Sunday, May 14, 2017

Every Spiritual Blessing – Eph. 1:3

In Africa, the Okavango Delta in the Kalahari Desert remains a wasteland for most of the year.  However, there is a period of time each year when this wasteland becomes a paradise.  During this season, grasses and flowers grow where once there was nothing but cracked and hardened dirt, and water flowing in abundance where not long before there was none.  What makes this even more amazing is that the rain that turns this desert into a veritable Garden of Eden does not actually fall in the desert.  Rather, the life-giving waters originally descended in rains upon mountains a thousand miles away in the highlands of Angola.  I think this is an apt image for what the apostle is describing for us in our text.  Paul begins here in verse three by praising the Triune God for blessings – blessings that originated not in our sin-cursed desert but in heavenly places.  The origin of the blessings over which Paul exults in doxology come from a time before time, and from a place beyond our earthly places.  And just like the waters that flow to make deserts blossom again, the spiritual blessings that come from God turn our own barren and desolate hearts into fountains of living water.

There is an ocean of spiritual wealth in just this verse alone, that, if appropriated by faith would truly cause believers to radiate with glory and joy.  Lloyd-Jones preached three sermons just on verse three in his series of sermons on Ephesians.  And yet this is just the start.  Verse three is the beginning of one long sentence in the Greek, a sentence that does not end until verse 14.  It’s as if Paul cannot stop praising God for the fullness and richness of his blessings toward his people.  The majesty and the glory of this passage is unmistakable.  It’s been likened to “a magnificent gateway,” and to “a kaleidoscope of dazzling lights and shifting colours.”[1]  Perhaps one of the best descriptions was given by John Mackay, who proposed a musical simile for this doxology.  He writes, “This rhapsodic adoration is comparable to the overture of an opera which contains the successive melodies that are to follow.”[2]

And yet this is not just a random and thoughtless avalanche of words.  There is an obvious structure to these verses.  Paul organizes his song of praise around what we might call three stanzas directed at each person of the Trinity.  In verses 4-6, he praises the Father who has chosen us to be holy and predestined us to become his sons and daughters.  In verses 7-12, he praises the Son by whom we are redeemed, enlightened, and made heirs of an inheritance that is far beyond what anything on this earth could afford.  And then in verses 13-14, he praises the Spirit of God who seals us and gives us the earnest of our inheritance in Christ.  At the end of each stanza (6, 12, 14), Paul pauses to point out that the display of the glory of God’s grace is the ultimate purpose behind the unfolding drama of the redemption planned by the Father, executed by the Son, and applied by the Holy Spirit.

The Trinitarian structure of these verses is anticipated in verse 3, for here the apostle in summarizing the blessings in one verse, does so by pointing to the Trinity as the one through whom all blessings flow.  The Father is the one who blesses us – he is the fountain of our blessings.  But these blessings come in Christ, and Paul calls him the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ because it is through Christ that we receive anything that brings us to heaven and makes us accepted before God.  Finally, Paul describes the blessings that we receive as “spiritual blessings.”  This is a reference to the Holy Spirit (not our spirit), who applies the blessings to us.

To see this, it is instructive to note how this word “spiritual” is used elsewhere in the NT, especially by Paul.  In 1 Cor. 2, for example, Paul talks about how “the natural man” does not receive “the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him” (14).  Then he says, “But he that is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is judged by no man” (15).  In these verses, the spiritual man is contrasted with the natural man, and the distinction is very clearly that the natural man lacks the insight given by the Spirit of God.  So the spiritual man is someone who is enlightened by the Holy Spirit to see the truth and beauty of the gospel.  Then in 1 Cor. 12, Paul teaches them about spiritual gifts.  What makes them spiritual?  They are spiritual because they are given by the Holy Spirit (12:1, 4, 7).  Finally, in 1 Cor. 15, Paul contrasts the spiritual body with the natural body (42-46).  The natural body dies but the spiritual body is what is given to believers at the resurrection of the dead.  Just as our Lord was raised from the dead by the Spirit (Rom. 1:4), even so believers will be raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit at the Last Day.

