Monday, March 15, 2010

The Message of Ephesians

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Ephesians 6:23-24
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorruptible love.

After nearly a year of studying this great book of the New Testament verse-by-verse, we come today to the end of it. The Christians in Ephesus were close to the Apostle Paul’s heart. For three years he had labored among them during his third missionary journey, and Acts 20 records for us the emotional farewell he had exchanged when last he saw the Ephesian church leaders face-to-face. Now, as he is imprisoned in Rome, seeing his own death approaching fast on the horizon, he has sent them this final letter. There are many ways we could summarize the main teaching of Ephesians, but I have chosen to use the four key words Paul uses in his farewell here: Peace, Love, Faith, and Grace. He could have closed this letter in any particular way he saw fit, but writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these are the words which he felt impressed to share as penned his final greeting to them. Each of these words are like strands that run through the entire book from beginning to end, and as Paul concludes the letter, it is as if he has brought them together to form a great bow on the package. They form a lasting reminder to the Christians in Ephesus of the great truths he has taught them. And as God continues to speak to us through His Word today, these four words encapsulate a lasting message that needs to be etched into each of our minds as we leave the book of Ephesians today. These words summarize the message of Ephesians.

I. The Message of Ephesians is a Message of Peace – (v23) Peace be to the brethren.

In Ephesians 1:2, Paul opened with peace – Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Now he ends with peace – Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. And so we begin and end, not only with a prayer for peace, but with a statement of where this peace comes from. This is not the kind of peace that people can arrive at by signing a treaty with each other. It is not a ceasefire or an end to a battle between human forces. It has a divine source – it is from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This peace indicates that a greater conflict has been brought to an end – the enmity that exists between God and man because of sin. Sin is rebellion against God, it is a subversive and offensive attack on the divine Creator and Ruler of the universe, and every one of us is a partaker in the mutiny. But God has now offered amnesty to the rebels; He has made peace available to us. This peace is offered to us by God the Father, and accomplished for us by the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why Paul says concerning Jesus in Ephesians 2:14 that, “He Himself is our peace!” In His death on the cross, Jesus has taken the full-measure of the Father’s wrath against sin. He has suffered in our place and on our behalf as a substitute. Therefore our sins have received the full and righteous justice they deserve and forgiveness is available to us. And receiving that gift of salvation in Him, we are not only forgiven by God, but we are adopted by Him – we who were enemies are made sons and daughters, so that God the Father (of 6:23) becomes God our Father (of 1:2).

But the peace that God offers to us in Christ extends beyond peace with Him, as if that weren’t enough. Through Christ our peace, we have peace with each other as well. In Ephesians 2:14-16, Paul says that Christ is our peace, and He has made “both groups,” that is Jews and Gentiles, “into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall … so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.” Sin not only separates us from God, but from other people as well. And in the cross, by destroying sin, God has removed the barriers that divide us from Himself and each other.

Having been reconciled to God by this peace, and having been brought together into one body, one family with each other through faith in Jesus Christ, the Church is now commissioned to preserve this peace. In 4:1-3, Paul implores the church to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called,” which includes “being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” If God has offered us His peace, if Christ has become our peace, and if the Holy Spirit has unified us together in this peace of Christ, then it would be highly hypocritical for us to be at odds with our fellow Christians. But, since Satan desires to get a foothold in our lives through falsehoods and unbridled anger (4:25-27), we must be diligent, alert and on guard, to preserve the bond of peace by constantly showing mercy to one another and taking the high road to extend the peace of Christ we have received from God to each other.

Then Ephesians tells us we must be proclaimers of this peace as well. We must announce to the world that peace and pardon has been offered to them from Almighty God through Jesus Christ. Jesus preached peace, Paul says in 2:17—“He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near,” quoting Isaiah 57:19. Now, according to 6:15, we, His people, are to go into the world, “having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace,” and inviting lost and sinful people to be reconciled with God through the peace of Christ. We are ambassadors for peace in the world, and are commissioned to make this peace known. The message of the gospel is peace with God and peace with one another through Jesus Christ our Lord. He offers us peace, He is our peace, and He has given us His message of peace to make known. This message of peace is essential in the message of Ephesians.

