Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14 and Introduction to Ephesians] Sometimes it’s good to just celebrate God’s great love for us. Ephesians is a letter not instigated by a controversy. Paul simply wanted to share with those church members the inspiring truth of God’s love for us in Jesus. This opening passage is a beautiful summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the impact it should have on each of our lives. Just a good news kinda day.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he richly poured out on us with all wisdom and understanding. Ephesians 1:7
[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.]
Amazing Math Tricks!!
In our passage, Paul is going to use a mathematical statement to say (essentially): “In Christ, God always makes everything add up to the right answer.” I have an engineering degree from Texas A&M; I took multiple years of calculus and differential equations (Diffy Q as we affectionately called it). We would routinely have a problem that took multiple pages to solve, and it was always so rewarding to get through all of that work, plug the result into the original problem, and see the equation add up. I’m also a nerd, so instead, you might just Google “Amazing Math Tricks” and see if anything you find might entertain your class. One of my favorites is the hailstone number. It’s a deceptively simple theory that no one can prove or disprove (it’s the Collatz Conjecture, for you fellow nerds), but it always works. Here’s the setup:
Pick any positive integer. If it is even, divide it in two. If it is odd, multiply it by 3 and then add 1 (3n+1). Then repeat with that result. The sequence will always reach 1.
The idea was introduced in 1937; this decade, we had a mathematician say that its solution was beyond our capabilities to prove. (For example: start with 12: 12 => 6 => 3 => 10 => 5 => 16 => 8 => 4 => 2 => 1. Do you see how the sequence works?) No matter what number you choose, you will always eventually get back to 1. It’s called “hailstone” because sometimes the numbers bounce way up high before coming back down. If you have a whiteboard and willing class members, have a few of them come to the board and try it out. No matter what they pick, it will always come back to 1. (Don’t let them pick a number above 20; you don’t have all day.) The point? Paul is making the point that in Jesus, no matter how big or strange the numbers get, God always makes them add up to the right answer (in our example, always makes the number come back to 1). “Hailstone numbers”, in a very nerdy way, illustrate that same truth.
My Wish / Make-a-Wish
The Make-a-Wish foundation was inspired in 1980 when the Arizona DPS was told that a boy with leukemia had always wanted to be a police officer. They made him an honorary patrolman and gave him a full day in public safety. He died soon after. Since then, thousands of kids with life-threatening illnesses have been “granted wishes”, and there are fantastic stories about them that you can easily find.
Perhaps tell a few make-a-wish stories. And then say, “As great as these events are, they just gave a blessing, never a cure. But God gave us the blessing and the cure. If our heart is warmed by these wonderful make-a-wish stories, then we should be so much amazed by what God has done for each one of us: sick and helpless in our sin, but made children of God and heirs to His immeasurable inheritance.” That is a truth that Paul wants us to celebrate and thank God for every day (and then we should desire to tell everybody that message, that God wants to be their own “make a wish champion” if you would. Hallelujah!
This Week's Big Idea: Introducing Ephesians
We are slam-full this packet, so I think I will cover the city of Ephesus in more detail next week. For the purposes of the introduction, let your class know that Ephesus was one of the most important cities of the area, sitting on a natural harbor at the intersection of a major land trade route and a river. It had been fought over so many times in its 1,000 yr+ history that it was truly multi-cultural and multi-racial (very large for the time—250,000 people). It was dominated by the cult/temple of Artemis (Diana), one of the wonders of the ancient world.
But again, more on Ephesus next week. To get things started, remind your class what we just read in 1/2 Timothy. Where had Paul instructed Timothy to lead? Ephesus. Ephesus was very important to Paul. On the First Missionary Journey, Paul and Barnabas planted churches throughout central Asia Minor. Inevitably, believers took their faith on the major roads to the big city, Ephesus. At the end of the Second Missionary Journey (~52 AD), Paul and Priscilla and Aquila stopped in Ephesus to investigate how things were going. Paul declined the invitation to stay, leaving Priscilla and Aquila there to lead the church. But on the Third Missionary Journey, Paul stayed in Ephesus for almost three years (Acts 20:31), eventually travelling from there to Jerusalem where he was arrested and sent to prison in Rome. Church tradition has long held that Paul wrote the letters of Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon during that imprisonment (61-62 AD; he mentions this imprisonment in each letter).
