There is an ancient tradition of churches preaching through entire books of the Bible. At G+P, the Bible is central. As we work through books of the Bible, we’ll have pages like this that give you some direction in digging deeper into the beauty of God’s word. You can always listen to sermons here.
THE BOOK OF EPHESIANS
The New Testament book of Ephesians is a letter. It’s a letter from a founding pastor (the Apostle Paul) back to his former flock, they have a new pastor now. They are a stable and growing congregation. But, like all churches, they have problem. They don’t have the fire of love for God that once motivated them. They are struggling to include people coming from different cultural backgrounds. They are having trouble with marriages, families, and working relationships. They need to grow up into God’s vision for their lives. Ephesians is a letter about growing up.
How will they grow up? Not by trying harder. Not by using better techniques to build successful lives. For Paul, growing up is about entering the mystery. The mystery that God is present in the world. God is active here, now. God is at work in his people and his church. As we live into the mystery, we find a firmer foundation.
Ephesus was a leading city in Asia Minor. It had a port and so was connected to the broader Roman Empire. It boasted having the temple of Artemis which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It has a theater that was large even by modern standards, holding more than 20,000 people. So, Ephesus was a culturally, religiously, and economically important city. To read more, check out the ESV Study Bible online.
For the Apostle Paul, Ephesus was a place he loved. It was full of people he loved. His letter to them is personal, but more than anything, Paul is trying to capture their imaginations with the mystery of God’s work in the world.
For the Ephesians, God being at work in their world was easy to forget, it didn’t seem mysterious. They were prosperous and secure. It was easy to go through the religious motions. But, Paul sought more for them.
How were they to grasp the mystery? By focusing on belief in the marvelous grace of God and by living that belief out in their everyday relationships. Belief and behavior always go together. When a husband believes the glorious value of his wife, and behaves toward her with love and care, we see the glorious mystery of marriage revealed. In the same way, Paul is a master at showing how believe and behavior cannot be separated.
At Grace+Peace Church, we want to live into the mystery Paul is describing in Ephesians. So, there’s an invitation for you as we read through it together. An invitation to enter God’s mystery. Here’s how:
Read the book of Ephesians multiple times. There’s only 6 chapters. You can take a chapter a day and finish in a week. Plan to spend 5-6 weeks this fall reading through Ephesians. You’ll be glad for the repetition. Consider reading from a different translation on occasion. Try out Eugene Peterson’s The Message interpretation for one of your read-throughs this fall.
Pray that as we look at a different aspect of this mystery of God each week, that God will reveal that aspect of the mystery of his presence and work to you.
Explore more voices as they wrestle with these concepts in their own life. Here are a few book recommendations for you to tackle this fall:
The Gospel, Ray Ortland – This is the shortest of the books here and isn’t about Ephesians specifically. But, Ortland opens up the mystery of the gospel at work in us, through us, and in the church. It is a book that will make you long for a beautiful church.
Ephesians, Tony Merida or Let’s Study Ephesians, Sinclair Ferguson – These are both commentaries. If you have never read a commentary, they stick close to the text of the book explaining things in detail. These particular commentaries are both accessible and designed for folks who want to dig into the structure and argument of Paul’s masterpiece.
Practicing Resurrection, Eugene Peterson – This is spiritual writing at its best. Peterson takes insights from the text and opens up the heart of how God is at work. It is a beautiful and rich read.
Here’s a great overview video of Ephesians from the folks over at TheBibleProject.com.
This passage stands out in all of biblical literature. It’s robust and complex and beautiful. In fact, this entire section we just read is one sentence in the original Greek, 202 words. Eugene Peterson calls it like a waterfall, “a tumbling cataract of poetry”. The words and images just keep coming. And, there is a real sense of the vast cosmic, universal horizons that are in Paul’s mind. He is take up by the beauty and majesty of God.
Another important detail stands out. Paul captures this text around the idea of ‘blessing’. God is to be blessed because he has blessed us with blessings! Whoa. his idea of blessing is a huge Biblical idea that would be good to look up sometime. But, one of the key places you’ll notice is that is the language God uses with Abraham. Abraham will be a blessing to all the earth. Here in Ephesians, Paul sees the ways God has fulfilled that promise in Jesus.
