Sermons

The Beautiful Body of Christ – Ephesians 2:11-22

Ephesians 2:11-22

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Ephesians 2.  There’s an ancient Jewish story about two brothers who lived on farms right beside one another.  The older brother was in his mid-30’s and had a wife and a few kids.  The younger brother was in his early-20’s and wasn’t married and had no family.  The two brothers loved each other.  They enjoyed living next to one another.  They helped each other with projects and that sort of thing.

Well, as the story goes, one day the older brother looked over to his younger brother’s farm and thought (to himself), “Hey, you know, he only has himself.  If something happens to my brother, then who’s going to take care of him?  I have my wife and our boys are strong and growing.  I’ll be fine.”  So, the older brother decided that he’d go over to his grain bin at night and load up a sack of grain and take it over to his little brother’s grain bin and return under the cover of darkness and go to bed.

Meanwhile, one night, the younger brother looked over to his older brother’s farm and thought (to himself), “Hey, you know, all I have to take care of is me.  If something happens to me, it’s fine.  It’s just one person.  But my brother over there, he has a wife and children.  If something happens to him, then how will he support his family.”  So, the younger brother decided he’d go out early in the morning, and go over to his grain bin and load up a sack of grain and take it over to his older brother’s grain bin.

Well, the two boys did this for weeks on end and never bumped into one another.  Then, one night, the older brother got out a little later and the younger brother got up a little earlier, and they each went to their own grain bins and filled up a sack of grain and started off to the other’s farm.  And of course, this night, under the bright reflection of a full moon, the two brothers bump into one another and finally realize what had been going on all along.  And they drop their bags of grain and embrace.

Now, according to this Jewish legend, God looked down from heaven and in that moment, He said, “This spot of their embrace will be the spot where I build My temple – for My presence is most clearly made known when brothers dwell together in unity.”

Everybody loves a unity story.  Everybody loves a story of people coming together for the common good.  Whether it’s in the movies or real life.  Whether it’s a group of individual players on a sports team winning a championship, or whether it’s a community banding together in times of natural disaster.  We love these things because we were made for community.

Interesting little bit of trivia here.  Did you know that the first time anything is ever said to be “not good” in the Bible is in Genesis 2:18, where God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…”?  The first bad thing ever recorded is that woman wasn’t on the scene yet!  (Amen, ladies?  By the way, did you see how I wove that Mother’s Day nod into this sermon intro?)  But it’s true.  We were made to live life together.  We desire connection…friendship…unity.

Unfortunately, the gap between the ideal and the real is deep and wide and painful.  Sometimes teams don’t come together.  Sometimes families fail.  Sometimes friendships falter.  Sometimes churches split.  Not always, but enough so that when we read stories of community we recognize that we’re looking at an ideal that we haven’t quite yet reached.  We recognize that each of us has enough relational and social pain in a fallen world that we need to come together.

And that brings us to Ephesians 2 – a chapter that seeks to clearly remind us that it is only in Jesus that we can overcome the divisions that keep us apart.  Let’s read verses 11-22 together:

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands – 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  14 For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.  17 And He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.  18 For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.  19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  22 In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

O God, our Father, there is within us a great feeling of tension as we read this text.  On the one hand we know and have experienced the truth of the Gospel – that because of Jesus’ shed blood we have been reconciled with You and one another – and yet, on the other hand, we have seen or even perhaps experienced the reality that there are still so many dividing walls of hostility among us.  And so, we come to You in humility.  We come to You in dependence.  We come to You asking that You help us (Mountain Hill Community Church) to grow into a dwelling place for You by the Holy Spirit.  Lord, we pray that You would use Your holy Word to teach us, that we might have clarity in our thinking and in our speaking, and that our hearts might be opened by the shining forth of Your love and Your truth.  We offer this prayer in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

What we have before us this morning is a passage of scripture that beautifully describes Jesus’ ability to take people who are hostile and divided and bring them together into one family.  It’s the ultimate picture of bi-partisan reconciliation.  It’s the supreme image of racial, social, and economic justice.  And you don’t need me to tell you that this is something we desperately need in our world today.

If verses 1-10 are a description of the power of Christ to redeem us and save us individually (and they are), then verses 11-22 reveal how Jesus brings about unity among diversity in this new body called the church – a group where all prior distinctions of race, gender, religion, and social status are done away with.  And now, more than ever, those of us that call ourselves Christians, those of us that call ourselves Jesus-followers, those of us that call ourselves believers in Christ need to be reminded that there’s a world outside these walls and they’re yearning for a unity story, they’re longing to see and know that it’s possible to be a family under one roof, to be a community of people united in purpose and passion.

This morning, I want to highlight three things about the universal body of Christ: we all have the same problem, we all have the same solution, and we all have the same invitation.

The Same Problem: Sin

Verses 11-12 describe our state before Jesus.  We don’t typically talk or even think in these terms, nevertheless that’s us: alienated, strangers, having no hope and without God.  To be fair, in the context of Paul’s letter, he’s speaking about Gentile Christians in verse 12 where he uses all of those terms.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and leave out the sin(s) of the Jews.  In verse 11 Paul highlights a very obvious point of contention (circumcision).  Circumcision was the sign that you were part of God’s chosen people.

You say, “How is circumcision a sin?  How is simply being obedient to God’s command a sin?”  Well, the act of circumcision itself isn’t a sin, but allowing it to lead you to a point of arrogance is.  And Paul cuts right to the chase and highlights the fact that the Jews and the Gentiles had the highest contempt for one another.  In fact, the hatred that the Jews had for the Gentiles was so immense that the Jews said God only created Gentiles to fuel the fires of hell.  They referred to Gentiles as dogs, and some Jewish women even refused to help Gentile mothers in the middle of childbirth, because to do so would be to help bring another Gentile into the world.  Talk about racial superiority.  For many Jews, being Jewish wasn’t seen as an opportunity to bring praise and glory to God, rather it was license to detest Gentiles.

But highlighting circumcision also clearly revealed a sore spot for Gentiles.  They were separated from Christ.  They were on the outside looking in.  They had no hope.  They were hopeless.  That’s what verse 12 says, “…having no hope and without God in the world.”  That phrase “without God” is the Greek word atheos.  It’s the English word for “atheist.”  That’s what people are that don’t know Jesus.  At one point in time you and I were atheists.  Maybe not dogmatic or confrontational anti-believers, but we had no hope.  We were without God in the world.

Jews were eternal optimists – they had hope for a glorious future.  Even in their darkest days, the Jews never doubted that the Messiah, the Deliverer, the King’s anointed would come.  But the Gentiles had no such hope.  For the Jew, history was always going somewhere.  For the Gentile it was a dead end.  For the Jew there was at least the joy of worship in the Temple, but even that was off limits to the Gentile.

The outer most court surrounding the Temple was the Court of the Gentiles.  There was a partition, a little wall that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Women and at designated intervals along that wall were signs written in Greek and Latin that prohibited foreigners to come any closer.  In fact, in 1871 one of those signs was discovered and the inscription reads: “Let no one of any other nation come within the fence and barrier around the Holy Place.  Whosoever will be taken doing so, will himself be responsible for the fact that his death will ensue.”  It was clear.  If you were a Gentile you could only get so close to God.

So, Paul reminds the Ephesian church – both Jews and Gentiles – that they have the same problem: sin.

The Same Solution: Jesus

But just like last week; we’re reading along last Sunday about being dead in our sin and trespasses, carrying out the desires of the body and mind, natural children of wrath and we came upon those two glorious words “But God…”  Well, just like that, Paul is reminding the church that they had the same problem and then he writes, “But now…” and the story changes.  The emphasis shifts.  The spotlight is redirected.  The page is turned.  And verses 13-18 are one big long reminder of the power of Christ to save and redeem, to change and transform, to cleanse and make new.  Just listen to the language that Paul uses:

Verse 13, “you who once were far off have been brought near,” Verse 14, “[Jesus] has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility,”

Verse 15, “[Jesus] might create in Himself one new man in place of the two”

Verse 16, “reconcile us both to God,” and…

Verse 17, “[Jesus] preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

Verse after verse, sentence after sentence, image after image, Paul is reminding the church that we have no ground to stand on if we want to boast.  As Billy Graham so often said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.”  There should be no division when it comes to our salvation.  Hear me carefully, I didn’t say there shouldn’t be any division.  There are plenty of admonishments in the Bible telling us to guard against false teaching and incorrect doctrine.

Paul told Timothy, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).  In Romans he writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17).  And his most dramatic and forceful admonition is in Galatians where he writes, “…even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).  So, don’t misunderstand what Paul is saying or what I’m saying.  Paul isn’t saying that anything goes in the church and we should never have disagreement and that we should always and forever stand in a circle holding hands singing Kum ba yah.

No, he’s saying that when it comes to the fundamental point of our salvation the solution for our sin problems isn’t limited to the color of our skin, or the language we speak, or the education level we attain, or the amount of money in our bank account, or our age, or even our gender.  All of these categories are external.  They’re man-centered.  The unity we have (as a Church) isn’t in the fact that Jesus makes all Jews into Gentiles or all Gentiles into Jews.   The solution Jesus offers doesn’t turn all men into women, or all women into men.  It doesn’t force white people to become black people, or black people to become white people.

As the late William Barclay writes, “The unity which Jesus achieves is not achieved by blotting out all racial characteristics; it’s achieved by making all men of all nations into Christians…  it produces people who are friends with each other because they are friends with God; it produces people who are one because they meet in the presence of God by way of the cross.”

All of us have the same problem: sin.  All of us have the same solution: Jesus.  And all of us have the same invitation.

The Same Invitation: Family

In verses 19-22 there are two images that come out in the language: family and home.  Listen to the words: “no longer strangers and aliens” but “fellow citizens with the saints and member of the household of God.”  And then, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself the cornerstone,” the “whole structure… a holy temple… built together… into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”  Did you hear it?  Fellow citizens.  Saints.  Members of the household of God.  Foundation.  Cornerstone.  Holy temple.  Dwelling place for God.

We don’t come together each Sunday on the basis of some general commonality.  We don’t come together because we’re of the same generation, or we like the same kind of music, or we have the same taste in fashion.  We don’t come together because we use the same language, or because we’re from the same part of town.  No, no, as much as some of those things do bring us together, none of them are the essential and real reason for Christian community.  The most fundamental reason for Christian community is that we have the same problem (sin), we share the same solution (Jesus), and He calls us to the same invitation (family).

