Every Spiritual Blessing in Christ

The Vine

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).

The Apostle Paul felt compelled on many occasions to set forth various doctrinal truths about God in Christ to his fellow Christians to warn against false teaching. The time had come to provide a full, coherent picture of his understanding into the mystery of the Gospel; we find such a portrayal in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

While Paul’s letter to the Ephesians features the same doctrinal positions seen in other letters, it seems very impersonal. Ephesians does not contain the same kind of personal details about Paul or the Christians to whom he wrote as can be found in all of his other correspondence; “in Ephesus” in Ephesians 1:1 is not found in all copies of the manuscripts. For these reasons Ephesians is often considered an “encyclical” letter, intended to be distributed among many local churches. Regardless, it is hard to assume much about the condition of the church in Ephesus on the basis of what is written in Ephesians.

After his standard greeting (Ephesians 1:1-2), Paul began his letter with a broad, sweeping, and majestic sentence glorifying God for all the spiritual blessings with which He blessed us in Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-14). Ephesians 1:3-14 is the longest sentence in the New Testament: while English translations generally wisely break it down into many sentences for clarity, we must remember they all represent the spiritual blessings with which God has blessed the Ephesian Christians, and by extension all Christians, in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).

God has chosen Christians in Jesus before the foundation of the world to be holy before Him; God predestined Christians to adoption to the praise of His grace freely bestowed on us in Christ (Ephesians 1:4-6). Paul had no desire to deny human freedom or volition; Augustinian Calvinist notions of God predetermining who would be saved and condemned arbitrarily must be imposed on the text. Paul instead sought to encourage Christians: their standing in Christ is no accident. Jesus’ death, resurrection, and inauguration of His Kingdom were not a hastily concocted “plan B” when everything else failed. Instead, from before the beginning, God had determined to create the universe, redeem mankind through His Son, and provide a way of holiness in Him. Paul would also speak of adoption as sons of God in Romans 8:11-15; a man or woman submits to adoption in order to gain the inheritance of the father, and in this way Christians gain standing in order to inherit the eternal promises God has made in Jesus.

God secured redemption for Christians in Jesus according to the riches of His grace; God’s grace abounds for Christians, who have learned of the mystery of God’s will now manifest in Jesus and His Kingdom (Ephesians 1:7-10). Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins represents the ultimate gift God has given mankind (cf. 1 John 4:7-11); God continues to bestow gifts of grace upon His people in Jesus and yearns for Christians to consider His presence and life as the greatest gift of all (cf. Revelation 21:1-22:6). We think of “mystery” as something unknown, a problem to be solved; in the New Testament it is an “unveiling,” something manifest only through the revelation of God. Later in Ephesians Paul would elaborate more upon the mystery (cf. Ephesians 3:1-11); here he centered the story on God’s good purpose in Jesus whom He made the sum of all things.

Whereas Christians inherit the blessings of life and salvation in Christ, God obtains Christians as His heritage, having predetermined them as His praise in His glory, and who has given them the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of their inheritance until the final day of redemption (Ephesians 1:11-14). Paul began to make a contrast between “we who had hoped in Christ” and “you” his Ephesian audience, perhaps as between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. We would again be remiss to impose Augustinian Calvinist views on the text; in Ephesians 3:1-11 Paul will explain how God manifested His wisdom and eternal purpose by bringing Jews and Gentiles into one body in Christ in the church. Paul instead stepped back to appreciate the beauty of what God has accomplished in Jesus. God is praised in the redemption of Jewish Christians in Christ who had hoped in the coming Messiah and proved willing to recognize him in Jesus; God is praised in the redemption of Gentile Christians who are welcomed in Jesus. The Holy Spirit was given to Christians both as a seal of their redemption and as a down payment on their salvation; throughout Ephesians Paul will speak of how God worked through His Spirit to build up and strengthen Christians.

Having set forth the spiritual blessings with which God has blessed Christians in Jesus, Paul gave thanks and prayed for the Ephesian Christians in another lengthy sentence (Ephesians 1:15-23). Paul gave thanks for the Ephesian Christians, having heard of their faith in Jesus and love for their fellow Christians whom he calls “saints” (Ephesians 1:15-16). Christians do well to be encouraged by Paul’s example: we should never take the faith of others for granted, but ought to thank God for them.

