sinful and rebellious life against God. We were disobedient and followed the ways of the devil, as Paul says in chapter 2. But in Jesus God redeemed us. He bought us back. But like the slave market and like Egypt it came at a great cost. And this time, the cost was not a few shekels for a slave, nor even a new born lamb for a firstborn son. It was the death of the Lamb of God himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus died in your and my place so that we might not receive the judgement and wrath of God we deserve for our sinful rebellion against him. That blood shed on the cross, just like the blood daubed on the doorposts of the Israelites houses, causes God to pass over us. It averts his wrath from us to Jesus. For Someone else has died in our place. We are spared his judgement and we are redeemed. Bought back from slavery by God himself!
You might know the story of the little boy who lived by the shore of a great lake. Now this little boy loved boats and sailing, so much so that with the help of his father he built his own toy boat. He spent months making it and it really was the pride of the lake. On the day they finished it, the boy and his father went to sail it on the lake. But as the little boat bobbed on the water a huge gust of wind took it away from the shore and it drifted far away and out of sight. Well the boy was distraught and thought he'd never see it again. And day after day he searched the water's edge in vain. Then one day as he was wandering through the town, he saw his beautiful boat in a shop window. The boy announced to the shop keeper that it was his and asked for it back. But the shopkeeper said he couldn't since it had been sold to him by a fisherman who had found the boat on the lake. The boy would have to pay good money for it if he wanted it back. So the lad set himself to raise the money and after many weeks, working hard and raising the money, he returned to the shop and bought the boat. And at last, holding his precious boat in his arms again, the boy said with great joy: "You are twice mine now. Because I made you and I bought you back!"
And to those of us who accept this rescue, this redemption, who are willing to be bought back, then God says to us: "You are twice mine now. Because I made you and I bought you back!" God is the one who made us and he is the one who bought us back. But what does this redemption mean for us? Well Paul says it means that we can receive forgiveness in verse 7: "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding." Forgiveness is a lavish gift that God has richly given us from his treasure trove of blessings. And it is one of the most beautiful gifts of all. All our guilt and shame can be washed away through the blood of Jesus. And time and again, even as professing Christians, we need to remember that nothing can take that forgiveness from us. Each one of us has things in our lives that we are deeply ashamed of, and yet in the Lord Jesus Christ we can have forgiveness and a fresh start. And the beginning of the new year is an excellent time to thank God afresh for his forgiveness and to ask him to help us keep on remembering that we are forgiven. It's very easy to keep beating ourselves up over things we have done in past, even though we know we're forgiven. It's often very hard to let go, isn't it. Perhaps things we have done, or things done to us. So we need to keep on remembering we are forgiven and bought back by the blood of Christ. Because where there is no forgiveness, only guilt and shame remain.
I was reminded of this just recently when I came across a comment from the only Nazi official of the 24 to confess his guilt at the Nuremburg trials. The man's name was Albert Speer and he was the technological genius behind the running of Germany's factories during the war. He served 20 years in Spandau prison. But for years after he believed would never find forgiveness for his deeds, nor ever should. In an interview for the American Broadcasting Corporation, Speer said: "I served a 20 year sentence, and I could be entitled to have a clear conscience after serving my punishment, but I don't. I can't get rid of my guilty conscience." The interviewer then pressed him: "You really don't think you'll be able to clear it totally?" and he replied, "I don't think it will be possible!" Charles Colson, an American Christian author who himself spent time in prison for being involved in the Watergate Affair in the 70's, says of Speer: "For 35 years, Speer had accepted complete responsibility for his crime. His writings were filled with contrition and warnings to others to avoid his moral sin. He desperately sought expiation. All to no avail. I wanted to write to Speer and tell him of Jesus and the forgiveness he brings. But there wasn't timeFor Speer died shortly after this final interview."
And while we still have the time, we too must accept the forgiveness of Christ. For if it's good enough even for a Nazi criminal, then it's good enough for each of us. So start the year afresh, knowing the liberating forgiveness and redemption of Jesus Christ. Rejoice this morning and give praise to God who has blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. And that includes his rescue of us in the present.
