Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 3, 2016
Ephesians 1:3-14 Commentary
On this first Sunday of the New Year, it can feel like we are entering “the bleak mid-winter.” All the holiday celebrations are over, so now it’s just one cold, grey, snowy day after another, at least here in West Michigan. But that’s not where our lectionary lesson from the Epistles takes us today. This is the second Sunday after Christmas, and our reading from Ephesians 1 gives us one more opportunity to celebrate that great event by reminding us of the wonderful gifts we have received from God in and through Christ.
In past comments on this passage for the CEP website, I have tried to emphasize those gifts, taking my cue from the old hymn, “Count Your Blessings.” I have named them one by one in an effort to help folks actually celebrate on this day. But it can be difficult to simply celebrate, because this text is as theologically thick as any in Scripture. Indeed, it has been the center of much theological controversy.
Much of that controversy has revolved around the ideas of election and predestination which feature so prominently here. What can it mean that “he chose us in him before the creation of the world?” How do we make sense of predestination in the light of the Gospel’s consistent invitation to make our own choice for Christ by repenting and believing? If we have “been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,” does that mean all things are predetermined and the decisions of our lives are basically meaningless? For centuries the battle has raged between Calvinist and Arminian interpretations of this text. It is hard to celebrate when the air is thick with controversy.
Many post-modern Christians have stopped caring about that old controversy, but this text is still the center of debate on other matters. In a church that trumpets Kingdom living, transforming the world for Christ, Paul’s focus on “spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms” sounds like old fashioned spiritual escapism. In a world convulsed by violence, whether domestic abuse or mass murders or international terrorism, Paul’s insistence that redemption was accomplished “through his blood” causes some sensitive stomachs to turn. How can we celebrate such a gospel in a blood soaked world?
I want to suggest that we can celebrate on this second Sunday after Christmas by focusing on verse 3. All Greek reading preachers know that this passage is one long sentence in the Greek; it’s like one thought extended and expanded. And verse 3 is the introductory summary of that long thought. Think of this as a symphony, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in which the theme is introduced in the first few notes and then elaborated on through a number of different movements. (My grandson’s first grade joke was, “What was Beethoven’s favorite fruit? Bananana!”) We can celebrate today if we focus on the four notes introduced in verse 3. It emphasizes the priority of praise, the priority of God, the priority of spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms, and the priority of Christ.
Paul puts the emphasis on praise with his opening word, eulogetos, translated “praise be” in most versions of the Bible. Don’t argue about what follows; adore God. Paul prefers doxology to debate. Don’t use this text to score theological points. Rather use it to stimulate your praise. Yes, truth matters. Sometimes it is important to debate. But Paul’s priority here is praise, and that should be the priority in our lives. Three times, at the end of the three major divisions of this long sentence, Paul reminds us that the Triune God has given us these blessings “for the praise of his glory (verses 12 and 14)” or more specifically “for the praise of his glorious grace (verse 6).” So our first response to the work of the Triune God that we’ve just celebrated at Christmas should be praise.
Actually, Paul does not so much call us to praise as he announces that God is praised. That Greek word eulogetos is not an imperative verb; it is a verbal adjective. It tells us what God is already, quite apart from any activity on our part. That Greek word is obviously the source of our word eulogy. At funerals, we give a eulogy; we speak well of the dead. Here Paul alludes to the fact that entire universe, animate and inanimate, already speaks well of the living God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” (Psalm 19:1,2) “All the angels… and the elders and the four living creatures… worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen!’” (Revelation 7:11, 12) Only a rebellious humanity, spurred on by the arch Rebel, does not speak well of God. Here Paul reminds those of us who have received “spiritual blessings” that God deserves our appreciation, applause, honor, and praise. In a world that speaks ill of God, let us speak well.
Paul helps us to do that by reminding us of who God is—not God in general or the hands-off God of the Deists, not God as the Great Unknown or God as the Eternal Enigma whose ways and will are a mystery to us, but “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is a God we can praise, because of what he has done in Christ. We should praise God because God did get involved, did make himself known, did show us his ways and declare his will by becoming a particular human being. God took the initiative in blessing us.
Paul takes us behind or before the cradle and the cross here, when he declares that God choose us “before the creation of the world.” He even gives us a peak into what theologians have called the eternal counsel of God, when he says that we have been “predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose (boule) of his will (thelema)….” Long before the world began, long before humanity was created, long before any of us made a move toward God, God made his move toward us. With all this mysterious language Paul insists on the priority of God in every aspect of our salvation—not only in the sending of his Son, but also in choosing and predestining us.
