Studies in Ephesians #12 – But God


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Studying the Bible is one of the greatest gifts God has given His people, and within that, Paul’s letter to the church in and around the city of Ephesus is one of my favourite letters for how it has so often spoken to me. ‘Studies in Ephesians’ is my attempt to share, in written form, those lessons and promises that God has revealed to me in my studies through this magnificent book.

Click here for the rest of the series. 

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!” — Ephesians 2:1-5

Human language is overflowing with important words and phrases: For those in love, “I do” means a great deal; “I’m sorry” can repair broken lives; “They’re dead” can break your heart; “By default” are two of the greatest words a sports team can ever hope to hear (“You win by default”); “I am your father” was one of the biggest surprises in cinematic history. Translate these phrases into any language, and you will have some of the most important, dramatic, or heart-breaking words ever spoken. But it won’t take me long to convince you that the most important phrase in all of human history are the words found in the middle of Paul’s second chapter to the Ephesians: “But God”.

Ephesians 2:4-5 represents one of the greatest statements of the Bible, and in many ways sums up much of what New (and Old) Testament writers were trying to say: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses”. Unfortunately, as James Montgomery Boice points out in his commentary[1], not all Bible translations enunciate these two words as well as they could. The NIV translation, in an overbearing attempt to create a ‘better flow’, have rearranged the Greek to create a verse 4 that minimises the ‘then-now’ dichotomy of what Paul is writing about. As a result, many readers of this passage will miss the strength of what Paul is saying. Martyn Lloyd-Jones described these two words thus: “With these two words we come to the introduction to the Christian message, the peculiar, specific message which the Christian faith has to offer us. These two words, in and of themselves, in a sense contain the whole of the gospel.”[2] John Stott said: “These two monosyllables set against the desperate condition of fallen mankind, the gracious initiative and sovereign action of God.”[3]

However, these two words only work if they are placed appropriately amidst two opposing situations, which is the focus of Paul’s opening words in chapter 2.

As we move out of Paul’s introductory words, we see very little opportunity to clearly delineate between an introduction and the main body of text. Some commentators limit themselves to defining Ephesians 1:1-3 as the introduction, and everything else as the main body of Paul’s text. Others place the terminator between intro and main body at the end of chapter 1. I don’t think that we need to be too dogmatic over where to place a dividing line between where Paul’s introduction ends and where his main text begins, because any good essayist will know that your introduction should dovetail smoothly into your main arguments. Which is what Paul does here in what we have as chapter 2. The first words in the HCSB translation (and others) make this clear; “And you …” So it is important as we move on to acknowledge that Paul has not jumped to another topic, but is continuing what he was writing about in what we have as chapter 1 – specifically, in describing God’s power in raising Christ from the dead and seating Him at His Own right hand (Ephesians 1:20-23). Adding the words “were dead” clarify further for us the continuity of Paul’s thoughts, for Paul has just finished saying that God raised the Messiah from the dead. Therefore, in the context of these opening 5 verses to chapter 2, to quote John Stott, “Jesus Christ was dead, but God raised and exalted him. And you also were dead, but God raised and exalted you with Christ.”[4]

All Dead

These are Paul’s opening words, that we all were dead. Though Paul starts off by using the personal pronoun “you”, this is simply the writer being direct, rather than accusatory: Almost immediately, in verse 3, Paul switches to “We too all” and in verses 4 & 5, “us”.

“Paul is not giving us a portrait of some particularly decadent tribe or degraded segment of society, or even of the extremely corrupt paganism of his own day. No, this is the biblical diagnosis of fallen man in fallen society everywhere.”[5]

This “death” is not limited to Paul’s readers, but extends to him and his companions – and to all of us; to all of humanity in every age past, present, and to come. We are an inherently fallen, sinful people, dead in our “trespasses and sins” (or “transgressions and sins”). These two words can be taken one of two ways: Either they are simply synonyms used by the writer to stack his argument, or they refer to two specific actions. John Stott says that “These two words seem to have been carefully chosen to give a comprehensive account of human evil”, referring to both “the positive and negative, or active and passive, aspects of human wrongdoing”[6]. On the other hand, William W. Klein (and others) believe that “Paul probably intends no distinction between the two words”[7]. Regardless, however, of whether these two words were “carefully chosen” (as I suspect) or simply used to stack the author’s imagery to outline his argument, the outcome for us is the same – we are dead in our sins. This is not some blasé-metaphorical death, either. “This is an absolute statement.”[8] According to Peter T. O’Brien, this death “is sometimes called spiritual death and denotes a state of alienation or separation from God.”[9] To quote John Calvin:

