The theme for this week is our redemption story, strange and beautiful. We are reminded that God’s romance with humanity is both familiar and uncanny. Our call to worship Psalm gives us insight into God working through the dynasty of Israel through the centuries. 2 Samuel 6 describes the sacred and dangerous work of moving the Ark of the Covenant. Mark 6 tells the tragic end of the story of power and pride. Our sermon is on Ephesians 1:3-14, in which Paul tells the compressed story of our faith from before creation and into eternity.
The Choice, the Plan, the Inheritance
Let’s begin with a reading of Ephesians 1:3-14 ESV.
Ever since human beings could talk, we’ve been telling stories. These narratives — everything from heartbreaking romances to bad jokes — are the air we breathe. In Hawaiian pidgin dialect, the slang term for having a casual conversation is to “talk story.”
We tell these stories to restate our identity — to establish our image against the ever-changing background of life. This can be especially at work during family gatherings. You’ll hear (yet again) the story how your grandparents fell in love or when your uncle headed off to war or when your great aunt nursed the family through the scarlet fever.
Some of the most poignant of these tales end with some connection to the larger world. “I learned to ride a bike the day they announced the end of World War 2 on the radio” or “I started my job/retired/fell in love the afternoon the space shuttle went down.”
We often connect our personal narrative to something the whole world was watching. We root ourselves in history.
In a way, this is what Paul does at the beginning of Ephesians. He recites the story of God’s history of salvation from before the earth all the way through the end of time. This psalm starts the letter with a note of praise that sums up the larger gospel, and the rest of the book shows the Ephesians their place in the picture. These verses are one long, complex sentence in the original Greek!
Story experts will sometimes talk about the essentials we find in every story. They might break down the billions of narratives in history into a few basic elements. Many stories deal with the past, present and future, which is what Paul does in reciting our story of faith in Ephesians 1. He starts with a blessing and a statement:
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. (Ephesians 1:3 ESV)
Paul is saying we are blessed in Christ, and because of that we bless God our Father. Further, he says we are blessed with spiritual blessings in heavenly places. Then to explain this, he looks at the past, the present and the future.
- Past — the great choice God made before time.
- Present — the great plan to bring the kingdom into the world.
- Future — the inheritance of the redeemed universe that we will enjoy as redeemed people.
Paul’s story restates our faith and connects us to the great epic in a way that speaks to our day as well as to his.
Even as 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 to himself as sons through Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 1:4-5 ESV)
The past in a narrative is often told through the back story — the background that drives the action. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s Jedi lineage connects him to the past. Romeo and Juliet’s rival families create the background and the tension of their tragic romance.
In Paul’s story, it’s the choice. This choice was made before the foundation of the world — before creation. This is the metaphysics of this story, the deep narrative behind it.
This is the kind of verse that has made for a lot of difficult discussions in Christian history. Did God choose us or did we choose him? Is it his grace reaching down to us or our will reaching back toward him?
Which is it? The short answer is both. We don’t know how it all works and we never will, but somehow these two forces work together. While this idea leads to a larger discussion in theology and philosophy that’s very important, we will only look for a moment to the theme Paul is talking about in this letter. The story of our salvation starts with God’s choice because of God’s love.
From humanity he chose Israel. From Israel he chose one lineage. From that lineage he chose one family. From that family, he chose the womb of one teenage girl and through her came to us himself.
The story of salvation is not a mess of false starts and Plan Bs. It’s not God giving us law, us screwing it up and then God having to send Jesus as the contingency plan. God’s choice ran through it all, telling the story with intention and love before the world began.
Why did he do this? Why did he make this choice to save us, knowing the loss and pain that would come in the process?
In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace (Ephesians 1:4-6 ESV)
In love … his will … to the praise of his glorious grace. Nowhere in here does it say that God chose us because we were the best and brightest, or the most lovable or the most righteous. Nor does it ever say that he needs us somehow for his plan to come together.