Here we could easily get sidetracked by controversy. One famous preacher said that predestination is a doctrine born in hell, because it makes God a cruel tyrant. But that’s not how Paul describes God. Not only is this “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but he also made these decisions “in love.” In verses 5 and 9 Paul uses a Greek word, eudokia, to tell us why God chose and predestined. The NIV translates it as “good pleasure.” It’s a warm and kind word. As Karl Barth said, “Not a grim Lord watching over the execution of his predetermined plan, but a smiling Father is praised. He enjoys imparting gifts to his children.”
That brings us to the next note in the introduction to Paul’s symphony. He stresses not only the priority of praise and the priority of God, but also the priority of spiritual gifts in the heavenly realms. In the Old Testament, God blessed his people primarily, though not exclusively, with material blessings on earth—possessions, prosperity, protection, progeny, and power. (Cf. Deut. 27 and 28.) Though God may still bless us in such ways that is not the focus of the New Testament Gospel. Indeed, the main error of the health and wealth gospel is a simple transference of Old Testament blessing into the New Testament without taking account of Paul’s words here. Here the blessings are election to holiness, predestination to adoption, redemption as forgiveness of sins, revelation of the mystery of God’s will, the privilege of being God’s heritage/inheritance, and the possession of the Spirit as a seal and guarantee of our final redemption.
This emphasis can be controversial; indeed, I have introduced controversy above by mentioning the health and wealth gospel in an unfavorable way. But Paul’s emphasis on spiritual blessings, as opposed to physical blessings, is designed preserve and promote our praise. And that’s his point in this whole text. “Praise be to God….” If we count our blessings in physical terms, our praise will be in constant jeopardy. When “I am so blessed” means that I have a wonderful family, and I’ve made a lot of money, and I have good health, what will happen to my praise when my marriage falls apart, when I go bankrupt, or when my child gets cancer? Paul does not say that such things don’t matter. He is simply calling us to remember that there are higher blessings that cannot fade, spoil, or perish (as I Peter 1 puts it). After receiving so many physical gifts at Christmas and depleting our finances in the process, Paul’s symphony reminds us that spiritual blessings are a priority in God’s economy.
Finally, Paul forcefully emphasizes the priority of Christ. We are to praise “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Those last two word are not an incidental Christianizing of our blessings. Paul is passionate about Christ. The expression “in Christ” and its parallels occur 13 times in this long sentence and 36 times in Ephesians. All of our blessings come to us “in Christ.” Apart from him we cannot receive or enjoy these blessings.
There is much controversy about the exact meaning of “in Christ.” Does it refer to simple faith in Christ or to a mystical union with Christ? Is Paul referring to being part of a sphere in which Christ is Lord or a new situation inaugurated by Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection? Or is he speaking of Christ as the instrument by which or through which I am blessed? Theologians use a variety of phrases to capture this mystery, but we don’t have to be sure about what it means before we can praise God in Christ. Paul wants to impress upon us that Christ is the key to receiving and enjoying all the spiritual blessings God has given us. This second Sunday after Christmas can be a day of celebration if we focus on Christ from first to last.
The wife of one of my colleagues is a travel agent. She has helped me with multiple vacation plans over the years. As an expert in vacations, she has always claimed that an all-inclusive vacation is the best buy in vacations. For one price, you get top notch accommodations, all the activities and side trips you could every want, all you can eat and drink (including alcoholic beverages), nightly entertainment, no tipping, and sometimes even airfare. All of your needs and wants are satisfied in an all inclusive vacation for one (not so low, but relatively reasonable) price. In our text, Paul calls on us to praise the Triune God for an all-inclusive salvation. All our needs are met for one very high price.
Most people have a hard time praising God. For some reason we can’t “get into it” in the same way we do when we praise our favorite sports star or entertainment figure. To see a great example of over-the-top praise, tune in to the Late Show with Steven Colbert. For what seems an eternity, Colbert’s fans applaud, and scream, and chant his name in a frenzy of adulation. It’s like God is hosting the show. It’s ridiculous. And it’s tragic that we can’t muster that kind of praise for God.
In his magisterial commentary of Ephesians, Harold Hoehner points out that Paul says God has already blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ. We don’t have to ask God for those blessings. They are already ours, but we do have to take possession of what God has given. It might be helpful to use Hoehner’s explanation of this. “An analogy of this is God’s promise to Joshua (1:3) that every place in the Promised Land on which he places his foot has already been given to him in accordance with God’s promise to Moses. Although it had been given, it was not a reality until Joshua placed his foot on it. As it would have been presumptuous for Joshua to pray for the land that had been given him, so it is likewise presumptuous for believers to ask for the spiritual benefits already given to them. The only reason Israel did not obtain the land in Ai (Joshua 7) was because there was sin in the camp, not because they did not pray. In fact, the first time Joshua prayed was after the defeat in Ai and God told him to stop praying and deal with the sin that caused the defeat. The reason the believer does not receive spiritual benefits is not because God is in some way stingy and we must plead for them, but because believers are not appropriating by faith what God has already bestowed in their behalf. The problem is not with God, but with the believer.”
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