Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

United in the Faith (Eph. 4:4-6)

In these verses Paul continues his call for unity. In the previous verses (vv. 1-3), he has indicated the attitudes and actions that are appropriate for unity to flourish. In subsequent verses he will show how spiritual gifts contribute to unity. But in verses 4-6 he mentions how Christian doctrines express unity.

An obvious emphasis on unity is seen in his repeated use of the term ‘one’ – he uses it seven times in these three verses. Also, his fourfold use of the term ‘all’ in verse 6 stresses the emphasis on unity. These features have caused some scholars to suggest that Paul is quoting an early Christian creed. Such belief statements did exist in the early church, for example the ‘faithful sayings’ of the Pastoral Epistles. These short statements were used as memory aids to help people reflect on the faith. So it is possible that verses 4-6 are one such creed.

As we look at these three verses we see that Paul refers to each person of the Trinity: the Spirit (v. 4), the Son or Lord (v. 5) and the Father (v. 6). He also shows that each person of the Trinity contributes different blessings, and that these contributions result in unity and harmony.

The Bible makes it clear that the Trinity always works in harmony and unity. Perhaps the best known text indicating is the benediction: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all’ (2 Cor. 13:14).

Today is the Lord's Day, an opportunity of expressing and enjoying the Trinity as our source of unity.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-3)

The maintaining of Christian unity in a church has to be a priority. We are not called to make the unity but to maintain it. It is not man-made, not even Christian-made. God has already created the unity, and our task is to display all the facets of that unity in our congregation to the world around us. Instead of the barriers preventing unity, there should be the bond of peace maintaining unity.

Peace involves at least three aspects. First, there is peace with God, which is our standing before him because we have trusted in the person and work of Jesus: ‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 5:1). 

Second, there is the peace of God that each Christian can experience individually as they engage in thankful prayer: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 4:6-7). 

Third, there is a corporate experience of the peace of God: ‘And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful’ (Col. 3:14-15).

Inner peace is what people are looking for and they should see it in the members of a Christian church. Such inner peace, received from Jesus himself by the Spirit, is the evidence of real unity and is a powerful influence on those who see us.

Friday, 28 September 2012

How all Christians contribute to unity (Eph. 4:1-3)

Paul mentions three attitudes and one action that are essential for maintaining unity in a church. The attitudes are gentleness, humility and patience, and the action is bearing with one another in love. 

The word ‘all’ describes both the humility and the gentleness, and having these fruits we will then become patient or longsuffering, which in turn enables us to bear with one another. The outcome of this is practical Christian love. Paul here is giving a definition of Christian love: it involves personal attitudes (my disposition), response to circumstances (my acquiescence), and tolerance of others (my acceptance of them).

It is not difficult to see that Paul is telling his readers to imitate the example of Jesus. A very simple rule for most situations is to ask ourselves what Jesus would do if he were here. His humility was seen in his willingness to serve, shown so clearly by his actions in the Upper Room when he washed his disciples’ feet. His gentleness was seen in the way he interacted with the needy and the despised. He was never cruel, either in his words or actions. His patience was displayed in his acceptance of his disciples’ ignorance and refusal to take his words seriously. The clearest place to see his humility, his gentleness, and his patience is when he was on the cross.

What are the opposites of these graces? Pride in our own selves, harshness in our speech and actions, and intolerance of the weakness of others. Sadly they are sometimes seen in the church, and when they occur unity has disappeared.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

How leaders contribute to unity (Eph. 4:1-3)

In this section of his letter, Paul encourages the Ephesians to express the unity of the Spirit. Paul was aware that nothing could prevent his union with Christ. So he begins by referring to himself as a prisoner of the Lord. He has already described himself in this way (3:1), which indicates it was something that he valued. ‘What the world counted ignominy, he counts the highest honour, and he glories in his bonds for Christ, more than a king in his diadem’ (Theodoret). As a Christian leader, Paul knew that he had always to be an example in how he accepted divine providence.

Paul had also lived a devoted life, submissive to Jesus’ demands. In other words he had authenticity. Authenticity is an essential feature of Christian leadership, which only came to Paul because he continued to fulfil what his Lord had required of him.

A third feature revealed in this verse is Paul’s attitude. Although he was an apostle, which gave to him certain rights and privileges, he knew that unity would not be maintained by demanding implicit obedience. Rather he begged, implored, his readers. This attitude revealed his heart was involved. Decisions can be made and required without heart involvement, but pleading cannot. Christian leaders should express humility at all times.

The fourth feature of leadership seen here is Paul’s aspiration for the Ephesians. He had no desire for personal gain, but he was concerned for their personal growth. This aspiration was that they would live according to their calling as children of God, of living as such in the present evil world, as he describes in Philippians 2:14-15: ‘Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe.’

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Praise of the Father (Eph. 3:21)

Having reminded the believers of God’s power to answer prayer, Paul responds to the God whom he has described. He is the God who deserves glory.

