Prayer for Strengthened Love: Ephesians 3.14-21

What should you ask God for so that YOUR church might move forward?

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is all about the church. Make no mistake here. He’s not taking about a building or an association with a membership list. The great Apostle is talking about a people who have been transformed by faith in Jesus and set apart to serve the living God.

Now, as Paul moves from the deep theological truths of chapters 1-3 and prepares, in chapters 4-6, to help the Ephesians walk in these truths, he prays that they’d move forward.

The nervous system of this passage is found in verse 16. … that … he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being (ESV).

Sounds mysteries, doesn’t it? Paul prays on his knees that God would grant the Ephesian church a gift in keeping with all God has (His “riches”) and with the summation of all God is (His “glory”). This gift will be given “through his Spirit” whom we already know calls the elect to Christ (1.4) and seals them, indicating they belong to God (1.13). But, apparently there is more—a work of God available to churches!

This gift will be given to believers in their “inner being” (check out Rm 7.22-23; 12.2; 2 Cor 4.16). This refers to that part of us that is renewed to know God in this life. It’s also where Christ meets us through the Spirit. This meeting, Paul prays, will take place “with power”.  Ah, but not power to heal from disease or make us successful or solve personal problems. Look what is prayed for: … so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith … (:17a). The gift Paul prays for is that the risen Christ will so be at the heart of the Ephesian church that they’d be totally characterized by His work through the Spirit.

Now, our own church here in the Northwoods is separated from the Ephesians by at least one ocean and by 1,958 years, give or take a year. But, we have the same needs and are no different in God’s eyes. Many of us, doubtlessly like the Ephesians, have been disappointed by church at different times in our lives. We’ve been in churches where Christ didn’t rule, where new creations in Christ drilled down into issues and found their own “flesh”—that term Paul uses elsewhere (like Romans 8) to describe our way of solving problems apart from Christ. This was disappointing, because this passage shows us what is available when we really trust God together.

All this takes us back to verse 16. Do you notice the verb? … that … he MAY give you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being. This verb is in what’s called the subjunctive mood. It’s the mood of possibility. (Like saying it MIGHT rain, not that it IS raining.) This indicates to us that it is possible to have a church filled with those who are saved by grace through faith in Christ, but who are not being met with power by the Spirit.

Scary, isn’t it! I don’t want to be in a church like that. And, I don’t want Woodland to go that way. Rather, I want our encounter with the living God to be like that described in the next few verses:

… that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth … to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge … that you may be filled with all the fulness of God (:17b-19b).

Now, that’s the way to move forward! And, in Paul’s closing doxology, before he turns to practical matters in the next chapter, he tells us this is possible: Now to him who is able … [be] glory …

Yes, God is able, to meet us with power and strengthen our inner selves with the strong love of Christ for one another.

That’s how we move forward!

 

Consider a few questions to get a better handle on Ephesians 3.14-21

Have you ever been hurt by a church? Why was this so disappointing?

Was this church praying for power from the Spirit to love each other with the strong love of Jesus? How might such confidence in God have changed the situation? 

According to what you gather from this passage, what is the deciding factor in whether or not God really does gift your church with His power? 

Why is it so important to understand that God’s power described in this passage is all about being characterized by Christ? What happens when we get this wrong? 

What practical things does this passage encourage you to do? 

 

 

 

Mystery of the Church Revealed: Ephesians 3.1-13

Some years ago (when the kids were small, actually), Amanda and I got into watching mysteries. We started with Monk, then moved to the British variety—Foyle’s War being our favorite. Sometimes, we’d stop the disk to ask each other, “Who done it?” But, funny thing, we’d find that we could almost never predict the ending.

You see, good mysteries have unforeseen twists. Great mysteries, we came to find out, have twists that are also organic to character and plot development: looking forward, you can’t see what’s coming; looking back, it’s believable. And then, when the mystery is revealed, everything comes to light, and all the labor and toil of the mystery screen writer pays off.

In Ephesians 3.1-13, Paul describes the Church of Jesus—the new people, created in Christ, in whom God takes up His dwelling (2.11-22). This new people results from the Gospel and is the mystery nobody before Christ could foresee. The effort and toil and tribulation of bringing about the growth of the Church is worth it, because the Gospel results in glory!

Mystery of the Church made known (:1-6). In this most autobiographical of all passages in Ephesians, Paul reminds his Ephesian readers of his suffering on their behalf. Then, the Spirit of God (we believe) redirects him into a long digression on the mystery of the Church. Only in verse 13 does he reconnect with his original thought.

A lot is going on in Paul’s jail cell, as he awaits trial in Rome. Acts 21-28 gives the background. Originally, shortly after Paul and Silas’ return from their 3rd Missionary Journey, Paul is arrested in Jerusalem for turning Jews against the Law of Moses and (allegedly) bringing an Ephesian (it so happens) into the Temple (Acts 21.27-29). Now, some years later, the appeal process runs on, and Paul writes his Prison Epistles from Rome.

