The Lord's Day Morning
June 26, 2005
“Revelation and Benediction”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to the Book of Ephesians, chapter one.
John Mackay, who later became the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, when he was a fourteen-year-old boy in 1903, wandered out into the hills of the highlands of Scotland with his Bible in his hand, and read through the Book of Ephesians. It was a life-changing experience for him. He was gripped by the truth that he found in this book.
Young people, I want to say to you, this reminds us that now is the time for you to do business with God. You don't wait until you go off to college, you don't wait until you get involved in the RUF group, or wait until you get married and settle down and have children. Now is the time to do business with God. Now is the time to know Christ. Now is the time to know the living God, savingly through Jesus Christ.
Well, here's this fourteen-year-old. What in the world did he see in the Book of Ephesians? Well, he tells us. He says, “I saw a new world. Everything was new. I had a new outlook, new experiences, new attitudes towards other people. I loved God. Jesus Christ became the center of everything. I had been quickened. I was really alive.”
What did he see in the Book of Ephesians that had that kind of impact on him? Why has this book been so precious and beloved to Christians through the ages? Calvin called this his “favorite letter”, and one commentator last century said, “This is the queen of the epistles.” Why have Christians responded to the Book of Ephesians in this way?
Well, there are a lot of good answers to that question, and I trust that we’ll come upon them as we work through this great book. But let me suggest three to you this morning.
The first thing is that Ephesians is a book of prayer. Literally, it is a book of prayer. Do you realize that about half of the Book of Ephesians is prayer? Prayer reports, prayer requests, and invitations to prayer…even outlines of prayers that Paul has prayed for the Ephesian Christians and for you and me.
Think of it! In Ephesians 6:19-20, what is Paul doing? He's making a prayer request, and he is telling the Ephesian Christians exactly what he wants them to pray for him. Or, in Ephesians 3:14-19, he tells the Ephesians what he is praying for them. Or, at the beginning of the book, a passage we’ll begin studying next week, Lord willing, from Ephesians 1:3 all the way down to verse 14 — what is it but a gigantic prayer of praise, a doxology to God.
Or there's the shorter doxology that you find at the end of Ephesians 3. The book is filled with prayers: Prayers of praise, prayers of thanksgiving, and prayers of intercession. It is a book filed with prayer, and I suspect that the Lord has used that to open many a heart to Him over the years.
In many of Paul's books, Paul is giving an argument – an argument for Christ, an argument about a particular issue. In this book, he approaches it via prayer. We know because of our own fleshliness that when someone gives us an argument, no matter how good it is, we have an instinctive tendency to want to argue back, to want to put our defenses up and fight. When someone says ‘I'd like to pray for you’ or ‘This is what I'm praying for you,’ it brings our defenses down. We sense that we're in the presence of someone who is a friend, and Paul speaks to us in that way, through prayer in the Book of Ephesians. And I think that's one reason why this book is so precious and beloved to Christians of all ages.
Secondly, this book is a book about God. It contains bold affirmations about who the triune God is. Think of it: In Ephesians 1, we have this beautiful picture of God the Father's electing love, and Christ's dying and rising in redeeming love, and the Holy Spirit's power and work on behalf of believers. This is a book of affirmations about God. It's very common to hear modern preachers, whether they be TV preachers or theological liberals, say that they want to preach a message which is affirming of you. They don't want to come against you with negativity and talk of sin, but they want to unlock the latent potentials in your hearts and let you be set free to be all that you can be.
That message may tickle the ears of some, but it's so interesting that the bold affirmations of the Book of Ephesians are not affirmations of us, but they are the affirmations of the God who alone can save us, and the God who alone can restore us to the fullness of the image in which we were created. And so the creature is abased, and the saving, redeeming Creator is exalted and boldly affirmed in this book.
This book is a book of bold affirmations about the triune God, and in the end all Christians exult in that, because we know ourselves and we know what we would be apart from God in Jesus Christ; and so, when our God is exalted, we exult in Him. And so I think that's probably another reason why Christians down through the ages have loved this book: because it contains these bold affirmations about God.
