Ephesians 6: The armor

Dear church,

If there is a time for armor, it might be today. We live in a season of what some have called “birth pangs.” That is, it seems as if something new is coming, and the world is straining in anticipation of it.

There is no question it is a difficult time, both globally and nationally. One crisis after another has emerged.

The global pandemic has put fear into the hearts of many people, and it’s put anger and distrust into the hearts of others. The pandemic has been followed by economic turmoil. Businesses have closed, workers have been laid off or furloughed, and we have entered into a season of financial uncertainty. What will the stock market do next year? What about the job market or the availability of needed goods – beyond just toilet paper?

Meanwhile, our country is facing social unrest. The issue of racial injustice is back on the front pages and in the streets. Again, this has put fear into the hearts of many people and anger and distrust into the hearts of others. And all the while, the country is observing perhaps the most contentious election season in our lifetimes. The very foundations of our nation, at times, seem as if they are wobbling.

And so if there is a time for armor, it is today – in this era of fear and divisiveness and uncertainty. The Christian has that armor available – the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of readiness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.

We have a gospel of peace. We need not fear the flaming darts of the evil one. We have the word of God. And we can pray.

This armor is at our disposal. It is what makes Christians so different in this time of strife. We may walk confidently. We are not deceived by the world. Rather, we speak the truth. And we are ready for whatever may come – not fearful, because the Lord’s will for our lives is ultimate peace.

And so we can have that peace today. Put on the whole armor of God.

Chris

Ephesians 5: Submitting to one another

Dear church,

The apostle Paul seemed to have a strategy in Ephesians 5 and 6. He started giving instructions for household living – starting with the “household of God,” which is the church, and then moving down to husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and masters.

In every case, there were mutual responsibilities, at least in some sense, to submit to one another.

(I know we’re not reading Ephesians 6 today, but if you have a chance, read this whole section together – Ephesians 5:1-6:9.)

In the church, Paul said members were to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Wives were to submit to their husbands, and husbands were to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

Children were to obey their parents, and parents (fathers) were not to provoke their children to anger. Slaves were to obey their earthly masters, and masters were to “stop your threatening.”

In every case, if you read closely, you’ll see that all this “submitting” – in its various forms – meant that church members, wives, husbands, children, parents, slaves, and masters were to have their eyes fixed on the Lord. Paul said, “There is no partiality with him.”

There is no question Jesus Christ set down a way for his followers to live. Jesus showed his people how to cut through the clutter of a world marked by hierarchy and power structures. We are to submit to one another out of reverence for Him.

Jesus told his disciples not to “lord it over” others as the world would have them do. After all, Jesus came to serve and not to be served (Matthew 20:25-28). And when the time came, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and he commanded them to do the same for each other (John 13:1-20). And Jesus went to the cross on our behalf, humbling himself and taking on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:4-8).

So what ought we to do? How do we submit to one another out of reverence for Christ?

I suppose we first must keep Jesus in mind as we walk among our brothers and sisters in the church, and as we live with our spouses and children and parents, and as we work with our bosses and subordinates. Regardless of who we spend our time with, we never forget the service and humility and submission of Christ.

We revere Him and the way in which he lived for us. We show our respect by living in the same way with others.

Chris

Ephesians 4: The calling

Dear church,

What is your calling?

We all have a calling. Sometimes we think only the pastors or the missionaries get “called” by God. But the apostle Paul wrote every Christians has a calling.

Do you know what it is? Our calling is to live out the gift of grace we have received from God. We’ve been called by grace. Our job is live out of that grace – in gratitude, yes, and also in holding to the truth of the gospel.

And so our calling isn’t something like an occupation. It is larger than that. Our calling infiltrates every aspect of our lives and drives us to live in a certain way. Paul laid it out pretty simply (even if it’s not always easy to live like this):

We are to live with “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

This is a very interesting list. You might notice this list has everything to do with the church. The “one another” here is a reference to the members of the church to whom Paul was writing. Church members were to bear with one another in love. They were to be humble and gentle with each other – even in disagreements – and eager to maintain the unity of the church.

And so, in order to live out our calling in Christ – at a minimum – it seems we must live with an eye always on the unity and the building up of the church.

