DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

A Prayer to Know (Ephesians 1:15-23)

Joshua Bell is one of the world's greatest violinists. He's won a Grammy Award for a violin concerto. Last year he won the Avery Fisher Prize, given once every few years to classical instrumentalists for outstanding achievement. His instrument is a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin, which is the finest instrument, worth over four million dollars. People pay hundreds of dollars to hear him play. A magazine said that his playing "does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live." One composer says that "he plays like a god."

But in January 2007, Bell took part in an unusual experiment. He donned a baseball cap, pulled out his Stradivarius, and played incognito as a busker at a subway station in Washington, D.C. Over a thousand people walked by. Only one person recognized him; few even stopped to listen. For his 45-minute experiment, Bell collected $32.17, excluding the $20 he got from the person who recognized him. Some people gave him pennies. Despite being one of the world's greatest violinists playing one of the most valuable instruments in existence, people passed him by. They didn't realize the value and beauty of what was right before them.

The apostle Paul is writing to an ordinary church, and to pretty much everybody, it looks ordinary, commonplace. There was nothing especially noticeable about this group of people. It would be easy to walk by them and give them a glance, and move on.

But the apostle Paul does something for them, and he does the same for us. He writes to them and addresses them "God's holy people...the faithful in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 1:1). And then he begins to explain just what has been going on among them. They are participants, Paul says, in the great cosmic drama of the Triune God that has been going on before the world began. They have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. They've been chosen, adopted, ransomed, forgiven, included in Christ, and sealed with the Spirit. It would take a lifetime to unpack all the spiritual blessings that they have received. Joshua Bell is a great violinist, but Paul says that this little church in Ephesus has an identity that is greater than that of any living person. Joshua Bell has a $4 million Stradivarius, but Paul says that they have spiritual blessings that are priceless. And Paul says to this church, "You need to know; you need to really understand, who you are and what you have, because it will transform everything."

So today I want to turn to you and ask for your prayers. Specifically, I want to ask you that you pray for our church. I know how difficult prayer can be. I also know that when we pray, it's easy to focus on our circumstances: our jobs, our health, and other practical needs. But Paul says that, along with these things, we need to pray something much bigger.

So let's look at his prayer, and specifically three things that I would like to ask you to pray for Richview.

1. Thank God for our faith and love

Paul writes, "For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all his people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers."

Can I be honest? When we pray for Richview, it's very easy to begin somewhere else besides with thanksgiving. Have you ever made a list of things you can complain about in a church? There are people you don't especially appreciate, music that falls flat, preaching that bores, frustrations that keep coming up, hopes that are never realized. I sometimes look at the glossy brochures and websites that churches put out. Every face is smiling; the kids gaze adoringly at their parents; the music team always rocks, the pastor always delivers the goods, and everyone is blissful. But we all know the reality. People are messy, and there are lots of reasons, in any church, to grumble.

But Paul looks at them and reminds them of what he's already said: "For this reason..." For this reason takes us back to what he's already written. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3). They are part of God's great plan, the cosmic drama that is the main storyline of this world. They're not just a group of random people; they are chosen by God, and participants in what he is doing.

For this reason, Paul says, he thanks God. Notice that there are two things he's heard about them that he mentions: their faith and their love. I have to tell you that both of these are things that I find in abundance here at Richview. In fact, they're true of every person who is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. We believe and we love. We are drawn to Christ in trust, and rely not on our own performance but on what he has done for us. That is our hope; that where we place our faith. And we love. We are not in community with each other because we are the type of people who are naturally drawn to each other. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he was thanking God that their love was proof that God was breaking down the ancestral barriers between Jew and Gentile. Our love is evidence of the power of the Gospel to break down barriers between those of us who are different races, ages, and economic classes.

So thank God. I know it's easy to begin elsewhere, but begin with thanking God for what you see at Richview. Every time you see someone who is trusting Christ and not themselves, thank God. Every time you see one person loving another who otherwise would have nothing to do with each other, thank God. We - I include myself - need to spend a lot more time thanking God for what he is doing among us. There is plenty of evidence of his work.

But then Paul specifically prays for two things on behalf of the church, and these are the two things I'd like you to pray for as well.