Here’s how Eugene Peterson described this passage in his book, Practicing Resurrection:
Paul begins his letter with a Blessing. He blesses God for blessing us. He particularizes the blessing in seven God activated verbs that provide a widescreen panorama of the comprehensive ways that God works in this magnificent cosmos in which so many find themselves lost. God is on our side; he is not against us. God is actively at work among us for our good and our salvation; he is not passive. God is present and personal; he is not remote. God is totally involved in the cosmos. He is not indifferent.
We submit ourselves to the blessing. This does not come easy for us. It takes time. It takes a great deal of getting used to. As we submit, our imaginations are baptized. We are immersed in the icy, swift-flowing river of resurrection and come up with all our senses tingling, our imaginations cleansed. We see what we have never seen before. We thought we were looking for God. No, God is looking for us. We thought we were seeking God. No, God is seeking us.
This is the first thing; the blessing. We start with God. If we start with ourselves, we wander farther into the dark woods. Snow-blind, we circle our own tracks on polar ice. We trek across Sahara sands setting our hopes on one mirage after another. Pick your metaphor.
‘Saints’. When Paul describes the people in Ephesus as saints, it sounds odd to our ears. Most moderns hear something very different in the word. We think of the spiritual all-stars. We imagine statues and stained glass. We don’t typically think of harried moms with wild children, divorced dads with a list of regrets, the depressed, the ashamed, the weak, and the poor. But, that’s the kind of people that Paul called ‘saints’. And he doesn’t just do its once, as if it was a poorly chosen word, he calls them ‘saints’ nine times in Ephesians.
In this passage Paul is praying for the saints in Ephesus. His prayer is for the them ‘to know’ God. Knowing is the Bible is rich word. God is said to know his people, husbands know their wives and children are conceived as a result, Jesus makes himself known to his disciples. To be a saint is simply to know God. To have an intimate knowledge of him. Specifically, the saint knows 3 things related to God: 1. the hope God gives, 2. the rich inheritance that will come from him, 3. and the world-changing power that is at work in them. This is grace, God’s kindness given to normal people through the work of Jesus. The saint is simply the one who knows they are a recipient of that grace.
When you join a church, you join in with other saints. They are recipients as well as you. They are waking up to the realities of grace just like you are. They are infinitely privileged to be God’s child, just like you. Think about the words of the great Irish hymn For All The Saints (all 6 verses, they don’t write them like this anymore!)
For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Thou was their rock, their fortress and their might;
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor's crown of gold.
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way,
From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
But God. Those are the two best words in the entire Bible. They represent the truth that the tragic story of this world has not, and will not, flow along like a raging, uncontrollable river. God has entered the story. And, God didn’t only enter the story - that would be good news enough. But, Paul makes clear that he enters with grace, ‘for by grace you have been saved!’ God enters, with grace. But God. If you can’t understand the depth of brokenness in your own heart and in this world, remember those two words. But God. Within those words is a universe of hope and possibility.
Listen to how Eugene Peterson talks about this passage, ‘for by grace you have been saved, through faith’:
Faith in Christ is an act of abandoning the shores of self, where we think we know where we stand and where if we try just hard enough we can be in control. Faith in Christ is a plunge into grace. Grace: “not of your own doing; it is a gift of God.”
But, that terra firma, feet-on-the-ground self is hard to give up. We have grown up on this ground, learned the way the world works on this ground, become pretty good at finding our way around on this ground. We have maps and guidebooks, we know all the best restaurants, know where to shop for bargains. All our habits have been formed on this ground.
In fifty years of being a pastor, my most difficult assignment continues to be the task of developing a sense among the people I serve of the soul-transforming implications of grace - a comprehensive, foundational reorientation from living anxiously by my wits and muscle to living effortlessly in the world of God’s active presence. The prevailing North American culture (not much different from the Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman cultures in which our biblical ancestors lived) is, to all intents and purposes, a context of persistent denial of grace.
My pastor friend Matt Kessler loves Mr. Holland’s Opus. In particular, he loves the clarinet scene. For him, the job of helping a person discover their true belovedness is a work of joy. Most people have trouble discovering that. They don’t live feeling much like God’s workmanship. But, Paul says thats exactly what they are - ‘for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.’ The clip below gives you a sense of the glory of that discovery. May we all have a Mr. Holland in our lives. May we all be that for someone else. Can you imagine a family, or neighborhood, or a city full of people who believe they are uniquely created (re-created!) by God for glorious and good works?