I’m suffering for you, he wants the Ephesians to know. But, wait! Here’s what’s really going on … You are a part of a mystery (something hidden in the past, but now made known) that God has revealed by revelation. This mystery, that the saints of old couldn’t see has now been revealed to Apostles and prophets—this mystery is, in fact, the truth that Gentiles who have trusted in Jesus are knit together into one, new people with believing Jews. All this take place because of the Gospel.

Mystery of the Church ministered in the Gospel (:7-12). The wonder of it, Paul continues, is that I have been made a minister of the Gospel, charged with explaining this mystery of the Church revealed. Because of this Gospel, the wisdom of God is made known to angelic rulers through the Church (:10); God’s plan of salvation is shown to have been accomplished in Christ (:11); and, access is made to God by the work of Christ and received by faith (:12). That’s a pretty great twist that “solves” our need for redemption! But, is it worth it?

Mystery of the Church made glorious! (:13). So, I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you … Paul asks of the Ephesians. And, why? Because, it is ” … your glory”.

The mystery of the Church revealed is glory! For God, for the Ephesian believers, for us today …

You see, in his personal appeal to his Ephesian believers, Paul is moving toward the practical. He understands that while the creation of one, new people in Christ is the result of God’s resurrection power received by grace, there is trouble involved. There’s pain in bringing the Gospel to those who were “far off” from God (2.13). And, after the fact, it’s hard for unlike people to live as one people.

Consider our local expressions of the Church of Jesus—your church. Imagine your church is joined by a family living the American Dream—2.4 kids, parents happily married, new cars, nice vacations. But, they’re lost. Then, by God’s grace, they get it: your new family understands that God doesn’t care about the American Dream, and the different members of your new, church family trust Christ. Another family joins, third marriages for both parents, kids on drugs, relationships deteriorating. But, they, likewise, trust in Jesus. Now, members of both families are “in Christ”.

Both families come to God the same way. But, will it be easy? Sure, there’s grace, and they will both grow as members of your local church, but that’s it, really: they will have to GROW. And, that growth requires the spiritual living Paul will now begin to describe in next week’s passage.

Ah, but it’s ” … your glory”!

This is the good stuff in the local church. Seeing different kinds of people come together in God’s new people, the Body of Church, the one-another membership of His new creation. And, like Paul told the Ephesians, we must not “lose heart”. It’s worth the toil, because God is all about bringing Himself glory in His plan of redemption. And this, in the end, is our glory.

 

Here’s a few questions to keep us thinking about the mystery of the Church revealed:

What about your local church do you find unlikely? If you have trouble with this, think first about the aims and goals of a business or community organization. Then, think about how your church is different.

How do we share Paul’s responsibility to make the revelation of the mystery of the Church known? Sure, there aren’t any capitol-A apostles going around anymore, but the Church hasn’t changed, and God’s purposes (:10-12) haven’t changed.

The big issue in the Early Church was Jew and Gentile relations. What issues does your church face? Think: socio-economic status, levels of family functionality, racism, “insiders” verses “outsiders,” if you’re a place with a strong, local history.

What exciting things are going on in your church as people trust Christ and are knit into one, new people? 

New People, United in Christ: Ephesians 2.11-22

Is the church relevant to your life? It wasn’t always to me, not quite.

Amanda and I met in church, and we were committed. But, vocationally, we were “para” to the church. Our first ministry together was in Germany with a Russian-German immigrant Bible school. So, in the land of Luther with its glorious Christian past and the remnants of flourishing faith all around us in beautiful architecture, we set off to serve Christ. In the next few years something happened that moved me in my understanding of the relevance of the church to my life …

In Ephesians 2.11-22, Paul takes care of some Ephesian local church business. He’s going to talk about Jews and Gentiles, circumcision and covenants of promise. Sounds 1st century, doesn’t it? But, in going there, Paul is going to show us who the church is, where it came from, and why it’s relevant to our lives today.

The church is one, new people, brought near to God (:11-13). Peering back to the time before Christ, there’s two groups here. Those who were “near” to God included Abraham and his physical descendants who carried the mark of belonging to God (see Gen 17.14). That was God’s idea, at the time. Even so, there’s indication that the mark alone, ” … made in the flesh by hands …,” was not enough alone to make one right with God.

Then, there were those “far” from God. This would have been most of us … without Christ … alienated from Israel … strangers to the covenants (think: unconditional covenants, the Abrahamic, Davidic and New) … no hope … without God. These God brought near through the crosswork of Christ: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (:13).

What results is one, new people, at peace (:14-18). Jesus made the two peoples one. He did this by breaking down the hostility between them and rendering inoperative what separated them.

This is the technical part of the passage. Basically, Paul is referring to the Law of Moses, based in the Ten Commandments and including the 600-some-odd requirements of the law we find, mostly, in Exodus and Leviticus. These had special significance for Israel, since obeying this law determined whether the people would be allowed to remain in the Land of Promise. The problem: nobody kept the law, except Jesus. But (good news!), when Jesus kept the law and took our law-breaking on Himself, we ceased to be judged by whether we’ve kept the law and are now judged by whether we are “in Christ” by faith in Him. We’re saved by grace through faith (2.8-9).