3) God's Promise to us for the Future (Vv 11-14)
But there's a third blessing that we discover in these verses and that is God's promise to us for the future. Because the wonderful thing about this redemption that God offers to us today, and his choice of us in the past, is that it leads to a wonderful future with God in his kingdom. Have a look at verse 13: Paul has just been explaining again about God's choice of his people, and how the Jews were the first to receive this gift of God. But then he goes on to talk about the non Jewish Ephesian church and they, and people like us, have received these gifts from God. Verse 13: "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possessionto the praise of his glory." Paul says that when we become Christians, when we put our trust in Christ, then we receive a wonderful gift. And that is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now there are many things that the Spirit does for us, but one of the things he does is to act as seal on us which shows that we are God's. The word that Paul uses for "marked" is literally "branded". As slaves or cattle were given their owner's mark in the ancient world, so the Spirit of God is God's mark of ownership on us! He knows who are his. Every Christian has God's Spirit within them enabling them to believe in Jesus, to live the Christian life and then guaranteeing their future. Because that is what Paul means here when he says that the Spirit is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance. If you like the Spirit is a little taster of heaven. The Spirit is like a down payment, a deposit, showing that we are God's and more is to come. And the fact that God has marked us by his Spirit and dwells within us by his Spirit is a cast iron guarantee that he will bring us safely into his kingdom. Nothing can stop God completing his work in us. For we are his. His mark is upon us. His Spirit is within us. We are God's possession. And one day he will gives us the fullness of our inheritance.
Now interestingly this little word deposit that Paul uses, in modern Greek has come to mean engagement ring. And you can see why! When I proposed to Debbie, I gave her a ring which signified a number of things. First it showed that she was a taken girl. She was, if you like mine. I thought it was better than a tattoo or branding her. The ring was the best way forward. She had pledged herself to me and I to her. Secondly the ring was a pledge that we would get married. It wasn't the be all and end all of our relationship. It was a promise that there was more to come and on the 21st August 1999 that happened. We got married. But thirdly the ring meant that in some way we began to live in the light of our marriage from then on. It gave us more security because we had promised to marry each other. And was if you like a foretaste of marriage. We were an item, so to speak. Now of course in human engagements, there can be break ups. But when the Spirit of God comes into our lives, then there is no break up. He is a mark of God's ownership upon us, a deposit guaranteeing God's final and full possession of us in heaven, and also a foretaste of what is to come.
And what a great assurance that is for the Christian. That God will finish his work in us. What he has started, he will complete. We are God's possession. And nothing will hinder his work. Does that not encourage you and strengthen you to live his way! Delight in the solid assurance that those who have trusted in Christ are God's people and their future is guaranteed. And again, at the start of another new year, then what better news could we have than that God will keep us whatever happens this coming year. For we are his possession. And nothing can change that.
But notice too before we finish, how we receive these blessings. Because you may be thinking that all these blessings are lovely and great for the Christian, but what about for the person who is not a Christian. How do they receive them? Well Paul tells us in verse 13. The Ephesian Christians have heard the word of truth about Jesus and believed. They have responded to the gospel. It's so wonderfully simple isn't it? We do nothing except respond to this amazing message of forgiveness and friendship with God. And if you've done that then by God's grace you too can enjoy these amazing blessings that the apostle Paul talks about in this passage. So if you are not a Christian this morning, then what holds you back from responding to God's truth about Jesus? Because when you do, then you receive every spiritual blessing that you could ever need or imagine. And you start to live life as it was meant to be lived. With Jesus Christ as your Saviour and King.
So as we enter 2005, I wonder if you are suffering from amnesia. Have you forgotten what it means to be a Christian? Have you forgotten what immense blessing there is in knowing God personally through the Lord Jesus Christ. Well consider again these amazing truths that Paul has shown us this morning and rejoice again in the great privilege of being a child of God. For as God's children we have his choice of us in the past, his rescue of us in the present and his promise to us for the future.
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