Ephesians 1:3 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”
Ephesus was a microcosm of that ancient world in which the first Christians lived and followed the Lord Jesus. Though it was a culture vastly different from ours in terms of a scientific world-view, and ease of travel and communication, yet ethically and religiously it was not very different at all. All of Ephesus was dominated by the temple to Artemis (or ‘Diana’ as the Romans called that goddess) rather as we see the skyline of Cardiff (the capital of Wales) dominated by the Millennium Stadium. Here in our small town of 15,000 people we have been agitated this summer by one man’s attempt to open a sex-shop in one of the main streets, but we pray we may see that attempt thwarted (there is still a residue of an earlier grace in the Principality which believes such a business to be indescribably tawdry and corrupting). What a minor problem that is when compared to what the first Ephesian Christians faced. The 300-year-old Temple of Artemis centred on an altar where constant sacrifices were made to a massive idol chiselled out of a meteorite; thousands of worshippers from different countries visited the Temple each week. It was considered one of the seven wonders of the world, and it was situated at the head of the harbour into which came seamen, merchants, travellers and soldiers from all over the Aegean. This Temple could also be described as a vast sex shop. Artemis was a fertility goddess employing hundreds of priestesses. The Temple was the most important institution in the city with a powerful guild or trade union of craftsmen who made miniature idol replicas.
Imagine living your entire Christian life, raising your boys and girls, going to the Sunday meetings and evangelising in a community always under the shadow of Artemis! To help you do this you had this letter of Paul’s. It was the one piece of New Testament that you had, though soon you would be getting more. There were other distractions, annual Games in the month of May, and these were generally held in this provincial capital. Paul speaks of ‘fighting with wild beasts at Ephesus’. Also in the city were the headquarters for Asia Minor of the cult of the Emperor which encouraged the worship of the State and Caesar as a divine being. The practice of magic and fortune telling was widespread. It was one of the wealthiest cities of the world with at least a hundred thousand slaves, and so there existed a chasm between the lifestyles of the rich and the poor. Punishments for delinquents were brutal. I am saying to you that that way of life was not so different philosophically and morally from the 21st century world in which we live as followers of the Lord Jesus, in our own civilisation which is alien to Biblical teaching, sensual, pagan and spiritually bankrupt in its atmosphere, with a drugs-fuelled underclass of fearful and growing violence. Listening to the news this past week, local and national, has been a depressing experience. One evening I sighed, “We shouldn’t be listening to all of this.” It was so dark, full of murders of families, and suicides, and we no longer weep, or blush.
Behind and beneath such explosions of cruelty is a philosophy of despair. One thinks of the crisis of identity with which modern life is bedevilled – the boredom, the hopelessness, the futility, the nothingness – what one modern writer has called ‘the implacable absurdity of the universe’ and ‘the idea of total uncertainty . . . not mere social and personal disorientation, but the irreparable loss of all the co-ordinates that used to give men their bearings in the world’ – he is writing of the disintegration of such features as the larger family unit, political leadership, the church, the police force, the schoolteacher, the minister. Personal authority figures are no more. Society has lost its moral compass and the scientific compass men think they’ve got in its place is no help in telling them how they should live. A surfeit of indulgence has imposed a new oppression. Those whose mood is permanently wired for escape are left with nowhere to hide. The apostle Peter comments that there is power in the gospel to ransom men from ‘futile ways’ (I Pet. 1:18) – from our contemporary disorientation, the emptiness and meaninglessness to which all creation has been brought by the Fall. I think that that is an accurate evaluation of our bleak age, and so we are not that far, philosophically, from Ephesus of 2000 years ago. Certainly today we face the identical challenge as they did of being God-honouring Christians, living to the glory of the Lord. It was tough then and it is tough today living a credible godly life.
