This sermon was delivered at Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church, Matthews, NC on Sunday, March 22nd, 2009.
Introduction to the Reading
The glorious introduction of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians continues from speaking of heavenly blessings (v. 3) choosing us in love (v. 4), to our adoption through His “glorious grace” to, in this morning’s reading, a magnificent doctrine that Paul says is sealed through the Sangre de Cristo, the blood of Christ.
It is said that the great evangelist George Whitefield was preaching a series of messages on the blood of Jesus. He was approached by a woman of great means and consequently of great influence in this given community. She said, “Mr. Whitefield, you are making too much of blood in your sermons.” The great evangelist replied, “Madam, one cannot make too much of the blood.” Indeed. And this morning, the blood of Jesus is magnified by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, and given to us by the Holy Spirit, as the very Word of God for our lives today, to show that by it, we are “Redeemed in Christ.”
“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, 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.”
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40.8
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
Lord, may the Words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in Thy sight O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Introduction to the Sermon
Sometimes we miss the most extraordinary things in life even when they are right in front of our eyes.
When I was in high school, I did not like math. I liked reading and history and especially did I like art. No, not just art, I liked comic book art and I lived for drawing super heroes. Marvel, DC and my own creations. I could draw for hours, creating intricate stories about Captain America and Spiderman and the Green Lantern and the Daredevil; ehem…and I did all of this in math class. Not a good thing, kids. Don’t follow Pastor Mike in that. It’s not right. And you see this became a problem. But I had a teacher who saw that I was missing what she saw was the magnificence of mathematics! So this extraordinarily gifted young teacher and her husband called my Aunt Eva, who reared me, and asked if they could take me out for a Saturday. They wanted to take me to the art gallery. I had never been to an art gallery, especially with my high school math teacher and her husband, which frankly didn’t sound anywhere near as good as staying at home reading comic books, or even cleaning out the barn for that matter. But I went. And boy am I glad I did! We drove all the way into Baton Rouge, which for me was like going to another planet; it was so big and far away. And they took me to an art gallery. They showed me not just the art, but my teacher showed me how lines connected with shapes and with angles and amazingly I was able to see that the pictures, which did indeed fascinate me, were in actuality a series of geometrical principles all gathered in one portrait, in one landscape, and yes, she would have me to see, even in comic book art! I had thought I was just a drawing of Spidey knocking out the Green Goblin high above Gotham, but it was so much more! There on the comic book page was math, glorious math, and all right in front of me!
I won’t tell you what grade I earned, but it was better than it could have been, because I began to look through the presenting images to see the amazing things I had previously missed.
We miss the most extraordinary things in life even when they are right in front of our eyes.
There are many of us Christians who miss the glory of the Church. We see the new believer struggling in and out of old sinful ways. We hear of the harshest critique of the preacher’s sermons, and they know the pain of division. One cynic that I know of even said, “Christians are an acquired taste.” This is the Church to many here today. Amidst all of the talk of the Bride of Christ, what they see, is a brawling bride, with a dirty wedding gown and a black eye. And so to talk of the “power that is at work within us” and the “glory of the Church” seems out of touch if not even unbelievable. And such leads to apathy.
That “Ambiguity of the Church” as John Stott called it, seems to be the concern for Paul in this tremendous epistle. So St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, calls the Church at Ephesus, and the others on the circuit of churches, to look beyond the hardships, the trials, and even the human frailty of those who are in the Church, to see the magnificent glory of their faith. And how does he do this? He explodes the dreariness of their world with doctrinal fireworks.
On New Years Eve back at our home place on Signal Mountain, Tennessee, my son and I would go off on the backside of the mountain, at midnight, to shoot firecrackers out into the silent, darkened cattle pastures adjacent to the fire station and community center. And one of our greatest thrills of those magical evenings was setting off an entire pack of firecrackers at once! We lit up the sky and enlivened the dead night with one blast! We were delighted to no end as the great strand of firecrackers went off all at once, sounding like a great invading army had arrived on New Years on Signal Mountain! In a similarly way, in chapter one of Ephesians, Paul shoots off this veritable fireworks of doctrine. The great doctrinal burst goes off in the skies of Ephesus in colorful, superlative language that awakens the sleeping believer to listen to the sounds of life in Christ, to see that the most glorious things are sometimes right in front of our eyes. And one of the “bursts” in chapter one is the brilliant burst of redemption, which the believer has through the blood of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross.
