January 11, 2009

The Church: The Masterpiece of God
Survey of Ephesians
Ephesians 3:7-13

According to an old Proverb, “The best things come in small packages.” That certainly seems to be true with respect to the book of Ephesians. Ephesians is only 6 chapters in length—155 verses—and it can be read by an average reader in only 30 minutes or so. Yet it is packed with life-changing material. So rich and relevant is the book of Ephesians that writers have referred to it as the “Queen of the Epistles,” the “most divine of all human compositions,” and even the “Switzerland of the New Testament.” And frankly, after hibernating in the book again for much of the last several weeks, I must agree. As I read through Ephesians over and over again, I was struck by such things as (1) the love of God for all of creation, (2) the splendor of Jesus, who holds all of the world together, (3) the extent of the transformation that God longs to perform in sinners like you and me, and (4) the importance of the Church. Ephesians is loaded. Encasing such vast spiritual truths in a short book like this is rather like penning up a lion in a portable puppy kennel.

Just for starters, read with me a handful of well-known passages found in the book of Ephesians:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast (2:8-9).
For he (Christ) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us (2:14).
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever (3:20-21).
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (4:4-6).
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,…(5:18).
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (6:11-12).
And that is just the beginning. We’re simply scratching the surface.

Before diving into Ephesians in greater detail, which we will do together in the coming months, let’s first do a quick panorama or survey of the book as a whole. Insofar as Ephesians lays out the writer’s vision of the Church, I’m using the Church as the common thread. Ephesians divides rather neatly into two major units. The first unit, which encompasses chapters 1-3, deals primarily with “The Church in God’s Plan.” In this unit, the writer ushers us into the very heart and mind of God and explains to us as best words can—we are talking about a great deal of divine mystery here!—God’s original hopes and dreams for the Church. In this unit, God is the primary actor and the world the stage upon which he acts.

In unit two, which comprises the remaining three chapters of the book, the focus shifts dramatically. Now, we leave the realm of theory and enter into that of practice. Here, we see “The Church Living Out God’s Plan,” putting into real-life action all that the first unit described. In this unit, human beings like you and me take center stage and live out everything that God has made possible in part one.

Look with me a bit more carefully at these two units. In part one, “The Church in God’s Plan,” Paul begins by describing a broken and chaotic world. The world that serves as the backdrop here is not the world that God originally created, nor is it a world that God is satisfied simply to sustain. On the contrary, God loves his created world with an everlasting and indescribable love, a love so deep that he refuses to abandon it or throw it away. Instead, God has a plan—an incredible plan—to recreate the world and bring it back to himself. Central to this great plan is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ, otherwise dead human beings like you and me can be resurrected ourselves. We, too, can experience “New Life” (1:1-2:10). Listen to how Paul phrases it in 1:8-10 and 2:4-5:
With all wisdom and insight, he (God) has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…

Next, Paul describes the “New Humanity” that emerges when otherwise dead people experience the new life made available through Jesus Christ (2:11-3:21). God’s great plan, in other words, does not focus exclusively on the transformation of individual people, as important as such transformation is. Instead, God longs for nothing less than the complete recreation of humanity or society as a whole. And how will this vision of God’s come to pass? As people like you and me receive and experience the new life offered to us in Christ, we become citizens of a new kingdom or community in which the seemingly endless and harmful divisions that separate one person from another ultimately disappear.

In Ephesians, the primary barrier spoken of is the insurmountable wall that stood between Jews and Gentiles. In the Old Testament, God chose and worked through a specific group of people—the Jews—and the Gentiles were often left on the outside looking in. Such a division, however, was temporary, never to be a part of God’s eternal plan. With the coming of Jesus, that wall, like all others, falls to the ground and all people are invited into the family. Note how this thought is phrased in 2:12-13:
…remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
In God’s great plan, people all over the world are to be raised to new life in Christ, transformed inside and out, and gathered together in a new community in which everyone—everyone!—is loved and celebrated.

Unit one, then, reaches a climax in 3:10. In order to save a chaotic world, God creates a new community that demonstrates in both heaven and earth the mystery and beauty of his plan. This new community is “The Church.” “…through the church,” Paul writes, “the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” The Church is God’s masterpiece, the ultimate expression or outcome of his marvelous plan.

The book of Ephesians, however, does not end on such a theoretical note. The book lays a wonderful theological foundation, to be sure, but it does not stop there. Instead, the writer goes on to describe the Church living out its calling in the world. What Paul describes in unit one must now be implemented. The possibilities presented in chapters 1-3 must be taken advantage of. God offers new life in unit one, but we must accept it and apply it.

Imagine it this way. During the wrestling tournament at the end of my senior year in college, I dislocated my right arm, chipped my elbow and fractured my radial head bone in one quick and incredibly painful moment. When the orthopedic surgeon was putting it back together, he informed me that I might never be able to straighten my right arm again. “If there is any chance of straightening it again,” he rather sternly warned me, “you will need to exercise the arm and stretch it carefully and consistently for a lengthy period of time.” So I did. I can straighten my arm without any problem. My point is this. The surgeon worked on my arm, but it was up to me to stretch it and exercise it. If I refused to cooperate with the doctor, his efforts on my behalf would have been rendered meaningless.

So it is with God’s plan. He makes possible an indescribable transformation in Jesus Christ, but we must then cooperate with him and put the plan into action. That is what the second unit of Ephesians is all about. “The Church in God’s Plan” becomes the Church living out that same plan. As that plan is implemented—as we stretch and exercise our arm—we begin to see significant results.

In general, Paul mentions two such exercises here. First, we must embrace a new set of values. We are called to think differently, talk differently and act differently. Such a transformation of our hearts and minds doesn’t happen automatically—God doesn’t wave a magic wand and instantaneously change everything. With courage and determination, we must do our part to enact this great salvation. Note how Paul phrases it in 4:22-24:
You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God and in true righteousness and holiness.
And second, as we adopt this new set of values, we likewise begin relating to others in an entirely new way (5:21-6:24). Our “new relationships” begin at home and then spread out in ever widening circles. Our spouse. Our children. People in the church. People at the workplace. In fact, this new manner of relating extends even to the spiritual world, with a twist. Equipped with the full armor of God, we who follow Jesus move out with confidence in the face of those same principalities and powers who once intimidated and tormented us.

The book of Ephesians is, as I said, loaded. It’s up-to-date, full of good stuff for all of us who read it prayerfully. It is no wonder that John Stott, the great evangelist and preacher who served for twenty-five years as the Rector of All souls Church in London, described the book as a “remarkably concise, yet comprehensive summary of the Christian good news and its implications. Nobody,” Stott concluded, “can read it without being moved to wonder and worship, and challenged to consistency of life.”