Ephesians Study Notes

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Introduction to Ephesians: The Way of Love; the Way of Light; the Way of Wisdom; the Way of Grace; the Way of Freedom in Christ

The approach is to probe into the depths of the passage in Ephesians, while drawing from other authors and scholarship that is relevant to the text at hand. There is a sense in which we ‘interrogate’ (interpret) the text and also a sense in which the text interrogates us. Your questions and thoughts are key to opening up the meaning. It works best if we come with a teachable posture with a view to discover fresh insights.

Ephesus is in the area of present day Turkey (Asia Minor). It was major city (250,000 persons), second only to Rome or Athens, at the intersection of major trade routes, with a pluralistic culture, am many different religions. The theatre would hold 24,000 people. Not that much different than Vancouver and UBC. The two major religious cults were Artemis (Diana) and the Roman  Imperial cult: Caesar Augustus was seen as Son of God, warrior god of order, saviour. The calendar was remade around his birthday. See Acts 19: 23-31. Artemis (the hunting goddess) was the godmother of Ephesus. The temple to Artemis was one of the seven great wonders of the world, larger than a contemporary football stadium, four times the size of the Parthenon. The city had a major market in pagan religious goods and services, many magical practices and occult.

Who is Paul the Apostle? He was a Jew, a Roman citizen, and now a key leader of the early church. He was trained under the top Rabbi of the day Gamaliel (in turn he was trained under Hillel). He was brilliant, the equivalent of a Nobel Laureate. He once was a zealous Pharisee who persecuted the church and threw people in prison for following Jesus; he literally hated Christians. A radical change came when he was blinded by a beatific vision of Jesus, an I-Thou encounter, an epiphany. Eventually he became the greatest interpreter of the life and teaching of Christ, and one of the most courageous apostles, facing down tremendous odds. He spent about three years preaching in Ephesus during AD 53-56. Two years later he was imprisoned (three years in Caesarea and two years in Rome).

Ephesian Amphitheatre where Paul may well have preached for three years

The Letter to the Ephesians It is one of the most important letters of Paul the Apostle (from Roman prison in 62 AD) that was circulated to all the churches in the ancient world. He attempts to recalibrate/re-think reality for and with them, or expand their horizon of the grace and goodness of God, and his eternal purposes. He wants them to realize the potential of their lives as they discover their giftedness and their calling to grow up into maturity in Christ. You could say that he lays out the high goals of Christian community and the amazing resources available to human flourishing: fullness in Christ. His message is a profound one: we must realize that despite the powers that be, Jesus Christ is Lord. It is an outright power encounter with Diana/Artemis and Caesar, a deconstruction of these cults. Paul is declaring these myths broken (oppressive) and seeks to liberate the people from their power and control.

He offers them an alternative view of reality (a different social imaginary or worldview). Christ is the new Caesar, the new Artemis with a difference, he has a new temple in heaven (NT Wright in his body). He rules the entire cosmos and brings heaven to earth. Transcendence has a new name and this changes everything; we live and move and have our being in Christ. He is the great gift giver, seeking to bless the whole world. He announces that we, our lives, are gift from beginning to end.

The book is balanced on a knife edge, an axios, with chapters 1-3 constituting the call of God on our lives and chapters 4-6 focusing on our response. Paul writes “Live your lives worthy (axios) of the calling you have received.” The response to calling is walking. Peterson writes, “When our walking and God’s calling are in balance, we are whole; we are living maturely, living congruently with the way God calls us into being.” And again, “The Bible is not a book to carry around and read for information on God, but a voice to listen to…. It is a word to be listened to and obeyed, a word to get us going. Fundamentally it is a call…. Call comes into our ears, beckoning us into the future, bringing us into a way of life that has never been experienced in just this way before: a promise, a new thing, a blessing, our place in the new creation, a resurrection life.”(34)

There is a breathtaking grandeur and majesty to Ephesians–reconciling and unifying all things and all peoples in Christ. Paul wants to expand the horizons of people. We are part of a new humanity, a new society with a new identity. We are the interface between heaven and earth. This letter was circulated throughout the empire among the churches. Ephesus is like London or Paris in that day. The message helps them grow their identity and it provides an anchor in the storms of life. Paul wants us to see the world from a Jesus perspective, an enchanted perspective, where heaven and earth come together in Christ and in his church. There are many gods and many cults alive at this time, but Paul presents Jesus as above them all, the ultimate object of our spiritual longings and imagination.

Tom Wright above at Wheaton College gives a brilliant overview of the book through six verses: 1:10; 2:10; 3:10; 4:15; 5:14; 6:13 This is a cross-section or spine of the letter.

1:10 The unity of all things in Christ is the big goal.

2:10 We are God’s handiwork, his poem. Jew & Gentile come together in Christ, Old and New Testament, creation and redemption. We are called to creativity and contribution to the health of society.

3:10 We are witnesses (or God is our witness through us) to the powers that be, to all culture spheres.

4:15 We see the mature and complex giftedness of Christ’s body, the church. We find our fullness of identity as one another in community and communion.

