Forward in Christ (preaching resource for Ascension Sunday, 5/12/24)

This post exegetes Ephesians 1:15-23, providing context for the 5/12/24 (Ascension Sunday) RCL Epistle reading. This exegesis draws on commentary from Karl Barth. 

"Without Purse or Script" by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with artist's permission)


So far in Ephesians, Paul has been explaining the gospel truth that, through the grace of adoption, all humanity has, “in Christ,” been included in the life and love of our triune God. Now in Ephesians 1:15-23, Paul presents his prayerful hopes for those who know and believe this truth. Note Karl Barth’s translation of this passage: 
Therefore, since I learned about the faith which exists among you in the Lord Jesus and about your love for all the saints, I have not ceased to give thanks for you and to remember you in my prayers, that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of God, the illumination of the eyes of your heart, that you may know how great the hope is that is given you through his call, the abundance of the glory of his inheritance for his saints, and the inestimable greatness of is power for us who believe in the exercise of the power of his strength. 
He exercised this power upon Christ when he raised him from the dead and placed him at his right hand in the heavenly world over all origins and authorities and powers and dominions and over everything which can be named, not only in this world but also in the world to come; and he placed everything at his feet and made him the head of everything in the Church, for whose filling he fills all in all. 

Included in Christ 

At first blush, it might seem that Paul is telling these believers that those things he said in his doxology are already true for them (and for all people, in Christ), must now be acquired. What gives? At issue is something that has caused much confusion concerning the nature of salvation and of Christian living. Paul is not taking away what he earlier granted. Instead, he is telling us that what God has, in Christ, given humanity already, becomes our “personal possession” when we, as believers, receive these gifts by faith. This faith is not our own, but our sharing in Jesus’ own faith. And our receiving, in faith, what already is ours, does not create the gifts—it does not bring about a new reality—instead, our receiving is about being given Jesus’ eyes of faith to see what already is true because of who Christ is and what he has done long ago on our behalf. 

Forward in Christ 

Having so far in this epistle made the point that God, in and through Christ, has done it all on our behalf, Paul now begins to show that, through the miracle of “illumination,” having become followers of Jesus, we cannot remain motionless. As Karl Barth notes in a lecture on this passage, in Christ we are “shaken, disturbed, and set in motion.” Jesus' marching orders to us may be stated in one word: Forward! 

Paul’s understanding of what our Triune God has done and is doing for our salvation might be stated this way: God wills, then acts, and his action flows down to us, then returns to him in human response. Barth calls this the circle of grace. It is “of grace” because every step in this circular movement is fully and only “in Christ.” Christ, in his divinity, wills to act on our behalf, then in his incarnate humanity comes to us to accomplish, as one of us, that perfect will. His accomplishment includes responding back to God on our behalf. 

Truly, Jesus has done and continues to do it all for us. And because that is so, to paraphrase the old hymn, “All to him we owe.” “But” you might be asking, “Is there no part for me in this movement of grace?” Barth answers by noting that in the wake of the activity of the triune God, we are transformed as the children of God, and thus God our Father is glorified. Christ has already completed this circle for us—it is a "done deal"—already accomplished on our behalf. But, as Barth notes, God’s divine action in Christ creates a corresponding movement in us. He put it this way: “God’s action on our behalf is a force which directs, moves, and carries us.” The point is that when we see (understand) who God truly is and what he truly has done for us, and therefore who we, in Christ, truly are, something powerful is set in motion within us. 

Paul goes on to show in this epistle that this motion has a particular trajectory: the Spirit moves us as believers forward toward the glory of God, who is our end (goal/destination). That movement, which is entirely “in Christ” (by and through Christ) is from God and back to God. The movement thus has two poles: divine grace, which is our beginning, and divine glory, which is our end. And as Barth notes, our existence as humans is located in the “force field” created by these two poles. How glad we are that the force is with us!! 