“He does not mean simply that they were in danger of death; but he declares that it was a real and present death under which they labored. As spiritual death is nothing else than the alienation of the soul from God, we are all born as dead men, and we live as dead men, until we are made partakers of the life of Christ, — agreeably to the words of our Lord”[10]

This spiritual death stems from our being human, and being “by nature children under wrath” – which we’ll deal with more fully in a moment. Before that, however, Paul explains three separate but intrinsically intertwined influences or causes for our spiritual death – defined easily as coming from within, without, and beyond. We see them in verses 2-3, though we’ll be tackling them out of order.

Within

In verse 3, Paul says that “We too all previously lived among them [“the disobedient”] in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts” – or as John Stott describes it, “not the living fabric which covers our bony skeleton but our fallen, self-centred human nature.”[11] The Bible is littered with examples of our fleshly desires. Paul, in writing to the Galatians, describes just some of “the works of the flesh”: “sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar.” (Galatians 5:19-21) Again in Colossians, Paul lists more belonging “to your worldly nature”: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry” … anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another…” (Colossians 3:5, 8-9).

We each should know what our own personal fleshly desires are, for they are the sins we deal with every day. Biblical lists do not need to apply every single item to us, nor are they easily dismissed as irrelevant. Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:3 make it clear that our fleshly desires can very easily rule us. If you do not know what it is you struggle with, then you must pray for wisdom and insight into what you struggle with.

Without

The second influence we must be aware of as controlling our spiritual death is our walking “according to the ways of this world” (2:2). As we look around, it is not difficult to see the many and varied ways that the world is looking to impinge itself upon our souls: Advertisements guilt us into looking a particular way or to have an active (read: promiscuous) sexual life, because that’s what the world wants us to have; Our friends pressure us into trying this activity, acting this particular way, or being a certain type of person; Our employers want us to bend the rules, sneak and cheat, while our employers want us to circumvent legal obstacles for their benefit. The ways of this world are heady with excitement and pleasures, and are rightly tempting because they are perversions of excitement and pleasures God has given to us to be used under His plan. The moment these gifts are used outside of God’s plan for us, they are within Satan’s plan for us.

The world looks down on those of us who adhere to the Bible’s teachings and strictures, laughing at our supposed enslavement to a fake book written thousands of years ago. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says these people pity us: “‘Fancy shutting themselves down to that one Book, those narrow miserable Christians!’ So speaks the so-called broad-minded man of the world.”[12] But those living outside of God plan for us are the actual slaves. Continuing with Lloyd-Jones’ treatment: “How subtle the devil is to persuade people of that! For their little life is entirely controlled by the organisation of the world. They think as the world thinks. They take their opinions ready-made from their favourite newspaper. Their very appearance is controlled by the world and its changing fashions.”[13] The reality is that non-Christians are enslaved to the ways of the world, and to its ruler.

Beyond

What orchestrates these influences within and without our lives? How are we so enslaved to these sinful desires and this evil world?

Paul names the culprit, twice. He calls him “the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient.” He names him properly at the end of his letter as well, calling us to “Put on the full armour of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil.” (Ephesians 6:11, emphasis mine) Jesus named Satan “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). The Gospel writers labelled Satan the “ruler of demons” (Matthew 9:34, 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15), while Paul in 2 Corinthians again labels Satan as “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). R. Kent Hughes describes Satan thus: “As ‘the prince of the power of the air,’ he commands immeasurable hosts in the unseen world and thus creates a spirit of the age, a cosmos diabolicus in which he knits just enough good with evil to achieve his purposes. This devil dominates and energises the spiritually dead![14]

Whether or not Hughes is right in naming a “spirit of the age” as behind the current state of our world is unimportant, for he nevertheless rightly describes the scope of Satan’s current authority. Paul labels Satan as “the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens”, or in the ESV, “the prince of the power of the air”. We look at the word “air” and might conjure up a deity of atmospheric air pressure, or cool breezes, but this is unsurprisingly incorrect. According to Harold Hoehner, the term used here for “air” had different connotations to those who originally read Paul’s words. “The Greeks thought this term referred to the lower impure air, the home of the spirits, as opposed to the higher pure air, the ether.”[15] O’Brien adds: “According to the ancient world-view, the air formed the intermediate sphere between earth and heaven. It was the dwelling place of evil spirits”[16]. We’ve already seen slight mention of these cosmic dimensions in Paul’s prayer for his readers, when he wrote that Jesus had been seated at the right Hand of God “in the heavens — far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion”. Paul will return to it again towards the end of his letter when he deals with our spiritual battle against the Devil: “For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12, emphasis mine)

Satan wants us for his hellish torment. Our response must be simply this: “Be serious! Be alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. Resist him and be firm in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are being experienced by your fellow believers throughout the world.” (1 Peter 5:8-9) Paul will highlight the way in which we must “Be alert” and “Resist him” at the end of his letter.