2. Pray that we will know God better

There are two types of relationships we can have. One is transactional. I went to Tim Hortons yesterday. When I go to order and the cashier smiles at me and asks how she can help me, I understand that she doesn't really want to have a relationship with me. I don't say, "What I can really use is some help with a decision I've been trying to make. Do you have some time?" She's going to look at me and say, "What type of donut do you want, buddy?" That's a transactional relationship. She's not really interested in me; she just wants to give me something (a product) in exchange for something else (money).

Religion is all about transactions. One creation myth from an ancient religion says, "Verily, savage-man will I create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods that they might be at ease." There's nothing personal about this at all. The god exist for themselves, and we exist to serve them so that they can be at ease. You can tell if you are trapped in religion if you view your relationship with God as a series of transactions; you do this to make them happy; God or gods do this in return. That's not relationship at all; that is transactional. It's as personal as the relationship that I have with the cashier at Tim Hortons.

But there's another type of relationship we have. If Charlene smiles at me and says, "How can I help you," I don't say, "I'll have an extra large coffee, a toasted bagel, and a Boston Cream donut please" and then hand her some money. I don't do that, at least, if I value my life! Charlene and I don't have a transactional relationship; we have a personal one. If she says, "How can I help you?" I can say, "Can we really talk about this? I need your advice." It's not about getting from each other; it's about truly knowing and growing in a relationship together.

Paul says in verse 17 that it is this second type of relationship - a personal one - that we enjoy with God. God, the creator of the universe, the sustainer of all things, knows us, has brought us into relationship with him, and wants us to know him better. Look at what Paul writes: "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better" (Ephesians 1:17). He implies that we already know God, but prays that we will, with the help of the Spirit, know him better.

Now listen: he doesn't pray that we will know more about God, although knowing more about God is important. He doesn't pray that we would obey God more, although obeying God is important. He prays that we will know God. As one person put it: "Knowing him and knowing about him are quite different."

You see, in a transactional relationship, what really matters is what you can extract from the other person. If you can bargain and get even more from them, all the better. But in a true relationships, the relationship is its own reward. Paul says that we have this personal relationship with God, and the point is not what we can get from that relationship. The point of the relationship is God himself. He is more valuable than even his gifts. And our chief end is that we would know him better, glorify him more, and enjoy him forever.

By the way, it's important that we see how this can take place. There is a means, and it is the Spirit of wisdom and revelation. This is one reason why we need to pray that God will grant us this prayer. It's not just a matter of reading theology, although theology is good. We need the Spirit to reveal more of God to us so that we can know him better.

The God of this universe doesn't just want stuff from you. He wants you to know him: to deal with him as he opens up with you; to engage your mind, will, and emotions in dealing with him; to relate to him, to us together. I heard the story of a woman who saw God as caring only that she lived a good life. God was impersonal, some ethereal force who demanded obedience. She came to understand that the God revealed in Scripture is a God who walked with Adam in the garden, whose very nature is love, who knows us and wants us to know him.

So Paul prays, and I invite you to pray, that beyond everything else that we will know him better. "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better." Please pray that we as a church will know and become increasingly delighted in a deeply personal, not a transactional, relationship with God.

3. Pray that we will grow in our knowledge of God's saving plan

Like the commuters who passed by the violinist without realizing what was right in front of them, it's possible for us to breeze by what God's plan is without really taking it in. It's why Paul prays, "I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know..." (Ephesians 1:18). The prayer is that we will really understand and see the light of God's salvation in three areas. He wants us to know three specific truths.

The first: "the hope to which he has called you." Think back to a time in which you were counting down to a future event. I talked to a friend at the beginning of the summer and asked when he was going on vacation. He said, "Hold on a second" and looked at his computer. He had placed a countdown timer on his computer with the exact number of days, hours, minutes, and seconds until his vacation. His expectation of what was going to be his in the future sustained him while he waited.

The Ephesians really had no reason to be hopeful. They were a small minority, vastly outnumbered by those who didn't believe. Every odd was against them.

But Paul prays that they would see the hope that they have: the sure and certain expectation of a new heaven and a new earth. Our hope is rooted in the past - God called us to this hope; it was his purpose from eternity. But it is something we look forward to. Paul says, "I pray that the eyes of your heart are opened so you see, really see, the hope you have."

I asked someone recently, "What keeps you from getting discouraged?" He replied: "Prayer and meditation brings joy. God is on his throne — everything is going to be fine in the end. The new heavens and new earth are coming, in which 'everything sad is going to come untrue.'" This hope, if we have it, will get us through anything.

