Context, context, context. I’m always harping on you to read and study the scriptures in their context. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m going to do so again.
You might be able to read a novel without its context, but not the Bible. Besides, the next time you do read a novel, what is the very first thing the author will do? He or she will establish the characters and set the background for the story; in other words, give you the context for what you are reading. The Bible doesn’t always do that, so sometimes it requires us to do a little detective work in order to figure it out. Considering scripture in its context will make its study that much richer… and certainly better.
As you might imagine, there is a context to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, especially the portion we read a few moments ago. Some things are going on in the background, and once we realize what they are it enables us to make better sense of Paul’s comments. Let’s talk about it for a minute.
Paul, along with many other leaders in the early Christian church, was struggling with a movement calledGnosticism. No doubt you have heard of it, but just in case it’s locked back there in the fuzzy part of your brain, allow me to give you a very general idea of what it’s about.
Gnosticism denied that earthly matter is of importance to God. From that thesis they moved to the illogical conclusion that the Jesus who died on the cross was a man of only physical matter and was not the Exalted One who provides salvation. In other words, the gnostics had a hard time with the idea of Jesus being fully God and fully man. They preferred the fully God part.
That was one problem Paul had to deal with.
Another had to do with a group of people Paul was constantly having to confront. He called them judaizers. They were Christians from a Jewish background, like Paul, and who also allowed for Gentiles to be accepted into the church… as Paul did. However, they demanded that such people first become Jews and adhere strictly to the Jewish laws. And that was very much unlike Paul. They followed Paul everywhere he went, and upon his leaving a church would try to undo and undermine much of what he had accomplished.
And now, for the hat trick…
Another group that opposed the apostle were those he called the false teachers. Why would Paul label them with such a negative connotation? Well, they claimed ownership of a special instruction given only to a privileged few, and they guarded these secrets zealously. If Paul claimed nothing else, he advocated a gospel that was freely given to all and not just those who were fortunate enough to be let in on the secret.
That’s a lot of conflict, and let me tell you, many a preacher has quit his church over less than that. However, Paul was not the type to give up that easily. He had too much fire in his belly. Yet, rather than rail against such opposition and heresy, Paul chooses, at least in this case, to take the high road and posit his comments to the Ephesian church in the form of praise and adoration to God. He inspires and encourages his readers to journey that high road with him by showing them how God has included them in his final and eternal plan for the world.
He opens his letter to the Ephesian church on a magnificent note of jubilation with an outburst of praise. “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…” (vs. 3).
There were times when Paul would begin a letter with such praise and then pretty quickly slide into more practical matters (his letters to the Corinthian church, for example). Take a look at his epistle to the Galatians. No slide at all! No adoration followed by a gradual move toward addressing his complaints toward them. He runs headlong into the problems (and believe me, they did have problems), with language rated PG-13 at best! But not here. Not with the Ephesians. Paul stays on this exalted plane until the fourth chapter when he does address the Ephesians’ particular circumstances.
Why? Evidently, Paul wants them to understand their circumstances, so he explains and describes God’s larger picture for their lives. Paul is giving them a context. Context, context, context.
Why is that so important? And why should we even bother with Paul’s context? Let’s have a show of hands… How many of you have ever met a gnostic? How about a judaizer? Okay, maybe a false teacher or two, especially when it came to physics or calculus.
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Here’s the point… Paul’s context, and that of the people in the Ephesian church, doesn’t translate into our world and time because it is based on their culture, the day and time in which they lived. But Paul’s message does speak to us regardless of how different our culture is from his. Paul’s context is less important to us than our own, to be sure. But it is very important for us to consider how scripture impacts who we are, where we are, what we are doing, and the issues that confront us. That’s our context, our culture, and if the Bible is to have anything to say to us, we have to allow it to be imbedded in who we are in the experiences that confront us every day.
Paul is providing the Ephesians their reason for being. He is giving them perspective. Perspective is hope. Hope leads to the joy of real faith, and that is why Paul’s testimony has survived the ages.
The key part of Paul’s testimony is verse five. “God (he) destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will…” God has adopted us.
Adoption can be a dicey thing. We have good friends whose son and his wife are trying to adopt a baby girl from China. A couple of weeks ago we got an e-mail from them asking for continued prayers because once again there’s been a delay.
Adoption can be a wonderful and joyous thing. I still remember the morning a few years ago when our friends Tad and Sherry Rogers, former members of this congregation, walked into our office here at the church to introduce us to their newly-adopted son. They had just picked him up for the very first time and wanted to share their joy with us. Some of you have experience with adoption yourself.
That is the context for Paul’s great affirmation… “God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will…”
What does that mean?
First of all, understand that Paul knows his letter will be read to the entire church in worship. He himself is thinking of the context in which it will be shared with the congregation. That is why he wants his message to be uplifting. First and foremost, Paul wants it to honor God.
