Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Ephesians 2:1-10] Salvation is so much more than many American Christians realize. Paul gives us a wonderful summary of what salvation means, and he words it in such a way as to break through the lies people in Ephesus would have heard growing up. This passage establishes who God is and what He has done, and who we are and what we have done. We have been saved by God's grace and we are now God's workmanship.
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Ephesians 2:4-5
[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 Stories of Resuscitation!
Paul is going to talk about Christians being brought from death into life by Jesus, so perhaps you could get everyone’s attention by asking for stories of people who have been brought back from death (and I’m thinking of medical science here, not Bible miracles). Obviously, this is a great chance to plug the importance of knowing CPR. Google “CPR survivor stories” and you’ll be amazed. A Minnesota man who had CPR performed for 96 minutes keeping him alive; a Brooklyn man whose heart was stopped for 47 minutes—kept alive by 4,500 chest compressions(!); a 12-yr-old girl saved her own father’s life by doing CPR! Just some really great stories.
But here would be the real point of starting with this topic: the change in the people who had died but were brought back to life (which really means “kept alive”). So many of them have a fundamental shift in their perspective—greater appreciation for people, greater sense of thanksgiving, desire to slow down and enjoy life. That shift doesn’t always last long; it seems that plenty of the CPR recipients eventually go back to their old life perspective. Doesn’t that sound like a great parallel to becoming a Christian? If those folks who were given a “second lease” on life had a great appreciation for life, shouldn’t we—who have been given a lease on life that will never expire—have an even greater appreciation for everything we have? Shouldn’t we have a greater desire to share what we know, to thank the people who shared Jesus with us more than the CPR recipients have a lifetime feeling of appreciation for their saviors? And don’t we also have seasons where we begin to take that salvation for granted, slipping back into thankless and thoughtless ways of living? I could be wrong, but I think that the “survivor” illustration might get your class thinking the right/thankful way about our own salvation.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship
My hope is that you can say this name and title and someone in your class will perk up. If not, you need to read this book. Like, drop what you’re doing and read it right now. Bonhoeffer lived in Nazi Germany, was caught up in a Hitler assassination attempt, and eventually died in a concentration camp. But he was a faithful, humble Christian leader in Germany when the country was careening off a spiritual cliff with Hitler. This book can be summarized in two lines: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ. / Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’” His point was that following Jesus meant being changed—being someone new. Paul says we have been raised from death to life by the grace of God (grace that cost God His Son). Are we new? Does our life reflect this change? Is God’s grace cheap or costly to us?
This Week's Big Idea: Illustrations for Being Saved
“Salvation” simply means “rescue from harm”. In the Bible, that becomes especially connected with the idea that Jesus came to rescue humans from sin and death. Sin separates us from God, and it sets us on a course for eternal separation from God in hell. Jesus came to restore our relationship with God by paying the penalty for our sin, and then He promised the Holy Spirit to renew us, bringing us back toward the condition God originally created. We try to explain the process of salvation as the Holy Spirit “calling” to all people, some people responding in “repentance and faith”, God then sends them the Holy Spirit in a fuller way for “conversion”, after which they are “justified” before God, and then their life on earth continues in the process of “sanctification”.
The key word for our purposes in this passage is “conversion” (being “born again”). You might remember that Nicodemus was really confused by this word when Jesus used it; he was stuck on the idea of being physically born again (from his mother). But Jesus made it clear that we’re talking about a spiritual birth. Here’s the most important consequence of that (for our passage this week): we were not alive and then we became alive. Remember that the ancient Jews didn’t have ultrasounds; they didn’t fully know what was going on in the womb. All they knew is that when it was time, a living child came out of his mother. So it is with brand-new Christians; when we repent and believe in Jesus, we are “born” in the Spirit—at that moment we are saved. (And we are also immediately justified before God; two sides of the same event.) Look at the language used in the Bible:
John 5:24: “Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life.”