We live out our calling by seeking the good of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are patient with them, even when they say things we may not like or even when they hurt our feelings. We are humble when we enter into arguments over issues of church policy or direction. That is, we don’t go into those arguments thinking we have all the answers.

And we are eager to make sure the church family stays together – that even in our occasional disagreements, the unity of the church is the highest priority.

That’s an essential part of living out our calling as Christians.

Of course, we all know many people who try to stay only loosely affiliated to their local church. They don’t really invest their time or emotions. They don’t really commit their energy. If you were to ask them about their church home, they could tell you the name of a church. But when it comes down to matters of unity within the church, they can only shrug. They care … but not that much.

But our calling is to CARE about such things. It’s like a missionary who has a calling to serve an unreached people group somewhere on earth. That missionary is not going to shrug when an opportunity arises to share the gospel. That person is going to jump at that chance and never look back – because that’s the calling.

Our calling – again, at a minimum – is to the live out the grace of God in our lives by tending to the love and unity of his church. We must invest. We must commit. Are you living out your calling today?

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called …”

Chris

Ephesians 3: The church

Dear church,

What is the church? Have you ever thought about that question? What is the significance of this group of people that meets on Sunday morning and that shares its prayers and its possessions and its love of Jesus with each other and the world?

We sing a song together sometimes called “Build Your Kingdom Here.” It contains a line – “We are the church. We are the hope on earth.” It is a bold statement. For any group of people to say it is the “hope on earth” is to be a group of people with plenty of confidence.

But it’s true, you know. God makes his appeal to the world – his offer of the good news of Jesus Christ – through the church. It’s through you and me, through preachers and Sunday School teachers and blessed pew-sitters, that the gospel spreads across the globe. It is the church that sends the evangelists into the inner-cities and the missionaries into the jungles.

Without the church, the world would have no hope.

We talked about the End Times yesterday in our men’s Bible study. And I couldn’t help but think about Noah. The apostle Peter called Noah “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5, NIV). You know Noah’s story. He built an ark. But apparently through his words and actions he also was a preacher. I picture Noah urging people to get on the boat! Noah literally was the hope on earth.

And now the church is the hope on earth. Our “ark” is Christ. And our job is to preach – “Get on the boat!”

And so it’s a powerful thing – the church. It’s not like the Lion’s Club or the Kiwanis. We’re not just here to socialize or to plan things for our community. We tell the story of Jesus Christ to a world that will be lost without him.

And we are witnesses. To look at the church is to look at what redeemed humanity looks like. It is only here where it doesn’t matter where you came from – our religious, ethnic, national background. It is only here where it doesn’t matter what you’ve done – choir boys and convicts can be admitted. It is only here where it doesn’t matter whether you are a Jew or Gentile.

To look at the church is to see God’s plan for the world – the “mystery.” We all are one in Christ.

The apostle Paul said the church makes known the “manifold wisdom of God … to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Again, this is not the Lion’s Club. It’s not a community association. The existence of the church has cosmic implications.

When the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places look at the church, they see the manifold wisdom of God. I’m pretty sure these are the same rulers and authorities who put Christ to death (1 Corinthians 2:8). And these are the same rulers and authorities who led us once into the deadness of sin – following the passions of our flesh and making us “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1-3). These rulers and authorities in the heavenly places are only seeking chaos and confusion and death and destruction.

And when those rulers and authorities look at the church – when they look at us – I think they must see one thing: Defeat. In God’s wisdom, he made a way to save sinners. In God’s wisdom, he made a way to unite a divided and hostile world. In God’s wisdom, he has given everyone good news.

So what does this mean for us today? I think it means we need to live this out. We need to BE the church. We need to live the mystery of complete unity in Christ. We need to love each other. We need to invest in one another’s lives. We need to encourage one another. We need to discover each other’s needs and meet them.

I think to live this out we must be rooted and grounded in love. And as we love one another, we come to know the love of Christ. The rulers and authorities in the heavenly places will see this and understand. And I think the watching world will, too.

Chris

Ephesians 2: The household of God

Dear church,

If the Book of Ephesians has a central theme, it is the unity of church. The apostle Paul was writing this letter to the church. We must never lose sight of that.

