Identity, security, glory (Ephesians 1.1-14)

When was the last time that you heard something that you thought was too good to be true? It probably won’t take you long to think of something, whether it’s as trivial as the diet pill pop-up advertisement or the free* vacation (*requiring only that you listen to their 2 hour long time-share presentation and give your credit card info to them so that they can charge a non-refundable $75 deposit  – true story, by the way, that happened to friends of mine a couple weeks ago). Yet I imagine that you, like me, have other deeper and more life-defining moments of disappointment: like the parent who walked out on your family when you were young or the spouse who seemed to make all your dreams come true – until you discovered he or she had been living a double life for years. These kind of disappointments make us as a generation prone to cynicism. Or in its “milder” forms perhaps “realism” or “not-getting-your-hopes-up-too-much” kinds of approaches to life.

God’s promises for the Christian in Ephesians 1:1-14 require that we leave our disbelief, cynicism, disappointment behind. Because to comprehend even a small part of what  God is saying will feel at first that it is simply too good to be true. Yet we forget the difference between our Creator God and our own fragile and broken humanity. People will always disappoint, but God stays true forever. So suspend your disappointment, and imagine that this is true for you as one who believes in Christ! Be encouraged and amazed by our God … and come to Him with your worship and your questions.

1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints 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 to be adopted as his sons 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. 9And he 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 all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

11In 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 word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having 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.

I want to highlight three aspects of this feels-too-good-to-be-true passage:

  1. The identity of God’s people: in Christ
  2. The security of God’s love in Christ
  3. The beauty and glory of God’s purpose in Christ

1. The identity of God’s people: IN CHRIST

  • Jesus Christ is key to the security of God’s love and the beauty of God’s purpose, and so it is in Christ that we find our identity. We’re now, like those this letter was addressed to, saints – faithful – holy – blameless – we’re loved because we are  “the Beloved”: is this how you think of yourself?
  • We are:
    • Blessed in Christ (3 & 6)
    • Chosen in Christ (4)
    • Adopted through Christ (5)
    • Redeemed & forgiven through Christ’s blood (7)
    • Recipients of an inheritance in Christ (11) through hoping in Christ and believing in Christ (12-13)
  • We exist by His grace in Christ, through His grace in Christ, and for displaying His grace in Christ. “For the praise of His glory” is the refrain of this passage. Glory means God’s beauty, goodness, character. In essence: who He is. This phrase means that it’s not about me but about God. My purpose and identity is discovered as I see myself in Christ: redeemed, holy loving — existing to love God with all I am and love others as God loves me. This is not, as a friend of mine said, making us less of who we are but MORE of who we are meant to be.
  • We are God’s own adopted children enjoying the same rights as natural children: both privileges and responsibilities.

2. The security of God’s love in Christ

  • Secure because His love began before the beginning of time – before you were born, before the world was created. God knew everything about you, yet chose to love you. “Having been predestined” means that God gave you a destiny before the beginning of time, and this destiny was to be His beloved one. It is not unlike the love of a mother for her yet unborn child, or parents anticipating adoption: they choose to love this child before they know him or her.
  • Secure because it depends on God’s work, not yours. It is not the strength of our faith that matters most, but the faithfulness of God, as my friend April reminded me. It is primarily God’s activity that is highlighted in this passage, and our activity is merely to respond. God chose, adopted, redeemed, forgave, gave an inhertance, sealed, lavished, and made His will known – to US! Our response is to hope in Christ by believing in Christ when we hear the gospel (the good news that Jesus Christ died and rose again that we may be called “holy and blameless” before God – that our sins may be forgiven and redeemed).
  • Secure because of this cascade of blessings (vv. 3-14). God not only chose us in Christ, but also adopted us in love. He not only adopted us in love, but also redeemed us. Not only redeemed us, but also forgave us. Not only forgave us [the debt], but gave us an inheritance [put credit to our account]. And how do we know we won’t lose this? We’re not only given an inheritance, but sealed us with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of what’s to come. This is total and complete security from beginning to end.
  • What difference does this make? [what Ephesians lays out for us is termed by theologians as the doctrine of election]  I can testify personally that it makes all the difference in the world. Before God opened my eyes to the beauty of His secure love for me, I constantly vacillated between pride and fear. On the days when I felt like I had done pretty good (enough good deeds, loved others, wasn’t impatient in traffic/etc), I would feel prideful – confident that I had deserved God’s favor. However, on the many other days when I saw my own failures, I would be full of fear, worry, insecurity, and anxiety. How could God possibly love me if I struggled so much? The security of God’s love in Christ frees me from both. I have no room for pride, because God has done it all. And fear is banished, because I can’t be separated from God’s love. (see Romans 8:28-39 for another full description of these truths)

