Past, Present, Future - Ephesians 2:1-10
For some reason we, as a nation, have a fascination with makeovers. There are a number of Australian home renovation shows on TV - The Block, House Rules, Better Homes and Gardens, Grand Designs Australia. You could perhaps include Lego Masters because the premise is the same - to turn a pile of bricks into something else.
And the number of shows available from the US and UK is huge - shows on buying, renovating then selling houses, cabins, houseboats or tiny homes.
But we’ve also had our share of body-renovation shows. Two such local varieties were The Biggest Loser (2006-2017) and Celebrity Overhaul (it aired in 2005 and 2006).
And there are a multitude of fitness and weight-loss organisations who are happy to remove pounds for dollars.
All of these programs have two things in common - firstly they trade on humanity’s desire for something different to what we have; secondly they demonstrate their success through showing before and after images.
We see Fran looking frumpy and frowning in the before shot; but we see her smiling and svelte in the after shot. We see Barry’s beer gut in the before but his six-pack abs in the after. The renovators delight condominium becomes a palatial penthouse. The run-down house in the suburbs becomes the best house on the best street - usually.
Paul and Ephesians
And that brings me to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In it Paul paints a picture of the before and after of the believer’s life as seen through the lens of God’s perspective.
Two weeks ago we began looking at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In those two weeks Mark has covered the first chapter of the letter.
So just a quick recap on where we are with Ephesians: The author identifies himself as Paul. He had been given the name Saul at birth and was a Jew. He was one of the religious elite and had undertaken years of religious apprenticeship. He had followed the Old Testament law to the letter as he understood it.
Saul had been converted or saved by Jesus in a dramatic event on the road to Damascus. He was travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus to hunt down Christians and take them back to Jerusalem to be imprisoned. As he was travelling a bright light flashed around him and a voice said ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ Saul asked who was speaking and the voice replied ‘I am Jesus’.
Saul, later renamed Paul thought he had been doing the right thing 100% but it was shown that he was 100% wrong. Saul thought that peoples claims about Jesus being raised from the dead were untrue so he pursued and imprisoned them. But meeting Jesus alive on the road to Damascus caused him to do a 180 degree turn.
Can you see we’ve got a bit of a before and after thing happening here?
Paul wrote about a third of what we call the New Testament - that part of the Bible written about Jesus and the early church. Many of Paul’s letters were written to churches or a person to address specific situations being faced by that church or person. In some cases Paul wrote to answer particular questions that had been posed to him.
This letter to the church in Ephesus was one that was to be forwarded on to the other churches around Ephesus which is in modern-day Turkey. It was something of the exception because it doesn’t seek to resolve specific questions or issues in any church.
Because of its general encompassing nature it has been called “the Queen of the epistles” and “the most comprehensive statement of the Christian religion”. It presents a holistic view of God’s purposes for this world, and the part we can play in that.
Recap Chapter 1
With those thoughts in mind let me summarise chapter 1 for the benefit of any who have been away over the past couple of weeks, for in many ways it sets the scene for the rest of the letter.
After Paul’s opening greeting in the first couple of verses, he launches into some of the greatest words one could ever hear in chapter 1 verses 3 and 4: I’ll be reading from the Christian Standard Bible.
Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ. For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him.
What a scene that sets! A blessed God who chooses to bless us with every spiritual blessing through Christ. Paul is painting a very broad picture of God’s purposes and our part in those plans.
When the Bible speaks of blessing, the Greek word is eulogētós (yoo-log-ay-tos) from which we get the word eulogy. A eulogy is where someone says nice things about someone else, but these days the person being spoken about is often dead. In a sense it is the same here because God spoke over us when we were spiritually dead and made life possible through the blood of Jesus!
But this blessing Paul writes of is not simply nice words spoken. Paul Kretzmann, a Lutheran pastor and teacher writing around the early part of the last century says:
We praise and bless God because He has blessed us, His blessings, however, not consisting in words of good, but in deeds of grace, not in a mere pious wish, but in a transmission of heavenly benefits.
