[Manuscript of sermon “Lavished” posted 4/9/17)
Good morning. I really like being here. The ICF elders went on a retreat this past weekend. It reminded me how much I love and appreciate this body of believers. We’re far from perfect, we know that, and we have grace for one another. We are the body of Christ. There is no perfect body of Christ, no perfect church or fellowship. Jesus is perfect and we are growing into maturity in him, individually and corporately. Being able to identify and address our short-comings, our weaknesses and sins, is how we grow into maturity. If we believe we are without sin, John writes in his first epistle, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I believe that’s happening here; God is faithful and just; he is forgiving our sins and, believe me or not, he is cleansing us from all unrighteousness. That’s who we are as a body: the gathered sinners who are forgiven and being cleansed of our unrighteousness.
Today we’re starting a series on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We’re going to go 13 weeks on this puppy. We won’t cover everything in this letter, of course, because the depths of truth in God’s word can’t be plumbed. There’s always more. But we’re going to dig into the Word together and see where God takes us.
Here’s what we know about Ephesians: Paul wrote it, from prison. He was imprisoned by the Romans for preaching the Gospel. This is his first imprisonment in Rome. That means we can date this letter between AD 60-62. Paul wrote four letters during this imprisonment: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. For context, Paul was imprisoned a second time in Rome, during which he wrote Second Timothy; he died during that imprisonment.
Paul had worked with the believers in Ephesus. Here’s the description in Acts 19:
19 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2 He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7 altogether there were about twelve of them.
He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9 When some stubbornly refused to believe and spoke evil of the Way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.
Paul is continuing to pastor them from afar, to teach and guide them and lead them in their discipleship to Jesus Christ. If you read on in Chapter 19, you get a sense of God’s powerful work among the believers in Ephesus, particularly in people’s conversions from belief in magic and worshiping idols and false gods. You also read about a riot started by worshipers of Artemis, because all those people following Jesus Christ were cutting into both their profits and their “goddesses” following. God did mighty works through Paul during his time in Ephesus and God’s spirit moved powerfully among the believers. They also faced serious opposition and persecution.
This is the early context of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus. As we study through this letter together, we will see other themes, including God’s work of racial reconciliation between Jews and gentiles in Jesus Christ; God’s greatness and sovereignty over all peoples; and our unity as the Body of Christ. Paul fills out this picture of our corporate relationship with Jesus, what it means that Jesus is the head of our body and how we function together as his body. There is no pressing problem in the Ephesian church that Paul is addressing, unlike many of his other letters, which seems to free him to focus on some bigger picture theology. 1st John is an epistle of Love. So is Ephesians. The first three chapters focus on how God loves us, his body, his people, and the last three chapters, beginning with “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” exhort the believers to respond to God’s love, to love one another, to live as people of God’s love, to show this love in all our relationships.
Starting, then, with Chapter 1 verses 1-14
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
Paul is an apostle. The twelve chosen by Jesus were apostles, and apostle means “Sent one, one sent forth,” so they are disciples of Jesus whom Jesus sends out, exactly as we see in Luke 9, where Jesus sends the twelve to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Paul clarifies in I Corinthians how he sees himself: “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” So it’s not a nicety or a throwaway line when Paul begins by stating that he is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. We do well to remember, in our moments of doubt and discouragement, that we are sent ones by the will of God and in the grace of God.
To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Jesus Christ. Paul calls believers “saints.” We are the saints, not because we are perfect, but because we are in Jesus Christ. Nor are they perfect in Ephesus, but they are faithful in Christ Jesus. Over the course of this letter, we’ll develop a bigger picture of what Paul means by “faithful in Christ Jesus.” That’s a huge question for us: how do we live faithfully in Christ Jesus?
Paul then extends his blessing to the Ephesian believers: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, this is no casual “how’s it going?” or “What’s up?” Grace and peace. Not Paul’s grace, but God’s grace. Peace from the Lord Jesus Christ. Remember, this is a prisoner in chains extending the blessing of God’s grace and peace.