But Ephesians is also a book of evangelism. Have you ever thought of the outline of the Book of Ephesians? Ephesians 1 and 2 speak to us of the missionary God doing His redeeming work: setting forth a plan from before the foundation of the world; accomplishing it in the person of Jesus Christ; applying it through the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 1 and 2 elaborate on that grand theme of the missionary God. He is the one who reaches out to a multitude that no man can number, from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, men and women, boys and girls, with this saving work of Jesus Christ.
Then, if you look at Ephesians 3 and 4, we see there what God has wrought through His saving work in His people, the church. We’re told what God is seeking to accomplish in His work of redemption.
And we look to Ephesians 5 and 6, and there we see this bold and joyful ambassadorship that we have been given by God through Jesus Christ to be a witness to the world of His saving work in us and for us, and of the only way of salvation, which is in Jesus Christ.
This is a book about evangelism, and so for that reason I think many Christians over the years have loved this great book.
Well, I trust you’ll find many more by the time that we finish studying Ephesians together in the weeks and months to come. But as we begin to read the short portion of Scripture that is our text this morning, I want you to be on the lookout for three particular things.
In verse 1, I want you to look at how the author, or the sender, of this letter is described. In the second half of verse 1, secondly, I want you to look at how the recipients of this letter are described. And then thirdly, in verse 2, I want you to see the greeting which is given by the sender of this letter. Especially look at the message of blessing which is contained in that greeting, in that salutation. Look for those three things as we hear God's word.
Before we read and hear God's word, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
O God, by Your Holy Spirit You inspired Your word; and so, O God, by that same Spirit we ask that You would open our eyes to understand the truth of Your word, and by Your Spirit that You would apply that truth to our own hearts and lives, that we might respond trusting and obeying the word of God. These things we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hear the word of God.
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are at Ephesus, and who are faithful in Christ Jesus. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
John Mackay, the young man that I was speaking of who had that glorious experience of God's grace reading this book of Ephesians in the highland hills so many years ago, says this about the Book of Ephesians:
“What we read here in Ephesians is truth that sings…doctrine set to music.”
What he's saying is that this truth of Ephesians sets the heart singing, it sets the heart ablaze with love to God and praise to God.
Now what is it again in this book that caused John Mackay's heart to respond so, and so many other Christians through the years? Well, I want to suggest to you that at least one answer is the grand theme of Ephesians: and that theme is that what God had planned from before the foundation of the world, He has accomplished in the person and work of His Son, Jesus the Messiah, and He is accomplishing through His Spirit today: that is, the building of a new society in the midst of a dying one; a new order in the midst of the old one; an outpost of the age to come in the midst of this passing age. He has created through Jesus Christ a new family, the body of Christ, the people of God, the church, to the praise of His glorious grace. And that grand theme echoes from the beginning to the end of this book, and it orders the way that we look at our lives and the world, and it instills in us a ground for praise to our God.
So as we begin to study this book together today, let me point you to three things.
I. The author, the message, the words of this book, speak with Christ's authority, by the decree of God.
Look at what we learn as we look at the author, or sender, of this letter, in verse 1: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God….” And I want to suggest that even in that description of the one who is writing or sending this letter, the author, the message, the words of this book, we learn speak with Christ's authority by the decree of God. This book is not simply the words of man, but it is given to us by God: by His will, by the appointment of Jesus Christ. We see this in two or three ways.
First of all, notice what Paul calls himself. He says ‘I am an apostle.’ “Paul, an apostle….” Now you know that an apostle in the Scriptures is someone who is specially chosen, called, and sent to teach with authority. Jesus had taken apart to Himself several special disciples, and He had given them His full authority. He had clothed them with His full authority to teach and minister in His name. And Paul is saying here that he, too, is among that number. So this is not simply the word of a veteran pastor or a missionary hero, this is the word of one who has been appointed by Jesus Christ. You remember when Paul was appointed to this task: it's when Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and called him to be His apostle.
