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Our Union with Christ: Three Compelling Illustrations - Part 1

Tom Pennington • Ephesians 2:19-22

  • 2008-05-25 AM
  • United in Christ!
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There are many things that characterize the country in which we live, many things to be grateful for. But there are also predispositions and attitudes which limit, I think, our thinking when it comes to spiritual things. We live in a country that is known for its pragmatism. We practically worship the word "practical." If it's practical, by that we mean: it's good. And it's good because it's useful. On the other hand, all theory and knowledge, and when it comes to spiritual issues, doctrine, is patently impractical we think, and therefore it's not good. It's unhelpful at best, or at worst, it's practically damaging.

Therefore, when we come to read the Bible, we bring that sort of pragmatic mind-set with us, and we tend to avoid or skip over those passages that have to do with what appears to us to be simple theory or doctrine. We tend to think like this: don't give me theory, don't give me doctrine, just tell me what I'm supposed to do. Just tell me how to be a better Christian. Tell me how I can be a better husband or a better wife or a better child, a better parent. Just tell me how to fix my relationships. Tell me what I'm supposed to do.

But Scripture's approach is entirely different. Scripture begins by correcting our lack of knowledge. As we've seen in Ephesians, the book we're in the midst of studying together, Paul begins in the first three chapters; he covers the entire first half of the letter without a single command. Actually, there's one command at the beginning of chapter 2, but it's "to remember," so it's not in the same vein as those commands that come later.

When we get to Ephesians 4 and through the end of the book, Ephesians 4, 5, and 6, we find three of the most practical chapters in the entire Bible. In terms of spiritual growth, in terms of human relationships, they are intensely practical. But before Paul gets there, he spends the first three chapters correcting our thinking, informing us, building a foundation. Paul builds a foundation of biblical knowledge about the true nature of God, the true nature of our relationship to God and to each other. And only after he has laid that foundation does he come to the practical issues of life and builds those practical issues and those practical commands on the foundation of doctrine.

With that, let me invite you to turn again with me to Ephesians 2, because we're in the middle of Paul's doing just that. Paul is laying the foundation. Don't for a moment think this isn't practical. After spending three years with these people, Paul writes back to them six years later, and he spends the first half of his letter laying down theory, doctrine. Understand the foundations, he says, because if you understand the foundation, you'll get the practice and the practical right. We will see, when we get to the second half of the letter, that Paul builds on these things. We'll constantly be referring back because this is the foundation for Christian living. It begins in your head, between your ears, with the right knowledge. Paul is always reminding us that if you think rightly, ultimately, you will live rightly.

Now, in Ephesians 2, beginning in verse 11, in the paragraph that runs through the end of the chapter, in this paragraph Paul explains that Jesus Christ, through His work on the cross has united all who believe in Him regardless of their backgrounds, be they Jew or Gentile. Whatever their background, He has united them together. He has united us first and foremost with God. He has reconciled us to God. We have peace with God. But He has also reconciled us to each other. He has united us to each other.

So, his point then, in this section that we're studying, is that we as believers have been united to God. We have been united to each other. We have peace with God, and we have peace with each other. Verses 11 and 13, or I should say 11 - 13 describe the reality of that union, the fact of that union. Verses 14 - 18 describe the reason or cause that lies behind that union. And today we come to verses 19 - 22 which describe the results of that union, the consequences.

Let me read for you, beginning in verse 19 of Ephesians 2, the four verses that we begin to consider this morning. These are the consequences of that peace we enjoy with God and with each other.

So then [Paul writes] you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

Now notice in verse 19, the verse begins with two key words that mark a change in Paul's argument, the little words "so then." What follows those words in ancient Greek are the practical consequences, or we could say it differently, the logical results of the union that he's been describing, of the peace that we have with God and with each other. And to help us understand those logical results, those consequences, Paul uses three images, three pictures, three illustrations, if you will, of what that union means. Three images that, when taken together, help us understand what has changed as a result of Christ's being our peace.

The first picture comes in verse 19. Paul says we are citizens of God's kingdom. We are citizens of God's kingdom. Paul borrows language from the city-states and empires of his day, and he says in verse 19, "so then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints." Now notice the change, "no longer." Paul's reminding us of what we've already studied back in verse 12, where he says "remember that you were excluded, separate from Christ, excluded, that's literally the word "alienated" from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. You were aliens to God. You were aliens to each other, but no longer, verse 19 says. You are no longer strangers and aliens.

