Studies in Ephesians #9 – Blessed and Sealed in the Holy Spirit


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.

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“When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory.” — Ephesians 1:13-14

Every now and again, we as Christians encounter a time in our life where we need reassurance of our faith. Sometimes it can be when we are just starting out, and all the good feelings that follow our conversion begin to fritter away in the face of everyday life and Satan’s renewed attack upon our souls. Or maybe you have been a Christian for decades, and your soul is weary at the near-perpetual signs of evil that impinge upon every news item, TV show, and piece of music you listen to. Of course, you could just be having a bad day, no matter how long you have been a Christian; tired mum, busy employee, ragged teenager, or dying patient.

We’re often told Christianity is not a walk in the park, to which we must also add, some day, you will require reassurance that you are a child of God, and saved for eternity. This is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of our humanity, and Paul knew that the readers of his letter to the Ephesians would similarly require such assurance. Throughout the entirety of his letter, Paul wove assurances into his teaching. Instead of simply affirming for his readers that he believed they were saved, however, Paul revealed how they could be assured of their own salvation.

This assurance is found in the Holy Spirit, and Paul introduces the role of the Holy Spirit in the final part of this singularly-long sentence that opens his letter. We have now the whole Trinity at work – God in choosing and blessing us, Jesus redeeming us through His blood, and now the Holy Spirit helping us to believe the gospel of truth and sealing us as God’s possessions. As with most of this opening sentence, Paul is killing two birds with one stone by introducing topics that he will explore further as he continues writing, as he also writes a magisterial treatise on the Christian life. Paul will go on to explain the role of the Holy Spirit throughout this letter, but in these two verses he already provides us several key points we need to unpack before we can move on.

Firstly, the Holy Spirit is active in our hearing and believing in “the message of truth, the gospel of [our] salvation”. Secondly, upon believing, we are immediately sealed with the Holy Spirit – there is no need for secondary actions, our initial belief is immediately marked with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Thirdly, the Holy Spirit is only a portion of much more that is to come from our inheritance. Finally, all of this is yet another reason to praise God’s glory.

In Matthew 13 we read one of Jesus’ most well-known parables – ‘The Parable of the Sower’. In it, a farmer goes out to sow seeds in his garden.

“As he was sowing, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on rocky ground, where there wasn’t much soil, and they sprang up quickly since the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered. Others fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them. Still others fell on good ground and produced a crop: some 100, some 60, and some 30 times what was sown.” — Matthew 13:4-8

Jesus soon explains the parable to his disciples (Matthew 13:18-23), in which we see that each batch of seed sown represents the hearing the Gospel and the various ways in which it is then dealt with – though only the fourth batch of seed actually takes root. Paul picks up on this idea of hearing the Gospel in verse 13: “When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” Several points spring to the surface.

Firstly, this message is “truth”. The ESV could be said to translate this better, saying “when you heard the word of truth” – reflecting the important Greek word logos. This is not a truth that can be parlayed off as being “true for you” or “true for me” only, but rather a truth that is true for all, with no exceptions. Peter T. O’Brien believes that “This word of truth is to be understood against an Old Testament background where God’s work, spoken and revealed to men and women, partakes of his character and is utterly reliable.”[1] But in this day and age, as Francis Schaeffer noted, “the only absolute allowed is the absolute insistence that there is no absolute.” People do not like being presented with the possibility that their personal and chosen truth is wrong. But that is what is happening here – the gospel of our salvation is one of truth, and truth can be confronting. Francis Schaeffer, again, says:

“Truth always carries with it confrontation. Truth demands confrontation; loving confrontation nevertheless. If our reflex action is always accommodation regardless of the centrality of the truth involved, there is something wrong.”

Paul explains that this “word of truth” is “the gospel of your salvation” – where ‘gospel’ is another important New Testament Greek word, euangelion, which is sometimes translated as ‘good news’. Paul wrote of this good news of salvation elsewhere:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.” — Romans 1:16-17

This truth is our good news of salvation – the three terms are linked by Paul time and again, for the truth speaks of Jesus’ self-proclamation of being the Son of God, and the promise that He would die for our sins. Harold Hoehner says it well:

“The truth of the message is the good news of deliverance of people from their bondage to sin. Many different messages proclaimed by the world as deliverance are false and bring people into greater bondage. Those messages contain falsehood and deception, whereas here Paul is showing the message of truth—the good news of deliverance.”[2]

As in Romans as in Ephesians, for in both passages, Paul enforces the need to “believe” in this truth. We cannot simply hear the good news and hope for the best, in the same way the seed that landed on the path, rocky ground, or amongst the thorns would not grow – for the seed could not take root. Hearing the good news must take root in us – as the seed that fell upon good soil did – we must believe in it, for it to begin to produce fruit. Paul therefore assures his readers that by hearing and believing in the good news that was preached to them – the truth of the good news of salvation – they were immediately and eternally “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”

