I’m happy to say that you can now turn with me to the book of Ephesians. We’ve read just as much of the Ephesian church’s history as the book of Acts gives us, so it’s now time to read Ephesians itself.
Go with me to Ephesians 1:1.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
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, 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, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:1-6)
Dear Heavenly Father, bless this reading of your Word. By your Spirit, help us to see and treasure the glorious truth of our adoption into your family through Jesus Christ. As we study the book of Ephesians, bring to life all of its doctrines and teachings. Let us marvel once again at the abundant riches of your grace. But help us to never become like the Ephesian church who eventually abandoned their first love. Our knowledge of the truth is no substitute for a genuine love for Christ. We long to know the truth and profess it boldly, but we also long for Christ himself. Be with me as I expound on your Word, and bless the hearers of it. In Christ’s name. Amen.
The Riches of God’s Grace
Can we take just a moment to appreciate what Paul doesn’t say in this letter? Not once does he even hint that things were not going very well for him, at least not regarding his natural circumstances. By the time he wrote this letter, he was a prisoner in Rome.
You may remember that when he left the Ephesian elders in Asia Minor, he was on his way to Jerusalem. And while he was in Jerusalem, he was arrested and then transported by Roman soldiers to the city of Rome where he remained in custody for two years. The authorities gave him a form of house arrest as he awaited trial, which ultimately resulted in his execution.
But we don’t see a trace of that in this letter. Not once does Paul say, “Woe is me. My life is over.” He didn’t experience any of the doubts of John the Baptist who sat in a prison cell wondering whether Jesus was really the Christ. The closest Paul comes to even mentioning his circumstances is found in the last chapter when he says, “So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything” (Eph 6:21). Tychicus was the man whom Paul designated to deliver this letter to the Ephesian church.
Given his current circumstances, Paul’s tone and demeanor throughout this book are impressive. Not only does he not complain, but he also maintains a remarkably positive, thankful attitude. In fact, this letter begins with what we call a doxology. The first passage is an expression of praise and thanksgiving. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he says (Eph 1:3). In other words, let us praise God. He certainly doesn’t sound like a man who’s waiting for an untimely death.
If nothing else, Paul’s attitude here reveals the extraordinary value of our spiritual blessings in Christ. And that seems to be the prominent theme of this letter. In chapter 1, Paul mentions “the riches of [God’s] grace, which he lavished upon us” (Eph 1:7-8). In chapter 3, he describes “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8).
No matter what you’re going through, no matter what trials you might face, God’s grace is greater than all of life’s obstacles. When the mind comprehends and the heart embraces all that God has done for us and is doing for us, our desire to rejoice outweighs any potential feelings of self-pity. The persecutors of this world can throw us into prison as they did Paul, but they can never take our joy and peace. Even if they put us to death, they cannot rob us of our “spiritual [blessings] in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3).
An Apostle By the Will of God
This letter begins with Paul’s typical greeting, but let’s not rush past it as though it contains nothing of substance. First of all, Paul establishes his authority and credibility by saying, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (Eph 1:1). That’s not a minor detail. If you have your Bible open to Ephesians, turn over a page to the end of chapter 2. In verse 19, Paul writes:
You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19-21)
This holy temple, of course, is the New Testament church. And God individually chose the prophets and apostles to be vitally instrumental in building his church. Not only did God choose them—Paul claimed to be an apostle “by the will of God” (Eph 1:1)—but he also gave them his words to deliver to the world. Both the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New spoke and wrote the message which God gave them. And again, they were specifically chosen for this task. Christ told the apostles, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you” (Jn 15:16).
So when we read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we should read it carefully and take it seriously. It’s not Paul’s religious or academic training that gives his writing credibility. We don’t study his words because he was “of the tribe of Benjamin, [or] a Hebrew of Hebrews, [or] a Pharisee” (Php 3:5). No, we study this text because Paul reveals to us the will of God. Christ chose him for that purpose.
Ephesians, in particular, represents a very special brick in the church’s foundation. I’ve said before that I would encourage every new believer to study this book from beginning to end. It contains some of the most fundamental doctrines of the Bible. Paul provides a remarkably concise yet profound explanation of the gospel of God’s grace, not to mention a summary of essential Christian behaviors. In my opinion, Ephesians is the perfect place for a new believer to start.
Saints Who Are Faithful in Christ
Next, Paul addresses the Ephesians this way: “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1). Here he defines what it means to be a Christian, which we can break into two parts. The coin of salvation has two sides. On one side, we see what God has accomplished. On the other, we see its outworking in people’s lives.
