In his preface to Graham Beynon’s God’s New Community, Dave Burke writes,
Underneath its glossy and confident surface, our society is fragmenting. The problem is growing; some people are becoming more isolated, and though they are warm and well fed, it’s cold comfort to those who need love and understanding as well as a couple of square meals a day. Others are not exactly lonely, but keep to their own little cliques. Wherever you go, people form gangs; youths on street corners, old folks in day centres, yuppies in wine bars, ramblers on hilltops. We learn to live in our own little subculture; we live by its rules and think with its prejudices. Sometimes the cliques gang up on each other. Everyone is working to a different self-centred agenda; behind the scenes, society is disintegrating. Isn’t it about time someone thought of a way of reintegrating people, before it’s too late?
Wouldn’t it be great if you could get people of widely different ages, attitudes and outlooks to meet and communicate and learn to love and value each other? How wonderful it would be if children could grow up in a large extended family that includes the rich as well as the financially excluded, black as well as white; a place where class distinction or racial prejudice simply don’t matter? If such an energetic mixed community committed itself to serve those who do not yet belong, imagine the impact they would have!
Communities like this exist: they are called churches. Churches are a great idea, they are God’s idea.1
The letter to the Ephesians is filled with rich themes encompassing a wide range of important doctrine and duty in the Christian life. Yet, fundamentally, it is a letter whose primary burden is to remind and/or instruct various local churches that the gospel of Jesus Christ has formed them into a new and unique kind of community. Perhaps the title, “Living Faithfully as the Community of Faith” is a suitable thematic name for our studies in Ephesians.
Simon Austen has written, “The end point of history is a church, a group of redeemed people from every nation, tribe, language and tongue, who have been reconciled to God and to one another in Christ, singing his praises for all eternity in a new heaven and new earth.”2 It is for this reason that Ephesians has so much to say about the health of the church.
When Paul left the region of Ephesus, he exhorted the elders in what is the only record in the book of Acts of an address to a Christian audience (Acts 20:25–35). Paul’s address concerned the health of the church. This should indicate to us how important the local church is.
John Stott, a great lover of the church, writes,
One of our chief evangelical blind spots has been to overlook the central importance of the church. We tend to proclaim individual salvation without moving on to the saved community. We emphasize that Christ died for us “to redeem us from all iniquity” rather than “to purify for himself a people of his own.” We think of ourselves more as “Christians” than as “churchmen,” and our message is more good news of a new life than of a new society. Nobody can emerge from a careful reading of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians with a privatized gospel. For Ephesians is the gospel of the church.3
In the opening lines of the letter, in what is a very customary salutation from the ancient (Christian) world, Paul hits on several things that are necessary if we will faithfully live as the community of faith.
The letter begins, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (v. 1). This serves as a customary address by Paul when he writes to churches and individuals, but it is no mere formality.
God’s new community is a renewed community. It is a community comprised of those who have been transferred from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Colossians 1:13). We have been born again (John 3:1–3). We have been raised from the dead (Ephesians 2:1, 5–6). We have been transformed. In this epistle we will see this theme over and over. But perhaps nowhere is there a clearer testimony to this than right here in the opening words: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.”
Paul, of course, was for the majority of his life known as Saul, and was from Tarsus.
“Saul of Tarsus” was synonymous not only with Judaism but also with Pharisaic Judaism. He was once a law-abiding and noble type of Pharisee. In fact, Nicodemus, another famous Pharisee, and Saul of Tarsus no doubt had some shared doctrinal convictions. What they did not share, however, was openness to Jesus of Nazareth. Whereas Nicodemus (however timidly) initially sought out Jesus for what he hoped would be an interesting and insightful dialogue (John 3), Saul sought to put to death those who followed the supposedly dead Jesus of Calvary. But one day things changed—very dramatically.
On the road to Damascus, where Saul sought to secure the death penalty for those professing to be the disciples of Jesus, the Lord met him, regenerated him and brought him into His family. The Lord Jesus Christ began a work of amazing transformation.
