This week, we are grateful to publish a series of sermons from our beloved late Chaplain, Ron Hodel. This is the third installment of that series.
Ephesus was a major trading city in Asia where the gospel of Jesus Christ had never been heard. Paul went there on his second missionary journey, and as was his practice, being Jewish, he would go to the synagogues. Because he was also a well-educated Pharisee, he was often given the opportunity to speak. But what a surprise it was when he would preach Jesus as the fulfillment of what the Jews were hoping for. What a surprise. But then the Holy Spirit would work through the Word, and some would believe it. Those believers would end up separating themselves from the synagogue or, more probably, be kicked out. And that would be the beginning of a new Christian congregation.
Two of the converts at Ephesus were husband and wife, Priscilla and Aquila. They became the leadership of the congregation. Paul returned to Ephesus on his third missionary journey. He stayed there for three years, which is longer than he stayed at any other place. Now, sometime after Paul left Ephesus, things started heating up for him. Understandably, the Jews were getting pretty fed up with his evangelism strategy: going into the synagogues and preaching, and they wanted to put a stop to it. They tried to kill him, but that didn’t work. So they convinced the Roman authorities that Paul was a danger to society and then he needed to be arrested and imprisoned. And so he was. And at that point, I’m pretty sure the Jews thought that they now had gotten rid of their problem.
But from prison, Paul, instead of grumbling to God about not deserving incarceration and all of that (he was God’s man, of course, come on), wrote letters while in prison to the churches. To the church in Philippi, the church in Colossi, to a slaveholder by the name of Philemon, and to the church at Ephesus. Now, many of Paul’s letters have a common format to them. The first half of the letter deals with Christian doctrine, and the second half deals with the Christian life that flows from that doctrine. One of the Christian life topics that Paul zeros in on in this letter is family life; husbands and wives, children and parents, servants and masters – or maybe we could contemporize that a bit and say, employees and employers. Topics that, well, really never go out of date.
So let’s begin our journey through Ephesians by looking at our second reading for today, from Ephesians chapter one, beginning at verse three. And what a grand introduction this is that Paul writes. If you can believe it, as Paul wrote this, it’s 204 words long in the Greek text, and it’s all one sentence. 204 words. Evidently, Paul was not paying attention in school when his teacher was talking about sentence structure and how to avoid run-on sentences. But then again, if sentences are supposed to contain one complete thought, maybe that’s what Paul had in mind. This is all one complete thought. And the thought is...well, not that I’m improving on Paul here, but God has a plan for this world that he put into place from eternity, a plan that is carried out in Jesus Christ and promises unimaginably great blessings for believers. That’s my 29-word Reader’s Digest version of the text, but let’s look at the actual text more in detail.
“Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Every spiritual blessing. Earlier I said that Ephesus was a major city, maybe even the major trading city in the region; and because Ephesus was a rich town, commerce was booming; and because it was wealthy, people in that town were surrounded by a lot of money, which of course is able to buy many material blessings, probably a lot like around here. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But Paul wants his congregation’s attention focused not on the material blessings but on God’s spiritual blessings. Both come from the gracious hand of a very merciful God and Father, all the physical blessings and all of the spiritual blessings. It’s just that when it comes to earthly physical blessings, God doesn’t give every material blessing to everyone. To some, he gives much, and to others, he gives little, and he does this for a reason; so that those with much may love their neighbor by willingly sharing their abundance with those in need. That’s how divine economics works.
You don’t have every material blessing, but as one baptized into Christ, you do have every spiritual blessing.
Now, God hasn’t given anyone (no matter how rich they are) everything. But when it comes to spiritual blessings that God gives through Jesus, it is every spiritual blessing. Everyone receives everything. You don’t have every material blessing, but as one baptized into Christ, you do have every spiritual blessing. And we have it all from the Father through Jesus Christ. The Father always works through the Son and not apart from him. Just in this introduction alone, Paul repeats the phrase “in Christ” or “in him” 11 times. And he does this for a reason. If you’re hoping to be blessed with every spiritual blessing in heavenly matters, apart from Jesus Christ, you’re going to be terribly disappointed. It’s not going to happen. So Paul clarifies where these spiritual blessings that we are blessed with come from. They come from the Father through the Son. And only after making that point does Paul tell us what these spiritual blessings are.
