Bible Study Series: Ephesians - The Third Heaven Epistle
Ephesians 1:1-12 Seated on the right foundation
by I Gordon
So it's a new year and a new study series to begin. Nothing new there... well, apart from the new year and new study series to begin that is! After many 'theme' based studies, I realised it has been a while since I have done a complete book study. So, time to change that! And it has been on my heart for a while to write some studies on probably the letter in the Bible that is the loftiest of all... Ephesians. The well known Pastor, Missionary and Bible teacher A.T. Pearson called Ephesians "Paul's third-heaven epistle"1. Another commentator called Ephesians the 'Alps of the New Testament'. Martyn Lloyd Jones, the great expositor, said:
"If Romans is the purest expression of the gospel (as Luther said), then Ephesians is the most sublime and majestic expression of the gospel."... "It is difficult to speak of it in a controlled manner because of its greatness and because of its sublimity."
So... no pressure then for the new year! We are only trying to scale the highest of all Christian theological peaks! This series will not be a verse by verse study but I want to bring out it's main themes that are useful to the believer for every day life... and there are many!
Background & overview - Why study Ephesians?
The Bible Knowledge Commentary states the time and background of the letter well writing:
Paul was a prisoner at the time he wrote this letter (Eph 3:1; Eph 4:1; Eph 6:20). Scholars differ on whether Paul wrote this letter while he was imprisoned in Caesarea (Act 24:27) in a.d. 57-59, or in Rome (Act 28:30) in a.d. 60-62. All things considered, the Roman imprisonment seems more likely. Along with Ephesians, the Books of Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon are thought to have been written during the same time period and hence are called the “Prison Epistles” (cf. Php 1:7; Col 4:10; Phm 1:9). Since Ephesians gives no hint of his release from prison, as do Philippians (Php 1:19-26) and Philemon (Phm 1:22), it is reasonable to think that he wrote it in the early part of his stay, or about a.d. 60. This would have been when Paul was kept under guard in rental quarters (Act 28:30). Following his release he traveled, wrote 1 Timothy and Titus, was arrested again, wrote 2 Timothy, and was martyred in Rome.
Unlike many of the other epistles, Ephesians wasn't written to correct errors within the Church so Paul had a free hand to declare the greatness of the Gospel and the worth, without peer, of the One who makes the gospel great - Jesus Christ. And that is what draws me to it! It has been called "Paul's third-heaven epistle" because it often takes the believer into 'the heavenly realms' revealing heavenly truth from God's perspective and even from before the foundation of the world.
The letter itself is split right down the middle. There are three chapters declaring our heavenly calling followed by three chapters declaring our earthly conduct2. In other words, the first three chapters speak of our position 'in Christ'. The last three speak of our practice of this position. The first three speak of our standing in the Lord while the last three speak of our state in this life. If I had to write the theme of Ephesians in three words or less (why use more words that we have to right?) then I'd go with the title of Watchman Nee's book on this letter which sums it up well - 'Sit, walk, stand'. The epistle starts with sitting. We are to see ourselves as seated in the heavenlies with Christ. Commenting on Ephesians, Watchman Nee said
'Most Christians make the mistake of trying to walk in order to be able to sit, but that is a reversal of the true order. Our natural reason says, If we do not walk, how can we ever reach the goal? What can we attain without effort? How can we get anywhere if we do not move? But Christianity is a queer business! If at the outset we try to do anything, we miss everything. For Christianity begins not with a big DO, but with a big DONE. Thus Ephesians opens with the statement that God has 'blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ' and we are invited at the outset to sit down and enjoy what God has done for us; not to set out to try and attain it for ourselves .'
The last three chapters are about the importance of our 'walk' and our 'stand' against the enemy.
These three overall themes are what drew me to this letter for this year, 2021, which is already off to a rocky start and looking potentially crazier than 2020!
- Firstly, Ephesians it's about your position - With many things in this world being upside down, back to front, and inside out... with fears and doubts arising and dark clouds overhead, it is fantastic to be sure of your position in Christ and the importance of eternal matters.