5:14 We are called to wake up and pay attention to this grace, to get in stream with what God is up to in the world, to rise to our full calling. Get in the game; put this into practice.

6:13 We are called to access all of God’s equipment to confront evil and promote the good. There is always a sense in which Christians are part of a resistance movement against darkness.

Jesus brings us home, Jesus brings us together, Jesus breaks down hostility, Jesus creates us as a unified humanity, Jesus reconciles all of us to God. Peace is complex and many-layered. A lot of action goes into making peace–and Jesus is the action…. Church is where peace is understood comprehensively as Christ present and working among us. (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 2010, 124,126)

Sept. 28/22 Ephesians Chapter 1: 15-23 is about blessing. Peterson writes, “The language of blessing permeates the language of Scripture. We receive the blessing and absorb it into our obedience”. This is practicing the presence of Christ in our lives.   It is all part of the dynamic of living the resurrection life. We are constantly underestimating God and what he wants to do with us, in us and through us, continuously. This passage entails an invitation to grow up, become mature, to live into a resurrection kind of existence. That’s our new paradigm as we find our full identity in Christ–resurrection life. Women and men are blessed, chosen, destined, bestowed, lavished with grace, called and gathered by God to do good in the world, to serve others. Seek first the kingdom and righteousness of God everywhere you can, and God will find you, heal you, bless you, guide you into all truth and wisdom.

God Reveals Himself in Personal Relationship and only in personal relationship. God is not a phenomenon to be considered. God is not a force to be used. God is not a proposition to be argued. There is nothing in or of God that is impersonal, nothing abstract, nothing imposed. And God treats us with an equivalent personal dignity. He isn’t out to impress us. He’s here to eat bread with us and receive us into his love just as we are, just where we are. ( E. Peterson, 2010, 87) We ought to recognize that God is actually a verb; he is diligently at work in the cosmos: acting, moving, gifting, creating, redeeming, healing, grace momentum. Thus, we can activate his grace in our lives and the lives of our friends. He wants to bless us with multiple blessings so that we can glorify him and give thanks for all his gifts on a daily basis. This is endemic to the whole Bible from beginning to end. We need no longer to be ‘lost in the cosmos’, but grounded/stabilized in God’s ways. Don’t be shy to receive God’s gifts. They are for you specifically: the gifts of God for the people of God.

There are five major gifts that Paul mentions in this passage, five means of attaining a God-oriented identity.

·      Wisdom and revelation James 3:13-18

·      An enlightened heart, an active spiritual imagination

·      Hope in God’s reality, fullness and promises. Romans 15:13

·      The riches of his glorious inheritance (I Peter 1)

·     The immeasurable greatness of his power which raised Jesus from the dead. 

“What is God doing in our time?” and “How can we get our lives into the drama of redemption?”

Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude (Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts). Lean in and listen, because he is speaking, acting, cheering you on.

Rethinking the Language of Saints: Eugene Peterson writes: “The institutional way of looking at us in our schools and businesses and governments gives it imprimatur to this systematic and pervasive de-souling, de-personalizing, debunking anything in us that has to do with God…. With all these voices coming at us from every direction and at all hours, how do we acquire a God-oriented identity?” Saint is about what God is doing in us, for us, through us. We need to be positioned in ways which allow us to carry out God’s assignments. Holiness is a committed posture, a stance. Seek priority-wise the kingdom.

Peterson writes that saints are the “bowels of the church”, the ragamuffins,  and yet “from within these bowels comes a continuous witness, sounds of praise, the totally unexpected word “resurrection”, talk of healing and forgiveness, preaching and praying…. loving of scandalous men and women who are called their ‘brothers and sisters’ and watching them take on their identity as a new creation. Baptism marks a radically new way to understand ourselves and one another: not by race, not by language, not by parents and family, not by politics, not by intelligence, not by gender, not by behaviour, but as saints, people who are called in God’s way.”

Humility and Servanthood  is key to this whole thing: Don’t pretend; don’t presume; don’t push. Just speak the truth in love and good things will emerge. James 3:13-18. Wisdom from above will guide you into good paths. The greatest threat to the kingdom of God is ‘my kingdom’, my hangups, my ego, my cynicism, my selfishness and laziness to pursue this wonderful, dynamic giftedness and call that God offers. The world has not yet seen what your life could look like if you were to place yourself fully in his hands and his will, to invoke his Lordship. Let God discover and define you if you want to grow. 

 Prayer for us can become prayerfulness, not just going through a list of requests, a lifestyle of inviting God into everything, all day long, everyday.

October 5, 2022  What’s so Amazing about Grace?  Faith versus Works?

Faith versus Work? Grace as a theme runs throughout Ephesians, but here’s the hinge point in Chapter 2: 1-10. Grace ushers us into good work within our new life in Christ. It is not a substitute for good works: compassion, benevolence, caring, helping others in need. It is not a contest between grace and works, but rather a both/and situation. All our work is based on God’s work in creation (Genesis 1-3). We join him in his creative work as both gardeners and artists, stewards and creators. Eugene Peterson, in Practice Resurrection, notes that every good work is a potential package of divine grace, a gift, the means by which we bring glory to God. Our context is that we and all creation are God’s workmanship first; we live in terms of what God makes of us. There is no shame in this. We are then called to good work; we are agents of grace (Romans 12:1-3). The whole of creation is shot through with God’s grace. Good work and good works bring God’s gifts to the supper table. Ultimately, all our work takes place in God’s workplace.

