Preaching Values in Ephesians

Hoke Smith, Jr.  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 6 - Fall 1963

Rarely will the preacher face a greater challenge than that of communicating the sublime truth of Ephesians to his people. Paul’s message in Ephesians was never more vital than today. In the opinion of John A. Mackay it is “for our time the most relevant of his works.”[1]God’s Order: The Ephesian Letter and This Present Time (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1956), p. x. To fathom the depths and scale the heights of the Apostle’s expansive thought and then translate that thought into the language and life of the people in the pew is no small task. W. O. Carver calls Ephesians “the greatest piece of writing in all history.”[2]The Glory of God in the Christian Calling (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1949), p. 3. A. T. Robertson asserts that “Paul has written nothing more profound than chapters 1 to 3 of Ephesians.”[3]The Epistle of Paul (“Word Pictures in the New Testament” Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), IV, 515. For William Barclay Ephesians is “the Queen of the Epistles,”[4]The Letters to the Galatians and the Ephesians (“The Daily Study Bible: Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), p. 71. and for J. Scott Lidgett it is “the crown and climax of the New Testament as a whole.”[5]God in Christ Jesus: A Study of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1915, p. 3. The preacher’s pulpit task is always overwhelming, but as he approaches this Ephesian letter, he will sense even more keenly his utter inadequacy. If he would comprehend its message, he must open his soul to the working of the same Spirit which was at work in Paul. And what is more, he must be ready to accept the authority of the truth as it is comprehended.

 

I

The preacher’s responsibility in treating Ephesians is two­fold: first, to discover what it meant and then to discover what it means. The preacher is an exegete as he seeks to determine what the epistle meant in the first century when it was written. He is an expositor as he attempts to explain what the epistle means in the twentieth century in which we live. This is not an easy responsibility to discharge. To discover what it meant requires a knowledge of the first-century Jewish and Graeco-Roman worlds, a grasp of the language and thought forms of the New Testament writer, and an awareness of the immediate historical context in which the letter was written. To discern what Ephesians means in our twentieth-century world requires a sense of history, a keen awareness of the contemporary scene, and the insight of a prophet. Obviously, the preacher cannot know what the letter means in the here and now unless he first discovers what it meant in the then and there.

The preacher can count on abundant help in his search for the meaning of Ephesians. Numerous commentaries of various kinds are available, some majoring on what the book meant, others on what it means. An example of a commentary which deals with both these elements is The Interpreter’s Bible.[6]George A. Buttrick (ed.), The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953), Vol. X. The exegesis of Ephesians is by Francis W. Beare and the exposition by Theodore O. Wedel. On any given passage there are two sections of comment, one exegetical and the other expository. The value of this approach for the preacher is readily apparent.

Of the many useful studies of the Ephesian letter, my favorite is W. O. Carver’s The Glory of God in the Christian Calling. It is doubtless the best treatment of the epistle yet produced by a Southern Baptist. Those who seek a clear and cogent presentation of the message of Ephesians can do no better than secure this work.[7]In addition to works already cited, we would call attention to two others: J. Armitage Robinson, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (London: Macmillan and Co., 1903) and Ray Summers, Ephesians: Pattern for Christian Living (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1960).