John 8:12 “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (Paul picks up on this later: Ephesians 5:8 “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”)
John 9:38: “for judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
You can find more such verses if you want. Here’s the point: in salvation, it’s not about a person becoming a better person, or a bad person becoming a good person. It’s about dead people coming to life. It’s as extreme as you can get. The Navigators uses this idea in their “bridge to life” gospel illustration:
I think it’s wise for every Christian to know a few ways to share/present the gospel quickly and clearly. The “bridge to life” is one such way, and there’s an entire PDF summary of the presentation available for free on their website. If your class doesn’t know it, it would be worth a few minutes to explain it (the full thing can go 15 minutes; you probably want to summarize and hit the highlights). And I also think it helps explain our passage this week.
Our Context in Ephesians
Remember that Ephesians is simply a glorious, uplifting explanation of what it means to follow Christ. In the first three chapters, Paul establishes the theology of things: the is one true God, there is one true Savior, salvation is a gift from God, and those who have been saved are a new people of God. Very straightforward, but very powerful. This week, now that we have established that Jesus is the Head of all things and worthy of our worship, we focus on what it means to be saved by Him.
Part 1: Once Dead (Ephesians 2:1-3)
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously lived according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also.
Paul doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He has just established just how wonderful and powerful Jesus is, and then shoots back with a “you, on the other hand, were nothing like Jesus”. The point is to draw as hard a line between God and humanity as possible (remind your class that Paul is thinking in terms of the Trinity this entire letter). Jesus = life and light and beauty and power and grace. Human = death and sin and rebellion. The Ephesians, like us, were not basically decent people who made occasional mistakes. They were dead, just like us. What does that mean? (Because obviously we’re not dead.) Well, take your class back to the Garden of Eden when God told Adam that he would die if he ate the forbidden fruit. Whatever happened to Adam when he disobeyed God, that’s what “dead” means. We generally think of this as being spiritually dead, which actually means being separated from God. In hell, the soul “lives” eternally, but separated from God, and so we think of it as “eternal death”. It’s a very serious condition. The emphasis is that the dead soul can do nothing to change his own condition; it requires an act from outside (like someone performing CPR). The cause of our death is our own sin and trespass (where sin is how we have fallen short of God’s design for us, and trespass is every willing rebellion against God’s law).
The most important insinuation Paul makes in this verse is that they (this applies equally to us, so we can rightly think “we”) “used” to live according to that pattern of death and separation. By implication, that is not the way we live now. His description of that former way of life is profound. Measure: the ways of the world. Puppetmaster: Satan. Goal: disobedience. Here’s a quick way of applying what Paul is saying to our own lives: if “everybody else is doing it”, then we probably shouldn’t. I love this description of Satan, “the ruler of the power of the air”. The real power lies with God, the ruler of heaven and earth; Satan has a kingdom of “air” (invisible but present all around us). Remember—Satan has real authority and power here (Jesus treated Satan’s temptations very seriously), but it’s a lie. It’s based on disobedience to God and can only result in death. That, of course, is Satan’s goal—if he can’t rule heaven, he can destroy that which God loves. When we follow Satan—when we live to fulfill our own fleshly desires (see above)—we are under the wrath of God. And yes, that means that the various life mottos being preached in the world like “be true to yourself” or “do it your way” or “do what feels right” or “follow your heart” are all under the wrath of God. Why? Because they’re all versions of the same lie Satan told Adam: you can determine your own right and wrong. Why is it a lie? Because they’re not determining anything for themselves at all! They’re following the spirit of disobedience in the world, the spirit under the authority of Satan. In the Greek, “spirit” is in the genitive, which means that it is “being ruled” by Satan (“the ruler of the spirit of disobedience”) Those people who think they’re being all independent and self-minded aren’t at all; they’re living at the whims of a being (Satan) of hatred, the father of lies, who wants them eternally destroyed.
And that is what makes Jesus so different—He sacrificed all so that we would not have to share that end . . .