Then notice what else he says: ‘…an apostle of the Messiah, Jesus.’ Paul is saying ‘I was chosen and called and sent by Jesus Himself.’ And this is echoed in the words of Luke in Acts 9. Turn with me there.
You remember that the early church wasn't particularly thrilled about the Apostle Paul's call into Christian service. In fact, they were highly nervous about Paul being numbered amongst their midst. Paul had been the great persecutor of the church, and on the way to Damascus for the very express purpose of imprisoning Christians and perhaps even contributing to their deaths, Paul was met by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, when the Lord Jesus told Ananias to go and minister to Paul, Ananias was reticent — ‘Lord, this is the man who has been persecuting Your church!’ So what does Jesus say? Look at Acts 9:15. He says to Ananias, “Go, for he [that is, Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and sons of Israel.” There Jesus Himself is saying to Ananias and to His early church, ‘I have called Paul to be one of My apostles.’ And Paul is just echoing that truth here in this description of himself.
And then notice what he goes on to say — that he is not just as apostle sent by the Messiah Jesus, but that he is an apostle by the will of God. Paul is making it clear here that he was an apostle not of his own doing, not of his own will, or the will of others. Paul was a persecutor of the church. He wasn't a person who sat down and took a vocational test and decided that he would like to go into gospel ministry in the Christian church. He was doing the exact opposite! He was one who wanted to crush the church, but God got hold of him. Jesus confronted him, and called him and appointed him by His own will to be a messenger, and Paul is emphasizing that here. He is a messenger of God by God's choosing, by God's doing.
Now, my friends, there are many ways that we could apply that truth, but one that we must not miss is this: We must listen to the message of this book, to the message of Ephesians, with an appropriate attention and humility, because this message does not come to us from the ideas of man. This message does not come to us from a private individual acting on his own. This message doesn't even come to us from someone who was a gifted teacher, or one of our missionary heroes. This message comes to us because God appointed this man Paul to bring this message to us; and, therefore, when you hear Paul speaking in this letter, you are in fact hearing the message of God Himself that God appointed Paul to bring to you.
And I want to say, my friends, that that is vitally important today, because one of the central errors in our thinking today is that men and women have the right to decide for themselves anew and afresh what Christianity is, what the church is, and what the message of the gospel is. And the Apostle Paul is saying ‘No. The gospel is God's. It belongs to Him. It's His message. Nobody alters the gospel. I am here to declare that gospel. It is your business to sit under that gospel message's declaration and receive it, embrace it, believe it, to the saving of your souls.’ No, the author, the message, the words of this book speak with Christ's authority by God's decree, and so what we study over the next months together in Ephesians are not the words of men or the ideas of men, but they are God's message to us through men whom He inspired by His Holy Spirit and carried along, and guided and protected, and enabled them to pen the very words of God.
II. The description of the recipients tells us what Christians are, by the grace of God.
Secondly, I want you to see what we learn from the recipients. Look at the second half of verse 1: “To the saints who are at Ephesus, who are faithful in Christ Jesus.” Now, that description, that description of the recipients of this letter tells us what Christians are, by the grace of God. And again, notice three things that Paul says about the Ephesian Christians that are true of all Christians in every congregation of Christians in the local church.
First of all, he says they’re saints. Now, he's not talking to some super-spiritual group within them. He's not talking about a group that has achieved sinless perfection. He's not talking about a group that has had a ‘higher life’ experience or a ‘second blessing.’ He's talking to every Christian in that congregation, and he says ‘You are saints. You are holy ones.’ Why does he say this?
Well, turn with me to I Peter 2:9,10. I'm only going to read from verses 9 and 10, but I want you to look at verse 11, as well. He says, Peter does, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may claim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. For you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Now, you recognize that language. That's language right out of the first five books of the Bible, used to describe the people of Israel. And Peter is saying to you Christians, ‘You have been made by God a holy people. Just as God called Israel to be His people, so He has called the church made up of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female — men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation — and He has called you into His body, He has called you into His family, and He has made you His saints, His holy ones. He's made you a holy nation. This is why the Apostle Paul, in Galatians 6:16, can say to the Galatian Christians, “You are the Israel of God.” Just as God had called Israel out of the world to be His holy nation in the old covenant, so God has called the church to be His “holy nation, His holy people, a royal priesthood, a chosen race” in the New Testament. That is a reality of being a Christian. You are a holy one.