First, praise of the Father will be an eternal reality. Paul says here that the praise will last throughout the ages of the ages. That is one way of describing eternity. This will be our activity throughout the ages, to praise our wonderful Father for his grace and mercy.

Second, praise of the Father is a church responsibility. God is to be glorified by all his creatures for his work as Creator. This level of glorification ascends from the lower creatures up to the angelic host. But that is not the highest way in which he can be praised. The heights of praise are reached when we praise God for his saving grace. We do that now along with the believers whom God in his providence has arranged for us to live with. This is our highest calling, to meet together to praise the almighty Father for all that he is and for all that he has done. But the day is coming when we shall gather with the church universal in the presence of God, a number that no man can number, drawn from all the centuries and from all races, and praise him for his greatness and his grace.

Third, praise of the Father is Jesus’ role for ever. The church will glorify God by Christ Jesus. All Christians are united to Jesus in a living fellowship and communion. Through the grace mediated to them by him they explore the riches of God’s inheritance; now they receive foretastes, but in heaven they will receive its fullness. But it is not only by Christ that they will praise the Father, for they will also do it with Christ. He is the leader of the choir of the redeemed, both today and for ever. He declares to us the name of the Father as he sings in the great congregation (Ps. 22:22). With Jesus, we shall glorify the Father for ever.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Prayer to the Almighty God (Eph. 3:20-21)

Paul informs his readers that they can pray to the Almighty. This is a reminder that the majestic God is approachable – what astonishing grace! But then we recall that sinners can approach him, which is even more amazing. And Paul says that God will do immeasurably more than they can ask or think, which tells us that God has abundant grace.

The answers to prayer are not limited to what we can ask or think. In fact, Paul says that it is impossible to ask God for too much. We may ask him for wrong things and we may ask for the wrong reasons, but when the object we seek is right and when our motives are right, then we cannot ask too much. He has encouraged us by saying, ‘Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it’ (Ps. 81:10). This is a rebuke of our often-weak faith.

God does more for an individual Christian than all he asks for in his whole Christian life. Try and calculate how many prayers a person offers in his life, whether in family worship, public worship, personal devotions and sporadically throughout the day. Who can count them? But God does for him immeasurably more.

God does more for a local congregation than it can ask. Some congregations have been around for centuries and God has heard all the prayers offered by its members. The number of prayers of one person is almost innumerable, so what can one say about a congregation’s prayers? Only that God can do immeasurably more.

Then if we think of all the prayers that have been offered by all the congregations that are on earth today or that have ever been, our mind cannot grasp the range of requests that have been offered. But God can do immeasurably more.

Paul wanted to encourage his readers to have confidence in prayer and he does this by pointing them to God’s power. So what should we bring to mind when we pray?

When we pray, we are to remember the power of God that we have already experienced individually or corporately. We are to remind ourselves that the power of God is continually working within us. The Holy Spirit is the one who indwells us. John tells us that greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4).

When we pray, we are to remind ourselves that God will not withdraw himself from this relationship he has with his people. He is their Father for ever, and because he is he will give to them exceeding abundantly above all that they can ask or think.

Therefore, whether it is our concerns about providence or about preaching the gospel or a thousand other things, remember the great power of the almighty God. He longs for us to ask him to stretch forth his strong arm on our behalf. 

Monday, 24 September 2012

Responding to God’s power (Eph. 3:20-21)

The nine details mentioned yesterday teach us that God’s power is not the same as brute force. His power is logical, persuasive and loving. This is seen clearly in Paul’s statement in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. In the gospel God presents humans with descriptions of events involving Christ and calls for a response. The gospel shows his power by changing human minds, attracting human hearts, and overcoming human wills.

Then consider some evidences of his power. We can see his power in creation as he made a universe out of nothing. We can see his power in history as he overrules the wishes of all human powers. We will see his power in the future formation of the new heavens and new earth.

As we think of God’s power, we should worship him. This is what they do in heaven (Rev. 5:12). And to both Father and Son the whole universe sings: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and power forever and ever!’ (Rev. 5:13). 

But we should also have confidence and comfort. We can have assurance that he will keep us safe throughout life: we ‘by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’ (1 Pet. 1:5). And we can have assurance regarding our growth in grace: ‘His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence’ (2 Pet. 1:3).

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Nine aspects of God’s power (Eph. 3:20-21)

In this doxology, Paul refers to God’s power. What can be said about it? Here are nine details.

First, God’s power is an essential aspect of his nature. We should not think of God without thinking of his power. This attribute is seen in his names, such as Elohim which is translated as God in the Old Testament. The root ‘El’ means mighty, strong and prominent. This name can be used along with another word, such as El Shaddai which is translated as God Almighty, although it has the sense of his all-sufficiency and the power to gives his resources to us.

Second, God’s power is eternal, that is, it is unoriginated. He always possessed it, so when he decided to create the universe he was able to do so.

Third, God does things effortlessly. It is no more difficult for God to create the universe than to create a moth. If he had wanted to, he could have created a billion universes simultaneously.