- Secondly it is about your walk - It is really important to be able to walk in the Lord's strength and in His ways... ways that are diametrically opposed to those in this world, and are only going to stand out more in these last days!
- And finally it is about our stand - Because of the increased and blatant attacks that are coming from the enemy, we need to be reminded again how to stand strong in the Lord and not be bowled over by the strong and contrary winds of change sweeping this planet.
After that introduction, onto Paul's introduction
Eph 1:1-2 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: (2) Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am going to use the first couple of verses here to introduce some of the major themes that we'll be exploring, especially in this the first chapter of Ephesians. They are:
- 'The will of God' - this will come up repeatedly in this first chapter. The first mention here relates to God’s will in selecting Paul to be an Apostle. In Eph 1:5 it will be extended to cover His choice of all believers in Jesus Christ! It is also prominent in Eph 1:9,11 as we shall see where God is working all things out according to His will. That is important to remember in our day! God is in CONTROL. Never forget it. In the days of Daniel, an angelic 'watcher' came to the then most powerful ruler on planet Earth, Nebuchadnezzar, and told him that because of his pride and failure to acknowledge God as the Most High, he would be like a wild beast for 7 years -
"This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers And the decision is a command of the holy ones, In order that the living may know That the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, And bestows it on whom He wishes And sets over it the lowliest of men." (Dan 4:17)
- 'The saints' - the position of all believers 'in Christ' is a major theme and one we'll be exploring in detail. Before there is any mention of 'walking' or 'standing' the Apostle Paul simply asks believers to 'sit', understand and meditate on their position in Christ. This is the believers starting position. Not with a 'do' but with a 'done'. Not with our efforts but His. It is critical that we see this.
- 'Grace and peace to you' - Grace will be another major theme that comes out in the first three chapters on this epistle. 'Grace and peace' is the signature of the Apostle Paul. He had experienced both in his own life and desired others to do the same. But for Paul it was always in this order... Grace, then peace. Grace leads to peace. You won't have peace if you don't know and experience God's grace.
- 'From God our Father' - The Fatherhood of Almighty God is very important and will be repeatedly stressed by Paul in this letter to help convey the wonderful position believers have been brought into through their new birth. For example see Eph 1:2,3,17, 2:18, 3:14, 4:6, 5:20, 6:23.
Alright... Got your shoes on? Let's start scaling the first peak
Eph 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.
Only three verses into this letter and we start our ascent of this monumental peak! Got extra oxygen? Straight away we are hit with a spiritual doozy (pretty sure that is a Biblical term) that all true believers HAVE (past tense) been blessed with EVERY spiritual blessing in Christ, in the heavenly realms. Now that's a pretty impressive first peak to try scale! So what does it mean? What does 'every spiritual blessing' relate to? And what are the heavenly realms? Let's start with the last question so we can unpack it a little. This phrase 'the heavenly realms' or 'heavenly places' is unique to this letter to the Ephesians. It is used 5 times in the letter (Eph 1:3, Eph 1:20, Eph 2:6, Eph 3:10 and Eph 6:12) and speaks of the heavenly position where Christ now sits enthroned at the right hand of the Father. Ephesians will go on to say that we, as believers, are seated there with Him already (Eph 2:6)!
And there, in Jesus, and because of our association with Him, we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. Hmm.... So what are these blessings?3 Well that is what this letter, in part, will go onto describe, but here are a few just from the first few verses of this chapter. Read these slowly and thoughtfully... Does this look like a solid foundation to you? : )
Given an inheritance
A son's in God's family
Sealed with the Holy Spirit
Holy & blameless in God's sight
Lavished with God's amazing grace
Redeemed (bought back) and forgiven
Chosen before the foundation of the world
This, you could say, is the starting position for every believer. It isn't the goal to be earned. It is the starting line. Like I said before, it starts not with a 'do' but with a 'done'. The starting line for the believer begins with the words 'It is finished... come, sit and enter into my rest!' That is the great foundation for every believer.