Here's the second truth Paul wants us to really grasp: "the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people." Read that again. I guarantee you won't get this the first time you read this. You probably think that this is talking about the inheritance that God will give to you. But look at it again. This is God's inheritance. This is what God is going to receive? And what is it: "his people." Paul says, "I really pray that you understand that you are God's treasured possession, and that you will be his completely on the last day." You need to understand the value that God places on you, not because you are intrinsically worthy, but because you are Christ's.

Imagine taking part in a gift exchange. You pull a name out of a hat and it's Bill Gates. What do you get him? I mean, what can't Bill Gates buy for himself? What does he need? The Star of India? The Mona Lisa maybe?

What does God want that he doesn't have? Amazingly, the answer is that we, his people, are his glorious inheritance. God places extraordinary value on us. God looks at us and says, "I've always wanted one of these." Paul prays that we would really understand the hope we have, and the extraordinary value that God places on us as his people.

Finally: "and his incomparably great power for us who believe." You'll notice that Paul spends the most time unpacking what this means in verses 19 to 23:

That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that can be invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

We have the call of God, which is in the past. We have the hope, and the reality that we are God's inheritance, for the future. But what about now? Paul says we have power. The resources that you have to live are amazing. Paul prays that the Ephesians will know his incomparably great power: the same power that raised Christ from the dead, and the same power that has enthroned him over all people, and the same power that has placed him as head over all things for the benefit of the church. There is no power that can stand against his. This power is working on our behalf, right now in the present, and Paul prays that we would know it.

These aren't fresh blessings. Paul prays that God would open our eyes to see what we already have, and to grasp the significance of it. He prays that we would know the fullness of all that we have been given. How would our lives be different if we really knew this to the bottom of our toes?

There are lots of things we think we need, but Paul says, you don't really need anything more than what you have. Christ and what you have in him is sufficient. In fact, to attempt to add to Christ is to take away from him. We don't really need anything more. We just need to realize what we already have.

So do you pray for Richview? I hope you do. We need it. But what do you pray for? Please just don't pray for our circumstances. Please pray for something far more important. Thank him for his work among us. Every time you see faith or love, that is evidence of God's work among us. Thank him for it. And please pray. Don't just pray the normal types of prayers we pray. Pray that we will know God better. Pray that we will understand our hope, our value, and the power that's available to us in jesus.

Pray that we won't be like subway commuters walking by a $4 million Stradivarius and a world-class violinist. Pray that we'll understand what we have in Jesus.

Every Spiritual Blessing (Ephesians 1:3-14)

This summer we went swimming on the ocean in Chatham, Cape Cod. As we left the beach we actually read the warning sign that you're supposed to read as you enter the beach. If we had read it sooner, we probably wouldn't have let our kids swim in the water. It warned of dangerous rip currents and undercurrents and actually scared some of us in the family. Sometimes it's good not to know what you're getting into.

I feel a little like that as we look at today's passage. The passage we're about to look at is deep and dangerous water. We have a number of challenges in front of us this morning. First, it's one sentence in the original. Verses 3 to 14 are one long sentence in the Greek, with clause piled upon clause. Second, nobody can really agree how to untangle this passage. One commentator said, "Every attempt to provide a strophic structure for [this passage] has failed." It's like an explosion of praise. It's hard to see where one concept ends and another one begins. Third, there are some deep and profound theological truths here. This isn't introductory theology. You could go deep into almost every phrase in this sentence.

So I almost feel like posting a warning sign as we look at this passage. There are dangerous currents, and this is not easy swimming. But it's definitely worth diving in.

The apostle Paul is writing to a group of ordinary people who live in a diverse city, an important commercial center, one of the biggest cities in the area. It was a center of learning, and it was strategically positioned near some key routes. And it's written to some ordinary people, people just like us: some who were well off, some who weren't. This isn't some abstract treatise written to exceptional people. This is a letter written to people just like us.

It's important to keep this in mind because in these verses Paul pulls back the curtain and lets us peer in to witness a cosmic drama. Why does he do this?

If someone were to ask you about the drama you're a part of, you might say, "What drama?" But then you might talk about the drama at work or the drama at school or the drama that's going on when your family all gets together and all the personalities react to each other. But chances are you'd be talking about a drama that wasn't too grand, or if it is grand, one that you'd rather not be part of.

