Summary of the Text
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
The letter itself: Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a general letter, probably intended for wider distribution and use among the various churches around Ephesus. As such, there is no particular crisis or pressing issue being dealt with; rather, the letter focuses on what God did through Jesus Christ and continues to do by the Holy Spirit to create and build God’s new society—the single new humanity of Jews and Gentiles reconciled to God and to one another. In short, Ephesians is a letter to the church about the church as it combines “Christian doctrine and Christian duty, Christian faith and Christian life, what God has done through Christ and what we must be and do in consequence.” John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 25.
The city of Ephesus: Ephesus was one of the greatest cities of the ancient world. Politically, it was the capital of the Roman province of Asia (modern-day western Turkey). Economically, it was rich and prosperous and the commercial center of the region. Religiously and spiritually, numerous gods and goddesses were worshiped; by far the most important was Artemis/Diana—the patron goddess of the city—who had a huge temple erected and dedicated to her. With a diverse and multiethnic population of at least 250,000 people, Ephesus was dubbed “the metropolis of Asia.” For this background, see C. E. Arnold, “Ephesus” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin, and D. G. Reid eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 249-250.
In keeping with his missionary strategy of focusing on major urban centers, Paul visited Ephesus briefly towards the end of his second missionary journey (Acts 18:19-21). He returned on his third missionary journey and stayed for around two years evangelizing the entire region with such effectiveness in both word and power that the widespread response to the gospel and people turning to the Lord became a threat to the Artemis cult (Acts 19:1-20ff.).
While every preacher’s context is different, given the many characteristics of ancient Ephesus and its inhabitants, preachers should be able to find relatively direct links to their modern context and the people they are preaching to.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
The bad news of the text: While the bulk of the passage lays out what God has done for us in Jesus Christ (vv. 4-7) and presents a grand summary of the gospel of grace (vv. 8-10), in order to receive and appreciate it as good news, we must hear it against the bad news of vv. 1-3. Paul does not shy away from confronting us about our fallen human condition and life without God.
The opening verses touch on our personal sin and brokenness (v. 1, “your transgressions and sins”; v. 3, “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts”), our collective sin and brokenness (v. 2, “you followed the ways of this world”), as well as Satan and the powers of evil (v. 2, “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient”). But in the end, the weight of the bad news in these verses falls on us—without God, we are dead (v. 1), we are enslaved (vv. 2-3), and we are condemned (v. 3). A life without God is a living death.
The good news of the text: The text turns in v. 4, “But … God ….” From the depths of the bad news of who we were/are without God, Paul takes us up to the heights of the good news of what God has done for us in Christ. The emphasis in vv. 4-7 is completely on God’s initiative and intervening grace shown in Christ. Here the concept of union is key: when we put our faith and trust in Jesus, we are mysteriously but really united with him so that what is true of Jesus becomes true for us. Just as Jesus died on the cross for our sins once and for all and God raised him from the dead, so “God … made us alive with Christ” (vv. 4-5). Just as Jesus ascended to God the Father in heaven, so “God raised us up with Christ” (v. 6a). Just as Jesus now sits at God’s right hand in the place of supreme honor and power, so God “seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (v. 6b). And while we are not yet in heaven with Christ, Paul writes in the past tense—so sure and certain is God’s promise and the power of the gospel to bring these things about; it is already-and-not-yet.
Grace: God did all this out of his love, mercy, and kindness (vv. 4, 7). In a word, it is “grace” (v. 5b, and v. 7, “the incomparable riches of his grace”)—God’s unmerited favor poured out on us in and through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s love, mercy, and kindness. He is God’s grace personified who did for us what we could never do for ourselves. Karl Barth termed God’s grace his great “nevertheless” (cf. v. 4, “But … God …”). Karl Barth in Ben Patterson, Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 86.
Saved from and saved for: The summary of the gospel of grace (vv. 8-10) contains both indicative and imperative, both God’s initiative and our human response, both what God in Christ has saved us from and what God in Christ has saved us for. The full gospel proclaims both that Christ has saved us from sin and death (vv. 8-9; cf. vv. 1-3) and that he has saved us for good works (v. 10). The vivid language of being “God’s handiwork [some translations, “workmanship, masterpiece”], created in Christ Jesus to do good works” implies that through faith in Christ, we have been made new and are now part of God’s new creation; and having been saved by grace, we are now on display so that through the good we do and the lives we live, others will see who God is and the grace God offers everyone in Christ.
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
Self-examination: With Lent being a season of preparation and self-examination, what sin and death in our hearts and lives does God call us to turn from? For both Christian and non-Christian hearers, what is “the bad news” within ourselves that must be seen, heard, and felt so that we grasp and marvel anew or for the first time “the good news” of grace and life with God?
Receive by faith: What Christ has done to bring us from death to life is “the gift of God” (v. 8). Like any gift, the appropriate response is to receive it simply, humbly, and gratefully. We receive God’s gift of grace “through faith” (v. 8)—by trusting Jesus and what he has done for us. Non-Christian hearers are invited to trust in Jesus for the first time, receive God’s grace, and begin a new life with God. Christian hearers are encouraged to keep trusting Jesus and receiving God’s love, mercy, and kindness as they continue along the lifelong path of discipleship and sanctification that involves confronting and putting to death our old ways of sin and death.
Doing good works: We do not do good works so that God will love and save us (vv. 8-9, “this is not from yourselves … not by works”). Rather, God loves and has saved us in Jesus, so now in response, out of joy and gratitude, we get to do good works and live in a way that honors him and helps those around us see him. Chapters 4-6 detail what these good works look like as part of “a life worthy of the calling” we have received (4:1) and provide many points of application (too many for one sermon!); but as a start, how can hearers display God’s love, mercy, and kindness in their relationships and to those around them?
No more boasting: Receiving God’s grace and continuing to ‘be gospeled’ (where the good news of God’s grace continues to sink ever deeper into our hearts and minds thereby becoming more and more the true center and motivation for the good works we do and the lives we live) ought both to humble and embolden us. On one hand, it humbles us because we know we are no better than anybody else for we too at one time were dead and lost without God; there is no room for boasting. On the other hand, it emboldens us because we know the greatness of God’s love and grace given to us in and through Christ, that we now belong to him and not even death can separate us from his love; and a great confidence and security flows from this. Humility combined with boldness makes for a winsomeness in our Christian witness.
Gabe Fung serves as lead pastor of Spectrum Church Irvine [spectrumchurchirvine.org] in Irvine, Calif.
Gabe was born in England and grew up in Hong Kong. He previously served as a missionary in Australia with Youth With A Mission, and as a pastor with churches in Westminster and Irvine, Calif. He has a BA from Seattle Pacific University, and MDiv and DMin degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary. His central focus in ministry is helping people trust and follow Jesus in all of life and equipping them to help others do the same. Gabe is married to Maribeth and they have two children, Matthew and Amy.
Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic is one big rescue operation. Few films more powerfully capture the cost of salvation. Many characters die, and much blood is split [sic], all so that one (seemingly unimportant and undeserving) private (Matt Damon) can be saved. Private Ryan himself can’t understand it. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he says when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad find him and announce their mission to take him out of harm’s way.
“Why do I deserve to go? Why not any of these guys? They all fought just as hard as me.” Indeed, one cannot understand unconditional election; one simply receives it with gratitude. At the film’s climax when a dying Miller uses his last words to tell Ryan, “Earn this,” we rejoice that these were not the final words of Christ on the cross. We know what Private Ryan doubtless knew as well, in that moment. We can never earn such amazing grace.