Its good to be back in the saddle again. The two weeks of vacation were great. Vacation is, as one insightful cynic said: a change of aggravation. For most of us, if we close our eyes and picture the perfect vacation it may be a peaceful vista, on a boat on a lake, a gentle breeze and a paperback book. The pressures are gone, the hassles have evaporated like the morning dew. But often our vacations are more like Chevy Chases National Lampoons Family Vacation. They are filled with the usual assortment of relatives you think belong on Jerry Springer, of confined car trips reminiscent of a Vietnamese POW camp, and of hotels eerily evoking images of the Bates Motel.
Many of us here have taken a vacation this summer. Some have traveled east for a few weeks, others went to Missouri for time with family, a few traveled up north to a cabin while some went camping in the Rockies. Florida and New England were the destinations for others, while some combined work and pleasure to see the coasts. Whenever we go away on vacation and then return there is the prerequisite question which comes: "How was your vacation? What did you do?" We try to answer, but we can give only a synopsis. Perhaps we pull out some snapshots of what we saw. But we can only give a glimpse of what we did. A few snapshots may help. Those pictures are a great reminder of the sites you saw and a way of explaining to others your trip.
This morning were going to glance at some photos of my favorite book in the Bible. For the next several months we will examine Pauls letter to the Ephesians. But before we delve into this spectacular treatise on what it means to be "in Christ," we are going to have an overview. Before you left on your vacation you no doubt had some idea where you were going. Perhaps you stopped off at AAA to get a tour book and a map, maybe you knew someone who had visited the area before and got some brochures from them; you may have surfed the net for places of interest. You had an idea, a picture in your mind where you were going. This morning well plan out our trip by looking at the first two verses.
Often introductions to letters are so formal we breeze right by not wanting to spend much time there so that we can get to the meat. It is like the first hours of your vacation. When the Vogels head east, we breeze right through Indiana and Ohio to get to the good part. Early this month when we made the trip to see family, we made the obligatory stop in Indiana. But unlike the vanilla flavored Ramada we usually stay at in Elkhart, we ventured to Pokagon State Park which contained a wonderful resort. Rather than the introduction to our vacation being perfunctory, we fell in love with the beginning as well. I trust that will be the case as we examine these opening verses as they serve as an overview for the whole letter.
Pauls letter to the Ephesians has had numerous superlatives heaped upon it.
Ephesians has been called the crown and climax of Pauline theology. One commentator says of this letter: It is "(t)he consummate and most comprehensive statement which even the New Testament contains of the meaning of the Christian religion. It is certainly the final statement of Pauline theology." John Mackay, past president of Princeton Theological Seminary said: "Never was the reality of revelation more obvious and the reflective powers of the Apostles mind more transfigured than in the great book which is known by the title, The Epistle to the Ephesians."
The grandeur and wonder of this short letter comes not in its mystical musings or profound poetry; it does not overwhelm us with insights too deep to comprehend; rather its greatness is in its clarity of basic Christian truths. The power of this epistle is in its compactness of Christian doctrine, its usefulness and applicability of everyday truth. It is a wonderful melding of Christian doctrine and duty, of faith and life, of what God has done through Christ and what we must be and do in consequence.
As we flip through the snapshots which comprise this part of Gods Word, well see the letter is divided into doctrine from the beginning up through 4:16 and then it turns its attention to our duty in the second half. Others have seen it comprising three sections: Our wealth (1-3), our walk (4-5) and our warfare (6:10fff).
When a well meaning friend wants to show you pictures from her family reunion, you know whats going to happen - youll be told about every aunt, uncle and cousin, what they said and did in the last thirty years. You dont want or need that information. But if you are going to meet your wifes extended family for the first time at a family reunion, youll want to see the family album to know which ones to avoid and which ones to seek out.
The first snapshot we have in this letter is of its author, Paul. This name is familiar to anyone who has set foot in church. We are introduced to him in Acts as Saul, a persecutor of Christians. But God had other plans for him. God confronted him on the road to Damascus and his life was never the same. His name, Saul, reminiscent of the first king of Israel, known for his great stature soon became Paul, which in Latin means small. This radical transformation is described in by Paul in Philippians 3 where he trashes his powerful resume of privileged birth and moral lifestyle. The mighty Saul becomes the puny Paul because he ditched his own righteousness for that of another, Jesus Christ.
Paul continues to introduce himself, but for one who has discarded his position of power as we see in Philippians 3, he seems to be asserting himself here. He is an apostle.
The importance of this title can be seen in how Paul uses the designation elsewhere in the letter.
Look at Ephesians 2:20. In this passage he describes how God is creating a radical new being by joining Jew and Gentile. Throughout biblical history these two groups remain distinct, mortal enemies, but because of Christs death, burial and resurrection, they are now joined together. Using a building metaphor, Paul says that this new man, this new structure, is constructed on a foundation, and that is the apostles and prophets. A rather heady position for anyone.
