As Christians, do you suppose we should spend more time or less time dealing with the biblical text of Sunday’s sermons? I guess I’m asking part of the bigger question James 1:22 raises about becoming doers of the Word rather than just hearers of sermons. And, yes, I suspect part of the answer is spending more time with the biblical passages behind the sermons so that we are better prepared to hear God speak to us through his Word through the preacher. Every sermon can have a life-changing impact on us. I’m a biblical exegete who no longer preaches every Sunday, but I do miss this process of grappling with God’s Word and making clear its message to us. So I’m going to try this approach of previewing the biblical text many of us, at least in churches following the Revised Common Lectionary, are likely to encounter this coming Sunday in hopes that we might do more than just listen to sermons.
This is an amazing biblical passage to read and to study for the beginning of a new year for people whose identity is “in Christ.” I want you to try this. Take a deep breath and read the full sentence Paul wrote here. It starts in verse 3 and ends at verse 14! That’s one long sentence. 202 words long. A sentence communicates an idea. In this case it is a big idea which is given many supporting reasons. Paul gives praise to God the Father for everything we have received “in Christ.” He repeats this key concept of “in Christ” 11 times in this one sentence. That’s gotta be important. This is certainly a biblical passage worth memorizing, if anyone does that anymore. I’d recommend it. Memorizing this passage will give you such a better grasp on what Paul has to teach us about being Christians in this world.
So what should a good biblical sermon on this passage sound like? One sentence, one big idea: Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Why? Because he “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ” (v3). How has he blessed us in Christ? I see the apostle listing five big blessings we have in Christ, and, again, he’s listing these that we might praise God. Some exegetes point out that the phrase “to the praise of his glory” occurs in verses 6, 12 and 14, and that, therefore, Paul is listing three blessings, such that a couple of the five are actually re-instatements or expansions. That’s possible. Sometimes I think commentators try to make Paul out to be much neater than he actually is, but at least there is still serious engagement going with the text; however, I do get concerned with those who come out with a pristine three-point sermon looking something like this:
- Chosen by the Father (1:3-6)
- Redeemed by the Son (1:7-12)
- Sealed by the Holy Spirit (1:13,14)
That’s very, pretty. Too pretty. This outline can be used to show that this passage is Paul teaching about our Trinitarian spirituality. Cool, but not sticking to the text. Again, Paul gives praise to God the Father. That is the main idea. He gives praise to God for all that we receive in Christ, as made real in our lives by the work of the Holy Spirit. The passage develops a list of five of these blessings we have received in Christ. So while it’s true that the Triune nature of God is affirmed here, it’s done incidentally not as the focus of the passage. In my opinion, that makes a stronger case for the reality of the Trinity than a direct argument. He can just assume it while making some other point. Hopefully, the sermon you’ll hear on Sunday will stick close to the text and cover these five big blessings we have in Christ, maybe three or four with some compression.
1. He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (v4a) v4
God did this “that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight” (v4b). Let me comment further under the next blessing as the two are closely related since God has chosen us in Christ and by doing so he was predestining us to adoption.
2. God predestined us to adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ (5a) vv5-6
Here’s the deal. Jesus is not merely a conduit of God’s blessings, like a live electric wire zapping us. They don’t come to us just through Christ, instead Paul repeatedly talks about the blessings we have in Christ. It’s about incorporation. We have been baptized into Jesus (Rom 6:3) and we have been united with him (Rom 6:5-8). This give us a new address in the heavenly realms that’s “in Christ.” Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell in their book Why I Am Not a Calvinist say,
Now that we have been incorporated into Christ, we have entered into the drama of his own story. His death has become our death, his resurrection has become our resurrection (Eph 2:5), and his position of privilege at the Father’s right hand bring us an immeasurable wealth of grace (Eph 2:6-7)… It is in him we have been chosen and predestined (Eph 1:4-5). This means that Jesus Christ himself is the chosen one, the predestined one. Whenever one is incorporated into him by grace through faith, one comes to share in Jesus’ special status as chosen of God."
This is an awesome reality. Consider what we’ve become in Christ. Easy to see how Paul considers these to be reasons why we should praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
3. In him we have redemption through his blood (v7a) vv7-10
Verses 7-10 explore God’s plan of redemption through Christ, and, as it turns out, it’s far bigger than just “the forgiveness of our trespasses” which is already amazing. It’s very important for us as Christians to recognize that God’s plan in Christ is so much bigger than just me being forgiven of my sins. God is in the process of setting everything right in Christ and we’re part of that plan. Very cool!