It is important to note, here, that Paul is very succinct and clear in how he describes the process: hear the message, believe in Jesus, “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”

To be “sealed” is maybe an odd way to hear it today, as the old-fashioned mark of wax on the back of a letter, or the brand on a cow, that signified who had sent the letter, or who owned the cow, are not as common ideas today. For readers of Paul’s letter, a seal was something much more common – cattle would be sealed with their owner’s particular mark, as would slaves; it was a way to protect against theft – if a cow showed up in someone else’s paddock bearing another owner’s seal, you knew something was up. For the Ephesians, Paul was making it very clear exactly whose possession we were – as we discussed last week. The Holy Spirit marks us as God’s possession.

As noted, however, it is important to see that, as O’Brien explains, “the believing and being sealed were two sides of the one event.”[3] Or as Snodgrass says, “This statement describes conversion, not baptism or a second experience after conversion.”[4] This particular passage cannot be used to prove or deny the idea of Baptism of the Spirit – for that, you must turn to passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:13. Hoehner notes that “God seals the believers in Christ with the promised Holy Spirit when they have not only heard but also believed the gospel of salvation. The sealing with the Spirit must not be confused with the other ministries of the Spirit.”[5]

Additionally, we see the idea that this particular blessing – for blessing this most certainly is – is one that was “promised”.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.” — Ezekiel 36:26-27

“After this
I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity;
then your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
your old men will have dreams,
and your young men will see visions.” — Joel 2:28

“If you love Me, you will keep My commands. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. He is the Spirit of truth. The world is unable to receive Him because it doesn’t see Him or know Him. But you do know Him, because He remains with you and will be in you.” — John 14:15-17

For the Gentile believers Paul was writing to – whether they knew exactly that these words had been spoken or not (some would have had a working knowledge of the Old Testament, others would have had Jesus’ words passed onto them) – these words solidified the “truth” of God’s message and began a work of assurance in their hearts, and in ours, that God is invested in our lives. R. Kent Hughes notes, “in the ancient world the owner announced his ownership by attaching his seal to his possessions. That is what God has done for us. He has tagged us, he has left his mark on us in our hearts, and we who have the seal know it.”[6] Chrysostom agreed: “By this seal God shows great forethought for humanity. He not only sets apart a people and gives them an inheritance but secures it as well. It is just as if someone might stamp his heirs plainly in advance; so God set us apart to believe and sealed us for the inheritance of future glory.”[7]

Chrysostom’s words of a “future glory” lead us into the second work of assurance, which comes immediately following, for Paul does not simply state that they have now received the promised Holy Spirit, but rather that the promised Holy Spirit “is the down payment of our inheritance”.

A “down payment” is a banking term all of Paul’s readers would have been aware of, for it meant the first instalment of something. More than that, however, as Hoehner notes, this phrasing “indicates that much more is sure to come.”[8] Today, the idea may not be as clear cut as it was. A down payment can sometimes come with a cut-off switch – a chance to back out. Not so for Paul’s readers, who knew of this down payment as a “guarantee of our inheritance” (ESV, emphasis mine), or in the Greek, an arrabon. “The arrabon was a down payment that announced that more of the same would be coming—the first instalment.”[9] John Calvin explains: “The metaphor is taken from transactions that are confirmed by leaving a deposit, so that it is impossible for the person concerned to change his mind. When we have the Spirit of God, God’s promises to us are confirmed, and we do not have to worry that he will go back on them.”[10] God has placed the Holy Spirit on us as an arrabon, which means not only can He no longer back out of it – a great assurance indeed – but that there is more of the same coming.

J.B. Lightfoot explains that we are receiving “the first-fruits of a harvest to be reaped hereafter.”[11] It is another indicator of the now/not-yet of our Christian life that is part-and-parcel of Christian theology. We have but a taste, now, of what it is like to be in God’s presence – but that taste is just a foretaste, for it is incomplete, marred by our sinful natures and constricted by the sinful world in which we live. But it is a taste. J.B. Lightfoot, again, says: “The actual spiritual life of the Christian is the same in kind as his future glorified life.”[12] Charles Hodge adds: “Those influences of the Spirit which believers now enjoy are at once a prelibation or antepast of future blessedness, the same in kind though immeasurably less in degree; and a pledge of the certain enjoyment of that blessedness.”[13]

Maybe most beautifully, Harold Hoehner concludes: “We have a little bit of heaven in us, namely, the Holy Spirit’s presence, and a guarantee of a lot more to come in the future.”[14]

