Sunday School Lesson for March 3, 2002
Focal Teaching Passage: Ephesians 1:1-8, 11-14
Based on the NIV translation
Salutation and Greeting (1:1-2)
The book of Ephesians commences with an identification of both the author and the recipients. Paul identifies himself as an "apostle of Jesus Christ," indicating both divine privilege and status as Christís special ambassador. That he is an "apostle"óliterally "one sent on a mission"óby the will of God" sets forth his authority and divine right to address his audience (W. Curtis Vaughn, The Letter to the Ephesians. Nashville: Convention Press, 1963, 5). A similar link between his apostleship and Godís will is found in both of the Corinthian epistles, Colossians, and 2 Timothy. Paul, then, had not volunteered for this position nor had any ecclesiastical body appointed him. His apostleship, rather, "derived from the will of God and from the choice and commission of Jesus Christ" (John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians. BST, Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1979, 21).
The Letter is addressed to "the saints in Ephesus." In some of the oldest and best manuscripts of this epistle the words "in Ephesus" are not found. This has led some New Testament authorities to suggest that Paul wrote this letter as a general "circular" epistle that was intended for a number of local churches. Curtis Vaughn speculates that
when Paul wrote the letter he may have left a blank space so that each church, when making a copy of the original, could insert its own name. Ephesus was the chief city of the province, the center from which all of Asia was evangelized (Acts 19:10). The church at Ephesus likely first received this letter and later was entrusted with its safe-keeping. Thus the letter eventually became identified exclusively with Ephesus (6).
The word "saints" is essentially a synonym for "believers." It specifically refers to those who, having been saved by grace, are set apart by God for service, worship, and a life of holiness. These "saints" are also called "the faithful" indicating their fidelity to Christ and His kingdom. The phrase "in Christ Jesus" is one of Paulís favorite expressions depicting an essential union between the believer and the Lord which is established upon the basis of Godís grace through faith in Him. John Stott refers to this as the "key expression of the letter" (22).
The salutation, with its obvious Hebrew flavor, is quite typical of Paul, yet not trivial in the least. "Grace and peace," in Paulís theology, were the twin blessings of salvation found only in a vital union with "God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ"óa union, as we shall see, that is only possible by faith in Jesus Christ. God bestows these gifts "supremely in the salvation which the gospel proclaims, and in providing this salvation God and Christ are at one" (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, To Philemon, And To The Ephesians. TNICNT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984, 251). We might say that "grace"óthe unmerited favor of God bestowed upon unworthy sinners for the sake of Christóis the cause of salvation while "peace"óa divine sense of wholeness, tranquility, and securityóis the resulting state of salvation. Again, stress is placed upon the fact that nowhere are these blessings to be experienced but in union with Christ.
Blessings from the Father (1:3-6)
This verse begins a glorious doxology focusing upon the mercy and grace of God displayed in Jesus Christ. The Christ-centered theology of Paul is quite apparent in this paragraph where, in the space of twelve verses (actually one sentence in the Greek version), Jesus is referred to some fifteen times! Here Paul calls forth "praise" to "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" who has graciously bestowed upon His children "every spiritual blessing in Christ." These "spiritual" blessingsóthose associated with salvation and union with Christóare freely given to believers in "the heavenly realm." This rather unusual phrase is found five times in the letter (1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12) and seems to indicate a "celestial region, a sphere of spiritual activities to which the believer has been lifted in Christ" (Vaughn, 11). Consequently, God has already provided whatever a believer needs for life and service through union with Jesus Christ. As the rest of chapter one unfolds four such blessings will be revealed: election to salvation (v. 4), adoption (v. 5), redemption (v. 7), and sealing with the Holy Spirit (v. 13).