Now, these words are almost synonyms. There's very little difference between "stranger" and "alien." But there is a slight nuance that opens up our understanding a bit of this passage.

Both of these words occur back in the Old Testament, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called the Septuagint. It was written a couple of hundred years before our Lord's birth, and in that translation these Greek words appear. In the Old Testament a "stranger," the word we have here, was simply a "foreigner," someone who was visiting another country but who had none of the rights that citizens of that country enjoy.

An "alien" was equally not a citizen, but instead of just visiting, an alien was someone who lived in the country. In the Old Testament, this Greek word is often used of people referred to as "sojourners." It describes a person who is temporarily living in a nation to which he does not belong. He is a resident alien. In today's terms, if I could take these two terms and make them a little more contemporary. In today's terms a stranger is like a tourist, someone just visiting another country. He's a foreigner on vacation if you will. An alien was like someone who would be living here in the States illegally, or someone who's here on a work permit or on a green card. They're living in a country that does not belong to them.

Now these are powerful images. Very few of us have ever lived outside of the country of our citizenship, but if that's true of you, then you understand what it feels like to be a resident alien. But many of us have traveled internationally. If you've ever traveled internationally alone, then you know what it feels like to be a stranger, to be a foreigner, the feeling of isolation, the feeling of loneliness, the feeling of, "I don't fit, I don't belong, I don't know the language, I don't know the customs, I stand out like a sore thumb." Paul's point is, that's how we were among God's true people. Before we came to know Jesus Christ, we were in this category with God's true people, those who know God and love God. Before you came to Christ, when you interacted with other Christians, perhaps you were like a tourist. You visited church on Christmas and Easter maybe. You came with family, just to visit, but you knew you didn't belong. You knew you were just a tourist looking in.

Or maybe you weren't a tourist, but it was more like I was. You lived among Christians. You regularly attended church even though you weren't a Christian. You were more like a resident alien. You lived in the middle of God's people but you weren't one of God's people. You had none of the rights and privileges that come with belonging to God's people. Even though you lived in the middle of them, you were not part of them. That's how it was for me. I grew up in a Christian home, attended church all my life. But it wasn't until I was eighteen years of age that I came to a genuine faith. And all of that time, I was like a resident alien. I lived there. There was some degree of familiarity, but I didn't belong.

But verse 19 says, because of what Christ has done, all of us who are in Christ are no longer tourists, no longer resident aliens. Notice verse 19, "but you are fellow citizens with the saints." A "citizen" is the opposite of a stranger, the opposite of a foreigner, someone who belongs, someone who enjoys full legal status, and enjoys all the benefits that come to citizens of that country. And we have become full citizens of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. Notice, Paul says we share that citizenship with the saints. Most commentators take this as a reference to all genuine believers of all time. As Harold Hohner puts it in his excellent commentary on Ephesians, "the saints are fellow-citizens with the redeemed of all ages."

Now, think about that for a moment. Sometimes we hear these biblical phrases, but the reality of that doesn't sink in. If you're a Christian here this morning, then you are a fellow citizen with Abraham. You are entitled to the same rights, the same privileges of citizenship as Moses, as David, as Peter and James and the apostle John, and the apostle Paul. Fast forward into church history. You are fellow citizen with Augustine, with Crysostom, with Calvin and Luther, with Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones, and all of the rest of them. You are a fellow citizen, enjoying the same privileges and same rights as all of those great people through the history of the church.

As Paul puts it in Philippians 3:20, "our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." Listen, Christians aren't cosmopolitan, that is, citizens of the world. We are citizens of heaven. I don't think we fully appreciate the benefits of citizenship because we live, (and constantly here in the country) and we just take them for granted. But Paul certainly understood the importance of citizenship. Less than two years before he wrote this letter, he had to lean heavily on his citizenship. You remember? There was an incident there in the city of Jerusalem where he was almost beaten without cause. And he brought up his Roman citizenship. He said, are you going to beat me, a Roman, without due process? And it saved him from that beating.