Paul prayed for God to give the Ephesian Christians a spirit of wisdom and revelation of knowledge to enlighten their hearts to know the hope of God’s calling in Jesus, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and the great power of God working on behalf of Christians (Ephesians 1:17-19). Paul did not pray for God to give the Ephesian Christians head knowledge; he already recognized their faith in Christ, and expected them to have intellectual recognition of the truth of these things. Instead Paul prayed for God to give them heart knowledge, confidence in the hope of salvation in the resurrection, the majesty of the glorification of the Kingdom by God on the final day, and the great power which God presently would work for, in, and through them. It has been said that the greatest distance in the universe is between the head and the heart; we Christians intellectually recognize the truths of God in Christ, but have they been imprinted on our hearts so that we trust deeply and are strengthened to overcome any trial by keeping our faith fixed on the glory awaiting us?

God’s power is manifest in Jesus, raised from the dead, ascended to the right hand of God, ruling over everything, made head over all things to the church, the body of Christ, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:20-23). God has great power and He has given it over to Jesus. Jesus’ authority over heaven and earth is the foundation of the Gospel call to obedience to His purposes and empowers the Christian’s resistance against the idolatrous claims of the forces of darkness and the nation-states empowered by them (cf. Daniel 7:13-14, Matthew 28:18, Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 13:1-15:4). Yet all of this power has been given to Jesus for the sake of His body, the church, the people who assemble to praise and glorify His name and encourage each other (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16). How many great and powerful things could God do through us if we would only trust extravagantly in Him and pray for Him to accomplish His glorious and majestic purposes in us?

Adoption, redemption, an inheritance, the Holy Spirit, access to God, participation in God’s work in Christ: all these blessings, and many more, Christians receive through Jesus Christ. May God give all of us in Jesus Christ a spirit of knowledge and wisdom to enlighten our hearts so we may know the hope of His calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Resurrection

The Vine

It seemed that everything had gone wrong. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, everything changed forever. Jesus of Nazareth, whom many believed was the Christ of God, was crucified. Then, when the disciples were in despair, attempting to figure out what went wrong, they hear that Jesus of Nazareth was alive again, resurrected from the dead (cf. Luke 24:19-24). The tomb was empty. Nothing would ever be the same again.

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the centerpiece of the Christian religion. While Jesus’ birth, life, and death are significant in and of themselves, without Jesus’ resurrection, they are all ultimately meaningless, and we would still be lost in our sins (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:14-19). The Christ crucified and resurrected was the theme of the message of the Apostles, and the resurrection was the basis of the future hope of transformation (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

We read about Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew 28:1-20, Mark 16:1-20, Luke 24:1-53, John 20:1-21:23, and 1 Corinthians 15:1-58. After Jesus died, His soul went to Paradise (cf. Luke 23:43), and His body was sealed in Joseph of Arimathea’s rock-cut tomb after it was wrapped in linen and covered with seventy-five pounds of spices and aloes. On the third day, the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and some of the women came to finish the anointing of the body of Jesus, and found the large rock in front of the tomb rolled away. Two angels were there, informed the women of what has taken place, and told them to go and make it known to the disciples. Peter and John ran to the tomb, saw it empty with the linen cloths carefully folded to the side. They believed; they just did not know what happened! Mary, meanwhile, spoke to someone whom she believes is the gardener, wanting to know where the body of Jesus was taken. He responded to her; He was no gardener, but Jesus Himself, resurrected from the dead!

The idea of resurrection in the New Testament is not merely life after death; instead, it involves “life after life after death.” Mary and the disciples found the tomb empty and Jesus in a bodily form (cf. Luke 24:39). Nevertheless, Jesus’ body is not the same as it was before since He can now transcend space and time restraints; it has been transformed somehow. The resurrection therefore involves the re-animation or re-creation of the physical body, the return of the soul to it, and the transformation of that body into something “trans-physical” or something of the sort.