He mentions this special office again a few verses later in 3:5. Once more he claims a special station in the church. He is among a select few to whom Gods special plan in uniting Jews and Gentiles was revealed. What for generations was unknown, he was told - insider information!
This office is mentioned once again in 4:11 where he describes our unity in Christ, but our diversity of Gods gifts. In describing these gifts he focuses on four offices, the first of which is the apostle. The apostle has a special role in seeing to it that the church grows and matures, that it is stable to meet the challenges of everyday life.
With that we may conclude that we have a megalomaniac on our hands. The answer to whether Paul is suffering from an over-inflated view of himself comes when we understand what an apostle is. The word "apostle" means "one sent" which leads to the next phrase: "by the will of God."
Martin Lloyd-Jones, the great Welsh preacher, has said this first verse summarizes the whole letter: Paul is what he is; we are who we are only by the will of God. Paul attained his high office neither through aspiration nor through usurpation nor yet through nomination by other men but by divine preparation, having been set apart and qualified by the activity of Gods sovereign will.
The word "will" is critical to our understanding of this letter. The will of God is an important theme in Ephesians, appearing more frequently here than in any other letter. The concern is not about Christians finding the will of God; rather, the emphasis is on Gods purpose with His actions for humanity. The point here is that Paul was an apostle because God wanted him to be.
Gods will is a recurring theme in this letter, but not in the fashion so popular today.
Gods will is the resounding refrain in the mighty chorus of this first chapter where Paul reviews that which God has done for us. In 1:5 we are reminded that it was the Fathers great love for us which motivated His predetermination that we would be adopted as His sons. The wonderful salvation we possess is because of His pleasure and will. But if we wonder whether Gods will is merely His desire which can be thwarted so easily by human sin, Paul reminds us in verse 11 that Gods choice of us, our predestination, was according to the plan of Him "who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will."
While Gods will is certain, it is not entirely known by us. In verse 9 he calls it the "mystery of his will." Gods will is clear to us only when He has determined to reveal it. In chapter 3 Paul claims that this mystery of Gods will was not known in past generations but now known only because God revealed it to His holy apostles and prophets. The mystery of Gods will mentioned here is specifically the union of Jew and Gentile.
When we see what Paul says here about Gods will which made him an apostle and the way people today flippantly speak of Gods will for their lives we should see a marked difference. In Ephesians Paul is clear that Gods will is revealed in Scripture; it is found only in Gods Word. When one claims to know Gods will apart from that which is expressed in Gods Word, then they take on for themselves the status of an apostle or prophet; they are revealing that which was not known before. The only will you and I can know is that which has been revealed to Gods people; the rest is conjecture and desire. It may indeed be what God desires but dont speak of it as Gods will for that is certain, unchanging and perfect.
For this reason in 5:17 Paul can, with confidence, command us to not be foolish but understand what the Lords will is. If Gods will for our lives were some secret you and I needed to discover, wed all be acting much more foolish than we already do. Rather, Gods will which keeps us from behaving foolishly is Gods revealed commands. Read Gods Word and you will know Gods will.
They are in Ephesus
No vacation photo album would be complete without the pixs of the places visited. Our next image is that of the city of Ephesus. The constraint of time will not allow us to examine this too much, so take time to read through Acts 19-20 to get a glimpse of this great city.
This political and business center for what is now western Turkey was a major link between east and west. They boasted a temple four times the size of the Parthenon, an amphitheater which could hold 25,000 whose acoustics were phenomenal.
But as some of your Bibles footnote, certain ancient manuscripts do not contain the city of destination for this letter. What is also lacking is the typical Pauline references to friends in his letter; theres no name dropping or personal greetings. For a city in which he spent two years and which the elders of the church cried when Paul left them the last time as we are told in Acts 20, it is odd that the letter seems so distant.
What we have here may well be a circular letter, addressed to a variety of churches in Asia Minor, similar to Johns correspondence in the opening chapter of Revelation. Just as Paul told the Colossians to swap letters with Laodicea, this letter likewise was shared with other churches, so the personal information is lacking. Whatever the explanation for the missing words in some manuscripts and the lack of personal greetings in all, there is no doubt that the letter was identified as a letter from Paul to the Ephesian Christians from the earliest centuries.
They are saints
The next picture we see may seem rather exclusive, like the picture taken of a secret ceremony or a forbidden place, like shots of an expedition to Mt. Everest; what we see next may seem to exclude us. The audience is "saints." You may quickly conclude that this letter by Paul is not for you, close your Bible and go home, but wait.
What images go through our minds when we hear that word? A pitiful football team from New Orleans? Unfortunately our impression of a saint may be informed by the Church of Rome where sainthood is bestowed upon the most worthy recipients. Through a rigorous examination process the good works of a believer are determined to not only offer sufficient merit for that person, but also flow over to lowly scum such as us. But one is not a saint by merit.
Rather, in Scripture a saint is a person set apart by God. Just as Paul was appointed by God as an apostle, the Ephesians were made saints by God. To be a saint is to be set apart by God, to be declared holy by God. In the New Testament usage, every saint is a Christian and every Christian is a saint.
