Today being January 3rd means that it’s a day that falls between two holidays, one cultural, the other ecclesial. The cultural holiday, of course, is New Year’s Day, full of promise of change and new beginnings and clean slates and resolutions and the hope that this year things will be different. The ecclesial holiday is Epiphany. Today is Epiphany Sunday with the actual date of Epiphany being January 6th. Historically this day has been a celebration of the manifestation or disclosure of Jesus as Christ, Jesus as the Messiah and God, to the Gentiles with the Magi—the wise men or three kings—standing in as their representatives (see Matthew 2:1–12).
Last week we noted three ponder-worthy events of first the shepherds, then the righteous man Simeon, and finally Anna the prophet all of whom acknowledged that Mary’s baby born in a manger was indeed the promised Messiah foretold in the Scriptures. And the visit of the Magi, included in Matthew’s Gospel, is a fourth ponder-worthy event in that even these Gentiles acknowledge that this baby is to be Savior not only of his own Jewish people but of all people.
As we also considered last week, that although the birth of Jesus is an awesome and wondrous fulfillment of the promised Messiah foretold in the Old Testament and therefore an event worthy of being celebrated each year, our focus shouldn’t be only on his birth—or on the snapshot we saw of him as a 12-year old boy asking questions in the temple—but our focus should be on why God came to earth in human form in the first place. And our passage on this Epiphany Sunday provides a breath-taking reminder of the Triune God’s eternal plan of salvation not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles, for all of us who were not part of God’s original chosen people, by means of the second member of the Trinity, God in the flesh, in the person of Jesus the Christ.
Although for the sake of preserving good English, translations of our passage are broken down into various sentences, in the Greek verses 3–14 are only one sentence. This passage is often referred to as a doxology, or a liturgical formula of praise to God, because it expresses what God has done and calls us to respond with worship to honor him because of his great love for us.
After Paul’s usual greeting identifying himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, indicating the recipients of letter—God’s holy people, or saints, in Ephesus—and greeting them with the Father and Son’s grace and peace, Paul begins, as noted, with a word of praise or blessing “to the God and Father or our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the few verses that follow, we’re going to see Paul provide us with an expression of God’s triune love. Though the word “trinity” is never found in the Old or New Testaments, this chapter is one place where we see the one God of the Old Testament disclosing himself as three Persons. Watch how Paul starts with God the Father, moves to God the Son, and ends with God the Holy Spirit each working to the same end—the salvation and adoption of his children. Notice, too, how Jesus is the fulcrum of God’s eternal purpose of salvation. In these eleven verses the phrase “in Christ” or some form of it is repeated ten times—so we’d do best not to miss this.
Paul begins with God the Father by expressing respect and gratitude and praise to him who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And Paul also provides a reason for that praise: because God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (v. 3). In Christ we have God’s divine favor. But why is this favor in the heavenly realms? Why not the earthly realms? It’s because of Christ’s exaltation—that is, his resurrection and ascension. Having risen and ascended to heaven, he is now ruling from heaven and heaven will be the believer’s future dwelling with Christ. And why is this a spiritual blessing? Because Paul is dealing with salvation—with how God is able to bring those who are spiritually dead apart from Christ to being spiritually alive in Christ. It’s a spiritual blessing because this movement from spiritual death to spiritual life can only occur by means of God the Holy Spirit. So there is no true spirituality apart from the working of God’s Holy Spirit.
As the passage continues Paul states not only that God chose us in in Christ but that he did so “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (v. 4). So because God has blessed us by setting us aside for himself from eternity, we can’t take credit for our salvation. Our salvation is all, from beginning to end, his doing. And the reason for our choosing in Christ is that we might “be holy and blameless” in the sight of God. Does being holy and blameless in God’s sight make it onto our list of New Year’s resolutions? I confess, regrettably, that it hasn’t always been on mine. Yet as those who have been created in the image of God and redeemed by his Son, we would do well to understand that God has called us to be holy and blameless—which is another way of saying that our purpose in life is to be like God. We are to value what he values. We are to love as he loves. We are to care about what he cares about. We are to be just as he is just. We are to be merciful as he is merciful. And the only way that this holiness—this being like God—is even possible for us is because of our union with Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit he has given us.