But Paul wants his readers to know that they are part of a much bigger drama than they even know. The biggest drama is not your kids when they run wild. It's not when your in-laws come to town and drive you crazy. The biggest drama in your life is not trying to balance your checkbook at the end of the month. For a minute, Paul wants to pull back the curtain and let us see what's really going on in this world that we don't even know about.

This is especially important for us, because somebody's said that we now live in a world without windows. They're not talking about Microsoft Windows. It's a phrase from sociologist Peter Berger. Traditionally, people have recognized that there is someone to appeal to beyond themselves, something and someone much bigger than this world. But we've lost this window to an unseen reality. More than ever, we need the message of this passage. We need to see that there's more going on than the things we see around us.

So Paul writes in verse 3: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." There's enough here in this one verse that we could just stop here. Paul praises God, because God the Father has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing. In other words, we are participants - or should we say beneficiaries - of what God is up to in the world. We have been blessed because of what God is up to in the cosmic drama of redemption. As Paul is about to draw back the curtain, it's like he's saying, "This includes you, you know."

And then in verses 4 to 14 he explains exactly what God has been up to in this cosmic drama, and how it touches each person who is a recipient of his grace. Now, I told you that nobody quite knows how to structure this passage. You could study this passage according to time. You could study all the different spiritual blessings that he mentions in this passage - there are at least seven, by the way. But since I'm a preacher, and we all know that preachers like three points, I want to look at this passage according to the actions of the triune God within this cosmic drama.

1. God the Father initiated

Verses 3 to 6 speak of God the Father:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

So as these ordinary people listen, Paul pulls back the curtain to before the world even began and lets us see where this cosmic drama began: in the mind of God the Father. Verse 11 continues the same thought: "In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will..." In fact, in this whole long sentence, God the Father is the subject of almost every verse. He is the main character, the one who is behind all the spiritual blessings we read about in this passage.

The cosmic drama of redemption began long before you existed. In fact, it began even before this world existed, before time began. It actually began in eternity when only God himself existed. Before any human acted or even existed, God not only knew that Adam would sin. He had already purposed to repair the damage done by sin, and to fulfill his original intention for humanity: to create a people for himself who are conformed to the likeness of his Son. And even more: he actually chose us to be adopted as his children. His purpose has always been to bring the people he chose into a personal relationship with him through Jesus Christ. Not only do we get to enjoy a relationship with God, but we also get to enjoy all the benefits that come from being a member of his family.

This is the doctrine of election or predestination. It's one that a lot of people struggle with because it brings up a lot of things that we don't understand. Does it take away our freedom of choice? Actually, no. You can choose anything you want. The only problem is that in our natural state, damaged by sin, we were completely incapable of choosing God. It's like gravity: I can throw an apple in the air, and once I release it, it can go any direction it would like, but because of gravity the only direction it's going to go is down. Unless someone reaches in from outside of that apple and changes its direction, it's always going to go down. God's sovereign choosing of us is not about taking away our choice; it's actually enabling us through the Holy Spirit to choose him.

Someone's said, "Instead of destroying the value of human choices, election gives us a capacity for choosing that we did not possess previously as an unregenerate person" (James Boice).

What about those God hasn't chosen? It's so unfair, we think. But here again we have to admit that there are things that we don't understand. Just because we can't comprehend of a reason doesn't mean that God doesn't have one.

How do I know if I am one of those God has chosen? Here's the beautiful thing: you never do up front. It's like those arguments I love to get going between couples when I ask which one of the two became interested in the other person first. If you are finding yourself drawn to Christ, you may feel like you are taking the initiative, but it is in fact because God is drawing you to himself. God initiates. He chooses us before we could ever choose him. Paul pulls back the curtain and says that before time or this world ever began, God initiated this cosmic drama, and this drama included you. God chose you before this world began.

By the way, this should make us incredibly humble, because we can't take any credit for our relationship with God. We didn't have anything to do with it.

It also gives us confidence. If we chose God, then our decision could change at any moment. Our salvation would be as unstable as we are. But our salvation is rooted in God's eternal choice, and nothing we do can thwart his purpose.