Fourth, God does things earnestly, which means that he exercises his power for a purpose that he regards as important. He does not do anything indifferently. For example, this is the case whether he reveals his power in the resurrection to glory, which extols his love, or the resurrection to judgment, which extols his righteous judgment.

Fifth, God does things effectively. What he brings to pass occurs exactly as he planned it. He does not have to modify his plans to take account of pressures from other powers. This does not mean that he ignores what other powers do or that he is involved in what evil powers do. In a way that we cannot understand, the sovereign God rules over all events and actions, even those done against him.

Sixth, God does things excellently. What he does is for his glory. In his actions we see his wisdom, his desire to bless, his aim to enhance. His power never creates disharmony within the Trinity; rather it reveals its interaction with his other attributes.

Seventh, God’s power is revealed through his engagement or covenant dealings with his creatures. For example, the covenant he made with Noah after the flood guarantees that he will never again destroy the world with a flood (Gen. 9). With regard to his people, his response to their sins is not one of destruction but of forgiveness because of the terms of the new covenant.

Eighth, God cannot make anything that is as glorious or as powerful as himself. No matter what he makes, say a billion universes, it is always dependent upon him for its existence.

Ninth, there are some other things that God cannot do. For example, God cannot lie; the author of Hebrews says that it is impossible for God to lie (6:18). Nor can he be tempted with evil. Nor can he make three into two. 

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Paul’s Prayer for Spiritual Experience (Eph. 3:14-19)

It is worth noting the posture of Paul here. The usual posture for prayer in Jewish practice was standing, so kneeling would indicate an occasion of great seriousness and earnestness. What petitions did Paul have that made him so earnest?

First, he prayed for spiritual power in the inner life. Christians are affected adversely by two things: firstly, they are weakened by indwelling sin, by all kinds of doubts, and by Satanic assaults, and secondly they are limited by the fact that they are creatures. This petition is a reminder that we need the Spirit at all times.

Second, Paul prayed ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (v. 17). Paul is not focusing on what happens at conversion, but to subsequent experience(s). So what will happen when Jesus dwells in our hearts? Does Paul say there will be one or two blessings?

Those who argue that there is one blessing say that the dimensions of breadth, length, depth and height refer to the love of Christ. A common explanation is that Christ’s love is wide enough to embrace the world, long enough to last forever, high enough to take sinners to heaven, and low enough to reach down to the lowest sinner. Without a doubt, such a comment describes a truth, but it is debatable if it is the truth of these verses.

For one thing, Paul distinguishes between the four dimensions and the love of Christ. If the dimensions do not refer to Christ’s love, then to what do they refer? I think they refer to the divine resources which Paul described earlier as ‘the riches of God’s glory’. There is so much in this divine storehouse that all God’s people can visit it simultaneously and for ever.

Then Paul mentions another blessing, that of knowing the love of Christ, which passes knowledge. As we think of the Saviour’s love, several ideas come to mind. His love was sacrificial love, it is sanctifying love, and it is sweet love. When Paul says that Christ’s love surpasses knowledge, he does not mean that it cannot be known; rather its full knowledge is beyond human capacity to receive.

How do we experience this love? In the same way as human love is enjoyed, by spending time listening to a person. We must spend time listening to Jesus in his Word, the Bible.

Third, Paul prayed that we would be filled with all the fullness of God. Paul does not mean that a human can know everything that God is. Rather he means that we draw out of his fullness. We do this through Christ, for in him all the fullness of God is found. From Christ we draw everything that we need for the Christian life.

We should learn from Paul here how to pray and what priorities we should have in prayer. And we should long for the felt presence of Christ in our souls.

Friday, 21 September 2012

A couple of privileges (Eph. 3:1-12)

These verses mention two privileges about which we should remind ourselves continually. First, Paul said he was commissioned to preach among the Gentiles ‘the unreachable riches of Christ’ and to pass these treasures on to the believers. These treasures are ours.

The word translated ‘unreachable’ is a wonderful word picture. It is used in the Greek translation of Job 5:9 ([God], who does great things and unsearchable, marvellous things without number’) and 9:10 (who does great things beyond searching out, and marvellous things beyond number). The idea is that of tracks on the ground which a hunter sees as he pursues his prey, but a prey which proves elusive.

Paul is not saying that the riches cannot be found; rather he is saying that we have these riches but we can never find their fullness because there will always be too much for us to appreciate. But the point is that we already have them. The riches have been described in chapters 1 and 2 of Ephesians: adoption, redemption, inheritance, resurrection, etc. Paul does not mean that they should not be searched, but when we do search we will never make a full discovery of all that is there. We are to be explorers of the riches of God and we are not to lives as spiritual paupers.

Second, we have security in the presence of God. We have boldness (not presumption or pride but confidence) and access (permanently) because of what Jesus did. Although we are sinners, the safest place we can be is in the presence of a holy, gracious Father because Jesus has fulfilled what was required of him in order for us to be blessed.