"Saint" appears throughout this letter, often translated in the NIV as "Gods people" (1:15,18; 2:19; 3:8,18; 4:12; 5:3; 6:18). But twice we get a glimpse as to how God could ever call us "saints." In 1:4 we see that God the Fathers election is the cause of our holiness. In 5:27 God the Son makes us holy as the Bridegroom who prepares His Bride for the wedding day.
They are faithful
When God declares us holy He also makes us faithful. To be faithful can be either someone who has proven to be trustworthy or who is a believer. Both aspects can be seen in the letter. From the immediate context the one who is faithful is the saint, the one who is declared holy by God, who has placed his trust in Christ alone.
This person believes that the Father has chosen him, the Son has redeemed him, the Spirit has guaranteed his salvation. In chapter 2 this faith is said to be a gift by God. Yet as we look at the second half of the letter where our duty is described here we see what it means that those who have faith in Christ must also be faithful to Christ.
They are "in Christ"
The Ephesians, as any Christian, are saints, are faithful for one reason: they are "in Christ". Paul uses this phrase about 200 times. It is the explanation of how unholy sorts as we can be called saints, how faithless ones are called faithful. This is a summation of what it means to be a Christian.
As the root in the soil, the branch in the vine, the fish in the sea, the bird in the air, so the place of the Christians life is in Christ. Physically his or her life is in the world; spiritually it is lifted above the world to be in Christ. We have a pointed juxtaposition of two phrases as Paul addresses his readers in Colossians 1:2 as "in Christ" and "in Colossae." Wherever a Christian may be, in whatever difficult environment, threatened by materialism or paganism, in danger of being engulfed by the power of the state or overwhelmed by the pressures of non-Christian life, he is in Christ.
Go through and highlight the number of times Paul uses this phrase: 1:3; 2:6,7,10,13; 3:6,21; 4:32
This simple phrase, so easily skipped over, powerfully summarizes what it means to be a Christian - our grounding, our identity is found in our attachment to Christ. This union with Christ encapsulates our election, calling, justification, sanctification and glorification.
The BlessingGrace This third and final snapshot is a common blessing by Paul when he writes. But again this phrase helps summarize the whole scenery before us. This last picture may be as familiar as your old family homestead, but far too often its a stranger to us. Grace is a one word summation for Pauls theology and for this letter. Grace flows like a torrent from this letter. The theme of grace is at the core of the great plan of salvation described in the opening chapter. In verses 6-7 all God does is so that all creation would praise His glorious grace. In the second chapter Paul begins with our sinful condition but quickly reminds us that God in His mercy made us alive in Christ: "It is by grace you have been saved." God does this to show the "incomparable riches of His grace" (verse 7) Then the familiar verse 8 "it is by grace you have been saved " Grace oozes from the second half of chapter 2 as we are told what it means to be now part of Gods people. In chapter three Paul says God has given him the administration of Gods grace, that he has become a servant of the Gospel is a gift of Gods grace and that the opportunity to preach the gospel is all of grace (verse 8). Grace was given not just to Paul but to each of us, he says in 4:7. In the coming months as we examine this letter the theme of grace will echo off each verse. It is a word we banter about, but often deny by our very lives. We glibly describe grace as Gods unmerited favor or with the acronym: "Gods Riches At Christs Expense," but we dont take into account what grace means in our daily lives. Peace There is not only grace in this opening blessing, but peace for the one flows out from the other. This greeting bears the poetry of redemption, for the regular Greek greeting was "rejoice!" (chaire), and the regular Jewish greeting was "peace" (Hebrew "shalom", Greek eiriene). But here Paul combines the two, and then replaces "rejoice" with the similar sounding but far richer charis - grace. Peace is the by-product of grace, the evidence of Gods favor on us. Peace rings like the Liberty Bell throughout this letter. Peace is an emphatically social concept. It is a gift of God affecting the totality of psychic, physical, personal, familial, economic, and political dimensions of mans life. In chapter 2:14-17 Christ is said to be our peace. Because of His work we are reconciled both to the Father, His wrath turned aside, but also to each other. The peace which Christ established by His death on the Cross is the peace which Christ proclaims to those that are His, to those who are far away and those who are near. The work of the Holy Spirit means we have the bond of peace between us. The gospel of peace is also part of our armor. Paul concludes his letter much how he began: "peace to the brothers, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love." The joining of these two powerful terms help summarize what we possess today through faith, but we often neglect. Gods grace and peace are ours; Gods kind word is pronounced over us as we in faith trust that we are in Christ. Any time you look at another persons pictures of their vacation you only get a little taste. You dont know what it is like to be there. So also this morning youve had just an introduction, a highlight of this wonderful little book. As we delve into its riches each week to discover even more what God has willed for our salvation, what it means to be "in Christ," how Gods grace will transform us to obedient children, youll have a collection of memories too of this great book.