In Chapter 3, Paul focused on the fact that two diverse groups – Jews and Gentiles – had been brought together by the grace of God. Twice, Paul wrote, “by grace you have been saved.” And multiple times, he noted Gentiles had been separated from God and his people.

For Gentiles, the situation before Christ had been bleak. Paul described Gentiles in numerous ways – separated, alienated, strangers, having no hope, without God, far off, and on the other side of the dividing wall of hostility.

But Jesus brought peace. Gentiles and Jews have been united by faith in Christ into one “household of God.” No longer does the law of the Old Testament play a role in who is “in” and who is “out.” Everyone can be “in” by the grace of God through faith.

This is a powerful picture. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

This household imagery pervades the New Testament – as well as the Old Testament. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are one family. And we care mutually for one another. We build each other up. We look out for each other. We are loyal to one another.

And we are being built up by the Holy Spirit. We are being built “together.” We are being increasingly joined to one another.

I’ve written about a woodshed I built this summer. There were times when I stood back and looked at the result of my labor, and then I grabbed a few more screws and put them into the boards holding structure together. I was more firmly attaching the boards to each other because I didn’t want them to come apart.

This is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Here’s an important truth from this passage: The Holy Spirit, if he’s working in you, is going to put you together with his church. Read the last verse in this chapter again.

Some people claim to have the Holy Spirit working in their lives, but they are not part of any church body. I then have to wonder at their claims of having the Holy Spirit, because Paul is explicit here: “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

Remember, Paul was writing to a church, not to an individual. He was telling the church collectively that it was being built up into a dwelling place for God. Single pieces of wood aren’t much use for a building unless they are connected to the others.

Spend some time today considering your connection to the church.

Chris

Ephesians 1: Praying large

Dear church,

The apostle Paul wrote the book of Ephesians to a church he founded and spent two years serving. But based on the tone and tenor of this letter, it is reasonable to understand it to be intended for other churches in the region as well – maybe a circular letter that was passed from church to church.

The reason to think this is the theology, as you have seen in Chapter 1, is quite expansive (some might call it lofty), and Paul didn’t seem to be drilling down into specific local church issues, like he did in his letters to the Corinthians and Galatians. So perhaps this was more of a general letter, intended for multiple churches – helping them to shore up their understanding of the gospel.

We could focus on a lot of things from Chapter 1. One of the most important, perhaps, is the blessings we have in Christ. We have every spiritual blessing to live as the people of God. And God saw us coming from a long way off. This is a special relationship, one of adoption, that we have with our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ.

The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, as wonderful as it is, is simply a guarantee or a “seal” – marking time for what’s to come. We have a glorious future ahead of us.

One thing I would draw your attention to today is Paul’s explanation of his prayer for the church that closes out the chapter. Paul prays big. This wasn’t a prayer for health and physical well-being. He was not praying for healings or miracles.

Paul is praying for something more important, and we would do well to pay attention. Perhaps Paul’s prayers could inform our own.

Paul prayed the church would receive the “Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him.” He wanted the church to have open hearts and the knowledge of the “hope to which he has called you.” He wanted the church to know the riches of their “inheritance” and the greatness of God’s power.

This is different than praying for a safe journey or a solution to a financial problem. Those are important. But Paul was praying bigger.

Paul was praying the church would know the glory of Christ – raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God. Jesus stood over every conceivable earthly power. All things are under his feet. And the church is his body! It is the fullness of Christ.

This is a serious prayer.

And so we might want to think about our own prayer lives. What do we spend time praying about? Mostly, I imagine, we’re asking God to do things for us or for people we know. We ask for physical things, for the resolution to various problems or health concerns. We often pray about temporary things.  

Meanwhile, Paul was praying the church would understand how blessed it is and that it would have wisdom and knowledge of God. Paul was asking for better things, bigger things, than what I normally ask.

Maybe we should start praying larger prayers. Eternity is a long time, after all. A billion years into eternity (if it were to be measured that way) a prayer like Paul prayed is the kind of prayer we know will have made a difference. I think we’ll look back and realize we should have been praying more prayers like that and maybe less of the prayers we normally pray.

Think about it.

Chris

Galatians 6: The household of faith

Dear church,

Does the church ever feel like a family to you? Does it always feel like a family to you?

