Perfect Freedom – Ephesians 3:9-13

What is your view of history?  Do you see it as merely a jumble of names, dates, and events?  Is history for you a boring tale of irrelevant people and places?  To quote Henry Ford, is history “bunk”?  Well, for me history is anything but boring.  I was a history major before I was a math major.  To this day, I still love history.  In fact, history well-written is far more interesting than any novel, in my opinion. 

And I am absolutely certain that a knowledge of history is very important for any educated person.  In fact, one of the things that really worries me about our current society here in America is the reality that so many people have almost no knowledge of history.  As is often quoted, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”  Unfortunately, we forget history over and over again.  And when we do, there are always dire consequences.  Think of that fateful verse at the beginning of the book of Exodus: “Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (Exod. 1:8).  The result was the enslavement of an entire race of people.  I think we are seeing that very thing happening in our own country today.  There is a whole generation of young people today who have no real knowledge of our country’s past and principles.  It is very troubling to think about where we are headed.

But this is not all there is to history.  History is not just a warning from the past.  Nor is history just the story of all the stupid things people have done.  Nor is it just the story about the rich and the powerful and the famous.  For the Christian, history is much, much more than that.  For us, history is His-story, God’s story.  And it is not organized around this or that civilization but around redemptive history.  For us, history begins in the Garden of Eden and moves through Egypt and Canaan towards the birth of the Son of God, who took on flesh and died for our sins, so that one day a new heavens and new earth will replace the sin-cursed heavens and earth in which we now dwell and then redemption will be complete. 

What Paul is describing in the text we are considering this morning takes into account the Biblical view of history.  According to the apostle Paul, God has a plan.  In verse 9, he calls it “the plan of the mystery” and in verse 11 he calls it “the eternal purpose which he purposed [accomplished] in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  This is very important.  If you believe in a sovereign God, you cannot believe that the saga of the human race is just a random series of events.  According to the Bible, God is over history.  This is one the hard lessons that King Nebuchadnezzar had to learn.  After being struck down on account of his pride, he realized that God is the ultimate king, not he: “And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan. 4:35).  And therefore things happen for a purpose, even if we don’t see what that purpose is.  God’s ways are higher than our way and his thoughts than our thoughts. 

According to the apostle Paul, God’s plan for history involves the church.  In fact, the church is the key player in what God is doing on the earth today.  In verse 9, the apostle tells us that “from the beginning of the world” God hid this mystery.  In other words, up until that point in history, the mystery was not revealed (cf. ver. 5).  But now God has revealed it.  The mystery is the fact that God is now creating the church, a multi-national, multi-ethnic community of followers of Christ.  Those who make up the church are “fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (6). 

Then in verse 10, Paul tells us one of the reasons why God is doing this: “to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God” (10).  The “principalities and powers in heavenly places” are not societal or political structures to which the church is supposed to bear witness.  By comparing Paul’s words here with 1:21 and 6:12, we see that he is referring to angelic beings, both good and bad.  As God gathers his redeemed people into the church, both angels and demons are made to see the wisdom of God at work.  The apostle Peter says something very similar in his first epistle: “Unto whom [the OT prophets] it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12).  I think John Stott sums it up well: “It is as if a great drama is being enacted.  History is the theatre, the world is the stage, and church members in every land are the actors.  God himself has written the play, and he directs and produces it.  Act by act, scene by scene, the story continues to unfold.  But who are the audience?  They are the cosmic intelligences, the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.  We are to think of them as spectators of the drama of salvation.”[1]

Again, all of this is “according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (11).  Now the verb “purposed” is literally the word “made” or “accomplished” or “realized.”  God’s purpose is made in Christ.  It is a redemptive purpose and it is accomplished and carried out in Christ.  This tells us that the big thing that God is doing in history has little to do with the acquisition of land or wealth or the advance of technologies.  That doesn’t mean that God has nothing to do with these things, of course.  What it does mean is that the most important thing that is happening in the world right now is not the development of the next iPhone but the gathering into the church of people from every corner of the world through the gospel.  Whatever the world thinks about the church, the church is the key to history because the church is the key to God’s eternal purpose in Christ Jesus.  The Israelites may have been slaves in Egypt, but it was through Israel that God brought his Son into the world.  And though Christians today may be the least of the least in the eyes of modern man, it is through the church that the life-giving message of the gospel is brought forth into all the world.

