LIFE IN THE HEAVENLIES
(The Epistle to the Ephesians)
MOST devout students agree that Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians reaches the highest height of spiritual excellence. This is the only place where the apostle uses the expression ‘in the heavenlies’, and he does so five times. It would be quite impossible for me to begin to expound this whole Letter, but I hope to be able to comment helpfully on the references to the heavenlies which are found in it.
In some notable ways the Letter is different from others written by Paul. Apart from the bearer, Tychicus, it makes no personal references, in spite of the fact that the apostle had spent much longer than usual in the city of Ephesus and had taken a tearful farewell of its leaders (Acts 20:37). Neither does it deal with special problems or needs as most of the other Epistles do. It is, in fact, a more general statement of [15/16] spiritual truths and is sometimes considered to have been a kind of Circular Letter, equally applicable to a number of churches. We are told that the oldest MSS do not contain a specific reference to Ephesus and there is a conjecture that it might also have been sent to the neighbouring Laodicea, especially as Paul does indicate that Tychicus carried a Letter to that city as well as to Colosse (Colossians 4:15-16). May we perhaps be permitted to think that it was written to both Ephesus and Laodicea, so that the opening verse could read: “To the saints which are at …”, leaving the names to be filled in as required.
This is only conjecture, but it is a fascinating suggestion, since Ephesus and Laodicea were the first and seventh churches to whom the risen Christ sent Letters through His servant John (Revelation 2 & 3). Both were badly at fault and threatened with repudiation by their Lord. Ephesus offended in a departure from personal love to Christ and Laodicea did so in departing from the basis of grace. Since grace and love form the great themes of this Letter, it is sad to note that in some twenty or thirty years these churches had degenerated in this serious way, yet are these not precisely the twin perils of the passage of time? Many churches and individuals still become so involved with Christian work and orthodoxy that they move away from simple devotion to the Lord Jesus and leave the first love of their original preoccupation with Him. Furthermore, many churches and individuals can become so prosperous and successful that grace is no longer to them the charming sound that it used to be and they tend so to imagine themselves superior that they make the Lord feel sick.
These are the perils which the passing of time brings to all. Could it be that it was because the Lord foresaw them that He inspired Paul to put down the great facts of spiritual reality which never change and to which we must ever return? If by John’s Revelation the Ephesians were shocked into reconsidering their spiritual state (and we are right to believe that perhaps they were), then where better could they find recovery to the first things than by reading again this famous apostolic Epistle? And if (as we may surely hope) the Laodiceans heeded John’s warnings, whence could they obtain the refined gold of spiritual reality and the eyesalve of spiritual discernment if not by turning back to this Epistle of earlier days? Thank God for a Saviour who foresees our weaknesses and failings and provides accordingly.
Is it possible that our love for Christ and for His people has grown somewhat stale, in spite of our many praiseworthy activities? May it be that all unintentionally we have moved from the ground of grace, even though we sing and speak of it; that we imagine ourselves now to be somebodies when in fact we are still nobodies? That is a feature of deceitful legalism (Galatians 6:3). It could be! It could easily be! The Corinthian, Galatian, Colossian and Thessalonian churches needed warnings and corrections; their Epistles provide these and will warn and correct us. The Ephesian Letter has rather a different emphasis: it stresses for us the great spiritual truths of the Church of the first born ones whose names are written in heaven and, in the course of this statement, employs five times over that rather mysterious phrase, “in the heavenlies.” This will surely repay closer examination.
We know from the context that the words do not refer to that timeless experience of God’s glory which will be our eternal home and which we call Heaven. No, while they were ‘in the heavenlies’ these saints were still in Ephesus, facing life’s daily challenges and wrestling with spiritual opposition. There is a “world which is to come” (1:21) and there is there [in that world] the employers’ Master who will one day call us all to account (6:9), but that is a different matter. We are dealing now not with ‘heaven’ but with ‘heavenly places’, though in fact the word ‘places’ was never employed by Paul for he was not dealing with a locality for our future but a present experience for us now. The best description that I have been able to find is that given by John Stott who tells us that the matter under consideration is ‘the unseen world of spiritual reality’ (The Bible Speaks Today ).