Now straight away you will see that all the spiritual blessings are, well oddly enough, spiritual. That is, it isn't talking about physical and temporal blessings but heavenly and spiritual ones. It isn't talking about you getting a new car, a great wife, a job promotion, winning the lottery or the like. Nope... it is speaking about loftier themes that matter for eternity. William MacDonald explains what 'spiritual blessings' mean:
The simplest way to explain this is to contrast them with the blessings of Israel under the law. In the OT, a faithful, obedient Jew was rewarded with long life, a large family, abundant crops, and protection from his enemies (Deu_28:2-8). The blessings of Christianity, in contrast, are spiritual, that is, they deal with treasures that are nonmaterial, invisible, and imperishable. It is true that the OT saints also enjoyed some spiritual blessings, but as we shall see, the Christian today enjoys blessings that were unknown in previous times.
Now that's the theology, what's the application? At this point it is good to examine your own heart just to see what blessing mean the most to you. God has blessed all believers with every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus. Does that push your buttons? Or do you spend most of your time and prayers seeking physical temporal blessings? As an example, remember Esau in the Bible? He lost two things - the birthright and the blessing. The birthright was essentially spiritual blessings. It meant that he, as the firstborn, would take the role of the spiritual priest and head within the family. It also meant, because of God's promises to his fathers, that he would be in the line of the Messiah! How much did Esau care about such things? Somewhere on the same level as a bowl of stew! He gave it up (and thus 'despised' his birthright) as though it was nothing.
But what of the blessing? Oh that was a different story! The blessing was predominantly physical and earthly as can be seen in Isaac's blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27:28-29. When Esau found that he had missed this blessing (through the trickery of Jacob and Rebekah) oh how he wept! 'He burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, "Bless me--me too, my father!" (Gen 27:34). Giving up the spiritual blessings of the birthright didn't seem to phase Esau but losing the physical blessing... oh boy... that he wanted!
So which do you desire? Which do you pray about? The spiritual blessings may not pay the bills but they do make you far richer beyond comparison! Don't be like Esau. It pleases the heart of God when our desire is for that which He places as the highest of all blessings.
Believers - Chosen & desired
Eph 1:4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
Chosen! Amazing word! God chose us? The mystery or mysteries is why would God choose me. Let alone you! : ) How important is it to know you were chosen? Well, can you remember in the early years at school doing the team picks for whatever sport game you were about to play? I do. Two people would be captains and would get to choose their respective teams. "Um, I'll have Lucy" the first says. "Ok, hmmm, then I'll have Boris." "Argh drat, I was hoping to get Boris. Ok, I'll have Freddy..." And on it goes till there is only one person left... Tim. Often the conversation on the last person went something like "argh, you guys can have Tim." "Oh no, no you have him. We don't need him." "Well, it is your turn to pick so he is yours." Yikes! Imagine if you were Tim that no one chooses and no one really wants on their team!
If a person isn’t chosen there is often a sense that they are not valued and produces a striving to try and be found worthy of the other parties love and acceptance. Let's look at a biblical example.
You will remember back in Genesis how Jacob loved Rachel and chose her to be his wife. Yet come the wedding night he was tricked by Uncle Laban and received Leah! Now Uncle's might be known for their poor jokes but this was going way too far! And so, instead of beautiful Rachel, Jacob marries short-sighted Leah. Now imagine being Leah. Were you chosen by your husband? Not at all. Do you feel loved? Of course you don't. You only got your husband because your Dad tricked your husband and swapped you in on the marriage night when he thought he was marrying someone else! Did the fact that Leah was not chosen come out in her relationship with Jacob? Oh yeah... big time. Look at the names of the first few children that she had:
Gen 29:32 Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, "It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now."
Gen 29:33 She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, "Because the LORD heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too." So she named him Simeon.
Gen 29:34 Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, "Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons." So he was named Levi.
Can you see it? Leah had a continual striving to be loved and accepted by her husband because she knew that she wasn't his choice. This caused no end of tension within the family! She is always trying to measure up and with each new born son she thinks that now, maybe, just maybe, she has proven her worth and earnt his love. What a struggle it was. What a struggle it can be today for believers in a similar position who don't know they were chosen in Christ and are always trying to earn God's love!