In the first occasion in the book of Acts that we hear Paul directly speaking we read of the change of his name from Saul to Paul. His ministry was about to become very public and his more Gentile name became prominent (13:9).
I would imagine that each time he wrote “Paul” (rather than “Saul”), he was reminded of the day in which the Lord Jesus transformed his life and how He then united him with a new community, with the first new covenant church in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26–31).
It is important to note that those in God’s new community should not be remembered by their past sins, by their past rebellions against God, but rather they should be recognised as those who have a new name written down in glory. They should be viewed through the eyes of Christ. Paul apparently learned this lesson well (2 Corinthians 5:14–17).
But not only was his name transformed, so was his calling. In fact, the latter ensured the former.
Paul identifies himself as “an apostle of Jesus Christ.” He probably smiled each time he penned those words.
The word “apostle” means “a sent one,” and in this case Paul was sent by Jesus Christ. Paul was a man on a mission. He was a man under authority who therefore had authority.
In some cases, the Greek term apostollos merely means one sent with a message. But here the term applies to a special group in the early days of the new covenant church; a group especially sent by Jesus Christ who were used to lay the foundation for God’s new community of peoples (cf. 2:19–22).
Paul was, of course, not one of the original Twelve, but he exercised the legitimate role, responsibility, and even rule, of an apostle (see 1 Corinthians 4:12; 15:8–10; 2 Corinthians 12:12).
Imagine the incredible transformation required for Saul the persecutor of Christians to become Paul the pastor of Christians! This man, who so rejected the authority of Jesus Christ that he breathed out threats and murder against the Lord’s followers (Acts 9:1), became His willing subject! Liken this to a leading member of ISIS becoming a Christian and you are not far off the mark.
One of the marks of those who make up God’s new community is submission to His authority, regardless of the cost.
Paul would eventually lay down his life for His Lord. His discipleship and apostleship would cost him the ultimate price but He would pay it gladly. When God transforms us from condemned sinners to redeemed servants, no cost is too dear.
Paul wrote this letter as an apostle. Yes, he was a friend to many, yet his concern here was for them to follow the Lord. In fact, it is interesting that the only reference in this letter to any individual is to Tychicus (4:21). This is somewhat strange when you consider that Paul had spent three years teaching them “night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31). Further, he obviously had great affection for the elders of this church, as did they for him (Acts 20:36–38). So why do you suppose that he did not write a more “friendly” letter?
Some have concluded that this letter was actually not written to the Ephesians but rather to the Colossians or Laodiceans. Others suggest that it was a circular letter for all the churches in that region of the world (modern day Turkey). It is disputed whether the words “to the Ephesians” were in the original. They may or may not have been. I am happy to side with history and adopt this reading. Regardless, the reason for the lack of open affection is because something of far more significance was at stake: their loyalty to the Lord. Therefore, they needed to hear from an apostle more than they needed the kind words of a friend.
It should be noted that this epistle does not seem to be addressing a specific doctrinal problem, as is the case in most of Paul’s other epistles. He had warned the leaders that doctrinal deviations and division would arise following his departure (Acts 20:28–31a). Perhaps the contents of this letter were designed to further equip them to stand (see chapter 6). But in the light of Revelation 2:1–5, it is quite possible that Paul already sensed this defection of devotion at play. He knew that the best antidote was for them to be reawakened by the glory of the gospel. They needed, at least at this point, an authoritative exhortation from a transformed man more than they needed a pat on the back from a friend.
We might do well to learn from this. For example, fathers need often to be fathers rather than buddies to their children. We love our children, but they need to understand our authority, much in the same way the Ephesians needed to understand Paul’s authority.
The point to take away is that we need to hear the authoritative, apostolic Word if we will properly appreciate and personally and powerfully appropriate all that we have inherited as members of God’s community.
Though it is true that we are not apostles, nevertheless we have the words of the apostles and they are as sure today as they were when received by the first congregation.