The point of this is that we shouldn’t interpret “spiritual blessings” as referring simply to things that benefit our spirit rather than our bodies.  Rather, spiritual blessings are blessings which are conferred upon us by the power of the Holy Spirit, just as our spiritual enlightenment, our spiritual gifts, and spiritual bodies are all given to us according to the working of the Spirit of God.  In fact, we should point out that the spiritual body that Paul is talking about in 1 Cor. 15 is not an incorporeal body because it is a body like Christ’s, and his body is a real, fleshly, physical body – but without corruption and empowered by the Spirit.

So this verse really does anticipate and summarizes all that follows in the next 11 verses, especially the Trinitarian origin of our blessings.  However, what I want to focus on this morning is what this verse tells us about how we are to respond to these blessings.  In particular, this verse shows us that we should be people whose lives are characterized by praise.  I’m not talking about the dutiful or habitual “praise God!” that falls off of many people’s lips, because they know they should say it but their heart really isn’t in it.  That’s not what Paul is doing here.  I’m talking about having a heart that explodes in praise to God because it is hit with the glory of what has been given to me in Christ. 

The question then is, How do we become people like that?  The verse before us helps here.  It tells us that we need to become people who are focused on the source of our blessings – God.  It tells us that we need to become people who are confident in the security of our blessings – God has blessed us: “The past tense . . . is used because the apostle contemplates his readers as actually redeemed, and in present possession of the unspeakable blessings which Christ has procured.”[3]  We need to be people who have laid hold of eternal life.  It tells us that we need to become people who embrace the superabundance of our blessings: “with all [or, every] spiritual blessing.”   And we need to be people who understand the splendor of our blessings: they are “spiritual blessings in heavenly places.”

So first of all, we need to become people who are focused on the source of our blessings; we need to be focused on God himself.  The problem that we get into is that we tend to focus on the blessings (or lack thereof, as we might see it) instead of on God.  But the problem with this is that focusing on our blessings means that we are looking at ourselves all the time.  And this leads to becoming a person who is self-centered, self-focused, and self-oriented.  And that is idolatry.  It follows that focusing on the blessings instead of on God is the surest way to short-circuit our ability to live a life that is characterized by joy and praise.  If you and I seek the blessing instead of the one who gives the blessing, we will miss the blessing.

Notice how Paul begins: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  To say that God is blessed does not mean that we are adding to the glory and worth of God.  You and I can add nothing to God.  He is not served by human hands as though he needed anything (Act 17:25).  It means instead that we recognize with our minds and affections that God is worthy to be praised.  It means that we see that God is blessed and see (to some extent) his glory.  It means that we can say with the angelic hosts: “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created” (Rev. 4:11).  It means that we praise God for who he is and not just because we have received gifts from him that we like.

How then do we become people who persistently look to God instead of to themselves?  First of all, we must be surrendered to God.  If we are holding anything back from God’s control over our life, that thing is obviously more important than God.  And that thing is going to blind us from seeing the surpassing worth of God.  The reason people don’t see God’s majesty has nothing to do with God himself – it is not because God wants to be appreciated for something he is not.  The reason lies in our falsely valuing things above God – things that are not really valuable at all when compared to God.  Am I truly surrendered to God?  Is there anything in my heart that has preeminence over my affections?  If so, I will not be able to see the glory of God as I should, and even if my lips utter praise to God they only do so disconnected from a heart that treasures other things.

This is one of the reasons why holiness is so often associated with joy in the Bible.  People tend to associate holiness with gloom and censoriousness and a general lack of happiness.  But this is because people have mistaken self-righteousness for God-centeredness.  It is otherwise in the Scripture.  There, we are told, “Blessed [happy] are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8).  We are told that “light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart” (Ps. 97:11).  We are told that it is the “holy city,” the New Jerusalem, that is the place where there will be “no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Rev. 21:2, 4).  You will never be able to say, “Blessed be God,” until you can also say with Paul of God: “whose I am, and whom I serve” (Acts 27:23).

