Turn to Acts 19.
We can see four things that are special:
First, Paul encounters disciples who have received only the baptism of John and never heard of the Holy Spirit. We’ve talked about this before but it is worth repeating. The baptism of John was the baptism of repentance and was almost a rival for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the early church. It was the baptism received by Apollos – the brilliant preacher in Ephesus. We’ve looked at that before and we know that means Apollos and others had been baptized into the confession of sin and repentance. They understood the importance of living a moral and straight life and to show those things that would prove they had turned from their sins. In fact, there could have been no more integrity filled, honest, moral, ethical and right living people in the church. But, they had not received the power of a new life – just the power of remaking the old one. There was no doubt about their character but they were doing it on their own with the best of intentions. They were improved but not new.
That is perhaps why Paul writes in verse 4 that God chose us to be holy and blameless in his sight. “In his sight” is not the same as being blameless and holy in our own eyes or in the eyes of others. It means we are only considered holy and blameless in his sight by our identification with Christ. If we have the baptism of John, no matter how repentant, moral, and ethical we are we are not holy and blameless at all. But, even with our flaws and shortcomings we are holy and blameless in the eyes of God as he looks and sees only Christ.
So, first Paul encounters an almost good enough religion in Ephesus that is striving to be acceptable to God. Lots of energy. Lots of activity. Lots of effort. But with no satisfaction. There is always more to do to please God.
Second, after three months of speaking boldly in the synagogue Paul meets with his usual opposition from his detractors and moves to a lecture hall for two years. Outside the synagogue there is great receptivity to the word of the Lord.
Third, God does extraordinary miracles through Paul. “Handkerchiefs and aprons that had been touched by him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.” Not only that, but as a result many Greeks and Jews were seized with fear and the name of the Lord was held in high honor. “Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds..In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” This did not happen everywhere Paul went but, clearly, his experiences in Ephesus were supernatural.
Fourth, as might be expected, those with a vested commercial interest in keeping things just the way they were, created a riot. “Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and practically the whole province of Asia. He says that man-made gods are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also the tempt of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself, who is worshipped through the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty. When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.” Soon the whole city as in an uproar.”
Those who were in the religious business had the most to lose by people coming to know the truth. What did they do? They stirred up everyone with the fear of losing their income and their status and shouted about the greatness of their idols. The keeping or recovery of greatness is almost always a sign of fear and a tool of idol makers.
The Letter Itself
So, now we come to the letter itself. Paul was in prison when he wrote to the Ephesians. He was not writing from a retreat center or a quiet spa. Of course, some of the greatest letters and literature has been written from prisons. Gandhi, Solzhenitsyn, Bonhoeffer, Mandela and Martin Luther King all write masterpieces from prison. Prison petrifies some and purifies others. As King wrote, “Never before have I written so long a letter. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than to write long letters, think long thoughts, and pray long prayers?”
And that is exactly what Paul is doing here. Not only long letters and long prayers but his thoughts go back to before the creation itself. “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Paul has time and whenever he has time he begins with eternity and with God. Most religions and philosophies start with mankind and include God eventually.
Especially today, we are not so much interested in eternity. Part of that is the fear of death. Part of that is there is very little practical in thinking about eternity or such lofty thoughts about God, creation, and eternity. We want what we can put to use right now even if we twist the meaning around. “All things work together for good” and “I can do all things through Christ” and “If God be for us who can be against us” become positive thinking posters instead of words written to a suffering church by an imprisoned apostle. To read Ephesians we need to slow down and adjust our perspective.
We must start with God and everything else flows from that. It is his initiative and not in response to anything done by us. From before the creation of the world, before the fall, he has chosen us for a particular purpose. That purpose is not happiness or fulfillment or to be the best you can be. As the Westminster Confession asks and answers, “What is the chief end and glory of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Until we have that straight nothing else in life will make sense. Not just our theology but our logic will be off. Imagine beginning with 2+2=5. What is the next logical assumption? 2+3=6. Everything after the beginning will be off – if only by one. That is why it is so important to get straight from the start about God’s purpose. He created us for a purpose and He is free to do with us whatever he wills. Everything is in accordance with both his pleasure and his will.
