The last two weeks have been busy at work (for my readers who are unaware, I am a campus minister). Part of the workload has been due to preparing a sermon for the congregation I work with. I have more than full-time work as a campus minister, so when I preach, I have to find the time to do so in whatever “free” time I have left. So things like blogging get pushed to the side.
To make amends, I’m posting an edited version of my sermon manuscript. Please note this was written to be read. So there are incomplete sentences and the like. Also, I don’t slavishly read it word-for-word. So some parts were changed on the fly, and others were changed in the minutes before I went to the pulpit to preach.
From the time you woke up until now–a couple of hours or less for some of our students, and maybe four to six hours for our early-rising members–did you even notice how many advertisements you saw or heard? Radio ads. TV ads. Ads on the internet. Ads on your phone apps. Ads through your emails. Billboards. The packaging your cereal came in.
We see between 250 to 3000 ads every day according to the estimations. Assuming that you sleep 6 hours, because no one sleeps eight hours anymore, that’s at least, that’s anywhere from 14 to 163 ads an hour. If you were awake for three hours before you came here, that’s roughly 50 to 500 ads that you saw this morning.
Some of them are pretty good.
But we don’t stop and think about how these advertisements train us to view the world. We don’t think about what they are teaching our kids. In fact, some within the American Psychological Association are lobbying for the government to better regulate the ads that target young children. (source)
Most of these ads try to convince us that we are missing a product or service that we need. That our lives would be more enjoyable or more fun or less complicated if we had it. Our consumeristic culture is based on getting you and me to believe that we are missing something in our lives that we need.
We’ve taken this approach in our churches and Christian publishing. That the next program or event or speaker or conference will revolutionize your spiritual life. If you pay close attention to how many churches and Christian books are marketed, you will see that they try to make you feel that you are missing out on something spiritually.
And it works, partly because many of us already feel like we are missing something. Even though we are Christians, we don’t walk around feeling like we have enormous blessings for God. We walk around wishing we had more from God. What we have right now isn’t enough.
But when Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians, he starts out with a different assumption. Christians, he says, aren’t people characterized by missing out on something from God. Christians are people whose lives have been lavishly blessed by God. And Paul really believes it.
So, as we begin a series on Ephesians, we will begin where Paul began: by trying to understand the blessings we have in God and why God has blessed us with them.
I’m excited about preaching through Ephesians. Why? Simply, studying Ephesians has helped me more than any other book of the Bible over the last five years. It has drawn me closer to God. Encouraged me. Convicted me.
No other book in the New Testament talks as pointedly about the power of God in our lives. Few other books can match what it says about our identity in Christ. And I think you’ll find it helpful.
Yes. It is two thousand years old and written to a church far removed from our context and culture. But you’ll find it relevant to your lives and our church. As one scholar said: “This letter is the most contemporary book in the Bible….It describes human beings, their predicament, sin, and delusion, but much more it describes God’s reaching out to people to recreate and transform them into a new society” (Klyne Snodgrass, The NIV Application Commentary on Ephesians, 17).
Introduction to Ephesians
Ephesians was written by Paul, the apostle. He mentions his name in 1:1 and 3:1. Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison. As with so many of these details, we aren’t sure exactly where he was, but it’s likely that it’s written during his imprisonment in Rome. And this means it was written in the early sixties, late in Paul’s life and near his execution.
I don’t have time to do anything but touch upon this, but it’s not even certain that the letter is written to Ephesus. Some early copies of the letter leaves “in Ephesus” out, as your Bibles might mention. Some scholars think that it is a circular letter, and that it only later became associated with one of the churches that it was sent to…that is, Ephesus. But I think there is enough evidence to believe it’s Ephesus, and, besides, it doesn’t really matter to our study of the letter.
But remember that Paul is not a scholar in an ivory tower. Paul encountered Jesus, and his life was completely changed by him. And he is a church planter. We know he spent several years in Ephesus working with the church.
As we read this letter, though, remember this: Paul writes about are the realities that define his life. When he talks about the power of God in our inner life, that’s a power he’s experienced. He talks about grace, and he’s experienced grace. When he says that our battle isn’t against flesh and blood but against the dominions and powers of evil, remember that Paul is a missionary who has been attacked by Satan, seen his converts tormented by the Evil One, and has watched several church leaders leave the faith. He writes about spiritual realities that he’s experienced in the midst of the pain and struggles of ministry.