The great thing that God is doing through the church is to bring people the gospel so that they will “have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him” (12).  What is God doing in history?  He is opening people’s eyes to see the truth of the gospel so that they will be able to have full and free access to the Triune God.  That is the “glory” that the apostle is referring to in verse 13.  It is this reality that I want to focus on this morning: the Christian is a person who has perfect freedom to speak to God and perfect freedom to approach God.  God is creating the church, which means he is about creating people who fit this description.  So let us consider what this means and what implications it has for our lives.

First of all, I think it’s important to nail down exactly what Paul means when he says that we have “boldness” and “access,” both with “confidence.”  Take the word “boldness.”  This word was used to describe the freedom of speech exercised by the citizens of the Greek democratic city-states (in particular, Athens).[2]  More than that, it expressed the fact that citizens not only had a right to speak freely but with a frankness that could sometimes be unhelpful (as is often the case in political discourse).  In the NT, it means the ability to speak plainly, openly, and with confidence.  It describes a person who is not afraid to speak and to give their opinion.  We all know what it is like to be around people and be afraid to speak.  We are intimidated.  What the apostle is saying here is that those who are in Christ have no need to be intimidated in the presence of God, who is infinitely exalted above the most powerful king or ruler on earth.  They have boldness: they have freedom of speech in the presence of God.  In Christ, we have no reason to shrink back from pouring out our hearts to God.

Then there is the word “access.”  We have already seen this word in 2:18, “For through him [Christ] we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.”  This word has reference to freedom as well.  It refers to freedom of approach.  The door is open and you can walk on in.  There is no one barring your way.  As the hymn-writer put it: “Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.” 

And Paul says that the Christian has both freedom of speech with God and freedom of approach to God with “confidence.”  These are incredible gifts to have and it is often held by the fearful Christian rather tenuously.  But the apostle says that there is no reason why we should not take our freedoms in Christ and exercise them with confidence.  It is not presumption to boldly approach the throne of grace since God has freely given us these freedoms in Christ.  As Hebrews puts it, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

Of course, confidence does not mean arrogance.  It does not mean that we come before the throne of God with a proud heart.  We all know what God thinks of pride: “though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud knoweth he afar off” (Ps. 138:6).  This access and boldness and confidence is “by the faith of him [Christ,” and that implies a person who sees their utter and complete dependence upon Christ.  Such a person does not come waltzing into the presence of God.  But on the other hand, neither does our knowledge of our sins keep us from entering in if we are in Christ.  For in Christ our sins are purged and God sees us clothed in the righteousness of his Son.

Now let’s think about the implications of these freedoms for the Christian.  First of all, this says something wonderful about God’s attitude towards his children.  If freedom of speech and freedom of approach are blessings given to us in Christ, then that means that these blessings are not things we give to ourselves but things that are given to us from God himself.  Our heavenly Father wants us to come to him and he wants us to pour out our hearts before him.  He doesn’t want you to keep your burdens to yourself.  He wants you to unburden yourself before him.  Psalm 62:8 reads, “Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us.” 

It means, as incredible as it might sound, that the God of heaven wants to hear from those who trust in his Son as their Lord and Savior.  It means that the God of the universe wants to have fellowship with you.  And he desires this fellowship right now.  These freedoms are not something merely to be enjoyed in heaven, in the age to come.  Sure, we will experience these freedoms to their fullest in the age to come.  But these blessings belong to us now.  “We have” right now, present tense, boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him. 

It also indicates that God desires to bless his children.  We all know that fathers who love their children and want to be around them are also the best providers for their children, as far as they are able.  In the same way, the fact that God is so solicitous for his children is strong evidence that he will guide them and bless them.  And he is able.  Though of course this doesn’t mean that the saint will have no problems in this world, it does mean that God does not allow anything to happen to his children that is not for their ultimate good.  So this not only says something about the privileges we have as believers, it also says a lot about the love that God the Father has for those who belong to the body of Christ. 