The first reason to praise God the Father is that "he chose us in him before the creation of the world" (v. 4). With this declaration Paul takes his readers back to something that happen in the mind of God in eternity past. The blessing of salvation has its origin in the purposes of God that were irrevocably established long before anything was created. That is, the salvation of the Christians at Ephesus was the "fulfillment on the temporal plane of [Godís] purpose of grace toward them conceived in eternity" (Bruce, 254). To say that God "chose us" is to say that God selected for Himself (the meaning of the word "chose") the members of the Ephesian church and gave them the gift of eternal life. Amazing as it is, Paul is saying that before one person (or any thing else) was ever created God determined to make us His very own children through the atoning work of Christ which was yet to occur (Stott, 36). According to Vaughn, this truth, known as the doctrine of election (from the Greek word rendered "chose"), may be defined as
as act of choice whereby God selects an individual or group out of a larger company for a purpose or destiny which he appoints. In a more restricted sense, it is Godís gracious and sovereign choice of individual sinners to be saved in and through Christ [italics added] (12).
To say that we were chosen "in Christ" (v. 4) provides us with a glimpse of the rationale behind Godís eternal choice. This phrase removes any thought whatsoever that Godís election of individual sinners to salvation was random, or had some connection with their merit, worth, or foreseen faith. It was a completely free choice based solely upon something within the mind and eternal purposes of God (we will address this in verses 5 & 9 below). In other words, Godís election of sinners to salvation through Christ is like the choice of ancient Israel to be the covenant nation:
For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. 7 The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Deuteronomy 7:6-8
In the remaining verses of this section, Paul makes several critical points in regard to Godís eternal choice:
was not because he foresaw something acceptable in us, not even because he foreknew that we would believe the gospel, that he singled us out for such an honour as this. The ground [of election] must be sought exclusively in his own gracious character [italics added] (The Epistle to the Ephesians. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1961, 29-30).
Blessings in Christ (1:7-8; 11-12)
Not only has God loved and elected sinners in eternity, He has, through Christ, provided them with "redemption through his blood" in the course of time (v. 7). The term translated "redemption" indicates the freedom or release accomplished by the paying of a price. The price for our redemption was the "blood" of Christ Himself who served as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. In addition to redemption, Paul declares that we have experienced the "forgiveness of sins." Whereas redemption means release from sinís bondage, "forgiveness" implies liberation from the judgment and wrath of God. Both our "redemption" and "forgiveness," perfectly accomplished in the death and resurrection of Christ, are "in accordance with the riches of Godís grace that he lavished upon us with all wisdom and understanding" (v. 8). Vaughn observes that
Godís bequests are in proportion to the abundance of his treasures. He does not give in stinted fashion but with unbounded liberality. If redemption were according to the measure of manís merit there would be no redemption. But who can measure the wealth of Godís grace? (18).
Additionally, God has graciously provided believers with abundant measures of both "wisdom and understanding." William Hendriksen defines "wisdom" as "the ability to apply knowledge to the best advantage, enabling a person to use the most effective means for the attainment of the highest goal," while "understanding" is "the result of setting oneís mind on Godís redemptive revelation in Christ" (Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. NTC, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995, 84). This will be the subject of verse 17 later on.
Echoing his declaration of divine election in verses 3-6, Paul again announces that we were both "chosen" (rendered "obtained an inheritance" by the NASB) and "predestined" by God according to an eternal "plan." This fact provides incredible encouragement to the believer, and was especially meaningful to the Christians of the first century who continually faced the prospect of persecution and even death for the sake of Christ. To know with certainty that their salvation and relationship with God was initiated in the eternal Mind gave them the hope that He would not allow them to fall away from the faith no matter how vicious the opposition might become. In this way, the doctrine of divine election supplies the only appropriate foundation for belief in the "security of the believer," or more properly, the preservation of the believer by God.
Paul also stresses that absolutely nothing occurs in the universe apart from Godís sovereign determinationó"who works out everything in conformity with the purposes of his will" (v. 11). While Godís revealed will (referred to by theologians as the "perceptive will" of God) may be disobeyed and resisted by men, His sovereign will (or "decretive will") is never frustrated. This is true most gloriously in the salvation of sinnersó"in order that we . . . might be for the praise of his glory" (v. 12). Once more we see that the ultimate purpose for our salvation is Godís gloryóa purpose or end that is certain to be achieved.
