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God's Glorious Inheritance for Us -- about Ephesians 1:15-23

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

[Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23] Because Paul isn’t combating a nasty heresy, he can focus on what he really loves: to celebrate God’s gift of salvation and let us know he’s praying that we understand it as deeply as possible. By following Jesus, we have put ourselves on the “right team”, whose leader is far above ever other ruler or power in the world. More than our inheritance -- this is our heritage.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints. Ephesians 1:18

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Surprise Inheritance!

Every once in a while, I’ll see a story about a child/grandchild who was very surprised to hear what they had inherited. A maid in Argentina discovered her father was a wealthy landowner, and she convinced the courts to give her a $40M estate. One family discovered that pants in a trunk from great-grandma were pioneer-era Levis that were worth $100k. Two homeless brothers were scavenging junk in Hungary when they found out that an unknown grandmother in Germany had left them $5B. You might remember that Leona Helmsley left $12M for the perpetual care of her Maltese named Trouble. (Stranger yet: I read about a Portuguese aristocrat who was a childless bachelor, and he and his lawyer picked 12 people at random from the phone book and made them his heirs.) (Totally on a side soapbox, research has showed that 1/3 of all heirs have spent all of the inheritance within two years. Prodigal much?)

Maybe somebody in your class has a crazy I-didn’t-expect-to-inherit-this story. Be cautious if you ask for personal stories! My experience has been that this is the sort of topic that can stir up petty jealousies of you don’t stay on top of discussion. And besides—that’s not the point! The point of this is that God has freely given us an inheritance beyond our comprehension, and it’s guaranteed! The gift of the Holy Spirit is that legal seal of proof that our inheritance is secured. We don’t need to be jealous of anyone else’s inheritance! And take the opportunity to get in a key truth: parents/grandparents, what’s most important is not that you leave money to your heirs in your will; what’s most important is that you have shared Jesus with them while you still live.

Your Prayers for Your Kids/Grandkids

Almost everyone in your class will have a child or grandchild or niece or cousin or young family member. Get your class talking about how they pray for those young family members. There are many songs called “A Mother’s Prayer”; we have heard the one by Kristin Getty several times at our church. Here are two verses:

(2) This world is not as it should be / But the Savior opens eyes to see / All that’s beautiful and true. / Oh may His light fill all you are / And the jewel of wisdom crown your heart; / This is my prayer for you.
(3) You’ll travel where my arms won’t reach / As the road will rise to lead your feet / On a journey of your own. / May my mistakes not hinder you / But His grace remain and guide you through; / This is my prayer for you.

Powerful stuff. If you Google “prayers every parent should pray for their child” you will lots of quality suggestions (I recommend desiringgod and forthefamily), and for the most part they ask parents to pray for children to know God, to desire to follow Jesus, and to desire to be like Jesus. Everything comes back to that, and for very good reason. Those are the things that will sustain a child their whole life, not just their immediate need (Alan Jackson’s “Precious Memories” has a great verse about this). So—ask your class how they pray for their young family members, and encourage them to listen how Paul prays for the members of this church and pray for their family the same way.

This Week's Big Idea: All About Ephesus

I mentioned last week that Ephesus was located at a great junction of a port directly across the Aegean Sea from Athens (about as far away from Athens as we are from Chattanooga, btw), along one of the major roads connecting Europe with the Near East, and at the mouth of a river that led to central Asia Minor. It had been founded more than 1,000 years before Paul’s day by Greeks seeking to colonize and exploit Asia Minor. Being in such a desirable location, it became the object of many wars of empire-building, eventually becoming the capital of Asia in the Roman Empire. It retained its position in the Empire until being sacked by the Goths in 262 AD. In Paul’s day, it was the fourth largest city in the world, housing 250,000 people. It was a center of banking and commerce, and it hosted so many travelers and tourists that it could maintain the largest Roman theater—24,000 capacity—that hosted lavish productions and even gladiator fights. The theater was connected with and through the city to the port by a massive marble road called the Arcadian Way (Paul was dragged down this road to the theater to face mob justice). But Ephesus was so large that it had a second theater, as well as baths, a multi-story library, a music hall, a large stadium, many public buildings, banks, and more. It attracted people from all over the empire to live and work there.

