Past-Present-Future of the Church
Let's review what we have learned so far in our study of Paul's letter to the Ephesian church:
- Paul greets and compliments them on their faithfulness.
- He explains to them that God's purpose, from before the beginning of time, was to create and bless the church with all the blessings that exist in heaven.
- He goes on to name and describe these spiritual gifts:
- Purity and innocence bestowed, not earned
- Adoption as children of God
- Forgiveness of sin
- Insight into God's plan: to save them and unite them to Himself
- The ability of the church to be given as an offering of praise to God
- Possession of the Holy Spirit
- Assurance of resurrection, glorification, and exaltation
- He continues his prayer to include the request that God "enable" them to know Him more intimately; see more clearly the assurance or hope that they've been given; recognize the source from which comes all of these blessings; and perceive the glorious end that Christ and His church were to experience (resurrection, glorification, exaltation).
I also mentioned that these blessings are only available if one is united to Christ through faith (expressed in repentance and baptism) and are appreciated and enhanced through prayer. In the first chapter of this epistle Paul describes the blessings that God has prepared for the church through Christ. In chapters two and three he will describe the universal nature of the church.
In the last verse of chapter one Paul refers to Christ as the head of all things (something he explains more in detail in the letter to the Colossians 1:15-ff). In that letter he describes Christ as the One who is head over creation, head over the spiritual world as well as head over the church. In Ephesians he summarizes this idea by referring to Christ's rule in heaven, rule over all things, and leadership over the church (Ephesians 1:22). Very much like Colossians, this imagery of Christ as "head" over the body (the church) is used as a bridge to transfer from one set of ideas (prayer for their blessings) to another set of ideas (nature of the church). So we leave the discussion about the blessings, and move on to a broader teaching about the church "in time," which will become the overall theme of this letter.
1And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
- Ephesians 2:1-3
Paul begins by describing the past condition of every member of the church before they became part of the body of Christ.
Vs. 1 – The word "dead" means "…to be separated" from God. For example, a branch cut from a tree seems alive but is really dead because it has been cut away from the source of its life which is the tree.
Vs. 2 – The Apostle explains that they were dead (separated) because their lives were governed by three principles:
- The course of the world: people separated from God live according to the principles of this world. The problem here is that worldly principles cannot regenerate man's spiritual life with God (i.e., give life to that cut off branch).
- The Prince and Power of the Air: people will serve one of two authorities. Those separated from God end up serving Satan whether they realize it or not, and his goal is to keep us away from Christ.
- The Spirit of the Sons of Disobedience: people separated from God follow the spirit that is within them ("just follow your heart"). This may help you win a singing contest but it won't save your soul. Man is doomed without God's leadership. "There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death." (Proverbs 14:12)
Vs. 3 – Paul was speaking of Gentiles, but now includes himself and the Jewish brethren of Ephesus when he describes the outcome of this style of life serving the world, Satan and self. The outcome, Paul says, was that they searched only to satisfy their earthly desires without regard for God (slaves to the flesh), and because of this idolatry, sinfulness and godlessness, they were all subject to the wrath of God's judgment. So Paul summarizes the human condition of unbelievers before they entered the body. This was the shared past of the church.
The Present and the Future
4But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
- Ephesians 2:4-7
Vs. 4 – Paul says, "But…" He has described man's hopeless situation and now goes on to say what God has done about it. Let's skip over verse four for the moment and look at verses five and six where Paul explains what God has done in the face of man's actions.
Vs. 5-6 – What God did:
- He made us alive again with Christ. How? Through redemption.
- He raised us from the dead. How? Redemption.
- He set us with Christ in heaven. How? Glory and exaltation.
Vs. 7 – The Apostle looks at what God has done from God's perspective of timelessness and eternity; in God's eyes all that Paul has described is already complete. The faithful in Christ have already received the blessings and sit in heaven with Christ. We live with the restriction of time, and perceive the process as it is being carried out step by step in "time," but God sees everything as already complete and Paul is trying to get his readers to see it from God's view and thus be encouraged.
Now let's go back to verse four where Paul explains why God did this. He explains that God did it (blessed us with every spiritual blessing) because He is rich in mercy, and because He is capable of great sympathy, empathy, tenderness, willingness to forgive and He is the epitome of love. God's mercy (His motivation) and love (how He expresses His mercy) is free towards us. God does this because of who He is, and not because of what we do or will do. God's grace is most evident in the fact that He chooses to have mercy on those who do not deserve it, and arranges for our salvation at great cost to Himself.
8For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
- Ephesians 2:8-10
Once he has completed his summary of the Ephesian church's past (they were lost), present (they are now saved), and future (they will be glorified in heaven), Paul makes a comment concerning what he has just written.
Vs. 8-9 – He says that they have been saved due to an attitude of grace on God's part towards them and through a response of faith on their part. He goes on to explain that this is a gift of God and cannot be earned with good deeds. Many have misunderstood and misused this verse of scripture so let us look carefully at each word in context.
Saved – In one word Paul compresses all of the blessings that he has described so far. To be saved or to receive redemption, resurrection, glorification and exaltation is to say the same thing. Salvation is what we have.
Grace – The reason we have salvation is because God is gracious. Man cannot redeem his own sins, regenerate himself, resurrect his own body, transform himself gloriously or put himself at the right hand of God. God does this with His power because He is merciful. He does it as a favor and freely offers it. This is essentially what grace is. A person cannot earn it, pay for it or produce any of the benefits that grace bestows by his own hand. We cannot produce the blessings of grace but we can, however, receive them as gifts.
Faith – People can receive the gift of salvation solely on the condition set by God, and that condition is salvation received by faith. Let me explain, if a person wins a car in some sort of contest, the dealer may only require that the winner come to the dealership to sign the ownership documents and pick up the vehicle. The car is still free, even if there are conditions to take possession of it. In a similar way, God makes belief the condition upon which the gift of salvation is received and the Bible explains how that belief or faith is to be expressed properly. In Acts 2:38 we see that faith is expressed by repenting of one's sins and being baptized in Jesus' name. Having certain ways that God requires us to express our faith does not mean that our salvation is not free. We do not "earn" our salvation simply by fulfilling God's conditions in receiving it.
And so, Paul says that we obtain what would have been impossible for us to receive (salvation) because God chose to be merciful towards us and offer it on a basis of faith expressed in a way that all could do so: repentance and baptism. Why these particular responses? Because repentance and baptism are the signs that man has understood why he is condemned (sin/repentance) and how he is saved (death, burial, resurrection/baptism).
Again, Paul looks at the situation from God's perspective and says that in addition to creating the church in order to lavish blessings upon it in heaven, He also created good works for it to perform while on earth. Not good works to earn heaven, we already have that, but good works so that God will be witnessed, glorified and visible to non-believers (Matthew 5:16, "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven").
In the end, the church is a source of praise for God. This is its present and future function. God loves the church and the church loves others.