But obedience isn’t the only way we surrender to God.  We also surrender to him by trusting in him, by relying upon him, and by depending on him.  So often the reason why the first word out of our mouths isn’t praise to God is because we are still trying to live life depending on our own resources and strength and cleverness.  But Paul lived by faith in the Son of God (Gal. 2:20).  On another occasion Paul said that “we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).  If you are truly at the end of yourself and you recognize that you are wholly dependent upon God, then it will be easy to praise God.  You will not be deluded to think that the successes of your life are your successes.  You will recognize that every blessing you receive ultimately comes from the gracious hand of God.  And so of course you will say with Paul, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!”  We must learn to look to God.

Then we must become people who are confident and secure in their relationship with God.  I don’t mean presumption.  I’m not talking about people living in sin who nevertheless claim to be eternally secure.  God’s word holds out no hope for people who are living in rebellion against him.  Rather, I’m talking about people whose lives are characterized by faith and repentance.  You can be seeking to live a life in submission to Christ, and yet fail to rejoice in the hope that is yours because of Christ; they are not confident in their participation in the blessings that belong to all who belong to the Lord.

What I mean is that it is possible for believers to develop a mentality that God is somehow against them.  And if you get that way, you are always going to be questioning whether or not God has the best in mind for you.  You might read that those who trust in the Lord are blessed, but there will always be a question mark in the back of your mind: am I really blessed?  You might interpret things that have happened in your life as God getting back at you, or as divine retribution, rather than as God’s loving discipline to increase your joy in him.

To such people Paul reminds us that “God . . . hath blessed us.”  We are blessed; it is past tense.  Those who belong to Christ are not waiting to be blessed, they are blessed, right now.  In fact, every spiritual blessing in heavenly places belongs to them.  The blessings of salvation are not dependent somehow on how good you have been or will be.  You don’t have to merit them.  You don’t have to earn them.  You don’t have to rack up a certain number of points to be blessed.  You are already blessed in Christ.  As the apostle John put it in his first epistle, “Beloved, now are we the children of God” (1 Jn. 3:2).

If you belong to Christ, then the way you respond to these blessings is to lay hold of them, to own them.  Do you deserve them?  Of course not.  But we don’t receive these blessings because we deserve them.  They come to us through Christ, in Christ.  He is the one who bought these blessings with his blood and now according to the Father’s purpose and plan gives them to us freely by his grace.  And so there is nothing wrong with accepting what God has already given.  This is what I think the apostle Paul meant when he urged Timothy to “lay hold of eternal life” (1 Tim.  6:12).  What does Paul mean?  He means that Timothy is to live his life in light of the reality that eternal life is his right now, not something he has to wait for.  To be sure, the fullness of eternal life, and the fullness of our experience of the spiritual blessings awaits the future.  But they belong to us now in Christ, and we are even now receiving through the Spirit the down-payment of those blessings.

If we truly believed what God has promised to us, then we would certainly bless God.  Our lives would be characterized by praise instead of doubt and unhappiness.  Let’s not doubt God, but embrace what he has given to us by grace in Christ.  With Paul, we ought to live “in hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before the world began” (Tit. 1:2).

Then we need to be people who embrace the superabundance of what God has given to us in Christ.  We are blessed “with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.”  God has not just blessed us.  He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing.  In other words, there is no blessing that will give you grace and glory that God has held back.  As the psalmist put it, “For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.  O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee” (Ps. 86:11-12).

Adam and Eve thought that God had held a blessing back from them.  But eating the forbidden fruit did not lead to blessing but to a curse and to death.  In the same way, we may think that God is holding back from us.  But we can be sure that such is not the case.  God is generous in ways that we cannot even imagine.