It also leads to gratitude. You see that this is exactly how Paul responded. Paul couldn't contain his gratitude that God had somehow chosen us for no good reason except for his own good pleasure. It's like the way they used to pick sports teams in school when we were growing up. Entertainer Garrison Keillor recalls the childhood pain of being chosen last for the baseball teams:

The captains are down to their last grudging choices: a slow kid for catcher, someone to stick out in right field where nobody hits it. They choose the last ones two at a time— "you and you"—because it makes no difference. And the remaining kids—the scrubs , the excess—they deal for us as handicaps. "If I take him, then you gotta take him," they say.

Sometimes I go as high as sixth, usually lower. But just once I'd like Darrel to pick me first and say, "Him! I want him! The skinny kid with the glasses and the black shoes. You, c'mon!" But I've never been chosen with much enthusiasm.

Just once, Keillor said, he wishes he could have been chosen with enthusiasm. But that's exactly what happened before this world ever began. If you are in relationship with God through Jesus his Son, it is because God chose you to the praise of his glorious grace.

You think your life has no drama. Before you were born, before this world even existed, you were part of the divine drama that God the Father initiated.

2. Jesus accomplished

I want you to notice something as you read this passage. Verse 3 says that we've been blessed with every spiritual blessing "in Christ." Verse 5 says that we've been predestined to adoption "through Jesus Christ." Verse 6 says that we've been given grace in Jesus, "the One he loves." Verse 7 says that it's in Christ that we have redemption - being bought out of slavery to sin - and also forgiveness of sins. And it tells us of the price that has been paid to bring us freedom and forgiveness: "through his blood." Verse 9 says that God purposed the mystery of his will "in Christ." Verse 13 says that the Gentile believers of this letter have been included "in Christ." All the blessings of God are found in Christ. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:

If you leave out the "in Christ," you will never have any blessings at all...Every blessing we enjoy as Christian people comes to us through the Lord Jesus Christ...Paul is writing here to Christian people, and his concern is that they should understand and grasp the special blessings and privileges possible to them as Christians; and so he emphasizes that all those blessings come in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, and in and through him alone. You cannot be a Christian without being "in Christ." Christ is the beginning as well as the end. He is Alpha as well as Omega. There are no blessings for Christians apart from him.

But then look at verses 8 to 10:

With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

As part of this cosmic drama, God has revealed a mystery to us. The term mystery in the New Testament usually means that something was previously hidden, but has now been disclosed. Paul is saying that we now know something that was previously hidden, and that God purposed this mystery to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment.

What has been made known? That it is God's intention to "bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ," according to verse 10. It's to make Jesus Christ the main point of all of history. God has chosen Christ as the one in which he will sum up the entire cosmos, in whom he will restore harmony to the universe. Jesus Christ is the focal point of the entire universe. Everything that was fragmented, everything that is currently dislocated, everything that needs reconciliation and restoration will be restored to harmony in Jesus Christ.

I have to quote Lloyd-Jones again here:

The perfect harmony that will be restored will be harmony in man and between men. Harmony on the earth and in the brute creation! Harmony in heaven, and all under this blessed Lord Jesus Christ who will be the head of all! Everything will again be united in him. And wonder of wonders, marvelous beyond compare, when all this happens it will never be undone again. All will be reunited in him to all eternity. That is the message; that is God's plan. That is the mystery which has been revealed to us...These things are so marvelous that you will never hear anything greater, either in this world or the world to come.

You are part of a cosmic drama in which you have been blessed with every spiritual blessing, says Paul. And this drama was initiated by God the Father, but it has been accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it is God's intention that one day everything will be restored that is currently broken, that everything sad will become untrue. And all of this will take place in Jesus Christ, who is the main point of all of creation. God initiated, but it is Jesus who died to ransom and forgive us, and he is the center, the climax, of the entire cosmic drama of redemption.

So God has initiated, and Jesus accomplished salvation and is the main point of all of history. Finally:

3. The Holy Spirit applies

Verses 13 and 14:

When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.

So here we have had the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father has chosen us and initiated this entire plan before the world ever began. Jesus Christ has ransomed us - bought us out of slavery to sin. He has forgiven us, and is the main point of all of history. Now we have the Holy Spirit, who applies the benefits of all that God has purposed and that Jesus has done for us.

In fact, there are two images of the Holy Spirit's work here: seal and deposit. Seal has the meaning of ownership and protection. In those days, owners would brand their cattle and even their slaves to signify ownership, and to protect what they owned against theft. God stamps us with the Holy Spirit, signifying that we belong to him, and that he will protect us through the trials of our lives.