II. The Message of Ephesians is a Message of Love (v23) Peace be to the brethren, and love

In Paul’s closing words, he prays for the people to experience, in addition to God’s peace, His love as well. It is a divine love which comes, like the peace, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The supreme nature of this love is indicated by the Greek term agape. It is love that surpasses romantic love, brotherly love, and natural affections and fondness. It is a love that flows from God, is defined by God Himself, and offered to us in relationship with Him. It is His “great love with which He loved us” (2:4). We are the objects and recipients of His great love.

Ephesians does not merely tell us that love comes from God, and that God loves us, and that His love is great, though these would be enough to know! But here in this letter, Paul goes deeper to tell us what God’s great love for us has accomplished. In 1:4-5 he tells us, “In love, He predestined us to adoption as sons.” Now to some, the doctrine of predestination sounds very unloving. In their mind, if God was truly loving, He would not predestine some to go to heaven and some to go to hell. But this misunderstands a very important reality – all of us deserve hell because of sin. None of us can stand before God and say that we deserve fellowship with Him because of our own goodness. Because God is completely holy, sin must be dealt with. And God has dealt with it in Christ because He is completely loving. The benefits of Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection are applied to those who come to Him by faith as Lord and Savior. But for those who do not, they will bear the wrath against sin in themselves. So, then, is it simply up to us to choose? And those of us who choose rightly will be saved while those who do not will perish? As attractive as this sounds, and as popular as it is, the reality that we are faced with is that sin has so totally corrupted us that none of us would ever make the choice to believe, to turn from sin, and to be saved. We are, as Paul says in 2:1, “dead in our trespasses and sins.” The only choice a dead person can make is to stay dead. So then God, who has planned out our glorious redemption in Christ from before the foundation of the world, also knows that none of us will avail ourselves of His grace on our own free choosing. Therefore, because He loves us so greatly, because His mercy and grace is so abundant, God has sovereignly chosen some to save. He has set aside some for Himself to enjoy and experience His love to the fullest extent. Good Christian people will always disagree on how predestination works exactly, but we who take the Bible seriously are not at liberty to say that we do not believe in predestination. The Bible speaks too clearly about it to deny! It is a great manifestation of God’s love that He has not only accomplished redemption for us in Christ, but has predestined some who do not deserve it to experience it. It is not important to me that you become Calvinists or Arminians or anywhere in between, but rather that you understand this about predestination: 1) The Bible clearly teaches it so we do not deny it. 2) It is not unloving, because God does not predestine people to hell. We choose and deserve hell because of our sin. He has predestined some to redeem from the hell we have chosen and deserved because He loves us. 3) We would have never chosen to move toward God by faith if He had not first chosen to move toward us in love. 4) The fact that some of us have chosen to believe on Christ as Lord and Savior is evidence that we have been predestined to do so, so we need not worry or fear discovering we were not predestined. 5) The way that predestined people discover they have been predestined is by hearing and responding in faith to the gospel message we have been called to share with them. Aside from these realities, you can wrestle and argue with the rest of the systematic details of predestination all you want, but these things are clear in God’s Word. As Paul says here in 1:4-5, He predestined us because He loves us.

Not only has His great love brought about our predestination, but also because of His love we are made alive. As I already stated, Paul tells us in 2:1 that we were dead in our trespasses and sins. Death was at work in us from the moment of conception, as we inherited spiritual death from Adam. Because of this, we are born with corruptible bodies, depraved minds, hardened hearts, and wills bent toward rebellion. Spiritually, we are dead from birth, and are moving toward an eternal death unless we can be made alive in some way. And there is a way. Paul says in 2:4-5 that “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ.” He has raised us from the death of sin to enjoy life as He intended it – abundant and eternal. This new life that God has given us is a life with Christ that will never end. Because our flesh is corruptible, we will experience physical death, but that death is the only death we have to face, and we have the promise of God’s Word that it will not be the end. Jesus said in John 11, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” We have received life in Jesus Christ because God loves us.

But we are also told in Ephesians that it is God’s love that builds us up in the faith. In 4:15-16, Paul tells us that Christ causes the growth of the body (that is, the church), for the building up of itself in love. Because of God’s love for us, Christ is at work in us bringing us into spiritual maturity and a deepening fellowship with one another in the church. He has not saved us to only abandon us. He has saved us, made us alive, and lives in the midst of us making us more like Himself and bringing us into more unity with each other.