Human perfection in the abstract isn’t what God has in mind. God wants us to be like him. Paul goes on to state that God has “predestined us for adoption to sonship.” As natural-born and adopted children are raised to emulate the values their parents teach them, so too, our heavenly Father desires us to emulate his values—to be holy and blameless as he is. This is our destiny as his adopted children. And the word translated here as “sonship” is an important one. It’s a legal term indicating the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture.
What is more, our adoption is made possible by means of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. He is the entry to our heavenly Father’s family. As we’ve noted before, Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him. And all of this, Paul assures us, is “in accordance with his pleasure and will.” Isn’t it wonderful to consider that God’s adopting us as his children brings him pleasure and is according to his will???? Our loving and heavenly Father delights in us. He wants to makes us he is. He wants to have fellowship with us. He wants to lead and to guide us. He wants to love us—if only we would let him. And all of this, Paul says, is “to the praise of his glorious grace.” So the appropriate response to such adopting and delight by God is to praise God in return—to thank him—to express our appreciation to him for adopting us to be his children and heirs.
Make no mistake: God didn’t adopt us because we were so cute—or smart—or athletic—or funny—or thin—or well-behaved—or already perfect in any way; no, he adopted us because he wanted us to be his children. We didn’t deserve to be adopted. Our adoption is an expression of God’s grace—of his unmerited favor—which, Paul goes on to say, God “has freely given us in the One he loves”—in other words he is reminding us again that this adoption is only possible because of and through Jesus Christ. And with this statement Paul transitions from focusing upon the love of God our heavenly Father to the love of God the Son, Jesus Christ.
In verse 7 Paul states that in Jesus Christ “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.” Redemption in the ancient world indicated deliverance from slavery by paying a price. Keep in mind that in the ancient world slaves made up as much as a third of the Roman Empire so Paul is using language that would have resonated with his audience. But he is speaking not of freedom from a human master but of freedom from slavery to sin. We have been delivered from our slavery to sin and guilt by the price God paid in his Son Jesus Christ—Jesus the promised Messiah. The deliverance God purposed for us in Christ before the foundation of the world was to take on human form, to be tempted as we are—yet without sin—and so become qualified to deliver us as one who lived his life in perfect obedience to his Father in heaven that he might become sin for us, die for us, and rise for us—and so provide the forgiveness of our sins. This is the price God paid that we might be holy and blameless even as he is.
So because of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection any sin we have ever committed, no matter how big or small, has been forgiven;
Because of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection any sin we may now be committing or considering committing, no matter how big or small, can be forgiven;
Because of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection any sin we may commit in the future, no matter how big or small, can be forgiven.
Each week in the service during the pastoral prayer, we acknowledge this amazing gift God has given us as we take a moment to confess our sins, knowing that when we do, he is faithful and just and forgives us our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness by means of our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit he has given us.
And all of this, Paul assures us, is “in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us.” Notice the extravagant language here. God isn’t stingy with his grace—with his unmerited favor on our behalf. His grace is chock-full of riches that he has lavished on us. God is extravagant when it comes to his grace. He provides us not just with what we need, but he bathes us with it. He showers us with it. He heaps it upon us. We are his children now, after all. And his grace—his underserved, unmerited favor—is one of the greatest inheritances he can ever give us.
In Jesus Christ, too, Paul goes on, God has made known to us the mystery of his will—namely, if we peek ahead in verse 10—“to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under—or in—Christ.” We who live in an age of disunity, long for unity, don’t we? As our political season is officially moving into high gear, the diversity of values we hold as a society has once again come front and center: are we for big government or small government? Are we for more institutions to help for the poor and needy or less? Are we in favor of opening our borders to those from other countries or against it? Are we pro-social security or against it? Pro- universal health care or against it? Do we believe in global warming or don’t we? The list goes on and on. In the face of so much disunity it’s a comfort to know that one day, as Paul promises, God through Christ, with all wisdom and understanding, will bring about his will which he has disclosed to us—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth in Christ. One day we will experience God’s shalom, God’s peace, the way that God intended things to be. For Christ is God’s Son but he isn’t only his Son, he is also a King who even now is ruling all heaven and earth, working to bring about this unity which he began when he came to earth and which one day will reach its fulfillment. And this, again, is according to his good pleasure.