The other image that Paul uses to describe the Holy Spirit's work is deposit, or down-payment. The Holy Spirit is, in fact, the first installment of all the blessings that God has promised us. God isn't just promising us our final inheritance as his children; he's actually giving us the Holy Spirit, which is a foretaste of all that we will receive one day.

Notice, by the way, the phrase that keeps repeating throughout this passage in verses 6, 12, and 14: to the praise of his glory. This reminds us that God's ultimate purpose is not that we are saved. That's his purpose, but it's not his ultimate one. God's ultimate purpose is his glory; our salvation is a means to accomplishing that purpose.

There's much more here, but this is just a sample of what Paul tells us about the cosmic drama of redemption. I asked myself this week: why would Paul write to ordinary people in an urban center like Ephesus - like Toronto for that matter - and tell them all of this? And here's what I think the answer is: He wanted them to understand that their lives are about much more than making the kid's lunches for school tomorrow, or paying the bills, or making it through another week of school. You are part of the cosmic drama of redemption. And the more we can pull back the curtains and see what is really going on in this world, the more we will realize our place in what God is doing.

But notice, as we close, that Paul didn't write dispassionately. Verses 3 to 14 in one sentence. Nobody does that unless they're excited. When Paul pulled back the curtain, he was overcome with praise and was profoundly moved. God chose us before the creation of the world. He adopted us as his children, making us his sons and daughters with all of the privileges that go with that. He has bought us from slavery to sin by the death of Jesus Christ, and has forgiven us. Our slate has been wiped clean. God says, "I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). He has revealed his purpose in history to us. He has sealed us with the Holy Spirit, guaranteeing that we are his and that he will protect us. He has given us the Spirit as a down-payment, promising that we are going to receive much, much more later.

Praise God for including us in the cosmic drama of redemption! "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3).

Our Greatest Need (Ephesians 1:1-2)

This morning I want to ask you important question. The question is this: what is our church's greatest need? Could it be a new program, or new leaders, or a new vision, or some strategic focus? What one thing could make the greatest positive difference in the life of our church as we begin a new year?

I tried guessing how some of us might answer this question. We have lots of needs. Anicet, our treasurer, could tell you that we need more money. Our children's ministry leaders will tell you that we need more workers. Sandy will tell you that we could use a few more pianists and musicians. The youth will tell you that we need more paintball nights. Dwain, our custodian, might tell you that we need people to turn off the lights when they're done in our building.

Bigger picture, some of us may think that our greatest need is to know what we are going to do in our community. It may be along the lines of clarifying our vision or unifying ourselves around some strategic focus in the coming year.

What is our church's greatest need?

I'd like to suggest that our greatest need isn't our most obvious need. It may not be one that you and I have even thought about. In just a minute I'd like to look at the verses we just read, which look at first like a standard introduction but actually point us to what we need more than anything else.

Let me tell you about Ephesians. It's a little bit intimidating to begin a series on this letter, written by the apostle Paul to the church in Ephesus. This was John Calvin's favorite letter. It's been called "the crown of St. Paul's writings," "the divinest composition of man," "the Grand Canyon of Scripture." It's been called one of the most relevant books for the church today. This is just a sample of what people have said about Ephesians over the years, and they're not exaggerating. So we have both a treat and a challenge ahead of us.

The apostle Paul doesn't waste any time as he begins this letter. As we begin to read chapter 1 we may be tempted to skip over the standard greeting we find in verses 1 and 2. But these verses contain in condensed form some heavy duty theology. In fact, right in these two verses you have two of the major themes of this entire book. You also have a description of our church's greatest need.

What is our church's greatest need?

First, to understand who we really are.

That's our first need: to understand who we really are. Look at verse 1 with me:

Paul writes, "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God's holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 1:1).

Take a look around you this morning. Who do you see? You probably see people who are, in many ways, a lot like the recipients of this letter.

When Paul wrote this letter, he wrote to the residents of a rich city, one of the major commercial centers of the area. It was a cosmopolitan and multiethnic city with people from all over the world - all different nationalities and backgrounds. It was a city that believed in tolerance and accommodation. It was also a city that was religiously pluralistic with a belief in the supernatural, but also with lots of opportunity for immorality. It was in a lot of ways like Toronto.