To call someone a saint is not to say that he or she has been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. A biblical saint is someone whom God has made holy. That person has been set apart and saved. The righteousness of Christ has been applied to him. Romans 3 says, “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law … through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Ro 3:21-22).
In other words, becoming a saint necessarily requires something that we don’t possess nor can we obtain on our own: righteousness. To become a saint means that God has declared us perfectly holy and righteous. But no amount of good works can make us perfectly holy. Rather, we must turn to Christ who is holy. We must turn to the one whom God accepts on our behalf. “The righteousness of God [is] manifested … through faith in Jesus Christ” (Ro 3:21-22). By putting our faith in Christ, we are accepting our helpless state before God. We are confessing, “Lord, I want to be a saint, but I can’t do it myself. I want to be saved, but I cannot save myself. I am putting my life and my standing before you in Christ’s nail-pierced hands.”
But where does this faith come from? This subject is one that we’ll explore in greater depth as we move through Ephesians, but for now, notice what Paul says in Ephesians 2, starting with verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship” (Eph 2:8-10). In fact, glance up a few verses, and you’ll see that we were “dead in our trespasses” (Eph 2:5). So faith itself begins with a sovereign work of God.
In short, we are saints only because we have put our faith in Christ alone for salvation. At the same time, we’ve put our faith in Christ only because God has chosen us to be saints. They are two sides of the same coin which ultimately we can’t separate. There is no faith apart from God’s intervention, and there is faith when God providentially intervenes. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).
If you’re confused by anything I’ve said, don’t worry. Through at least the first three chapters of this book, Paul teaches us precisely what it means to be “the saints … and … faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1).
Grace To You and Peace
Lastly, in his greeting, Paul says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:2). God’s grace is the fountain from which the stream of peace flows. Paul wished that the Ephesians might have spiritual prosperity. In Hebrew, the word for peace is shalom: “May God make you complete and keep you well.”
Of course, there can be no peace with God apart from Christ. In Romans, Paul said, “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Ro 5:10). So grace and peace come from both God the Father and Christ the Son.
Blessed Be the God and Father
Let’s turn our attention to the real meat of this chapter. In the original Greek, verses 3-14 are one sentence. Together they are one tightly-woven train of thought. And they convey to us God’s plan of salvation, his eternal purpose for the church in terms of past, present, and future. Or we could divide this text another way based on the three Persons of the Trinity. Verses 3-6 focus on God the Father, verses 6-12 focus on Christ, and verses 13-14 focus on the Spirit. Regardless, we are shown God’s plan of redemption which began even before he created the world.
And Paul’s subject begins this way: “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” (Eph 1:3). From the very beginning, Paul compels us to praise God. He uses the word eulogētos (or blessed). It’s the same word from which we get eulogy, or a message of praise and commendation. To eulogize a person is to praise him. And Paul says, “Before I even tell you why, let me encourage you to praise God.” Why? Because everything he says in this chapter leads to God’s praise.
Of course, God is praiseworthy simply because he is God. The atheist would disagree and probably point out what he perceives to be God’s flaws. “Look,” he says, “there’s evil in this world. What does that say about God?” What I’ll never understand about that argument is that the same person who makes it will also admire if not revere human celebrities. They’ll fall in love with an actor or musician despite his drug problems or eight divorces. But he won’t hold that against his favorite celebrity. Yet he’ll blame God for the existence of evil even though God has never caused evil. But we could be here all day if I tried to point out every flaw in the atheist’s thinking.
God is praiseworthy because he is God. And whether the atheist likes it or not, there is coming a day when “every knee shall bow to [God], and every tongue shall confess to God” (Ro 14:11). The believer, the unbeliever, the celebrities of this world—everyone will bow before God and his Son, Jesus Christ. In Revelation 5, John writes:
I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13)
Every creature without exception will be singing God’s praise. Even so, I suspect that believers will be singing the loudest. After all, we have the most to sing about. God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). If we have something worth rejoicing over, we know that it has come from God. James wrote, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jas 1:17). In Romans, Paul said, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Ro 8:28).
Blessed With Every Spiritual Blessing
But what does it mean to be “blessed … with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3)? Well, we can promptly rule out material gifts because Paul says that we receive spiritual blessings. While God does often bless us with material, natural things, Paul is talking about something even greater. These blessings are divine in nature and distinctly spiritual. Furthermore, they are abundant. We do not receive some spiritual blessings but every spiritual blessing.