Romanticized, secular ideas of work lead us to self-idolatry—obsession with career success, wealth, workaholism, broken marriages. Work becomes a god. Our culture worships power and human achievement. The problem entails reaching for the top without conscience, love, compassion, humility, generosity, righteousness or holiness. Pietism, the opposite extreme,  emphasizes salvation by grace to the exclusion of works and it can become cheap grace (Bonhoeffer). Show me you faith by your works. Neither view fits with the Jesus way of seeing and doing things in Matthew 25.

In fifty years of being a pastor, my most difficult assignment continues to be the task of developing a sense among the people I serve of the soul-transforming implications of grace–a comprehensive, foundational re-orientation from living anxiously by my wits and muscle to living effortlessly in the world of God’s active presence. The prevailing North American culture (not much different from the Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman cultures in which our biblical ancestors lived) is, to all intents and purposes, a context of persistent denial of grace. (E. Peterson, Practice Resurrection)

Peterson emphasizes, “Grace is the plan, there is no Plan B.” Let’s drop the denial of grace. Christian maturity means we no longer live in compartments, but rather find a congruence and integration between grace and good works (service to God and others). Good works can become the containers of grace, not a substitute for redemptive grace.

As an example, Jesus’ service of self-giving is the form in which the invisible God can be seen. He showed a congruence between grace and all that makes the world go round (our daily work). Grace originates in an act of God without precedent—the sacrifice and self-giving of Jesus for the sin of the world, to restore things and people. Grace became flesh in Jesus—all Christianity is thoroughly incarnational (Philippians 2). One other source for this concept of redemptive grace is in New York Times Columnist David Brooks’ book The Second Mountain, where he talks about Adam 1 and Adam 2. The first refers to our success, fame and self-fulfilment; the second refers to the deeper things like virtue, character, quality of relationships and personal integrity. He suggests that today’s society is far too focused on Adam 1 (individual career success) and very weak on promoting the values of Adam 2 (growth in character and maturity).

Faith in Christ is an act of abandoning the shores of self, where we think we stand and where if we just try hard enough we can be in control. Faith in Christ is a plunge into grace. Grace, not our doing, is the gift of God. (E. Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 95)

We grow up into grace, into the full stature of maturity in Christ. This is how our work touches base with eternity, brings heaven to earth. Christian philosopher Paul Gould captures it so well:

Throughout history, those who live for something greater than themselves and greater than worldly desires have contributed immensely to the advancement of education, culture, and the common good. For those who accept the offer of “infinite joy” contentment is obtained, and a powerful purpose for living is found. “ (P. Gould, Cultural Apologetics, 79)

The Economy of Grace  God’s whole economy is gift all the way down. Here’s a thoughtful quote from one of my favorite philosophers, Calvin Shrag

The point that carries the pivotal weight in the phenomenon of gift-giving and gift-receiving is that gift as gift remains outside the economy  of production and consumption, distribution and exchange. Indeed the gift remains radically transcendent to the determination of reciprocity within the economy of goods and services; and insofar as it does impinge upon and interact with this economy, the gift displays a surplus of significations that overflow the particulars within the cycle of putative gift exchange…. The gift is both transcendent of and immanent  within the developing culture-spheres in which the human self aspires towards self-understanding.  (C. Schrag, The Self After Postmodernity, 140)

God is gift-maker as it says in Psalm 104. Here’s a beautiful quote from Thomas Merton:

To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything he has givens–and he has given us everything. Every breath we draw is gift of his love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from him. Gratitude takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference. “ (T. Merton)

In the vein according to author Andy Crouch (Culture Making: rediscovering our creative calling), creativity is an instrument of change, adding new goods to the world. We can make something of the world and our work takes on a higher meaning and purpose. All work is holy task in the end. There are two main kinds of work: conservation and creativity. We need to be in touch with our cultural heritage in order to contribute in significant ways. Innovation comes out of cultivation and preservation of heritage and natural resources: art comes out of gardening or husbandry. Culture keeping leads to culture making.

The posture of the artist and the gardener have a lot in common. Both begin with contemplation, paying close attention to what is already there. The gardener looks carefully at the landscape; the existing plants, both flowers and weeds; the way the sun falls on the land. The artist regards her subject, her canvas, her paints with care to discern what she can make with them. (A. Crouch, Culture Making, 97)

How do we use our creativity, our writing, speaking, experimenting, building, designing to construct community, to promote shalom (Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order)? How can we become observers and entrepreneurs of grace? Philip Yancey went through a major transformation during his lifetime in his understanding of grace as depicted in his popular book: What’s So Amazing about Grace?  It is a riveting read.