Jesus will later appear to Simon Peter, two disciples walking to Emmaus, ten of the disciples, all eleven disciples, James His brother, and 500 brethren at one time over the period of forty days after His death. He instructed them regarding Himself and the mission for the Kingdom that they would soon begin. After that forty day period, Jesus ascended to the Father in Heaven (Acts 1:1-11). At that point Jesus, as the “one like a Son of Man,” received an everlasting dominion from the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14); Stephen, in a vision, saw the “Son of Man” standing at the right hand of God when he saw Jesus while being stoned (Acts 7:55-56); Saul of Tarsus saw the Lord on the road to Damascus, and based on it considered himself an eyewitness of the resurrection (Acts 9:3-6, 1 Corinthians 9:1, 15:4-9). In the 60s CE, long after Jesus’ ascension, Paul spoke of Jesus as still presently human (Greek anthropos, 1 Timothy 2:5). The Lord Jesus therefore remains fully God and fully man, having died never to die again (Romans 6:8-11): He remains in the resurrection body, and thus remains the Son of Man and Son of God, and will return thus one day (Matthew 25:31, Acts 1:11).

The Bible’s claims regarding the resurrection of Jesus are startling, and yet they represent the foundation of the belief that Jesus really is Lord and Christ (cf. Acts 2:36). Since Christianity stands or falls on the legitimacy of the resurrection, many throughout time have attempted to discredit it by positing alternative explanations. Those explanations, however, never account for all of the evidence. Both the “swoon theory” and the “wrong tomb theory” require more faith to believe than the Bible’s claims. The “hallucination theory” cannot explain why people would claim to see Jesus only during a forty day period. The “stolen body theory” is inconsistent with the transformation of the disciples and the testimony of their lives. The “spiritual theory” cannot make sense of the claim of the empty tomb. In the end, the only story that makes sense of the empty tomb, the eyewitness accounts, and the transformation of the disciples is that Jesus of Nazareth was really raised from the dead by the power of God!

Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. By virtue of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Apostles proclaim that God made Him Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). Jesus conquers death through the resurrection, giving us hope that we also can conquer death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). With sin and death defeated through Jesus, we have no reason to fear anyone or anything! Jesus’ resurrection proves beyond doubt that there will be a day of reckoning for all mankind (Acts 17:30-31). The resurrection shows that Jesus is the first fruit: as He was raised from the dead, so we now can look forward to the day when we also will rise from the dead (Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). In the resurrection, a new creation is able to burst forth into the old: even though we may still suffer on account of sin and death, we can spiritually die and be raised again through baptism and be new creatures in Jesus’ spiritual Kingdom (Romans 6:3-7, 2 Corinthians 5:17). Ultimately we cherish the hope of our own resurrection based on Jesus’ resurrection: on that day we will be like Him, and will abide with Him forever (1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 1 John 3:2).

Jesus, in His resurrection, demonstrates that death is not the end. Hope is able to spring anew. Jesus is Risen! Let us praise God, and obtain the victory through Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Q&A: Suffering Evil Despite Doing Good

Q: Sometimes I get mad at God or wonder if He is even there when bad things happen to me or those I love even though I have done good things. How can God allow bad things to happen when I have done the good and right thing?

A: A lot of people find themselves asking this question at some point in their lives. Either they or someone they love experience terrible evil despite having done good. How could God allow such things to happen?

Christians in modern-day Turkey experienced this same difficulty in the first century. They sought to follow Jesus in their environment; they had sought to do good even to those who stood against them; they then began to suffer even greater difficulty because they had done good things. They seemed to despair; the Apostle Peter wrote to them to encourage them. They would experience trials, but God is faithful and reserved for them a glorious inheritance (1 Peter 1:3-9). It is a blessed thing to suffer for doing good, for that is exactly what Jesus experienced (1 Peter 2:18-25). As Christians, we should expect trials and suffering, and should seek to faithfully endure (1 Peter 4:12-19).

How could Peter respond in this way? Is he not taking the question seriously?