The world tells us differently, doesn’t it? Even churches fall into the trap of attracting people by saying they are here to serve them, to love them, to make them feel safe, secure and improve their lives. We are here to make very practical contributions to their lives. Not so. We are here to serve and not to be served. Think about the last time you said, “How can I serve?” How does that compare to the times we have said, “How is the church serving me?” Everything flows from the beginning question and how we answer it.
We are chosen. I don’t want to be distracted by the question of free will and predestination but I do want to focus on the fact that Paul is making a distinction between Jews and Gentiles here – just as he does in Romans. ”In him were chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be the praise of his glory.”
That is, “we the Jews.”
“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” That is, the Gentiles. Just as he says in Romans 11:
“I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”
Or also in Romans 9: “I will call them my people who are not my people; and I will call her my loved one who is not my loved one.”
In other words, you and I have been grafted in. We are here to stir up the Jews to jealousy and not think we run the place and the Jews are the newcomers. Just the opposite. They are the original chosen people and we are those who have been graciously included in the promise. We don’t think of ourselves that way any longer, do we? While it is true there are no distinctions in Christ, Paul is still clear about our being included and not original.
Every organization needs some Gentiles in it. The Jews moved from being a people with a purpose to people with privilege. They forgot the mission and mistook it for their position. Gentiles are always introduced to create change that cannot happen otherwise. Unfortunately, the outsiders change the mainstream for a time and then become the mainstream and then resisted change themselves. How many customs and beliefs have encrusted our own faith and have come to be equal to or more important than faith? Who are the Greeks, the outsiders, the strangers claiming to belong, that are disturbing our comfort? Who are those changing the assumptions about what we have become accustomed to believing and practicing for so many years?
It’s probably why Paul was so intimidating and infuriating to both Greeks and Jews. He was seen as corrupting the Jews and the pure bloodline with Gentile invaders to the faith – half-breeds at best. He was seen by the Gentiles as a Jewish elitist who included them only because they would stir up his first love and first allegiance – the Jews.
The Penny and the Fortune
Finally, Paul assures us, the Gentiles, of our own seal – the Holy Spirit. The seal for the Jews was, of course, circumcision but that has changed for the Greeks. They no longer need to conform but they still need evidence of their belonging. That is the Holy Spirit. And then Paul describes it in a way that is interesting. It is a deposit that guarantees our coming inheritance. Paul lived his life with his eye on the final inheritance and was grateful for the deposit. Think of it this way. If you were given a penny this morning as a down payment on an eventual $100 million, would you focus on the penny or the $100 million? We are so focused on improving the little we have we have taken our eyes off what is to come. I call it polishing the penny. We have reduced our faith to whatever value it has in the here and now. We are stewards of the penny but inheritors of the $100 million. What is the price of a regular penny? Yes, exactly a penny. What is the value of this particular penny that will be redeemed for $100 million? Yes, worth far more than the mere price. We value it but it is only a reminder of our real inheritance. Remember what Paul says in I Corinthians 15: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”
There are times when I wonder about the benefits of faith in this life. I look around and think how ultimately futile it is to be constantly working to make the best out of this life – to do more, have more, accomplish more – if all of it ends up in death and forgetfulness. But then, I always come back to Paul’s thinking the same. If there is no resurrection then all the good things – faith, love, family, accomplishment, reputation – are worthless. They have their time but then death wins. But, and this is what it means to keep your eye on the inheritance and not the deposit, we will be raised to a new life with Christ and all of creation will rise to new life with us.
“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just the ones that thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark one Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you’ll get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.” C.S Lewis
That is what Paul is saying to us this morning. Begin where God begins – before the creation of the world – and then aim at that same eternity and the incomprehensible inheritance.