Summary Statement by Peterson

We are not angels. This world that we inhabit is God’s work. Everything we experience, we experience under God’s sky and on God’s earth and sea, in God’s time marked by sun, moon and stars, in the company of the menagerie of dolphins and eagles, lions and lambs, and in the company of image-of-God men and women who come to us as parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, neighbors and relatives, playmates and workmates, students and helpers—and Jesus.  Nothing in practice of resurrection takes place apart from stuff to work with—dirt and clay for shaping pots and mugs, stone and timber for constructing homes and churches, nouns and verbs for conveying wisdom and knowledge, cotton and wool for weaving clothes and blankets, semen and eggs for making babies: good works. Work is the generic form for embodying grace. All Christian spirituality is thoroughly incarnational—in Jesus, to be sure, but also in us. (E. Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 103) 


  1. Set boundaries on your work. Don’t let it take over your whole life. Practice Sabbath rest. Don’t forget your family and friends and your relationship to the wider community.
  2. Invite God’s presence into your workplace every day. Let the kingdom come right where you work with all your colleagues. Don’t assume grace is confined to Sunday.
  3. Enjoy you work as a gift from God, and opportunity to be a disciple of Christ while you earn your living.
  4. Set high standards of ethics and integrity at work and stick to your values. This will bear good fruit longterm as part of your witness and self-respect. If your boss is asking you to do shady or illegal deals, find a new job.
  5. Bring benevolence into the workplace by raising money for a good cause.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022 Ephesians 2: 11-22

Social and Cultural Implications of Redemptive Faith and Personal Transformation

Nothing worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous,  can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness. ~ Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr

The first part of this chapter focused on salvation by grace, but it also stated that grace leads to good works if it is a healthy, lively faith. Conversion turns us outward toward our neighbour. There is no support in Ephesians for salvation outside God’s plan in Christ, and no transformation of society without personal change initiated by the Holy Spirit. There are only two choices: self-salvation which is idolatry or God-salvation; self-righteousness or God’s righteousness. It makes a huge difference how we play this game. Sometimes we worry far too much about our success in the world and don’t lean into God’s grace and presence. There will be no peace amongst us if there is no individual transformation.

This section (11-22) focuses on the change in social, cultural and theological identity of the Greek/Gentile believers. It starts by talking about their pre-Christian past where they were outsiders, aliens, not in the stream of grace. Their new identity in Christ means that they are now insiders regarding the covenant with God. The things that divided them are now dissolved—barriers between tribes, between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free person. These outsiders have been welcomed into a new family, a new community, a new humanity that is God-blessed, rooted in Christ and his work. They have entertained a new history, a new narrative identity.  

Gentile Past: foreigners, excluded, outside, no grace, lost, no citizenship in heaven, fragmented, at each others’ throats. 

Gods of the Greeks and Romans: Zeus and Hera oversaw a pantheon of sexually profligate and murderously rapacious deities. They were devoid of righteous moral content, shaping a culture rich in religious imagination, but impoverished morally, prone to violence. They did not have the Ten Commandments, the Psalms of David. People knew nothing of the Yahweh, the God of love.

Gentile Present: brought near, included, inside, grace-empowered, found, part of a new humanity—one in Christ. They were offered a new lifestyle rich in moral language. They became insiders to the radically hopeful way of understanding God’s salvation action at the heart of history.

Prince of Peace: Jesus is standard of peace that heals; he preaches peace to all; he produces reconciliation of races and sexes and different statuses within society. See Galatians 3: 28, 29. Peace is Paul’s word of choice to help us in an understanding the essence of church. He begins by identifying Jesus as “our peace” (2:14). He goes on to describe Jesus as “making peace” (15) and “proclaiming peace” (17).  Jesus brings us home, Jesus brings us together as friends, Jesus breaks down hostility and divisions. The Jesus way re-creates us as a unified human community, a communion of saints. Jesus reconciles all of us to God. Jesus is our peace, our peace broker, our reconciling agent. Jesus is at the epicentre of the action called the church. He becomes our peace through an act of great sacrifice. It is a work in progress, complex and strenuous. His whole life and ministry represented this stance. We should never stop talking about Jesus: our hope, wisdom, example, and healer.

We are all pulled into the action trajectory of church, people of God, a spiritual commonwealth of tribes. Those who were once excluded (Gentiles) from grace have been included in God’s kingdom. They/we were giiven gifts like Jewish believers— a tremendous status boost. Refugees have become citizens with all its benefits and responsibilities. What makes us worthy to be included is not our merits but God’s redeeming love. The new paradigm articulated here in chapter 2 is that the world is in process of being redeemed towards a commonwealth of saints—people who have a common interest in serving God and one another, people who have a stake in the shalom of the world.

How do we  work towards this peace process on campus? How do we practice Christ’s presence at UBC, in the lab, classroom and library, over coffee with a colleague? Here’s a great quote from Jimmy Myers, a Masters student in theology, pointing us in the right direction:

He [Jesus] brings the whole festival of divine grace to a world that has excluded itself from it and invites… humanity to take part, to enjoy a feast of resurrection where all divisions, segregation, and exclusion are transcended, where all have their place at the supper of the Lamb, where all, who see the face of the Beautiful One and in that seeing are transformed, are inundated and radiated by Beauty itself. In a word, to paraphrase St. Athanasius, he becomes the Ugly One so that we, the original ugly ones who have made this world ugly with our violence, might become beautiful. (J. Myers, First Things, 2015).