Paul in Galatians 6 called the church the “household of faith.”

“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

The word “especially” caught my attention. We are to do good to everyone, but “especially” those in the household of faith – to those in the church. Especially to them.

Well, that’s some inward thinking, isn’t it? We’re to be kind to everyone, but especially to those who are one of us – to those who are inside the church?

As Christians, we might be inclined to say just the opposite: “Don’t worry about your fellow church members, you really need to love your neighbor outside the church. Be kind to the people in the pews, but be especially kind to the guy or gal who doesn’t yet know Jesus Christ.”

That’s not what Paul wrote.

It’s important to understand Paul considered the church to be a “household.” A household in Paul’s day was basically one big biological family that lived together in one home – kids, parents, grandparents, and maybe even great-grandparents. A wealthier household also would include some other folks, maybe some servants and even slaves.

That was a “household,” and the people within it lived in lockstep with one another. They needed to live in lockstep. Their survival depended on their ability to get along and to advance the household’s interests – to look out for the better welfare of the household. So they lived in unity. They took care of each other’s physical needs. And they were extremely loyal to one another.

And Paul described the church as a household. As members of the church, we live in unity with one another. We care for each other’s physical needs. And we are loyal to one another. We have a common purpose, and we can only achieve that common purpose if we are of one mind.

So we are kind and loving and charitable toward everyone. But we are especially kind and loving and charitable with those who are in our church family.

Is that how the church feels to you? If not, why not?

Chris

Galatians 5: Freedom

Dear church,

Paul urged the churches of Galatia – who had men, it seems, who were thinking about being circumcised – to be careful.

Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

“Christ will be of no advantage to you.”

“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”

The law brings a person into slavery. The whole concept of “works” righteousness puts a person in bondage.

I have been thinking for the past few days, as we’ve been reading Galatians, about a woman I know who owns a small business. She had a bad experience with a church at one point in her life. And she was abused in her upbringing. And now she wants nothing to do with the church, nothing to do with God, nothing to do with Christ.

“I’m going to rely on merit,” she told me.

And so she lives a good life, as far as I can tell. I’ve seen her give away some of her products to those in need – and even to those who aren’t in need. She wants to do good things for a reason. If she’s telling the truth that she’s going to “rely on merit,” then she’s doing her good deeds in order to earn her own salvation.

But what she doesn’t seem to know is that she is a slave. She is a slave to “merit.” She has no choice in the matter. If she sees a person in need, she must help that person – not because it’s in her heart to be kind but because she doesn’t want any marks against her when God weighs the scales. (This is the same God she really wants nothing to do with.)

She’s a slave because everywhere she goes and with every person she interacts with, she always has to carry around this idea of doing good works. She always has to be mindful about whether she’s been “good enough” or whether her good deeds outweigh her bad ones.

It’s slavery. She can’t be her own person because she’s fallen under the control of “merit.”

And so this friend of mine – I don’t know what she’s really like. She’s done good things for me, but what’s she really like? What’s really in her heart?

It is true God wants us to do good things. My friend is correct about that. But God doesn’t want us to do good things in order to earn our salvation – to earn a ticket to heaven. That’s not how it works. It is impossible to do enough good things to earn our salvation. We would need to be perfect. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve already blown it!

No, we are saved only by the grace extended to us through Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. We don’t earn it. And because we don’t earn it, we don’t have to be slaves to “merit.” We’ve been given our freedom from all of that. We are free to be – us.

One of the interesting things about the apostle Paul is that he extolled the freedom we have in Christ while at the same time professing to be a “slave” of Christ. Remember the way in which Paul described himself in the opening verse of his letter to the Romans. The word “servant” in Romans 1:1 also could be translated “slave.” Paul was a slave of Christ Jesus.

So are we free or not? In Christ we are free. We are free from sin and death. We are free of slavery to the world’s ways and to its thinking. We are free from the works of the law. We are free from merit. We are free of the only things that really bind us in a negative way.

We also are free of the impossibly strong hold that sin has on our lives. Spiritual fruit is growing in us. And we experience growing amounts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the rest in our lives.

I like this freedom. I like the joy and the peace and the other fruit of the Spirit.