When Paul wrote Ephesians, he was writing to ordinary people who lived in this city: people with financial pressures; people with way too much to do and not enough time; parents with challenging kids and kids with challenging parents. He wrote to people who sang well along with people who can't hold a tune and everyone else in between. In other words, people just like us. And look what he called them: God's holy people (saints), faithful, in Christ Jesus.

Can I tell you what our greatest need is? It's actually this: to understand who we really are in Christ Jesus. In this verse you have a collision of two doctrines: the doctrine of humanity and the doctrine of the church. The doctrine of humanity says that we were created in God's image but sinned and have been kicked out of the Garden, and spend most of our lives muddling through life as ordinary people longing for more. The doctrine of the church says that God has taken these muddling people and made them into a new society, part of his new creation. If you look around you this morning, you see ordinary people living in the real world with real problems. But you also see around you saints, and the faithful in Christ Jesus. Our greatest need is to understand who we really are in Christ.

Can I unpack each of these terms for you so that you know who you - not you individually but you collectively - really are?

You are saints, God's holy people. I know you don't feel like saints. In the Catholic church a saint is someone who lived an especially exemplary life, and who has been officially recognized by the church after his or her death. But here Paul says that all of the people in the church of Ephesus are saints. What does he mean?

Saint actually means holy one, someone who has been set apart for God. It has nothing at all to do with human merit; it has everything to do with God selects a person who is completely undeserving and sinful; reaches down through the power of the Holy Spirit and regenerates them; and brings them into the company of God's church.

I was digging in my backyard a couple of weeks ago, and found a rusty pulley wheel that used to be at one end of a clothesline in the backyard. It was in terrible condition, all corroded and dirty. Imagine for some reason that I decided to set this rusty wheel aside for myself, and I went to work cleaning it and restoring it to what it was originally designed to be. The minute I chose it, it would be considered set apart, even though it still is rusty and in need of a lot of work.

This is what it means to be set apart for God, his saints and his holy people. You are still corroded and dirty and far from perfect, but God has picked you up and claimed you as his own, and is in the process of restoring you. It is so important that you know this. You ordinary people are God's saints, his treasured people. He has claimed you as his own and he is in the process of making you new.

Then Paul says that you are also faithful. This could mean one of two things. Faithful could mean that you and I are reliable and trustworthy, but honestly, we know better. I've looked in my own life and found that I am not faithful. I am prone to wander. My confidence is not in myself, because I know that I cannot meet my own standards, never mind God's.

Most commentators think that faithful means having faith. Paul is saying you are those who have faith not in yourselves, but in Jesus Christ and all that he has done for you. Martin Luther wrote, "Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing. Were not the right man on our side, the man of God's own choosing...." You are the faithful, because all of our hope, all of our faith, is not in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ who died for our sins, rose again, and has given us new life. We are the ones who have placed our faith in the gospel. We have heard what God has done for us, and by grace we have believed it.

Then Paul says we are in Christ Jesus. This is one of the most important terms that Paul ever uses. It's an idea that's found nine times in verses 3 to 23 of this chapter. Somebody's counted - Paul used variations of this phrase 164 times in his writings. You need to understand what he means. It's so important.

What does it mean that we are in Christ Jesus? According to Paul, our natural condition is to be in Adam. That means that Adam's record is ours. Because we are sons and daughters of Adam, his sin is our sin. We have inherited his guilt, and we have inherited his sinful nature.

But Paul here says that those who have put their faith in Christ are no longer in Adam; they are in Christ. Christ's record has become our record. His righteousness has become our righteousness. We have inherited a clean record and a new nature from him, and everything that is Christ's is now ours. Although our place is on earth, we have been spiritually lifted up with Christ. As Paul says in the next chapter, "God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:6).

No matter what your situation is, no matter who you are, if you are a Christian, then you are in Christ. You are joined to him. He is your life. You are not self-reliant or self-sufficient. You find all of your satisfaction and every need met in him. As a result, every blessing belongs to you because of your participation in Christ.