This security we have by faith in Jesus Christ. Just as he is central to the eternal purpose of God, is central to the creation activity of God, is central to the church drawn from the nations, so he is to be central in our lives. We are to say with Paul, ‘To me to live is Christ, to die is gain,’ for to die is to depart to be with Christ. The people of God in heaven and on earth are united in the centrality of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

What is the church again? (Eph. 3:1-12)

Paul here says several things about the church, and while we are familiar with these concepts it is good for us to remind ourselves of the glory that belongs to the people of God.

First, Paul says that the church is a mystery (vv. 5 and 9). The term ‘mystery’, in its Pauline usage, does not refer to something mysterious. Instead, the term is used to describe truths that have been revealed. At one time, these truths were unknown.

Second, Paul says that the church is a fellowship (v. 6). Paul mentions three features of the church – heirs, members of the body, and partakers of the promise – and adds to each a small prefix, which means ‘together’. Together, God’s people are adopted, they are united together in a living organism (the church), and they share in God’s promise.

Third, the church is a means of instruction for the spiritual authorities (v. 10). These creatures could be either good or bad angels, perhaps both, who inhabit the spiritual realm. In 6:12 they definitely are evil angels, but there is no reason for not including good angels here. They come to church to learn about the wisdom of God, not only in what they hear but also in what they see. In the church they see the triumph of divine grace and the defeat of the powers of evil. They learn about God’s grace through Christians.

Fourth, the church of Jesus Christ gives meaning to human history. God has let us into the secret purpose of reconciliation. In the church, Jews and Gentiles are reconciled; so also are slaves and freemen, males and females, Greeks and Barbarians (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). In the church today God is forming the people who will inhabit the new heavens and the new earth. All other events and movements in history pale into insignificance, apart from the contribution they make towards sinners coming into Christ’s kingdom.

The church is a mystery, a fellowship, a means of instruction to angels, and the key to human history because it is united to Jesus Christ

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

How Paul Saw Himself (Eph. 3:1-12)

Paul describes himself in different ways here. First, he says he is a prisoner in Rome, waiting for his trial, in the first of two Roman imprisonments. This is a reminder that Paul faced up to the reality of his situation.  

Yet Paul was also aware that his imprisonment was causing concern among the churches (v. 13). So he affirmed that he was not a prisoner of Caesar but of Christ Jesus. Paul realised that it was his Lord who was in control of the situation. 

Paul also knew that his situation was not merely one with personal consequences, for he realised it was for the benefit of the Gentiles. In what ways was his imprisonment a benefit? One was that he had time during it to write important letters and four of them are in the New Testament (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon). Another was the spread of the faith through him, even into Caesar’s palace (Phil. 1:12-14). A third benefit was that it gave Paul time to pray for the churches.

Second, Paul was an apostle. To him had been given unique revelation by Jesus Christ. But he was not to keep this revelation to himself, for he had been given a commission to take it to the Gentiles. And the Book of Acts and his letters reveal how determined he was to take the message to as many as he could. 

Third, Paul described himself as a humble servant. In saying that he was a servant, he probably still has in mind the idea of the church as a household, which he mentioned in 2:19. The word he uses is the term used for deacon, which was originally used of a person who waited on a table. What Paul has in mind is that his role is to feed the members of God’s household. This he does by feeding them with Christ, either by word or letter. 

Paul also reveals his humility when he describes himself as less than the least of all saints (v. 8). Linguistically, he is describing an impossibility because one cannot be less than the least. But Paul, despite his privileges and successes, saw himself as nothing. In this he was like his Master who humbled himself and made himself of no reputation (Phil. 2:6-8). 

Fourth, Paul described himself as an equipped preacher (v. 7). When we think of the task God gave to Paul, we should be staggered by its immensity. He was to tell all people about God’s plan of grace, his good news. But God empowered him by regeneration (when he gave him new life), by gifting (when he gave him a specific role), and by suffering, because it was when he was weak that he experienced divine strength (2 Cor. 12:7-10). God does not give a purpose to a person without giving the enabling. 

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The church as a building (Eph. 2:21-22)

The crucial part of an ancient building was not all the stones of the foundation but the cornerstone which held the foundation stones together. The first stone that was laid was the cornerstone, by which every other stone in the foundation and building was measured. It was the corner-stone that enabled the foundation to bear the weight of the building, because it prevented the foundation stones becoming loose.

The cornerstone in the churchs foundation is Jesus and on him the temple of God is being built. As I thought about the various stones that are added to the building, the following ideas came to mind from the illustration.

First, each stone is shaped by God and placed by him in the building. He finds the stone in a quarry of sin and prepares it for insertion in the building.

Second, each stone is dependent on Jesus Christ. This is not only true for entrance into the building but also for existence in the building. Our ongoing functions in the church are made possible by Jesus Christ.

Third, each stone is essential. What would the building look like if a stone was missing? There would be a gap in a row for example, and a missing stone would detract from its beauty. Each stone in itself is beautiful and contributes to the overall beauty of the building.

Fourth, each stone cannot see all the other stones, although they are all linked together. In a sense we only see the stones that are around us, so in a sense they are the ones about whom we should be concerned mainly.