Temple Language: The final metaphor that Paul takes up is temple: the place where we meet with God, where God meets with us. Eden was a kind of Temple before the fall. Bethel was the house of God in ancient Israel. The tabernacle was a precursor of the Temple in Jerusalem built by Solomon. This temple was eventually destroyed by enemies of Israel. In this passage,  Jesus’ body is taken as the new temple where God’s shekinah glory dwells. The church is also a temple in a sense. As the body of Christ, by the infilling of the Holy Spirit, the church becomes that dwelling place of God as well, the place to meet with God. This is what we mean by incarnation.

Conclusion: Our world is threatened by all sorts of division, hatred, racism. Paul says we have the potential of a new unified, blood-bought humanity, united in Christ. It is important to sense the grandeur of this proposition. We believers stand together at the foot of the cross, in the shadow of its gravitas. Tim Keller notes that God has written himself into the human story for the purpose of revealing his love and goodness, for the purpose of drawing us close. No old grudges are worth holding onto under these circumstances. 

November 4, 2022 Galatians 3 Theologically Informs Ephesians 2

In Galatians 3, we learn Paul’s deeper understanding of covenant and promise as it relates to healing of the relationship between Jews & Gentiles (Greeks and Romans) in the ancient world. Paul goes back in history to Abraham, the great patriarch of the faith. The key verse is 14 “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”

He says that the Gospel was preached to Abraham 2000 years earlier: “All nations will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12). This blessing finally reaches the Gentiles en mass through Jesus life and work and also Paul–it is spectacular news for outsiders like the Gentiles. They are brought into the Abrahamic covenant, promise and blessing. They have a spiritual home. Jesus is the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham. This is the context of human freedom and flourishing for Paul.

Current Story: We just received a wonderful letter from a Messianic Jewish couple, Alan & Nechamah Wiseman, who minister in Israel. Their letter has the feel of one from the Apostle Paul. Beautiful mix of hope and challenges. They were part of the GCU community many years ago. They live this Ephesians story like no one else we know.

Will Christianity  Ruin my Personal Freedom?

Christians are sometimes tagged as holding a negative, uptight religion within a trajectory that keeps an interesting and fun life out of reach. As the stereotype goes, faith places them in a lifestyle box, with a lid. Nietzsche called it the iron cage or a morality that stifles creativity. There is that long list of  prohibitions we hear about. This was an issue for the Galatian church. How attractive is that?

Ouch! Unfortunately, this kind of judgemental legalism (even pharisaic self-righteousness) is often too true of some Christians. But this outlook is a long distance from the biblical perspective on Christian life and values, and simply does not represent the majority of believers today, people who explore life’s adventure to the full, who long for a robust life. It also misses the main point of its founder and exemplar Jesus of Nazareth–who is a symbol of grace, forgiveness, inclusion and embrace of life (Philip Yancey, What’s so Amazing about Grace?). Faith is mostly about what one affirms, rather than what one resists. Although evil we indeed must resist.

Many young believers, upon entering university, have felt pressured to throw out Christian values and norms, to go with the peer group, or the extreme party scene. They suddenly vote for the permissive life. The total rejection of traditional Christian values, however, is often based on a tragic misunderstanding of genuine faith commitments. The Christian ethic is deep and constructive, distinctive on both personal and social levels. It is a positive alternative to both uptight legalism and lax permissiveness (anomie). Rather, it is rooted in a life-giving love, joy and meaning, rather than dour isolationism full of restrictions and rules.

The basic Christian conviction here has a trajectory of deep freedom, a freedom that is interwoven with the good (David Gill, Becoming Good). This was a key discovery in my PhD dissertation on the crisis of late modern self, one that is heavily oriented to a radical reinvention. Philosopher Charles Taylor has done a major critique of today’s common concept of freedom: i.e. one that is ideological, contentless and unstructured (Hegel and Modern Society).  Historically, it has often been very destructive, even with the highest ideals of a new man and new society. Christian faith does not buy into such definitions of freedom. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31, 32). This captures metaphorically the quest for deep freedom, a refusal of overly subjectivistic (solipsistic) ethics which can be arbitrary, chaotic, self-indulgent, even quite irresponsible.

The Christian journey follows a trajectory that develops one’s identity as a thick self. Christians neither live superficially, nor do they fit a narrow template of bland uniformity. They are motivated by an inner content and security to express themselves in fresh ways, thereby bringing life and vitality to others. They are free to take responsibility for the Other, and make a contribution to the world, to be a blessing, a sign of grace. At their best, they move into a positive, constructive, and caring lifestyle. At the same time, they do walk away from a selfish, bigoted, and destructive one. Priorities such as social justice, the poor, the environment, the virtuous life and the sanctity of life are on their radar.