Jesus did this so he might create one new humanity at peace with God and with each other. Where there was hostility, there now was peace. Where there had been division, there now was “one, new man.” Figuratively spoken, but how could Paul say it more strongly? Where there was no reconciliation, there was now a meeting place in the body of Jesus. Where no access, a way to God through the Spirit.

Now, we are one, new people, the dwelling place of God (:19-22). Today, in Christ, Gentiles like me are no longer visiting God’s people. We belong to God’s people, along with Old Testament saints, like Abraham, Moses and David. The worldwide Church of Jesus is built on the testimony of the Apostles and the Word of God, first voiced through prophets. We’re centered on Christ, the cornerstone. And, we’re growing up into a new temple where God meets with His people.

Astounding! In the Old Testament those carrying the physical mark of belonging to God could enter the Temple and meet with God. Today, anyone trusting in Christ can meet with God. But, more, we ARE the temple! This is referring collectively to the worldwide following of Jesus. But, places like Woodland, our local church are “growing up” into local expressions of this temple.

The Church is a new people, united in Christ and the dwelling place of God. 

So, returning to our story. Amanda and I cut our teeth together in Christian ministry in a Bible school that operated alongside churches. But, what churches? We attended church, to be sure. We tried the local baptist church, but found it “clannish” (kinda like a big family reunion) and completely disengaged from the community. We eventually joined a “free” (protestant, non-state church) some thirty minutes away, but found it non-serious. (The pastor’s wife would often lead us in a craft as the high point of the service.)

Eventually, we started a neighborhood Bible study in our apartment. While none of our neighbors believed in God, some did come. But, there was something missing in the whole equation. What was it? Then, one day, I had it. While we had a Bible school and a rich, Christian heritage to draw from, we were missing the Church!

The church, I’ve come to believe, is God’s great show-and-tell to the watching world. We are a people drawn near to God … a people at peace, with God and one another … a people who are the very dwelling place of God.

That’s why the church is relevant to our situation, I now know. It’s why I love Woodland and other churches I’ve served. It’s why the very cadence of my week builds toward Sunday morning when I gather with God’s people.

The church is God’s idea!

Here’s a few questions to help us think further about Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2.11-22:

What has been your experience in local churches? Positive? Negative? 

How relevant is your local church to your regular walk with Christ? Can you imagine your life without regularly meeting with God’s people?

Have you ever thought about the church as being the place where God dwells with humanity during this time before Christ’s coming? How does this work? What does this mean? 

What bearing does this passage have on the way you view others in Christ’s church? How does your peace with God affect the way you treat His people?

What connection does this passage encourage you to seek with brothers and sisters in Christ you’ve never met? 

Wisdom & Revelation: Ephesians 1.15-23

Some time ago I found myself in a four-day-long meeting of ministry leaders in suburban Chicago. That’s not the cool downtown area; that’s the part that’s like suburban Dallas, Atlanta or Houston. You can sit in traffic in any of those places.

On about the third day, as I sat soaking in the dopamine  of the florescent lights, I received a texted picture from my wife and three-year-old daughter. They were on the beach, soaking in the sun, and without me!

What do I really want? I asked myself. How can I change things, so that next year I am with them, which is far better? 

That’s not a bad question to ask ourselves as we gather with our church families this Sunday. What do we want and expect from the Christian life? And, what do we want for each other? And, how are we praying for one another to that end? 

After greeting his Ephesian recipients, and offering praise to God for all the spiritual blessings we have in Christ, Paul gives thanksgiving for his Ephesian brothers and informs them of the content of his prayers for them.

Ephesians 1.15-23 is a good passage to guide us in our prayers for one another. Here’s a few takeaways to guide us toward that end:

Don’t cease to pray for one another (:15-16a). This is Paul’s offer of thanksgiving for them, and there’s tension here. Having really trusted in Christ ( … I’ve heard of your faith … your love toward all the saints), they now need Paul to intercede for them. Apparently, there’s more in the Christian life that they might not get; there’s a present struggle, an outcome that’s not yet decided. There’s tension here.

Pray that we would each know God, as He’s revealed in Jesus (:16b-18a). This is the content of Paul’s prayer. The core idea is found in verse 17, … making remembrance at the time of my prayers, so that God may give to you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him …

“Spirit” is the Holy Spirit, who has sealed them at the time of their faith in Christ. He already indwells them. What Paul is praying for is specific manifestations of characteristic qualities of the Spirit’s work to be known increasingly in the lives of the Ephesians. What are these?

“Wisdom,” for one. When used to describe an art, like carpentry, wisdom describes an unusual ability in practical skill. But, when describing the intellect, wisdom describes the ability to discern the true nature of things. Wisdom from the Spirit shows us what God is all about in our lives.

“Revelation,” for another. This word describes what is unveiled or disclosed having been previously hidden. Revelation operates in the knowledge of Him (:17) and helps believers discern the Spirit’s work, especially since the Ephesians have had the “eyes of their hearts enlightened” (:18).

It’s like Paul is saying to the Ephesians: “When you trusted Christ and were sealed by the Spirit you saw life in a totally new way. You saw into the nature of spiritual things. You knew the difference between right and wrong. You had a conscience before God. You began to learn God’s will. Now, I’m praying MORE of that discernment for you, so that you can know God better!