In the silent, darkened pastures of our lives, when we sometimes are so focused on this world’s problems that we cannot see with the eyes of our souls the realities beyond today, we need to experience again the brilliant glory of our redemption in Christ.
In Ephesians 1.7-10 Paul addresses two sparkling features of our redemption through Jesus Christ.
The first feature is this:
1.Through faith in Jesus Christ, the believer has a personal redemption
We come to understand our personal redemption through three words:
First the Word: Blood
The very word redemption means an agreement in which there is a purchasing, or better yet a ransom. Clearly, in this case the ransom involves Jesus’ blood. Paul is speaking of course of the Cross of Lord Jesus. Paul would tell the Corinthians that he preached not with signs, not with wisdom, but Paul preached the unadorned Cross of Christ. The blood of Jesus Christ speaks of the sacrificial lamb given for the sins of Israel. And the blood of Jesus speaks of the sacrificial life giving fluid that ran through the sinless veins of the Son of God that was let by sinful men who crucified Jesus. But they only played into the hands of a holy God who allowed this sacrifice so that we who believe could go free. His blood saved us, Paul says in Romans. His blood redeemed us. His blood became the covenantal ransom. This was the scarlet signature of God through all of the ages saying that with my own blood I have fulfilled the terms of the covenant whereby I would provide the righteousness that you needed, and I would provide the death, the agonizing death in which the heinous sins of the world would be laid upon my son.
If you have ever come face to face with your own degrading sin then you know that you could never come face to face with a holy God. I once was chaplain to Fort Leavenworth and my duty was to be chaplain to the death row inmates there. It was a duty that I got because I was low on the totem pole. It was not a glamorous job. But it was one that I will never forget. There was a movie made called, “Dean Man Walking” and that of course was the condition of these men. Seven men, at the time, who were guilty of first-degree murder. And as I read the case report on each man, I literally put down the folder and went to the bathroom to wash my hands. I could not begin to tell in polite company the details of these most gruesome crimes. But my job was to preach Christ to them. No doubt, I thought, other chaplains had done this many times before. But what else did I have to say? Cell after cell I moved and preached about the plight of man and the power of God,” which was the blood of Jesus. Only one man, as far as I could humanly tell, received this message. He seemed genuinely repentant, ready for his sentence of death, but now clinging on the death of another, Jesus Christ. But the rest seemed unmoved.
In my ministry, I have sometimes felt that preaching the blood of Jesus to evangelical and Reformed congregation is somewhat like preaching to death row inmates. First, we are all going to die. Second, most of us have heard the message before. And the truth is that this morning, I have nothing more or less to tell you than the message that Jesus Christ died for you, He shed His precious blood, as a ransom for your soul. How many, like those prisoners, will receive that message this morning, as if our lives depended on it?
Maybe you are here and have heard it with your ears but never with your heart. Christ’s blood is available for you. You must have it to be saved. And how? By faith. Just like the Children of Israel who by faith smeared the blood of the unblemished lamb on the doorposts of their dwellings, so too you must trust in the blood of Jesus shed for you, and then His blood is smeared across the doorpost of your hearts. What screams were heard on the night of the Passover, when those who would have chosen to ignore or disobey the Word of the Lord to be saved His Way! And oh what shuttering screams there are for those who today go their own way, and ignore or disobey the voice of this Word. Gather yourself man! Go quickly woman! Hurry children, to trust in Jesus and in His blood! Do not risk your soul to the vicissitudes of life. Turn while you can, while you are able, to the voice of the Holy Spirit who is calling you to surrender your life to Jesus Christ and be saved. We must not ever hold back this message! There is no other way to be saved but through His name, and through His blood shed for you on the cross.
Now, I have said there are three words which must attract our attention, concerning our personal redemption. The first word, blood, is the reason for the second word:
The Second Word: Forgiveness
The passage says that in this redemption the believer receives a blessing: the forgiveness of our trespasses. The blood of Jesus not only redeems you from the sentence of eternal death, but gives you something that blesses you right here in this present life: forgiveness. And the forgiveness is a specific forgiveness of your trespasses, your sins, which Scripture teaches us, arises from a very sinful nature. For David says that He was conceived in sin, and Jesus says that the condition of the world today is that the world is in sin and under the wrath of God. But to turn from this world and to receive the free offer of eternal life through Jesus Christ is to receive forgiveness.