Throughout his study of Ephesians, it will help the preacher if he can constantly maintain the vantage point of the Apostle. Paul is interpreting the Christian’s experience in terms of what it means to God in the realization of his unfolding purpose for the universe. His emphasis is not so much on the significance of redemption to the redeemed as on its significance to the Redeemer. This emphasis is especially needed in our era when man constitutes the center and circumference of modern thought. Even our evangelical theology has suffered from the humanistic deification of man. We need to move the center back to God, where it belongs. No better corrective can be found than this Ephesian letter. Paul firmly asserts that man is not an end in himself. Rather, he is chosen and blessed by God for a purpose which reaches beyond himself. The believer’s redemption does not find its ultimate meaning in his own personal experience but in its contributory relation to, and integral involvement in, the fulfillment of God’s plan of the ages. This plan is to unite all things in Christ (1:10). In the words of John A. Mackay, “God’s will to unity is thus the most central thing in cosmic and human history.”[8]p., 62. If the preacher will hold to this central theme as he interprets each separate portion of the book, many passages will come alive with fresh significance. For example, the doctrine of election, so prominent in the epistle, will be seen in a new perspective. God chooses us not to be his favorites but to be his servants: “destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory” (1:12, RSV). The doctrine of the church will take on a wider dimension: “the fulness of him who fills all in all” (1:23, RSV). Missions is not simply a duty of the church, but is of the essence. The church is mission. There is no more missionary book in the Bible than Ephesians. It affords the preacher an unparalleled opportunity for lifting the vision of his people to behold the glorious outworking of God’s grace on a universal scale. It is, as someone has said, “The Gospel for the Space Age.”

 

II

As the pastor plans his pulpit work on Ephesians, there are at least two approaches open to him: he may elect to preach a sermon course or a sermon series. In the sermon course, he would present a succession of messages, say one from each chapter, without any conscious attempt to formulate a unifying theme for the various sermons. In the sermon series he would choose a definite theme, and each message in the series would develop some aspect of the theme. Ordinarily, a series should not be extended beyond a month or six weeks, since the regular church-goers will usually begin to lose interest if it goes beyond this limit. Ephesians lends itself handily to a short sermon course—six chapters will yield six sermons, just about the right number. If the decision goes to the series, then the preacher, on the basis of his study of the epistle, will search for a general theme and developing sub­ topics. In this formulation the preacher must keep in mind his objective both for the series as a whole and for each sermon within the series. The objectives should be determined by the current needs of the congregation. They may be classified as doctrinal, ethical, devotional, consecrative, supportive, evangelistic, or promotional.

Since the “glory” of God is central in the thought of Ephesians, the preacher may choose to bring a series on “The Dimensions of God’s Glory.” The series could be developed as follows:

God’s Glory in the Cosmic Church       1:19-23

God’s Glory in Man’s Redemption       1:3-14; 2:1-10

God’s Glory in the Universal Church    1:15-23; 2:19-22; 3:20-21; 5:23-28

God’s Glory in a United Humanity       2:11-22

God’s Glory in the Christian Home      5:21-6:9

God’s Glory in Everyday Living          2:10; 5:1-20

This series would cut across the needs of the congregation and bring a balanced diet to the man in the pew. The objectives could be doctrinal, ethical, consecrative, and evangelistic. In the development of the series the preacher will find occasion to bring the truth of Ephesians to bear on the varied and urgent concerns of our present day. He can show how God is and will be glorified in every realm and relationship of life. Racial, international and religious strife, the moral and ethical breakdown in society, and the progressive dissolution of the home are but examples of the problems which urgently need to be illuminated by the probing searchlight of this epistle. The answer to these problems, as Paul makes clear, is found only in God’s eternal purpose in the cosmic Christ. In Christ man’s redemption is wrought out through the instrumentality of the church, “to the praise of his glory.”

If the preacher decides to focus on some particular ethical problem of our time, he will find an abundance of rich material for this purpose. He may elect to prepare a short series onThe Divine Order for the Home,” using the classic passage in 5:21 to 6:4. Several subjects are immediately suggested:

Design for a Husband’s Love             5:25

Pattern for a Loyal Wife                      5:22-24

Living With Father                               6:1-3

On Being a Good Parent                      6:4

Let the preacher be careful to relate the Christian home to God’s eternal purpose of uniting all things in Christ. Paul’s words on the home in this section are not just random admonitions appended to his theological argument. Rather, the home plays a fundamental part in the realization of God’s plan for breaking down the dividing walls which separate men from one another and from God. If God’s’ purpose of unity is to be realized in the universe, it must first be realized in the home.