And, again, we don’t earn it. We’re saved because we’ve been given a gift. All we have to do is accept it.

And it’s such a wonderful gift – if we really understand it – that we find ourselves freely pledging our allegiance to Christ.

In our freedom, we know the One we are going to follow.

Chris

Galatians 4: Slavery

Dear church,

A Christian is not a slave to the “elementary principles of the world.” For Paul, this mean two things. First, Christians are not slaves to the ways of this world – to the thinking and tendencies of our secular (or pagan) world. Second, Christians are not slaves to the Old Testament law – to the dietary restrictions, to the rite of circumcision, and to the rest.

The tendency of the Galatian Christians may have been to leave one form of slavery and then, after a brief interlude of freedom in the Spirit, to fall immediately into a second form of slavery. They left paganism, experienced the Spirit, and then were falling into slavery to the Torah.

Maybe the problem of sin is it leads us to be slaves – of something. Some might fall into slavery within some religion. Some might fall into slavery to superstitions. Some might simply fall into slavery of the secular world – to science, or to the “data,” or to tolerance, or to a political ideology.

We might be pulled in a lot of ways, and our thinking can become clouded. In fact, a person can become so in tune with the ways of the world that the way of the gospel can begin to seem like foolishness, like a foreign thing that one doesn’t know what to do with.

In our culture, for instance, we are consumed with all things that have to do with our “identity.” People have colors and sexual preferences and gender preferences, and those things tend to take priority over anything else. People can have allegiances to the nation or to a “movement,” and that can govern all of their thinking. How does the gospel sound to a person who is a slave to his or her “identity”? How easy is it to shake that thinking?

“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.”

The apostle Paul understood what was happening. Humans will form allegiances – to something. They will fall under bondage – of something. And frankly, it could be anything.

God is calling us out of that and into freedom. The time is now.

For me, this chapter is a reminder to examine my thinking. In what ways is my thinking and attitude part and parcel with how Satan – who is intimately involved with the elementary principles of this world – would want me to think? In what ways might I fall back into that kind of thinking?

In Christ, we are free. We are children of the promise. We are saved by grace through faith. We have the Holy Spirit. This world no longer has a claim on us.

Chris

Galatians 3: Imprisoned

Dear church,

The apostle Paul told the church in Galatia that God’s people had been prisoners under the law. “We were held captive,” he said. There was no freedom. There were only rules. Like a child under the hand of a teacher, or a nanny.

The rules point out the way to go. There is protection, of sorts, when living under the rules. Many people like having rules. Rules bring order to our lives. Without rules, people can feel exposed.

A friend of mine in eastern Kentucky told me he loved the green, tree-covered hills of his home. He grew up there. Really, he knew nothing else. His house sat on a hill, overlooking a beautiful valley. Everything was lush and moist and rolling. Down the lane were narrow hollows – winding among tall trees and steep hillsides. A person is sheltered under all that green.

My friend loved it. It wasn’t like Kansas, where I grew up. “I’d feel naked there,” my friend told me. Parts of Kansas are as flat as a pancake. The distances stretch out into the blue haze. The sky is a big dome. Nothing stands between you and the far horizon.

For some, I suppose, it can be a little unnerving – all that empty space in which to move. There’s nothing standing in your way. And there’s nowhere to hide.

The Judaizing Christians wanted the church to return to the law. But Paul said this was foolish. The church was free of the law. The law was put in place for a time – until the time when Jesus showed up and until the time when anyone could join Abraham by responding in faith to God’s call.

Righteousness doesn’t come by following the law. It comes through faith in Jesus Christ. In faith, there’s freedom. In faith, there’s room to live. The law points the way to wide-open spaces. It’s a kind of corral one lives in before entering the vastness of eternal life through Jesus Christ – a wonderful gate.

Of course, I suppose a person might prefer the corral. It’s safer in there, it might seem. But that’s not eternal life. Eternal life means we have the Holy Spirit – our guide as we leave the law behind. We are not tethered to the law, living in the corral. We are living under the freedom-giving presence of the Spirit. And we go freely where we’re led.

In the Spirit, we’re perfectly protected in those wide-open spaces. And we’re perfectly free.

Chris