If you are a believer, God didn’t just know you when you were saved. God didn’t just know you at your birth. He didn’t just know you while you were formed in your mother’s womb. He knew and chose you even before the creation of the world. His choice was not random. He knows all things. He knew everything about you, all that you are and would do, and chose you to be holy and blameless before Him. Let me just say that the truth in this verse is deeper than we can ever fully understand4. I don't think we grasp what God has done and the grace and position that is ours through faith. But let's look at one of the most amazing things of all... sonship.
Adopted into the family of God...?
Eph 1:5-6 In love He predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-- (6) to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
This verse tells us that we have been adopted as God's sons into His family. The Greek word translated 'adopted' here is 'huiothesías' meaning 'son-place'. But have we been adopted or born into God's family? If you are adopted in the natural sense then you were born to different parents, through their life and a product of their DNA, but are placed into the care of another family. But you were never born into your new family. As a believer, were we simply adopted by God into His family or was their actually a birth through His nature and Spirit into His family? It is the later. We weren't just naughty orphaned kids that God took pity on and adopted to look after us. We have been 'born again' or 'born from above' through His life and His nature. Think about that for a while and you begin to see what He has actually done! A.C Gaebelein writes well on this stating:
"The Authorized Version speaks of “adoption of children.” This hardly expresses it correctly. Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are not adopted into the family of God; they are born into the family. The Greek has only one word “Son-place.” We are placed into the position of Sons. Not alone hath God given to us His own nature, but He gives us, because we have that nature in and through His Son, the place as Sons."
Sonship - This is one of those incredible blessings that we, as believers, often overlook... or become too familiar with so as to not grasp how incredible it is. Think for a moment what God could have done. He could have said 'Iain, I will forgive your sin and allow you into Heaven, but because you are stained with constant wrong doing over many decades I cannot have you in my presence. So you will live on the outer, away from the throne.' And I would have said 'thank you!' God could have said 'You will be like the angels in heaven, my messengers and ministers.' And we would have said 'thank you!' But He did so much more. What has He done? He made us new creations, placing His life within each believer, so that we, His sons, are born of Him. All to the praise of His incredible grace as Eph 1:6 tells us and to the wonder and amazement of the whole angelic realm! (Eph 3:10-11)
For some believers it takes a while to start seeing God correctly as our Abba Father (literally 'daddy'). As Larry Norman once sang:
“I didn't know you were my father, I thought you were the hanging judge.
And when I came into your courtroom, I thought you'd hold a grudge.
I thought I was a lowly servant, I didn't know I was your son.
And I didn't know you had forgiveness for anything I might have done.”
Larry Norman, “Let the rain fall down”
Eph 1:7-8 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace (8) that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.
You will note from these verses that everything we have been talking about, all these spiritual blessings, are 'in Him' or 'in Christ'. That is, they are purchased by Jesus, for all those in Jesus. Every blessing is directly associated with what He did and no spiritual blessing comes apart from what He did. This verse tells that as sons of God, we have redemption. The word for redemption speaks of liberation, freedom, through the payment of a debt. Redemption obviously requires a redeemer. One, according to the word of God and seen wonderfully in the person of Boaz in the book of Ruth, that was:
- A kinsman, a close relative - thus Jesus had to become a man like us to be able to redeem
- Able to pay the redemption price - thus Jesus had to have lived a sinless life to be able to qualify as our sacrifice
- Willing to pay the price - thus Jesus had to agree to lay down His life so that we could receive redemption "through His blood" as scripture says
All part of the riches of God's grace that He 'lavished' on us, Paul tells us. Now, I must say I like that word! 'Lavished' means to super-abound (in quality or quantity), heaping up one (blessing in this case) upon another. And God's blessings are both perfect in divine quality and abundant quantity! Do you see it? Have you experienced it? If you are a believer can you see what He has done for you and the incredible position given to you?
Wrapping all things up in Christ
Eph 1:9-11 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, (10) to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. (11) In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will...