Many of the things that we commonly pray for, technically, we already possess. At the very least, we already have access to them. For instance, we often pray for peace when our hearts are troubled. But Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you … Let not your hearts be troubled” (Jn 14:27). We pray for joy, but Jesus said, “I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:11). We pray for strength in times of weakness, but Paul said, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me” (Php 4:13).
According to Peter, “[God’s] divine power has [already] granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (1Pe 1:3). The fact is, we’re not waiting for every spiritual blessing; those who abide in Christ already have every spiritual blessing. We already have access to what Paul in another place refers to as “the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Php 1:19).
So the “saints who are … faithful in Christ Jesus” are not lacking any spiritual need (Eph 1:1). No, the question is, are we utilizing what God has already given us? Our position as God’s people and our possession of every spiritual blessing is so certain, so secure that in the next chapter Paul says that God has already “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (Eph 2:6). More than a promise to be fulfilled in the future, Paul is describing a present reality for God’s redeemed family.
When we hear the term “heavenly places,” we’re prone to think about heaven itself. Right? But that term encompasses the entirety of God’s domain. The word is not heavenly place but heavenly places. Paul uses the same phrase in chapter 6 when he says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against … spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Of course, we’re not fighting spiritual evil in heaven itself. We’re fighting that evil here in this present world. We’re fighting the devil whom Paul refers to as “the god of this world” (2Co 4:4).
In J.B. Phillips’ paraphrase of the New Testament, he interprets verse 3 this way: “Praise be to God for giving us through Christ every possible spiritual benefit as citizens of Heaven!” (PHILLIPS). And I believe his paraphrase really does get to the heart of what Paul is saying here. Though we—and I’m talking about believers—live in this world, we are also citizens of heaven. We have dual citizenship if you will. And as citizens of heaven, we receive all of the inherent rights and privileges that come with it even though we are currently in a foreign country.
The church exists within a paradox. At the present time, we live in a world full of sin and hostility, yet we’re also within the dominion of God, or what Paul calls “heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). This paradox is what led Paul to make such strange statements as, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2Co 4:8-9). So on the one hand, we’re forced to experience everything that comes with being a citizen of this world. But on the other hand, we don’t experience it quite like everyone else.
Most notably, we have access to the Spirit. Galatians 5 says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal 5:16-17). There’s a constant battle raging not only in this world but even within ourselves. But we have an advantage because God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3).
Let’s not overlook that little phrase which appears so often in the New Testament: “in Christ” (Eph 1:3). As we’ll discover, nothing in this passage would be possible apart from Christ. Jesus himself said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). We owe everything to Jesus Christ.
He Chose Us In Him
But first, Paul lays out God the Father’s role in our salvation. He describes what God has done in the past to redeem his people. It’s the very beginning of salvation. Verses 4-6:
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, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:4-6)
If you’re taking notes, I’ll make the rest of this passage really simple for you. I have six points which I’ll give one at a time.
1) God sovereignly chose his people for salvation.
Throughout Scripture, we see God choosing people for various reasons. He once chose Israel to be his sanctified people under the old covenant. He chose prophets and apostles to serve as special messengers on his behalf. But Paul is talking about a choice, an election that results in eternal salvation. If anyone can be saved, it must begin with a sovereign decree of God.
Of course, not everyone likes the sound of that. They say, “No, no, you’re wrong. Christ invites us to come to him, and when we do, he saves us.” Well, you’re not entirely wrong. We do go to him for salvation, and he does save those who trust in him for salvation. In John 6, he said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:40).
But there’s more to the story. Just a few verses later, Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:44). The Father draws us. He creates an irresistible force. That word was used by ancient Greeks to describe a starving man being drawn to food. How appropriate since Jesus referred to himself as “the bread of life” in John 6 (Jn 6:35).
Yes, we turn to Christ for salvation, but the Bible is abundantly clear that we would never have the will or desire to do so apart from God’s drawing power and sovereign choice. According to Romans 8, God “predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Ro 8:29). In 1 Thessalonians, Paul said, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you” (1Th 1:4). Going back to John 6, Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (Jn 6:37).
Once again, we are faced with the two-sided coin of salvation. Some call it a paradox that can’t be reconciled, but I disagree. There is no conflict between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Frankly, man’s only responsibility in salvation is to admit that he cannot save himself. He must reach a desperate state where he finally says, “Lord, save me.” And even then, he has come to that point only because God’s sovereign will has led him there. “No one can come to me unless the Father … draws him” (Jn 6:44).