The question, as stated, does not really have an answer. No one really knows why bad things happen to people who have done well. We can argue that none of us are really good, and so none of us really deserves to have good things to happen to us, and we should just be thankful that we do not always get what we deserve (cf. Romans 3:1-23, 6:23). We can “know” that people sin because they are free moral agents, and sin has consequences, not only for those who practice them, but also for other unfortunate people who happened to be involved or at the wrong place at the wrong time (Romans 3:23). God reserves the right to intervene at times, but is under no compulsion to intervene so that people do not experience the consequences of sin; likewise, God does not intervene so that sinners do not experience the “consequences” of people engaging in free moral actions of blessing and benefit to others that are not deserved. Yet do these “answers” really satisfy? No, not really.

We do get wisdom from the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 8:14:

There is a vanity which is done upon the earth, that there are righteous men unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.

The Preacher says that such questions are “vanity,” or futile. There can be no practical argument against this response; why, after all, do we want to know why such things happen? We want to know because we vainly imagine that if we know we can somehow change the result or manipulate the situation to our betterment. We cannot really know; even if reasons were granted in various circumstances, would it change the situation? Not at all.

Evil exists in the creation; people both suffer it and perpetuate it. The reasons behind this reality are not explained in Scripture; for that matter, no other endeavor of human exploration or understanding has found any better answer.

Should this mean that we lose faith in God? We first do well to think about our expectations. After all, if there is no God, from where would you or I or anyone else get any expectation that “good” or “bad” should happen to anyone? What is “good” or “bad”? If there is no God, is not everything simply based on the laws of physics? An action has an equal and opposite reaction; there would be no meaning behind it at all, and whatever happens just takes place. There would be no ground to expect any “good” or “bad.” Some people can take solace in this answer; most humans find it intolerable, and for good reason. We are “meaning-full” creatures; we seek meaning in everything, and that is because we are made in the image of God who created all things for His good purpose (Genesis 1:1-2:3).

It is not as if we are the first people to grapple with these difficult questions. They lie at the heart of Job’s contention with God. What did Job have to learn? The ways of the creation are too great for his understanding; it is for him to trust in God and His goodness and covenant loyalty toward His people (Job 42:1-6). And thus we return to Peter’s recommendations to the Christians in modern-day Turkey. Yes, bad things will sometimes happen to us, not only despite doing good, but sometimes precisely because we have done good. As Christians it is not for us to question why such things are so; we need to trust in God that in Jesus He is overcoming evil, sin, and death, and that through suffering evil without responding in kind we also can overcome and gain the resurrection, in which righteousness dwells, and no more pain and suffering (2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1-22:6)!

Do you have questions about the Bible or Christianity? We’d love to discuss them!

Do you have anything to add or discuss regarding the question or answer? Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks!

Dreams and Visions

The Vine

Humans have been enchanted by dreams and visions for millennia. We want to believe that our dreams may unlock hidden meanings and mysteries in life; cultures throughout time have featured many attempts to interpret what dreams might mean. Science has proven rather dismissive of dreams and visions, attempting to understand them in terms of our brains processing data while we are unconscious. How should Christians understand dreams and visions?

As in all matters of spirituality we do well to first explore the purpose of dreams and visions as seen in the pages of Scripture. In both Old and New Testaments God has communicated to certain people in dreams and visions.

The Scriptures record many instances in which God communicated to people in dreams. In some circumstances God directly spoke to people in dreams, most often about a specific situation the person was facing at the time. God warned Abimelech about taking Sarah as a wife in a dream (Genesis 20:3-7), and likewise warned Laban against harming Jacob in any way (Genesis 31:24). When Solomon was in Gibeon God appeared to him in a dream and asked what he wanted; the wisdom for which Solomon asked in a dream was given to him in reality (1 Kings 3:5-28). The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream three times: the first to give him confidence so as to marry Mary, the second to warn him to get away to Egypt to avoid Herod, and the third to warn him away from living under Archelaus (Matthew 1:20, 2:13, 19-22).