It is a deeply personal ethics of love and respect (I John 4). This is necessary for all relationships, finding its source in the very character of an infinitely good and loving God (D. Stephen Long, The Goodness of God). It offers a solid foundation upon which one can build a life and discern right from wrong, the higher moral ground from the lower (e.g. benevolence vs. selfishness). Part of its creativity is the gift and calling to mediate this goodness to society. To balance our discussion, we should also ask the tough question: “Will naturalistic materialism destroy my personal freedom?” Christian ethics, at the end of the day, also provides an objective reference point to resolve relational conflicts and promote fairness, basic rights and justice.  Thus we have at hand form and freedom, a deep character freedom with structure, driven by compassion like a beautiful waterfall.  The extremes of  both irresponsibility and legalism are not on offer in this thought experiment; it entails a very strong affirmation of life (Romans 8) and a rich or thick definition of freedom and identity.

Thomas Merton writes: “Faith is not just conformity, it is life. It embraces all realms of life, penetrating into the most mysterious and inaccessible depths not only of our unknown spiritual being, but even of God’s own hidden essence and love. Faith, then, is the only way of opening up to the true depths of reality, even of our own reality.”

“Left to ourselves, most of what we imagine God to be nd do is wrong. Nearly all of what our culture tells us that God is and does is wrong. Not dead wrong, mind you–there is an astonishing amount of truth and beauty and goodness mixed into it–but enough wrong that if we swallow it whole we risk “a sickness unto death” (Kierkegaard’s diagnosis). Revelation is a radical orientation to reality–God reality, church reality, soul reality, resurrection reality. We require a contiual repeated immersion in the revelation of God in Scriptures and Jesus as protection against the lies of the devil.” ~Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 205.

Ephesians 3: 1-21 November 19, 2002 You are Spiritually Wealthier then you Think + A Powerful Prayer

The mystery revealed is that God has chosen to bring the Gospel to both Jew and Gentile through Christ. Gentiles are co-heirs of the blessing of Abraham (in the unsearchable riches in Christ). This chapter unpacks Chapters 1 & 2 further.

Our focus was on verses 14-21 the famous prayer by Paul, where he applies this blessing in spiritual encouragement.

  1. He prays that they will be strengthened with God’s power in their inner being.This is the gracious power that raised Christ from the dead. The purpose is that they will be renewed to the point that they will be conformed to the image of Christ. He wants them to make a home/space for Jesus in their hearts, so that he can take up residence with them. There may need to be some home renovation in the process. Thereby they will recover the power to be holy and to think like Jesus, to put on the mind of Christ.
  2. In 16 & 17, he prays that they will have the capacity to recognize just how great is the love of God, come to grips with its limitless capacity. This is beyond mere belief or creed: he wants them to experience it personally, existentially. The goal is to move them towards spiritual maturity (filled to the measure of all the fullness of God). Love helps to make sense of life. In fact, the love of Christ grounds our lives. This is meant to blow their imagination and increase their expectations of what God can do to change them. Love is more miraculous than miracles (I Corinthians 13). The essence of God is love, not power and giftedness. It has its source in the Trinity where there is a dance of mutuality and love.

Eugene Peterson writes: “Prayer is not ‘getting in touch with yourself,’ as is so often said. It is the practice of shifting preoccupation away from yourself towards attentiveness and responsiveness to God. It is a deliberate walking away from a me-centred way of life to a Christ-centered way of life. But God is already reaching out to us…. To understand church we must immerse ourselves in the God-revealing vocabulary and the prayer-saturated syntax in which it is given to us.”

Ephesians 4: 1-32 Live Worthy of Your Calling

This is the practical/praxis dimension of the first three chapters. There are certain qualities and virtues that make the body of believers function well together. New Christians are finding their new identity in community through humility, gentleness, patience and love. The big goal in Part 1 (1-16) is ‘Unity of the Spirit’ in the bond of peace. They are one body with one Lord, one faith. This is unity with diversity, not bland uniformity. It includes a diversity of complementary gifts that enable them to grow to maturity. Everyone participates in building up the whole for the common good. Jesus has blessed the church with an abundance of giftedness.

In Part 2. (17-31), Paul stresses that they must turn away from their former pagan life, habits and priorities, and lean into new values and virtues. This is the direction/trajectory of freedom and reality in Christ: truth in love, righteousness, compassion, forgiving spirit, patience, meeting the needs of others. They have to say No in order to say Yes, make a clean break with their self-centred, narcissistic, will-to-power past. They are moving into a whole new spiritual culture, a new art form, a new ethos. It is all made possible because of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit. One thing that stood out to us was the discovery of new sensibilities as a believer. Certain attitudes bother us now. In this sense, we are all in a process of transformation and humanization.

Sermon by Tim Keller on the Trinity and how this creates the dance of life in the kingdom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CRi2TGYsG8.