One day all believers will have total clarity and spiritual insight to understand all that He has done. It is a day, this scripture tells us, that God the Father, according to His good pleasure, is working everything toward. There is a divine purpose that was planned before the foundation of the world and is reaching a crescendo in these days in which we are privileged to live. And what day is it that all things point towards and await? In this scripture it is 'when the times have reached their fulfillment'. It is the return and revealing, in glory, of Jesus Christ. It is the day when all things in both Heaven and Earth come under His headship and rule. It is the day when the kingdoms of this earth become the kingdom of our God. The One who paid the price to make salvation possible is the One who will return to inherit and control all things. 'All things' MUST come under His rule according to scripture and an pre-creation heavenly plan being worked out according to the will of God.
Heaven and earth are not in tune today—we are playing our own little tune. We have our rock music going down here, while the only Rock up there is the Lord Jesus. He is the Rock. He is that precious Stone that is the foundation upon which the church rests today. And the day will come when heaven and earth will be in tune and all things will be gathered together in Christ.”
J. Vernon McGee
At the moment, as we look around this world, things are completely out of tune! My goodness things sounds off! The beautiful harmonies of Heaven are offset by a discordant earth. Mankind, on the whole, continues to reject Jesus Christ and rebel against His Lordship. As we look around we see Covid chaos, lockdown alarms, growing authoritarian rule, increased financial instability and pressures, unresolvable deep political division, deep deception and propaganda, growing lawlessness, deception and youthful rebellion. And that is just to mention a few things. The Bible speaks of these as 'birth pains', all of which point to His coming and His rule when the times have reached their fulfillment. Praise God there is a plan and He works out all things in accordance with this plan! The Christian shouldn't be alarmed at the events around us however. We know they must come and we must keep our eyes on the Lord. That is the only place of hope and peace.
Eph 1:12 ...in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
This introduction to the book of Ephesians speaks of a lavishing of God's grace and spiritual blessings that has been poured out upon all believers. He bids us, as we have seen, to first come and rest in Him. Rest in all that He is, secure in your position in Christ. And what does He ask in return? Well, He desires first of all that we who hope in Christ 'might be for the praise of His glory'. Christ's glory is the ultimate purpose in this vast plan of God. And we each play a part in that. Each believer will stand as a testimony to His incredible grace, wisdom and glory.
But for this to happen we must be aligned to God’s will and His order. And what is this order and will?
- It starts with sitting – resting in what Christ has done. This is God's starting point for all believers.
- It means that we should be concerned with the spiritual blessings of God more than earthly blessings.
- We must see that our only standing is ‘in Christ’. In and of ourselves we have no standing.
- We must learn to thank God more for blessings that are already ours instead of continually asking for that which He has already done.
So how do we make progress in this? That will be the focus of the next study where we shall see that we need 'the eyes of our heart to be enlightened'!
Paul was taken up into the third-heaven (2 Cor 12:1-5) and saw things that he was not permitted to speak about. Sometimes, reading Ephesians, you wonder if some of those things slipped out! ↩
J Vernon McGee gives a great little outline of each chapter as follows:
|Chapters 1 - 3
Doctrinal, the Heavenly Calling of the Church
|Chapters 4 -6
Practical, the Earthly Conduct of the Church
A. The Church Is a Body, Chapter 1
B. The Church Is a Temple, Chapter 2
C. The Church Is a Mystery, Chapter 3
A. The Church Is a New Man, Chapter 4
B. The Church Will Be a Bride, Chapter 5
C. The Church Is a Soldier, Chapter 6
There are a couple of other resources that I will draw your attention to that will also help in our study of Ephesians. The first is Ephesians - Sitting and Walking This will show you how Paul doesn't ask anything of believers but to first sit and rest in your position in Christ. Secondly, The believers position in Christ is a thorough study of all the spiritual blessings 'in Christ'. ↩
On God's choice verses free will The Believers Bible Commentary states: "How can God choose some and yet offer salvation freely to all men? Frankly, this is a mystery. But the mystery is on our side, not on God's. The best policy for us is to believe both doctrines because the Bible teaches both. The truth is not found somewhere between election and man's free will, but in both extremes. W. G. Blaikie summarizes: "Divine sovereignty, human responsibility and the free and universal offer of mercy are all found in Scripture, and though we are unable to harmonize them by our logic, they all ought to have a place in our minds." ↩