Many of you know that I was orphaned as a little fellow and reared by my Aunt Eva out in the country. Aunt Eva never drove. And we lived so far out in the country that you could run a good half-day and still not get to a local church. So we depended on the goodness and the wheels of others to get to church. Mostly the Baptists picked us up but the Methodist were in there if the Baptist’s vehicle ever broke down. There were no other churches than those two. Well one Easter Sunday morning, we were waiting for the car to come and pick us up. I can see in my mind’s eye Aunt Eva sitting on the front porch in a rocker, in her Easter Sunday dress, white gloves, white purse, her new hat and best shoes. Now on Easter, I always had a new white jacket to wear. I don’t know why that is so, but I wore a white sports jacket and often a new bow tie. Aunt Eva gave me strict instructions, “Son, whatever you do, do not go underneath that porch and play. You will get dirty and that white jacket is too new, too expensive and too white for you to be getting it dirty. And any way, the Baptist people are going to be here any minute to pick us up and they don’t like to be kept waiting, especially on Easter.” Well, you know what I was led by the devil and the flesh to do. I did have enough manipulation in me though to justify my sin and I took the white jacket off first before I went under the house. But she called my name and I came out and was a mess. And I regret it. I regret it not only because I was caught, I was whipped, and the whipping was witnessed by the Baptist couple who showed up at just the wrong time; I regret it because of the obvious hurt, tears and pain that it caused my dear Aunt Eva. And that sin dirtied my soul far more than that white jacket could ever be sullied. I needed cleansing.
My beloved, the Bible teaches us that we are born with a nature that is like that little boy I remember. Our hearts are not pure. Indeed, Jeremiah says that our hearts are deceitful. We learn, through our deceitful hearts, how to try and get under the house and yet leave the white jacket off. We justify our sins and say, “Well, I go to church. I give to the poor. I am a good husband. I am a loving daughter. I am a good student.” But when we come to the Word of God we see the truth: we are muddy sinners in need of cleansing. When Jesus redeems us, He redeems us totally. He cleanses our consciences. He forgives so deeply and so completely that we are given a new nature that wants to serve God and wants to please God because of His love for us.
This morning, I cannot in good conscience as a Christian minister, leave this passage unless I plead with you to come and have your trespasses forgiven by faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. No one who comes to Him is turned away. All are welcomed to come in just as you are and be forgiven so that you don’t have to remain the way you are.
This personal redemption comes to you through this passage:
“According to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 8 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ.”
And this leads to the third word in this passage which helps us to receive our personal redemption. The first word, Blood, was the reason for the second word, Forgiveness, which is the result of this glorious and well-known word:
The Third Word: Grace
For Paul it was not just “grace” but the “riches of grace.” As if grace produced so much. And it does! Grace is a word I used to think was mystical, effervescent and kind of like Jell-O, hard to nail down. But at its core, we ought to be reminded that grace simply means that your ransom in the blood of Jesus, which leads to the washing of your life, the forgiveness of your sins, is all a free gift that you did not earn, that you did not deserve, and that you cannot buy yourself. It is, to use the language of Ephesians 2, the “gift of God.” And this free gift, which is available to all of us here today, is a gift that God is now making known to the world as the central message of Jesus Christ. This is the purpose of God: to ransom His children from all over the world through the blood of His son, which brings forgiveness and new life and eternal life.
That leads us to think on something very important this morning: as evangelical churches we have sometimes reacted against a church life that gives only the call to conversion. We have reacted against this and demanded deeper teaching, more mercy ministry and greater impact on culture. But what we must see is that there is no deeper teaching than the blood of Almighty God in the Flesh, no more merciful ministry than preaching that a guilty man can be forgiven by trusting in Christ and having this blood pay for his trespasses and have them removed as far as the east is from the west, and that there is no greater impact we can have on the culture of our nation than to preach the blood of Jesus to a culture that has disobeyed God and is living not under the porch, but in the sewage of their own sin!
I love the old 19th century Gospel hymn that says,
“What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus! What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus! Oh precious is the flow that makes me white as snow, no other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
I love it because I was not only the bad little boy under the porch; I was the wretched sinner under the wrath of God. But the blood of Jesus that stained the cross of Christ with the life of God Himself, has, in the very sight of my Creator, ransomed me from a destiny of Hell and delivered me into the very purpose of God: to know His grace which He lavished upon me.
