Preaching Ephesians

Article by   November 2009
'What makes a preacher choose any book or passage of the Bible to preach on?' That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question I tend to ask myself on not a few occasions and feel I have to answer to my congregation (usually when I'm beginning a new series). I suppose there is a degree of similarity in that to the mountaineer's question and answer: 'Why climb that mountain? - Because it's there!' The Bible is full of scriptural 'mountains' (some of which feel pretty Himalayan in their proportions and tend to scare us off as preachers), but they're there as part of that 'all Scripture' which is not only all 'God-breathed', but also 'useful' and cry out to be climbed. So sometimes I have found myself delving into certain books - like Ezekiel - for the sheer challenge they present, into others - like Isaiah - for their sheer size and for others - like the Psalms - for their sheer beauty. But what made me launch into Ephesians?

Part of the reason was pure nostalgia. Ephesians was the first book that began to really shape my thinking and my life as a very young Christian almost 40 years ago. My father was (and still is) a preacher - one who sat under Martyn Lloyd-Jones and whose preaching was hugely influenced by that giant of preachers in the mid-20th Century. In true Lloyd-Jonesian fashion, he had a predilection for preaching long series (and long sermons) and they were simply captivating. His series on Ephesians was the first of these consecutive expositions that really began to register with me.

I had professed faith at the age of ten and Dad began preaching these sermons probably when I was about twelve. I still have my little zipped edition of the King James Bible that I used back then and inside its back pages are the notes I took during those evening services. Despite all the limits of my understanding I had a real sense of this book of the Bible having a truly majestic air about its message.

This sense of appreciation was not only strengthened, but also deepened the following year when a number of my close friends in the school where I was a boarder came to faith and we began to do Bible studies together. Inter Varsity Press had just published Francis Foulkes' little paperback commentary on Ephesians (the precursor to his Tyndale commentary) and my ever thoughtful father put a copy into our hands. He nudged us in the direction of using it as a study-guide to Ephesians and (judging from the fact that same little volume is now falling apart) it got as good a working-through as a bunch of teenagers could give such a book. I still remember how those studies excited us with some very basic Christian teaching, like discovering what a 'saint' actually is; but also how they got us into some pretty heated debates. The inevitable discussion on election and predestination was probably the most memorable. I think my progress towards being an embryonic Calvinist hit a major road-block at that point and brought me into dispute with my dear Dad as well; but his response was wise and judicious. He didn't get worked up in face of my protests, simply sent me back to 'what the Bible says', but also placed a copy of Charles Hodge's work on Election and Predestination into my hands. The memory of not being able to argue with the great man's exegesis still lingers on with me!

Ten years later as a young minister, still fairly fresh out of seminary, it was perhaps not surprising that Ephesians was one of the early series I undertook with the little congregation I was then pastoring in Ireland. That too became a shared voyage of discovery: for me to try to preach the book, for my people - most of whom were new to a Reformed understanding of the Christian Faith - to see familiar passages in fresh light. The sermons may not have been wonderful, but the truths we visited together over those months did set us on fire.

So, yes, as I found myself drawn back to Ephesians all these years later, there was more than a little spiritual sentimentality as to how it had played such a crucial part in the early years of my own journey as a Christian and in the early stages of my ministry. At the same time, there was a lot more that convinced me that here was a book I needed to preach through again, this time in 21st Century London.

The years that have elapsed since my first foray into this great letter have deepened my appreciation of what Paul is teaching here and there are some aspects especially that have crystallised for me and helped me to see the particular concerns that the apostle had as he wrote. Concerns that have a very real timeliness for a world almost two millennia distant from the one in which he wrote.

The first of those concerns is doxology: it hits you immediately as soon as you start reading Ephesians and find yourself in a fourteen verse sentence which is pure adoration. What is most striking about it is that there is nothing contrived about it. Every one of Paul's letters is an exposition of the gospel, but one that expounds the gospel in light of the particular circumstances of the church to which it was addressed. So, as he begins to expound the gospel to the group of churches around which this letter was probably circulated, he explodes with praise for what the gospel is. Indeed he opens it up in a way that shows there is infinitely more to this message than we could ever hope to comprehend. The effect of this is not to leave us floundering in what defies our understanding; but make us realize how great is our salvation and how gracious is God, our Saviour. We are left with a view of God and his grace that is infinitely higher than we had before we started reading.

That grasp of doxology desperately needs to be recovered in many churches today. The great irony of course is that many churches are obsessed with doxology (praise and worship) and yet somehow the real thing seems to elude them. They become more and more focused on new songs and innovative approaches; but while these may excite the emotions, they somehow fail to lift our spirit heavenwards. Paul's answer to that is the gospel. It is only as we truly grasp (as he says later on in Ephesians) just how wide, long, high and deep is the love of God for us in Christ that our hearts are genuinely thrilled into adoration.

Another central theme that emerges in this letter is the impact of the gospel on community. The need for Paul to strike this note becomes apparent in the second chapter where he addresses the one problem which more than any cast its shadow over the New Testament church: what he calls 'the dividing wall of hostility'. It was a kind of spiritual apartheid that made many converted Jews assume an air of superiority over converted Gentiles.  The impact of this was to divide the church. Paul's response is to expound the gospel in a way that shows the difference it makes to the church as community.

So all the way through this letter Paul's focus is not merely on the gospel and what it does for us as individuals; but how it brings us into the church and shapes us as the family of God. His basic thrust is to demonstrate that our individual union and communion with Christ by definition means union and communion with all his blood-bought people - regardless of their ethnic or spiritual background. The force of this line of reasoning comes out most powerfully in chapter three in what he says about God's purpose in redemption,

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (3.10-11)
.

In other words, the church is the cosmic stage for the drama of redemption! The import of this for the cluster of churches around Ephesus in Paul's day could not have been greater, divided as they were by a party spirit. Paul reminds them that cross tore down that division.

Its import for Christians today cannot be understated. The focus of the gospel for the vast majority of believers is almost exclusively individualistic. So much so that the church has become the Cinderella of theology and practice.

Paul develops this theme throughout the letter - using corporate language in all he says - to take us from principle in the first three chapters to practical application in the rest. The monumental section at the start of the second half (4.1-16) provides us with the clearest blueprint for church life that the church has ever been given. It ought to be the syllabus for every 'New Members 101' class.

His handling of how all this works out in practice in marriage, family and in the workplace grounds these truths in the nitty-gritty of everyday life. It goes without saying that these issues have enduring significance in these most basic spheres of Christian life and service and will speak volumes to every congregation.

In the final major section of the letter Paul deals with the issues of spiritual warfare in a way that is familiar and yet strangely unappreciated in our generation. He leaves us in no doubt that our unseen enemy is not flesh and blood and that in ourselves we cannot stand against him. He drives us back to what we are and what we have in Christ and reminds us that it is in Christ alone we stand, not merely for our justification, but sanctification and survival to the very end in the life of faith.

Why am I preaching Ephesians? - Because it is one of the most breath-taking and exquisite expositions of the gospel that shows it to be God's key for fixing not merely broken lives, but for fixing a broken humanity. It is a much-needed message to our fragmented world today.


Mark Johnston is Senior Minister of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London.


Mark Johnston, "Preaching Ephesians", Reformation21 (November 2009)

 

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