A few things to point out when introducing Ephesians: first, the words “at Ephesus” actually aren’t in the oldest manuscripts we have, leading some scholars to believe that Paul wrote the letter to the entire region, of which Ephesus was the leading city. That would help explain Paul’s references to the “universal church”, but it wouldn’t change the meaning of anything. Second, there is debate over whether Paul wrote Colossians or Ephesians first. My take is that Paul wrote Colossians first. The challenge in Colossae was a huge diversity of beliefs and philosophies, leading Paul to write a very clear and concise explanation of what it meant that Jesus was God. After writing the letter to the Colossians, Paul realized that the church in Ephesus could use the same information, so he followed a similar outline and just developed it more fully, offering practical application to the unique life situation in Ephesus. (Again, more on Ephesus next week, but you can know that Ephesus was dominated by a theory of magic that relied on charms and amulets for protection from evil cosmic powers.) Third, note that Paul doesn’t really offer theological correction in this letter like he does to Timothy. There isn’t the urgency of 1 Timothy. This would make sense. Paul had just spent three years there, not even three years before. The leaders of the church were mature Christians who knew Paul well and knew what he was about. Paul wrote this letter as a “primer”, a helpful check-in to let them know he was still thinking about them. We can’t know for sure, but I think this letter was simply prompted by Paul’s letter to Colossae and not a specific incident. (Note: it wouldn’t change the meaning of the letter at all if I’m wrong.) What happened between the time of this letter and the letter to Timothy, in which it’s clear that the church is in shambles? Think about it—how many people for how long does it take to drive a church to ruin? Not many, and not much. Somebody caused just the “right” problem and really made a mess. Consequently, this letter is positive and affirming, explaining the purpose and meaning of salvation and how it should affect a Christian’s daily life and relationships.
Part 1: Chosen (Ephesians 1:3-6)
Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ. For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him. He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One.
I have heard it said that so much of Paul’s writings were devoted to battling heresies and controversies that he often comes across as militant and dogmatic. But in this letter, with no heresies to fight, Paul could simply celebrate God’s purposes for His church and His world, taking in the breathtaking scope of God’s plan for us in Christ, promoting a vision of the unity of mankind and how Christians need to live so as to promote that vision to a hostile world.
That’s exactly what we get in Ephesians: an uplifting exposition of what God has revealed to us in Christ. And it’s in a format that almost every sermon has followed since: an introduction (1:1-2), an explanation of doctrine (1:3-3:21), an application to our lives (4:1-6:20), and a closing commission/benediction (6:21-24). I trust that this quarter will be a supreme blessing to you and your class!
This opening passage is entirely Trinitarian, and that’s not by accident. The fact that the one true God is triune (Father, Son, Spirit, three distinct Persons who equally share in the singular divine essence so that there is not three gods but one God) has always been a major issue. It doesn’t make sense to the human brain (which is the point), and so it always confuses native populations into which Christians are trying to share the gospel. So here, Paul makes it natural: God the Father blesses us in Christ the Son (1:3-12) and in the Holy Spirit (1:13-14). It’s not a doctrine to be debated; it’s a reality to be enjoyed.
The Greek phrase “blessed is God” is better understood as “may God be praised” (which is why I tend to speak of God as “praised” and people as “blessed”; some nuances are lost in translation). By starting with God the Father, Paul appeals to Jew and Gentile alike; but by moving immediately to Christ the Son, Paul establishes a line in the sand. Jews would realize that sonship elevated Christ to equality with God the Father; Gentiles would realize that this created a unity between the Two unlike their bizarre stories of a pantheon (like Zeus and Apollo, or Zeus and Hercules). Through Christ, God has given us access to every spiritual blessing (by which he means salvation, which he will explain in the following verses).