The most dominant feature of Ephesus was the great Temple of Artemis (or Diana). Just isolated enough from the Greek Empire that founded it, Ephesus developed a unique cult to a “Great Mother” goddess who was eventually adopted into the pantheon as Artemis, the goddess of nature, animals, and childbirth. They began building a temple to her ~700 BC, and it became vogue for whoever most recently conquered the city to donate large sums of money to its construction. When it was completed, it was the largest building in the Greek world, made entirely of marble, with 127 columns each 60 feet tall (four times the size of the Parthenon!). It was declared by all to be one of the great wonders of the world. Ephesus eventually leveraged it as a popular tourist attraction and developed a number of religious festivals and competitions (including music and art and athletics) to keep a steady stream of people coming to Ephesus, spending money on prostitutes, souvenirs, food, and housing. Plus, the temple’s aura as a holy site made violence in the city taboo, making it a strangely secure place. Hopefully, this can explain to your class why ordinary citizens in Ephesus reacted so violently to Paul’s message that Artemis was a false god.

But I want to point out that for whatever reason, the cult of Artemis developed a reputation for magic, and so Ephesus became a center for the practice and instruction of magic. In that day, “magic” basically meant casting spells/curses on others, and the respondent wearing of charms/talismans to ward off those curses. It was quite the racket. In Acts 19:19, it was reported that Ephesians-turned-Christians burned their magic books, and those alone were worth 50,000 pieces of silver! People would wear charms/necklaces/bracelets that had been “activated” by a spell to protect the worshipers of Artemis from evil. They would sew those charms into their clothing to protect their entire body. The people associated with magical practices were truly concerned about “cosmic powers” acting on their life.

We can thus understand many of the major themes and images from Ephesians with what we know of Ephesus. Paul does a lot with “building” and “temple” illustrations; that’s because almost everyone who read his letter could probably see the Temple of Artemis from where they stood. There’s a whole lot of “unity in diversity” talk in the letter; that’s because Ephesus was one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. There’s a whole lot of talk about the “powers and authorities of this world” not being as great as Jesus; that’s because the people of Ephesus were concerned about “heavenly/cosmic power”. Then there’s the armor of God section—a perfect foil to the former pagans’ belief that they needed to be protected from evil powers by magical charms. Now, the letter includes plenty of holy living advice consistent with what Paul wrote to many other Christians, and that only makes sense because the people living in Ephesus had the same social and cultural baggage as anyone else in the Roman Empire (followers of Jesus needed to live differently than non-Christians around them). Sexual immorality/husband-wife relationships might be more heavily emphasized in this letter, but that could easily be a function of the role of temple prostitution in the city (Artemis was a fertility goddess, after all), so Paul might have needed to firmly repeat Christian sexual ethics. I hope that this information helps your class understand the letter better!


Part 1: Knowledge of God (Ephesians 1:15-23)

This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.

This is just a great, great passage we’re reading this week. Make sure your class realizes that Paul may as well be speaking directly to them—writing to Christians he has not personally met but cares deeply about. [This raises a valid question: if Paul had spent years in Ephesus, who is he talking about here? (1) Maybe the Christians who had joined the church since Paul left. (2) Maybe the churches outside of Ephesus that Paul had not visited. Or (3) Maybe Paul was talking about the spiritual growth that the church members would have demonstrated in the previous years. I think it’s the latter—I think Paul has heard stories about Ephesus and wanted to recognize their victories and growth.] What did Paul focus on? Their faith in Jesus and love for one another. As you might guess, Paul used “agape” for “love”, that sacrificial love that Jesus always demonstrated for us. They had a strong faith in Jesus, and they had a visible love for all Christians. I think that’s a great goal for churches to set for themselves: let us be known for our faith in Jesus and our love for one another. It’s reasonable, it’s attainable, and it’s right.