Monday, 17 September 2012

What is the church? (Eph. 2:19-22)

In these verses Paul uses three images to illustrate the church of Jesus: it is a city, a household and a temple. 

The three images tell us what each church should be like in that they suggest unity, diversity, participation and growth. 

Unity. There is only one city, one family and one building as far as God is concerned. Our sins and weaknesses, down through the centuries, have hidden the visible unity, and this should give us great sorrow. The unity of the universal church should be reflected in all local churches.

Diversity. The church is also a diversity: citizens have different responsibilities, members of a family have different roles, and stones in a building have different appearances; similarly each believer has his or her own contribution to make to the life of the church, and the contribution of each is needed.

Participation. The church also requires participation by its members. Involvement was necessary in defending a city from attack, in maintaining family relationships, and we can see how fragile a building would become if a stone decided to opt out.

Growth. The church will not be complete until Jesus returns, therefore it is a growing city, an enlarging family and a developing temple, which of course is a cause for optimism regarding the success of the gospel.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Reconciliation (Eph. 2:16-18)

After referring to the barrier that existed between Jews and Gentiles, Paul points to another barrier that also had to be removed, and that was the barrier between sinners and God. Unless this barrier was removed, removing the racial and religious barrier between Jew and Gentile would be pointless.

Paul says that it was Jesus who did the act of reconciliation. It involved three stages: the first is what he did on the cross, the second is what he does in proclaiming the gospel, and the third occurs when he introduces sinners into Gods presence.

On the cross Jesus dealt with the sin that was the cause of Gods wrath against his people. Jesus dealt with it by himself bearing that wrath, by paying the penalty that God required for us to be reconciled. Christ was forsaken by his Father so that we would have peace with God.

Secondly, according to Paul here, Jesus is involved in the proclamation of the gospel to both Jew and Gentile. In the Great Commission, Jesus did not merely promise his presence to his church; he also included his participation and proclamation. Paul does not merely mean that Jesus helps a person to preach, although that is true. Rather he reminds us of a wonderful reality, that whenever a person declares the gospel it is actually Jesus speaking through that person.

The third activity of Jesus is giving to all his people access in one Spirit to the Father. Paul does not have in mind here the entrance we have to God in prayer, as if by access he meant going in and out of Gods presence. Rather he is describing a change of location, for this is what is meant by reconciliation. Paul uses an illustration taken from the practice of an important person introducing an unknown person into the presence of a monarch. When we believe in Jesus, he brings us into a new spiritual state in which by the Spirit, whom he sends into our hearts, we live in the presence of God. This is where we are, brought near to God permanently.

The presence we have is an intimate one, for we are face to face with God. This is reconciliation, living life under the smile of the God of love who rejoices as Jesus brings his people into his Fathers presence. Of course, in this present life we only see this dimly, but the day is coming when it will be very clear.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Removing the barrier (Eph. 2:14b-15)

We hear much today about the need for unity and reconciliation whether in family life, community life, national life or international life. No doubt, many of the attempts to bring about harmony are praiseworthy, although they are hindered by two factors. One is that the root cause is often ignored, that is, sin, and the second is that Gods basis for unity and reconciliation is ignored as well, which is, the cross of Christ.

An obvious barrier that existed in Pauls time was that between Jews and Gentiles. He illustrates this racial and religious barrier by referring to an actual wall that existed in the Jewish temple and prevented Gentiles from entering particular areas in the temple. There were four courts in the temple; three were on the same level, although of graded importance and each limited to a particular group (the most important was the court of the priests, then the court of Israel which was for males, and then the court of the women); on the other side of a wall, and on a lower level was the court of the Gentiles, and written on the barrier were warnings of death to any Gentile who would venture further.

Jesus dealt with this barrier by removing something and creating a new entity. He abolished the ceremonial law, which God had given to Israel at Sinai, by fulfilling what it depicted in its various types and rituals. The ceremonial law gave illustrations of spiritual reality. By describing certain features as unclean, it reminded people of their need of cleansing. By demanding particular sacrificial rituals, it showed people that they had to identify with a substitute in order to be acceptable to God. Its detailed Sabbath requirements indicated the desirability of spiritual rest. There were many other aspects to the ceremonial law such as circumcision and spiritual feasts. These activities separated Israel from the nations, but they were burdensome because they were not the reality Christ is the reality who fulfilled what they pictured. He gives cleansing, he enables us to worship God, he gives spiritual rest, and he provides spiritual celebration.

The new entity Paul describes as a one new man, that is a new race, as it were. One of the titles that the early Christians gave to themselves was the third race, as distinct from the other two groups of Jews and Gentiles (see 1 Cor. 10:32). Clement of Alexandria wrote that we who worship God in a new way, as the third race, are Christians.