Let’s pick up again at verse four. “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love, he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ. According to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the beloved” (Eph. 3:4). The first verse in the Bible begins, ‘In the beginning, God...” In talking about spiritual blessings, Paul says, you know what? You’ve got to go back before the beginning, before the world was created, before time, when there was only God and nothing else if you’re going to understand this correctly. Before the beginning, God had a purpose in mind, what Paul calls the purpose of His will. And his will was that we should be holy and blameless before him. To be holy and blameless before God means to be perfect as God is perfect, innocent and blameless as God is innocent and blameless, and altogether righteous as God is righteous. That’s the purpose of his will.
So is it the case that God didn’t see the train wreck that we would make out of his very good creation? Isn’t it that God had no idea that we would make such an incredible mess of our own lives and of the lives of others, as well as this beautiful orb on which we live, this privileged planet, by our rebellion against his Word and our declaration of war against him? Is it the case that the purpose of his will was frustrated by the Devil, who led Adam and Eve and all their descendants from holy and blameless before God to unholy and filled with blame before God?
Sometimes people talk about God’s plan of salvation as if it were something that he came up with after our fall into sin, kind of like God had to come up with plan B since plan A didn’t work out the way he thought it was going to work out. But no, he foresaw it all. He knew it was all going to happen. But here’s the thing. Knowing all that, in love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ. From before the beginning, God already had the atoning sacrifice of his Son in mind. He had the solution worked out before the problem even existed. Christ’s death on the cross for the sins of the world was according to the purpose of His will.
And why does he do this? Why does the Father send his Son into the world to suffer and die so that by His sacrifice for us, we might be declared wholly and blameless before him? The answer is found in the words “in love.” Scripture tells us God is love. And so, the purpose of his will is in perfect harmony with who he is. And why does he love you? Well, don’t look inside of yourself to find the reason why. You won’t find it. In the eyes of a perfect God, there’s nothing innately lovable in me. Believe me, I’m a mess, and it’s my sin that’s messed me up, and there’s nothing I can or could do about it. So I best not go navel-gazing to try to find something in me that’s lovable. No, look for the reason God loves you in God.
And also, when you doubt or question God’s love for you because of something that you’ve done or because it’s Satan’s goal to trouble you, don’t look inside of yourself for something that God must be attracted to. And don’t try to delve into the hidden mysteries of God. Look outside of yourself to what he says in his Word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and what he promises to gift you within Holy Baptism, that there you were sealed, you were marked with the sign of ownership, with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of your inheritance until you see it with your own eyes in the resurrection when the new age is ushered in. In love, he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.
Before you ever had a chance, before you ever had a chance to choose God or to make a decision for Jesus or to take up your cross and follow him, because this choice was far too important to just leave it up to you.
Through baptism, God adopts us into his family. He makes us heirs of his eternal blessings. Your previous debts have been covered, and erased by the cross. And he takes great delight in this. He takes great delight in this, as loving parents receive an adopted child with great joy. And that word “predestined” means that God predetermined your destiny before the beginning, before time began before Adam and Eve were created, God chose you to be his Son. God chose you to be his daughter through Jesus Christ. Before you ever had a chance, before you ever had a chance to choose God or to make a decision for Jesus or to take up your cross and follow him, because this choice was far too important to just leave it up to you.
And so, as a person of faith, if you’re ever worried about whether or not you’ve been adopted, know this. For you as a person of faith, God set it all up ahead of time to give you comfort and assurance in times of trial. It’s a very comforting thing to know, when everything is going wrong, and when your sins are before you, and they condemn you totally, it’s very comforting to know that before time began, in love, God predestined you to be his dear child. Now, naturally, the question arises, why some and not others? Don’t go there because Scripture doesn’t go there. That’s why you don’t go there. God tells us nothing about this. So I guess you could say mind your own business and let God mind his. What he’s told us as his sons and daughters is for our comfort and assurance. It’s way above our pay grade to think that we can peek behind the curtain and peer into the mind of God.