“We need discernment, wisdom to parse life, to apply what we know to the nuances of our everyday existence. Discernment (paraclesis) is conversation directed to the insights and decisions, the behaviours and practices, that emerge from hearing the preached good news and learning the truth of the Scriptures as they then get prayed and embodied in my life where I am just now. These insights are not always obvious given my emotions, history, parents, baggage from old sins, and misunderstandings accumulated from secular culture. The gospel message that seemed so simple and straightforward in the sanctuary on Sunday develops severe complications when I enter into my workplace on Monday. Our families muddy the waters that seemed so clear, outlined, and in order on a chalkboard while we were sitting in a classroom…. Paraclesis is language used with men and women who already have received the word of preached salvation and have been instructed the teaching of the law, but who are in need of comfort or encouragement or discernment in the muddled details of dailiness. It is otherwise called ‘cure of souls’ or spiritual direction…. This is the kind of language that pays attention to the way the preceding languages of preaching and teaching enter into the personal particulars of each person while in the company of  brothers and sisters, strangers and neighbours…. Listening, which requires silence, is a substantial element in the language of paraclesis.” (E. Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 172-3)

The moves that Paul makes in chapter four are: Discern your fullest calling–>Discern one another within the body; build towards unity–>Discern your God, the transcendent source of all physical and spiritual life, all meaning and motivation–>Discern your gifts within the larger body of giftedness–>Discern your moral worth, authenticity and moral agency/power–>Implement the virtues, the goods, the imagination of the kingdom. It is not just about feelings. This can move your universe. Ephesians articulates, cultivates our thinking and invites us into a new dynamic of life, a new social imaginary.

Faith moves us beyond our fears and places us in a stance of confidence in God’s will and provision, his ways and values. The righteous will live by faith and re-enchant the world, rebuild the future, restore relationships that have broken. Prayerfulness is a key aspect of arriving in this space and giving us a vision for our sphere of influence, a vision of grace well-packaged. Prayer is the key preparation for any spiritual work to which we are called. It will shift the ground under our feet. It moves the conversation forward in surprising ways. It creates a new orientation within our minds and hearts–one of possibility and impact. It helps us set a framework for growth and renewal. Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy.

Ephesians 6: 10-19 Spiritual Warfare/the Christian Struggle against Evil

Belt of Truth, Breastplate of Righteousness, Feet to Spread Peace, Shield of Faith, Helmet of Salvation, Sword of the Spirit, Prayer

The bottom line in any spiritual struggle is to stay centred, anchored, strong in the Lord, to recognize the strength available via the dynamo/dynamics of the Holy Spirit. It is in our weak spot that God can reveal his strength, but we must engage God while we engage with evil or temptation. We build the kingdom and defend ourselves spiritually at the same time. In fact, our greatest vulnerability may be exactly where we feel invincible, strong and cocky. Alternatively, if we appeal to God for wisdom and help to resist evil and promote the good, his presence can empower us to remain strong–in the Lord. Moses is a good example as he confronted the slavery and oppression of the Pharaoh. This is what Paul means elsewhere when he encourages us to “put on Christ”. This is a bit similar to a football or hockey player preparing for the big game.

Good versus Evil defined by French philosopher Chantal Delsol in Icarus Fallen (2003):

Definition of Evil: We use the Greek concept of diabolos–“he who separates, divides through aversion and hate; he who makes unjust accusations, denigrates, slanders; he who envies, admits his repugnancy.” The absolute Evil identified by our contemporaries takes the form of racism, exclusion or totalitarianism. The last in fact appears to be the epitome of separation, since it atomizes societies, functions by means of terror and denouncement, and is determined to destroy human bonds and promote isolation. Examples include: apartheid and xenophobia, Gulag prison camps (C. Delsol, 2003, 61).

Definition of the Good: For contemporary people, the notions of solidarity and fraternity, and the different expressions of harmony between classes, age groups, peoples, are still associated with goodness. The person of our time is similar to the person of any time insofar as he/she prefers friendship to hate and indifference, social harmony to internal strife, peace to war, and the united family to the fragmented family. In other words, they seek relationship, union, agreement, and love, and fear distrust, ostracism, contempt, and the destruction of their fellow humans…. The good has the face of fellowship, no matter what name it is given, be it love, the god of Aristotle, or the God of the Bible (C. Delsol, 2003, 62).

The certitude of the good finds its guarantee in the attraction it induces. The separation of the diabolos occurs constantly, but one day or another it will be pursued by mortal shame…. By experience, we know that evil lies in the excesses of [a particular] good. That is why we refuse to search for the rational foundations of the good, why we voluntarily allow our conception of the good to remain purely instinctual (C. Delsol, 2003, 62, 63).

This instinctually is a problem today because it bleeds into the ideology of the aesthetic. We need a more objective/subjective idea of the good which we get in Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (1989).