Another implication for the Christian is what this means about the life of prayer.  For one thing, it means that prayer is not dependent upon the right phraseology to be accepted by God.  I wonder how many of us have a hard time praying because we just don’t think God will think very highly of the sentences we use in our prayers?  We have this idea that the effectiveness of prayer is somehow linked to the language we use in them.  However, the freedom that we have in Christ means that we have the freedom to approach God freely with our words.  You don’t have to use some exalted ecclesiastical prayer to engage the God of the universe.  No, you simply need to come by faith in Christ.  Faith is the language of prayer and is what makes it effective, not the style in which we pray. 

It also means that we have to freedom to come to God in prayer whatever we find the state of our soul to be in.  You don’t have to have some halo glowing above your head to pray.  You don’t have to be completely peaceful in your soul to pray.  You can feel down and depressed and guilty and dirty and still pray.  Our freedom to approach God does not depend upon the state of mind in which we find ourselves.  It depends upon Christ, our advocate, who is always for us and never changes.

Are you feeling overwhelmed?  Do you feel like you are sinking in a pit?  Then pray!  If you belong to Christ, if you are covered by his blood, then you have boldness and access with confidence to the Father.  I love the way the psalmist opens Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD.  Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications” (1-2).  There are all sorts of promises for those who feel like they are in over their heads, like the one in Isaiah 43, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.  For I am the LORD thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Savior” (Isa. 43:2-3).  It is right for you to come before the throne of God and plead for grace and deliverance.  It is a right that has been given to us at the great cost of the life of the Son of God.  So avail yourself of this great privilege.

Are you feeling the weight of the guilt of your sin?  Perhaps there is nothing that tends to silence our mouths in prayer more than this.  But even then, the one who belongs to Christ still has the freedom to speak to God and the freedom to approach his presence.  Jesus Christ did not just die for some of your sins.  He died for all of your sins.  He fully and completely paid the price.  He fully and completely satisfied the wrath of God against you on account of your sins.  I’m not saying that we don’t have to worry about repenting of our sins.  Those who belong to Christ live lives of repentance.  Faith in Christ is unthinkable apart from repentance towards God (cf. Acts 20:21).  But it is possible to be repenting of your sins and yet think that somehow your sin has barred you from further fellowship with God. 

But that is not true.  Hear what the apostle John tells us: “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not.  And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and nor for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:1-2).  Our sinfulness is not dealt with by our becoming righteous, but by Christ being righteous for us and by becoming the propitiation for our sins.  So don’t let the feeling of guilt keep you from praying.  Later on in Psalm 130, the psalmist goes on to say this: “If thou, LORD, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?  But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.”  And therefore, “I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.  My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.  Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.  And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Ps. 130:3-8).

Are you feeling confused and not knowing which way to go?  Then pray!  One of the Scriptures that I’ve been praying a lot in the past year or so is Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”  Claim that promise.  Those who acknowledge God in prayer, who commit their way to him, will be directed by him.  I want God to direct my paths.  I don’t want to strike out in any direction which would take me away from the blessing of my Lord.  And so I pray this prayer.

I love the way Psalm 107 puts this all together.  In this psalm, we are presented with four scenarios.  Each case is different, but in each case, people find themselves in a state that requires help outside of themselves.  That is to say, they have reached the bottom.  They are at the end of themselves.  Or, as the psalmist puts it in verse 27, they “are at their wits’ end.”  But in each case, we are told “then they cried unto the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses” (ver. 6, 13, 19, 28).  No matter what situation the believer finds himself or herself in, we ought always to follow this example.  We have no reason not to. 

Now these two freedoms, freedom of speech before God and freedom of approach to God, these are the very things that apart from Christ that we don’t have.  There is no access to God apart from Christ.  We have no right to speak or pray to him and we have no right to approach his throne.  “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination unto the LORD: but the prayer of the upright is his delight” (Prov. 15:8).  No one has the right to claim either one of these privileges apart from the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.  None of us can approach the throne of God on our own and expect to receive his blessing.  We are sinful.  We are unholy and we are unthankful.  You and I need Christ.  And yet, though none of us deserve the least of God’s mercies, he sent his Son into this world to pay the penalty for sin.  And the gospel announces that he has finished the work and that all who believe on him will be saved.  If you believe in Christ with all your heart, you will be saved.  And as the saved, you not only are delivered from the wrath to come, but are welcomed with open arms into the presence of the God of the universe, with boldness and access with confidence by the faith of Christ.

[1] John. R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians (BST), p. 123-124.
[2] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, 465.


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