Now, all of that was before time began, but in time all of this was carried out in your baptism. So don’t try to look into the eternal counsel of God for assurance that you’ve been predestined by adoption. Look to your baptism, where water was poured over you and where God’s Word of promise was spoken into your ears, where God gave you his name and marked you as his and made you his child wholly and blameless before him and blessed you with all spiritual blessings in the heavenly realm. And all of this to the praise of his glorious grace, to the praise of his undeserved mercy. He did it all. We did nothing.
And with that, Paul moves from the purpose of God’s will carried out an eternity past to the purpose of his will carried out in the present. In him, we have redemption through his blood. The forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us in all wisdom and insight. God doesn’t overlook our rebellion against him. He can’t do that and remain just. He can’t turn a blind eye to our depravity, just like good parents can’t turn a blind eye to a child’s misbehavior. He sees it all. And it absolutely grieves him, but neither does he say, “Well, here’s what you need to do to make things right. Here’s what you need to do to undo the mess you’ve made of yourself.” In some ways, a child might be able to make things right in the eyes of their parents, but things are a bit different with God. There’s nothing we can do to undo what we’ve done. It’s far too damning.
So he tells us, “No, you can’t do anything to right the wrongs and undo the damage. But here is what I have done to make things right. Here’s what I have done to undo the mess you’ve made of yourself and restore you to the glory in which I made you.” In Jesus, we have redemption through his blood and the forgiveness of our trespasses. We are now, right now, in the present, completely and totally clear of all of our debt to God, forgiven for all of our rebellion against his Word, and washed clean of all of our sins through the blood of Jesus Christ crucified for you. We are even right now delivered from death and evil by Jesus Christ raised for you. We are, even right now, in the present, already brought through this life, this life of sin and suffering and death; we are brought through this into the eternal life of pure joy and peace by Jesus Christ ascended to Heaven for you. And all this to the praise of his glorious grace.
And now, Paul points us to the purpose of God’s will; that is, working toward a goal, an end, a last day when everything that he purposed in the eternal past is accomplished in the eternal future. Verse nine, “Making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time to unite all things in Him, things in Heaven and things on Earth” (Eph. 3:9).
The environment is a big deal these days. And in my opinion, well, it should be. This Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and he’s given us the vocation of managers to be good managers and not bad ones. But as environmentalistic as we can be, there’s something even better for this globe than a perfectly cleaned up world. The goal toward which everything is moving is the reunion of Heaven and Earth. God is joining together again what we, by our sin, have torn apart. What is now separated one from the other will be united in Christ, a new Heavens and a new Earth, just as he created them to be in the first place.
And whatever the union of all things includes, it most certainly includes the union of the believers who are alive and the believers who have died. All the saints on Earth and all the saints in Heaven, all one in Christ Jesus. The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord. God has made his will known to us through Jesus Christ. Believers live in this world right alongside unbelievers. Unbelievers do their very best to try to understand where this world is headed and if they are at all reflective, what their own destiny is. But apart from Christ Jesus, it’s like they’re missing that chapter in the book that makes all the difference in how you understand its meaning. It’s like a math textbook where you have skipped a few chapters, and now you have no idea at all how the problem gets solved.
But when the Holy Spirit gives us that chapter about Christ Jesus and all that God has purposed through him, it changes the whole story. We see the whole thing differently with him than we did without him. It’s so wonderfully different that we’re filled with hope for the future, love in the present, and praise to God. Paul is offering us a new and glorious perspective on life. And remember this, this isn’t a bunch of Pollyanna stuff. Paul is writing this stuff from where? He’s writing it from prison. But peering back before the foundation of the world and forward to the fullness of time, Paul understands what he has now in the present, even while he’s languishing in prison, he understands and is compelled to give thanks and praise to God for his glorious grace in the name of Jesus. Amen.