Aliens, citizens, saints

I want to take a look at the first and second chapters of the book of Ephesians. These are two chapters that never really clicked with me despite having read and heard them all my life. I could nearly quote Ephesians 1 and 2 from all the childhood Bible drills, but I never let the richness, depth, meaning, and life in those two chapters truly sink in.

My last few weeks have been incredibly difficult—I truly feel like my church, family, home, friends, and health are all under attack. In this short period of sharp pruning, I've been held and sustained by the promises of God. Ephesians holds some abiding promises that have jumped out at me in a major way and are working to change my walk with God through trials.

The book of Ephesians is a letter written by the apostle Paul. In the letter, Paul addresses the church at Ephesus. In the early days of Christianity’s spread throughout the Mediterranean, Ephesus had a young church of non-Jewish believers (called Gentiles. Most of us are Gentiles).

Paul begins his letter with a beautiful and eloquent statement of identity; he is telling the Ephesians who they are in Christ.

As believers, our identity is in Christ—keep that in mind—that's a statement that will be important later. He says we are blessed, chosen, predestined, adopted as sons, redeemed, forgiven, rich with riches that God lavishes on us in Christ.

We in Christ. You are reading that right. Yes, this is a letter to one church, the church at Ephesus. But I’m saying ‘we’ and 'us' here because, while Paul is not addressing you and I as his primary audience, I believe that this passage has tremendous meaning and value to our lives as believers today.

I think that the purpose of the inclusion of Paul’s letters in biblical canon is to let us in on the correspondence Paul had with young Christians to our own benefit as young Christians. We are Paul's secondary audience.

Up to verse twelve, Paul is addressing early church believers—Gentile and Jewish—in one camp. “He blessed us,” “He chose us,” “We have redemption.” But then in verse twelve Paul splits himself from the Gentile Ephesian believers, and from us, as he says:

"In him we obtained an inheritance, having been predestined [to obtain such an inheritance] so that we who were first to hope in Christ might be [predestined as heirs] to the praise of his glory."

By saying, “we who were first to hope,” Paul means, ‘We the Jews,’ in contrast with ‘we, believers.’ Paul isn’t just setting up two camps of believers to explain the differences and nuances in contexts between the two.

Paul is certainly not trying to establish a rift between Jew and Gentile. Paul, here, is distinguishing between Jewish and non-Jewish Christian for our benefit, for my benefit as a young Christian. Let me show you.

Paul grew up in a devout Jewish home. There he became a highly educated Jewish leader. Paul draws on that experience in this passage to show that the Jews who grew up hoping in a Messiah, men and women of Jewish heritage and faith like Paul, who ultimately found Christ in faith, are the first to hope and therefore first to the inheritance.

The faithful Jewish men and women who grew up hoping for and expecting the Messiah all their lives, only to learn that they were living in such a time as to see all their old prophecies come to pass in Christ, they were so close to Christ already that Paul needed to make the distinction.

Why does that matter? It matters for two reasons.

First, Paul sets himself and his camp apart from us and the Ephesians, the Gentiles, the nations of the world, to show how rich the love of God is in adopting us in to the family of God. One passage says, “Once you were not a people, now you are the people of God.” I can’t remember where.

But then listen to chapter two, skipping ahead in the passage a little bit: "Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called 'the uncircumcision' by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands…"

Paul continues, "Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

Paul is saying that though we were once separated, far off, having had a dividing wall between us and the promise, now we’ve been grafted in with all the other hopeful, all the other believers. Adopted.

Because we were never part of the promise before, because we weren’t the people of God before, we should be that much more grateful that God opened up the promise to allow for us to be adopted as sons and daughters. That’s huge.

Second, Paul makes the distinction to the benefit of the young Christians from Jewish homes. He says in verse eleven, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined… so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be [heirs] to the praise of his glory.”

He tells the Jewish young Christians that it’s not enough to have wished for a Messiah, to have grown up hearing all of the stories, to observe all of the holidays and maintain all of the rituals and rites as a Jewish person. Hope in Christ is a great thing, but it isn’t Christ himself.

To possess Christ, to be found in him as the passage says seven times before this verse, far surpasses all of the benefits of hope for a Messiah and of being Jewish by heritage, ethnicity, or upbringing.

All the religion in the world won’t give you life like being found in Christ does. In Christ. I told you that phrase would be important later on. Let me take a quick aside to explain why being found 'in Christ' is everything

Paul uses the phrase 'in Christ' over three hundred times throughout his writings. Fifty times in Ephesians’ six chapters alone. The Apostle John used similar phrases over one hundred times in his writings.