Now this great blessing of His love entails some responsibilities for those of us who have received and experienced it. We must grow in our knowledge of this love. Paul says in 3:19 that he prays for the church to “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.” How can we know the unknowable? We will never know it fully in this life – the fullness of His love will always elude our intellectual grasp. But as we mature in the faith we come to understand and experience this love in ever-deepening ways. The Christian ought to be continually more aware and more assured of the great love of God for us in Jesus.

Not only are we to know this love, but we are to show His love as well. There is a dual focus of the reflection of His love in us. It is vertical – a love for Him. As Paul says in the final phrase of this letter in 6:24, his prayer is for those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorruptible love. The more we understand His love for us, the more we are able to return that love to Him. Our imperfect love for Him is being perfected as His love works in us. And this love we show is horizontal as well. In 4:2, Paul says that “walking worthy of our calling” entails “showing tolerance for one another in love.” The more we understand His love, the more evident His love should be in us, and the more freely it should be shown to others through us. The old hymn we sing at times says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” One reason so many are turned away from Christ today is that they are not seeing this love at work in our lives! Our failure to love our brothers and sisters in Christ is a demonstration of our failure to understand and grasp His love for us. Love for God in Christ, love for each other – does that sound familiar? Jesus said they were the greatest commandments – to love God and love our neighbors.

We are to know it, and to show it, but Ephesians also tells us that we are to speak it. In 4:15, we are admonished to “speak the truth in love.” Love for Christ and one another should be evident in how we speak to one another. Loving speech demands truthful speech, but not all truthful speaking is done in love. We must always join the two together, realizing that there is a loving way to say what needs to be said to one another. But our love must not only be on our lips, it must be in our lives as well. We are not only to speak it, but to walk in it. In 5:2, Paul says, “Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you.” Our love for Him and others should be evident as live more and more like Jesus, who “gave Himself up for us.” As we give ourselves up for others, they will see His love alive in us.

So we see that the message of Ephesians is a message of love. In 6:24, Paul joins two key words together in an inseparable way as he prays for God’s people to experience “love with faith.” Our faith in Christ has a direct effect on our love for Him and others. The more faith we place in Him, the more we trust Him, the more we will know His love, and reflect His love back to Him and to each other. We see this in 1:15 as Paul says that he is aware of “the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints.” The one produces the other. His prayer in 3:17 is that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,” which would result in you “being rooted and grounded in love.” He even points to a living example of faith and love in his colleague Tychicus, by whom he has sent this letter to the Ephesians. He describes him in 6:21 as “the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord.” Like Tychicus, love and faith should mark our character as well.

So we move now to …

III. The Message of Ephesians is a Message of Faith (v23) Peace to the brethren, and love with faith

While there are some who would want to suggest that faith is a blind leap that foolish and religious people make, it can be demonstrated relatively easily that all people exercise faith. A person deposits their money in the bank in faith that the bank will guard it in safekeeping. A person gets on board an airplane in faith that it will carry them to their destination safely. All of us have some kind of faith. But the faith Paul is talking about in Ephesians is a specific kind. It is faith in God through Jesus Christ, as he says in 4:5, there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” Though there are many kinds of faith, only this faith saves. It is the only faith that makes us right with God. In 2:8, Paul says that we are saved by grace, through faith. Grace is God’s hand reaching out to save us from sin. Faith is ours reaching out to Him to receive salvation.

So faith is our means of receiving salvation, as opposed to works. We are not made right with God by performing rituals or doing certain things and not doing others. We are made right with God by believing His promises to save us. It is not what we do, but our faith in what He has done for us through Jesus Christ. And when we exercise this kind of faith in Him, we who are sinners by birth and by choice, are declared and made righteous (or justified) in Christ. Look at how the Ephesian Christians are described in 1:1 – they are saints (God’s righteous people) because they are faithful in Christ Jesus (they have placed their faith in Him). Faith is our means of receiving salvation and righteousness, and also our means of access to Him. In 3:12, Paul says that we have boldness and confident access to Jesus through faith in Him. We can approach Him in prayer and in worship knowing that He hears us and receives us because of the faith we have placed in Him!

Faith is also our means of defense in spiritual attack. In 6:16, Paul likens our faith to a shield by which we not only deflect the fiery onslaught of Satan, but extinguish them as well. The temptations that come our way with frequency and intensity are rendered ineffective as we stand strong behind the shield of our faith in Him.