3. The beauty  and glory of God’s purpose in Christ

  • His love and choosing of us in Christ isn’t a haphazard wish, but it is intentional and purposeful. Verse 5 says that these promises are “according to the purpose of his will,” verse 9 repeats that: “according to his purpose,” and  verse 11 sums it up by saying it is all “according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Even right after the Fall in Genesis 3, there is the promise that Jesus will come – the seed of Eve who will crush the serpent’s head – God purposed to send Christ to make it possible for us as sinful people to become holy and blameless.
  • His purpose/will is to bless us with “every spiritual blessing” – to lavish us with “riches of his grace,” making us who hope in Christ recipients of His grace.
  • His purpose/will is that we who were his enemies, who are broken and marred by sin, become holy and blameless – as Christ takes our sin and gives us His righteousness.
  • And God’s purpose/will is not only to reconcile individuals to himself and to each other, but to restore all things in Christ – in heaven and on earthin the “fullness of time” (v. 9-10). This is all about understanding the larger story, summarized so well by N.T. Wright in his excellent devotional commentary on Ephesians as follows:

“God’s great prayer at the opening of this letter is a celebration of the larger story within which every single Christian story — every story of individual conversion, faith, spiritual life, obedience and hope — is set. Only by understanding and celebrating the larger story can we hope to understand everything that’s going on in our smaller stories, and so observe God at work in and through our own lives.”

It is often hard to wrap my mind around such a beautiful picture of full redemption. That is why I think C.S. Lewis has done it so well in the closing chapter of the last book in his excellent series, the Narnia Chronicles, entitled “The Last Battle.” Soak it up – and believe it is really as good as it seems and as true as it is good:

Then Aslan [the character of a good lion who represents God in these stories] turned to them and said, “You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.”

Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our world so often.”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?” Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are — as you used to call it in the Shadowland — dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as he spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and so beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Introduction to Ephesians: Identity & Grace

So my apologies to those of you who have faithfully followed my blog. I took a break because I was preparing to present two lectures on Ephesians to our church’s women’s Bible study. But I hope you’ll also be encouraged by these truths as well. Here’s week 1: introduction to Ephesians …

INTRO: The New Year is often a time for reflection, review, and resolutions. (and hey, it’s still January – so it’s not too late!) I tend to be a reflective person, and so there’s something I love about this transition. What’s often inherent in the “new year promise” is the hope of a new identity. Yes, you can have the body you’ve always wanted, and so new gyms lure you in with promises of new rates and fitness challenges – and the “January crowd” always packs it in. Finances went bad last year? This year offers new promises of sticking to your budget and paying off debt. This is the year to finally put to rest old family feuds; to finally face the “ghosts from your past”; to finally overcome that besetting habit that’s plagued you. And our resolutions reflect our desire to recreate our identities – to make over our selves into the better versions we know we could be.

I, too, enjoy this aspect of a new year. I’ve reflected on the old year; thought about how I want this new year to be different. There’s something hopeful about the freshness of the calendar year. Listen to these resolutions I came up with in 1996 (when I was a junior in high school):

1. To be more diligent in schoolwork-try very hard to complete the work the night before.

2. To go to God first about everything that happens

3. To have a more consistent walk with God – not so many ups and downs

4. To not be a part of a car accident in the next year

5. To exercise at least once a week

6. To have a daily quiet time of 5 minutes or more

7. To be rid of all jealousy

8. To have better family relationships

9. To watch for God’s hand in all that happens in my life and see the good in all situations

And apparently I was still working on some of the same things in 1997 (senior year of high school):

1. To have a daily quiet time with God greater than 15 minutes

2. To exercise 3 times a week [at least I moved up closer to what’s recommended!]

3. To give each day to God by prayer and thank him for each day in the evening

4. To cease complaining

5. To try to complete all homework before Sunday

6. To be uninvolved in a car accident this year [I was only in one, by the way, and that was Dec. ’95]

7. To live each day in full reliance upon my Lord with the hope that He has a wonderful plan for my life and “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20)

These resolutions are not bad in and of themselves. I included some good goals — yet the truth is that I’m still working on much of them! The promises of Ephesians offer something much better than our reflections and resolutions that accompany the New Year. Ephesians speaks directly to the question of identity – offering you the reality of the identity you’ve been given if you are a Christian, or the identity you’re invited into if you’re not yet a Christian.

Who needs Ephesians? All of us do! As you can tell from my new year’s resolutions, I tend to struggle with finding my identity in my own righteousness – my efforts to pray more, read the Bible more, exercise more, even love people more – and I forget grace. I first really read, studied, meditated (and even attempted to memorize) Ephesians the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. For those of you who have heard my testimony of God’s work in my life, this summer is the one I refer to as “the summer of grace.” I entered this summer an exhausted legalist, trying to perform the works God required of me in my own strength, and I left the summer an energized, free daughter of God, empowered by grace to minister in new ways to the 50 freshmen and sophomore women I was an R.A. to my junior year. I can say that I would not have gotten through that stretching year without the grace of God in Christ described so beautifully in the book of Ephesians.