Shortly after that, he almost suffered in the court system because of the accusation of the Jews. He almost suffered a terrible injustice. And you remember, again, he calls on his citizenship, being a citizen of Rome, and he says, I'm not getting justice here. I appeal to Caesar. I want my case to be heard by the highest court in the land, as it were, by Caesar himself. And as he writes this letter, Paul is sitting in Rome, waiting for his case to be heard. Of course, when it was heard, he was exonerated by Caesar of all charges of sedition and was released. But he understood the importance of citizenship.

There are great privileges that come with our citizenship in heaven. Listen, if you're a Christian this morning, understand this. You are no longer a tourist. You are not a resident alien. You are not a second-class citizen, living as it were in the church, as in somebody else's country. You are a citizen of God's kingdom.

But notice, he doesn't just say citizen. He says fellow citizen. We are interconnected to each other as citizens. A kingdom is naturally made up of more than one person. We are connected to each other. We understand that, even as American citizens. There is much that divides us as Americans, but typically and traditionally, when our nation has come under fire, has come into dramatic circumstances, whether it be like those of World War II and Pearl Harbor, or whether, more recently, 911, when we have come under fire as a nation, Americans, in spite of their differences, have typically united.

Why? Because whatever divides us, we are still all citizens of the same country and want what divides us to continue to exist. We want our freedoms. We want the ability to continue to be citizens of this country. And so, we fight. We defend our citizenship. Our citizenship unites us. If that's true of an alliance of sinners in America, how much truer is it of those who have been made spiritually alive in God and who are citizens of heaven. We are connected to each other in a much more powerful way than we are connected as citizens of America.

Kent Hughes puts it like this. He says,

"this is a universal experience for all true Christian believers. It was my experience when I came to Christ. The church was the place where I belonged, where I was understood and loved and could be myself." In reference to Ephesians he says, "believing Jews and Gentiles had become a common people. They had a common language, a language of the heart which they all understood. They had a common heritage and history as part of the community of faith. They had a common allegiance to Jesus Christ which superseded all other loyalties. They had a common goal which was glorifying God. They even had the same destination, the ultimate polis [or city] the heavenly city."

The writer of Hebrews pictures this reality. Turn to Hebrews 12. He describes our citizenship in powerful terms. In verse 18 he begins with Sinai and what happened on Mount Sinai, and he said, that isn't where we live. Verse 22, "you have come, already, as it were, to Mount Zion." And he's not talking here about the earthly city of Jerusalem. Notice he says, "to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels." He said, listen, you already live, as it were, as a citizen of heaven. You have come to this new city, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and the spirits of righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. He said, listen, you live, as it were, already in the heavenly city.

That's what Paul said when he began Ephesians, wasn't it? We live in the heavenlies in Christ. It's as if we're already there. We are fellow-citizens of God's kingdom.

There's a second picture that Paul uses here to illustrate the results of our union with God and the people of God. We're not only citizens of God's kingdom. We are members of God's family. Verse 19, "So then you are … of God's household. The Greek word that's translated "household" here appears only three times in the New Testament. Here, and probably the most clarifying time would be in 1 Timothy 5.

Turn there with me. First Timothy 5, in the section on widows and the care of widows, verse 8. Paul says, "if anyone [if any Christian] does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his "household" [there's our word], he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." And here in this context, Paul defines household. Because if you rewind back up to verse 4, we're told that if a widow has children or grandchildren, they need to care for them. So here, household is defined as immediate family, as family members, intimate, close, family. It's used in that way of us as believers as well. In Galatians 6:10 it says, "let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith." That is, those who are of the family of the faith.

While it's true that the word "household" can refer to those who lived under the same roof including immediate family, extended family, servants, even friends, it's clear in this context that Paul means family. Because as you trace through Ephesians, he comes back to this theme of intimate family members time and again. Look at 1:5 of Ephesians. "He predestined us to adoption as sons." Chapter 2:18 "Through … [Jesus] we both have our access in one spirit to the Father." We are approaching our Father. You see these terms of intimacy and family endearment. Chapter 3:14,

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father from whom the whole family derives its name.