Not only words of good, but deeds of grace. Not just a pious wish, but the transmission of heavenly benefits! That’s what we need - action not words.
And in the following 12 verses Paul describes some of those spiritual blessings
- He talks about being blessed.
- He talks about being chosen.
- He talks about being holy and blameless.
- He talks about being adopted and loved.
- He talks about being forgiven and redeemed.
- And he talks about being sealed by the Holy Spirit.
And that’s just in a dozen verses!
I was reading a book during the week that had nothing to do with Ephesians, but the author indicated he wrote the book not to “change you in someone you are not, but to help you see the person you already are in Jesus Christ” (The Ugly Couch). Ephesians is exactly the same! Paul is writing not to change us into someone we are not but to help us see who we are in Jesus by God’s design.
And last week Mark spoke of us “being blessed to be a blessing”. There are dual aspects to this because we are receiving the inheritance or the blessing, but also we are the inheritance or blessing. We receive so we can give.
The letter gives the recipients an understanding of the dimensions of God’s plan - some appreciation of the goals God has for His church. It’s about the broad and eternal purposes of God - fulfilled in Jesus and being worked out through us - today.
We need to hear, understand and live in the light and truth of what God says about us. Not what society says, not what the government says, not what our community says, not what our families say or don’t say, not what the voices inside us say - but only what our creator God says of us. His view of us is the only one that matters.
Our Past, Present and Future
But let us go on to the first part of chapter 2. If you’ve got a Bible handy please turn to Ephesians 2. Part of the reason for that is so you are seeing and reading the word of God; and partly so you can check up on me to ensure I treat the text appropriately. Today I’m intending to refer to the first 10 verses in Ephesians 2.
In many ways these 10 verses answer questions we may have about the when, how and why of the Christian faith. Paul describes when certain events occurred. He describes how God saves us. And he also tells us why God saves us.
These verses address primary questions about our existence and God’s plans and purposes for us. We see the before and after images of our potential spiritual renovation and we can choose which we want for ourselves.
Our Past (2:1-3)
Let me read verses 1 to 3 of chapter 2:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously lived according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also.
I guess when we think about ourselves, we like to think that maybe we’re OK. We all know people who are “good people”, “who would do anything for anyone”, “who wouldn’t hurt a fly”. But when we read Ephesians 2:1-3, we see a different picture of humanity without God. Paul graphically tells how we were “dead in our … sins”, that we “carried out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts”, and of how we were “under wrath”. It’s an ugly picture, this before photo.
But I can imagine people taking exception to what Paul writes. Many would say that we’re not dead, we’re just following our human nature, that we are making progress as a species, that God has unattainable expectations of us. There is some truth in those views. But the reality is God makes the rules, He recognises our sin. But the difference is that He has made available a way to escape its consequences.
Many of the Psalms recorded in the Old Testament paint a very real picture of humanity. One such, Psalm 103, puts it this way in verses 8 through 14:
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love. He will not always accuse us or be angry forever. He has not dealt with us as our sins deserve or repaid us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his faithful love toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows what we are made of, remembering that we are dust.
Do I want to view myself as blindly but wilfully following my human nature, or do I want to humbly recognise that I fail? Do I want to hold on to the masthead of the good ship humanity as it founders on the rocks where it will sink and I will ultimately drown, or will I let go and recognise that God released a lifeboat called Jesus and I just need to take hold of Him?
Our Present (2:4-6)
But seen against this grim picture of ourselves, Ephesians 2:4-6 says:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus,
Notice two phrases in there - God’s great love for us, and His rich mercy. These words - the greatness of His love and richness of His mercy convey an overflowing of God’s goodness towards us. It’s not that God felt a bit merciful - or loves us with any half-measures. God is a God of all or nothing - no half-way!
So Paul is drawing a sharp contrast between our nature and God’s. God’s abundance is seen against our failures. And when we were dead in our sins God took the initiative and made us alive with Christ. He says we were made alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.