Are we praying this for one another? Are we praying that God will use the events of our lives to help us know Him better?

Pray that we would each know God’s hope, God’s riches and God’s power (:18b-23). This is Paul’s purpose for his prayer, the result of wisdom and revelation.

He wants them to know the hope of his calling. God’s calling took place in the past, and understanding this results in hope. He wants them to know the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints. This is Christ’s inheritance, earned at the cross, but not yet possessed by Jesus in the fullest sense. Understanding that we share in the possession earned by our big brother, Jesus, and have this in store for us likewise brings us security in our relationship with God.

And, Paul wants us to know … the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might (:19).

There’s four words for “power” here, translated “power” (potential power); “working” (power in operation); “might” (dominion); and, “great” (power that can be expressed).

This reminds me of the tiger I once saw at the Henry Doorley Zoo in Omaha. Standing two feet away from the great beast (on the other side of the glass, of course), I sensed the potential power of the great cat, who paced back and forth restlessly. I shuddered at the thought of his active power that might be displayed, if ever I stepped on the other side of the glass. I recognized his majesty of the domain that included everything in the area, exception the zookeeper, I suppose. And, I recognized the transitive nature of the power that could be expressed (thus, the glass).

Verses 20-23 give us three examples of God’s power in action. First, God raised Jesus from the dead (:20). This took Jesus from being dead to the right hand of the Father … far above all rule and authority and power and dominion … (:21) Second, God put all things under the feet of Christ. This is dueling language that describes the victor who has his enemy under his foot and is yet to make the fatal sword plunge. And, finally, God gave Jesus to the Church to be its head. In many ways, verse 22b introduces the rest of the letter. The power of God in the life of the believer is not the power to change circumstances, but the power for a changed life!

So, what should be our prayer for one another, in light of God’s spiritual blessing? 

Paul guides us here: Our prayer for one another should be that each would know God (personally … increasingly … intimately), as God has revealed Himself in Christ. 

 

Here’s a few questions to help us think more about the Wisdom and Revelation from God that we must desire for one another:

What is your impression of this passage? What about it is still unclear or requires more explanation? 

When you pray for another believer, how do you usually pray? Do you pray only the problems would be solved and circumstances addressed? Or, do you pray that your fellow believer might really know God, in the midst of circumstances? 

What do you think about the suggestion that the Ephesians (and, us!) only MIGHT receive this enabling form the Spirit? Is there potential power from God that we sometimes don’t receive? 

Where do you need to see the power of God in your life?  (We remember here that this is the power to know God in Christ and to see our lives change). 

 

 

Spiritual Blessing, in Christ: Ephesians 1.3-14

Some time ago I was asked to serve in the wedding of a dear friend. In the wedding, the bride’s father was asked to pray. While those in attendance stood, dressed uncomfortably and in the August heat of Texas, the bride’s father began in eternity past with the communal counsel of the Godhead, then moved to the election of Christ’s church before the foundation of the world, then entered created time through the redemptive work of Christ, then came to the birth of the bride, then her effectual calling by the Spirit, then the preaching of the Gospel, then her trust in Jesus and baptism in the Spirit, and finally, the groom.

That was quite the prayer for those standing there. We were one blessed, but exhausted, wedding party that day! …

The Apostle Paul does something like that in Ephesians 1.3-14. Only here, we get to reflect, in a more contemplative way, on the basis for our blessing in Christ. Why should we praise God for every spiritual blessing in Christ? In this great, Trinitarian eulogy of redemption, Paul gives us three reasons:

The elective choice of the Father (:3-6). Blessed be the God and Father or our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. 

“Blessed” means “deserving praise, appreciation, honor.” This is not a wish, but a declaration! God IS blessed, and He turns around and shares this blessing with us, in Christ!

We get a very important little phrase here. “In Christ” is used (with its variants) 39 times in Ephesians. Ever played tag, kids? You know how there’s a base that operates like a special place? You stand in the “sphere” (the place) of base, and you can’t be tagged. That’s what’s its like, “in Christ”. God has moved you into the sphere of Christ, if you’ve trusted in Jesus. Your struggles take place in the material world, but the source of our power is in the heavenly places where Christ is.

The redemptive work of the Son (:7-12). This is the second reason Paul gives for our praise of God for every spiritual blessing in Christ.

In verses 7-12 I’ve circled three words in my Bible. REDEMPTION means “to set free on the basis of a ransom paid to God by Christ.” This is what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus’ cross-work results in forgiveness of sin, because the Father accepts Jesus’ perfect sacrifice of Himself. The sacrifice takes places through the blood of Christ. In other words, the life. In the Bible, blood always indicates life. Pour it out, and you have death. All this is in accordance with God’s riches which He shares with us.

MYSTERY means “something in ages past, hidden in God, but now revealed.” This is what the work of Christ makes clear. It reveals what God was about all long, how rumors and prophecies of a redeemer told over long ages are true, and how God’s plan was set in motion by Christ. This included the bringing together of things in heaven and earth under the Lordship of Jesus through a new creation.