Or, why not bring a devotional series on “God’s Armor for Spiritual Conquest”? The armor is described in 6:13-17, while the enemy is identified in 6:10-12. Here again the preacher must keep before him the contextual relations of this passage and should point out to his people that the battle in which the Christian is engaged in his daily life has eternal significance in the realization of God’s plan for the ages. It is not simply a matter of personal victory or defeat. The outcome is cosmic in its repercussions. Notice how each piece of armor is intensely relevant in the moral and spiritual struggle facing God’s people day by day:

The Belt of Truth—true integrity.

The Breastplate of Righteousness—uprightness in character and conduct.

The Shoes of the Gospel of Peace—the gospel which is peace—peace with both God and man.

The Shield of Faith—faith in God’s promise of his protecting presence.

The Helmet of Salvation—the salvation process at work in us, and the calm assurance it brings.

The Sword of the Spirit—the sword which the Holy Spirit provides—the Word of God.

If six sermons seem too many for this series, then the preacher may select the pieces of armor which best furnish the needs of his congregation. John A. Mackay thinks the four major pieces are the Belt, the Shoes, the Sword, and Prayer.[9]pp., 198-200. In any case, the pastor should not spend excessive time drawing detailed analogies from the Roman soldier’s equipment. Most of the sermon should be dedicated to the spiritual equipment of the Christian rather than the battle dress of the Roman.

 

III

Sermon subjects are often discovered in the vivid renderings of modern versions and translations. A helpful way of collecting sermon starters or seed-thoughts is to read through Ephesians in several different translations, jotting down notes on ideas as they occur. Any helpful items which flash into the preacher’s mind should be written down immediately: possible divisions for the subject, an apt illustration, an idea for a lively introduction or conclusion, an exegetical note. When the preacher later returns to work out the sermon itself, he will already have material from which to start. Here are some examples:

Love on Purpose. “He planned, in his purpose of love, that we should be adopted as his own children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5, Phillips). God loves us on purpose. In contrast to man’s love, which is unpredictable, contingent, even accidental, God’s love (agape) is purposive and intentional. Our salvation is no accident. It is the result of the purpose of God, motivated by what John A. Mackay calls “love everlasting and invincible.”[10]p., 64. It is indeed an eternal love: “before the foundation of the world he chose us” (1:4). It is sacrificial love which does not count the cost: “at the cost of his own blood we are redeemed” (1:7). It is love which God has for us in Christ: “he has made us welcome in the everlasting love he bears towards the Beloved” (1:6). God’s grand design for the unity of all things has as its dynamic love, than which there is nothing more basic in the nature of God. The hymn-writer expressed it correctly:

Love is the theme, Love is supreme;
Sweeter it grows, Glory bestows;
Bright as the sun, Ever it glows;
Love is the theme, Eternal Theme.
-Albert C. Fisher[11]Copyright Robert H. Coleman, 1913.

A Matter of Life and Death. “But, dead in trespasses as we were, God was so rich in mercy that for his great love to us. He made us live together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4, 5, Moffatt). The Christian gospel has to do with bringing dead people to life. It is no simple moral prescription to make men f eel and act better, but a resurrection power which rescues men from a hideous and repugnant death. Sin and death, like twin monsters, always go together. To be “dead in trespasses” means to be cut off from the life of God. But in our repulsive death, says Paul, God loved us and willed our resurrection. And when God raised Jesus from the grave, resurrection power was let loose and made available to us. How does that power become effective in our experience? Through life-giving union with the resurrected Christ. For Paul, union with Christ is the organizing principle of religion-all we are and have is “in Christ.” This is eminently reflected in Ephesians: “He made us live together with Christ.” We are identified with Christ in his resurrection life through faith (2:8). “The life I now live . . . I live by faith,” said Paul (Galatians 2:20). This means a conscious relationship with the living Christ in daily experience. Year before last Father Florencio Alvarez talked with me in my home until the early hours of the morning. Eleven years before he had led the mob which stoned the Central Baptist Church in Bogota, Colombia, and now we were discussing new life in Christ. As I completed my testimony I asked, “Haven’t you ever felt anything like that?” With desperation in his voice he stood before me and said, “I don’t f eel anything!” To such a heart the message of Ephesians is that salvation is not a theoretical abstraction but an experiential reality. And what is more, “it is not your doing but God’s gift” (2:8, Moffatt).