And then Paul gives the ultimate encouragement: I’m always praying for you. Obviously, that didn’t mean 24-hr prayer; Paul slept, Paul preached, Paul visited with non-Christians, and we know that Paul gave the person he was talking to his full attention. Rather, Paul is saying that when he prayed for them, he thanked God for them. And my guess is that Paul prayed for them a lot. Paul prayed specifically that God (see above—Trinity) would give them “wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him”. Ask your class why that would be such an important prayer. Aren’t we usually praying for someone’s health or finances? What is the role of the Spirit? To convict us of sin, drive us to repentance, and then help us seek righteousness. And that’s the “wisdom” and “knowledge” spoken of here. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, right? Which means we need to understand our sin and our need to repent. But then, we learn (from God’s Word) what God wants us to do and be as His children, and He gives the Spirit to help us have the wisdom to apply that knowledge to our lives. “Knowledge” is not head-knowledge of facts—it’s personal knowledge via relationship. We aren’t to know about God; we know God Himself (in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit).

Ask your class how (and if) they pray for churches—not just their own, but all churches in our area (and around the world). What do they pray for? How might Paul’s words help us improve our prayers? And just as importantly, have your class ask if they themselves are growing in wisdom and knowledge of God, and in faith and love. If they aren’t what do they need to do to start?


Aside: The Trinity in Ephesians

Ephesians is full of references to the Trinity, like in our passage: “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him” (1:17). Paul says, “For through [Christ] we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (2:18). Paul prayed to “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, . . . that He would grant you, . . . to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith” (3:14-17). Paul told the Christians to “be filled with the Spirit; . . . Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:18-20). He taught, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (4:4-6). And those are just the direct references!

So, why would Paul be so focused on the Trinity? Two main reasons. First, remember what I said last week that Ephesians wasn’t prompted by some debate or controversy. Paul just wrote it because he could. As a result, Paul could focus on what’s most important in Christian theology; we shouldn’t be surprised that he filled the letter with references to the Trinity—it’s fundamental to Christian belief! Most controversies had to do with Jesus (how can He be man and God?) and salvation (how can it be a free gift?), and so Paul’s words focused on Jesus and His role in our salvation—not to minimize the Spirit but to focus on what was confusing to the people. Second, Artemis’s role as “great mother” and blesser of families made the Roman gods seem chauvinist. By focusing on the community of the Trinity, Paul established the uniqueness of the True God and His love of family and community.


Part 2: Hope of God (Ephesians 1:18-19)

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength.

And then Paul’s prayer just gets deeper and more profound! For an icebreaker, I encouraged you to ask your class how they prayed for young family members. Here, you would re-summarize everything they said, and then you would widen the net. You probably have teachers/former teachers in your class: how do they pray for their students? I have had too many discussions with teachers whose hearts are broken for the potential-laden kids in their classes who are being brought down by their families or friends. “If only that child could see his potential…” That is exactly Paul’s prayer for us. “If only we could see what God has for us…” I mentioned on the previous page that Paul’s perspective on life and death made him indomitable in this life; can you imagine if all of us had that same hope and trust and faith in God’s power in this life and the next? What do you think our churches—and thus our communities—would look like?

Make it clear that Paul isn’t saying anything about money. We aren’t called to get rich from God, and that shouldn’t be our desire! Here’s a great way to give your class perspective: what do you think is more important from your parents: an inheritance, or a heritage? We’re going to spend that inheritance. Quickly, probably. But we can never spend away our heritage. That’s what Paul is talking about—an inheritance that will never fade or disappear. Our inheritance is our eternal home in heaven, of which we have the down payment in the Holy Spirit and a tangible experience of it in our Christian relationships in the church (with “the saints”). What’s our biggest barrier to this sort of attitude in America? I think it’s our taking everything for granted. We have countless blessings; we just want more. Kids get what they want for their birthday; they want something else. Our biggest blessings—family and friends and freedom—are ignored. If only our eyes could be opened to the true reality of what God has for us in Jesus! We would never fuss again about anything! We would only lift one another up and reach out with the gospel and be the community that God called us to be.

[Aside on "Calling". What is our “calling” in Christ? First, reality was “called” into existence by God (Rom 4:17). Then we were “called” to be saints/saved in Jesus (Rom 1:7) or children of God (Rom 9:26), which means we were “called” to have a relationship with God (1 Cor 1:9). Now, as Christians, we are “called” to live in peace (1 Cor 7:15), we are “called” to a place in society (1 Cor 7:2), we are “called” to be free from sin (Gal 5:13), we are “called” to have hope in God (Eph 4:4), we are “called” to have unity in our church (Col 3:15), and we are “called” to live holy lives (1 Thess 4:7). As you can see, our calling from God is basically the same for every Christian. It looks different in how we live it our, but it’s the same for all of us. This would be a useful list to send home with your class!]