Aside: The Greek/Roman Understanding of Salvation
Remember what I said about Ephesus and the cult of Artemis, the great mother goddess of fertility and whatnot. The cult of Artemis was one of many “mystery religions” in the Roman world, each revolving around a god/gods and a view of salvation. In the case of Artemis, it was primarily the women who served as priestesses in the great temple. Expensive clothing and jewelry and hairstyles were the norm for followers of Artemis, and they were encouraged either to serve as temple prostitutes or to bear children (or both) (this feeds into that strange-sounding passage we talked about in 1 Tim 2:9-15). The mystery religions would have a very secretive initiation ceremony. (Athens, focused on a rival mother goddess, Demeter, initiated 2,000 people a year.) The initiates were told that at the end of this secretive ceremony, their souls would be reborn and made immortal. By the fifth century BC, another level of ceremony was added: initiation into the deepest mystery (often some idea like “we are all separated parts of the universal all-soul, known by different names”). In one version, the worship of mother goddess Isis, the mystery revealed is that Isis is the queen ruler of heaven and earth and the underworld, and if the person will just worship her, she will resurrect their soul after death. Generally, the mystery revealed would leave the initiate transformed and with a profound sense of revelation and unity with whatever all-soul. All the initiate had to do was make some commitment to secrecy and faithfulness and then participate in the (often trippy) ceremony.
That’s what Paul was fighting against—an idea of salvation that used the same language as Jesus and had a similar end result (knowledge and immortality) but was totally different from everything he was saying. That’s why he pounds “grace” and “Trinity” and being seated with Jesus—three very unique features of Christianity.
Aside: About Paul's Lists of Sins
Paul gives multiple lists of sins. They were never intended to be comprehensive, but he needed to give his audience a sense of what the Christian life should not look like. Remember, those Gentiles never had an Old Testament view of godly behavior to learn from; they had no idea that the ways they were living were the very “ways of this world” that Jesus saved them from.
1 Cor 6:9-10: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were.
Gal 5:19-21: The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Eph 5:3-6: But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No sexually immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
Those are the desires of our flesh; we need to carefully watch our lives for them.
Part 2: Now Alive (Ephesians 2:4-7)
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
For the rest of our passage, Paul is going to blow our minds with the astounding gift that is God’s salvation for us in Jesus Christ. I think you want to save most of your time for these verses. I also think you probably need less commentary on them, so I’ll just mention some misconceptions I have heard about them.
Christians have (rightly) thought of the Christian life as a journey toward God. If we think of our life as a chart, we want the trajectory of our life to be “upward”/ ”Godward” (the blue line). (It will never be smooth; it will have lots of ups and downs.) But then they get confused: doesn’t that mean that the “gap” between us and God is getting smaller? But hasn’t Paul spent all this time explaining how infinitely valuable Christ’s sacrifice was for us? Doesn’t our Godward march lessen that? No, it doesn’t, and here’s why: we do (in the power of the Spirit) begin to live more and more like Jesus as we follow Him. But we also realize more and more the infinite glory and holiness of God. The “gap” between us and God never lessens because we can never approach infinity; we begin to appreciate ever more the immeasurable sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the grace and love of God that drew up that shocking plan to save us, fallen sinners.
The ringing refrain in here is grace and mercy and love. I find that so ironic because elements of our culture want to brand God a being of hate and wrath. Ask your class what our culture gets wrong about God. Basically, God’s wrath is against sin because sin is rebellion against Him and a rejection of what is best for us. The ultimate sin is denying the free gift of salvation in Jesus. But every sin (in spite of what our culture might claim) hurts people whom God loves. But even in our sin, God still sent Jesus to die for us so that we might be saved and raised to new and eternal life with Him. “Seated in the heavens” is a phrase intended to be the opposite of “dead”. It’s the most opposite condition to death there is—being in the very presence of true life. And yet even our present condition of life is just a taste of the immeasurable riches waiting for us eternally.
The tense used here is perfect, in the sense of a completed action. We have been saved; done deal. We are currently seated with Christ (meaning we have no barriers between us and the glorious, healing presence of God). These are present realities for us, not future hopes. The pagans had no concept of present, secured salvation.