4. In Christ we too have been claimed as God’s own possession (v11a) vv11-12
There’s a lot of divisive theology coming out of the interpretation of verses 11-12. Rather than getting hung up on each phrase and Paul’s precise sequence of thought, I see the passage clearly affirming that “God’s own possession,” a way of referring to God’s own people or God’s nation, has been transformed in Christ so that now it’s not just the Jewish nation. Now the people who belong to God are the Jews who have set their hope on Christ (v12a) along with the Gentiles who believe in Christ (v13b). We are God’s own possession, his people. We are in Christ and the focal point of God’s work in redeeming all this world.
5. In Christ, we were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit (v11a, 13c) vv13-14
The Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is “the down payment of our inheritance” which means we’re not just getting a promise of redemption. No, the Holy Spirit is redeeming us, giving us the power to change, here and now. Praise God! We may not yet be all that we will be, but we’ve come a long way so far! And there is, perhaps, the best thought to relate to this being a new year coming. Thanks to all that we are receiving in Christ and to the working of the Spirit in our lives, we are being changed. Let’s praise God for that and really open ourselves up to what he will do in our lives in this coming year. Let’s not just be content that God has forgiven our sins in the past. Let’s look forward with hope and anticipation of what our great God will be doing to redeem us and to make us more like Christ in this year ahead. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
The Gospel text would also make for a great sermon this coming Sunday. After everything I wrote about the Ephesians passage, I won’t say much here which is a crime, of course! This opening passage in the Gospel of John is a real power text. Much could be said about identifying the pre-incarnate Son of God as the Word and what the gospel writer means to communicate by this new title, not to mention the whole concept of the Word becoming flesh and light coming into darkness. But, since I’m keeping this brief, I want to look at just one thing, this “man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe” (vv 6-7). And in verse 15, we are told, “John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, ‘This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’’” So you’re thinking this is John the Baptist.
While Matthew, Mark and Luke all identify John as “the Baptist,” the Gospel of John never does. Every preacher I’ve heard preach this first chapter of John feels compelled to inform us that, yes, this John is John the Baptist. Rarely does any preacher ever answer the question as to to why the text does not name him as such. I think it’s a question we should ask. Why omit the title which would at once bring clarity, perhaps a needed clarity since the Gospel is named “John.” I want to say two things about this. First, it seems to me the writer is stressing that this was just an everyday man named John, you know, a bloke that goes by a common name. What he says about this John is actually to be true of everyone who believes, that we are to be witnesses and testify about this light that has come into the world. He is not presented as being anymore special or different than any of us. What we are told about John here is what everyone who comes to believe that the Son of God has lived among us is to do—to be witnesses and to testify.
Secondly, more as a footnote, I’d like to point out that John is definitely not “John the Baptist.” That translators still identify him as such is ridiculous, shoddy translation at its worst. What is a “Baptist”? I’m sure you’ll tell me that a Baptist is a member of a Baptist church. Whatever else John may have been, he was not that. He never even went to church, and he is certainly not the founder of the Baptist church as I heard so many times while living in the Southern Bible Belt. What Matthew, Mark and Luke are actually calling him is John “the Baptizer,” as in one who baptizes others. That translators will defend the Baptist title as traditional is indefensible. They know what “Baptist” means to people today and it is not what it meant to Matthew, Mark and Luke. They had no connotation whatsoever of this title relating to a particular church denomination, and neither should we. The Greek word is a participle, essentially a verb turned into a noun, “the one who baptizes,” i.e. baptizer. Join me in correcting this travesty. Whenever I’m asked to read one of the gospel passages mentioning John, I correct the translation and read “John the Baptizer.” We cannot let Baptists believe John began their church denomination anymore than we could let Pentecostals claim their church denomination started on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
Here’s another splendid biblical text, caught up in that same tension of the “already, but not yet” that we saw in Ephesians 1:3-14. God is now bringing together his people from the land of the north and from the ends of the earth. “For the Lord will deliver Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion” (vv11-12a). This is new the transformed people of God we described above in Ephesians, no longer the people of Israel, but now all who are in Christ. We will come and shout for joy on Zion. Indeed in the gathering of God’s people, we are that holy city. What Jeremiah prophesied is being fulfilled before our eyes in Christ.
For more insight into the texts for this week, I would encourage you to checkout an Australian pastor’s website, http://laughingbird.net. I’ve been checking out his site and using his Scripture paraphrases and prayers for more than ten years now. I love the way he writes prayers incorporating bits from each of the texts that week. Here’s his prayer of Commission and Benediction for this coming Sunday:
Go now, and bear witness to the light so others might believe.
Since you are chosen in Christ,
........live before him in love, holy and blameless.
Live with hope in Christ, for the praise of his glory.
And may God fill the earth with peace;
May Christ give you grace upon grace from his fullness;
And may the Holy Spirit, the pledge of your inheritance,
........lead you on straight paths where you will not stumble.
We go in peace to love and serve the Lord,
........In the name of Christ. Amen.