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I teach at a Sydney theological college that’s right in the middle of one of the most irreligious parts of the Western world. Our campus sits between a long-established, determinedly secular university, and a vibrant, socially progressive inner-city suburb. Quite often, I join in with a group of college students, heading out into our community with the aim of engaging people in conversations about Jesus Christ. The results are varied. We’ve had some great conversations and some not-so-great ones. Some people say “no” straight away, with various degrees of politeness. Others are happy to talk for hours. But one thing I’ve discovered, and been a little surprised by, is there’s a large number of people in our community who believe in God.
However, what people actually mean when they say they believe in God (or god) is another question. It’s highly varied. People believe in a supreme cosmic force, a benevolent sovereign, an unknowable Other, and a great moral police officer, among others. Even the various atheists we meet have very different ideas about the kind of God (or god) they believe doesn’t exist.
What do you think of when you hear the word, ‘God’?
The Bible is all about God. But since the concept can mean so many things to different people, it’s important for us to come to grips with who this God actually is, and what he’s like. In Ephesians 1:2, in the introduction to his letter, Paul says some very important things about God:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.Ephesians 1:2
In fact, he uses the exact same formula in many of his other letters. But this isn’t just a clichéd formula. It’s not just Paul’s version of ‘to whom it may concern’. Paul repeats it because it’s such a good summary of certain amazing truths about God. It’s not everything you can say about God—obviously there’s far more to say about God than can be said in a single short verse. But still, in this verse there are some profound things we can learn about God—things that are also important for understanding the rest of the letter.
The God of grace
Firstly, God is a God of grace. Paul begins “Grace to you”. The word ‘grace’ is a ‘gift’ word: God is a God who gives. What kind of things does God give, and how does he give them? Lots of things, according to the rest of Ephesians! Firstly, and most wonderfully, God gives people who believe in Jesus the gift of salvation: forgiveness, life, and a relationship with him forever. This grace is completely undeserved, because by rights we actually deserve God’s judgment. So Jesus gave himself for us: he died for our sins and rose from the dead so we could have that salvation. God’s grace is also lavish: God has made us his children and showered his grace on us. And his grace, his gift, calls forth a response in us: it makes us into people who want to love him and praise him and live for him.
Salvation is central to God’s grace, but God gives us even more! He has also given us the gift of knowing him, and knowing his plans for the universe through Jesus. He gives us strength: strength to know him and live for him and stand for him. Also, he gives various kinds of other gifts to each one of us, to enable us to speak about Jesus and serve and care for one another and to bring the message of Jesus to the world. God has given Paul the gift of preaching the gospel to all the nations. And to each one of us he has given us grace, so that we can speak words of grace to others.
The God of peace
God is also a God of peace. Peace doesn’t just mean ‘the absence of war’. In the Bible, the word is often equivalent to the Hebrew word Shalom—which is still a standard greeting in modern Hebrew. It means ‘wellbeing’ in the biggest sense—it’s about us and our relationships and our world being right and whole and as they should be.
This idea of ‘peace’ is important for understanding God and his activity. God is actually the one who made everything; he is the creator of the whole universe and of each one of us. But the world, including our own lives and relationships, are not whole and right and as they should be. There is not perfect peace in our world, is there? There is human sin, hopelessness, stupidity and hostility. Yet God is a God who actively makes things right. How does he do that? He does it through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul keeps talking about this in the rest of his letter to the Ephesians. God makes peace between himself and us, by forgiving our sins and saving us from judgment. Jesus’ death on the cross makes peace between Jewish people and the nations who would otherwise be in a state of hostility. The gospel itself is a gospel of ‘peace’, because it brings about reconciliation with God and unity between diverse people who believe in him. And ultimately, God’s great purpose is that all things will be “summed up” in Christ (1:10), so that all things are made right and whole and as they should be.
God our Father
The God who gives grace and brings peace is described as “God our Father”. God is not an impersonal force. He is personal, and he relates to us personally. We can pray to him, ask him for things, praise him, speak with him and know things about him. He gives us good gifts, and he is in control. It’s a beautiful thing to know God this way, as a loving heavenly Father. However, it’s important for us not just to think about God in terms of human fatherhood. You may have had a terrible father, or no father at all. Or you may have had a great and loving father. But whether it’s the father you wished you had, or the good aspects of the father you did have, all of those things are only pale shadows of what it means that God is Father. In fact, the first way to understand what it means that God is Father is to look to his own Son—Jesus Christ.
The Lord Jesus Christ
Straight after Paul mentions “God our Father”, he talks about “the Lord Jesus Christ”. The word “Lord” means ‘ruler’. It means that Jesus Christ is in charge. Jesus is his name: Paul is talking about that same real person who was born and lived 2,000 years ago in ancient Israel. Yet he is not simply a long-gone historical figure. He is ‘Christ’. That isn’t his surname. ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed one’. It refers to the fact that Jesus is the one anointed to be king of God’s people, the Messiah of Israel and even more, the Lord and ruler of everything that God has made. He has died, and he is risen from the dead, and God is achieving all of his purposes through him.
The fact that Paul puts “the Lord Jesus Christ” in parallel with “God the Father” here hints at something that is described more explicitly elsewhere in the Bible: Jesus Christ is himself God, while at the same time being the ‘Son of God’ (see Ephesians 4:13). This is a profoundly rich truth, and we could go on about it forever. The main thing to see here is that you can’t really understand who God is without knowing about Jesus Christ. We can’t have grace and peace without the Lord Jesus Christ. We can’t access God the Father without coming to him through the Lord Jesus Christ. We can’t bypass Christ somehow, as if we can get to God some other way. That’s why in the rest of Ephesians Paul keeps coming back to the gospel of Jesus Christ as the key to all of God’s purposes, for all of humanity and indeed for the entire world.
Is this the God you believe in? The one who gives grace, who brings peace, who is your Father, and whose identity and character and purposes are inseparable from the Lord Jesus Christ? Or is your god something different? Is your god a god who demands you to perform and to earn salvation, or who has nothing to do with your world or your relationships, or who is a distant and impersonal being, or is able to be defined in a way that has nothing to do with the Lord Jesus Christ? If so, then your god is not the God of the Bible, and he is certainly not the God whom Paul talks about in Ephesians. This God is a wonderful, giving, powerful, personal Father, who brings about all things through his Son Jesus Christ.
That is, of course, why the gospel of Jesus Christ is so vital to know well and to share with others. The word ‘god’ can mean so many different things to different people. A friend of mine has a particular line that he sometimes uses when someone tells him that they are an atheist. He says, “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in, because chances are I don’t believe in that god either.” My friend’s aim is to share the gospel of Jesus—who he is and what he has done. Because it’s this God who is so good, and so worth coming to know and trust and serve.
The God of grace, the God of peace, God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ: How do these truths challenge your ideas about God?
How do these truths about God comfort and encourage you?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.