John Piper articulates the Effective Spiritual Stance of Ephesians 6: 10-19

  1. The battle is not merely human, but involves supernatural principalities and powers/sources of evil, conflict and confusion.
  2. Therefore, we need to be fully equipped with divine protective resources–the entire armour of God–everything we can get our hands on. Paul knows this from intimate experience in his missionary work and travels. He often asks the churches throughout the empire for prayer. He also prays that they will remain strong and resilient.
  3. The reason for this equipping is to help us remain strong in the Lord, on solid spiritual ground. This means focusing on the good, taking our stand in God’s ethics and values–e.g., the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5.
  4. This will help us resist or push back evil, avoid seduction by its machinations, intimidations, shaming and games. We avoid entrapment and stop evil in its tracks before it gains a hold on us, before it gains momentum to crush us. Addiction is a great example of how evil gets a foothold (if we let it) that entraps us. We become evil’s prisoner or hostage.
  5. This way we don’t have to cower or beg; we will stand upright and remain strong at the end of the battle, and live to fight another day. We will persevere. Others who do not trust in God, who do not turn to him in prayer or stay on a spiritual cutting edge by bathing their minds in Scripture, may not survive and flourish. Doubts overwhelm them and they lose their faith. Remember that making peace is part of the battle for God’s good and the good of others. Overcome evil with the good in Christ.

Satan/Lucifer is the architect and champion of all malice and evil. He opposes truth with lies, obscures light with darkness, promotes tribalism, entangles our minds in error, invents conspiracy theories, stirs up hatred fuelling contempt, contentiousness and combativeness. He wants us to join him in full alienation from God’s grace and agape love–banishment from his presence. But, it is important to recognize that he is already defeated at the Cross of Christ–the back of evil was broken there as philosopher René Girard writes.

Spiritual Armour/Protective Gear/Our Full Spiritual Kit Calls Us to Our Highest Purpose, to Face Catastrophe with Courage, to Face Confusion with Clear Thinking, to Stand Strong and not Shrink Back.

  1. Belt of Truth: it is both objective and subjective. It remains foundational like building your core at the gymnasium. (Ephesian 4:25). This helps us discern reality from fantasy. Never deal in lies or deception. Continue to wrestle with truth, even hard truth. Allow other to hold you accountable to truth. This is an ongoing process of discernment. Don’t buy into ideology that sets itself up against God. Worldviews, Apologetics and Sound Teaching are key here. We are encouraged to speak the truth in love.
  2. Breastplate of Righteousness: Of course, it the righteousness of Christ which redeems us, but then we must practice forgiveness, the virtues and expect personal transformation or character development as a regular way of life. It involves both our understanding and our profession of faith. When I am discouraged or tempted towards despair, Christ is my righteousness and my advocate. He stands between me and the taunts of Satan and he wins.
  3. Shoes of Peace: the gospel of peace with God and others is always ready for action–ready to make amends, show humility, promote harmony, bring opposing parties together for dialogue and reconciliation. Peace/Shalom is very good news; it wants to bless and encourage, offer hope. It is the offer of peace within the battle of everyday life. Seek peace and pursue it.
  4. Shield of Faith: the Roman shields, which is the metaphor in Paul’s mind, produces a phalanx/protective wall to protect an army against a hail of arrows from their enemies. The shield must be ready under any circumstance, on all occasions. Let your faith lead you each day. Your belief in God must be existential to be effective. Practice your faith every day.
  5. Helmet of Salvation: Our minds are precious to God, and we must feed them on good material. We are reminded of Paul’s encouragement elsewhere in Romans 12 to be transformed by renewing our minds with God’s thoughts and perspective on life and reality, on our identity in Christ. The hope of salvation is past, present and future. We must get our minds toughened, focused and get them in the game.
  6. Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God: Scripture renews our perspective over and over with fresh ideas, with hope and renewed trust in God. We need to store it up in our hearts, get steeped in it, enter God’s discourse or story daily. His narrative is the proper one to live by and within. The Bible is an incredible resource. Learn you way around Scripture.
  7. Prayer Unlimited/Perpetual/Never Ceasing: this shows tangibly God’s power in our lives and into the world. It is a tremendous gift and power to wield for all. Don’t ask whether you need to pray; invite God’s kingdom to come wherever you are. Invite his presence in your classroom, home, office or worksite. Live a life of prayer, praise and communion with God. Prayer often for those around you. This releases God’s grace in wonderful ways. Use prayer to resist Satan and evil, to block evil in politics, in society, in culture, in the church. Christ promises to pray for us; it is that important.

Christians in Northern Nigeria running for their lives singing “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.” have an intimate knowledge of this discourse and this kind of faith. For them, it is much more existential, so much more than a metaphor.

See also Carl R. Trueman, The Rise & Triumph of the Modern Self. (2020)

A Graduate Student Prayer
Dear God, you know my situation, my stressors and anxieties, self-doubt, my obsessions, the academic expectations that seem so impossible. You know that I complain too much and show appreciation and gratitude too infrequently. But your love and wisdom are much greater than all this angst that surrounds me, greater than the intense competition from my peers, or my fears about publication and future employment. Thank-you so much for the incredible opportunity to sharpen my skills, to pursue truth and beauty, to experience growth of character. Forgive me when I get too full up with my own concerns and forget to care about those around me, when I miss that special opportunity of grace. You know me more deeply than I know myself; you call me to live in joy and wonder under your sovereign care. Keep my heart alive with expectancy of that encounter, that burst of insight, that friend who needs my support. You are Life, a communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Fill my life and my research with your Holy Spirit so that I might this day be led into paths of fruitful service and dialogue. Lord, you get me: Psalm 139.

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