I’ve shared this from the pulpit before, and will likely continue to do so from time to time, but one of the things that I cherish most about you is that we are a community church.  And many of you share a similar sentiment.  In fact, that’s precisely why some of you have joined this faith family, and it’s one of the reasons that others of you continue to visit.  Do we fully reflect the diversity that’s found within global Christianity or that will be present in heaven?  No, but we do a fairly decent job of bringing people with varied backgrounds and experiences together under the authority of God’s Word to worship, praise and exalt King Jesus.

There’s a Latin phrase that goes like this Ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia, which means “where Christ is, there is the Church.”  When other people ask us where we go to church, or what we find most attractive or appealing about our church, I hope that one of the things that comes to mind is that we have the same problem, we have the same solution, and we share the same invitation.

Now, I don’t believe the ancient Jewish parable about the location of the temple, but I do believe that God’s presence is most clearly made known when different kinds of people come together in Christ.  The world is still watching.  Let’s show them what Jesus can do.

Our Salvation: God’s Grace – Ephesians 2:1-10

Ephesians 2:1-10

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Ephesians 2.  As you’re finding your place, you might recall that on October 14, 1987 in Midland, TX a little 18-month old girl named Jessica McClure (widely known as “Baby Jessica”) fell into a well in her aunt’s backyard and got stuck.  Over the next 56 hours, rescuers worked to successfully free her.

Firemen and police developed a plan to drill a parallel shaft to the well where Jessica was lodged (22 feet below the surface) and drill another horizontal cross-tunnel to rescue her.  It seemed a fairly straightforward and simple solution, but they discovered that the well was surrounded by rock.  The jackhammers they were using were inadequate, because they were designed for vertical rather than horizontal drilling.

Eventually, a mining engineer arrived to help supervise and coordinate the rescue effort, and he brought along a relatively new technology – waterjet cutting.  Forty-five hours after Jessica fell into the well, the adjacent shaft and cross-tunnel were complete.  During the drilling, rescuers could hear Jessica singing “Winnie the Pooh.”

Paramedic Robert O’Donnell was ultimately able to inch his way into the tunnel, wrestle Jessica free from her position pinned inside the well with one leg above her forehead – and hand her to a fellow paramedic, who carried her up to safety before giving her to another paramedic who carried her to a waiting ambulance.

And that’s not the only incident of this nature.  Back in June/July 2018 (do you remember this?) a high school football team and their coach got trapped in an underground cave in Thailand when floodwaters blocked them inside.  They were rescued after 18 days of being trapped.  Thinking back over those events, and others like them, I’ve realized that the utter helplessness and hopelessness they felt is an excellent picture of our lost condition.  As sinners – lost and alienated from God – we’re helpless and hopeless.  There’s nothing we can do on our own to fix our situation.  If we’re going to be rescued it will be completely the result of God’s effort – not our own.

That’s the message that Paul has for us today in Ephesians 2.  In the first chapter, Paul talked about the riches of God’s blessing and the power of God that has been revealed in Christ (and in us, who believe).  He prayed that the Ephesians (and you and me) would come to realize “what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power” (1:19).  In chapter 2, Paul’s going to continue illustrating Christ’s power to save, God’s power – through Jesus – to supernaturally transform hearts and lives for His glory, and we get this wonderful “before and after” picture of the Christian.

If you like watching DIY shows or renovation shows; maybe some of you are familiar with “Fixer Upper” starring Chip and Joanna Gaines, or maybe you’re like me and you prefer watching shows renovating cars, or maybe (ladies) you like watching those makeover shows…  Whatever it is, when you get to the end of the episode they show the before images and then the after images.  In some cases, you can’t even tell it’s the same house, or the same car, or even the same person.  Well, when it comes to saving souls and ushering people into a right relationship with God, let’s just say Jesus knows what He’s doing.  He has the power to save.  Let’s read today’s passage:

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – 6 and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  8 For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Father, thank You that we’re able to turn to the Bible – that we’re not left to modern notions of psychology or our own reasoning or science and medicine – but that together we bow underneath the dictates of Your most holy Word.  We say together “Speak, Lord” in the stillness, while we wait on Thee, with hushed hearts, listening with expectancy – that You, O God, will speak.  For we pray in Christ’s name, Amen.

This morning I want us to examine our salvation, which is God’s gift of grace and we’ll tackle it in three sections.

The Reason for Salvation: Past

First, the reason for our salvation.  Why did we or why do you need to be saved in the first place?  Verses 1-3 give us five reasons.

Number one: we were dead.  Paul says we’re “dead in trespasses and sins.”  Obviously, Paul isn’t talking about physical death.  He’s talking about spiritual death.  Nevertheless, it is actually helpful to think of a physically dead corpse.  What’s a corpse actually able to do?  Nothing.  It can’t walk.  It can’t talk.  It can’t breathe or live.  It just lays there.  It’s dead.  That’s exactly what Paul says is true of you and me spiritually . . . we’re dead.  Spiritually speaking, we just lay there.  Dead toward God.  Unable to communicate with God.  Unable to walk with God.  Unable to live for God.  Why?  Because our spirits, our hearts, our souls are dead.

We like to think of tiny newborns as sweet and innocent babies, totally removed from the concept of sin and death.  But spiritually speaking, a brand new, first-breath-out-of-the-womb baby, is no different than the vilest sinful adult.  Now I know that’s hard to wrap your mind around, but according to the Bible it’s true.  King David wrote these words in Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”  And don’t be misled; David isn’t saying that the sexual act that led to his conception was sinful.  He’s saying that when he was conceived and born, he was born into the realm of sin.  We were dead; that’s the first reason.

Number two: we were deceived.  Because we were dead in our sins and trespasses, we were deceived into walking “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience.”  The prince is, of course, Satan, who exercises control over this world.

That’s another reality that’s difficult to fully appreciate and grasp.  We know that God is ultimately in control of everything.  He’s sovereign.  Nothing is outside of His rule and reign, but He’s temporarily allowed Satan to exercise a measure of control over this world.  All we have to do is look around at the violence and destruction to know that Satan is at work.  And when we’re spiritually dead, without discernment, we’re deceived by what Satan does – deceived into walking “according to the course of this world.”

Number three: we’re disobedient.  Every person in the world is disobedient – including Christians (most of the time).  Hopefully and prayerfully, as believers in Jesus, we’re more obedient than before; but nobody is perfectly obedient toward God.  Think about how often you live up to your own moral and ethical standards, much less the moral and ethical purity and holiness and righteousness that God requires.

Do you see that phrase “sons of disobedience” at the end of verse 2?  That’s referring to Satan’s family.  There are two families according to the Bible: God’s and Satan’s.  When Jesus was speaking with the Pharisees, in John 8, they’re having this conversation about ancestry.  Jesus is trying to get them to understand who He is (i.e. God) and why He came, and yet the Pharisees are wanting to kill Him and Jesus says this: “Why do you not understand what I say?  It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.  You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:43-44).  Again, if this language is offensive, please understand that I’m just telling us what the Bible says.

Number four: we were defiled.  Look at verse 3 again, “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind…”  This isn’t just referring to sexual temptation, although that’s clearly in view.  No, this is referring to unbridled desires of all kinds; doing what we want, when we want, where we want, with whomever we want, however we want.  This is Paul’s way of describing self-centeredness.

And finally, number five: we’re doomed.  This is the natural outcome of the first four: we’re doomed.  Paul says we were “by nature children of wrath,” meaning that we were those who justly deserved God’s wrath for our sinful disobedience against Him.

Now remember, Paul is delivering this message in a letter to folks that have accepted the Good News of Jesus and are, in fact, Christians.  And he’s reminding them of the reasons for their salvation.  Had it not been for the power of God, they would’ve remained in their sins and trespasses and so would we.  Go back to my opening stories – trapped, cut off, alienated.  No Christian can take any personal pride in having somehow solved his/her sin problem apart from God.  We were doomed to receive His judgment.

Ahh, but notice these next two precious words, “but God…”  Those two words are the theme of the entire Bible.  Think about it.

  • Adam and Eve were lost forever because of their sin, but God
  • Noah would’ve drowned with the rest of humanity, but God
  • Abraham would’ve sacrificed Isaac, but God
  • Moses and the Israelites faced the Red Sea, but God
  • Jonah would’ve been fish poop instead of a prophet, but God

Larnelle Harris sings a song titled: But God.  And the chorus of that song (maybe I’ll sing it sometime) goes like this:

But God sees a way, when miracles are well beyond our view.

His love saves the day, when fear would tell us there is just no use.

You can look the whole world over for the meaning of it all –

For the purpose that mankind has always sought.

In the end you’ll discover, there is no other answer: But God.

Folks, God always makes the difference in situations where man is hopeless and helpless.  We were dead in trespasses and sin, but God

The Remedy of Salvation: Present

Paul now turns to the remedy for our alienation from God, and he uses a series of rich terms (five, in fact) to describe what God did.

Number one: rich mercy.  Mercy is not getting what you deserve.  There’s a lot of talk these days about justice, and to be sure there are plenty of issues that our country (and our church) needs to work on, but I always get a little nervous when people start demanding justice because justice means getting what we deserve.  And according to the Bible, what you and I deserve is eternal punishment, God’s judgment, and wrath.  Listen to these words from Psalm 103:8-12:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  He will not always chide, nor will He keep His anger forever.  He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.  For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.”

God is rich in mercy, which is exactly what sinners need.  And because God is rich in mercy, there’s no sin so deep and ugly that God’s mercy can’t cover it.  He has more mercy than we have guilt and shame.

Number two: great love.  God’s love for us is great.  In fact, it’s His great love that motivated Him to pout out His mercy on us in the first place.  One of the first verses that every Christian (and even non-Christians) learn is this, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.  Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:16-18).

As radical as it is to think about, listen to this.  If you were the only human being on the face of the earth, His love would still be directed toward you because that’s just who He is.  God is love.  It’s in His very nature to love and to save.

Number three: rich grace.  Three times in these 10 verses we encounter the word “grace” (vss. 5, 7, 8).  If mercy is not getting what we do deserve, then grace is getting what we don’t deserve.  It’s the best deal going, and it’s on offer in Jesus Christ.  Just let this sink in.  Not only do we not get what we deserve – eternal punishment – and that would’ve been awesome by itself, but God also gives us the gift of Christ’s righteousness.  And all of this is our because Jesus paid the price.  Grace is often explained using the acronym: 

God’s | Riches | At | Christ’s | Expense

Paul knows what he’s talking about here.  He refers to himself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:13-15).  Not only did he blaspheme Jesus, he persecuted and killed Christians, but God… rich in mercy, great in love, and rich in grace, saved Paul (and He stands ready to do the same for you).

