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Gifts of God
January 6, 2019

Gifts of God

Preacher:
Passage: Ephesians 1:1-14
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From now until the end of February we will be exploring Paul's letter to the Ephesians. So far in my time here, we've sped through Matthew's gospel, Ecclesiastes, and Exodus. I wanted to round things out with a scriptural series through a New Testament letter and found Ephesians particularly compelling, do-able in terms of length, and timely. Before we dive into Ephesians, I want to give you some background information so you know what's going on in this letter.

First, Ephesians gets its name from the fact that it was allegedly written to Christians living in Ephesus, a city in Asia Minor, modern Turkey.[1] Ephesus is also very close to smaller town called Colossae, which receives its own letter from Paul in the book we call Colossians. Remember that for later. Founded as a Greek colony about a thousand years before Christ, in Paul's day Ephesus was a major city and the capital of its Roman province. Ephesus was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Great Temple of Artemis.[2] And in the Book of Acts, chapter 19, we see the Apostle Paul spend over two years in Ephesus preaching, doing miracles, and baptizing new believers. Paul even sparks a riot in Ephesus! Suffice to say, Ephesus was a major city in this era, and the Christian Ephesians knew Paul well.

The second background information you need is about the ongoing debates over who actually wrote this book of scripture. Nowadays we're all about trademarks and copyrights: we want the credit. But in ancient Greece, it was common for people to write books in the name of their teacher, like a student of Aristotle writing a book and claiming Aristotle wrote it himself. So with many ancient texts, there's debate over who actually wrote them, because many writers wanted to give their school's founding teacher the glory and fame rather than hoard credit for themselves. Much of these debates get into the minutiae of ancient Greek grammar, writing style, etc. which I won't get into for time's sake. But all that to say, there is debate whether Ephesians was written by Paul himself or by one of Paul's students.

Both sides agree that Ephesians is very similar in content and structure to Paul's letter to the Colossians, that small town near Ephesus. The pro-Pauline authorship group sees this as proof Paul wrote Ephesians, since it's similar to his writing in Colossians. The anti-Paul group sees the reverse, since why would Paul repeat himself in two letters to the same area? The anti-Paul thinkers do rightly point out that Ephesians is pretty odd. Many of Paul's letters deal directly with local crises or false teachings in those cities. But Ephesians doesn't talk about any specific good or bad events. And Paul often gives special hellos to old friends in his letters. And we know he spent years preaching in Ephesus. So it's weird for Paul to not name-drop any local Ephesians.

However, I personally believe Paul wrote this letter. The earliest manuscripts we have of Ephesians, from around 200 AD, don't include the phrase “in Ephesus” but instead are addressed to “the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus.” This suggests the letter wasn't only written for the Christians in Ephesus but rather was made as a “circular letter,” meant to be circulated across a wide swath of cities, not just one small area. So if we go off the oldest copies we have available for this scripture, here's what I think happened and why I believe Paul is indeed the author of this letter. While imprisoned in Rome, Paul writes a letter to the Colossians to address their specific needs... realizes “Hey, this is pretty good”... and then drafts this letter we now call 'Ephesians' to go out to Christians across Asia Minor... keeping the same structure and ideas in both letters but deleting the local stuff that wouldn't be relevant outside Colossae.

If we take this letter as a region-wide broadcast of Paul's teachings to Christians living all over the area, then it explains why this letter is so generic and basic. Ephesians mostly reviews Christian ideas in general and doesn't get into local quirks or individual lessons. This makes sense for an all-purpose, wide-distribution letter. Second, this also makes greater sense of the structure of Ephesians, for the letter exists in two halves. The first three chapters are all about our salvation through Jesus Christ. And the second three chapters are all about how we Christians live in response to that. That's why my series title is “Living the Gospel,” because Ephesians talks 1) all about the gospel... and 2) how we are to live because of the gospel. Now if Paul were writing to people he'd taught for years, they'd know this already, and he would instead get more specific. But if Paul were writing to Christians all over a big region, not knowing how much or little they knew already, it makes sense to review the basics of salvation and Christian living.