God also sent dreams to his servants and to rulers which required interpretation but spoke of things that would come to pass. Joseph and Daniel were both justly famous for having been given dreams and the ability to interpret dreams. Joseph’s dreams about his family were able to be understood without difficulty in interpretation (Genesis 37:5-11). He was able to interpret the dreams of others, and they all involved what would take place in the immediate future: the cupbearer’s restoration, the baker’s execution, impending abundance and then famine in Egypt (Genesis 40:1-41:37). Daniel was able to see and interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream through the revelation of the God of heaven, and it spoke of the kingdoms to come (Daniel 2:1-46); God would give Daniel dreams and visions of beasts with a similar interpretation (Daniel 7:1-8:27).

William Blake Ezekiel's Vision ca 1803-5 Boston Museum

Visions are often closely related to dreams; God would send both, and while many visions were in dreams, other visions took place while a person was conscious or semi-conscious (Numbers 12:6, Daniel 1:17, 2:28). God granted visions to many people for different reasons; nevertheless, they all were corroborated by events which would take place or by other forms of revelation. God provided assurance of His covenant with Abram in a vision (Genesis 15:1ff). In the days of Eli and Samuel there was no frequent vision; nevertheless, God gave a vision to Samuel in which He summoned him thrice and prophesied doom for the house of Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-15). Isaiah and Ezekiel saw visions of God in heaven (Isaiah 1:1, 6:1-13, Ezekiel 1:1-28); most of Ezekiel’s prophecies featured some sort of vision. In the New Testament the Transfiguration of Jesus before Peter, James, and John is called a vision (Matthew 17:1-9). Peter is given a vision of unclean animals; the Lord Jesus told him to kill and eat; after Peter protested, Jesus told him that what God has cleansed he is not to call common (Acts 10:9-17). Peter was initially perplexed about the vision’s meaning, but through revelation from an angel and the Holy Spirit he discerned that God was calling him to preach the Gospel to Cornelius and other Gentiles; the vision was the first in a series of revelations which made it clear that God had cleansed the Gentiles and granted them the repentance that leads to life (Acts 10:17-11:18, 15:7-11). The Bible ends with a grand vision, the Revelation of God given to John, setting forth the impending struggles of believers and the victory of God in Christ through images simultaneously fantastic and yet consistent with what the people of God beforehand had experienced (Revelation 1:1-22:21).

Just because something was a vision did not necessarily make it unreal. There is great continuity between the heavenly scenes seen by Isaiah, Ezekiel, and John; Paul speaks of having been taken up into Paradise, the third heaven, in which he saw things unable to be described in human language (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Elisha’s servant’s eyes were opened and he saw horses chariots of fire (2 Kings 6:15-17); the servant may be seeing a vision, but the vision proves more real than what we imagine reality to be.

Therefore it is evident that God did communicate with people through dreams and visions in Biblical times. That communication, however, was not always for the best, nor was every claimed dream and vision really from God. In 1 Kings 22:19-23 Micaiah son of Imlah described a heavenly vision he saw in which God revealed how He would entice Ahab to meet his doom: a lying spirit from God would enter the prophets to deceive him. The prophets warn the people about those who have claimed to receive dreams and visions from God but do so falsely (Jeremiah 23:32, 27:9, 29:8, Lamentations 2:14, Ezekiel 13:9, Zechariah 10:2). Paul warns Christians about giving heed to those who trust in visions and give devotion to angels but do not hold fast to the Head who sustains His Body, the Lord Jesus (Colossians 2:18-19).

As Christians we do well to be careful about claims regarding dreams and visions. We have every confidence from Scripture that whatever messages God would communicate in dreams and visions would be consistent with what He has revealed through other means and would work to encourage and sustain Christians in Christ; yet on what basis should we expect Him to continue to communicate in such ways? He has made known His will for mankind in Christ and has communicated through the witness of the Apostles all things we need in order to accomplish His purposes (Acts 1:8, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). We do well to heed the wisdom of the Preacher:

For in the multitude of dreams there are vanities, and in many words: but fear thou God (Ecclesiastes 5:7).

May we all honor and revere God and seek to accomplish His purposes in Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry