“Before the Foundation of the World”
January 24, 2016
You were Blessed God’s blessed before you were.
I. Faithful Saints (Ephesians 1:1-2)
II. Chosen before the Foundation of the World (Ephesians 1:3-4)
III. To the Praise of His Glorious Grace (Ephesians 1:5-6)
I really enjoyed listening to the audio of Murry Billingsley’s message last week in which he unpacked Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, the devotion and commitment of Paul and the demographic, physical, spiritual, cultural, and economic impact his ministry had, not only on the city of Ephesus but on the whole region over three years, A.D. 54 to 57. But Acts tells us that Paul finally went on to Macedonia and Greece, and still later returned to Jerusalem by ship. On the way he stopped at a seaport and met with the Ephesian elders to further encourage them. But when he got to Jerusalem, he was arrested, imprisoned and held in Caesarea for years before he was finally sent to Rome in A.D. 61. After an eventful journey, Paul settled into house arrest waiting for his trial. During this imprisonment, five or so years after he left Ephesus, Paul wrote Ephesians, probably followed by Colossians, Philemon and Philippians.
It seems likely that Ephesians wasn’t intended solely for the people of Ephesus. As Murry explained, Paul’s ministry exploded into all of Asia Minor. Churches were founded in many cities. And Paul sometimes intends his letters to be circulated. He tells the Colossians to trade their letter with the Laodiceans. Ephesians, which contains no personal references to people in Ephesus, was likely intended to be passed among the churches. There are a few early copies that don’t have any place name on them, which would support that idea.
This spring we’re looking, in detail at the extraordinary letter that Paul wrote to the Ephesians and their sister churches. It is one of the most remarkable New Testament documents, a perfect balance of doctrine and practice, of mystery and accessibility. A child can understand it at a helpful level, but the most mature Christians can never fully plumb its depths. As C. S. Lewis famously said of the Lord of the Rings: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart.” We will find, in Ephesians, that the Gospel of Jesus changes everything, for each of us.
Paul frequently writes letters that start with doctrine and end with application. They start with the indicative, ‘this is,’ and end with the imperative ‘this do.’ None of his letters does this more neatly than Ephesians. Chapters 1-3 describe the wonder of our salvation, chapters 4-6, the walk of our salvation. The first half describes the mystery of the gospel of Jesus, and the second half describes the fact that this gospel changes everything, in a very practical sense, for the believer. It’s our calling, 1-3, and our conduct, 4-6. We need to let it change our minds and our behavior. We begin at the beginning with the first of many wonderful things, that you were Blessed God’s blessed before you were.
Let me unpack that. Paul wants to bless God here, to give him the glory he deserves. But he does so by pointing at the ways God has blessed us. So you were the one the Blessed God blessed. And Paul says that he chose us, in Christ, before the foundation of the world. Before you even were. So you were blessed God’s blessed before you were. Wrap your mind around that. We often use a phrase that helps. We say God does things for our good and for His glory. I tried to trace the phrase and found it as early as the 1800’s. A great theologian named Stephen Charnock, who is still read today, wrote about the wisdom of God, pointing out that God is able to use even evil choices and acts for our good and for his glory. Even more, his blessings are for our good and for his glory.
So, the first two verses, Ephesians 1:1-2 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: 2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The letter opens in classic ancient style: from someone, to someone, greetings. In the opening Paul describes himself as one whom God has blessed, “an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.” In Philippians 3, Paul describes his life as a Jew, trying to be right with God by zeal and good works. He had to learn that the only way to be right with God was through faith in His Son, who died on the cross to save those who couldn’t save themselves. He says: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
The Paul who writes Ephesians is a messenger fully committed to this message. Jesus intervened when Paul was persecuting the church to make him an emissary for the church, an apostle or sent-one. Acts 26 “At midday I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me.” So they all fell to the ground and Paul heard a voice in Hebrew saying “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” “15And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Then Jesus tells Paul that he is appointing him as a servant and as witness “to the things in which you have seen me.” He tells Paul that he is being sent to the Gentiles, “18to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
This is Paul’s mission and message. He is a messenger of Jesus Christ by the will of God. And his mission is to the Gentiles, a message that comes through clearly in this letter. It’s from Paul the apostle to the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.