No, God did not choose us because of who we are … but because of who he is. Because of his love, his will, his glory — these things will never change. He loves us because he loves to love. He makes us worthy of his love, we don’t achieve that worth somehow. And we can never lose it.
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 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. (Ephesians 1:7-10 ESV)
The present—where we find the rising action. The quest, the conflict—is a central element of every story. There’s no Star Wars if Luke never starts his quest to become a Jedi. There’s no It’s a Wonderful Life if Jimmy Stewart doesn’t meet his guardian angel.
Paul brings us from the past—God ‘s loving choice of us, to the present—God’s plan to transform the world in the here and now with us working in participation with him.
Throughout these words of hope, Paul describes us caught up in the work and will of God. He picks this theme up several times in the book:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10 ESV)
“Created in Christ Jesus for good works”—there is nothing here about pleasing God or earning his favor through these works. These works are an invitation for us to join in his work in the world.
In the modern church, we can over-focus on the initial experience of salvation—“getting saved.” Crusades, Christian rock concerts, youth events all focus on this transactional moment where people get a “ticket to heaven.”
This can leave a new Christian saying: “Okay, what happens now?” Maybe there’s some besetting sin they need to take care of—don’t sleep around, don’t drink too much, don’t say swear words. But surely there’s something more to life in Christ than not doing stuff?!
The answer is yes, of course, and part of that is the “good work” we were created in Christ Jesus to do before the world was made. God’s kingdom is breaking into the world, and we are called to be part of that work—not because he needs us, because he wants us, and he wants us to experience the joy in participating in what he is doing.
So what does that mean for you? Maybe you don’t have a legendary deep jungle mission or a huge church at your disposal. You may work 40 hours a week.
There’s a story about the great theologian, Martin Luther, in which a man approached him at the end of a sermon. He told the old German, “I’ve become a Christian, what should I do now?” Luther asked him what he does for a living and the man said that he was a cobbler. Luther responded, “Then make a quality shoe and sell it at a fair price—to the glory of God.”
The kingdom comes in inches, not miles. Living and working to the glory of God, treating those we come across with grace and love, this is usually how the kingdom appears rather than dramatic crescendos.
The “good work” God has prepared for us in Christ will range from the exciting to the ordinary, but don’t discount everyday acts of obedience. This is the plan—as we see in verse 10—the present part of the story.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-14 ESV)
Every story has an ending. Bad endings, cheap endings, happy-ever-after endings—there’s all kinds. There’s conflict and then there’s resolution—the cool down, the ride off into the sunset.
Again, this story Paul tells is one long sentence in Greek—verses 3 through 14. This is the gospel in microcosm, and the ending of the story points to the future. The ride off into the sunset here is actually into the sunrise.
The word he uses twice here is “inheritance,” which should get our attention. Inheritance in the ancient world is different than the way we might think of it today. In our modern world, the inheritance is usually cash or something that can be sold.
In the ancient world, you inherited a business or property or both. But you were never supposed to sell these things and move onto a different life. You inherited a legacy—the property and life you were meant to carry on.
This is the kind of inheritance Paul talks about here. One of the main issues we run into at this point is the modern misconception of “going to heaven.”
Our ultimate hope is not some far-away place where we will leave this world behind. Our hope is the new heavens and the new earth as described in Revelation 21. Our ultimate hope is this world, right here, resurrected under the rightful rule of the true Lord.
This world, because of sin, is corrupted. However, it wasn’t meant to be destroyed, but resurrected. Like Jesus’ post-Easter body, the resurrected earth will incorporate this earth somehow. God’s dimension and our dimension will be reunited at long last.
This is our inheritance. This is our true identity as the resurrected royalty of the new heavens and new earth. Our past, which began even before Abraham, connects with our present, where the kingdom breaks into the world by the power of the Spirit. Our future is the coming together of our universe and God’s dimension completely. As Paul puts it:
…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. (Ephesians 1:9-10 ESV)
“To unite all things in him.” Jesus is the lynchpin, the centerpiece that brings the whole story—and all the universe—together. The human story, shattered at the Tower of Babel and so many other places, is brought back together in Christ.