We need to hear and to heed the authoritative Word, which encourages us about our transformed life and points us to all that is ours in Christ. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.
The final phrase in this opening section of v. 1 is deeply instructive. Essentially, Paul is saying that he is “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ” for one very specific and sovereign reason: “the will of God.” This little phrase is packed with significance, which the remainder of the chapters will highlight.
For many, v. 4 is either the comforting or controversial issue that arises from a study of the letter. The doctrine of election either stirs up or settles the reader. But, in fact, this opening phrase of v. 1 teaches the very same thing: The lives of the members of God’s new community are transformed totally because of the will of God. Saul was transformed to Paul; the rebel was made a submissive apostle; the persecutor of Christ became a pastor of Christians all because of the sovereign will of God. This customary greeting is packed with the gospel; it is loaded with the good news. Salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9).
What a wonderful assurance: Our lives are forever transformed because of God’s sovereign will. What a wonderful encouragement to reflect upon the possibility that God can transform your life, and the life of your loved one and friend.
What a comforting truth that, by the will of God, the most vociferous and vicious haters of Christ can be transformed into His messengers. What a wonderful reminder that God’s new community, God’s church, exists by the sure and steadfast will of God. No wonder Jesus boasted that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18)!
The letter is addressed “to the saints who are in Christ Jesus and faithful in Christ Jesus” (v. 1).
Having identified himself, Paul now identifies those to whom he is writing. By doing so, he (intentionally or otherwise) highlights one of the major themes of the letter: the true identity of those who comprise God’s new community.
We should note that the church is always God’s new community because His church is always experiencing additions, while older members are constantly undergoing renovation.
Paul writes “to the saints who are in Ephesus and faithful in Christ Jesus.”
As mentioned, “at Ephesus” may or may not have been in the original address. Regardless, it is clear, for many reasons, that this letter was written to churches in the region near Ephesus, if not Ephesus itself. This is important as we consider these words.
You will recall that, when Paul ministered in Ephesus, the word spread to all of Asia Minor (Acts 19:10). You will also recall the cultural stir that arose as the gospel gripped the hearts of many peoples in that region (19:11–20). The lives of those who believed the gospel were powerfully transformed (like Paul’s). They repented, gave up their idols (literally) and continued to live lives that were separated to the Lord. This is what the word “saint” means. The term is not reserved for super Christians. Rather, this is what “the will of God” does for everyone whom He saves. He “sets apart” each of us to Himself. The word “church” means “a called out assembly.” This means that God calls us out of the world to be consecrated (separated) to Him. Fundamentally, this means that we are different. Once we are born again we may remain in Alberton (insert your own city here) but we are very different than most Albertonians. And this is the rub.
When you think about it, we should marvel at this statement: “to the holy ones,” “to the ones set apart to God in Ephesus,” “to the ones who are different than the Artemis-worshipping citizens of Ephesus.” Wow. What a statement. And what an encouragement. Bryan Chapell in fact writes,
It was incredible to refer to those who were in Ephesus as “saints,” and maybe it was a stretch of the imagination, too. For how could there be “holy ones” in a place where politics, philosophy, economics, and religion all intertwined to capture an entire culture in pervasive sin?4
Ephesus was an immoral and idolatrous city. Yet the saints flourished there. This should encourage us that we too can productively live countercultural lives. We can defy the gods of our age to the glory of God.
We should not miss the point that, though we are Christians, though by the will of God we uniquely belong to God, nevertheless we are still citizens of earthly places. The geographic location in which we find ourselves is also “by the will of God” and it is precisely there where we are to live as saints. Or, in the words of v. 1, it is there where we are to be “faithful in Christ Jesus.”
It is our faithfulness to Christ that sets us apart from the world. It is not necessarily our morality that does so. Many unbelievers are kind and nice and honest and moral. But what makes the Christian different is his motivation. For we live by faith in Christ alone.