And so he lays out a lofty view of God’s work in salvation, and gives us great insight into the power of God in our lives and the nature of our identity in Christ.
So let’s look at Ephesians.
Letter Introduction (1:1-2)
We’ll mainly focus on verses 3-4. But, since this is a letter, its beginning starts like a normal letter during Paul’s time. Paul follows the normal way of writing a letter, except his faith invades his introduction.
1Paul, 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.
Every Spiritual Blessing (1:3)
Before we look at verses 3 through 10, you should know that verses 3 through 14 are actually one LONG sentence in Greek…202 words. And the translators break it up into different sentences to make it more readable. I’m using the NIV, so if you are using a different translation, it might break it up differently. We will look at part of one really long sentence, and the next time I preach will look at the rest.
In these verses Paul starts with praise to God for everything that he has given to those of us who are in Christ. He says:
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.
When Paul says “spiritual blessings,” he doesn’t mean some private blessing or blessings that are intangible in your life. He means blessings from the Spirit––that is, blessings from the work of God in the lives of believers.
And being blessed “in the heavenly realms,” doesn’t mean that these are merely waiting on us for when we get to heaven. These blessings are realities of our life now in Christ. As Klyne Snodgrass said, “In other words, ‘heavenly realms’ does not refer to a physical location but to a spiritual reality––God’s world, in which believers have a share and which evil forces still seek to attack” (Klyne Snodgrass, The NIV Application Commentary on Ephesians, 47).
And so Paul says that Christians–those who are in Christ–have real spiritual blessings from God in our lives now. But notice the wording of verse 3. “Praise be to God…who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with” –– what? Some spiritual blessings? A bare minimum of blessings? Just enough blessings for us to get by?
No! God’s not withholding anything. You have every blessing. 2 Peter 1:3 says something similar: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life….” The picture isn’t one of stinginess, but one of God lavishing blessings on his people.
The other day my five-year-old son, Jude, was watching a video on the iPad. And my two-year-old son, Owen decides that he wants to watch the video too. So he slides close to Jude. Now, for Jude, this was on the level of another Pearl Harbor. He erupted at Owen. He didn’t want to share. But I told him he had to. So he begrudgingly tilts the iPad just enough for Owen to see and sighs loudly to let me know he wasn’t happy.
It is so easy for us to think that God only begrudgingly gives spiritual blessings. That we only have enough to keep going. We don’t feel that God is lavishing his blessing on us, as Paul will go on to say. This is especially true when you think that the purpose of your life on earth is a test, or if you have such a low view of grace that you think that God is always watching you, looking for an opportunity to take His Spirit from you when you fail and declare you no longer a Christian.
But this is far removed from what the Bible says. God’s not trying to test you to see how few blessings you can get by on. He’s not just barely keeping you going. He’s giving you all the blessing of Christ…every blessing you need for your spiritual life.
Spiritual dryness isn’t because God has kept back spiritual blessings from you. If a struggle with sin seems to have you defeated, then it’s not because God refuses to give you the blessings you need to defeat it. No! God is generous is is offering your all the spiritual blessings and power in Christ. It’s yours in Christ. We fail. We make mistakes and succumb to temptation. But the Bible is clear that this is because we don’t fully rely on God and draw upon the powers and blessings that He has given us.
But at the beginning of this letter, Paul wants your attention to be on the overwhelming riches of God’s blessings to us. He’s given you every blessing––all the blessings you need. And that is something to praise God about.
The Purpose of the Blessings
But why does God give us all these blessings? What’s his purpose? We so often want to fit God’s blessings into our purposes. We are so self-centered, and we often view God’s blessings in our lives as aids to help us pursue our dreams and goals. So I can pursue the kind of life I want.
But God didn’t give you these blessings to help you with your pursuits. As verse 4 will show us, God has a purpose for giving us these blessings.
4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
God gives us all the blessings so that we would be holy and blameless in his sight. So that we could be holy as He is holy.
We spend so much time worrying about God’s will for our life. But we usually mean something like what job God wants us to take or whether we should marry a certain person. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I think it’s the wrong place to start. It’s getting the cart before the horse, as the old saying goes. You need to better understand God’s larger work in the world, and once you understand that it’s so much easier to see what you should be doing day-to-day
Imagine someone that gets a new job. She is assigned to work on a larger project that has been ongoing for years. Before her supervisors explain her role, they first explain to her the larger project. What’s happening in it? What are the goals? And so on. Why? Because your individual role doesn’t make sense unless you know the bigger project. And once you see the bigger picture, it’s easier to understand your role. In fact, many times, just from hearing about the larger project, we often get an intuitive grasp of our job.