INHERITANCE … This tells of how believers enter into God’s plan. Our inheritance is by the purpose of God, because He wants to do it … To the praise of His glory!

The sealing of the Spirit (:13-14). The Spirit enters the life of the believer to demonstrate ownership by God. The picture is of a seal that functions like a signature. His seal, His ownership. We are His.

Notice what has happened here. The Father’s choice took place before the world began. The Son’s work took place in time, but before our birth. The Spirit’s sealing took place at the time we trusted in Jesus, … when you heard the word of truth and believed … . The Spirit assures us that we are “in Christ,” until Jesus comes for us.

Ephesians 1.3-14—really three messages in one, it seems to me—doesn’t strike me as a particularly difficult passage. But, there are things here that I find particularly difficult.

In my student days my group of friends knew a family who owned a lake house, and we’d sometimes retire to the country for a restful afternoon. Dr. Deibler, long-time professor of church history at Dallas Seminary, lived in the community. Long since with the Lord now, he must have been in his eighties then. One afternoon, we were lounging in the front room with Dr. Deibler in his recliner who was holding court. This all delighted him, so I threw him a question I knew he would enjoy.

“Dr. Deibler,” I said. “How does it work: God’s sovereignty and man’s free will?” His answer stayed with me and satisfies my mind to this day.

After letting the question sink in for a minute, Dr. Deibler lifted himself (with some effort) from the recliner and moved slowly toward the bedroom door. Before entering, he lifted his hand to trace the words on the doorframe above: “Whosoever shall enter …” Then, he passed through the door, closing it behind him.

We were left, wondering if, like Elijah, he’d passed from this life. Finally, after this dramatic pause, Dr. Deibler appeared again, reentered the room, turned around to trace on the very same doorframe the words, ” … But, for the grace of God …”

The picture stands in my mind as the most satisfying explanation I’ve yet heard of my responsibility in God’s plan of redemption. When I trusted Christ it looked for all the world like I was making a free and independent choice to follow Christ. And so I was, according to my new nature. But, when I entered the room of the sphere of Christ and turned around to survey God’s plan of redemption, it became apparent that God knew me all along. He has been at work for my redemption since before the foundation of the world and through His coordinated work as Father, as Son and as Spirit.

The reason we should praise God for every spiritual blessing in Christ is the elective choice of the Father, the redemptive work of the Son, and the sealing of the Spirit … to the praise of His glory!

 

Here’s a few questions to help you process this amazing passage:

What about Eph 1.3-14 do you find most amazing, even mind-blowing? 

How does it make you feel to know that God was about your redemption even before you were born? 

Are there parts about God’s plan of redemption that you still struggle with? Why do you think this is so? 

How does this passage help you feel secure “in Christ”? 

 

 

 

Grace & Peace: Ephesians 1.1-2

This week I read, with some interest, a description of the Voyager Space Program. Voyager 2, the second of the two spacecraft, was launched in 1977 to study Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and finished its work in our solar system in 1989 with a close flyby of Neptune. At this writing, Voyager 2 studies the outer heliosphere of our system and will soon (some think …) enter deep interstellar space.

My interest, however, as a word-loving liberal arts type, lies with the Golden Record that Voyager 2 carries. Complete with symbolic directions for operation, the record contains pictures of earth, recordings of nature sounds from our planet, a 90-minute recording of music from earth (including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Good!”) and, my favorite, greetings from earth in 55 languages. These are supposed to be comprehensive, revealing who we are and what we’re all about as Earthlings.

“Hello, from the children of earth,” the English greetings goes. (Seems like we might have done better, but it was the work of a committee.)

My question as we come together in our churches on Sunday is simply this: If we were to leave the briefest of messages for another church in the future and far away, and that message were to describe who we are and what we’re all about, what would that message be?

The Apostle Paul knew something of this challenge in opening his Epistle to the Ephesians. In this (I would argue), the most comprehensive of all his letters, he greets the Ephesians (and us, by association as God’s people), with three words:

Grace … and peace

This comprehensive greeting captures the entire letter. “Grace” … God’s unmerited favor, to you. This is, if any word is, the Gospel in one word. And, Paul extends it to the Ephesians, and us, to describe God’s work in bringing us back to relationship with Himself through the active obedience of His Son, Jesus.

“Peace” … the Shalom, the well-being of God. Yours now, because of God’s grace.

These words taken together describe God’s part (the active cause) and our part (the reactive condition) of our new status in Christ and our new relationship with God and each other. In these words we have a microcosm of what Paul will lay out in the following six chapters: “Live together as God’s people (peace!) in the manner you’ve been called by God (grace!). … walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called … (4.1).

So, maybe our comprehensive greeting to our future selves in our Christ-following children and grandchildren is simply this: GRACE and PEACE. Maybe, that’s your greeting this week to any fellow, Christ-following, believing friend you meet.

So, say it! Find somebody, and greet them with GRACE and PEACE. Then, read the rest of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, beginning with Paul’s blessing in verses 3-14 that includes his magisterial description of our new position in Christ.