The knowledge of God 

A key phrase in today’s passage occurs at the end of v. 17—“the knowledge of God” (translated “know him better” in the NIV). It’s important to note that, for Paul, to know God is much more than to acquire mere facts about him. The Hebrew concept of "knowing" is about “experiencing”—understanding and deeply embracing. As John Stott writes in his commentary, "There is no higher knowledge than the knowledge of God himself." And as Paul makes clear in v. 17, this knowing comes only through the revelation given us by the Holy Spirit. This is the gift of illumination (or enlightenment, v. 18). This is the principal gift Paul wishes for the believers in Ephesus to receive, and in receiving be moved forward on their trajectory toward God's glory. 

But still partially blind 

As Paul notes, through the miracle of illumination that accompanies conversion, they eyes of the believers in Ephesus had already been opened. Therefore they were able to see (experience) the truth of their identity in Christ. But Paul could see that, at least to some extent, they were still partially blind. Thus they are in need of a deeper, fuller revelation—one that will move them forward, with and in Christ, to participate in the responsive human action that Christ has made and continues to make on their behalf. 

Three great truths 

Toward that end, Paul wants these believers to know three great truths concerning who God is in his relationship with us. These truths have to do with God's call, inheritance and power

1) The hope of God's call (1:18b) 

The call of God has to do with the beginning of our Christian lives. Note what Paul says in Romans 8:30, “Those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified.” The question now is: what did God call us to? He had a purpose in mind when he called us—and that's why Paul refers to “the hope to which he has called you” (Eph 1:18). 

What can we expect because God has called us? The answer is multi-faceted and revealed throughout the New Testament. We can expect fellowship with God, we can expect to become progressively like Christ, we can expect liberation from judgment, we can expect peace—the peace of Christ, which we experience with God and with one another. We can also expect resistance—even sharing in Christ's suffering. And we can expect to receive the ultimate source of hope—our inheritance in glory, which brings us to Paul's second great truth: 

2) The riches of God's inheritance (1:18c) 

A parallel passage in Colossians suggests that Paul is referring here to what God will give us, for which we are to thank the Father, “who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light” (Col 1:12). If God's “call” points back to the beginning of our Christian life, God's “inheritance” points to its culmination (end/fulfillment)—the final inheritance of which the Holy Spirit at work in our lives is the guarantee (Eph 1:14), and which Peter describes as "an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you" (1 Pet 1:4). God's children are God's heirs—“fellow heirs with Christ" (Rom 8:17). One day, by his grace, Jesus' inheritance will be ours. Paul wants the believers in Ephesus to know this—to know the glorious riches of it—and thus to anticipate it with great joy. And so we have a great beginning and we have the assurance of a great ending. But what about the time in between? That brings us to Paul's third great truth: 

3) The greatness of God's power (1:19) 

God's power spans the time between our call and our receipt of the fullness of our inheritance. And Paul is convinced that God's power is sufficient for this journey, and his words communicate that sufficiency, and thus he writes about "the energy of the might of his strength for us who believe" (a literal rendering of v19). What a wonderful phrase: God's immeasurable power FOR US! How can we be assured of the greatness of that power? By seeing the demonstration of it in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus in three successive events: 
  • “He raised him from the dead” (v20a)
  •  God “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms,” far above all competitors (vv20b, 21), and “has placed all things under his feet” (v22a). 
  • God has “appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body.” (vv22b, 23). 
The resurrection and ascension of Jesus were decisive demonstrations of God’s mighty power overcoming that which no man can control, and that which holds us in bondage: the power of death and the power of evil. In Christ, and by the Spirit, God has conquered both, and therefore we are assured he can (and, in Christ, has) rescued us from both. Thanks be to God! He has done in Christ what we cannot do for ourselves! He has the power, and the empty tomb and the resurrection experiences are the compelling, conclusive evidence. 

Note carefully that what Paul sets forth here as a demonstration of divine power is what God accomplished in Christ, not in his followers. It's about his power, not ours. But as believers, given, by the Spirit the eyes of Jesus to see, we are able to experience—we "know"—and thus benefit from that power. And so we do not fear death, and we do not fear evil. Praise God! 


Paul's prayer for the saints in Ephesus and by extension for us as well, is that we, as adopted children of God, will "know" our Father more—understanding the hope of his call, the riches of his inheritance for us, and the greatness of his power on our behalf. Secure in this knowledge we will, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, be shaken, disturbed and set in motion! May it be so. Amen.