Comments, Observations, and Questions
Almost exactly a year ago (on the first Sunday after Christmas) the lectionary reading for the epistles was this same lesson. At that time, I wrote a long piece on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website in which I focused on a couple of the “spiritual blessings” listed by Paul. Under the heading of “what did you get for Christmas,” I explored the most controversial of those blessings, election/predestination, and the most comforting of those blessings, redemption/forgiveness. So I won’t say much about those blessings today. Instead I’ll consider the other blessings—the knowledge of the mystery of God’s will, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the inheritance of full redemption.
First, however, anyone who preaches on this rich passage must say something about the overriding theme of God’s sovereign grace in Christ. As I noted in that previous article, all of the blessings Paul lists are “in Christ,” as he says in his opening sentence. That phrase or its equivalent occurs over and over again here (I count 11, but you may find more or less). That’s why I called these “spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms” as “Christmas gifts.” I won’t spend any time explaining that enigmatic phrase here, because I did that a year ago in the above mentioned piece.
I will spend time on the sovereign grace theme. Paul says that all of the blessings we receive in Christ have their origin not in our faith, but in God’s sovereign grace. He puts that in a number of ways. In verse 5 the blessings of election and predestination come to us “in accordance with his pleasure and will (the good pleasure of his will, eudokian tou thelematos).” In verse 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will “according to his good pleasure (eudokian, again).” And in verse 11 predestination is “according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (boulen thelematos)….”
These verses have been the subject of much fierce debate between Calvinists and Arminians, but this much should be clear to both sides. The coming of Christ was the fulfillment of a plan and a purpose that originated in God’s “good pleasure.” There was no necessity driving God’s redemptive plan. He sent Christ and he gives us all these blessings simply because it pleased him to do so. The sense of eudokian is not so much sheer determination as supreme delight. Some Christians get upset about ideas like election and predestination, or even the central Gospel idea that salvation is only in Christ, but Paul says that God acted as he did because it gave him great delight. He is in charge of salvation from beginning to end (more on the latter thought in a moment), and it pleased him to plan and act as he did.
And, before we begin to question the character of a sovereign God who would develop and execute such a plan, Paul assures us again and again that God is driven by love for sinners. The redemption which we have in Christ, say verses 7 and 8 is “in accordance with the riches of Gods’ grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” We may not be able to understand why God planned things the way he did, but Paul insists that God is not only supremely wise and knowledgeable, but also more gracious than we can ever understand. The God who planned our salvation and then fulfilled his plan in Christ is not mean spirited or tight fisted. His heart overflows with love for sinners and his hand is wide open in disbursing grace to those who do not deserve it. God’s good pleasure is to be lavishly gracious.
Indeed, if the grace of God is the reason God sent Christ to save sinners, then the “praise of his glorious grace” is the ultimate purpose of God’s saving plan. Paul says that three times, at the conclusion of each major thought, in verses 6, 12, and 14. Some scholars see a Trinitarian framework here. The Father elects and predestines and adopts, the Son redeems and forgives, and the Spirit seals and guarantees. That may be too rigid a structure, but the point is clear. Every aspect of our salvation will finally bring God the glory that is his due. We were created for God’s glory. Our sin has tarnished that glory. And the grace of God will completely redeem us so that in the end his glory will once again shine, as the entire universe sees his grace triumphant over sin. The history of the whole world and the story of our individual lives will finally demonstrate that the angels were singing the absolute truth at the birth of Jesus. “Glory to God in the highest!”
An enterprising preacher could fruitfully spend this second Sunday after Christmas exploring the heights and depths of God’s sovereign grace in Christ. A sermon on this aspect of our text for today would lift people’s eyes far above the world’s tawdry celebration of Christmas and the world’s dismal prospects as we enter a new year. God has a plan; it is good; it is driven by grace; and it will surely succeed in Christ. To God be the glory!
Or a preacher who wants to take an easier route could simply focus on the remaining gifts under the tree. Here’s what God has purchased for us by offering the supreme gift of his Son. “He has made known to us the mystery of his will… which he purposed in Christ….” (verse 9) Often we are so mystified by God’s plan that we wonder if there really is one. The fragmentation and frustration of our experience in this world make it seem as though everything is out of control or ruled by a madman. So it is a real gift to know what God’s plan is.
Note the phrases that introduce God’s plan. It is “according to his good pleasure.” Again, this is something God is delighted to do. It is “purposed in Christ.” Again, Christ is at the center of God’s plan. It is “to be put into effect….” The Greek word here is oikonomian, from which our word “economy” comes; the idea is that God is managing history to achieve his plan. And finally, God’s plan will be accomplished “when the times will have reached their fulfillment….” In God’s good time, the world will know what we know now, and not before.