The choice. The plan. The inheritance. This is the gospel story—the past, present, and future of the human story. What looks like wandering, disparate stories is one long epic.
You feel like royalty because you are; and this grand story feels familiar because it’s yours.
Small Group Discussion Questions
Questions for Sermon: “The Choice, the Plan, the Inheritance”
- Do you have a favorite family story? One that reminds you who you are and where you came from? Maybe a tale that gets passed around at family gatherings?
- We talked in the sermon about telling the story of faith like Paul does here. How does telling the story of faith help us hold onto it? How can we drown out our noisy modern world with the story of faith?
- The kingdom doesn’t usually come by miles, but by inches. How can you bring the kingdom in—change the world for God’s glory—in your daily life? At work? What is God calling you to?
Questions for Speaking of Life: “The Trapped and the Free”
- We talked about how the characters in this story, Herod and Salome, are trapped. Do you believe that sin and pride can trap us, even when they claim to offer freedom?
- “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). What does this “freedom” mean? How does it appear in our lives?
Quote to ponder: “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” ~Jonathan Gottschall, literary scholar
SPIRITUAL BLESSINGS … IN CHRIST
|Ephesians 1:3-14 (ESV) 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, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us[a] for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known[b] to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee[c] of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it,[d] to the praise of his glory.
|Ephesians 1:3-14 (NKJV) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with EVERY SPIRITUAL BLESSING in the heavenly places in Christ, 4 just as HE CHOSE US in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be HOLY and WITHOUT BLAME before Him in love, 5 HAVING PREDESTINED us to ADOPTION as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us ACCEPTED (bestowed grace upon) in the Beloved.
7 In Him we have REDEMPTION through His blood, the FORGIVENESS of sins, according to the riches of HIS GRACE 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence (understanding), 9 having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10 that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, (both) which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him.
11 In Him also we have obtained AN INHERITANCE, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.
13 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were SEALED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT of promise, 14 who is the guarantee (down payment) of OUR INHERITANCE until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.
|Ephesians 1:3-14 (NIV) Praise 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. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he[b] predestined us for adoption to sonship[c] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he[d] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
11 In him we were also chosen,[e] having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession — to the praise of his glory.
1. The number of times “in Christ” (or a similar, related phrase) appears in the passage is …
- In the NKJV, ten (10) times (not counting “in Himself” in v.9) …
- in the NIV, nine (9) times
2. The blessings are …
- EVERY SPIRITUAL BLESSING (v.3)
- A PRESENCE IN HEAVENLY PLACES (v.3) … See Eph.2:4-6; 1:20; 3:10; 6:12
- CHOSEN BY GOD (v.4) … linked with the predestination mentioned in v.5
- HOLY and WITHOUT BLAME before God (v.4)
- ADOPTION as sons (v.5) … which is what we were predestined for (v.5)
- ACCEPTED (v.6)
- REDEEMED (v.7)
- FORGIVEN (v.7)
- GOD’s GRACE (v.7) … manifested in our understanding of the mystery of His will (vv.8-9)
- ASSURANCE OF UNITY (v.10)
- AN INHERITANCE (v.11) … See Eph.1:14-18; 1 Peter 1:3-5
- A SEAL (which is The Holy Spirit) … or … THE HOLY SPIRIT, who functions as a seal (v.13)
- AN ASSURANCE … that our inheritance is sure. (v.14)
God Has Blessed Us
There is an old song that I used to hear and sing a lot called ‘Count Your Blessings’. Paul never heard this song, but he takes its message to heart at the beginning of Ephesians by offering a note of praise to God for his blessings, and then shares some of them with us. One of the things I find interesting about Paul’s list of blessings is that it bears so little resemblance to what most of us would likely come up with: sunshine, good health, recovery from sickness, great spouse, good job, pleasant experience, and most anything else that one finds to be positive.
