In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he encourages them to treasure their unity in Christ. First, he reminds them how they became one with God.
James R. Huebner
The apostle Paul was in Rome under house arrest, “a prisoner for the Lord.” While there, word came to him that the members of the church in Ephesus, a congregation he had founded and spent three years building, were at each other’s throats. So, he wrote a letter urging oneness and unity.
How could oneness ever happen in Ephesus? The congregation was made up primarily of two culture groups. Some Christians in that congregation had come from an Israelite background. Others had come from a Greek or non-Israelite background. And they didn’t get along. The Greek Christians brought ham and bacon to the Easter brunch, and the Jewish Christians became nauseous. The Jewish Christians were asking, “How can Greeks be in God’s family? They aren’t descendants of Abraham.” The Greek Christians were wondering, “Are we good enough to be members of God’s family?”
The same tensions exist among us. We come from different homes, different congregations, different districts. We have different views on what areas of ministry should get priority, different opinions about which translation of the Bible to use, different opinions on how to carry out our worship. In light of those differences, some might think “one in Christ” is wishful thinking at best or a white-washing of reality at worst. Based on what Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians and us, I believe it is a statement of fact.
One in Christ means first that we are one with God.
NATURALLY WE ARE NOT ONE WITH GOD
What most people in our world don’t know—but need to know—is that we were born with a death notice hanging over us. Spiritually, we were stillborn. That’s the shocker the apostle dropped on the Ephesians: “We were dead in transgressions” (2:5).
It is normal and natural for people to believe that every newborn is innocent, that if your heart and lungs are functioning, you have a spark of good in you. But if you want to know the truth about what it takes to be one with God, then you have to come to grips with the fact that there is no such thing as an innocent baby. No human has potential to be as good as God demands. “All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3). The sinful nature we have from birth is rightly classified as our biggest fault and the root of all our faults.
What we desperately need in order to be one with God is a miracle of forgiveness from God. Jesus made that happen! This is the best news anyone could ever hear. God works in ways unexpected and undeserved primarily in raising people from spiritual death to spiritual life. Think about how God teaches us about grace. Israelites, what did you do to be cured and healed of venomous snake bites? “Nothing! God did it with his promise of healing.” Nicodemus, what did you do to be born? “Nothing!” My friends, what did you or I do to be one with God? Nothing! The phrases are piled up, excluding all human activity. “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works” (Ephesians 2:8,9).
WE BECOME ONE WITH GOD THROUGH HIS GRACE
If you wanted to write a letter encouraging people toward unity, how would you start? Pointing out their errors and weaknesses? Offering a step-by-step “how to”? Cajoling them? The apostle begins in a most unexpected way, with a hymn of praise! He starts, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). But he doesn’t stop there. In fact, he bubbles over with so much excitement that verses three to ten of chapter one are one, long, run-on sentence. In Christ, everything we could ever hope for or imagine when it comes to our relationship with God is already ours.
That news fills our hearts with so much joy that we spring out of bed each day with a smile on our face, lift our eyes heavenward, and call out, “Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful day!” Right? Or would it be more accurate to say that more often than not, instead of having eyes lifted heavenward, our noses are earth-bound, buried in the drudgery and doldrums of dredging for daily bread?
And then what? We complain. Has complaining become a national pastime? We complain about the weather. It’s either too hot or too cold, too humid or too dry. If not the weather, then it’s our health: the allergies, the arthritis, the feet, the back. If not health, then it’s the government. If not the government, then it’s the sermon, the ushers the organist, or the noisy kids. We always seem to find some reason to complain.
How can we break the pattern of grumbling and complaining? That happens when we are absolutely clear on how we became one with God. Paul points to the reason in his opening hymn of praise. We are God’s children because of his glorious grace (1:6). Even before God set the moon and stars and planets in their places, God looked down through the corridors of time and singled us out to be his own. “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:4,5).
What prompted God to single us out to be his children? It is his love “in Christ.” That phrase “in Christ” (or “in him” or “through Jesus Christ”) occurs 150 times in Ephesians and 10 times in the opening 14 verses. God did not choose us in the way that children choose players when they pick sides for a ball game. The captains try to pick the best players first. But when God chose us, it was not because of some potential in us but only because of Jesus.
Do you want joy and hope in a world that can drag you down? Then lift your eyes to the cross of Jesus and see the price paid for your oneness with God. In a world of confusion where things do not always add up, Christ Jesus makes sense of it all. Life is no mystery when God has revealed to us the mystery of his mercy. “God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ . . . to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:9,10).
No matter how different we all are, we are one with God because of what Jesus did. No disagreements or dividers here. That’s what it means to be one in Christ.
James Huebner, pastor at Grace, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is the first vice president of WELS.
This is the first article in a four-part series based on the 2015 synod convention essay entitled “One in Christ.”
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Author: James R. Huebner
Volume 103, Number 2
Issue: February 2016
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