Then Paul praises God. He calls a blessing on the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ—I’m going to freely move back and forth between this letter being addressed to the Ephesians and being addressed to us, because both are true—and reminds us that we are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. I don’t always feel blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. My feelings matter, but objectively, this is true, God has blessed us in Christ, and the goal is for me to live in this truth and have my feelings come around to this understanding. Paul writes, “just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Paul uses, “just as” to express this as an example. Just as God has chosen us in Christ, so he has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world—definitely sounds like “in the heavenly places” to me—to be holy and blameless before him in love. As I said to start, God is cleansing us from all unrighteousness. He is making us holy and blameless before him, which is about as holy and blameless as you can get—to be able to stand in his presence–and in love. I said not long ago that love is the most powerful force in the universe because God is love and God’s love will not be stopped. It will triumph, in us and through us. Again, we may not feel like that early on a Monday morning after a long weekend with too much coming up and we already feel about two days behind in the week, but here is the objective truth: we are becoming holy and blameless in God’s love. That doesn’t depend on our best efforts, but on God’s grace. Remember, God’s grace is that while we were still his enemies, Jesus Christ died for us, to heal and reconcile us. He is our hope for being holy and blameless.
He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
I want to be clear here: God chose us before the foundation of the world and destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ. I have said before that I don’t really believe in predestination because Jesus gives us a choice and I believe in free will. That is absolutely true. AND it’s also true that somehow God chooses us. Both are true. “But Mike, they can’t both be true.” Talk to God, not me. I’m saying there is Scriptural support for both free will and God’s choosing us. I lean more strongly toward free will than predestination as my working understanding of our relationship with God because I believe that is the character of God revealed through Jesus Christ in the Gospels; but to deny what Paul states here or try to dance around it would to undercut the authority of Scripture. My understanding of how we interpret Scriptures like this is not that they cancel each other out, nor that if there are six verses in one direction and seven in the other that the seven win; rather, we hold these Scriptures in dynamic tension, meaning that we live in the balance that both are true, even though that appears to be a paradox. I think the lack is not in God or God’s word, but in our ability to wrap our finite minds around these things. So in this case, God calls us to be his disciples to which we get to respond, and we have the confidence that God has chosen us and adopted us in Jesus Christ, because even our ability to choose is by God’s grace.
I’m not going to dig any deeper into that right now, so that this sermon doesn’t turn into two sermons. I neither choose nor was predestined to stand up here for sixty minutes this morning. But if that leaves you dissatisfied, I invite you to dig deeper into the Scriptures and wrestle with God, and I challenge you not to dismiss any of God’s word that doesn’t agree with your current understanding. And even in this, God has grace.
Getting back to verse six, God chooses and adopts us to the praise of his glorious grace. Like I said, it’s all by grace, and if anything in this universe is praiseworthy, it is God’s love and grace for us. There is no love for us without grace; we only experience God’s love because God has grace for us. Grace means when we deserve something bad, not only do we not get that bad thing, but we are given something good instead. Paul writes, “to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” The beloved is Jesus, of course. God liberally pours upon us his Grace in Jesus Christ. Again, this is the big picture Paul describes. Next, Paul breaks down specifically what having grace bestowed on us means:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. Redemption, our sins paid for, our guilt absorbed in Jesus through his death and resurrection, and all the bad in us and the bad that happens to us turned by God for good. This doesn’t mean we pretend bad things are good, but that God never leaves the bad things to rot—somehow, miraculously, he can bring good out of bad, out of the worse things. I can stand before you and tell you that I am closer to God now than I was before the death of our son Isaac, and that my faith is stronger than it was before he died. In the first three years after Isaac’s death, I would have bet you literally anything this couldn’t happen…but it happened. It happened because God is faithful and he doesn’t leave bad things to rot. He brings good out of the worst evil. He’s God. I will always say, I would trade it all in a blink to have Isaac back, but I’m not given that choice, so I glorify God for his faithfulness and redemption and look forward to seeing my son again when that day comes.