Consider our worship. The first thing we do is call ourselves to worship and voice, sometimes responsively, sometimes hymnically, always prayerfully, why we have gathered. What are we doing? We are setting the context for worship, and that is what Paul is doing here. He is giving the people in the Ephesian church their reason for being. Worship and adoration is the appropriate response. Our lives are in God’s hands.
He then suggests a history whereby the Ephesians might see their place in God’s scheme of things. God’s eternal purpose has been worked out in human history by Christ’s redemptive ministry. It is now being completed in human experience, in which the Ephesians (and you and I) have a part. Paul then uses this wonderful imagery of God taking this messy world of ours and one day gathering it up unto himself, asking you and me to be a part of that gathering.
I confess that this past week in West Virginia there was a point at which I said to myself, “Hyde, you’re 57 years old. What in the world are you doing here?” Let me explain to you why I thought that way.
At the site of the youth mission trip, there were about forty men and boys sleeping together in a church gymnasium, on the floor on air mattresses, using sleeping bags and other forms of bedding. At first, it was fairly neat. But, when forty men and boys spend the better part of a week in a gym, you can imagine that after a couple of days “neat” is not the operative word. On Friday morning we had about thirty minutes to gather up all that stuff, put it in our bags, and exit the building.
It became a parable to me of what Paul is talking about. One day, God will take the mess of this world, gather it all up unto himself, and in his mercy and grace make of it just what he wants it to be. Paul says that you and I will be a part of that redemption. It was not a message shared by all.
You see, Paul’s opponents are claiming that the Gentiles are inferior in their calling to faith in Christ… that because the Jews “had it first,” they hold the final key to the kingdom. Paul is describing God’s plan for the Ephesians so they can see this is not true. All God’s children are equal and have a role to play in gathering up all things in him.
We are all adopted equally! Becoming and being a Christian is based on what Christ has done for us, not on what we have done. “Every spiritual blessing” (vs. 3), Paul calls it. Our redemption is but a part of God’s plan. That final plan is to sum up all things in Christ (vs. 10).
The meaning of that word in Greek comes from accounting where you have a column of figures and at the bottom you make a tally by summing them up. Paul uses this word to say that one day the universe, and all that has happened in it, will be explained (summed up, tallied), and Jesus is the bottom line. He says it is an “open secret,” a scandal to those who refuse to understand, a mystery even to those who do. But some day God will explain, and his creation will come to completion.
But we don’t live in the some day, we live in the meantime. And in the meantime, God’s saving design continues to touch our human experience. Again, Paul explains it in the context of history.
The Jewish people first “obtained an inheritance” (vs. 11). In other words, they were assigned a role in history, a role not yet given to the Gentiles. Then God sent his only unique Son, who came in the context of that Jewishness, but made his redemption available to all people, thus linking past history with future history. Paul then says this activity was sealed by the Holy Spirit (vs. 13). He uses the word “pledge” or “deposit” in verse 14. The Greek word is a term for a down payment or first installment on a loan. Our inheritance has been sealed by this down payment, paid for by Jesus, established through the Holy Spirit. That down payment will seal the deal until we acquire full possession of it, when all things will be gathered up at the time of God’s choosing.
When will the final payment be made? Only God knows.
A deacon in one of my former churches once told me about buying his very first television set. He acquired it from another man in our congregation, who owned and operated a local store. After the price was determined, he said to the store owner, “I can’t pay for this at once. Can you extend me credit?” He was assured that credit was available and was told how much to pay each month. “How will I know when it’s paid for?” he wanted to know, an appropriate question, I would think. “You just come in each month and make a payment,” said the store owner, “and I’ll tell you when it’s paid for.”
That’s pretty much the way God operates. Paul is saying that God will tell us when the world is paid for!
So when he writes his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about their final redemption, the final redemption of the world that has already been initiated in the offer of forgiveness and new life (vs. 7) through Christ’s atoning life and death, has been sealed by the activity of the Holy Spirit, and is awaiting God’s final decree of purpose for his creation. We live in a “now and not yet” world. That’s our context!
So what do we do? We wait… patiently, hopefully, actively, seeking to be the presence of Christ right where we live… all the while believing that God is in control and will tell us when the world is paid for.
But the end is not in doubt for those who believe. Paul says the Holy Spirit lives in the church, continuing to guarantee God’s promise to his people and all his creation. And that is, indeed, a reason for the jubilation he feels and expresses at the beginning of this letter.
Paul encourages us to join with him in celebrating God’s plan, the mystery of his will. “This is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of God’s glory.”
That is indeed a pretty good context, don’t you think? Even if it is a mystery.
Father, make known in us and to us the mystery of your will. Then give us the courage to share it with others. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
––Copyright 2006, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.