Now this kind of faith that saves us, justifies us, grants us eternal access to God in Christ, and defends us from the attacks of the enemy is not something we can produce on our own. We are so radically corrupted by sin, that we cannot muster this kind of faith from the spiritual bankruptcy of our souls. And that is why Paul says in 2:8 that this faith is “not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” That which He requires of us He supplies to us. A person does not come to this kind of saving faith by being convinced against his or her will to believe. Rather, we can all testify that we found this sort of faith rising up in us rather unexpectedly as God was producing and supplying it to us. We are spiritually hopeless to do even such a simple thing as believe. But thanks be to God, for those He has marked out as His own in the world, He divinely enables them to believe upon His promise to save!

In light of this, because there is only one faith and we who are in it have been brought into it by God Himself, we must strive for the unity of this faith. In 4:13 Paul says that the unity of the faith is our goal as Christ works in and through us for the benefit of one another. The church is not a place where people can pick and choose aspects of the message to believe and have any number of theological opinions about divine truth. There is one faith, and each of us has been called to preserve the unity of it.

So Ephesians is a message of faith. Now, finally, we will add …

IV. The Message of Ephesians is a Message of Grace (v24) Grace be with all

By definition, grace is the demonstration of undeserved favor. We show grace to our children when we give them good gifts even though they have disobeyed. But it is not merely human grace and kindness that Paul speaks of here. This is divine grace that has its source in God. He says in 1:2, “Grace to you … from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” God’s grace is shown to us in spite of our sins. We deserve nothing but wrath and judgment from God, but He has not given us what we deserve. Praise God, He has shown us grace! And because we are so undeserving, this grace is magnified exponentially. Paul describes God’s grace as glorious in 1:6, as he says that God is accomplishing His divine will to the praise of the glory of His grace which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved (that is, the Lord Jesus). Not only is His grace glorious, but it is also limitless! Paul speaks in 1:7 of the riches of His grace, and in 2:7 of the surpassing riches of His grace. The US Government operates a depository adjacent to Fort Knox that holds about 4,600 tons of gold bullion. That is more abundant riches than any of us can imagine! But the riches of God’s grace surpass this by infinity!

Out of God’s glorious and abundant grace, He has worked on our behalf to draw us to Himself. Grace is the basis of our election, as Paul says in 1:5-6 – “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Grace is the basis of our redemption, as we see in 1:7, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.” God’s grace is what marked us out to be His own people and His grace brought Christ to the cross that the price of our redemption – the shedding of His blood in death – could be paid on our behalf. This is how we are saved! It is God’s grace. In 2:5 and 2:8, Paul says twice that it is “by grace you have been saved.” We don’t deserve it. We can’t earn it. But God offers it to us because of His glorious and limitless grace.

Then we see that grace is the basis of our calling and service to Christ. God has a work for each of us to do. Who can fathom that the Creator of the universe wants to use us in His sovereign plan? But He does, and He invites us by His grace, calling us to serve Him in specific ways. Paul speaks of his own calling in Chapter 3, and three times there says that grace is what underlies his calling as an apostle. In 3:2, he says that it his ministry is a stewardship of grace; in 3:7 he says that he was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to him. And in 3:8 he says that he is the very least of all the saints, but this grace was given to him anyway, to preach! Now, not all of us are called to preach, but all of us are called by God’s grace to serve Him in some way. In 4:7, he says, “To each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” and these grace-gifts call, equip, and empower us to serve Him in particular ways individually for the benefit of the entire church. God has something for you to do for Him. He is calling you; He has gifted you; He is empowering you to serve Him; and He is doing this because of His grace.

Whatever that task may be, included in all of our tasks is the proclamation of His grace. In 4:29, Paul confronts our way of speaking and admonishes us, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” When you and I speak to others, we are giving God the opportunity to make the glorious riches of His grace known to them through us. Grace is not just something that God has given to you in Jesus, it is something He wants to give the world through you as you speak and live for Him. And Ephesians is a message of grace.

So if you were to ask me to sum up Ephesians in a word, I would say I couldn’t do it. But given 4 words, I would say that Ephesians is about peace, faith, love, and grace, all made available to us by God through Jesus Christ. If you do not know Him as your Lord and Savior, I pray that the truths of this book would be used by the Holy Spirit as He draws you to believe and trust in Him. And I would conclude this year-long study of Ephesians with the words of the glorious doxology found in Eph 3:20-21 – “Now to Him who is able to far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”

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