Summary of the Text
What is the meaning of life? Why is it that we exist? Or to put it in the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “what is the meaning of life?” If you ask Google, which I did, various answers come up. Wikipedia has quite the interesting collection of responses to this question, starting with the Greek philosophical tradition, but also including scientific attempts to answer the question. The next “hit” on google comes from a Psychology Today article from 2018. They answer the question in a typical modernist way: you have to decide what the meaning of life is for yourself.
The Christian tradition gives us a different picture altogether. To begin with, It isn’t something we decide for ourselves. The Westminster Confession of 1647 says that “the chief end of [hu]man[ity] is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But before the Westminster “Divines” made such a statement, Paul, in this letter said something similar. In verses 5,6, & 10, he says, God “predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will to the praise of his glorious grace…he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ.”
In other words, God has revealed his purposes to us, that we who have been called by God exist to praise and worship him. The beauty of the Christian faith is that we don’t have to make up “our truth” for ourselves because the truth has already been revealed to us in scripture by the triune God. The meaning and purpose of life are given form by God himself, who in Christ shows us what the fullness of life might look like. This life is empowered by the Holy Spirit, who continues to bind us to the Father and Son, emboldening us to faithfully serve God.
But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. There is much more to this passage that is worthy of our consideration, starting in the greeting, building up through the description of God’s economy (oikonomia) of salvation through the redemptive work of Christ, who invites us into participation with God as we live out the mystery of God’s will-as the “praise of his glory” (vs.12)
The Greeting: God is the Subject: Paul begins our text by taking the customary Greco-Roman greeting found at the beginning of the letter and transforming it into an opportunity to praise God in superlative fashion, the one “who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (vs.3) Paul describes the gift of salvation as “every spiritual blessing in Christ.” In other words, Christ’s salvation is complete, there is no adding to what has already taken place. Our call is to take hold of this blessing by living into our identity as God’s children.
The Subject at Hand: God’s Salvation “In Christ”: Throughout Paul’s letters we find hints of what is to come in these greetings, which usually tackle specific issues or concerns in the life of the community to whom he is writing. This letter is similar in that we find the major themes of Ephesians in this text, but it is also different in that the letter does not send a specific greeting to leaders in the church. This is one of the reasons scholars do not believe this was meant to be read specifically, or at the very least, uniquely, to the Ephesian Church. Rather, it is a circular letter, meant to be read throughout the network of the early Chrisitan communities and stands as an opportunity for Paul to teach something of the nature of Christ’s sacrifice and the salvation that is wrought “in Christ,” a phrase Paul will use over and over again in Ephesians. As Pheme Perkins notes in the New Interpreter’s Commentary on Ephesians,
The NRSV has created sentences that focus our attention on the benefits of salvation received in Christ: God blessed us in Christ (vv. 3–4) and destined us for adoption in Christ (vv. 5–6); redemption is through the blood of Christ (vv. 7–8a); knowledge of God’s will unites all things in Christ (vv. 8b–10); we are destined to praise God in Christ (vv. 11–12), and Gentiles (“you”) are included in this inheritance through preaching the gospel (vv. 13–14). (Emphasis Mine)
The focus throughout this passage is the saving work of Christ that then invites us (or perhaps stronger language should be used here, which ushers us) into God’s family, his oikonomia of faith.
Chosen by God: The first spiritual blessing Paul describes is being chosen “before the creation of the world.” The obvious language of election here may make some uncomfortable, but I (Stu) would argue that Paul here describes our chosenness not as some deterministic straightjacket, but as one of the key gifts of putting our faith in Christ.
Every single human being wants to be chosen, to experience a sense of belonging. From our first playground football game to our first romance, there is something exceedingly fulfilling in being chosen. And, for the God of the universe to choose us should be one of our greatest joys and comforts in this world.
Chosen for a Purpose: There is a purpose to being chosen. It is not merely to make us feel good, but to be “holy and blameless in his sight”. In other words, we have been set apart as God’s people. Our lives ought to reflect our identity as those chosen by God.
