Archive for September, 2010

The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (Part 12 of 155)

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Ephesians 1.14: …this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
Our previous verse was about the Holy Spirit, who comes to dwell in us when we believe in Jesus. One thing I didn’t talk about was the use of the word “seal,” which seems to become important here. In this whole sentence (Ephesians 1.13-14), the Holy Spirit is being thought of as a gift who also proves to us the grace and promises of God. To be sealed with something is to be officially marked; here Paul is telling us that to have the Holy Spirit dwell in us is to be marked as a member of God’s people.

He calls it a “pledge of our inheritance toward redemption”; so here we are seeing very concretely the present and future aspects of God’s promises towards us. Here I think “pledge” is to be thought of as being a foretaste, a little (but genuine) bit what is to come, which also gives us assurance and knowledge of the reality that is promised. We experience the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, his ability to renew our hearts and give us hope in Christ, and we then trust that God will see us through to the finish, to the new heavens and the new earth.

This raises an issue for me that I’m sure I’m not alone in. Oftentimes Christians wonder: do I really have the Holy Spirit in me? I don’t feel him. While it’s certainly true that the Holy Spirit worked great wonders in the early Church (prophesies, tongues, and miracles), and still works wonders today, we should never associate his activity solely with a certain sort of feeling, or otherwise tangible experience or emotional state. This sells him way short–remember that this is God we are talking about. Drugs can give us feelings; the Holy Spirit does things on a much more subtle and deep level. This doesn’t mean that he won’t influence our emotions–even powerfully so, at times. But he cannot be marked out by an emotion, and the lack of emotions does not signal that he is not present or that he has left.

I am speaking for myself here. I know there are people for whom the presence of God is so tangible that it fills them with great joy and marks their character constantly with the peace and presence of Christ. I am not denying this reality, and I even think I have met some such people (and, to be honest, I envy them). I only mean to say that this is not the experience of us all, and it does not mean that we are without God. We can learn a lot from such people; one thing we should not learn is the despairing falsehood that we have to have an experience like theirs in order to be faithful to God.

The Holy Spirit may not always be felt but he is always near. He whispers the truth to our consciences and he gives us courage and faith. This is “to the praise of God’s glory.” This may also be puzzling, because often it seems that God is not so glorified in this world. But, I believe that both of these issues–the apparent absence of God in our experience and in the world as a whole–have a common root. What I’d like to suggest is that God is accomplishing a work on such a grand scale, and through such close means, that we almost miss it. I hope I can get across what I mean by this. We often hope and pray that God will bring an end to visible evils such as disease and war; and we should continue to pray such things, because it does, indeed, make all the difference in the world (believe it or not). But the main work God is accomplishing is the collective redemption of individual human hearts.

We have to see his grand scale action–his entire plan, individual and collective–from the proper perspective, knowing that what needs to happen for the ourselves to be truly healed and for the world to truly be healed is, really, beyond our grasp. The Holy Spirit is drawing a people to himself, enabling them to love him, and through him love their neighbors. This is the Kingdom of God, being brought to earth in history, and it does not always look like we expect. We want, for instance, for him to destroy every temptation and inclination to sin in our hearts, but he does not. We still have many failures. Likewise, we want him to come and visibly crush the oppressor now, to put an end to all the visible evil we see. But:

and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. (Isaiah 11.4)

It is the word of Christ, and not his sword, that will put an end to wickedness, at least in this age.

Next time, we will pause to reflect a bit on what we have read so far; it seems a good place to do so.

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The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (Part 11 of 155)

September 26, 2010 1 comment

Ephesians 1.13: In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;…

The previous verse was about those who first hoped in Christ, how their purpose was to live to praise his glory. It is not clear exactly who these people are, but I think we can basically identify them with the first people who preached Christ. Paul considers himself a member of such a group, and we see that he now moves to address his audience, the Ephesians, who are among those who came to believe in Jesus through the praise and preaching of the original believers.

This verse describes a remarkable process that takes place in a person when they come to believe. Let us consider the order of events. One hears “the word of truth.” This is a preaching of the reality of who God is and what he has done in Christ. It is the gospel of our salvation, the good news of how a human being, and humanity, is redeemed. As we have seen already, it is a different story from the other stories that we hear so often about what matters in life, about what we really need, and about what salvation is, and how one attains it. It is a story founded on the grace of God.

It is the story of how we have nothing to offer God, but God in his love has everything to offer us, how this God became a man and took up into himself everything about what that means. This man, Jesus, experienced our joys, but also our sorrows; this man bore all of our temptations, our sins, our sufferings. This man died, and this man rose again, and has made a way for us to be united to God.