Paul’s use of specific words in verse 5 is significant - he says we have been made alive. It is in the past tense. It is something that has already happened! In the New Testament we read of salvation as a past, present and future experience. If you believe in Jesus you have been saved, you are being saved, and you will be saved.
One hopefully helpful way of picturing this is that we have been saved from the power of sin - and we will be delivered from the presence of sin in the future.
Paul also tells us that we have been “raised up” and “seated with Christ” - we have dual citizenship. We are citizens of earth and citizens of heaven, and our citizenship of heaven is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit.
Our Future (2:7)
And Paul also gives a glimpse of our life to come. He says that believers have been raised up and seated with Jesus so that, from verse 7, “in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
Let’s take a moment to ponder those words - what God has done through Jesus is raise us up and seat us with Jesus so that in the future, in eternity God might show us who believe the immeasurable riches of His grace. And these riches are in and through and because of Jesus.
How we are saved (2:8-9)
So far we’ve seen a broad survey of our situation without God, and we’ve seen that God - in His rich mercy and great love made us alive in Christ when we were dead. We’ve been shown the “before” and “after” photographs to decide which one we prefer.
But how did this happen? Did we all wake up one day and decide to turn over a new leaf - to start afresh? Or was it as a result of something outside ourselves? We’ve already seen the answer in verse 5 where Paul talks about us being made alive by God when we were dead in our trespasses or sins, but Ephesians 2:8 and 9 puts it much better:
For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast.
What do we discover? We are saved by grace, but what is grace? It is unmerited favour, unearned goodwill. In this case is was and is God’s undeserved love, mercy and forgiveness demonstrated to us by God giving His Son’s life for us.
We also read that we are saved through faith - when we finally give up on our own attempts to reach God. It’s the complete abandonment of ourselves to Christ - and it’s our only legitimate response to God’s grace - nothing else will do. Faith is the only means of gaining access to God’s grace. We can never earn it, ever.
But it is important to see that grace comes first. Without God’s grace all the faith on the world won’t save you from anything.
And because it is a gift, because we can never earn it or merit it we can’t boast about it as something we deserve.
A charge often levelled at Christians by people who don’t believe is that Christians think they are better than other people. I’m sure many of us do, but we shouldn’t, because we’re not. What God has done for me is absolutely despite my nature and character.
As trite as it is, the old bumper sticker that said “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” is correct.
Why we are saved (2:10)
And so we come to the final verse we’re considering this morning. In verse 9 Paul says we are saved by grace, not by works - there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. It’s a gift from God out of His graciousness. Yet in verse 10 we read “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.”
Our salvation is not by works, but our salvation is for works! This is our response to God’s grace and, because we have been made alive in Christ, good works are a sign of this new life within us. In the letter of James which contains a lot of practical advice he writes in James 2:14-17:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.
The quality or status of our new life in Christ is to be characterised by good works - out of gratitude for the mercy, love and grace of our God. This is one of the ‘after’ photos of our before and after shots. Our works can never earn our salvation, but our works should reflect our gratitude for the salvation already gifted to us.
From Rags to Riches
What are we to make of all this? Paul has taken us through the whole spectrum of our spiritual state. He has reminded us of our sinful past, and of how God - in His great love and rich mercy has reached down to us and made us alive with Christ. The value of God’s grace to us is the price of Jesus’ death.
We have progressed from “rags to riches” not because it’s anything we have earned, but solely because of God’s grace. Our only part in the deal is to accept this by faith. Grace has come first, faith can only follow.
We’ve seen the ‘before’ photo, and we can see the ‘after’ photo. We chose our destiny.
From people having no hope and no future, God has given us both hope and a future, and we have hope because we know we have a future. Our choices made now determine whether we have hope for the future.
In a letter Paul wrote to a guy called Titus he summarised this by saying (Titus in 2:11-14):
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people for his own possession, eager to do good works.
Please be both encouraged and challenged by Paul’s words. Be encouraged by the fact that, from death, we can be made alive in Christ by God’s grace by faith. And be challenged to respond to God’s grace by faith to serve Him out of gratitude because of His gift of life.
[Preached at our church Sunday 5th July]