Interesting Illustration: Building Repurposing
I saw one illustration for this passage as a “building repurpose”. Sometimes, as our church did with our neighboring dry cleaners, a person will have access to a building that was used for a purpose, but they don’t need it for that purpose. Rather, this new building owner will get in there and change what needs to be changed so it can accomplish a new purpose. Our church doesn’t need a dry cleaners, but we saw lots of potential in that building for ministry. A better example might be a church buying a former crack house and turning it into a halfway house—something once used for a bad purpose now used for something good. Obviously, that illustration has holes in it, but if it helps a class member see how God could take a sinner and make something beautiful out of his life, then great.
Part 3: Grace Alone (Ephesians 2:8-10)
For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.
This is a passage that every Christian should memorize. We tend to stop on verse 8, but the whole passage is necessary. The Greeks/Romans thought of the relationship between a human and his god(s) as that of a slave to a master or a devotee to a narcissist. But Christianity paints this relationship as that of a child to a father. The father gives good gifts to the child out of love. The father has grace for a child out of mercy. The father cares about the child out of compassion. The child cannot boast about being the child (those petulant brats who say at the party “do you know who my father is?” falsely believe that the people around them are impressed). The father trains up the child in order to release him into the world to carry on his father’s legacy and priorities.
Salvation is a free gift. It comes from God with no strings attached. All we can do is turn it down. Everyone who accepts this free gift receives full and complete salvation. Period. We cannot earn it. We cannot do good works to achieve it. (Remember that Paul just described our works in our pre-Christian life as rebellion and slavery to Satan!) However, God, who worked the good work of salvation on our behalf, has good works for us to do. He created us, He knows us, He loves us. When we accept the free gift of salvation, He brings us into His good plan for our world. And that plan includes us serving as His ambassadors, performing whatever kind of good work necessary to advance His kingdom and rescue people from the dominion of Satan. We don’t have to do these works, but it is right for us to do them; it is what we were created for.
Ask your class if they have ever gone a long time without using a particular gift or skill that they know they have. It leaves them unsettled, doesn’t it? That’s very possibly the Holy Spirit telling them that they aren’t doing what God put them here to do. If you’re an excellent singer, you should sing to God’s glory! If you’re an excellent writer, you should write to God’s glory! If your job doesn’t allow you to use all of your skills, you should find hobbies or church ministries that do! We need to live our Christian life active and passionately, just as God is active and passionate about our world (and us!).
Your goals then: make sure your class members have accepted this gift, that they can explain how to receive this gift, and they are learning God’s plan for their works.
Aside: God's Workmanship
Paul actually uses two different words for “work” in 2:9-10: salvation is a gift of God, not from works (ergon), because we are God’s workmanship (poiema) created for good works (ergon). The Greek word ergon is by far the most common word used to describe what we think of as “work”. “Poiema” is a much more obscure word. It was used a few times by Plato to describe how Socrates wrote poetry in prison. It was also used of a smith crafting something out of bronze or gold or clay. But in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), it was primarily used in the Psalms to translate God’s specific work in creation (“the work of His hands” or “God’s handiwork”). It was also used in Ecclesiastes to contrast human’s futile works with God’s eternal works. In other words, the word Paul used for “workmanship” is specifically restricted to God in the Bible. (The only other place it appears in the New Testament is Rev 5:13, the “for Thou hast created” song.)
In English, we probably miss the full extent of the word’s meaning. We come close when we say something like “we are God’s work of art” or “we are God’s special design”, but the real impact is greater, perhaps something like “we are God’s unique creation”. When we talk about God creating the heavens and the earth—the universe, the stars, every creature, etc.—we hopefully feel something of awe and amazement as to what God is capable of. Well, Paul used that same concept to describe what God did in us. We are also the work of God’s hand. We are not just a work of art (even a masterpiece!), for who ever died for a work of art or brought one from the dead? We have been made by God—we are God’s creative work, and He created us to do works of a different kind, works of righteousness and grace and love.