This strange story is the truth about our world, about our lives. When a person comes to believe it, and believe in Him who the story is about, he or she is “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is God himself, the love of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father. When we believe in Jesus, his spirit dwells in us like we are a temple of God, because that is what we are. In the later Old Testament times, the most intimate contact that God had with humanity was through his temple, where his presence would dwell in a special way. Even within the temple, there were different levels of God’s presence: there were the outer courts, the sanctuary, the Holy place, and the Most Holy place, where the Ark of the Covenant was placed. There was a veil covering this, and only once a year could the high priest enter in.

But now the veil of the temple has been torn in two because of the work of Jesus Christ, our great high priest:

50And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.  51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. (Matthew 27.50-51)

The most Holy Place is no longer in the temple but is now in a person. The high priest now no longer enters the temple once a year, but enters our hearts once and for all when we trust in him. Think about all that it means for a place to be Holy, a place to be set apart for God to dwell in, to be the center of his activity and the foundation of his presence in the world, the center from which his love radiates to fill all of creation. And then realize that this is what is meant for our hearts when we believe in Jesus. God lives in us, individually and communally. Humanity is the most appropriate dwelling place for God in all of creation, it is the center of his activity. The living, active, creative love of God the Father is remaking our hearts in the image of his Son.

This does not mean that we are perfect now but rather that we are now the center in which his work is taking place. This is an awesome and scary responsibility! But it is God’s doing and his grace is with us in the process. The Holy Spirit lives in us, reveals to us our sin, and teaches us the truth both about what a human being should be and about what God is like–teaches us how to love our neighbor and how to worship. Our characters and lives are being shaped by Christ to reflect Christ, and this is how God is redeeming the world, bringing his kingdom, his rule on all the earth.

Next verse (I will stop saying “tomorrow” since I may not keep up such a pace! I will try, however):

1.14: …this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

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The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (Part 10 of 155)

September 24, 2010 1 comment

Ephesians 1.12: …so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

Yesterday’s verse was about our inheritance in Christ, how we have been destined for the kingdom of God. I interpreted this as a future claim, though some comments have caused me to begin to doubt this. Perhaps our inheritance is also to be considered as something already received. In any case, this verse tells us one of the purposes of this inheritance: that those who were the first to set their hope on Christ might live for the praise of his glory.

Looking ahead to the next verse, there is a shift in subject (Paul says “you also…”), which seems to indicate that the “we” in this verse is referring to some special subset of people. I think that Paul is distinguishing between the first disciples of Christ (apostles and others), who preached the good news and established churches, and those who have come to believe through them–the “we” is “the first to set our hope on Christ.”  I do not see, however, this distinguishing as creating any sort lack in the blessings that have been promised to the latter. Perhaps only that there is a special joy for those who first came to know the mystery of God’s plan, as we have talked about before.

For such people, then, the initial joy of discovering God’s wonderful plan in Christ–the forgiveness of sins, the new life, and the redemption of the world–grows into the desire to live in order to proclaim, in word and deed, the wonderful glory of God in this plan, and so participate in the plan.

But is this something that was only meant for the first believers? I don’t think so. Rather, I think we see here what is a repeating, blossoming process in Christianity, where people hear the good news of God’s Son from others, and then come to believe themselves, then begin to be restored, and eventually become those who bring the good news to others, through the praise of God’s glory that comes from the hope they have that grew out of their faith. And so the mustard seed of the gospel grows in the world.

How do we live to praise the glory of God? Obviously this is a big question. Ideally, we do so in every aspect of our lives. But I think it is important not to make this artificial, as I have done so many times in my attempts to be holy. I heard a preacher say once something to the effect of “even when I drink orange juice, I should do so to the glory of God.” I feel like, while it is possible to drink orange juice to the glory of God, if one tries to drink orange juice to the glory of God, he is inevitably going to fail. Rather, I tend to think that this should be spontaneous, and flow from a genuine awareness and appreciation of God in all things, including simple pleasures like orange juice.

Though I am conflicted now, because there is something to be said of doing something that seems artificial until it becomes natural. I may pray a prayer of thanks for my food each meal, which I don’t really believe in my heart comes from the Almighty, but if I keep doing this, and have real faith in general as I do it, eventually God will help me to pray that prayer sincerely. I have come to think, recently, that I can sometimes turn sincerity itself into an idol, obsessing over only doing something if I mean it; really this should not be the criterion for what I do or don’t do.

Tomorrow’s verse:

1.13: In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.

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The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (Part 9 of 155)

September 23, 2010 3 comments

Ephesians 1.11: In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will…
Our previous verse (not yesterday, but two days ago, since I took yesterday off) was about God’s plan and how he has, in his wisdom, made it known to us. Paul rejoices not only in the greatness and beauty of God plan, but in his decision to reveal it in the way that he did, at the time that he did. Today we hear about how we’ve “obtained an inheritance.”