Where are you?

  • Maybe you, like me, are a legalist worn out from trying to live a holy life and do good. You’ve probably focused on the last half of Ephesians and skimmed over the first half. Yet these last chapters cannot be lived apart from the grace we find in Christ – which is the focus of the first 3 chapters. You need to remember to start at the beginning!
  • Or perhaps you are a Christian who has forgotten what kind of life grace compels you to. The struggle against sin has ceased to be a struggle, because you’ve given in and now find yourself caught in habits you’re ashamed of. You know you’re “saved by grace” anyway, so what’s the big deal? Jesus comes to you through the message of Ephesians to call you into a bigger life – one of obedience and transformation motivated by grace. You’ve been rescued from darkness, so live no longer there.
  • Maybe you are unsure of Jesus and His claims. You wonder what all of this Jesus stuff is all about. You heard about the hope of a Savior to come promised and pointed to through our study in Genesis, but you wonder why you need Him. Or if you really need Him at all. The gospel message is loud and clear throughout Ephesians – describing what grace is and why all of us need it.
  • Perhaps you’re doubting who you are and you are struggling to find your identity. You’re looking in all the typical places: marriage (or independence), children, career, even good deeds, friendship, fitness & health … yet you find that each of these crumbles as soon as you seek to hold onto it and find your life here. You were made for more than this.

This is a letter written to people who also were struggling with identity and reconciliation: Gentile Christians in the region surrounding Ephesus.

  • Ephesus was the 2nd largest and 2nd most important city in the Roman Empire (2nd only to Rome!) – modern day Turkey
  • For Gentiles to be able to be in God’s family was revolutionary. Before Jesus Christ, spots in God’s family were reserved only for Jews. After Jesus, salvation is made available to all who believe, both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews weren’t too happy about that – and this left the Gentiles feeling a bit insecure of their identity.
  • PAUL wrote this letter to as a circular letter, meant for Christians in this entire region, to assure them of their identity as Gentiles in Christ. (like a group email – why there’s not as many personal references like in the parallel book of Colossians, written around the same time)
    • How was Paul qualified? What were his own identity struggles? He was a Jew who was known as “Saul” and who persecuted Christians. God interrupted him en route to Damascus and saved him, calling him now Paul. And then he experienced intense persecution for the rest of his life as he became a missionary – bringing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ’s salvation through Asia, all the way to Rome.
    • Yet he’s writing while imprisoned in Rome – for the very identity of “Christian” that he now writes and reminds them of. Imagine the impact this would have had on the first readers!

So what does Paul write? What will you find here?

  • THEMES:
    • Central message of be who you are – in contrast to who they used to be and how they used to live in the past
    • Your past before Christ, your future in Christ, and how this is to affect your present day-to-day life in Christ
    • Reconciliation: being made right with God and with others – “Only through Christ can all other division be brought to an end.”
    • Truth and beauty of the Triune God (God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, the Holy Spirit)
    • Grace
    • Challenge/call to exhibit God’s glory and grace through daily life
    • God’s action and His work
    • A high calling empowered by the Spirit
    • A love story written before the beginning of time
    • How to engage in the spiritual battle we’re in
  • STRUCTURE:
    • Intro/greeting; body of the letter; closing
    • Two halves: 1-3 – who God’s made you as a Christian; 4-6: call to live like who you really are
    • Eloquent prayers
    • Truth and promises that are gems of grace to be treasured
    • Practical exhortations
    • Household code
    • Spiritual warfare

It’s very easy with the changes of life, whatever they might include for you in this new year, to forget who you are. Or to feel like you’ve lost a part of who you are. Changes that come with moving are always hard for me and provide an opportunity for me to re-examine where I’ve really been finding my identity – is it in being known by friends, playing a crucial role in a small church plant, being a counselor with a large church counseling center, not getting lost when I drive. The most recent move for us from Philadelphia to Norfolk has been no different! And I’ll admit that although I would say this has been the best, smoothest transition I’ve ever experienced, it has still served to be a bit of an identity-shake-up for me.

And I found myself feeling a bit down in December – generally unmotivated, wondering whether I was really making a difference, missing familiar holiday celebrations with close friends, and questioning what my identity is here in Norfolk.

Yet God met me through the study of Ephesians to remind me that who I truly am has not changed at all over this year, and it won’t change for the next 10 years either. It gave me hope and motivation to pursue what God’s given me to do during this season, not having to make it my life or where I’m finding my meaning (which would make any task unbearable) – and there’s been a true sense of joy where there was a vague sense of discontentment because of the riches that are mine in Christ.

So our prayer for you as you begin to read this book, either for the first time or the 50th time, is that you will be refreshed and revitalized in seeing the beauty of who Christ is for you and who you are in Christ – and it will become a letter that you will keep close to you to return to often.

[you can hear the talk at this link]