In this very first verse Paul implies the blessing he will later describe by addressing his readers as ‘saints.’ When Paul uses this word he isn’t talking about some upper class Christian, someone far above the norm of holiness through some special human quality. He is talking about the holiness that is a gift of God, a blessing from a God whose purpose is to bless. The saints are those made holy by God. Theirs is a holiness like Paul’s that comes from God and is by faith.
They are ‘the faithful in Christ Jesus’ or alternately ‘believers in Christ Jesus’. The word he uses works both ways, of one who is faithful and of one who believes. These Ephesians have put their trust in Jesus, to save them from sin and give them righteousness. So, based on no works of their own, but only on faith in Christ Jesus, they have been blessed by a God whose purpose is to bless.
And one huge result of that blessing is that they are ‘in Christ Jesus’ Once again, this foreshadows the rest of the letter. That phrase becomes key in the first several chapters of the book. To be in Christ is not a physical location, but a spiritual location. It is the spiritual state of being ‘under the shadow of his wings,’ under his righteousness, in his family. Stott says to be in Christ is to be “personally and vitally united to Christ, as branches are to the vine and members to the body.” I’ve pictured it as being a plant in the sunshine, receiving life from the one we are in while being one with him and his people.
But it’s verse 2, Paul’s actual greeting, that describes the heart of blessing. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is Paul’s common greeting in all his letters. In fact, all letters in the ancient world would have started similarly. A Gentile would say ‘rejoice’ a word similar, in Greek, to Paul’s ‘grace.’ A Jew would have only said ‘peace.’ But Paul combines the two, and gives the world a Christian version of the greeting.
The greeting teaches us about the experience of blessing. John Stott says: “Much of the message of Ephesians is implied in ‘grace and peace.’ Grace is God’s free, saving initiative, and peace is the outcome, as sinners are reconciled to himself and each other.” “In [Ephesians] 6:15 the good news is ‘the gospel of peace’. In chapter 2 Jesus Christ himself ‘is our peace’ for first he ‘made peace’ by his cross, and then he came ‘and preached peace’ to Jews and Gentiles alike. Hence his people are to be ‘eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.’ ‘Grace,’ on the other hand, indicates both why and how God has taken his peacemaking initiative. Grace is his free, undeserved mercy. It is ‘by grace we are saved’, chapter 2, indeed by ‘the riches of his grace.’ And it is by the same grace we are gifted for service. So, Stott concludes, if we want a concise summary of the good news which the letter announces, we could not find a better one than ‘peace through grace.’
God blesses his people with grace and peace because God’s purpose is to bless. Let’s get briefly into the body of the letter, where Paul begins to expand on the way the Blessed God has blessed us. Now, Paul doesn’t write the way you or I would. When Paul gets excited about something, his sentences just never stop. In fact, the wonderful words of praise that begin this letter run in one continuous sentence all the way from verse 3 to verse 14. Commentators have called it “a magnificent gateway” “a golden chain of many links” “a kaleidoscope of dazzling lights and shifting colors” “A snowball tumbling down a hill, picking up volume as it descends.” I like that last one.
He begins by blessing or praising the God who blesses. Verses 3-4: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
Bless the God who blesses us. God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. Every single one. Whatever blessings the Holy Spirit gives - and we’ll see many in these verses - whatever spiritual blessings there are both now and in eternity, he has blessed us with them. This is no accident, no by-product of something else. This is his purpose. He intends to bless, and he is worthy of our ceaseless praise for his blessing.