Before we deal with this, however, we may need to be reminded that the message of the gospel does focus on future blessedness. It is not only the gospel of peace but also the gospel of hope — “for by hope we were saved” (Romans 8:24) and we must wait for it with patience. [16/17] One of the unusual features of this Letter is that it seems to make no mention of the Second Coming of Christ which is everywhere so evident in the rest of the New Testament. A clear reference to that great event is however found in the statement that we have all been sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise in the light of a day which is yet to come: “unto the redemption of God’s own possession.”
This sealing surely cannot represent any spiritual experience of enduement, important as it is to be endued with power from on high, for the purpose apparently indicates the seal of which Paul wrote to Timothy when he assured him that “the Lord knoweth them that are his” (2 Timothy 2:19). Again in this Letter to the Ephesians the apostle speaks of the Spirit as having sealed them “unto the day of redemption” (4:30).
I have read that in Paul’s native Cilicia, logs were floated down the river to the coast and before the process started, each tree trunk was branded with its owner’s mark so that there should be no question of a disputed ownership when they were assembled at their destination. Whether this was so I do not know, but I can bear witness to the fact that this was a custom in the area of N.E. Brazil where I lived many years ago. In the flood, the rafts of cedar trees were floated down to the sawmill on the coast, each trunk being clearly marked so that if the rafts broke up or when they were dismantled, no-one could question who owned them.
We are sealed now. Our possession by Christ should be clear for all to see. But although we are already His purchased possession now, the particular stress in this passage is to do with our arrival at our destination in eternity. That, says the apostle, will not be a matter for decision then, since the moment we believed, the Spirit stamped us with the name of the Lord Jesus. We were so sealed when we believed and that seal marks out our destination.
- BLESSINGS IN THE HEAVENLIES (1:1-14)
This first section, which in the original is just one sentence, is really an ecstatic hymn of praise to the Father for what He has done for us. It also reminds us that our present chorus of praise is but a prelude to the eternal future appreciation of God’s great goodness to undeserving sinners. Three times over this objective is brought before us in the phrase: “To the praise of his glory” and in fact we might almost think that the arrangement of the sentence is designed to call us to praise and worship of the whole Trinity. “To the praise of the glory of his grace” (v.6) refers us back to the Father’s loving choice of a glorious destiny for us. “To the praise of his glory” (v.12) closes a paragraph which stresses the Son’s loving sacrifice on Calvary to redeem us to God. The final phrase of the passage, “to the praise of his glory” (v.14) is closely connected with the loving activities of the Holy Spirit in ensuring the full realisation in us of the divine purpose.
Not that there are three different sections, for as it is impossible to divide up the three Persons of the Trinity, so it would be artificial to divide this sentence into three parts. It is good, though, to realise that while we open it with a heartfelt tribute to the heavenly Father, our experiences “in the heavenlies” is altogether Trinitarian, Father, Son and Spirit combining in their purpose of love for all of us who are saints and believers (v.2).
- Available Blessings
The opening statement is overwhelmingly wonderful. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. We are told that He has already done this. First of all, then, we note that here all God’s activities are spoken of in terms of the past. When we come to the next reference to the heavenlies (vv.15-23) we will find ourselves praying for a deep understanding of these truths, but here we find stated positively what God has already done. He has blessed us (v.3) because He has chosen us (v.4), predestined us (v.5), redeemed us (v.8), enlightened us (v.9) and sealed us (v.13). [17/18]
This last action brings us up to the present, for it is associated with our first committal of faith, but the chain of events leading up to the present carries us far back into that timeless era “before the foundation of the world”. From all eternity the Father desired holy sons, determined to have them, chose those in whom He could satisfy His desires and plans, and redeemed them for Himself. All this is included in the assertion that He has blessed us with all spiritual blessings. There are no adaptations, no modifications and no afterthoughts with our God. He did not need to improvise when Adam failed Him since in any case Adam was only “a figure of him that was to come” (Romans 5:14). God was not obliged by Israel’s rejection of Christ to accept the crisis of the cross, since the whole matter of the slain Lamb had been decided upon before times eternal. We must never think of second causes in our appreciation of God’s sovereign grace; the constitution and the destiny of the Church was conceived and decided by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ from all eternity. Thus it is that we find ourselves ‘in the heavenlies’, with every spiritual blessing lavished upon us in Christ. One of the greatest Christian virtues is humility, and rightly to discover the vast and heavenly setting into which salvation has brought us cannot do other than humble us to the dust.
