We enter advent season at the Oklahoma State Capitol – and we are studying the book of Ephesians. If you have a Bible, you could pull up the first chapter – the word God has been working in my heart is drawn from the manner in which Paul opens this letter. As you turn there, I would be remiss not to take this opportunity to convey why we’re having a Bible study at the Capitol at all – because there is an obvious corollary in the very fact that there is a letter to the Ephesians. The City of Ephesus was an important city in the Roman province of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).
Ephesus was a metropolitan center making important contributions to the prevailing philosophies in society/culture.
Ephesus played a vital role in theological and religious life, and was an economic hub for trade connecting the empire in the west to the resources in the east.
Finally, it was the capital city of Asia Minor. It was the center of civil power from which legal and civil authority stretched across an enormous geographic region.
To paraphrase biblical commentator, Tom Constable, Paul planted churches with the eye of a strategist, choosing places of political, economic, philosophical and religious importance.
In other words, Paul was strategic where he chose to initiate and plant a gospel work – because He believed the Gospel was the very power of God to save, transform, and redeem. Capitol Commission exists, because the church should be strategic in our day as well.
Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians writing:
Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ. For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him.
Skip down to verse 7 – “In him, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.”
And down to verse 11 – “In him, we have also received an inheritance…”
And now verses 13 & 14 – “In him, you also were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, when you heard the word of truth and believed. The Holy Spirit is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of the possession, to the praise of his glory.”
Paul’s opening words are definitively declaring the fullness of the mystery of salvation. The rest of the letter he expounds upon this and other great mysteries revealed in Christ. They are the great mysteries of redemption history.
One of those mysteries, revealed: A Holy God will dwell with a Holy people. That is the inheritance scripture is talking about – A dwelling together of a holy people with the Holy God. Those words slip so easily off the tongue, but I’ve been absolutely wrecked for about 5 days now, that I have not thought highly enough of God’s holiness, and if I’m honest I’ve barely paid lip service to it.
This Christmas season, my challenge is that God would magnify Himself and greatly raise my understanding and appreciation of his holiness. If this strikes you simply as a quaint intellectual exercise – I understand, that’s what I thought of it at first. But be warned, there is coming a day when God’s holiness will be the only issue that matters to you.
Verse 4 says before the foundation of the world, He chose us to stand BEFORE Him. What would actually happen to me, how would I really react if I were to step into the presence of Holy God?
Humanity’s problem with God’s Holiness
The holiness of God is both familiar and foreign. We can think of holiness categorically, in terms of the existence and nature of the One who is holy and the existence and nature of all that is not. In this way we can wrap our minds around it and that makes it familiar.
It is also familiar insomuch that God reveals His nature to us through:
The created world declares His divine attributes (see Romans 1:20)
Through His Word, God specifically makes himself known through the Scriptures
We get the clearest picture and understanding of who God is and what He is like in the Gospels when we consider the person of Jesus Christ.
And in a dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit. Teaches us to call God Father, Who illuminates the Scriptures, who speaks in our ear, who transforms us.
The holiness of God is probably most familiar because God is in the process of making us holy through the work of the Holy Spirit.
But the holiness of God is also foreign. We cannot think of holiness in terms of magnitude, comprehending the weight of a maximally holy being. It is unfathomable. David writes of God’s holiness in Psalm 29:
“The voice of the Lord is power. The Lord of Glory Thunders. His voice is mighty rushing waters. He speaks and the cedars snap. The king of Glory sits enthroned above the flood.”
John’s revelation of Jesus’ return reads like this: “I saw heaven opened and there was a white horse. Its rider was called Faithful and True, and he judges and makes war with justice. His eyes are like a fiery flame, there are many crowns on his head. His robe is dipped in blood, his name is called the Word of God. A sharp sword came from his mouth and he struck down the nations. He will trample the winepress of the fierce anger of God, the Almighty and he has a name written on his robe and on his thigh: King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
The holiness of God is alien because there is nothing in the world like it. There is not, in fact, anything in the cosmos of created things to which we can compare to God’s purity, blamelessness, and perfection.
Humanity’s Response to God’s Holiness
What will I do should I encounter this holiness? Scripture gives a number of instances when a person comes into the presence of Holy God. Consider the experiences of Isaiah or Peter. Isaiah laments his impending destruction (woe to me for I am undone) because he has seen the King of glory and he recognizes his unrighteousness and unworthiness to be in God’s presence (Isaiah 6:5). Peter actually asks the Lord to get away from him. “Depart from me,” Peter exclaims. He does so for one over-arching reason, “for I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8)
When people encounter the presence of Holy God, they see themselves in comparison to His holiness. There could be nothing more unbearable for a sinful person than to be forced to remain in the presence of God. But God loved us so much, he gave His Son… The only way a person can stand to endure the presence of such holiness is to become holy themselves.
Humanity’s Hope for God’s Holiness
To be made holy. It is our inheritance. Paul writes in verse 14: The Holy Spirit is the down payment of our inheritance – the guarantee of it – until we acquire possession of it. Paul writes in past tense, we have received an inheritance, but in all honesty, I don’t feel like I have received holiness. Actually – the last few days I’ve been living Paul’s words, why do I do the things I don’t want to do and don’t do the things I want to do, oh wretched man that I am who will deliver me from this body of iniquity? (Romans 7:20-24)
Regardless of how I might feel and in spite of anything that I do, right here in Ephesians 1:14, I read that we who have heard and believed in Jesus, have received an inheritance, holiness. Here is hope and there is good news. The lament in Paul’s voice (why do I do the things I don’t want!) is proof that the Holy Spirit is indwelling and working in the life of every believer. The weight of conviction we experience after knowingly sinning is a sweet reminder that God is not done with us yet.
Notice that Paul writes in the future tense, we have not yet acquired possession of it, speaking of the believer’s inheritance. Until we do, God gives the Holy Spirit as the down payment on our inheritance. The presence and work of the Holy Spirit is an insoluble declaration to your soul that you will be holy before God.
That is good news indeed. Ephesians teaches us that the Holy Spirit is our guarantee that when we step into that moment of awe, come face-to-face with an incomprehensibly Holy God, unlike Isaiah or Peter or the countless other examples in scripture, when that day comes for me and for you, we will “acquire possession” of holiness – an inheritance secured for us by Jesus on the Cross.
He chose us before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love BEFORE him. That is the Hope we are called to, we celebrate this Christmas.