Should it surprise anyone that God Almighty is sovereign even in our salvation? Consider Psalm 115:3: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” Or Proverbs 16:9: “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Or 2 Chronicles 20:6: “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you.”
And what does Paul say? “He chose us” (Eph 1:4). Let’s not complicate what the Bible says so plainly. Does that undermine what the Bible says elsewhere about us essentially choosing him, or coming to him, believing in him? No, it doesn’t. Before we chose him, however, he chose us. As John said, “We love [him] because he first loved us” (1Jn 4:19).
If you’re still inclined to argue against the sovereignty of God, I refer you to Romans 9:
Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9:14-16)
Consider Paul’s ministry. Paul preached the gospel indiscriminately to everyone he could. Even so, he understood the doctrine of election. He told Timothy, “I endure everything for the sake of [who?] the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2Ti 2:10). That’s an interesting way to phrase it. Paul acknowledged that God chose a people for salvation while simultaneously expressing his desire to reach them so that they could obtain salvation.
Salvation is a two-sided coin. So let’s not mistake election for justification. In the realm of time at least, there is an order to things. Long before a sinner is justified by faith in Christ, he is chosen by God.
2) God sovereignly chose his people before time itself.
Paul says, “Before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4). Before creation, the fall of man, the covenants, the law—before everything, God determined that he would choose a people for himself and provide the means for their redemption.
Since God is not bound by time—he created time—he had it within his power to see everything that would transpire before it did. He knew that man would sin, and he knew everyone who would eventually be born into this world. So even before he created us, he chose a people for salvation.
God is not making things up as he goes. His plans have been fixed for all eternity. Revelation says that our names were “written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Rev 13:8). And according to Peter, that Lamb was “foreknown before the foundation of the world [even though he was not] made manifest” until much later (1Pe 1:20). In short, the entire plan of redemption was firmly set even before “God created the heavens and the earth” (Ge 1:1).
3) God sovereignly chose his people to make them holy.
Paul says, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4). The purpose of this election was to set a people apart, to make them holy. But once again, that would not be possible if not for Christ. God didn’t choose a people whom he would simply command to be holy, though he does command us to be holy. No, he makes us holy through Christ.
Ephesians 5 says:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
Christ was “a lamb without blemish or spot” (1Pe 1:19). So God was willing to accept him as a sacrifice on our behalf. Our sin was applied to him, and his righteousness is applied to us.
Speaking of Bible paradoxes, here’s another that I’ve discovered: The more we learn about salvation, the more we might feel somewhat conflicted. It becomes quite clear that we have absolutely nothing to boast about concerning our salvation. It’s humbling. God did this and God did that. We offer nothing but our sin from which we need to be saved. And at the same time, there is nothing more precious to God than the people for whom he gave his Son.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
4) God sovereignly chose his people because he loves them.
Verse 5 says, “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons” (Eph 1:4-5). God was motivated not by obligation. He didn’t owe us anything but his wrath. Rather, he was motivated purely by love, agapē. The disposition of his heart was one that moved him to show us compassionate sacrifice even though he was under no obligation to do so.
In the next chapter, Paul writes, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). Again, his motive was love. Just don’t ask me why he loves us. I won’t have an answer.
5) God sovereignly chose his people to become his children.
It’s a shame that adoption is often treated as a secondary aspect of our salvation. We talk a lot about election, predestination, irresistible grace, and so on, but adoption is rarely included in our systematic theologies or creeds. One of the things that I’ve always appreciated about the 1689 Baptist Confession is that it includes a chapter on adoption.
It’s not very long, so let me read it:
All those that are justified, God conferred, in and for the sake of his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have his name put on them, receive the spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him as by a Father, yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation. (1689 Baptist Confession)
More than citizens, servants, disciples, or even friends, God has chosen us to be his adopted children. The Baptist Confession alluded to this passage, but Romans 8:15-17 is worth reading in full:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)
The teaching of adoption is such a beautiful concept. Imagine that a man has to make a choice between saving a rebellious, ungrateful child who is not related to him, who hates him or saving his own son. God chose the rebellious child. He chose us.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? (Romans 8:31-35)
God has made us his children. He has adopted us into his family. What a beautiful thought. But the question does arise, why did God do all of this?
6) God sovereignly chose his people for his own glory.
“To the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:6). Everything God does (or has done) is for his glory. After all, he is God. And with that, we’ve come full circle. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:3). Let us sing his praises.
Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on May 7, 2017.