GRACE and PEACE!

 

The following questions will be helpful as you get starting thinking about Ephesians:

Reflect a bit on Paul’s three-word greeting. How does GRACE and PEACE describe the Gospel? 

Read Eph 1.1-2. Paul also describes himself, as the sender of the letter, and the Ephesians, as its recipients. How does he describe both himself and the Ephesians, as those who are able to share grace and peace? 

Thinking ahead a bit, why do you speculate that you are able to share grace and peace with everyone else who is “in Christ”? 

Thinking personally and practically, are you really able to say “grace and peace” to every other professing believer in your life? If your not, how would further comprehension of God’s grace and peace change your relationship with that person or those people? 

Meeting the LORD this New Year: Psalm 132

What are you looking forward to this New Year?

Our family does this thing every few years. Call it “family visioning”. We gather everyone together and list out what we consider our strengths, our growth areas, and dreams. Back in 2015—before we’d caught the slightest whiff of Northwoods life—we listed out our dreams: more functional kitchen … chickens … wood-burning stove (that was mine!) … becoming better fixer-uppers … and living on a ranch (one of the boys).

Uncanny. With the exception of the last item (please, no!), the LORD has blessed our desires. He didn’t have too, but here we are …

Psalm 132 is a great psalm for New Year’s, because it’s about looking back to someone with great desires whom God blessed. It’s also, then, about looking forward to the fullness of what God is doing.

One of the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 122-134) which the Nation would sing as they’d go up to the Temple Mount to meet with the LORD, Psalm 132 looks back to 2 Samuel 7.  In that earlier passage David (after conquering his enemies and moving to Jerusalem) aspired to build a dwelling place (a meeting place) for the LORD, who at that time chose to localize His presence above the Ark of the Covenant, to which His people could come and meet with Him.

You remember the story. In that same passage, God stopped David, saying, You’re not to build the Temple for me, but your son will. But, further:

… your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever (2 Sam 7.16)

This, of course, looks to Jesus, who reigns presently, and is coming back to take His throne! But, for Israel, before the coming of Jesus, the goodness and rightness of Israel’s hope to meet with the LORD is brought about by David’s desire to build a dwelling place for the LORD and by the LORD’s promise of the Messiah to dwell with His people forever.

For us in our churches today, Psalm 132 gives us a clue what we ought to be looking forward to in the coming year.

This New Year we get to look forward to gathering with God’s people! The psalmist appeals to God to remember and honor how David wanted to make a special place to meet with the LORD (:1-5).

I will not enter my house or get into my bed … I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids … until I find a place for the LORD (:3-5).

The psalmist, then, goes on to record Israel’s response in following David and, finally, a further appeal to God to accept the present king, whomever he might have been at the time:

For the sake of your servant David, do not turn away the face of your anointed one (:10).

I catch a little insecurity here, don’t you? Of course, God’s promise of remaining on the throne was conditioned on obedience for each of David’s kingly descendants. Those who did not seek the LORD (and, most didn’t) were removed.

This brings us to the reason we can look forward to gathering in our church’s this New Year. God will meet with His people, because of the active obedience of Christ! And, more, God meets with us, because He chooses to dwell in the midst of His people whom Paul calls the Body of Christ. Your church is a local chapter of this Body, and you can meet there with God’s people without insecurity, because of Jesus’ work.

Great as that is, there’s something else to which this psalm helps us look forward.

This New Year we, together, get to anticipate Christ’s return. The second half of the psalm records God’s response to David: God’s oath to David (:11-12), God’s choosing of Zion (Jerusalem), to which His Messiah will come (:13-16), and God’s securing of the throne for David in Messiah (:17-18).

For the Nation, as for us, this is yet future. Ah, but there’s so much to look forward to. Note the word pictures: clothing, indicating salvation and righteousness … a horn, a picture from the animal world, indicating dominance … a lamp, showing revelation from God … and then, the crown. Jesus, who reigns presently, will return to establish His reign!

There are three great holidays for Christians, you know. There’s Christmas, which we’ve just celebrated, when we celebrate Christ’s coming. There’s Easter, when we celebrate the finished work of Christ. And then, there’s the Return of Christ.

The last is future. But when we gather with God’s people in our churches, we get to remind one another that God’s plan is really going somewhere: Jesus is really born! … He really died and was raised! … And, He’s really returning for us!

The Old Testament worshipper could celebrate David’s desire to meet with the LORD and then look forward to the fullness of David’s desire, yet to be fulfilled. We get more of the fullness, and together (with God’s people), we get to anticipate the completion of God’s plan for His people.

Let’s look forward this New Year to gathering with God’s people and together anticipating Christ’s return. 

 

How about you? What are you looking forward to in the new year? 

How does Psalm 132 change the kind of thing that you desire about 2018?

How does this Old Testament psalm about the Temple worship of the Nation of Israel help you make the connection to Christ? What is still difficult about making the connection to where we are in the Church today? 

Besides the truth that Jesus is coming back, what other truths do you encourage each other in when God’s people meet together in churches? 

 

 

Thru the Bible in … a bit longer than a year!