The Broken Wall.[12]This phrase is from Markus Barth’s lucid treatment of Ephesians entitled The Broken Wall (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1959). “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14, RSV). “Good fences make good neighbors,” said the poet. But they also can be the symbol of enmity and hatred. The now famous Berlin wall, separating Communist and free zones, speaks eloquently of division, strife, animosity, and fear. For the Apostle Paul the symbol of the racial and religious hostility which had torn humanity asunder in his day was a wall in the Temple area in Jerusalem. This wall divided the inner courts from the Court of the Gentiles. Beyond this barrier no Gentile could pass. Stone slabs inscribed with warnings stood at regular intervals on the wall. One of these was found in 1871 by M. Clermont Ganneau and reads: “No foreigner may enter within the balustrade and enclosure around the Sanctuary. Whoever is caught will render himself liable to the death penalty which will inevitably follow.”[13]Cf. Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946), p. 246. That wall represented for Paul the Law with its commandments and rules, effectively shutting out the Gentile world from the blessings of God. But now, proclaims the Apostle, Christ has broken down this barrier. The Gentiles have been brought into the sanctuary by the blood of Christ, and the Law of commandments and rules has been abolished. Christ is now creating “one new man in place of the two” (2:15, RSV). When that wall fell, all dividing walls, in principle, fell with it: racial, social, religious, political, ideological. Anything that would oppose God’s will to unity has, in Christ, been removed. Whenever we are tempted to build walls around ourselves to keep others out, let us remember “The Broken Wall.”

The War is Over! “Then he came and told both you who were far from God and us who were near that the war was over” (Ephesians 2:17, Phillips). On that memorable day in August of 1945 the news flashed through our barracks: “The war is over!” We poured out into the streets of the city and with great rejoicing celebrated the Japanese surrender and the long-prayed-for peace. Yet, for months after the surrender garrisons of Japanese soldiers in Pacific islands continued to fight, not knowing that peace had been declared. They had not received the good news that the hostilities had ended, so they persisted in their hopeless struggle. Is this not the condition of the majority of mankind today? Men are still fighting one another, unaware that “Christ is our living peace” (2:14, Phillips) and that he has by his sacrifice removed the cause for hostility. The persistent belligerence of man stems from the transcontinental conflict between sin and righteousness on the cosmic plane. For Paul the great contemporary expression of the struggle in the cosmos was the antagonism between Jew and Gentile. But, says Paul, now that Christ through his death and resurrection has subjugated the cosmic powers of evil, the continued hostilities of men are but senseless post-war skirmishes. In Christ the war is over. If man will but heed the good news, he can realize peace with God, with his fellowman, and with himself. Jew and Gentile, white and black, rich and poor, educated and unlettered are all at peace, living in the unity and harmony of the body of Christ.

On Achieving Spiritual Maturity. “So may you attain to full­ness of being, the fullness of God himself” (Ephesians 3: 19, New English Bible). In Ephesians 3:14-21, Paul voices his prayer for spiritual maturity. His prayer includes three distinct petitions: (1) that we may become a worthy dwelling place for Christ (vv. 16-17a), (2) that we may comprehend the love of Christ (vv. 17b- 19a), and (3) that we may be filled until we reach the fullness of God himself (v. 19b). Notice that these petitions are progressive—the realization of one leads on to the realization of the next. The fullness of God is the climactic experience. Paul here intercedes with a request that would appear impossible of fulfillment in the life of the individual. Indeed, the fullness of God is something that can be realized only in the harmonious fellowship of the entire body of Christ. This is made plain in verse 18 where the Apostle prays that we may be strong to grasp “with all God’s people” the measure of the love of Christ. The many-splendoured beauty of God’s love cannot be adequately appreciated simply through the eyes of our own experience. We must behold that love as it is experienced by other members of the body. Each member is distinct, and his life, like the facet of a gem, reflects from a different angle the love of God. As we behold how God has worked in the lives of men from differing backgrounds, customs, cultures, traditions, races, and classes, our vision expands panoramically to witness more of the infinite spectrum of the divine agape. Thus, in the fellowship of the church we move on towards spiritual maturity. May God help us to grow up!