Where has he blessed us? According to this ‘in the heavenly realms.’ Paul uses this phrase five times in this letter. This is the sphere in which Christ reigns, and in which those he saves by grace are seated with him. This is the where the principalities and powers operate, against whom we war, who are witnesses of God’s wisdom in forming the church. But this is not a distant physical location: rather it seems to be an unseen world, a spiritual reality all around us, a realm in which the spiritual state of people and other beings is obvious. One would guess that trying to describe this realm to us in our existence would be like describing to a blind person the difference between spring green and sky blue. C. S. Lewis often said the reason we can’t perceive this realm, is not that it is less real or solid than ours, but that it is more real and solid. We are the vapor, it is the reality where every spiritual blessing is made visible.
But what are these spiritual blessings? We could point to such things as holiness, justification, forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, eternal life, the hope of glory. We could re-examine grace and peace. We could add to them love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. All of those are legitimate spiritual blessings. But what I’d like to do the rest of this morning and next week, is study the ones, including some of those that Paul lists in these eleven verses, and praise God together for them.
So verse 4: “For he chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” I find it endlessly fascinating and comforting that God knew me and chose me to be his even before he physically created me, before he created anything. In the counsels of his will the Father, the Son and the Spirit said “Then there’ll be Bob. He’ll be one we’ll redeem by grace.”
Election, being chosen by God, is the initial cause, predecessor of all other blessings. And the fact of election runs through the whole Bible. Israel was chosen, not for any merit, but as the means of fulfilling the eternal purpose of God. In the New Testament God still chooses, but with no longer a national aspect. God brings together Jews and Gentiles. And Paul doesn’t raise election and pre-destination to create controversy or set them in opposition to the self-evident fact of human free will. Paul emphasizes both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Paul took the gospel of God’s pure grace, God’s free gift, and offered it to everyone. But he grounds it in election for two reasons First, Christians need to realize their faith rests completely on the work of God, not on the unsteady foundation of anything in themselves. It is all the Lord’s work, and in accordance with his plan, from before the foundation of the world.
Second, God has chosen us for a purpose: to be holy and blameless before him. Election is not simply to salvation but to holiness of life. As Murry said last week, we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God’s purpose is to bless us, first by choosing us, then by making us holy and blameless in his sight. To be holy, to be blameless, to be sanctified, is to be qualified to stand in the presence of a holy God. In the spiritual realm, we are already this way, in His sight. But it is the work of a lifetime both for God’s Spirit and for us to begin to live up to what we are. The second half of this letter focuses on the working out of this changed life.
We were chosen in him before the foundation of the world for our good and for his glory, that the God who blesses us might be blessed by us. Verses 5 and 6: In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons, through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
The fact that we are chosen in him before the creation of the world implies predestination, although the Greek word is not as austere sounding as our word ‘predestined.’ It really means to set aside from the beginning, to set apart beforehand. Just as we are chosen beforehand for the blessing of being holy and blameless, so also we are set apart beforehand to be adopted as sons and daughters through Jesus. This is the blessing of adoption, one of the highest and greatest spiritual blessings given to those chosen and called by God.
Adoption means exactly what you know it means: that orphans, waifs, those without parents, homes, or love are brought into the household of God and made children, given the full rights of heirs, and loved and cared for as sons and daughters. A young mother wrote: “I stayed with my parents for several days after the birth of our first child. One afternoon I remarked to my mother that it was surprising our baby had light hair, since both my husband and I are dark. She said, ‘Well, daddy and I have light hair.’ “‘But Mama, that doesn’t matter, because I’m adopted.’ “With an embarrassed smile, she said the most wonderful words I’ve ever heard ‘I always forget.’” That’s the way God is when he adopts us: he forgets that we are not by nature his sons and daughters. All he remembers is that we are sons and daughters because of what Jesus has done. God’s adoption of us is an incredible blessing and gift.
And it’s by his choice: it’s according to his pleasure and will, the kind intention of his will, the good purpose of his will. The word is a unique mix of meaning goodness and meaning purpose. English doesn’t have a word that means good purpose as opposed to another kind, but Greek does. This is what God decided, in love, that he wanted to do, to bless us by choosing us and by adopting us.