Say, while lost in holy wonder,
Why, O Lord, such love to me?
In the heavenlies we find that we are dealing with a God who is totally committed to give us every blessing and who will explain to us why this is so. We begin then with the assertion that all God’s blessings are freely available to those who are in Christ.
- Spiritual Blessings
Before we go further, however, we need to take note of the fact that the blessings being spoken of are spiritual blessings. It is true that in the Old Testament God’s blessings are often described in terms of material prosperity and well-being, as may be verified in such passages as Deuteronomy 28:1-13, but even in those days people proved that God’s essential and lasting blessings are always those which are spiritual. Some of the Lord’s most honoured servants never experienced those outward signs of His favour which men call blessings.
Moses entered his service for God with just his shepherd’s rod and, forty years later, he had seemingly accumulated nothing more in terms of earthly possessions. He had no cattle of his own and never accepted any as gifts (Numbers 16:15). His brother Aaron was clothed with beautiful garments but it seems that Moses went through to the end with the clothes he stood up in. He had no special supplies of food but presumably had to collect his daily supply of manna just like the others. In a striking scene of retirement, Aaron passed on his priestly office to his son Eleazar (Numbers 20:25-29), whereas Moses died in solitude and had no family connections with his successor Joshua. So Moses had no obvious or earthly prosperity, yet who will doubt that he was one of the most blest of all God’s servants.
Elijah was certainly an outstanding representative of all the prophets, but clearly all his blessings must have been spiritual, for he had no assets here on earth and neither did he desire any. Even in those Old Testament days the greatest blessings were spiritual. And how much more is this so in the New Testament. These are what matter; they are lasting and always have eternity in view. These are what the Lord Jesus was talking about in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount.
Spiritual blessings. If at first such a description appears to limit the extent of God’s blessings, this is not at all the case. On the contrary, it enlarges the sphere of blessedness for those in the heavenlies for in their case everything can truly be called a divine blessing and can become spiritually profitable, even though its primary form may be material. For those who belong to the heavenlies, even daily mercies are calculated to have spiritual significance.
Since the Lord Jesus assured us that our heavenly Father would always provide food and clothing, there is a sense in which such benefits may be classified as spiritual. A car is not in itself a blessing, but it can be made so if it is used for the Lord. Finance is only ‘filthy lucre’ when it responds to human greed. In itself this world’s currency is far from spiritual, but it is given heavenly value when it is used for God. How else can we explain the fact that Paul described the gifts sent to him by the Philippians as “an [18/19] odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God” (4:18), What can be more spiritual than fragrant sacrifices for God’s good pleasure?
The same can be true of human relationships. Marriage, of itself, is a natural and not a spiritual matter. Yet consider the case of a certain couple called Aquila and Priscilla. Although the Scriptures give advice on marriage, they very rarely link two names together in the “Mr. and Mrs.” manner of address, but these two are an exception and are never mentioned except as a couple, which seems to stress that theirs was a God-blessed union. I imagine that Aquila felt, as many other husbands have done, that his wife was indeed a gift of God’s goodness to him. Call this a merely natural blessing if you like, but notice the spiritual overtones. Their natural union became a spiritual blessing, not only to them but to many others also. Paul was one of these (Acts 18:3) and Apollos was another (Acts 18:26). Their local church found blessings in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19) and eventually many churches shared in the blessings (Romans 16:4).
So much for the good things of this life, but even the seemingly bad things may yet become a blessing to those who dwell in the heavenlies. Things which seem the reverse of benefits can become spiritual blessings. We instinctively turn to that satanic ‘thorn in the flesh’ of Paul’s. This must have seemed the very denial of blessing to the suffering apostle, yet it became an outstanding enrichment, not to him and his contemporaries only but also to the multitude of grateful believers since who have been comforted by the assurance, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” In countless other cases, individuals in Christ have found that personal trials are transformed into spiritual blessings.
And what about church trouble? Paul grieved and wept over the Corinthian situation but out of his distress came 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter full of spiritual benefits if ever there was one. No doubt many modern Christians grieve and almost weep over their church situation. To such the apostle’s advice would surely be that they should beware of speaking or acting in any way contrary to what befits those who belong to heavenly places. In Balaam’s day God turned the curse into a blessing for His trusting people (Numbers 23:20) and can do the same for us in our day.