Every Christian a Minister. “And these were his gifts: some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip God’s people for work in his service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12, New English Bible). The rediscovery of the New Testament concept of every-believer participation is the most encouraging phenomenon in Christianity today. Indeed, our hope for world evangelization rests on the recovery of the original pattern of the ministry of every Christian. The New English Bible accurately reproduces the meaning of the Greek text of our passage (the Revised Standard Version obscures it by retaining the comma after the word “saints”): pastors and other spiritual leaders in the church exist for the purpose of preparing the members for the work of the ministry. Note well-each member in the church is a minister in the service of God. The life purpose of each should be “the building up of the body of Christ.” He is not simply a passive member of Christ’s body of the redeemed, but an active part of Christ’s redeeming body. When the so-called “layman” becomes aware of his vital role in God’s unfolding purpose, he will be moved to a new sense of responsibility. There is no “clergy-laity” division in the New Testament. Whenever the corresponding Greek words (kleros and laos) are used they refer to all God’s people. Let us abandon forever the erroneous concept that the pastor and the church staff have been called by the congregation to assume the responsibility of witnessing to a lost world. This is the task of every member. Howard Butt says that in many churches he gets the impression the members feel their role is to back up their pastor, sending him supplies while he is on the front lines of spiritual battle. Not so, says Butt. It is the other way around­ the pastor should be backing up the members, equipping them as they move out in spiritual conquest.

The Devil’s Foothold. “Never go to bed angry-don’t give the devil that sort of foothold” (Ephesians 4:27, Phillips). The devil is constantly searching for a foothold in the church. His one consuming passion is to wreak havoc in the fellowship and thus thwart God’s purpose of unity in the universe. As W. O. Carver reminds us, “The devil can work no real ill in any community except when he finds ‘place in persons.'”[14]p., 156. Anger is inevitable, and, if it is uncontrolled, can become a foothold for the devil in the life of the Christian, and through him in the life of the church. But it can be repressed, restrained, and overcome. Hence Paul admonishes, “Be angry but do not sin” (4:26, RSV). “Sinless anger,” observes W. O. Carver, “is the mark of a moral nature under control of ethical love.”[15]Ibid. Anger out of control is a fearful thing. It is nothing less than “murder in embryo.”[16]I owe this phrase to Dr. J. W. MacGorman. Carried out to its logical conclusion, it will end in homicide. Peter the Great of Russia in a fit of anger killed his own son. As he came to the close of his reign he confessed, “I have conquered an empire, but I could not conquer myself.” How much devilment has been unleashed in the world because of anger! A church divided, a home torn asunder, a loved one hurt, a nation plunged into war. The Christian, although he will become angry, need not let his anger break his fellowship with others. In union with Christ who, “when he was reviled, reviled not again,” we find victory over sinful anger. May we determine in our hearts that the devil will never find this foothold in us.

The Christian Response to an Immoral Society. “Take no part in the barren deeds of darkness, but show them up for what they are” (Ephesians 5:11, New English Bible). “The church was in the world as it had to be, but the world was in the church as it ought not to be.”[17]James Moffatt, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (New York: Harper and Brothers, n.d.), p. xv. This description of the Corinthian church by James Moffatt is equally applicable to the recipients of Paul’s Ephesian letter. The question they faced is the same one that confronts us today, namely, how shall the member of Christ’s body relate himself to the immoral society in which he necessarily must live? Some have given extreme answers, either withdrawing from the world in monasteries or identifying with the world so as to differ in no apparent degree from the surrounding society. Paul’s admonition is clear: the Christian is to function as light, both condemning the world’s dark deeds (“show them up for what they are,” 5:11) and transforming darkness into light (“everything thus illumined is all light,” 5:13). The darkness to which Paul refers in 5:1-14 is the sexual immorality rampant in the pagan world. Ephesus was the center for the worship of Artemis (Diana), a fertility cult which originated in the Orient and was characterized by sexual excesses. Alarmingly, our own sensate society is today doing obeisance before its sex-idols. The sickening Elizabeth Taylor saga and the frightening Profumo sex-security scandal are but symptoms of the deeply rooted malady of our time. Filthy sex jokes, almost inescapable in normal contact with society, are roundly condemned by Paul (5:4). And he warns against seductive theories, propounded by some physicians and psychologists in our day, which would justify sexual looseness (5:6). The Christian in the purity of his resurrection-life must live redemptively in our immoral world.