What does this mean? We think today of an inheritance as something that we receive when someone else, usually a relative of ours, dies. Clearly that is not quite what is meant here, but the concept is similar: something has been stored away for us so that, at an appointed time, we may receive it. In the next clause, Paul explains why we may think of it like this, via the somewhat lengthy label for God as “him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.” Paul seems to want to emphasize yet again the sureness of what God is doing. We can be confident about our inheritance because, well, it has been promised by God, and there is no surer guarantee of a promise than the One who is in total control of the whole universe and history.

I notice now that Paul uses the word “also” in talking about our inheritance. I’m not sure what to make of this because, to be honest, I felt initially like this verse is not saying anything new, anything that wasn’t contained in the previous verses. But clearly Paul considers this to be an additional point he is making. I think that this may tell us something. In my eagerness, I’ve already been reading “heaven” into all that Paul is saying, but maybe he wasn’t so explicit about that. Looking back at all that has come so far, he has talked about the greatness of being adopted as God’s children, and of having our sins forgiven, of having been redeemed, of being blessed with every spiritual blessing. This can all be taken as present tense!

It is humbling, then, to realize right now what we have already been given. And this is part of the point. Part of how the gospel restores us is through the indestructible hope it gives us. It sets us free to love our neighbor in truth when we know both what we have already and what we are promised. The blessings of the present and of the future are inextricably linked to each other in God’s wonderful plan for redemption. We don’t need to set our hope on this life only (which really leads to despair). But we also do have freedom in this life to live–though imperfectly–as God means for a human being to actually live, knowing that we are already God’s children, and are coming to live more and more in this reality. By knowing God’s ultimate plan for us, an unending love, now and forever, we can lose our lives to gain them, and “live for the praise of his glory,” as tomorrow’s verse tells us. Let us mediate on that today.

Next verse:

1.12: …so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

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The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (Part 8 of 155)

September 21, 2010 1 comment

Ephesians 1.8b-1.10: With all wisdom and insight he 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.

Yesterday’s verse told us of the central and foundational truth that we have forgiveness of our trespasses through the death of Jesus Christ. Today, Paul has moved to praising God’s plan. In order to see the whole sentence at once, I thought it would make sense to go beyond the usual format; we were already half of a verse ahead, and so after today we will find ourselves 2 verses ahead. This is OK, as it will give us time for reflection later on (I still intend to hold to the promised number of parts to this series).

Anyway, I find this to be a difficult sentence, partly because it doesn’t seem to stand so well alone. I noticed that, if you look at verse 8, in this translation (NRSV), it is actually one sentence and the beginning of another. There seems to be disagreement among translations where the sentence breaks should be in this opening chapter, and I think that I heard somewhere that this is because, in the original Greek, there were no sentence breaks for a large section of the first part of this chapter. A quick google search has confirmed this for me (verses 3-14). In other words, much of this we have been looking at is all part of one long and sustained thought that Paul is having, and our translators have broken it up into smaller pieces, in order to fit better with the natural way we read and write English.

I suppose “the mystery of his will” that God has made known to us can be taken to be all that Paul has already described: God glorious grace in adopting us as his children, and in the forgiveness of our trespasses that we have through Jesus. When he says, “with all wisdom and insight,” Paul is either praising the wisdom and insight that God has in this plan itself, or that he has in making it known to us. Other translations attach this clause to the end of the previous sentence, so that the wisdom and insight is in lavishing his grace on us. Or perhaps I am trying to hard to find the object that this clause modifies; really God has wisdom and insight with respect to everything we have been talking about.

Anyway, he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to, again, his good pleasure. We must think of God as being joyful in revealing finally the heart of this beautiful mystery, the centerpiece of his plan, his incarnate Son and what he has done for us–things into which “angels long to look.” I’m reminded also of Christ telling people that many wise men and prophets longed to see what they were seeing, but did not.

The plan is for the fullness of time. I love this phrase. While we can barely imagine the future, and quickly forget what has gone before us, God’s plan takes everything into account, the fullness of time, the whole of history. As time fills out, the wisdom of God is revealed. He sees time all as a whole; it is practically unimaginable to us how God sees the whole story of our world. One of the reasons, though, I think that the bible even exists is to give us something of overview of this. It is the only document in the world where the background, guiding point of view for the whole project, so to speak, is actually God’s point of view, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

We are told that the plan is to “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” This is a key aspect of Paul’s understanding of God’s work in Christ: it is bringing together heaven and earth. The work of Christ is to unite God’s realm, heaven, to man’s realm, earth. This is quite a comprehensive task! He is swooping down, drawing us up, reordering the creation so that it finally fulfills its purpose, for us and for all that he has made.

