Saturday 7 January 2012

According to plan (Ephesians 1:11-14)

Tiger Mums and a Heavenly Dad

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works everything in conformity to purpose of his will
Ephesians 1:11

No grades lower than an A; nothing less than top of the class for any subject (except gym and drama); no computer games; no play dates; no parts in school plays; no musical instrument except piano and violin. These are a list of rules enforced by Chinese-American mother, Amy Chua in raising her two daughters in the West, as revealed in her best-selling book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, a reflection on strict Asian parenting styles.

Just this week, the BBC aired a local documentary entitled “Meet Britain’s Chinese Tiger Mums” featuring British-based Chinese mothers doing their best to make sure their children do not pick up the slack habits of their Western counterparts. In it, we met Sally Chen, mother of six-year-old Matthew Chen, who said, “He only does about three hours of homework a night – plenty of time to play.”

Many British parents may react negatively towards such strict parenting – labelling it as harsh, overbearing and perhaps even, cruel. But many of us here at the Chinese Church might shrug our shoulders and simply say, “Actually, my mum was worse!”

Yet what no one can deny are the results. Recent figures show in a study comparing achievement levels amongst 15-year-olds from 65 countries, China comes in first in reading, maths and science. Second is South Korea. Britain is 16th.

In a way, today’s passage from the bible is about two different parenting styles. It talks about two different generations from two completely different cultures. Yet both are chosen by God and both are treasured in Christ.

In verse 11, Paul says, “We were chosen.” In verse 12, “We were the first”. But then in verse 13, Paul says, “You were included.” And “You were marked.” That is, Paul is addressing two different groups of people here in his letter to the church in Ephesus. Both are Christians. Both are saved. Yet he does not deny their differences. In fact, as we shall see, Paul will highlight their differences to show all the more clearly God’s grace in choosing them and God’s glory in saving them through Jesus Christ.

According to plan

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works everything in conformity to purpose of his will
Ephesians 1:11

Predestined, plan and purpose. The first group that Paul refers to are the first Christians. In verse 12, he says, “we were the first to hope in Christ”. By that, he is talking about himself, the apostles, the first eyewitnesses – the first generation of Christians. But what verse 11 clarifies is that this was all according to God’s plan – a plan that God had predestined; a plan that God had prepared for a specific people, namely, the nation of Israel. God’s plan throughout history was to save a people for himself. And when we look at the Old Testament what we see is God creating the world and choosing out of this world a people for himself. He chose Noah. He chose Abraham. He chose Israel. Out of all the other nations, God chose this nation and this people to be his people and he, their God.

What we learn here is that salvation is God’s choice. Verse 4, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Salvation came before creation. Salvation was in God’s mind even before sin entered the world. God was not caught by surprise when the first man and the first woman rebelled against his word and ate from the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, which he warned them not to do. God did not go, “Yikes, now what do I do? I guess I’ll have to send Jesus to clean up their mess by dying on the cross.” No, Revelation 13 talks about Jesus as “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (It is the exact same phrase and wording in the original text). Before creation, God had already planned your salvation. God had already planned the cross. Jesus was the Lamb slain from the creation of the world.

What it is saying is: God is not surprised by your sin. Our first instinct when we sin is to hide our sin and to hide from God. In the garden of Eden, God called out to Adam, “Where are you?” Not in a sense that God didn’t know where Adam was, but in the sense that God wanted Adam to come out of hiding, to face God and to take responsibility for his sin. The bible says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Not after we’ve cleaned up our act. Not after we’ve worked hard enough. But when we were caught red-handed and while we were found guilty, God loved us and Christ died for us. It is silly to think that God is surprised by your sin. It may be natural, I know. We all try to hide. But it is silly, and what is more, it is a shame. Because God’s plan has always been to save sinners.

Paul says that we were chosen according to God’s plan in conformity to God’s purpose. When you look at the history of Israel; when you look in the bible at the Old Testament, what you see is not faithfulness and holiness and obedience on the part of Israel. What you see is the idolatry, sinfulness and unrepentance of a people who reject God’s love and rebel against his authority.