And I pray that each one here knows the truth for the first time or for the most recent time: You do not have to stay guilty, there is a Redeemer.
My beloved that is the star burst doctrine of Paul: Through faith in Jesus, the believer has a personal redemption.
But he shows us more. And we need this desperately to give context to our own personal salvation.
The second dazzling feature of this doctrine of redemption in Christ is this:
2. Through faith in Jesus Christ, the believer is given a glimpse into a cosmic redemption
Paul says in the second part of this passage that God has made 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.”
This is some of the most exciting and thrilling language in all of the Bible. If you are bored with your day-to-day life of faith, my beloved, you are missing some extraordinary realities that right in front of you!
The First Reality
The first extraordinary reality is this: the believer has been let in on a “cosmic secret” and that is that the world, which was created, which fell into sin, is experiencing redemption through Jesus Christ. But this redemption is going far beyond my salvation and yours. It is much greater than a personal redemption. What Jesus Christ did on the cross has cosmic proportions. Sometimes youth and young adults search to find out how their parent’s faith can become theirs. And one thing that they may miss from home is that the Church is really bigger than mom and dad and your youth group. The Church reaches across mankind, through the ages, across the corridors of time, and into the very mind of God Himself hidden in His loving heart before He ever created the world. When we get that, our salvation takes on a new meaning. It’s not just about me, it’s about how God’s grace allowed my life to intersect with what God was doing in His universe. In this sense, then, the Church is the glorious organic movement of God in universal history. Indeed, our understanding of the Communion of Saints tells us that today in worship angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven surround us and that we worship Christ with those who have gone before. As we used to say back in the old days, ‘that can rock your world.” It did mine. And I ask you: if this is the reality of the Church, how does that effect how I live my life? Well, it gives life something greater than self. And all because the blood of Jesus activated a universal action plan of God to redeem all things unto Himself.
The Second Reality
The second extraordinary reality is this: we learn from this passage that Almighty God, in the Gospel of Jesus, is working all things together according to His purposes.
How many of you have ever had a huge puzzle that took months to put together. You worked so hard on it, but you could never find the last piece to complete the picture? For so many human beings life is like that. And if it is annoying in the illustration, it can be self destructive in the real life. So many are looking for the missing piece. To discover the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, and to leave the missing pieces of the puzzle of life to a God who is in control brings joy to life and allows us to rest in God’s purposes, even when we can’t find the piece. That is not a “cop out;” that is the Gospel peace that comes from trusting in Christ and His Word.
The Third Reality
The third extraordinary reality is this: these purposes are being fulfilled in the centrality of the life and death of Jesus Christ. The death and burial and resurrection of Jesus is the centering point of world history and even more than that of universal history. If the PBS program wanted to really get it right on their program “The Universe” they would plant a Rembrandt painting of the crucifixion right in the middle of their deep dark starry universe. For in Christ God is up to something. He is up to transforming the world according to His own purposes. This is what Paul wrote about in Romans chapter eight when he talked about all creation groaning for redemption. There is a purpose at work in the world and that purpose is even planted into the very molecules of life on earth itself. The creation believes in God’s purposes in Christ even if you or I do not. And this tells us that our work as believers must be centered in Jesus. The Church can do many things, but if we are not proclaiming the unsearchable riches of Christ and calling men to repent and believe in Him we are missing God’s purposes and if we are doing that we are missing everything.
There is a fourth extraordinary reality that we can embrace about this cosmic redemption and it is this:
The Fourth Reality
It is this: All things in heaven and all things on earth are going to be united in Christ. For Paul, our redemption in Christ has inaugurated the ticking of the Cosmic Clock that is leading us somewhere. There is something called the Doomsday Clock. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publishes a report that tells us that the world is five minutes until Midnight: that is, due to what they see are the threats of nuclear war, global climate change among other ghostly if not questionable factors, the world is nearing its end. But Paul is saying that the Cosmic Clock has started in the act of redemption by Jesus Christ on the cross, and is moving to what Paul calls “the fullness of time.” Then it will not simply be man blowing up everything, but God Himself bringing His glorious plan to fruition in Christ Jesus. Not just a new earth, but also a new universe is on its way. For Paul this is not a scary truth, but a happy one. The entire universe, created by and for Christ, fragmented by sin, is now moving to a time of reuniting in Him.
