Ephesians 2:1-5 Dead and Alive St Marks 18.6.17
Paul was a much wiser teacher than I was a lecturer. When I first started teaching on salvation I used to begin with the doctrine of sin to convince the students what a dreadful state we were all in before we met Jesus. Noticing how depressed the class became I reversed the order of my teaching and started with grace before sin. This is the order in Ephesians; Paul has praised God for having sovereignly chosen us in eternity, blessed us in every way in Christ in the heavenly places, forgiven all our sins, given us his Spirit as a guarantee of our future inheritance and united us to Christ who is ruling the universe on our behalf. Having taught how extravagantly God has acted in our favour the apostle can now remind his formerly pagan Gentile readers of the dreadful spiritual state they were in before they met Jesus. Only when you are in the light can you realise the depth of darkness you have been delivered from. In an age when we are constantly being told how wonderful we are and how much we deserve/entitled we need to be reminded of where we have come from so that we might be moved with gratitude to love and obey the Lord.
“you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked” (vv. 1-2a) (cf. Rom 5:17; 6:23; Col 2:13)
Paul expands on this appalling description later in the letter by describing their former state as; “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” (Eph 4:18). Since the essence of life is a relationship with Jesus; e.g. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain….I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Phil 1:21; Gal 2:20), not to know Jesus is to be in a state of spiritual death. In terms which would apply to many Australians Paul says in 1Timothy, “the widow who lives only for pleasure is spiritually dead even while she lives” (1 Tim 5:6). Those who don’t know Jesus are blind to the glory of God, deaf to the voice of the Spirit and ignorant of God as Father The famous statement, “the wages of sin is death” means sinners are already in the realm of death (Rom 6:23; cf. Gen 2:17; 1 Cor 15:56).
He describes the Ephesians as once dead in “trespasses and sins”. “Trespass” means crossing a boundary into a forbidden space, even if you don’t know the boundary is there its still trespassing. “Sin” means missing the mark, being off target from God’s purposes. Without Jesus we are all rebels and failures even if we didn’t recognise it. As a youngster I knew shop lifting was wrong but my real problem was my inability to recognise stealing as a sin against God.
“in which you once walked”. “Walk” is a Hebrew way of talking about living, before Christ was in our lives we lived lives full of disobedience to God’s (covenantal) standards (2 Ki 20.3; Prov 8.20; Eccles 11.9 cf. Rom 1:18-23). It was much more serious than occasional wrongdoing.
“following the course of this world” In the New Testament “world” often means something different from “the earth”. It means the world system of fallen humanity opposed to God (John 15:18-19; 1 Cor 3:19) and controlled by Satan (John 12:31; 14:30; 2 Cor 4:4). For example, the average Australian’s worldview is that the meaning of life is to have a good time; money, sex, power, pleasure – get as much as you can. We are consumers brain washed by the media and popular opinion. To quote one Bible translator, we “drifted along with the stream of this world’s ideas of living.” This is to be expected from people who haven’t met Jesus, but the real tragedy of our time is that many Christians share the same values as the world.
Before they knew Jesus the Ephesians were “following the prince of the power of the air”. “Prince” means “ruler” and in the first century understanding of the cosmos the atmosphere above the earth, the “air”, was inhabited by evil powers. These were the powers which the Ephesian converts once believed could be controlled by magical rituals. Humbling as it may be to those of us who trumpet our free will, before we knew Jesus we were all following Satan. One of the great problems in our rational western scientific way of thinking is that we have left out the realm of spiritual powers. These powers are at work in the “sons of disobedience”; anyone who rebels against God’s will is a subject of Satan. When I first became a Christian strange phenomena I had never experienced before started to happen in Christian meetings. They looked like the symptoms of a classic panic attack; heavy breathing, pins and needles in my hands, loss of vision, uncontrollable shaking etc., but they suddenly came on me only when Jesus was being exalted. They were the remnants of demonic oppression, from which the Lord later set me completely free.
“among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (v.3). In the New Testament the word “flesh” often carries a specific spiritual meaning. It means our fallen self-centred nature which perverts our God given basic drives into destructive urges e.g. turning appetite for food into gluttony, need for sleep into sloth, sex into lust, spiritual fellowship into religious fanaticism. Most “works of the flesh” aren’t primarily bodily but involve a corrupted mind and will; things like intellectual pride, selfish ambition, resentment and many others take people’s lives e.g. Gal 5:16-21. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can beat these things in someone’s life. Paul would never win a popularity contest with his next description of life before Jesus;
“and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (v.3b). All of us were destined to experience God’s punishment as evil and rebellious children. There is a great danger of misunderstanding what Paul is saying here.