But not only that. In verse 11 Paul states that all who have put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ “were also chosen”—or another possible translation is “were made heirs”—“having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” So, again, our salvation is part of God’s original design—our salvation is the “purpose of his will” and the reason for our adoption is “for the praise of his glory” (v. 12). But notice the contrast in verses twelve and thirteen. Paul first speaks of we “who were the first to put our hope in Christ” and then says “you also were included in Christ.” What might be his point here? Well the “we” refers to God’s first chosen people, the nation of Israel whom God made for himself through Abraham. This “we” refers to those Jewish believers—including Paul himself—who acknowledged, by God’s grace, that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah. The “you also” refers to non-Jewish believers, or Gentiles, who were included in God’s promise to Abraham that, one day, all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him—and that one day arrived with arrival of Jesus the Christ, the promised Messiah. As many of you know, one of the issues that many of the New Testament letters address is the divisiveness between Jews—who saw themselves as the true people of God—and Gentiles—who were viewed as being unclean. Yet in Christ, all are called to be one. In Christ all are called to be united. If you think that the current divide between Democrats and Republicans is bad, it’s nothing compared to that which existed between Jews and Gentiles. Yet all who come to God, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, male or female, young or old, can do so only because of and by the grace, the unmerited favor, God has provided in Christ.
Paul ends by transitioning to the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. He says that at the moment we believe in Christ and accept the salvation he brings, we are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. Now Bible scholars think this sealing might mean one or both of the following. The Holy Spirit is a seal in that he protects and preserves Christians until they reach their inheritance or that the Holy Spirit certifies the authenticity of their acceptance by God as being genuine. But, again, I think that we need to think of this sealing as a kind of spiritual legal transaction. The Holy Spirit’s sealing is like God’s signature on the adoption papers. Notice how Paul goes on to state that the Holy Spirit is a “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.” The Holy Spirit is a guarantee, a down payment or first installment indicating that though we are not holy yet, nonetheless we now belong to God and he will never let us go. Once we’ve been adopted as God’s children, that adoption sticks not only throughout our earthly lives but on into our heavenly lives with him. Shouldn’t this be the cause of our celebration as we enter a New Year?
I began this morning by observing that today falls between two holidays—New Year’s and Epiphany. But I think Epiphany is the more realistic of the two. Whereas New Year’s and its accompanying resolutions sets before us the hope that we can change—that we can become the people we would like to be rather than the people that we are, Epiphany—grounded in God’s disclosure of himself to all people in his Son, Jesus Christ—points to who God wants us to be.
The reason God disclosed himself in Jesus is because he knew that we can’t know what he is like us apart from Christ.
The reason God disclosed himself in Jesus is because he knew that we can’t know our heavenly Father apart from Christ.
The reason God disclosed himself in Jesus is because he knew that we can’t be holy and blameless apart from Christ.
The reason God disclosed himself in Jesus is because he knew that we needed the sealing and indwelling of the Holy Spirit he provides in order to be like him.
New Year’s is about doing our pleasure and will. But Epiphany is about doing our loving and heavenly Father’s pleasure and will as we seek to know him better—and love him more—and so know and love each better and more.
New Year’s gets things partially right. It taps into the realization we all have that we’re not the people we would like to be. We can be selfish. And self-centered. And lazy. And go with what is easy rather than what is right.
But Epiphany knows better. It knows that we can’t be the people God intended us to be apart from him. And so we offer our praise in gratitude to our heavenly Father who elects us, and to the Son who redeems us, and to the Spirit who seals and indwells us. For our election is from eternity, and provides forgiveness in the present, and an eternal inheritance in the future. And all of this is made possible because of our union in Christ. Think about it—we are in Christ. This is the highest level of intimacy possible. He is our head—we are his body; we as his church are his bride. Our relationship couldn’t be more personal.
As we move to our time of celebrating our union in and communion with Christ, I want to end by reviewing the ten “in Christ” statements from this morning’s passage:
In Christ our heavenly Father has blessed us with every spiritual blessing.
In Christ he chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless.
In Christ he predestined us for adoption as his children.
In Christ he has granted us redemption through his blood and the forgiveness of our sins.
In Christ he has made know to us the mystery of his will.
In Christ he will one day bring unity to all things in heaven and earth.
In Christ we were chosen according to his eternal plan.
In Christ the Jews were first able to place their hope to the glory and praise of God.
In Christ the rest of us are included in God’s plan of salvation.
In Christ we have all been marked and sealed by his Holy Spirit, guaranteeing our inheritance and presence with him now and forevermore.
Let us pray.