At this point, we might consider that the worst is done, and we can look forward to those two words I spoke about at the beginning. However, Paul has one more denouncement, naming us all “by nature children under wrath”. John Stott said of this phrase: “I doubt if there is an expression in Ephesians which has provoked more hostility than this.”[17] It is as in-your-face as Paul gets, a no-holds-barred denunciation of our natural state of being apart from God. Though we need not take the world “children” and assume that Paul is somehow referring explicitly to children, unknowing and irresponsible[18], we are nevertheless left with the very clear idea that we are born into sin. It has often been said that these opening three verses to chapter 2 are a summary of the first three chapters of Romans. Specifically, Paul talks at great length in Romans about God’s wrath, and our deservedness. “For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them.” (Romans 1:18-19) This sin – this “godlessness and unrighteousness – is our inheritance from our earthly father, Adam. “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) Simply put; “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

Furthermore, God’s wrath here is not something unjust or out of His character. “Wrath is God’s settled stance against sin—the response demanded when holiness encounters sin and evil.”[19] “It is neither an impersonal process of cause and effect, nor God’s vindictive anger, nor unbridled and unrighteous revenge, nor an outburst of passion.”[20] This is no childish temper-tantrum when things don’t go as planned. Wrath is what we all deserve for turning our backs on God.

What then? After all of this, what possible solution is there for humanity’s evil and inherent sinfulness?

But God

“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive in the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses.”

What miraculous words these are, and what a balm to our fears after reading the first three verses! Here Paul continues what he already proclaimed in his opening introduction: “For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favour and will, to the praise of His glorious grace that He favoured us with in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:4-6) In the next two studies we will look more closely at God’s reasoning behind his decision to make us alive in His Son, even though we were spiritually dead. Specifically, we’ll look closely at God’s grace in two studies’ time, where it is more thoroughly explored by Paul in verses 8-10. However, we can already see several important things worth noting, mainly, that there are four groups of words that herald God’s decision-making process: God’s mercy, Gods great love, God’s grace, and God’s kindness. These four origins of God’s actions should serve to humble us; undermine any false pride we might have in our past selves, or in our coming to Christ; and face us on our knees towards God alone, though knowing that Satan is at work behind us. In the space of 9 verses (Ephesians 1:20-2:5) Paul has not only compared us to Christ, in that God has raised us both from death and seated us in the heavens, but shows us that this comparison is in fact our new reality. As we quoted from John Stott earlier: John Stott: “Jesus Christ was dead, but God raised and exalted him. And you also were dead, but God raised and exalted you with Christ.”[21]

“But God” is our hope and our salvation. Though we were dead in our sins, “But God”. Though we are a naturally ‘godless and unrighteous’ people, “But God”. The good news of the Gospel is simply, “But God”.

[1] Ephesians, James Montgomery Boice, p. 51
[2] God’s Way of Reconciliation, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, p. 59 (Studies in Ephesians 2)
[3] The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, p. 79-80 (The Bible Speaks Today) (comma added for clarity)
[4] Stott, p. 70
[5] ibid, p. 71
[6] ibid
[7] Ephesians, William W. Klein, p. 64 (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, eds Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland)
[8] Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ, R. Kent Hughes, p. 63
[9] The Letter to the Ephesians, Peter T. O’Brien, p. 156-7 (The Pillar New Testament Commentary)
[10] Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians, John Calvin (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.iv.iii.i.html, accessed 07/06/2016)
[11] Stott, p. 74
[12] Lloyd-Jones, p. 21
[13] Lloyd-Jones, p. 21-22
[14] Hughes, p. 65, emphasis mine
[15] Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, Harold. W. Hoehner, p. 312
[16] O’Brien, p. 160
[17] Stott, p. 75
[18] It is rather a Hebraism, much like how some Bibles translate Ephesians 2:2 “sons of disobedience” (rather than “the disobedient”
[19] Klein, p. 67
[20] O’Brien, p. 163
[21] Stott, p. 70

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