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It’s been called the “Queen of the Epistles,” “the crown of St. Paul’s writings,” “the greatest and most relevant of all his letters,” “the Switzerland of the New Testament,” one great English poet labeled it “the divinest composition of man.” That’s a lot of accolades for any piece of literature to live up to! The Bible simply calls it Ephesians.
It’s actually a letter found in the New Testament written to a community of Christ followers living in and around the city of Ephesus in the country now called Turkey. It’s a letter that the Apostle Paul penned from a Roman prison where he was confined on trumped up charges of treason around A.D. 60.
It’s a letter he wrote, never intending it to go down in history as a literary masterpiece, but to instruct and encourage a group of believers struggling to live for Christ in the midst of a hostile world. Kind of like the world we live in today. And that’s why for the next few months we’re going to take time to unpack this loaded letter and fuel our passion for Jesus.
A well-known preacher of the 20th century named Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, taught Ephesians every Sunday for eight straight years (1954-62), 232 sermons in all. Don’t worry we’re not going to do that. We’ll get it done in six years! But that’s how rich this letter is and why it deserves all the accolades I mentioned.
To help understand the background we’ve prepared some fast facts on Ephesians.
Ephesus was a world class city in the first century, not unlike the Philadelphia region today. It was a happening place! It had a great natural harbor on the Aegean coast. It was a cultural center with one of the largest libraries in the world and boasted an outdoor theater capable of seating 50,000 people. I stood in that theater when I visited the city a number of years ago, and even in ruins it’s incredibly impressive.
It was a religious center as well, home of the great Temple of Artemis one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, a mammoth marble structure wider and longer than a football field, including the end zones, with columns reaching five-stories high.
Inside the temple was the great statue of Artemis the daughter of Zeus, the goddess of the hunt, a statue that supposedly dropped from heaven and was worshipped by people from all over the Roman world. In fact, Ephesus developed a very lucrative tourist industry around the myth of Artemis.
Paul saw this city as strategic to spreading the gospel throughout the entire Roman Empire. So on his third missionary journey he settled in Ephesus for three years teaching publicly in rented facilities and leading small groups from house to house. He spent more time in Ephesus than any other city, talking to anyone who would listen about Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles. He started a church there that later would be pastored by Timothy.
If you study the life of Paul you soon discover that wherever he went there was either a riot or a revival. And Ephesus was no exception. In fact, in Ephesus he had both a riot and a revival. You can read the details in Acts 19-20.
We’ve titled the series Becoming Who We Are and describe it this way on our website. “As followers of Jesus Christ we’ve been changed from the inside out. We’re not who we once were. But we’re not yet all we once will be. Instead, we’re in process of becoming who we really are. Every relationship we have can be changed for the better … our relationship with God, with ourselves, with family, with friends, with co-workers, even with our enemies. Join us as we unpack the Apostle Paul’s amazing letter to the Ephesians and continue the journey of becoming who we really are.”
The letter can easily be divided into two parts. In the first three chapters, Paul wants us to know who we are “in Christ.” He wants us to be grounded in our identity. The words “in Christ” or “in him” or “in the One he loves” occur eleven times in the first fourteen verses. Paul wants us to see the bigger story that we’re a part of. He wants us to know who we really are.
Then in chapters 4-6 he wants us to live like it. He wants us to become who we really are. He wants us to know how our new identity translates into daily living as a person, as a friend, as a husband, as a wife, as a parent, as a child, as an employee, as an employer, as a member of the body of Christ. He wants us to be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. So chapters 1-3 are living “in Christ” and chapters 4-6 are living “for Christ.”
We’ve talked a lot about identity recently because it’s so important to know who we are “in Christ.” Paul wants us to know how loved we are, how privileged we are, how select we are, how secure we are. He wants us to be confident in our identity. So many of us struggle with our identity. We’re not happy with ourselves. We don’t feel good about ourselves. Maybe we weren’t loved and valued as children. So often we try to gain a sense of significance from our accomplishments.
We live our lives checking off “to do” lists. If we get a lot done in a day, then it was a good day and we feel good about ourselves. If we don’t get a lot done, then it was a bad day and we don’t feel good about ourselves. Our identity gets all tangled up with our achievements. We quickly can become “human doings” instead of “human beings.”
So Paul starts by telling us who we are really are. And it has nothing to do with our achievements and has everything to do with what God has achieved for us. Paul wants us to know what it means to be “in Christ” by giving us three blessings, three benefits, in Ephesians 1:1-14.
Look at verses 1-6, Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: 2Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3Praise 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. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
Wow! That’s a mouthful! Paul is so excited about what it means to be “in Christ” that verses 3-14 are one long, run on sentence in the Greek text! And I just read half of it. It’s like he can’t take a breath when he gets started on what it means to be “in Christ.” He’s on a roll. And verses 3-14 are one long YAY GOD applauding each person of the Trinity for what they have achieved for us.
First, he wants us to know that we are chosen by the Father.
Look at verse 4, He chose us in him before the creation of world. Now please don’t ask me to explain that because Paul doesn’t explain that. He just declares it as fact.
If you’re a believer in Jesus Christ this morning, it’s because God picked you. Before you were born God chose you. In fact, before the creation of the world God selected you. Someone said, “I’m so glad he picked me before the creation of the world because if he waited until now, he may never have picked me!”
