This morning we are in the book of Ephesians. Depending on how in depth I choose to go with it, we’ll be here for the next 6-8 weeks. There’s a lot of interesting things in the short letter by Paul however. We’ll see some pretty deep theology, advice on marriage, as well as the familiar passage on the armor of God.
Before we jump right into the book, let’s look at some of the background of the city and the book itself. Ephesus was a major city in the Roman empire. It was one of the five largest along with cities such as Rome itself, Corinth, and Alexandria. It was also the largest city in Asia Minor which today is modern day Turkey.
Aside from being a large city, Ephesus was best known for being home to the temple of Artemis which is her Greek name and Diana which is her Roman name. This temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Despite the fact that the city was home to a pagan temple the church at Ephesus was rather large. It is the first church mentioned in Christ’s letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3. Paul spent around three years in Ephesus which was probably the longest he spent in any city. In the mid 90’s Timothy was an elder in the church of Ephesus and the Apostle John is believed to have spent his final years in Ephesus, even penning the gospel of John from this location.
According to church tradition around AD 95 there was an uprising in the city that led to Timothy’s martyrdom. While it would seem obvious that Christianity would be in opposition to the worship of Artemis/Diana, this is only half of the problem. Items of silver were made for the worship of Artemis and because of the temple there were many people visiting the city from all over the Roman world. This meant that the silversmiths made a very good business. But of course every convert to Christianity meant one less to buy from the silversmiths. A riot broke out and Timothy was among the Christians who were killed.
Of course all of this took place about 35 years after Paul wrote this letter to the Ephesians. Paul identifies himself as the writer of this letter and although some liberal scholars want to question everything in the Bible, there is absolutely no reason to doubt that Paul is the author.
The book of Ephesians was likely written around AD 60. It is one of Paul’s prison epistles, or letters that Paul penned while he was awaiting trial in jail. There are two different types of letters that Paul writes. Some are very personal and includes names of people in the church. These letters were later circulated and became a part of the Bible.
The other type of letter is a circuit letter. This letter was originally written and sent to a particular location but the expectation was that it would be circulated around. The book of Ephesians is a circuit letter and does not contain personal references that some of Paul’s other letters include.
As was already mentioned, Paul spent around three years in Ephesus. The city was likely home to some of his dearest friends and it is no coincidence that Paul’s prodigy Timothy ends up staying there. Ephesus would be a city that was quite near and dear to Paul’s heart.
So, with all of that background information let’s dive into the book itself.
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul immediately identifies himself as the writer of the letter. This was standard practice at the time, much like we would end a letter by signing our name. Paul is writing to the saints in Ephesus or in other words, the church. Grace and peace is a standard greeting of Paul’s day but it is also a theme that is repeated several times throughout the book. All in all, this is a standard greeting and doesn’t need a lot of commentary.
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. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he[c]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.
Here’s where we will spend most of our time today, these verses and the next several that follow. I will try to not go too deep into the theology of it all. However, what you believe about these verses determines a lot about what you believe about God.
In general, Paul is writing about the process of salvation and giving thanks to God for the salvation of those in Ephesus. And if you’re not looking for it, that’s probably all that you will draw from this passage. However, this passage is the cornerstone for one whole branch of theology.
In these couple of verses, and you’ll see repeated again later, are the words chose and predestined. This is where things get theological. I want to say controversial but that isn’t the right word. The fact of the matter is that there are two basic interpretations of this passage that have a lot of support from solid theologians. I am not going to say that one interpretation is correct and the other interpretation is wrong but I will throw a caveat in at the end of this section.
My point is though that whatever your interpretation of this passage and similar passages does not make you a good or bad Christian. It is not an indication of whether you are a conservative Christian or a liberal. There are simply two ways of looking at this passage.
Here’s what we do know for certain. God has worked His will and His plan in the Ephesian church. They are not an accident nor did they come to salvation outside of God. We also know that God has worked and planned all throughout history. We know that God has particular plans for us as well.
Psalm 139:13-16 tell us that God has a plan for each of us.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
These things aren’t up for debate. God has a plan for us. The issue is with the words chose and predestined. Let’s read a few more verses before I explain further.
7 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. 9 And he[d] 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,[e] having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
What does it mean to be chosen and predestined. The two schools of thought on this subject are known as Calvinism and Arminianism. I’ve mentioned them before so you’ve probably at least heard the terms but I haven’t given a full explanation of them. I won’t go through all of the ins and outs today either so consider this a simplification of the two interpretations.
Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God. God is in control of everything is the best way to summarize this theology. And you probably agree that God is in control of everything. When Calvinists read this passage and see the words chosen and predestined, they interpret it to mean that God chose each and every individual before the foundation of the world to be saved. If you are a Christian, that decision was made by God eons ago. You did not choose God, God chose you. Because we are all sinful, there is absolutely no way that we could possibly choose God because we’d never seek Him. Romans 3:10-12 is one of the cornerstones of this theology.