“The verse ends with more tortuous grammar”[15], referring to the way in which “for the redemption of the possession” continues the confusion as to exactly whose possession is at play here. Stott[16], Klein[17], Snodgrass[18], O’Brien[19], and Hoehner[20] all prefer the interpretation that we are God’s possessions[21], and that through the Holy Spirit we are being returned to His possession. Similarly, all tend to see an Old Testament linkage in this particular phrasing, found especially in Malachi:

“They will be Mine,” says the Lord of Hosts, “a special possession on the day I am preparing. I will have compassion on them as a man has compassion on his son who serves him.” — Malachi 3:17

This idea is worked out more fully throughout the entirety of the letter to the Ephesians. Paul unpacks and explains the various roles that the Holy Spirit undertakes in us, which as we will see, create a two-way connection between us and God.

Sometimes we are blind to the fact that it is two-way connection – we see the Holy Spirit as enabling us to pray and access God. However, when we take into account the idea that we are being redeemed as God’s possession, we see that He too is now able to access us through His Holy Spirit – something He could not do before we had believed, for God has no interaction with sin. This is something we will touch more on as we progress through the next chapters of Ephesians.

The only legitimate response to all of this – our salvation, being sealed with the Holy Spirit, receiving the assurance which comes through His presence in our lives, the promised inheritance, and acknowledgement as God’s possession – is clear, and Paul again reminds us just in case: “to the praise of His glory”.

Much could be said about this one phrase, which occurs three times throughout this opening passage. According to Hoehner, “It occurs after each time the work of each person of the Trinity is extolled.”[22] Klein says, “The response to this exorbitant grace comes as no surprise if we have followed Paul closely: God’s glory is praised!”[23] But it is (unsurprisingly) Stott who spends the most time unpacking this little phrase.

“The glory of God is the revelation of God, and the glory of his grace is his self-disclosure as a gracious God. To live to the praise of the glory of his grace is both to worship him ourselves by our words and deeds as the gracious God he is, and to cause others to see and to praise him too.”[24]

“The obvious benefit of having the Spirit is a sense of peace and security that comes with belonging to God,” writes Klyne Snodgrass. “How does a person know he or she has the Spirit? Primarily in the change that is brought into life, especially love. Change is both the work of the Spirit and the evidence of the Spirit.”[25] Paul awoke in the Ephesians a knowledge that the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives was something they could notice themselves. In Romans, he says it clearly: “The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children”. (Romans 8:16) The assurance of our faith rests with us, and we need only seek it out. Snodgrass also said: “Texts like this show that the gift of the Spirit is not some second blessing or higher stage of the Christian faith and life—something for the spiritually elite. Rather, the Spirit is the possession—the necessary possession—of all Christians. He is God’s gift to us showing that we are his, and he bestows on us a sense of God’s presence and involvement in our lives.”[26]

But from that same assurance comes a responsibility – but one that should be no difficulty for any of us – to praise God. Peter says it well:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people for His possession,
so that you may proclaim the praises
of the One who called you out of darkness
into His marvelous light.” — 1 Peter 2:9

We are called to praise God’s glory, but we should not need to be; given all that we have seen Paul lay out for us, all the many blessings, the work of the Trinity in our life – praising God’s glory should simply be our immediate and natural response.

[1] The Letter to the Ephesians, Peter T. O’Brien, p. 118-9
[2] Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, Harold W. Hoehner, p. 237
[3] O’Brien, p. 119
[4] Ephesians, Klyne Snodgrass, p. 54 (The NIV Application Commentary)
[5] Hoehner, p. 240
[6] Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ, R. Kent Hughes, p. 43
[7] Homily on Ephesians 2.1.11-14, Chrysostom (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VIII, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, ed. Mark J. Edwards)
[8] Hoehner, p. 242
[9] Hughes, p. 44
[10] Commentary on Ephesians, John Calvin (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament X, Galatians, Ephesians, ed. Gerald L. Bray)
[11] Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, J.B. Lightfoot, p. 324
[12] ibid
[13] An Exposition of 1 and 2 Corinthians, Charles Hodge, p. 23 (emphasis mine)
[14] Hoehner, p. 243
[15] Ephesians, William W. Klein, p. 55 (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, eds Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland)
[16] The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, p. 45-49
[17] Klein, p. 55
[18] Snodgrass, p. 55
[19] O’Brien, p. 122
[20] Hoehner, p. 244
[21] Compared to our possessing something
[22] Hoehner, p. 245
[23] Klein, p. 55
[24] Stott, p. 50
[25] Snodgrass, p. 68
[26] ibid