Ephesians 1:1-14 – God’s Eternal Plan
This week we’re starting a slow walk through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
It’s a great letter, written to a church that knew highs and lows. We’re told in Acts 19-20, that Paul spent three years in Ephesus, preaching in the synagogue and then in the public lecture hall. As a result of his preaching, and the signs that accompanied it, many turned from worshiping idols to worshiping the one true God. In a way, Paul was too successful and eventually those who had a vested interest in the idol industry instigated a riot and had him run out of town. A year later, Paul returned and in Acts 20:25-35 he gives an impassioned speech to the Ephesian elders. He warns them to watch over themselves and the flock of God, to hold onto the gospel and to be on the guard against false teachers. The letters to Timothy, who was left to tend to the growing Ephesian church reflect this concern. But by the time we get to the end of the New Testament, things have changed. The church in Ephesus is one of the seven churches addressed at the start of the book of Revelations. Now they’re commended for the doctrinal purity, but chastised because they’ve lost their first love. The pendulum has swung back the other way. So like just about every other church, they’re not perfect.In the middle of all that we have this letter. Why should we spend so much time looking at this letter to an imperfect, long-dead church? Well, in it Paul reveals what the perfect church looks like. In a way, this letter is like a photograph. If I take a photograph right now, I’d have a picture of the church on it. But first that photo needs to be developed. The letter to the Ephesians is a picture of the perfect church, but in it Paul provides a guide on how to get there, on what we need to develop to become the perfect church. What a great letter then for us to be studying!
I shouldn’t really give this away, in case you think that’s it, I don’t need to come for the next ten weeks, but the key lesson is that we’re complete in Christ. It’s hard to miss, if you read through the letter the phrase in Christ, or in him, or variations appear over and over again in the letter. In this opening paragraph it appears about 14 times! You might like to circle, highlight or look for them. We’re blessed in Christ, we’re chosen in Christ, we’re adopted through Christ. God’s grace is bestowed upon us in Christ. In him we have forgiveness of sins. God’s plan is set forth in Christ and that plan is for us to be united in Christ. We’ve obtained an inheritance in Christ, we hope on Christ, we believe in Christ, in Christ we’re marked with the Holy Spirit. I think that was only 12, you’ll have to find the other two! In Christ we have everything we need to be whole. We’re complete in Christ. The key to being Christian, the key to being the church, is that we’re in Christ.
Well, all that’s by way of introduction to this great letter. Hopefully it’s wet your appetite! Let’s look at the opening a bit more.
In Greek, verses 3-14 are one long continuous sentence. It’s like Paul’s so excited he can’t stop to take a breath or add any punctuation! But he’s hardly waffling. It’s a sentence so intricately woven and yet so dense. It’s been likened to the overture of a great operatic work. It contains all the themes of the letter, ideas we’ll be coming back to over and over again. But at the same time, like a good overture it’s stands in it’s own right. And the message of this overture is that the church is no accident. Nor is it a human invention. It’s part of God’s eternal plan. In fact, you could say the church has been God’s plan all along.
In a few months we’ll be celebrating the 150th anniversary of Christ Church. This week, as I’ve been settling in here I’ve started reading the centenary history book. I’ve since been lent a copy of the update that was written for the 125th, so I’ve got some more reading to do! There’s a lot of ground to cover. But God’s plan started a long time before Christ Church! It began before the foundation of the world, when God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless. God didn’t choose us based upon our own merit or worth, how could he? He chose us before we were even born! Before you or I existed, before Christ Church existed, before the world existed, God chose to make us his children by adoption through his son!
So right now, in the present, we experience the outworking of that plan as we’re welcomed into his family as his adopted sons and daughters; as we receive the redemption that comes through Christ’s blood, shed on the cross; as we experience our sins being forgiven. And it’s a plan that continues to be worked out in the present as the gospel is proclaimed and more and more people are accepted into God’s family on the same basis, in Christ.
But God’s plan doesn’t end there. It stretches forward into future. That’s the meaning behind the phrase, ‘the fullness of time.’ It could also be translated the fulfilment of time. God great plan for the future, the mystery of his will which has now been revealed to us, is this – that all things will be gathered up in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. God’s plan is that everything be brought together under one head, Jesus Christ. We continue to talk about reconciliation in Australia. I spent the last part of my drive to Echuca two weeks ago listening to a program on Radio National about the proposed amendment to the Constitution recognising the Aboriginal people. Well God’s plan is even more ambitious than that! God’s plan for the human race is that all people will be united under Christ. As verses 12-13 show, this has begun with the end of the division between Jew and Gentile in Christ. God desires a world were all people live together in unity. But in fact it’s even more ambitious than that! It includes all created things. In other words this unity in Christ extends not only to races of people but to the natural world as well. It’ll be a unity that sees the end of ecological damage. It’ll be characterised, according to Isaiah, by the wolf lying down with the lamb, the calf and the lion eating together. And it’ll be a world in which even spiritual forces are at one with God’s purposes. So God’s plan stretches in eternity from the start of time through to the present and on to the end of time.
I said before that the key phrase in Ephesians is ‘in Christ.’ And it’s true that as you look over the past, present and future aspects of God’s plan it is all in Christ, through Christ and for Christ. But it’s also important to see that it’s a Trinitarian plan. It’s God the Father who chose us before the foundation of the world, who destined us to be his children and who accomplishes all this through his will. It’s only through Christ, through God the Son, that all these things come about. The only way we can stand before God is if we do so in Christ. The only way we can have our sins forgiven is in Christ. The only way we can be blameless and holy, as the Father intends, is if we do so in Christ. We’ll keep thinking about what it means to be in Christ in coming weeks, because it’s a key theme in Ephesians and it’s at the core of the gospel and what it means to be a Christian. Finally, God the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us as the sign and pledge of God’s promises to us. The Spirit is God’s seal, the mark of God’s ownership of us. But the Spirit is also the pledge, the first down payment, of the future. In giving his Spirit to us God isn’t just promising us our final inheritance, he’s also giving us a foretaste of it; that is, he’s giving us our first experience of being part of his family, connected to him in a personal way.
What great news is this! We’ve only just scratched the surface of this opening. In fact we could keep digging through it alone for the next ten weeks, but we have to move on. Especially if we want to keep thinking about what it means to be Complete in Christ and what it means to the perfect church.
In fact, later chapters are devoted to application, to the practical implications of the great truths Paul lays down in the beginning here. In the weeks to come we’ll look more at how we should respond. For now though, it’s enough that we grasp the foundation of God’s eternal plan for us.
That knowledge though must lead us to praise. That’s the focus on this passage, it’s all for and on God’s glory. So the opening and closing words are of praise –
• Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
• He has destined us to be his children to the praise of his glorious grace.
• When we believed in Christ, were marked with the Holy Spirit, as a seal and pledge of our redemption and inheritance to the praise of God’s glory.
So let’s praise God not just with our lips, our words, our gathering here as church now on Sunday. But let’s also live lives that praise him, let’s strive to be holy and blameless through the week so that in everything we do we might be a living testimony to God’s glorious grace.
Let’s pray that God helps us to understand his great plan, strengthens us to take our part in it and leads us in our praise to him for it!