In the light of the life of Christ we never think of God’s anger is like our own wretched, selfish, spiteful, vengeful, bad temper. The Lord’s wrath is patient, intentional and directed at destroying only one thing, evil cf. Heb 12:29 “our God is a consuming fire”. God’s wrath is the temperature of his affection that burns away everything that contradicts his love. As it is so clearly put in Revelation 11:18; ““your wrath came…for destroying the destroyers of the earth””. God is totally opposed to evil in everyone everywhere because it is no good for us.
When Paul says we were “by nature” under God’s wrath he doesn’t mean God created us to be angry with us (Ps 51:5; Jer 3:25; Job 14:6). He’s referring to the rebellious nature inherited from Adam and which we freely confirmed by our many bad choices. Only God’s grace can deliver us from such a nature.
The expression “children of wrath” is not a reference to little children. Our youngest granddaughter Madeleine wasn’t in hospital recently because God was angry with her but because in a world out of order through human rebellion. (Theologians generally agree that the grace of God in the death of Christ automatically covers the sins of children before they reach an age of responsibility and can make their own moral choices.)
To sum up this section of the letter; before we knew Jesus we were all dead in sin enslaved to the world, flesh and devil with no strength to deliver ourselves from our hopeless situation (Rom 5:6; Eph 2:12). Because this is a teaching we don’t want to hear people keep placing their faith in superficial remedies that can never change human nature; “If only we can educate people or have the right laws in place all will be well.” Christians shouldn’t at all be surprised that the de-radicalisation programmes in place in various countries are quite ineffective. There’s only one message that can change people on the deepest depth on the inside, the grace of God in the gospel. It’s at this point that Paul drastically changes direction.
These two simple words, “But God”, totally overpower everything that has been said before and shine a brilliant ray of hope into our hearts. No matter how dark, lost, blameworthy, shamed, hopeless our situation seems the “But God” references in the Bible change our demeanour. Joseph says of the murderous intent of his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Gen 50:20); and the gospel message says, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person…8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:7-8). Ephesians explains why these “But God” promises are more than wishful thinking; they are expressions of the riches of God’s mercy (v.4).
In fact throughout this letter Paul loves to expound the riches of God’s character; in chapter one God is “rich in grace” (1:7; 2:7), in chapter three there are “riches of his glory” (3:16); here it is “But God, being rich in mercy,” (v.4). In our world “riches” mean temporary power security and status but the riches of God bring eternal benefit. The mercy of God is one of his basic attributes. When God spoke of his glory to Moses he identified himself in this way; “ “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Ex 34:6). The New Testament speaks of the “tender mercy of our God” (Luke 1:78) as a description of the life and ministry of Jesus. God has saved us “not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” (Tit 3:5). The riches of God’s mercy mean that it has no limit; as people have often said, if “X”, put in whatever name you like….(Hitler) had turned to Christ on their deathbed they would have been forgiven.
“because of the great love with which he loved us” (v.4) If grace is for the guilty, mercy is for the miserable, mercy is love for the down and out. Most of us can probably quote John 3:16…, but we easily forget that it is “the world” i.e. rebellious humanity, that God loved to death. Paul’s repetition of love in this verse (“great love with which he loved”) means extraordinary love, all of his love. Remember we were dead in sin and a dead partner is not naturally attractive, in Christ God has loved us into loveliness.
“even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (v.5). What happened to Jesus has happened to us through our being “in Christ”. In John’s words, “we have passed out of death into life” (1 John 3:14 cf. John 5:24).
“by grace you have been saved” To clear up a possible confusion here; there are no conditions to receiving the grace of God; faith and repentance are not conditions but instruments/media through which God saves us. The tense used here for “saved” means saved now and always. To be “saved” means much more than forgiveness and getting to heaven, it is deliverance from the enemies of death, slavery and wrath (cf. 2 Sam 22:3; Ps 18:3; Rom 5:9; 10:8-9). Because we are saved solely by mercy, love and grace of God shown in Christ our assurance of eternal life should be complete. (No doubt about being with Jesus forever.)
From the time of the rebellion in Eden the world has always been in a mess. Despite the makeover we try to put on things the plight of humanity is horrible. The famous Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon rightly explained the problem, “he who doubts human depravity had better begin to study himself.” The order in which Paul teaches in Ephesians follows the truth that only those who believe in the complete sufficiency of God’s grace revealed in the Jesus’ death and resurrection can ever face up to the true wretchedness of our fallen human nature. Since however God’s mercy is unlimited and unconditional we can look at our own sins and those of others without self-justification or condemnation. We can be moved to be more and more Christlike, people filled with the mercy love and grace of God towards all people.
However if we know that in us there is a judgemental critical or short tempered spirit in those places in our lives we don’t look like Jesus but….Satan. Since in our flesh there isn’t anything good we can do only one thing about this (Rom 7:18). Turn away from ourselves to Christ and pray for a revelation of what God has already done for us, that we who were dead in trespasses and sin have been made alive with Jesus now and forever (Rom 1:16-17). Amen.