But we often try to determine our individual roles without having a grasp of God’s larger plan and purpose with His people. And once we understand that, it’s easier to understand our individual roles.
And when Paul says that God’s purpose for you is to be holy and blameless, he ties this in with larger concepts about God’s wider work in the world: His will, Jesus, His pleasure and his grace in verses 5 – 10:
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. 7In 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 reach their fulfillment–to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
So notice what these first few verses are driving at:
God has given you everything you need––all the blessings and power in Jesus Christ––so that you would be holy and blameless.
Do you want to live out your purpose? Do you want a purpose-driven life? Great. Resist sin. Flee temptation. In aiming to be holy and blameless, you are aiming to be the very person God has intended you to be since before the creation of this world.
This might be a letdown. It doesn’t seem important enough. Holy and blameless? That’s it? Can’t we have a more exciting purpose? If we really understood the glory of this, we would be excited. It wouldn’t be a letdown. The Creator has planned for you to be holy as He is holy. As 2 Peter 1:4 says: we have received what we have through Jesus so that through them “you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”
There is nothing that could be more exciting than participating in the divine nature, to have God move in you and change you so that your life can now begin to reflect his love and goodness and holiness.
God’s purpose for you has more to do with your character than your calling. It has more to do with the righteousness that you display than the role that you play.
What if we were excited about this?
And, just as C. S. Lewis said that there are no ordinary people, these verses show that there are no ordinary decisions. Each decision is a decision about whether you will live out your God-given purpose. Your daily choices between sin and holiness are choices about whether you’ll live up to God’s eternal purpose for you.
He’s given us all the blessings in Christ for us to accomplish his purpose, but so often we elevate living for our own purposes over living for God’s purpose.
When you choose not to forgive your wife or husband, you are choosing your own desire to hurt the other person, or simply to shame them, over God’s desire and plan for you to be blameless and holy. When you choose not to help a brother or sister in need, you are choosing to live our your own purpose for your money than living out God’s purpose for you to be holy and blameless. When you choose to neglect your family for your work––even if you feel your job is important or that other people need you––then you are choosing your own plan to be successful in your work over God’s plan for you to be holy and blameless in how you deal with your family.
In all these areas, if you are a Christian, God has given you every spiritual blessing so that you can be holy and blameless with your money, your family, and how you deal with being mistreated.
This is also encouraging for the older members of our congregation. Many of you have retired from your careers. And your health might be failing. If God’s purpose has to do with your career, or involve you being active in a way that’s not possible for you in your later years, then what are you to do? Are you done living out God’s purpose for your life?
No. God’s purpose for you is to live holy and blameless lives. You can do that now. Whether you are in your career or not in your career. Whether you are healthy or not. You can even be living out God’s purpose for your life in the last days of your life, lying in a hospital bed. From what I have heard of Ms. Henry Mae, that was true of her.
So let’s be holy and blameless as God has planned for us, for that is why He has given you the unbelievable riches of these spiritual blessings.
And when Paul says that God “chose us in him…to be holy and blameless,” he doesn’t just mean that God did all of this for individuals to be holy and blameless. He’s writing to a congregation –– a church just like ours. God has given us, as a church, all the spiritual blessings we need to live out His purpose for our church.
We have a higher calling than seeking our own preferences. We have a more noble calling than simply bickering and gossiping. We are called to be holy and blameless. That’s God’s purpose for this church. That’s why he’s blessed us the way he has.
No matter how we feel about certain things in a church, we are called to be loving and forgiving. Paul will tell us later in Ephesians: “Don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building one another up.” No matter our concerns or plans, it is never okay to put our plans for our church ahead of God’s purpose for our church to be holy and blameless in how we love one another, how we talk about one another, how we forgive one another seventy-times-seven, how we love the outcasts and serve the poor.
That’s our calling. I think the world would be more impressed with the Christian churches in the U.S. if we showed a greater concern for love and holiness than a concern for success, excitement, novelty, or business-like efficiency.
And so, let us aim to be holy, as our Father in heaven is holy. And let us praise Him for the spiritual blessings he has given us to live holy lives. Paul begins Ephesians this way, and the letter will continue to unpack God’s power for your life and His calling for you to be holy and blameless. I hope you’ll pray about this, and I hope you’ll dwell on Paul’s words.
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