Now it is true that we do not always feel blessed.  We do not always experience the blessing in the present.  But that is not because the blessings are not ours.  We are in the position of the Israelites on the borders of Canaan.  God had promised to give them the land.  It would have been presumptuous for them to ask God to give them something that he had already promised.  At the same time, disobedience (as in the matter of Achan and Ai) led to temporary setbacks.  But the land was theirs; God has already given it to them.  In the same way, the Christian has been given every spiritual blessing in Christ.  If you are in Christ, there is no blessing that Christ has purchased that is not already yours.  This is why, I think, the apostle describes those who are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ as being already glorified (Rom. 8:29-30).  They are not in fact actually glorified, but they will be because Christ has purchased it for them.  When through sin or unbelief we lose our present experience of these blessings, this does not remove the fact that they are ours, and even the repentance and faith that brings us back into the fellowship of the Holy One has been purchased for us on the cross.

Finally, we need to understand the splendor of our blessings in Christ.  Paul describes them with one word and one phrase: “spiritual” and “in heavenly places.”  We’ve already defined the meaning of spiritual: spiritual blessings are those which are “derived from the Spirit, who presence and influence are the great blessing purchased by Christ.”[4] 

What then are the spiritual blessings?  What does the Holy Spirit bring us?  He effectually calls us to embrace Christ by faith, he brings us into the fellowship of God.  “For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (2:18).  He holds us up and strengthens us for the life of faith and obedience (3:16).  He brings us into the unity enjoyed in the fellowship of the people of God (4:3-4).  He opens our eyes to see the truth of God’s word and applies it to our hearts so that we can wield it like a sword against the wiles of the devil (6:17).  He enables us to pray effectively for the advance of the kingdom of God in our lives and in the world (6:18).  In other words, everything we need to live a life of obedience and faith, to live the abundant life, to get us to heaven – all this is included in “spiritual blessings.” 

The other phrase that describes our blessings, points to the sphere in which they are enjoyed: “In the heavenly places.”  This phrase is used five times in this epistle (1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12).  It refers to “the unseen world of spiritual reality.”[5]  It is the place inhabited by the principalities and powers (3:10; 6:12), which seems to be a reference to angelic beings, the latter reference to fallen angels.  So it is not synonymous with heaven.  However, 1:20 and 2:6 make it clear that “heavenly places” can refer to heaven, for the right hand of God is surely a reference to the blessed abode of God where he manifests his glory most fully.  Thus, when Paul denotes the place where our spiritual blessings reside as “heavenly places,” he is noting that salvation belongs to the age to come and that this is what Christ has purchased for us.  He has not purchased citizenship in this world, but citizenship in the world to come.  We are in the world, but we are not of it. 

But this points to the fact that the blessings with which we have been blessed are infinitely far superior to those after which most of the world grasps.  Most people are like the muck-raker in Pilgrim’s Progress, who have their eyes glued to the muck of this world when there is a celestial crown being offered to them, if they would just look up.  It is true that we are not promised this world.  But everything here is temporary and passing away.  What God has given us in Christ is eternal.  As Paul would remind the Colossian believers, “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God [in the heavenly places!].  Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.  For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).

We may think from time to time that we are not blessed because we are not experiencing more of this world.  But let us once and for all get rid of this notion.  The blessings of this age are no measure of our blessings that belong to the age to come.  I would rather be a Lazarus whose only friends in this world were the dogs who came to lick his sores than be the rich man who had everything in this world but only torment on the other side of death.  What God has given us in Christ are the true riches – everything in this world (including gold-plated aircraft) are fake in comparison.  We would be crazy to give up the spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ for advancement and comfort and security in this world. 

So may the Lord open our eyes to see how truly rich we are in Christ.  To have such blessings freely and liberally given to us is truly amazing.  “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 32:8)!



[1] See John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians (BST), p. 32.
[2] Quoted in Stott, p. 32.
[3] Charles Hodge, Ephesians.
[4] Hodge.
[5] Stott, p. 35.

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