This means that Christians live in two worlds simultaneously: at one level they live within the structures of society and at another level they live as members of Gods new society. Both societies, the earthly and the heavenly, have their structures. The structures of society may be removed and replaced with improvements, but the structures of the new society are foretastes of the heavenly world. It is a new humanity, united to Jesus Christ, in which he guides and directs it, protects and cares for it, blesses it with peace and joy, whatever may be the situation in the earthly society.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Don’t forget the great change (Eph. 2:12-13)

Paul says that his Gentile readers previously ‘were far off.’ They were at a distance from God as well as from Israel. Yet they had been brought near to God, not by joining Israel, but in the formation of the body of Christ which includes both Jews and Gentiles. Paul explains that this nearness was accomplished by two means: the blood of Christ and union with Christ.

The phrase, ‘the blood of Christ,’ reminds us of at least two important truths about him. First, it stresses the reality of his humanity. Second, it refers to the sacrificial nature of his death. By becoming a human and by suffering on the cross Jesus bridged the wide distance between God and the Gentiles.

The phrase, ‘in Christ Jesus,’ shows the proximity of the nearness that Gentile believers now have to the Father (they are as near as Jesus is), it shows the permanence of the nearness that Gentile believers have (they will be there as long as Jesus is ), and it shows the parity of the nearness (none are closer than another in the sense of position, although they may be in the sense of enjoyment).

The use of the verb ‘remember’ in verse 13 is the only imperative in Ephesians 1–3. It is a reminder that it is appropriate to take time to recollect what has happened to us. The children of Israel were to remember that they had been slaves in Egypt, even centuries and generations after those who had participated in the original Passover had died. John Newton, in order to remind himself of his past, had written ‘Remember thou was a bondsman in the land of Egypt.’ Twice, during his teaching in the Upper Room, Jesus pointed out the importance of remembering (John 15:20; 16:4). And to two of the seven churches Jesus stressed the importance of recollection (Rev. 2:5; 3:3):

Remembering is important for three reasons. First, it aids our gratitude as we recall the great salvation that has come our way. Second, it aids humility as we remind ourselves of where we came from. Third, it helps our faith because it helps us to review all that God has done so far in our lives.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

What was a Gentile? (Eph. 2:12)

Paul lists three spiritual benefits that Gentiles did not have: the Messiah, the commonwealth of Israel and the covenants of promise, with the consequences that they were without hope and without God in the world.

When Paul says that they had no hope, he does not mean that they were not optimistic about their abilities or about their future. Rather he means that they did not possess the hope that Israel had, which he states elsewhere was the hope of the resurrection (Acts 24:13-15).

The Gentiles were also without God in the world. This does not mean that they were not religious nor that they did not believe in a god or gods, for they had pantheons of gods. This verse is a reminder that other religions do not lead to God.

What a sad picture of the Gentile world. William Hendriksen summarises Paul’s description of the Gentiles as Christless, stateless, friendless, hopeless and godless. As we contemplate these features of deprived blessings and hopeless living, we should remind ourselves that they describe Gentiles today as much as the Gentiles of Paul’s day.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Outcasts Brought Near (Eph. 2:11-13)

Verse 11 begins a new section in this letter, a section which continues until verse 22. In the previous section Paul had viewed his readers against the background of spiritual death and how God had  provided spiritual life and its blessings for them. In this new section he views his readers against the background of the division between Jew and Gentile and describes how God has brought them together in the church.

So Paul begins this section by mentioning the contempt which Israelites had for Gentiles. The Jews boasted in the fact that they had a physical mark which showed that they were the people of God. They regarded the Gentiles as unclean and detached from God and used the term ‘Uncircumcised’ to describe them. Daily they thanked God that they were not Gentiles.

Paul agreed that the Gentiles were far from God, but he also knew that the rite of Jewish circumcision in itself was of no value. This is why he calls it ‘circumcision made by hands’.

The Jews had forgotten that circumcision was a sign of grace, of God’s commitment to an unworthy people, and of their dependence on him. Instead they became self-righteous and imagined that they were better than others. In doing so, they turned an ordinance of God into a meaningless ritual.

Of course, something similar has happened with baptism throughout the Christian world. Baptism is a sign of grace, of God’s commitment to an unworthy people, and of their dependence on him. But for many it has become a mark of which they are proud because it distinguishes them from others, that it indicates they are no longer heathens. Such an outlook reveals a failure to understand the significance of baptism.

Paul recognised that circumcision was a physical picture of a spiritual reality. It illustrated circumcision of the heart, where a person was dedicated to God. In Philippians 3:3, he writes: ’For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.’ 

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Good works (Eph. 2:10)

As we think of the idea of works in the Christian life, there are two pitfalls to avoid. The first is that we become proud of our works, which is the peril that Jesus opposes in the Sermon on the Mount when he criticised the attitudes of the Pharisees concerning prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The second danger connected to works is that because we know salvation is not by works we therefore ignore the need for them.

The phrase ’good works’ is a common one in society, where it means being kind to the unfortunate or giving to charity. These acts are helpful, but they can be done by anyone; for example, an immoral person can do them. Paul does not have such an attitude in mind, for the good works to which he refers are done only by Christians, and that because of God’s grace.

Good works, in the Pauline sense, are both the consequence and the evidence of conversion. From God’s point of view or from a theological point of view, they are the inevitable consequence of conversion. From the point of view of other people they are the evidence that God has renewed a particular person.