God saved Noah from the flood and the moment Noah got out of the boat he got naked, drunk and cursed his son. God called Abraham giving him the promise of blessing, descendants and land. Next thing he does is he leaves the land, goes to Egypt and lends his wife Sarah out as Pharaoh’s girlfriend. God saves Israel from slavery in Egypt and they bow down in worship before the golden calf. God brings Israel into the Promised Land and they bow down in worship of Baal and Asherah. God chooses David to be King and he sleeps with Bathsheba and murders her husband. God builds the temple through King Solomon, who takes many wives and worships the gods of the nations.

Finally, God sends his Son, Jesus who is arrested, convicted and killed on the cross.

People often think this book is a book of morals – a how-to book on how to behave and how to be holy. Some of us think the bible is a religious book on what we need to do to get to heaven. But the bible is not about what can do but about what God has done. He is a God who works all things according to his gracious plan to choose and save a people for himself. And verse 12 tells us why:

In order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:12

“In order that,” Paul writes, meaning: Here is reason why he chose us. This is why he sent Jesus through as a Jew, in the line of Abraham, as a son of David. This is why God revealed the coming of Jesus thousands of years ago through the prophets like Isaiah and Micah. In order that we, meaning Israel, meaning the first Jews trusted in Jesus as the Messiah, “might be for the praise of his glory”.

“God saved them? The very people who killed Jesus on the cross?” Yes! And when we see that God took someone like Paul – a religious Pharisee who used to hunt down and kill Christians – and turned him into a pastor and missionary, we are meant to say, “Wow! That’s the guy God saved. Wow! Those are the rebellious people he chose to save.” We see them and praise God for his glory.

Now, we have a very different idea about what it means to be chosen. At a job interview, the guy with the most impressive CV gets chosen. In Cambridge University, the smart and the elite get chosen. In a football team, the most talented player gets chosen. To be chosen is to be accepted. To be chosen is to be approved.

God chose the very people who rejected his son. But verse 12 also tells us, he chose those who put their hope in Christ, not in themselves. Not in their privilege as Jews. Not in their religion. They put their hope in Jesus. What does that mean – to hope in Christ? It means expectation. It means everything that you expect out of life is not in something you can accomplish, it’s not in something your kids will accomplish, it’s not something your company will accomplish, but it is in all that Jesus accomplished on the cross.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus name.

On Christ the Solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand.

That’s the first generation. Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). God has chosen Israel as a nation to work out his plan of salvation through history and in the Old Testament. But then Jesus immediately says, “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). Something happens at the cross such that God’s salvation is no longer restricted to this one nation of Israel but now flows out to all the nations in the world. At that’s exactly what happens in verse 13:

Included in Christ

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.
Ephesians 1:12

The beginning of Chapter 3 clarifies who Paul means by this change of address, from speaking about “we” and then turning to “you”. He says, “For this reason, I Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus, for the sake of you Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1). Then in verse 6, he says, “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus”.

Paul turns from speaking to the Jews, to now addressing the Gentiles. The term Gentile simply means nations. Well then, why doesn’t he just say “nations”. It’s a lot like when we Chinese use the term “gweilo” to describe Westerners. It’s not a very nice way to referring to our British friends (“gweilo” means “ghost man” in Cantonese – similar to how the first settlers in America were called the “white man”). When the Jews heard “nations”, it was a reminder that they were the one nation of God. Nations or Gentiles was a way of referring to outsiders or non-Jews.

But now in Ephesians 1:12 Paul says that the outsiders have become insiders. Paul says that “you” have been included in this plan and purpose of God to save a people of his own, “when you heard the word of truth”. When you heard “the gospel of your salvation”.

How are outsiders included into God’s salvation? Through the gospel. By hearing the word of truth and by trusting in the gospel.

I think we need to realise how scandalous it was for Paul to say this. “All you need to do is hear a message and you’re in?” Here was generation that had no knowledge of God. This was a culture that no regard for God. Paul describes the Gentiles’ way of life in Chapter 4, “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated in from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Ephesians 4:17-18).