With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. God has an end game and it’s a good one. He has revealed to us not exactly how it will work, but the broad strokes of his plan: God will restore and redeem His creation. I don’t know exactly how that looks, but just as God is drawing us closer to himself, making us more intimate with him, reconciling us, making us part of his Kingdom, so God is drawing everything to himself, drawing every part of his creation into intimacy with himself.
C.S. Lewis describes it this way:
“In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men [and women] into Christ, to make them little Christs…God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose. It says in the Bible that the whole universe was made for Christ and that everything is to be gathered together in Him.”
It’s crucial to note, too, that this is God’s pleasure. He delights in this work. He enjoys us and his work in us through Christ. We lose sight of this sometimes in our daily struggle, our battle against sin. God loves us and he takes pleasure in saving us, not out of duty or because he made a promise and now he’s stuck keeping it, but because this is what makes his heart dance. This is God’s joy. That’s the truth of Scripture.
What else does God’s grace for us mean? In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.
We’re God’s children and so we inherit everything from him. The father in the parable of the prodigal son tells the elder son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” This is God’s promise for our inheritance: you are always with me, first and most importantly, and all that is mine is yours. Again, when we are struggling to make ends meet, when we see our neighbors struggling for their daily bread, this doesn’t always appear to be our reality. But the truth in Scripture, the Reality capital “R,” is that we inherit God’s Kingdom so that we, who set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. Our purpose is to live for God’s praise, to praise him for the grace we’ve received.
I don’t think that means we need to buckle down and really praise God harder, from our guts, whether we feel like it or not; I think it means that we are free to experience the fullness of God’s joy as we get free of sin—as he cleanses us from all unrighteousness– and live in his love and truth. Praise comes naturally and bursts out of us when we see God’s beauty, when we experience his glory in stars and sunsets and watching our babies born into the world and watching our self-wrecked lives turned into something beautiful. The fact that you and I have loving relationships, far from being a given, is a miracle when you think about who we might have been without God. If we aren’t giving praise for these gifts, this redemption in our lives, then we have started to take his grace for granted. There is nothing good in me, or you, apart from what God does in us. God is accomplishing his purpose in us. Sometimes we need to remind one another.
In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
These two verses could also be a sermon. One of the elders described to me how a pastor at a church he attended spent a year preaching through Ephesians. I get it. We’re on a different rhythm here, so I’ll just summarize: remember what I read in Acts, that the believers in Ephesians had received John the Baptist’s baptism, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Paul was like, “Uh, did you receive the Holy Spirit,” and the Ephesians respond, “We haven’t even heard there was a Holy Spirit.” Great news. There is a Holy Spirit. Paul declares that God’s Holy Spirit is “the pledge of our inheritance,” the guarantee and reminder that all God has promised about our redemption is true and will be fulfilled. I believe in miracles, I have seen miracles, because God’s Holy Spirit dwells in us and we have all been marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. When we respond to the Word of truth, the Gospel that saves us, when we believe in Jesus, God comes and dwells in us, exactly as Jesus describes in John 14: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” That’s God’s Spirit, dwelling in us.
As I said to begin, Paul introduces his letter to the Ephesians focusing on the Big Picture, helping them to see that the Big Picture is probably Bigger and more wonderful than they have imagined. There is nothing in here about what we need to do, but only what has been done for us because God loves us and God wills it. This is our inheritance. We don’t earn an inheritance and we doubly don’t earn an inheritance because God chose to adopt us to give us this inheritance. Yet this is God’s pleasure. Our response is simply praise of his glorious grace.
It’s strange to leave you without an application, but the point we must get from this passage, the starting point from which later chapters will call us to acts of love and obedience, is too important to complicate or confuse. So go with this
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. The riches of his love that he lavished on us.
Go and live that.