In the Heavenly Realms
Paul’s praise to God is for spiritual blessings rather than the physical things we generally identify as blessings. And these blessings are in the ‘heavenly realm’ rather than in the physical world we see around us. While family, home, health and job can indeed be blessings, Paul is interested here in something even greater. Blessings that are unseen, but eternal. Those are the blessings he cares about. And maybe I should also learn to praise God for them.
Over the next 11 verses Paul identifies at least some of these spiritual blessings. It is hard for me to know for sure just were to divide these verses up into specific blessings, and you may list them a bit differently, but I see at least the following:
1. Chosen In Christ
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
God chose us to be in Christ. Peter says that Christ was chosen before the creation (1 Peter 1:20), and we were chosen to be in him; it is in Christ that we are chosen. And being in Christ, when God sees us, it is as holy and blameless. I am far from holy and blameless in myself. But I am not judged on my own merits, but on my place in Christ.
2. Predestined To Adoption
In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
God has predestined me to be adopted as his child. Why? Because he wanted to. It pleased him. This thought so thrilled Paul that it filled him with praise for God’s grace that he has freely given us in Christ. God owes me nothing. His actions toward me are based on his love and grace; and his desire.
3. Redemption and Forgiveness
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.
It is because I am in Christ that I have redemption and forgiveness. Apart from my inclusion in Christ, there is no forgiveness. And this redemption and forgiveness comes to me because of God’s grace. Not grudgingly doled out to me, but lavished upon me. This reminds me of the old hymn Marvelous Grace.
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.
4. God’s Will Made Known
With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
Mystery is a word that Paul uses often (Rom. 11:25, Rom. 16:25, 1 Cor. 2:7, 1 Cor. 15:51, Eph. 1:9, Eph. 3:3, 4, 6, 9, Eph. 5:32, Eph. 6:19, Col. 1:26, 27, Col. 2:2, Col. 4:3, 1 Tim. 3:16). He is referring to something that God had planned all along, but had not yet revealed to us. But now he has. God has revealed his purpose in creation to us. And that purpose is centered in Christ. It was to bring all things together under Christ. This is a major theme of this letter to the Ephesians, bringing Jew and Gentile together under one head; under Christ.
5. Chosen and Included in Christ
In 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, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation.
At first glance this seems like somewhat of a repeat of the first blessing. But I believe Paul is getting at something different here. He, and the other earliest believers, were not simply chosen in Christ. They were chosen for a specific purpose. To take the gospel to the limits of the know world (Acts 9:15). To establish the church. And in doing that, they brought praise to God.
But Paul is careful to also include those who came after him, through his faithfulness to God’s calling. We also were included in Christ when we heard the gospel message. Hearing the gospel is an essential step before belief is possible (Rom. 10:14-15).
6. Marked With A Seal
When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
While we were chosen to be in Christ before the creation of the world, it is when we believe that we are included. And when we are included, we are marked with a seal by the Holy Spirit. The seal was a guarantee of authenticity, and proof against tampering. The Holy Spirit is also a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance. This is similar to earnest money put down when buying a house. The deposit is a guarantee to the seller that the buyer will go through with the transaction. Both of these symbols illustrate the security we have when we are in Christ. And our redemption, that the Spirit secures, is drawing nigh. Praise God!
Repeatedly through this passage Paul uses the expression ‘in Christ‘, or some variant of it. We are blessed in Christ; chosen in Christ; have redemption in Christ; and are included in Christ. All of these happen, not because we follow Christ, but because we are in him. We are in Christ because of God’s action (v. 4) and our belief (v. 13). And being in Christ, his experience becomes my experience. In him, I have been crucified, buried and resurrected (Rom. 6:1-10), and have been seated with Christ in the heavenly realms (Eph. 2:6).
Throughout these 12 verses, Christ is central to all that God is doing. He is everything. We are nothing. But God was pleased to include us in Christ. And that makes all the difference in the world.
I join with Paul is praising God for his indescribable spiritual blessings that he has given to us in Christ.
PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
1 Peter 1:3-5 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance [b]incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Philippians 1:6 being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;