Sunday 22 January 2012

Only by grace (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Understanding grace

The hardest thing for a Chinese person to read in this passage is not the bit about sin. It’s not even the part where it talks about the devil leading us into sin. And while I do think that many of the aunties and uncles in church today might be shocked at the mention of death in verse 1 – where it says, “You were dead in your transgressions” – and they will go, “Choi! Choi! How can you talk about death during Chinese New Year?!” Still, that may not be the hardest thing for us to hear today.

No, I think the hardest thing for an Asian person to hear and understand is Chapter 2, verse 8.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.
Ephesians 2:8

It’s saying this: Salvation is free. The word Paul uses is “grace”. He calls it “the gift of God.”

A Chinaman hears that something is free and he goes, “Free? Is there something wrong with this ‘free’ gift?” In a culture which puts a premium on hard work, receiving something for nothing – or for free – just sounds lazy. There must be a catch. There must be something wrong with it (Like the expired food section in the supermarket).

Or the other extreme might be that we hear that something is given away for free and we tell our kids, “Take! Take! Ask for some more!” Like the big banquet of Chinese food we are going to have right after this. We see the roast duck and go, “Wah! Take as much as you can!”

As Asians, we have a hard time understanding the value and the purpose of something that is free. Because nothing in life is free. That’s what our tradition, our elders and everything in our own experience teaches us. Either we work hard to earn that good life and we work hard to earn that money. Or we take advantage of every opportunity – get as many red packets while you still can, fill up the plate with as much roast duck and char siu before it all goes – so as not to waste that opportunity. Why? Because our culture teaches us: Nothing is free. If it is free, either there’s a catch or it’s not going to last forever.

But when the bible talks about God’s free gift of salvation, it is describing the most valuable thing we could ever receive from God. This is the most expensive, the most costly and the most precious gift that God offers us in Jesus Christ. And it comes to us for free.

Or to be more exact, the bible says, it comes to us by grace.

Grace means undeserved love. It is giving the best that you have to the worst person you know. That’s what God did for us in Jesus Christ. He gave the best gift to the most undeserving people. And that is how verse 1 begins.

You were dead

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
Ephesians 2:1-2

Who is Paul talking about? You. “You were dead,” he says. Not that guy over there. Not the embarrassing uncle who turns up once a year at reunion dinner. You. You were dead in your transgressions and your sins.

But you might say, “I’m not dead. I came to church. I had cornflakes for breakfast. I updated my Facebook status.” That is, we think that death means lying in a coffin buried in the ground six feet under (and therefore being unable to update your Facebook status). But verse 2 says you used to live (or, literally “walk”) in death. That is you can be physically alive and yet be spiritually dead to God. One of the biggest insults in our Chinese culture is to say, “That person is dead to me.” (In Cantonese we say, “Lei hoi seii ah” – Go and die!) What does that mean? It means that I’m not going to acknowledge you. I’m not going to greet you. When you come to reunion dinner tonight I am not even going to look at you. You are dead to me.

That’s what the bible means by death. We are unresponsive to God. We live this life given to us by God, but we live it as it there is no God. The way we eat our food, the way we go to school, the way we talk to our friends reflects a life that says: God is dead to me.

Now I do apologise for the language. It’s not nice to wish that someone were dead. But isn’t the bible describing something true? Don’t we see this every year at Chinese New Year? Everyone should get along. Everyone should be loving. And yet, everyone gets stressed during Chinese New Year. When the family is gathered, when everyone is together – that’s when the most hurtful words come out; that’s when selfish actions do the most damage. We can’t help ourselves. This condition of spiritual deadness hits home not simply when we are alone at the end of the day and we feel dead tired – that’s not what it’s talking about. It’s when we are most alive and joyful when our hate-filled thoughts and unloving actions are the most obvious. We can’t run away from it. We might put on an act to hide the truth. But all the bible is doing is being honest about who we are and what we do – to one another and to God.

Paul says there are three reasons for this. Three reasons for our spiritual deadness: (1) the world, (2) the devil and (3) the flesh.

“When you followed the ways of this world,” verse 2 reads. You look around you and you say, “That guy’s doing it, why can’t I?” Other people are acting this way, so it’s OK for me to act this way as well.