So what? So, if we are just thinking in terms of Jesus dying for me that is too small. If we are just thinking in terms of Jesus brings a new life here and now, that is good, but that is too small. If we are just thinking about Christianity as Jesus saving us when we die, that is good, but that is too small. If we are thinking about Christianity as Jesus saving us from the end of the world that will be burned up with fire, that is surely a great salvation, but that is too small. If we thinking about Christianity as Jesus saving us on the Day of Judgment, that is good, but that is too small. Paul is stretching our minds and our hearts to embrace the truth that everything will be united in Jesus Christ: the stars that burned out will burn again with beauty for Jesus Christ, the universe which seems so cold and remote will be united in some mysterious way to our lives, the lamb and the lion will lie together, a saved race of humanity will be on display as a testimony to God’s grace:
- Broken relationships that couldn’t mend will be united in Christ
- Broken bodies that couldn’t be healed on this earth will be healed, united in Christ
- Broken dreams for peace will be healed and united in the final rule and reign of Christ.
- All things in heaven and things on earth will be united in Christ.
I once heard an old Pentecostal preacher down in Louisiana preaching in a sawdust chapel about a day when Christ would come again and he said in that day there will be eye glasses flying in the air, and wheel chairs being thrown across the sky and artificial limbs and hearing aids and false teeth falling down from the sky, because in Christ all things would be healed. And this is the glorious truth that Paul is revealing.
How could we not but shout for joy! This is the hope of Christ because in His redemption, the very cosmos is headed for a glorious future. My beloved, if this is Gospel truth, then I can live through losing about half of my retirement plan, because you and I have, as they say, “a retirement plan that is out of this world.” This is not hokey pie in the sky by and by. This is the Gospel of Redemption in Christ: A Cosmic Redemption is underway.
So we have learned that the act of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, and in His rising from the dead, and ascending into heaven something glorious is going on that is greater than we could ever imagine: first, we have personal redemption that is bringing an incredible joy and second, we are part of a cosmic redemption that is bringing an incredible future.
If only we could see the glories right in front of us. If only we could hear that the deep, longing questions of our souls are in reality hints leading us to a reality that can await us.
I believe our best writers have tried to reflect this, if not answer it. The great Ashville, North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe reflected this searching heart of human beings when he wrote Look Homeward, Angel. This autobiographical book is about a young man searching for meaning in rural North Carolina in 1929; but it could just as easily be the existential questions of postmodern man in the 21st century, or any other age for that matter. Listen for the longing of the human heart in these words:
“Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? …Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.”
If only we could stand in the midst of our generation to say that Jesus is the unfound door that our hearts long for. If only I could say that to a lost young pastor’s daughter that the faith of her childhood is the “great forgotten language” that longs to speak into her own heart. If only she knew that Jesus is the “lost lane,” now revealed (He is the Way, Truth and the Life) that will lead her back to her loving parents and to her loving Lord. If only the broken businessman, whose dreams of building bigger and bigger markets could see that in the midst of this crash, the “stone” of stability in an unstable world is the Rock of our salvation, Jesus Christ. To build your life on Him is to build your life on eternal security. If only he knew. If only the disillusioned agnostic young man at Chapel Hill who is searching for the meaning of life and death, knew that Jesus is, as the old New England song put it, “The Apple Tree.” Is the evergreen leaf budding in this wintry scene of our lives. In Him is life; life abundant and life eternal. And to each of these and more, Jesus is Wolfe’s “unfound door” now disclosed.
I pray for each of these I have met in my life. But I am here. And so I am praying for you. I offer this Christ to you this morning as the One who is the lane into heaven, the stone of faith, the beautiful evergreen leaf of eternal life, and the unfound door, now located, into a life you never imagined could be possible.
Oh that I could try to be like my math teacher and take you on a tour of the gallery of the Church so that you begin to see and touch and hear anew; listening to the music of the Gospel in the midst of it all, looking for the beauty of Christ’s redemption that is changing lives and changing the world.
That is the mystery unveiled by Paul for an ancient people so many years ago. That is the mystery revealed to you this very day.
May a glorious display of His truth now burst before the eyes of your soul and may you believe. May you worship in wonder at your Redemption in Christ.
© 2009 Michael A. Milton. Reproduction and distribution allowed through permission of the author at [email protected]