That night during our cabin time, the counselor asked us to share what the night had meant to us. I was surprised when Danny volunteered to talk. “I received Jesus as my Savior tonight,” he said. “I’m happy because I know that from now on I won’t have any problems in life.” At that moment, my heart sank. Danny didn’t understand that becoming a Christian didn’t make life perfect, at least not in this age.
For those of us who believe that Heaven is far away, either spatially or temporally, Ephesians 2:6 can be surprising, even unsettling: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” Did you catch that? God raised us (past tense) with Christ and seated us (past tense) in the heavenly realms with him. How is this possible? We’re still on earth, aren’t we? Are we in Heaven too?
As you recall, the Apostle Paul begins Ephesians 2 by saying that we were dead, trapped by sin, under the power of Satan and this fallen world, with desires that drove us to live far less than the human lives God had intended for us. If Paul were writing Ephesians today, he might have begun this chapter by saying, “You were zombies.” Our existence was not unlike that of zombies in pop culture: dead and undead, alive but far less than fully alive.
Yesterday, we reflected on Jesus as a revolutionary communicator who connected with people by coming near to them. In today’s passage, we see Jesus coming near in powerful and vulnerable ways by taking on the role of a servant. As a pastor and speaker, I can sometimes rely too much on my words to exercise leadership. Jesus, as a revolutionary communicator, was certainly an expert with his words, but his life modeled putting those words into action.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus connects with people. He touches lepers, dines with outcasts, prays for the unclean, enters Samaritan villages, and cries with the grieving. Jesus, the prophesied Immanuel, made it a leadership habit to come near, enter in, and be present. We continue the ministry of Jesus when we cry with others, listen to their stories, and are simply present. We can carry the presence of Jesus wherever we go.
We live in a day when the ground beneath us is shifting… literally, in many parts of the world. But even if we aren’t experiencing literal earthquakes, we can experience the instability of the foundations of our lives. Investments plummet; loved ones die; jobs are lost; culture is continually changing; leaders fail at an alarming rate. How much we need to be established in God, the only certain ground of our being.
God’s love is not of the Led Zeppelin variety. It is neither friendly love, nor romantic love, nor erotic love. The Greek language had words for these kinds of love. Yet Ephesians 2:4 employs the word agape, which is self-giving, sacrificial love. Agape seeks not selfish pleasure but rather whatever is best for the other person. According to Paul, God is filled to the brim with this kind of love for you and for me.
Mercy is something we desperately need from God or we are utterly without hope. As we have seen, the first three verses of Ephesians 2 lay out the bad news of our living death as we are in bondage to sin and Satan, standing under God’s judgment. But verse 4 makes a sharp U-turn: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy…” Notice that God doesn’t merely have mercy. He is “rich in mercy.”
Throughout the past two weeks, we’ve been hearing the bad news of our condition outside of Christ. I’ll admit that hasn’t been much fun. We’ve seen that we were in bondage to sin, Satan, and the God-opposing power of the world. Yesterday, we learned that we were worthy of God’s righteous judgment… [Yet] the next chapter of God’s story begins in Ephesians 2:4 with fantastic good news captured in two little words: “But God.”
At times in Scripture, such as in the book of Revelation, God’s wrath is indeed pictured dramatically as an experience of natural horrors, such as fire and brimstone. But in this theatrical imagery, we can miss the point of God’s wrath. It isn’t just about God’s anger. Rather, the wrath of God is his righteous judgment of sin and sinners. God’s wrath hates evil, despises injustice, and holds all of us accountable for the sin in our lives, our systems, and our world.