Number four: free gift.  The fourth word that Paul uses to describe the remedy of salvation is gift.  It’s probably the best known and most loved verse in the entire letter, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” (Ephesians 2:8).  The irony of this verse is this: if your heart has been captivated by the magnificent love and mercy and grace of God, then this verse is like heaven.  On the other hand, if your heart hasn’t been captivated by the magnificent love and mercy and grace of God, then this verse is burdensome.

“What do you mean, pastor?”  Listen to me, brothers and sister, I’m convinced that one of the main reasons more people haven’t had their heart, soul, mind, spirit, and body redeemed by God through Jesus Christ is because it’s FREE.  While the average American might not have a problem taking monetary handouts from the government, they stop short of taking one from God.  Nope, when it comes to salvation, I gotta do my part.  I gotta clean up my act.  I gotta love my neighbor more, and serve the poor, and give more money to the church, and memorize more Bible verses, and on and on it goes.  Listen, there’s NO COST to you.  Jesus bore the price.  And that leads me to the last description…

Number five: by faith.  So, the gift of salvation, the gift of my rescue is free, but I only get the gift if and when I receive it.  If I pay for, it’s not a gift.  If I try to earn it, it’s not a gift.  If I put off receiving it, then it’s not a free gift to me.  The apostle Paul says that we’ve been saved by grace, “through faith.”  I mentioned the little helpful acronym for G.R.A.C.E. just a minute ago.  Do you know the acronym for F.A.I.T.H.?

Forsaking | All | I | Trust | Him

We receive the free gift of salvation by trusting God at His word.  You have to believe that Jesus Christ is your only hope of forgiveness and salvation – and when He’s your only hope, you put your faith and trust in Him.  We can have an intellectual and academic understanding of grace, and love, and mercy, and the freeness of the gift of salvation, but until we receive it by faith we’re not saved.

And finally, that brings us to…

The Result of Salvation: Future

And thankfully there are only two results of our salvation.

Number one: for God.  Simply put, the result of God’s saving us is that “in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”  Every believer is a trophy of God’s grace, and heaven is going to be filled with them.  God gets an eternity with His redeemed children, as a result of saving us through Jesus.

Number two: for others.  This seems contrary to everything else we’ve seen this morning, but one of the results of our salvation is that we might do the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  Let’s be clear.  We aren’t saved BY good works, but we are most certainly saved FOR good works.  Works aren’t the CAUSE of our salvation, but they are an EVIDENCE of it.

Diane Disney was Walt Disney’s daughter.  When she was 6 years old she came up to her dad and tugged on his coat and asked, “Daddy, are you Walt Disney?”  Walt laughed and replied, “Yes, honey, I’m Walt Disney.”  She then clarified her question, “No, are you the Walt Disney that makes movies?  Some of the kids at school say you’re the Walt Disney that makes movies.”  Walt responded, “Yes, dear, I’m that Walt Disney.”  Diane found a sheet of paper and a pen and asked for her dad’s autograph, and he kindly obliged and returned the autographed piece of paper to his daughter.  Nothing changed that day for Diane Disney, except that she had a new appreciation and understanding of who her dad was.  I pray the same is true for you and me because of Ephesians 2:1-10.

The Eyes of Your Heart – Ephesians 1:15-23

Ephesians 1:15-23

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Ephesians 1, again.  This is our third (and final) Sunday in Ephesians 1.  When we’re finished this morning, we can finally turn the page to chapter 2.  As you’re finding your place let me share with you some common interests between me and our boys.

So, Parker and I have a common interest in cars.  I’ve been able to pass along the Norris fascination with automobiles to him.  He’s able to pick out most makes and models just based on their design queues and badges.  We often play games with one another.  We’ll pause a TV commercial and leave only a small part of a vehicle in the image and take turns guessing what it is – and I’m not talking about pausing Ford truck commercials or Mercedes-Benz commercials.  I’m talking about pausing any commercial with a vehicle (close-up or in the background).

Anyway, it’s not uncommon for us to be eating dinner or unwinding after a long day and one of us say something like, “Hey, I saw a (fill in the blank) today.”  And then describe everything about that encounter.  Sometimes, the car that we spot is super rare or even exotic, and in those instances it’s not enough to say, “Hey, I saw a Ferrari today.”  You have to have photo evidence.  If you don’t have a photo, then it doesn’t count.  For example, just the other day Parker was out with my mother-in-law over near Cabela’s on Woodruff Road, and they saw a McLaren.  Sure enough, Parker knew he had to turn around and snap a pic, otherwise his sighting wouldn’t count.

So that’s one of our little father/son connections.  Jordan and I both enjoy fishing.  We like to talk about different baits and rods and reels and all the other accessories that come along with the sport of bass fishing, right.  Well, in a similar fashion, if we’re fishing together the catch doesn’t count unless you get it in the boat.  You can’t just pretend to set the hook and have your rod tip bent over – after all, you might just be hooked into a nice ole “tree pounder” instead of that trusty old “three pounder.”  Even if the fish jumps out of the water as you’re getting him to the boat – if he throws the line and he doesn’t make it into the boat, then it doesn’t count.

If you’re fishing solo, guess what?  You have to snap a pic, otherwise you didn’t catch anything.  It doesn’t matter what kind of details you offer.  You could come back to the house missing a leg and claiming Jaws bit it off.  And the neat thing about snapping a pic with today’s smartphones is that it captures the date/time/location of the photo.  So no going online to find some guy holding a 10-pound bass and cropping the dude out so that only his hand and the fish are in the photo.  Nah, it’s got to be the real deal.

Why am I telling you this?  Because there’s a little detail in John 20 where the resurrected Jesus appears and shows Himself to Thomas, remember?  Thomas says, “Hey guys, no offense, but unless I can touch Him and see His hands and side, then I ain’t believing.”  And lo and behold, eight days later Thomas gets his snapshot, right?  Well, John 20:29 is one of those little places where you and I are given a personal compliment by Jesus, “Jesus said to [Thomas], ‘Have you believed because you have seen Me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” 

So, what does this have to do with Ephesians 1?  Well, in today’s text, Paul, like Jesus, offers the Ephesians (and you and me) a compliment.  He doesn’t snap a photo with a smartphone, but he does the first-century equivalent – he prays that the eyes of their hearts might be opened to the reality of who they are because of Jesus’ resurrection.  And in the process of having their spiritual eyes opened, they also gain a glimpse, a snapshot of Jesus, whom they’ve never seen with their physical eyes.  And that’s my prayer this morning – that you and I might gain a glimpse, be it ever so fleeting, of Jesus because the eyes of our hearts have been opened.

15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His great might 20 that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.

Father, we pray for the help of the Holy Spirit as we study now, to illumine the printed page, to quicken and energize our thinking, so that in thinking properly we may come to know You, and see You through the eyes of faith, and to love You more deeply.  For we pray in Christ’s name.  Amen.

If you’ve ever wanted to see or hear a prayer that’s recorded in the Bible, then this is one of those passages to mark.  Paul offers us a snapshot of his prayer for the Ephesian believers.  And I want to break it down into two parts.

Paul’s Reason for Prayer

He begins by stating his reason for prayer, in verse 15.  His reason is because he’s “heard of their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love towards the saints.”  In that one sentence alone are two of the key marks for any healthy church.  If you want to know whether Mountain Hill is a healthy church, then compare us to verse 15.

First, do we have faith that is centered on/in the Lord Jesus?  Of course, every Christian church (including this one) “claims” to be Christ-centered, but does the teaching, does the preaching, does the ministry of that church shine a spotlight on Jesus and what He’s done for us, or is the spotlight somewhere else.  You ask, “Where else would it be, if not on Jesus?”

Well, some tend to suggest that their faith is in a particular agenda or political affiliation.  Walking through the halls you’re more inclined to hear conversations about Republican or Democrat, rather than sinner and Savior.

Some might emphasize denominational association a little too much – almost to their detriment.  I think all of us can appreciate church denominations, whether Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc..  And we’ve all been in those churches, but sometimes the ethos and the DNA of the church is so tightly bound to the church’s denominational concerns that you almost don’t hear the gospel of Jesus.  It’s always “the association says…” or “the presbytery says…” or “the diocese says…”, rather than “Jesus says…”

Some tend to set other biblical personalities on the same level as Jesus.  And I’m not just thinking of the Catholic church and her elevation of Mary, as is often the case, though that is a major concern that continues to hinder certain cooperation between Protestants and Catholics.  The same preoccupation among personalities can be felt in other churches too.  My dad’s family was strongly reformed in their theology and at least half of my seminary education was at a Presbyterian school.  And while I’ve been influenced heavily by Reformed teachers and have a great deal of respect for them, sometimes I scratch my head because you’d think that their faith is in Martin Luther or John Calvin or some other stalwart reformer rather than Jesus.  Do you understand what I’m saying?

The first question to ask of any church is whether or not their faith is in the Lord Jesus, and is it evident in the preaching, teaching, and ministry of the church.  It’s a great question to ask of this church?  And I encourage you to help me keep us Christ-centered, or move us back in that direction.

The second mark of a healthy church is does it demonstrate it’s love of Jesus by loving others?  However orthodox a church is, however pure its theology, and however noble its worship and liturgy, it’s not a true church in the real sense of the term unless it’s characterized by love for others.  A church’s faith might be centered on Jesus, but if there’s no expression of that faith in love towards others, then the church is unhealthy.  And just as a precaution, be careful that you don’t overlook some of the things we say (either verbally or non-verbally) that might suggest we’re guilty of not loving others as much as we think we do.  You ask, “How have we hated others?  When did we express hatred rather than love?”

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but let’s all be honest, how many times have we said or heard things like this in the halls of churches across our nation: “I hate liberals, or I hate conservatives.  I hate Republicans or I hate Democrats.  I hate fundamentalists or I hate progressives.  I hate Catholics or I hate Protestants.”  Let’s not be too self-righteous.  We probably didn’t mean “hate” in the strictest sense of the word, but we’ve said, heard, or felt that kind of rhetoric within the body of Christ.

In fact, just a few weeks ago someone notified me of a prayer written in a devotional book titled A Rhythm of Prayer: A Collection of Meditations for Renewal.  This particular prayer was contributed by an associate professor of practical theology at Mercer University and the prayer begins with these words: “Dear God, Please help me to hate White people…”

Now, in full disclosure, the remaining three pages of the prayer attempts to display honest and vulnerable pleading before God, as some of the imprecatory psalms do.  But there’s a distinct difference between reading the imprecatory psalms in church and praying that they be applied to those who disagree with us.  The point is simply this, we’d do well to remember every now and then that the love of Christ and love of others cannot exist without each other.

That brings us to the heart of today’s text and today’s message and that’s

Paul’s Requests in Prayer

There are four things that Paul prays for specifically on behalf of the Ephesian believers, and it would be interesting for you and me to consider whether our prayers often include these kinds of requests or not.  If we’re honest, probably not.

The first is found in verse 17, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him,”  Now we know that the Ephesians Christians, like you and me, had already received the Holy Spirit because that’s one of the blessings we looked at last week, which Paul mentions in verse 13.  So, Paul isn’t praying that they would receive the Holy Spirit.  Rather, it seems that Paul is praying that the work of the Holy Spirit would increase in their lives.  And he prays for this increase to be manifest in wisdom and revelation leading to an increase of knowledge in Jesus.

God wants us to go beyond a devotional reading of the Bible, even though there’s value in that.  He wants us to know Jesus more intimately through reading His Word.  We can breeze through the Bible and never enter into the experience of revelation – where God speaks to us through His Word in a deep and life-changing way.  The word that Paul uses here is not simply the Greek word for “knowing,” it’s a special word (epignosis) meaning “knowledge gained through first-hand relationship.”

Husbands/wives, consider your spouses for a moment.  If you’re not married, then think of a very close friend or perhaps your parents.  Husbands, when your anniversary rolls around, do you have any idea what kind of restaurant or food your wife likes, or do you just hit up KFC or Papa John’s on the way home?  You probably have a specific restaurant in mind and maybe even a specific dish in mind.  Why?  Because you’re intimately familiar with your spouse in a way that others aren’t.  That’s what Paul is saying here.

Here’s another illustration.  I know that our president is Joe Biden, but I don’t know him personally.  If I met him on the street (besides the presence of Secret Service), I would recognize him, but he wouldn’t recognize me.  That’s how a lot of “so-called” Christians know Jesus.  For them, Christianity is a religion not a relationship.  Do you know Jesus in name only, or are you intimately familiar with Him because of your knowledge of His Word and His life?

Paul was praying for the Ephesians something he prayed for himself: “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Philippians 3:10).  And this is what we should desire, as well: a deepening walk with the Savior based on wisdom, revelation and knowledge.

The next three prayer requests that Paul makes are all under the heading of “having the eyes of your heart enlightened.”  And before we look at them, let me just make a quick remark here about this phrase.  The word “heart” is used over 800 times in the Scriptures, but never once does it refer to the physical organ that pumps blood through the body.  This word always refers to our minds, our emotions, our intentions, our wills – it’s our deepest self.  What Paul is asking is for the Holy Spirit to come in and shine a light of understanding in our minds, our emotions, and our wills, that will ultimately lead to us receiving and embracing these last three prayer requests.

The second thing that Paul prays for is found in the middle of verse 18, “that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you…”  If I may, let me make one more quick observation otherwise we might miss it.  Paul often speaks of the triad: faith, hope, and love.  Well, it’s here, too – faith and love are in verse 15, and hope is here in verse 18.  Just thought I’d mention that.

The word “hope” makes us think about the future, the fact that God didn’t save us just to let us sit, soak, and sour.  He saved us to a glorious hope.  1 John 3:2 says that when Christ comes again, “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”  That’s part of the hope of our calling.  But Paul also writes this in 1 Corinthians 2:9, “…no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him.”  That’s the hope to which we’ve been called.

The third thing that Paul prays for is in the last part of verse 18, “[that you may know] what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints…”  Last week we talked about our inheritance in Christ, but here, Paul says that we’re God’s inheritance.  We’re His special treasure.  We’re His special inheritance.

Psalm 149:4 says, “For the Lord takes pleasure in His people; He adorns the humble with salvation.”  No Christian should struggle with self-esteem from God’s perspective.  He loves you and me so much that He views us as a worthy inheritance for His own Son.  And Jesus loved us enough to purchase us with the price of His own blood.  That kind of love should be enough to establish a proper perspective of our value to God.

The fourth and final thing that Paul prays for is found in verse 19, “[that you may know] what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe…”  And Paul uses Jesus’ resurrection as an illustration of this power.  You want to know what kind of power is available to a person who’s placed their faith and trust in Jesus – it’s none other than the power that raised Jesus from the dead (v. 20a).  But not just resurrection power, also ascension power.  Jesus was raised, but He didn’t remain here on earth.  He ascended.  And Paul, also in verse 20, says that Jesus was seated at the right hand of God the Father.  Not only does Paul refer to the power of Jesus’ resurrection, or the power of His ascension, but He also refers to the power of Christ’s exultation in verse 21 when he says that Jesus was set, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”

In 1997, a worship leader by the name of Paul Baloche penned a simple little chorus based on these verses.  The title of the chorus is “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”  We’re going to do it a cappella.  And for those of you that aren’t familiar with it, I’m going to start and invite you to join me.

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.

Open the eyes of my heart,

I want to see You ,

I want to see You.

 (Repeat)

 

To see You high and lifted up

Shinin’ in the light of Your glory

Pour out Your power and love

As we sing holy, holy, holy

 

Holy, holy, holy

We cry holy, holy, holy

You are holy, holy, holy

I want to see you.

 (Repeat)

 

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.

Open the eyes of my heart,

I want to see You ,

I want to see You.

Gold Among the Gravel – Ephesians 1:3-14

Ephesians 1:3-14

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to the wonderful letter of Paul to the hagios in Ephesus.  Do you remember what the Greek word hagios means?  It means “holy,” “set apart,” or “sacred.”  It’s the Greek word from which we get the word “saint.”  The English word “saint” comes to us from the Latin word sanctus, which is how the early church fathers translated the Greek word hagios.  And last week, if you didn’t already know it, you learned that all Christians, all genuine believers, whether you feel like it or not are saints.  We aren’t saints because of anything we’ve done, or because of any super-spiritual, super-pious, or exceptionally devoted life we’ve lived, or even because of some miraculous event attributed to us.  We’re saints…  We’re holy…  We’re set apart by God because of what Jesus has done for us.  Amen.

Last week, we began a new study in the book of Ephesians and we only got through two (2) verses.  Today, we’re going to make it a little bit further, though not a ton.  We’re actually going to look at verses 3-14, but in the Greek text those 12 verses are all one sentence.  That’s right; what you see in your English translations as verses 3-14 are all one giant run-on sentence in the Greek.  In fact, this is the longest sentence in the Bible.  Depending on which English translation you’re using, it’s anywhere from 222 words (NLT), 257 (ESV), 266 (NRSV), 275 (NKJV), 273 (NIV), 279 (KJV), to 280 (NASB).

Paul clearly wasn’t taught proper English grammar from Mrs. Howell at Mountain View Elementary School.  Because I can assure you this sentence wouldn’t have passed her steely eye.  Some of you will recognize the name Dr. David Jeremiah.  He’s a pastor, author and radio host for the Turning Point, and in his commentary on Ephesians he tells the story of challenging someone to diagram this sentence.  And sure enough, a retired English teacher in the audience took up the challenge and came back the following week with a scroll of paper nearly 12’ long.  That’s how packed this sentence is.

Michael DeFazio, professor of New Testament and hermeneutics at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, MO recalled the first time he ever preached on this text.  He was given 25 minutes in his preaching class in seminary and he felt pretty good about how he did.  He felt like he stayed within his allotted time, but when he looked to his professor who was holding the stop watch he discovered that he had gone over by nearly 20 minutes.  Trust me; we’ll be out of here on time, because if I ever run over by 20 minutes I won’t have a congregation the following Sunday.  But there’s just so many blessings of God in this sentence – they just keep coming and coming.

So, let’s begin by reading Paul’s prelude, Paul’s overture, his ode to salvation:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.  In love 5 He predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, 6 to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved.  7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, 8 which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.

 11 In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of His glory.  13 In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory.

Father, with our Bibles open, we pray that Your Holy Spirit will enable my proclamation of Your Word and our hearing it together.  Lord, grant that we might hear from You – the living God – so that our lives may be brought into conformity with the truth of Scripture, and that this time spent before You would be pleasing in Your sight and most helpfully to us, we earnestly pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Every time I read that passage I feel like I need to take a nap.  It’s designed to overwhelm us.  It’s designed to get us to say, “Would you slow down a little bit, because I’m having a hard time keeping up.”  It’s almost as if that was Paul’s response too.  Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul started writing down the spiritual blessings we have and he couldn’t stop.  He starts with those blessings that have their origin in eternity past and finishes with those that find their conclusion in eternity future.  In between, is a sequential description of the blessings that Christians can enjoy between the two eternities.

If I had to summarize what Paul is saying in this huge sentence it would be this: All of God has been working through all of time to save all of you.  All of God…  We see God the Father in the opening.  Followed by “in Christ” and “through Jesus Christ” in the middle section, and the Spirit makes an entrance at the end.  So, you have all of God.  Working through all of time…  We have “before the foundations of the world” at the beginning, followed by the “fullness of time” in the middle and an “inheritance” at the end.  So, you have all of God working through all of time.  Finally, to save all of you…  The plural “us” or “we” or “our” or “you” is used 17 times in these verses.  So, we have all of God working through all of time to save all of us, who believe.

While there could easily be a sermon on each blessing, we’re going to cover them all in one.  So, let’s jump in and consider our spiritual blessings under three headings: Spiritual Blessings in the Father, Spiritual Blessings in the Son, and Spiritual Blessings in the Spirit.

Spiritual Blessings in the Father

The first arena of spiritual blessings come to us through God, the Father, and the first blessing that we have is that we’ve been chosen (v. 4) in Him before the foundation of the world.  The subject of God’s sovereignty and choosing, immediately raises questions about predestination and election – prickly topics to say the least.  But here’s where I’ve come down on the issue.  If words have meaning (and they do), then that is what Paul meant, “He [God] chose us in Him…”  We can’t fully comprehend or explain how or why some were chosen and others were not.  It’s a mystery.  All we can say is that God’s choosing is a matter of His wisdom and grace.  And who are the chosen?  They’re those that have been drawn by God, the Father, and have had their spiritual eyes and ears opened to the truth of the gospel by the Spirit’s power, such that faith has caused them to trust in Jesus as the sacrifice for their sins.

Sometimes I find it helpful to hear how others have struggled with this reality; so, listen to how the Prince of Preachers, English clergyman, Charles Spurgeon, put it: “I believe the doctrine of election, because I am quite certain that, if God had not chosen me, I should never have chosen Him; and I am sure He chose me before I was born, or else He never would have chosen me afterwards; and He must have elected me for reasons unknown to me, for I never could find any reason in myself why He should have looked upon me with special love.”

Or this shorter quote by theologian and seminary president B.B. Warfield, “The marvel of marvels is not that God, in His infinite love, has not elected all this guilty race to be saved, but that He has elected any.”

Regardless of where you fall out on this issue of God’s sovereign election and man’s free will, we don’t proclaim ourselves followers of Jesus Christ in arrogance, but rather humility.

The second blessing that Paul mentions is adoption.  Adoption is something that’s near and dear to my family’s heart.  My father-in-law was adopted and Melissa and I adopted our oldest son, Jordan, after fostering him for nearly a year.

Adoption begins with a parent’s initiative, not a child’s idea.  Before Jordan was even born, he had a mom and a dad praying for him.  While Jordan was lying alone at night, he had a mom and a dad planning to adopt him.

And one day, when Jordan was placed in Melissa’s arms he had no idea all that had been done.  Completely apart from any initiative in him, to bring him to that point, this precious 11-month-old boy didn’t invite us to come to him to bring him into our family; he didn’t even know to ask for such a thing.  No, this precious child became our cherished son because of a love that was entirely beyond his imagination and completely outside of his control.  He didn’t pursue us.  He was utterly unable to do so.  Instead, we pursued him.

Paul begins his list of spiritual blessings with a bang.  God chose us in Christ and made sure that we received the status of sons/daughters in His family.

Spiritual Blessings in the Son

The second arena of spiritual blessings come to us through God’s Son, Jesus.  There are four of them, and I’m going to have to pick up the pace.  The third blessing we have is redemption (v. 7).  In his book Redemption Accomplished and Applied, author and theologian John Murray writes, “The language of redemption is the language of purchase and more specifically of ransom… [which] presupposes some kind of bondage or captivity.”  We’re freed from sin, both the penalty and the enslaving power.  And that’s what Christ did upon the cross of Calvary when He died to pay the debt to sin that we owed.

That naturally leads to the next blessing, which is forgiveness.  Forgiveness goes hand in hand with redemption.  You can’t have one without the other.  To forgive means to give up the right to punish someone for a transgression.  “Forgiving the unforgivable is hard.  So was the cross: hard words, hard wood, hard nails” (William S. Stoddard, Wisdom from a Pastor’s Heart).  Making forgiveness possible was a major accomplishment in God’s eyes, since it required the sacrifice of blood and the death of His Son, Jesus.

The fifth blessing that Paul mentions is enlightenment (v. 9).  “[G]od made known to us the mystery of His will…”  You say, “I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about?”  The mystery known to believers but unknown and not understood by unbelievers is that when the time is right God will bring all things in heaven and earth to a fitting conclusion in Christ who will be the ruler of all things.

The sixth blessing is our inheritance in God’s kingdom.  This reaches back to the blessing of adoption.  As a result of becoming a child in the family of God, we gain all the rights and privileges of sonship – one of which is becoming an heir.  We don’t exactly know what that inheritance is going to be.  The apostle Peter describes it this way, “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4).  It won’t be impacted by the stock market, inflation, or recession.  It’s an inheritance that neither thieves can steal, nor moths nor rust destroy (Matthew 6:20).

Spiritual Blessings in the Spirit

The third, and final, arena of spiritual blessing is ours through the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.  It’s in the Spirit that we receive the seventh and last spiritual blessing in the heavenly places – we’re sealed, we’re secure.

This isn’t just theological rhetoric or religious talk; being sealed by the Holy Spirit is a specific act that occurs in time and space.  The sealing by the Holy Spirit refers to our security with God in the present.  We know we’re chosen by God in eternity past, and that we’ll be secure with God in eternity future.  But what about the present?  What about now?  What about in between those times?  What security do you and I have that we’re going to make it through this life faithfully, given all the traps and temptations and pitfalls and snares?

Well, think of it like you would a piece of certified mail.  When you go to the post office to send something via certified mail, they give you a special green/white form that actually goes over the envelope enclosure.  The information you provide is used by the post office to ensure that the letter or package reaches its final destination, but more than that – you can also request that ID is presented and that your package also reaches the intended person.  So, it is with the Holy Spirit.

There’s no doubt you’ve heard people within the church quote the old adage “once saved always saved.”  I recently had a spirited conversation with a dear friend of mine concerning this idea.  Please keep in mind, like predestination, we can twist this concept and turn it to our liking, or we can seek to understand its proper place in the truths of God’s Word.  All I can say is that in order for me to lose my salvation I would have to undo God’s choosing, God’s adoption, God’s redemption and forgiveness, God’s enlightenment, God’s inheritance, God’s sealing and securing of my life for all eternity.  As someone once put it, “I would have to undo what God thought, what Jesus bought, and what the Holy Spirit wrought.”

You know, without the Bible, none of us would dare to believe that all these things could be true of us.  That we’re children of God.  That we’ve been spiritually adopted into His family according to His plan, which existed before the creation of the world.  That Jesus has redeemed us, forgiven us, enlightened us, and made us fabulously wealthy in heaven, on both a spiritual and a physical level.  And that we’ve been sealed and made secure by the Holy Spirit.

Most of us might respond something like this, “I want to believe all this, but I’m having trouble.  You see, I don’t feel like I have infinite worth.  How could I?  Look at all the things that’ve happened to me.  Look at all the things I’ve done.  How can God love me with all my faults and all my sins and all my deficiencies?”

Well, it’s like finding gold among the gravel.  If you’re not familiar with the gold mining industry, or really any mining or refining industry, the finished product is rarely found on the surface.  Remember Jed Clampett shooting at some food and up from the ground come a bubbling crude?  Yeah, this ain’t that.  There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into unearthing just the smallest amount of gold.

The gold is among the dirt.  It’s all mixed up with iron ore, and clay, and bauxite, and other mineral deposits.  You dump truck loads of dirt onto conveyor belts that move that gold-impregnated dirt to large containers where it’s mixed with water and turned into a muddy sludge called slurry.  They add cyanide and oxygen into the mix that react and suck the gold out of the slurry in a process called leaching.  Then the gold is sifted out and thrown into a furnace at 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit with another compound called flux, which gets rid of the other impurities.  At this point the molten gold is poured into bars and sent off to another lab where it’s melted down again for one final purification.

God loves us and see us just like we do the gold among the gravel.  He knows how to refine us.  He’s not finished with us, yet.  He views us through the righteousness of Christ.  In Christ, we’re “gold in God’s eyes.”  So, rejoice in the blessings you have in Christ.  Glorify the Father, and give Him praise.  Tell others how wonderful He is.  Let’s not keep the Good News to ourselves.

Our Father and our God, grant to us that we might begin to understand the magnitude and significance of the blessings that You have given to us.  Open our minds to understand and our hearts to appreciate that we might glorify You fully.  Until then, grant us the grace that we might live accordingly.  Amen.

The Supreme Letter – Ephesians 1:1-2

Ephesians 1:1-2

Well, let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  We’ve just concluded a 3-month study in the Old Testament book of Proverbs.  Then we turned our attention to the events of Holy Week and Easter.  Now it’s time for us to change gears again – this time to the New Testament and the book of Ephesians.

In the course of human history, certain writings have emerged out of the countless masses of literature and stood a head or two above the rest.  For example, you think about Homer’s epic poems, Iliad and Odyssey, or the great biblical narratives of Israel, or the writings of Dostoevsky, the Confessions of St. Augustine, or Marcus Aurelius, or the poetry of Dante or Milton, and I believe that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians should be in that group.  It stands out for a particular brilliance and clarity and beauty.

In fact, the Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, called it “The Queen of the Epistles.”  English poet, Samuel Coleridge said that it was “the divinest composition of man.”  When John Knox, another great Protestant Reformer and the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, was on his deathbed, the book that was most often read to him was John Calvin’s Sermons on the Letter to the Ephesians.  And another great Scotsman, John Mackay, a former president of Princeton Theological Seminary said, “Here is the distilled essence of Christian faith.  It is truth that sings; it is doctrine set to music.”

Now, before I read the first chapter, let me offer three more brief comments.  First, yes, I’m going to read the entire first chapter (all 23 verses).  One of the things that Christians have historically done within the context of weekly worship is to read and/or have read to them the Scriptures.  So just let the Word of God have its way with you.  Allow it to bless you, and perhaps make a mental note or two about how it “speaks” to your heart and mind.  Second, this is a letter, so let’s read it that way.  When you receive a letter today (or better yet, an e-mail), you don’t sit down and immediately begin to dissect it and analyze it – word by word and phrase by phrase.  You read it in its fullness, then go back and pick up bits and pieces.  Third, and finally, I want to encourage you to read the entire letter several times over the next couple of months.  It takes less than 20 minutes to read – and that’s reading it out loud.  If you read it like you would anything else, it will likely take less than 10-15 minutes.  And with each reading and repetition, to paraphrase the psalmist, you’ll be storing up God’s Word in your heart that you might not sin against Him (Psalm 119:11).

So, with that as our primer and brief introduction, let’s begin by reading Ephesians 1:1-23.

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:

2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.  In love 5 He predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, 6 to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved.  7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, 8 which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of His glory.  13 In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory.

15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His great might 20 that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.

Father, what we know not, teach us; what we have not, give us; what we are not, make us.  For your Son’s sake.  Amen.

I want to simply introduce Paul’s letter by making four observations, all related to the wonder of the gospel, which is what we’re introduced to here – what God has done for us in Christ to save us from sin, Satan, and hell.

Gospel Grammar

First of all, understanding what we might refer to as gospel grammar.  There’s kind of a grammar to the gospel, if you like.  And it’s very important that we’re clear concerning this.  And the grammar of the gospel falls out quite wonderfully in Ephesians.  It divides very clearly at the end of chapter 3 from Paul’s emphasis on all that God has done for us in Christ (chapters 1-3), then, beginning in chapter 4, all that we now do and become because of what God has done for us in Christ (chapters 4-6).  But he takes three chapters to explain the wonder of God’s provision and dealings with his own.  And until that’s clear, it’s a real danger to start on all of the “doing” stuff.

You may have been brought up in a church that, every single Sunday when you went away, you were ultimately discouraged.  Because somebody had said to you, “This is what you need to do.  And you need to do more of this, and this is what you need to stop doing, and this is what you need to start doing.”

And you went out the door and you said, “How in the world am I going to do this?  I’ve been trying to do this for all my life, and I can’t do it.  What is the divine impetus?  What’s the dynamic that makes this action possible?”  You were never told.  That’s because of a failure in the grammar of the gospel.

What Paul does here in Ephesians is he takes the first three chapters, and the verbs are almost exclusively in the indicative.  Do you remember what the indicative mood is (probably not)?  It’s a type of grammatical sentence that states facts or asks questions.  That’s all that Paul is doing in these first three chapters, with one exception.  (For those of you that like a challenge, see if you can find the one exception where Paul isn’t stating a fact.)

The bottom line is this: in the first three chapters, Paul explains exactly what God has done in Christ.  For example, just look at verse 3 again: “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… (v. 4) He chose us in Him before the foundation… (v. 5) He predestined us for adoption…”  Do you see that.  Paul says, “Look at what the Father has done!  See what God has done!  See, here, what God has done!”  That’s what he’s saying, and we need to understand the grammar of it all.  We need to see and understand why he’s putting the letter together in this fashion, before we move to the action parts.

Once he’s done with the indicatives, then he turns to the imperatives.  Do you remember what the imperative mood is?  It’s a command.  It’s the “doing” part.  Only after the indicatives does Paul move to the talking about how to be a proper husband, how to be a proper wife, how should children act, how should slaves and masters behave toward one another, and so on.  See, it’s very possible for us to go through the Bible in such a way that it simply becomes just an experience of “how to” discoveries: “how to this” and “how to that” and “how not to do” the next thing.  Paul makes sure that we don’t fall victim to that.

Gospel Geography

Second is gospel geography.  Paul points out to them the geography of the gospel.  What do I mean by that?  Well, if your Bible is open, you’ll see that the recipients of Ephesians have two homes (v. 1): “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are [the] faithful in Christ Jesus.”  So there are two homes, two realities: number one, they’re in Ephesus, and number two, they’re in Christ Jesus.  We can immediately make application and say, by the grace of God, having turned to Him in repentance and in faith, we find ourselves both “in Landrum” and “in Christ Jesus.”

We have folks in our church family that have passports from Russia, South Africa, Hungary, and perhaps other countries around the world besides the United States.  But ultimately the believer’s passport is in heaven, because we are now placed “in the heavenly places” in Christ Jesus.   And it’s vitally important that we understand this in the overall construction of Paul’s argument.  See, in the first three chapters he underscores the wonder of what it means to be “in Christ Jesus,” and then, in the second three chapters he works out what it means to be “in Christ Jesus” while also being “in Ephesus.”

So, when the believers in Ephesus gathered together for their worship times and their study of the Bible, they probably didn’t look like much at all.  They were living in a culture that was able to tolerate just about anything other than the claims of Christ.  The spiritual forces of darkness were real in Ephesus.  The primary worship was directed to Diana of the Ephesians.  Her presence dominated the place.  The reconstructed temple of Diana was regarded as one of the early Seven Wonders of the World.  Occult was rampant in Ephesus.  The sense of pushback from the surrounding culture was real.  Sounds a little like 2021 America, doesn’t it?  It was rather easy, then, for the believers in Ephesus to feel completely overwhelmed.

So, Paul is reminding them, and reminding us through them, that they have been raised from spiritual death and they’ve been “seated with Christ in the heavenly places” (v. 20).  That’s a remarkable thought.  So, you have this gospel geography, if you will.  Tomorrow, we’ll return to the routine of life in Landrum or Greenville or Greer or Travelers Rest.  But if we belong to Christ, we’re not only in Greenville, but we’re also in Him.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that we’ve been removed from the rigors of the battle.  Far from it!  In fact, at the end of the letter Paul is going to remind us of the armor for our warfare.  We haven’t been removed from the battle, but we are assured that Christ, in His death and in His resurrection, has conquered sin, death, and the grave – our biggest enemies.

Gospel Identity

Third is gospel identity.  As I say, when these people gathered, they wouldn’t have looked like very much.  Even the brightest and best of them wouldn’t have stood out in this culture.  We recognize that.

We’re a diverse group of people.  There’re all kinds of folks here – different backgrounds, different colors, different places.  It’s quite wonderful.  But when you take our little congregation here and compare it to the population of SC, then you realize that we ain’t all that.  Even if we were to stand up and announce all of our capacities and accomplishments and so on, we ain’t all that.  And so, it’s important that Paul reminds these Ephesians not only of the grammar of the gospel and the geography of the gospel, but also of their gospel identity.

Jerry Bridges was a Christian author and staff member of The Navigators, which is a Christian training organization.  One of his last books was called Who Am I? – Identity in Christ.  It’s very slim, but it’s very good on the question of our identity in Christ.  One of the reasons for Christian ineffectiveness is that we don’t know who we are.  Who are these people?  Look at what Paul says: he’s writing “to the saints who are in Ephesus.”  And don’t be too quick to dismiss that label: saints.

Our Tuesday men’s Bible study just began studying Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which begins almost identically to Ephesians, and we spent about 15 minutes discussing the various nuances of the word “saint.”  Some of you grew up in a church tradition (be it Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox or Lutheran) where the broader community of believers recognized certain followers as having a greater degree of holiness or righteousness, and thus the church hierarchy, the church structure had a process by which to express this.  In the Catholic Church it’s called canonization, and in the Eastern Orthodox Church it’s called glorification.  But both are formal ways of elevating or recognizing someone as living an especially devoted life to Christ.  And the fact of the matter is this; even if you didn’t grow up in one of those church traditions, that idea – what I just described – is often what comes to our minds when we hear the word “saint.”  But that’s not what Paul meant, and it’s not the biblical understanding of the word.

According to the New Testament, all Christians, all genuine followers of Jesus – young, old, rich, poor, wise, simple – regardless of any miraculous event attributed to your life or any sense of devotion, everyone that places their faith in Jesus is set apart by God for His sacred purposes, are thereby made holy.  In fact, that’s what the word “saint” means – holy ones.  It’s the Greek word hagios, meaning holy.  In all seriousness, we can only be holy and righteous by having that standing imputed to us by God through Christ.  But once we’ve been made holy – apart from anything we’ve done – then we grow in holiness as we faithfully follow Jesus.

And we need to get ahold of this, because it’s very, very different from what you find in many religious expressions for holiness or sainthood.  Those of you who have gone to India or places like India will know that it is not uncommon to see “the holy man.”  The holy man is usually stripped naked or almost naked, he usually looks like a royal mess, and he’s begging for things.  But he’s regarded as holy in that community.  It may have nothing at all to do with righteousness; it has to do with religion and with externalism: “This is what a holy man looks like, this is what a holy man does.  He divests himself of this and that and the next thing.”

I don’t say this to be disruptive or insensitive or even arrogant.  I’m just saying that when you read the Bible you aren’t introduced to that image in connection with holiness.  In externalized religion, people are constantly thinking, “It’s about me, and it’s about what I do, and it’s about how well I do it, and so forth…”  Religion is always about how well I do; Christianity is about the wonder of what Christ has done.  So that a real Christian is always saying, “O how the grace of God amazes me!  Because I, in and of myself, am unworthy.”  How politically incorrect is that, to describe yourself as unworthy when society would have you believe you’re such a wonderful, fantastic, amazing person?  If you see me as being wonderful and fantastic and amazing, then let me just say it’s only because of Jesus.  (Amen?)

If you’ve trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and seek to follow Him with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength, then you’re a saint.  Not because I said so, or because this or that church said so, but because Jesus made you so.

Gospel Security

Gospel grammar, gospel geography, gospel identity, and finally, gospel security: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The security of the gospel is this: God grants us peace through grace.  It’s in our understanding of the amazing grace of God that we can rest content, even when our hearts condemn us – that we marvel that God in His grace would have reached down to us and inclined our hearts to Him and opened our eyes to His truth and made us His own.

Read it through and you’ll discover how grace is just impregnated, particularly through the first three chapters.  Think about it.  When did God start to love you?  When you started attending church?  When you started showing an interest in religion?  When you started reading your Bible?  When you decided you were going to be a better person?  Is that when God said, “Oh, I’ll love them for that!”  No.  He loved you before the dawn of time.  He loved you in Christ before creation.  Before He created the universe, He loved you.  That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about grace.  And it’s that grace which then grants peace, first with God and then with one another.

I know it’s cliché.  It’s churchy, especially following Easter Sunday, but it’s the truth.  It’s the gospel.  The answer to our broken world is found only one place: at the cross of Jesus Christ.  He answers the deepest dilemma of our lives: morality, meaning in life, purpose in life, why we’re here, what do we make of all the chaos and violence and injustice.  Where is all this rectified?  Certainly not in Washington, D.C.  Certainly not in corporate America.  Certainly not in the halls of academia.  Certainly not in science and technology.  Where is it rectified?  At Calvary.

It’s only in Jesus that the racial barriers of our nation are dismantled.  It’s only at the cross that rich and poor bow together.  It’s only in the church of Jesus Christ that old people and young people sing together and listen to the Bible together and seek to reach the world together.  Because listen, the answer to our broken world is found only one place: at the cross of Jesus Christ.  It’s at the foot of the cross where Jesus brings us into a new society, and gives us a new standard of love that makes it possible for us to be united – diverse as we may be.  It’s only in Christ.  It’s only by His amazing grace.

Life After Lockdown – John 20:11-32

John 20:11-32

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to John 20.  I’ll be reading verses 11-23.  If you didn’t happen to bring your Bible this morning, don’t worry we have you covered.  You can follow along on the big screens, or there may be a Bible in the pew rack where the hymnals are located.  As you’re finding your place, let me set the stage for our passage this morning by reminding you what we were doing last year.

This time last year, you were attending Easter Sunday worship services in your home via a livestream or TV broadcast, while folks like James, Doug and I were leading worship in front of cameras to empty sanctuaries.  Many of you were, in effect, on lockdown.  And while that might have felt unlike Easter, in hindsight we were experiencing the very same emotions that the disciples felt on that very first Resurrection Sunday.

The text we’re about to hear clearly illustrates that the disciples were on lockdown – not as a result of some state-ordered emergency protocol, but rather on account of the fact that their hearts were now filled with sadness, they had completely lost their way, and the darkness of the previous day had, metaphorically speaking, settled upon their shoulders.  Unlike you and me, they had no hope, they had no assurance, they had no promise on which to stand and hold tight to in the midst of their lockdown.  We, at least, had the benefit of knowing how the Easter story ends and the hope that indeed our pandemic lockdown would come to an end.  But not so for our first century brothers and sisters.

So, with that little bit of background out of the way let’s give attention now to God’s Word:

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb.  12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.  13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”  14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you seeking?”  Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”  16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to Him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).  17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’”  18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” – and that He had said these things to her.

 19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  20 When He had said this, He showed them his Hands and His side.  Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.”  22 And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Our gracious God and Father, we thank You that we will not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from Your mouth – the mouth of God.  So, we turn now for the food that is so needed by our hungry souls, for the direction that’s so necessary in our increasingly chaotic lives, for the peace for which we long in the midst of relative chaos.  Fulfill Your purposes Lord, in these moments, we pray, to our good and to the glory of Your Son, in whose name we ask it.  Amen.

Those of you that are members or regular attenders – this is your opportunity to show our friends and guests just how well you pay attention each week.  In order to help us navigate this passage, I’ve chosen to gather our thoughts under how many words?  Three!  Why three?  Three is good biblical number.  It’s a holy number.  It’s a trinitarian number.  So, today’s headings are simply Fear, Faith and Forgiveness.

Fear

Fear is the explanation that John offers (v. 19) as to why the disciples were gathered in a locked room.  They were fearful of the Jewish leaders who had provoked the crowd and the Roman authorities to kill Jesus, and they feared a similar type of reaction.  It’s easy for us – with 2,000 years of church history and time to analyze the details – to be critical of the disciples, to be apathetic to their situation, but might I remind us all that only 12 months ago there was a similar feeling around the world.  We weren’t necessarily fearful of people, but rather a disease being carried by people – many of whom didn’t know they were infected.  And this disease was killing people.

But it’s not just fears of death that the disciples had in mind.  There are a number of other “things” we fear, aren’t there?  I can imagine that one of their fears was grounded in the fact that they would never see Jesus again.  There was an empty fearfulness in the room.

Think about it.  For those of us that have lost loved ones (and who hasn’t, right), you remember sitting in a room surrounded by friends and family and one of the things that often takes place is that people start reminiscing – we start recalling and retelling stories of our beloved.  I can imagine the disciples laughing about the time that Jesus fed the 5,000 and how all of them had responded.  Or Peter recalling his brief experience as a water-walker.  Or that time that Jesus shut the mouths of His opponents by paying their taxes with a coin He found in the mouth of a fish.  (I can fish all day long and not catch anything, let alone a fish bearing enough money to pay my taxes.)  I suspect that one or two of them were still trying to get their heads around witnessing the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection.  And then all of a sudden it hit them – like it does us – that they wouldn’t see Jesus again.  Hence the fearful locking of the door.  Hence the fearful emptiness.  Hence the sense of regret.

Surely it wouldn’t be long before one of the disciples said, “You know, if we had only stayed with Him when the Romans came for Him, if only we’d followed through…  Why was it that we said, ‘You know, Jesus, You can count on us no matter what happens, and then we just ran away.’”  I suggest to you that there’s more than regret in that; there’s disappointment, there’s despair, there’s shame.  The point that I’m making is simply this: while we might be tempted to overlook the disciples’ fear on that first Resurrection Sunday as being short-sighted, may we not think that we’ve conquered it on this Resurrection Sunday.

What I’ve described and what we see in this text is a mirror of our own lives (some of us).  Facing death, despair, lostness, emptiness, regret, and fear.  And all the while we peer into an unknown future.  And in moments of brutal honesty, we’re forced to admit that with all of our best endeavors we cannot create life out of death, we’re unable to bring order out of chaos.  And so, for us, as it was for the disciples, it’s going to take something pretty special to see us change.

If fear is what they experienced, then faith is that which needed to be restored.

Faith

Again, verse 19, John tells us that it was in the context of a fearful lockdown that Jesus came and stood among them.  Although they were locked down, Jesus couldn’t be locked out.  In fact, the irony of the situation is that the reason they were locked down is because they thought that death had locked Jesus down, once and for all.  And yet, here He stands among them.  And the first word that comes out of Jesus’ mouth is “peace,” or shalom (in Hebrew).

Of course, that’s a customary Semitic greeting, but let’s not pass over it too quickly.  The disciples might have anticipated that out of Jesus’ mouth might have come rebuke, or blame, or at least disappointment, but no.  “Peace be with you.”  And when He said this (v. 20), “He showed them His hands and His side.”  Jesus understood their fear.  Yes, their fear of the religious leaders and possible death, but now also the fear of shock that He’s standing in their midst.

In fact, in Luke’s gospel, we’re told that they thought they had seen a spirit, an apparition, a ghost.  So, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “Touch Me, and see.  For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39).  Here’s an interesting detail in John’s accounting.  It wouldn’t be at all uncommon to identify crucifixion victims by the nail marks in their hands and feet.  After all, that’s how crucifixion was carried out – you were nailed to a cross.  But Jesus has a wound and a scar unlike any other crucifixion victim.  Remember?  He was pierced in the side by a spear (John 19:34) in order to confirm that indeed He was dead.  So, Jesus invites them to look at Him and believe.

Now folks, I want you to appreciate something else here.  Jesus appeals to their senses.  This is not an appeal to an idea or a concept or a philosophical structure propped up by centuries of religious tradition that can somehow help us make sense of life.  The disciples are not in this room pontificating an abstract idea; they’re embracing a Person.  Jesus is literally speaking to them.  So, they’re hearing.  He’s in their very presence.  So, they’re seeing.  He’s inviting them to touch Him.  So, they’re feeling.  And in the very next chapter He’s going to eat with them.

Now why do I mention this?  It’s because although we weren’t present for these events, and we can’t speak audibly with Jesus, or physically see Him, or actually touch Him, the Bible’s account of the resurrection isn’t asking us to believe anything that’s contrary to reality.  The gospel writers, indeed all of the eye-witness accounts of the resurrected Jesus, aren’t asking us to enter an academic or philosophical study or debate about the existence of Jesus.  No, they are simply proclaiming the sensible and rational reality of His resurrection.

Jesus invites the disciples to let go of their fears and embrace faith.  And He’s saying the same thing to some of you today.  Some of you need to respond to that lump in your throat, that still small voice in your ear, that inner heart-felt stirring that says, “Look at My hands and feet, and what’s more, look at My side.  Let go of your fears and embrace me by faith.”

It’s only Jesus that can release us from the fear we experience.  It’s only Jesus that can arouse our faith by appealing to reason and reality.  And finally, it’s only in Jesus that we find the forgiveness that needs to be shared with the entire world.

Forgiveness

Jesus not only came to die for our sins and to bear the weight of God’s divine wrath against sin, but He came with a message.  He made that clear from the beginning.  He said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).  Jesus came preaching the truth of the Good News.  Therefore, it makes perfect sense that when He would no longer be on earth to proclaim this message, He would instruct His disciples to continue carrying it to the world.  And that’s exactly what He’s saying in verse 21, “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.”

Now, to be fair, the body of Christ is not in agreement with regards to the correct interpretation and understanding of verses 22-23, as it relates to either the reception of the Holy Spirit or the process of forgiveness.  And quite frankly, now, is not the time to unpack all that has been written concerning these things.  However, what I do think we can agree upon this Easter Sunday is that Jesus is sending them out to proclaim the way of forgiveness.

And indeed, that’s what they do.  Peter, in his very first opportunity to preach after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension ends his sermon with this instruction, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37).  Two chapter later, in his second recorded opportunity to preach he says, “And there is salvation (or forgiveness, if you like) in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Life after lockdown for the disciples was characterized by fearlessly and faithfully proclaiming the way of forgiveness.  What will it be for you and me?  This is the Easter story, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.  Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).

Behold! The Beauty of the Cross – John 19:1-30

John 19:1-30

Behold!  That’s an old biblical word that means, “Stop and look.”

There are a couple of times a year when the body of Christ comes together to stop and look.  To sit.  To stare.  To stop and gaze.  Christmas and Easter are two of those quiet, holy, time-stilling moments of the church.  Holy Week is a time for stopping.  When you read the Gospel of John, you find Jesus talking a lot about “His hour” and the “time that is coming.”  John tells us over and over again, “His hour had not yet come.”

But beginning in chapter 12, the narrative slows down and crawls through the next 36 hours.  Jesus talks to His disciples in the Upper Room.  He comforts them.  He challenges them.  He provokes them.  And then the hours pass by as Jesus goes from the Garden to the palace and then to the hill where His heart will stop beating.

Can I encourage you tonight – with all that’s on your mind – to simply sense the stopping of time, and to remember the moments at the heart of our faith.  To marvel at the Word of God…  To listen for the Old Testament echoes…  To catch the Old Testament overtones…  To look at Jesus – the One crucified in our place, who loved us and died for us.

In the precious few moments left this evening, I want us to simply consider the three “Behold” statements that we encounter in John 19.  Hopefully, we will find a new beauty in the cross as we hear these three statements and what they mean.

Behold the Man!

That’s what Pilate says in John 19:5.  And strangely enough, we ought to obey Pilate this week.  We ought to stop and stare at the Man he’s pointing to.

Put yourself in the sandals of a first-century Jew.  There you are in the throng of people outside the palace.  It’s Passover.  You’re celebrating the deliverance of your forefathers from Egyptian oppression.  You’ve been hearing about this Jesus, the One everyone says is the Messiah.  But it appears to you that He’s just a man.  You’re disappointed.  He’s a man of skin and blood.  (And presently you see a lot more blood than you do skin, now that He’s been flogged!)

The soldiers have whipped Him and lacerated His skin.  They’ve mocked Him by placing a crown of thorns on His head.  They’ve put Him in a purple robe.  And now He stands before you… before Pilate… before the crowd… and Pilate says those three words: “Behold the man!”  Do you see Him in your mind’s eye?  Look at Him.  Here’s the guy – the One they say is the Messiah.

Hold that image in your mind for a moment and let’s go back to the beginning of the Bible – back to Genesis.  After all, that’s where John’s gospel begins.  Remember?  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  That’s where John started, so that’s where we’re going – back to the opening pages of Genesis.

God, the Creator, makes the sun and moon and stars, the birds and fish, the plants and animals.  On the sixth day of creation, God made man in His image.  He created Adam, named him, and commanded him to rule wisely over the rest of creation.  He breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living being.  Here he was!  The glorious fulfillment of all God’s creative plans and activities.  A real, live human being!

You can imagine (can’t you) God stepping back on that first Friday, admiring His handiwork.  That first Friday of human history was the first of the seven days of creation when God said that His work wasn’t just good, but very good.  Something about the creation of humanity changes the description from a good world to a great world.  “Behold the man!”  The masterpiece of God’s creative work.

Of course, it wasn’t long after this creative work that this first man and his wife disobeyed the Creator and sin entered the world.  So, God, in His infinite mercy, told our original parents that He would give them a son – a man, a true human being, who would come to crush the head of that crafty serpent.  A second Adam would come to put right what went wrong.

That brings us back to John.  The Word would take on human flesh and dwell among us.  Live like us.  Live with us.  All of His life would be a preparation for His death.  Now go back and grab that first image – the one of Jesus standing there with Pilate in front of the crowd.  Do you know what day of the week it is?  It’s Friday.  The same day that God created the first man, Adam.  And now the second Adam was undoing the first Adam’s sin.  What did God say about that first Friday in human history when He created man?  He called it very (what) good.  What do we call this day?  Good Friday.  Coincidence?  Not a chance.

Adam was always meant to wear a crown.  Now Jesus would wear one.  Adam had been sentenced to toil among the thorns.  Now Jesus would have those thorns twisted into His brow.  Adam was ashamed of his failure and sought to hide behind fig leaves.  Now Jesus would wear the purple robe and hear the taunts of the mockers.  The hands of humanity that reached out for the forbidden fruit were the fists that beat the face of the precious Savior.  “Behold the man!”

Behold your King!

The history of the world is told in the tales of kings and kingdoms, people grappling for or holding onto power.  The authority God invested in Adam is twisted into abuse and domination, with everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.  We need a king.  Someone to put things right.  Someone to lead us.

On that Friday the crowd cried, “Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar!”  What they failed to realize was that everyone has a king.  We all live according to the dictates of someone or some thing.  It may be money.  It may be pleasure.  It may be reputation.  It may be power.  It may be ourselves.  But make no mistake.  We have a king.  The only question is – who is the rightful king?  Who should be king?

The Jews didn’t see Jesus as the kind of king they wanted.  So, they decided He should be put aside.  If they couldn’t get Pilate to crucify Jesus by claiming He made Himself God, then perhaps they can convince him by saying that Jesus made Himself a King.  A king who rivals Caesar.

But Jesus didn’t make Himself a king.  He was a king before He came… He was a king as He stood before Pilate… and He’s the King of Kings today.  That’s why it’s no surprise that Pilate again says more than he realizes: “Behold your king!”

Usually, a king would say “Away with them!” when he wanted the hall cleared of his subjects.  But this time, it’s the people that want to put the king away.  “Crucify Him!  Enthrone Him on the cross!  Show the world we have no king but Caesar.  Show the world that this is what happens to all who challenge Caesar’s throne.”

So, King Jesus is judged and condemned by His people.  He’s enthroned on the cross, with other criminals on His right and left.  A sign is placed over His head that says “King of the Jews” in three languages – Aramaic, Greek, Latin.  Greek, because it was the language of the world.  Latin, because it was the language of the empire.  Aramaic, because it was the language of God’s people.

John also wants us to remember that this was the Day of the Passover.  This was the time of day when the lambs were being slaughtered.

In the book of Revelation, we’re introduced the striking image of a lamb on a throne.  The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is the King who deserves to sit on the throne as judge of all people.  He’s the Lion and the Lamb.  That image of a lion’s authority, paired with a lamb’s meekness – the weakness of a bleeding lamb, paired with the strength of a powerful throne.  That’s the image we see at the cross.  This is where Jesus redefines power and authority.

Consider the irony of this moment.  The night before He died, Jesus called His disciples “His friends.”  Now, the Jewish leaders tell Pilate to condemn Jesus in order for him to be Caesar’s friend.

Who’s the stronger friend?  Jesus or Caesar?  Who would you follow?  Who would you bet on?  Surely, in the moment, Caesar looks strong and Jesus looks weak.  But it’s through this weakness that Jesus will conquer the world.  No one is worshiping Caesar today.  But billions bow the knee to King Jesus.

Caesar ruled by conquering lands and subjugating people.  Jesus ruled by conquering sin, death, and the grave.  Our King bore the full weight of God’s anger and judgment towards the evil and sin of this world.  Then He rose again to new life.  “Behold your King!”  The Lamb slain for your redemption.

Behold the Son!

The final picture…  The final image…  The final canvass takes us to the Son’s final breaths.  At the foot of the cross where the sins of the world are being condemned and judged and the Savior is down to His last breaths, the soldiers are casting lots for His clothing.  They divide and rip up His clothes, but they take care not to sever the tunic.  Meanwhile, the body of Christ hovers over them, torn and bloodied.

What love!  Christ stripped naked on the cross, so that we might be wrapped in His robe of righteousness.  Our sin for His righteousness.  His death for our life.  And it’s in this moment…  In this snapshot that Jesus forms a new family.  He looks down at His mother.  The frightened teenager who told the angel, “May it be as you have said.”  She’s now the widow watching the life of her beloved Son slowly slip away.  But Jesus doesn’t leave her without a family.  He says, “Behold your son!”

And for a moment, I suppose Mary must have thought, “I am beholding my son.  I’m watching You now, wishing I could hold You in my arms the way I used to, wishing I could sing to you the songs of our people’s hope the way I once did, wishing we could go back to Nazareth and pretend none of this ever happened, wishing the prophecy of old Simeon in the temple that a sword would pierce my heart too was never spoken.”

But Jesus wasn’t talking about Himself.  He was talking about one of His disciples.  “Behold your son.”  And then to the disciple He loved, “Behold your mother!”  A new family was born.

As Jesus died upon the cross, all those who trust in Him become part of His family.  We are one with Him, united to Him in His death and resurrection, ushered into the family of God.  Jesus didn’t die merely to save you as an individual.  He also brought you into the fellowship of His family.  United to the Son, we have a relationship with the Father.  We’re brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have fathers and mothers in the faith.  We’re not alone.

Behold the Son of God, thirsty and dying.  At the beginning of John’s Gospel, we saw Jesus turn water into wine.  The wine was so good everyone commented on it.  But now, here at Calvary, the wine that’s offered is sour.  It fails to soothe the pain, and it certainly doesn’t delight the tastebuds.  The contrast is palpable: Jesus gave us His best and now He’s taking our worst.

Later, we see Him meet the woman at the well, a Samaritan who offered Him a drink.  Jesus turned the tables and said, “Drink from Me and you’ll never thirst again.”  Little did she know that the only way for her to never thirst would be for Him to experience her thirst by dying in her place.

Then, in the middle of John’s Gospel, Jesus stands up at a celebratory feast and says: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink!  Streams of living water will flow from the one who drinks from the well I offer.”

This is the One who turns water into wine, who offers water that quenches thirst forever, water that never runs dry.  Yet now, He thirsts.  His lips are parched.  His throat is raw.  He’s thirsty, so that we don’t have to be.

“Behold the Son” who completes the work of new creation.  Remember, it was the sixth day when all of creation was complete.  Now Jesus – the spotless Lamb – cries out from the cross, “It is finished!”  The price for humanity’s sin had been paid.  And God saw that it was good… or was it Friday… let’s just call it Good Friday.

A New Commandment – Maundy Thursday Reflections

John 13:1-17, 31-35

Like millions of Christians around the world, we’re gathered this evening to celebrate Maundy Thursday.  For folks like me, that grew up in a church tradition that didn’t recognize Maundy Thursday with special worship services, it wasn’t until I was older (in college, in fact) that I learned the significance of the day and the service.

If you’ve never heard the term, it’s not Monday-Thursday (a conversation that Parker and I had on Tuesday night).  It’s Maundy Thursday, as in mandatum Thursday.  Mandatum is, of course, the Latin word for “command” or “mandate.”  We call it Maundy Thursday because it was on this night – before His death – that Jesus gave His disciples a new mandate, a new command.  In John’s gospel, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (13:34).

It seems strange that Jesus would call this a “new” command.  After all, the Old Testament instructed God’s people to love their neighbors.  Jesus, Himself, even summarized the law as love for God and love for others.  So, what’s new about it?  What’s new about this love?  Most folks would point to the footwashing that took place just before the institution of the Lord’s Supper as the “thing” that makes it new.  In fact, some church traditions still practice footwashing as part of this night’s worship service.  (I’m going to be selective and simply claim COVID-19 restrictions on that one.)

No, what makes the command “new” is the standard that Jesus sets.  His passion was something unheard of then and still today.  There’s a new example, a new commandment, a new kind of love on the market.  It’s the kind of love that sacrifices itself for others, that dies that others might live – and not in a G.I. Joe fashion or first-responder way (as noble and needed as those folks are) – but giving eternal life.  There was never any love like the dying love of Jesus.

Think about it.  Jesus had nothing to gain from us by loving us the way He did.  There was nothing in us to draw us to Him.  Yet He loved us still, while we were yet sinners (the Bible says).

At the Last Supper…  In the garden…  At His betrayal…  Facing the Jewish leaders…  Before Pontius Pilate…  Being scourged…  Carrying His cross…  Being nailed to the tree…  Breathing His dying breath…  Forsaken by God…  To the end…  To death…

In all of those places and at all of those times – He loved us.  He loves us still.  Love shone best and brightest at Calvary.  A new commandment I give you…  A new standard I set for you…  Love as I have loved you.

Christ was all anguish that we might be all joy.

Christ cast off so that we might be brought in.

Christ was trodden down as an enemy that we might be welcomed as a friend.

Christ surrendered to hell’s worst that we might attain heaven’s best.

Christ was stripped in order that we might be clothed.

He was wounded that we might be healed

He was thirsty that we might drink.

He was tormented that we might be comforted.

He was made shameful that we might inherit glory.

He entered darkness that we might have eternal life.

Jesus wept that all tears might be wiped from our eyes.

Jesus groaned that we might have endless song.

Jesus endured all pain so that, one day, our bodies would be imperishable.

Jesus bore a thorny crown that we might receive a crown of life.

Jesus bowed His head that we might uplift ours.

Jesus experienced reproach that we might receive welcome.

Our Savior closed His eyes in death that we might gaze on unclouded brightness, and expired that we might forever live.

(adapted from The Valley of Vision, “Love Lustres at Calvary” by Arthur Bennett)