You might pause here—ask your class what sort of blessings they have received from God. An old song tells us to “count our blessings, name them one by one”. It’s a good habit that develops thankfulness. But after your class does that, have them identify which blessings will actually last. It’s only the spiritual blessings; everything else will burn. Paul wants us to be focused on our spiritual blessings and not caught up with material things. [Quick aside on the name “Lord Jesus Christ”: “Lord” emphasizes Jesus’ sovereignty; “Jesus” emphasizes His humanity (it’s a normal name) and His mission (“Jesus/Jeshua” means “God saves”); “Christ” emphasizes His uniqueness (it is the same word as the Hebrew “Messiah” which means “anointed one” or “appointed deliverer”). A lot is in a name.]
And then Paul continues with his statements on choosing, which I address above. Paul certainly did not intend for these verses to cause controversy; he meant them to be encouraging. Your holy character, your noble birth, your natural abilities—none of that is why God wants to have a relationship with you. God simply loves you, and His love is greater than your weakness or the evil in this world that wants to separate you from God. We can’t make any sense of that. It’s only because of God’s “good pleasure” (God simply wanted to do it; there is no further reason given or needed). Adoption is an excellent illustration for two reasons. (1) No one can adopt themselves into someone else’s family. It has to be at the initiative of the father. (Note that the child can refuse, just as many people refuse salvation.) (2) Adopted children have full equal rights as natural-born children. But whereas human parents always have the legal right to disown any child, God has promised that He will never disown us. Great illustration, huh?
Aside: So . . . Predestination?
This is a key passage for John Calvin’s understanding of predestination, and I’ve had a whole lot of Baptists ask me about it. In this passage, Paul says “God chose us” and God “predestined us”. Calvin interpreted this to mean that God had uniquely selected some individual people/souls to be saved and go to heaven, and He selected the others to go to hell. That is what “unconditional election” means (and Calvin did not try to separate it from “reprobation”). For obvious reasons, this stirs up a lot of debate among Christians and really makes a lot of people (including non-Christians, interestingly) uncomfortable.
Those of you know who have been reading me for a while know that I do not believe the Bible teaches a Calvinist view of election. So, what do I do with a passage like this one? Well, let’s pull out the sentence structure (remember sentence diagramming?): Paul actually says that “God chose us in Christ to be holy by predestining us to be adopted”. First, note that the Greek word for “predestined” is actually an aorist participle which is usually translated instrumentally (as in “God chose us by predestining us”). (Note that Calvin translated it as causal: “God chose because He predestined us”.) In other words, these aren’t two separate counts of predestination but one. And both parts of that one act need to be understood grammatically. With “chose”: God didn’t just “choose us” period; He “chose us to be holy and blameless in Jesus”. In other words, those who are “in Jesus” will be “holy and blameless”—not causal but circumstantial. In other words, what God predetermined was that all who believe in Jesus would be saved and thus holy and blameless. With “predestined”: God didn’t just “predestine us” period, He “predestined us to be adopted”. I’ve already noted that there is disagreement whether “predestine” is causal or instrumental; there is also a disagreement whether it is individual or collective. If individual (Calvin’s view), then it means “God predestined Matt Ward to become a Christian in 1997”. If collective (my view), then it means “God predestined Christians to be adopted as His children”. There’s a big difference between those two statements!
So, then what am I saying that God predestined? His plan of salvation. Before the foundation of the earth, God foreordained that Jesus Christ would be the only hope of salvation for all people, and that everyone who is found in Christ would be adopted as God’s children and found holy and blameless in Christ. Jesus is the focus of God’s predestination; we are merely the beneficiaries.
Whichever view you take, the most important thing for all of us to realize and teach is that however salvation works, it is done in love. If, when you teach these verses, you make God out to be anything other than infinitely loving, you’re doing it wrong. It is the love of God which makes salvation possible and available in the first place. And even if you (like me) believe that humans have an ability and responsibility to respond to the free offer of salvation, that could not happen unless God had taken all of the steps toward us first. The story of salvation is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ our Lord.