The key to a proper walk with God is found in our attitudes as well as in our actions. While the picture of ‘walking’ indicates continuation in the path, we must see what it is that gives us the spiritual energy to walk. We need to feed our souls, breathe a pure atmosphere and take regular health checks. We feed on Christ, we spend time in prayer and we engage in self examination. Then all kinds of 'good works' will follow.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The God who Re-Creates (Eph. 2:10)

To depict God as a creator is a common biblical metaphor. In the Old Testament he is likened to a potter who took shapeless lumps of clay and made them into useful utensils that often were beautiful to look at. Often the Old Testament believers saw this picture as describing their intimate relationship with God (Isa. 64:8; Ps. 138:8). The potter is a picture of Gods eye being permanently on his people, of his being gentle with his people, of his working to a plan with each of them.

Another Old Testament picture is of God as the refiner of silver. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appears? for he is like a refiners fire, and like fullers soap (Malachi 3:2). The picture is of a silversmith sitting watching a lump of metal or stone, purifying it of dross until only silver is left. The refiner knows that the metal is purified when he can see his own reflection in the metal. So God works in the lives of his people. Again he is watching all the time, except this time he does not appear gentle but takes his people through hard times, although we must not forget he is working to a plan.

Ephesus was one of the major cities of the ancient world. As in all such cities there were statues to the gods, and as far as Ephesus was concerned their goddess was Diana. Remember the trouble that Paul faced in Ephesus from those who made images of Diana (Acts 19:24ff.). Craftsmen were employed to reproduce images and models of these statues of pagan gods. Perhaps Paul is referring to such things here, except that in contrast to paganism, the God of the Bible was the worker remaking his people.

It may be best for us in order to capture Pauls illustration here to combine both the Old Testament concept of the potter and the refiner, along with the sense of beauty and dignity of ancient sculpture. Then we can see that it is a hands-on approach by God – not formation from a distance as it were. There is happiness in the activity for the Creator because he has a purpose in view. There is hope for us, because God is capable of finishing what he commences.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The way of salvation (Eph. 2:8)

Paul refers here to the connection of faith to salvation, which is a reminder of the doctrine of justification by faith. An understanding of the doctrine of justification is important for healthy Christian living. It is impossible to appreciate a Christian’s relationship with God apart from this doctrine.

Justification involves the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to each believer in him. His life of perfect obedience is imputed to each believer as his or her personal righteousness. Justification is a once-for-all divine act that never requires repetition. 

This doctrine is one about which we should frequently meditate. Before we get up in the morning, say to yourself, ‘I am a person whom God has justified in his grace.’ Remind yourself that you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. 

This doctrine is liberty to Christians who despair about their sins. We know what it is like to regret our sins. But when we confess our sins, we discover that our standing cannot be changed, not even by our sinfulness. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.

The doctrine is also the launch-pad for Christian discipleship. There is a temptation to assume that we need little spiritual pushes along the way to help us ascend to God, such as prolonged times of prayer or occasions of spiritual enjoyment. These things are essential, but they are not to take the place of justification in our thinking. We are always tempted to legalism in the Christian life, that God will do more for us if we do more for him. Good works will follow regeneration, that is true. But the fact that God has made me right with him is the stimulus for discipleship.

And the doctrine is the basis of Christian assurance. It is the case that sanctification or the marks of grace enable us to deduce that we are Christians, but they are not to be the basis of our assurance. When we come to die, what will give us most comfort? The memories of spiritual highlights which came and went, or the permanent standing that we have through the work of Jesus? Obviously, it is the Saviour. 

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Grace of God (Eph. 2:8)

The term ‘grace’ covers all of God’s dealings with his creatures. It is a very comprehensive term; sometimes it refers to his attitudes and other times it refers to his actions. Many definitions have been given of grace but they are inadequate because they only focus on one or two aspects of it.

God is gracious to unfallen creatures. It was God’s kindness that brought the angels into existence and his upholding grace that kept them from falling when Satan rebelled. God showed grace to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. There was grace in the covenant of works, because the blessing promised, that of eternal life, was more than Adam could have merited.

God is gracious to fallen mankind. He is gracious to them in his providence, by what is termed ‘common grace’ in which he gives good things to them to enjoy. And he is gracious to them in salvation, as we have been thinking about in our studies so far in Ephesians.

Grace involved each person of the Trinity (the election and adoption of the Father, the redemption and inheritance of the Son, and the sealing and earnest of the Spirit), is experienced in our Christian lives and meets our needs as sinners.

Grace will be shown to restored creatures for ever. There is an interesting use of an adjective in 2:7. If we look back to 1:7, forgiveness and redemption are the riches of God’s grace, whereas in 2:7 heaven is described as the ‘exceeding riches of his grace’. Is Paul indicating that the blessings we will experience in heaven are greater than those we received as sinners? The answer may be the distinction between our partial subjective experience now and our fuller subjective experience then. Imagine the difference between the experience of a slave leaving Egypt by God’s redeeming action and the experience of the same slave entering Canaan to enjoy God’s inheritance.