This phrase indicates that Paul is addressing his letter to those who are characterised by faith; they are “full of faith,” and therefore not only do they believe on Christ but they are believable as they profess their belief in Christ. “They are believers and their calling is to faithfulness.”5
As the New Testament is not shy to declare, faith is proven by works. Paul is writing to those who were identifiable as Christians through the practice of their faith. And it was this faith that empowered them to shine so brightly in such a dark place. As Austen comments, “In the mixed pagan culture of Ephesus, it is their faith, given by God, which enables them to be part of this new community and to live as light in a dark world.”6
This phrase is evidence that this was intended as a circular letter. Not only was it intended for the Ephesian “faithful” but it was also intended for all who are faithful. Though there were believers and churches in lesser known cities and towns, the demands were the same, as was the dynamic of the gospel to accomplish those demands. We may not be in Ephesus, but the church in Alberton is nonetheless required to be faithful. We are to be characterised by both belief and believability.
Again, Paul writes as an “apostle,” meaning that he writes with authority, under the authority of God. This apostolic, God-inspired Word will bear fruit in the lives and in the congregations of those who are faithful in Christ. In fact, it is this very Word that empowers our faithfulness (Romans 10:17).
In summary, Christians are identifiable by, among other things, their faithfulness. How is yours?
Identity in Christ
The last three words of v. 1 (“in Christ Jesus”) are in some ways the most important words of the verse–and of the epistle. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is only to the degree that we properly grasp the meaning of these words, that we will live faithfully and therefore fruitfully as God’s new community.
The “in Christ” category is found some ninety times in the New Testament, and in various forms it is used some 25 times in Ephesians, at least eleven times in this opening chapter. Being “in Christ” is the believer’s ultimate identity. But what does this mean? Simply, for those who are Christians, who He is, we have access to. Where He is, we are too. What He has done, we derive from. What He thinks of us is all that matters.
I have no doubt that if Christians would dwell on their true identity in Christ they would live like saints in Christ Jesus. God’s new community would continually be renewed if we would find our significance in Christ alone.
This, of course, calls for an understanding of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone.
As we grasp that, in Christ, we are declared to be fully acquitted of all of our sins (past, present and future) because of His life, death and resurrection on our behalf, as we experientially embrace the reality that we are as accepted by the Father in the same way that He accepts His Son, and as we live with the confidence that we are as secure as the Son (John 10:27–30), we will live such different lives than the unbelieving around us. We will be ready, willing and able to forgive wrongs done to us (Ephesians 4:32). We will display joyful submission in the midst of hardship and heartache (Ephesians 4:1–3; 5:18–21). We will manifest ongoing reformation of our character and conduct (Ephesians 4:17–24ff) and loving and healthy, because godly, families (Ephesians 5:18–6:4). We will realize freedom from a life controlling anxiety (Ephesians 6:10–18; Philippians 4:4–7) and from the bondage attending social and self-condemnation (1 Corinthians 4:1–5). These are just a few samples of what it means to live as those who are “in Christ.”
To be “in Christ” is the most glorious position in which we can be placed and it affords us the most glorious and unshakeable power we need to live as “saints in _____” and as those who are “faithful in Christ.” And if you doubt this, then simply read and contemplate vv. 17–23. When you contemplate all He is then your identity as one who belongs to Him will give you every confidence that you need to live faithfully in whatever Ephesus He has placed you. And such a union will drive us to a countercultural community of communion in Christ.
Living as citizens of two “cities” can create tensions. John Stott observes, “Many of our spiritual troubles arise from our failure to remember that we are citizens of two kingdoms. We tend either to pursue Christ and withdraw from the world, or to become preoccupied with the world and forget that we are also in Christ.”7 But as we keep our identity in Christ before us then we can fruitfully live with the tension.
Before moving on we must once again remind ourselves that being “in Christ” is, like with Paul, all “by the will of God.” This quite logically leads us to the next verse and to the next observation.
Paul extends “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 2). I like what Kent Hughes says with reference to these words: “This is what we have to offer to others—a brand-new greeting from another world.”8 And we should contemplate the profound truth that “with these simple words Paul underscores the good news that God provides what we cannot provide for ourselves.”9
To live as God’s new community, to live out our identity; to become all that we are requires God’s grace and God’s peace.
We need God’s powerful enabling (grace) and we need God’s provision of tranquillity. And these are the assumed benefits of every one who is a “saint” and therefore “faithful” because of being “in Christ.” Verse 2 clearly teaches this.
This greeting is not only to a select group of “super believers” but rather is the birthright of each and every person who is “in Christ.” To be “in Christ” means that we have access to God’s strength to face every eventuality (2 Corinthians 12:9–10) as well as access to God’s shalom. In fact, not only does this epistle open with this assurance, it closes with it as well (6:23–24).
God’s new community is the special recipient of God’s grace and this grace is a large theme in this letter. (Grace is specifically mentioned at least twelve times.) Furthermore, peace also looms large as a characteristic of the community of faith (mentioned at least seven times). Those whom, “by the will of God,” belong to Christ are therefore marked by graciousness and by peace-making. In other words, we are like God the Father and like His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:9; John 1:17; 14:27).
We need to evaluate our lives both individually and corporately with reference to these qualities. In other words, are we gracious? Are we ourselves living in awareness and assurance of God’s grace? Are we embracing the gift of shalom (Numbers 6:24–27) and are we peaceable towards others (Romans 12:17–21; Titus 3:2; James 3:17)? Perhaps to cut close to the bone, how are our race relations? This was a huge theme in the early church and therefore in Ephesians.
Shalom is never merely about our own personal safety, security and sanity. Rather it is about shalom, first and foremost, among all of those in God’s community.
I suspect that if each of us gave due consideration to these words of v. 2 then the realisation would dawn upon us that we have everything we need to be both gracious and peaceable. What a difference this would make in our relationships. What a difference it would make in our church. What a difference it would make in our homes. Let us not gloss over this customary greeting to Christians! This is not mere Christianese is rather the language of love from our God who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us immerse ourselves in this love and then dispense it to others.
In v. 3 Paul breaks into a doxology that forms, in the origin Neal, a single sentence through v. 14: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
As we read these words we can almost see Paul exulting with visible joy. Though he is imprisoned, he can nevertheless hardly contain his exultation in the goodness of God who has transformed him from slaughtering Saul into pastoring Paul. He knows that he is “in Christ” and that he is the recipient of
God’s “grace and peace” only “by the will of God.” How else can he begin the body of this letter but with, “Blessed be God”?
A Eulogising Community
God’s new community exults in the triune God. God’s new community adores the triune God who has saved us from our sins and who has translated us from the cursed God-defying world system into the heavenlies.
Three times there is a reference to “blessing” in v. 3. The first one is actually a eulogy.
When we think of “eulogy” we think of a funeral or memorial service. But the word “blessed” here is a translation of the Greek word from which we get the word “eulogy,” and it simply means a “good word.” Paul is praising God. He is saying something very good about God. And what he is saying is that God is to be praised for the good thing He has done for all who are “in Christ.” But before we unpack this we should note something very important.
Paul’s “eulogy” was not a vague praise of some Higher Power; no, it was very specific. Paul did not want anyone to be confused about the God whom he worshipped. He worshipped the God who is the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Make no mistake: Ephesus, like Johannesburg, was a very religious place. Paul did not want to be misunderstood. He wanted to make sure that the God whom he was praising was not in any way connected with Artemis or Caesar10 or with any other god who is no God.
The new community of God’s people is a unique community. And we must not be shy or ashamed to say so. We must be clear concerning the God whom we love and serve.
It was this very exclusivity, this very precise theology of the gospel message, that stirred so much trouble in Ephesus (Acts 19). And it still does.
We are to be as winsome as we can be without tolerating rivals to the one true God. Tim Keller recently tweeted, “Tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.” That latter statement is important. No one was firmer in his beliefs than Paul. Yet what is striking was his ability to stand for the truth while not mistreating those who disagreed with him (see Acts 19:28–31; 17:22ff).
My point is that God’s new community is not called to be pugnacious; rather, as we uncompromisingly stand for the truth, as we uncompromisingly state the truth, we must do so as those who have “grace and peace.” We are called to win souls, not to win arguments (Colossians 4:2–6).
In upcoming studies we will unpack what some of these blessings are for which we are to bless God. In fact, the phrase “suggests that from Him comes one continuous flow of blessing.”11 But as we draw this to a close we need to focus on the reality that these blessings that are ours are from the “Father,” they are “spiritual blessings,” they are “in Christ,” and they include “every” thing that we could possibly need.
First, God the “Father” has provided these blessings. The gospel is God’s plan; it is God’s idea. God is for His people. Don’t forget that. Praise Him for this.
Second, these blessings are “spiritual.” That is, they are “of the Spirit.” They are in the realm of the Spirit. Charles Hodge notes, “These blessings are spiritual not merely because they pertain to the soul, but because derived from the Holy Spirit, whose presence and influence are the great blessing purchased by Christ.”12 This does not make them ethereal and therefore less real than the physical. Rather, this means that these blessings are only available to those who have the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14–16). But ultimately this is the most important kind of blessing that we need.
Third, these blessings are ours “in Christ.” We do not earn these blessings; they are rather our inheritance through our union with Jesus Christ. They are free. How foolish therefore for us to live as spiritual paupers.
I recently attended a Kumon conference with my wife at which this principle was powerfully (and somewhat humourously) illustrated. The price paid by delegates included both the hotel room and breakfast. As my wife sat down to lunch the day of the conference, a couple sitting at her table told her how famished they were. When she asked if they had skipped breakfast they confirmed that they had because they hadn’t wanted pay for it. They went hungry because they didn’t realise that the price paid included the cost of breakfast.
Fourth, these blessings include everything we can possibly need. Paul tells us that we have “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (heavenlies) in Christ.” The latter phrase defines “every.” In other words, whatever blessings that Jesus is experiencing in heaven at the right hand of the Father are available to us. As Chapell observes, “As hell is total, conscious separation from the blessing of God, so the spiritual dimension of heaven is total and conscious union with God.”13 Think about that and then try to be grumpy! As Foulkes helpfully observes, our “life is lifted above the commonplace. It is in the world, but it is also in heaven, unlimited by the material things that pass away. Life now, if it is life ‘in Christ,’ is in the heavenly realm.”14
Believers are perfectly loved by the triune God. We enjoy complete and unchangeable acceptance before God. We are privileged with absolute confidence about the present and the future (see vv. 19–23). We enjoy unbroken, unshakeable and unmitigated joy in the Lord. There is sovereign power available to us to overcome all challenges as hope remains strong and unquenchable (v. 18).
When we consider all these blessings, and more that have been freely given to us, how can we not join with Paul and shout, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!”
If God’s new community gives appropriate contemplation to these truths, then not only will adoration result, but so will renewed devotion to the Lord and renewed determination for the mission we have been given. “The people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits” (Daniel 11:32). Perhaps we can put it this way: Those who contemplate all that is theirs as a member of God’s new community will be so devoted to God that they will live as saints, faithfully serving Christ empowered by His grace and peace.
With such an identity how can we not but adore “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?”
- Graham Beynon, God’s New Community: New Testament Patterns for Today’s Church (Nottinghman: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 5–6. ↩
- Simon Austen, Teaching Ephesians: From Text to Message (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2012), 24. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 9. ↩
- Bryan Chapell, Ephesians: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009), 11. ↩
- Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 52. ↩
- Austen, Teaching Ephesians, 43. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 23. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 19. ↩
- Chapell, Ephesians, 13. ↩
- Ephesus was also known for Emperor worship. ↩
- Foulkes, Ephesians, 54. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 33. ↩
- Chapell, Ephesians, 21. ↩
- Foulkes, Ephesians, 55. ↩