So that's your background information. What is Paul actually saying here? Today's scripture features Paul's initial greeting in verses 1 to 2 and then immediately enters into a prayer stretching from verses 3 to 14. And this prayer... is rich with imagery over how our salvation is won through Jesus Christ. Different preachers will favor certain descriptions of what salvation is like depending on their theology or style. But here Paul uses almost all of them, as if to say “salvation is all this and more.” So what does God do for us in Jesus Christ? Here's my list of Paul's answers in today's scripture: 1) we are destined by God to be made holy, 2) we are adopted as God's children, 3) we are ransomed through Christ's blood on the cross, 4) our sins are forgiven, 5) God's grace is lavished upon us, 6) the mysteries of God's will are made known to us, so we can live rightly and wisely, 7) God gathers up and unites all things in himself, 8) we receive a divine inheritance, 9) we are given hope, 10) we are given the Holy Spirit as a seal of God's promises, and 11) whether Jews or Gentiles, we are all now counted as God's own people. All of these are ways we can and must understand the work of Jesus on the cross. We may have favorites in this list, but Paul himself uses them all together, for the work of Jesus is great indeed.

So if that list is too much to take in, what are some shared traits across all of them, some central ideas we can glean even as we admit the unique power and reality of each image? First and foremost, salvation, atonement—whatever you want to call the thing Paul talks about here—it changes our status before God and the world. We were dead in sin, made alive in Jesus. We were enemies of God, now drawn close as God's own people. We were prisoners of the devil, ransomed free by Christ's blood. We were ignorant, but now we know the mysteries of God. Whichever image of Paul's you favor, all of them are about God changing our lives. The gospel isn't just a mental, inward thing: the gospel is about God entering into our human lives in all their messiness, evil, shame, and struggle... and changing us for the better. Second, all of these images portray salvation as a gift we receive. Paul calls it an “inheritance.” You do not earn inheritance but rather receive it from another's hard work. Or Paul says we were destined for salvation, as in we didn't decide to be saved but rather God decided to save us. Or Paul just broadly says it's from God. So salvation changes our status before God... and it's something God gives freely.

Thirdly, Paul puts Jesus Christ at the heart of this spiritual transformation. In every instance, it's always “in Christ” or “through Christ” that we receive the gift he's describing here. Either Christ is the channel by which we receive salvation, or salvation is within Jesus and we get it by getting him. Regardless, Jesus is at the core of salvation. Fourthly, salvation goes everywhere! Salvation is local and global; me alone and us all together; heaven above and all the earth; past, present, and future. The work of Jesus Christ may occur at one point of history on one specific cross centuries ago, but its impact radiates outward to change everything in the cosmos, including you and me in our ordinary lives. Fifth, while Jesus Christ is at the heart of salvation, every Person of the Trinity is involved: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all work together for our redemption. The completeness of God works towards our salvation.

So to smash together all those common traits of Paul's images that I found here—and I'm probably missing a few, so don't feel limited by what I offer here—and we get: “Salvation changes us and our relationship with God, is freely given to us by God, is given to us through Jesus Christ, effects everything that ever existed or will exist (including me personally and uniquely!), and involves the full Trinity—the entirety of God's being—working together towards our salvation.” Paul gives image after image all explaining salvation to offer a wide-angle view of what all Jesus Christ did for us on the cross. In chapter two, Paul will give us a close-up shot exploring two specific ways of understanding our salvation. But here today... I think it wise to end simply basking in the wideness of God's mercy. Because just as the work of Jesus Christ is too great to be summed up in just one image for Paul, God's salvation of my own little life is too great to sum up just one way. God forgives me my failures to love others. God gives me the Holy Spirit to make up for my weakness as a leader. When I feel alone, our Heavenly Father calls me a beloved son. When old sins still have me chained, Christ's blood ransoms me from the devil. When I lose my way in life, God shines light upon the mystery of His will, that I might walk the narrow path of grace. When I feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world, as if there is no hope anymore, God reminds me salvation is an inheritance I receive, not a treasure I build myself. When I miss deceased loved ones, God sets my hope on Christ who rose from the grave.

Paul uses a lot of different images for understanding what exactly Jesus Christ did. But then again, we ourselves have lots of different things in life from which we need saving. But across all things, as Paul teaches here, I find this to be true: “God gifts us a changed and new relationship with Himself, something we didn't earn, something that radiates out to alter our relationship to the entire cosmos, something that we receive through this person Jesus whom we can personally know, something that we can confidently rely in because we know that all of God stands behind it.” And as we'll see in this Ephesians series, this changed relationship with God... changes everything. Amen.

[1] Map of Ephesus and Asia Minor

[2] Small-scale model reimagining of what the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus might have looked like

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