The Great Reversal (preaching resource for Lent 4: March 10, 2024)

This post exegetes Ephesians chapter 2, providing context for the RCL Epistle reading on 3/10/2024 (Lent 4). This exegesis draws on various resources including commentary from Karl Barth. 

"Christ Crucified" by Velasquez
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

In Ephesians 1, Paul glories in the Gospel, then offers prayerful hope that believers will gain a fresh revelation of that truth and thus be renewed in their life in Christ. Then in chapter 2, Paul reinforces what he has already explained, using in v. 4 the key phrase, But God… These two little, yet powerful words are a turning point between the bad news Paul lays out in vv. 1-3 and the good news he proclaims in the rest of chapter 2. But God… is thus the dividing point between who we are by virtue of our fallen nature, and who we are by virtue of the grace of God. In that way, chapter 2 tells us of The Great Reversal that is the gospel—the reversal that takes us from hopelessness to glory. And it’s all because of who Christ is, what we has done on our behalf, and therefore who we are “in Christ.” 

The bad news (2:1-3)

1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 

Chapter 2 begins with harsh reality—some really bad news. Paul, writing primarily to gentile Christians, says "You were..." then enumerates their former, desperate condition prior to what Christ accomplished on their behalf. Though the "you" here are gentiles, Paul quickly broadens the scope to "all of us" (v. 3a). He is speaking of the fallen condition of all humankind prior to the Incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. He describes the desperate condition of humankind in three particulars:

1. We were dead (v. 1)

Here Paul speaks of a stark, very real paradox—a "living death" as it were (see 1Tim. 5:6). He notes that this death involves walking in "transgressions" (active deviation from the right path—sins of commission) and in "sins" (passive falling short of the standard—sins of omission). Prior to what Jesus did for us, we were rebels and failures, "separated from the life of God" (4:18)—truly “dead” (for eternal “life” is fellowship with, not separation from, God).

2. We were enslaved (vv. 2-3b) 

Here Paul speaks of the way of life of the living dead, which involves captivity to three taskmasters:  

Society ("ways of this world") (v. 2b). This refers to the nature of a society organized without reference to God—a worldview with social values alien to God and his way.

Satan ("ruler of the kingdom of the air") (v. 2c). There is an unseen evil spirit world that exerts a powerful influence in the lives of people who are separated from the life and light of God. 

Self ("cravings of our flesh”) (v. 3b).  The "flesh” (meaning “sinful nature”) speaks to our fallen human nature, which is expressed in certain "cravings" (lusts of the flesh), sin-directed "desires and thoughts."  While there is nothing sinful about natural bodily desires, when they are separated from God's life and love, they are perverted and become brutal, sin-directed taskmasters.

3. We were condemned (“by nature deserving of wrath) (v. 3b) 

Note that Paul here contrasts “wrath” (apparently a reference to God’s wrath) with God’s “great love” in v. 4a. This does not mean that God has two minds, for God’s wrath is not like ours. God is not bad-tempered, and his wrath is not separate from or in conflict with his love. In God, wrath and love are perfect complements. Or said another way, God’s wrath is an expression of his love (for God is love). Because of his love, God is wrathful toward that which hurts his beloved (i.e. sin). Moreover, in his perfect justice (which also expresses his love), God is absolutely against evil, and in his perfect mercy he absolutely loves his entire creation, including all sinners.

So that’s the bad news—as fallen humanity prior to the Christ event, we were dead, enslaved and condemned….. But, God…

The good news (2:4-9)

 The bad news of vv. 1-3 leaves humanity in despair and hopelessness. But then comes the good news with its turning point phrase:  But, God… (v. 4). Let’s read vv. 4-9:

4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 

"Because of his great love for us" and because he is "rich in mercy" God, in Christ, reversed the human condition. Before the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ (the “Christ event”), it was all bad news for humanity, but now, But God…, because of Christ the news is very good:

1. We were dead, and dead men do not rise, *but God* "made us alive with Christ" (v 5).

2. We were slaves, and we could not work our way out of slavery, *but God* "raised us up with Christ"—set us free from our enslavement to society, Satan and self.

3. We were condemned, and the sentence was eternal imprisonment, *but God* "seated us" with Christ "in the heavenly realms"—gave us a position, with Christ, of honor and of power.

Why has God done this? Because of his great love and mercy for humankind.  

How has God done this? Not through anything we have done (v. 8b). But by grace (underserved, unmerited favor), for us through the faithfulness of the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ.  

And now, because of Christ, and “in Christ,” we no longer are dead, enslaved and condemned—we have now been saved by grace, through the faithfulness of Jesus.  

This is the great reversal—this is salvation—and it is entirely about what Jesus has done for us “in Christ”—included in Christ—included “with Christ” in his death and resurrection where we were "raised up with Christ" (v. 6). And it involves being "with Christ" in his ascension and session (his work in heaven) where we are "seated... with him in the heavenly realms" (v. 6b).  

The point is this: Salvation is all about, and only about, what Jesus has done and our union with and in him. It's about who we are, not because of what we have done, or have not done, but because of who Jesus is and what he has done already with us and for us as our representative and our substitute (v8-9).

Two applications (2:10-22)

Given the truth of who God is and what he has done, and therefore who we are in Christ, Paul notes two principal applications.

1. We are called to share in Christ’s work

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

Now alive in Christ and enlightened by the Spirit to know who Christ is and thus who we are, we are called to join with Christ Jesus in a certain work—the work of the gospel. As we saw before, we have our marching orders in that participation with Christ: Forward!

2. We are called to work together as the one people of God

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Paul’s point is that the universal scope of what Jesus has done (for all people, with no distinctions) obliterates any sense of “us vs. them,” of “insider vs. outsider”—in this case of Jew vs. gentile. God, the Father of all, has given all his children open access to himself, by his one Son, through his one Spirit. 

“In Christ” applies to all people. All are included in Christ; all are God’s dearly loved children (though many of his kids don’t know who they are, and thus the work of the gospel continues, reaching out to all people everywhere). Karl Barth, in one of his lectures on Ephesians, put it this way:

Precisely because Christ is the living relationship of humanity with God, the cornerstone… the basis of the existence of all people, the supposedly absolute antitheses within the human situation [like a distinction between Jew and gentile] become relative; the various relative distinctions become building stones in one house; peace on earth becomes possible and necessary.

 Conclusion

Thank God for who we, and all people, truly are in and with Christ Jesus. Once we all were dead, enslaved and condemned, but now God…, God having acted in and through Christ, the Great Reversal has occurred. All have been incorporated into Christ, the Savior of all people. 

Now it remains for each one, through the Spirit-enabled miracle of conversion, to have their eyes opened to see, and in seeing to embrace Christ who has already embraced them. To grab hold of the glorious gospel of Christ and to hear our Lord’s marching order to us: Forward! Let us join with him in proclaiming his glorious truth to our friends, neighbors, families, and the whole world.