10 As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”[a]
Because of this, God had to choose us and He did so from the very beginning. God knows every person who will ever be saved because He is God and because He has already chosen them.
Now, there are a couple of problems with this thinking in my opinion. The biggest is the simple issue of why doesn’t God save everybody? If salvation is dependent upon God choosing, why didn’t God choose to save everybody. 1 Timothy 2:3-4 says:
3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Well, if God wants all to be saved and salvation is based upon His choosing, then why didn’t He choose everyone? When faced with this question I usually hear Calvinists stumble and mutter but the response usually comes back to something along the lines of God knew which of us would respond to Him and He chose those people.
And if that’s the case, that God chose us based on our response, then salvation is based upon our response to God first. And that’s the other side of the coin.
Arminians agree that man is sinful but they say that God extends grace to us even before we are saved. This grace gives us the option of choosing to follow God or reject Him. Arminianism is best summarized by the idea that man has freewill. We can choose to accept or reject God.
An Arminian would state that God’s sovereignty is not violated by man’s freewill because it was God’s sovereignty that gave us freewill in the first place. Our freewill only operates within the parameters that God gave to us.
My guess is that this is the way most people understand Christianity even if it is not what their church or denomination actually teaches. The most basic understanding of Christianity is that God showed His love for us in Jesus and it is our decision to accept or reject this love.
There’s a big problem for Arminians however. If we are saved because we choose to accept God, what is Paul talking about with regard to being chosen and predestined then?
So, as I see it at least, both major interpretations of this passage have some unanswered questions. And I know when I put this sermon up on my website that some well meaning people will attempt to answer these questions for me based on their theology and what they’ve been taught. I know because it has happened before.
But allow me the opportunity to offer my opinion of how this can be reconciled. It’s really quite simple too. All of this talk about choosing and predestination isn’t about individuals. Paul uses words like us and we in this passage. He’s talking about the church, not a whole bunch of individuals that were selected. Instead, the church has always been a part of God’s plan. The church has been predestined since before the foundation of the world. Individually we choose to be a part of the church but the group has been chosen from the beginning.
Now take that and do with it what you will. I believe that every time that you run across words like chosen and predestined that it is in reference to the church and not specific individuals.
13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
These two verses are also important to the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. Another key component to these beliefs is whether or not you can lose your salvation. In short, Calvinism says that your salvation was God’s choice to begin with so of course there is no way that salvation will be lost.
Arminianism on the other hand says that if salvation was the result of us choosing to believe, salvation can be lost if we stop believing. There are some who will teach that salvation can be lost as a result of too many sins/falling away from God but I don’t think scripture teaches this.
There are a number of other people who believe that they chose to accept Jesus as Savior but also believe that once they are saved they are always saved. A lot of these people don’t worry about how to classify themselves so I won’t bother giving them a label either. We’ll just call them Christians like everyone else.
Verses 13 and 14 speak of the Holy Spirit as a seal and a deposit guaranteeing our redemption. People take this verse as proof that our salvation is guaranteed once we are saved. And they are right. The issue is really whether the Holy Spirit can leave us. Of course, Calvinists will say that this isn’t possible because we have been sealed.
In Paul’s day a letter was sealed by dripping hot wax upon and pressing a ring or some sort of insignia into it. This guaranteed that when the letter arrived at its destination with the seal still intact that it hadn’t been tampered with.
What a seal didn’t guarantee though was that the letter wasn’t tampered with. The seal didn’t keep someone out, it just made it evident if someone did get into the letter. And that is the issue here. The Holy Spirit is the seal. The Holy Spirit in our life means that our salvation hasn’t been tampered with. It doesn’t say that the seal can’t be broken and that we can’t give back the Holy Spirit.
I told you earlier that I wasn’t going to tell you how you needed to interpret this passage. You are absolutely free to believe what you want. I’m not going tokick you out of the church if you disagree with me. I’m not even going to argue with you. But I should state that our denomination does have an official position that one’s salvation can be lost. You are welcome to disagree with the position but I’m not going to teach contrary to that position.
In the end though, I really think that we make too much out of this debate. No Christian should live in fear of accidentally losing their salvation. Our salvation is based upon our faith and not on our good works. As long as we continue to have faith there is no question of our salvation.
At the other end people debate about people who at one time called themselves Christians but for lack of a better phrase are now “living like hell.” Most Calvinists will say that this person was never saved in the first place. Arminians will say that they lost their salvation. What really matters is not what happened or didn’t happen. What matters is that the person get right with God now.
While I got into some theology today, I did so because I believe that it shouldn’t be ignored from the pulpit. On the other hand, we shouldn’t spend too much time labeling ourselves as this or that. When we get to heaven there is not going to be one section for Calvinists and another for Arminians. We’ll be entering together as Christians and that is the most important label to have.