You know I told you to keep your Bibles open and look at verse 11, because the deduction that Peter draws from that (because God has made you one of His holy ones), what ought you to do? You ought to pursue holiness! It's because God has made you to be one of His holy ones that you ought to pursue holiness. It's because God has made you to be one of His holy ones that you pursue a life of holiness. And so Paul says to these Ephesian Christians, ‘You are holy ones; you’re God's holy ones.’
And then he goes on to describe them as faithful, or believing. They’re believing and trusting in Jesus Christ. That's what Christians do. Christians believe the Bible; they obey its commands; they believe its promises; and they trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel.
Turn in your hymnals to page 856 for a moment. On the middle of page 856, you will see the fourteenth chapter of The Westminster Confession of Faith. It's on the subject of “Saving Faith.” It's just defining what the Bible means by saving faith, and in the second section of Chapter XIV, we read this: “By this faith [saving faith] a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come. But the principle acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”
You see what Paul is saying to these Ephesian Christians: “You are people who believe. You trust in God. You are people who believe the word, and you believe in Jesus Christ, and, consequently, you are faithful.”
Then thirdly, notice what he says: they are not simply faithful, but they are faithful in Christ Jesus. You know that when Paul says “in Christ”, he almost always has in mind what we call “union with Christ”; that is, that we have been personally, savingly united to Christ by faith, by the work of the Holy Spirit. Everyone who trusts in Christ has been united to the Lord Jesus Christ, so that we are savingly brought into union with Him, and with all those who trust in Him. We are His body, and He is our head. And Paul is saying, ‘That's what you are, Christians. You’re saints; you’re holy ones; you’re believers in the Lord Jesus Christ; you’re the household of faith, and you are in Christ Jesus.’
You see, that description of the recipients tells the recipients what Christians are. We've been made holy, and we are to pursue holiness. We've been granted faith, and so we're to grow in faith and in faithfulness. We've been united to Christ, and so we're to abide in Him and depend on Him, and delight in His commands. My friends, all those who know these saving blessings delight in these things, and we manifest these things in our relationships in the home and in the church to the watching world. God's purpose, you see, is not merely to save isolated individuals, but to build the church; to create a new society, a new humanity, in which the old barriers have been abolished. And this new community of Jesus presents itself to the world as the true alternative society, which eclipses the values and standards of this world. But when we are like the world, the compelling power of our witness is completely robbed. And so when Paul says to the Ephesians, when he says to you, ‘You’re saints; you’re trusting in Christ; and you’re in Christ…you’re united to Him; you’re in the world, but you’re not of it; you’re of Him and in the world,’ is that not a call to us to live out those realities – to be distinct from this world, to bear witness to this world, to not be conformed to this passing age, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds?
III. The greetings convey two inestimable blessings to all who trust in Christ.
But there's a third and final thing I want you to see here today, and we’ll see it in the greetings. Not only do we learn something about the authority of this book from the very description of the sender, the author, in verse 1; not only do we learn what Christians are, as we see the description of the recipients of this book in verse 1; but we also learn something about the inestimable blessing that belongs to all those who trust in Christ, and we learn it even from the greeting we read in verse 2: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Did you catch those two blessings which are heaped upon you by the apostle? Paul's benediction at the very outset of this book in his greetings and salutations — “Grace to you and peace….”