Aside: Paul's Perspective on This Life and the Next: Our Glorious Inheritance

So much of Paul’s writings were about reorienting his audience on what really matters in this life. Consequently, it is popular to read Paul during funerals. Paul said things like, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21), and “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Phil 1:23), and “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10), and “I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Cor 15:31). Contrary to what people might think, Paul was not cavalier about death; he simply understood what it was: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). His most famous passage on the subject is in 1 Cor 15, where he says things like “For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” Many Romans believed that the soul lived on in some kind of All-Soul; because we live in a world where everything that exists decays, we can’t comprehend a physical eternal existence. Paul understood better: eternity is different than our limited time here. We don’t need to be so caught up in our immediate physical fate because death is just a transition into a new—and better—reality, a reality spent with Jesus. So, when Paul tells the Ephesians to look toward the “glorious inheritance” and “immeasurable greatness” of God’s power for all Christians, he has this in mind. The blessing of God isn’t a few nice years of relative calm followed by illness and a painful death, it’s an eternity of glory in His presence. That’s an inheritance worth celebrating and even dying for.


Part 3: Power of God (Ephesians 1:20-23)

He exercised this power in Christ by raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens—far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, and every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he subjected everything under his feet and appointed him as head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.

But our biggest blessing and hope is not what God has done for us but what God has done for Christ. For Paul—as it should be for us—everything we celebrate should just be Jesus. Jesus is the one who has been seated at the right hand of God (the place of honor and authority). Jesus is now the name above every name (and power—remember what I said about the cult of Artemis). Jesus is the true Ruler of this world and everything in it. And that’s ultimately good for us because He did (and gave) it all for us. Jesus’ resurrection is proof and picture of our own (remember what I said about Paul’s perspective on death). Jesus’ power and authority is proof that what He said and did for us will come to pass (not just our salvation, but our having a home in heaven prepared by Him). And the fact that it’s in this age and the age to come should give us comfort in this life and supreme joy in the next. And all of that is for us—specifically the church as a whole (see the back page). We will talk about the church again a lot in the weeks to come.

This lesson is a celebration of Jesus. As followers of Jesus, ask your class if their lives are characterized by victory and hope or fear and doubt. Paul gives us a positive ultimatum here, and he prays that we would understand it. Perhaps your class’s application should be nothing more than to read these verses, 1 Corinthians 15, and Romans 8 a bunch this week—particularly 8:37-39: “ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen, and hallelujah!


Aside: "The Church" in Ephesians

Paul talks about the church a lot in this letter. In fact, he uses the word ekklesia 9 times, each to refer to the universal “church” (all believers united together), whereas elsewhere he almost always uses it to refer to the unique local congregation he’s writing to or about. Why is that? Remember I said that he could have been writing to all of the churches in the area, not just to the one in Ephesus. But I think the real reason is the cosmopolitan, transient nature of the population: people from all over the empire coming and going; they would need to see how all churches should be united together.

The most common image Paul used to describe the church in Ephesians is “body” (like in our passage); it’s a great way to emphasize the diversity of parts but unity of identity and function. Paul also uses “building” or “temple” words to describe how God creates a special place where He meets His people (the idea being “if you think the Temple of Artemis is great, you need to understand what God is building”). Paul also uses “bride of Christ” multiple times in this letter. Obviously, that is most-driven by Jesus’ own preference for that image, but Paul also saw how temple prostitution was used for “spiritual marriage”, and so he wanted to counter how the true worshiper of Christ was in an intimate relationship with Jesus that had nothing to do with sex. “God’s workmanship” is a great image to use in an area renowned for its craftsmen and artists. “One new man” talks about peace and unity—a fitting choice for an area accustomed to war and racial tension. “God’s household” works very well to reach a people whose goddess was a patron of children. “Fellow citizens” speaks deeply to people whose travels and ethnicities make them feel like they don’t have a home. In a nutshell, Paul’s description of the church spoke to his readers.


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