It’s that time to begin again. There’ll be lots of talk in the next few days about New Year’s resolutions. Then, after a week, or so, you’ll not hear much about these fresh starts, did you ever notice?

While I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, I do like to start new things.

Here’s one … Last year I discovered the 5 Day Bible Reading Program, put out by Lower Lights and available at www.BibleClassMaterial.com. (Since they encourage us to reproduce the plans, everybody attending Woodland will receive one in her bulletin).

This is the Bible reading plan I’ve always wanted. Basically, the entirely of the Old and New Testaments are broken into five readings per week for 52 weeks. There’s little bubbles, so obsessive types like me can ink in the circles at completion of each day’s reading. When an entire week’s reading is complete, there’s another column to record the date when that week’s reading was finished.

Important for me, I’ve found, is that you keep pressing forward. Don’t go back to read material you’ve missed! Save that for the next year. So, now at the beginning of 2018, I see that I competed the first three weeks of January in 2017, but then, “Ah, oh,” I got behind. No worries. I’ll just start on the fourth week of January in 2018, and try to keep ahead. If not, no worries again. I’ll just pick it up in 2019. The idea is to keep moving through the material.

Another important idea: when I come to hard-to-read, arcane writings, I need to move quickly and not get bogged down. I’ll recognize all those genealogies and codified lists of rules, but I’ll read for the big picture. Scan even, sometimes. This is Bible reading, not detailed exegesis. If ever I teach through Leviticus, that will be a different matter. For Bible reading, I want to keep going.

So, there’s your picture of me in the winter months … Early mornings in my basement, favorite chair in front of my Woodchuk stove, coffee in my blue mug (reminds of the winter sky), and with my ESV and 5 Day Bible Reading Program.

Why don’t you grab your own reading program at the site above? Join me, and let me know how you’re doing, after all those resolutions have faded away.

Jesus, Light to All Peoples: Isaiah 9.1-7

I’ve been thinking about why Jesus came. And, as I’ve been pairing my favorite Advent passages with answers to this question, I’ve returned to the Hallelujah Chorus of the Old Testament:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light/Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone … For to us a child is born/ to us a son has been given/And the government shall be upon his shoulder/And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace … (Is 9.2 … 6, ESV)

And, as such, Jesus came to be a light to all peoples!

In context, we find the passage at a time of great darkness for Israel. King Ahaz is on the throne of Judah (734 B.C.). The Israel/Syrian alliance approaches Judah from the northeast. Philistia and Moab press in from the southwest and southeast. God promises to deliver Judah and prompts Isaiah to urge Ahaz to ask God for a sign of this coming deliverance. Even though God is often stingy with His signs and this is special, Ahaz doesn’t want any part of God’s deliverance, but would rather appeal to Assyria.

The LORD responds with His sign anyway. Assyria will play its role in the discipline of both Israel and Judah (7.18), and Israel and Syria will not overcome (7.7-9), but the LORD will visit His people through the birth of a son; and, this to preserve the Nation of Israel and transform the nations.

The Sign of Immanuel is a far-reaching promise that gathers speed throughout the Book of Isaiah and the rest of the Old Testament, finally culminating in the birth of Christ.

All this took place to fulfill what the LORD has spoken by the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (Matt 1.22-23; Is 7.14)

Isaiah 9, then, simply tells us about the Person and rule of Jesus. At His return Israel’s time of darkness is over (:1-2), the battle with darkness is over (:3), the oppression of darkness is over (:4-5), and God will be with His people in the Person of Immanuel (:6-7).

There’s a sense in which the Sign of Immanuel isn’t fulfilled yet. The full reality—when Jesus brings in peace and darkness has been transformed to light—awaits the return of Christ. Even so, those who have trusted Christ have moved from darkness to light:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4.6)

How about you? Where has Jesus met you in your darkness this year? The spiritual darkness of unbelief, the mental darkness of depression, the material darkness of broken things, the physical darkness of bodies that don’t work, the financial darkness of income not matching bills, the social darkness of relationships grown cold?

Then … Where in your life are you trusting Jesus, Light to all Peoples, to be light to you in your darkness in this coming year? 

Isaiah 9 describes Immanuel, Light to the Nation in darkness, fulfilled once at Jesus’ birth, completed at His return. And, even as this is God’s work among the nations, God’s solution to my darkness is to enter my world in the Person of Jesus and transform me, by faith, to share in His light. 

May God bless you each richly this Advent Season as you join me in thinking about why Jesus came!

Godly Compassion: Jonah 4.5-11

Do you know somebody who doesn’t know their right from their left? That is, do you know someone who is clueless about God? Then, what does your response to them say about your heart for God?

This week at Woodland we’ll leave Jonah behind, but not the lessons learned. In fact, we’ll see that Jonah (fish and all) is a fine entryway to Christmas.

Jonah 5.5-11, Episode 7 in the book, stands alone as a kind of epilogue. Not parallel to any other scene (as every other scene is), this post-climactic scene provides the account of how God schools Jonah to leave him with something about Himself to ponder. The result of God’s object lesson revealing Jonah’s double-standard is the vindication of God’s justice and the demonstration of God’s compassionate mercy.