In this connection, however, it is important not to let genuine blessings from God become the reverse of spiritual. With his uncle Abraham, Lot enjoyed blessings of prosperity. No doubt these were God-given blessings, but they tested him — as all temporal blessings do — and in the end his prosperity proved his undoing. Solomon received material blessings for which he had not even asked — unparalleled riches and honour (1 Kings 3:13) — but his sad history shows that his wealth was what largely caused his spiritual decline. King Hezekiah enjoyed the blessing of miraculous healing from a mortal sickness, only to fail so badly that we wonder whether it would not have been better for him and his people if he had not then died. So temporal blessings do not automatically bring spiritual advantage.
- Costly Blessings
God could bring a world into being by simply speaking the word. He could create the human race by shaping dust and bringing in life. In the matter of true blessing, however, we are told that it involved paying a ransom price (v.7) and that the price was the shed blood of His only Son. Those who belong to the heavenlies come increasingly to realise that the benefits freely given to them have been exceedingly costly to the divine Giver.
To the unenlightened it would seem natural and logical that God — being God — could have His desires fulfilled at minimal cost to Himself. The fact is, though, that in the very same sentence in which the apostle writes of the Father’s original desires and eternal purpose and of His ability to work everything in accordance with them, he reminds us that this was only possible by redemption, and the essence of redemption is the payment of a price. Blessings are “freely bestowed on us” only because the Beloved Son shed His life’s blood to purchase them. We cannot buy such blessings; the sum total of human resources would never be sufficient for the purpose; they are utterly beyond us. They are infinitely valuable. [19/20]
It is noteworthy that Ephesus was the place where Christians, delivered from bondage to Satan, made a public bonfire of their valuable belongings, so that a large sum of money, 50,000 drachmas, went up in flames (Acts 19:19). If, as the N.I.V. tells us, ‘a drachma was about a day’s wages’, that gives us an idea of what their faith cost them. They did not sacrifice this large sum to become Christians, that would be absurd, but they gladly threw it away in their realisation of the much better treasure which had come to them in Christ.
There is no surer way of measuring the great worth of God’s blessings to His children than by considering how costly they were to the Lord who obtained them for us. Our individual forgiveness and reconciliation to God are said to be by Christ’s shed blood (1:7 & 2:13) and our united life in the body due to His sufferings on the cross (2:16). We are told that in sacrificially giving Himself up, He both made for us individually the relationship of dearly loved children of God (5:2) and purchased the Church for His bride (5:25). We are also reminded that the Son became dead in order that the power of His resurrection might raise us up from death (1:20) and that He descended into the depths so that we could share with Him the triumph of His resurrection (4:9). Blessings which are freely given to us cost the Saviour an infinite price.
What more can we say? Those who belong to the heavenlies growingly appreciate that their blessings, so lavishly poured out on them in Christ, are precious beyond their power of understanding and come from a love which surpasses understanding (3:19). Earth’s treasures have therefore no attraction for them and this world’s gains become a dead loss.
- Moral Blessings
God has a purpose in all His activities and in this matter of our blessings we are clearly informed that His objective is that we might be “holy and blameless before him” (1:4). The Letter begins by calling us saints — holy ones — and then continues with this theme of working on us and working in us so that we may measure up to the supreme standard of His holiness. That is the eternal purpose of our heavenly Father in bringing us to the birth. If a baby has the blessings of indulgent parental love, that is all that can be expected at the time of his infancy, but the longer term prospect is of mature and responsible sonship. Spiritually this parallel holds good. Predestination is not so much concerned with our new birth as with our calling to be God’s recognised sons, responding to His love as well as receiving it. He lavishes His blessings upon the children of His family with the prospect of their eventual experience of living “to the praise of His glory”, when they attain to mature manhood, “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4:13).
Sonship involves responsibilities. As we continue in our studies in this Letter, we will see more of what the Father expects of His favoured children in terms of Christlikeness of character. For the moment, however, we consider not the demands of our calling but its resources. Holiness is not to be a burden but a blessing; whatever the Father expects of us is already provided for us in Christ. In the heavenlies, therefore, we adore Him for the limitless abundance of His blessings. Fortified and sanctified by these, we gladly accept the challenge of learning to live to the praise of the glory of His grace.
(To be continued) [20/ibc]