You know what saving grace is: God's saving and powerful favor. It is completely undeserved, it is wholly unearned by us, it is freely bestowed, and it is expensively purchased. This favor which Paul pronounces on all those who are trusting in Jesus Christ, this favor is completely undeserved. There is nothing in us which calls God to bestow it. It's completely unearned by us. There is nothing that we could do to earn this kind of lavish favor. It was freely given to us, freely bestowed on us. God in His mercy simply extended it to us in Jesus Christ. But it was expensively purchased at the cost of the blood of the Son of His love! And Paul is saying, ‘I pronounce God's favor lavished on you in Jesus Christ. You haven't deserved it, you couldn't earn it, but He's freely given it at the cost of His own Son. Grace to you.’
Now, my friend, every Christian…because we know ourselves, every Christian delights in that grace. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!” Every Christian delights in that reality, but it's a twin reality here. It's not simply ‘grace to you’ here. Notice, it's ‘grace to you and peace.’
That old Hebrew word shalom (which means so much more than peace often conveys in our language), means all the blessings that flow from God's grace. Paul is going to spend the rest of Ephesians 1 cataloging for us blessings that we have received, that we have inherited, because of God's grace shown to us in Jesus Christ. In other words, he's going to be cataloging for us the content of this blessing of the peace of God.
The peace of God in the Scriptures refers not simply to a cessation of warfare and hostility in this world, as we often have in mind as we think of the words Peace on earth, good will towards men out of the old King James Version. It has to do first and foremost, of course, with peace with God. We’re no longer under His just condemnation, but we are under His fatherly acceptance in Jesus Christ. We have peace with Him. Our consciences have been salved because our sin has been dealt with, and the penalty of sin has been dealt with. So we have peace with God.
But peace in the Scriptures means even more than this. It means that we experience the fullness of wholeness and satisfaction no matter the circumstances of life in this world. For the Christian, these things are exceedingly precious.
And notice that Paul makes a point to say that these are “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Contrary to popular opinion, there is but one way to experience this peace. There is but One in whom we experience this peace. There is one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord. As Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by Me.” There is one way to experience the grace and peace of God, and that is in Jesus Christ.
Well, I want to ask you this, friend: Do you prize God's grace and peace above everything else? Have you sought the fullness of life and satisfaction through the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Lord Jesus Christ?
John Owen, many years ago, made this very insightful comment:
“No one ought to look for anything in heaven but that one way or another he has had some experience of in this life. If men were fully persuaded of this, they would be more in the exercise of faith and love about heavenly things than, for the most part, that they are. At the present, they do not know what they enjoy, and they look for what they do not know; and hence it is that men, utterly strangers unto all experience of the beginning of glory in themselves as an effect of faith, have filled up their worship with images and pictures and music to represent to themselves something of a glory which they fancy to be above; for into that which is truly so, they have no prospect, nor can they, because they have no experience of its power in themselves, nor do they taste its goodness by any of the first fruits of it in their own hearts.”
You see what Owen is saying. Owen is saying that those who know God have a present experience of that grace and peace which they will experience forever. They have a present experience of that now. They have a foretaste of its fullness now. And so, if you do not delight in God's grace and peace above all the things that the world can give you, chances are you have never tasted God's grace and peace.
And if that is you this morning, my friend, then this Book of Ephesians is waiting for you. Come, join us. Join us on this journey through this book which will explain to you the fullness of grace and peace in God through Jesus Christ, and how you are able to receive it in Him who is offered for our salvation in the gospel.
That's the theme, that's the adventure of this great book. May God bless us all as we begin the journey. Let us pray.
Our Lord and our God, we ask that by Your Holy Spirit we would love not this world or the things of this world, but that we would set our hearts on heavenly things: on the grace of God and the peace of God; on God Himself. Through Jesus Christ, this we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Now, before we receive the Lord's benediction, let me remind you that you have the opportunity upon exiting to give a contribution to the Gideons for the spread of the Scriptures, so that some fourteen-year-old boy or girl–maybe it's in Bali, Indonesia…maybe it's in China, or in Africa, or in South America or some other part of the world–can pick up a copy of the word of God and read the message of grace and peace from the Book of Ephesians in their own language. Let us give lavishly.
Receive God's blessing.
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.