Blessings Through the Spirit (1:13-14)
Having explicitly set forth the fact of Godís electing grace, Paul now presents the mechanism or means employed by God in bringing His children to salvation. These verses reveal that the Scripture never hesitates to place divine sovereignty and human responsibility side-by-side. The elect person is surely no robot. God has not only determined from eternity the ultimate outcome of all things, He has also ordained their means of accomplishment.
With regard to the salvation of individuals, Paul announces that the believers in Ephesus first "heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation," and then they "believed." That is, those whom God had ordained to salvation came to faith in Christ by means of the preaching of the Word and faith in Christ. Note how Peter makes this same point:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 1 Peter 1:23
We might say, then, that no elect person will be saved without hearing the Word and believing (for a beautiful illustration of this very fact see Acts 13:44-49). This is the thrust of Paulís pointed question in Romans:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? Romans 10:14
In reality this is quite assuring, and rather than destroying any incentive to evangelism, actually provides its only rational basis. As John Stott emphatically declares, it is "only because of Godís gracious will to save that evangelism has any hope of success and faith becomes possible" (48). He continues:
The preaching of the gospel is the very means that God has appointed by which he delivers from blindness and bondage those whom he chose in Christ before the foundation of the world, sets them free to believe in Jesus, and so causes his will to be done (48).
In verse 14, the apostle describes what happens following the sinnerís belief in Christóthey are "marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit." That is, the Spirit is given immediately to those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ. The giving of the Spirit by God marks the believer as the prized possession of God. In this way, the believer is sealed with the very signature of God Himself. The Holy Spiritís indwelling presence is also our "deposit guaranteeing our inheritance." That is, the Holy Spirit is the down payment guaranteeing a final payoff in the future! He is "the pledge given to believers by God to assure them that the glory of the life to come, promised in the gospel, is a well-founded hope, a reality and not an illusion" (Bruce, 267). That to which believers look forward, the final payoff, is "the redemption of those who are Godís possessionóto the praise of his glory."
First, note that this paragraph, verses 3-14, begins and ends with God. He is the central focus and ultimate subject. This reminds us of the grand purpose for our lives. We exist solely for Him. In light of this, what does it mean to live a truly God-centered life? What are the practical ways in which we can bring glory to Him in our personal lives, families, and vocations?
Secondly, note the repeated emphasis upon the glory of God (vv. 6, 12, 14). This is the final purpose and goal of all things, especially the salvation of sinners. What impact should this fact have upon our personal and corporate zeal for evangelism and missions? If we are unconcerned about the lost, what does this say about our desire to see God glorified?
Thirdly, Paul is emphatic that all spiritual blessings, especially the gift of redemption and reconciliation to God, are to be found and experienced in Christ alone. What are the implications of this powerful truth?
Words to the Wise Regarding Election
One: Keep in mind that the doctrine of election is a biblical doctrine, and not a human invention. Note the purposes of the doctrine of election as clearly set forth in this passage:
Two: Also remember that the doctrine of election serves as an incentive to godliness, worship, service, evangelism, the practice of the Christian disciplines, and the promotion of authentic humility. Far from being an excuse for laziness or passivity, this biblical truth spurs the believer on to holiness, purity and the dedicated service of God. With John Stott we must affirm, "ultimately the only evidence of election is a holy life" (38).
Three: Be careful not to fall into the trap of rationalism. A person with this mind-set says in effect, "I will not accept nor believe any doctrine I cannot fully understand." As with most biblical truths, we must acknowledge that there is the presence of deep mystery. These are doctrines that cannot be fully comprehended by fallen, finite minds. This is especially true with regard to election. Many people mistakenly make the assumption (a priori) that divine sovereignty on the one hand, and human freedom and moral responsibility on the other, are mutually exclusive. Yet, as we have seen, the Bible presents these two truths as complementary affirmations. They do not need to be reconciled. They walk together hand-in-hand as friends.
Four: The doctrine of election is a doctrine for the Church. Its purpose is to provide encouragement, comfort, and assurance to the people of God. It must be embraced and proclaimed with gentleness and humility. Those who properly understand the purpose for this doctrine will be people characterized by grace, patience, and Christ-like humility, not a spirit of elitism.