That’s the point! We were chosen by God to the praise of his glorious grace, verse 6. For some reason, known only to God, you and I were selected to be holy and blameless. The word holy means “separate” and the word blameless means “without blemish.” When God picked you and me he picked us to be separate from everyone who is not “in Christ” with the goal that we will someday be blameless in his sight.
That’s an amazing concept! That’s a way bigger story than any of us can wrap our heads around. Don’t ask me to explain it because I can’t. Don’t ask me why God has chosen some and not others. Don’t ask me how that fits with free will which is also clearly taught in Scripture. We have the freedom to choose or not to choose Jesus. And if you want to be sure you’re chosen today, that you are “in Christ,” then simply choose to believe in Jesus. And when you do, you’ll discover that God chose you first! It’s a mystery to us.
We all know the feelings of being wanted, of being selected for something. When our son got drafted by the Cleveland Indians two years ago we were ecstatic. We’ll never forget that day. And if you’re a believer in Jesus, you’ve been drafted too.
But the analogy goes deeper than being selected for a team. Paul says in verse 5 that God adopted us into his family. Adoption is the ultimate example of selection. One of the big differences between a natural child and an adopted child is that an adopted child is always wanted. A natural child isn’t always wanted.
The process of adoption tests the patience, the perseverance, the determination, and the love of the parents who want that child. They fill out forms, go through interviews, travel distant places, invest large sums of money, jump through endless hoops because they really want to adopt a child.
If you’re “in Christ” this morning, you’ve been adopted into God’s family because he really, really wanted you! That truth alone can change our identity. And our adoption came at great cost which leads us to the second blessing of being “in Christ.”
Look at verses 7-10, In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
Not only have we been chosen by the Father, but we’ve been redeemed by the Son. How much was God willing to pay to adopt you and me into his family? He paid the highest price possible, the death of his very own Son Jesus Christ.
We don’t talk a lot about redemption in our culture, but when Paul wrote this letter redemption was a big deal. Paul lived in an economy that was driven by slave labor. There were some 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire in Paul’s day and they were bought and sold like furniture. They were treated like property, not like human beings, and often given less care than cattle.
Occasionally, not very often, someone out of the kindness of their heart would purchase a slave for the sole purpose of setting that slave free. They would redeem the slave, buy the slave, and then give that slave a document setting them free. It was not something that the slave could earn or work for. It was totally dependent upon the grace of the master.
God’s grace has been lavished on us. He has set us free from slavery to sin and death and the price he paid was the blood of his own Son Jesus Christ. That’s what we recognized already today at the Lord’s Table. This cup represents my blood, Jesus said, whenever you drink it, you remember me.
This is the mystery of his will, Paul says, that he has made known to us and one day when the times have reached their fulfillment Jesus Christ will return and restore unity and harmony to all things in heaven and on earth. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Again back to the Table. Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
So we’ve been chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Look at verses 11-14,
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
If you are “in Christ” this morning then you are a marked man or woman of God. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s day when a king made a decree or passed a law he would not only sign the document, but he would affix his seal to it as well. The seal was a wax impression made from the king’s own signet ring. And when that ring hit the hot wax it guaranteed that whatever was on that document would come to pass. It was a done deal, backed by the highest authority in the land.
One of the benefits of being “in Christ” is that we’re sealed by Holy Spirit. Our salvation is a done deal. We’re secure in Christ. We’ll never fall out of Christ. Once we are “in Christ” we are always “in Christ.” Our security is not based on our ability to hang on to God. It’s based on God’s ability to hang on to us.
But that’s not all. The Holy Spirit is God’s deposit in our life, guaranteeing our inheritance. The Holy Spirit is a down payment saying there’s more to come. God has so much more waiting for us then we will ever experience in this life. Not only have we been delivered from the penalty of sin by the cross, but one day we will be delivered from the power of sin, and even the presence of sin when the times reach their fulfillment and everything is brought back to unity in heaven and earth under Christ. That’s why we say, “The best is yet to be!”
Church, are you getting the picture of what it means to be “in Christ?” This mystery God has revealed. We are chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
Maybe you’ve been thinking all along what I’ve been thinking. Why? Why would God do all this for me? I can’t answer that except to give you Paul’s two reasons. First, because it pleased him. In verses 5 and 9 we read that it was for his good pleasure that he put you “in Christ.” It made God smile to choose you, to redeem you, and to seal you. He didn’t have to do it. No one twisted his arm. He just wanted to.
Second, so we could live to the praise of his glorious grace. Three times, in verses 6, 12 and 14, Paul says, to the praise of his glory. The reason God chose you, redeemed you, and sealed you is so that you might glorify God. That’s why we’re here. Not to grab all the gusto we can out of life, not to avoid as much pain and heartache as we can in life, not to build our own little kingdoms, but to bring glory to our God. To the praise of his glorious grace.
We started our worship gathering this morning by singing This is Amazing Grace. And I’d like to close by reading those lyrics.
“Who breaks the power of sin and darkness. Whose love is mighty and so much stronger. The King of Glory, the King above all kings. Who shakes the whole earth with holy thunder. Who leaves us breathless in awe and wonder. The King of Glory, the King above all kings. Who brings our chaos back into order. Who makes the orphan a son or daughter. The King of Glory, the King above all kings.
Who rules the nations with truth and justice. Shines like the sun in all its brilliance. The King of Glory, the King above all kings. This is amazing grace. This is unfailing love. That you would take my place. That you would bear my cross. You would lay down your life that I would be set free. Jesus, I sing for all that you’ve done for me.