Our response is to bless him. One commentator says: People are blessed when they receive his benefits. God is blessed when he is praised for what he freely bestows. That’s how Paul ends the first series of thoughts. Verse 6: “to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” His blessings ought to result - are intended to result in our praise.
Here is our application from this first section of Paul’s letter. You and I are called to be like Paul, overflowing with praise for the blessing a wonderful God has given us by grace. Look closely at that verse. These things are “to the praise of the glory of his grace.” Later on Paul will instruct us simply to praise his glory. But here he makes it clear that it is his grace that is especially glorious. In that heavenly realm where spiritual realities are seen, it is the spiritual reality of God’s grace that is the blinding glory. It is by grace God blesses us.
It’s a free gift. Look at the verse again. “to the praise of the glory of his grace with which He has blessed us.” He has freely bestowed it on us. No price, no work, no worth. As a song we heard last week said “I had no righteousness of my own. I had no right to draw near your throne. But Father, you loved me still. And in love before you laid the world's foundation, you predestined to adopt me as your own. You have raised me up so high above my station. I'm a child of God by grace and grace alone.” As you meditate on these verses, or even better, memorize them, my prayer is that your heart response is praise. Let them lead you to the cross, and to the heavenly realm where God is glorified.
Let it change you. This glorious Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus changes everything.
Let me give you one more quick application before we close, and this applies more to the whole series, and the idea that this Word of God can change everything, even your worldview. Gail sent me this article a few days ago that might be your application through this whole spring. The author, , says “I want to recommend a simple four step process that could transform your life by, quite literally, changing your mind. Several years ago I stumbled [this approach] in an article by theologian Fred Sanders and implemented his recommendation that day. My hope is that at least one other person will follow this advice. The four steps that will transform your worldview are: (1) Choose a book of the Bible. (2) Read it in its entirety. (3) Repeat step 2 five to ten times. (4) Repeat this process for all books of the Bible.”
He says “Christians often talk about having a Biblical worldview yet most have only a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible. They attempt to build a framework without first gathering the lumber and cement to create a solid foundation. The benefits of following this process should be obvious. By fully immersing yourself into the text you'll come to truly know the text. You'll deepen your understanding of each book and knowledge of the Bible as a whole.”
Fred Sanders learned the technique from a book by James M. Gray, who, who learned it from a simple fellow Christian who learned it from Ephesians. Gray says “We were fellow-attendants at a certain Christian conference and thrown together a good deal for several days, and I saw something in his Christian life to which I was a comparative stranger—peace, a rest, a joy, a kind of spiritual poise I knew little about. One day I ventured to ask him how he had become possessed of the experience, when he replied, “By reading the epistle to the Ephesians.” I was surprised, for I had read it without such results, and therefore asked him to explain.
He said that he had gone into the country to spend the Sabbath with his family on one occasion, taking with him a pocket copy of Ephesians, and in the afternoon, going out into the woods and lying down under a tree, he began to read it; he read it through at a single reading, and finding his interest aroused, read it through again in the same way, and, his interest increasing, again and again. I think he added that he read it some twelve or fifteen times, “and when I arose to go into the house,” said he, “I was in possession of Ephesians, or better yet, it was in possession of me, and I had been 'lifted up to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus‚' in an experiential sense in which that had not been true in me before, and will never cease to be true in me again.”
That’s what we want from the book of Ephesians, not to possess it, but to allow it to possess us. If we take this book and read it and re-read it and re-re-read it, our minds will be transformed, changed. The assurance of these blessings will become part of the foundation of our lives. A reliance on grace will be built into us. The abhorrence of sin will be strengthened and the desire to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord will become greater in us, along with the knowledge of how to do that. This Gospel of Jesus Christ changes everything. We can cooperate with the Holy Spirit to experience that change this spring.