To be in Christ, found in Christ, held in Christ, to have an identity in Christ is far and above the dominant theme of the New Testament. So what does it mean to be in Christ? Simply put, when we’re saved, we’re in Christ. We’re united with Christ—we join him.

And in unity with Christ, all the benefits of our salvation are afforded to us. Kind of like a club membership that includes all the perks. I joined Planet Fitness today, actually. I chose the club card that had the most perks. It's like that.

The Bible says we are united to Christ in his life, death, burial, and resurrection (Eph. 1:6-7; Eph. 1:4; Col. 3:3-4; Rom. 6:2-4; Rom. 8:17; Eph. 2:6). We are united with Christ the moment we trust in him for salvation, and from then we enjoy all the present earthly benefits of salvation in him (Eph. 2:1-3; Gal. 2:20).

It says we are justified in Christ (Rom. 8:1; Eph. 1:7); sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1:2); and adopted in Christ (Eph. 1:5). Experiencing all of the current blessings of salvation comes about from our union with Christ, but following death we find we are regenerated in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:5, 10) and begin to experience all of the future benefits of our salvation.

And those after-death, heavenly benefits will be bestowed upon those who are united with Christ (Rev. 14:13; 1 Thess. 4:14; 1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:22; Rom. 8:17; 1 John 2:28; 3:2). These are all God’s promises to those who are united with Christ, to believers.

Barring Christ’s guarantee that in this life we’ll face hardship, the truth that believers have a real Enemy and are under attack 24/7, and the possibility of a torturously painful death at the hands of a world who doesn’t understand us, being found in Christ is a pretty cool deal.

But those “light momentary afflictions” as Paul calls them in 2 Corinthians 4 are nothing worth comparing to what’s to come. In Christ, our future is bright.

Everything God has given us, he has given us in Christ. Sidenote: when you start to think of other believers as co-heirs with you in God's blessings in Christ, as adopted sons and daughters of God—your brothers and sisters—when you frame it that way, what room is there for anger?

How can you be bitter with a co-heir, when the prize is so great? How can you harbor ill-will against a fellow believer, or hold a grudge, gossiping about a co-heir to the kingdom, or lusting after a daughter of God—your sister in Christ? That’s a message for a different day.

So, ok, you might be wondering: Why does all of this matter? Why does it matter that my salvation is in him or that my predestination, my election, my adoption as a son of God, and all the present and future benefits of my unity with him, why does all of that have to be in Christ?

The why is found in verse 19: "So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord."

Paul says God is building something with us, a holy temple. A kingdom is being established, Christ being the cornerstone. Revelation talks about the day when Christ will reign in peace, the fruition of what Jesus prayed for when he said, "let your kingdom come, let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." God is building his kingdom, with Christ at the cornerstone.

I read this and for the very first time I asked myself, what's a cornerstone? I really had no idea. I've read this passage a thousand times, I've sung "Christ alone, cornerstone, weak made strong in the Savior's love" a thousand times, but I've never Googled a cornerstone.

Listen to Isaiah 28:16, God says: "Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: 'Whoever believes will not be anxious.' And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plumb line; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.” 

God says, "I'm making Christ the stone by which all other stones are judged, I'm making him the foundation piece." When you lay a cornerstone you're determining the entire angle, layout and direction of the building you're building. It's fundamentally important because all other stones are set in reference to it; the cornerstone determines the position of the entire building.

God says, "I'm setting Christ up to determine the course of my kingdom." Then he says, "I'm going to make justice the line and I'm going to make righteousness the plumbline...” what's all that mean?

He's saying Christ will be the foundational piece, all other pieces—you and me, all of the people who make up God's kingdom—are going to be judged by Christ's example, set in reference to him, allowing him to guide the shape and rigidity of the structure of God's kingdom. That’s awesome, because it gives real, non-metaphorical meaning to being in Christ.

To be in Christ is not just some philosophical or theological idea, some distant abstract concept. To be in Christ is to be a brick in the wall of God’s kingdom, a piece of God’s universal plan set in reference to Christ’s righteousness.

Let’s explore further. God says, "As I build my building justice will be the line." When Christ is your foundation, justice rules all the other bricks that God lays in his kingdom, you and me. In other words, from left to right as we look around God's kingdom—God's church—as we look from left to right, we’ll see justice extending from Christ and ruling our day-to-day lives.