Paul is talking about letting in a godless, ignorant, idolatrous, sinful bunch of individuals into the church. And all the Gentiles needed to do to get in was to hear the gospel and to trust the gospel? Some people would have read this and they would have gotten very annoyed with this. “Don’t you know where they come from, Paul? Don’t you know what kind of things they used to do?” They would have said, “These outsiders need to change. They need to become more like us and adopt our culture and practices.” Either that or, “They need to be kept in a separate group from us, otherwise our culture will be tainted. Our kids will be led astray!”

There is none of that. You are included in Christ through the gospel, by faith alone, by grace alone. As long as you trust in Jesus, you’re in. That’s what he’s saying. In fact, God himself guarantees their full membership by giving them his Holy Spirit.

Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit
Ephesians 1:12

The seal is a mark of ownership, authenticity and preservation. God gives his Holy Spirit as a seal to mark each and every believer in Christ to say that this person belongs to God. He is the real deal. She is a true Christian. What is the one single criteria God uses to bestow the Holy Spirit? Verse 12: “Having believed, you were marked,” Paul says. It is trusting in Jesus through the gospel of salvation. It is believing the word of truth.

Sometimes you have Christians saying that we need to pray for more of the Holy Spirit. That is nonsense! Either you have the Spirit or you don’t. Either you are a Christian or you are not. God gives his Holy Spirit to those believe the word of truth as his guarantee.

What Paul is doing is giving us confidence and assurance in our salvation, do you see that? You were included. You were marked. It is an assurance that God has already done everything that is needed for salvation in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It is a confidence that God will bring his work to completion through Christ victory on the cross.

If you remember a few months ago, we looked at Revelation Chapter 7 where God places a seal on the 144,000. The 144,000 was number that was sealed and it was symbolic of the full number of God’s people who were saved. They were preserved by God in the face of final judgement. The message was this: All whom God has chosen he guarantees their full and final salvation.

It means that when you are unsure of your faith as a Christian, where do you look for assurance? It is tempting to look to something we have done in the past: Our baptism, our daily quiet time, that mission trip we took to Thailand, our grades in school. Some of us may even look back to some powerful spiritual experience or event in our lives. Yet in all these things, even the things given us by God, we are looking to our own accomplishment and effort.

Paul tells us to look – or rather, to listen – to the gospel. You were included in Christ when you heard the gospel and when you trusted in Jesus. The gospel says God planned your salvation before the creation of the world. The gospel says Jesus took your sin on himself on the cross. The gospel says that God preserves us by his Holy Spirit.

That’s what we are doing right now: We are being reminded of God’s salvation through the gospel. We continue to listen. And we continue to trust in Jesus alone. As we do this God is speaking to our hearts by his Spirit reminding us, “You are my son. You are my daughter.”

That is Paul’s reminder to us in our final verse: We are God’s possession.

Our inheritance, God’s possession

The promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:14

We began with two different generations and two separate cultures: the Jews and the Gentiles. But here we end with one inheritance from God and one redemption in Christ. Back in verse 13, the Holy Spirit is given to outsiders – the Gentiles – who trust in Jesus. Here in verse 14, the same Holy Spirit becomes “our” deposit guaranteeing “our” inheritance. Back in verse 12, the Jews who were the first to hope in Christ were chosen “for the praise of his glory”. Now in verse 14, both Jew and Gentile gather as one body – as God’s one possession – “to the praise of his glory”.

Meaning this: when we look at what God is doing in bringing these two separate and distinctive peoples together as the church, what we see is God’s glory. When we see how God chooses the Jews as the nation of God, and then includes the Gentiles as full members in the body of Christ – we get a picture of Jesus glory on the cross. The question for us is: Do we see that here in the Chinese Church?