“When you followed… the ruler of the kingdom of the air.” The devil deceives us into rebellion. That’s why verse 2 goes on to describe him as “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” The devil has one single purpose: to get men and women to say, “No!” to God. “I will not obey.” He makes us question God’s goodness. He makes us doubt God’s motives. That’s what he did with the first man and woman in the garden of Eden. “Did God really say that?” Hmm, God can’t be serious, right? “God knows that if you eat this fruit you will be like him, knowing good and evil,” meaning God is just being selfish; he doesn’t want to share this knowledge with you. The devil says the exact same thing to us today – he is now at work, it says at the end of verse 2 – in those who are disobedient.

And finally, verse 3: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” We follow the world. We follow the devil. But here it says, we follow the “cravings of our sinful nature.” It’s saying, even if you locked yourself away from every bad influence in the world – which is what a lot of Chinese parents try to do out of sincerity and out of fear as they try to protect their kids from Justin Bieber and rude Channel 4 TV shows like the “Inbetweeners” – It’s saying that even if you did all that, there is still an enemy inside of you. We follow the cravings of our sinful nature. Our natural instincts will always, always lead us in a direction away from God. Sin and death is encoded into our spiritual DNA. It’s who we are.

That’s why verse 3 ends: “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” It’s just a fancy way of saying: God is angry with us. He has every right to be angry. Now, I guess I could put that in a nicer way and say something like: We have natural destructive tendencies that lead us down the wrong track – but that would be a lie. God is angry when he sees me sin, when he sees you sin. And God has set a day when he will personally punish all who have sinned. “All of us” lived this way. “All of us” were objects of God’s wrath.

This is news for some of you. Maybe no one has ever told you that God is angry with the way you live you life. You think that as long as you try your best God will do the rest. You think that if no one can see God will leave you be. You think that everything is OK now so it will all be OK in the end. The bible says you are dead. Dead in your sins. Dead towards God. Following the world, following the devil, following your sinful nature – following everything and anything except God. God is angry with you and that’s news for some of you.

But the good news of the bible is this: God is also loving.

But God

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.
Ephesians 2:4-5

Everything changes. Before, we were dead but now God made us alive. Before, we were objects of his wrath but now we are objects of his love. And the turning point of this change is grace. “It is by grace you have been saved.”

And if you remember, I said at the beginning that grace means undeserved love. Grace means giving the very best to the very worst. When God saves, he is showing his love to the worst people on the planet. “Even when we were dead in transgressions.” God is like a dad who adopts the worst kid in the orphanage – the one who always gets into trouble, the one who doesn’t want to be adopted, the one who looks at his new dad and says, “Huh, I don’t need you. I wish you were dead!” – and God says to him you will be my son and I will be your Father and I will love you.

God does this out of his great love. Not because of who we are but in spite of who we are and because of who he is. God is love, the bible tells us in 1 John 4:8. It even tells us, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” God sacrificed his own Son so that we might be adopted as his sons and daughters in his family. That is what it means when the bible says the God loves us.

Another thing I said in the beginning was that this is hard to accept. Change? What change? We Chinese are very practical people. If there’s a change that works, we’ll change. No problem. Whether it’s upgrading to a new phone or changing our favourite brand of soy sauce. If you can show me a better product; if you can show me that it works; I’ll change!

But the hard thing is this, and I wonder if you’ve ever felt this way, you look at the Christians around you and say, “There is no change. I am Chinese, they are Chinese. I rush for the food. They also rush for the food. In fact, I think in some ways I am better than these so-called Christians. I work harder. I am nicer to my mum and dad. Yah, sure they have a nice party once a year and it’s fun to join them for Chinese New Year. But change? Come on. What change is there to see?”

Should Christians change? Yes, they should. Should they be different, more loving, more compassionate, more patient? Absolutely. But you see, that’s not grace. That’s effort. Grace means these Christians here were just as sinful as you – if not more sinful than all of you – when God called them. Grace means that no one deserves to be saved.

And most of all, grace does not mean a changed life. Grace results in new life. It is a life that is lived with Christ. Look at verse 6:

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.
Ephesus 2:6

Verse 6 is saying “Look! Look at the change!” But look where? Not here on earth. Not at the Christians. Verse 6 is saying: Look to Jesus. God raised Jesus up from the dead. God appointed Jesus Lord over all things. The bible is saying: If you see Jesus, that’s where you see the real change in happening the Christian – we are made alive with him, we are raised with him, we are seated with him in the heavenly realms.
Look to the Christian and all you should see is a big sign that says “Work in progress”. Some people need whole lot of work! But God is working in the life of the Christian to change him to be more like Jesus. But look to Jesus – that’s perfection. He is the destination. He is the end point.

And the amazing thing is, because Jesus is already died on the cross, because Jesus already rose from death and because Jesus is already seated in heaven at God’s right hand right now, the bible says that’s where the Christian is. We are already in heaven, we are already raised, we are already perfect. If you are in Christ, that’s what God sees when he looks at you – perfection! Why? Because if you are in Christ, God looks at you and he sees Jesus.

Oh, you might still sin. In fact the truth is you will definitely sin. But Jesus paid for that sin. You will make mistakes – big, huge, embarrassing mistakes. But Jesus paid for every single one of those mistakes – past, present and future – when he died on the cross, so that as far as your salvation is concerned, everything is paid for. It’s like turning up at the restaurant and before you order a single thing off the menu the waiter comes to you and says, “It’s all been paid in full.”

And get this: this displays God’s grace even more clearly than if you were perfect right now. If you are a non-Christian here today, you are not meant to look at the Chinese Church and go, “Wow, everyone here is perfect. Perfect people, perfect food, perfect sermon (yeah right!)” But I hope you will look at the Christians here and be amazed, “How on earth did that guy become a Christian? Who let that person into the church? What is that idiot doing preaching up in front?” And then I hope that you hear God’s word speaking clearly to you, saying, “It is by my grace that these men and women have been saved,” and your heart goes, “Whoa!” Not at us, but “Whoa!” at God. You go, “Whoa! Jesus died on the cross to save these guys? Why would he do that?”

To display the glory of God’s grace. You see sinful people, you see Jesus’ perfection and God’s spirit opens your eyes so that you see clearly the grace of God.

Grace as the means, and especially, the end of salvation

In order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 2:7

Verse 7 says that the purpose of salvation is to display “the incomparable riches of God’s grace” in Jesus Christ. Grace is not simply the means of salvation, it is the endpoint of salvation. I’m guessing that might be something new to many of us today.

We will often hear that Christians are saved by grace. But what the bible is teaching us here is an even greater truth: We were saved for grace. God saved us so that he could clearly display a very awesome thing; a very amazing thing that captures all who God is – his power, his glory, his transcendence, his righteousness – that one thing which God wants to display and God wants us to behold at the end of time is… his grace!

Meaning: this is not an evangelistic sermon – at least not primarily. This is a worship sermon. How do you praise God fully for who he is? How do you worship God such that he will accept your praise? You focus on the grace of God displayed on the cross. “To the praise of his glorious grace” – Chapter 1, verse 6 reads, then adding these words – “which he has freely given us (or literally, ‘graced us’) in the One he loves”. We praise God for his grace in sending Jesus to the cross. Grace is not simply the means of salvation; it is the endpoint of salvation.

Paul is writing these verses to believers. He is not speaking to non-Christians asking: Do you know how to be saved? Rather he is addressing Christians: Do you know what you are saved for? You were saved for the praise of God’s grace. That’s your purpose in life - that others might look at you and give all the credit and all the glory to God. The focus is not on you – on your salvation –the focus is on God – his glory and his grace!

And it’s when we don’t know this that we end up focussing on ourselves. We lose sight of grace, and we boast about our works.

Not by works, only by grace

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9

This then, is the opposite of grace. It is the opposite of God’s free gift of salvation, which is works. It is the opposite of worship, which is boasting. And if we’re honest, it sounds completely opposite to our Chinese culture. Why? Because as Chinese we take pride in our hard work. As Chinese, we boast that we are not afraid to put in the hours to get the job done. Salvation is by God’s grace, not by works.

And yet, look to the very next verse, and there we see that work is good! What’s going on?

For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared for us in advance to do.
Ephesians 2:10

So, the bible isn’t saying that Christians should run away from work. If anything, it gives us a new motivation to work – and to work hard – because God’s the heavenly boss man. It even says there that God has prepared works for us “in advance” – meaning, there’s always something for us to do! But the bigger picture is that God invests a new meaning into work. For us as Christians, it’s worship. It’s a response to God’s grace shown to us on the cross. It is a fruit of our salvation.

What work isn’t – as verse 9 clarifies – is the means to our salvation. We could never earn our salvation. The one and only basis of our salvation is God’s grace. God did all the work through Jesus’ death on the cross. He conquered death and sin and the devil.

This is important because God hates boasting. Boasting steals the glory away from God. Boasting implies that we earned our way into heaven, that we were worthy to be saved; and that’s completely false. That is completely offensive to God.

It all comes back to our understanding of God’s salvation through God’s grace alone. And as I said right from the beginning, this is hard. For us as Chinese, that’s hard. For us as the Chinese Church, that can be especially hard; because it can be all too easy to start out wanting to serve God in ministry, to start out wanting to help by cooking for today’s Chinese New Year feast, in practising for the performances, in teaching at Sunday School – but to end up boasting of our own works by saying, “Come to my church. The people here are so nice. The food is fantastic. The children in Sunday School are so well-behaved.” These are not bad things, of course, and I am personally looking forward to the siu yok (roast pork) afterwards! I do want our Sunday School kids to grow in obedience and in love. Yet in all this, we may unintentionally be drawing the focus back to ourselves. We end up boasting about our achievements. We end up singing our praises.

Paul brings the focus back to God. He reminds us: We were objects of wrath, we were sinful, we were helpless – but God was merciful, God was loving and God saved us by sending Jesus to die for us on the cross. When the focus is back to God’s grace, only then will we see our sin. When focus is back to God’s grace, only then will we find our assurance in Christ. When the focus is back to God’s grace, only then will God receive all the glory, all the power, and all the praise.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.
Ephesians 2:8

Only by grace can we enter
Only by grace can we stand
Not by our human endeavour
But by the blood of the Lamb
Into your presence you call us
You call us to come
Into your presence you draw us
And now by your grace we come.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Knowing God (Ephesians 1:15-23)

The purpose of Paul’s prayer

For this reason since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in all my prayers.
Ephesians 1:15

I am not a fan of golf. I had a teacher once who called golf the Game Of Lazy Fellows – G-O-L-F. You spend all day running around chasing a little ball. But if there’s one thing that’s worse than watching a game of golf, it’s listening to someone go on and on talking about golf. Zzzzzzzzzzz!

Today, I’m going to be talking about prayer. Not the most interesting topic for some of you, if you’re honest. Cage fighting? That’s cool! Dr Who? Awesome! Prayer? Meh.

And that’s because prayer for you is boring; prayer for you is confusing. You’ve been to prayer meetings where there’s little praying and lots of gossiping. You’ve had someone say to you, “Let’s pray about it,” when what they mean is, “Let’s not do anything about it.” Or you’ve come to a church like this and a guy like me stands up front, closes his eyes, raises his hands and says, “We beseech thee, O Lord!” Understandably, you think that prayer is all about speaking big words that no one understands to someone that no one sees.

The passage we are looking at today is one long prayer but – get this – it’s not talking about the importance of prayer. The apostle Paul is not saying to Christians, “You need to pray.” What he is saying is “You need know God”. If you do not know God, you cannot pray. If you do not know God, it would be impossible for you to pray.

Meaning: the reason why many people do not pray or why many people find it hard to pray, is simply because they don’t know who they’re praying to. They do not know God.

Paul prays for one thing – and just one – in verse 17: that God would enable us to know him.

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know him better.
Ephesians 1:17

A prayer for believers

Now most people think that this is a prayer for non-believers – “God please reveal yourself to my non-Christian neighbour and speak to him during the sermon today.” The truth is: this is a prayer for Christians. “Ever since I heard about your faith in Jesus,” Paul says in verse 15, “and your love for all the saints.” Meaning: here are Christians – probably new Christians – who love Jesus and love their church. That’s who Paul is praying for. “I have not stopped thanking God for you,” he says. Every time he thinks about them, he says, “Thank you, Jesus for saving them.”

But then he says, “If there is one thing that I ask God for on your behalf,” – the most important thing for you to have as a new Christian or a young Christian – is that you really know God as your Dad. “I keep asking,” he says, “that the glorious Father may give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation.” That’s what the Holy Spirit does in our lives as Christians. He reminds us, “You belong to God. God looks at you and he sees his son; he sees his daughter. What he sees is Jesus.”

Do you know this? The real question is not “Do you pray?” but “Do you know God?”

Knowing God

And what Paul does next is expand on this one idea of knowing God. He says:

I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.
Ephesians 1:18-19

He lists three things we need to know about God. All three place an emphasis not on us, but on God.
Firstly, God calls you. “The hope to which he has called you,” Paul says. Earlier on in verse 12, Paul describes the first believers as those who put their hope in Christ. But here he says, really, it’s God who called you to that hope in that first place. Anytime you have doubts about your faith. Anytime you start wonder if you are really a Christian. Remember this: it was God who called you as a Christian. He chose you from the foundation of the earth. He put his Spirit in you. Paul says, I pray that you guys have this certainty; that you know this truth.

Secondly, God loves you. “The riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” It’s easy to misread this and think it’s about our treasure in heaven, since Paul is talking about riches and inheritance. But it’s not our inheritance Paul is talking about, but God’s: The riches of his inheritance, verse 18 says. And what he’s saying is you are his treasure. You are his investment, paid with the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. God loves you that much!

Thirdly and finally, God empowers you. “His incomparably great power for us who believe,” Paul says. It’s almost like Paul is saying, “There’s just no way to measure this – it’s incomparably great!” “But,” he says, “if I had to describe this power, then I’d describe it like this:” Look at verse 19:

That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.
Ephesians 1:19-20

It is power to raise Jesus from the dead. It is power for Jesus to rule at God’s right hand with all of his authority; with all of his majesty. “That’s the power I’m talking about,” Paul seems to be saying. That’s the power “for us who believe.”

Do you know this? The fact is that many Christians probably don’t – They do not know about God’s call, God’s love and God’s power working in their lives. They don’t get it. Otherwise, Paul wouldn’t have had to pray this prayer. The question for us today is: Do we know this?

Paul says, “I have not stopped thanking God for you” (verse 16). “I keep asking God” for this (verse 17). It’s not the kind of prayer you say once and then forget about. We pray for all kinds of things – our exams, our health, the weather. I wonder if the most common prayer we say is over food, “Thank you for this char siu pao.” Now Paul does say at the end of Ephesians Chapter 6 to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayer and requests,” so it is OK to pray for your exams, it is good to pray for next week’s Chinese New Year event. But the question is: what is the one thing to pray about?  What is the most important thing ask God for?

It is to know God.

That God would reveal himself to us by his Spirit, through Jesus Christ, so that we might know him better. “God, help me to understand.” That’s not hard, it’s being honest. In Mark 9:24 a man comes to Jesus saying, “I believe, help my unbelief.” There’s an honest guy. That’s an honest prayer. I trust you, Jesus. Please help me to trust in you fully.

As Christians, we enter into a relationship with God. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that we have all the answers, but it does means that God helps us to grow in our trust and love of him, the way a kid learns to love and trust his dad – in a relationship with him in his home. In the same way, God helps us by giving us his Spirit, by guiding us in his Word, by changing us to be more like Jesus. What’s encouraging about this is how it is God who works in us to help us grow in knowing him. It’s not something we do by our own strength because we can’t. Paul prays for God to reveal himself; for God to open our eyes by his Spirit.

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord

I keep asking that God… may give you the Spirit of wisdom and understanding
Ephesians 1:17
I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened
Ephesians 1:18

Two aspects of knowing God: We need to understand; we need to see. But Paul says we need the Spirit in order to understand. And we need God to open the eyes of our hearts in order for us to see. The question is: How do we see with our hearts? What are we meant to see… with our hearts?

Last week, we read of another physical sense back in verse 13: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” That’s something I hope we’re doing now. We are hearing with our ears; we are hearing the word of truth – that is, the gospel. But Paul is saying that something else needs to happen in addition to hearing this message. We need to see with our hearts. Paul explains this further in 2 Corinthians 4:

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

For God, who said, Let light shine out of darkness, made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
2 Corinthians 4:4,6

What Paul is describing is the gospel. We hear the gospel preached – plainly and clearly from the bible. And we hear it with our ears. But God opens our hearts so that through the gospel we can see the glory of Christ. Both need to happen: the preaching of the word of the gospel and the breaking in of the light of the gospel into our hearts.

Meaning: if any of what you’ve heard so far makes sense; if even one thing in today’s message makes you goes, “Wow, I never know that before!” – that is the evidence of God’s Spirit working in you; revealing himself to you. That’s what Paul is praying for the Christians in Ephesus. That the eyes of your hearts be enlightened – which is funny word – it means, that light will come into your heart, otherwise you’re blind. Otherwise, everything’s just a blur. It means that without God’s help, you’re sitting there listening to the exact same words, looking at the exact same text in the bible and you’re thinking, “This is boring. Why would anyone believe any of this?” But if God’s spirit is working in you, you hear the gospel and you read the bible and your heart goes, “Jesus is awesome!”

My job is to show you what’s right here – in the bible. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:2, we set forth the truth “plainly”. I’m just the guy who delivers the pizza to the door. I’m not supposed to add any special ingredients. I did not come up with the recipe. I serve you best by just getting the gospel to you plainly and clearly.

Maybe that’s something we should keep in mind next week during our Chinese New Year celebration. There are going to be lots of people are coming. There are going to be lots of expectations. And there’s going to be a lot of pressure: to put on a good show, to make a good impression, to make sure everyone has a good time. We need to be careful of the pressure that says the gospel is not enough. That say people are not going to understand the gospel. That says we need to something more interesting, more attractive to draw people to Jesus than what the gospel can offer.

Paul says what we need is for God to shine the gospel into our hearts to see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”. It is not something we could ever do. Only the Holy Spirit does this. Only God can do this. And if there is one thing we need to pray to happen next week – it’s not that the food gets ready on time, it’s not that the music is compelling – all these are important, but what is the one thing that needs to happen next week? It’s for God to open their hearts and our hearts to see Jesus as amazing. Glorious. To hear this message of God taking our sin and wickedness and filth and dumping it all on Jesus and taking all his righteousness and glory and transferring it to our account, and for us to hear this truth and respond by saying, “That’s unbelievable! That’s cool!” That’s what we need God to do.

Paul never stopped praying for this. He really loved these Christians and what he wanted most for them above all else was for this church to know God better. If you know Jesus and love someone – a family member, your best friend, someone you care about, someone you are concerned about – there is no greater prayer you could pray than this: that they know the God who made them and the God who died for them on the cross. There is no greater prayer you could pray.

I began by saying that this passage is not Paul telling us, “You need to pray,” but him urging us by saying, “You really need to know God”. But the flipside is this: If you do know God, you will pray. You will pray for others to come to a saving knowledge of God by his Spirit through Jesus Christ. You will pray out of love for people. You pray out of the knowledge of God’s love. You will pray this prayer, if you know how precious and awesome it is to know God as your Father and Jesus as your Saviour. You will pray.

But finally, Paul ends his prayer by talking about God’s plan. That is, knowing God’s plan will stir you to prayer for God's people.

God’s plan and Christ’s fullness

He raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the age to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Ephesians 1:20-23

God’s plan is for all things to be under one headship: Christ Jesus as Lord. That’s the direction everything is heading towards – even those in opposition to Jesus as King. That is what Paul means by “rulers, authorities, powers and dominions” – these are spiritual forces that continue to rebel against God. All things will be under Christ’s feet, and Christ will be head over everything. That’s the plan.

But then the prayer ends on an unexpected note: “for the church” (the end of verse 22). He goes on further to elaborate that the church is “his body” and “his fullness”. What does this mean?

Some of you know that many of our brothers and sisters from the English Congregation are away next week. These include many of our mature Christian brothers. These include many of our leaders, musicians and bible study leaders. So, I received an email last week from a concerned member asking me, “Are we going to have a meeting next week? It’s Chinese New Year, everyone is away and only a few people will come.” In truth, I get asked this question every year and I do honestly struggle with the answer every single year. I wrote back to say, “This is one of those things we do in service not to the many but for the few.”

In other words, it’s an opportunity to serve the way Jesus did: Leaving the ninety-nine sheep in search of the one lost sheep. It is an opportunity to show our Christian brothers and sisters that they really do matter to Jesus, individually and corporately.

God places all things under Jesus’ feet – he is the King, he is the Christ, but he does so “for the church”. It is meant to be an encouragement that God is in control. The few who turn up next week at the English Service, they are his body. They are no less the people of God. And verse 23 says, “his fullness” is with them. When we gather in Jesus’ name, we do not lack a single thing. His fullness fills everything in every way. Often, we learn the preciousness of that truth not in times of plenty but in want.

Paul prays. He prays for God to fill these young Christians with the knowledge of himself. But he also prays that these Christians would be filled with the fullness of Christ. Do you know this? If not, why not come clean. Why not say to God, “I believe, help my unbelief. I just want to know you better.”


All I once held dear, built my life upon,
All this world reveres and wars to own;
All I once thought gain I have counted loss,
Spent and worthless now compared to this.

Knowing You, Jesus, knowing You
There is no greater thing.
You're my all, You're the best,
You're my joy, my righteousness,
And I love You Lord.
(“Knowing You, Jesus”, Graham Kendrick)

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.