There is one other aspect I think in which this verse can be a comfort in a Christian’s life, and it has to do with our identity as Christians when we make mistakes, when we give in to temptation and we feel undeserving and unworthy of God’s love. When those moments come, being able to stand on the promise that God chose us before the world was even formed should encourage and fortify us in our faith that God did not make a mistake by choosing us, and that his grace is truly sufficient to cover us when we fall.
Adoption as a Grace: In verse 5, Paul tells us God “predestined us for adoption.” (NIV) The Greek word used here is proorisas, which literally means “marked out beforehand.” It is, as Francis Foulkes describes in the Tyndale Commentary on Ephesians, “simply another word that expresses the fact that God’s plan for his people is from eternity.” And adoption, Foulkes comments, “is the best way to describe this (cf. Rom. 8:15, 23; Gal. 4:5), because adopted children have their position by grace and not by right, and yet are brought into the family on the same footing as children by birth.” All of this is done “to the praise of his glorious grace.” (vs.6, NIV) In other words, so that we might live out our lives in worshipful gratitude for all these blessings.
A Slave’s Release: In verse 7, Paul describes our salvation through “redemption” language. While we may be used to this way of talking about salvation, it should be noted that this is language that would have been used to describe a slave being freed from formal bondage. Again, Foulkes is helpful here: “The fundamental idea of redemption is that of the setting free of a thing or a person that has come to belong to another.” Through the fall into sin we have become enslaved to the various idols of this world. Calvin’s famous line, that “the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols” is helpful here.
A Part of the Mystery Revealed: And this brings us back to the beginning of our guide, what is the meaning of life? “That we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” (vs.12) God reveals part of the mystery of his plan of salvation, which is meant to bring unity, not just to one church, or one denomination, or even the church for that matter, but to “all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (vs.10) All of this is made possible by the Holy Spirit, who acts as a seal, or a deposit of our inheritance in Christ. Andrew Lincoln, in the Word Biblical Commentary provides helpful background on what a “seal” meant in a Jewish context:
When they believed, the readers of this epistle were sealed with the Spirit. Cattle and slaves were branded with their owner’s seal, and so the seal was a mark of ownership and of preservation as the owner’s property. In the OT God can be said to set a sign on his elect to distinguish them as his own and protect them from destruction (cf Ezek 9:4–6)…So believers’ reception of the Spirit is the sign that they belong to God in a special sense and have been stamped with the character of their owner (emphasis mine)They belong to him now, but they are also protected until he takes complete possession of them (emphasis mine) (cf v 14).
In conclusion, this is an exceptionally rich, if at times theologically dense passage. There is so much to unpack, it could easily be a sermon series in and of itself. But if we focus on the riches, the inheritance that we are given in Christ, through the redemption of his blood, as we are adopted into the household of faith and sealed by the Holy Spirit himself until Christ returns, well, we’ll be on the right track.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
If anybody understands God’s ardor for his children, it’s someone who has rescued an orphan from despair, for that is what God has done for us. God has adopted you. God sought you, found you, signed the papers and took you home.
Struggling to Feel Chosen
Commenting on Ephesians 1:3-6, M. Robert Mulholland describes just how powerful it can be personally, when we recognize that we were chosen by God, especially for children who are the result of an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy:
I once heard a woman tell of her struggle with this reality [of being an unwanted child]. Her mother was a prostitute, and she was the accidental byproduct of her mother’s occupation.
Although her life’s pilgrimage had brought her to faith in Christ, blessed her with a deeply Christian husband and beautiful children, and given her a life of love and stability, she was obsessed with the need to find out who her father was. This obsession was affecting her marriage, her family and her life.
She told how one day she was standing at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes, with tears of anguish and frustration running down her face into the dishwater. In her agony, she cried out, “Oh, God, who is my father?” Then, she said, she heard a voice saying to her, “I am your Father.”
The voice was so real she turned to see who had come into the kitchen, but there was no one there. Again the voice came, “I am your Father, and I have always been your Father.” In that moment she knew the profound reality that Paul is speaking of. She came to know that deeper than the accident of her conception was the eternal purpose of a loving God, who had spoken her forth into being before the foundation of the world.
Taken from: Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright (c) 2016 by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com