Jonah puts God’s compassionate mercy to the test (:5). Following God’s decision not to destroy Nineveh, “Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city …” (:5a). Jonah’s immediate departure from his most recent dealings with God harken back to his original flight from God (1.3). He’s back to his old ways, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether he goes west in a ship or east of the city to sit; Jonah has run from God.

In a device of his own making, Jonah constructs a makeshift booth, and enjoys its “shade,” a word used elsewhere in the Hebrew to describe God’s protection. Such an effort would have reminded Jewish readers of Israel’s wilderness wanderings.

What’s Jonah after? He’s awaiting the fate of the city, and this seems strange in light of God’s recent pardon of the Ninevites. There’s two possibilities. Either Jonah is waiting for Nineveh to fail in its obedience, so that God will judge the city, or Jonah is daring Yahweh to choose Nineveh over him. “Either them or me, God!” we might hear Jonah say. In either case, Jonah continues to believe that God’s mercy is compromising His justice, and he doesn’t like this aspect of God’s character one bit.

The LORD God provides an object lesson to vindicate His justice and show His compassionate mercy (:6-8). While Jonah begins to cook in the east wilderness, ” … the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah …” (:6). This is God’s mercy, and God has “appointed” the plant, just like He once appointed the fish. Both serve as props in the story to save Jonah, the first to save him physically, the second spiritually. (Literally, the text reads, ” … to save him from his evil”.)

Jonah is “exceedingly glad because of the plant …” Jonah likes mercy when he receives it, but he wants everybody else to get what they deserve.

Then, God appointed a worm to show Jonah justice (:7). This worm “smote” (a military term) the plant, and God’s provision of mercy withered and died. The irony here, of course, is that God (for the purpose of argument and instruction) has done to Jonah the very thing Jonah wanted for the city. “Here’s the justice you want!” God might be heard to say.

God’s appointment of the east wind simply shows Jonah the condition of his own heart. The sun “smote” him (since God’s instructional mercy is removed), and Jonah is ready to die again. “My death is better than life!” Jonah complains. Jonah has turned inward, even as God looks outward.

God poses a question and leaves Jonah to ponder His compassionate mercy (:9-11). “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” God asks Jonah. Notice, they’re no longer discussing the city. “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die!” Jonah responds. Notice, they’re now not even discussing the plant.

They’re actually discussing God’s character. Jonah is right in that God is being arbitrary in removing His mercy from him. What Jonah doesn’t get is that this is what he wants God to do in removing mercy for the city. Jonah has just experienced a small dose of what he’s demanding for the city, and he doesn’t like it one bit. What is in play here, really, is not God’s character even, but the condition of Jonah’s heart.

Then, Jonah is left to ponder God’s compassionate mercy (:10-11). You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow … And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?

The Torah warned Israel not to turn to the right or the left. These were those who received divine revelation. But, the Ninevites hadn’t even heard from God! Shouldn’t God have mercy on the clueless? And, when his compassionate mercy extends to all His creation? … And, much cattle. 

The approach to our final major lesson from Jonah yields a number of implications. First, Israel was indeed God’s covenant people, but not at the expense of God’s own glory. In time, God would use Assyria to judge His own people, Israel. And then, God would judge Assyria, as the Book of Nahum recounts. In the end, God shows mercy—to nations and to people. But, God is on no one’s side; He is holy to Himself, and on His own side. Jonah came to understand this; he just didn’t like it.

Second, God’s mission is broader than Jonah wanted to imagine. The Book of Jonah anticipates our New Covenant relationship with God in that it anticipates a time when all those united by faith in Christ will receive God’s mercy, despite nationality or ethnicity. Again, Jonah didn’t want to go there.

Finally, there is a narrowness in God’s mercy, even as there is a wideness. The Apostle Paul, in addressing both Jews and Gentiles in the Book of Romans asks, ” … did they [Jews] stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles …” (Rm 11.11a). Jonah’s stubbornness, and the stubbornness of those like him, resulted in God’s character being revealed to the nations. “Hardness” for the physical sons of Abraham will continue, we’re promised, until all the spiritual Ninevites have come in (Rm 11.25).

Important to grasp is that God’s mercy, wide as creation though it be, is not universal. This salvation is found in Christ! And, it is Christ’s obedience that merits mercy rather than justice for all those who rest in His “shade”.

For those who are “in Christ” the message of Jonah challenges us to show the very compassionate mercy of God to those who don’t know Him. This will involve both God’s justice and mercy, seen in the work of Christ and representing the very character of our compassionate God.

My response to God’s merciful plan must involve representing the LORD God who justice and compassionate mercy is seen in the Gospel. 

Here’s a few aspects of Jonah’s final scene that can be talked about in a small group:

How is Jonah’s final attempt to get away from God just another example of man’s age-old attempt to operate apart from God? 

How does God’s lesson for Jonah instruct us regarding the way we, sometimes, want God to judge others while showing us mercy?

Who are those in your life who “don’t know their left hand from their right hand”? 

How does the Book of Jonah help you understand how you’re to interact with those you’ve identified above?