This fits well with all that Paul has already been describing. Recall how we have been “blessed with every spiritual blessing.” For the first time, human beings have, through the work of Christ, access to God, and the power of his Kingdom, like never before. We have been drawn closer to heaven, because we are united to Christ who is seated at the right hand of the Father. And through this, the power of the Kingdom of God is being brought to all of creation, and so the salvation of the world is being realized.

Tomorrow’s verse:

1.11: In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will…

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The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (Part 7 of 155)

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Ephesians 1.7-1.8a: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

In yesterday’s verse, and the previous day’s, Paul talked about how we have been adopted as God’s children, a grace which was prepared for us before the world was ever begun, and which has been freely given to us in God’s beloved Son, Jesus. Today’s verse tells us about the foundational truth of Christianity that is a consequence of our unity with Jesus as such children of God: “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses…”

Because of the death of God’s innocent Son, us guilty sinners are free, are redeemed and forgiven. So finally we have gotten to the source of it all, the ultimate act of God himself on our behalf, which is becoming a man and suffering and dying for us (and being raised–but this is not the focus yet). Without this, all the grace and love we might talk about are just concepts, ideas about how God acts towards us, rather than a realities we can see, truths we can know by faith about what our world is really like, what our God is really like. With this, we know the riches of his grace, its comprehensiveness and depth, as well as its closeness, how he lavished it upon us, becoming as close to us as he could ever be, in being one of us and taking on all that we cannot ourselves handle.

We live in a moral universe, which only means what we all believe deep down to be true: that there is an ultimate accounting for the things we have done, and that God will “put the world to rights” in the end. If we think there will not be justice somehow in the end, we are fooling ourselves. Sometimes it scares me, and saddens me, to think about how so many apparently do not believe this, or only believe it about others and do not seem to see its ramifications for themselves. Because we do not see justice now, we assume it will not take place ever–we sell God short in terms of the story we think he’s capable of writing for our world.

The first thing a Christian learns is that justice, for the individual, is to be feared rather than desired, for we all come up short. Our self-righteousness dissolves as we realize we are no better than they, “those people,” who had treated us so unfairly. We have nothing to stand on; only ourselves to offer.

But the beautiful truth of this passage is that, in Christ, we have been forgiven by God. The wicked things we have done are no longer on us now–he took on the consequences. It is mind-boggling, how this one event has been tied to so many other events. When I walk out the door and face the world (and even before this), I will have thoughts, I will say things, I will do things that need to be forgiven by God. But I can be assured that these sad events are all wrapped together, bundled together and linked to this central sad event in history, linked to the sufferings of this central person in history, who is now, by grace, my redeemer and friend, and the absolute center of my existence, the point of it all.

Tomorrow’s verse is as follows:

1.8b-1.9: With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ…

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The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (Part 6 of 155)

September 19, 2010 1 comment

Ephesians 1.6:…to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

Today’s verse concludes the sentence of yesterday’s verse, which told us how God has destined us for adoption as his children, through Jesus; he did so freely because he wanted to. This verse expands on this more. The “to the praise of…” is in reference to this adoption of us as his children.

As we’ve already seen, these opening words of Ephesians are a lot about grace. I was going to write that this verse shows us now one of the reasons that God made us his own by adopting us as children through Christ: that he did so in order to bring praise to his glorious grace. And yet now I hesitate in saying this, because I feel that something isn’t quite right about this way of seeing it. It seems to me out of tune with the character of God that he would do something so that he might be praised, simply to “put his attributes on display,” so to speak.

So maybe this is too rationalistic a way of looking at it. “To the praise of” doesn’t necessarily mean “in order to be praised.” Paul may not be telling us in the clause exactly why God did what he did, but only that he ought to be praised for it, or that he will be praised for it–by men and angels for all eternity–which is certainly true.

Anyway, the grace is certainly real. Glorious grace. God has given us what we couldn’t earn and what we don’t deserve. It occurs to me that I’ve heard so much about grace over the years that it is hard to say anything about it that doesn’t sound a little trite to me. But grace should never sound like that.

We can become bored with grace only if we hear it as a word and an idea rather than as an awesome reality that flows from the love of God. So one thing I think that should be stressed about grace is how deeply tied it is to the love of God, and to Jesus Christ. In this verse, this is done simultaneously as the source of grace is simultaneously identified as the supreme object of God’s love: “the Beloved,” which here must mean Jesus.

Tomorrow’s verse:

1.7: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…

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