I don’t think I can ever pass up an opportunity to focus on the beautiful illustration of adoption. Adoption meant to Paul what it means to us. In the first century, there was a legal process by which a father could “create” an heir. Adopted children had all of the legal and inheritance rights as a natural-born child. This would happen if a man did not have any sons, if he was disappointed in his sons, or if he just had so much stuff that he needed more sons to pass it to (leaders would also adopt a son to ensure a smooth succession; a most famous example of this was Julius Caesar adopting Octavius who would eventually become Augustus Caesar). This didn’t happen just of orphans—often a man would seek out a family with multiple sons and pay them a sum for the privilege of adopting one of them. The adopted son usually maintained a relationship with his birth family! So really, adoption was purely and simply a blessing—a man who wanted to legally pass on his inheritance to someone who had no other claim to it. And that’s exactly the sense in which Paul used it. We weren’t God’s children; we didn’t deserve His inheritance. But He chose to adopt us into His family and give us full rights and privileges as any “natural” child. It is a life-altering blessing for no reason other than God wanted to share it with us. We shouldn’t argue; we should only be thankful.
The US has 3 adoptions per 100 births, by far the highest ratio in the western world. Since 2000, this is usually 15% international adoptions, 45% voluntary adoptions (like to a family member), and 40% child welfare situations. BUT: as of May 2019, the state of Georgia had 13,718 kids in the foster care system. A Georgia Baptist initiative is in helping those kids find homes. They want us to raise awareness of the need in hopes that a family (who is in a position to adopt) will learn more and choose to adopt. It’s a beautiful illustration of what God has done for us.
Part 2: Redeemed (Ephesians 1:7-12)
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he richly poured out on us with all wisdom and understanding. He made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he purposed in Christ as a plan for the right time—to bring everything together in Christ, both things in heaven and things on earth in him. In him we have also received an inheritance, because we were predestined according to the plan of the one who works out everything in agreement with the purpose of his will, so that we who had already put our hope in Christ might bring praise to his glory.
Here, Paul simply further explains the mind-blowing implications of what he just said. In order for us (dirty, rotten sinners) to be allowed into God’s family, that means that our sin has been completely forgiven, and we now have access to everything God has revealed of Himself: His wisdom, His grace, His eternity, the glory of heaven, more than we could ever appreciate in a thousand lifetimes.
“Redemption” is a big word that Paul uses a lot. When used on humans in Paul’s day, it meant paying a price to gain one’s freedom from slavery. Jews would also think of the blood of the Passover lamb that historically purchased their freedom from slavery in Egypt. There are many aspects to salvation; here, Paul focused on the debt of our sin. “Debt slavery” (or “bonded labor”, which still exists today—more than 8 million people are believed to be in illegal debt slavery right now) is the situation in which one person owes another person a debt too great to pay, and so he becomes a bondservant, working until the debt-holder feels like the debt has been repaid. Well, our debt to God for our sin is infinite, so, yeah. Jesus, purely out of grace, paid our debt (paid everybody’s debt); all we have to do is accept that gift and trust Jesus as our Savior and Lord. Repeating words like “richly” is intended to fill our hearts with unspeakable gratitude.
Paul also uses “mystery” a lot in this letter. The word itself just means a truth that we couldn’t figure out on our own—it had to be revealed/explained to us. We could not have figured out God’s plan of salvation. We could not make sense of it on our own. “Bring everything together” is a mathematical term that describes combining numbers to get the right answer. Humans looking at God’s plan of salvation is like a sixth grader sneaking into a calculus class; about the best we can hope to do is follow the board work well enough to see that there’s a right answer at the end. But that’s the point. We’re not supposed to understand the plan any more than we can understand what happens to us in life. All we need to know is that when the “facts of life” are put together, they reveal that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. That is the only “fact” that eternally matters to us. While that might sound simplistic, the fact that Jesus—our Savior—is God means that we can trust Him to take care of us (“because He lives, I can face tomorrow”). And we then are freed to live life day to day for His glory, sharing the truth that has been revealed to us in the hopes that others will join the family.