Chapter 4:6, "one God and Father of all…." Chapter 5:1, "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children." You get the picture? He's talking about intimate family. He means that both Jews and Gentiles have all become members of God's family. Those who have believed in Jesus Christ, they have become members of God's immediate family. The background doesn't matter. In fact, Paul's whole point here is that what happened to Jews and Gentiles is irrelevant. They have all together, because they believe in Christ, become members of God's family.

Now let me ask you a question. How does one become a member of a family? Throughout human history there have only been two ways. You are either born into that family, or you are adopted into that family. And here's the remarkable truth. Scripture portrays both of those as true of the person who believes in Jesus Christ. First of all, Scripture makes it clear that we have been born into the family of God. In John 1:12 we read,

… as many as received Christ, to them He gave the right to become the children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born … [by] the will of God.

Jesus uses that same image just a couple of chapters later in His conversation with Nicodemus. In John 3 He says, you must be born again. You must be born from above. You have to be spiritually born into the family of God. Peter uses it perhaps the most clearly in 1 Peter 1, just a few verses beyond what I read this morning. First Peter 1:23 says, "you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God." And he goes on to talk about then as a newborn baby, desire the pure milk of the word that you may grow thereby. We were born into the family of God by a miraculous act of the Spirit of God.

But, interestingly enough, the New Testament also uses the image of adoption. Not only were we born into God's family, we were also adopted into God's family. In fact, in Ephesians, Ephesians 1 speaks of the, in verse 5, speaks of the reality that we were chosen for adoption in eternity past, predestined to adoption as sons. Romans 8 tells us that that adoption actually occurred at the moment of our salvation. We were adopted by God. And Romans 8 goes on to say that our adoption will be finally complete at our glorification when our bodies are redeemed. So, all Christians are members of God's family, twice in God's family: by birth, by supernatural regenerating birth, and by adoption.

So where does God's family appear on earth? It's in the church. In 1 Timothy 3, 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul writes to Timothy, and he says, I write to you so that you will know how you ought to conduct yourself in the household of God, in the family of God, which is the church of the living God. The family of God is expressed on earth in the churches that are true to God and true to His Son. Listen, as you sit here this morning, you sit among the family of God. This is the visible expression of God's family on earth. Amazing. We have become, in grace, because of what Christ did, we have become citizens of God's kingdom, and we have become members of God's family.

Now there's a third image that Paul uses here that we'll look at next week, but I want us, as we prepare our hearts for communion this morning, to consider several applications of these first two images: the image of citizens and the image of members of God's family. There are many legitimate applications that could be made from these two beautiful metaphors. But let me encourage you to consider just three, just three applications of these truths, these pictures.

Application number one. Your citizenship is an exclusive citizenship. Your citizenship is exclusive. You see, we are no longer tourists and resident aliens to God and to God's people. If Jesus is your Lord, then you belong to God's people. You are a citizen of His kingdom, but you can't be a citizen of two kingdoms or two countries at the same time. It is an exclusive citizenship. If you have been saved, if you have been regenerated, if you have been transferred into the kingdom of God's son, you no longer are a citizen of the world at large.

Peter makes this point in 1 Peter 2. Turn there with me for just a moment, 1 Peter 2;9. He describes that we have become a nation of the people of God, the people of God's own possession. First Peter 2:9, verse 10, "… you … were [once] NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD…." And if you're God's people, then guess what? That's where your citizenship is, and your citizenship is no longer here, attached to the earth. Notice verse 11: "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers…." Notice he uses those words in an entirely different context. We're no longer aliens and strangers to God and His people. Now, because we're part of that kingdom, we are aliens and strangers to this world. We are tourists and resident aliens, so don't get attached. That's what he says. Don't live like you really belong here. And he goes on to tell you how.

He says abstain from the cravings which are a part of your fallenness, verse 11. Abstain from the cravings. That's not just sexual although it includes that. It's much broader. Any craving that's attached to your fallenness, have nothing to do with it. That's how people of the world live. Because they wage war against your soul. Keep your behavior excellent. Verse 13, Submit yourself to every human institution. Verse 18, Servants be submissive to your masters. Chapter 3:1 … wives, be submissive to your own husbands. Chapter 3:7 … husbands live with your wives in an understanding way. He's telling us how to live here as tourists and aliens, resident aliens. You don't belong here, so don't live like you belong here. Your citizenship is exclusive. If you belong in God's kingdom, you don't belong to the one here, so stop living like this is all-important.

