Ephesians 1:7 – 12
On this second Sunday in Christmas, I want to remind you of those things that place Christmas in its historical context. Baby Jesus did not fall out of the sky unnoticed and unannounced. Instead prophets for many centuries and angels thousands in number marked his coming. It was all part of God’s plan. Paul referred to it when he mentioned “the dispensation of the fullness of times.”
Our dispensational brothers get all excited when they read that word, but the context of this particular passage is not particularly friendly to their interpretation. Paul says that in the fullness of time God gathered all things together in Jesus – things in heaven and on earth. Let’s think about what that could mean, especially in the context of Christmas as a Jewish holiday.
I know that the Jews do not celebrate Christmas, but that is not because they are being consistent with scripture and their own tradition. Christmas is a Jewish holiday in much the same way the Revelation is a Jewish book: at their heart they are both as Jewish as anything can be. The times that were full for Jesus’ coming were Jewish times. The covenant that was fulfilled in his coming was a Jewish covenant. So much of what is foreshadowed in the Revelation is the fruit of the covenant that God made with Abraham, Moses and David.
Our first assumption should always be that God is faithful to his word. We read Jeremiah 31 for our Old Testament lesson this morning, which was filled with glorious images of captives returning home singing for joy. Of course, Jeremiah was written at the time of the captivity and has been read from that time as a Jewish prophet speaking to the Jewish people about their captivity in Babylon and joyous return to their land. Everything wrapped up in Israel of the flesh coming back to Israel of the soil and being a political entity like all those other political entities.
The problem with that understanding is that the actual return was anything but glorious. Even after the Temple and the city of Jerusalem were rebuilt, things were not all that pleasant for the citizens. The Greeks under Alexander the Great marched through the land, as they did the world at the time and then his kingdom was divided among the generals, who then fought among themselves for control. The battle raged back and forth and did terrible things to the land of Israel and its inhabitants. Then the Romans came along and conquered everything. All the while the people of God waited for the return of the Spirit to the Temple and the victory of the nation, which should have happened when the Messiah came.
So when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was an expectation that God was going to do something. Everyone was certain that this was the time. Daniel had prophesied that there would be 490 years from the time of the proclamation to rebuild to Jerusalem until Messiah’s work was to be completed. That timeframe meant that no would be the time of his birth, and Bethlehem would be the place. Herod learned all of that, and because he expected that there was going to be a new political ruler, he dealt with the threat of political challenge with a political solution: he slaughtered thousands of innocent children.
All of this comes from assuming that these promises were made to Israel as a political entity about that political entity exercising political power over its own territory. Much of modern Evangelical thought goes along this vein, perpetually separating the people of God into the Jews and the Gentiles, Israel and the Church, and waiting for Israel to exercise political authority over the Holy Land.
Paul’s words in Ephesians make all of this very difficult to maintain. Christ came in the fullness of the times to accomplish the purpose of God: bringing everything in heaven and earth together. Paul told us in Galatians 4:4 that Jesus’ birth came at the fullness of the times, so this is the point at which his mission was fulfilled.
The New Adam brought together heaven and earth and he did it when he was on the earth in the body of a man. Jesus could do this because he was God and man, two natures in one person. Heaven and earth were joined at the Incarnation, and God made them one in Christ Jesus.
I know that we have talked about all of this before. Other than good clean theological fun, what is to be gained by looking at things in this way? Again, the words of Paul in Ephesians tell us.
Verse 7 tells us that we are redeemed the blood of Jesus. Any Jew would have known that the sacrifices of the Temple were what redeemed him. But the writer to the Hebrews reminds us in Hebrews 9:12 “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” What is that redemption? It works on two primary levels, but I think that ultimately everything we think and say and do is a result of our redemption. At any rate, the first and highest level is that a new people of God is created in Christ Jesus. Just as all mankind was condemned in Adam’s sin and failure, in Christ Jesus new men will be accounted righteous. The mechanism is the same: in Adam we all were condemned; in Christ we are all accepted. That is we as a people, just like a trombone given to a hock shop on a loan, have been redeemed or bought from the pawn dealer of death. All of that was done by God’s grace. As Paul says later in Ephesians, we are saved by grace, not by our own efforts. That is true of us as a people and as individuals.
The second way we experience redemption is as individuals. Being a basically selfish person, this is the art I like best. My sins are washed away. It is one thing to think of sin in the sort of generic sense, with blame for things like genocide or unjust war being considered. It is quite another to think of sin in terms of having cheated on your wife or your income taxes.
One of the most telling episodes in scripture is the case of the woman caught in adultery. When Jesus challenges the ones with no sin to cast the first stone, everyone realizes that they are guilty, guilty, guilty. Our society today tries to excuse everything possible as being the result of racism, upbringing and our nature. But in the quiet of the moment, we all know that we are guilty and no manner of psychologizing, pandering, justifying or plain old fashioned imagination will make us feel better. God has built his Law into the universe and we know when we break it. And, joy of joys, all of those things are washed away in the blood of Christ. All of the awful things that we have done, that we are doing, that we will ever do; all washed away by the blood of Christ.
Verse 8 tells us that this is the result of the wisdom and prudence of God. The Greek words σοφίᾳ and φρονήσει are translated in the New King James as wisdom and prudence. They can be thought of as high and low wisdom: intellectual and practical. God knows us. He knows that we need a rock solid foundation to keep us from drifting way off point. In Jesus day this would have been captured by saying that Jesus preached the righteousness that comes from God. Not from our own efforts, but through the efforts of God without assistance from us.
That high sort of wisdom was necessary because on a lower level we can be proud of almost anything. Pride will crop up in the most bizarre situations. Calvinists believe that they have nothing to do with their own salvation, and they are very proud to tell you that. Our redemption is perfect on every level, taking into account all of our needs and the purposes of God.
Verse 9 tells us that God has revealed his secret purpose, that thing that he had decided to do in the very beginning. The joyous news is that we are part of that secret plan. We are now the objects of his pleasure. In Adam we were the objects of his wrath and anger, but In Christ Jesus, he is pleased with us and we experience the joy of that pleasure. This happens, like the wisdom, on two levels: high and lifted up as the Church of God and low and earthy as individuals, given in marriage and child rearing and callings of every sort.
Then we come to verse 10 when Paul reveals that secret. This redemption, both on the high and exalted level of the Church and on the joyful individual level, is the fruit of the fullness of the times. This is the aim of God’s bold plan: oneness in Christ Jesus.
This is of course a mirror of the oneness that we see in the Trinity. The one and the many in perfect harmony. There is no reason to slight the many when we emphasize the many. There is no reason to slight the one when we emphasize the many. In God, through Christ Jesus, all is made one, and all functions as it was made to do.