And that leads to the million-dollar question for the day: how can Christians bring God glory in our lives? I would love for your class members to really think about this because that’s how they will be able to evaluate their own life. Are they doing things that bring God glory? Are they doing things that distract from God’s glory?
Part 3: Sealed (Ephesians 1:13-14)
In him you also were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed. The Holy Spirit is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of the possession, to the praise of his glory.
This gives us a little hint as to “how” salvation works. (1) We heard the gospel (which means “the good news about salvation in Jesus Christ”). (2) We believed what we heard. (Note: Calvin would say that God predetermined who would believe. I believe that Paul’s language implies my personal responsibility to believe.) (3) The Holy Spirit immediately “sealed” us for salvation. A “seal” was a big deal in that day. The wax seal was the only mark of authenticity of a letter (they didn’t have notaries). Slaves were often marked with some kind of brand unique to the owner. Christians have the same kind of seal, but it is on our heart by the Holy Spirit. Notice that Paul calls the Holy Spirit a “down payment”; we can also think of that as a “first installment”. In other words, what we have in the Holy Spirit (and think of all the blessings you have in the Holy Spirit!) is only the down payment of the fullness of what God has for us in eternity. That made Paul want to shout for joy, and it should do the same for us. In this letter of encouragement, Paul won’t be able to stop giving praise to God. That’s the way it should be with all of us, no matter how many hard worldly experiences we have, we have immeasurable blessings from God that we experience every day in the Holy Spirit. Praise be to God!
When was the last time you just sat and thought about salvation? When was the last time you thought about where you were heading before you met Christ, and every way in which He’s changed your life? Paul wanted the people who read this letter to be amazed at what God had freely, graciously done for them and rejoice. After Sunday School, we’re heading into a worship service. That’s the perfect time to open up our hearts verbally in praise and thanksgiving of God. But I would ask you to challenge your class not to let the praise stop at noon. Have them go home and write down that list of blessings, marking which will last forever. (Because our souls live on, our relationships with other Christians will last forever.) Ask them to sit and think about those blessings. Make sure they realize they don’t deserve any of them. And then ask them to spend time being thankful, directly to God the Father.
Aside: How Do You Know If You Are Saved?
A few weeks ago, a big-name pastor Joshua Harris not only quit his church, he announced that he was leaving the faith. He was “no longer a Christian”. And that just opened up a lot of questions and concerns for people. Christians routinely have doubts—doubts in themselves, doubts in God’s goodness. So when we talk about a passage in which salvation is called a mystery, it is natural for people who consider themselves a Christian to wonder how they know if they have received the “seal” of the Holy Spirit, or whether they can lose that seal (and salvation). After all, that’s the first thing the serpent went after in Adam and Eve: doubting God’s goodness and promises.
Some denominations, like Methodists, believe that you can lose your salvation. So, if you no longer “feel” saved, it’s probably because you are no longer saved. They would point to the adoptive father’s right to disown a child; if that child no longer wants to be a Christian, God can kick them out.
Here’s my problem with that: Paul spends this entire letter setting up God as someone other, greater, than a person. We can trust God to remain gracious toward us; we didn’t deserve to be saved in the first place, so how can we ever think that we deserve to remain saved? It’s all grace.
So the question we ask ourselves is this: do we ever experience a remorse for our sins? An awareness of a conflict within us between what we’re doing and what we should be doing? Those are signs of the activity of the Spirit and a reason to be confident in our salvation. What do I think happened to Joshua Harris? It sounds like he realized that he had been preaching false legalism, but rather than change his mind, he felt he had to walk away from everything. I would expect to see him “back” in a few years. (Unless he's extremely stubborn or Satan picks him off as an easy target.)