“Blessings in Christ: Past, Present, and Future” (Ephesians 1:3-14)
Today is the beginning of eight straight weeks in which the Epistle reading is a portion of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. And at the same time, as soon as we wrap up our study of Mark, I plan to start Ephesians for our Bible class on Sunday mornings. So I encourage you to read through this wonderful epistle, perhaps even a couple of times, over these coming weeks.
If I had to choose my favorite epistle in the New Testament, I just might pick Ephesians. There is so much here, packed into just six chapters. Christ, the cross, the church, the work of the Holy Trinity, the proper distinction of Law and Gospel, justification, sanctification, daily living, marriage, family, spiritual warfare, and the big picture of God’s plan for the universe–it’s all right here in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s really quite remarkable.
And our text today, the opening of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians–this in itself is something quite remarkable. Twelve verses, and if you read it in the Greek, it’s like Paul is hardly stopping to take a breath, rushing from one blessing to the next. Evidently, Paul is quite excited to get this letter going–he’s excited about the gospel of Christ–and so he just bursts out, right off the bat, with this fantastic doxology of praise to God for all his wonderful blessings: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. . . .” And that’s just the start. So let’s take up this passage now, under the theme, “Blessings in Christ: Past, Present, and Future.”
Yes, past, present, and future. For in this text, Paul takes us from the past, the eternal past, and on into the future, the eternal future, with stops in between. This is truly the big picture Paul is painting for us here, God’s blessings extending all the way back and then projecting all the forward, encompassing the whole universe–God’s plan for the ages, for all the heavens and earth and everything and everyone in them. But don’t get lost in the cosmos here. While we have the big picture here, the wide-angle lens, so to speak, Paul also zooms in to get you into the picture, as we shall see.
One other thing about this passage as a whole. Notice the phrase, “in Christ.” See how many times “in Christ” or “in him” or the equivalent occurs in this passage. At least ten times, depending on how you count them, in just these twelve verses. I think you can get the point. Every blessing that we have from God comes to us in connection with Christ. In Christ we have these blessings, whether in the past, the present, or the future.
And now let’s start in the past, the eternal past. Because that’s when God started this whole business of his cosmic plan and your personal salvation. Paul begins: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
Notice this: It says that God chose us in Christ, when? “Before the foundation of the world.” Before the foundation of the world! That, my friends, is truly the eternal past! Before God laid the foundation of the world, before the act of creation, God already had in mind to choose you! To choose you for himself, that you would be holy and blameless before him. That you would belong to him. We call this matter of God choosing us the doctrine of “election by grace.” God graciously chose us to be his people long before we did any choosing about it.
And then Paul puts this another way: “In love he predestined us.” “Predestined.” Oh oh, there’s that word, “predestination”! But don’t let that word scare you. Instead, let it comfort you! Let me explain. Yes, the Bible does teach predestination, in this and in other places. But understand what this means–and what it doesn’t mean. It means that God chose you to belong to him ahead of time. And this is a very comforting teaching. It means your salvation is secure, because it is God’s doing, from start to finish. No one can snatch you out of his hand. God has chosen you for salvation, and so now you can rest safe and secure in his choice.
What this does not mean, though, is that because God chose you and other Christians for salvation, therefore he must have chosen other people to go to hell, like somehow he derives some pleasure from that. That is not what the Bible teaches, by no means. God wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the fact remains that people can reject the gospel, say “no thanks” to God’s gift, and thus they remain in their unbelief and are heading to damnation. So the point here is to not let our limited and faulty reason lead us to jump to false conclusions. Stick with what the Scriptures say, and do not go beyond what is written.
And what is written is that God chose you in Christ before the foundation of the world, so that you would belong to him. And this is good news, a great blessing from God, going back to the eternal past.
And then God has blessed us in Christ in the historical past, that is, within human history. Paul continues: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us. . . .” Now we come to the coming of Christ, the eternal Son of God taking on our flesh at a certain point in history. This is the man Jesus of Nazareth going to the cross for our sake, the innocent for the guilty. Jesus is the innocent one, who shed his blood on the cross for us sinners, so that we would have forgiveness and everything that goes with it. This is the atonement, the Son of God dying for all the sinners of the world, taking the punishment we deserve upon himself. This is the greatest act in the history of the world, the pivot point of history, along with the resurrection of Christ that followed, which validated the great victory Christ won on the cross. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central act of God on which everything depends.
What is the result for you? Redemption, forgiveness, grace. Paul pulls out all the stops here, bringing out this incredibly rich vocabulary of our salvation. “In him we have redemption through his blood.” “Redemption” means “release by means of payment.” You have been redeemed, released from the burden of your sin, the curse of death, and bondage to the devil. How? By the holy precious blood of Christ, that payment he paid which you could never pay. “The forgiveness of our trespasses.” All the ways you have transgressed against God’s commandments, gone where you should not have gone, whether in thought, word, or deed, the wrong things you have done, the right things you have failed to do–that whole dirty, stinking mess has been washed away by the blood of Christ, removed from you and sent far away, never to return. That is forgiveness. “According to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us.” Grace. That means it’s all a free gift, you don’t do anything to deserve it–you can’t–God just is rich and gracious toward us, that’s how he rolls. Think of grace like this: G-R-A-C-E, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
That’s the historical past. Now Paul jumps ahead to our personal past and to the present and the future. He says God has acted “in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
In this section, we see our personal past. It’s right here: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” Dear friends, you have heard the gospel, you have come to faith in Christ, and you have been baptized. This is God acting in your personal past, to connect you to Christ with a living faith. Through Word and Sacrament, God brought you to believe in Christ your Savior. In Holy Baptism, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit, who keeps you in the faith and is, as Paul says, “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.” The Holy Spirit bears witness in our heart that we have an inheritance waiting for us. We haven’t taken possession of it yet–that will happen when Christ returns–but we know even now that we have this inheritance guaranteed.
And there is your future. There is your hope. It is an eternal future, to live forever with Christ and all his saints. It is an open-ended, glorious future–life, eternal life, filled to overflowing with blessings and joy. That is what you have to look forward to. It’s a sure thing. And this hope will carry you through all the difficulties and hardships of this life. And they are many: financial worries, health problems, broken relationships. But to know how God has acted in the past, how is he with you in the present, and what he has in store for you in the future–God will help you to endure those hardships and even to have joy.
Blessings in Christ, past, present, and future. God planned your salvation from eternity past, before the foundation of the world. Christ accomplished your salvation in the historical past, winning your redemption and forgiveness by his blood shed on the cross, purely by his amazing grace. The Holy Spirit has acted in your personal past, bringing you to faith in Christ, through Word and Sacrament. And all this gives you strength in the present and a sure hope for the future, an eternal future more glorious than anything you can imagine. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!