Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 14, 2024

Ephesians 1:3-14 Commentary

It’s ironic and sad that predestination is such a contentious issue among some of Jesus’ friends. We sense, after all, that God graciously intends it to be a source of comfort for rather than division among Christians. Thankfully, then, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson offers preachers a chance to let the Spirit help us unpack this text in a way that points Jesus’ followers to the comfort that overflows from it.


Of course, preachers will want to speak about predestination in ways that are informed by both the Spirit and our various traditions’ understanding of it. But Ephesians 1 offers a chance to help our hearers understand predestination as one of the markers of God’s amazing grace to us in Jesus Christ.


In verse 4 Paul tells Ephesus’ Christians, God “chose [exelexato] us [hemas] in him before the creation [kataboles] of the world [kosmou] to be holy [hagious] and blameless [amomus] in his sight [katenopion]. This assertion almost boggles the mind of even the most mature follower of Jesus. It stretches back into the gray mists of eternity (“before the creation of the world”) and reaches into the nearly unfathomable mind and purposes of God (“he chose us to be holy and blameless in his sight”). If this hymn of praise for God’s eternal choice of us doesn’t comfort as well as drive God’s adopted children to our knees in gratitude and then lift us to our feet to live holy lives, I’m not sure anything can.


After all, even the most faithful Christians know that we are naturally and persistently unholy and blameworthy. God, in fact, knows that far better than we do. Yet for Jesus’ sake (“in him”) God graciously chooses to both view and treat us as if we were as holy as our Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Message lyrically paraphrases the apostle as professing, “Long before [God] had laid down the earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love.”


Yet Paul is not done with his breathtaking profession of faith when he sings about God’s choice of us. Without even pausing (in the Greek), he goes on to write in verses 4b and 5, “In love [agape]” God “predestined [proorisas] us to be adopted as his sons [huiothesian] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with [kata] his pleasure [eudokian] and will [thelamatous].” Preachers might want to contemplate and highlight God’s love’s role in all of this. God didn’t predestine Jesus’ friends out of a sense of obligation or even desperation. God graciously chose to make us part of God’s family in and out of love for us. Because God so deeply loves us, God chose to make himself our Father, Christ Jesus our elder Brother and our fellow Christians our siblings in Christ.


God graciously did all of this, adds the apostle in verse 6a, “to [eis] the praise of his glorious grace [doxes tes charitas], which he has freely given [echaritosen] us in the One he loves [Egapemeno].” It’s not easy to know just what Paul refers to by the phrase “to the praise of his glorious grace.” But since the Greek preposition ei can imply purpose, the apostle may simply be saying that God chose to adopt us so that we might praise God for God’s glorious grace. God’s grace frees God’s adopted children to spend our lives praising God with our words and actions. “In this way,” writes Richard Carlson, “God’s predestination comes full circle. God graciously bestows grace on us so that we could praise God’s grace-filled glory.”

As if Jesus’ friends needed more reasons to praise God, Paul offers a breathtaking litany of God’s graces to God’s dearly beloved people. In Christ, he writes in verses 7-8, “we have redemption [apolytrosin] through his blood [haimatos autou], the forgiveness of sins [apehsin ton paraptomaton], in accordance with the riches of God’s grace [ploutos tes charitos autou] that he lavished [eperisseusen] on us with all wisdom [sophia] and understanding [phronesei].” This is, of course, not just crucifixion but also Exodus imagery. By employing it Paul reminds his readers that God graciously pointed ahead to our rescue through Christ’s saving death by freeing the Israelite slaves who sprinkled the blood of sacrificial lambs on the doorposts of their Egyptian homes.


What’s more, the apostle continues in verses 9-10, God “made known [gnorisas] to us the mystery [mysterion] of his will [thelematos] according to his good pleasure [eudokian] which he purposed [proetheto] in Christ, to be put into effect [oikonomian] when the times will have reached their fulfillment [pleromatos] – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together [anakephalaiosasthai] under one head, even Christ.”


So much has, again, been, is and will be said about this startling assertion. But perhaps preachers might think about and explore how this is all under God’s sovereign and gracious control. To some people history’s unfolding is a random series of purposeless things. Others assume that the most powerful or wealthiest people dictate the world’s direction and future. Here the apostle insists that the God who rescued and forgave us in Christ is in charge. When the “times reach their fulfillment,” when God has accomplished God’s sometimes mysterious plans and purposes for our world, God will reveal himself in Christ as its ruler.


In verses 11-12 the apostle explicitly returns to the theme of predestination. In Christ, he writes there, “we were also chosen [eklerothomen], having been predestined [prooristhentes] according to the plan [prothesin] of him who works [energountos] in everything in conformity with the purpose [boulen] of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope [proelpikotas] in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” Christians’ predestination was part of God’s plan to conform everything to God’s perfect will. So God didn’t just choose to save us from eternal condemnation. God made our salvation part of God’s unfolding plan to bring all things into conformity with God’s good plans and purposes.


In fact, Paul continues in verses 13-14, we “also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth [aletheias], the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal [esphragisthete], the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing [arrabon] our inheritance [kleoronomias] until the redemption of those who are God’s possession [peripoieseos] – to the praise of his glory.” Here the apostle uses more transactional imagery to describe the results of God’s predestining of God’s adopted children. He calls the Holy Spirit a kind of downpayment on our inheritance of all of God’s richest blessings, including eternal life in God’s glorious presence in the new creation.


Preachers may choose, prompted by the Spirit, to proclaim this incredibly rich text in a number of ways. We might choose to present some of its riches in an expository, verse-by-verse way. Or we might take Michael Rogness’ approach (The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: The Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans, 2001). We might organize our preaching around Ephesians 1’s themes of God as initiator, the text’s grand sweep, and the centrality of Christ in God’s work of salvation.


Earlier we noted the theme of God’s gracious predestining and choosing, as well as Exodus imagery. To that preachers might consider adding this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s emphasis on God adopting family members for God’s praise and glory. In verse 5 Paul notes how God graciously predestined us to be adopted as God’s sons and daughters. In verse 14 he also speaks of the Holy Spirit as a deposit who guarantees our inheritance.


Praise also plays a prominent, if sometimes somewhat mysterious, role in Ephesians 1:3-14. Paul begins this Lesson by praising the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (3). He, what’s more, uses the Greek word epainon doxes autou (“praise of his glory”) three times in this text (6, 12, 14).


As Carlson (ibid) notes, when Jesus’ followers think and sometimes argue about this text’s central theme of predestination, we easily focus on just whom God does and does not predestine for eternal life. He calls that “too small to capture the claims about God’s predestining activity in” our text.


For one thing, Paul says nothing here about the identity of those whom God has not predestined. What’s more, by repeatedly using first person plural pronouns, he reminds us that God predestines us not first of all as individuals, but as a people. On top of all that, the apostles focuses on God’s work that grows out of God’s choosing and equips those God chooses for a life of praise and service. That, as the old cliche goes, will preach.



In her book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes, “To me the most intriguing thing about John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination . . . is not his belief that some are gratuitously predestined by God to eternal salvation and some to damnation but that no one but God knows who is who.


“There, among the heroin addicts, is one destined for eternal joy. There, among the faithful widows of an ordinary church, is one destined for damnation. It strikes me that only a French lawyer could have come up with so complex, if not bizarre, a justification for treating all people as if they could be among the elect, the chosen of God.”



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