We were recently with a friend who had been away visiting her family last month, and she described her difficulty in talking to her two nieces (who are in their mid to late twenties) about the true Christian faith. She didn’t realise how well she was capturing for me her struggle to find some contact with them, her exasperation with herself for her failure to be a witness to her Saviour. It was so helpful to me to feel her disappointment and guilt. I myself know it well, and I am supposed to do that sort of thing in a professional kind of way. She couldn’t find some ‘door’ she could take them through so that they could talk naturally of the claims of Christ, and his relevance to their lives. Isn’t that a common enough experience today? Our nation is by and large hostile to Christianity. It sees no need of religion. It thinks we are quite mistaken in clinging to it, and it wants to deliver people from those superstitious vestiges of what they judge to be an outmoded attitude to life. Those two nieces know that our friend is ‘religious’, and that she feels other people ought to be ‘religious’ too, but their comprehension of religion and their knowledge of the woman vicar in their country community isn’t encouraging them in any way to get plugged in to Jesus Christ. He seems quite irrelevant to them, but, if their beloved aunt gets some satisfaction out of what she believes, then they are pleased. I felt such sympathy for her as she told of her failure and the challenge it was.
How do we make meaningful contact with people about the Lord in our pagan and apathetic system? I think that one way is to go for a walk into the countryside. I always remember Francis Schaeffer recounting how he was speaking to a student agnostic as they walked along a city’s streets. The young man’s opposition to Christianity was resolute, and then they entered the city park, went deep into its glades and walked around its lake. Soon the noise of the traffic was gone and confronted with the witness of God’s creation the man’s arguments began to collapse and his whole tone changed to become more inquiring and searching. Another way would be for our friend to get her nieces onto her own patch, to stay with her in London for a week and take them to church with her or talk about why she goes to church. I think that it helps to get people out of their fortresses. Of course we must pray, and be sensitive to the Holy Spirit and courageous. Don’t be afraid of putting your foot in it.
How does Paul lift these Christians? What is significant is this, that no one would know from this letter that the Temple of Artemis, or the cult of emperor worship dominated this community. We have this plea that the pulpit be ‘relevant’ and address contemporary issues – “Preach about Iraq!” Paul nowhere mentions such Artemis and Caesar, let alone attacks or abuses them. The theme of this letter, from its opening words, is the greatness of the living God, and what the Lord has done for sinners through his Son Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul addresses eternally relevant issues rather than certain contemporary ones. He believes that the increasing brightness of the light of God will drive away the darkness. So in this letter notice how quickly Paul gets through his introductory remarks and sets out on this delightful work: “Let me tell you again about God,” he is saying; “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (v.3). Paul never tired of making God appear as very great. Some men recently told me that they always identify my preaching with speaking about the Lord Jesus Christ. That seemed to them to be the theme of all my preaching, so they said; that is what they connect me to. It was a wonderful remark, unexpected, unsolicited and unsought, and I hope it is true. I want it to be true. Paul begins his letter by this praise – “Blessed be God.”
Do you understand the point I am making? I am saying that vileness of every kind abounded in Ephesus, but what Paul did to counter it seems so underplayed. He wrote a letter in which he exalted the living God. In the long run magnifying our great Saviour was going to be the only way that locked-in evil would be dealt with. By the grace of the living reality of God relationships of husbands and wives would change, the role of women would be elevated to its biblical pattern, children would be protected and no longer exposed to die, slaves would be freed, man’s true humanity and dignity as people made in the likeness of God would be esteemed. Let me illustrate by this old story. A theatre troupe was being transported by plane across the USA and while they were in flight they discovered that one of their exhibits, a deadly snake, had escaped, and it was slithering around the plane somewhere. They were fearful of causing a panic by telling the little group of passengers what had happened. What the pilot did was to announce that they were having some difficulty with the oxygen supply so would they all put on their oxygen masks. When they had done this the pilot put the plane into a steep ascent right out of the oxygen zone, and soon the snake suffocated, and the threat was ended. That is Paul’s approach here: tawdry wickedness engulfs a city but the apostle lifts the people of God high by exalting the mighty name of the living God. As he is exalted Christians become stronger, and evil gets weaker; it withers and dies.