Friday, 7 September 2012

The love of God is revealed in his aims (Eph. 2:4-7)

I read recently about an incident involving Harry Ironside, who used to be the pastor of a church in Chicago. He was travelling on a train and during the journey a gypsy came along the aisle and offered to tell his fortune for a few cents. Ironside replied by saying that his past, present and future were already written down in a book and asked her if he could read it to her. He read from Ephesians 2, where verses 1-3 described his past, verses 4-6 his present, and verse 7 his future. And that is an obvious way to interpret the passage.

What a beautiful description Paul gives of God’s aims in verse 7: ‘That in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.’

The ‘ages to come’ refers to the eternal world. It is made up of age succeeding age, each one full of the riches of God’s grace. What can we say about the exceeding riches of his grace?

We can begin with the resurrection. Our bodies, which are sown in weakness and shame, will be raised in glory and power. Then there is the eternal kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world. We will stand and watch the appearance of the new heavens and new earth, and will sing for joy in celebration. In heaven we will be lead to the fountains of the waters of life, a picture of endless satisfaction.

It will all be given to us through Jesus Christ. The resurrection will occur at the voice of Jesus. We will enter heaven at the invitation of Jesus. We will be welcomed personally by Jesus to the eternal feast of joy. Jesus will lead us to the fountains of the waters of life.

Thinking about the love of God should affect us. We should be staggered by its contents. The love of God is so varied and rich. It is like a mighty ocean to which we come continually with our empty souls and find that the love never decreases.

We are stimulated to right living by it: ‘Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’ (1 John 3:16).

We are supported by it in life. It gives us security: ‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8:38-39)

We shall be satisfied with it in eternity. We shall swim in its depth, bathe in its streams, imbibe from its fountain, rejoice in its surprises and celebrate its permanence for ever.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

God’s love brings blessing (Eph 2:4-7)

Yesterday we noted that because of God’s love we receive new life, a new location or position and a new authority. 

In order to appreciate the aspects that Paul is highlighting here we need to see them against the background of the state of fallen man which he describes in verses 1-3 and which he summarises at the beginning of verse 5: ‘even when we were dead in trespasses.’ We were spiritually dead, we belonged to the world and we were under the power of the devil. Paul’s illustration answers each of these problems, as seen in the following lists:

            Our problem                          Our salvation                         Union to Christ
            Dead in sin                               New life                                    Resurrection
            Of the world                            New heavenly location                Ascension
            Defeated by devil                     Power in the heavenlies              Enthronement      
God dealt with our spiritual death by making us alive with Christ. The life that was displayed in the resurrection of Jesus was seen also in the regeneration of sinners. This new life is maintained within Christians by the indwelling Holy Spirit. 

God dealt with our belonging to this world by raising us to live in another world. When Paul refers to ‘raised us up together’ in verse 6, he is referring to Christ’s ascension, for he has already referred to his resurrection in verse 5. When we believed in Jesus, we became members of another kingdom, citizens of another world, of the world where Jesus lives. Although we have not been there, we do belong to heaven.

God dealt with the problem of Satanic influence by giving to his people authority in the heavenly places. It is important to note that it is the devil who attacks believers and not the other way round. Believers are urged to stand against and withstand the devil by Paul in Ephesians 6:13 and 14, words that indicate they face attack persistently.

There are many things we could say about these three aspects of salvation. But I will say one thing about each. The new life given to believers gives the possibility of growth and development. The new country in which believers live gives them a permanent identity. The new authority they have gives them a place of security.

This has all come to them because of the love of God. When a person senses he or she is loved, they can bask in its warmth and rejoice in its reality. Let us do this with what God’s love has given to us now.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

God’s love revealed (Eph. 2:4-7)

Paul writes that God’s love was revealed in his mercy. What is the mercy of God? It is an expression of God’s compassion, ‘a boundless, overwhelming immensity of divine pity and compassion,’ the attribute ‘which disposes God to be actively compassionate’ (A. W. Tozer).

God shows mercy to the undeserving, to those who can never merit it for themselves. His mercy was unexpected, because who would have imagined that a holy God would pardon sinners? But his mercy, while free to us, was costly to God because his own Son had to pay the penalty for the sins of his people.

The love of God is also revealed in his actions. Paul describes them in incredible terms. He says that believers are made alive together with Christ, that they are resurrected with Christ, and that they sit with Christ. What Paul is describing here is union with Jesus that is enjoyed by all believers in him. In order to appreciate what Paul says we should note two important aspects of this union.

The first aspect concerns positional union, and that is the doctrine that Jesus Christ was the representative of his people in every stage of his experience. Therefore, when he was raised from the dead and exalted to heaven, it was on their behalf as well as his own. Because it happened to him, it also happened to them.

The second aspect is personal union, which begins when a person believes in Jesus, and that is the aspect that is described here. At that moment, they receive new life, a new location or position and a new authority. We will say more about them tomorrow.