Second application. You really are part of God's family. You really are part of God's family. In the churches in which I grew up, people would often refer to one another as Brother Jim, or Brother so and so. They would greet one another with hello brother. And unfortunately, all too often, it was a bit on the shallow side. And we aren't commanded necessarily to refer to each other that way, but the concept is a clearly biblical concept. Because, throughout the New Testament, those who believed in Christ are called brothers and sisters. Is that how you think of the people in this church? Do you think of them as family members, truly? That's how you're supposed to think of them. In fact, we're even commanded to relate to one another in the church as if we were members of a large family.

Listen to what Paul tells Timothy, his young son in the faith, who happened, by the way, to be pastoring the church in Ephesus when Paul wrote to him. In 1 Timothy 5, he says, okay Timothy. Here's how I want you to think and relate to the people around you. He says, if it's an older man, appeal to him as a father. Treat that older man as if he were your father. And to the younger men, I want you to approach them as if they were brothers. And to the older women, I want you to approach them as if they were your mother. And to the younger women as if they were sisters, in all purity. You see, you and I are to relate to each other. We are part of God's family, and we're supposed to treat the people of this church the way we are supposed to treat true family. Amazing reality, we really are part of God's family. And it's here, right now. It's a reality.

Number three. God really is your Father. If you're in Christ, if you have repented of your sins and embraced Him as Lord and Savior, then He really is your Father. Now, I have to say this is a hard thing for us to grasp, because we were so long God's enemies. But this is the truth. If Jesus Christ is your Lord, then from God's perspective, He's the one describing Himself this way, from God's perspective, a radical change has occurred in your relationship to Him. And God decided that the very best way to explain that change, the most accurate way to explain it was to liken you to a child and Him to your Father. It's incredible. God becomes our Father. And He teaches us even to relate to Him that way. You remember what Jesus taught us in the Lord's Prayer? Matthew 6:9 "Pray, then, … [like] this…. Our Father who is in heaven…." In Galatians 4:7, Paul says you are no longer merely slaves but sons, daughters. Listen, you have a heavenly Father. You really do. That's how He wants you to think of Him, as a Father.

And, I love this. Let me tell you how your new Father acts toward you. These are just a few examples. He has compassion on you. He remembers your weaknesses and your frailties. Psalm 103:13. "Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him." He takes care of us, as His children. Jesus in Matthew 6 says "your heavenly Father knows what you need.". And He provides it. He gives us what we need for this life. Matthew 7, Jesus says, "If you … being evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!" And this one's amazing. God, if you are His child, if you belong to Him through His Son, God loves you, individually. I love the way the apostle John puts it. First John 3:1, See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us that we should be called the children, of God.

Amazing! Do you think of God like that? If you're truly a Christian, if you've repented of your sins and embraced Him as Lord and Savior, do you realize that's how God wants you to think of Him? That's how He pictured Himself. It's appropriate that we would take of the Lord's table today. Because in eating the bread and drinking the cup, we remember that through His death our Lord reconciled us to God, and He made us who were once enemies children of God, and He made God our Father.

But there's another lesson in the Lord's table that we don't often think about. You know, we don't normally take the Lord's table alone, and that's by divine design. We do it together, and there is a powerful reminder in the fact that we take it together. That it was the same Christ who reconciled all of us to God, who believe in Him, and who also reconciled us to each other. And so, we take of it together as family, celebrating what Christ our Lord has done for us.

Our Father, we thank You for the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses us from all sin. We thank You that it points to the reality of what He did there on the cross, that He became the perfect sacrifice, the sacrifice of which all of the others merely pointed to, the only one that could truly, ultimately, and finally, deal with sin.

We thank You Father, that You accepted His death for us, the innocent in the place of the guilty, so that we could go free. We thank You that in Him You have declared us to be righteous, that on the cross You treated Jesus as if He had lived our sinful lives so that forever You could treat us as if we had lived His perfect life. Don't let us ever get over that great reality.

We pray in the name of our Lord and Savior, Who has made us Your own. Amen.

United in Christ!