Sermon audio available here.
I begin, up front, by setting out this morning’s sermon plan. I am interested in three phrases that will prove to be dominant themes throughout the first three Chapters of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The phrases are,
• ‘by the will of God’;
• ‘in Christ Jesus’;
• and, ‘Grace to you’
In order to begin to understand the second two phrases, ‘in Christ Jesus’ and ‘Grace to you’, we must first understand what Paul intends when he writes that he is ‘an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God’. To help us unpack this further (and to provide us with a context for the remainder of the letter), we should begin by addressing the first word of the letter: ‘Paul’.
We begin with Paul, not because he is the star of this letter and nor does he wish to be the focus of our attention. Paul is not the point of this letter, but he is a case study, an exemplar of the effectiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Indeed, this is why the New Testament (and Paul himself) repeatedly reminds us of the circumstances of his conversion. Luke recounts the story on three occasions in Acts alone (Acts 9:1-30, 22:1-21 and 26:1-23) and Paul directly on three occasions (Galatians 1:13-17, 1 Corinthians 15:8-10 and Philippians 3:4-11) and indirectly on another seven occasions (Romans 10:2-4, 1 Corinthians 9:1, 16-17, 2 Corinthians 3:4-4:6, 5:16, Ephesians 3:1-13 and Colossians 1:23-29).
Paul intends unbelievers and believers to recall his testimony and therein find hope of salvation,
But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16)
To make sense of what Paul intends by his opening introduction as ‘an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God’, we must consider the circumstances of his conversion and how it is he came to be an apostle of Christ.
Luke introduces Paul, (formerly Saul of Tarsus), in the latter part of Chapter 7. We read about the stoning of Stephen a deacon and evangelist in the early church and we are told that ‘the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul’ (Acts 7:58) and, later, that this same ‘Saul approved of [Stephen’s] execution’ (Acts 8:1).
The question we must then ask is what happened to change this Saul from a killer of Christians into an apostle, church planter and writer of more than a fair share of the New Testament? John Calvin, the great Reformer, observes that because of Saul’s ill intentions towards the Church of Christ, the glory of Christ shines forth all the more brightly in his conversion,
'For which it was the more incredible that he could be so suddenly tamed. And whereas such a cruel wolf was not only turned into a sheep, but did also put on the nature of a shepherd, the wonderful hand of God did show itself therein manifestly.'
Luke describes the circumstances of Saul’s conversion in Chapter 9 and, as we read, I want those of us who believe to see that the events outlined by Luke reflect the circumstances of our own conversion. For those who do not yet believe, I ask you to read carefully and consider how a persecutor and killer of Christians could become a slave of Christ Jesus and a servant of the Church. For those who do not believe, I pray that you would be convicted by this account and that through it, you to might be transformed.
'But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.'
Luke picks up Saul’s story and it appears that little has changed with regards to his animosity towards the Way, the followers of Christ. In Chapters 7 and 8, Saul was watching the coats and approving of those who murdered Stephen, we are now told that Saul was ‘still breathing threats and murder’ and that he planned to round up more believers in Damascus and bring them back to Jerusalem presumably to be executed.
It is not clear from this text, but it is apparent from the rest of Scripture that this description matches the reality of who we once were before Christ rescued us. Consider the following passages,
'And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 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—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.' (Ephesians 2:1-3)
'And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds' (Colossians 1:21)
'For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.' (Romans 5:6-8)
The truth is that before Christ reached out and saved us we were living in enmity towards God and in hostility towards the very the things of God. This is why repentance is necessary (not merely optional) in coming to Christ. We repent of a life of God-hating, self-pleasing, ungrateful rebellion.
'Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.'
How I love that simple word, ‘suddenly’. Saul is intent on murdering those who follow Christ and ‘suddenly’ (as we will read) Christ intervenes. Saul is walking in the darkness carrying out deeds of darkness and ‘suddenly’ the light of Christ shines and knocks him to the ground.
For some of us this ‘suddenly’ may have felt as urgent and as unexpected as Luke describes. Perhaps we were actively pursuing a sinful activity when we ‘suddenly’ came to our senses and the call of a loving God seemed real and urgent and immediate.
For some of us, however, our conversion may have felt anything but sudden. We may vividly recall the way in which Christ wooed us through conversations, sermons and the witness of friends over a prolonged period of time. We may remember moments and situations months, perhaps years prior to our conversion which later proved formative.
Consider, however, who you were without Christ and the kind of life you pursued before he miraculously intervened. We understand the suddenness of this rescue when we consider who we were and the life that we lived when apart from Christ. We realise and understand that we were radically depraved sinners deserving of wrath and without a hope in this world and then suddenly and unexpectedly Christ intervened and everything changed.
'And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"'
Jesus knocks Paul to the ground and confronts him with hard words, ‘why are you persecuting me?’ Notice that Jesus does not say, ‘Paul, why are you persecuting my people?’ or ‘why are you persecuting my church?’, but he instead he asks, ‘why are you persecuting me?’.
There are two principles underpinning Christ’s perspective with regards to Paul’s persecution of the church. The first principle is universal in its application: when it comes to sin, God is invariably the most wronged party. When we sin we may offend others and harm ourselves, but, invariably, God is the most wronged party.
This is important to remember because you may be an unbeliever and believe that you are tolerant towards Christianity and other peoples’ view and think that you are off the hook just because you do not persecute the church. All sin, all disobedience and all wickedness offend God. More than this, in all our sin God is always the most offended person. He is offended because sin is contrary to his nature (he is a holy God) and because we are his creatures (and sinful rebellion is the ultimate act of ingratitude).
The second principle is specific to the persecution of the Church.
The Scriptures plainly teach that the Church is inseparably bound to Christ. In Chapter 2, Paul describes the Church as a household in which Christ, the chief cornerstone, holds the entire structure together and enables growth (Ephesians 2:19-22). In Chapter 4, the Church is described as a body which grows up into the head, which is Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16). And, in Chapter 5, the Church is a bride, betrothed, rescued and washed clean by the Christ, the great Bridegroom (Ephesians 5:22-33).
The implications of this are clearly seen in Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion. To attack the Church of Christ is to wage war against Christ. This also makes sense of the term anti-Christ. To oppose the Church of Christ is to be anti-Christ. Such is the intimate spiritual bond joining believers to Christ that Christ takes any attack upon those who are his incredibly personally; ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ (v. 4).
There is a sobering warning here for those of us who are swift to criticise other churches, ministries and believers without justification. We should beware lest our gossiping and critical tongue lead us into persecuting the Church of Christ and, in doing so, we find ourselves in opposition to Christ. We should be slow and exceedingly cautious before condemning those who profess to be believers lest we find ourselves numbered among those who persecute Christ.
'And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.'
Paul’s response is equally interesting, ‘Who are you, Lord?’. The Greek word kurios, here translated ‘Lord’; is a wide ranging term and can be used in deferring to an earthly master or someone in authority to a direct reference to God himself.
I suspect that Saul uses the word kurios because he recognises that this is a heavenly encounter (perhaps he believes the voice to be an angel). It is unlikely, however, that he immediately concludes that this is Jesus and his question ‘Who are you…?’ should probably be taken at face value.
Significantly, however, when Jesus does identify himself, the conversation ends and we must conclude that Saul immediately accepts the truth of who Christ is. If the stumbling block for Saul (referred to in Acts 26:14) was the notion of a crucified Messiah, then his confrontation with the risen and exalted Jesus overcame any resistance.
It is good for believers and unbelievers alike to ask deep searching questions of Scripture and of God. However, there comes a time when Christ reveals himself and compels obedience and, at which point, conversation ends. We have been working through the book of Ecclesiastes in the evening services and, in a few weeks, we will arrive at Chapter 5 in which Solomon will caution,
'Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.' (Ecclesiastes 5:1-3)
There is a time to be silent. When Christ compels obedience, argument, conversation and debate is silenced.
'But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were travelling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.'
There is an incredible beauty in that little word, ‘but’.
Let us consider the bigger picture. Saul, a persecutor of not only the Church but Jesus also, has been knocked to the ground and confronted by the resurrected Christ. But, and there is that word again, where there should be only fearful expectation of judgement, Saul instead finds mercy: ‘But rise and enter the city’.
Herein we see the beauty of the gospel of Christ Jesus which calls God-hating rebellious sinners to forgiveness and newness of life.
'Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." And the Lord said to him, "Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.'
Saul receives an irrefutable revelation of the truth of who Jesus is and, almost immediately, he receives the call to serve, ‘he [Saul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ (v.15-16).
As we read on we discover that Saul immediately responds to the calling to bear witness to the gospel,
'For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." And all who heard him were amazed and said, "Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?" But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.'
We see three things, Saul immediately testifies to the truth that Jesus ‘is the Son of God’; men and women are amazed at Saul’s transformation from Christian-killer to Christ-proclaimer and that Saul skilfully presents the gospel confounding opponents and ‘proving that Jesus was the Christ’.
And so we return to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in which he writes,
'Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God'
We now understand something of the shocking force of this declaration. Paul, once Saul a killer of Christians and persecutor of the Church, is now an apostle, an ambassador of Christ Jesus. And how should we receive this? Should we, like Ananias, by sceptical or fearful that this is some scam intended to trap naïve unsuspecting Christians? And do we, like Ananias, diminish the grace of God in looking to those around us doubting the veracity of their conversion struggling to believe that the transformation is either genuine or permanent?
Or should we, like the Church in Corinth, challenge Paul’s authority on the basis that his background is more obviously ‘unchristian’ than some of the other apostles? Do we join with the Corinthians accusing Paul as being a lesser apostle, the one ‘untimely born’ (1 Corinthians 15:8)?
Paul, however, leaves no room for such prevaricating; he is saved, transformed and appointed ‘by the will of God’.
This is profoundly important for two reasons.
Firstly, this adds monumental weight to the authority that Paul, and this letter, carries – no longer are we reading the words of a mere man, we are reading the words of an apostle who bears the seal and authority of the living God. Professor Wayne Grudem, among others, has undertaken some work around the designation ‘apostle’ and argues convincingly that this office should be taken as a close equivalent to the Old Testament office of Prophet. Indeed, Paul strongly implies as much when he writes (as we shall consider the weeks to come) that,
'So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone' (see also Ephesians 3:5)
This enables Paul to write an equivalent to the declaration of the Old Testament Prophets, ‘thus says the Lord’, in his letter to the rebellious church in Corinth, ‘…the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 14:37).
We need, at the outset of this sermon series, to allow the truth of this to settle on us. Paul writes with the very authority of Christ and, as followers of Christ, we are called to submit to the authority of this letter as we submit to the Lord Jesus Christ himself, which leads me to my second point.
Paul’s calling, office and authority originates with Christ and not with innate skill or ability. Furthermore, Paul’s calling, office and authority originates with Christ and not with any intrinsic goodness.
This is why the testimony of Paul is so crucial. Paul, like you and I, was a God-hating, Christ-despising, hardened, radically depraved sinner. I will state this again, but this time more directly. You, Paul and I do not deserve salvation, we do not deserve mercy and any position, authority or gifting we receive is a sheer grace-gift from God given irrespective of our own unworthiness.
We all need to feel the weighty significance of this and this truth should have two effects upon us: we should feel immense gratitude for the sheer loving kindness of our Saviour and we should be humbled and utterly laid low.
Paul felt these things in abundant measure,
'I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen.' (1 Timothy 1:12-17)
Consider Paul’s gratitude and humility (v. 12-16) and the way in which this leads him to praise, ‘To the King of ages… be honour and glory forever and ever…’.
Throughout the coming weeks Paul will unpack the glorious grace of God in which he planned rescue for those who are his even before the foundation of the world. It is an abhorrent thing to pervert such loving kindness into something that fosters a sense of arrogant superiority God’s people. Such profound and weighty truths should produce gratitude and good works among those of us who are recipients of his abundant grace that we should be to the ‘praise of his glorious grace’ (Ephesians 1:6).
We are saved by Christ and for Christ which leads me to my next point.
'To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus'
We have considered Paul, the author of the letter; we must now consider the intended recipients of this letter. Paul addresses this letter to the ‘saints who are in Ephesus’, the ‘faithful in Christ Jesus’.
In the same way in which Paul’s apostolic authority is expansive (as the rule of Christ is supreme) this letter is addressed to a wide audience; the saints in Ephesus and the implied readership of all those who are ‘faithful in Christ Jesus’. In short, if you are a believer in Christ, then this letter is addressed both to you and to me.
The phrase, ‘in Christ’ is hugely important and reoccurs some 38 times (including the variations, ‘in whom’ and ‘in the Lord’) throughout the letter and it is this phrase that makes sense of the address to the saints, literally, the holy ones, in Ephesus.
Paul’s point is this: believers are set apart for Christ, we are the holy ones of God. But how is this possible? If it is true that we were like Saul, mired in hatred and animosity towards God and the things of God, how can it now be that any one of us should be considered ‘holy’?
The answer to this is found in the address to those who are ‘faithful in Christ Jesus’. Like Paul, we are snatched out of the world by the loving kindness and the resurrection power of the Son of God and we are thus rooted and planted in him. The result of this is that those who believe receive Christ (we have Christ in us) and are also incorporated in him.
We are the holy ones, not because of our innate goodness or because we are pious, but because of his holiness and that we are now brought into living fellowship with him. Paul will make this incredibly clear in the passage which follows (and which we will consider over the coming weeks),
'…he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.' (Ephesians 1:4)
Paul then moves to his salutation,
'Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.'
There is much debate with regards to Paul’s intention in writing this letter to the Ephesians, the broad intention of all Paul’s writing is, however, summed up in this simple salutation.
Paul is a demonstration of the grace of God, but, more than this, he is also a vessel of grace. He is chosen, set apart and appointed an apostle by the gracious will of God. Furthermore, Paul has already seen this grace at work in the lives of the believers in Ephesus. It is by grace through faith that they have been saved (Ephesians 2:8). They are saints, holy ones, in Christ.
Paul’s intention is that as we read, meditate on and wrestle with the deep profound truths contained in this letter, that God would send forth his grace in Christ Jesus and that this grace would take root in the lives of unbelievers and be experienced in increasing measure in the lives of believers.
And with this, Paul understands, comes peace. Peace primarily between God and man (for this peace proceeds from the Godhead), but also, as a consequence, peace between men.
'For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility' (Ephesians 2:14)
My prayer, as we study this letter together, is that our eyes would be opened to the glorious grace of God made manifest and available through his Son the Lord Jesus Christ. I pray that as we see, we would receive this grace and that we too would live in the knowledge that we were saved to the praise of his glorious grace.
Preached by Andrew Evans on the morning of the 12 July 2009 at Firwood Church, Oldham, Manchester, UK.
For free resources and media content visit www.firwoodchurch.com.