Those who are first to hope in Christ – verse 12 – are not the last, are they? Paul does not deny that God worked in their lives, in their struggles, through their rich history in bringing them as a people to know God. Paul does not deny their heritage or culture. But Paul also does not impose their culture on the new generation of believers. The Gentiles are full members of the church because they are full members of the body of Christ. They do not need to first become Jews, to learn Hebrew, or stop eating pork. What they must do is hear and trust the gospel of their salvation. That’s all there is to it.

That is: we must be very careful here in the Chinese Church of going out of our way to make people more like us in order for them to be in Christ. We must be very careful of only reaching people who are exactly like us in order for them to join our church. God’s glory is seen and praised when both Jew and Gentile are united in Christ. When even Chinese and Gweilo are united in Jesus.

Most of us know what it is like to be different. We go to school and we are conscious of how we look and sound different to all the other kids. During recess, the other kids take out their sandwiches and juice boxes. Our mums pack us rice dumplings and Chrysanthemum tea (yummy!)

How many of you have walked down the street only to be made fun of by strangers, mocking your accent, making fun of the way you look and telling you to “Go back to China!” You know from personal experience that discrimination is hurtful. You know from personal experience that racial discrimination is wrong. And yet, when we make the church about our culture above others, about our language above others, about our heritage above others – we are just as guilty of discriminating against others based on race, gender, class and background.

It is important to see that Paul does not deny his own identity as a Jew. You don’t stop being Chinese when you become a Christian. But Paul does say in 1 Corinthians 9, “To the Jews I became like a Jew to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law… To those not having the law I became like one not having the law. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20, 21, 23). If for Paul, his Jewish background meant that he could reach the Jews, then for us, being Chinese means we have the privilege and responsibility of reaching the Chinese: To the Chinese I became Chinese. To those who only speak Mandarin, I preached the gospel in Mandarin. If anyone ever asks you, “Why do you go to the Chinese Church? Why don’t you go to a local English church instead?” Point them to this verse.

But then again, Paul might also say, “To the non-Chinese, I became non-Chinese.” If someone in the Chinese Church says to you, “Why do you go to a local English church? You are Chinese so you should come to the Chinese Church instead!” Point them to the exact same verse. Say, “To the BBC, I became a BBC.”

Only Chinese; only Christ

Friends, are you only Chinese? If you are Chinese then be Chinese! But if you are only Chinese… you don’t understand the gospel. You are stuck. You are restricted by your Chinese-ness. The gospel is meant to free us in Jesus Christ – not restrict us. Paul says, “I am all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” I dare say that when we are only some things to some men, we end up saving no-one. Are you only Chinese?

The BBC documentary, “Meet Britain’s Chinese Tiger Mums” didn’t simply give us an insight into how Asians parents raise their kids, but it also gave us a glimpse into how their parents raised them. All three Tiger Mums said their own upbringing was even harsher than that of their kids. All three compared their parents’ expectations of them with the expectations they now placed on their kids. In effect they said, “This is how my mum raised me, so this is how I am going to raise my kids.”

Do you know the amazing thing the gospel does in such situations? It frees you. If you want to be Tiger Mum or a Dragon Dad and raise your kids in a strict and loving household, you can. If not, you really don’t have to either (even if you are Chinese). Why? Because the gospel says you are not saved through parenting styles but through Jesus Christ alone. To the Jews, God raises them through the Law and through Moses and through the temple, but saves them through Jesus Christ alone. To the Gentiles, God raises them without the law, without the temple, without any kind of religious background, and still saves them through the gospel alone.

Because God’s purpose and plan is for the world to look at you – his church – and not go, “Wow, what a lovely bunch of people who raise such lovely obedient children!” but instead say, “Wow, what a gracious and loving God who chooses sinful men and women to be his children by sending his Son Jesus to die for them on the cross.” We exist as God’s people to the praise of his glory.

And if you are in Christ, God gives you his Holy Spirit to live in you and to remind you that you are his; and that in Christ he is yours.

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
Romans 8:15-16

Abba Father, let me be
Yours and Yours alone.
May my will for ever be
Evermore Your own.

Never let my heart grow cold,
Never let me go.
Abba Father, let me be
Yours and Yours alone.

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