Now you may not see from our English Bibles that verse three is merely the opening words of one single sentence, the longest sentence in the New Testament, which goes on to the end of verse 14. It has 202 words. No translation into English can sustain such a single sentence structure. In our version, as even in the Authorised Version, you’ll see it has been chopped up into a few sentences. But Paul keeps going on and on with one sentence, “We’ve been blessed with every spiritual blessing – think of it . . .” and then he starts to list the blessings, and he can’t stop, adding phrase upon phrase, doctrine upon doctrine . . . ” . . . and have you thought of this . . . and also this one . . .” Here is an accumulation of relative clauses and phrases whose links the sharpest Greek scholars debate. The sentence doesn’t have a definite form or structure. It is not a systematic doxology – you can get that in books of prayers on certain themes, like those you read in “The Valley of Vision” (Banner of Truth). This passage, however, is like a wild garden with all the flowers in bloom unarranged, rather than a planted garden with everything in beds and rows. It takes the longest sentence in the New Testament to speak of the many blessings of every kind that God has lavished upon the mere Christian. No other letter in the New Testament has anything like this. How would you describe it? It is a benediction. It is a doxology. It is a eulogy – that is the actual word Paul uses here. It is a hymn of praise and gratitude to God. It is a continuous stream of conscious, educated, informed worship. It is a great antidote to the prevailing religious climate of self-pity that actually stops some people attending Prayer Meetings or makes them mute when they are there.
“Have you no words? Ah! Think again.
Words flow apace when you complain.
And fill your fellow-creature’s ear
With the sad tales of all your care.
Were half the breath thus vainly spent
To heaven in supplication sent,
Your cheerful song would oftener be,
Hear what the Lord has done for me!” (William Cowper, 1731 – 1800).
Paul had words for which to bless his great loving Father in heaven, and this is Paul’s initial theme, “Hear, ye men of Ephesus, what the Lord has done for all of you!” He sets out the context for all Christian praise and prayer by reflecting on the greatness of God. The result is spiritual worship and adoration of such a God who deals familiarly and kindly with sinners who repent and trust in his Son It is in fact his Son Jesus Christ who receives the most attention in these verses. The name or title ‘Christ’ or its equivalent occurs fifteen times in these verses. Paul wants his own adoration of the Lord Jesus to overflow into Ephesus, so that in the shadow of that hideous Temple Christians will respond as Paul does and be lost in wonder, love and praise. Doxology is the victory that overcomes the world. With a vision of the God of grace believers would look at the Temple of Artemis and see it as the pathetic brothel it was. Paul wants them to grasp in a fresh way their redemption in Christ and all the wonder of what happened when they experienced his salvation.
Let me ask you if you can imagine the scene? They were sitting there in the congregation on a Lord’s Day morning, and one of the elders got up to speak. In the silence he told them that they had received a letter from Paul and he was about to read it to them. A letter? Oh yes? Some of them had had notes from husbands working in Egypt for a few months, or from sons who were sailors or soldiers in the Imperial army. OK, Paul had written them a letter, that was nice. They smiled in anticipation at one another. Then the elder began to read it . . . and soon you could hear a pin drop! They felt the hairs on the back of their necks standing on edge. Their heartbeat went up; some of them were panting for breath. They leaned forward craning their ears not to miss a word. On and on it went, the glories of the grace of God followed by the marvellous privileges of the church, followed by exhortations as to how they should live, personally, in the church, and in their families. They were like that man who dug a hole in a field and found exquisite treasure. They had left their homes in Ephesus that morning, and walked through its bustling streets to the place where they’d assembled for some years. They never dreamt what was in store for them. They never forgot that service, while some were absent and cross that they had missed it. Of course they got to know that letter in the years to come. It was copied out, and many of them memorised it. It was the only way to keep it for those who were illiterate, but that first morning, maybe just as the sun was rising, the old elder’s voice, at times cracked with emotion, as he read these words aloud for the first time in human history, was an experience the whole church would never forget.
The words of our text are making a couple of crucial points:
1. THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS CENTRED UPON THE TRIUNE GOD.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (v.3). Here is one who in the Old Testament was praised as the God of Israel, the God Most High, the Lord, and now he is known to Paul as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Can you see the fascination of these words? Look in the previous verse where Paul prays that grace and peace will come to the Ephesian Christians from whom? God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Where is Jesus Christ in Paul’s estimation? He is up there with God the Father. He is alongside him, on the same footing, not a little below him. Jesus Christ is the giver of grace and peace as is God the Father. The blessings which we have come to us from Father and Son. You cannot imagine Paul putting his own name alongside the Creator of the ends of the earth. “Grace and peace to you from God and me!” Or “Grace and peace to you from God and Mary!” It is unthinkable. This is the living God, a Spirit who is infinite, eternal, unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth, while we are weak and helpless sinners who all need to be saved. How did Mary herself address God? “My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” she said. You don’t conjoin the name of a fallen man or guilty woman who needs salvation to the name of the eternally majestic God. But all of us join the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to God don’t we? This is characteristic of the entire New Testament. Think of the baptismal words – “baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Think of what is called ‘the grace’, and the order of the three names in the New Testament in that grace, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” The Lord Jesus Christ is given priority. You would never think of saying, “The grace of Mother Teresa, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” You can’t do that because Teresa was a sinner, as well as being a creature with all the limitations of creaturehood. The Lord Jesus is different. He is alongside the Father as the initiator of the grace and peace we all must have.
But in this third verse the relationship is different from the second; here we are told that God is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So we are introduced immediately to our Lord Jesus as (and here let me use two helpful buzz phrases) in verse two coextensive with the Father in his being and actions, but then in verse three he is functionally subordinate. The Father and the Son are two different persons but they are one in their being, equal in power and glory. That is how God has always been. He never became triune; he simply is triune. In other words, the divine nature did not first exist in simple unity and then, like the picture we have in our minds of a living cell reproducing, God suddenly – blip! – divided into three. It was not like that at all. There was no temporal or logical priority of the oneness over the threeness. God has always been three, and God has always been one, and there is no other being like him. Every other being we know is only one. Of course God is one: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one!” Before we say anything else we have to say that, and we delight in saying it. One God! One living and true God! God is One.
No one defends the unity of God so much as a Trinitarian. The Mormons make everybody a god. The Roman Catholics have elevated Mary and made her almost a goddess, someone able to hear the prayers of everybody in the world at the same time. The Jehovah Witnesses have got this being, Jesus, who is virtually God and very like God, but not God. He can create, and sustain, and save, and judge – yet he is not God! They’ve got two gods. There is one God, and yet in that great oneness, without detracting from it, and without compromising it in any way, we say that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, and these are not three gods, they are one God communing with one another and loving one another. The poor Moslems have just one solitary divine monad. One lonely being in eternity past, for ever and ever alone. No one else but Allah. I don’t envy such a god. I wouldn’t like to be such a god.
How different is the one living God! In him there is God and God (v.2), and there is the God of God (v.3), and that is such a remarkable paradox. We find it in the opening words of John’s gospel: In the beginning the Word was already in being, and the Word, in that beginning was with God, and the Word was God. In terms of plain one syllable language John chapter 1 verse 1 is one of the simplest sentences in human language. Yet in terms of profundity and theological perception it is the greatest of all human utterances. The Word was God, and yet the Word was with God. This is the God we find here in Paul’s letter, in the opening verses. Here is plain trinitarianism, Father and Son, the conceivers and bestowers of grace and peace to the whole church (v.2). They are one in glory and might, and yet God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ (v.3) as he comes to redeem us.
Think of this relationship as one of them hangs on the cross and cries to the other, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” God is forsaken by God. So the threeness of God is not simply the threeness of three different names for the one subject. It is not three faces, or three aspects, or three qualities, or three attributes of deity, but there are three persons, only one is the Father, and only one is the Son, and only one is sent by the Father and the Son. In this threeness the one loves the other, the one is with the other, and the one comes into the world as God incarnate and he does the will of the one who sent him. So God is the Lord Jesus Christ’s God and Father, and he is also himself God.
There were once a couple of men who were arguing about the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the one was very grudging in his concession that the Bible did seem to teach that Jesus Christ was God, but he added, “If it is so, it certainly should have been expressed in more clear and unequivocal terms.” “Oh,” said the other, “how would you have expressed the doctrine to make it irrefutable?” “Well,” said the other man, thinking for a moment, “I would say, ‘Jesus Christ is the true God.'” “Right,” said the other man, “that is a good choice of words. Look at John’s first letter, chapter five and verse twenty, where John is speaking about God’s Son Jesus Christ, where he writes, “He is the true God, and life eternal.” He is the true God, and so we can all pray to him and he will hear us all; he is the true God and so we can know he will never leave us; he is the true God and so he loves us with an everlasting love. He is the true God and so his sacrifice is divinely powerful and enduringly pardoning. “Feed the flock of God which he purchased with his own blood.”
Here is the apostle Paul who once had zealously worshipped the God of the Old Testament, and had been breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the church. One day he was confronted by a glorious being in a great light on the road to Damascus, and as he fell blinded to the ground he cried out, “Who art thou Lord?” That Lord transformed his life, and that Lord the apostle Paul worshipped from that day onwards. He had worshipped the God of Genesis 1 and Sinai, the God of the David and the prophets, but now he also worship Jesus Christ the Son of God, as did all the New Testament church. It was Paul’s trinitarianism that made him a worshipper. It was the same with Robert Hall of Bristol. He wanted to be a preacher, but he was doubting the doctrine of the trinity. Yet the more he read the Bible the more his heart was drawn out to God in devotion and love and adoration. Increasingly he felt himself to be nothing and God to be all in all, and thus, as he read the Bible and communed with the Godhead revealed there he was constrained to believe that the Father was God, the Son was God and the Spirit was God, and these three were one God. It was in spiritual worship he knew who God was. In spiritual worship we become more like God. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” When that is your worship you have to be Trinitarian. The Christian life is centred upon the Triune God. Eternal life is to know this God.
2. THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ONE OVERWHELMED WITH SPIRITUAL BLESSINGS.
God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (v.3). It is so inadequate to say ‘thank you’ to God for what he is and what he’s done. So Paul praises God: “You are worthy of my praise and worship,” he says, and this is the reason, that this God has blessed him so much. It is not that he has turned his wrath aside and forgiven us, though that is a great blessing. Certainly he has not condemned us; he has not cast us into hell as he did the angels who rebelled against him, but positively God has heaped his blessings upon us. There are three things Paul says about these blessings.
i] God has blessed us in the heavenly realms. Isn’t that an unusual phrase? It is found only in the letter to the Ephesians, but it occurs five times in this letter. It basically means the real world of God’s creation which is ruled over by the Lord from heaven with all his angelic hosts, and is opposed by the principalities and powers of darkness. Men and women without Christ don’t know that world. They live in a very restricted world, like someone who had never once gone outside the boundaries of this town, and never read a word or seen a picture of the world outside Aberystwyth. This community was his entire universe; this year of 2003 is his entire age. What a restricted little realm in which to live your life. Let me tell you a parable: there was once a boy and he was cruelly hypnotised so that he could not see or hear his parents. He lived in the house with them, and they cared for him, cooking his meals, washing his clothes, making his bed, and loving him constantly, but he simply looked through them. To him Mam and Dad were invisible, and he never spoke to them nor heard them speak. That was the realm in which he lived. Then one day the hypnotic spell was broken, this blind spot ended, and he could see and hear his parents. They were the authors of all the blessings he enjoyed day by day. All the good and perfect gifts he received had come to him from them, and now he could see and understand. That is like our salvation. That is coming from a narrow realm of ignorance to the big realm of reality and truth. God’s blessing brings sinners into the light from a shadowlands existence. In salvation we enter the real heavenly realm.
That is what has happened to every Christian. We know where this world comes from: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” We know who we are: “I am made in the image and likeness of God.” We know what’s wrong: “we’ve been ruined by the fall of our father Adam.” We know what we must do to be saved: “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” We know what our chief end in life is: “to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.” We know what the good life is: “to love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself.” We know how we should live: “fear God and keep his commandments.” We know what’s before us when we die: “It is appointed unto men once to die and after death the judgment.” That is the world view of those who live in the heavenly realms. That is reality. That is truth. Any world view which excludes the heavenly realms where God lives and speaks and acts is a narrow restricted world of darkness. Those who have entered the heavenly realms have the blessings of knowledge, and truth, and righteousness.
Non-Christians are blessed by God’s goodness and common grace, but all their blessings come short of being blessed in the heavenly places. They know the blessings of long life, and good health, and prosperity, and families, and safety in travel, and peace in their nations, and so on. Those are not inconsiderable blessings, and you can see how people will strive to be satisfied with them, but they are all blessings apart from the heavenly realm. That is, without the reality of the Lord Jesus, his forgiveness, his strength, his word, his day, his people, his truth, his mediatorship. All such blessings are in the heavenly realm, but sinners keep that door marked ‘Heavenly Realm’ locked and barred and have lived exclusively in their little earthly realm, but alas, it is a restless place which cannot satisfy. The man she loves one day dies and she has to live on in the lonely years without any hope of joining him in heaven, just two piles of ashes scattered on a garden. The children they reared now have their own spouses to care for and they can only give their parents some of their time. We’re getting increasingly frail with all kinds of ailments, and our money can’t buy happiness or health. We are lost people. We have gained some of the things that the world offered us, but we have lost our souls. We have made a bad bargain. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” But the person who lives in the heavenly realms knows reality, a loving Saviour in control, working all things for his good, sustaining us with strength and hope day by day. That is the real world; that is eternal life, to be blessed in the heavenly realms.
I have just been reading Martin Luther’s “Tabletalk” which has recently been reprinted. I was asked to review it for a Journal of Theology. Luther’s friends who sat around his table, especially the theological students who lodged in his home, wrote down his comments and his answers to questions at mealtimes – his ‘table talk’. This was published soon after his death and it has continued to be republished ever since. Luther speaks of these people who refuse to live in the heavenly realms. One man, Duke John Frederic, wasn’t bothered with Christianity because, he said, ‘it pays no interest.’ There was no money in it, and in his world money was all important. Luther told the story of the lion who invited all the beasts of the jungle to a wonderful meal – mountains of tender peas, slices of the most savoury meat, jugs of hot gravy, delicious trifles and meringues – but the swine who came around turned their snouts up: “Don’t you have any barley seed?” they asked. So we preachers set before men and women heavenly glorious joys, and they turn up their noses at it – ‘it pays no interest.’ You offer a vulture a crisp salad covered in Thousand Island dressing, and it will refuse it, preferring to tear from the rotting carcass of a badger lying on the side of the road. One of Luther’s preacher friends was having a hard time getting people to believe the gospel: “Come and listen to the Word of God,” he cried. “Well,” said they smiling, “tap a good barrel of beer for us and we’ll come with all our hearts to hear you.” They were living in the earthly realm and they would die in the earthly realm too.
ii] Secondly, these blessings are in Christ. Let me adapt the illustration of the Puritan Thomas Watson and develop Edward Donnelly’s use of it. Imagine two giant Sumo wrestlers, each as high as Mount Everest, and on those great belts that they wear one has ‘Adam’ written on his, and the other has ‘Christ’ written on his. All mankind is hooked onto one of those belts, either you are hooked onto Adam, that is, you are ‘in Adam’, or you are hooked onto Christ, that is, you are ‘in Christ.’ Now wherever Adam the wrestler wanders across the world he takes people with him because men are joined to him, and similarly wherever Christ the last Adam wanders across the world he takes his people with him because they are joined to him. Where did Christ go? He went to little Nazareth and was subject to his mother and father, and we in Christ were perfectly subject to mother and father in him. In Christ we loved our neighbours as ourselves, we turned the other cheek and didn’t retaliate. We forgave seventy times seven in Christ. We fulfilled all righteousness in Christ. The judgment of our sins we bore in Christ. We rose from the grave in Christ. We are seated in the heavenlies in Christ. We are complete in Christ. All that happened to him has happened to us as we were hanging from the belt of our mighty Sovereign throughout his life, and death and resurrection and ascension.
The Lord Jesus has done everything God has asked of him. He has fulfilled the moral law, the ceremonial law and the civil law, and so we too, plugged into him, have fulfilled it. He has met our greatest enemies, the three Giants Sin, Satan and Death, and he has overcome them, and we, grafted into him, have overcome them too. God has exalted him and blessed him with the highest name, and ourselves too. No blessing has he refused his own dear Son, and no blessing can he refuse us, because God put us in him. God treats all those who are hanging from the belt of Christ our great Colossus as though they were in fact Christ himself. They are joined to him. They are blessed in him. He loves them with the same love. He rewards them with the same reward, he makes them his sons and heirs in Christ. They are seated in him in the midst of the throne. John Murray said that the greatest of all blessings is our union with Christ, that we are ‘in him.’
So all the blessings of God come to us because of Christ. He has merited them and we receive them because of him. It is not that we prayed enough to get them, or worked for the church long enough, or were especially good and because of what we did – our agonising, our obedience, our works – then he blesses us with these blessings. There is only one reason why we are blessed and that is because God joined us to Christ. For his sake he blesses sinners who believe in Jesus. So one great question today for each of us is this, am I in Christ? There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ. If I am in Christ then I am a new creation. Everything is new if I am in him. Are we all joined to this mighty champion, the conqueror of Satan and sin and death? Then every blessing God delights to bestow on his Son he has bestowed on us. We are blessed in Christ.
iii] These blessings are spiritual blessings. It could mean that they are not material blessings. God has not promised to bless me with a vast salary and a millionaire’s lifestyle. He has not promised me fame and beauty, and health and long life. He has not said that my blessing will be that I will never have an accident when I am driving. He has not promised that I will never be robbed or attacked or raped or kidnapped – “for thy sake we are killed all the day long, we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” He has not promised to bless me with a high IQ and success in every examination. All such things are material blessings, and God makes no promises about that sort of thing, but the Christian is promised every spiritual blessing.
