Ephesians 1:3–14 (NRSV)
Spiritual Blessings in Christ
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
I have often said that the study of scripture is one of the most fascinating things one could do. The book of Ephesians is probably the very first book of scripture that I actually deeply studies. The reason I say bible study is so fascinating is because every time one reads it and studies there is another layer that opens up some different understanding. As we learn about the people that lived in the culture surrounding the book, learn the foods they ate, the clothing they wore, and the people they encountered all give a deeper understanding of what the passage is saying in ancient times and how that can affect us even today.
Ephesians is one of those books that God uses to enlighten my life in many ways. Just when I think I have learned all I could learn, someone has made another discovery that expands and enriches the text. The City of Ephesus is one of the most important cities in church history for many reasons. The first is that it was the recipient of one of Paul’s letters, but even more important is that Ephesus was the second largest city in Asia Minor during the first century. Not only was Ephesus one of the largest cities in the roman empire, it was also the city the Apostle John retired to later in life, where he died, and where he was buried. This city is the city the last of the Apostles lived.
There is a reason that John chose to retire to this city. During the years of exile the Jewish community was dispersed throughout the world. You can find ancient Jewish communities all across Europe, into Africa and East into areas of Russia and beyond. Ephesus was a city that became the home of many Jewish people. By the time Paul had visited this city the Jewish community had been in it for over three hundred years. There is deep history among the Hebrews to this city, but that is just one interesting aspect of this city.
Ephesus is also the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It is the home of the greatest temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis or the Roman goddess Diana. I mention this only because they mythology of Diana states that she was a huntress and would only interact with gods and men as hunting companions, but eventually fell in love with a hunter by the name of Orion. The religious leaders of these ancient Greek and roman gods would use the stars as backdrop for their teachings and right after the big dipper, Orion is probably the most recognizable constellation in our night sky. The connection with the constellations is important to understanding this passage and to understand the people of Ephesus. They were obviously people of great religious devotion with a major temple devoted to one of the most prominent Greek goddesses. Paul uses this to help teach them the Gospel.
The phrase, “in heavenly places,” is a direct reference to the gentile study of the skies. But there is something more to this introduction to the letter to the Ephesians, Ephesus is not only a city devoted to Diana but us also a city where for over three hundred years People of Israel lived and worshiped. Paul uses both the pagan and the Jewish faith to teach and encourage the early church.
There is one group among the first century Jewish people that we are only beginning to understand. We know the Pharisees and the Sadducees because they are often mentioned in the Gospels, but the group known as the Essenes have begun to gain recognition. This group is a group of very devout individuals, of which many believe John the Baptist was a part. They were not typical to the other groups, they did not worship in the temple but withdrew into the isolated places and structured their worship around ceremonial washing instead of sacrifice. These people are becoming more important in history because these were the people that provided what we know as the Dead Sea scrolls. This is very important to history because contained in these scrolls are the oldest known copies of Old Testament scripture. But along with the scripture are also books that the Essenes themselves wrote to encourage their group, the documents their religious order used as guidelines for their faith and practice. It is the teaching of the Essenes that Paul uses to connect the people of Ephesus with Christ. The interesting thing about the Essenes is that they too used the sky to teach their followers, so the phrase, “in heavenly places,” also connects the gentile population into the listening to the Jewish teaching from which the gospel of Christ emerges. The teaching that Paul begins in these verses and continues throughout the rest of this letter connects the teachings of the Essenes which we have only recently learned of with the teachings of Jesus. And along with that the adoption of gentiles into the promise through the mysteries of Christ.
I mention the connection to the Essenes because most of this introductory prayer is derived from their teachings, this means that these teachings were probably fairly well known to the Jewish faction of the early church. It is from the mysteries of the Essenes that Paul derives the idea of destined or more commonly known as predestined. And when we begin to look at this concept through the teachings of the Essenes we begin to see something different than the teachings of the theologians that wrote prior to the finding of the Dead Sea scrolls. The Essenes believed that there was a divine plan within everything, a plan that was devised before the foundations of the world. This plan revolved around the coming of the Messiah. Of all the Jewish sects that focused on the Messiah the Essenes were the ones that studied it the most. They believed that everything revolved around Christ, and that in Christ the heavens and the earth would be united. Remember these were teaching that came before the Advent of Jesus. So this predestination is centered on Christ or the Messiah who was to come. They believed this plan was revealed in all of creation, written in the skies, the heavens and the earth groan for redemption.
Paul is telling the star gazers of both gentile and Hebrew decent that this Messiah that you have been watching for is Jesus, the plan or destiny that you have been waiting for is found in Christ. Our predestination has more to do with who redeems than who is redeemed. The concept of being chosen or adopted deals primarily with the pledge that God made in the divine plan to redeem the universe back to himself. We are chosen in Christ to be worth of redemption, not because of our own standing but because of Christ. We are chosen because God wants to reconcile and restore all of creation back to himself, this again focuses not on humanity but of Christ the means in which the divine destiny will be fulfilled. I find this to be very profound. The future of the church, does not rest on our shoulders but on the shoulders of God himself. He devised the plan and he will fulfill that plan.
What does this mean? If we want to participate in the predestined plan of redemption we need to be in or with Christ. Seeking Him in all that we do, seeking to reflect His character to the world we live. And when we seek him he will provide us with the mean and wisdom to accomplish what he has already set forth to accomplish. This should give us all relief. We do not have to save the world, because that is God’s job. We do not have to redeem the world because that is Christ’s job. We do not have to judge the world because those outside of Christ condemn themselves by rejecting the plan that God has establish from the beginning of time. Paul is then telling us focus on the Christ the Messiah in which all things will be redeemed.
This is the mission of the Church. We are to follow Christ, reflect his life in all that we do. Take on the holy lifestyle that he showed us and reflect that back to the world as we live with others. When we do this the hope within the divine plan is shared with those that are without hope. Imagine if that is how we lived? Imagine if all we did was seek the life of Christ and let the spirit of God work in the lives of others. This is exactly how Jesus taught his disciples to live. He taught them to withdraw often to isolated places to pray, He made it His custom to worship in the synagogues, and he ministered to the needs of those around him and all along the way he would teach. There was a difference between his teaching and the teaching of the other rabbis at the time. Jesus called out to the people, “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Have we ever really thought about what those words really mean? The religious community was doing their best to make their nation a holy nation. They were defining what every law meant and what one should do to keep that law. They taught this to everyone that would listen and they were very pious people yet far from God. The people were weary, they were trying their hardest to make themselves acceptable to God, and they made rules for everyone to live by that was becoming a burden. The people were weary and tired when they should have been celebrating. The yoke or the teachings were weighing them down holding them back. The very people that were trying to bring them to heaven were restricting them from even looking at the gate.
Oh but in Christ we have rest, in Christ we have hope, in Christ we have redemption, in Christ we have acceptance, in Christ we are beloved, in Christ forgiveness, wisdom, insight and a future. This all comes by following Christ by taking on his life and his lifestyle it is easy because all it requires is that we become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. But it is hard because to do that we must go to him, leaving behind our plans and taking on his plans. As we enter into this time of open worship I want us to consider just a moment the city of Ephesus, a city that was devoted to the goddess Diana. Paul went to that city and using their own devotion to the stars to teach them the mysteries of Christ using a similar Jewish spirituality. Consider for a moment the era we live, are we speaking and living hope to the world around us or are we burdening the world? We live in an era that desires the hope of Christ but are we speaking their language? Have we become so consumed with being right that we fail to live right? Do we even know how to discern the difference? God has a divine plan to bring hope into this world, into this community will we participate with him?