You've heard the idea of horizontal and vertical responses to God? Our day-to-day interactions with people, that’s in the horizontal, that's God working in and through us, around us on our level here where we stand. The vertical, that's God reaching down to us, touching us, lifting us, us reaching up to him, aspiring to know him, worshipping him, that's vertical.

Your faith can't be all horizontal. It can't be expressed only in interactions with other believers, in work in the world, in your day-to-day. But your faith can't be all vertical, all ‘head-in-the-clouds,’ ignoring those in need around you in your pursuit of all the happy God-thoughts. You have to have a healthy balance of head, heart, and hands.

You have to balance knowledge, emotion, and mission.

God says horizontally I'm going to line you up with justice as your guide. Extending from Christ, you'll work together justly, justice will motivate you, justice will drive your interactions on earth, your heart will be pricked for justice.

If your heart isn't burdened for social justice, for equality, for an end to sexual slavery, for an end to abortion, for an end to child abuse, to oppressive tyrannies, and to the many, many injustices in our world—if you aren't driven in your day-to-day by justice—is Christ really your cornerstone? Are you really in Christ?

But God says, “not only will I make justice the line, I’ll make righteousness the plumbline." I don't come from a construction background, in fact, you'd be lucky to find a single tool in my home beyond the dinky little wrenches they give you to put together IKEA furniture, so naturally I had to Google a plumbline. What the heck is a plumbline? 

Think of a laser-level. If justice is that laser line shooting out horizontally from Christ being first in our lives, if justice aligns us left-to-right as believers and sets us working together, God is says righteousness aligns us vertically. That's the plumbline.

God says, "I'm building my kingdom. Christ is first. Brick-by-brick you'll grow my kingdom outward with justice and upward with righteousness." Righteousness is only afforded to us in the up-reaching connection we make with God through faith in Christ.

I’ll say that one more time. We can only have righteousness in Christ. Right-standing before God can be had no other way. Not by works, not by observing the law, not by growing up in a Christian home, not just by going to church, not by dropping a dollar in the bucket at the end of the service.

It says, "He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.“ There's that in him again. Read it this way: “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that with him at the cornerstone we might become the righteousness of God."

It is in Christ that we experience righteousness and it is with righteousness that we’re vertically aligned, synced up with God, as bricks in his kingdom wall. I wish I could draw it for you. I hope I’ve made it clear. Christ is set as brick number one in the kingdom and you and I are set outward and upward in reference to him.

He’s the foundation. He’s the blueprint. He’s everything.

Let me sum all of this up, hopefully in a way that shows how life-changing this truth truly is. I said I'd explain what it means to be in him and why that matters. Do you see now that "in him" means in-line with him, in unity with him, with him at the cornerstone? And do you see why that matters?

That aligning ourselves with Christ as our cornerstone sets us up to interact in our communities with justice, and to approach God as the righteous before him. Our world is begging for justice. Our world is begging for Christians to act justly. There are secular nonprofit organizations in the world, run by nonbelievers, that are outpacing us in acts of justice.

There are unbelieving atheists in this world outdoing us on mission to help the poor, needy, orphaned, anxious, ill, widowed, and oppressed. Christians should be so concerned with justice that there's just no need for the work of other organizations in the world.

We should be feeding so many people, clothing so many people, sheltering so many people, fighting so many injustices that the world perks up and takes notice. That at worst, they begin to say, “I don’t believe what they believe but boy, I wish I could work as hard as they do.”

But then when we align ourselves with Christ, not only do we get to interact with one another justly, we get to approach God boldly because in Christ we are righteous. We have his righteousness. We have right-standing before God. All sins erased.

In other words, as Paul says in Romans, the righteous requirement of God is fulfilled in us. We check all the boxes. We lack nothing, we have everything we need to come before God boldly and bring our petitions to him not as humble slaves but as sons and daughters.

What an incredible truth!

We have all of these wonderful blessings in Christ. We, as Gentiles, ought to be so overwhelmed with gratitude. They, as believing Jews, should see life beyond ritual and religiosity. To be found in Christ is an enormous New Testament theme.

In Christ means we are set in reference to Christ, with Christ as cornerstone, guiding our outward interactions with our fellow man and our upward relationship with God himself. What a shame, that I went 28 years glossing over the richness and depth of this well-known passage.

God is so cool for showing me this tonight!