So that that may be the meaning of that phrase, but the word ‘spiritual’ in the New Testament has a more definite meaning, ‘of, or from, the Holy Spirit.’ So Paul is saying that we have been blessed with every blessing that pertains to or belongs to God the Spirit. What does the Spirit do for us? He gives us life. All men by nature are dead in sin. Aberystwyth in the sight of God is a valley of dry bones, and God must breathe upon the populace, and arrange the dead bones in order, and cover them with sinews and skin, and make the bones live. That is the quickening work of God the Holy Spirit. By the Spirit we are convicted of our sin. By the Spirit of illumination the blindness is taken away from our eyes and we can appreciate the glories of Jesus the Son of God. By the strength of the Spirit we can pick up our cross and deny ourselves and begin to follow him.
What spiritual blessings become ours. To us is imputed the righteousness of Christ, the reign of sin dominating our lives is ended, we are adopted into the family of God, made heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. We are joined to Jesus Christ – the crown of all the spiritual blessings that become the mere Christian. We are given the grace of perseverance that Christ himself bought for us with his shed blood. These are the sorts of Holy Ghost blessings that Paul is speaking of here. We prayed so simply, almost babyishly, for Jesus to become our Saviour, and that was God’s answer – blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.
Iain Murray once told me how when he was a student he became a counsellor in an evangelistic campaign. He had brought a friend to a meeting and this young man responded to the evangelistic invitation and got out of his seat and walked to the front and on to the counselling room accompanied by Iain Murray. Iain explained the gospel to him, as they were instructed; we are sinners, Christ has died in our place, and now we invite him as Saviour into our lives. Then he said to his friend, “shall we kneel down and pray?” Iain prayed, and then the man prayed, and he said these words, “O God, help me never to sin again.” Iain’s initial reaction was disquiet. That was not how he was supposed to pray. That was not the form of words he was supposed to use. There was a ‘sinner’s prayer’ formula that people were encouraged to repeat, but what this new Christian had said was not remotely like that prayer. Then Iain thought about those words of his, “Lord, help me never to sin again.” and the more he did so the clearer it was to him that the gospel was in that prayer. The man knew his greatest problem was his sin. He was convicted of that, and he had gone to God with this longing that he would be delivered from it. Only God could help him, and this God could be addressed in prayer. He was the answerer of a sinner’s prayer.
The point I am making is not just this, that the man had to pray his very own prayer, in his words, for his own deliverance. In other words, there is no formula you repeat, there is just your great need and God’s great saving love, but my point is more than that. It is that that young man went to God and asked him for one thing he knew he needed, saving strength from heaven to overcome sin, but God’s answer was exceedingly abundantly above all that young man asked or thought. God’s answer was superlative, to justify him, declaring him righteous in Christ, to pardon all his sin, to adopt him into his family and make him his heir and a joint heir with Christ, to end the reign of sin over him, to join him to Jesus Christ like a branch is joined to a vine, and to seat him in the heavenlies in the Lord Jesus. God’s answer was exceeding abundantly above all that this young Christian asked or could even imagine. God didn’t limit his answer to that man’s worthiness, or understanding or limited doctrinal appreciation. God’s answer was every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, and for the rest of his life that man would discover more and more of what grace had done for him, and what his status and resources were in Christ. That is exactly where all Christians are today, discovering the length and breadth and height and depth of the love of God for us, that passes knowledge. That, journey of discovery will, of course, never end.
This is Paul’s strategy in this long opening sentence. He is rehearsing some of the mighty blessings that these Ephesian Christians enjoy. Knowing what God has done for them will be the means of overcoming the polluted atmosphere of life in that corrupt city. It will be in a pilgrimage of doxology for the mighty works of God – “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” – that victory over sin and the world become increasingly ours.
21st September 2003 GEOFFREY THOMAS