So Paul looks at these ordinary people living in a real place with real problems and says: You are saints. You are faithful; you have put your trust in the gospel. You are in Jesus Christ, so that everything that is his is yours. And our greatest need as a church is to understand, to really understand, who we are: saints, the faithful, the very people of God who are found in Christ Jesus. Our greatest need as a church is that we would really understand this.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a medical doctor who became pastor of a small church in Wales at the age of 27. It was a big deal that a medical doctor would give up his career to become a pastor. The church was in decline, and as people waited for Lloyd-Jones to arrive they wondered what he would do. What needs would he identify, and what would he do about them?

Some of his contemporaries changed the church services so that they were more attractive. Others tried to make the preaching more relevant. Some added midweek programs; others focused on children. The pastor who preceded Lloyd-Jones argued that he got more done walking the streets around the church than he accomplished within the walls of the church.

None of these approaches are necessarily bad. I wouldn't argue for unattractive worship services or irrelevant preaching. I'm all for good programs, midweek programs, and ministry outside of the walls of this church. But Lloyd-Jones believed that none of these would address the church's primary need. The primary need of the church, he believed, is for the church to understand and represent to the world the true life and privilege of being the children of God. The fundamental need is for the church to remember who she truly is. The most important thing for us is to know that we are not only a collection of ordinary people. We are saints, the faithful. We are in Christ Jesus. When we begin to understand who God has made us to be, it changes everything.

But Paul doesn't end there. Paul wants us to understand one more thing. We need to understand who we are. There's another need.

Second, to understand what God is up to.

In verse 2 we have in miniature form a summary of all that God is up to in this world. The standard greeting in a letter of that day would be words close to the ones that Paul used. Paul made a small change and filled his greeting with theological meaning, telling us what God is up to in this world. Ephesians 1:2 says, "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." In this one line Paul sums up all the gifts that are ours as a result of Christ.

What does this mean? Grace is the free, undeserved favor of God. Grace means that we get God's favor even though we deserve only his judgment. Grace is our only hope before a holy God.

I wasn't at Richview last week. I attended another church, one that practices confession as part of their morning worship. By the time we got to that point in the service I had stopped taking notes about what I could learn from the way they do things, because I realized I had something much bigger to focus on as I read these words with the rest of the congregation:

Our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: rebellion and treachery against the LORD. turning our backs on our God, speaking oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived. Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us for your name's sake.

At this point I wasn't taking notes. I was busted. I was saying, "This is me." But then the leader reminded us of God's grace: that God had chosen to extend his favor to us, not because we had deserved it, but simply because of his love and mercy and grace. So when Paul says, "Grace to you," that is a very big deal. God is in the business of extending grace to sinners.

Then Paul mentions peace. Again, there's much more than meets the eye. Peace comes from the Hebrew concept of shalom, which is deep well-being and deep prosperity. It's the condition of the world without sin. It's a theme that's going to come up repeatedly in Ephesians. Peace is what God has taken the initiative to do: to reconcile sinners to himself and to each other in his new community. God is in the process of restoring all things, and he's beginning in the church by reconciling people who were enemies of God with himself. He's taking people who were enemies with each other and making them into family.

"Grace and peace" is shorthand for the good news contained in the letter to the Ephesians. This is shorthand for God's cosmic program. It's all that he is up to in this world, and we have the privilege of being part of it.

Paul says, "I want you to understand who you are: saints, the faithful in Christ Jesus. And I want you to understand what God is up to: extending his grace and peace throughout the world." And when we understand this, it will change everything. It will make is humble, because we realize that we didn't deserve any of this. It will make us confident and secure, because we recognize who God has made us in spite of our sin. It will allow us to realize that we are participants in what God is doing in this world. We will become participants in extending his grace and peace to others. When we really understand this, there will be no holding us back. But until we understand this, there will be no getting us going.

So I want to ask you what I did when I started off. What is our church's greatest need? It's actually not more people or more money or more workers or more paintball nights or more strategies, as good as all of those things are. Our greatest need is that we understand who God has made us and what he is doing in this world. When we understand this - really understand this - it changes everything.

"Our thinking about who we are as Christians should not begin with what we can discover about ourselves by self-analysis. Rather, it begins with what God says about those who trust in Christ." (Sinclair Ferguson)

Father, would you allow us to see past our ordinariness to see who we truly are in Christ Jesus. Would it sink deep into our souls, making us humble, confident, and secure.

And may we really understand as we look at Ephesians what you are up to in the world, so that we become participants in what you are doing, extending grace and peace to a world that desperately needs both.

In Jesus' name, Amen.