What will God do then? He will “bring all things together in heaven and on earth under one head, even Christ.” A world fragmented by sin– humanity separated from God, humans at war with each other, the human race abusing the creation itself, individuals internally splintered into disintegration– will finally be reunited. Shalom will prevail. The NIV translation, “bring together under one head” is an attempt to capture the meaning of a very unusual Greek word, anakephaleiosesthei. At its heart, of course, is the Greek word for head, kephalos. But how are we to translate this compound word? Some scholars think it has the mathematical sense of adding things up. Today things don’t add up; they don’t make sense; they aren’t in meaningful relation to each other. God’s plan is to bring all things back into line so that everything is once again in the right place. That will happen only when Christ is the head of everything, when all creatures in heaven and on earth will bend the knee and acknowledge that “Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:11).”
Until the time we see God’s plan fulfilled, God has given us other gifts to enjoy. He has made us heirs with a glorious inheritance. In verse 11, the word “chosen” is eklerothemen, which has the sense of being made heirs. Earlier (verse 5) Paul has talked about our adoption; here he focuses on the fact that as God’s children, we are heirs to a fortune. As with our adoption, Paul emphasizes that God’s sovereign grace has accomplished it—“having been predestined according to the plan….” But now he adds that the one who sovereignly adopted us will also sovereignly assure us of our inheritance. The one who predestined us is the God “who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will….” As heirs of God’s fortune, we are absolutely secure, because of God’s past action (predestination) and his present action (providence). We may lose or break our earthly Christmas gifts, but we can’t lose or break these “spiritual blessings.”
That brings us to the final gift, the gift of the Spirit. “Having believed, you were marked in him (Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance….” We have received what Jesus promised in John 14 and 16 and Acts 1, but here Paul adds a couple of new dimensions of the Spirit’s work. We know we have the Spirit because we believe “the word of truth, the gospel of salvation.” His presence in our lives is a God given seal. The Greek is esphragisthete, which means that the seal of the Spirit guarantees that we are the genuine article, marks us as the possession of God, and protects us from tampering or harm. So the Spirit in our lives assures us of our secure place in God’s family.
Further, says Paul, the Spirit assures us of the security of our inheritance. The Spirit is the “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance….” We’ve all heard stories of heirs who lost everything in a stock market crash or a bankruptcy. There’s no way that can happen to God’s children. The God who has predestined us for adoption and sent His Son to redeem us from sin and given us his Spirit as a mark of our genuineness has also given us a down payment, a first installment of the inheritance we will one day receive. The faith, hope, and love given by the Spirit, the full fruit and the many gifts of the Spirit, are the guarantee that God will give us full redemption. The God whose sovereign grace initiated our salvation will also complete it by his sovereign grace.
We are, says Paul, “God’s possession.” From eternity to eternity, says the usually fierce 17th century confession called the Canons of Dort, we are captured by the “Golden Chain” of redemption. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his ‘son…. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified…. [and nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:29, 30, 39) The redemption we have already experienced by faith in Christ will surely be completed in Christ. It’s a sure thing, rooted in God’s sovereign grace, accomplished by Christ’s sacrifice, and guaranteed by the Spirit.
As the glitter of Christmas goes back in the box or is thrown in the trash, this text gives us a wonderful opportunity to remind our congregation of these gifts in Christ that “can never perish, spoil or fade… (I Peter 1:4).” May the Spirit use our sermons to move our people to “the praise of his glorious grace.”
Idea 1: The vision of a united creation offered in Ephesians 1 looks mighty unrealistic in view of the mess in the Middle East. A 21st century conflict between the United States and Iraq morphs into a contemporary version of a centuries’ old struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. And then into the mix comes ISIS, which has roots in both Syria and Iraq. All of them hate Israel, which itself is divided internally, even as it does battle with Hamas in its own backyard. Back in the United States, hawks like John McCain want to send in troops to defeat ISIS, while doves say we should have nothing to do with that internal conflict. Everyone says that President Obama has mishandled the whole thing. And all that is just the Middle East. What on earth could possibly bring unity to such a divided world? Only the grace of God bringing people from every nation under one head, even Christ.
Idea 2: I’m about to purchase a new car. The dealer wants a down payment, which I will make by trading in my old car. That down payment signals my intention to complete the transaction. It is, in effect, my promise to pay in full later. But before the dealer will accept my car as trade, I must bring in my title to the car. In order to be legal, that title must have the seal of the State of Michigan on it. Without that seal, the title isn’t legal and I can’t prove that I actually own the old car. The whole deal would be in question without that seal and deposit. So it is with the Holy Spirit and the completion of our redemption. He’s the proof that we are the real deal and the guarantee that God will keep his end of the deal.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 4, 2015
Ephesians 1:3-14 Commentary