What to Do When Trouble Comes. “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18, RSV). The billions of dollars spent on alcohol every year bear witness to men’s search for a solution to their cares, for an escape from the hard realities of daily living. But Paul points out that, far from being a solution to trouble, alcohol opens the door to more trouble. Drunkenness is debauchery; it unlocks a Pandora’s box of grievous sins. Whither shall a man go when trials come? Where shall he find relief and surcease of sorrow? He will find it, says the Apostle, in the communion of the body of Christ, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Whether in formal worship or informal companionship, the Christian should find sympathy, understanding, help, encouragement, and inspiration from his fellowship with Christians. In a testimony session, a hymn-sing, or a prayer meeting, he should gain strength, orientation, and joy in Christ. Here arises a most critical question. When a member of my church finds himself in trouble, can he receive such spiritual undergirding from his fellow-members? Or do we ignore, criticize, or even ostracize those who find themselves in difficulty? Does there exist in my church the genuine fellowship of the Holy Spirit? The unity which God purposes for a troubled universe can become reality only if that unity beneficently prevails in the church.

Ethics for a Christian Businessman. “And as for your employers, be as conscientious and responsible towards those who serve you as you expect them to be towards you, neither misusing the power over others that has been put in your hands, nor forgetting that you are responsible yourselves to a heavenly employer who makes no distinction between master and man” (Ephesians 6:9, Phillips). The word “employer” in Phillips translation of this verse refers to the slave-owner in the first-century Graeco-Roman world. There were 60 million slaves throughout the Empire. These were attached to, or served in, the homes of their masters, and were an integral part of the daily life of the household. Paul, concerned for the harmony and unity of the home and the implications of such harmony for the working out of God’s eternal purpose of universal unity, counsels Christian slaves and masters as to their domestic relationships (6:5-9). Lest we draw the unwarranted conclusion that Paul condones slavery, we would do well to consider the words of W. O. Carver, who says, “Before Paul finishes this brief paragraph, he has enunciated principles which must in time destroy the system of slavery, not by social or political revolution but by ethical and social readjustment under the ideal of God in Christ.”[18]p., 175. Although the Apostle is addressing a particular social relationship current in his time, his words have abiding significance.

The Christian principles, ideals, and warnings of this condensed statement apply to all relations where men live and serve under men, whether as personal slaves, employed workmen, groups of laborers of all classes, under all kinds of economic or institutional forms or systems. Accepted and applied in good will and with intelligent cooperation these principles would solve all problems in the economic and business world.[19]Ibid., p. 176.

The make-up of the congregation will determine whether the preacher will emphasize the Christian responsibility of employers or employees. In either case, the counsel of this passage will point the way to bringing the world of work under the sway of Christ. Too long have Christians practiced a dichotomy of life, scarcely, if ever, recognizing that the Sunday gospel and the work-a-day gospel are one and the same. But Christ claims all of life, and wills that our work as well as our worship shall be to the praise of his glory.”

The above sermon suggestions are but a few of the preaching values in Ephesians. Many rich veins lie waiting to be discovered and mined. The preacher who is willing to dig will come up with valuable treasure for himself and for his people. My prayer for you as you open the Ephesian letter is: “That God, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ and the all-glorious Father, will give you spiritual wisdom and the insight to know more of him (Ephesians 1:17, Phillips).

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