Update: This is an initial post in a planned series, released early to get feedback from friends. More information about the planned series, including how to subscribe, can be found here.
Our family lived for several years in Durham, in the north east of England. One day, through my son’s primary school, we were offered some cheap tickets to see a Premier League football match in nearby Sunderland. Since we’d never seen a Premier League game, my son and I decided it would be great to go. I knew that our neighbour Patrick, who’d grown up in Durham, was a huge football fan. So I asked Patrick if he had any advice for us on the best way to get ourselves to the match. Patrick told me there was a bus to the game that stopped right outside our house. The day arrived, and my son and I hopped on the bus with Patrick.
But there was a surprise in store for us. The bus was, in fact, the Sunderland supporters’ bus! So as soon as we got on, we realised we had to make a decision. Were we going to support Sunderland, or their opponents Wigan Athletic? You can probably guess our decision: we very swiftly and decisively became Sunderland supporters! We rode to the match as Sunderland supporters; we bought the Sunderland supporters’ scarf; we cheered and groaned at the match as Sunderland supporters; and on the bus home, after a disappointing one-all draw, we joined in with the misery and regret of Sunderland supporters. We hadn’t planned to spend the day as die-hard Sunderland supporters. But hey, we were on the bus.
Something similar might be true for you when it comes to the whole Christian thing. Maybe you’ve hopped on the ‘Christian bus’, so to speak. Maybe you’ve become a Christian recently. Maybe you’ve grown up as a Christian all your life. Maybe you’re still investigating what it’s all about. Or maybe you’re even one of the bus drivers—someone involved in Christian ministry or leadership in some way. Whoever you are, you might be feeling that things aren’t quite playing out as you were expecting when you hopped on. Maybe you’re confused about the things that you’re learning from the Bible. Maybe you’re suffering and you don’t know how that could possibly fit in to God’s plan. Maybe it’s all becoming a bit bland or boring. Maybe you’re seeing the sin of other Christians and becoming disillusioned. Maybe you’re disappointed by people at church. Maybe you’re feeling the weight of opposition from people around you: the snide remarks, the hatred, or worse. Maybe you feel the tide of the world is against you, and you’re wondering if it’s all worth it anyway.
Don’t lose heart!
In the early 60s AD, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter called Ephesians to believers in Jesus who were in danger of losing heart (Ephesians 3:13). Paul was the great early missionary of Jesus Christ, the one who, along with a team of co-workers, had spread the message about Jesus (the “gospel”) throughout the eastern part of the Roman Empire. But when Paul wrote his letter, he was in prison in Rome. He’d been chained up because powerful people opposed his gospel. At this point, he’d already been held captive for several years. The authorities seemed to have won. And for many of the people who’d heard and believed the gospel that Paul and others had proclaimed and taught, it would certainly have looked like things weren’t going to plan. So Paul penned this letter from his imprisonment, to these believers in and around Ephesus (in the Roman Province of Asia, which is modern day Turkey), to encourage them. And what he said to them is indeed vastly encouraging, and still speaks powerfully today.
The central message of Ephesians is that the God of the universe has an amazing plan, and that plan is being put into effect through the preaching of the gospel.
God’s multi-dimensional plan
What is God’s plan? It is all focused on the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s dearly-loved Son, who came into the world, died on a cross, and rose from the dead. Christ is powerful—more powerful than any earthly powers or even cosmic powers. Christ is active, through his Holy Spirit, bringing people to trust in him and to live for him as the gospel is proclaimed and heard. And God’s ultimate plan is that everything—everything in the universe—will be “summed up” in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).
This divine plan involves multiple dimensions. There’s a personal dimension, as God lifts up individual sinners like us who would otherwise be facing God’s judgment, and makes us his dearly loved children. There’s a knowledge dimension, as God reveals his plans to his people through foundational missionaries (“apostles”) like Paul. There’s a time dimension, since God’s plan spans from before the beginning of creation through to the end of the world. There’s an international dimension, as God’s plan involves seeing people from all nations—beginning with those who come from his ancient people Israel—coming to trust in Jesus Christ. There’s a social dimension, as diverse individuals are united in love. And there’s a cosmic dimension, as even the spiritual powers are caught up in this great plan.
God’s plan involves the preaching of the gospel
Paul insists that God is working out this plan through the preaching of the gospel. As people like Paul (and many others) speak about Jesus, and as those who hear come to trust Jesus and put their lives into his hands, God is actually bringing about his multi-dimensional plan. Individual sinners are being forgiven, rescued from judgment, restored, raised up and made into God’s children. People are learning and growing and changing. Relationships are being mended; hostility is being broken down; hope is dawning; and even the cosmic powers are watching. This truth helps to make sense of the things that might discourage us: whether it’s our own struggles with sin, with hardship and difficulty or the opposition and hostility from the world around us. These spiritual struggles are real, and yet still Jesus Christ is in charge of it all. He is actively working in even your current situation to bring about his cosmic plan. So we can and should continue to listen to that gospel of Jesus Christ: to believe it, live it, and speak it to others in love.
Ephesians will lift your eyes
When you face discouragement or suffering or opposition, it’s easy to react in a negative way, isn’t it? You could adopt a victim mentality, or a siege mentality; you could shut down, hunker down, close your eyes and hope it all goes away. What does Paul do for his readers in the face of discouragement?
Firstly, he reminds them of the truth, and secondly, he prays for them. He knows that through the gospel, God has brought light to the “eyes of their hearts” (Ephesians 1:18). He wants God to enable them to see the hope that is theirs, to raise their sights—in other words, to lift their eyes. Then, though their struggle is still very real, they will be able to “stand” in the midst of that struggle (Ephesians 6:11–14). This is what Ephesians does for us too. As you read Ephesians, it is my prayer that Paul’s letter will lift your eyes, raise your sights, and help you to stand.
Over the coming months, I’ll be writing 72 reflections, covering every verse in Ephesians. In each reflection, I’ll take a short portion from the letter, provide a translation, describe what it’s saying, and reflect on what it means for our lives and our relationships with others. I won’t be going into detail justifying every statement I make about Ephesians. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say, and want to chase it up further with technical details, you might like to check out another book I’ve written that provides a detailed argument about what I understand Ephesians to be all about.
A brief note on timing: I’ve released this initial post a couple of months early (i.e. November 2018) so I can get feedback from friends. I’m planning to resume publishing the reflections in early 2019.
As I write, I’m praying that Ephesians will humble you, encourage you, give you a deep sense of security in Jesus Christ, inspire you, and strengthen you. I’m praying that it will equip you and enthuse you to play your own part in God’s great plan through the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m praying that you will see how big this plan is—bigger than you, bigger than your church, bigger than your ministry. I pray that your eyes will be lifted beyond your own dreams to God’s multidimensional purposes through the gospel: the personal dimension, the time dimension, the international dimension, the social dimension and the cosmic dimension. And I’m praying that this might even change the direction of your life: that there may be radical changes as you consider how you might give every part of your life over to prayerfully “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
What do you find hard or discouraging about the Christian life?
What truths from Ephesians might help to lift your eyes and help you to stand?